The climate challenges that my morning toast poses

Britain's wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms - but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Britain’s wheatfields could become even more productive as the world warms – but that will have implications for further greenhouse gas emissions and fairness to countries less well positioned. Image credit: Tim Gage used via Flickr Creative Commons license

It may seem that nothing could be simpler than toast, but next time I see a slice pop up I’ll also see an emblem of the world’s future. That’s thanks to a UK study exploring the problems surrounding growing enough wheat for flour and other foods as the world warms and has ever more people in it. The issue is especially tangled, Mirjam Röder and her University of Manchester teammates show, as adapting farming for the future will likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, driving further warming. “Climate change and food security are two issues which can’t be decoupled,” Mirjam told me. “The same applies for mitigation and adaptation.”

Mirjam is part of the “Climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UK food system” project, led by Alice Bows-Larkin and backed by Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. One concern the project reflects is that without adaptation farming will probably be the industry worst hit by climate change, with worldwide productivity falling as temperatures rise. Meanwhile, farming also releases about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases we humans emit overall. “These are largely emissions other than CO2, such as nitrous oxide and methane, mainly occurring from natural processes,” Mirjam said. “They are much harder to reduce and control. Then of course global society is challenged by increasing global food demand. So we face a triad of challenges in the food system: we need to reduce emissions, while food demand is increasing and the sector is impacted by climate change.”

Alice and Mirjam’s team looked at wheat because it makes up almost a third of all cereals grown in the world. “Global wheat demand is projected to increase by about 30% by 2050,” Mirjam. “If we don’t find methods to reduce them, total emissions from producing more wheat will rise.” As well as gases released directly by bacteria and other soil microorganisms, emissions from wheat farming arise from the energy needed to produce nitrogen fertiliser. Whether growing more wheat or dealing with rising temperatures, farmers will need more fertiliser, driving more emissions and therefore further warming. Read the rest of this entry »

Heat drives Pakistani migration

Shahdadpur, Sanghar district, Pakistan: Residents collecting their belongings on a higher ground outside village during floods. Though they may be displaced temporarily, Valerie Mueller from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC and her team find high temperatures are more likely to drive permanent migration. Image credit: Oxfam International

Shahdadpur, Sanghar district, Pakistan: Residents collecting their belongings on a higher ground outside village during floods. Though they may be displaced temporarily, Valerie Mueller from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC and her team find high temperatures are more likely to drive permanent migration. Image credit: Oxfam International

Excessive rainfall rarely drives Pakistanis to permanently leave their villages, even when it causes hardship like the flooding that hit around a fifth of the country in 2010. Yet they do consistently move in response to extreme temperatures, Valerie Mueller from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC and her colleagues have found. She says the finding is a first stage in establishing if, how, and why people’s choices are affected by climate and climate change. “This is a useful step in order to be able to predict migration flows and inform local governments how might they better prepare in terms of the delivery of resources and investing in infrastructure given the occurrence of extreme weather events,” she told me.

There are few efforts collecting information about who has migrated and why over long periods of time, especially in areas where extreme weather occurs. But IFPRI has a long history of evaluating questions linked to food security in countries across the world, including Pakistan. From 1986-1991 its Pakistan Rural Household Survey questioned 800 households about how they lived and farmed, and it has tracked those households ever since. “Local collaborators found the original households in 2001 and 2012 and asked the head of household or an otherwise knowledgeable person what happened to each household member who resided with them in 1991,” Valerie said. “Our study is one of the first to quantify long-term migration patterns over a long period of time.”

The follow-ups recorded the long-term movements and fortunes of 4,428 people from 583 households. The researchers combined these answers with temperature and rainfall data in one ‘logit’ and one ‘multinomial logit’ model designed to let them measure the odds that people moved. “The first model allows us to answer: What are the odds of a person moving out of the household in response to extreme temperature or rainfall?” Valerie explained. “The second model allows us to distinguish moves by location and allows us to answer the following questions: What are the odds of a person moving out of the household but within the village in response to extreme temperature or rainfall? What are the odds of a person moving out of the household but out of the village in response to extreme temperature or rainfall?” Read the rest of this entry »

Planners must be alert to CO2 impact on water supplies

The River Exe submerges the end of a pub beer garden by the Miller's Crossing bridge in Exeter. Nigel Arnell from the University of Reading and his team have predicted some increases in high river flow levels as climate change continues, but even larger decreases in low flow levels.

The River Exe submerges the end of a pub beer garden by the Miller’s Crossing bridge in Exeter. Nigel Arnell from the University of Reading and his team have predicted some increases in high river flow levels as climate change continues, but even larger decreases in low flow levels.

