Australian heatwaves 'five times more likely due to global warming'
Human activities will account for at least half of extreme summer temperatures likely to hit Australia in the future, say scientists
Tim Radford for Climate News Network, part of the Guardian Environment Network
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 10.42 BST
Global warming has increased five-fold the probabilities that Australians will bake in record hot summers, according to new research from the University of Melbourne.
And human activities - including greenhouse gas releases from fossil fuels - must account for at least half of these extreme summer temperatures of the future, the scientists say.
Sophie Lewis and David Karoly report in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, that they used climate observations and more than 90 climate model simulations to deliver their verdict, and to highlight the unexpected nature of the events of the first months of 2013, the hottest in the country's observational record.
Australians are used to summer heat, drought and periodic bush fires as part of the continent's natural cycle, and these are often linked to a Pacific Ocean temperature phenomenon known as El Niño, dubbed "the Child" in Peru because it tends to occur around Christmas time.
But there was no El Niño: if anything, the ocean heat was turned down a little in a counter phenomenon called La Niña. So the extreme heat, catastrophic flooding and devastating bushfires early this year - the southern hemisphere summer - were certainly not expected.
"This extreme summer is not only remarkable for its record-breaking nature but also because it occurred at a time of a weak La Niña to neutral conditions, which generally produce cooler summers", said David Karoly. "Importantly our research shows the natural variability of El Niño-Southern Oscillation is unlikely to explain the recent record temperatures."
Sophie Lewis, who is also at the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, warned that such extreme summers will become even more frequent and more severe in the future, as the planet warms further.
Between December 2012 and February 2013, Australians experienced the hottest month in the nation's recorded history, and the hottest day. There were fierce and destructive bush fires in Tasmania and Victoria, and severe flooding in New South Wales and Queensland. The Australian media dubbed it "the angry summer".
"We cannot categorically ascribe the cause of a particular climate event to anthropogenic climate change; however, the roles of various factors contributing to the change in odds of an event occurring can be identified", the two scientists write.
They examined the historical record of more than 150 years of observation, and found, repeatedly, that extreme summers tended to occur in step with El Niño years: in fact were three times more likely to happen in an El Niño year than a La Niña season.
Clearly, something else was at work in the summer of 2013. Natural climatic variations were not likely to have caused the bush fires and the floods. It was possible to say, with more than 90% confidence, that human influences on the Australian atmosphere had dramatically increased the odds of extreme temperatures.
By the end of the century, other studies have shown, 65% of all summers are likely to be "extremely hot". There was also research that suggested longer summers - that is, shorter springs and autumns - might be expected as carbon dioxide levels continued to rise. In those parts of Australia that were both heavily populated, and at risk of bush fire, humans would have to adapt.
Bolivia's indigenous people join fight to save Gran Chaco wilderness
Second largest wilderness in South America threatened by farming, ranching and drugs trade
Dan Collyns in the Gran Chaco, Bolivia
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 July 2013 21.08 BST
Only from Cerro Colorado – a rocky outcrop that rears vertiginously over the treetops – is it possible to make out the vastness of the Gran Chaco as it stretches from this corner of Bolivia beyond the horizon into Paraguay. This enormous swath of dry forest and scrubland, where every plant or tree bears thorns, is South America's second largest wilderness after the Amazon rainforest.
The Gran Chaco is threatened on all sides: Mennonite cattle ranchers have bought up large tracts in Paraguay and Brazilian farmers looking for cheap land for their soy crops have flooded across the border.
The quarter of it that lies in Bolivia is the best preserved, but even its habitats have been disrupted by a gas pipeline and military operations against drug traffickers, whose camps have been spotted in the 34,000 sq km (13,000 sq miles) of Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco national park. Bigger than Belgium, it is Bolivia's largest national park.
Erika Cuéllar, a Bolivian conservation biologist with an Oxford doctorate, is training the indigenous people of this expanse of dry forest totalling 1m sq km how to work as field biologists, giving them the means to make a living – and a stake in the rich biodiversity of the continent's second biggest ecosystem.
Cuéllar's vision is to turn young people from the Chaco's three main indigenous groups – the Guaraní, Ayoreo and Chiquitano – into what she calls parabiologists. A parabiologist is akin to a paramedic, who can save lives but does not have the years of training of a medical doctor, she explained.
"These people are a part of the natural environment; they belong to this land. If they are not involved, I don't see how we can achieve the long-term conservation of the biodiversity of this area," she said, as she led a dozen trainees from Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina on a dawn survey of animal tracks.
Few people are adapted to the Chaco's 45C (113F) summer temperatures, freezing nights in the winter, lack of water and biting insects. Yet despite its aridity, the Chaco is home to more than 3,400 plant species, 500 species of birds and 150 mammal species including jaguars, pumas, peccaries, giant anteaters and even eight different types of armadillo ranging in size from 300g to 30kg.
"[The indigenous inhabitants] are the best people to tell you what is going on in the Chaco. I want to give them the option to stay in the area they know," said Cuéllar, who is half-Guaraní.
She explained that many were forced to take work on sugar plantations earning as little as 16 bolivianos (£1.50) for a tonne of cut and cleaned cane.
Communities in the Chaco nominate participants for the 400-hour course of modules from basic biology to mathematics. The students earn a formal certificate for learning how to use GPS, design research projects, collect data and present results.
"The idea of empowering and involving local people in conservation attracted attention," said Cuéllar, who in 2012 was awarded 100,000 Swiss francs (£69,000) under the Rolex award for enterprise. In 2001, she was successful in pushing through a ban on hunting guanacos, the wild ancestor of the llama, of which about 200 survive in the Chaco.
Cuéllar believes the parabiologist model can work in other Latin American countries with areas of rich biodiversity and indigenous populations. She is a familiar face in the Guaraní villages near the Kaa-Iya national park, where the nasal, sing-song tones of the native tongue predominate over Spanish.
One of the motives for protecting the huge area was evidence of uncontacted indigenous Ayoreo families living in the heart of the Chaco. It is the only place in South America outside the Amazon where uncontacted indigenous people still live.
"As an indigenous Guaraní, being a parabiologist has helped me to protect my community," said Jorge Segundo, 40, a village leader and the most experienced of Cuéllar's 17 parabiologists.
Segundo's monthly wage of 3,500 bolivianos – handsome by local standards – has given him a stake in the Chaco's biodiversity, which supports a string of communities that hunt sustainably.
But despite her string of international awards, Cuéllar said conservation was not a priority for the government of President Evo Morales, which had shown no interest in supporting her efforts. "I can work for my entire life trying to protect the Chaco but only someone with political power can really protect this land," she said.
China's reliance on coal reduces life expectancy by 5.5 years, says study
High levels of air pollution will cause 500 million people to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years from their lives
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
The Guardian, Tuesday 9 July 2013
Air pollution causes people in northern China to live an average of 5.5 years shorter than their southern counterparts, according to a study released on Monday which claims to show in unprecedented detail the link between air pollution and life expectancy.
High levels of air pollution in northern China – much of it caused by an over-reliance on burning coal for heat – will cause 500 million people to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years from their lives, the authors predict in the study, published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The geographic disparity can be traced back to China's Huai River policy which, since it was implemented between 1950 and 1980, has granted free wintertime heating to people living north of the Huai river, a widely-acknowledged dividing line between northern and southern China. Much of that heating comes from the combustion of coal, significantly impacting the region's air quality.
"Using data covering an unusually long timespan – from 1981 through 2000 – the researchers found that air pollution … was about 55% higher north of the river than south of it," the MIT Energy Initiative said in a statement.
"Linking the Chinese pollution data to mortality statistics from 1991 to 2000, the researchers found a sharp difference in mortality rates on either side of the border formed by the Huai River. They also found the variation to be attributable to cardiorespiratory illness, and not to other causes of death."
The researchers, based in Israel, Beijing, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gauged the region's air quality according to the established metric of "total suspended particulates (TSP)," representing the concentration of certain airborne particles per cubic meter of air.
The study concluded that long-term exposure to air containing 100 micrograms of TSP per cubic meter "is associated with a reduction in life expectancy at birth of about 3.0 years."
Air pollution has been the subject of widespread public outrage in China since January, when Beijing's air quality index (AQI) – a similar metric to TSP – regularly exceeded 500, the scale's maximum reading, for weeks on end. On 12 January, Beijing's AQI hit a record 755, 30 times higher than levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation.
Past studies have established a link between air pollution and reduced life expectancy. One recent large-scale study concluded that air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010.
Yet according to Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at MIT and one of the study's authors, this study is the first to precisely quantify their relationship. "Demonstrating that people die a bit earlier [because of pollution] is interesting and helps establish that pollution is bad," he said. "But the most important question, the next question that needed to be answered, is what's the loss of life expectancy? How much should society be willing to pay to avoid high levels of pollution? This study was structured so we could answer that question."
China's central authorities are keenly aware that environmental degradation has become one of the country's leading causes of social unrest. Last month, China's cabinet revealed 10 new measures intended to combat air pollution, and state media reported that Chinese courts can now impose the death penalty on serious polluters.
Scientists: Earthworm poop contains detailed climate record
By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, July 8, 2013 13:42 EDT
Scientists announced a new discovery about earthworms this week, saying the tiny calcite granules found in their excrement actually contain a detailed record of Earth’s climate history.
In a study published Monday in the journal Geochimica et Cosmchimica Acta, researchers from the University of Reading and the University of York explained that the chalky lumps of calcium carbonate appear to be uniquely marked by whatever temperatures they encountered in the surrounding environment at the time the worm pooped them out.
