Understanding The Dynamics Of The Greenland Ice Sheet
Greenland Ice Sheet
The release of the Fifth Assessment Report from the International Panel on Climate Change highlights the impacts which climate change is likely to have for many parts of the world. This comes after a number of recently published papers, which look at the effects of warming on the Greenland Ice Sheet. One recent study used airborne data on ice thickness from NASA’s Operation IceBridge to investigate how patterns of surface melting and ice discharge across Greenland have changed in recent years. A second study looked at recent changes in ice discharge from northeast Greenland, a region which until recently was thought to have been little affected by climate change.
A number of findings from these studies have been picked up by the media. As with previous studies of the Greenland Ice Sheet, key details are often sensationalized, with many reports suggesting that collapse of the ice sheet is imminent. But what is meant by collapse, and what would the implications be? By calculating the thickness of the ice scientists have worked out that should all the ice in Greenland melt, sea levels will rise between six and seven meters. So does that mean that coastal cities will be inundated within a few short years? Without sufficient background it is difficult to put recent trends into context.
So with that in mind let’s start by looking at what we know about the Greenland Ice Sheet. First of all, Greenland is big. At over two million square kilometers, it is roughly ten times the size of the United Kingdom. Approximately 82% of its surface is covered by the ice sheet, which has a volume of 2.38 million km3 and reaches a depth of 3,000 meters in places. However, to put its size into perspective, this volume is equivalent to only about 8% of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Greenland differs from Antarctica in another very important aspect. Antarctica has a number of mountain ranges buried underneath the ice. However in Greenland the mountainous areas are generally located at the coast and tend to ring the island. The center of Greenland is in effect a large bowl, occupied by the ice sheet. This topography means that ice from the interior can only drain to the ocean through a few large outlet glaciers, which occur wherever there are gaps in the coastal mountains. These glaciers are like major rivers, draining vast regions of the ice sheet.
The Role of the Outlet Glaciers
The largest outlet glacier in Greenland is Jakobshavn Isbræ, which drains an area of approximately 110,000 km2,or some 6% of the entire ice sheet. Like most of the major outlet glaciers for the Greenland Ice Sheet Jakobshavn Isbræ flows into a deepwater fiord. This massive glacier produces an estimated 35 billion metric tons of icebergs per year, around 10% of the Greenland total, and is believed to have been the source of the iceberg which sunk the Titanic.
The role of the outlet glaciers is therefore fundamental to any understanding of what is happening to the Greenland Ice Sheet. Prior to 2005, measurements suggested that approximately 58% of ice loss from the ice sheet occurred through ice discharge, rather than surface melt. Scientists also noted that the major outlet glaciers have been increasing in speed in recent years. For example, a recent study found that the maximum speed of Jakobshavn Isbræ, a few kilometres upstream from its terminus, had increased to around 17 km per year by the summer of 2013. This makes it one of the fastest-moving glaciers on Earth, and represents a fourfold increase in speed since the mid 1990s. This speed increase has been accompanied by thinning of the lower glacier and a by a retreat of the glacier terminus, which has moved back several kilometers in recent years. This occurs as icebergs break free of the terminus in a process known as calving. One of the largest calving events ever recorded was captured in this video.
It is likely that the local topography of the seabed has played an important part in the speed up of Jakobshavn Isbræ. Nonetheless similar speed increases have been observed for most of Greenland’s outlet glaciers. Scientists believe that the key to such speed increases may lie with the position of the grounding line, which is the point at which a glacier flowing into the ocean separates from its bed and begins to float. Beyond this point, there is no resistance to glacier flow so speeds increase rapidly.
Since most Greenland outlet glaciers terminate in deepwater fiords and are hundreds of meters thick, the base of the glacier comes directly into contact with water from the ocean depths. A number of recent studies have suggested that changes to ocean circulation patterns may be causing increased stratification of ocean waters at higher latitudes. The effect of this trend is that a layer of denser, saltier water is now entering the fiords in which outlet glaciers terminate and causing the glaciers to melt from beneath. This dense ocean water is trapped beneath a layer of meltwater from the glacier, which is less saline and has a comparatively low density. Increased melting at the glacier base causes the grounding line to retreat, lowering resistance to glacier flow, and thus causing the glacier to accelerate. Thus it appears likely that increased ice discharge from Greenland may be a direct consequence of ocean warming at mid and high latitudes, a process which illustrates a complex interaction between different elements of the Earth system.
Eventually it is likely that most outlet glaciers will retreat to the point that they terminate in shallow water, or on land. When they reach this point then it is likely that flow rates will drop dramatically, and a new equilibrium will be established. However it is estimated that it will take several decades for most of the major outlet glaciers to reach this stage. As long as they terminate in deep water, accelerated flow rates are likely to continue, and possibly even to increase, contributing significantly to sea level rise in the process.
Another mechanism which is believed to have contributed to increased flow rates of the main outlet glaciers is increased surface melting. During the summer, meltwater tends to collect in ponds on the surface of the ice. Weaknesses within the ice can often result in catastrophic drainage of these ponds. Elsewhere, rivers of meltwater flow across the ice sheet, before disappearing into the depths of the ice, through what are known as “moulins”. Much of this meltwater will eventually end up at the base of the ice sheet, where it provides a lubricating layer between the ice and the underlying ground, lessening resistance to glacial flow. While this effect is believed to be small compared with the effect of grounding-line retreat, it is nonetheless believed to be a contributor to the speed up of the outlet glaciers.
However, perhaps the most worrying conclusion from recent studies is that although ice discharge has increased considerably since the mid 1990s, it now only comprises a third of the total mass loss from the ice sheet; a near complete reversal from the situation prior to 2005, when ice discharge was the dominant process. Since 2009, some 84% of the increased mass loss has occurred through surface melting, marking a dramatic increase in the amount of melting now occurring. This trend was underscored over a four-day period in July 2012, when satellite measurements revealed that surface melting occurred over some 97% of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Such widespread melting has never been observed before in over 30 years of satellite observations, with positive temperatures even being reported at Summit Station, the highest point of the ice sheet.
Sea Level Rise
So clearly the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass much more rapidly than in the past, but is it in danger of collapsing? Recent studies suggest that if current rates of ice discharge continue, this alone is likely to raise global sea levels by around 3 cm by the end of the century. In a worst-case scenario, if the rate of ice discharge were to increase dramatically, it could cause sea levels to rise by as much as 8 cm over this time period. The big unknown is how much surface melting could occur over the same time. If rates remain similar to those of today, then sea level rise from Greenland alone is likely to be between 10 cm and 25 cm by the end of the century. However if surface melt rates increase, then this figure could be significantly higher.
So what would constitute a collapse? Even under high-end warming scenarios, it is estimated that it would take around 2000 years for the Greenland Ice Sheet to disappear. Often media reports talk about irreversible changes occurring, but as we have seen above, it is likely that within a few decades most major outlet glaciers will terminate in shallow water or on land. By this stage, they will probably have reached a new equilibrium, which will lead to a reduction in mass loss due to ice discharge. What cannot be accurately predicted are the effects of surface melting, which is dependent on future weather patterns. If there is an increase in the kind of melting events that occurred in 2012, then surface melting from the ice sheet as a whole has the potential to increase considerably. However whether this constitutes irreversible change is debatable, since future weather patterns are notoriously difficult to predict.
Greenland is currently undergoing rapid change, with both ice discharge rates and surface melting having shown major increases over the last few years. In combination with increased melting from Antarctica and from smaller ice sheets and glaciers worldwide, these changes are likely lead to significant rises in sea level by the end of the century. This has major implications as far as coastal cities and low-lying areas are concerned. However there is a tendency for the media to sensationalize what is happening to the Greenland Ice Sheet. What is currently occurring is simply a natural change in response to human-driven climatic change, which will play out over the long term. The Greenland Ice Sheet is not going to disappear any time soon. Terms such as irreversible collapse are generally not helpful and often serve to mask the true, but less dramatic, implications of climate change.
