Category Archives: insight from natural systems

issues related to our understanding of natural and ecological systems

Raindrop Tracker Point to Better Environmental Awareness

Go with the flow : Nature : Nature Publishing Group.

It might seem impossible to get lost in the modern world with its ubiquity of digital maps, but there is more than one way to be lost. Truly knowing where you are goes beyond pinpointing your position. It means knowing where your water comes from and where it goes, where your electricity is generated and where your rubbish ends up. It means being aware of what plants and animals live nearby and what kind of soil lies beneath your feet.

For example, an undergraduate at a rainy Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, can use his or her smartphone to instantly calculate a route to the nearest Starbucks coffee shop. But chances are that he or she remains ignorant of how the rain flows through the city on its way to the White River, the Mississippi and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico.

Enter Raindrop, a phone application that combines sewer and watercourse maps with the software that makes getting a caffeine fix so easy. Tap the map and watch the path of a single raindrop flow from your location through streams, culverts and pipes into the river. The app, due to launch next month, was funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and put together by a team led by ecologist Timothy Carter at Butler. It is currently limited to Indianapolis, but similar efforts could be designed for other cities.

A better appreciation of watercourses and other hidden networks can only strengthen human connections to ecosystems, biogeochemical cycles and resource flows, and will arguably make people more likely to support science and environmental causes. Making available the data that science and society produce in these innovative ways can help people to find themselves — even if they had no idea that they were lost.

EarthRisk crunches data to predict extreme weather

EarthRisk crunches data to predict extreme weather | Green Tech – CNET News.

The HeatRisk application gives trained meteorologists tools to analyze the weather patterns that lead to extreme heat weeks before these events occur.

(Credit: EarthRisk Technologies)

EarthRisk Technologies is mining years of weather data for profit.

The San Diego-based start-up today launched HeatRisk, a Web-based application designed to predict extreme heat events 30 to 40 days out. The target audience is meteorologists who work for energy companies or other organizations which need a long-range forecast to hedge their risk from extreme temperatures.

Over time, EarthRisk Technologies intends to design a product aimed at less technical users and investigate whether its research method can be applied to predicting extreme storms, according to President and Chief Science Officer Stephen Bennett. Its first product, released last year, is for analyzing the factors that lead to extreme cold events.

More researchers are tapping powerful computers and software able to present big sets of data to address environmental problems, such as air and water quality or extreme weather. EarthRisk Technologies originally began as a research project at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, but company founders saw there was a business opportunity buried in its research.

“We realized if we could write a software application around our research, it would increase the value of the underlying research tremendously,” said Bennett. “The (corporate sponsors) said if you can put together a good application and continue to do cutting-edge research, we will be the first to sign up.”

Three years ago, Scripps was approached by energy companies and hedge funds which deal in energy futures to see if there was a way to identify major weather events beyond the National Weather Service forecast. In addition to causing safety hazards, extreme weather throws energy markets out of whack by creating an imbalance between supply and demand.

A power generator, for example, could use HeatRisk to prepare for a coming heat wave by purchasing fuel for auxiliary generators to meet higher demand. Having a longer lead time than traditional forecasts gives energy buyers and traders an advantage, explained Bennett.

Right now, the people who use the software need to be skilled in meteorology and be comfortable analyzing atmospheric conditions directly. Eventually, the company hopes its software could be used by retailers, farmers, or municipalities which can use long-range forecasts to prepare for extreme temperatures, Bennett said.

Dominoes lining up
The accuracy of weather forecasting has improved over the past decade from supercomputers and simulation software, but the focus tends to be on shorter-term windows than what EarthRisk is doing, Bennett said. And rather than trying to forecast average temperatures, EarthRisk is seeking the factors that lead to specific extreme temperature events.

The company’s TempRisk platform uses historical weather data to isolate the factors that lead to extreme temperatures.

(Credit: EarthRisk Technologies)

To build the application, researchers analyzed weather data going back to 1948 to identify the patterns that led up to extreme cold or heat. Each pattern is sort of like a domino and when enough of them line up, the software can help identify the probability of an extreme weather event, Bennett explained.

In a recent example, a combination of a large high-pressure system over Scandinavia and a low-pressure system in the Atlantic, followed by another system over the Solomon Islands pointed to a heat spike in the U.S.

People can use the analytical application through a Web browser and pay a fee for using it during a season and specific regions. A forecasting application could be ready in about six months, Bennett said.

Using software to dodge weather risk is new so it’s still not clear there is a strong demand for it. But EarthRisk isn’t the only company to use cloud computing and large amounts of data to hedge against extreme weather. Earlier this year, WeatherBill launched a service that gives farmers insurance against the effects of extreme weather by continuously analyzing weather data.

 

The Last Great Global Warming

The Last Great Global Warming: Scientific American.

Surprising new evidence suggests the pace of Earth’s most abrupt prehistoric warm-up paled in comparison with what we face today. The episode has lessons for our future

Image: Illustration by Ron Miller

In Brief

  • Global temperature rose five degrees Celsius 56 million years ago in response to a massive injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
  • That intense gas release was only 10 percent of the rate at which heat-trapping greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere today.
  • The speed of today’s rise is more troubling than the absolute magnitude, because adjusting to rapid climate change is very difficult.