“There are many conflicting theories about why earthworms produce calcite granules, but until now, the small lumps of chalk-like material found in earthworm poop have been seen as little more than a biological curiosity,” University of York’s Professor Mark Hodson said in an advisory. “However, our research shows they may well have an important role to play, offering a window into past climates.”
This window into past climates is especially helpful to scientists who study climatic patterns, particularly as they relate to global warming. There is no longer a debate in the scientific community as to whether the planet’s annual average temperature is warming due to human activity, but because man-made recordings of the temperature only go back about 150 years there remains some discussion as to whether this warming is without precedent.
Today, scientists rely heavily upon the climate records stored deep within polar ice, drilling out core samples from deep ice to find ancient, untouched stores of trapped atmospheric gasses. That’s how scientists know that the Antarctic’s summer ice is thawing this year at a rate that’s 10 times faster than at any point in history, among other discoveries this innovation has led to.
Tree rings have also been used by scientists to help track climate changes from year to year. The U.S. government’s National Climatic Data Center even runs a program called the International Tree-Ring Data Bank. “In mid- to upper latitudes, or areas where there is seasonality in temperature and/or precipitation, many species of trees form annual growth rings,” the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona explains. “Because the same set of environmental factors influence tree growth throughout a region, the patterns of ring characteristics, such as ring widths, are often common from tree to tree.”
This latest discovery in earthworm poop, of all places, is likely to bring Earth’s past climate into even sharper focus than the portrait painted by ice cores and tree rings. Scientists said that’s due to the geographic specificity of the calcite granules being able to record the climate at the time and place they were created. Added, it’s simply a fact that earthworms poop all year long, so there’s plenty of these little climate records lurking in the soil below.
“We believe this new method of delving into past climates has distinct advantages over other biological proxies,” University of Reading Professor Stuart Black said in an advisory. “For example, we believe it will work for the full seasonal range of temperatures, whereas methods such as tree rings, do not ‘record’ during winter. In addition, because the chalk balls are found in direct context with archaeological finds, they will reveal temperatures at the same location. At present, links are often attempted with climate proxies many hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Strength and frequency of tropical cyclones could increase dramatically: study
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, July 8, 2013 19:10 EDT
The world typically sees about 90 tropical cyclones a year, but that number could increase dramatically in the next century due to global warming, a US scientist said Monday.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions could lead to a 10 to 40 percent increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones by the year 2100, said prominent climate scientist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Those storms could be up to 45 percent more intense, making landfall 55 percent stronger — a “substantial” increase, said the research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Stronger storm surges, winds and rain would likely be felt most acutely in the southern Indian Ocean, North Pacific and North Atlantic Ocean, and could raise risks of damage in coastal areas, he said.
Satellite data has shown that cyclones — which are rotating systems of clouds and thunderstorms — have remained relatively consistent in frequency and power over the past 40 years.
But he projected a steady uptick in the future using six different climate models combined with forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which predicts carbon dioxide emissions will about triple by 2100.
Tropical cyclones can bring heavy rains and winds, and vary in potency from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane.
The Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico typically see about six hurricanes and 11 tropical storms per year, while the Pacific Ocean gets about 10 hurricanes and 19 tropical storms, according to US government ocean monitors.
Cyclones form in areas where there is warm deep water and cool humid air. Wind over the water pushes thermal heat upward, causing the warming air to circle and get stronger.
The Christian Science Monitor
How spiders use an electrical charge to trap insects
By Elizabeth Barber, Contributor / July 8, 2013 at 6:43 pm EDT
The spider web - already one of nature’s greatest marvels for its strategic architectural design and the adhesive strands - has now been found to have another advantage: a negative electrical charge, which can snap up positively charged insects in a quite literally fatal attraction.
In an experiment conducted in a lab environment isolated from electrical fields, UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Victor Manuel Ortega-Jimenez, who usually works with hummingbirds and moths, and his colleague Robert Dudley gave a variety of newly-dead insects, including bumblebees and fruit flies, a positive-electrical charge in imitation of the charge that those insects would accumulate in life. Insects normally build up an electrical charge when they fly, much as do socked feet shuffling across a carpet, while the spider web has either a positive or neutral charge.
Dropping the insects down into spider webs collected from the European garden spider Araneus diadematus, the scientists found that individual web filaments flexed as much as 2 millimeters toward the charged insects, moving quickly and fatally at an average speed of about 2 meters per second to grab the meat into the web as it fell. The web did not flex at all toward un-charged insects dropped into the web.
“The spider web is really interesting because it's so thin and flexible," said Ortega-Jimenez, who had planned the experiment after noticing that spider webs bent toward his then four-year-old daughter's magic wand toy, which can be used to levitate oppositely charged objects. "The web is attracted to the insect, so that can increase the spider's capture rate."
Cruelly, the charge that draws insects into a spider’s web is also the property on which their survival hinges. Honeybees require an electrical charge to locate flower fields, identify which flowers have already played host to another bee, and ferry nectar on their bodies from the flower to the hive.
The scientists plan to corroborate the results, published in Science, in the wild, observing how the webs respond to live insects, said Ortega-Jimenez.
Great Barrier Reef's condition declined from moderate to poor in 2011
Series of reports blames extreme weather conditions and high rainfall for reef's poor health
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 10 July 2013 09.02 BST
An alarming set of reports on the condition of the Great Barrier Reef published on Wednesday say its overall condition in 2011 declined from moderate to poor, and highlights that reef-wide coral cover has declined by 50% since 1985.
The series of reports blame part of the reef's poor health in 2011 on extreme weather conditions including tropical cyclone Yasi, and high rainfall which resulted in "higher than average discharge" from a number of river catchments runoffs.
The Great Barrier Reef report card of 2011 said: "These extreme weather events significantly impacted the overall condition of the marine environment which declined from moderate to poor overall in 2010–2011."
The report card also examines the water quality of the region, and showed that the majority of land managers within the Great Barrier Reef region had failed to reach their reef plan targets, aimed at reducing sediment and pesticide loads which are harmful to water quality.
"Thirty four per cent of sugarcane growers, 17% of graziers and 25% of horticulture producers adopted improved management practices by June 2011," the report said.
These reef plan targets are described as "ambitious" and include targets to halve nutrient and pesticide loads by 2013 and to reduce sediment by 20% by 2020. Despite this, the report observes "major positive change" in land management within the region.
The 2013 scientific consensus statement, released at the same time as the report card, concluded that coral cover of inshore reefs had declined by 34% since 2005.
The new environment minister Mark Butler said: "In spite of solid improvement, data tells us that poor water quality is continuing to have a detrimental effect on reef health.
"To secure the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef it is critical that we build on the momentum of the previous reef plan with a focus on improving water quality and land management practices through ambitious but achievable targets."
The federal and Queensland state environment ministers announced that they would invest a total of $375 million between 2013 and 2018 under a new Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, designed "to guide initiatives to ensure that runoff from agriculture has no detrimental impact on the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef".
The Queensland minister for environment, Andrew Powell, praised those landholders in the region who were improving their practise. "We are working closely with industry, landholders, natural resource management bodies and community groups to accelerate the uptake of practices that maximise reef water quality while maintaining and enhancing profitability and environmental performance," he said.
But Greenpeace spokeswoman Georgina Woods was critical of the bi-annual meeting between the two ministers. She said neither minister had engaged with the key issue of coal export and mining within the region, particularly at a controversial new dredging proposal at the Abbot Point coal terminal.
"One day after the new environment and climate change minister deferred a crucial decision on the future of Abbot Point, the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum has failed to tackle the problems that every Australian knows are eating away at the Great Barrier Reef: global warming and ocean acidification. Hopefully, today's missed opportunity is just a dress rehearsal for the main event in August, when the new minister will be called upon to choose between safeguarding the Great Barrier Reef and letting the coal industry dredge, dump and develop Abbot Point.
"It is pretty clear that the Queensland government is not going to stand up to the coal industry and protect the reef in the interests of the broader community and future generations. Mark Butler now has 30 days to make a decision about Abbot Point. To safeguard the Reef and fulfill his climate change brief, he has no choice: he must say 'no' to the coal industry," Woods added.
Greenpeace activists try to climb London’s Shard skyscraper to protest Shell’s Arctic oil drilling
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, July 11, 2013 4:30 EDT
Six female Greenpeace activists were attempting on Thursday to scale the Shard skyscraper in London, western Europe’s tallest building, in a protest over Arctic oil drilling, the environmental group and police said.
The protesters evaded security guards just before dawn to begin the unauthorised bid to climb the 72-storey glass-fronted building, which towers 301 metres (1,017 feet) over the British capital.
Greenpeace said the six “artists and activists” had targeted the Shard to highlight the work of Shell and other oil companies and intended to hang an artwork from the top if they managed to reach it.
“They chose to climb the Shard because it towers over Shell’s three London offices,” it said in a statement.
“Shell is leading the oil companies’ drive into the Arctic, investing billions in its Alaskan and Russian drilling programmes.”
Greenpeace said they were “free climbing” without assistance but would attach safety ropes as they progressed, while a live video feed of the climb was being broadcast online.
The group named the climbers as “Sabine, Sandra, Victo, Ali, Wiola and Liesbeth” and posted a photo of them before the climb.
It quoted climber Victoria Henry, a Canadian woman living in London as saying before the climb: “It’s going to be really hard work, it’s going to be nerve-shredding for all of us and we may not succeed, but we’re going to do everything we can to pull it off.”
A spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police said, “We were called at twenty past four this morning. We have six protesters attempting to scale the outside of the Shard.
“We have officers down there, monitoring the situation. The event is still ongoing.”