Enderlyn, E., Howat, I., Jeong, S., Noh, M., Van Angelen, J., van den Brooke, M., 2014, “An improved mass budget for the Greenland ice sheet”, Geophysical Research Letters, vol 41 (3), pp866-872, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2013GL059010/abstract
Khan, S.,Kjær, K., Bevis, M., Bamber, J., Wahr, J., Kjeldsen, K.,Bjørk, A., Korsgaard, N., Stearns, L., van den Broeke, M., Liu, L., Larsen, N., Muresan, I., 2014, “Sustained mass loss of the northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming”, Nature Climate Change, 4, pp292-299, http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n4/full/nclimate2161.html
Joughin, I., Smith, B., Shean, D., Floricioiu, D., 2014, “Brief Communication: Further summer speedup of Jakobshavn Isbræ”, The Cryosphere, 8, pp209–214, http://www.the-cryosphere.net/8/209/2014/tc-8-209-2014.html
National Snow and Ice Center: Quick Facts on Ice Sheets, http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/quickfacts/icesheets.html
Journal retracts scientifically-sound research due to legal threats from climate change deniers
Friday, April 4, 2014 12:28 EDT
Let me let you in on a little fantasy of mine: every once in a while, I like to imagine finding myself meeting the person who came up with the term "global warming." Why? So I can punish that person. Severely. See, what a term like "global warming" does is allow the guy in the cubicle next to me to point out of the window in Chicago and say, "If global warming is true, why is it snowing out again?" And that, friends, is something nobody should have to deal with.
Climate change is the better term, of course, and the majority of the scientific community firmly believes that there is such a thing as man-made climate change. From there, we could have a discussion about how profound the effects of climate change are, whether they're actually better or worse, what other contributing factors might be in play in impacting climate, and all the rest, and those would be worthy conversations to have. What we shouldn't do is try to use the law to silence dissenting opinions, particularly if those opinions come in the form of scientific research. Yet, that is exactly what one scientific journal has allowed to happen after publishing an article on the link between those who deny climate change and those who believe in a more wide-ranging array of conspiracy theories. Frontiers originally published the piece last year, but took it down once the legal threats started rolling in. After an internal investigation found the peer-reviewed study to be sound, you'd have thought they'd re-publish it. You'd be wrong. Here's the statement about the retraction from the journal itself.
In the light of a small number of complaints received following publication of the original research article cited above, Frontiers carried out a detailed investigation of the academic, ethical and legal aspects of the work. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article. The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.
In other words, a study that was judged by peers to be scientifically sound, has been disappeared over the murky threats of possible legal action. Let that sink in for a moment: science is undone because some people didn't like it. The author of the study resided at the time in the UK, where libel laws used to be of a construction specifically designed to fill the courthouses with all manner of craziness. Just recently, the UK has improved its libel laws to lessen the chilling effect of lawsuits from harming the progression of science. On top of that, the internal review at the journal found no issues with the study after making some minor alterations to appease the angry. Frontiers didn't see fit to re-publish, however.
It is hard to imagine a set of outcomes that would have better remedied each issue flagged by Frontiers as a matter of concern. So it came as quite a shock to hear that the journal had decided to retract the paper ostensibly because “the legal context is insufficiently clear”.
Look, if you're a climate change denier, that's cool. I don't agree with you, but feel free to write up your own research, publish any compelling information you can come up with, and all the rest. Consensus is never something I've been much interested in; I'd rather have multiple ideas to choose from and study. And, hey, if you think we never landed on the moon, Hitler was actually fighting the lizard-people now running world government, and 9/11 was all a holographic light-show designed to allow George Bush to fulfill his childhood dream of landing on an aircraft carrier in a flightsuit, have at it. I want you to let me know you believe in that stuff, because that's how I'll know to keep my future children away from you.
But the other side of the coin is that we shouldn't be allowing your side to silence science, either. Fair is fair, after all.
U.N. report: Countries have only 15 years to prevent catastrophic climate change
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, April 7, 2014 16:24 EDT
The world, acting urgently, can curb carbon emissions enough to avert worst-case scenarios for climate change, UN experts said Monday as envoys met in Berlin to weigh the options for action.
“The literature here shows that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming to 2 C… remain possible,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, who helped oversee the latest volume in a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
But achieving this goal, Edenhofer warned, will require a break from today’s relentlessly upward trend in emissions.
It will entail “challenging technological, economic, institutional and behavior change,” he said.
Envoys and scientists from the panel’s 195 member countries are meeting after the IPCC issued its starkest-ever warning about the perils of a ravaged climate system for future generations.
The risk of conflict, hunger, floods and mass displacement increase with every upward creep of the mercury, the IPCC said.
“The impacts of climate change will leave no part of the world untouched and unaffected,” IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri told Monday’s opening session.
The upcoming volume is the last major piece of the Fifth Assessment Report — the first overview by the Nobel-winning climate panel since 2007.
The product of four years’ work by over 200 experts, it aims at providing governments with the latest scientific knowledge and informing the struggling effort to forge a worldwide pact on climate change by the end of next year.
A draft summary of the report, seen by AFP, expresses no preferences for how to tame the problem, nor does it state what a safe level of warming would be.
But it says there is a 15-year window for affordable action to safely reach the UN’s target of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times.
The goal remains attainable if “all countries” act quickly to ease carbon emissions, it says. “Delaying mitigation through 2030 will increase the challenges.”
In raw terms, global carbon emissions of 49 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2010 will have to be pegged to 30-50 billion tonnes in 2030.
Most scenarios that meet the 2 C target entail a “tripling to nearly a quadrupling” in the share of energy from renewable and nuclear sources and the capture and storage of emissions from fossil fuel plants, according to the draft.
Government representatives and scientists will go through the summary line by line over the next few days.
“In the plenary, all countries can voice their concerns and all of them are heard,” said co-chairman Youba Sokona.
“In the end, it is scientific accuracy that decides.”
The summary will be publicly released in the German capital on Sunday, and the full 2,000-page report — authored by scientists and not subject to this week’s scrutiny — will be released shortly afterwards.
Green group Friends of the Earth International said the science demanded a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, coupled to a massive investment in renewable alternatives.
“So far, world leaders have sorely lacked the political will to make the shift to low-carbon societies,” it said.
Oxfam, for its part, said climate change would have a severe impact on hunger.
“It is estimated there could be 25 million more malnourished children under the age of five in 2050 compared to a world without climate change – the number of all under-fives in the US and Canada combined,” it said.
Scientists say Australia’s Tony Abbott is engineering an ‘environmental train wreck’
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 7:24 EDT
Destructive policies include culling sharks, dumping near the Great Barrier Reef and eroding protection of a UNESCO World Heritage forest.
LONDON — An “environmental train wreck.”
That’s what leading environmental scientists say that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has engineered, in less than one year in office. They say the changes he’s implementing could result in irreversible damage to some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.
And they say they are “screaming in the dark” to get the country’s ultra conservative government to take a more sustainable course, so far with little luck.
Of course, not everyone agrees with the scientists, or at least with their priorities.
Abbott came to power last September promising to abolish the country’s landmark carbon and mining taxes, and cut “green tape” that he said hindered development.
Brendan Pearson, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), said the abolition of these two industry taxes would secure future investment and jobs, help regional communities, increase tax revenues, reduce energy prices, and boost Australia’s international competitiveness.
But Professor Bill Laurance — recipient of the Australian Laureate Fellowship, one of Australia’s highest research honors — is astounded by the pace and scope of the environmental rollbacks. He said the proposal to abolish the carbon tax and replace it with a “direct action plan” was just one of a “whole avalanche” of issues that worry Australia’s leading environmental scientists.
The list of issues includes:
culling sharks off the coast of Western Australia,
approving cattle grazing in highland National Parks,
wholesale cutting of green energy initiatives, and
appointing a climate change skeptic to review renewable energy targets.
Even more controversially, Abbott’s government has permitted a coal port to dredge up and dump millions of cubic feet of sand into the iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a decision that the Chairman of the Marine Park Authority has rigorously defended.
And in another unprecedented move, the government has asked UNESCO to remove 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest from its World Heritage List. A prime ministerial statement has also effectively banned the creation of new National Parks, with Prime Minister Abbott announcing that too much forest was already “locked away.”
