Saturday, February 21, 2009

Drought forcing feds to shut off water to Central Valley farms

SACRAMENTO -- Federal water managers said Friday they plan to cut off water, at least temporarily, to thousands of Central Valley farms as a result of the deepening drought gripping the state.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said parched reservoirs and patchy rainfall this year were forcing them to completely stop surface water deliveries for at least a three-week period beginning March 1. Authorities said they haven't had to take such a drastic move for more than 15 years.

The situation could improve slightly if more rain falls over the next few weeks, and officials will know by mid-March if they can update their projections to release more water from mountain dams.

Farmers in the nation's No. 1 agricultural state said the shortages would wreak havoc on the rural economy, and predicted they would cause consumers to pay more for fruits and vegetables because they will have to be grown with expensive well water.

"Water is our life -- it's our jobs and it's our food," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the farm bureau in Fresno County. "Without a reliable water supply, Fresno County's number one employer, agriculture, is at great risk."

The drought will cause an estimated $1.15 billion loss in agriculture-related wages and eliminate as many as 40,000 jobs in farm-related industries in the valley alone, where most of the nation's produce and nut crops are grown, said Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow.

California's agricultural industry typically receives 80 percent of all the water supplies managed by the federal government -- everything from far-off mountain streams to suburban reservoirs.

The state, which runs a system of pumps and canals, supplies drinking water to 23 million Californians and 755,000 acres of irrigated farmland.

Farms supplied by flows from the state's system of pumps and canals also will see cuts but still will get 15 percent of their normal deliveries, Snow said.

Still, this year both state and federal reservoirs have reached their lowest levels since 1992.

Dwindling supplies will have to be routed to cities to ensure residents, hospitals and fire crews have enough to meet minimum health and safety needs, said Don Glaser, the Bureau of Reclamation's regional director for the Mid-Pacific Region.

The water shortages are so severe across the state that most cities and counties, including those on the North Coast, are expected to start mandatory rationing programs by summer.

Snow said the state plans to ask all Californians to cut the amount of water they use by 20 percent.

"You've got to think about water as a precious resource," he said. "It may seem a stretch to conserve 20 percent of your water, but that's nothing in comparison to the consequences of the drought and job loss in agriculture."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Melt-pools 'accelerating Arctic ice loss'

Pools of melted ice and snow that form on the surface of the Arctic sea ice explain why it is melting faster than predicted, scientists say

A melting iceberg

The IPCC’s computer models had simulated an average loss of 2.5% in sea ice extent per decade from 1953 to 2006. But in reality the Arctic sea ice had declined at a rate of about 7.8% per decade. Photograph: AP

New research has revealed that melt-water pooling on the Arctic sea ice is causing it to melt at a faster rate than computer models had previously predicted.

Scientists have been struggling to understand why the northern sea ice has been retreating at a faster rate than estimated by the most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in 2007.

The IPCC's computer models had simulated an average loss of 2.5% in sea ice extent per decade from 1953 to 2006. But in reality the Arctic sea ice had declined at a rate of about 7.8% per decade.

Arctic sea ice has retreated so much that in September 2007 it covered an all-time low area of 4.14m km sq, surpassing by 23% the previous all-time record set in September 2005.

And during the summer of 2008, the north-west and north-east passages - the sea routes running along the Arctic coastlines of northern America and northern Russia, normally perilously clogged with thick ice – were ice-free for the first time since records began in 1972.

Part of the reasons for the discrepancy has to do with melt ponds, which are pools of melted ice and snow that form on the sea ice when it is warmed in spring and summer. As they are darker than ice and snow, they absorb solar radiation rather than reflect it, which accelerates the melting process.

"Melt ponds were not taken into consideration by global climate models as sea-ice albedo [the ratio of reflected to incident solar radiation] is a complex process that is poorly described in these models," explains Christina Alsvik Pedersen from the Norwegian Polar Institute, the first author of the research which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

"The inclusion of the melt ponds in the models goes towards explaining why the sea ice in the Arctic melts faster than the models can predict," she says.

Melt ponds may play a growing role in the melting of the Arctic sea ice in future, Pedersen adds, as first-year ice - which melts in summer and freezes in autumn – is replacing the old multi-year ice – which stays frozen regardless of the seasons.

"First-year ice has normally a smoother surface than multi-year ice, which tends to have rougher, ridged surfaces," says Pedersen. "That allows melt ponds to cover a wider area on first-year ice, which extends the surface on which the solar radiation is absorbed, and that will accelerate the melting process."

The research helps our understanding of the physical processes behind the melting of the Arctic, according to Pål Prestrud, author of a 2007 UN report on the melting of the ice and snow and the director of the Centre for international climate and environmental research in Oslo.