Although the river that slices through Exeter, UK, where I live, is today full from weeks of heavy rain there has been little reported harm from flooding. In the past, most notably in 1960, similar downpours swelled the river Exe until it engulfed the surrounding streets – and so we now have a flood defence system. But shifts in rainfall patterns are potentially the most serious climate changes that we’re facing as a result of the CO2 we emit. They pose a particular threat in a nation like China, where many ‘face severe water distress’, and where this month forestry officials warned about the country’s shrinking wetlands. Drought or deluge, what we do about climate change could have big effects on water supplies.

UK planners already include climate change in their water resource schemes, the University of Reading’s Nigel Arnell told me. But Nigel and his colleagues have also shown they’ll still need to be watchful if we stick to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord on climate change. “We can’t assume that if we adopt a stringent climate mitigation policy then we don’t have to worry about potential effects of climate change on water resource availability over the next few decades,” he told me. “This isn’t actually a surprise, because we know that impacts will continue even if we manage to hit a 2°C target.” Read the rest of this entry »

The man who got the world to agree on climate

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.
When not tackling climate science or negotiations Bert Bolin liked nothing more than a little choir singing. Credit: KVA

When not tackling climate science or negotiations Bert Bolin liked nothing more than a little choir singing. Credit: KVA

In 1975, advised by Bert Bolin, the Swedish government drafted a bill on future energy policy containing a conclusion that elsewhere might be controversial even today. “It is likely that climatic concerns will limit the burning of fossil fuels rather than the size of the natural resources,” it foresaw. Produced thanks to Bert’s early role tackling environmental issues, it was one of the first times humans’ effect on climate and the risk it poses us was noted officially. For more than two decades afterward the Stockholm University researcher would further strengthen that case, both through his research and by putting climate science firmly on the political agenda. And those tireless efforts would help the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) to consistently achieve what otherwise might have been impossible agreements.

The Swedish bill was a bold statement, given that average air temperatures were only just about to reverse a slight cooling that had gone on since 1940. Bert and scientists like Dave Keeling had shown that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were rising. Basic science established by Svante Arrhenius 80 years before had showed this should warm Earth’s surface. So why was it cooling? The way scientists found the answer was typical of the progress in climate science Bert was overseeing. They would use the latest tools, including computers and satellites, bringing theory and measurement together to improve our understanding.

Climate models in the early 1970s were still simple by today’s standards, but had advanced from the early computerised weather predictions Bert had previously pioneered. And when Columbia University’s Stephen Schneider and S. Ichtiaque Rasool added aerosols of floating dust to CO2 in a model for the first time, they found a possible explanation for the temperature drop. The aerosols, particularly human pollution, created a cooling effect that swamped the warming – so much so they warned it could trigger an ice age. Though Stephen and Ichtiaque soon realised that their model overestimated the cooling, aerosols obviously deserved a closer look.

To clear up such murky problems, the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP) that Bert jointly set up would bring together scientists from around the world, despite the cold war. As GARP’s first experiments, looking at heat and moisture flow between the atmosphere and ocean, started in 1974, Bert organised a meeting in Stockholm on climate physics and modelling. GARP had two goals – improving 6-10 day weather forecasts first, and climate change predictions second. As it gradually became clear how hard the first was, climate forecasting became more important.

Diplomacy was needed among the gathered scientists as arguments flared over how ambitious they should be. Should they strive for satellites that could collect the high resolution data scientists and models needed, even though that was beyond their capabilities at the time? And significantly for later climate work – should they seek to produce results so society could respond to change, even when results were uncertain? Bert was clear on that one: scientists had to answer socially important questions, though he was in a very small minority prepared to say so openly. Read the rest of this entry »

How ocean data helped reveal the climate beast

Wally Broecker's famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences.  Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Wally Broecker’s famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences. Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.

On the wall of Wally Broecker’s building at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory hangs a 16-foot long terry-cloth snake, blue with pink spots, that he calls the ‘climate beast’. Left in his office as a surprise by his workmates, its name refers to one of Wally’s most powerful quotes about the climate: “If you’re living with an angry beast, you shouldn’t poke it with a sharp stick.”

Today, the sharp stick is the CO2 we’re emitting by burning fossil fuels, which Wally was warning about by 1975. By that time he had also helped confirm that throughout history, changes in Earth’s orbit have given the climate beast regular kicks, triggering rapid exits from ice ages. He became obsessed with the idea that climate had changed abruptly in the past, and the idea we could provoke the ‘angry beast’ into doing it again.

Among the many samples that Wally was carbon dating, from the late 1950s onwards he was getting treasure from the oceans. Pouring sulphuric acid into seawater, he could convert dissolved carbonate back into CO2 gas that he could then carbon date. And though nuclear weapon tests had previously messed with Wally’s results, they actually turned out to help improved our knowledge of the oceans. The H-bomb tests produced more of the radioactive carbon-14 his technique counts, and as that spike moved through the oceans, Wally could track how fast they absorbed that CO2.