Laurance, based at James Cook University in Queensland, says Abbott’s National Parks decision had come at a “very bad time,” with some ecosystems in desperate need of protection, such as the Mountain Ash forests in Victoria, home to the critically endangered native Leadbeater’s possum, decimated by logging and wildfires.
“I come from the western US and we are hearing a very similar dialogue to the one used there by conservatives, who say ‘you’re just locking up the forests,’” he says. “That’s an age-old characterization — a way conservatives have historically described areas that they want to get into.”
Dr. Chris Fulton, a coral reefs expert at the Australian National University, said a shift in thinking was needed at the highest levels of government.
“We are looking at a government that is constantly speaking in terms of nature being there in the service of us, nature being there for us to exploit and use, that nature can only be appreciated by giving us wood or fish or coal,” he says. “But this is nineteenth century or even eighteenth century thinking; We can’t expect a natural resource to go on giving us what we want without it collapsing.”
Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, environmental advisor to three American presidents, said he hoped Australia would take a “fresh look” at its forestry policy ahead of the World Parks Congress, set to meet in Sydney in November. He said it appeared that “short-term economics” in Australia were driving key policy initiatives. “Both climate change and biodiversity need more and stronger attention than they are getting,” he added.
Laurance explained that the situation is compounded by a shift to the right across the electorate, with conservative governments now in power in all major states, as well as at the federal level.
“There’s an abundance of scientific evidence showing that a lot of the Australian ecosystems are in trouble,” he says. But “Abbott is almost a fundamentalist type character. I think his view is ‘these people didn’t vote for me, they’re not going to vote for me,’ so he’s effectively written off that constituency, which of course includes a large part of mainstream Australia.
“He reminds me of Reagan or some of the people in the Reagan administration, such as James Watts, Reagan’s secretary of the interior, who was a lightning rod for criticism,” he added. “It’s very polarizing here.”
Fulton laments Abbott’s rolling back of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, Australia’s seminal legislative tool used to measure whether a development is environmentally sound.
“There has been an alarming escalation in what the government is doing to that act in terms of making it conducive to development,” says Fulton.
“Decisions that used to be made by the federal government under the EPBC Act are being devolved to other agencies, and in so doing removing the central coordination and management of environmental regulation in Australia.”
New offshore oil and gas exploration permits, for example, are now being approved by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, says Fulton, the same agency that’s responsible for enforcing safety regulations.
“They no longer have to go through a community consultation process, so they can just rubber stamp every single application for oil and gas.
“If you think about a threat, on the scale of 1 to 10, dredging in the Great Barrier Reef probably sits toward the bottom, and oil and gas sits toward the top. It only takes one good oil spill and the entire Great Barrier Reef could be wiped out. We’ve seen that already in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Fulton said other moves to provide the environment minister with legal immunity meant the government and its ministers could not be held accountable for poor decisions that led to environmental disasters.
“All those things to me are far more pressing issues that I’d get far more alarmed about (than the dredging).”
GlobalPost contacted the Prime Minister’s office and the Department for the Environment for comment but received no replies.
Pearson, of the MCA, said the amount of time and effort being wasted on the duplication of regulations was undermining industry and community confidence, while adding little value to environmental or heritage protection.
“The MCA shares the view of governments at both the state and national level that there is considerable potential for reducing unnecessary red and green tape without compromising high environmental standards,” he said.
“The mining industry isn’t seeking to duck or dodge scientific scrutiny — quite the opposite. We want a project approvals process based on practical concepts of sustainable development, sound science, transparency and scrutiny, procedural certainty, and meaningful community engagement.
“It is simply not correct to say that resource developments in Queensland ‘no longer require community consultation’ — far from it. Not only will people affected by development proposals be able to comment, it will be quicker, easier and less costly to do so.”
He said MCA member companies were signatories to a UN-recognized sustainable development framework that guaranteed “effective and transparent engagement, communication and independently-verified reporting.”
An international call to action
Australia has so far resisted calls from the EU and the US to include climate change on the agenda for November’s G20 meeting in Brisbane.
Laurance says it could take some level of international embarrassment to force the Abbott government to re-think its entire green agenda.
“Tourism’s a huge industry in Australia. You would like to see people start to say that they’re not going to visit Australia because of the astounding hypocrisy that is increasingly becoming the norm here,” he says.
“The one thing the Abbott government does seem to understand is money and it needs that kind of talk because they’re clearly just not interested in anyone they see as environmentally oriented.”
In June, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will decide whether to add the Great Barrier Reef to its “in danger” list, a move that Fulton says “has almost always in the past led the parent country to sit up and take notice.”
More from GlobalPost: They razed paradise and put up a soybean lot
Fulton advises against turning “the Great Barrier Reef into the Great Slime Reef because tourism dollars are a huge export industry and when our resources bubble eventually bursts and we aren’t able to just dig holes and make money out of it, those export dollars are going to become very, very important.”
A recent report by Deloitte Access Economics found that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park generates some $5.7 billion each year and supports 69,000 jobs, the overwhelming majority of these figures coming from tourism.
“I would argue that if we sustainably managed the our coral reefs for tourism, fishing and all the other things we gain from them, then we could manage that into perpetuity, where as thermal coal, and oil and gas are very finite resources offering a finite business plan — they are going to run out, potentially in out life times.”
Philippine experts divided over climate change action
Scientists and farmers make competing claims for cutting-edge science and low-tech sustainable farming to tackle the issue
John Vidal in Mindanao
theguardian.com, Tuesday 8 April 2014 12.23 BST
As governments meet in Berlin, scientists and farmers on the frontline of climate change in the Philippines are at odds over how best to adapt agriculture to the much higher temperatures and weather extremes expected over the next century.
While one group argues that hi-tech rice varieties will withstand the greater floods, droughts and storms forecast this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), others say small farmers can best respond by avoiding chemicals and addressing problems such as soil fertility and water shortages.
In one corner is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, funded with $96m (£58m) from the US and UK governments, as well as major organisations such as Kellogg's and the Gates Foundation. There, with help from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, scientists in the 1960s crossed rice varieties and, by using herbicides and inorganic fertilisers, more than doubled rice yields. The Asian "green revolution" was born, even as the continent was experiencing serious food shortages, and the Los Baños scientists were credited with pulling the region back from the edge of famine.
Today IRRI sees climate change as the greatest challenge in 50 years. Temperatures at the research station have risen 2-4C in 40 years, yields are below 1982 levels and minimum temperatures are rising. If the IPCC scientists are correct, yields may fall a further 25% over the next 40 years, potentially triggering the greatest food crisis the world has seen.
"The challenge when IRRI was set up was to grow more rice and to avert hunger," says the institute's deputy director general, Bruce Tolentino. His office occupies the old laboratory where on 29 November 1966, where the first strain of IR8 "miracle" rice was developed by crossing a Chinese dwarf, Dee-geo-woo-gen, with Peta, a tall variety from Indonesia.
Climate change, says Tolentino, needs a new green revolution: "The challenge now is to rapidly adapt farming with modern varieties to climate change and feed a fast-growing global population, half of which depends on rice as a staple food. One billion people go hungry every day.
"In the 1990s rice yields were growing 2% a year; now they are just 1%. We are unable to keep up with population growth. Temperatures have risen 2-4C. Climate change will reduce productivity. Rainfall is unpredictable and rice is grown in areas like deltas that are prone to sea level rises. We have to gear up for more challenging agro-ecological conditions, we need to be able to use swampy areas and develop varieties that can be grown in salty or flooded areas. We have already launched flood-tolerant rice and we are now introducing salt-tolerant varieties," he says.
"The results [of IRRI work] are staggering," says Abdelbagi Ismail, the Sudanese principal scientist who helped develop scuba rice, which can survive flooding for 17 days. He and others crossed a flood-tolerant variety traditionally grown by poor farmers in Orissa state, India, with a more high-yielding variety widely grown across Asia. Using marker-assisted gene tracing, but not genetic modification, the scuba rice plant becomes dormant in waters up to 1.5 metres deep and starts growing again only when the floodwater recedes.