A Shard spokesman said they were working to ensure the safety of the climbers as well as that of workers and visitors to the centre.
The Shard opened to the public in February and contains office space, a five-star hotel, restaurants and luxury apartments.
It was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and financed by the Qatari government.
Oil giant Shell has been involved in oil extraction in Alaska since the 1950s, and said in 2012 it had completed top-hole drilling for two wells in the Arctic, the first drilling in the region in more than a decade.
But in February it put its controversial oil drilling plans for the Alaskan Arctic on hold through 2013, following problems with its two drilling rigs there.
Pig Putin's Russia.....
Russia and Ukraine likely to block huge Antarctic marine reserve
Conservation body meets to discuss protection of area 13 times the size of the UK, which would require unanimous agreement
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 11 July 2013 13.00 BST
Russia and Ukraine look likely to block a plan to create two huge marine reserves off the coast of Antarctica that combined would be bigger than the area of all the world's protected oceans put together.
The 25-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) meets in Bremerhaven, Germany, on Thursday to discuss the proposal to create the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Ross Sea, off the east coast of Antarctica. A decision, expected on Tuesday, would require unanimous agreement.
The proposal, backed by the US, New Zealand, Australia, France and the EU, would designate an area 13 times the size of the UK as one in which natural resource exploitation, including fishing, would be illegal. Advocates say the MPAs would provide environmental security to a region that remains relatively pristine.
Publicly, delegates and environmental NGOs have expressed optimism that the meeting will be a success. But a senior source at the meeting said the attitudes of Russia and Ukraine as they entered were looking negative.
The debate highlighted a rift between "pro-[fish]harvesting countries" and those who style themselves proponents of conservation, such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and the EU, according to Alan Hemmings, a specialist in Antarctic governance at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.He said: "You would put Russia and the Ukraine near the top of the states that are likely to be concerned about marine protected areas in the Antarctic on a large scale, along with China, Japan and, on and off, South Korea."
"There's a tug of war between those who want to establish conservation management and those who want to keep working with smaller-scale fisheries management," said Steve Campbell, campaign director at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance. But he expressed "quiet optimism" that the proposals would be passed, if not at the meeting in Germany, then at the next annual meeting in Hobart, Australia later in the year.
The US and NGOs have been lobbying countries who expressed reservations at the last CCAMLR meeting. NGOs and delegates reported that China, South Korea and Japan looked likely to support the proposals.
Many countries have valuable fisheries in the region, particularly for patagonian toothfish and krill. Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Southern Ocean sanctuaries, said defining the boundaries of the reserves to balance ecology and economic interests would represent a challenge to negotiations.
Additionally, a sunset clause for the reserves, proposed by Norway and supported by Russia and Japan, would mean the protected status of East Antarctic and Ross Sea reserves would have to be renewed in 2064 and 2043 respectively. Campbell said reserves with time limits were highly unusual.
"Precedent tells you that if you set up a protected area, you set it up for an indefinite period of time. If you set up a national park in a country, you designate it in perpetuity." He said the potential for fishing and other resources in the future was driving the push.
"It's not just about what's there now, it's also about what could be a future economic interest or a future interest in the region," said Campbell.
The extraordinary session in Bremerhaven was arranged after the last annual meeting of CCAMLR in November, 2011 failed to reach a consensus on the MPAs. At the time Russia, China and Ukraine expressed concerns at a lack of available science in favour of the reserves. The decision was taken to reconvene this summer with the agenda solely focused on the proposals.
Green groups expressed dismay at last year's inaction. They were joined by delegates from the USA, UK, EU and Australia who feared that CCAMLR had lost its proactive attitude to conservation.
At the end of the 2011 meeting, the Ukraine delegation said well-grounded scientific arguments were lacking. They said MPAs were only one approach to managing an ecosystem and that "only fishing, at least at some level, can guarantee that research is conducted" to monitor fish stocks.
"Russia was of the view that previous scientific committee advice was related to only some aspects of MPAs and that all available information needed to be considered," said the Russian delegation.
Russian and Ukraine declined to comment further on this week's meeting.
Britain Pursuing ‘Worst Of All Worlds’ Offshore Wind Strategy
Joshua S Hill
The UK’s leading progressive think-tank IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research) has labelled the UK’s offshore wind strategy the ‘worst of all worlds’ in a new report published on Tuesday.
‘Pump up the Volume: Bringing down costs and increasing jobs in the offshore wind sector’ was published on Tuesday and authored by Clare McNeil, Mark Rowney, and Will Straw of IPPR, who note that “offshore wind power offers enormous potential, both domestically and as an export sector.” north sea offshore wind farm
The report says that the UK government is not only not making use of the ideal building conditions for offshore wind — large areas located near to shore with shallow waters ideal for the construction of wind turbines – but has actively backtracked on ambition to secure 18 GW of offshore wind by 2020. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) stated in the 2011 UK Renewable Energy Roadmap that “up to 18 GW of offshore wind could be deployed by 2020 … with over 40 GW possible by 2030.’ Impressive talk, sadly let down almost immediately with estimates revised down in June 2011 to just 8 to 16 GW possible by 2020, and again in October of 2012 to a measly 11.5 GW by 2020 and 16 GW by 2030.
While there are obvious benefits for the environment that derive from the growth of offshore wind as a viable renewable technology, there are more benefits which are being overlooked by hamstringing the offshore wind industry. According to the IPPR report there are 15,000 additional jobs in the offing at a level of 18 GW. In fact, IPPR have determined that the number of jobs per MW increases with scale.
“The UK’s current policy trajectory could see it achieving a ‘worst of all worlds’ outcome: low volume, low jobs, and high costs,” said Will Straw, Associate Director at IPPR and third author of the report. “This would fail our climate challenge, our jobs challenge, and our rebalancing challenge. Unless Britain ‘pumps up the volume’ there is little prospect of either bringing down the costs of offshore wind or creating domestic jobs.”
“An alternative pathway is possible, if the government can bring together an industrial strategy for the sector predicated on a combination of ‘carrots and sticks’. The industry should be given the long-term clarity that it needs, and which has been provided in other countries. A 2030 target for the carbon intensity or share of renewables in the power sector is a necessary condition as are long-term 20 year contracts. But developers must be expected to drive down costs with a subsidy regime that reduces the strike price over time. Developers and suppliers should do more to provide apprenticeships and sponsor university and FE courses.”
In fact, the authors outline three opportunities for offshore wind to fulfil, in addition to the obvious help it provides in meeting carbon reduction targets:
to create a large number of new jobs, in the manufacturing, construction, and maintenance
to assist with the rebalancing of the economy, both spatially (creating growth in the northern regions) and in terms of balance of trade
to take advantage of Britain’s natural advantages, as a windy island in shallow waters.
There are, however, two significant challenges:
First, offshore wind is currently more expensive than other low-carbon technologies such as onshore wind and nuclear.
Second, British workers only produce around a third of the components in the supply chain, reducing significantly the ‘local value’ of the sector. Crucially, there are no turbine manufacturers in the UK, and turbines make up around 50 per cent of the capital costs of a new wind farm.
Subsequently, the report argues for a three-point strategy to build a strong domestic offshore wind supply chain:
The UK government needs to attract at least two turbine manufacturers, preferably more. While failure to do so would not be fatal to the prospect of a strong domestic supply chain, success would be a major boost, as these companies are able to attract a cluster of other companies further down the supply chain (as is the case in Denmark).
The UK government must continue to support and build upon its existing strengths in the supply chain, as the UK also has expertise and manufacturing capability in both the onshore wind and the North Sea oil and gas industry which can be built upon.
The UK government should support export opportunities for British firms as they build up their expertise in the supply chain and related services. A new EU renewables target would help create export markets to 2030.
Britain need not be striding out alone, if they are to take IPPR’s advice. As Will Straw notes:
“Denmark is an “early adopter” which enjoys a strong manufacturing base in offshore wind, having supported the wind industry since the late 1970s – ironically, using British technology. Germany, already Europe’s leading market for onshore wind, has thrown its full political weight behind the offshore wind industry as a means of plugging the gap left by its decision to abandon nuclear energy. France has grabbed the economic opportunity this new industry presents to create domestic jobs, long before the foundations for a single offshore turbine have been laid.”
U.S. and China agree to expand efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 20:31 EDT
America and China agreed on Wednesday to work together to develop cleaner trucks, expanding joint efforts against climate change by the two greatest emitters and raising prospects for a global climate deal..
The new initiatives announced in Washington on Wednesday would see China and America extend their climate co-operation to five new areas – beginning with heavy trucks, which are a significant cause of greenhouse gas emissions in both countries.
The Secretary of State, John Kerry, speaking before the announcement, said such co-operation would resonate far beyond the two countries, boosting prospects for a global climate agreement.
America and China between them account for more than 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, but signs of co-operation between the two big emitters could help unlock a global deal to cut emissions, Kerry suggested earlier on Wednesday.
“I want to underscore that when we make a decision … it ripples beyond our borders,” Kerry said. “How will we curb climate change? How will we pioneer new energy technology that is in fact the solution to climate change?” Kerry said in his opening remarks at the fifth annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
A State Department fact sheet on the new initiatives underlined Kerry’s point, noting that the two countries pledged to work together to advance the United Nations efforts to reach an international climate accord.
“Recognising the importance of working through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United States and China are committed to enhancing our policy dialogue on all aspects of the future agreement,” the fact sheet said.
That spirit of co-operation represents a drastic change from the calamitous Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, when diplomatic snubs and general distrust between the two countries wrecked any prospect for a deal.
The State Department climate envoy, Todd Stern, told reporters he thought the initiative would help efforts to reach a deal by 2015.
