Archive for February, 2009

Hanging by an icy thread

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Some 3000 kilometres due south of New Zealand, a giant Antarctic ice sheet is crumbling like a cheap supermarket pavlova.

The collapse of the Wilkins Ice Shelf has sparked fears of rising sea levels, but is it time to update the house insurance, or buy some water wings?

Scientists think the loss of Antarctic ice shelves such as Wilkins will let inland glaciers slide to the ocean faster, pumping vast quantities of ice into the sea and contributing to sea-level rises.

If it goes, the Wilkins Ice Shelf the size of Jamaica would become the 10th Antarctic ice shelf to recede or vanish into the sea since 1950.

Sea-level rises are also caused by thermal expansion of the oceans as they become warmer.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted a sea-level rise of up to 59 centimetres by the end of the century.

But it did not include the possible effects of melting ice sheets and said it could not yet predict the full extent of a future sea-level rise.


Breaking news: Unprecedented global warming in past year

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

From January 2008 to January 2009, the planet warmed a remarkable 0.37°C (see data here). This is 20 times (!) the annual rate of warming in recent decades and 20 times what most climate models have projected we should be experiencing.

The N.Y. Times and WSJ have made this stunning news of accelerated human-caused global warming a lead story, and even some previously skeptical “deniers” who had been pushing the myth of global cooling have publicly wondered how they could have been so wrong…. Okay, maybe that last sentence is wishful thinking.

But I’m sure you remember how the deniers and the media spun up the global cooling meme a year ago [see “Media enable denier spin 1: A (sort of) cold January doesn’t mean climate stopped warming“]. That meme began with a misleading post by retired TV weatherman Anthony Watts, which was based in large part on the coincidence of a (relatively) cool January 2008 following on the heels of the warmest January on record (according to NASA’s dataset).

So now we have a quite warm January 2009, which ties with 1998 as the 5th warmest January in NASA’s temperature record, following on the heels of that moderately cool [OK, technically 31st warmest on record] January 2008. And that gives us the huge year-over-year warming, which should be making headlines around the online and traditional media, if they were consistent, which, of course, they are not.


Ocean Acidification from CO2 Is Happening Faster Than Thought

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

A lesser-known consequence of having a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air is the acidification of water. Oceans naturally absorb the greenhouse gas; in fact, they take in roughly one third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities. When CO2 dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid, the same substance found in carbonated beverages. New research now suggests that seawater might be growing acidic more quickly than climate change models have predicted.

Marine ecologist J. Timothy Wootton of the University of Chicago and his colleagues spent eight years compiling measurements of acidity, salinity, temperature and other data from Tatoosh Island off the northwestern tip of Washington State. They found that the average acidity rose more than 10 times faster than predicted by climate simulations.

Highly acidic water can wreak havoc on marine life. For instance, it can dissolve the calcium carbonate in seashells and coral reefs [see “The Dangers of Ocean Acidification,” by Scott C. Doney; Scientific American, March 2006]. In their study, published in the December 2 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Wootton and his team discovered that the balance of ecosystems shifted: populations of large-shelled animals such as mussels and stalked barnacles dropped, whereas smaller-shelled species and noncalcareous algae (species that lack calcium-based skeletons) became more abundant. “I see it as a harbinger of the trends we might expect to occur in the future,” says oceanographer Scott C. Doney of the Woods Hole Ocean­ographic Institution, who did not participate in this study.


Drought warning as the tropics expand

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, warned on Thursday that his state “is headed toward one of the worst water crises in its history”.

Now new research suggests that the three-year drought in the Golden State may be a consequence of the expanding tropics, which are gradually growing as human emissions of greenhouse gases warm the planet.

Climate scientists have documented a slow progression of low-latitude weather systems towards the poles, and this has been matched by rising temperatures in many temperate regions. Deciding whether this broadening of the tropical belt is linked to the greenhouse effect has been difficult, however.


Climate Fears Are Driving ‘Ecomigration’ Across Globe

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Adam Fier recently sold his home, got rid of his car and pulled his twin 6-year-old girls out of elementary school in Montgomery County. He and his wife packed the family’s belongings and moved to New Zealand — a place they had never visited or seen before, and where they have no family or professional connections. Among the top reasons: global warming.

Halfway around the world, the president of Kiribati, a Pacific nation of low-lying islands, said last week that his country is exploring ways to move all its 100,000 citizens to a new homeland because of fears that a steadily rising ocean will make the islands uninhabitable.

The two men are at contrasting poles of a phenomenon that threatens to reshape economies, politics and cultures across the planet. By choice or necessity, millions of “ecomigrants” — most of them poor and desperate — are on the move in search of more habitable living space.

There were about 25 million ecomigrants in the world a little more than a decade ago, said Norman Myers, a respected British environmental researcher at Oxford University. That number is now “a good deal higher,” he added. “It’s plain that sea-level rise in the wake of climate change will inundate the homelands of huge numbers of people.”

In Bangladesh, about 12 million to 17 million people have fled their homes in recent decades because of environmental disasters — and the low-lying country is likely to experience more intense flooding in the future. In several countries in Africa’s Sahel region, bordering the Sahara, about 10 million people have been driven to move by droughts and famines.


Glaciers In China And Tibet Fading Fast

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Glaciers that serve as water sources to one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on earth are melting at an alarming rate, according to a recent report.