Polar bears draw most visitors to Spitsbergen, the largest island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. For me, rocks were the allure. My colleagues and I, all geologists and climate scientists, flew to this remote Arctic island in the summer of 2007 to find definitive evidence of what was then considered the most abrupt global warming episode of all time. Getting to the rocky outcrops that might entomb these clues meant a rugged, two-hour hike from our old bunkhouse in the former coal-mining village of Longyearbyen, so we set out early after a night’s rest. As we trudged over slippery pockets of snow and stunted plants, I imagined a time when palm trees, ferns and alligators probably inhabited this area.

Back then, around 56 million years ago, I would have been drenched with sweat rather than fighting off a chill. Research had indicated that in the course of a few thousand years—a mere instant in geologic time—global temperatures rose five degrees Celsius, marking a planetary fever known to scientists as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM. Climate zones shifted toward the poles, on land and at sea, forcing plants and animals to migrate, adapt or die. Some of the deepest realms of the ocean became acidified and oxygen-starved, killing off many of the organisms living there. It took nearly 200,000 years for the earth’s natural buffers to bring the fever down.

 

REST HIDDEN BEHIND PAYWALL

Forget Mother Nature: This is a world of our making – environment – 14 June 2011 – New Scientist

Forget Mother Nature: This is a world of our making – environment – 14 June 2011 – New Scientist.

Humans have transformed Earth beyond recovery – but rather than look back in despair we should look ahead to what we can achieve

THE Holocene, with its mild climate so remarkably stable and good for us, is over. We humans have transformed Earth’s climate, geology, biology and hydrology so extensively, profoundly and permanently that geologists are proposing the formal designation of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

International scientific panels will ultimately decide whether to recognise the new epoch, and it could be a decade or longer before we get a final ruling. Nevertheless, it’s high time that we – and I do mean all of us – take stock of the new Earth we have created. One reason to do this is to help answer a basic geological question: will the Anthropocene last long enough to justify its designation as a new epoch, or will it remain a mere geological event akin to the impact of an asteroid? It will also help us answer a more profound question: what do we do now?

The first lesson of history is simple: the Anthropocene was a long time in the making. Significant human alteration of the biosphere began more than 15,000 years ago as Palaeolithic tribes evolved social learning, advanced hunting and foraging technologies, and the use of fire, and used them to open up forested landscapes and kill off megafauna.

These Palaeolithic human impacts were significant and extensive, but they were minor compared with the impact of the rise of agriculture more than 8000 years ago. By domesticating plant and animal species and engineering ecosystems to support them, humans introduced a wide range of unambiguously anthropogenic processes into the biosphere.

Human alteration of Earth systems tends to be far more extensive and complex than one would expect based on numbers alone. Even 8000 years ago, with a population of just 10 million or so, humans had already altered as much as a fifth of Earth’s ice-free land, primarily by using fire to clear forest. The reason small populations had such extensive impacts is that early agriculture emphasised labour efficiency. Early farmers did not use the plough, and that meant constantly shifting cultivation to the most fertile areas. As a result, most of the landscape was in some stage of recovery, giving rise to “semi-natural” woodlands. These were among the first anthropogenic biomes, or “anthromes“.

In this way, human populations were able to increase and expand for millennia, converting vast tracts of pristine forest into semi-natural woodlands and less productive land into rangeland. As populations grew larger and more dense they created ever more intensively transformed anthromes by tillage, irrigation, manuring and cropping. By 1750, more than half of the terrestrial biosphere had been converted into anthromes, leaving an ever greater permanent record in soils, sediments and the atmosphere. This process ultimately gave rise to the densely populated village and urban anthromes most of us live in today.

The rise of industrial systems in the past century has transformed the majority of the terrestrial biosphere into intensively used anthromes dominated by novel ecological processes. Now more than 7 billion strong and growing, we continue to transform the last wild biomes into anthromes – a process that must end soon as we reach the limits of the usable biosphere. Already, more than 12 per cent of Earth’s ice-free land is used continuously for crops and 16 per cent for livestock.

Thus we find ourselves in the Anthropocene. Today, even if the population were to decline substantially or land use to become far more efficient, the extent, duration and intensity of human activity has altered the terrestrial biosphere sufficiently to leave an unambiguous geological record differing substantially from that of any prior epoch. Earth’s biodiversity, biogeochemistry and evolution are now profoundly reshaped by us – and are therefore in our hands.

There will be no returning to our comfortable cradle. The global patterns of the Holocene have receded and their return is no longer possible, sustainable or even desirable. It is no longer Mother Nature who will care for us, but us who must care for her.

This raises an important but often neglected question: can we create a good Anthropocene? In the distant future will we be able to look back with pride?

We have seen what we can do, and it is awesome. In just a few millennia, humanity has emerged as a global force of nature – a networked system of billions of individuals creating and sustaining an entirely new global ecology. We live longer than ever, and our average standard of living has never been higher. These unprecedented achievements clearly demonstrate the remarkable ability of our social systems and technologies to evolve and adapt, often to changes we ourselves have induced.

