Category Archives: drought

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China's Hydropower

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China’s Hydropower: Scientific American.

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WATER FALL: Unusually low water levels in many Chinese rivers has contributed to a big drop in hydropower production. Image: Tomasz Dunn/Flickr

SHANGHAI — China has set ambitious goals for itself to develop hydropower to help mitigate the risks of climate change, but increasing extreme weather events likely rooted in climate change are now sabotaging the goals’ foundations.

The latest blow came in September, when many major rivers across China ran into an unusual shrinkage, with less than 20 percent water remaining at some stretches. As a result, the nation’s hydroelectric generation dropped by almost a quarter compared with last year. There has been an ever-widening decrease in power each month since July, according to a recent government statement.

As water stocks in key hydro stations decline, the regular dry season is approaching. The resulting stress on hydroelectric generation will last into next year, the statement said.

The Chinese government has yet to explain why the water flows slumped. But experts blamed it on climate change, warning of more future droughts in areas traditionally blessed with water.

If this expectation comes true, it will hamper China’s hydropower sector, which contributes most of the country’s carbon-free electricity. It will also threaten a national strategy in transmitting electricity from resource-rich western China to feed the country’s power-hungry manufacturing sector, most of which is in the east.

For Guangdong province, located on China’s east coast, this threat has already turned into a daily reality. Since its western neighbors this year failed to send as much electricity as usual, the manufacturing hub, with a capacity to produce more than half of the world’s desktops and toys, is forced to conserve electricity.

Turbines left high and dry
China Southern Power Grid, the region’s electricity distributor, attributed the energy shortage partly to the evaporation of hydropower.

As of July, on average, not even half of its installed hydropower capacity found water to turn turbines, the company’s statistics show. And several major hydro stations, built as part of the west-to-east electricity transmission plan, failed to do their jobs.

Goupitan, the largest hydroelectric generator in Guizhou province, reportedly produced only 10 percent of its normal output per day, due to shrinking water flows. And in another hydro station called Longtan, located in the Guangxi region, this year’s missing rain dropped its reservoir’s water level to a point dozens of meters lower than previous years.

“This will definitely negatively affect our hydroelectric production from now to next summer,” said Li Yanguang, who is in charge of public relations in the power station. Asked whether next summer — a regular rainy season — could make the situation better, Li answered in a cautious tone.

“This totally depends on weather,” he said. “We can’t predict that.”

Hydro growth plan sticks despite falling power output
But Lin Boqiang, one of China’s leading energy experts, is confident that the nation’s hydroelectric generation may just go in one direction: getting worse.

“If climate change caused this year’s water flow decreases, which I think it did, and then its impact [on rivers] will be a long term. It will take a toll on China’s hydroelectric output, and also push up the cost of using it,” explained Lin, who directs the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.

But still, from Lin’s point of view, such setbacks can’t compete with the Chinese desire for tapping more water power. China, already the world’s largest hydropower user, plans to add another 120 gigawatts by 2015 — a crucial step toward greening 15 percent of its power mix by the end of the decade.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior climate and energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that China’s hydropower plan will stand, though not primarily for energy supply concerns.

Although a climate-resilient approach is factored into the designs of hydro projects, China is still likely to suffer from hydroelectric output decline, says Yang. But the nation can seek more clean energy from the sun or wind, which won’t be affected by climate change, and get the electricity generated elsewhere via a smart grid, he said, referring to an advanced transmission infrastructure China has been building.

So what’s the point of keeping hydro?

“In the future, the importance of hydro projects won’t be on power generation, but on water management,” Yang explained. “It helps control floods, ensure ships transportation and reserve water — a function that [water-scarce] China needs badly.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

Fires in Queensland, Australia

Fires in Queensland, Australia : Natural Hazards.

Fires in Queensland, Australia

acquired September 26, 2011 download large image (4 MB, JPEG)
acquired September 26, 2011 download Google Earth file (KMZ)

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite detected several fires burning in southeast Queensland on September 26, 2011. The fires are outlined in red.

The fire season in Queensland, Australia runs through the dry winter and spring. The Queensland government declared a fire danger period from September 4, 2011, to January 2, 2012, when fires are allowed by permit only. The fires shown in this image likely include both deliberately set fires and natural wildfires.

Many of Australia’s ecosystems require fire to stimulate growth and regenerate some plant species. As a result, the landscape is extremely prone to fire and burns easily.

  1. References

  2. CSIRO. (2008, February 14). Bushfire in Australia. Accessed September 26, 2011.
  3. CSIRO. (2008, April 30).The months of a fire season. Accessed September 26, 2011.
  4. Queensland Fire and Rescue Service. (2011, September). Fire danger period declared. Accessed September 26, 2011.

NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Instrument: 
Aqua – MODIS

New Research Casts Doubt on Doomsday Water Shortage Predictions

New Research Casts Doubt on Doomsday Water Shortage Predictions: Scientific American.

MELTDOWN: The melting of mountain glaciers around the world may not contribute as much to water supplies as thought, new research argues. Image: Abhishekjoshi/Flickr

From the Andes to the Himalayas, scientists are starting to question exactly how much glaciers contribute to river water used downstream for drinking and irrigation. The answers could turn the conventional wisdom about glacier melt on its head.

A growing number of studies based on satellite data and stream chemistry analyses have found that far less surface water comes from glacier melt than previously assumed. In Peru’s Rio Santa, which drains the Cordilleras Blanca mountain range, glacier contribution appears to be between 10 and 20 percent. In the eastern Himalayas, it is less than 5 percent.

“If anything, that’s probably fairly large,” said Richard Armstrong, a senior research scientist at the Boulder, Colo.-based Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), who studies melt impact in the Himalayas.

“Most of the people downstream, they get the water from the monsoon,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t take away from the importance [of glacier melt], but we need to get the science right for future planning and water resource assessments.”

The Himalayan glaciers feed into Asia’s biggest rivers: the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. Early studies pegged the amount of meltwater in these river basins as high as 60 or 70 percent. But reliable data on how much water the glaciers release or where that water goes have been difficult to develop. Satellite images can’t provide such regular hydrometeorological observations, and expeditions take significant time, money and physical exertion.

New methods, though, are refining the ability to study this and other remote glacial mountain ranges. Increasingly, scientists are finding that the numbers vary depending on the river, and even in different parts of the same river.

Creeping hyperbole
“There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion about it,” said Peter Gleick?, co-director of the California-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. “About 1.3 billion people live in the watersheds that get some glacier runoff, but not all of those people depend only on the water from those watersheds, and not all the water in those watersheds comes from glaciers. Most of it comes from rainwater,” he said.

A key step forward came last year when scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, using remote sensing equipment, found that snow and glacier melt is extremely important to the Indus and Brahmaputra basins, but less critical to others. In the Indus, they found, the meltwater contribution is 151 percent compared to the total runoff generated at low elevations. It makes up about 27 percent of the Brahmaputra — but only between 8 and 10 percent for the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Rainfall makes up the rest.

That in itself is significant, and could reduce food security for 4.5 percent of the population in an already-struggling region. Yet, scientists complain, data are often inaccurately incorporated in dire predictions of Himalayan glacial melt impacts.

“Hyperbole has a way of creeping in here,” said Bryan Mark, an assistant professor of geography at Ohio State University and a researcher at the Byrd Polar Research Center.

Mark, who focuses on the Andes region, developed a method of determining how much of a community’s water supply is glacier-fed by analyzing the hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in water samples. He recently took that experience to Nepal, where he collected water samples from the Himalayan glacier-fed Kosi River? as part of an expedition led by the Mountain Institute.

Based on his experience in the Rio Santa — where it was once assumed that 80 percent of water in the basin came from glacier melt — Mark said he expects to find that the impact of monsoon water is greatly underestimated in the Himalayas.

Jeff La Frenierre, a graduate student at Ohio State University, is studying Ecuador’s Chimborazo glacier, which forms the headwaters of three different watershed systems, serving as a water source for thousands of people. About 35 percent of the glacier coverage has disappeared since the 1970s.

La Frenierre first came to Ecuador as part of Engineers Without Borders to help build a water system, and soon started to ask what changes in the mountain’s glacier coverage would mean for the irrigation and drinking needs of the 200,000 people living downstream. Working with Mark and analyzing water streams, he said, is upending many of his assumptions.

Doomsday descriptions don’t fit
“The easy hypothesis is that it’s going to be a disaster here. I don’t know if that’s the case,” La Frenierre said. He agreed that overstatements about the impacts are rampant in the Himalayas as well, saying, “The idea that 1.4 billion people are going to be without water when the glaciers melt is just not the case. It’s a local problem; it’s a local question. There are places that are going to be more impacted than other places.”

Those aren’t messages that environmental activists will likely find easy to hear. Armstrong recalled giving a presentation in Kathmandu on his early findings to a less-than-appreciative audience.

“I didn’t agree with the doomsday predictions, and I didn’t have anything that was anywhere near spectacular,” Armstrong said. But, he added, “At the same time, it’s just basic Earth science, and we want to do a better job than we have been.”