In the 1970s, as Wally and a large team of other scientists sailed on RV Melville and RV Knorr tracking such chemicals across the planet’s oceans, a debate raged. Was cutting down forests releasing more CO2 than burning fossil fuels? Dave Keeling’s measurements showed the amount of CO2 being added to the air was about half the amount produced by fossil fuels. But plants and the oceans could be taking up huge amounts, scientists argued. Thanks to the H-bomb carbon, Wally’s team found the CO2 going into the oceans was just 1/3 of what fossil fuels had emitted. Faster-growing plants therefore seemed to be balancing out the impact of deforestation, and taking up the remaining 1/6 portion of the fossil fuel emissions. Read the rest of this entry »

Worse extreme temperature effects urge farming precautions

Stanford University's Sharon Gourdji talks about her study on increasing extreme heat during sensitive crop flowering periods. Credit: IOP Publishing, via Creative Commons license, see citation below.

Since 1980, maize and wheat crops in many places have been increasingly exposed to extreme heat during sensitive flowering phases that can damage them and cause harvests to fail. That’s according to scientists at Stanford University, California, who predict that this problem will increase for these crops, and also hit rice. In fact, the area of maize and rice hit by such deadly heat is set to expand more quickly through to the 2050s. “Crop breeders need to think carefully about how to incorporate heat tolerance, particularly during the flowering period, into wheat, maize and rice,” Stanford’s Sharon Gourdji told me.

Our warming climate affects farming in many ways. For example higher temperatures, and the higher CO2 levels that are primarily responsible for them, can speed up the photosynthesis process that makes plants grow. Meanwhile, shifting rainfall patterns are set to have serious impacts on important farming areas. In 2011, Sharon’s teammate David Lobell and other scientists showed that overall crop production growth worldwide has been held back by such changes in the last three decades. But they didn’t discuss how environmental changes might influence future food availability.

“The net impact of all these factors is the golden question, but notoriously difficult to model,” Sharon explained. “Also, the most relevant of these factors, and the associated adaptation measures, differ by location and crop. Therefore most modelling studies to date look at net impacts on just a given region, or type of cropping system.” To make worldwide predictions that could help secure our future food supply, Sharon’s team had to concentrate on a smaller, simpler issue. “We focused on extreme heat during flowering,” Sharon said. “This is one aspect of global environmental change that could be particularly risky for crops regardless of other more gradual changes that are taking place simultaneously.”

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Probabilities reveal shape of climate change

Planners looking to prepare for floods, like this one in Venice, Italy, would like better local information on climate change - and now David Stainforth and his colleagues are helping deliver it. Image credit: www.WorldIslandInfo.com, Allison Lince-Bentley, via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Planners looking to prepare for floods, like this one in Venice, Italy, would like better local information on climate change – and now David Stainforth and his colleagues are helping deliver it. Image courtesy http://www.WorldIslandInfo.com, Allison Lince-Bentley, used under Flickr Creative Commons license.

If you want to plan for the future, or even for the present, knowing that our climate is changing, what’s the best way to do it? That’s a question that David Stainforth from the London School of Economics, Sandra Chapman from the University of Warwick and Nicholas Watkins from the British Antarctic Survey have puzzled over. And while David is co-founder of the climateprediction.net project that borrows spare time on peoples’ computers to run climate models, he doesn’t feel that models are always the best source of information.

“It’s clear to me that the detailed local information on how climate is changing, and what it will be like in 2050, can’t be had from climate models today,” David told me. “They’re just not that good. And yet I work a lot with the adaptation and impacts community, who are interested in what’s happening ‘here’, on a very local basis.” So together David, Sandra and Nicholas have turned to measured data, devising a simple way to pick the most important local climate changes from it.

Weather stations around the world monitor daily conditions, and combine to create a record containing occasional extremes, lots of ordinary days, and everything in between. Knowing how common these conditions are is important for people who want to prepare for future climate change. “For flood risks, you’re worried about going over certain rainfall amounts in a given time,” David explained. “Managers of overheating buildings are worried about what proportion of the time temperatures pass certain levels.”

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Mild winters raise risk of flu epidemics

Arizona State University mathematician Sherry Towers has found links between a warm winters with little flu to epidemics the following year. Credit: Arizona State University

Arizona State University mathematician Sherry Towers has found links between a warm winters with little flu to epidemics the following year. Credit: Arizona State University

In 2012/13 the US flu season started especially early for two strains for the first time since the government started tracking it in 1997. Sherry Towers at Arizona State University has put this down to the unusually warm winter the country saw in 2011/2012, after showing such a link can be seen in previous years. She hopes that her findings can help health services prepare as winters get yet milder with continuing climate change.