"The global climate models have been good at predicting temperature, but when it comes to sea ice, they are not good enough," he said. "This research is one piece of the puzzle that will help us understand the physical process involved in the melting of the Arctic and predict better what will happen in future."

"Another piece of the puzzle we need to understand better is what happens with oceans currents in the Arctic Ocean and the warming of the oceans as a whole," he said.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg and the SINTEF institute in Trondheim were also part of the team.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why Global Warming May Be Fueling Australia's Fires

From: Time

The raging infernos that have left more than 160 people dead in southern Australia burned with such speed that they resembled less a wildfire than a massive aerial bombing. Many victims caught in the blazes had no time to escape; their houses disintegrated around them, and they burned to death. As firefighters battle the flames and police begin to investigate possible cases of arson around some of the fires, there will surely be debates over the wisdom of Australia's standard policy of advising residents to either flee a fire early or stay in their homes and wait it out. John Brumby, the premier of the fire-hit Australian state of Victoria, told a local radio station on Monday that "people will want to review that ... There is no question that there were people who did everything right, put in place their fire plan, and it [didn't] matter — their house was just incinerated."

Although the wildfires caught so many victims by surprise last weekend, there has been no shortage of distant early-warning signs. The 11th chapter of the second working group of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, warned that fires in Australia were "virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency" because of steadily warming temperatures over the next several decades. Research published in 2007 by the Australian government's own Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization reported that by 2020, there could be up to 65% more "extreme" fire-danger days compared with 1990, and that by 2050, under the most severe warming scenarios, there could be a 300% increase in such days. "[The fires] are a sobering reminder of the need for this nation and the whole world to act and put at a priority the need to tackle climate change," Australian Green Party leader Bob Brown told the Sky News. (See pictures of Australia's wildfires.)

Destructive wildfires are already common in Australia, and it's not hard to see why climate change would increase their frequency. The driest inhabited continent on the planet, Australia has warmed 0.9°C since 1950, and climate models predict the country could warm further by 2070, up to 5°C over 1990 temperatures, if global greenhouse-gas emissions go unchecked. Beyond a simple rise in average temperatures, climate change will also lead to an increase in Australia's extreme heat waves and droughts. Southwestern Australia is already in the grip of a prolonged drought that has decimated agriculture and led to widespread water rationing; the region is expected to see longer and more extreme dry periods in the future as a result of steady warming.

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CO2 hits new peaks, no sign global crisis causing dip

From: Reuters

OSLO (Reuters) - Atmospheric levels of the main greenhouse gas

are hitting new highs, with no sign yet that the world economic downturn is curbing industrial emissions, a leading scientist said on Thursday.

"The rise is in line with the long-term trend," Kim Holmen, research director at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said of the measurements taken by a Stockholm University project on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard off north Norway.

Levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from human activities, rose to 392 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere in Svalbard in December, a rise of 2-3 ppm from the same time a year earlier, he told Reuters.

Carbon dioxide concentrations are likely to have risen further in 2009, he said. They usually peak just before the start of spring in the northern hemisphere, where most of the world's industry, cities and vegetation are concentrated.

Plants suck carbon dioxide, which is released by burning fossil fuels, out of the atmosphere as they grow. Levels fall toward the northern summer and rise again in autumn when trees lose their leaves and other plants die back.

"It's too early to make that call," he said when asked if there were signs that economic slowdown was curbing the rise in emissions. And he said any such change would be hard to detect.

"That's a tricky one to do," he said. "If we had, for example, a year with an unusually warm Siberian winter, that could cancel the human variation."

A warm Russian winter would allow more bacteria to break down organic material in the soil, releasing carbon dioxide.

800,000-YEAR PEAKS

Levels of carbon dioxide are around the highest in at least 800,000 years, and up by about a third since the Industrial Revolution.

The increase is caused by "mainly fossil fuel burning and to some extent land use change, where you have forests being replaced by agricultural land," Holmen said.

The U.N. Climate Panel says rising greenhouse gas concentrations are stoking warming likely to cause floods, droughts, heatwaves, rising seas and extinctions.

Latest data is from December because measuring equipment on Svalbard is being replaced.

"We can see the trend from these winter numbers," Holmen said. The numbers are higher than annual average year-round figures reported by groups such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 190 nations have agreed to negotiate a new international deal by the end of 2009 to fight climate change. It would succeed the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, which sets carbon dioxide limits for 37 industrialized nations.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

(For latest Reuters environment blogs click )


Climate change delaying gray whale vacations, scientists say

From: Santa Cruz Sentinel

Out in the deep waters of Monterey Bay, gray whales will be swimming home later this month after a brief winter vacation in Baja California.

Whale watchers and marine scientists say these whales have been delaying their southern sojourns and point to climate change as the culprit.