The more modest numbers, they and other scientists stressed, don’t mean that glacier melt is unimportant to river basins. Rather, they said, they mean that the understanding of water systems throughout the Himalayan region must improve and water management decisions will need to be made at very local levels.

“We need to know at least where the water comes from,” Armstrong said. “How can we project into the future if we don’t know where the water comes from now?”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

The vanishing Arctic lakes

Strange case of the vanishing Arctic lakes – environment – 17 October 2011 – New Scientist.

 

 

THE lake-spotted landscape of Canada is home to a watery mystery. According to a painstaking satellite survey of 1.3 million lakes stretching from coast to coast, the country lost 6700 square kilometres – or 1.2 per cent – of its water surface area between 2000 and 2009. Yet what we know about the physical processes at play suggests the lakes should be growing, not shrinking.

Whatever the cause, the loss could impact local wildlife and human populations. “It’s an important finding. We need to find out what’s driving it,” says Larry Hinzman, director of the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. The comprehensiveness of the study makes it significant, he says.

Ten years is long enough that this could be a sign of climate change, Hinzman says, “and it’s over a large enough area that it’s bound to have ecosystem and climate impacts”. Migratory water fowl, aquatic life, and indigenous people who rely on the lakes for food and water may all face challenges if the drying continues.

Shrinking Arctic lakes have been observed before, but only in the southern-most part of the Arctic, where warming trends have melted permafrost and allowed lakes to drain into the soil. The new survey, carried out by Mark Carroll at the University of Maryland in College Park, finds just the reverse: northern lakes appear to be shrinking, while southern ones are not (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL049427).

This is surprising, says Hinzman, not least because evidence suggests that the northern region received higher-than-average amounts of rain during the study period. “You would expect more precipitation to lead to higher lake levels,” says atmospheric scientist Stephen Dery at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. “But here, it doesn’t.”

Much of the lake water comes from the seasonal snow pack melt. In theory, warmer temperatures across the region should be decreasing the snow pack – which should also boost the lakes. Another factor at play could be the delicate balance between precipitation and evaporation which Arctic lake levels depend on: warmer temperatures and higher winds could cause more evaporation. Hinzman and Dery say melting permafrost may also be involved. That would allow lake water to soak into thawed soil, but Carroll is not aware of any evidence that the permafrost in the far north is melting yet.

The water loss could affect the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the region’s ecosystems. When lakes dry up, the sediment in the newly exposed soil can release carbon dioxide. But standing water can also release methane, so the lake shrinkage could lower methane levels. It remains to be seen whether the net result is to boost global warming or if the impacts offset each other.

Wildfires Rage across Drought-Stricken Texas

Wildfires Rage across Drought-Stricken Texas: Scientific American Gallery.

 

Enlarge NASA/GSFC, Rapid Response MORE IMAGES

Texas, which has suffered extreme droughts in 2011, is now grappling with deadly, widespread wildfires. Two people were killed September 4 in a fire in Gladewater, Texas, and officials said September 6 that two more had died in  the massive Bastrop County fire near Austin. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in the past several days, according to the Texas Forest Service (TFS), and dozens of fires continue to burn across the Lone Star State.

NASA’s Earth-orbiting Aqua satellite captured this photograph of eastern Texas, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico on September 6. (State borders have been overlaid for reference.) In the past week the TFS has responded to 172 fires on 54,653 hectares; more than 1.4 million hectares—2 percent of the state’s land area—have burned this year.

The first half of the year was the driest on record in Texas. In June the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 213 Texas counties as natural disaster areas; nearly all of the state is currently classified as drought level D4 (exceptional drought), the highest such listing on the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor. But the droughts and fires of 2011 may only be a preview of things to come; climate change is expected to raise temperatures and could also reduce rainfall in Texas, according to climate models.

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Texas wildfires destroy 700+ homes in two days

Texas wildfires destroy more than 700 homes in two days – CNN.com.

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) — Wildfires continued to rage Tuesday in Texas, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes near Austin and Houston as firefighters struggled to gain the upper hand against flames, winds and fatigue.

“Texas is in a difficult situation right now and our priorities are pretty simple. No. 1 is to protect life at all costs,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the state Division of Emergency Management.

The Texas Forest Service said it has responded to 181 fires that have burned more than 118,400 acres over the last week.

The fires have killed two people and, according to the forest service, destroyed more than 700 homes since Sunday. More than 1,000 homes have burned in the state since fire season began in November, Gov. Rick Perry’s office said.