Scuba rice is being grown by up to 4 million people in flood-prone areas of Bangladesh, Burman and India, Ismail says. "I was recently in tribal areas of Orissa and scuba rice was like something from the sky for them. They told me that every three years they have a disaster. The poverty there is amazing: most people are landless and only have food for six months. Now they can get 2.5 tonnes per hectare. Once they have food then other things like education can follow. It is so satisfying when you see how it has changed people's lives. But we are just at the beginning – the target is to make it available to millions of farmers."
Drought, salt and more flood-tolerant varieties developed with conventional plant-breeding techniques are being tested at Los Baños, but within a few years GM varieties modified to synthesize betacarotene, a precursor of vitamin A, and others that will contain added iron and zinc may be available. IRRI is also working on an all-purpose GM rice variety that should be able to withstand flooding, drought and salinity.
But the holy grail at Los Baños, what some scientists call a game-changer is genetically modified C4 rice, which would mimic maize and a few other crops by using photosynthesis far more efficiently. An international group of scientists, funded by Gates and the UK government to the tune of about $27m a year, is several years into a 20-year C4 programme, but no date is given as to when it might be ready. "If we managed to re-engineer C4 rice it could give yields 30-50% greater yields," says Tolentino.
Even as IRRI scientists race to develop climate-ready rice to solve future hunger, thousands of small farmers, who make up 60% of the population of the Philippines, say they are not waiting for hi-tech science but are adapting to climate change in other ways. The high-yielding seeds promised by the green revolution have not helped small farmers get out of poverty, they say. Instead they have gone deeply into debt to pay for chemicals and seeds on the promise of higher yields and better markets. Instead, climate change, in the form of erratic seasons and intense rains, has often ruined crops while middlemen have offered them the lowest prices.
"We take loan for the seeds, and we pay upon harvest. We are usually left with empty sacks. So we take out loans for food and family expenses, and inputs to be able to plant for the next season. Upon harvest, we have leftover debt," says a man in a film produced by the Farmer Scientist Partnership for Development, or Masipag, a network of 630 farmers' groups, scientists and Filipinos.
Masipag president Chito Medina says IRRI does not look at sustainability. "Scientists in IRRI are hi-tech scientists, thus you would expect hi-tech farming as their solutions," he adds. "They are highly specialised but this strength is also their weakness when their specialised knowledge is applied to farming, which is a complex system." In the real world of farming in developing countries such as the Philippines, he says, decisions are made not just according to seed types but depending on soil types, water availability, the presence of pests, the financial ability to buy inputs and issues such as land ownership.
Climate change means farmers need to reduce their exposure to weather-related risk, he says. If they use little capital, when a calamity strikes, even if the crops are damaged, they may get hungry but at least they have no debts. "High-input modern farming methods expose them to more risk because farmers must borrow money to buy seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. When a calamity strikes they get hungry, but more than that, they are indebted."
Since 1986, Masipag farmers have collected 1,300 traditional rice varieties, about 28% of the original traditional rice varieties before the green revolution. Hundreds now breed rice on their own farms and together have identified 18 drought tolerant rice varieties, 12 flood tolerant, 20 salt water tolerant, and 23 pest and disease resistant rice varieties. They are rejecting chemicals and using alternative growing methods such as the system of rice intensification (SRI), which aims to increase yields by stimulating the roots of plants. It has been found to increase yields by 20-100% in many countries including India, Cambodia and Vietnam.
"The flood-tolerant, drought-tolerant varieties developed by IRRI require a high amount of input of chemical fertiliser and pesticides that are not affordable by the majority of poor farmers. Methods like SRI and organic farming are attractive because they are available and affordable and give a better net income. The yield of organic farms and chemical farms are not significantly different but the net income of our organic farmers is significantly higher than chemical farming in the Philippines," he says.
Seeds are just one resource, and IRRI is not looking at others, say farmers in Mindanao and Luzon, who are also turning to organic farming. "We get higher yields, have lower production costs, higher biodiversity and therefore better food supplies with SRI," said a farmer at a Met Office event for weather prediction training with Oxfam, last week.
Antony Dayson, who farms in Sorsogon in Luzon, said: "We are adapting by diversifying our crops, selecting varieties that we know are better and returning to traditional varieties. We have been to the old farmers in upland areas who are growing varieties like wagwag, dinorado and wado varieties, which are better suited to wet conditions."
Rene Jaranilla, another farmer from Luzon, said: "I use only 5-15kg per hectare instead of the whole bag like I used to. It saves seeds and water and it generates employment. More farmers are seeing higher yields; people in my area get 3 tonnes an acre, but I get 6 tonnes by using SRI. Those who are using it are seeing better yields. People think it's something new but when they try it they are convinced."
The two different approaches to farming, of cutting-edge science and low-tech sustainable farming, have produced inevitable tensions and mutual distrust, not helped when last year Filipino farmers, including members of groups linked to Masipag, destroyed a GM trial at IRRI.
Each group now throws doubt on the other. "SRI is a package. When you break it down it has to do with selecting the right sees applying varying levels of nutrients. It's best practice. We hesitate to label it SRI because each farmer has their own approach. Some of the results have been remarkable in small, controlled plots but not on a wide scale. There have been some outlandish claims but a lot are anecdotes," says Tolentino.
"IRRI scientists don't like the approach we take. They say demonstrations have failed, but they are embarrassed that they have not done it for themselves," says Jaranilla. "There are so many local varieties of rice developed in Asia by farmers. The scientists at IRRI are simply reinventing them through different methods. It is not the variety that counts under the extremes of climate change, but how farmers can spread the risks by growing different crops. These simply need local knowledge, not hi-tech science."
WHO unveils emergency moves against Ebola onslaught in Guinea
By Jonathan Fowler
Geneva (AFP) - The World Health Organization launched a raft of emergency measures in the Guinean capital Conakry Thursday to control an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus that has so far killed a hundred people across the country.
The Geneva-based UN health agency announced emergency training for 70 people who would fan out across the community to track people who have had close contact with Ebola patients.
The agency is also setting up a special alert and response operation centre within the Guinean ministry of health in order to handle all matters relating to the Ebola scare.
The WHO also said that it was training staff at Guinea's Donka national teaching hospital and would be expanding that programme to other health facilities in the coming days.
The WHO this week described west Africa's first-ever Ebola outbreak among humans as one of the most challenging since the virus emerged in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to the latest WHO figures, 157 people have been infected with Ebola in Guinea, 101 of whom have died.
The outbreak began in the forests of southern Guinea, but has spread to Conkary, a sprawling port city on the Atlantic coast and home to between 1.5 million and two million people.
In neighbouring Liberia, there have been 21 cases, including 10 fatalities.
While the WHO has not recommended any trade or travel restrictions, the region is braced against the epidemic, with Senegal closing its border with Guinea.
In Dakar, UNICEF said it was working with WHO and other agencies to spread awareness by sending text messages and links of radio and television shows automatically to mobile phones across west Africa.
"Most of the people in this part of the world had never heard of Ebola before," Guido Borghese, the organisation's principal adviser on child survival and development for the region, said in a statement.
"In this environment, unfounded fears and rumours spread quickly and widely. More than ever, it is crucial that families have both the means and the right information to protect themselves and prevent dangerous misunderstandings."
Meanwhile the French Red Cross said in Paris it was deploying its first emergency response team to the epicentre of the outbreak in southeastern Guinea.
The team -- made up of volunteers and a specialist in infectious diseases -- will supervise and train 150 local Red Cross volunteers in disinfection and techniques to track down people who may have had contact with the infected.
The most severe strains of Ebola have had a 90 percent fatality rate, and there is no vaccine, cure or specific treatment.
Ebola leads to haemorrhagic fever, causing muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in severe cases, organ failure and unstoppable bleeding.
The chances of survival increase if patients are kept hydrated and treated for secondary infections.
The virus can be transmitted to humans who handle sick or dead wild animals -- believed to be its original source -- and between humans through direct contact with another's blood, faeces or sweat.
It can be stemmed by identifying the sick and tracing those with whom they have had contact -- more than 600 people in Guinea, according to the WHO -- and applying infection-control measures in homes and clinics.