Under the initiatives announced on Wednesday, the two countries agreed to work together to reduce emissions from heavy duty trucks and other vehicles by raising fuel efficiency standards and introducing cleaner fuels.
The State Department notes in its fact sheet that emissions from transport account for a significant share of China’s notorious air pollution. ,
The countries also agreed to work together to develop carbon capture technologies, increase energy efficiency in buildings, promote smarter grids and improve reporting of greenhouse gas emissions. The working groups for each initiative are to report back in October, the State Department said.
The announcement marks the second agreement on climate co-operation between America an China in a month following the agreement in California between Barack Obama and China’s premier Xi Jinping to work together to reduce the production of especially powerful climate pollutants – hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs are used in air conditioners and refrigerators and are far more potent than carbon dioxide in the short-term.
That deal – followed one week later by Obama’s announcement of a sweeping climate change plan – appeared to have eased the way for further co-operation between America and China, said Deborah Seligsohn, who has advised the World Resources Institute on China’s climate and energy policies.
Obama’s plan would bypass Congress to use government agencies to cut emissions from power plants and take other climate measures.
Seligsohn said the move could prod China towards more ambitious curbs on its own greenhouse gas emissions at future negotiating rounds.
“There is a little bit of new wind in everybody’s sails right now,” she said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Australia's chief scientist sounds antibiotic resistance warning
Report says there is 'a genuine threat of humanity returning to an era where mortality due to common infections is rife'
guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 July 2013 08.35 BST
The growth of antibiotic-resistant infections represents a "looming public health issue" for Australia that requires "urgent" new funding to prevent deaths from minor ailments such as sore throats and cut knees, the country's top scientist has warned.
A report by the Office of the Chief Scientist (pdf) states there is "a genuine threat of humanity returning to an era where mortality due to common infections is rife".
The paper blames the "misuse and overuse" of antibiotics, such as for animal husbandry, for driving up resistance levels in humans.
"Some bacteria are now so resistant that they are virtually untreatable with any of the currently available drugs," the report says.
"If we do not take action to address this threat, humankind will be on the brink of a 'post-antibiotics era', where untreatable and fatal infections become increasingly common.
"In Australia, the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant infections appearing in the community and acquired during international travel represents a looming public health issue."
The report points to a "collapse" in research and development into new antibiotics as an area of significant concern.
"Only one antibiotic that works in a novel way has been discovered and developed for use in humans in the last 50 years," the study says.
"Most companies have now either abandoned the field or are in the process of reducing their commitment. Whilst some cancer medicines are sold for $20,000 a course, we still expect to pay $20 for a course of antibiotics."
Most of the antibiotics currently used in Australia are derived from microbes, such as fungi, viruses and bacteria. While scientists have long anticipated bacteria to evolve resistance, the report points out that this process is accelerating, aided by misuse in animals and the liberal prescription for viral infections in people.
The outcome of this, the chief scientist warns, is a scenario where illnesses such as strep throat infections or minor cuts could prove fatal.
"Antibiotic resistance has the potential to become one of the world's biggest public health challenges, requiring a serious response from our scientists, our industries and the community at large," says professor Ian Chubb, Australia's chief scientist.
Michael Moore, the chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia, told Guardian Australia it was "brilliant" that the chief scientist had identified antibiotic resistance as a problem.
"There have been warnings from scientists and those in the health fraternity for a number of years, so to have the gravitas of the chief scientist behind this should be a wake-up call for Australia," he says.
"We are already seeing people with antibiotic resistance dying in Australia. Because there is so little R&D in the pipeline, it's likely to get worse before it gets better.
"We are a developed country with good nutrition, immunisation and clean water, so there are other factors to our public health. But we have got into a habit of not worrying about infections because of antibiotics.
"We need clear restrictions on last-line antibiotics so that they aren't used on animals. We also need to look at how often they are prescribed for humans. There needs to be pressure put on pharmaceutical companies for greater R&D, but the government has a role to control when and where antibiotics are used."
07/11/2013 06:12 PM
Monsters of the Deep: Jellyfish Threaten the World's Seas
By Samiha Shafy
Jellyfish infestations along beaches worldwide are troubling tourists and scientists alike. It is a creature that thrives on over-fishing and pollution. But how dangerous is it for the ecosystem?
When oceanographer Josep Maria Gili steps onto the terrace from his office, he sees the crowds of people on the beaches of Barcelona at his feet. To the left lies the Port Olímpic, together with a sculpture that Frank Gehry had built there for the 1992 Summer Olympics: a giant fish made of steel, shimmering in the sunshine and gazing majestically out into the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, it seems evident today that the renowned architect picked the wrong animal. The fish, with its gills and fins, is no longer suited as a trademark of Barcelona. Nowadays fewer and fewer fish swim beneath the glittering blue surface off the coast of Catalonia; instead, these waters are now more frequently filled with massive quantities of jellyfish.
The marine creatures -- blind and lacking both a heart and a brain, driven by waves and currents -- billow toward the coast, many with poisonous tentacles in tow, not just in Catalonia in northeastern Spain, but virtually everywhere in the world. It has become painfully clear to anyone who has had the bad luck of getting in the way of a poisonous jellyfish that this creature is the new queen of the seas. Such encounters sometimes end fatally -- for the human being, that is.
The 'Jellification of the Seas'
Oceanographer Gili's interest in jellyfish began at about the same time Gehry created his giant fish. It was an exotic discipline, even for a biologist from the Institut de Ciències del Mar. What no one could have known at the time is that today, more than 20 years later, the jellyfish has become the main topic at international conferences. Entire books are written about the supposed "jellification of the seas," and scientists argue over whether jellyfish are displacing fish and other ocean creatures, whether they are assuming control over entire ecosystems and whether we will have to eat them in the future to keep them in check, as the Chinese have done for centuries.
The fact that human beings and jellyfish tangle with one another more frequently than in the past is unpleasant for both sides. It also costs many millions each year, although the exact costs are difficult to estimate. For instance, jellyfish often cause power outages and equipment damage when they enter the cooling water systems of power plants and desalination plants.
Jellyfish are also harmful to fishery. They ruin nets and cause chemical burns on the hands of fishermen. If a jellyfish bloom collides with the nets that separate fish farms from the open water, the creatures' toxins can sometimes kill all of the animals in the enclosures.
And then there is the problem oceanographer Josep Maria Gili can see from his terrace: Jellyfish on the beach, coinciding with the vacation season, are a debacle for tourism. These days it is the reddish, glow-in-the-dark jellyfish Pelagia noctiluca, or mauve stinger, that lurks in the waters off Barcelona. In recent days, Red Cross paramedics have had to treat at least 400 swimmers a day for jellyfish injuries. A yellow warning flag is posted on the beach below, and a voice blaring from loudspeakers warns bathers in Spanish, French and English to be careful around jellyfish.
More and More Jellyfish Blooms
"We are used to jellyfish in the Mediterranean," says Gili, 60, a short, gray-haired man. "But what we have observed here in the last few years is no longer normal." Pelagia noctiluca, for example, doesn't swim from the open sea toward the coast of its own volition. Instead, it is driven by waves and currents, dying where it goes aground. In the Mediterranean, this fate has typically befallen mauve stingers about once every 10 to 15 years. But now the blooms have been happening with much greater frequency, with similar incidents occurring in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The European Union has also begun to show concern over the frequent jellyfish invasions, which present an additional burden on the already ailing economies of its southern member states. That's why the EU is now funding an international research project that will gather data on the spread of jellyfish in the Mediterranean region for the first time, as well as develop a coastal management strategy. The scientists involved in the project plan to test such strategies as protective nets along beaches and a smartphone app that would enable beachgoers to report jellyfish sightings.
The impetus from Brussels was overdue. Scientists still know little about jellyfish, because the animals are difficult to study. They appear suddenly and unpredictably, as if out of nowhere but in large numbers. But for scientists hoping to collect the creatures and study them in laboratories, jellyfish are difficult to keep alive. Breeding jellyfish in an aquarium is also a complicated undertaking. These obstacles help to explain why there is only a small community of jellyfish experts worldwide.
Gili no longer knows exactly why he decided, years ago, to study jellyfish. Perhaps he found them interesting because he grew up with them, on the island of Mallorca. "When I was young, my father used to rub olive oil on my body before I went swimming, to protect me from jellyfish injuries," he recalls with a smile. "Olive oil is the best protection. A lot of sunscreen also helps."
He and his colleague Verónica Fuentes, 35, are in charge of implementing the EU project in Spain. The most important thing, says Gili, is to educate people. "We tell the tourists that they should come to our country because the Mediterranean is fantastic," he says, "but we also have to let them know that the sea is not a swimming pool. You can enjoy the sun and the warm water here, and sometimes there happen to be jellyfish in the water. You have to be prepared for that."
A Global Problem
It isn't just a problem in the Mediterranean, but worldwide. Especially in late summer, swimmers in the North and Baltic Seas often encounter lion's mane jellyfish, which are known as "fire jellyfish," and for good reason. Their stringy stinging tentacles are often the color of flames. Far more common in the region are blooms of milky-blue moon jellyfish, which, like the majority of jellyfish species, do not inflict pain on human beings.
Compass and crystal jellyfish now dominate the coastal waters of Namibia, where sardines were once abundant. And since the mid-1990s, fishermen in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea have complained that their nets are being filled with more and more jellyfish and fewer and fewer fish.