Yet it is also easy to see what we have lost and are even now destroying. Wild fish and forests are nearly gone. We are warming the atmosphere, melting the ice caps, acidifying the ocean, polluting land and sea, driving species to extinction and inducing invasions by species from around the world – and in some areas leaving only a wasteland of monocultures and weeds. Clearly it is possible to look at all we have created and see only what we have destroyed.

But that, in my view, would be our mistake. We most certainly can create a better Anthropocene. We have really only just begun, and our knowledge and power have never been greater. We will need to work together with each other and the planet in novel ways. The first step will be in our own minds. The Holocene is gone. In the Anthropocene we are the creators, engineers and permanent global stewards of a sustainable human nature.

Erle C. Ellis is an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The New Geopolitics of Food

The New Geopolitics of Food – By Lester R. Brown | Foreign Policy.

In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family’s dinner table.

Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval.

Already in 2011, the U.N. Food Price Index has eclipsed its previous all-time global high; as of March it had climbed for eight consecutive months. With this year’s harvest predicted to fall short, with governments in the Middle East and Africa teetering as a result of the price spikes, and with anxious markets sustaining one shock after another, food has quickly become the hidden driver of world politics. And crises like these are going to become increasingly common. The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile — and a whole lot more contentious — than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm.

Until recently, sudden price surges just didn’t matter as much, as they were quickly followed by a return to the relatively low food prices that helped shape the political stability of the late 20th century across much of the globe. But now both the causes and consequences are ominously different.

For More

How Food Explains the World
By Joshua E. Keating

Street Eats

An FP Slide Show

In many ways, this is a resumption of the 2007-2008 food crisis, which subsided not because the world somehow came together to solve its grain crunch once and for all, but because the Great Recession tempered growth in demand even as favorable weather helped farmers produce the largest grain harvest on record. Historically, price spikes tended to be almost exclusively driven by unusual weather — a monsoon failure in India, a drought in the former Soviet Union, a heat wave in the U.S. Midwest. Such events were always disruptive, but thankfully infrequent. Unfortunately, today’s price hikes are driven by trends that are both elevating demand and making it more difficult to increase production: among them, a rapidly expanding population, crop-withering temperature increases, and irrigation wells running dry. Each night, there are 219,000 additional people to feed at the global dinner table.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world’s largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can’t do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.

That’s why the food crisis of 2011 is for real, and why it may bring with it yet more bread riots cum political revolutions. What if the upheavals that greeted dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya (a country that imports 90 percent of its grain) are not the end of the story, but the beginning of it? Get ready, farmers and foreign ministers alike, for a new era in which world food scarcity increasingly shapes global politics.

THE DOUBLING OF WORLD grain prices since early 2007 has been driven primarily by two factors: accelerating growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. The result is a world that looks strikingly different from the bountiful global grain economy of the last century. What will the geopolitics of food look like in a new era dominated by scarcity? Even at this early stage, we can see at least the broad outlines of the emerging food economy.

On the demand side, farmers now face clear sources of increasing pressure. The first is population growth. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million additional people, nearly all of them in developing countries. The world’s population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is headed toward 9 billion by midcentury. Some 3 billion people, meanwhile, are also trying to move up the food chain, consuming more meat, milk, and eggs. As more families in China and elsewhere enter the middle class, they expect to eat better. But as global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does the demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock. (Grain consumption per person in the United States, for example, is four times that in India, where little grain is converted into animal protein. For now.)

At the same time, the United States, which once was able to act as a global buffer of sorts against poor harvests elsewhere, is now converting massive quantities of grain into fuel for cars, even as world grain consumption, which is already up to roughly 2.2 billion metric tons per year, is growing at an accelerating rate. A decade ago, the growth in consumption was 20 million tons per year. More recently it has risen by 40 million tons every year. But the rate at which the United States is converting grain into ethanol has grown even faster. In 2010, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries (up from 16 million tons in 2000). This massive capacity to convert grain into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon: Brazil, which distills ethanol from sugar cane, ranks second in production after the United States, while the European Union’s goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.

This is not merely a story about the booming demand for food. Everything from falling water tables to eroding soils and the consequences of global warming means that the world’s food supply is unlikely to keep up with our collectively growing appetites. Take climate change: The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the growing season optimum, farmers can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. This relationship was borne out all too dramatically during the 2010 heat wave in Russia, which reduced the country’s grain harvest by nearly 40 percent.

While temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation. This artificially inflates food production in the short run, creating a food bubble that bursts when aquifers are depleted and pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Saudi Arabia is only one of some 18 countries with water-based food bubbles. All together, more than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. The politically troubled Arab Middle East is the first geographic region where grain production has peaked and begun to decline because of water shortages, even as populations continue to grow. Grain production is already going down in Syria and Iraq and may soon decline in Yemen. But the largest food bubbles are in India and China. In India, where farmers have drilled some 20 million irrigation wells, water tables are falling and the wells are starting to go dry. The World Bank reports that 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is concentrated in the North China Plain, which produces half of China’s wheat and a third of its corn. An estimated 130 million Chinese are currently fed by overpumping. How will these countries make up for the inevitable shortfalls when the aquifers are depleted?