Why US fracking companies are licking their lips over Ukraine
From climate change to Crimea, the natural gas industry is supreme at exploiting crisis for private gain – what I call the shock doctrine
The Guardian, Thursday 10 April 2014 19.12 BST
The way to beat Vladimir Putin is to flood the European market with fracked-in-the-USA natural gas, or so the industry would have us believe. As part of escalating anti-Russian hysteria, two bills have been introduced into the US Congress – one in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6), one in the Senate (S. 2083) – that attempt to fast-track liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, all in the name of helping Europe to wean itself from Putin's fossil fuels, and enhancing US national security.
According to Cory Gardner, the Republican congressman who introduced the House bill, "opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies". And that might be true – as long as your friends and allies work at Chevron and Shell, and the emergency is the need to keep profits up amid dwindling supplies of conventional oil and gas.
For this ploy to work, it's important not to look too closely at details. Like the fact that much of the gas probably won't make it to Europe – because what the bills allow is for gas to be sold on the world market to any country belonging to the World Trade Organisation.
Or the fact that for years the industry has been selling the message that Americans must accept the risks to their land, water and air that come with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in order to help their country achieve "energy independence". And now, suddenly and slyly, the goal has been switched to "energy security", which apparently means selling a temporary glut of fracked gas on the world market, thereby creating energy dependencies abroad.
And most of all, it's important not to notice that building the infrastructure necessary to export gas on this scale would take many years in permitting and construction – a single LNG terminal can carry a $7bn price tag, must be fed by a massive, interlocking web of pipelines and compressor stations, and requires its own power plant just to generate energy sufficient to liquefy the gas through super-cooling. By the time these massive industrial projects are up and running, Germany and Russia may well be fast friends. But by then few will remember that the crisis in Crimea was the excuse seized upon by the gas industry to make its longstanding export dreams come true, regardless of the consequences to the communities getting fracked or to the planet getting cooked.
I call this knack for exploiting crisis for private gain the shock doctrine, and it shows no signs of retreating. We all know how the shock doctrine works: during times of crisis, whether real or manufactured, our elites are able to ram through unpopular policies that are detrimental to the majority under cover of emergency. Sure there are objections – from climate scientists warning of the potent warming powers of methane, or local communities that don't want these high-risk export ports on their beloved coasts. But who has time for debate? It's an emergency! A 911 call ringing! Pass the laws first, think about them later.
Plenty of industries are good at this ploy, but none is more adept at exploiting the rationality-arresting properties of crisis than the global gas sector.
For the past four years the gas lobby has used the economic crisis in Europe to tell countries like Greece that the way out of debt and desperation is to open their beautiful and fragile seas to drilling. And it has employed similar arguments to rationalise fracking across North America and the United Kingdom.
Now the crisis du jour is conflict in Ukraine, being used as a battering ram to knock down sensible restrictions on natural gas exports and push through a controversial free-trade deal with Europe. It's quite a deal: more corporate free-trade polluting economies and more heat-trapping gases polluting the atmosphere – all as a response to an energy crisis that is largely manufactured.
Against this backdrop it's worth remembering – irony of ironies – that the crisis the natural gas industry has been most adept at exploiting is climate change itself.
Never mind that the industry's singular solution to the climate crisis is to dramatically expand an extraction process in fracking that releases massive amounts of climate-destabilising methane into our atmosphere. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases – 34 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, according to the latest estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And that is over a 100-year period, with methane's power dwindling over time.
It's far more relevant, argues the Cornell University biochemist Robert Howarth, one of the world's leading experts on methane emissions, to look at the impact in the 15- to 20-year range, when methane has a global-warming potential that is a staggering 86-100 times greater than carbon dioxide. "It is in this time frame that we risk locking ourselves into very rapid warming," he said on Wednesday.
And remember: you don't build multibillion-dollar pieces of infrastructure unless you plan on using them for at least 40 years. So we are responding to the crisis of our warming planet by constructing a network of ultra-powerful atmospheric ovens. Are we mad?
Not that we know how much methane is actually released by drilling and fracking and all their attendant infrastructure. Even while the natural gas industry touts its "lower than coal!" carbon dioxide emissions, it has never systematically measured its fugitive methane leaks, which waft from every stage of the gas extraction, processing, and distribution process – from the well casings and the condenser valves to the cracked pipelines under Harlem neighbourhoods. The gas industry itself, in 1981, came up with the clever pitch that natural gas was a "bridge" to a clean energy future. That was 33 years ago. Long bridge. And the far bank still nowhere in view.
And in 1988 – the year that the climatologist James Hansen warned Congress, in historic testimony, about the urgent problem of global warming – the American Gas Association began to explicitly frame its product as a response to the "greenhouse effect". It wasted no time, in other words, selling itself as the solution to a global crisis that it had helped create.
The industry's use of the crisis in Ukraine to expand its global market under the banner of "energy security" must be seen in the context of this uninterrupted record of crisis opportunism. Only this time many more of us know where true energy security lies. Thanks to the work of top researchers such as Mark Jacobson and his Stanford team, we know that the world can, by the year 2030, power itself entirely with renewables. And thanks to the latest, alarming reports from the IPCC, we know that doing so is now an existential imperative.
This is the infrastructure we need to be rushing to build – not massive industrial projects that will lock us into further dependency on dangerous fossil fuels for decades into the future. Yes, these fuels are still needed during the transition, but more than enough conventionals are on hand to carry us through: extra-dirty extraction methods such as tar sands and fracking are simply not necessary. As Jacobson said in an interview just this week: "We don't need unconventional fuels to produce the infrastructure to convert to entirely clean and renewable wind, water and solar power for all purposes. We can rely on the existing infrastructure plus the new infrastructure [of renewable generation] to provide the energy for producing the rest of the clean infrastructure that we'll need ... Conventional oil and gas is much more than enough."
Given this, it's up to Europeans to turn their desire for emancipation from Russian gas into a demand for an accelerated transition to renewables. Such a transition – to which European nations are committed under the Kyoto protocol – can easily be sabotaged if the world market is flooded with cheap fossil fuels fracked from the US bedrock. And indeed Americans Against Fracking, which is leading the charge against the fast-tracking of LNG exports, is working closely with its European counterparts to prevent this from happening.
Responding to the threat of catastrophic warming is our most pressing energy imperative. And we simply can't afford to be distracted by the natural gas industry's latest crisis-fuelled marketing ploy.
Drinking water in China's Lanzhou city unsafe to drink, say authorities
Water in city found to contain levels of benzene, a cancer-inducing chemical, at 20 times above safety levels
Reuters in Beijing
theguardian.com, Friday 11 April 2014 11.36 BST
China's western city of Lanzhou saw a rush for supermarket bottled water on Friday after authorities said the city's drinking water contained levels of benzene, a cancer-inducing chemical, at 20 times above national safety levels.
With Beijing having identified the environment as one of its top priorities after years of unfettered economic growth, the government has struggled to make local governments and industries comply with laws.
Lanzhou, a heavily-industrialised city of 3.6 million people in Gansu province, ranks among China's most polluted cities.
The government found 200 micrograms of benzene per litre of water, it said, triggering the rush to stock up on bottled water. The national safety standard is 10 micrograms per litre.
Water supply was turned off in one city district, and the government warned citizens not to drink the city's water for the next 24 hours.
"Lanzhou has shut down the contaminated water supply pipe and deployed activated carbon to absorb the benzene," the government said in a statement. Activated carbon has small pores that enable it to absorb chemicals.
Preliminary inspection showed the benzene came from nearby chemical factories, the local government said on its website, although no culprit was named. The environmental bureau is carrying out further investigations.
The water supply company is majority-owned by the local city government, with British firm Veolia Water, a unit of French firm Veolia Environnement, holding a 45% stake.
China Takes On Big Risks in Its Push for Shale Gas
By KEITH BRADSHERAPRIL 11, 2014
China’s largest energy company has made the country’s first commercially viable shale gas discovery, but the path to energy independence is fraught with risks, as one town has seen first-hand.
JIAOSHIZHEN, China — Residents of this isolated mountain valley of terraced cornfields were just going to sleep last April when they were jolted by an enormous roar, followed by a tower of flames. A shock wave rolled across the valley, rattling windows in farmhouses and village shops, and a mysterious, pungent gas swiftly pervaded homes.
