Fossil fuels are more than just a bad habit

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

I’m increasingly realising how much of a creature of habit I am. I have the same bizarre sticky brown yeast extract goo on toast for breakfast each morning. I watch films in my lounge most evenings. And I wonder: How much of my personality is just a collection of habits? What about yours, and all of ours? Could our whole society just be a giant collage of habits? And most relevant to this blog: how much of the human greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming come from our habits?

Recently, I’ve been keeping track of how long I spend doing things, which has been helping me swap what I think are bad habits for better ones. It’s tempting to suggest fighting climate change in a similar way. Many people talk about how we burn fossil fuels to propel our cars or run our gadgets as a bad habit, and even an addiction. But it’s more complicated than other addictions. Fossil fuels have been to our society more like food and a salary are to us individually – they’ve helped produce many of the healthiest aspects of the modern world. They’ve powered more than a century of rapid social and technological progress, and given many countries their current rich, well-fed figures.

For an article I’m writing about employment prospects in the UK’s chemical industry, I recently spotted the table below. It shows ‘gross value added’ (GVA), a measure of the money contributed to the economy, per person across the country’s different industries. It was striking to me that while bankers may get all the headlines for their wealth, the energy industry has the greatest earning power per head in the UK.

Oil and gas extraction help the "Mining and Quarry; Energy & water" sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output . Credit: Office for National Statistics

Oil and gas extraction help the “Mining and Quarry; Energy & water” sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output. The ‘total’ figure is the overall GVA for the UK, averaged across all industries. Credit: Office for National Statistics

Much like I’d quickly struggle without food or money, today sharply taking fossil fuel energy away from our societies would immediately threaten our existence. In fact, some think even the small changes already happening taste bad. Again in the UK chemical industry, there are worries that higher costs from clean energy are making it less competitive with other countries. Part of the way it would like to avoid this issue is through unconventional natural gas supplies, presumably extracted through controversial ‘fracking’ methods. Read the rest of this entry »

Ocean heat puts pressure on poorest fisheries

Warm water Red Mullet catches in the UK have increased as sea temperatures have warmed, which William Cheung has linked to global warming. Credit: Nate Gray: A Culinary (Photo) Journal via Flickr Creative Commons License

Warm water Red Mullet catches in the UK have increased as sea temperatures have warmed, which William Cheung has linked to global warming. Credit: Nate Gray: A Culinary (Photo) Journal via Flickr Creative Commons License

Since 1970, our warming seas have driven fish across the world into cooler, deeper waters, potentially threatening fishing in Earth’s hottest seas. By analysing worldwide fish catches, Canadian and Australian scientists have found that the proportion of warmer-water fish caught has steadily grown. And in future, the warmest waters are set to become too hot for some of the fish that might previously have been caught there.

“Tropical fisheries are likely to be most impacted by ocean warming,” William Cheung from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, told me. “We expect that the current trend would continue, and will reduce the catch for tropical fisheries. Many tropical fishing communities are in developing countries with limited socio-economic scope to deal with changes in resource abundance. Thus, these communities are most vulnerable to ocean warming.”

Like all living creatures, fish have a range of temperatures that they can comfortably live in. Sea temperatures are rising, with the US coast from North Carolina to Maine reaching the warmest level in 150 years last year, for example. Changing climate has already been linked to fish catches in some places, with William previously suggesting it’s behind rapid increases in warm-water red mullet catches around the UK. “However, there was no study that assessed the linkages between ocean warming and fisheries changes in the global scale,” he said.

So William and his teammates set about bringing together fish catch information from 52 ecosystems, including most of the world’s fisheries. That included data on 990 species, which the scientists analysed using a new measure, the ‘mean temperature of the catch’ or MTC, which William also calls a ‘fish thermometer’. To find the MTC, the scientists start by working out the preferred temperature of each species, based on the sea water temperatures in the areas that they used to live in. “For example, fishes that live in colder area, such as cod, will have a lower preferred temperature than a tropical fish, such as a tropical grouper,” William explained. Read the rest of this entry »

Temperature cuts swathe through Australian seaweed

A mixed seaweed canopy in Western Australia, including Scytothalia dorycarpa (far right), which was completely killed along 100km of the Australian coast by a heatwave in 2011. Credit: Dan Smale

A mixed seaweed canopy in Western Australia, including Scytothalia dorycarpa (far right), which was completely killed along 100km of the Australian coast by a heatwave in 2011. Credit: Dan Smale

A record-breaking heat wave in 2011 killed a seaweed species that many fish and other creatures call home along a 100 km stretch of the Western Australian coast. That underlines the threat from climate change, which is driving more regular ‘extreme events’ like heatwaves, according to Dan Smale of the University of Western Australia (UWA). “Extreme events can wipe out species at their range edge incredibly quickly, which may have wide ranging implications for whole communities of associated plants and animals,” he said.

