Curse of the Kudzu

Alicia Newton


Kudzu vines have become a wide-spread but unwelcome sight throughout much of the southeastern United States. The noxious weed – native to Asia and once planted to prevent soil erosion – has spread rapidly, smothering native species in its wake. But the vine may be wreaking atmospheric havoc as well.

In a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jonathan Hickman of Stony Brook University and colleagues find that invasion of the vine more than doubles nitric oxide emissions and increases ozone pollution.

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Picture post: ‘hottest April ever’

Cross-posted by Daniel Cressey on The Great Beyond

April this year was the hottest on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced.

The combined surface temperatures on land and at sea averaged 14.5 °C, some 0.76 °C above the 20th century average. Average ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for April and the global land surface temperature was the third warmest on record for the month.

NOAA also says that Arctic sea ice was “below normal for the 11th consecutive April” while “based on NOAA satellite observations, snow cover extent was the fourth-lowest on record” since 1967.

This map from NOAA shows so-called ‘temperature anomalies’ in April 2010, compared to the 1971-2000 baseline. The red dots are higher than average temperatures, the blue dots lower than average. Dot size relates to how far from the average the measurements were (large map, with key).

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Image: NOAA

Costa Rican to become new UN climate chief

Cross-posted from Quirin Schiermeier on The Great Beyond

Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican climate diplomacy expert, is to become the new head of the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention of Climate Change. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to confirm her appointment later in the week, the BBC reports.

Figueres, daughter of former Costa Rican president Jose Figueres Ferrer, has been involved in the international climate negotiation process since 1995. The UN’s outgoing climate chief, Yvo de Boer of the Netherlands, announced in February to step down on July 1 after nearly four years in office.

The run-off has been between Figueres and the South African tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who had the support of several key countries and was widely considered front-runner to replace de Boer. But in the last few days a number of small island states have successfully lobbied in favour of Figueres, according to BBC.

New, ‘relentlessly pragmatic’ approach to climate change needed?

Cross-posted from Daniel Cressey on The Great Beyond

hartwell cover.bmpThe collapse of UN-led international efforts to combat climate change means a new approach that is “politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic” is required, according to a new report.

The 14 authors of a new report on climate policy describe themselves as “an eclectic group of academics, analysts and energy policy advocates”. They say the Kyoto Protocol style approach “crashed” last year with the perceived failure of the Copenhagen meeting.

A new approach, focusing on human dignity, is required, they argue in their ‘Hartwell Paper’ – named after the house in Buckinghamshire where the authors convened in February.

“To reframe the climate issue around matters of human dignity is not just noble or necessary. It is also likely to be more effective than the approach of framing around human sinfulness –which has failed and will continue to fail,” write the authors, including Gwyn Prins, of the London School of Economics; Roger Pielke Jr, of the University of Colorado; and Hiroyuki Tezuka, who represented the Japan Iron and Steel Federation.

A new approach should focus on three objectives, says the paper, ensuring energy access for all, developing in a way that does not undermine Earth systems, and ensuring societies can withstand all climate vagaries, “whatever their cause may be”. The Hartwell group argues that the inclusive approach of previous attempts to reach a global climate consensus needs to be broken up, with forests, biodiversity, air quality and other issues put back into silos and made to “again stand on their own”.

Their paper also suggests that an almost exclusive focus on carbon dioxide is unwise, and there should be more action on other greenhouse agents, such as black carbon and tropospheric ozone.

Bill Hare, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, told the BBC, he did not buy this. “The paper’s focus away from CO2 is misguided, short-sighted and probably wrong,” says Hare. “If you take action on black carbon and do not reduce CO2 emissions then you may end up with more warming in the long term.”

Hare also says that the Kyoto Protocol is “one of the few things that have worked” and he questions the Hartwell group’s acceptance of industry funding.

On his blog, Pielke Jr writes, “As we state up front, some funding for our meeting did indeed come from industry. Other funding came from foundations. We are appreciative to all of our funders for enabling the work to occur. I can assure you that no one told us what to say, and I’m pretty sure most participants were unaware of where all of the funding came from at the time of the meeting (I was).”

Confronting the biodiversity crisis

In 2002, the world’s governments agreed to significantly slow the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Time is almost up, and by most accounts they’ve failed. Now that climate change is emerging as one of biodiversity’s greatest threats, scientists are proposing new ways to tackle the crisis. In the latest, and last, issue of Nature Reports Climate Change, Hannah Hoag reports on some of the most promising efforts underway to protect biodiversity against rising temperature and other impacts of climate change.