“It was so scary — everyone who had a car fled the village and the rest of us without cars just stayed and waited to die,” said Zhang Mengsu, a hardware store owner.
All too quickly, residents realized the source of the midnight fireball: a shale gas drilling rig in their tiny rural hamlet.
This verdant valley represents the latest frontier in the worldwide hunt for shale gas retrievable by the technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It is a drilling boom that has upended the energy industry and spurred billions of dollars of investment.
Like the United States and Europe, China wants to wean itself from its dependence on energy imports — and in Jiaoshizhen, the Chinese energy giant Sinopec says it has made the country’s first commercially viable shale gas discovery. Its efforts could also help address another urgent issue, as Beijing looks to curb an overwhelming reliance on coal that has blackened skies and made China the largest contributor to global warming.
But the path to energy independence and a cleaner fossil fuel is fraught with potential pitfalls. Threats to workplace safety, public health and the environment all loom large in the shale gas debate — and the question is whether those short-term risks threaten to undermine China’s long-term goal.
The energy industry around the world has faced criticism about the economic viability of vast shale projects and the environmental impact of the fracking process. But interviews with residents of six hamlets here where drilling is being done, as well as with executives and experts in Beijing, the United States and Europe, suggest that China’s search poses even greater challenges.
In China, companies must drill two to three times as deep as in the United States, making the process significantly more expensive, noisier and potentially more dangerous. Chinese energy giants also operate in strict secrecy; they rarely engage with local communities, and accidents claim a high death toll.
The still-disputed incident in Jiaoshizhen has raised serious concerns among its residents.
Villagers said that employees at the time told them that eight workers died when the rig exploded that night. Sinopec officials and village leaders then ordered residents not to discuss the event, according to the villagers. Now villagers complain of fouled streams and polluted fields.
“There was a huge ball of fire,” said Liu Jiazhen, a mustard greens farmer with three children who lives a five-minute walk from the site. “The managers here all raced for their lives up the hill.”
Ms. Liu said that the flames rose higher than the pines on a nearby ridge, covering the steel frame of the rig, which is nearly 100 feet high. The flames burned for hours, she said.
Sinopec describes the incident as a controlled flaring of gas and denies that anybody died. While the company would not speak in detail about its shale projects, Sinopec said it ran its operations safely and without harm to the environment.
Li Chunguang, the president of Sinopec, said in an interview in late March that nothing had gone wrong in Jiaoshizhen. “There is no basis for this,” he said.
The bustling activity in Jiaoshizhen indicates a significant find for Sinopec.
Feeder pipes connect some of the dozen or so drilling sites, and 100 more wells are planned. Bright blue, boxy equipment for gas compression is being installed on large, flat lots next to at least two of the drilling rigs. A two-lane road has been paved across a mountain pass from Fuling, the nearest city, to help carry the 1,100 truckloads of steel, cement and other supplies needed for each well.
The valley has been so isolated for centuries that residents of its 16 hamlets still speak a dialect that is distinct even from Fuling, 13 miles away. Jiaoshizhen had only two-story concrete buildings and single-story mud brick farmhouses last August; Sinopec workers lived in trailers while managers rented the upstairs of concrete homes. On a visit six months later, at least 20 tower cranes were erecting high-rises.
The gas field in Jiaoshizhen “is the closest we have in China to a breakthrough project,” said Gavin Thompson, the head of Asia and Pacific gas and power research at Wood Mackenzie, one of the largest energy consulting companies. He noted, however, that Sinopec was providing few details and that he, like most Western experts, had not been able to visit the valley.
Chris Faulkner, the chief executive and president of Breitling Energy, a Dallas company that has advised Sinopec on its drilling in western China for four years, said that the energy giants’ reluctance to have open discussions about health, safety and environmental issues might prompt communities to fear the worst.
“If they think that they’re going to go out and drill 1,000 wells, and no one is going to Google ‘fracking,’ they’re fools,” he said, adding that even in China, “the days of ‘shut up and be quiet’ are gone.”
The Chinese energy giants have plenty of money to fund their efforts. Sinopec has one million employees and is the world’s fourth-largest company by revenue after Royal Dutch Shell, Walmart and Exxon Mobil; the fifth-largest is China National Petroleum. With their deep pockets, the companies have been investing heavily in North American shale businesses; Sinopec paid $2.2 billion in 2012 for a 30 percent stake in Devon Energy’s shale gas and oil operations in the United States.
In China, workplace safety is a significant concern. Thousands die each year in coal mines, according to government statistics that have prompted a successful national crackdown over the last decade.
Scant information is publicly available about the safety and environmental records of the politically powerful, mostly state-owned oil and gas industry. But Sinopec has acknowledged two deadly accidents in the last year, albeit not related to fracking. An oil pipeline explosion in Qingdao killed 62 and injured 136, and a cooking gas explosion in Dongguan killed one.
In Jiaoshizhen, after the blast, worries linger about the impact on the residents’ health and their fields.
Villagers said in interviews in August and February that the fast-spreading gas they encountered last year had been foul-smelling. Sinopec said that it had done air tests and not found any toxic pollution, although it declined to identify the gas.
The gas evoked particular fear here because drilling by China National Petroleum in 2003 about 120 miles to the northeast released toxic gases that killed 243 people and sickened thousands. That accident involved conventional gas exploration, however, not fracking.
Residents here also worry about diesel runoff from the drilling sites, tainting local streams and at least one shallow well. The drilling “makes so much noise and the water that comes down the mountain has become so much dirtier to drink; now it smells of diesel,” said Tian Shiao Yung, a farmer.
Sinopec said that it temporarily provided drinking water to residents after drilling foam surfaced in a nearby cave last spring, and it changed its drilling practice. The company said that subsequent tests had shown the local water to be “drinkable.”
Despite her complaints, Ms. Tian, like every other resident interviewed, welcomed the drilling for one reason: money.
Sinopec rents land from farmers for 9,000 renminbi, or $1,475, per acre each year. Farmers earn that much money from growing crops only in the best years, and then after hundreds of hours of labor.
“Farmers don’t mind; now they can buy their rice instead of having to grow it,” Ms. Tian said, adding: “I’m still drinking the water.”
IPCC report: world must urgently switch to clean sources of energy
UN panel's third report explains how global dependence on fossil fuels must end in order to avoid catastrophic climate change
The Guardian, Saturday 12 April 2014
Clean energy will have to at least treble in output and dominate world energy supplies by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, a UN report is set to conclude on Sunday.
The report produced by hundreds of experts and backed by almost 200 world governments, will detail the dramatic transformation required of the entire globe's power system, including ending centuries of coal, oil and gas supremacy.
Currently fossil fuels provide more than 80% of all energy but the urgent need to cut planet-warming carbon emissions means this must fall to as little as a third of present levels in coming decades, according to a leaked draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report seen by the Guardian.
There is heavy emphasis on renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, and cutting energy waste, which together need hundreds of billions of dollars of investment a year.
But despite the scale of the challenge, the draft report is upbeat: "Since , many renewable energy technologies have substantially advanced in terms of performance and cost and a growing number have achieved technical and economic maturity, making renewable energy a fast growing category in energy supply," the report says.
It also highlights that the benefits of clean energy, particularly in reducing deadly air pollution and providing secure energy supplies, "outweigh the adverse side effects". The IPCC report is the last part of a trilogy compiled by thousands of the world's most eminent scientists which gives the most definitive account of climate change to date.
The first report, released in September, showed climate change was "unequivocally" caused by human activity and prompted Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to say: "The heat is on. Now we must act."
The second, published in March, warned that the impact of global warming, from extreme weather to reduced food production, posed a grave threat to humanity and could lead to wars and mass migration. The International Energy Agency said the IPCC's work showed "the urgent need of enabling a global transition to clean energy systems".
The report will address how to avert the worst dangers by cutting carbon emissions, which have been rising despite the global recession of 2007-08.
Nuclear power is cited among the low-carbon energy sources needed, but the draft report warns it "has been declining since 1993" and faces concerns about "safety, nuclear weapon proliferation risks, waste management security as well as financial and regulatory risks".
