Arctic ice: Less than meets the eye – environment – 31 August 2010 – New Scientist

Arctic ice: Less than meets the eye – environment – 31 August 2010 – New Scientist.

The ice may not retreat as much as feared this year, but what remains may be more rotten than robust

LAST September, David Barber was on board the Canadian icebreaker CCGS Amundsen (pictured), heading into the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. He was part of a team investigating ice conditions in autumn, the time when Arctic sea ice shrinks to its smallest extent before starting to grow again as winter sets in.

Barber, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, went to sleep one night at midnight, just before the ship was due to reach a region of very thick sea ice. The Amundsen is only capable of breaking solid ice about a metre thick, so according to the ice forecasts for ships, the region should have been impassable.

Yet when Barber woke up early the next morning, the ship was still cruising along almost as fast as usual. Either someone had made a mistake and the ship was headed for catastrophe, or there was something very wrong with the ice, he thought, as he rushed to the bridge in his pyjamas.

On the surface, the situation in the Arctic looks dramatic enough. In September 2007, the total extent of sea with surface ice shrank further than ever recorded before – to nearly 40 per cent below the long-term average. This low has yet to be surpassed. But the extent of sea ice is not all that matters, as Barber found. Look deeper and there are even more dramatic changes. This is something everyone should be concerned about because the transformation of the Arctic will affect us all.

The record low in 2007 cannot be blamed on global warming alone; weather played a big role too. That year saw a build-up of high pressure over the Beaufort Sea and a trough of low pressure over northern Siberia – a weather pattern called the Arctic dipole anomaly. It brings warm, southerly winds that increase melting. The winds also drive sea ice away from the Siberian coast and out of the Arctic Ocean towards the Atlantic, where it melts.

In 2008 and 2009, the dipole anomaly did not dominate and the extent of ice did not shrink as much during summer. This rebound led to much talk of a recovery in Arctic ice.

This June, the dipole anomaly returned and the ice extent for the month was the lowest ever. In July, however, the dipole pattern broke up and the rate of ice loss slowed. “Whether or not we set a new record depends very much on the weather patterns,” says Mark Serreze of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center based in Boulder, Colorado, which monitors the extent of sea ice – a particular way of measuring its area.

While much attention is likely to be paid to whether or not a new record is reached in the next month, there is more to sea ice than area alone. New sea ice can grow up to 2 metres thick during the winter. If it survives the summer melt, it can grow even thicker over the three to six years it might last before being swept past Greenland and out into the Atlantic Ocean, or succumbing to the summer melt. In places, this multi-year ice can pile up forming “pressure ridges” as much as 50 metres deep. But its average thickness is now less than 3 metres according to ICESat, the only satellite capable of measuring ice height and thus thickness (Geophysical Research Letters, vol 36, L15501).

There is no long-term record of the total volume of ice because we have only patchy data; ICESat was launched in 2003 and failed earlier this year. The nearest thing we have are estimates from PIOMAS, developed by Jinlun Zhang and his colleagues at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center in Seattle. Actual satellite measurements of sea ice concentration since 1978 are fed into a computer model of the growth, melting and motion of sea ice to produce an estimate of ice volume. PIOMAS’s results correspond well with independent measurements by submarines and by ICESat.

According to PIOMAS estimates supplied to New Scientist by Zhang, the average volume of Arctic ice between July and September has fallen from 21,000 cubic kilometres in 1979 to 8000 cubic kilometres in 2009. That is a 55 per cent fall compared with the 1979 to 2000 average. “The loss of ice volume is faster than the loss of ice extent,” says Zhang. His model suggests that not only has the total volume of Arctic ice continued to decline since 2007, but that the rate of loss is accelerating (see “Going, going…”).

Not only has the volume of ice continued to decline, the rate of loss is accelerating

How can ice volume have kept falling when extent increased again after 2007? Because less and less ice is surviving to see its first birthday. “First-year ice is now the dominant ice type in the Arctic, whereas a few years ago multi-year ice was dominant,” says Barber.

Young ice is thinner than multi-year ice, and thus more likely to break into smaller pieces that melt more quickly, and more likely to be swept out of the Arctic and into warmer seas. That is precisely what happened in 2007, when persistent winds blew a thinner ice pack through the Fram Strait between Greenland and the island of Spitsbergen, leading to the dramatic ice loss. “The same wind 30 years ago when the ice was thicker would not have done as much damage,” says Bruno Tremblay, a climate researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

And while the area of young ice increased in 2008 and 2009, the amount of multi-year ice continued to fall. “There wasn’t a recovery at all,” Barber says.

Even the nature of the remaining sea ice might be changing. When Barber rushed up to the bridge that morning in September 2009, the first officer told him that while it looked like there was ice, it was no barrier to the ship at all. The reason: the ice was rotten.

It consisted of multi-year ice that had become riddled with surface thaw holes and had broken into pieces. Over winter, a 5-centimetre layer of new ice had formed over the dispersed floes. If a person tried standing on it they would fall right through, so it was no obstacle to the Amundsen. It is not clear how widespread these conditions are because satellites cannot distinguish between rotten and more solid ice (Geophysical Research Letters, vol 36, p L24501). The rotten ice is less of a barrier to waves as well as ships, meaning waves can penetrate further into ice packs and break up more ice.

What it all means is that, much like the Amundsen, we are now cruising effortlessly into a world that may soon feature an essentially ice-free Arctic during at least part of the year. “Thirty years from now, maybe even 20 years from now, if you were to look at the Arctic from space you would see a blue ocean [in summer],” says Serreze.

The implications of such changes for wildlife and the human inhabitants of the region, for the global climate and for geopolitics are profound. The Arctic would be traversable by ship. It would be far more open to oil and gas exploration, and mineral extraction. Its dark ocean waters, mostly devoid of ice, would absorb still more sunlight, further warming the overlying atmosphere during an increasingly lengthy ice-free season, reshaping weather throughout the region and well beyond it.

Worryingly, the melting of the Arctic sea ice is proceeding considerably more quickly than most climate models have predicted. Among the suite of models submitted for the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only two out of 23 yielded results for Arctic sea ice that were consistent with observations, says Cecilia Bitz of the University of Washington in Seattle.

According to the 2007 models, the Arctic will not become ice-free in summer until some time after 2050. However, researchers like Barber and Serreze think this landmark occurrence will come much earlier. Barber has predicted that it will occur sometime between 2013 and 2030.

If most models aren’t capturing the full extent of changes in the Arctic, it is probably because the modelled feedbacks are too weak, says Bitz. In other words, they may not be sensitive enough to processes that, once they get going, self-amplify in a continuing loop.

Every model includes the “ice albedo feedback”, in which the melting of ice that reflects most of the sun’s heat exposes dark water that absorbs most heat. That leads to more melting and so on – a positive feedback. But there could be many others.

Consider, for instance, the role of Arctic storms. They break up ice with their winds and waves, making it more prone to melting – and the more open water there is, the more powerful waves can become. These larger waves – which were not included in any models – then penetrate further into the ice pack, breaking it up into smaller and smaller pieces, says Barber. From the bridge of the Amundsen as it sat moored in the ice last year, Barber himself watched as a large swell broke a chunk of ice the size of Manhattan into a number of pieces roughly 100 metres across.