The largest fire, near Austin, has spread across 30,000 acres, destroying more than 600 homes and forcing the evacuations of at least 5,000 people, officials said Tuesday. Known as the Bastrop County Complex, the fire has burned largely uncontrolled since it began Sunday afternoon.

“I don’t think it’s registered in our brains that our house is gone and that, really, half of Bastrop is gone,” said evacuee Claire Johnson.

The danger from a fire near Houston — called the Magnolia fire — appeared to be lessening for the most populated areas. Harris County, which includes Houston, said the fire was no longer a threat there. Also, many residents were being allowed back into their homes Tuesday in neighboring Montgomery County.

Perry: Wildfires trump politics
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Wildfires continue to plague Texas

About 4,000 homes in Montgomery had been evacuated, according to Lt. Dan Norris of the county’s emergency management office. Firefighters continued to battle hot spots in Montgomery, but the bulk of the problems from the Magnolia fire now appear to be centered in Waller and Grimes counties, Norris said.

Another blaze in Grimes County, the Riley Road fire, has destroyed 20 homes and has hundreds more in its path, the forest service said. It had burned 3,000 acres as of Tuesday, according to the forest service.

Two major fires in Travis County destroyed 44 structures and damaged 74 others, Roger Wade, a spokesman for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday.

Authorities planned to allow residents of the Steiner Ranch area, burned by one of those Travis fires, to return to their homes Tuesday afternoon.

“We have made progress, but there are smoldering islands here, and we will be working day and night,” said Jim Linardos, the fire incident commander.

While most of the damage has been to homes and other structures, a wildfire killed a woman and her 18-month-old child Sunday when flames engulfed their home near Gladewater, officials said.

Four firefighters working the Magnolia fire were taken to the hospital for treatment of heat exhaustion, according to the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management. One also had an ankle injury. All injuries were minor, the agency said.

The Bastrop County fire started Sunday and spread quickly though Monday on winds fueled by Tropical Storm Lee. It chased at least 2,500 people who registered with evacuation centers from their homes, and likely more.

Firefighters accustomed to attack a fire head-on could do little more than pick around the edges, trying to protect whatever they could, said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service.

“We’ve been very defensive. It’s all we could do until now,” he said. “By the end of the day we hope to gain a lot of ground on this.”

Winds that had peaked at nearly 30 mph had calmed to little more than half that Tuesday, giving firefighters a chance to move to the fire’s front and try to slow its advance, Boggus said.

Still, the damage is staggering, said officials who have toured the area.

“Bastrop County is not the same,” county Judge Ronnie McDonald told CNN affiliate KXAN-TV in Austin.

Historic drought in Texas has created ideal conditions for the rapid spread of wildfire.

So far in 2011, 7.2 million acres of grass, scrub and forest have burned in wildfires nationwide. Of those, 3.5 million — nearly half — have been in Texas, according to Inciweb, a fire-tracking website maintained by state and federal agencies.

Tuesday marks the 294th consecutive day of wildfires in Texas, according to Inciweb.

More than 2,000 firefighters are working fires across the state, Boggus said.

Fatigue is a major issue, Boggus said, especially for volunteer firefighters from local departments who form the backbone of the response. Boggus said Texas officials are seeking additional resources from around the country to help battle the fires.

Read more about the Texas fires from CNN affiliates KXAN and KVUE. Are you there? Share photos, video, but stay safe.

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) — Firefighters southeast of Austin, Texas, battled strong winds Monday as they struggled to gain ground against a fast-moving wildfire that has so far scorched some 25,000 acres and destroyed close to 500 homes.

Another fire in eastern Texas killed a mother and her 18-month-old child when flames engulfed their mobile home Sunday near Gladewater, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Department said.

“We got a long way to go to get this thing contained,” Gov. Rick Perry said about the fire raging near Austin. “I have seen a number of big fires in my life. This one is as mean looking as I’ve ever seen.”

Dozens of fires are burning across the parched state, the Texas Forest Service said Monday.

Earlier, the governor issued a statement in which he called the wildfire situation in Texas “severe” and said that all state resources were being made available to protect lives and property.

“We will pick up the pieces. We always do,” he told reporters.

Wall of smoke dominates Texas skyline
Waiting for the wind to die in Texas
Wildfires continue to plague Texas

Texas is battling its worst fire season in state history. A record 3.5 million acres — an area roughly the size of Connecticut, Perry said — have burned since the start of the season in November as hot and dry weather, coupled with a historic drought, made conditions ripe for rapid fire growth.

“It’s a very serious, scary situation,” said Jan Amen, a Texas Forest Service spokeswoman. “The drought has gone on so long — it’s just bone dry. Anything that catches fire takes off.”