Another way to produce low-carbon energy is to burn fossil fuels but capture and bury the carbon emissions.
The IPCC experts note that, unlike renewable energy, this technology "has not yet been applied at a large, commercial scale".
The draft report concludes that increasing carbon emissions are due to rising coal use, along with increasing demand for energy from the world's growing population. But it notes that policies implemented to cut carbon emissions will also cut the value of fossil fuel reserves, particularly for coal. It also says increased use of gas could cut emissions in the "short term", if it replaces coal.
China's vast coal burning represents a huge challenge but a new analysis from Greenpeace, published on Friday, suggests it may have reached a turning point. "The range of coal caps and anti-smog measures put in place by the Chinese authorities could see the country cut its carbon emissions by more than twice the UK's annual footprint by 2020, making it possible for global carbon levels to peak before climate change spirals out of control," said Li Shuo, Greenpeace East Asia's climate and energy campaigner.
On Thursday, Nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu called in the Guardian for an anti-apartheid-style campaign against fossil fuel companies. "It is clear that [the companies] are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money," he wrote.
Over half a trillion dollars a year are spent subsidising fossil fuels – six times more than spent supporting renewable energy – and US president Barack Obama and other leaders have pledged to phase these out. The draft IPCC report states this could be done without harming the poor: "Many countries have reformed their tax and budget systems to reduce fuel subsidies, that actually accrue to the relatively wealthy, and used other mechanisms that are more targeted to the poor."
The draft report runs counter to some of the UK's key energy policies. It states that decarbonising electricity is key to cost-effective cuts in emissions, but the coalition government voted down a plan to do this by 2030. The report also warns that building high-carbon energy infrastructure developments will lock societies into high emissions and may be "difficult or very costly to change", but UK ministers are strongly pushing shale gas exploration. The UK's carbon plan includes significant burning of biofuels and biomass (usually wood), which is supposed to be carbon neutral. But the IPCC report says scientific debate about whether biofuels cut emissions "remains unresolved" and that without policy safeguards "large scale bioenergy deployment could increase emissions".
Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins, said: "We can only avoid catastrophic climate change if we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – we're already on track for four degrees warming, which will be impossible for human society to adapt to. We have the technology to prevent dangerous climate change. What we lack is the political will of our leaders to strongly champion renewable power and energy efficiency."
Li said: "We stand at a fork in road. One way leads to more dependence on dwindling fossil fuels that are wrecking our climate and damaging our health; the other to a world powered by a booming clean energy sector that is already driving growth and creating jobs. The sooner we act, the cheaper it will be."
Whooping cough vaccine may have lost its punch as bacterium evolves
Australian study showed 80% of cases were free of the protein needed for vaccine's efficacy
Australian Associated Press
theguardian.com, Tuesday 15 April 2014 06.31 BST
The vaccine used to immunise against whooping cough might have bred a more evolved strain of the disease.
Researchers from the University of NSW say Bordetella pertussis, the bacterium that causes the potentially deadly illness, appears to have evolved to overcome the vaccine used to fight it.
That vaccine works by locating a protein called pertactin, which had been identified as one of the key elements of the disease.
But the study showed that about 80% of Australian whooping cough cases in 2012 were pertactin-free.
“It is harder for the antibodies made by the body's immune system in response to vaccination to 'search and destroy' the whooping cough bacteria which lack pertactin,” the senior author, Associate Professor Ruiting Lan, said.
“It's like a game of hide and seek.”
The pertactin-free whooping cough strain might have gained a selective advantage over those carrying the protein, he said.
He said pertactin-free whooping cough cases had also been found in France and the United States.
“The fact that they have arisen independently in different countries suggests this is in response to the vaccine,” said Lan.
But he stressed that although it may prove more elusive to the vaccine, there was no current evidence the new strain is deadlier.
It is also unclear whether the new strain reduces the effectiveness of the vaccine and, if so, for how long.
Between 2008 and 2012, there were about 142,000 cases of whooping cough detected in Australia.
The disease can also be especially dangerous for babies and may cause feeding or breathing difficulties, pneumonia, brain damage or death.
The study, which analysed more than 300 bacteria samples from across Australia, was published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.
Disease threatens to wipe out most of the world’s bananas
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, April 14, 2014 8:58 EDT
The United Nations warned on Monday of the potential “massive destruction” of the world’s banana crop if a disease affecting the most popular variety spreads from Asia to Africa and the Middle East.
The disease is “posing a serious threat to production and export” of bananas, the fourth most important food crop for the world’s least developed countries, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a statement.
“Countries need to act now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario, which is massive destruction of much of the world’s banana crop,” Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at FAO, was quoted as saying.
Gianluca Gondolini, secretary of the World Banana Forum, said it could hurt “employment and government revenues in many tropical countries”.
The TR4 strain of Panama disease, which is one of the world’s most destructive and affects the Cavendish variety — the most popular in global exports.
FAO said it had already caused significant losses over the last two decades in Southeast Asia and cases had recently been reported in Jordan and Mozambique.
It has not yet affected top global exporters such as Colombia or Ecuador.
The disease is soil-borne and the fungus can remain viable for decades and is not dangerous to humans.
The FAO said there was a need for more monitoring, prevention and training for farm workers, including measures to avoid movement of infected soil and planting materials into and out of farms.
[Women sell bananas in Hampi, India via Shutterstock.com]
Bombshell Study Links Epic California Drought, ‘Frigid East’ To Manmade Climate Change
By Susie Madrak April 15, 2014 3:05 pm
It's not as if we didn't already assume this was happening, but scientists have been reluctant to draw a definitive line. But the right-wingers will quickly explain this is simply part of that liberal agenda-driven excuse for science:
Natural variability alone cannot explain the extreme weather pattern that has driven both the record-setting California drought and the cooler weather seen in the Midwest and East this winter, a major new study finds.
We’ve reported before that climate scientists had predicted a decade ago that warming-driven Arctic ice loss would lead to worsening drought in California. In particular, they predicted it would lead to a “blocking pattern” that would shift the jet stream (and the rain it could bring) away from the state — in this case a “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” of high pressure.
A new study in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d) takes the warming link to the California drought to the next level of understanding. It concludes, “there is a traceable anthropogenic warming footprint in the enormous intensity of the anomalous ridge during winter 2013-14, the associated drought and its intensity.”
The NASA-funded study is behind a pay wall, but the brief news release, offers a simple explanation of what is going on. The research provides “evidence connecting the ampliﬁed wind patterns, consisting of a strong high pressure in the West and a deep low pressure in the East [labeled a 'dipole'], to global warming.” Researchers have “uncovered evidence that can trace the ampliﬁcation of the dipole to human inﬂuences.”
Study: Global warming is due to carbon dioxide emissions, not chlorofluorocarbon
By Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian
Friday, April 18, 2014 12:42 EDT
A paper published in the International Journal of Modern Physics B by the University of Waterloo’s Qing-Bin Lu last year claimed that solar activity and human chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions, not carbon dioxide emissions, could explain the observed global warming over the past century. The journal has now published a rebuttal of that paper by myself and my colleagues Kevin Cowtan, Peter Jacobs, Mark Richardson, Robert Way, Anne-Marie Blackburn, Martin Stolpe, and John Cook.
As I recently discussed, contrarian climate research blaming global warming on Anything But Carbon (ABC) tends to receive disproportionate media attention. Lu’s paper was a prime example, being trumpeted by a University of Waterloo press release and Science Daily and Phys.org articles, all of which used exaggerated language like “Lu’s theory has been confirmed.” ABC News did a better job covering the paper, talking to climate scientist David Karoly, who expressed appropriate skepticism about a paper which purports to overturn decades and even centuries of well-established physics and climate science in one fell swoop. Characteristically, Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian then criticized ABC News for failing to be “fair and balanced” because they interviewed an actual climate expert about the paper.
However, Lu’s paper contained numerous clear fundamental flaws. For one, the underlying argument was based on “curve fitting” or “overfitting,” which is when the variables in a model are arbitrarily stretched to match the observational data. In this case, Lu took the global energy imbalance caused by CFCs (which are greenhouse gases) and scaled them up dramatically to match measurements of global surface temperatures.