Storms also bring snow, which in autumn and winter actually slows the growth of sea ice by insulating it from cold winds, as well as reducing heat loss from the sea below. So if climate change leads to more snow in autumn and winter, this will be yet another factor contributing to the loss of sea ice.

Bitz thinks the 2007 low was a wake-up call for climate modellers, compelling them to look more closely at how their programs handle sea ice. She expects that when the next set of models is submitted to the IPCC for its 2013 report, their outputs will be much more in line with observations. “The modelling centres are short of resources for giving focus to a particular part of the model,” she says. “But when a big story comes out like 2007, they redirect, and that will pay off.”

The implications of the loss of Arctic sea ice in the summer are hard to overstate. Most attention has focused on charismatic megafauna like polar bears and walruses, but they are just the icons of a broader ecosystem that is already being dramatically disrupted. The sea ice is as important as the trees to a rainforest, Barber says.

The loss of sea ice will also have many other impacts. For instance, the increase in the size of waves has already begun to cause serious coastal erosion in places like Alaska, with the effect magnified by warmer waters and rising sea level. The impact of the waves eventually melts the permafrost of which the coastline is composed. “Some of those coastlines are made of very fine silt,” says Tremblay. “The land just washes away.”

A warmer Arctic will also affect weather in the mid-latitudes – indeed, it has already begun. Take the Great Plains of the US. According to Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute in Washington DC, this region’s weather is very much determined by clashes between cold air masses coming down from the Arctic and warm air masses from the Gulf of Mexico. As the Arctic blasts are less cold than they used to be, the Gulf’s warm air tends to push further northwards. The result is a northward shift of weather patterns, and more extreme storms and heavy precipitation events in regions not used to them.

Finally, there are the economic and industrial implications. “The engineering challenges get simpler,” says Barber, “for drilling, for putting drill ships in place, for having icebreakers, to make tankers carry oil across the pole – all those kinds of challenges associated with industrial development.” Such challenges will diminish, or even vanish entirely. The Amundsen’s surprisingly easy voyage through the Beaufort Sea in September 2009 could be a herald of things to come.

Chris Mooney is a host of the Point of Inquiry

Hurricane Earl threatens US Coast after hitting Caribbean

Earl threatens US Coast after hitting Caribbean – Yahoo! News.

Hurricane Earl on path toward U.S. East Coast

Hurricane Earl in a satellite image taken August 30, 2010. REUTERS/NOAA

Hurricane Earl in a satellite image taken August 30, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/NOAA

MIAMI | Tue Aug 31, 2010 8:52am EDT

MIAMI (Reuters) – Hurricane Earl followed a path toward the U.S. East Coast on Tuesday as the powerful storm pulled away from northeastern Caribbean islands it had pounded with winds and rain, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Forecasters said it was still unclear which part of the U.S. eastern seaboard that Earl, the second major hurricane of the 2010 Atlantic season, might affect later in the week.

“Interests from the Carolinas northward to New England should monitor the progress of Earl,” the Miami-based hurricane center said in its 5 a.m. EDT advisory.

Earl was a strong Category 4 storm with top sustained winds of 135 miles per hour and was 290 miles east-southeast of Grand Turk Island. It was moving west-northwest on a curving track the hurricane center said could take it near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on Thursday and Friday.

The storm center was moving farther from the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico and was forecast to cross the open Atlantic east of the Turks and Caicos island later on Tuesday.

On its current path, Earl posed no threat to the Gulf of Mexico, where major U.S. oil and gas installations are located.

A direct hit on the U.S. East Coast could not be ruled out, and Earl was expected to bring drenching rain, dangerous seas and surf and gusting wind to the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to New England and Canada, said Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist for private forecaster AccuWeather.

If Earl swings farther west than expected, heavy rain could sweep the Interstate 95 corridor from North Carolina to Washington, Philadelphia and New York City, he said.

Hovensa LLC said operations were normal at its 500,000 barrel-per-day refinery on the island of St. Croix, but that the refinery’s harbor and all other ports in the U.S. Virgin Islands had been closed because of Earl.


Earlier, the hurricane buffeted the northernmost Leeward Islands of the Caribbean with fierce winds, driving rain and pounding waves as it passed.

The world’s three largest cruise lines — Carnival Corp, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line — changed their Caribbean itineraries and rerouted at least seven ships to avoid the storm.

Residents on the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten, its two halves administered respectively by France and the Netherlands, said Earl’s passage caused power outages and toppled trees.

“Now the wind is really blowing, incredibly strong … I’ve seen a lot of tree damage … I would certainly assume roofs off, I’m watching mine very carefully,” Steve Wright, general manager of the Grand Case Beach Club in Grand Case, St. Martin, told Reuters.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

In Antigua, some flooding in low-lying areas was reported. After the hurricane passed, Antigua and Barbuda declared a national holiday to allow residents of the twin-island state to mop up.

The ports of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Puerto Rican ports of Vieques, Culebra, Fajardo, and San Juan were closed, the U.S. Coast Guard said. Government offices and schools in eastern Puerto Rico were shut.

The hurricane center said Tropical Storm Fiona was about 590 miles (950 km ) east of the Leeward Islands. It had top winds of 40 mph and was moving west-northwest at 23 mph on a course that was expected to take it northeast of the Leeward Islands on Wednesday. None of the forecast models took Fiona into the Gulf of Mexico.


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Hurricane Earl, now a powerful Category 4 storm, barreled toward the U.S. coast early Tuesday after battering tiny islands across the northeastern Caribbean with heavy rain and winds that damaged homes and toppled power lines.

Earl is forecast to potentially brush the U.S. East Coast late Thursday, before curving back out to sea, potentially swiping New England or far-eastern Canada. The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned coastal residents from North Carolina to Maine to watch the storm closely.

“Any small shift in the track could dramatically alter whether it makes landfall or whether it remains over the open ocean,” said Wallace Hogsett, a meteorologist at the center. “I can’t urge enough to just stay tuned.”

In the Caribbean, Earl caused flooding in low-lying areas and damaged homes on islands including Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Maarten. Several countries and territories reported power outages. Cruise ships were diverted and flights canceled across the region.

The storm’s center passed just north of the British Virgin Islands on Monday afternoon. By nighttime, the hurricane was pulling away from the Caribbean, but heavy downpours still threatened to cause flash floods and mudslides in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by drenching already saturated ground.

The Hurricane Center said it was too early to say what effect Earl would have in the U.S., but warned it could at least kick up dangerous rip currents. A surfer died in Florida and a Maryland swimmer had been missing since Saturday in waves spawned by former Hurricane Danielle, which weakened to a tropical storm Monday far out in the north Atlantic.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Earl’s approach ought to serve as a reminder for Atlantic coastal states to update their evacuation plans.

“It wouldn’t take much to have the storm come ashore somewhere on the coast,” Fugate said. “The message is for everyone to pay attention.”

Close on Earl’s heels, Tropical Storm Fiona formed Monday afternoon in the open Atlantic. The storm, with maximum winds of 40 mph (65 kph), was projected to pass just north of the Leeward Islands by Wednesday and stay farther out in the Atlantic than Earl’s northward path. Fiona wasn’t expected to reach hurricane strength over the next several days.