Metre-plus tall strands of Scytothalia dorycarpa seaweed sway around cool water rocky reefs in southern Australia, forming a playground for other species. It is thought to have evolved in cool conditions, and therefore to be sensitive to warmth. For that reason, in 2006, Dan and his UWA colleague Thomas Wernberg started tracking it in two main locations, Jurien Bay and Hamelin Bay, and 27 other sites. “We suggested that by monitoring its abundance and distribution, we could detect ecologically-significant climate change impacts over periods of years to decades,” Dan said. “We did not realise, however, that the highest-magnitude seawater warming event on record was just around the corner, and we did not expect to see such sudden and extensive shifts in its distribution.”

That extreme was reached in 2011 during the cooler ‘La Niña’ phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation climate cycle. By contrast to the current Australian heatwave, temperatures rose thanks to an especially strong La Niña increasing the flow of warm water from the tropics. In March 2011 Thomas and Dan measured sea surface temperatures up to 4°C higher than the average for 2006-2010. The heatwave temperatures stayed more than 2°C above the 2006-2010 level for around 10 weeks in both bays. Read the rest of this entry »

More bird flu over the horseshoe crabs’ nests?

Sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and red knot birds crowd Delaware Bay searching for horseshoe crab eggs. Credit: Paul Williams (Iron Ammonite)/Flickr

Sandpipers, ruddy turnstones and red knot birds crowd Delaware Bay searching for horseshoe crab eggs. Credit: Paul Williams (Iron Ammonite)/Flickr

Climate change could make bird flu even more common among birds at a US hotspot for the disease. That’s what mathematical models of bird flu levels in Delaware Bay developed by biologists Pej Rohani and Vicki Brown at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor suggest. “We’re not suggesting that our findings necessarily indicate an increased risk to human health,” said Pej. “But every single pandemic influenza virus that has been studied has included gene segments from avian influenza viruses. So from that perspective, understanding avian influenza transmission in its natural reservoir is, in itself, very important.”

Bird flu levels in Delaware Bay are at least ten times as high any other site in the world watched by scientists. That’s thanks in large part to ruddy turnstones, birds that pause there each year as they migrate between South America and the Arctic. Once in the Arctic, ruddy turnstones who spend their winters in America can meet – and share diseases – with others spending winter all over the world. During their Delaware stop-off they feed on horseshoe crab eggs, but fisherman harvest the crabs for fishing bait, while development in the area destroys the crabs’ nesting sites. This has meant fewer eggs, and in turn fewer shorebirds.

Global warming adds an extra layer to the problems facing these birds, by changing when important natural events happen. For example, birds that migrate long distances have started to make their spring journeys earlier. That could mean that ruddy turnstones arrive in Delaware Bay before all the horseshoe crabs have laid their eggs. Faced with an even more limited food supply, the birds must pack together yet closer in hunting for those that are available, creating an ideal scenario for disease transmission. Read the rest of this entry »

Climate change threatens the carnival of the animals

Comparing predictions and measurements of the effects of climate change on plants and animals over the past five years shows predictions calling it “one of the major threats to global biodiversity” are accurate, and possibly optimistic, according to the University of Exeter's Ilya Maclean. The risk from climate change to moths, and other members of the order "lepidoptera", like butterflies have been relatively well studied, but for other insects knowledge remains scarce. Credit: Ohio State University

Comparing predictions and measurements of the effects of climate change on plants and animals over the past five years shows predictions calling it “one of the major threats to global biodiversity” are accurate, and possibly optimistic, according to the University of Exeter's Ilya Maclean. The risk from climate change to moths, and other members of the order "lepidoptera", like butterflies have been relatively well studied, but for other insects knowledge remains scarce. Credit: Ohio State University

Humans’ success at spreading across the world has long worked with changes in climate to doom other animals. Our hunting is one cause suggested by scientists of big mammals like woolly mammoths disappearing about 10,000 years ago. Other researchers say that climate drove some creatures extinct, while human hunger made things worse for others. But now that humans are changing the climate and competing with animals for space, food and other resources, we pose them a double danger.