Lu then also had to explain why CFCs would be increasing the greenhouse effect, but carbon dioxide wouldn’t. To accomplish this, he invoked what’s known as “the saturated gassy argument” – claiming that rising carbon dioxide can’t cause more warming because there is already so much in the atmosphere that its greenhouse effect has become saturated. This argument was first made by Knut Ångström in 1900, but was conclusively disproved by E. O. Hulburt in 1931 and military research in the 1940s. Lu misinterpreted several recent papers to revive the argument, but as we showed in our paper, it still remains incorrect.
Ultimately Lu’s argument was that global surface warming has slowed in recent years, and his model using CFCs and solar activity could accurately match those observations. However, Lu used outdated and superseded surface temperature measurements with a cool bias that exaggerated that surface warming slowdown. He also used an extremely outdated reconstruction of solar activity. We showed that even ignoring the unphysical “curve fitting” in his model, models using current known human climate influences produced a more accurate fit to up-to-date surface temperature measurements than Lu’s model.
The extreme curve fitting employed in Lu’s paper is apparent in the above figure, with the solid green line indicating the actual global surface temperature response from the CFC influence, and the green dashed line indicating the response after the arbitrary scaling by Lu. It’s also clear that the temperature response to all human influences (black dashed line) correlates well with the observed temperature changes, with natural influences and internal variability also accounting for some short-term changes, like the surface warming slowdown over the past 10 to 15 years.
Another key flaw that we discussed in our paper was Lu’s failure to account for the entire climate system. Changes in the greenhouse effect don’t only impact surface temperatures; they impact the entire global climate. Thus if CFCs really were the current dominant influence on the global climate, given that they have flattened in recent years (due to the Montreal Protocol), the warming of the entire global climate should also have flattened out. That’s simply not the case, as the oceans have continued to warm at a rate equivalent to about 4 Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations per second during that time. As our paper showed, the fundamental flaws in Lu’s argument are numerous.
*It ignores the continued rapid heat accumulation in the oceans*It relies on unphysical curve fitting*It tries to revive the long-debunked saturated gassy argument*It uses outdated data*Using known human climate influences dominated by carbon dioxide fits the data better than Lu’s flawed model anyway
Our paper concludes,
“We therefore conclude that the hypothesis of [Lu] is not only inferior to the mainstream explanation of the present climate change, but that it is based on unphysical and fundamentally flawed premises.”
Lu’s paper fits into Category 2 of the ways flawed contrarian papers get published in scientific journals – by submitting to an off-topic journal.
It’s not uncommon for contrarian research to be published in physics rather than climate journals. The editors of off-topic journals may be unable to identify referees with adequate climate expertise to review these climate papers, making it more likely that the sorts of fundamental flaws that were the basis of Lu’s paper won’t be identified during the peer-review process, and hence more likely that this flawed research will be published in off-topic journals.
It’s important to note that contrarian research is often useful in challenging and advancing our scientific understanding. However, as Carl Sagan said,
“They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
As our Cosmopolis paper recently showed, unlike the human-caused global warming theory, contrarian hypotheses have not withstood scientific scrutiny or the test of time. The media tends to give papers like Lu’s disproportionate attention because controversy sells and because many people don’t want to believe humans are engaging in dangerous disruption of the global climate system. It’s unlikely that our rebuttal will receive nearly as much media attention.
However, when these papers are published in off-topic journals, that’s a red flag that they may not have been subjected to rigorous expert peer-review, and that their claims should be strongly scrutinized before being uncritically passed along for public consumption. In this respect, The Australian, Science Daily, and Phys.org failed, but ABC News deserves praise for soliciting expert opinion in their coverage of this paper.
Ultimately we can chalk CFCs up to another failed Anything But Carbon (ABC) hypothesis. The list of contradictory ABCs is extensive, for example blaming global warming on the sun, ocean cycles, CFCs, galactic cosmic rays, and volcanoes, all of which contradict the claims that the planet isn’t warming or that it’s cooling. Other contrarians contradict all of these arguments by accepting the reality of human-caused global warming, instead claiming that the climate just isn’t sensitive to the increased greenhouse effect, or that global warming is a good thing.
While the expert consensus on human-caused global warming is consistent and cohesive, it seems like no two contrarians can agree on an alternative hypothesis, quite simply because none except human-caused global warming is supported by the full body of scientific evidence.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Corn biofuels worse than gasoline on global warming in short term – study
• $500,000 study paid for by federal government
• Conclusion: 7% more greenhouse gases in early years
Associated Press in Washington
theguardian.com, Sunday 20 April 2014 20.48 BST
Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a new study shows, challenging the Obama administration's conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change.
A $500,000 study – paid for by the federal government and released Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change – concludes that biofuels made with corn residue release 7% more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline.
While biofuels are better in the long run, the study says they won't meet a standard set in a 2007 energy law to qualify as renewable fuel.
The conclusions deal a blow to proponents of cellulosic biofuels, which have received more than a billion dollars in federal support but have struggled to meet volume targets mandated by law. About half of the initial market in cellulosics is expected to be derived from corn residue.
The biofuel industry and administration officials immediately criticised the research as flawed. They said it was too simplistic in its analysis of carbon loss from soil, which can vary over a single field, and vastly overestimated how much residue farmers actually would remove once the market gets underway.
"The core analysis depicts an extreme scenario that no responsible farmer or business would ever employ because it would ruin both the land and the long-term supply of feedstock. It makes no agronomic or business sense," said Jan Koninckx, global business director for biorefineries at DuPont.
Later this year the company is scheduled to finish a $200m-plus facility in Nevada, Iowa, that will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol using corn residue from nearby farms. An assessment paid for by DuPont said that the ethanol it will produce there could be more than 100% better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The research published in Nature Climate Change is among the first to attempt to quantify, over 12 corn belt states, how much carbon is lost to the atmosphere when the stalks, leaves and cobs that make up residue are removed and used to make biofuel, instead of left to naturally replenish the soil with carbon. The study found that regardless of how much corn residue is taken off the field, the process contributes to global warming.
"I knew this research would be contentious," said Adam Liska, the lead author and an assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "I'm amazed it has not come out more solidly until now."
The Environmental Protection Agency's own analysis, which assumed about half of corn residue would be removed from fields, found that fuel made from corn residue, also known as stover, would meet the standard in the energy law. That standard requires cellulosic biofuels to release 60% less carbon pollution than gasoline.
Cellulosic biofuels that don't meet that threshold could be almost impossible to make and sell. Producers wouldn't earn the $1 per gallon subsidy they need to make these expensive fuels and make a profit. Refiners would shun the fuels because they wouldn't meet their legal obligation to use minimum amounts of next-generation biofuels.
An EPA spokeswoman, Liz Purchia, said in a statement that the study "does not provide useful information relevant to the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn stover ethanol".
But an AP investigation last year found that the EPA's analysis of corn-based ethanol failed to predict the environmental consequences accurately.
The departments of Agriculture and Energy have initiated programmes with farmers to make sure residue is harvested sustainably. For instance, farmers will not receive any federal assistance for conservation programmes if too much corn residue is removed.
A peer-reviewed study performed at the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory in 2012 found that biofuels made with corn residue were 95% better than gasoline in greenhouse gas emissions. That study assumed some of the residue harvested would replace power produced from coal, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it is unclear whether future biorefineries would do that.
Liska agrees that using some of the residue to make electricity, or planting cover crops, would reduce carbon emissions. But he did not include those in his computer simulation.
Still, corn residue is likely to be a big source early on for cellulosic biofuels, which have struggled to reach commercial scale. Last year, for the fifth time, the EPA proposed reducing the amount required by law. It set a target of 17 million gallons for 2014. The law envisioned 1.75 billion gallons being produced this year.
"The study says it will be very hard to make a biofuel that has a better greenhouse gas impact than gasoline using corn residue," which puts it in the same boat as corn-based ethanol, said David Tilman, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has done research on biofuels' emissions from farm to tailpipe.
Tilman said the new study was the best on the issue he had seen so far.