The rapid development of Earl, which only became a hurricane Sunday, took some islanders and tourists by surprise.

Wind was already rattling the walls of Lila Elly Ali’s wooden house on Anegada, the northernmost of the British Virgin Islands, when she and her son went out to nail the doors shut Monday.

“They say the eye of the storm is supposed to come close to us, so we’ve just got to pray. Everyone here is keeping in touch, listening to the radio,” the 58-year-old said by phone from the island of 280 people.

After Earl’s center passed, there were reports of roofs torn from homes on Anegada, but the extent of damage across the Virgin Islands was unclear Monday night. Emergency officials said they had no immediate reports of any fatalities or serious injuries.

“Thank God we survived,” said a caller to the British Virgin Islands’ ZBVI Radio.

In Anguilla, several utility poles were down and a couple of roofs had blown away, but it was still too dangerous to go out and assess the full extent of damage, said Martin Gussie, a police officer.

At El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, people lined up at the reception desk, the lights occasionally flickering, to check out and head to the airport. There, more delays awaited.

John and Linda Helton of Boulder, Colo., opted to ride out the storm. The couple, celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary, finished a cruise Sunday and planned to spend three days in Puerto Rico.

“There was a huge line of people checking out as we were coming in, and I thought it was just that summer vacation must be over,” said John Helton, a real estate appraiser. “But we paid for the room, so we might as well stick it out.”

“I don’t think we could get a flight even if we wanted to leave,” Linda Helton added.

There were no reports so far of major damage from Earl.

In St. Maarten, sand and debris littered the streets, and winds knocked down trees and electricity poles and damaged roofs. But police spokesman Ricardo Henson said there was no extensive damage to property.

In Antigua, at least one home was destroyed but there were no reports of serious injuries. Governor General Dame Louise Agnetha Lake-Tack declared Monday a public holiday to keep islanders off the road and give them a chance to clean up.

Some 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of rain were forecast to fall on islands including Puerto Rico.

Early Tuesday, Earl was about 175 miles (280 kilometers) north-northwest of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, and moving west-northwest near 13 mph (20 kph), according to the center in Miami. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 70 miles (110 kilometers) from its center.


Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Anika Kentish in St. John’s, Antigua, Judy Fitzpatrick in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, Clive Bacchus in Basseterre, St. Kitts, David McFadden in San Juan and Sofia Mannos in Washington contributed to this report.

Bjørn Lomborg's about-face on climate change

Bjørn Lomborg: $100bn a year needed to fight climate change | Environment | The Guardian.

Bjørn Lomborg: $100bn a year needed to fight climate change

Exclusive ‘Sceptical environmentalist’ and critic of climate scientists to declare global warming a chief concern facing world

Climate change voice who changed his tune
Rajendra Pachauri under pressure to stand aside

Bjorn Lomborg Danish professor Bjorn Lomborg. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesThe world’s most high-profile climate change sceptic is to declare that global warming is “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront”, in an apparent U-turn that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby.

Bjørn Lomborg, the self-styled “sceptical environmentalist” once compared to Adolf Hitler by the UN’s climate chief, is famous for attacking climate scientists, campaigners, the media and others for exaggerating the rate of global warming and its effects on humans, and the costly waste of policies to stop the problem.

But in a new book to be published next month, Lomborg will call for tens of billions of dollars a year to be invested in tackling climate change. “Investing $100bn annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate change problem by the end of this century,” the book concludes.

Examining eight methods to reduce or stop global warming, Lomborg and his fellow economists recommend pouring money into researching and developing clean energy sources such as wind, wave, solar and nuclear power, and more work on climate engineering ideas such as “cloud whitening” to reflect the sun’s heat back into the outer atmosphere.

In a Guardian interview, he said he would finance investment through a tax on carbon emissions that would also raise $50bn to mitigate the effect of climate change, for example by building better sea defences, and $100bn for global healthcare.

His declaration about the importance of action on climate change comes at a crucial point in the debate, with international efforts to agree a global deal on emissions stalled amid a resurgence in scepticism caused by rows over the reliability of the scientific evidence for global warming.

The fallout from those rows continued yesterday when Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, came under new pressure to step down after an independent review of the panel’s work called for tighter term limits for its senior executives and greater transparency in its workings. The IPCC has come under fire in recent months following revelations of inaccuracies in the last assessment of global warming, provided to governments in 2007 – for which it won the Nobel peace prize with former the US vice-president Al Gore. The mistakes, including a claim that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, prompted a review of the IPCC’s processes and procedures by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), an organisation of world science bodies.

The IAC said the IPCC needed to be as transparent as possible in how it worked, how it selected people to participate in assessments and its choice of scientific information to assess.

Although Pachauri once compared Lomborg to Hitler, he has now given an unlikely endorsement to the new book, Smart Solutions to Climate Change. In a quote for the launch, Pachauri said: “This book provides not only a reservoir of information on the reality of human-induced climate change, but raises vital questions and examines viable options on what can be done.”

Lomborg denies he has performed a volte face, pointing out that even in his first book he accepted the existence of man-made global warming. “The point I’ve always been making is it’s not the end of the world,” he told the Guardian. “That’s why we should be measuring up to what everybody else says, which is we should be spending our money well.”

But he said the crucial turning point in his argument was the Copenhagen Consensus project, in which a group of economists were asked to consider how best to spend $50bn. The first results, in 2004, put global warming near the bottom of the list, arguing instead for policies such as fighting malaria and HIV/Aids. But a repeat analysis in 2008 included new ideas for reducing the temperature rise, some of which emerged about halfway up the ranking. Lomborg said he then decided to consider a much wider variety of policies to reduce global warming, “so it wouldn’t end up at the bottom”.

The difference was made by examining not just the dominant international policy to cut carbon emissions, but also seven other “solutions” including more investment in technology, climate engineering, and planting more trees and reducing soot and methane, also significant contributors to climate change, said Lomborg.

“If the world is going to spend hundreds of millions to treat climate, where could you get the most bang for your buck?” was the question posed, he added.After the analyses, five economists were asked to rank the 15 possible policies which emerged. Current policies to cut carbon emissions through taxes – of which Lomborg has long been critical – were ranked largely at the bottom of four of the lists. At the top were more direct public investment in research and development rather than spending money on low carbon energy now, and climate engineering.

Lomborg acknowledged trust was a problem when committing to long term R&D, but said politicians were already reneging on promises to cut emissions, and spending on R&D would be easier to monitor. Although many believe private companies are better at R&D than governments, Lomborg said low carbon energy was a special case comparable to massive public investment in computers from the 1950s, which later precpitated the commercial IT revolution.

Lomborg also admitted climate engineering could cause “really bad stuff” to happen, but argued if it could be a cheap and quick way to reduce the worst impacts of climate change and thus there was an “obligation to at least look at it”.

He added: “This is not about ‘we have all got to live with less, wear hair-shirts and cut our carbon emissions’. It’s about technologies, about realising there’s a vast array of solutions.”