Over the weekend, officials said low relative humidity and strong winds from Lee, which made landfall as a tropical storm but then weakened, further fanned the flames.

A red flag warning was in effect for much of east, south and central Texas on Monday, with wind gusts of up to 35 mph in places, according to the National Weather Service.

A fire broke out about 45 miles north of Houston Monday afternoon. It was moving between 15 and 20 mph and threatening homes, said Rhonda Reinholz with the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department.

Another fire burned in the Steiner Ranch subdivision in Travis County, forcing families out of their homes. Justin Allen evacuated from there with his five kids. Though he does not think the flames will reach their house, which is tucked near the back of the development, they are close enough to worry about, he said.

“It’s pretty scary,” said Allen. “And it’s really sad for everyone that’s in that path.”

The outbreak of wildfires prompted Perry to return to Texas from South Carolina, where he was scheduled to participate in a forum for Republican presidential candidates.

The massive, uncontained fire in Bastrop County, near Austin, was the state’s largest Monday. It destroyed 476 homes, according to Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, and threatened about 1,000 others, officials with the forest service’s incident management team reported. About 5,000 residents evacuated as flames approached, officials said.

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Lisa Ross learned she needed to leave her Bastrop home when her husband called 911 after realizing a looming fire had darkened the skies above.

“You learn what is valuable in life, and it isn’t the stuff,” she said. “It’s people in your life, and what means something to you.”

Cars crammed with belongings and pets packed a gas station on a highway near Austin, attorney Jonathon A. Zendeh Del said. “I’ve lived in Texas almost all my life, and I’ve never seen a fire that big in central Texas,” he said.

Officials issued a boil water notice for parts of Bastrop Monday. Dark clouds of smoke billowing across the sky could be seen miles from the fire.

Satellite images Monday showed the fire stretching over about 25,000 acres, jumping the Colorado River and a highway, the Texas Forest Service said.

More evacuations are likely as the fire spreads, officials said. Already, hundreds of people are in shelters as dangerous flames keep them from finding out whether their homes survived.

“We have been told already from three people that live in that area that our house has been burnt. I had a gut feeling that it did not, but now it’s looking worse and worse,” said Gisele Vocal, an evacuee. “We just have to wait now.”

Firefighters used Black Hawk helicopters to douse flames with a mixture of water and fire retardant Monday, officials said.

The fire forced parts of state highways 71 and 21 to shut and additional road closures were expected.

At least 63 new fires across Texas on Sunday burned nearly 33,000 acres, the state’s fire service said. Fires were reported in at least 17 counties.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/09/06/earlyshow/main20101919.shtml

September 6, 2011 8:08 AM

“No containment” of Texas wildfire

(CBS/AP)

Last Updated 9:52 a.m. ET

BASTROP, Texas – Firefighters trying to control a wind-fueled wildfire that has destroyed nearly 600 homes in Central Texas were looking for a few overnight hours of diminished winds as thousands of evacuees spent the night away from their threatened homes.

There’s been no significant rainfall over central Texas for a year, said CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, and today the consequences of that are being seen in Bastrop and other areas.

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas – an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, “This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions.”

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, told CBS’ “The Early Show” that as of this morning “There’s no containment right now.”

“We’ve been in a defensive mode for a couple of days now, and really all you can do is get people out of the way, protect homes where you can, and make sure our firefighters are safe,” Boggus told anchor Erica Hill. “But today, the winds have died down so we can probably be much more aggressive, and we hopefully can get some containment on all these fires in the Austin area.”

Texas wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes
Winds whip up Texas wildfires

 

Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the campaign trail Monday and returned to Texas for the latest outbreak of blazes. He told “The Early Show” Tuesday that he doesn’t know whether he will participate in the first Republican debate since he entered the raced for president while his state continues to battle persistent wildfires.

Perry mum on GOP debate as Texas wildfires rage

Boggus said 90 percent of wildfires are caused by people – directly, or through the electricity used by us. Texans are aware of the fire dangers. “People get it, they understand it,” he said. “Especially now it’s heightened with the news media … people understand to be very, very careful. And with the high winds people understood how dangerous and how volatile this state is.

“It’s historic. We’ve never seen fire seasons like this. We’ve never seen drought like this. This is an historic time that we’re living in, and so people know and understand they’ve got to be extremely careful,” Boggus said. (To watch the interview click on the video player below.)

El Niño Events May Tip Nations to War

El Niño Events May Tip Nations to War – ScienceNOW.