Even as we are running our wells dry, we are also mismanaging our soils, creating new deserts. Soil erosion as a result of overplowing and land mismanagement is undermining the productivity of one-third of the world’s cropland. How severe is it? Look at satellite images showing two huge new dust bowls: one stretching across northern and western China and western Mongolia; the other across central Africa. Wang Tao, a leading Chinese desert scholar, reports that each year some 1,400 square miles of land in northern China turn to desert. In Mongolia and Lesotho, grain harvests have shrunk by half or more over the last few decades. North Korea and Haiti are also suffering from heavy soil losses; both countries face famine if they lose international food aid. Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves.

Beyond the changes in the environment that make it ever harder to meet human demand, there’s an important intangible factor to consider: Over the last half-century or so, we have come to take agricultural progress for granted. Decade after decade, advancing technology underpinned steady gains in raising land productivity. Indeed, world grain yield per acre has tripled since 1950. But now that era is coming to an end in some of the more agriculturally advanced countries, where farmers are already using all available technologies to raise yields. In effect, the farmers have caught up with the scientists. After climbing for a century, rice yield per acre in Japan has not risen at all for 16 years. In China, yields may level off soon. Just those two countries alone account for one-third of the world’s rice harvest. Meanwhile, wheat yields have plateaued in Britain, France, and Germany — Western Europe’s three largest wheat producers.

IN THIS ERA OF TIGHTENING world food supplies, the ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage, and countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.

The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when farmers began having difficulty keeping up with the growth in global demand for grain. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, tripling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to control the rise of domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Vietnam, the No. 2 rice exporter, banned exports entirely for several months in early 2008. So did several other smaller exporters of grain.

With exporting countries restricting exports in 2007 and 2008, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market to supply the grain they needed, several countries took the novel step of trying to negotiate long-term grain-supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, for instance, negotiated a three-year agreement with Vietnam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind, but had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments.

Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, took the unusual step in 2008 of buying or leasing land in other countries on which to grow grain for themselves. Most of these land acquisitions are in Africa, where some governments lease cropland for less than $1 per acre per year. Among the principal destinations were Ethiopia and Sudan, countries where millions of people are being sustained with food from the U.N. World Food Program. That the governments of these two countries are willing to sell land to foreign interests when their own people are hungry is a sad commentary on their leadership.

By the end of 2009, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2010 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved — an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect all downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate crops in Ethiopia or Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries with which Egypt must negotiate.

The potential for conflict — and not just over water — is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and in most cases, the land involved was already in use by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted about nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little backing to bring their cases to court. Reporter John Vidal, writing in Britain’s Observer, quotes Nyikaw Ochalla from Ethiopia’s Gambella region: “The foreign companies are arriving in large numbers, depriving people of land they have used for centuries. There is no consultation with the indigenous population. The deals are done secretly. The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands.”

Local hostility toward such land grabs is the rule, not the exception. In 2007, as food prices were starting to rise, China signed an agreement with the Philippines to lease 2.5 million acres of land slated for food crops that would be shipped home. Once word leaked, the public outcry — much of it from Filipino farmers — forced Manila to suspend the agreement. A similar uproar rocked Madagascar, where a South Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, had pursued rights to more than 3 million acres of land. Word of the deal helped stoke a political furor that toppled the government and forced cancellation of the agreement. Indeed, few things are more likely to fuel insurgencies than taking land from people. Agricultural equipment is easily sabotaged. If ripe fields of grain are torched, they burn quickly.

Not only are these deals risky, but foreign investors producing food in a country full of hungry people face another political question of how to get the grain out. Will villagers permit trucks laden with grain headed for port cities to proceed when they themselves may be on the verge of starvation? The potential for political instability in countries where villagers have lost their land and their livelihoods is high. Conflicts could easily develop between investor and host countries.

These acquisitions represent a potential investment in agriculture in developing countries of an estimated $50 billion. But it could take many years to realize any substantial production gains. The public infrastructure for modern market-oriented agriculture does not yet exist in most of Africa. In some countries it will take years just to build the roads and ports needed to bring in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and to export farm products. Beyond that, modern agriculture requires its own infrastructure: machine sheds, grain-drying equipment, silos, fertilizer storage sheds, fuel storage facilities, equipment repair and maintenance services, well-drilling equipment, irrigation pumps, and energy to power the pumps. Overall, development of the land acquired to date appears to be moving very slowly.

So how much will all this expand world food output? We don’t know, but the World Bank analysis indicates that only 37 percent of the projects will be devoted to food crops. Most of the land bought up so far will be used to produce biofuels and other industrial crops.

Even if some of these projects do eventually boost land productivity, who will benefit? If virtually all the inputs — the farm equipment, the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds — are brought in from abroad and if all the output is shipped out of the country, it will contribute little to the host country’s economy. At best, locals may find work as farm laborers, but in highly mechanized operations, the jobs will be few. At worst, impoverished countries like Mozambique and Sudan will be left with less land and water with which to feed their already hungry populations. Thus far the land grabs have contributed more to stirring unrest than to expanding food production.

