Sunday, December 30, 2007

World's oldest Sumatran orangutan dies in Miami

From: Reuters


MIAMI (Reuters) - A Sumatran orangutan, thought to be the world's oldest, has died in Miami at age 55, a zoo spokesman said on Sunday .

Nonja, who was born in the wild on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in June 1952, was found dead on Saturday morning, Miami Metro Zoo spokesman Ron Magill told Reuters.

He said a necropsy had been performed on Saturday and that a small mass of blood had been found on Nonja's brain, pointing to a tumor or aneurysm as the likely cause of death.

Magill said one other Sumatran orangutan had lived until the age of 57. But Nonja was believed to be the oldest surviving great ape of her kind in the world, both in captivity and in the wild, he said.

Most of the animals die before they reach their mid-40s, according to Magill, who said Nonja had mothered five offspring.

"She was a grande dame and I think she knew it," he said.

Nonja was shipped to Miami from a zoo in Holland in 1983 and her name means "girl" in Dutch, Magill said.

According to the Sumatran Orangutan Society, the species has been classified as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and could become extinct in the wild in less than 10 years. There were 7,300 Sumatran orangutans in the wild in 2003, the group said.

(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Biofuels, the Biggest Scam Going

Organic Consumers Association


Straight to the Source

Web Note: Jim Goodman is an organic farmer from Wisconsin and a Policy Board member of the Organic Consumers Association

Where is agriculture headed? Can we feed a growing population and meet the demand for biofuels in the Industrialized North? Supporters of biofuel agriculture, (grain and chemical companies, Wall St. investors, politicians and most University researchers) avoid mentioning the cost of inputs, the fossil fuels, the environmental damage, the physical toll on animals and humans, and the growing problem of hunger that will accompany the switch from food to energy crop production. They want us to believe the switch to energy crops will be so easy and so practical.

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley tells us that "BioFuels" will give agriculture new importance as a producer of energy as well as food and fiber. It will be a win, win, win, situation, good for America's energy independence, economic prosperity and for the environment.

Will bioenergy production save American agriculture, end our dependence on oil, save the environment and keep food on everyones table? Perhaps not. Biofuels are not the "cash cow" farmers were promised. As an energy source they are less efficient and no "greener" than oil. Growing them will cause food prices to rise and as a result, the poor will be at an even greater risk of hunger. Rain forests will be destroyed and become cropland, peasants around the world will continue to loose their land, their food sovereignty, all to feed the worlds appetite for fuel.

Can biofuels replace a significant amount of fossil fuel? Perhaps not. If, in 2006, we had dedicated the entire US corn crop to ethanol production we would have replaced only 12% of the gasoline we used. If we had planted every acre of cropland in the nation to corn we would have replaced only 80% of the gasoline we used. If the U.S. Energy Information Administration is correct in its estimates, and by 2030 the US is capable of producing 700,000 barrels of ethanol per day, we will have succeeded in offsetting roughly 6 percent of our transportation fuel needs.

Is ethanol really a renewable fuel? Perhaps not. An article in Science magazine in 2006 showed that, based on the work of researchers at UC Berkeley, only 5 to 26% of the energy in ethanol is "renewable". The fossil fuel needed to grow and process the ethanol actually negated the majority of its energy value.

Are biofuels really better for the environment? Perhaps not. Data from the University of Edinburgh shows that biofuels produce high levels of nitrous oxide a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. In total they can produce 70% more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels.

Will we be able to produce significant levels of energy crops without impacting world food supplies and prices? Perhaps not. Biofuel production could push food prices up as much as 20-40% according to The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

The production of biofuels depends on billions of dollars in government subsidies in the form of loan guarantees for the construction of biofuel plants, tax exemptions on biofuels and direct payments to farmers. A 2006 study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development showed an annual subsidy cost of $1.05-$1.38 per gallon of ethanol produced, a total of $7billion. How much are we willing to spend and for what?

Biofuels are a greenwash scam, a feel good solution for the end of cheap oil. When one considers the industrial agricultural system that is necessary for their production, biofuels are anything but sustainable. Costly inputs of fuel, fertilizer and biotech seed will challenge the profitability of Northern farmers while peasant farmers will continue to be evicted to make room for monocultures of corn, soy, sugarcane and oil palms. Food prices will climb, hunger and poverty will increase and we will be no closer to energy independence or truly renewable fuels.

Now that the President and Congress have, through the Farm and Energy Bills, locked us into large scale production of energy crops and the belief we can continue to live our lives as usual with no pain, what do we do? We need energy solutions that will work; tough vehicle fuel standards, new public transportation systems, real renewable fuels like solar and wind and mandated commitments to conservation and recycling, now, not a 2030 "pie in the sky".

So, when we drive to the supermarket and complain about the high prices, then proceed to load up our flex-fuel SUV, will we think about the 50% of the worlds population that lives on less than $2 a day? Will we even consider that when we bought into the biofuel scam we also took away their food sovereignty and may have handed them a death sentence?

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc ,Wisconsin.

NOAA: 2007 a Top Ten Warm Year for U.S. and Globe

From: NOAA


The year 2007 is on pace to become one of the 10 warmest years for the contiguous U.S., since national records began in 1895, according to preliminary data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The year was marked by exceptional drought in the U.S. Southeast and the West, which helped fuel another extremely active wildfire season. The year also brought outbreaks of cold air, and killer heat waves and floods. Meanwhile, the global surface temperature for 2007 is expected to be fifth warmest since records began in 1880. Preliminary data will be updated in early January to reflect the final three weeks of December and is not considered final until a full analysis is complete next spring.

U.S. Temperatures

* The preliminary annual average temperature for 2007 across the contiguous United States will likely be near 54.3° F- 1.5°F (0.8°C) above the twentieth century average of 52.8°F. This currently establishes 2007 as the eighth warmest on record. Only February and April were cooler-than-average, while March and August were second warmest in the 113-year record.

* The warmer-than-average conditions in 2007 influenced residential energy demand in opposing ways, as measured by the nation’s Residential Energy Demand Temperature Index. Using this index, NOAA scientists determined that the U.S. residential energy demand was about three percent less during the winter and eight percent higher during the summer than what would have occurred under average climate conditions.

* Exceptional warmth in late March was followed by a record cold outbreak from the central Plains to the Southeast in early April. The combination of premature growth from the March warmth and the record-breaking freeze behind it caused more than an estimated $1 billion in losses to crops (agricultural and horticultural).

* A severe heat wave affected large parts of the central and southeastern U.S. in August, setting more than 2,500 new daily record highs.

Global Temperatures

* The global annual temperature − for combined land and ocean surfaces — for 2007 is expected to be near 58.0 F — and would be the fifth warmest since records began in 1880. Some of the largest and most widespread warm anomalies occurred from eastern Europe to central Asia.

* Including 2007, seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997. The global average surface temperature has risen between 0.6°C and 0.7°C since the start of the twentieth century, and the rate of increase since 1976 has been approximately three times faster than the century-scale trend.

* The greatest warming has taken place in high latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Anomalous warmth in 2007 contributed to the lowest Arctic sea ice extent since satellite records began in 1979, surpassing the previous record low set in 2005 by a remarkable 23 percent. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, this is part of a continuing trend in end-of-summer Arctic sea ice extent reductions of about 10 percent per decade since 1979.

U.S. Precipitation and Drought Highlights

* Severe to exceptional drought affected the Southeast and western U.S. More than three-quarters of the Southeast was in drought from mid-summer into December. Increased evaporation from usually warm temperatures, combined with a lack of precipitation, worsened drought conditions. Drought conditions also affected large parts of the Upper Midwest and areas of the Northeast.

* Water conservation measures and drought disasters, or states of emergency, were declared by governors in at least five southeastern states, along with California, Oregon, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware at some point during the year.

* A series of storms brought flooding, millions of dollars in damages and loss of life from Texas to Kansas and Missouri in June and July. Making matters worse were the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin, which produced heavy rainfall in the same region in August.

* Drought and unusual warmth contributed to another extremely active wildfire season. Approximately nine million acres burned through early December, most of it in the contiguous U.S., according to preliminary estimates by the National Interagency Fire Center.