 

 

Tensions between the Peruvian government and the rebel group the Shining Path erupted into bloody clashes in 1982—the same year that an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event scoured potato fields across the hilly nation. Doomsayers might see cause and effect, but scientists have so far struggled to connect widespread violence with global climate phenomena. Now, a new study suggests that civil strife is twice as likely to break out in many nations worldwide during El Niño years.

“More and more of the evidence is pointing toward a strong link between adverse weather or adverse climate and political violence in the world’s poor regions,” says Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in this study. “This is an important piece of evidence in that debate.”

In 2009, Miguel and colleagues published a controversial paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, arguing that spikes in temperature had played a dramatic role in igniting African civil wars. While some scientists criticized the study’s statistical methods, many questioned its basic claim, says Solomon Hsiang, lead author of the new study, who studies the confluence of political and climate science at Columbia University. The question, Hsiang says, became, “Is it at all possible that global climate can affect conflict?” Scientists, he adds, don’t have the know-how to turn the thermostat up or down on the planet and then sit back to watch how angry people get.

But the planet does flip from hot to cold naturally: every few years as waters in the tropical Pacific cool, during La Niña events, or heat up, during El Niño years. These rapid, periodic shifts in climate, Hsiang and his colleagues realized, might make a good proxy for studying how climate might impact war around the world.

So the team examined 234 clashes each claiming more than 25 lives between governments and rebel groups across the globe from 1950 to 2004. In the tropical nations most affected by ENSO swings, such as Peru, the Sudan, or India, the likelihood of civil violence erupting doubled during El Niño years, from about 3% to 6%, amounting to an extra 48 clashes, the group reports online today in Nature. In nations separated from the steep climatic shifts associated with ENSO events, including the United States, France, and China, the chances of civil strife remained at a steady low of 2%. But just how El Niño events fanned the flames in what were largely the world’s poorest nations is unclear, Hsiang says.

Such a relationship between climate swings and political instability seems, at least anecdotally, to have a long history, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, a nature and society researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada: “What we’re seeing is a modern-day manifestation of a phenomenon that goes back millennia.” The city of Angkor in modern Cambodia, for instance, known for its web of monsoon-fed irrigation canals, fell to invaders in the mid-15thcentury. A series of droughts began to dry up those famous canals during the same period in history. As Hsiang and colleagues found, those societies most at the whim of climate tended to also be the nations with economies still rooted in agriculture, Homer-Dixon notes.

But Halvard Buhaug, an international relations specialist at the Centre for the Study of Civil War in Oslo and a sharp critic of Miguel’s 2009 study, doesn’t see cause and effect just yet. “I still believe that socioeconomic and political factors are the most important, common drivers of civil wars,” he says. “But the intriguing finding … certainly deserves further scrutiny.” Without knowing how exactly climate swings can lead to violence, if at all, he says, it becomes an uphill battle for humanitarian organizations to direct preventative measures.

Huge Arctic fire hints at new climate

BBC News – Huge Arctic fire hints at new climate cue.

Anaktuvuk fire In the summer of 2007, more than 1,000 sq km of Alaskan tundra burned near Anaktuvuk River

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An exceptional wildfire in northern Alaska in 2007 put as much carbon into the air as the entire Arctic tundra absorbs in a year, scientists say.

The Anaktuvuk River fire burned across more than 1,000 sq km (400 sq miles), doubling the extent of Alaskan tundra visited by fire since 1950.

With the Arctic warming fast, the team suggests in the journal Nature that fires could become more common.

If that happens, it could create a new climate feedback, they say.

Fires in the tundra are uncommon because the ground is covered in snow and ice for large periods of the year.

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Melting can lead to other huge changes… releasing carbon that’s been frozen since the Pleistocene”

Michelle Mack University of Florida

Temperatures are low even in summer, and the ground can also remain wet after the ice has melted.

But 2007 saw unusually warm and dry conditions across much of the Arctic – resulting, among other things, in spectacularly fast melting of Arctic sea ice.

This created conditions more conducive to fire, and when lightning struck the tundra in July, the Anaktuvuk River fire ignited.

“Most tundra fires have been very small – this was an order of magnitude larger than the historical size,” said Michelle Mack from the University of Florida in Gainesville, who led the research team on the Nature paper and is currently conducting further field studies in Alaska.

“In 2007, we had a hot, dry summer, there was no rain for a long period of time.

“So the tundra must have been highly flammable, with just the right conditions for fire to spread until the snow in October finally stopped it.”

Modis image of Alaska Nasa satellites image Arctic ice, water, land – and the Anaktuvuk fire, the black portion at bottom-right

According to the team’s calculations, the statistics of the fire are remarkable.