Despite his change of tack, however, Lomborg is likely to continue to have trenchant critics. Writing for today’s Guardian, Howard Friel, author of the book The Lomborg Deception, said: “If Lomborg were really looking for smart solutions, he would push for an end to perpetual and brutal war, which diverts scarce resources from nearly everything that Lomborg legitimately says needs more money.”

• This article was amended on 31st August 2010 to remove an accidental duplication of the quote from Rajendra Pachauri.

MIT unveils swimming, oil-cleaning robots

MIT unveils swimming, oil-cleaning robots –

By John D. Sutter, CNN
// August 26, 2010 5:05 p.m. EDT | Filed under: Innovation


Prototypes of the MIT Seaswarm robots have been tested in the ocean, but they're not ready for commercial use.

Prototypes of the MIT Seaswarm robots have been tested in the ocean, but they’re not ready for commercial use.


  • MIT develops a seagoing robot that uses a special material to absorb and gather oil
  • The robot, called Seaswarm, collects oil from the surface of water autonomously
  • The machines would work best in swarms of thousands, researchers say
  • The prototype will be unveiled on Saturday; expect them to be commercial in a year

(CNN) — Here’s a new way of looking at oil spill clean-up: Forget the big ships, massive work crews and hefty price tags.

Instead, just deploy an army of autonomous, oil-scrubbing robots. They can find the oil on their own. And when they reach the site of an oil spill, they talk to their robot friends to figure out the best way to get the whole thing mopped up.

That’s the vision the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put forward on Wednesday as the school announced the development of a prototypical robot called Seaswarm. The $20,000 robots will be unveiled officially to the public on Saturday at an event in Venice, Italy, and will be ready to deal with oil spills in about a year, said Assaf Biderman, who oversaw MIT’s research team on the project.

The Seaswarm robots, which were developed by a team from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, look like a treadmill conveyor belt that’s been attached to an ice cooler. The conveyor belt piece of the system floats on the surface of the ocean. As it turns, the belt propels the robot forward and lifts oil off the water with the help of a nanomaterial that’s engineered to attract oil and repel water.

“You can imagine it like a carpet rolling on the surface of the water,” said Biderman, who also is associate director of the SENSEable City Lab.

The material on the robot’s conveyer belt, which MIT calls a “paper towel for oil spills,” can absorb up to 20 times its weight in oil.

Once it has absorbed the crude from the surface of the ocean, the robot can either burn off the oil on the spot, using a heater on the “ice cooler” part of its body, or it can bag the oil and leave it on the surface of the water for a later pick-up, Biderman said. That oil could be reused or recycled.

The robots are designed to work in a swarm, he said, meaning thousands could be deployed on the same spill at once. They coordinate with each other by using GPS location data. That lets them plot out the most efficient way to tackle a clean-up project.

Biderman said the Seaswarm robots are relatively cheap, quick and effective at cleaning up oil spills.

Had they been deployed on the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, he said, the Seaswarm robots would have cleaned up the oil in two months at a cost of $100 million to $200 million, far less than the actual clean-up bill.

The Seaswarm robots operate on solar energy and require only 100 watts of power, or about that of a bright light bulb. They could stay at sea for months, Biderman said, and could operate around the clock.

The conveyor belts on the robots also are engineered in a way that they hug the water to prevent them from flipping over.

“Because it adheres to the surface of the water, it cannot capsize,” he said, “So it can withstand quite severe weather. Imagine this like a leaf that lands on the surface of the water and moves with the waves and the currents and cannot be flipped over.”

Traditional oil skimmers are attached to large boats. They must be operated by people, which increases their cost and they are hampered by severe weather.

About 800 skimming boats were deployed in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, which began in April and led to nearly 5 million barrels of oil being released into the ocean, according to government estimates. By comparison, 5,000 to 10,000 of MIT’s autonomous robots would have been needed to respond to the spill, Biderman said.

MIT will continue research on the robots for about a year, he said, at which time the robot technology would be ready for commercial production and possibly a buyer.

Other groups are developing oil-spill cleanup technology, too.

Case Western Reserve University has developed another nanotechnology “sponge” material that could be used in response to such disasters.

And a company called Extreme Spill Technology says on its website that it has developed a traditional, boat-based skimming technology that works much more quickly and in rougher waters than the traditional skimmers.

Biderman said MIT’s oil-sopping robot would be most effective in situations like the recent oil disaster, where oil is spread out.

“Ideally, when spillage happens, the best thing to do is to contain it right where the spillage occurs,” he said. “But quite often the oil goes out of containment, and this is where this technology would be most effective.”

But the robots were actually designed with smaller, localized clean-ups in mind, he said.

“We’re hoping that spillage like what we’ve seen with Deepwater Horizon will not occur again, but oil leakage constantly happens and that’s really what motivated us,” he said. “When you drill offshore, you always have leakage. And you can imagine a team of robots waiting around the corner for a spill.”

Pakistan seeks to salvage economy as more flee floods

Pakistan seeks to salvage economy as more flee floods | Reuters.

Main Image
Main Image
Main Image

Flood victim Kunjah carries her younger brother while taking refuge with her family in a relief camp in Sukkur, in Pakistan’s Sindh province August 26, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro


SUKKUR, Pakistan/WASHINGTON | Thu Aug 26, 2010 5:36pm EDT

SUKKUR, Pakistan/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Pakistan ordered fresh evacuations from Sindh province on Thursday as the country struggled to bring relief to millions displaced by flooding and sought international help to rescue its economy.

Pakistan’s finance minister and central bank governor joined International Monetary Fund talks in Washington that are focused on salvaging the economy.

Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh said his country wants to keep pursuing an $11 billion IMF loan program and demonstrate its resolve to make tough economic decisions, dismissing reports that Pakistan might abandon the program.

“We want to remain on track with the IMF program because that is a reform program that we are ourselves undertaking,” he told reporters outside the IMF headquarters.

Separately, the U.S. State Department said it had “threat information” that foreign aid workers and Pakistani ministries responding to the natural disaster may be targeted by militants.

In northern Sindh, local authorities issued a new evacuation order for Shahdadkot, a town of about 300,000, for the remaining few tens of thousands of people to leave as floodwaters approached the town.

“Shahdadkot is certainly in danger,” said relief commissioner for Sindh Riaz Ahmed Soomro. “People have been asked to evacuate, but it’s a very big town. People had built an artificial embankment but the pressure is increasing.”

Downstream in Thatta, the towns of Sujawal, Daro and Mirpur Batoro, with a combined population of 400,000, were ordered evacuated after the swollen Indus river broke through an embankment early Thursday morning.

Many residents of the Indus delta area, about 100 km (62 miles) east of Karachi, had already left, but “thousands” remained, said Saleh Farooqi, director general of the National Disaster Management Agency’s Sindh office. “If a second levee breaks, more towns could be inundated.”

Floodwaters are beginning to recede across the country, but because of high tides in the Arabian Sea and the possibility of more rain, the risk of flooding remains in Sindh.

The spokesman for the powerful Pakistani Army said difficulty in reaching certain areas, where 800,000 people are accessible only by air, could fuel social unrest.

“If the aid doesn’t reach certain areas, then yes, the people will become restive,” said Major General Athar Abbas.