* There were 15 named storms in the Atlantic Basin (Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico) in 2007, four more than the long-term average. Six storms developed into hurricanes, including Hurricanes Dean and Felix, two category 5 storms that struck Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Nicaragua, respectively (the first two recorded category 5 landfalls in the Atlantic Basin in the same year). No major hurricanes made landfall in the U.S., but three tropical depressions, one tropical storm and one Category 1 Hurricane made landfall along the Southeast and Gulf coasts.

* La Nina conditions developed during the latter half of 2007, and by the end of November, sea surface temperatures near the equator of the eastern Pacific were more than 3.6°F (2°C) below average. This La Nina event is likely to continue into early 2008, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Climate changes force travelers to consider sites sooner than later

Climate changes force travelers to consider sites sooner than later
Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska, is one of the few glaciers people can walk up to and touch.

It used to be that the only things that stood between you and a holiday to some awe-inspiring, far-flung locale was how much money you had in your pocket and whether you had the vacation time. Yet a third obstacle appears to be rearing its ugly head for some of the world's most cherished, and gorgeous, destinations: the effects of global warming.

Glaciers are melting into oblivion, Mediterranean beaches may soon be too torrid to lounge on during the summer, ski resorts may be hurting for snow, and coral reefs are being bleached white by ocean waters that have grown too warm.

Churchill, Manitoba, in the Canadian Sub-Arctic, is but one example. For decades, tourists have traveled to this snowy spot along the Hudson Bay during October and November's "bear season" to view polar bears in their natural habitat. A 20-year warming trend, however, has caused the bay to melt an average of three weeks earlier and freeze later. As a result, the bears are smaller and fewer in number because of less hunting time on the ice. Scientists estimate the entire population could shrink by two-thirds in the next 50 years.

Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania, home to Africa's highest and most famous mountain, is another. The snowy ice cap immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" are melting so quickly that scientists expect them to disappear completely in the next 20 years.

Overall, the news is so gloomy -- and pervasive -- that it's actually given rise to a new form of travel: so-called "doom" tourism.

"There's definitely trouble," says Chris Doyle, director of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a global membership organization dedicated to promoting and growing the adventure travel market. "Every corner of the Earth truly is being impacted by global climate change."

"Really, it's a tragic thing," agrees Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. "We're feeling so under the gun."

As environmentalists and others scurry to slow or even reverse the negative impact of global warming, travelers might be asking themselves this: What sights should I see sooner rather than later?

In April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization released a report, "Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage." It includes 830 natural and cultural sites facing threats posed by climate change. Among those on the list are Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal, where the melting of glaciers are affecting rare wildlife species such as the snow leopard and the red panda; the city of London, where rising sea levels and flooding of the River Thames due to climate change could have a devastating effect on historic buildings such as the Tower of London; and the Great Barrier Reef in northern Australia. Something of a haven for snorkelers and divers, the reef -- the world's largest single structure made from living organisms -- will be "functionally extinct" by 2050, according to a report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Then there's Greenland, where icebergs the size of small islands float along the coastline. Some people consider it ground zero for global warming because the ice sheets are melting so quickly, says Ms. Glick. The Ilulissat ice fjord was 25 miles long just a few years ago; today, it measures 31 miles. So hot is the tourism here that officials expect twice as many tourists next year than this year, or about 30,000.

Better accessibility certainly helps: Air Greenland now offers non-stop flights between Baltimore/Washington International Airport and Kangerlussuag, in southeastern Greenland. Cost: about $1,300, depending on the exchange rate. Or, if you have deeper pockets and more time, you can take a boat.

Seattle-based Zegrahm Expeditions, for example, is offering a 17-day expedition of the High Arctic aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov that in addition to Greenland takes in the sights of Ellesmere and Baffin islands; it includes a helicopter excursion to see the melting ice cap in Thule. But it's not cheap: Prices start at about $16,000.

One of the most endangered spots domestically is Glacier National Park in Montana. For close to a century, American families have traveled there to see the glaciers that carved, sculpted and formed this landscape millions of years ago. Yet in some places, the park has shrunk by more than half.

In 1850, notes Tanya Tschesnok, publicity manager for the Sierra Club, the park counted 150 glaciers; today, there are fewer than three dozen.

"And they're smaller than they used to be," she says.

Travelers to Alaska are experiencing the same sense of urgency. According to park rangers, Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward, which is one of the most visited sheets of ice in the north, has receded nearly 1,000 feet in the last 10 years.

Global warming also is affecting our beaches and coastal walk lands. As glaciers melt, the sea water is expected to rise anywhere from 8 inches to more than 2 feet over the next century. In Florida, for example, that will translate into the ocean advancing inland as much as 400 feet, eroding the beaches and flooding pricey oceanfront hotels and homes.

"One of the must vulnerable places in the U.S. right now are our coastlines," says Ms. Tschesnok.

There are similar worries about cold-weather destinations like ski resorts. Scientists are projecting that the ski season will not only be shorter but also that the snow line -- the point above which there's snow year-round -- will grow higher as temperatures gradually increase.

The wildlife federation's Ms. Glick isn't alone in wondering if the ski season will be affected at places such as Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, north of Vancouver, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"The top might not melt as quickly," says Ms. Glick, "but the lower part of the mountain will definitely see less snow and change the skiing."

Whether it will be an issue during the Olympics, she says, depends on the type of snow year we have, If it's bad, you'll hear a lot of talk of global warming. "But the trends definitely do not look good."

Locally, the Pennsylvania Tourism office to date doesn't have any particular worries about tourist destinations that might suffer from global warming in the near future, according to spokesman Michael Chapaloney. Ms. Glick, though, wonders if the state's cold water streams, which are a major tourist draw for anglers, will stay cold enough to sustain fish.

"You have a lot of good trout streams, and they're warming up to the point where they may not support trout in the future," she said.

Yet depending on your particular viewpoint, it's not all gloom and doom.

While the melting glaciers in Greenland may eventually hurt the ecosystem and threaten wildlife, it has also created new destinations to explore that otherwise would have remained hidden.

"If you go to the ice caps, it's just white and really boring," says adventurer Jeff Mantel of California, who has been on seven Arctic expeditions, including four to the North Pole by foot, "But with the retreat of the glaciers, the coastline of Northern Greenland is really spectacular, with new islands and some really unbelievable sites."

Peter Hess, chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of The Explorers Club and a world-class diver, tells a similar tale. Although it's often touted as the biggest downside of global warming, rising sea levels have actually made it better for divers like himself.

"There's more sites [to explore] under water," he says.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-263-1419.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Global warming brings busy year for UN disaster teams

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Thursday December 27, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Residents of Villahermosa, the capital of the state of Tabasco, are rescued by the Mexican navy
Residents of Villahermosa, the capital of the state of Tabasco, are rescued by the Mexican navy. Photograph: Gilberto Villasana/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations office that sends expert teams around the world to help governments deal with natural disasters was busier than ever in Latin America this year, a fact it at least partially blames on climate change.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said in a statement that a record nine missions were dispatched to the region during 2007, among 14 sent around the globe, itself a higher than usual number.

Of the 14 global missions, 70% were in response to hurricanes and floods, the OCHA statement said, calling this "possibly a glimpse of the shape of things to come given the reality of climate change."

In Latin America the proportion was even higher.

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.

In South America, Uruguay suffered its worst flooding in 50 years and hundreds of thousands of Bolivians were inundated and their crops ruined at the beginning of the year, warranting two UN missions alone.

The remaining UN disaster team sent to the region went to help with the relief effort following an 8.0-magnitude earthquake along the Peruvian coast.

There were also other significant disasters which did not receive UN attention because the teams were not invited in by the local government. Hurricane Felix caused its greatest devastation in Nicaragua, but the UN mission was only sent to neighbouring Honduras.

"The number of disasters is increasing and it is connected to climate change but we cannot at this juncture directly link any one incident," OCHA spokesperson Stephanie Bunker told the Guardian. "More studies will have to be done before that is possible."

In 2006, the number of missions to Latin America was just two. In 2005 it was five.

Previously the highest number of missions to the region was the eight sent in 1998 after Hurricanes Mitch devastated Central America and Hurricane Georges ripped through the Caribbean.