It is the largest on record, doubling the cumulative area burned since 1950.

It put carbon into the atmosphere about 100 times faster than it usually escapes from the ground in the Arctic summer, and released more than 2 million tonnes.

Although a small contribution to global emissions, this is about the same amount as the entire swathe of tundra around the Arctic absorbs in a single year.

Graph The melting of Arctic sea ice suggests 2007’s record may be broken this year

There is some vegetation on the summer lands, which did burn; but the main fuel is carbon in the ground itself.

The Anaktuvuk fire burned down to a maximum depth of 15cm (6in), and was burning carbon sequestered away over the last 50 years.

What this implies for the future is uncertain.

Climate models generally predict warmer temperatures across the Arctic, which could increase the frequency of fires and so a net loss of carbon into the atmosphere – reinforcing global warming.

On the other hand, plant life could flourish under these conditions, potentially increasing absorption and sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere.

In a news story published well before the Nature paper came out, another of the US research team, Gaius Shaver from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, said the northern region of Alaska could become “vastly different from the frozen, treeless tundra of today.

“And it’s one that may feed back positively to global climate change.”

On reflection

Another impact of the fire that has yet to be fully assessed is that the blackened soil absorbs more solar energy than normally vegetated tundra.

This abets melting of the permafrost layer below.

“Once permafrost melts beyond a certain depth on a slope, then all of the organic layer slides down the slope like a landslide,” Dr Mack told BBC News.

“This whole issue of melting can lead to other huge changes in drainage, in areas of wetlands – releasing carbon that’s been frozen since the Pleistocene [Epoch, which ended more than 10,000 years ago].”

The latest data on Arctic sea ice, meanwhile, reveals that 2011 could well see a melting season that will beat the 2007 record.

Currently, about the same area of sea is covered in ice as at the same point in 2007, which the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) ascribes to “persistent above-average temperatures and an early start to [the] melt”.

Famine ravages East Africa

Famine continues to ravage East Africa – Features – Al Jazeera English.

In Somalia, where civil war has ravaged the country, where conflict continues to claim victims, a new hardship is being visited on the innocent.

Thirty years ago the world rallied to help the famine victims of Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa, and vowed never again.

Now, after the worst drought in the region in 60 years, thousands are dead, thousands dying and more than 11 million people are at risk.

The drought was officially declared last week by the United Nations, and the international community is now trying to co-ordinate an action plan.

They gathered in Rome at the headquarters of the United Nation’s Farming and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the representatives of 191 countries, of non-government organisations, of charities and aid groups.

They were told by the foreign minister of Somalia’s government in exile Mohamed Ibrahim: “The people of Somalia now face widespread famine for a wide array of reasons, extremely low rates of rainfall for the past two years, al-Shabab’s blockade of humanitarian and aid agencies access to the needy, the vulnerability of the Somali people and the continual chaos and instability throughout the region”.

Famine in a failed state

The problem of access has dominated much of the discussion. Somalia is a failed state. The rule of law is ignored and the Islamist fighters of al-Shabab control large parts of the country. They have in the past banned international aid agencies from working in the area with threats of extreme violence. In early July it said would accept groups it had blocked. But just last week, it again said it would stop groups it considered Western or ”Christian”. And so people continue to starve, blocked from the help that could save them.

The famine is biting in Somalia, but 11 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea are also struggling to find enough food to eat. The drought has destroyed crops, conflict has forced people to run from the areas where they live, and – crucially – where they farm. The drop in production has led to a spike in demand, sending food prices soaring beyond the reach of most ordinary families. Refugees are spilling out of Somalia, heading to refugee camps where they hope not for a better life, but simply for the chance of one.

Josette Sheeran is the head of the UN’s World Food Programme. She arrived at the conference on the overnight flight from East Africa, having toured the areas most affected.

She saw thousands of Somalis slowly making their way to the temporary camps which are now almost bursting with exhausted, emaciated people. “What we saw is children who are arriving so weak that many of them are in stage four malnutrition and have little chance – less than 40 per cent chance – of making it,” she told the delegates.  “We also heard from women who had to leave babies along the road and make the horrifying choice of saving the stronger for the weaker or those who had children die in their arms,” she added.

Sheeran, who has been credited with bringing a new dynamism to the World Food Programme, denied that the world had ignored warnings that a crisis was coming, only waking up when pictures of dead babies started to fill the TV  screens. “This drought is worse than the one in the 1980s, but fewer people are dying because of the programmes put in place, the early-warning systems and the resilience measures that have been introduced.  It’s still too many and we need to work to save lives.”