Since Simple Climate started, I’ve regularly reported how man-made climate change is further eroding the variety of life on Earth. That variety is considered to indicate the planet’s health. This week, I thought I’d bring together a few pictures as a reminder of which creatures are at risk. Hopefully, they’ll provide a little extra motivation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the pressure these animals are under. Click on the pictures to read the original blog posts. Read the rest of this entry »

Teeming tropical seas face exodus to cooler water

Organisms like these marine sea slugs must adapt to new temperatures or move to new areas to stay in the same ones. Image courtesy of Hugh Brown, Scottish Association for Marine Science

Organisms like these marine sea slugs must adapt to new temperatures or move to new areas to stay in the same ones. Image courtesy of Hugh Brown, Scottish Association for Marine Science

Though oceans are warming more slowly than land on average, climate changes still put sea creatures under similar pressure to those on dry land. That’s what Michael Burrows from the Scottish Marine Institute in Oban and 18 other researchers from eight different countries found by analysing the world’s surface temperature over the past 50 years. They brought together rates and directions of temperate change into a measure called “velocity of climate change”, showing how quickly and far species would have to move to stay in a similar environment. “It so happens that there are an awful lot of species in some of the places where velocities are highest, especially in the tropical oceans,” Burrows told Simple Climate. “That may have damaging effects on the richness of species in those places, especially in the hottest places, where there can be no immigrants from even hotter places to replace those that leave.”

The team from the "Towards understanding marine biological impacts of climate change" project that produced this work. Michael Burrows is on the left hand side of the middle row. Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara

The team from the "Towards understanding marine biological impacts of climate change" project that produced this work. Michael Burrows is on the left hand side of the middle row. Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara

These findings are the outcome of a series of meetings the researchers held at the University of California, Santa Barbara to assess the evidence for ocean life responding to climate change. “It struck us right away that there were no expectations available for how far organisms should shift to track temperatures, or by how much earlier or later they should do things seasonally,” Burrows explained. “We thought we could analyse temperature data to make these predictions.” Once they decided to do the analysis, it was surprisingly easy, the ecologist said, as worldwide temperature data is already available for the 20th century and up to the present.

Read the rest of this entry »

Europeans not all at sea on marine climate threats

An illustration of some of the invasive species that are entering the Mediterranean as its seawaters warm. Credit: Glynn Gorick/Clamer

An illustration of some of the invasive species that are entering the Mediterranean as its seawaters warm. Credit: Glynn Gorick/CLAMER

While the public is rightly concerned by sea-level rise, climate change’s impact on European seas will also affect people through shifts in where bacteria and fish are found. That means that as well as the distant threat of property damage, the risks of disease, unemployment and hunger are raised. Those are among the findings collected in a 200-page book summarising research done since 1998 about climate change’s effects on Europe’s ocean environments. “The main message is that changes are happening,” said Carlo Heip, Director of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. “The second thing is that they are happening much faster than we thought.”

Heip was among scientists unveiling the results of the Climate Change and European Marine Ecosystem Research, or CLAMER, project in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Funded by the European Commission, CLAMER brought researchers from 17 European marine institutes both to create this summary, and look at how well-known the messages within it were among everyday people. “The European Commission has spent, over the last ten years or so, hundreds of millions of Euros in research to find what the impacts of climate change are on the environment, including the marine environment,” Heip said. “They wanted to know, first of all, what the public knows about it, how this research has contributed to public knowledge, what people’s perception is and whether they are willing to do something about it.”

Alongside compiling their book of science, to find out what people think, the scientists surveyed 10,000 people from 10 European countries in an online poll. In January, in association with Brussels-based TNS Opinion, they questioned 1,000 people each from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Norway and Estonia. The results showed that Europeans are concerned about climate change’s impact on the seas, with sea level rise and coastal erosion among their leading worries. Not only this, but their estimates of sea level rise and temperature generally matched scientific forecasts, suggesting that “some fundamental messages” are spreading widely. Read the rest of this entry »

Fish in hot water pose tough dilemma

Spring run Chinook salmon, photographed in Butte Creek, upstream from Centerville, Calif., may become extinct in the future due to warming waters. Credit: Allen Harthorn, Friends of Butte Creek

Spring run Chinook salmon, photographed in Butte Creek, upstream from Centerville, Calif., may become extinct in the future due to warming waters. Credit: Allen Harthorn, Friends of Butte Creek

Is it more important that the water in our rivers is available for rearing fish to eat or generating clean electricity? And how is that decision affected by rising worldwide average temperatures? A group of US scientists has now found ways to help answer these questions, inspired by the plight of spring run Chinook salmon – though the prospects for the fish remain bleak. “These fish are very vulnerable to climate change,” Lisa Thompson, director of the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture at University of California, Davis, told Simple Climate. “It is likely that these salmon will decline, and may not persist to the end of the century.”