Since its establishment in 1993, the OCHA has sent 167 disaster assessment missions. The largest number were in response to the tsunami and earthquake that killed around 230,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean nations on Boxing Day 2004. This year, aside from the missions to Latin America, the UN also sent teams to Madagascar, Pakistan, and Ghana in response to floods, as well as to the Solomon Islands following an earthquake and tsunami, and to Laos to help with disaster preparedness efforts.

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Deep-sea Species "Loss Could Lead To Oceans" Collapse

From: Cell Press

"For the first time, we have demonstrated that deep-sea ecosystem functioning is closely dependent upon the number of species inhabiting the ocean floor," said Roberto Danovaro of the Polytechnic University of Marche, in Italy. "This shows that we need to preserve biodiversity, and especially deep-sea biodiversity, because otherwise the negative consequences could be unprecedented. We must care about species that are far from us and [essentially] invisible."

Ecosystem functioning involves several processes, which can be summarized as the production, consumption, and transfer of organic matter to higher levels of the food chain, the decomposition of organic matter, and the regeneration of nutrients, he explained.

Recent investigations on land have suggested that biodiversity loss might impair the functioning and sustainability of ecosystems, Danovaro said. However, the data needed to evaluate the consequences of biodiversity loss on the ocean floor had been completely lacking, despite the fact that the deep sea covers 65% of the Earth and is "by far the most important ecosystem for the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus of the biosphere." The deep sea also supports the largest "biomass" of living things, including a large proportion of undiscovered species.

In the new study, Danovaro's team examined the biodiversity of nematode worms and several independent indicators of ecosystem functioning and efficiency at 116 deep-sea sites. Nematodes are the most abundant animals on earth and account for more than 90% of all life at the bottom of the sea. Earlier studies have also suggested that nematode diversity is a good proxy for the diversity of other deep-sea species.

They found that sites with a higher diversity of nematodes support exponentially higher rates of ecosystem processes and an increased efficiency with which those processes are performed. Efficiency reflects the ability of an ecosystem to exploit the available energy in the form of food sources, the researchers said. Overall, they added, "our results suggest that a higher biodiversity can enhance the ability of deep-sea benthic systems to perform the key biological and biogeochemical processes that are crucial for their sustainable functioning."

The sharp increase in ecosystem functioning as species numbers rise further suggests that individual species in the deep sea make way for more species or facilitate one another, Danovaro said. That's in contrast to terrestrial-system findings, which have generally shown a linear relationship between diversity and ecosystem functioning, he noted, suggesting complementary relationships among species.

"Deep-sea ecosystems provide goods (including biomass, bioactive molecules, oil, gas, and minerals) and services (climate regulation, nutrient regeneration and supply to the [upper ocean], and food) and, for their profound involvement in global biogeochemical and ecological processes, are essential for the sustainable functioning of our biosphere and for human wellbeing," the researchers concluded. "Our results suggest that the conservation of deep-sea biodiversity can be crucial for the sustainability of the functions of the largest ecosystem" on the planet.

The researchers include Roberto Danovaro, Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Polytechnic University of Marche, Via Brecce Bianche, Ancona, Italy; Cristina Gambi, Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Polytechnic University of Marche, Via Brecce Bianche, Ancona, Italy; Antonio Dell'Anno, Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Polytechnic University of Marche, Via Brecce Bianche, Ancona, Italy; Cinzia Corinaldesi, Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science, Polytechnic University of Marche, Via Brecce Bianche, Ancona, Italy; Simonetta Fraschetti, Ann Vanreusel, Marine Biology Section, University of Ghent, Ghent, Belgium; Magda Vincx, Marine Biology Section, University of Ghent, Ghent, Belgium; and Andrew J. Gooday, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK.

In California, Climate Change Will Transform the Land, Lifestyles

n California, Climate Change Will Transform the Land, Lifestyles
Dec 28, 2007
Noaki Schwartz - Associated Press

California has always been a place defined by its landscape, from the mountains that enchanted John Muir to the wine country and beaches that shape its culture around the world.

Yet as the state begins to grapple with the effects of a warming climate, scientists are trying to forecast how the nation's most geographically diverse state might change in the decades to come. What they envision is a landscape that could look quite different by the end of the century, if not sooner.
Many of the possible scenarios are gloomy.

Where celebrities, surfers and wannabes once mingled on the sands of Malibu's world-famous beaches, there may be only sea walls defending fading mansions from the ever-encroaching Pacific.

Abandoned ski lifts from Lake Tahoe to the fire-ravaged mountains of Southern California dangle above lonely trails that are now more suitable for mountain biking during much of the winter. The Joshua trees that once extended their tangled arms into the desert sky by the thousands have all but disappeared.

And in Northern California, tourists must drive farther north or to the cool edge of the Pacific to find what is left of the region's signature wine country.

As the global climate warms, California's one-of-kind geography and the lifestyle it has made famous will not escape the consequences.

From the misty redwood forests of the North Coast to the snow-fed waterfalls of the Sierra Nevada, from Southern California's sunbather-jammed beaches to the temperamental wildflowers of the inland deserts, scientists say the changes could be profound.

"We need to be attentive to the fact that changes are going to occur, whether it's sea level rising or increased temperatures, droughts and potentially increased fires," said Lisa Sloan, a scientist who directs the Climate Change and Impacts Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "These things are going to be happening."
Concern about the future already is being voiced on California airwaves.

In a marketing blitz to promote increased energy efficiency, the state government has produced a series of haunting television and radio commercials featuring parents and grandparents explaining what kind of state the next generation might inherit because of global warming.

One foretells of endless drought and barren farms. In another, a montage of voices warns, "To my children ... I leave floods and homes under water, and a landscape that isn't the same."

Among the earliest and most noticeable casualties is expected to be California's ski season.

The snow is likely to continue but is expected to fall for a shorter period of time and melt more quickly. That could shorten the ski season by a month even in wetter areas and perhaps end it in others.

In Southern California, where skiing in a region parched by sun and cursed with the hot, dry Santa Ana winds might seem an oxymoron to outsiders, the region is ringed by mountain ranges that cradle several winter resorts. Three peaks within an easy drive of downtown Los Angeles exceed 10,000 feet.

The ski season here has begun to shrivel, whether from short-term drought or long-term changes. Over the last few years, as winter rainfall and snowfall have declined markedly, the resorts have suffered.

"There's always plenty of snow, but you may just have to go out of state for it," said Rinda Wohlwend, 62, who belongs to two ski clubs in Southern California. "I'm a very avid tennis player, so I'd probably play more tennis."

Throughout California, residents will have to adapt in similar ways to warmer temperatures.

Because California is a coastal state with myriad microclimates, predicting exactly what will happen across a land mass a third larger than that of Italy by the end of the century is a challenge.

But through a series of interviews with scientists who are studying the phenomenon, a general description of the state's future emerges.

By the end of the century, temperatures are predicted to increase from 3 degrees to as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit statewide. That could translate into even less rainfall across the southern half of the state, which already is under pressure from the increased frequency of wildfires and relentless population growth.

The deserts east of Los Angeles are home to small mammals, lizards and colonies of wildflowers that are accustomed to periodic three-year dry spells. But their populations may not be able to withstand the 10-year drought cycles that could become commonplace as the planet warms.

A near four-year drought already has snuffed out certain local habitats for the fringe-toed lizard, a sand-skimming reptile that once was common in the Palm Springs area. Nearby, scientists are considering relocating Joshua Tree seedlings to areas where the trees, a hallmark of the high desert and namesake of a national park, might survive climate change.

They could be wiped out of California depending on how quickly the change happens," said Cameron Barrows, who studies the effects of climate change for the Center for Conservation Biology in Riverside.

Farther north, where wet, cold winters are crucial for the entire state, warmer temperatures will lead to more rain than snow in the Sierra Nevada and faster melting in the spring.

Because 35 percent of the state's water supply is stored annually in the Sierra snowpack, changes to that hydrologic system will lead to far-reaching consequences for California and its ever-growing population. The forecast for 2050 is nearly 60 million people, roughly the current population of France.

Less snowfall means reservoirs and the rivers that fill them could be depleted early in the year. In Yosemite National Park last summer, waterfalls that are a signature for one of the nation's most beloved natural wonders were running at a trickle by midsummer.

Other transformations already are apparent, stretching from the Sierra high country to the great valleys that have made California the nation's top agricultural state.