Rising sea temperatures have disrupted the animals' home habitat in the waters between Alaska and Russia, said Wayne Perryman, a researcher at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Because of these changes, the whales are spending more time in the north before they start their yearly swim south.

The scientists at the center have observed the whales for more than 20 years as they pass through Monterey Bay. Compared to two decades ago, Perryman said, the animals are reaching the bay a week later.

"This isn't trivial," Perryman said. "It's a significant change."

Richard Ternullo, a boat captain for Monterey Bay Whale Watch in Monterey, said the whales' yearly arrival in the bay fluctuates, but he has noticed on average it has drifted about 10 days later into the year.

"Last year, they were considerably late," Ternullo said. "But this year they seem to be on time."

Every year, gray whales undertake a 12,000-mile round-trip swim from the frigid Bering Sea to the warm waters off Baja California. Scientists don't fully understand what motivates this epic migration -- the longest for any mammal -- but believe the animals may leave their homes to avoid predators such as killer whales, which feed on gray whale calves.

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Study: Birds shifting north; global warming cited

This undated photo provided by courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows a purple finch. When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn't a canary at all: it's a purple finch. As the temperature across the U.S. has gotten warmer, the purple finch has been spending its winters more than 400 miles farther north than it used to.

WASHINGTON — When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn't a canary at all. It's a purple finch.

As the temperature across the U.S. has gotten warmer, the purple finch has been spending its winters more than 400 miles farther north than it used to.

And it's not alone.

A recent Audubon Society study found that more than half of 305 birds species in North America, a hodgepodge that includes robins, gulls, chickadees and owls, are spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago.

The purple finch was the biggest northward mover. Its wintering grounds are now more along the latitude of Milwaukee, Wis., instead of Springfield, Mo.

Bird ranges can expand and shift for many reasons, among them urban sprawl, deforestation and the supplemental diet provided by backyard feeders. But researchers say the only explanation for why so many birds over such a broad area are wintering in more northern locales is global warming.

Over the 40 years covered by the study, the average January temperature in the United States climbed by about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. That warming was most pronounced in northern states, which have already recorded an influx of more southern species and could see some northern species retreat into Canada as ranges shift.

"This is as close as science at this scale gets to proof," said Greg Butcher, the lead scientist on the study and the director of bird conservation at the Audubon Society. "It is not what each of these individual birds did. It is the wide diversity of birds that suggests it has something to do with temperature, rather than ecology."

The study provides compelling evidence for what many birders across the country have long recognized — that many birds are responding to climate change by shifting farther north.

Previous studies of breeding birds in Great Britain and the eastern U.S. have detected similar trends. But the Audubon study covers a broader area and includes many more species.

The study of migration habits from 1966 through 2005 found about one-fourth of the species have moved farther south. But the number moving northward — 177 species — is twice that.

The study "shows a very, very large fraction of the wintering birds are shifting" northward, said Terry Root, a biologist at Stanford University. "We don't know for a fact that it is warming. But when one keeps finding the same thing over and over ... we know it is not just a figment of our imagination."

The research is based on data collected during the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count in early winter. At that time of year, temperature is the primary driver for where birds go and whether they live or die. To survive the cold, birds need to eat enough during the day to have the energy needed to shiver throughout the night.

Milder winters mean the birds don't need to expend as much energy shivering, and can get by eating less food in the day.

General biology aside, the research can't explain why particular species are moving. That's because changes in temperature affect different birds in different ways.

Some birds will expand their range farther north. For example, the Carolina wren — the state bird of South Carolina — has turned into a Yankee, based on Audubon's calculations. It is now commonly seen in the winter well into New England, as well as its namesake state of South Carolina.

"Twenty years ago, I remember people driving hours to see the one Carolina wren in the state," said Jeff Wells, an ornithologist based in southern Maine. "Now, every year I get two or three just in my area," he said. "Obviously, things have changed."

Other species, such as the purple finch and boreal chickadee, spend their summers in the forests of Canada and fly south into the U.S. for the winter. Climate change could be playing a role in why they are not flying as far south as they used to, and are no longer as common as they were in states like Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin.

For other species, global warming may not be a major factor in the movements measured by Audubon at all. The wild turkey was second only to the purple finch in miles moved north — about 400. But it's likely due to efforts by hunters and state wildlife managers to boost its population.

In other cases, the range shifts are prompting calls to cull some bird populations.

The sandhill crane, a large gray bird that migrates to the southern U.S. for the winter, has a range that expanded about 40 miles north in the last 40 years. This small movement has likely contributed to the bird's population explosion in Tennessee. The sandhill population has grown to a point that state wildlife officials are considering allowing the bird to be hunted.

"You are seeing it all across the state," said Richard Connors, president of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. "As it increases, there is going to be pressure to hunt it. The bird watchers of Tennessee don't want that."


Audubon Society:

The Birdwatcher's Guide to Global Warming:


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