And this rich country-poor country divide could grow even more pronounced — and soon. This January, a new stage in the scramble among importing countries to secure food began to unfold when South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, announced that it was creating a new public-private entity that will be responsible for acquiring part of this grain. With an initial office in Chicago, the plan is to bypass the large international trading firms by buying grain directly from U.S. farmers. As the Koreans acquire their own grain elevators, they may well sign multiyear delivery contracts with farmers, agreeing to buy specified quantities of wheat, corn, or soybeans at a fixed price.

Other importers will not stand idly by as South Korea tries to tie up a portion of the U.S. grain harvest even before it gets to market. The enterprising Koreans may soon be joined by China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other leading importers. Although South Korea’s initial focus is the United States, far and away the world’s largest grain exporter, it may later consider brokering deals with Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other major exporters. This is happening just as China may be on the verge of entering the U.S. market as a potentially massive importer of grain. With China’s 1.4 billion increasingly affluent consumers starting to compete with U.S. consumers for the U.S. grain harvest, cheap food, seen by many as an American birthright, may be coming to an end.

No one knows where this intensifying competition for food supplies will go, but the world seems to be moving away from the international cooperation that evolved over several decades following World War II to an every-country-for-itself philosophy. Food nationalism may help secure food supplies for individual affluent countries, but it does little to enhance world food security. Indeed, the low-income countries that host land grabs or import grain will likely see their food situation deteriorate.

AFTER THE CARNAGE of two world wars and the economic missteps that led to the Great Depression, countries joined together in 1945 to create the United Nations, finally realizing that in the modern world we cannot live in isolation, tempting though that might be. The International Monetary Fund was created to help manage the monetary system and promote economic stability and progress. Within the U.N. system, specialized agencies from the World Health Organization to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) play major roles in the world today. All this has fostered international cooperation.

But while the FAO collects and analyzes global agricultural data and provides technical assistance, there is no organized effort to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies. Indeed, most international negotiations on agricultural trade until recently focused on access to markets, with the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina persistently pressing Europe and Japan to open their highly protected agricultural markets. But in the first decade of this century, access to supplies has emerged as the overriding issue as the world transitions from an era of food surpluses to a new politics of food scarcity. At the same time, the U.S. food aid program that once worked to fend off famine wherever it threatened has largely been replaced by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), where the United States is the leading donor. The WFP now has food-assistance operations in some 70 countries and an annual budget of $4 billion. There is little international coordination otherwise. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — the reigning president of the G-20 — is proposing to deal with rising food prices by curbing speculation in commodity markets. Useful though this may be, it treats the symptoms of growing food insecurity, not the causes, such as population growth and climate change. The world now needs to focus not only on agricultural policy, but on a structure that integrates it with energy, population, and water policies, each of which directly affects food security.

But that is not happening. Instead, as land and water become scarcer, as the Earth’s temperature rises, and as world food security deteriorates, a dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is emerging. Land grabbing, water grabbing, and buying grain directly from farmers in exporting countries are now integral parts of a global power struggle for food security.

With grain stocks low and climate volatility increasing, the risks are also increasing. We are now so close to the edge that a breakdown in the food system could come at any time. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the 2010 heat wave that was centered in Moscow had instead been centered in Chicago. In round numbers, the 40 percent drop in Russia’s hoped-for harvest of roughly 100 million tons cost the world 40 million tons of grain, but a 40 percent drop in the far larger U.S. grain harvest of 400 million tons would have cost 160 million tons. The world’s carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) would have dropped to just 52 days of consumption. This level would have been not only the lowest on record, but also well below the 62-day carryover that set the stage for the 2007-2008 tripling of world grain prices.

Then what? There would have been chaos in world grain markets. Grain prices would have climbed off the charts. Some grain-exporting countries, trying to hold down domestic food prices, would have restricted or even banned exports, as they did in 2007 and 2008. The TV news would have been dominated not by the hundreds of fires in the Russian countryside, but by footage of food riots in low-income grain-importing countries and reports of governments falling as hunger spread out of control. Oil-exporting countries that import grain would have been trying to barter oil for grain, and low-income grain importers would have lost out. With governments toppling and confidence in the world grain market shattered, the global economy could have started to unravel.

We may not always be so lucky. At issue now is whether the world can go beyond focusing on the symptoms of the deteriorating food situation and instead attack the underlying causes. If we cannot produce higher crop yields with less water and conserve fertile soils, many agricultural areas will cease to be viable. And this goes far beyond farmers. If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand. The time to act is now — before the food crisis of 2011 becomes the new normal.

World's oceans move into 'extinction phase'

World’s oceans move into ‘extinction phase’ – Telegraph.

Maybe a dupe of something V posted….

A preliminary report from an international panel of marine experts said that the condition of the world’s seas was worsening more quickly than had been predicted.

The scientists, gathered for a workshop at Oxford University, warned that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation.

Already fish stocks are collapsing, leading to a risk of rising food prices and even starvation in some parts of the world.

The experts blamed the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for pushing up ocean temperatures, boosting algae so there is less oxygen and increasing acidity of the water.

The conditions are similar to every previous mass extinction event in the Earth’s history.