The worst floods in decades have made the government more unpopular, heightening concerns about a nation that is already battling Islamist militants.

In Sukkur, to the north, flood victims crowded relief camps and said incidents of disease were increasing.

“The children are getting sick,” a man who called himself Bangul told Reuters. “I myself am not feeling well.”

He said some people had started returning to their villages, even though many were still flooded. “We can only see the roof and minaret of the mosque,” he said. “We think maybe it will take six months to dry up and then we can go back.”


Pakistan’s government, and its ally the United States, have warned that the Islamist militants the military is battling may try and exploit the chaos. Washington sees Pakistan as a frontline state in its war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“We have information of … potential targeting of foreign relief workers in Pakistan as well as government ministries,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington, saying both countries were doing their utmost to protect aid workers and to ensure relief operations continue.

While aid groups in Pakistan brushed off the reported threats, the outgoing U.N. humanitarian chief, John Holmes, told reporters at the United Nations he took them seriously but added: “we will not be deterred.”

One Pakistani government official said he did not think the Taliban would attack as this would trigger a public backlash, while army spokesman Abbas said he had not received reports of any threat to aid workers.

Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan), told Reuters: “We will not tolerate American aid. They want to use it for their own interest and don’t want to help the people of Pakistan. They have their own nefarious designs.”

In Washington, Finance Minister Shaikh appealed for understanding from the international community as he joined the IMF talks, which began on Monday.

The delegation is expected to seek easier terms under the IMF program agreed in 2008 to ensure the country can meet fiscal and monetary targets and keep qualifying for IMF funds.

Pakistan aimed to ensure fiscal austerity, stay within fiscal targets and reform public sector corporations to set the stage for economic growth, he said.

IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said the talks were currently focused on “getting a better sense of the impact of the floods on the economy.” He urged donors to give grants, not loans, for rebuilding projects to avoid adding to Pakistan’s debt burden.

The talks are likely to last until late next week. The delegation is scheduled to meet World Bank President Robert Zoellick on September 1.

The floods have damaged at least 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres) — about 14 percent of Pakistan’s entire cultivated land — according to the United Nation’s food agency. The total cost so far in crop damages is about 245 billion rupees ($2.86 billion).

According to the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 60 percent, or $274.7 million out of $459.7 million, of funding for emergency response has been met.

(Reporting by Augustine Anthony, Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider and Rebecca Conway in Islamabad, Faisal Aziz and Sahar Ahmed in Karachi, Robert Birsel in Sukkur, and Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Eric Beech)

High seas force delay in key step needed to kill Gulf oil well –

High seas force delay in key step needed to kill Gulf oil well –

(CNN) — High seas in the Gulf of Mexico have forced the postponement of an operation to remove the capping stack on the ruptured underwater oil well, detach the blowout preventer and replace it with a new one, BP said on its Twitter page Monday.

“Operations will commence as soon as sea states reach acceptable levels,” the company said.

BP had planned to begin the procedure Monday, more than three weeks after plugging the ruptured well with cement and mud from above. The procedure is aimed at paving the way for a permanent fix for the well.

Retired Adm. Thad Allen had said earlier that crews would begin removing the capping stack that has trapped oil in the well since last month. That will allow them to detach the blowout preventer and replace it with a new one — key steps before engineers use a relief well to permanently kill the well 18,000 feet below the Gulf’s surface.

“We will attempt to pull it free and we are prepared to apply up to 80,000 [pounds] of force in addition to the weight of the blowout preventer to lift it,” said Allen, the man charged with the government response to the oil disaster. “We call this the gentle tug.”

After the relief well intercepts the well, it will take another few days to permanently seal the well with mud and cement

from below in what’s called a “bottom kill” procedure.

Allen had warned Friday that changes in weather could result in a change in schedule. Last week, the operation was delayed as engineers tried to fish out pieces of drill pipe stuck inside the blowout preventer.

Officials have said the blowout preventer failed when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people and causing oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Authorities from a Justice Department evidence recovery team will be on site during its removal, Allen said.

The well has been capped since July 15, and no new oil is flowing into the Gulf.

2 die after Indonesian volcano erupts again –

From Andy Saputra, CNN

August 30, 2010 9:44 a.m. EDT

Mount Sinabung spews thick smoke after erupting in North Sumatra.

Mount Sinabung spews thick smoke after erupting in North Sumatra.


* NEW: A volcano erupts again Monday, the second time in two days after being dormant since the 1600s

* NEW: Some small domestic flights have been deferred because of the volcanic ash

* An official says two people died because of heart attack and respiratory complications

* Investigators are studying the volcano, which first erupted early Sunday


* Earth Science

* Indonesia

Jakarta, Indonesia (CNN) — Two people have died and more than 30,000 were displaced when a long-dormant volcano in Indonesia erupted again on Monday, officials said.

Mount Sinabung, which had been dormant for more than 400 years before it erupted early Sunday, erupted again for more than six hours Monday, shooting smoke more than three miles into the air. The rumbling sent tremors into nearby villages, where officials said some residents panicked.

“It has now stopped. We have enough food and water here, but we need more gas masks,” said Johnson Tarigan, a spokesman for Karo district.

iReport: Share images and information with CNN

Some small domestic flights have been deferred because of the volcanic ash, but larger planes have not been affected, since they can simply fly over the ashes, said Bambang Ervan of Indonesia’s Ministry of Transportation.

Two deaths were reported Monday after the second eruption.

“The two people died because of heart attack and respiratory complication,” said Priyadi Kardono of the National Disaster Coordination Agency. “We have sent food and gas masks for the rest of the displaced people.”

After the eruption, glowing volcanic materials spewed out of the long-dormant mountain and could be seen as far as 10 km away (10.2 miles), the official Antara news agency reported.

Officials are concerned that if the eruption continues, the smoke — up to 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) high — could disrupt aviation. But the nearby Polonia International Airport was still operating normally Monday.

The volcano erupted just after 12:15 a.m. Sunday (1:15 p.m. ET Saturday), the official Antara news agency reported.

On Saturday, the Center for Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation issued a warning and ordered evacuation of a six km (3.7 miles) radius around the volcano. Investigators are studying the volcano, which officials had believed was inactive before Sunday’s eruption.

via 2 die after Indonesian volcano erupts again –

VALERIE: SUPER USEFUL article on climate-related forest death

t r u t h o u t | US Climate Bill Is Dead While So Much Life on Our Earth Continues to Perish.

Written by an Indian dude living in Santa Fe!

Extensive, useful stats on pinon forests, which are much older than we thought…

by: Subhankar Banerjee  |  Climate StoryTellers | Op-Ed

[I dedicate this story to my wife Nora who showed me a Curve–billed Thrasher’s nest on a cholla cactus, the first I had ever seen, and walked with me on all the paths that made this story possible.]

Imagine you live in New York City, and one fine morning you awake to the realization that 90 percent of all the buildings that were more than five stories tall have been destroyed. You will hardly have the words to talk about this devastation, but I’m sure you will walk around the rubble to make sense of it all.