In short, they are:

1. Barcoding life

Paul Hebert, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, devised a method for DNA barcoding in 2003, thus speeding up the process of taxonomy. Before barcoding, biological specimens were identified on the basis of morphology, behaviour and genetics. The technique, which allows for rapid species identification, offers a “quantum jump” in the rate that species are registered, says Hebert. It also gives biodiversity a boost: barcoding has repeatedly shown that one species is, in fact, three, or ten. The hope is that as the technology evolves, scientists will be able to use hand held barcoders to identify changes in a region’s biodiversity.

2. Backing up biodiversity

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, opened in 2008, is the ultimate insurance policy against the loss of the world’s crop genetic diversity. More than 522,000 seed samples from around the world are stored at −18 °C within the subterranean facility, like safety-deposit boxes in a bank. Most of today’s crops have been carefully bred for traits that fit the present climate, so as temperatures rise, crop production is likely to be negatively affected in many of the world’s most agricultural regions. One study concluded, for example, that with a 2 °C temperature rise, more than 80 per cent of the land area over most African nations would be climatically unsuitable for the crops now growing there. If such projections become reality, the seeds contained in the Svalbard Vault could be used to breed new varieties of crop containing traits for drought tolerance and such like.


3. Putting a price on nature

The Cauca Valley, a region in the southwest of Colombia sandwiched between two Andean mountain chains, is the site of a major water fund project involving of reforestation, water protection, soil improvements, education and training. By investing in the region’s ecosystem services, the project aims to lessen climate change impacts and threats to biodiversity.

Although water funds exist globally to conserve watersheds, this is one of the first to include climate change modelling to help direct investments. Climate change projections are fed into a computer-based decision-making tool called InVEST, which has been developed by the Natural Capital Project, a partnership between TNC, Stanford University and the World Wildlife Fund. InVEST identifies the areas where climate change is unlikely to threaten activities the water fund has been invested in — such as promoting the reforestation of a hillside or teaching eco-friendly cattle-ranching practices — and their returns. By directing investments wisely, the region can benefit financially as well as adapt to climate change.

4. Shifting species

Efforts are already underway to relocate species that simply can’t keep pace with climate change. These have been few so far, but they may become more common if biologist Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas at Austin has her way. Parmesan is suggesting the US Fish and Wildlife Service use managed relocation to save the Laguna mountain skipper, a small, black-and-white endangered butterfly found on only two or three mountaintops in southern California. Though assisted relocation could help species adapt to climate change, some fear that the risks – such as introducing invasive species to a region – outweigh the benefits, and others warn that it’s a short term solution at best. But, says Parmesan, “there is no no-risk option.”

5. A moveable park

Traditional conservation approaches assume that species ranges will always stay in the same place: if you protect the geographic region, the species within it will be protected forever. But species don’t stay put when temperatures move outside their comfort range. To deal with this dilemma, Lee Hannah of Conservation International has recently suggested using moveable conservation parks within the ocean. Such mobile protective areas could help to conserve species such as the loggerhead turtle, says Hannah.

6. An IPCC for biodiversity

Come June, biologists and policymakers will gather in South Korea to discuss the future of a proposed scientific panel to monitor biodiversity and offer advice on its protection. Like the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) would improve the links between science and policy, and ensure policy decisions are based on the best available science. It would oversee global and regional biodiversity assessments, identify and analyse trends, and explore future changes. It would also invest in training.

The full article is freely accessible here.

Image: Boxes of seeds arrive from around the world to the Svalbard vault. GLOBAL CROP DIVERSITY TRUST

‘Stop McCarthy-like attacks on climate science’

Daniel Cressey; cross-posted from The Great Beyond

blue mar.jpgOver 250 members of the US National Academy of Sciences have hit back at global warming deniers, warning that attacks on climate science are being mainly driven not by intellectual inquiry but by special interest and dogma.

In a letter published in Science the researchers compare the recent furore around the so-called ‘climate-gate’ stolen emails to the Communist witch hunts of the 50s led by Joseph McCarthy

“We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the un-restrained burning of fossil fuels,” they write (letter, open access version). “We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

After a vast cache of emails between climate researchers were stolen from the University of East Anglia and leaked online, a number of people sceptical of climate change declared that these messages proved man-made global warming was a myth. US Senator James Inhofe even implied criminal charges could be forthcoming against the scientists involved.

The new letter says such political attacks on climate scientists are deeply disturbing. It sets out a series of ‘theories’ such as the age of the Earth being 4.5 billion years, the Big Bang and evolution that are “overwhelmingly accepted”, even though researchers are very willing to be shown these are wrong. Climate science, say the signatories, now falls into this category.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and corresponding author of the letter, writes, “In the end, we have only three choices: we can act to mitigate the risks of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can expand efforts to adapt to a changing climate, or we can suffer the consequences of doing nothing. The only real question is, what is the balance among these three options.” (Huffington Post.)