The changes are not mere speculation. The snowline, as it is in many other alpine regions around the world, is receding in ways that are obvious.

Nate Stephenson, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who is studying the effects of climate change in the Sierra Nevada, compared a 2003 photograph of a glacial basin to ones taken of the same area in 1908.

In the nearly century-old pictures, ice can be seen mushrooming over the top of a moraine, the mound of ground-up rock at the bottom of glaciers - "like a muffin bulging over a muffin pan." In the recent photo, the glacier is gone. What remained is a barren bowl, he said.

One creature that thrives at high elevations already is being chased to the brink of extinction by warmer temperatures.

The pika, or rock-rabbit, is adapted to colder temperatures at elevations above the tree line and struggles with temperatures above 70 degrees. The 6-inch-long rodent, which clips grass to create tiny piles of hay to live in during winter, can overheat and die within an hour at higher temperatures.

The population has been dwindling and drifting to ever higher elevations, but biologists fear it eventually will run out of mountain.

"Basically it means that this, like the polar bear, is another animal where the threat is overwhelmingly, primarily global warming," said Brian Nowicki, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. "It's just going to be the heat that takes it out."

Throughout the 400-mile-long Sierra, trees are under stress, leading scientists to speculate that the mix of flora could change significantly as the century grows hotter. The death rate of fir and pine trees has accelerated over the past two decades.

In the central and southern Sierra, the giant sequoias that are among the most massive living things on earth might be imperiled.

"I suspect as things get warmer, we'll start seeing sequoias just die on their feet where their foliage turns brown," said Stephenson, the Geological Survey scientist. "Even if they don't die of drought stress, just think of the wildfires. If you dry out that vegetation, they're going to be so much more flammable."

Hotter, drier temperatures also would threaten the state's $30 billion agricultural industry.

Higher sustained temperatures could damage the quality of wine grapes in all but the coolest growing regions, such as Mendocino and Monterey counties, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley.

"In the full continental U.S. it's an 81 percent reduction in suitable growing area (for grapes)," said Noah Diffenbaugh, a Purdue University scientist who is studying the effects of climate change on wine production. "It would be on a similar scale in California."

Because the Sierra snowpack accounts for so much of California's water supply, the changes could lead to expensive water disputes between cities and farmers. Without consistent water from rivers draining the snowmelt, farmers in the Central and Salinas valleys could lose as much as a quarter of their water supply.

Some farmers could demand even more water while others will be forced to change the type of crops they grow. Smaller fruit that would ripen faster could be one consequence of an earlier growing season.

Any such changes would have national implications, since California's fertile valleys provide half the country's fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' study.

"Obviously, it's going to mean that choices are going to be made about who's going to get the water," said Nowicki, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

In one of the ironic twists that global warming could bring, the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley actually could see more water - just the wrong kind.

Rising sea levels will imperil the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, forcing sea water from San Francisco Bay farther inland and impeding the flow of the northern rivers. The result could be a huge inland lagoon in what is now a mix of farms, rivers and suburbs.

What will happen along California's famed coastline will affect the rest of the state, yet is among the biggest unknowns.

One scenario suggests that chunks of the Greenland ice sheets, which have been melting, could simply tumble into the ocean, causing sea level to rise more than 20 feet.

Will the rising seas swamp the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest port complex, turning them into a series of saltwater lakes? Will funky Ocean Beach, an island of liberalism in conservative San Diego County, become, literally, its own island?

Among the more sobering projections is what is in store for the marine life that hugs the state's shoreline.

The upwelling season, a time when nutrient-rich waters are brought from the ocean's depths to the surface, creates a food chain that sustains one of the world's richest marine environments along the California coast.

That period, which spans from late spring until early fall, is expected to become weaker earlier in the season and more intense later. Upwelling in Southern California will become weaker overall.

As a result, sea lions, blue whales and other marine mammals that follow these systems up and down the coast are expected to decline.

"When you take away upwelling, there's less food. And when there's less food available, there'll be fewer of everything," said Dan Costa, an expert in marine mammals and sea birds at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "The number of species will decline across the board."

Increased temperatures could turn Southern California's undulating kelp forest into a scraggly collection of brown seaweed by the end of the century, experts said. Already stressed marine animals that depend on kelp, such as California's struggling population of 3,000 otters, could have an even tougher time.

"A warming of the ocean is going to be detrimental for otters," said Jim Estes, an otter expert and research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Changing seas will present trouble for much of the state's land-dwelling population, too.

A sea level rise of three to six feet will be enough to inundate the airports in San Francisco and Oakland.

"If you raise sea level by a foot, you push a cliff back 100 feet," said Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "There will be a lot of houses that will fall into the ocean."

Many of the state's beaches are expected to shrink as sea levels rise and winter storms carry away sand.

The popular beaches of Santa Monica, Venice and Newport Beach are maintained entirely by expensive sand-nourishment programs that may become impossible to continue.

At the same time, an expected increase warm winter storms could benefit one iconic California activity - surfing. Even so, surfers aren't exactly anxious for the coming changes, said Chad Nelson, environmental director with the Surfrider Foundation.

"Of course if the water's too polluted to surf because it's raining and the houses are falling into the water because the sea level is rising, that could detract from the experience," he said.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Nuclear waste could power Britain

Proposed Sellafield fuel-processing plant could provide 60 per cent of UK's electricity until 2060

A plan by the nuclear industry to build a £1bn fuel processing plant at Sellafield is being backed by the government's chief scientist. The plant would turn the UK's 60,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste into reactor fuel that will provide 60 per cent of this country's electricity until 2060, it is claimed.

'We can bury our reactor waste or we can treat it and then use it as free fuel for life,' said the cabinet's chief science adviser, Sir David King. 'It's a no-brainer.'

But the plan is controversial. A report by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which operates the Cumbrian plant and backs the plan, acknowledges the move could have 'downside' economic costs, although it also stresses it has many benefits. In addition, green groups say the move would lead to the creation of 'a plutonium economy' in Britain that would see large quantities of nuclear fuel being transported across the country.

The Sellafield reprocessing plan would cost several billion pounds, a price that infuriates opponents of nuclear energy. 'There is no economic justification for this plan,' said Roger Higman, of Friends of the Earth. 'It would just be another massive subsidy for the nuclear industry. We should invest in renewables.'

But this criticism is firmly rejected by King. He has already helped persuade the government to back a new UK reactor construction programme scheduled to be approved in the new year. 'A UK citizen is responsible for emitting 11 tonnes of carbon a year on average,' he said. 'In France the figure is six tonnes - because France relies on nuclear power, which produces virtually no carbon dioxide. That is why we must replace our old nuclear reactors when they reach the end of their working lives.'

But building new reactors is controversial. Apart from their high construction costs, analysts say uranium could become scarce and expensive, with supplies from Canadian and Australian mines drying up in the next 20 years. Reactors would then have no fuel.

But this prospect is dismissed by King. 'We have a massive reserve of high-grade plutonium and uranium in Sellafield's nuclear waste,' he said. That stockpile - generated by Britain's reactors since the Fifties - contains six tonnes of plutonium and about 60 of uranium. However, it is mixed up with other highly radioactive reactor by-products.

To make nuclear fuel from this waste, its plutonium and uranium would have to be extracted, a task that can be achieved using Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant, though it will require a £1bn refurbishment to achieve this, said King. Alternatively, a new reprocessing plant will have to be built.

Then the plutonium and uranium will have to be turned into a fuel called mox, or mixed oxide. A plant to make mox could cost a further £1bn, or Sellafield's existing mox plant could be refurbished at a similar cost. Once these two plants - Thorp and mox - are ready, the 60,000 tonnes of nuclear waste, the leftovers of fuel production work and other highly radioactive material that has accumulated from Britain's nuclear energy programme, could be processed.

The resulting fuel rods and pellets could then be burned in nuclear reactors over the next few decades. In turn, the waste could be burned in a new generation of power plants called fast breeder reactors. Under this scheme, Britain would be near self-sufficient in nuclear fuel for the rest of the century. 'Studies carried out for the NDA have looked at a range of options for this material and shown that its use in a new generation of nuclear plants has potential viability,' said Bill Hamilton of the NDA. 'However any decision on such a programme is a matter for the government.'