Dr Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) which convened the panel with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the next generation would suffer if species are allowed to go extinct.

“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean the implications became far worse than we had individually realised,” he said.

“This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level.

“We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime and, worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”

The marine scientists called for a range of urgent measures to cut carbon emissions, reduce over-fishing, shut unsustainable fisheries, create protected areas in the seas and cut pollution.

Sea levels rising at fastest rate in 2,000 years and other sea level news

Sea levels rising at fastest rate in 2,000 years – Telegraph.

Sea levels rising at fastest rate in 2,000 years

Sea levels are rising faster than at any point in the past 2,000 years because of the impact of global warming, scientists have found.

Sea levels rising at fastest rate in 2,000 years

Since then the average rise in sea levels in North Carolina, where the study was based, it has been higher than 2mm per year Photo: ALAMY

Doctors Prepare to Explain and Treat Climate-Related Symptoms: Scientific American

Doctors Prepare to Explain and Treat Climate-Related Symptoms: Scientific American.

Climate change is beginning to impact public health

allergies, health, climate change PUBLIC HEALTH: Prolonged allergy seasons, the resurgence of certain diseases and extreme weather events are spurred by climate change and affect human health. Image: lighttable/Flickr

Dr. Anthony Szema is used to seeing patients with red eyes and runny noses. But in the past couple of years, the New York-based allergist has been faced with an onslaught of patients complaining their symptoms are starting earlier and hitting harder than ever before.

Szema believes climate change is a culprit in the extended severe allergy seasons. And he is one of a small number of physicians who are beginning to talk to their patients about it.

“I don’t go on a soapbox making a scientific case, but by the time patients come to my office, they pretty much understand something is going on,” he said. “They want to know why they are wheezing, why they have watery eyes and why their throats are swelling up. They understand the pollen season is worse this year.”

“I give multiple etiologies,” he said, referring to the causes of illness, “but climate change is one of them.”

As scientists solidify the links between climate change and health issues like tropical ailments that infect Americans on the backs of whipping winds and warming ocean tides, top medical associations are becoming a high-profile lobbying force for climate regulations.

Prolonged allergy seasons, re-emerging illnesses and more extreme weather events are spurred on by climate change and will systematically affect human health, they argue.

Now, health advocates say physicians like Szema need to study up on the environment and bring conversations about the fingerprints of climate change right down to the doctor-patient level.

Most individual doctors remain reluctant to speak out on climate-health links. But top medical associations leapt into the fray this past year as U.S. EPA’s climate regulations became a target of GOP-led attacks in Congress.

Medical associations join the fight for regulations
The American Medical Association and American Lung Association, for example, were part of a coalition that coordinated a defense for reining in the emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes. Their argument: Protect human health.

For that fight, they offered up a cadre of experts to speak out on the connections between greenhouse gas emissions and higher rates of asthma or other serious illnesses. Some health advocates see this as a preview of what is to come.

“The challenge for groups like the American Thoracic Society is that we are professional organizations designed to talk to ourselves. We are not well-structured to effectively communicate with the public on issues as large as this. We can certainly publish opinion pieces in our journals that make the case, but we don’t have a direct line to The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal,” said Gary Ewart, director of government relations at the American Thoracic Society.

At the moment, he added, primary care physicians are also not well-positioned to squeeze talks about climate change and associated threats into 10-minute patient visits.

“In most patient encounters, you need to get the family history, and most of our physicians are seeing patients with complex problems and prescribing drugs and other lifestyle interventions … doing that in a 10- to 15-minute discussion is a lot to cover,” he said.

But Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said doctors still have a special responsibility to read up on these issues, verify the facts for themselves and help inform their communities and policymakers.

“Every physician has a role in prevention, and if we can help improve the environment, why shouldn’t we?” he said. “If we saw a river was infected, we would tell our patients that they shouldn’t drink the water from that river or bathe in that river, and I hope they would do work as good citizens to make sure whatever was polluting that river was taken care of.”

elivering a message that takes more than 10 minutes
Clinicians can slide into the chasm between climate science and public understanding — connecting the dots for communities about why they should care about rising greenhouse gas emissions and acting as trusted interpreters on how these changes could affect their own families’ health and what they see in their own backyards, he said.

So far, it hasn’t really happened yet on any large scale. But Epstein hopes that will change.

“Physicians are getting more involved, and we are getting a clear message from health groups and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that these are real issues we need to know about,” he said.

Now, in the aftermath of the most recent round of international climate talks and after the demise of U.S. climate change legislation, Epstein and journalist Dan Ferber have released a new book geared toward educating the public about the human consequences to health if climate change goes unaddressed.

The book, “Changing Planet, Changing Health,” caps the sweeping change in the last couple of years as more doctors and medical professionals have chimed in on the dangers of climate change — with multiple public health groups issuing treatises on the topic in the past few years.

The foundation for more physician involvement may already be set. Several hundred health groups have banded together to boost physicians’ knowledge on issues of environmental health — including climate change.

The coalition, which calls itself Health Care Without Harm, has crafted PowerPoint presentations for clinicians and hospital administrators that offer advice about how to “green” hospitals and educate other doctors about this topic.