In an accompanying editorial, Brooks Hanson, deputy editor for physical sciences at Science, says that scientists now need to engage and communicate their findings to fix a “dangerous deterioration in the rational relation between science and society”.

“The scientific community must recognize that the recent attacks stem in part from its culture and scientists’ behaviour,” he writes. “In turn, it is time to focus on the main problem: The IPCC reports have underestimated the pace of climate change while overestimating societies’ abilities to curb greenhouse gas emissions.”

Full list of signatories below the fold, from the Guardian version of the letter.

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Melting icebergs raise the sea level

Cross-posted from Quirin Schiermeier on The Great Beyond

Since 1994, around 750 cubic kilometers of floating ice – equivalent to the volume of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia – have been melting each year around the Arctic Ocean and off Antarctica, an analysis of satellite observation has revealed. The massive loss of sea ice actually adds a wee bit to global sea level rise, scientists report in a paper in Geophysical Research Letters.

Popular belief has it that the melting of drifting icebergs and floating ice shelves has no effect on the height of the surrounding sea level just like melting ice cubes in a drink don’t make your glass overflow.

But because sea water is warmer and more salty than ice this is not quite correct. In fact, melting sea ice does raise seal level by about 2.6 % of its volume – equivalent to the difference in density between fresh- and sea-water, the team reports.

Globally, the effect is almost negligible: Retreating Arctic sea ice and thinning ice shelves around Antarctica contribute about 50 micrometers, or half a hairbreadth, to the 3 millimeter or so annual rise in global sea level from melting glaciers and thermal expansion of ocean water.

Even so, the effect deserves monitoring, says Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds in Britain, who led the study.

Sea level contribution from floating ice might strongly increase in a warming climate, he says. If all present-day floating ice were lost, global sea level would rise by up to 6 centimetres.

PICES Conference: How much fish in the future?

Olive Heffernan

Jake Rice, who heads up Advice and Assessment at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, just delivered an interesting talk here on the conflict between global food security and fisheries managment policies. Rice says that he and his co-author, economist Serge Garcia, are concerned that measures to conserve marine biodiversity are in contradiction with policies to protect food security, with the likely upshot that both will fail to address their respective goals.

The conundrum is straightforward: by mid-century, there’ll be an additional 2 billion people on earth, each of whom will need to eat. In total, they’ll require an extra 3.65*108 of dietary protein. Forecasts suggest that we’ll need an 11% increase in irrigation for grain production just to keep pace with human population growth, not withstanding the impacts of climate change on crops and water availability. Right now, one-third of the world’s population relies on fish and fisheries products for at least one-fifth of their annual protein intake; if that continues to be the case, we’ll need around 70 million metric tonnes more fish protein by 2050, says Rice.

That’s something like 75-100% of current fish protein production. So how can we generate this and manage our fisheries? Rice outlines several possible options, each of which involves a conflict with environmental management.

One option is to extend fish farming in coastal areas, but that has the associated problems of pollution and the escape of farmed fish into the wild. Also, fish farming requires protein input in the form of fishmeal, so that raises other sustainability issues.

Or we could start to fish lower down the food web – in other words, eat jellyfish – but that would remove an important food supply for predators higher up the food chain, and those predators are already under serious stress.

Another option is to fish more in highly producivity regions, but aren’t those the same regions we should be setting aside as Marine Protected Areas?

The problem, says Rice, is that these clearly conflicting policy goals aren’t being looked at by the same people at a high enough level. Now that the old problem of fisheries governance is being met with the newer problems of climate change and rapid population growth, we need a merger of these discussions, he says. He’d like to see the Convention on Biological Diversity pay more attention to the sustainable food dimension of their mandate and the Food and Agricultural Organization speaking with the CBD at a higher level. Eventually, says Rice, the UN General Assembly should be the forum to look at merging and prioritizing these policies.

But can we have our cake and eat it? “We can’t have full conservation of marine biodiversity and a well nourished additional 2 billion people on Earth”, says Rice.

PICES conference: disentangling the drivers of change

Olive Heffernan

I’ve been attending the PICES conference on Climate Change Effects on Fish and Fisheries in Sendia, Japan this week in an effort to reconnect with my fisheries research roots. Since leaving research seven years ago, I’ve covered little in the way of fisheries, partly because I’m now focused on climate change, a topic that the fisheries community is only recently turning its attention to. While there’s been a long history within the community of research focused on how the environment influences fish – from the behaviour of individuals all the way up to catch statistics – few studies have looked at attributing observed environmental changes to anthropogenic warming.

And judging from the talks here this week, that’s still largely the case. Many of the talks here this week have reported changes in fisheries that correlate well with temperature changes, but few have factored out other drivers of change and untangled climate variability from human-induced warming.