This point was backed by King, who said the investment would be repaid by generating electricity.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Survey: Coal-Fired Power Plant Freeze Favored

From: Paul Schaefer, ENN


DES MOINES, Iowa - Sending a clear message to state officials and presidential candidates, nearly four out of five Iowans (79 percent) -- including 69 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Independents -- think that "Iowa should focus on increased (energy) conservation steps and more fuel efficiency to reduce demand for electricity before it constructs new coal-fired power plants," according to a major new Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) survey commissioned by Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, Iowa Farmers Union and Plains Justice.

Supporters of the "conservation/energy efficiency first" approach include 75 percent of the most likely caucus attendees, including 67 percent who will attend Republican caucuses and 88 percent who will participate in Democratic caucuses. As other states including Kansas and Florida take active steps to roll back plans for coal-fired power plants within their borders, Iowa officials are contemplating the future of two such facilities proposed for construction near Waterloo and Marshalltown.

Another key finding of the ORC survey of 1,005 Iowa residents: Two thirds of likely Iowa caucus goers and 65 percent of all state residents - including 58 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Independents - favor a "one-year-long statewide dialogue in Iowa involving state officials, citizens, unions and utility company regulators to help shape the energy future of Iowa during which current coal-fired power plant plans would be frozen to allow for the most comprehensive discussion." The survey commissioned by Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, the Iowa Farmer's Union and Plains Justice also found that roughly nine out of 10 Iowans (89 percent) - including a nearly identical 88 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of Independents -- agree that "the state government of Iowa, as a matter of formal policy, encourages more public and private investment in alternative energy to help create new jobs in the state."

Commenting on behalf of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light about the new survey findings, Bishop Alan Scarfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa said: "With all our eyes focused on the disappointing response of the United States administration to the conversation and conclusions of the Bali meeting, this is an opportunity for our own Governor of Iowa to demonstrate that many Iowans are among the people within the United States who nevertheless understand the deeper implications of the crisis upon us. From the perspective of the religious communities, the recently proposed coal-fired power plants threaten rather than assist our progress towards renewable energy.

The intention of placing them in the demographics of our most at-risk individuals, Marshalltown with its large Latino population, and Waterloo with its greater number of African Americans may have the appearance of providing employment, but at great cost to the health of the participants, as well as the families in the proposed areas. Iowans have shown in this poll that they want time for discussions at the highest level of public representation." Iowa Farmers Union President Chris Petersen said: "In a time of skyrocketing energy costs, Iowa Farmers Union supports legislation that promotes the advancement of renewable energy technology to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels and gives farmers the opportunity to own the means of production." Carrie La Seur, president, Plains Justice, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a member of the Iowa Power Fund Board said: "At a January Iowa Utilities Board hearing, an impressive slate of national experts will testify that the proposed Marshalltown coal plant would be a costly mistake. Iowa's renewable energy revolution is the answer for our power needs, not a $1.5 billion investment in 19th Century technology.

We call on the governor to protect Iowa's investment by giving our energy and climate planning processes a chance to work before we permit any new coal plants." Graham Hueber, senior research, Opinion Research Corporation said: "These findings are bad news for people who want to build coal-fired power plants in Iowa. The survey clearly shows that majorities of Democratic and Republican caucus goers - as well as other Iowa adults - would prefer to see an alternative that does not involve putting new coal-fired power plants in the state. We find strong support here for enhanced energy conservation and a major infusion of state and private investment dollars in clean energy. It is also evident that health concerns associated with power plant pollution are seen as a legitimate public health issue, particularly when it comes to children."

KEY SURVEY FINDINGS The ORC survey conducted for Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, the Iowa Farmer's Union and Plains Justice also found the following: -- More than three out of five Iowans (64 percent) - including 73 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Independents agree with the following statement: " ... the best energy alternative is greater efficiency and conservation to eliminate waste, combined with more wind, solar power and other alternative energy ... doing this would ultimately save money in the form of economic benefits to the state, such as cleaner air, healthier children, and fewer public health risks.

Therefore, we should not build additional coal-fired power plants in Iowa." -- More than three in five of Iowans (62 percent) are "concerned about the possible ill health effects - including asthma and heart problems - that could be experienced by you, your family members and others as the result of increased pollution from new coal-fired power plants in Iowa." This figure includes less than half (48 percent) of Republicans, but 73 percent of Democrats.

Three out of four individuals indicating that they will attend a Democratic caucus expressed concern about this issue.

-- Three out of four Iowans -- including 61 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Democrats, and 75 percent of Independents -- are less likely to support new coal-fired power plants when told: "Coal-fired power plants are the primary source of carbon dioxide pollution - a known contributor to global warming." This view is shared by 72 percent of those most likely to attend a caucus, including 60 percent of those attending a Republican caucus and 85 percent of those attending a Democratic caucus.

-- More than three out of four Iowans (77 percent) -- including 68 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Independents -- are less likely to support new coal-fired power plants in the state when told: "Much of the power generated at the new coal-fired plants in Iowa would be sold to out of state customers but Iowa would get all or nearly all of the resulting pollution."

-- More than three out of four Iowans (77 percent) -- including 69 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Independents -- are less likely to support new coal-fired power plants when told: "Hundreds of thousands of children live in Iowa within a 30-mile-radius of a coal-fired power plant." This view is shared by 75 percent of the most likely caucus attendees, including 68 percent of Republican attendees and 84 percent of Democratic attendees.

-- Fewer than one in three Iowans (31 percent) -- including only 42 percent of Republicans, 23 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of Independents -- see "access to affordable electricity" as a sufficient justification for building new coal fired power plants in the state.

-- Four out five Iowans -- including 71 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of Independents - think that older, "grandfathered" power plants should be required to "install the advanced pollution control devices required for new electricity-generating facilities before new coal-fired power plants are built" in the state. This view is shared by 79 percent of the most likely caucus attendees, including 67 percent of Republican attendees and 88 percent of Democratic attendees.

-- Only about two out of five Iowans (42 percent) say they favor "building new coal-fired power plants in the state," compared to a total of 58 percent who either oppose new plants or have not yet made up their mind. Only about a third (34 percent) of Democrats favor new plants, compared with 43 percent who oppose them and 23 percent who have not decided. Over half of Republicans (55 percent) support new plants, with 27 percent opposed and 18 percent undecided. Fewer than two in four Independents (38 percent) support new coal-fired power plants, compared to 33 percent who oppose them and 28 percent who are undecided. -- Fewer than two out of five Iowans (37 percent) are aware of "pending plans for coal-fired power plants in Iowa near Waterloo and Marshalltown." Awareness varies widely by region with 64 percent of those in the Cedar Rapids area (which includes Waterloo) knowing of such plan, 34 percent awareness in Des Moines (closer to Marshalltown) and only 22 percent in the rest of the state. -- A third of respondents said that they will "definitely attend" or are "extremely likely" to attend a caucus, including 31 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats.

-- 39 percent of the respondents were Republican/Independents leaning Republican, 47 percent were Democrats/Independents leaning Democratic, 37 percent were Independents, and 2 percent were associated with other parties.

-- About nine out of 10 respondents (89 percent) said they are registered to vote. For full survey findings, go on the Web.


Survey results are based on telephone interviews conducted among a representative sample of 1,005 adults aged 18 and over living in private households in Iowa. Interviewing was completed by Opinion Research Corporation during the period of December 7-11, 2007. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the complete sample of Iowa adults. Smaller sub-groups will have larger error margins.

ABOUT THE GROUPS Iowa Interfaith Power & Light ( is part of a national network dedicated to protecting God's sacred creation and safeguarding public health. Iowa Interfaith Power & Light has worked with more than 150 faith communities in Iowa to reduce global warming pollution while empowering those most impacted by higher energy costs, by increasing investment in energy efficiency and by creating new revenue streams through clean energy. The Iowa Farmers Union ( works to sustain and strengthen the family farm agricultural system in the United States through education, legislation and cooperation. With headquarters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Plains Justice ( is a public interest environmental law center working for environmental justice and sustainable communities in the Northern Plains region of the U.S., including eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. The Plains Justice docket includes Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and energy policy work.

Uganda's president revives plan to axe rainforest

From: Reuters


KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on Friday revived a controversial plan to hand over a swathe of rainforest to a local company to be destroyed and replaced with a sugarcane plantation.