Salmon are famous for their exhausting upstream “run” from the ocean back to the water they hatched in, where they spawn the next generation of fish, and then die. It’s estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century the waters in California’s Central Valley, running from San Joaquin to Sacramento, teemed with 1-3 million Chinook salmon making this journey every year. In the last five years this number has fallen below 100,000, contributing to ocean stocks declining to levels where no salmon fishing was allowed off the California coast in 2008 and 2009. There are many reasons for this, including overfishing, changing sea conditions and water quality.

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, each season there is a run of Chinook salmon spawning. The spring run used to number approximately 1 million fish in 18 separate populations, but they have been reduced to approximately 16,000 in three groupings. Spring run Chinook salmon are therefore listed as threatened under both the California and US Endangered Species acts, Thompson said. “The adults must survive the summer in freshwater before spawning in the fall,” she noted. That means they are waiting to spawn during the state’s hottest, driest months, where raised temperatures can kill them. In trying to stay cool, the salmon can get trapped on the wrong side of stretches of warmer river water separating them from their spawning grounds. Read the rest of this entry »

Climate change gets nature moving

An Amblychia moltrechti moth, a member of the Geometridae family that Chris Thomas, I-Ching Chen and their colleagues discovered had on average moved 67 metres uphill on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo in 42 years in response to higher temperatures. Credit Bettaman/Flickr

An Amblychia moltrechti moth, a member of the Geometridae family that Chris Thomas, I-Ching Chen and their colleagues discovered had on average moved 67 metres uphill on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo in 42 years in response to higher temperatures. Credit Bettaman/Flickr

Life on Earth is creeping to cooler locations up to three times more quickly than previously thought as it strives to survive the warming climate. That’s what Chris Thomas from the University of York, UK, and colleagues have found after updating a prior study with measurements published over the last eight years. “We estimated that, on average, species have been moving away from the Equator towards the poles at 17.6 kilometres per decade,” Thomas told Simple Climate. “Because there are differences among studies, we can conclude that the true rate lies between 11.8 and 23.4 kilometres per decade. Even the lower value is considerably larger than the previously-published best estimate.” Thomas noted that this is equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the Equator at around 20 cm per hour, every hour of the day, every day of the year. “This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century,” he said.

Following changes in where a species can be found over time takes a lot of measuring, meaning that most studies just look at a few different plants, insects or animals. However, in 2003, Camille Parmesan, a lead author for the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Gary Yohe analysed previously recorded range data on 99 species. They found shifts averaging 6.1 km per decade towards the poles. Writing in a paper to be published in top research journal Science on Friday, Thomas’ team has brought that work up to date. “We were aware that a considerable amount of literature had been published since,” Thomas said. “We also thought that there was an opportunity to establish a stronger link between the level of climate warming and the responses.” Read the rest of this entry »

More turtles could become fish supper with warming

University of Queensland's David Booth and Andrew Evans have tested the effect of temperature on the swimming ability of the endangered green turtle. Credit: Nick Holmes

University of Queensland's David Booth and Andrew Evans have tested the effect of temperature on the swimming ability of the endangered green turtle. Credit: Nick Holmes

The moment they break open the shells their mother laid them in, baby green turtles face arguably the most dangerous journey of their lives. Despite spending most of their time out in the open sea, these endangered creatures are born from clutches of eggs in deep nests in coastal and island sand dunes. Though it may take them several weeks to dig their way out of the sand, once they emerge, they rapidly plunge into the sea, and then swim continuously for about another 24 hours. On that voyage, they must run the gauntlet of hungry fish, who are thought to eat three in ten hatchling green turtles on average.

Last week, the University of Queensland’s David Booth and Andrew Evans showed that a hotter climate would harm the baby green turtles’ ability to swim away from this early death. That’s despite warmer seas improving their swimming ability. “We also found that hatchlings that emerged from cooler nests had a better swimming performance,” Booth told Simple Climate. “However the effect of nest temperature was greater than the effect of the change in water temperature. We predicted that if there were both a 2ºC rise in nest temperature and water temperature, there would be a net decrease in green turtle hatchling swimming performance, thus increasing the chances that hatchlings would be eaten by predatory fish.” Read the rest of this entry »