Something similar has happened in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live. Between 2001 and 2005, aerial surveys were conducted over 6.4 million acres of the state. Some 816,000 affected acres were mapped and it was found that during this short period Ips confusus, a tiny bark beetle, had killed 54.5 million of New Mexico’s state tree, the piñon. In many areas of northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Española, and Taos, 90 percent of mature piñons are now dead.

Under normal climate conditions, bark beetles live in harmony with their environment, laying their eggs in dead or weakened trees. However, when healthy trees become stressed from severe and sustained drought, they become objects of attack: the beetles drill into their bark, laying eggs along the way, and killing their host. Milder winter temperatures have ensured more of them survive the winter, and warmer summer temperatures have reduced the life cycle duration of the beetles from two to one year, and subsequently their numbers have exploded in recent years.

In March 2006, my then–future wife Nora and I rented a house in Eldorado, a suburban community about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe. Each day as I drove from our home to the nearby city, all along the way on both sides of the road I’d see large areas of grey–brown (dead piñons) in the midst of green (live junipers).

During my childhood in India, I was fascinated by the detective stories of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series. Because of the forest devastation I witnessed daily, I took on the role of a self–assigned visual detective of a geographic region bound by a 5–mile radius around our home. I walked again and again the same three paths, each no more than 2 miles long.

As I repeated my walks, I gradually began to realize that the environment around our home in the desert is perhaps as biodiverse as the arctic, where I have been taking photographs for the past decade. In both regions, one far and one near, I am attempting to address two simple things: home and food that land provides to humans as well as to numerous other species with whom we share this earth.

I’ll share with you a few experiences and a little bit of what I learned from these walks.

From a distance I see a large dead piñon with a canopy that spreads more than 20 feet. I can determine from the canopy size that the tree was more than 600 years old when it died. Piñons take nearly 300 years to mature and can live up to 1,000 years.

As I get closer to the dead tree, I notice the damaged skin with many protrusions that look like soft yellow globs or lines. Such skin is visual evidence that the tree did not die a normal death, but instead put up a fight against beetles by sending out sap to drown them in resin. In the end the tree lost, as the number of beetles the tree was fighting was far too many. I’ve never seen a bark beetle, whose size is no bigger than a grain of rice, and I doubt you’ll see one either, but if you look closely at the skin of one of these dead piñons you will know that the beetles were here and that the tree fought hard.

Occasionally I see a beautiful northern flicker pecking away at a dead tree trunk, either building a nest or looking for food – insects that have come to break down the dead tree. In the process, the flicker will create perfectly circular holes. These cavities will become possible homes for gorgeous western and mountain bluebirds. Even after death these dead piñons provide home and food for many species.

On my walks I also come across areas that resemble graveyards, where every piñon in immediate sight is dead. But I continue to see birds resting on the branches of these dead trees. And when I wait patiently, sometimes I am rewarded with the sight of a tiny black–chinned hummingbird, which weighs less than 1/2 ounce, on top of a 20–foot–high dead piñon as it catches its breath briefly before buzzing off to feed on a cluster of bright–orange Indian paintbrush.

Piñon trees produce protein–rich nuts once every four to seven years. Nut eaters like Piñon Jays critically depend on piñon nuts for sustenance, but they also serve a very important role in the regeneration of piñon woods. A typical flock of 50 to 500 birds can cache more than 4 million piñon seeds in a good year in New Mexico, and uneaten seeds result in new trees.

For Native American communities of the desert southwest, piñon tree has been of immense cultural, spiritual, and economic importance for many millenia. The nut is extensively harvested throughout its range. It has been a staple for a long time and continues to be eaten and used in cooking today.

This is not the first time that piñon forests have been destroyed. It has been suggested that the ancient Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico overharvested the piñon–juniper woodlands around their community to support the growing need of timber for fuel and building materials. In the process they deforested woodlands that eventually contributed to their abandoning the magnificent community they had built. Even more extensive devastation occurred during the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, when vast areas of piñon woodlands were deforested to support cattle ranching, which indigenous communities and others regard as a major act of ecocultural vandalism.

According to a fascinating book, Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country, biologists have recently begun to define the piñon–juniper woodland as an old–growth forest. This ecosystem supports an incredible diversity of wildlife, including 250 bird species (50 percent of all bird species west of Mississippi and more than a quarter of bird species in the U.S. and Canada), 74 species of mammals, 17 species of bats, 10 amphibian species, and 27 species of reptiles. Sadly, junipers are also dying (in lesser numbers so far) from extreme heat and drought. When I started my walks, I did not realize that there existed an old–growth forest in the New Mexican desert.

Every time I call my mom in India she complains about how hot this summer has been. This year we had the hottest first six months globally since recording began in 1880. In Santa Fe, we broke the June high temperature record with a 100oF (average high is 83oF), the July record with another 100oF (average high is 86oF), and with 95oF already we’ve tied the August record (average high is 83oF).

So it is no surprise that many of our remaining live piñons are again oozing soft yellow pitches. As it happens, these piñons were blooming last year and now they have beautiful green cones that will mature with nuts. These piñons are fighting–and–fruiting right now for their survival but they are infected and will die.

Even reforestation is taking on a different meaning in the twenty–first century. Young piñon trees have little chance of surviving extreme heat and drought. Each time I drive on Cerrillos Road to get to Interstate 25, I see a line of recently planted piñons, but some of the young trees are already dead, and I surmise the others might be infected.

If we lose our remaining piñons in the coming decades due to global warming, how would we then talk about the tree that has been ecoculturally most significant for New Mexico and its Native American communities for thousands of years?

Forests Are Dying Across the American West and All Over the World

In 2004, Michelle Nijhuis reported in High Country News that several species of bark beetles were ravaging forests all across the American West. The black spruce, white spruce, ponderosa pine, lodglepole pine, whitebark pine, and piñon have all been devastated by recent bark beetles epidemic. Scientists now suspect that by killing our forests, these beetles are also altering the local weather patterns and air quality.

Earlier this year, the U.S. senate had scheduled a hearing on the bark beetle epidemic, but, angered by the passage of the healthcare bill, Senate Republicans canceled the hearing on March 23. The hearing was finally held on April 21. Senator Mark Udall (Democrat-Colorado), co–sponsor of the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, wrote in his senate blog, “The infestation is a critical public health and safety issue for the people of Colorado and has been called the worst natural disaster our region has seen.” The bill names twelve states affected by the epidemic: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This list should also include Alaska, where spruce bark beetles have destroyed very large areas of spruce forests, some of which I saw during my time there.

The hearing mainly focused on offering tens of millions of dollars of federal assistance to remove dead trees from affected areas to avoid potential forest fire damage. Ecologist Dominik Kulakowski, who testified, thought it was an unproductive approach and said that if the government focuses on trying “to make a wholesale modification of forest structure over large landscapes,” it could be ecologically damaging.

Was the hearing a case of destroy and then clean up – a common practice in our now global consumerist culture?

In March, Jim Robbins reported in Yale Environment 360 that global warming is killing forests across the American West as well as in many parts of the world. So I asked my colleagues for local observations.