Some of the experts here say that changes in exploited marine species are so heavily driven by fishing pressure that human-induced warming is likely a secondary – and much smaller – driver of change. Speaking at the opening session on Monday, Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver pointed to the fact that fisheries such as Bluefin tuna in the Atlantic and lingcod in British Columbia are in serious trouble – even without climate change. That’s because more vessels are seeking to exploit an increasingly depleted resource. But, said Sumaila, climate change can affect the productivity and the distribution of fish biomass in the ocean, and over time this will likely impact human welfare through changes in catch, food security and income.

Accoridng to John Pinnegar, head of climate change research at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Lowestoft, UK, the relationship between climate change and fisheries is two-way. Climate change can increase the vulnerability of a stock to fishing pressure by reducing its carrying capacity – or population size (by narrowing the habitable area, for example), but equally a heavily exploited population comprised mostly of young fish will be less resiliant to environmental change than one with older animals.

While disentangling the various drivers of changes in fisheries is interesting from an academic perspective, from a managment point of view it might be less important. After all, “We can’t turn the climate around quick enough”, says John Pinnegar, head of climate change research at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Lowestoft, UK, “so the only lever we have is to manage fishing pressure”.

Election 2010: Climate debate ‘hots’ up

Geoff Brumfiel; cross-posted from The Great Beyond

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Last night candidates from the three major parties here in the UK came to central London to debate on all matters climatic. Behind the podium were Ed Miliband, the current Labour government’s secretary of state for climate change, Greg Clark, the Conservative shadow secretary on the issue, and Simon Hughes the Liberal Democrat’s climate spokesperson.

The debate kicked off with a question about building a third runway at Heathrow, and it set the tone for the whole thing: “We’ve been very clear that we’re against a third runway at Heathrow,” Clark told the audience. Clark would rather have high-speed rail lines linking Heathrow to major cities in the south-east and continental Europe.

“What Greg didn’t tell you is that he’s in favour of airport expansion [elsewhere] in the south-east,” Labour-climate-guy Miliband retorted. He said Labour’s goal of having aviation emissions no higher than present levels in 2050 was a more ambitious target than declarations about a single runway here or there. That could only be achieved with higher taxes on air passengers, he said.

The Liberal Democrat’s Simon Hughes agreed with Miliband about expansion, but added he wanted alternative forms of transport to be “cost beneficial”. “That means lower rail fairs,” he says. How does he cover the cost? By raising the taxes on airlines flying with empty planes.

So Hughes and Miliband agree on taxes and Hughes and Clark agree on rail access and Miliband and Clark sort of agree on airport expansion. It felt like it was one of those story problems they give you in school that you solve by drawing a Venn diagram. So that’s exactly what I did (see right). Venn diagram.jpg

It really does show how this debate worked. Everyone agreed that climate change is bad, and each party had a set of solutions that looked, in many ways, like a variation on the solutions of the other two parties. Everyone agreed that the UK needs to stage a green recovery from the economic recession, that offshore wind farms were good things, and that it was the responsibility of politicians to make sure the public understood climate change.

The Guardian, which hosted the debate, dubbed Liberal Democrat candidate Simon Hughes the winner, but I’m less sure. It’s undoubtedly true that Hughes tended to stand out from his two rivals: he wholly opposed the expansion of nuclear power for example, nor was he supportive of coal-fired power plants that used carbon capture technology. But I couldn’t help but think he benefited from being in a minority party that, despite a recent surge in the polls, is unlikely to be running the next government. Hughes could say what he liked, and if his policies didn’t quite line up with reality, well it wasn’t so important—he’d probably never get a chance to enact them.

That being said, Hughes did mount a pretty convincing attack on Conservative Greg Clark. Numerous Conservative ‘back benchers’ (members of parliament who are not ministers) were climate sceptics, he pointed out. How was Clark going to enact climate policies when the majority of his party was not signed up to the official Conservative policy, Hughes asked. Clark responded meekly that climate change sceptics resided in all parties, but he was pretty unconvincing, especially when he got confused and told the crowd: “I don’t know of anyone in the shadow cabinet who doesn’t believe, as I do, in the reality of climate change and is not determined to make it happen.”

The crowd chuckled, and Clark moved on.

The other big gotcha moment came when environmental attack-dog George Monbiot laid into the three candidates for their support of expanding drilling for natural gas in the North Sea. That was a “clear contradiction” of stated goals to wean Britain from fossil fuels, Monbiot said. “Perhaps your policy in all three cases is to get as much of it out of the ground as you can, cross your fingers and then pray to God that no one uses it. Right or wrong?”

The Venn diagram pretty much overlapped on that one. All three candidates said that natural gas was a bridge between present-day technologies and future, greener ones.

As an American living in Britain, I have to say that the very exercise of watching three parties debate the environment was interesting enough all by itself. But none of them was able to whole-heartedly convince me that they were going to be able to turn Britain green.