A species prevalent in Japanese waters could provide the material for a horror film: the giant Nemopilema nomurai, or Nomura's jellyfish, with a bell diameter of up to two meters (6 feet, 6 inches). In the last century, there were only three population blooms of the species, in 1920, 1958 and 1995. But Japanese scientists report that the Nomura's jellyfish has invaded Asian waters almost every year since 2002, with only two light years in the interim: 2004 and 2010. The species is so heavy that large numbers caught in nets can capsize fishing vessels.
What does all of this signify? Why are the seas becoming jellified?
Gili wrinkles his brow. "The jellyfish are a message in a bottle that the sea is depositing on our beaches," he says. The ocean's message to mankind, he adds, is simple: "You are destroying me."
A Changing Ecosystem
He allows his words to sink in for a moment before returning to the facts. The biggest problem, Gili explains, is overfishing. It's simple mathematics, he says: "If you reduce the number of fish that eat jellyfish, as well as the number of fish that compete with jellyfish for food, naturally the number of jellyfish is going to increase as a result."
Jellyfish are normally an important component of marine ecosystems. It is known that 124 fish and 34 other animal species, such as turtles, consume jellyfish. Jellyfish, in turn, primarily eat zooplankton, or smaller organisms, as well as fish eggs, fish larvae and smaller fish.
But when the oceans are overfished, as is now the case almost everywhere in the world, self-reinforcing, fatal mechanisms can occur: Jellyfish compete with fewer fish for zooplankton, which means they eat more and multiply. At the same time, they exert even more pressure on fish populations by eating their young. As a result, jellyfish begin to prevail over collapsing fish populations.
Jellyfish are relatively simple organisms. Their bodies are about 98 percent water, with the remainder consisting of gelatinous tissue, sex organs, a gastrovascular cavity, a primitive nervous system and venom capsules which, when irritated, can eject venom projectiles with the momentum of bullets. There are roughly 1,500 known species of jellyfish, some as tiny as a grain of sand and others as heavy as a wildebeest.
As fragile as the individual animals may seem, jellyfish are incredibly tenacious masterpieces of evolution. For about the last 600 million years, they have survived dramatic changes in the oceans -- the development of fish, their biggest enemies and competitors for food, massive heat waves, ice ages, the emergence and disappearance of oceans and meteorite impacts -- without changing significantly.
They are also more resistant to manmade environmental degradation than most other marine organisms. They are more capable of coping with pollution, algae blooms, murky water and oxygen depletion than fish. Overdeveloped shorelines and structures in the open ocean even serve as nurseries of a sort to jellyfish. The surfaces provide more habitat to the young animals, which attach themselves to fixed structures as polyps. Studies have shown that jellyfish infestations often occur in places where human beings use and pollute the sea with particular intensity.
Shipping also promotes the triumph of the jellyfish. When they are transported into new bodies of water in the ballast water of ships, they often settle successfully and displace local species. They are not picky eaters, consuming whatever enters their mouth opening. And if they can't find sufficient food, they simply shrink their bodies temporarily.
What is more, jellyfish apparently benefit from climate change. Many species grow more quickly at higher temperatures. And tropical species like the sea wasp, whose venom can kill people within two minutes, are spreading in subtropical waters.
Does this mean that jellyfish are the beneficiaries of man's over-exploitation of the environment? A toxic reminder that, in the end, everything has its price?
Convincing the Skeptics
Jellyfish researcher Gili says that he isn't worried about tourism in his country, because there are currently no deadly jellyfish in the Mediterranean, unlike Australia and Asia. But the biologist does find it troubling that jellyfish are changing the ecological balance. What can be done about it? Can we put an end to overfishing of the oceans? Pollution of the environment? Climate change? Gili's colleague Verónica Fuentes is beginning to have success convincing Catalan fishermen of the importance of her research project. It's no small task. What fisherman wants to be told not to fish as much, for the sake of the environment?
Fuentes has invited Mario Vizcarro, the fishermen's attorney and secretary of Catalonia's official federation of fishermen, to the institute. Vizcarro represents the interest of 1,200 fishermen from the region. They sit in a conference room where the lights are dimmed, the petite scientist and the bull-necked lawyer. Fuentes begins the conversation diplomatically, saying: "There are many reasons why the jellyfish are spreading. Fishery is one reason, but there is also water pollution and warmer temperatures." Vizcarro looks skeptical.
The scientist projects a photo onto a screen: a jellyfish with small, silver-colored fish hanging from its tentacles. Some jellyfish eat fish, Fuentes explains in a soft voice. Vizcarro bends forward and stares at the photo. "That sort of thing exists here?" he asks, sounding disgusted. "Not here, not yet," says Fuentes, "but they're already in the North Sea."
Vizcarro examines the photo. His fishermen also have a problem, he says: They are hardly catching any sardines anymore. Could it be that the jellyfish are eating the little sardines? He finds the idea unsettling. He scrutinizes Fuentes with newly awakened interest.
Then she shows him a short film from Japan, which depicts massive numbers of giant jellyfish in bursting fishing nets. "Ah!" Vizcarro exclaims, turning away. Fuentes has been working up to this moment. "We need your help," she says. "We monitor the coast, but we also need information on how many jellyfish there are out there in the ocean. Only fisherman can give us this information." Her idea is to use a smartphone app specially developed for fishermen.
Vizcarro nods. "We're interested," he says. His fishermen, he adds, are also reporting that they are seeing more jellyfish than in the past, and that there are fewer fish in areas where there are lots of jellyfish. Vizcarro sits up and says: "We too want to know what's going on."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
07/12/2013 05:39 PM
Eco-Blowback: Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines
By Matthias Schulz
Germany plans to build 60,000 new wind turbines -- in forests, in the foothills of the Alps and even in protected environmental areas. But local residents are up in arms, costs are skyrocketing and Germany's determination to phase out nuclear power is in danger.
The German village of Husarenhof, just north of Stuttgart, nestles picturesquely between orchards and vineyards. Peter Hitzker's house stands on a sharp bend in the road. "Sometimes I get up in the morning and find a couple of totaled cars in the front yard," he says. "But I guess nowhere's perfect."
Still, he finds the wind turbine behind his garden fence harder to cope with. The tower is 180 meters (590 feet) high, and the whirr of the blades and grinding of the actuators are clearly audible.
"When I leave my local bar in Heilbronn, 15 kilometers from here, I find my way home by heading for the turbine," he quips.
But he can't think of anything else positive to say about the turbine. "It's dreadful," he says. "And it's split the village. It's war here."
The wind turbine, an Enercon E-82, has been there for over a year. When it was inaugurated, the local shooting club, the "Black Hunters", fired their guns in celebration, and the local priest delivered a sermon on protecting God's creation.
But not everyone is happy. Some are angry at the way the landscape, celebrated by German Romantic poets such as Hölderlin and Mörike, is being butchered. The opponents protest with images of the Grim Reaper holding a wind turbine rather than his traditional scythe.
The situation in Husarenhof can be found across Germany. After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and Germany's swift decision to abandon nuclear energy and embrace renewable energy as part of its so-called Energiewende, the country's 16 federal states reacted with a sort of excessive zeal. The northeastern state of Brandenburg plans to set aside 2 percent of its land for wind farms. The western state of Rhineland-Palatinate intends to more than double the amount of wind power it generates. North Rhine-Westphalia, its neighbor to the north, is planning an increase of more than 300 percent.
The winds of change are blowing in Germany -- and hard. Flat-bed trucks laden with tower segments make their way slowly across boggy fields. Cranes crawl up narrow forest paths to set up outsized wind turbines on the tops of mountains. Germany aims to increase its production of wind power from 31,000 to 45,000 megawatts over the next seven years. By the middle of the century, it hopes to be generating 85,000 megawatts in wind power
With the prime coastal locations already taken, operators are increasingly turning their attention to areas further inland. Even valuable tourist regions -- such as the Moselle valley, the Allgäu and the foothills of the Alps -- are to be sacrificed. Sites have even been earmarked by Lake Constance and near Starnberg, where the Bavarian King Ludwig II drowned.
At the moment, things are still in the planning, reporting and application stage. Local authorities' filing cabinets are overflowing with authorization documents and wind strength measurements. Plans call for some 60,000 new turbines to be erected in Germany -- and completely alter its appearance.
The Backer-Opponent Divide
But what's really going on? Are politicians wisely creating the tools needed to prevent the end of the world as we know it? Or are they simply marring the countryside?
More than 700 citizens' initiatives have been founded in Germany to campaign against what they describe as "forests of masts", "visual emissions" and the "widespread devastation of our highland summits."
The opponents carry coffins symbolizing the death of environmental protection. They organize petitions on an almost daily basis. Local residents by Lake Starnberg have even filed a legal complaint alleging that the wind turbines violate Germany's constitution.
The underlying divide is basic and irreconcilable. On one side stand environmentalists and animal rights activists passionate about protecting the tranquility of nature. On the other are progressively minded champions of renewable energy and climate activists determined to secure the long-term survival of the planet.
The question is: How many forests must be sacrificed, how many horizons dotted with wind turbines, to meet Germany's new energy targets? Where is the line between thoughtful activism and excessive zeal? At what point is taxpayer money simply being thrown away?
The wrangling over these issues has led many in Germany's Green Party to question what their party really stands for. Enoch zu Guttenberg, a founding member of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), noisily left the association last year because of its support for wind power. Since then, he has felt a "panicky need" to warn humanity about the "giant totems of the cult of unlimited energy."
Michael Succow, a prominent German environmentalist and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, is also threatening to abandon ship. He fears soulless stretches of land and lost tranquility.
And his fears are not unfounded. Back in the 1980s, tree-huggers put up Aeroman wind turbines in their front yards -- but those days are long gone. Just the masts of today's wind turbines can reach up to 160 meters high. When active, they kill so many insects that the sticky mass slows the rotors down.