In an address to his party published in newspapers, Museveni called those who oppose his plan to give 7,100 hectares or about a quarter of Mabira Forest reserve to the private Mehta group's sugar estate "criminals and charlatans."

Uganda's government scrapped the original plan in October after a public outcry and violent street protests in which three people died, including an ethnic Indian man who was stoned to death by rioters.

Mehta is owned by an ethnic Indian Ugandan family.

"Mehta wants to expand his factory ... in the under-utilised part of Mabira ... criminals and charlatans kicked up lies and caused death. We suppressed the thugs," Museveni said.

Critics said destroying part of Mabira would threaten rare species of birds and monkeys, dry up a watershed for streams that feed Lake Victoria and remove a buffer against pollution of the lake from Uganda's two biggest industrial towns, nearby.

"This issue should be resolved," Museveni said. "If we do not industrialize, where shall we get employment for the youth? I will mobilize the youth to smash ... these cliques obstructing the future of the country."

Analysts say the plan to lift protection from Mabira is so unpopular that even parliament, which is hugely dominated by Museveni's supporters, would oppose it.

Stopping deforestation was high on the agenda at this month's global conference on climate change in Bali.

Scientists estimate some 20 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change, results from deforestation. Trees suck carbon from the air and experts say Mabira sinks millions of tons of it.

Foresters estimate the value of the wood in the part of Mabira Mehta wants to axe at around $170 million and say it can be logged in a sustainable way. This compares with about $11 million per year from what Mehta expects to be 35,000 tons of sugar.

(Editing by Wangui Kanina and Richard Balmforth)

Acidic seas may kill 98% of world's reefs by 2050

Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, UK
Clownfish swim in Indonesia

Clownfish swimming among the tentacles of sea anemones in Indonesia. Photograph: Science Picture Library

The majority of the world's coral reefs are in danger of being killed off by rising levels of greenhouse gases, scientists warned yesterday. Researchers from Britain, the US and Australia, working with teams from the UN and the World Bank, voiced their concerns after a study revealed 98% of the world's reef habitats are likely to become too acidic for corals to grow by 2050.

The loss of big coral reefs would have a devastating effect on communities, many of which rely on fish and other marine life that shelter in the reefs. It would leave coastlines unprotected against storm surges and damage often-crucial income from tourism. Among the first victims of acidifying oceans will be Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest organic structure.

The oceans absorb around a third of the 20bn tonnes of carbon dioxide produced each year by human activity. While the process helps to slow global warming by keeping the gas from the atmosphere, in sea water it dissolves to form carbonic acid - rising levels of which cause carbonates to dissolve. One of these minerals, aragonite, is used by corals and other marine organisms to grow their skeletons. It is particularly susceptible to carbonic acid. Without it, corals become brittle and are unable to grow and repair damage caused by fish, snails and natural erosion.

The scientists used computer simulations to model levels of aragonite in the world's oceans from pre-industrial times, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels stood at 280 parts per million. Present day levels of carbon dioxide are 380ppm, but scientists expect the figure will rise substantially by the end of the century.

The team looked at three scenarios based on predictions of greenhouse gas emissions by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The first assumed that atmospheric carbon dioxide was held at today's level, leading to an increase in temperature of 1C by the end of the century. Under this scenario there was enough aragonite left in the oceans for corals to continue growing.

The second scenario looked at the effect of carbon dioxide levels at between 450 and 500ppm, a rise that would increase global temperatures by 2C. Under these conditions only very hardy corals and creatures that lived off them would survive.

In the worst scenario, when carbon dioxide levels rose above 500ppm, the models predicted a 3C rise and a substantial increase in ocean acidity, causing the majority of reefs to die off. The study appears in the journal Science.

"Before the industrial revolution over 98% of warm water coral reefs were bathed with open ocean waters 3.5 times supersaturated with aragonite, meaning that corals could easily extract it to build reefs," said Long Cao, a co-author from the Carnegie Institution in Stanford. "If atmospheric carbon dioxide stabilises at 550ppm, and even that would take concerted international effort, no existing coral reef will remain in such an environment."

Peter Mumby, a reef ecologist at Exeter University, who worked on the study, said: " Reefs help protect coastlines from storm damage by acting as a buffer, so without them storm surges will go straight over and hit the coast."

Under threat

Philippines One of the most threatened coral hot spots, the reefs face damage from pollution, run-off from logging, and dynamite fishing

Gulf of Guinea Around 20 sq km of reef between four islands off the west African coast under threat from coastal development and coral harvesting

Sunda Islands Part of the coral triangle, one of the most diverse coastal areas. Already at threat from destructive fishing and reef fish trade

Southern Mascarene Islands Reefs surrounding Mauritius, Reunion and Rodriguez islands in southern Indian Ocean are under threat from pollution from the sugar cane industry and agricultural development

Eastern South Africa Next to Cape Floristic, this smaller reef is also at risk from over-fishing and tourism

The summer of acid rain

The Economist

Molten iron raining down like cowpats; ice floes at New Orleans. The weather of 1783 was an extraordinary case of sudden climate change driven by atmospheric gases


“AROUND mid-morning on Pentecost, June 8th of 1783, in clear and calm weather, a black haze of sand appeared to the north of the mountains. The cloud was so extensive that in a short time it had spread over the entire area and so thick that it caused darkness indoors. That night, strong earthquakes and tremors occurred.”

Thus begins the eyewitness account of one of the most remarkable episodes of climate change ever seen. It was written by a Lutheran priest, Jon Steingrimsson, in the Sida district of southern Iceland. At nine o'clock that morning, the earth split open along a 16-mile fissure called the Laki volcano. Over the next eight months, in a series of vast belches, more lava gushed through the fissure than from any volcano in historic times—15 cubic kilometres, enough to bury the whole island of Manhattan to the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

Pentecost is the Christian festival celebrating the appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles with the sound, the Bible says, “as of a mighty rushing wind” and an appearance “like as of fire”. But there was nothing metaphorical or festive about the winds and fire of the Laki eruption. It was the greatest calamity in Iceland's history.

“The flood of fire”, Steingrimsson writes, “flowed with the speed of a great river swollen with meltwater on a spring day.” It was rather as if the world's largest steelworks had begun pouring molten metal all over the neighbourhood. When the lava stream ran into water or marshes, “the explosions were as loud as if many cannon were fired at one time.” When it hit an obstacle, such as older lava fields, great gouts of molten metal were flung in the air, splashing back to earth, he says, “like cowpats”. But the damage to Iceland was only the start of a much greater trail of destruction that was eventually to reach halfway round the world, from the Altai mountains of Siberia to the Gulf of Mexico.

There are two sorts of volcanic eruptions, explosive and effusive. The well-known sort is explosive. It has the greater force. Explosions of this sort destroyed Pompeii and star in Hollywood films. Their sheer power throws volcanic gases and ash far into the stratosphere (the higher reaches of the atmosphere), where they absorb incoming radiation and cool the earth until they dissipate after two or three years. The eruption of Krakatoa caused record snowfalls round the world.

Effusive volcanic eruptions are different. They simmer with less force, but produce a greater volume of debris. Laki belched out clouds of volcanic gases 80 times greater than Mount St Helens, though Mount St Helens had much greater explosive power. But because Laki was weaker, three-quarters of the gas reached only as far as the lower atmosphere (the troposphere), the level at which rain, ordinary clouds and surface winds are carried. The gases included enormous quantities of sulphur dioxide; at its peak, the eruption produced as much in two days as European industry produces in a year. Part of this dissolved in the vapour of the clouds to form sulphuric acid. Within a few hours, the Laki volcano had produced a vast plume of acid rain, brooding over the skies of southern Iceland.

In the normal course of events, the prevailing winds would have blown this poisonous plume northwards, towards the Arctic Circle. But the summer of 1783 was not normal. A stable ridge of high pressure had settled over north-east Europe, pulling the winds, and the Laki cloud, south-east, towards the European mainland.

What happened next can be recreated in great detail because in the late 18th century diaries were fashionable among the newly literate middle classes and the circulation of newspapers was rising even in small towns; there was also growing scientific interest in the natural world, with educated amateurs keeping detailed notes of natural phenomena. From such records, one can track the course of the Laki cloud literally day by day (see map).