“Until now, it had not been noticed that the dynamics of the current season depend not only on the temperature of the current season and vaccine match, but also on what had occurred the year before,” Sherry told me. “If there has been a mild flu season during a mild winter, public health authorities know several months in advance that a severe season with early onset is much more likely to occur the next season. This allows them to expedite the manufacture and distribution of vaccines to the population.”

As a mathematician looking at how climate affects the spread of infectious diseases, Sherry follows influenza data collected by the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) closely. The CDC tracks the various influenza virus types in circulation. These include letter and number combinations you might have heard, like H1N1 and H3N2, which together are classed as influenza A, plus the single type of influenza B virus. Scientists had previously shown that high temperatures reduce transmission of the virus, which alone would make mild flu seasons more common in warm winters. Though this suggests less of a threat from flu in a warmer world, this season’s data made her wonder if there could be a downside.

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CO2 casts off shackles to power up Atlantic hurricanes

NOAA's GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 am EDT. Sandy's center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter, and are set to intensify in the 21st century.  Credit: NASA GOES Project

NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Sandy battering the U.S. East coast on Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 am EDT. Sandy’s center was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City. Tropical Storm force winds are about 1,000 miles in diameter, and are set to intensify in the 21st century. Credit: NASA GOES Project

Changes in greenhouse gases and other air pollution will likely make Atlantic storms that could hit the Caribbean and Eastern US more intense through this century. That’s according to research from Gabriel Vecchi at the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Princeton, New Jersey, and Gabriele Villarini at the University of Iowa. They’ve found that more greenhouse gases strengthen these storms but other pollutants known as aerosols or particulates, which include soot, do the opposite. Increases in both types of pollution through the 20th century therefore cancelled each other out. But with more recent efforts to limit aerosol pollution succeeding, Atlantic storms now look set to become more destructive. “Both reductions in particulate pollution and increases in greenhouse gases are going to co-operate, we think, to give us more intense hurricanes in the Atlantic,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel has long studied Atlantic storms, and together with Gabriele recently found that how often they happen will likely only increase during the first half of the 21st century. “The number of storms in a season is only part of the story,” Gabriel told me. “A big question for society is the intensity.” So it was natural, he added, to follow on by looking at how strong and long-lasting they are. Scientists have already looked at their intensity for narrow “time-slices”, for example from 1985-2005 and then predicting from 2080 to 2100. “People haven’t explored how we go from the late 20th century to the late 21st century,” Gabriel said.” That’s because to do this research they need complex and very detailed ‘high resolution dynamical’ climate models, which use up scarce time on the world’s most powerful computers. For the same reason, previous studies only look at a few possible scenarios for how much of the greenhouse gas CO2 humans will produce by burning fossil fuels. Read the rest of this entry »

Monsoon instability raises food questions for India

A street in Calcutta floods during monsoon season. After some decades of increasing rainfall, climate change could bring drier monsoons,  said Jacob Schewe from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Credit: Mark E Dyer/Flickr

A street in Calcutta floods during monsoon season. After some decades of increasing rainfall, climate change could bring drier monsoons, said Jacob Schewe from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Credit: Mark E Dyer/Flickr

Monsoon rains in India may fail more frequently as climate change proceeds into the 22nd century, German researchers said this week. That danger could be critical for farming in what is set to become the world’s most highly populated country by 2030, and would follow an already expected wetter period. “Previous studies showed that Indian monsoon rainfall would increase more or less linearly with global warming over the next century,” said Jacob Schewe from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The monsoon can respond to climate change in a more complicated way. We’ve seen that it matters to look further into the future.”

In South Asia, summer monsoon rains fall as winds blow from the southwest Indian Ocean over the continent between June and September. They end when the wind direction reverses in September or October. What Indian monsoon rain seasons will do as the world warms is an important and difficult question that many researchers are trying to answer. Though more rainfall has been predicted, recent years haven’t matched that expectation. While factors like pollution have an effect, changes climate scientists already know a major climate pattern plays a very important part in monsoons.

“There is a coupling between the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the monsoon that’s been observed for a long time,” Jacob told me. In years when El Niño occurs, an air movement pattern called the Walker circulation pattern gets shifted eastward. That brings high pressure over India and weakens the monsoon. While some changes in El Niño are already happening, the Walker circulation is expected to weaken, but not for some time yet. That could mean scientists’ climate models don’t pick up its effects. “People have looked at monsoon changes but not many studies have looked beyond 2100,” Jacob said. “You really have to consider longer timescales – beyond 2100 – to assess the full range of consequences for the monsoon.” Read the rest of this entry »

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