The sweeping blades of the Enercon E-126 cover an area of seven football fields. The rotors of modern wind turbines weigh up to 320 metric tons. There are 83 such three-armed bandits in Germany's largest wind farm, near the village of Ribbeck, northwest of Berlin.
As they drive their SUVs through these turbine forests, tolerantly minded city-dwellers sometimes comment on how ugly eastern Germany has become. Others find them attractive -- as they speed past.
But local Nimbies ("Nimby" = Not In My Back Yard) are indignant. Apart from everything else, the value of their homes has plummeted.
Even sparsely populated areas are beginning to take action. Take, for example, the campaign "Rettet Brandenburg" ("Save Brandenburg"). This eastern state surrounding Berlin is already home to more than 3,100 wind turbines, more than any other federal state. Now, however, the powers-that-be want to build 3,000 more turbines, but state residents are up in arms and have launched a citizen's initiative. At a protest day held in late May, its members railed against "wind-grubbers" and "monster mills."
Maxing Out Turbine Size
Nevertheless, their protests will do little to stop wind-turbine manufacturers from eagerly building taller and taller models. For the relatively weak inland winds to generate sufficient energy and profits, Germany's wind farmers need to reach higher and higher into the skies.
The goal is to get away from the turbulence found near the ground and to climb up into the Ekman layer, above 100 meters high, where the wind blows continuously. Up there, the forces of nature rage freely, creating enough terawatts to meet the energy needs of the global population hundreds of times over. Or at least that's the theory.
Inland, the "technical trend" toward bigger wind turbines "continues unabated," according to a study recently published by the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES).
A visit to the IWES test center in the northern port city of Bremerhaven reveals what lies in store. The center is home to a next-generation rotary blade: flexible, wobbly even, weighing 30 metric tons and stretching 83.5 meters across.
The mammoth prototype blade is currently at the testing stage. Hydraulic presses and cables bend and buffet the blade millions of times over, simulating the stress exerted by storms and gusts of wind.
IWES meteorologist Paul Kühn thinks that the mast themselves, without the blades, could grow to up to 200 meters high. Anything taller would be unprofitable due to the "square-cube law."
So, might we one day see wind turbines with blades stretching up almost 300 meters into the clouds -- a somber memorial to Germany's nuclear phase-out? Even hip urban fans of renewable energy think that would take some getting used to.
Recent studies by bird protectors reveal how the giant blades chop up the air in brutal fashion. "Golden plovers avoid the wind turbines," says Potsdam-based ornithologist Jörg Lippert. Swallows and storks, on the other hand, fly straight into them. The barbastelle bat's lungs collapse as it flies by. A "terrible future" awaits the lesser spotted eagle and red kite, Lippert says.
German citizens are also having to make sacrifices to meet the ambitious goals of the new energy policy. In England, large wind turbines must be situated at least 3,000 meters away from houses in residential areas. In Germany, which is more densely populated, local planners place turbines much closer to homes. In the southern state of Bavaria, for example, the minimum separation is 500 meters, while it's just 300 meters in the eastern state of Saxony.
In the early days, when everyone was still very excited about clean wind power, some farmers in northerly coastal areas allowed turbines to be erected even 250 meters from their cottages. And then they received large compensation payments when the noise from the rotors triggered stampedes in their pigsties.
But now even those in northern Germany are grumbling. Many old wind turbines are being replaced with new, more powerful ones in a process known as "repowering." Instead of 50 meters tall, these new turbines are more than 150 meters high, have flashing lights on them to prevent aircraft from hitting them and make a lot of noise as they rotate.
The result? Complaints about the noise everywhere.
The victims of this "sound pollution" typically have bags under their eyes and a tremor in their voices. They are the movement's martyrs. Klaus Zeltwanger is one such victim. He lives just 370 meters from the turbine in Husarenhof. "It whirrs and it hisses," he says, "and then it drones like an airplane about to take off."
To date, the courts have rejected such complaints. Since wind turbines enjoy special rights, fighting them in court is an uphill battle.
But one woman brought a successful case in the northwestern city of Münster back in 2006. She lived just 270 meters away from a wind turbine. She based her plea on the "requirement to be considerate," under which technical equipment and machines cannot be located so close to a residential property that they become "visually oppressive." The experts talk of a "feeling of being dwarfed."
After a long battle, she won the case -- and the giant turbine was torn down.
Other legal grounds can also apply. According to the German Emission Control Act, noise levels in mixed-use residential areas may not exceed 45 decibels at night. For a long time, no one knew what that meant exactly in terms of distance in meters.
Now the courts have ruled on this, too, in a case that might just upset Germany's entire energy revolution. A woman from Marxheim, a town in western Bavaria, brought a case in the Munich Higher Regional Court. Her typical farmer's house, decorated with flowers, was situated 850 meters from an Enercon E-82. She claimed that the sound waves boomed "across field and forest" to where she lived.
The case documents talk of "hissing," "whizzing" and "puffing noises." A specialist in acoustics recorded a volume of 42.8 decibels, adding a further 3 decibels to this because of what is known as the "impulsiveness" of the noise.
The result? The wind turbine now has to operate at a reduced speed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which renders it unprofitable.
Enercon is appealing to the Federal Administrative Court. But its chances of winning look slim. Hundreds of propellers are located in the zone that has now been deemed forbidden. Could a large-scale thinning out of turbines now be in the cards?
Attorney Armin Brauns from Diessen, in Bavaria, is predicting a "wave of cases," and his office is overflowing with case files. "Some local authorities behave unfairly with respect to protecting the countryside, circumventing existing laws," he says.
Bloated Capacity and Costs
These disputes come at a very awkward time for the wind-power industry. The country is expecting to see many thousands of new wind turbines up and running in the near future. But, at the moment, orders are few and far between.
For a long time, the companies grew fat on feed-in tariffs, which provide guaranteed prices for green energy at above-market prices subsidized by the government via surcharges on consumers' power bills. Indeed, an entire industrial sector developed into a subsidy giant. The result? Bloated firms with excess capacity.
International markets are also collapsing, which makes things even worse for the industry. The two most important countries for wind power have both reigned in further construction projects. The United States is instead going for cheaper "fracking," the controversial method of using hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas. China, on the other hand, has problems with its power grids, which is dampening its enthusiasm for wind turbines.
Stephan Weil, the governor of the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, recently warned that 10,000 jobs in the state's wind industry were at risk. The Danish manufacturer Vestas has already been forced to cut some 1,400 positions.
The mood is correspondingly tense. The CEO of WeserWind says that a "regulating hand" is nowhere to be found, leaving everything in "total chaos."
Cem Özdemir, the national chairman of Germany's Green Party, claims that environmental protection "is a great opportunity for our country -- economically, too." But, in reality, everything is getting more expensive. At the European Energy Exchange in Leipzig, electricity costs less than 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). But consumers currently pay 27 cents for each kWh because the price is overloaded with taxes and environmental fees.
There are many reasons for this. For example, all the electrical work involved in setting up offshore wind turbines and connecting them to the onshore grid is much more costly than was originally thought. The acrobats on the high seas are doing pioneering work, and the risks of failure are high.
Rather than calmly developing elegant offshore technology, German politicians have put themselves under pressure by setting the deadline for ending the production of nuclear power in Germany at early in the next decade. Everyone is in a rush. So when costs go up at sea, the wind turbines immediately swarm inland.
But that leaves just one more problem: Things aren't much cheaper on land, either. Giant electricity highways are needed to transport the energy southward from the turbines along the northern coastline. And that necessitates a complete restructuring of the national power grid.
"We're planning nothing less than a technical revolution," says a spokesman for the environment ministry of Lower Saxony, in Hanover. "In the past, villages in the middle of nowhere were connected (to the grid) using the thinnest cables possible. Today, we need the thickest cables there because the wind farms are in the outback."
Around 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) of new extra-high voltage lines are needed, plus 7,000 kilometers of distribution networks. Cost estimates put the figure at between €10 million and €20 million.
Delays and Demands
It's a massive undertaking. To get things moving, Germany's federal government introduced the Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Act back in 2006. This was followed in 2009 by the Power Grid Expansion Act. And, just five weeks ago, Germany's federal parliament passed the Federal Requirement Plan Act.
But despite the legislation, the actual amount of new electricity grid infrastructure that has been constructed is surprisingly small: Just 268 kilometers of the planned grid expansion is currently up and running.
Why the delay? One reason is the many thousands of hysterical "electrosmog" campaigners who fight every new section of 110-kilovolt line as if it were the work of the devil. And the wind farms are always accompanied by their ugly step-sister: the overhead power masts carrying the power lines.
What about underground cables, then? This is what the protestors are demanding. What they forget is that 380-kilovolt lines laid underground require copper strands as thick as your arm to avoid overheating. And they are incredibly expensive: All in all, underground cables can cost up to 10 times as much as overhead cables.
Often, the bottlenecks in the grid are already so big that the wind turbines are turning for no reason. When there is a stiff breeze, they have to be held back. This led to 127 gigawatt hours of power being wasted in 2010, or enough to meet the annual energy requirements of 100,000 residents.
Winners and Losers
But scare tactics won't work here. The costs of disposing of nuclear waste are also enormous. And nobody likes the moonscapes left behind by coal mining.
People are beginning to have second thoughts. The eastern state of Saxony has already downscaled its expansion plans. And the state of Thuringia to its west doesn't want any wind turbines located in its forests.
Overall, however, the ranks of fearless politicians whose goal is to build an environmental utopia in Germany remain by and large unbroken.