On June 10th wrote Sæmundur Magnusson Holm at the University of Copenhagen, falling ash coloured black the deck and sails of ships travelling to Denmark. The same day, a Lutheran priest in Norway, Johan Brun, reported that falling ash had withered the grass and leaves in Bergen. Six days later, Anton Strnadt reported that “the dry fog” came up over the river Moldau into Prague while Nicolas von Beguelin reported its first appearance in Berlin the day afterwards. “The sun”, he wrote, “was dull in its shine and coloured as if it had been soaked in blood.”

By June 18th the winds seem to have been blowing the cloud south and west. Robert de Lamanon, a French botanist and explorer, wrote from Laon, in northern France, that “the fog was cold and humid, with the wind coming from the south, and one could with ease look at the sun with a telescope without a blackened lens.” De Lamanon said fog—“such as the oldest men here have not seen before”—first appeared that day in Paris, Turin and Padua, from where Giuseppe Toaldo wrote that the whole of northern Italy was covered by the haze and smelled of sulphur.

The first mention of the haze in Britain came on June 22nd when Henry Bryant wrote to the Norfolk Chronicle that “there was an uncommon gloom in the air, with dead calm and very profuse dew.” Gilbert White, a Hampshire clergyman, noted in his diaries for the 23rd that “the blades of wheat in several fields are turned yellow and look as if scorched with frost.”

By June 26th Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician, reported a “dry fog” in St Petersburg. By the end of the month, the cloud had reached Moscow and Tripoli in Syria, according to a Dutch professor, S.P. van Swinden, whose “Observations on the Cloud which Appeared in 1783” says that “a very thick haze covered both land and sea; the sun could be seen rarely, and always with a bloody colour, which was rare in Syria.” Finally, on July 1st, the haze appeared at Baghdad and in the Altai mountains, according to a geologist, Ivan Michaelovich Renovantz, who reported unseasonable frosts in Central Asia.

By then, back in Europe, the cloud had thickened. This was not a plume like that from Chernobyl, which appeared in one vast belch, spread over Europe and blew away. After its initial effusion, Laki erupted again, more violently, on June 11th and with still greater force on the 14th. Ferenc Weiss, a Hungarian meteorologist, was right to speculate that “the thick fog was being continually replenished”. There were to be ten big eruptions between June 8th and the end of October, followed by a series of rumblings that exhausted themselves only in February 1784.

As the cloud approached western Europe, it was sucked down in a spiral pattern towards the Earth's surface, producing a thick haze near ground level. By mid-summer, the “dry fog” had settled on Europe like a blanket; it was to stay there throughout the summer.

Europeans reacted in different ways. Steingrimsson was in no doubt: the eruption was “the Lord's chastisement”. On the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, with the lava advancing down the valley towards his church “which was shaking and quaking from the cataclysm”, he gathered his flock for Sunday service, as usual. “Both myself and all the others in the church were completely unafraid,” he writes. “No one showed any signs of leaving during the service, which I had made slightly longer than usual.” On emerging, the congregation found that two rivers, blocked by the lava flow, had changed course and poured down, dousing the lava and stopping it yards from the church door. (Two centuries later, Icelanders created the same obstacle by artificial means to save a town threatened by another eruption.) “From this day onwards the fire did no major damage to my parish in any way.”

“The miracle of the fire sermon” became well known and sermons on the freakish cloud common. “You stare at the sky and at the horizon veiled in dark exhalations,” Johann Georg Gottlob Schwarz admonished his audience in Alsfeld, Germany. “The Lord speaks daily to us and reveals in Nature his omniscience.”

The end is nigh

The expressions of faith were driven partly by alarm, even terror. “Some fear to go to bed, expecting an Earthquake; some declare that [the sun] neither rises nor sets where he did, and assert with great confidence that the day of judgment is at hand,” wrote an English poet, William Cowper. Parishioners near Broué, in northern France, dragged their priest out of bed and forced him to perform a rite of exorcism on the cloud. After rains brought temporary relief in Antwerp, the Gazette van Antwerpen reported that public prayers were held to bring more.

Alarm and misapprehension were not confined to the illiterate. The British government, fearing a plague outbreak, drew up plans to close the ports to traffic from the continent. Nor were popular fears mere superstition. The parish records of the English midlands reveal a spike in the number of deaths during July and August 1783, though summer is normally the time of lowest mortality in agricultural societies. Around 23,000 more English people died than would have been expected that year, doubling the normal death toll. In France, on some estimates, 5% of the population died that summer. Unusually, the deaths included young men and women working in the fields, breathing polluted air in stifling heat.

In Japan, the famine was so severe that special crews had to be hired to clear the roads of the dead

In general, though, “the Connoscenti”, (Cowper's term) sought rational explanations for the haze, rather than the consolations of religion. A French naturalist was the first to connect the fog to volcanic activity in Iceland in a lecture at Montpellier as early as August 7th. In Paris, meteorologists “desirous of making some observations of the atmosphere, had a sort of kite flown to a great height after which it was drawn in, covered with innumerable small black insects.” In an apparent attempt to allay panic, a French astronomer, Jerome de Lalande, wrote a paper arguing the unusual weather was “nothing more than the very natural effect from a hot sun after a long supersession of heavy rain” (he was wrong). Everywhere, educated men left detailed descriptions of the cloud cover; of the unusual appearance of the sun (“ferruginous” said White; “the face of a hot salamander” said Cowper); and of the scorching of leaves and grass and the state of the harvest and livestock.

By the end of October, the last of the big eruptions at Laki was over, and the haze began to dissipate, blown by the autumn winds. It was the end of the cloud but not the end of the damage. One of the gases the volcano threw up was fluorine, which fell quickly back to earth as hydrofluoric acid. In Iceland, this had horrible results. “The horses lost all their flesh,” Steingrimsson wrote, “the skin began to rot off along the spines. The sheep were affected even more wretchedly. There was hardly a part on them free of swellings, especially their jaws, so large that they protruded through the skin...Both bones and gristle were as soft as if they had been chewed.”

Half the horses and cattle and three-quarters of the sheep on the island died. As famine took hold, social bonds began to fray. To protect his remaining cattle, Steingrimsson slept in the cowshed “since thieves were on the prowl.” In all, a quarter of Iceland's population was to die of starvation, including Steingrimsson's beloved wife of 31 years. “When I lost my wonderful wife”, he writes, “everything, so to speak, collapsed around me.”

In Europe, the summer of 1783 had been unusually warm, the warmest recorded in England before 1995. White called the season “an amazing and portentous one, full of horrible phenomena”, and complained of the abnormal number of wasps. The heat may have been a short-term greenhouse-gas effect from high concentrations of sulphur dioxide. Or it may have just been natural variation.


What is more certain is that, high in the atmosphere, the volcanic gases reflected away some of the sun's radiation even after the cloud had dissipated at lower levels. This back-scattering was to have a bigger impact on the climate than the summer cloud itself. The winters that followed the Laki eruption were freakishly cold.

At the time, some people suspected the volcano might be to blame. Benjamin Franklin, then America's ambassador to Paris, wrote to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester that “[the sun's] effect of heating the Earth was exceedingly diminished. Hence the surface was early frozen. Hence the first snows remained on it unmelted. Hence the air was more chilled. Hence perhaps the winter of 1783-84 was more severe than any that had happened for many years.” In speculating upon the cause, he wondered “whether it was the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer from Hecla in Iceland [near Laki]”. It was.

On average, temperatures in Europe during 1784 were about 2°C below the norm of the second half of the 18th century; and the closer to Iceland, the bigger the impact. Iceland itself was almost 5°C colder than normal and saw the longest period of sea ice around the island ever recorded. Berlin and Geneva, about 1,300 miles away, were 2ºC below normal, whereas the anomaly in Vienna, 1,700 miles from Laki, was only 1.5°C. Stockholm and Copenhagen, the nearest cities at just over 1,000 miles distant, saw temperatures drop by over 3°C.

Beyond Europe Laki's biggest influence seems to have operated over the greatest distances. The light-scattering effects of volcanic gases in the upper atmosphere reduced the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth and disrupted the normal relationship between temperatures both at the upper and lower levels of the atmosphere, and between the poles and the equator. These are the engines of the weather. Disruptions to them weakened the westerly jet streams, altered the monsoons and affected the weather throughout the northern hemisphere.