Allergists at the ‘forefront’
“What we have found with our trainings is if clinicians are given more information about these topics, they tend to bring them up more in regular clinical visits,” she said, pointing to anecdotal evidence.

“You would assume clinicians know about this, but they don’t unless they are personally interested. They don’t receive any training on this,” she said.

Dr. Mark Windt, a New Hampshire-based allergist, immunologist and pulmonologist, underscores that point. He reports that he weaves climate change into his meetings with patients on a regular basis, but as a specialist with his own private practice, he acknowledges he may be somewhat unique.

“Training as an allergist and immunologist puts me at the forefront of exposure to allergens and people with allergies, and we are seeing increases in cases,” he said.

Windt has seen an uptick in workshops and seminars on these issues for specialists in his field, he said. The American Medical Association, too, has been increasing its offerings on this topic, thanks to funding from the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment. But ultimately, the drive to dig deeply on these topics continues to come from personal interest.

Cynthia Romero, a doctor with a family practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she started peppering her patients’ visits with discussions about climate change in the past couple of years — after she started hearing more about it in the news and at conferences.

When patients bring up their allergies, they often ask about climate change, she said. But beyond treating allergy symptoms, she said, those talks often become about what they can do to mitigate change through recycling and energy efficiency.

“Even though my interactions with patients may be short and focused on a particular disease or condition when they come in, I am able to initiate conversations we can continue the next time they come in. … It is really an ongoing conversation,” she said.

Pushing treatment, not an agenda
But for some physicians, these types of conversations — on climate change and a host of other topics — are also fraught with concerns about espousing political views that may alienate patients, she said.

“It is a common theme that physicians really are not in favor of using their office as an opportunity to communicate a political agenda. I think physicians are really geared toward focusing on patient care and trying not to be judgmental on political views,” she said.

One stumbling block for physicians and scientists is that pinpointing a clear cause for specific diseases is complex.

“It is always tough to tease out when we are talking about the exact relationship between climate change and an illness, because it is always multifactorial,” explained Kim Knowlton, senior scientist at the Health and Environment Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“It is never just climate change or temperature or humidity or changing rainfall — it is also people’s level of development, socioeconomic status and access to health care,” she said. Unforeseen circumstances like antibiotic resistance also play a key role in disease outbreak.

Another challenge is that science takes time to develop and even longer to evaluate.

For Epstein and like-minded medical professionals, however, climate change is like any other health issue that requires fast and preventive treatment.

To help make communities more climate-ready, the Centers for Disease Control already has taken steps in the past year to help communities prepare for climate related-health threats. That agency is providing more than $5 million for 10 states and cities to begin to adapt to extreme heat and more vector-borne diseases and respiratory illnesses.

Lyme disease soars in Maine
Outside extended allergy seasons and air pollution concerns, other health impacts linked with climate change are already readily apparent.

Scientists are already documenting how insects that infect people with malaria or dengue fever are surviving and thriving in higher altitudes than ever before — expanding their range and moving northward in Africa and Latin America. Changing migration patterns are also enabling dengue-infected mosquitoes to circulate in Florida.

“You have to look at the whole picture — it’s not just a question of if just these particular mosquitoes are here or there,” said Epstein.

In New England alone, Epstein notes, Lyme disease is on the rise, and he believes climate change is propelling it. More than 700 cases of Lyme disease were reported in 2010 in Maine. A decade earlier, fewer than 100 cases were reported within that state’s borders.

Richard Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, said that while climate change is likely a factor driving Lyme disease, the science on the climate change connection is not as robust as it is with dengue fever or malaria.

Trees coming back after they were cleared to become farmlands in the 1800s may also be a driver for the increase in Lyme disease, since the bacteria may have lain dormant in pockets of those areas the whole time, he said.

How and where climate change could help trigger epidemics remains uncertain, since illnesses rest on multi-variable factors, but scientists agree that some of the calling cards of climate change — heavy rains, prolonged drought and unusual warmth — are ultimately setting the stage for diseases to prosper.

And extreme weather events and their aftermath leave communities with problems that simmer below the surface such as trauma and depression. They also exacerbate other physical maladies, including high blood pressure and heart disease.

“When is this going to wake people up?” said Epstein. “We are talking about fundamental assaults on health systems.”

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

Climate change disasters can be predicted, study suggests

Climate change disasters can be predicted, study suggests.

ScienceDaily (June 19, 2011) — Climate change disasters, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, dieback of the Amazon rainforest or collapse of the Atlantic overturning circulation, can be predicted according to University of Exeter research.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, Professor Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter shows that the ‘tipping points’ that trigger these disasters could be anticipated by looking for changes in climate behaviour.

Climate ‘tipping points’ are small changes that trigger a massive shift in climate systems, with potentially devastating consequences. It is already known that climate change caused by human activity could push several potential hazards past their ‘tipping point’. However, it is often assumed that these ‘tipping points’ are entirely unpredictable.

Professor Lenton argues that a system of forecasting could be developed to enable some forewarning of high-risk tipping points. The approach he outlines involves analysing observational data to look for signs that a climate system is slowing down in its response to short-term natural variability (which we experience as the weather). This characteristic behaviour indicates the climate is becoming unstable, and is a common feature of systems approaching critical thresholds known as ‘bifurcation points’.