Kanayo Nwanze is an agricultural specialist who runs the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. He welcomes the international intervention but believes Africa should be doing much more to help Africans: ”If Africa does not get its house in order and expects the world to help us out, we are dreaming”, said Nwanze. And he told me, “Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana are moving ahead with agriculture but less than ten countries have fulfilled the pledge they made in 2003 to set aside ten per cent of their budgets for agriculture”.

Nwanze pointed out that 30 years ago, Africa was a net exporter of many foods. “Now it imports.  And that is due to bad governance.”

The international community has pledged many millions to help with the immediate crisis, but Barbara Stocking of the charity Oxfam believes that short-term fixes don’t help the long-term problems.  Describing the famine as “shameful”, she said, “We have not had the investment in small producers across the world that was expected.  The money has simply not come through”. And she insisted that people must hold their governments to account when they promise money to help and then don’t follow through.

As one delegate told me: “People are dying in the drought in the Horn of Africa because the rains failed. The international community can’t afford to do the same.”

Valle Grande, New Mexico, reveals evidence of ancient megadrought

Valle Grande, New Mexico : Image of the Day.

Valle Grande, New Mexico

acquired May 25, 2011 download large image (5 MB, JPEG)
acquired May 25, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (41 MB, TIFF)

The American Southwest is prone to drought, and the summer of 2011 proved no exception, when a severe drought extended from Arizona to Florida. But a sediment core from New Mexico suggests that today’s droughts—even the 1930s Dust Bowl—are fleeting events compared to conditions of the ancient past. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, some droughts could persist for centuries. Researchers find one ancient period of warm, dry conditions especially intriguing because it was, in many ways, similar to conditions on Earth during the last 10,000 years.

Clues about this ancient period are preserved in a dry lakebed in New Mexico named Valle Grande. On May 25, 2011, the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this natural-color image of the lakebed. It is an unevenly shaped expanse of beige grassland situated inside the larger Valles Caldera.

Researchers extracted a 260-foot (80-meter) sediment core from this lakebed in 2004, and published their analysis in 2011. Ancient lake muds in the core document the region’s climate between 360,000 and 550,000 years ago. During that time, glaciers advanced over North America in recurring ice ages, and conditions warmed in interglacial periods. The core includes sediments from two warm interglacials.

One interglacial covered in the sediment core that particularly interested the research team is known as Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS 11), which occurred around 400,000 years ago. Our planet’s orbit around the Sun has varied over geologic time, but the 50,000-year period comprising MIS 11 experienced an orbital configuration similar to that of the last 10,000 years and, consequently, the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth was similar.

During MIS 11, the researchers found, the climate of the American Southwest underwent a series of changes. As ice-age conditions gave way to warming, plant life thrived in a seasonally wet climate. But the warming continued, withering grasses and shrubs, and drying out lakes. Mud cracks in the sediment core illustrate the aridity. The drought documented by the sediment core lasted thousands of years—a megadrought.

The sediment core suggests that the megadrought occurring in MIS 11 not only began abruptly, but also ended abruptly, replaced by cooler, wetter conditions. As geologists explain, we live in an interglacial today; Earth’s most recent ice age ended only about 10,000 years ago. The similarity of the Earth’s orbital configuration between MIS 11 and now suggests that, as happened hundreds of thousands of years ago, the Southwest might eventually experience cool, wet conditions again. Such a transition could be derailed, however, by warming caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

  1. References

  2. Fawcett, P.J., Werne, J.P., Anderson, R.S., Heikoop, J.M., Brown, E.T., Berke, M.A., Smith, S.J., Goff, F., Donohoo-Hurley, L., Cisneros-Dozal, L.M., Schouten, S., Sinninghe Damste, J.S., Huang, Y., Toney, J., Fessenden, J., WoldeGabriel, G., Atudorei, V., Geissman, J.W., Allen, C.D. (2011). Extended megadroughts in the southwestern United States during Pleistocene interglacials. Nature, 470, 518–521.
  3. Rickman, J.E. (2011, February 28). Dry lake reveals evidence of southwestern “megadroughts.” Los Alamos National Laboratory. Accessed July 18, 2011.
  4. U.S. Drought Monitor. (2011, July 14). Conditions for July 12, 2011. (PDF file) University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Accessed July 16, 2011.
  5. University of California Museum of Paleontology. The Pleistocene. Accessed July 18, 2011.
  6. Williams, J. (2011). Climate change: Old droughts in New Mexico. Nature, 470, 473–474.

NASA image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 Team. Caption by Michon Scott.

Instrument: 
EO-1 – ALI