Robert Habeck, a member of the Green Party who serves as environment minister for the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, sees himself as an agent in the "undertaking of the century." To underline his determination, he even calls himself the "Minister for the Energiewende." Today, we are building the infrastructure that will ensure that energy is "as good as free for our children," he says.
It's hard to see exactly what he bases his calculation on. Consumers are currently paying more and more for power, while others are making a killing. Members of community-owned wind farms are being tempted with returns of between 6 and 9 percent. These profits are fed primarily by subsidies that have previously been hijacked from citizens.
Farmers are also making good money on the shift to wind power. Desirable locations for wind turbines can bring in more than €50,000 ($65,000) a year in rent in Bavaria. With prices like that, who wouldn't want to help promote the cause of clean energy?
Baron Götz von Berlichingen, from the village of Jagsthausen in Baden-Württemberg, is a direct descendant of the knight celebrated by Goethe. Together with the power company EnBW, he is building 11 wind farms on his property. Used for farming, the land generated at the most €700 per hectare (2.5 acres) -- a fraction of what it earns as a site for wind turbines.
According to opponents of wind power, that's why permits to build wind farms are being handed out like there's no tomorrow. They complain about "brainwashed climate apostles," "traitors of the countryside" and "greedy power gamblers" who are prepared to sacrifice every last inch of the country to the Energiewende.
Sacrificing the Forests
They are right in claiming that growth is rampant. The German government wants to have renewable sources supply 35 percent of Germany's energy by 2020. And, in their excessive zeal, the federal states have already designated enough land for green infrastructure capable of lifting this figure to 80 percent within the same period.
Instead of banishing the noise-makers to industrial wastelands or erecting them along freeways, they are scattering them across graceful mountain landscapes and areas full of lakes.
These plans have admittedly not been properly thought through. But it is the large-scale attack on forests that wind-turbine opponents find the most appalling. The Nordic pine forests, which formed the magical, emotion-filled realm of the German Romantics, as well as the homes of the ash and the oak, are all threatened by the relaxing of the laws.
From the Odenwald mountain range stretching across southwest Germany to the birch forests of Mecklenburg in the northeast, giant trucks are pushing their way into the woodlands. Johannes Remmel, a member of the Green Party who serves as environment minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has announced that he would like to put up around 2,000 wind turbines in the region's forests. The state of Hesse also wants to cut down thousands of hectares of trees.
Some pioneering projects are already underway, such as that in Ellern, a small town in the low mountain range of Hunsrück in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Ellern has recently become home to a record-breaking wind turbine some 200 meters tall, or far above the treetops.
Semi-trailers pulled nacelles, the enormous housings for wind turbine engines, and transformer stations up the narrow forest roads. A 1,000-ton crane made its way up the slippery slopes to the peak; trees were felled at the side of the road to make way for it. At the top, the forest was cleared to nothing with chainsaws so that concrete foundations could be laid for the turbines.
No one knows what the impact of such activities will be on the flora and fauna. The offensive into this mountain range took place "without checks," protests Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). In any case, the group says, the idea of generating wind power in the forest should be "rejected on principle."
Lies and Deception
The decision to not build offshore wind farms turns out to be misguided not just for environmental reasons, but also for economic ones. At sea, turbines can achieve 4,500 full-load hours a year. By the coast, the figure is 3,000. Inland, a site is considered good if it produces 1,800 hours.
The turbines currently being built across Germany, from the Ore Mountains in the east to Lake Constance in the west, are weaker still. Statistics show that the turbines in the south of the country are generating significantly less power than was predicted. The biggest wind farm in Baden-Württemberg, at a height of 850 meters in the Northern Black Forest, has been a flop for years.
"It's all an enormous swindle," says Besigheim-based auditor Walter Müller, 65, whose former job involved calculating the value of bankrupt East German factories. Today, he takes the same hard-as-nails approach to examining the books of wind farm companies.
His verdict? A fabric of lies and deception. The experts commissioned by the operators of the wind farms sometimes describe areas with weak breezes as top "wind-intensive" sites to make them appear more attractive, he says. "Small-scale investors are promised profits to attract them into closed funds for wind farms that do not generate enough energy," he says. "Ultimately, all the capital is eaten up."
The wind turbines, whose job it was to protect the environment, are not running smoothly. Germany's biggest infrastructure project is a mess. Everyone wants to get away from nuclear. But at what price?
Even Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of Baden-Württemberg and the first Green Party member to govern any German state, is sounding contrite. But his resolve remains as firm as ever: "There is simply no alternative to disfiguring the countryside like this," he insists.
The question is: Is he right?
Translated from the German by Nick Ukiah
Madagascar battling worst locust plague since 1950s
Locusts threatening livelihood of 60% of population, and have already destroyed a quarter of Madagascar's food crops
guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 July 2013 13.04 BST
Madagascar is in a race against time to raise enough money to tackle its worst plague of locusts since the 1950s. Locusts have already infested over half of the island's cultivated land and pastures, causing the loss of 630,000 tonnes of rice, corresponding to 25% of food consumption.
At least 1.5m hectares (3.7m acres) could be infested by locusts in two-thirds of the country by September, warns the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Findings from a damage assessment indicate that rice and maize crop losses due to locusts in the mid- and south-western parts of Madagascar vary, on average, from 40% to 70%, reaching up to 100% in some plots.
Madagascar's agriculture ministry declared a national disaster in November. The food security and livelihoods of 13 million people are at stake, about 60% of the island's population. Around 9 million people depend directly on agriculture for food and income.
"We don't have enough funds for pesticide, helicopters and training," said Alexandre Huynh, the FAO's representative in Madagascar. "What is extremely costly is to run helicopters [needed to spray pesticides]. We have to start in September, and we have two to three months to prepare. We need $22.4m [£15.1m] but we are quite short of that. Discussions are going on with donors."
MDG Locusts in Madagascar Adults locusts on a rock in Isalo national park, Madagascar. Photograph: Tiphaine Desjardin/FAO
The FAO has been issuing warnings since August last year, calling for financial support. José Graziano da Silva, its director general, said prevention and early action are key: "If we don't act now, the plague could last years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. This could very well be a last window of opportunity to avert an extended crisis."
Control of the locust upsurge would have cost $14.5m (£9.8m) in 2011-12, but the FAO received only half the funding. The timing of this infestation could hardly be worse for Madagascar, which has been in the grip of a political and economic crisis since a coup in 2009, when Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of the capital Antananarivo, seized power.
Rajoelina's coup turned Madagascar into a pariah state. The EU, US and other countries suspended aid and the African Union suspended Madagascar's membership until a return to the state of law. The first elections since the coup were scheduled for 24 July, but, faced with sorting out the legitimacy of contested candidates, the government has postponed elections to 23 August.
Poverty has risen sharply in the past five years. According to the World Bank, the proportion of people living below the poverty line – already high before the crisis – may have risen by more than 10 percentage points. With 92% of the population living on $2 a day, Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries. A subsequent drop in tourism has led people to plunder the forests that sustain the island's biodiversity.
The aid cut-off contributed to the locust crisis as the government allowed its locust surveillance programme to be run down. Those employed by the anti-locust national centre, part of the department of agriculture, to monitor the locust populations in the swamps in the south stopped receiving salaries, and the monitoring programme effectively ground to a halt. Normally, once the locust population starts to rise, people spray pesticide to bring the numbers down to safe levels.
MDG A closeup of a locust A closeup of a locust. Photograph: Ministry of Agriculture in Madagascar
"When we were aware of the issue, it was too late," said Huynh, who has been in Madagascar since 2009. The FAO has focused on the most important swamps in the south, but managed only to restrain the spread of locusts. "There were not enough funds for a full programme. We avoided a major human crisis, but not enough to get rid of the problem, which has reached alarming proportions," he said. The FAO is now looking for funding for an intensive spraying campaign involving three helicopters.
Once locust outbreaks get out of hand, the cost can be extremely high. Madagascar's last outbreak in the 1990s took five years to contain and cost $50.6m. The FAO says a three-year programme to return the locust plague to safe levels requires more than $41.5m over the next three years.
Norway has agreed to contribute $513,000, and the FAO and Madagascar are in negotiations with the World Bank over a $10m grant.
Sahel locust invasion threatens crops in Niger and Mali
Infestations of locusts could destroy farmers' efforts to replenish food stocks in the Sahel, an area suffering drought and hunger
guardian.co.uk, Monday 11 June 2012 12.30 BST
Northern Niger and Mali – areas already hit by a devastating food crisis and civil conflict – are facing a new threat in the form of locusts. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is warning that swarms of locusts are moving south from Libya and Algeria, and that early rains across the Sahel have led to the sprouting of vegetation that the insects can feed on. The warning comes as farmers across the Sahel prepare to start their annual crop planting season in the hope that a good harvest could replenish food stocks.
Celeste Hicks spoke to Keith Cressman, FAO's senior locust forecasting officer, about the impending threat.
CH: Which regions are most likely to be affected?
KC: The locusts' breeding grounds are in southern Algeria and southern Libya near the town of Ghat. When the locusts mature, they begin to move south – pushed by the prevailing winds – towards northern Niger, the Arlit and Agadez regions, Air mountains, Tamesna Plains and Djada Plateau regions. They may also end up in northern Mali in the Kidal and Gao regions, north-west Chad in the Borkou, Ennedi and Tibesti areas, and Mauritania. They may move even further south into Sahel farmlands, as they can travel 100-200km in a day. However, their advance eventually gets halted when the winds that carry them south meet the ITCZ [inter tropical convergence zone], which brings the west African rainy season, and the prevailing winds coming from the south. This year, the first groups of locusts were reported in northern Niger around Arlit on 30 May – this is early in the season.
