Who can afford to hold back rising seas?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Dawlish a week after the storms that demolished the sea wall that supported the train line. Image copyright Number 10, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Dawlish a week after the storms that demolished the sea wall that supported the train line. Image copyright Number 10, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Taking the train along the Devon, UK, coast earlier this week I was hypnotised by the lapping waves I saw through the window, and their concealed power. On such a sunny day, the rail journey through Dawlish is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve been on. But in February its ocean-hugging route became its downfall, when storms demolished the sea wall it rests on. Now, thanks to 300 fluorescent-jacket clad workers who performed £35 million worth of repairs, the dangling tracks I saw on TV news are a fading memory. It’s an impressive achievement, but could we afford it if – due to climate change, for example – such ‘orange armies’ had to do battle more often?

The significance of that question was emphasised by Chris Field from Stanford University in California, when I saw him talk recently. Highlighting that all parts of the world are vulnerable to climate change, Chris showed the below image of New York City in 2011, during Hurricane Sandy. “The existing climate created a situation that caused over $50 billion in economic damage for a region of the world that had a vast amount of economic resources and had a response plan in place,” he underlined. “It just wasn’t a plan that was up to the challenges that they faced.” If climate change causes more $50 billion-damage events, can we afford that?

If New York can be taken unaware by Hurricane Sandy, what happens elsewhere, when sea level's higher? Image credit: Chris Field/IPCC

If New York can be taken unaware by Hurricane Sandy, what happens elsewhere, when sea level’s higher? Image credit: Chris Field/IPCC

Just before the ocean crippled the south-west UK’s rail services, Jochen Hinkel from the Global Climate Forum in Berlin, Germany, and his team were answering a similar question. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA in February, Jochen looked at coastal flood damages from projected sea level rise. When I therefore asked him about his work, he was quick to put climate change-driven sea level rise’s role in Hurricane Sandy and this year’s UK storms into context. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

New tests seek peace in climate conflict blame game

Researchers are hoping to work out how climate change affects risk of conflicts, such as the one in Somalia in which this tank was destroyed. Image credit: Carl Montgomery, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Researchers are hoping to work out how climate change affects risk of conflicts, such as the one in Somalia in which this tank was destroyed. Image credit: Carl Montgomery, via Flickr Creative Commons license

After researchers last year went through every paper linking climate changes and human violence, finding a strong connection, new findings suggest that one rare study disagreeing used the wrong maths. Kyle Meng from Princeton University in New Jersey and Solomon Hsiang from the University of California, Berkeley, now hope they’ve settled previous conflicts over the climate-conflict link. “We think this allows the community to move forward onto what I believe are the next set of important questions,” Kyle told me. “Why exactly does climatic change affect violence and what can we do to lessen the effects of climate on violence?”

In last year’s paper, Solomon and his Berkeley colleagues Ted Miguel and Marshall Burke brought together 45 sets of evidence spanning 10,000 years. Reanalysing worldwide measurements from scratch they found that 2°C global temperature rise could make conflicts like civil wars more than 50% more common in many parts of the world.

One paper that didn’t fit with their findings had been published in 2010 by Halvard Buhaug at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway. Halvard’s study used the same data as a 2009 paper that found a climate-conflict link in Africa, written in 2009 by a team including Ted and Marshall. However, Halvard used different models indicating that political and economic factors were more important and that climate was ‘not to blame’.

Halvard’s argument revolves around a mathematical ‘robustness check’ into the statistics used by the 2009 paper. Such checks are common in social science, Kyle explained. “However, it is important to note that not all robustness checks are valid,” he said. “In general, robustness checks are designed to examine whether, given a particular outcome, a statistical model may be producing biased results, such as when improper comparisons are being made amongst observations.” Read the rest of this entry »

Give those we love the climate they deserve

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country's civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country’s civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Over the next week I hope to be spending time with those I love the most. But this week I’ve been reading the latest newsletter from Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) about the horrible situation in Syria. The country’s civil war has been ongoing since 2011, with a toll that puts the good fortune me and my family enjoy into chilling context.

It’s estimated that there have been 120,000 deaths with over 4.5 million – in a country of just 22.5 million – having to leave their homes. Though that’s a lot of people, I am increasingly numb to the numbers, like many of you might be. But the stories from MSF really hit home. Yes, Syria had serious problems before the war, but it had a comparatively good health system. Now, if you have asthma, diabetes, or appendicitis, it can be life threatening. Ever more children are being born with severe defects, possibly due to the mothers not getting enough folic acid in their diet.

Though there are many factors behind the conflict, an important one is a drought that hit the country’s poorest areas in early 2011. Commentators have highlighted that droughts in Syria have become more common in recent years, linking this to climate change. Earlier this month, US scientists reported that a recent three year drought in Syria was too unusual to be a natural event. All of us who use fossil fuel energy likely bear some responsibility.

While it’s always hard to be certain about such links, they’re backed up by what University of California, Berkeley’s Ted Miguel told me in August. “Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 2°C over the next half century,” Ted told me. “Our findings suggest that global temperature rise of 2°C could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50% in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions where such conflicts are most common.”

Earlier this month, Jim Hansen from Columbia University in New York and his team warned that even world average temperatures 1°C above pre-industrial levels would be dangerous. The Earth has already warmed 0.8°C in the past 100 years, meaning that threshold is near. And many other researchers I’ve spoken to this year have found evidence that shows the dangers. 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 »

Braving African piracy reveals abrupt rainfall shifts

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Jessica Tierney has patiently produced a record of rainfall in East Africa reaching back 40,000 years, from sediment collected from pirate- and extremist-infested waters. Image copyright: Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Jessica Tierney has patiently produced a record of rainfall in East Africa reaching back 40,000 years, from sediment collected from pirate- and extremist-infested waters. Image copyright: Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Having dodged pirates and extremists, and slogged for two years to interpret the record collected, US scientists have shown how abruptly rainy climates in East Africa come and go. Jessica Tierney puzzled out a rainfall record back to the last ice age from mud collected in one of the last research cruises to brave the Horn of Africa. “The region goes from being pretty humid to very arid in hundreds of years,” Jessica, who works at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, told me. “That’s important because there’s a threshold behaviour in its rainfall. We need to better understand what drives those thresholds, and when we’d expect to be pushed over one, as it has huge implications for predicting drought and famine in the region.”

Long interested in ancient East African climate, Jessica wanted to study the Horn of Africa area, which includes Ethiopia and Somalia, because the climate there is very sensitive and variable. But its dry conditions rule out many options scientists use to build historical records from ice, cave deposits, sediments from lake beds or tree rings. So in 2010, she started working with Peter deMenocal at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, who collected sea bed sediments from the area in April and May 2001.

“We boarded ship in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and our cruise was to end in Port Said, in Egypt,” Peter told me. That took the team down the Somali coast and into the Gulf of Aden, where a few months earlier suicide bombers killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole. Though the scientists were worried, the captain of their Dutch research ship, R/V Pelagia was vigilant. “He had ordered radio silence, and we actually turned off all our lights on the ship at night, even navigation lights,” Peter recalled. “He had also put in orders for us to train on what to do in case we were boarded.”

Read the rest of this entry »