The eastern United States suffered one of its longest and coldest winters, with temperatures almost 5°C below average. George Washington, who had just disbanded his victorious army and retired to Mount Vernon, complained that he was “locked up” there by snow and ice between Christmas Eve and early March, while James Madison wrote from his home in Virginia that “we have had a severer season and particularly a greater quantity of snow than is remembered to have distinguished any preceding winter.” The St Lawrence river froze for a dozen miles far inland. In Charleston, South Carolina, which nowadays grinds to a halt with a light dusting of snow, the harbour froze hard enough to skate on. Most extraordinary of all, ice floes floated down the Mississippi, past New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The eastern United States recovered fairly quickly, but places farther afield were not so lucky. Japan suffered one of the three worst famines in its history in 1783-86, when exceptional cold destroyed the rice harvest and as many as 1m people died. Special crews had to be hired to clear the roads of the dead. In Japan this famine is usually attributed to another volcanic eruption, that of Mount Asama, but its impact was small compared with Laki's.

Tree-ring evidence from the Urals, the Yamal peninsula in Siberia and Alaska all suggests northern areas had their coldest summer for 400 to 500 years. The oral history of the Kauwerak tribe of north-western Alaska calls 1783 “the year summer did not come”; the tribe was almost wiped out.

Because of disruption to the monsoons, rainfall in the Nile watershed was down by almost a fifth and in the Niger watershed by more than a tenth. In his “Travels through Syria and Egypt”, Count Constantine Volney, a French orientalist, wrote that “the [Nile] inundation of 1783 was not sufficient, great part of the lands therefore could not be sown for want of being watered. In 1784, the Nile again did not rise to favourable height, and the dearth immediately became excessive. Soon after the end of November, the famine carried off, at Cairo, nearly as many as the plague.” By January 1785, he says, a sixth of Egypt's population had either perished or fled.

In Europe, the Laki eruption was not to leave an indelible mark. Within a few years, weather patterns returned to normal and Europeans had forgotten the extraordinary “dry fog”. But in retrospect, the eruption can be seen to exemplify certain truths about climate change.

Polluting gases can change global temperatures a lot (in this case by cooling, not warming). Volcanic gases can do as much damage as any amount of human activity. But the poisonous cloud was only part of the story. Weather patterns mattered too. Stable anti-cyclones brought the gas to earth in Europe and stratospheric currents then spread it over a third of the globe. And the connections between pollution and weather are complex and unpredictable: people at the time understood the link between the volcano and the haze, but not the connection with events the other side of the globe. Societies are hit very differently: the impact was modest in most of Europe, but devastating in Egypt, Japan and Alaska. Lastly, people react to environmental disruption in ways that are themselves disruptive.

As the Icelanders struggled to return to normal in the summer of 1785, the country's superintendent ordered the paupers of neighbouring districts to be moved to Steingrimsson's area, though there was no food. In desperation, he says, “we held counsel and decided to head east to the beaches. A single man who was there ahead of us, a farmer from Stapafell called Eirikur, had on that day clubbed 70 adult seals and 120 pups on the beaches. I held a service in Kalfafell in the finest weather we experienced during that time where all of us gladly thanked God for His mercy in so richly providing for us in this barren land and so agreeably removing all the famine and death which otherwise awaited.

Camel 'plague' puzzles scientists

Camel 'plague' puzzles scientists

A camel lies dead at the side of a road near the Saudi capital Riyadh

A camel lies dead at the side of a road near the Saudi capital Riyadh. Photograph: Issa Abdul Haq/AFP/Getty Images

An unprecedented number of camels across North Africa and the Middle East died last year, researchers have discovered. The several thousand deaths have baffled scientists who are probing toxins, antibiotic pollution, viruses and even climate change as possible causes.

In Saudi Arabia alone, between 2,000 and 5,000 perished inexplicably, it was revealed in Science last week. The ships of the desert are being sunk in unusual, and worrying, numbers, the journal warned.

'The numbers of deaths we are seeing at present are unprecedented,' said camel researcher Bernard Faye, who is based at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (Cirad). 'A great many animals are dying and it is not at all obvious what is the cause. The problem is that there is a real lack of good epidemiological evidence, and until we can get that we will struggle to find the causes of these deaths and to find ways of stopping them.'

There were several outbreaks of sudden deaths among camels - which are exploited for their milk and meat and as beasts of burden in North Africa and Asia - in many countries last year. However, the worst occurred in Saudi Arabia. At least 2,000 dromedaries perished in a region south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as closer to 5,000.

Initial reports blamed infectious disease, but after Saudi vets sent blood samples to international laboratories it was announced that the animals had been killed by contaminants in their fodder. Two particular contaminants were pinpointed: the antibiotic salinomycin, a supplement used in chicken feed that is toxic to camels, and a fungal species with mycotoxins that can cause nerve damage. However, the Saudi government has shared little information about its investigation and evidence pinpointing fodder contaminants is disputed by experts. 'Neither mycotoxins nor any known disease could have killed 5,000 camels in that short span of time,' said Ulrich Wernery, scientific director of Dubai's Central Veterinary Research Laboratory.

Camels are associated with hardiness, their ability to survive on small amounts of drinking water and blood-cooling systems that let them work in intense heat. But recently reports of camel deaths across the region have increased dramatically - on top of the Saudi outbreak. Changes in types of fodder may be linked to immune problems, it is suggested. Other scientists argue that climate change may be increasing numbers of disease-bearing insects, while others argue that changes in the use of camels, which are exploited less for transport and more for milk and meat today, may be making them more susceptible to disease.

'It is a puzzle, and until we get more information we are not going to get close to finding an answer,' said Faye.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ancient Warming Caused Huge Spike in Temps, Study Says

December 19, 2007

What started out as a moderate global warm-up about 55 million years ago triggered a massive injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that sent temperatures skyrocketing, a new study says.

The finding suggests that today's temperature rise may just be priming the planet for a carbon belch of epic proportions.

"You've got these feedbacks, these chain reactions of events in the atmosphere-ocean system," said Appy Sluijs, a paleoecologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Sluijs and his colleagues found evidence for the chain reaction in two sections of sediment that accumulated on an ocean floor in what is now New Jersey.

The abundance and distribution of marine algae indicate the environment started to change and the ocean surface began to warm several thousand years before the large temperature spike.

The finding implies that the earlier warming triggered the injection of greenhouse gases visible in the geological record around 55 million years ago.

"That's actually the first time we can see that in such a clear fashion," Sluijs said.

The study appears in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

"Swampy" Arctic

Scientists have long studied the ancient temperature spike, called the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum or PETM, for clues to what could happen as a result of today's global warming.

Research shows that during the PETM, global temperature shot up at least 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), and swamp forests with redwoods and broad-leaved trees filled the Arctic.

A key unanswered question is what—if anything—triggered the substantial warming, noted Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the new research.

One theory is that the meltdown of methane hydrates—icelike deposits that store massive amounts of potent greenhouse gases in the seafloor—was responsible.

According to the new study, pre-warming triggered the melt, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Less clear is the nature of that pre-warming, study author Sluijs said.

One possibility, he pointed out, is a bout of volcanic activity that ripped Greenland from Europe, a theory proposed earlier this year in the journal Science.

Hydrate Meltdown

Today Earth is also experiencing global warming, which scientists believe is largely driven by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

This warming could force a meltdown of hydrates on the seafloor as well, releasing methane into the ocean-atmosphere system.

"We really should know whether the [carbon dioxide] that's being added to the atmosphere now has the potential to generate some kind of unanticipated cascade of events," Wing, the Smithsonian biologist, said.

Though the Nature study does not solve the question, he added, scientists now have more reason "to start to worry about these kinds of unanticipated changes."

Hydrate deposits contain approximately as much greenhouse gases as will be released from current and projected emissions from fossil fuels, Sluijs pointed out.

"We are just at the beginning of the modern climate change," he said. "We are able to stop it, or at least keep the damage minor.

"But if we are going to keep burning fossil fuels for the next couple of centuries, then yes ... definitely at a certain point you will dissociate the methane hydrates, without a doubt."


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