In 2006, I spent time in Old Crow, a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Arctic community in northern Yukon, Canada. At that time I knew nothing about the forest death that was happening in the southern Yukon. In a recent email to me, Roger Brown, the Forestry and Environmental Manager of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, wrote, “Canada’s largest ever documented spruce bark beetle outbreak began 18 years ago and is continuing to affect our forests in the southwestern Yukon. Approximately 380,000 hectares of our white spruce dominated forests have been affected, with almost 100 percent mortality of the forest canopy in some areas. Our oral history research has suggested there is no traditional knowledge that speaks about such extensive tree deaths in the past.”

In early June, as United Nations climate negotiators were wrapping up their unsuccessful meeting in Bonn, Germany, Anne-Marie Melster, founder and co-director of ARTPORT, wrote from Valencia, “Here in Spain, at the Mediterranean coast, the picudo rojo (red palm weevil) is attacking and killing tens of thousands of palm trees.”

About the same time, Ananda Banerjee, a conservation journalist from New Delhi, emailed me. “The sal forest in north-central India is home to the endangered tiger,” he said. “In the last few years there has been wide spread destruction and felling of infected sal trees, from the attack of a pest beetle called the sal borer. We have around 1,10,000 sq. km area of sal forest in India, but the green cover is gradually depleting due to this pest and due to illegal harvest of sal as timber.”

If you are interested in a broad scientific understanding of forest deaths from global warming, you can read an article published earlier this year in Forest Ecology and Management. It is worth noting the names of countries listed in the article with forest mortality data that have been recorded since 1970:

Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Uganda, USA, and Zimbabwe

Global warming skeptics would point to the fact that trees have died in the past from insect outbreaks and droughts, and so this is part of a natural climate cycle. But this time around something is very different: Forests are dying simultaneously in many places around the world in all forest types, and the intensity and rapidity with which they are dying in some places is of epic proportions.

As I started thinking about our dead forests, I wondered: Do we really need another story of global warming devastation? Haven’t we heard enough about melting glaciers and icebergs, retreating sea ice and disappearing polar bears? Then something tugged on my shoulder: Are we not to mourn the deaths of so many trees? But we mourn that which we knew and cared for. We did not know these trees. My hope has been to introduce to you the trees as ecological beings beyond their usual association as board–feet–for–lumber.

Hundreds of millions of trees have recently died and many more hundreds of millions will soon be dying. Now think of all the other lives, including birds and animals, that depended on those trees. The number of these must be in the tens of billions. What happened to them and how do we talk about that which we can’t see and will never know? This massive loss must be considered a catastrophic global warming event.

Our “Carbon Sinks” Are Becoming “Carbon Sources”

Consider for a moment the top two carbon sinks of our planet. Oceans absorb more than 25 percent of the CO2 humans put in the air, and forests absorb almost the same amount. By doing so, our forests and oceans together make living possible on this earth for life as we know it now. All of that is changing rapidly and for the worse.

Didn’t we learn as kids in school that CO2 in the atmosphere is good for trees because it acts as a fertilizer and helps them grow? Increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from industrialization indeed may have aided more trees to grow in the past century. But such short–term gain has already faded away and turned into disaster. All three of the largest forests of the world are rapidly losing their carbon sink capacities.

The Siberian taiga is the largest continuous stretch of forested land on earth. It extends from the Urals in the west to the Kamchatka peninsula in the Russian Far East. Ernst–Detlef Schulze of the Max–Planck–Institute for Biogeochemistry has studied this taiga for 30 years. He calls it “Europe’s green lungs,” as these trees soak up much of the CO2 emitted by European smokestacks and automobiles farther west. Long stretches of extreme droughts have resulted in unprecedented forest fires that destroyed vast swathes of the taiga. Major deforestation is also happening there to fuel the need of (now) emerged economies such as China. And the fir sawyer beetle, larch bark beetle, and Siberian moth have also damaged large areas of the taiga.

This year Russia is experiencing the hottest summer ever, which has resulted in deadly forest fires with smokes over Moscow that made international headlines. Boreal forests of eastern Siberia are also ablaze with intense fires. Scientists have recently detected a poisonous ring around the planet created by an enormous cloud of pollutants that are being released by raging forest fires in central Russia, Siberia, and Canada.

In November 2007, I went to the Sakha Republic of Siberia with Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Arctic Alaska. While camping with the Even reindeer herders in the Verkhoyansk Range, the coldest inhabited place on earth, we experienced temperatures of minus 65oF (without wind–chill) and were told that January temperature dip to minus 90oF. We also spent time with the Yukaghir community at Nelemnoye along the Kolyma River, made infamous by Stalin’s Gulag camps. We learned that even in such a cold place, the Siberian permafrost is melting rapidly during the summer months due to warming.

In Siberia, with the destruction of taiga and thawing of permafrost, the ghosts–of–gulags are ready to strike back at us with a deadly carbon bomb that we know little about.

The North American boreal forest stretches across U.S. and Canada from Alaska in the west to Newfoundland in the east, making it the second largest continuous forested ecosystem on earth. It is now confirmed that a lodgepole pine forest in British Columbia, Canada, that died from bark beetles outbreak has transformed from being a small net carbon sink to being a large net carbon source. We can probably say the same for all the other bark beetles infecting dying forests across the west.

The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest on earth and stretches across nine countries – Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. I’ve never been to the Amazon, but I’m learning that forest fires, droughts, and deforestation have already destroyed very large areas of this forest. The Amazon is in great trouble: Scientists are predicting that a 4oC temperature rise would kill 85 percent of the Amazon. With climate inaction so far, we are heading rapidly toward such a reality.

The news is equally bad for our oceans, which are now struggling to keep up with the rising CO2 emissions from human activities. By absorbing all that CO2 the oceans are becoming horrendously acidic, threatening the survival of marine life. To make matters worse, methane that is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas is being released in enormous quantities from some of our oceans, including the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, due to thawing of subsea permafrost there, and the Gulf of Mexico, due to BP’s unforgiveable spill. Two studies have shown methane concentrations in some areas of the gulf reached 100,000 times higher than normal with few hot spots close to a million times higher. And recently we learned that 40 percent of the world’s phytoplankton died in the last 60 years due to global warming, raising the question, “Are Our Oceans Dying?

Our natural carbon sinks are losing the battle with global warming, increasing human CO2 emissions, and extreme oil–and–gas drilling. Every citizen of our planet should be asking the question: Who or what will capture the carbon that we continue to emit? And every government ought to address this question as the most urgent priority if we are to ensure life on Earth.

Our New Climate Movement

Last month the U.S. Senate finally put an end to the climate bill. Since then several opinion pieces have been published, including articles in Yale Environment 360, Grist, TomDispatch, The Nation, and The Hill. Some of these point out why the U.S. climate movement failed, while others call for a new movement.

Global warming is a crisis: for all lands, for all oceans, for all rivers, for all forests, for all humans, for all birds, for all mammals, for all little creatures that we don’t see… for all life. We need stories and actions from every part of our earth. So far, global warming communications have primarily focused on scientific information. I strongly believe that to engage the public, we need all fields of the humanities. It is to this end that I founded ClimateStoryTellers.

And there is much action: globally, and Climate Justice Movement; nationally, organizations such as Center for Biological Diversity; and state-based initiatives such as New Energy Economy in New Mexico. These groups give us hope that a bold – not weak – climate movement will continue to move forward with renewed energy.