CH: Why is this year different to previous years?
KC: Infestations were reported early in the season in southern Libya near Ghat and in southern Algeria after unusual rains in October and November – they had been able to grow quickly. In addition, it has already started raining in some parts of the Sahel. There have been rains in Iriba in north-east Chad and the Adrar des Iforghas in northern Mali. This means vegetation is already available for the locusts to eat as they move south and this has led to the early formation of swarms. This coincides with the planting season for farmers across the Sahel, and when the locusts are young they are at their most voracious. If the rains continue throughout the season [until October], there is a danger the locusts could have a second generation in one season. They can multiply their numbers 16 times in one generation. The last desert locust swarm came in 2003-05 when up to 80% of the harvest in Mauritania was eaten, and vast numbers arrived in regions as far apart as Darfur and Morocco.
CH: Is this linked to the conflict in Libya?
KC: In a normal year, Algeria and Libya would have been able to control most of the local swarms and prevent their movement south, but insecurity on the border is preventing full access for local teams and FAO experts. Libya's capacity to carry out control efforts has been affected in the last year. Teams that normally monitor the situation are no longer working, and equipment and vehicles have gone missing. And the locusts are moving from one insecure area to another. If they get into northern Mali [where MNLA rebels and the Islamist Ansar Dine groups are vying for control], there is practically no local authority there, and no one left with the experience of dealing with this.
CH: Can the situation be controlled?
KC: The pest control teams in all countries are usually very good: there has been a lot of technical advance and best practice training in recent years, it's just they have not been able to get access. We use generic pesticides to control the desert locusts, usually by spraying large areas from an aeroplane. But obviously this depends on whether the teams can get access or not. In Mali, teams cannot get in at all while in northern Niger they need a military escort. Two things need to happen – we need to mobilise the teams as soon as possible, and increase public awareness of the problem so that local people can tell us when they see swarms approaching, especially in the crop-producing parts of central and south Niger and Mali.
Locust plagues point to grim future of climate change
Climatic changes in China, the Middle East and Africa could see more severe outbreaks of locusts devastating food crops
By Ido Liven for ChinaDialogue, part of the Guardian Environment Network
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 23 May 2013 17.10 BST
The desert locust, the most notorious of about a dozen locust species for its ability to rapidly multiply and travel long distances, threatens an area of 32 million square kilometres, stretching across 50 countries from west Africa to India.
The fearsome insect has been farmers' foe since the earliest days of agriculture.
When solitary, locusts are harmless. But when they congregate into groups they transform – in behaviour and even appearance – into killer vegetarians. In turn, swarms can be as large as several hundred square kilometres, of which a single square kilometre can comprise at least 40 million bugs, at times even double that.
In the immature adult phase, a locust can consume its own weight – about two grams – in vegetation per day, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). One tonne of desert locusts ("a very small part of an average swarm", according to FAO's website) could guzzle in a single day an amount of food equivalent to that consumed by 2,500 people. Locust plagues could therefore seriously imperil crop production, and in turn food security.
An ongoing desert locust upsurge, primarily along the Red Sea periphery, possibly acts as a reminder to a natural threat that is often overlooked, or even deemed a thing of the past.
Swarms of locusts spread from North Africa
Countries today are considerably better equipped to deal with the threat than they used to be. The second half of the twentieth century has seen a dramatic decline in frequency, duration and intensity of desert locust plagues, largely thanks to improved control and monitoring capacities in the affected countries.
"What we have done as a big improvement is to be able to monitor where the locust are and try to control them," says Pietro Ceccato, an environmental remote sensing expert with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University. "Now we have that information – both from the control teams and from the satellite. We know where to target the control."
And yet, in anticipating future locust invasions, climate change appears to be one key unknown.
"This year is a bit unusual," says Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at FAO. Normally, he explains, after a good breeding season like this year's, the locusts would move from Sudan to the interior of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea. This autumn, however, while some did reach Saudi Arabia, groups started migrating northwards to the interior of Sudan and further to Egypt, not before Sudanese authorities treated close to 270 square kilometres.
By late February, an outbreak looked imminent, as groups and swarms of a new locust generation started moving north. In early March, Egyptian news outlets and social media were teeming with reports and photos of the clouds of locust that had descended on Cairo.
"It is relatively rare that Desert Locust swarms reach Cairo," the website of FAO's locust unit later reported. "This last occurred in November 2004, almost 50 years to the day after the previous occasion."
Within days, the swarms flying further east crossed the border into Israel, reaching the north west of the Negev desert. Three weeks later Jewish Israelis were celebrating Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt, preceded by the Ten Plagues, the eight of which was the Plague of Locust.
According to FAO's Locust Watch, April has seen a total of 220 square kilometres treated across five countries, down from 790 square kilometres in March.
In Israel, the ministry of agriculture reported in mid-May that damages to crops were "minimal," but concerns are of the next waves of locust coming in from Egypt's Sinai peninsula as well as a new generation of the pest after extensive hatching has been detected.
"[Israeli] researchers had said that [the locusts] would not even be able to breed here due to weather conditions. And not only did they manage to breed, they have bred excellently and even settled. So, all projections were disproved," Dafna Yurista, the ministry's spokesperson told chinadialogue. According to FAO, the last time Israel saw locust breeding and formation of hopper bands was in April 1961.
Nevertheless, and despite the ongoing outbreak, control operations across the region appear to have been effective. "So far, there hasn't been any significant damage to crops," says FAO's Cressman.
In Locust Watch's latest update, from May 15, three countries were put on the second highest level of alert – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Sudan – and control teams have been operating to curb the infestations before the young hoppers become voracious adults by the end of the month.
Adult locust groups forming in these countries are expected to move back to the summer breeding areas in central Sudan. In addition, some locusts now in Saudi Arabia, the Locust Watch update stated, "could reach southwest Iran and continue moving eastwards."
"So far," Cressman says, "Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia have been lucky. What we're concerned about now is this coming month in Sudan, where we have a new generation of locust, and those immature adults more likely to stay in those cropping areas and eat whatever is green – basically, the seasonal crops."
The last time the region had faced a large-scale locust upsurge was in 2003-2005. Back then, swarms took off from Niger and moved up to north Africa, before heading east along the Mediterranean coast. Overall, 26 countries were affected, and nearly 130,000 square kilometres were treated.
Back then, Morocco alone treated 40,000 square kilometres over a two-year period, escaping the plague without any substantial damage, says FAO's locust expert in the country Said Ghaout. This time, Morocco has seen a considerably smaller extent of infestation.
The impact of climate change
Yet both outbreaks have shown anomalous patterns, mostly owing to unusually favorable weather conditions at the locusts' breeding areas. Ghaout does not rule out the possibility that climate change played a role, or that these outbreaks might be a sign of things to come. "This is a question everybody is asking," he says.
"It's a real difficult topic," says Cressman about the possible effect of climate change on the desert locust. Generally, global meteorological models aren't sufficiently reliable to make concrete predictions for the desert locust habitat range, and regional models for the relevant desert areas are not developed enough, he says.
Overall, forecasts for desert locust activity rely on four main factors: temperature, rainfall, vegetation and wind. "I took a look at all the data that we have so far, and looked at temperature – because that's what everyone kind of agrees on, and we have the most data on – and it seems like if there's an increase of temperature under climate change scenarios, the effect on desert locust is very minimal," says Cressman. In this case, "they might be able to get an extra generation of breeding in before the habitat becomes unfavorable."
It's not all about temperature, however. To breed, desert locusts require moist soil and vegetation, so precipitation is key. But climate change models for the region contradict one another when it comes to rainfall, says Cressman.
For instance, in late April and early May, Saudi Arabia saw more rainfall than usual, which could in turn contribute to locusts moving further into the interior of the Arabian peninsula. "It happens that sometimes you have more rain, sometimes you have less rain," says IRI's Ceccato, who monitors climatic and ecological conditions that affect desert locust activity. "But that happens. It's variability. To relate that to climate change, it's difficult."
China's locust plagues
Several studies have tried to explore the possible impact of climate change on the abundance of another species, the Oriental migratory locust, in China. In 2011, researchers examined locust outbreaks recorded over a period of 1,910 years and meteorological data over the same time-span and concluded, that "there were more locusts under dry and cold conditions and when abundance was high in the preceding year or decade." Therefore, an increase in temperature or rainfall would actually mean fewer locust outbreaks.
A paper published four years earlier, based on a thousand years of records, has also suggested that warming could mean fewer locust plagues in China, since locust numbers were historically "highest during cold and wet periods".
Yet, a 2009 study using the same data came to different conclusions. Climate change, these authors said, could worsen locust outbreaks in China. Taking a more geographically nuanced approach, the researchers showed that, in north China, the most severe locust upsurges happened in warm and dry years. In south China, however, it was during warm and wet years.
Despite their contradictions, taken together these studies and others do offer some valuable insights, and not only for China. First, scientists seem to agree that rainfall could be affecting locust dynamics more than temperature. There also appears to be a consensus that climate change predictions for rainfall patterns are so far unsatisfactory.
And this is not the only missing variable. "The other aspect that nobody is really looking at yet is what's going to happen to the wind under climate change," Cressman says, "because of course locusts migrate with the wind."
Even if projections are still inconclusive, history tells us that locusts have braved previous climatic changes, and humans need to prepare.
"Probably all countries need to review their preparedness in terms of some of these climate change scenarios, and maybe look at the worst case scenario," says FAO's Cressman. In particular, that means preparing for longer locust seasons, he explains. "They're going to have to make those plans a little more flexible."