A three-year study, to be used by the China Geological Survey Institute, shows that glaciers in the Yangtze source area, central to the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in south-western China, have receded 196 square kilometres over the past 40 years.

Glaciers at the headwaters of the Yangtze, China’s longest river, now cover 1,051 square kilometres compared to 1,247 square kilometres in 1971, a loss of nearly a billion cubic metres of water, while the tongue of the Yuzhu glacier, the highest in the Kunlun Mountains fell by 1,500 metres over the same period.

Melting glacier water will replenish rivers in the short term, but as the resource diminishes drought will dominate the river reaches in the long term. Several major rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus begin their journeys to the sea from the Tibetan Plateau Steppe, one of the largest land-based wilderness areas left in the world.


Energy Secretary: Climate change could wipe out Calif. farming

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned that, if climate change continues unabated, California’s agriculture could vanish by the end of the century.

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who ran the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before joining the Obama administration, said that warming temperatures could eliminate up to 90 percent of the Sierra snowpack, which provides water to many of the state’s 76,000 farms.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he told the newspaper. “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

“I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going,” he added.

According to statistics from the US Department of Agriculture [PDF], California is responsible for about half of US fruit, nut, and fresh vegetable production.


Drought threatens China wheat production

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I’ve written before about what I think will happen to world food prices when China ends up growing significantly less food than it needs.   They will, of course, take part of their enormous trade surplus money and go out onto the world market and buy what they need at whatever prices they have to pay.   And that, in turn, will drive food prices sharply up all around the world.

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BEIJING, Feb. 3 (Xinhua) — Lack of rainfall has led to severe drought in northern China, affecting more than 140 million mu (9.3 million hectares) of wheat, said the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) on Tuesday.

    By February 2, 141 million mu wheat in six major grain production provinces, including Henan, Anhui, Shandong, Shanxi, Gansu and Shaanxi, were hit by drought, Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai said at a video conference called to coordinate drought relief efforts.

    The drought is casting a shadow over China’s wheat production, as almost 43 percent of the winter crop has been affected. In comparison, nine million mu of wheat suffered from drought in the same period last year.

    Sun said little rainfall since last October was the main reason for the prolonged drought in most parts of the northern areas, and frequent cold snaps this winter made the situation worse.

    According to Monday’s weather report by China Meteorological Administration, severe drought in north China was expected to continue as no rain has been forecasted for the next ten days.

    The MOA warned that more wheat crop could perish if drought continues to linger.

    To cope with the problem, the MOA asked agricultural departments of every level to collect all of their strength to channel water, enhance irrigation and fertilization.

    MOA has sent 12 working teams of experts to the drought-hit provinces, to help farmers on drought relief work.

    By Monday, The Ministry of Finance has allocated 100 million yuan (14.6 million U.S. dollars) in emergency funding to help farmers weather the difficulties.

    In related development, drought has affected about 1.74 million hectares of crop and caused an economic loss of 1.6 billion yuan (234 million U.S. dollars) in east China’s Anhui province, the provincial authority on drought relief said on Tuesday.

    The life of some 12.87 million people is threatened by the drought, the provincial civil affairs bureau said.


Report calls climate change ‘irreversible’

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

Even if all the world’s smokestacks and tailpipes were to suddenly stop spewing CO2, if all the trees everywhere were to be left standing, and if all the remaining coal, oil, and gas were to stay in the ground, the planet would still feel the effects of global warming a millennium from now.

That’s the conclusion of a sobering new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that, even as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide decline, the oceans, which are slowing down global warming by absorbing heat, will seek equilibrium with the atmosphere by re-releasing it.

On the Horizons blog, the Monitor’s Pete Spotts quotes Susan Solomon, a senior researcher with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the lead author of the study: “The same thing that is holding back climate change today will keep it going in the very long term, and that is the oceans.”

Combine this with the tendency for carbon dioxide to persist in the atmosphere for centuries, and global warming becomes a juggernaut that will take many, many generations to turn around.

“People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that’s not true,” said Ms. Solomon, according to the Associated Press.

Solomon told the Washington Post that it’s better to think of climate change like nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for centuries, instead of like acid rain, which disappears not long after the pollution causing it has stopped.


Many drug trials never see publication

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Why am I not surprised, when corporations and their unrelenting drive for profits above all else are behind so many medical decisions made in the U.S.A?

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Results of most drug trials are unreported, inaccessible to clinicians and patients, a new study confirms

 Patients asking their doctors if a new drug is right for them would do well to also ask for supporting evidence. Conclusions about drug safety and effectiveness in reports submitted to the FDA are sometimes changed to favor the drug in the medical literature, a new analysis finds. And nearly a quarter of submitted drug trials were never published at all, researchers report in the Nov. 25 PLoS Medicine.

Information published in journals is the most accessible to health care professionals and also drives marketing of new drugs. The new study suggests that this information is incomplete and biased, says health policy expert Lisa Bero of the University of California, San Francisco, who led the study.

An-Wen Chan, who wrote an accompanying commentary but was not involved with the work, says he does not think health care providers will be surprised to learn of suppression and inaccurate reporting of new drug information.

“These new findings confirm our previous suspicions that this is happening on a much broader systemic level. It shows that information is unavailable to those who really need it the most — the clinicians and the researchers,” says Chan, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “If we take the view that research on humans is ethical, is allowed based on an assumption of public good, then all clinical trial information should be publicly available.”