Our task is to make the collective global voice louder and louder until ignoring such loud cacophony will not be an option by our governments. Global warming is not something we can solve with good behavior and healthy lifestyles. It will require major government action to control pollution–and–polluters and to start a low–carbon–society.

I’ll end with two simple questions:

Will the economic–and–comfort–needs of our species always trump the survival–needs of all other species that also
inhabit this Earth?


By not taking serious action on global warming, is humanity committing a colossal crime against all other lives on Earth?

Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, activist, and founder of ClimateStoryTellers. His desert photographs will be presented in a solo exhibition, “Where I Live I Hope To Know,” at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth (May 14–August 28, 2011) and in group exhibitions “(Re–) Cycles of Paradise” at the Centro Cultural de España in Mexico City (November 11, 2010–January 16, 2011) and “Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment” at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (April 18–August 28, 2011). His arctic photographs will be presented in a solo exhibition “Resource Wars in the American Arctic” at the School of Fine Art Gallery at Indiana University in Bloomington (October 22–November 19, 2010) and in group exhibition “The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment” at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno (September 24, 2011–February 19, 2012). Subhankar is currently editing an anthology titled “Arctic Voices.” You can visit his website by clicking here.

[Note on photographs: To view Subhankar’s forest death photos from New Mexico click here. This album was curated to accompany this piece.]

[Note for readers: I’d like to thank my long–time collaborator and the editor of this piece Christine Clifton–Thornton; to Roger Brown, Anne-Marie Melster, and Ananda Banerjee for sharing their observations for this piece; and always to Tom Engelhardt for his support and inspiration.]

Copyright 2010 Subhankar Banerjee

All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.

New Orleans: Are the new defences tough enough? – environment – 27 August 2010 – New Scientist

New Orleans: Are the new defences tough enough? – environment – 27 August 2010 – New Scientist.

Short Answer: No.

It is almost exactly five years since hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and the city is bracing for attack.

In a revamp now nearing completion, the city’s 560-kilometre perimeter has been fortified by toughened levees, cement walls more than 9 metres high and foreboding gates that will grind shut when the enemy – flood water – nears.

But some say that these upgraded defences, which cost the US federal government $14.45 billion, aren’t tough and comprehensive enough – in part because climate change could lead to more powerful storms.

The city is certainly safer than it was on 29 August 2005, when Katrina made landfall. Its 8.5-metre surge went on to overpower a mishmash of poorly connected levees and flood walls.

T for tough

Now those walls have been replaced with steel-reinforced ones shaped like an inverted “T”, making it harder for a storm surge to topple them, says Gregory Gunter, an officer with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the agency overseeing the revamp.

The mud levees that Katrina washed away are now bolstered with stronger clays, while pump stations come with flood-proof safe houses so operators won’t have to evacuate like they did in 2005.

All this should protect the city from the kind of storm that historically has occurred once in 100 years. The system shouldn’t fail in a “400-year” Katrina-strength storm either, although Gunter says such a surge would probably flow over the barriers. This would lead to some flooding, but nothing like the scale of Katrina, which pushed over walls and breached levees.

Go Dutch

Robert Bea, an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, and long-time critic of the corps’s flood defences, says the US is still “doing it on the cheap”.

He contrasts the new defences with those that protect the Netherlands, which can withstand a 10,000-year storm. The Dutch “know that providing adequate flood protection [costs] something in the range of $100 billion”, he says.

Paul Kemp, director of the National Audubon Society’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative in Baton Rouge, and former storm surge modeller, says the new designs presume that future storms will resemble past ones. He points out that climate change may increase hurricane strength.

Wasted wetlands

That suggestion is still a subject of hot debate. In any case, Kemp would have liked to see restoration of Louisiana’s coastal marshes, which absorb some of a storm surge’s bite. He thinks they are likely to be more resilient than artificial structures.

He adds that the destructive threat posed by hurricanes is also increasing because the buffering wetlands are constantly being destroyed.

While the corps has begun looking into coastal restoration as a way to protect the city, as yet no money has been set aside for this.

Kemp also calls the idea of a 100-year storm a “mythical measure”, pointing out that we only have about 100 years of reliable data to work with, which isn’t necessarily enough to reflect long-term hurricane patterns.

Pakistanis too broken to rebuild in flood crisis

Pakistanis too broken to rebuild in flood crisis: Scientific American.

Pakistanis too broken to rebuild in flood crisis

Pakistanis too broken to rebuild in flood crisis People cross the Swat River on a zipline after a bridge was washed away by floods near Madyan in Pakistan’s Swat Valley August 27, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne


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By Michael Georgy

MADYAN, Pakistan (Reuters) – Shah-e-Roon doesn’t have the energy, money or support from Pakistan’s government to help Madyan recover from floods that decimated the small town nearly a month ago.

He has been walking for two days with a 20-kg (44 lb) sack of wheat on his back. Food shortages caused by the disaster have sent prices soaring and the only market he can afford is many kilometers away.

“How can I think about rebuilding? I have no way of making money and I am just too tired,” said the 50-year-old farmer.

Madyan, in the northwest Swat valley, looks more like an earthquake zone than a flood-stricken area.

Four-storey hotels that fueled the local economy vanished. Buildings have been flattened, with cars sandwiched between slabs of concrete. Roads were dragged down and all that’s left behind are 30-meter (100-foot) dirt cliffs crumbling into a river.

Pakistan’s government was heavily criticized after its sluggish response to the floods, which hit about one-third of the country, made more than 6 million homeless, and threaten to the bring the economy to its knees without outside intervention.

The government could redeem itself by being more visible in the rebuilding effort. There is no sign of that in Madyan.

Sajad Ibrahim’s father worked in oil power Saudi Arabia for 36 years to save enough to build five homes for his family. Flood waters pulverized them along with his business.

“I have nothing. The government has done nothing. How can we go on like this without anyone’s help?” he said.

Two soldiers have been bulldozing rocks and cement chunks in Madyan. They only cleared an area about 10 meters (33 ft) wide by 30 meters (100 ft) long in seven days.


Another soldier encourages everyone who walks along the muddy area to carry a stone and place it in a pile near workers who are rebuilding the foundations of a collapsed bridge.

Spirits had been rising in Madyan over the last year. Hotels overlooking the Swat river and beautiful lush mountains had started to attract tourists again after the army had pushed out Taliban insurgents.

The government promised to invest heavily in infrastructure, schools and hospitals and build up security and police forces.

Some, like Mohammad Azam, were ecstatic. He fled after the Taliban warned him to close his “immoral” DVD shop or face death and then rushed rushed back when it was safe and restarted his business.

Little did he know that floods would pound his new third-floor shop into the river.

Already overwhelmed by the catastrophe in many other parts of Pakistan, the government may not have the time or resources to help the people of Madyan. But few here are willing to give it any slack.

Murad Badshah, who wonders how he is going to keep his waiters and cooks employed at his Hotel Seven Star, says the only way Madyan can recover is with a massive dose of foreign aid. He doubts it will ever arrive.

“The government is robbing everything from us,” he said. “If this continues there will be lots of angry young men here. They could join the Taliban. They have nothing else to do.”

(Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)