Professor Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter said: “Many people assume that tipping points which could be passed as a result of human-induced climate change are essentially unpredictable. Recent research shows that the situation is not as hopeless as it may seem: we have the tools to anticipate thresholds, which means we could give societies valuable time to adapt.

“Although these findings give us hope, we are still a long way from developing rigorous early warning systems for these climate hazards.”

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Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by University of Exeter.


Journal Reference:

  1. Timothy M. Lenton. Early warning of climate tipping points. Nature Climate Change, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1143

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As Arizona fires rage, 7 states face extreme fire risk Sunday – CNN.com

As Arizona fires rage, 7 states face extreme fire iReporter James Sprecher photographed the smoke from the Monument Fire in Arizona on Thursday.

iReporter James Sprecher photographed the smoke from the Monument Fire in Arizona on Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The risk of fire is high in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Utah
  • U.S. Forest Service chief: A Southern Arizona fire is the “number one priority”
  • The chief says Arizona’s Monument Fire “can’t get any worse”
  • The cause of this fire, which is 27% contained, is under investigation, an official says

Are you there? Share your photos, videos and stories, but please stay safe.

(CNN) — Firefighters across the southwestern United States on Sunday could face some of the worst weather conditions of the season for battling blazes currently raging across the region.

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for most of Arizona, all of New Mexico, much of north Texas and portions of Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and Utah for Sunday. A red flag warning means weather conditions — mainly high heat, low humidity and strong winds — pose an extreme fire risk.

“The winds certainly will be very gusty and strong,” said Ken Daniel, NWS meteorologist in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Any new fire starts would have the potential to have explosive growth.”

The forecast calls for winds of 30 mph or more in some areas, with gusts of up to 50 mph, Daniel said.

There are currently dozens of active wildfires burning in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to InciWeb, an online interagency database that tracks fires, floods and other disasters.

Nationwide, wildfires have burned almost as many acres in the first half of 2011 than were recorded by the National Interagency Fire Center for all of 2010. The agency reports on its website that 3.1 million acres in the United States had been ignited by wildfires as of May 31, compared to 3.2 million burned acres cited in the organization’s year-end report in November 2010.

One Arizona blaze that started May 29 has mushroomed into a massive wildfire that’s scorched more than a half-million acres. A smaller but fast-moving blaze is raging in the southeastern corner of the state.

The latter of the two has emerged as “the number one priority” for firefighters nationwide, according to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

“The conditions that we’re dealing with here are as bad as we can get,” said Tom Tidwell, head of the U.S. Forest Service, of the combination of high temperatures, low humidity, ample “fuel” and strong winds. “It just can’t get any worse.”

McCain: Illegal immigrants caused fires

RELATED TOPICS

Gordon Van Vleet, a spokesman for the Joint Information Center, said that no cause has been determined for the Monument Fire, which has spread across the Huachuca Mountains and burned 20,956 acres as of Saturday afternoon. He said authorities likely won’t state a cause until the blaze is more under control.

“We know where it started and when it started, but (the specific cause) is under investigation,” Tidwell said. “When we do have that information, we will share it.”

At a press conference, U.S. Sen. John McCain blamed illegal immigrants for starting unspecified fires in the area. The Arizona Republican, however, did not provide evidence to back up the accusation, which prompted rebukes from Latino civil rights leaders.

While a fire at the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca is 100% contained, according to Van Vleet, the Monument Fire was 27% contained as of Saturday afternoon — an improvement over the 15% figure in the morning, but certainly dangerous given the inordinately dry and windy conditions.

“This has been the number one priority in the country for a couple of days,” Tidwell said. “That means this will receive resources before anyone else.”

The Monument Fire, just south of Sierra Vista, Arizona, has torched at least 40 homes.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has issued emergency declarations for the Monument Fire and another blaze, Horseshoe II, making Cochise County eligible for $100,000 toward response and recovery expenses.

Meanwhile, residents of the eastern Arizona community of Alpine were able to return home, according to fire spokesman John Helmich. The community has a population of about 300, but many more seasonal visitors were forced to leave earlier this month because of the historically large Wallow Fire.

The Wallow Fire, which burned 500,409 acres, was 38% contained Saturday.

Tidwell said earlier Saturday that he was “very optimistic” that damage from future wildfires could be minimized by thinning forests and clearing out biomass — which did occur, to some extent, in parts of eastern Arizona. He noted that 3.2 million acres were “treated” nationwide last year.

Sen. John Kyl, R-Arizona, noted that the estimated $64.1 million price for the Wallow fire would more than double after the costs of mitigation efforts to prevent mudslides from the summer monsoons.

“Just think that what we could have done using those funds to treat those forests in advance,” Kyl said.

But government budget strains have limited the amount of money going to such efforts. “The only way we are going to get these (forests) thinned is through greater participation of private enterprise,” McCain said, adding that the government should try to facilitate such initiatives, including by allowing limited logging in national parks.

“There is simply not enough tax dollars to get the job done without them,” McCain said of private companies.

risk Sunday – CNN.com.