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2-degree global warming limit is a ‘prescription for disaster’, says Hansen

Cross posted from Scientific American’s Observations blog on behalf of Mark Fischetti.

A mantra that has driven global negotiations on carbon dioxide emissions for years has been that policy-makers must prevent warming of more than two degrees Celsius to prevent apocalyptic climate outcomes. And, two degrees has been a point of no return, a limit directly or indirectly agreed to by negotiators at international climate talks.

James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, whose data since the 1980s has been central to setting that benchmark, said on Tuesday that two degrees is too much.

New, extensive study of the paleoclimate record going back 50 million years by Hansen and others now shows that the two-degree target for global temperature rise “is a prescription for disaster,” Hansen said here at a news conference during the American Geophysical Union meeting.

Hansen came to that conclusion after reviewing average and extreme perturbations in the paleoclimate record that have been more thoroughly documented in the past few years. The record shows that 50 million years ago, Earth was free of ice, and sea level was 70 meters higher on average than it is today. Both phenomena resulted from natural variations in mean temperatures due to slight changes in the sun’s output and Earth’s orbit over geological time scales. Rising temperatures today, over far shorter time scales in which neither the sun nor the orbit are factors, are caused primarily by higher levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Read the rest of this post over on Scientific American’s blog.

Keep watching the seas

nz main.jpgMarine reserves can trigger a startling comeback for key species in just a matter of years.

Data from New Zealand’s reserves shows that species such as blue cod and rock lobsters get bigger and more abundant in reserves, Jonathan Gardner told a meeting at the Zoological Society of London yesterday.

While there are losers as well as winners – those bigger cod are going to eat a lot more of their prey after all – marine protected areas (MPAs) undoubtedly deliver lasting conservation benefits, says Gardner, a researcher at Victoria University of Wellington who has been visiting Britain as an NZ-UK Link Foundation visiting professor.

“Systems can respond often within two to three years,” he told the meeting. “If we don’t have good monitoring in place we won’t pick up these early gains.”

Good science underpinning the monitoring will allow the impact of such reserves to be established, which can in tern help sell the public on the not-insignificant costs of MPAs, he adds.

The rise of MPAs is discussed in a feature in Nature out this week, and the need for proper science and funding also features in a related editorial. With New Zealand’s nearest neighbour Australia also pushing forward with new huge MPAs, expect the topic to maintain a high profile for some time in conservation circles.

Indeed, the numbers in that feature may soon need updating again. Yesterday The Times announced that it had got wind of a proposed protected zone around the British island of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic (subscription required). Although the suggestion is already raising the hackles of Argentina – which has a long standing dispute with the UK over sovereignty in the region – it could be a new record holder for marine reserve size at over one million square kilometres.

A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that the government of South Georgia would have to make any announcement on the potential MPA, but that, “We would support moves which preserve the rich biodiversity of the Islands, which is a habitat for seven species of globally threatened seabirds.”

Image: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Gulf of Mexico gets $50 million to improve water quality

Posted on behalf of Melissa Gaskill

On Monday 5 December, the 350 or so attendees at the State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit in Houston were among the first to hear of a $50 million, three-year commitment from the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for projects to improve water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.

The money will be used to help farmers and ranchers in seven priority river basins reduce run-off, improve water quality, and provide wildlife habitats. Called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative (GMI), it is part of the implementation phase of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force‘s final strategy, also announced on Monday. President Barack Obama created the Task Force by executive order in October 2010 as part of long-term recovery following the Deepwater Horizon disaster (see Nature’s collection of stories on the spill).

Roughly $20 million will be allocated in the first year, said GMI spokesperson Jody Fagan. “We’ll see what the interest is and then decide how to allocate funding. There’s not a certain amount of funding to certain rivers.” Farmers and ranchers can apply for funds to support specific projects, such as prescribed grazing or pesticide management.

The seven priority areas are Weeks Bay on Alabama’s Fish River, Escambia River watershed in Alabama and Florida, Middle Suwanee River in Florida, Barataria-Terrbonne National Estuary and Mermentau Basin in Louisiana, Jourdan River in Mississippi, and the Lower San Antonio River in Texas.

“This is the first demonstration of a significant monetary commitment [for the Gulf] from the federal government,” said Cindy Brown, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program. “They are addressing a real problem and doing it now.” Nutrient inflow and water quality in Gulf estuaries are critical issues, with most of the Gulf’s 30 river basins imperilled, Brown added, affecting fisheries, drinking water, and recreation.

Billions of dollars in fines levied on companies involved with Deepwater Horizon would yet be directed towards Gulf projects, but that depends on pending legislation yet to be approved by Congress.

“As important economically as the Gulf of Mexico is, it doesn’t always get its fair share,” said William Hogarth, interim director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. In fact, the $50 million award, according to the Task Force, represents a 1,100 percent increase in federal financial assistance for Gulf priority watersheds. “To see money come in is gratifying,” Hogarth said. “I hope that it will do some good.”

Western Himalayan region faces big quake risk

jhelum.jpgThe Kashmir region in northwestern India could experience a magnitude 9 earthquake — several times larger than previously assumed. The revised risk estimate is worrying, says Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who presented the results on 7 December at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. “There are many cities and megacities in the region. And there are a couple of nuclear power plants there too,” he says. “You have two nuclear powers facing each other, armed to the teeth, facing a huge amount of damage”. Bilham speculates that perhaps 300,000 people might die in such an earthquake, not counting subsequent problems from political turmoil between India and Kashmir, or flooding.

[image: the Jhelum River in Kashmir could flood from a quake-triggered landslide]

Read more

Opportunity rover spots hydrothermal vein

gypsum.jpg After a 34-kilometre trek, NASA’s indefatigable rover Opportunity has discovered veins of hydrothermally deposited minerals at the edge of Endeavour crater, where it will over-winter in its eighth year.

The bright, stick-like veins, apparently comprised of the mineral gypsum, indicate that hot, mineral-rich water was once pulsing through fractures in the volcanic rock. The mineral precipitates out in an environment much less acidic than the ones responsible for the water-altered sulfate minerals that Opportunity has previously discovered — which means that the site would have been more habitable than others explored by the rovers.

Principal investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, says that the discovery is the most “bullet proof” yet for ancient water. “There’s no ambiguity about this.” Squyres presented the results today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, California. Gypsum has been detected before from orbit, and even dunes comprised of gypsum dust have been identified, but Squyres says it is more exciting to discover it where it formed, in situ.

Yet space agencies should not necessarily be targeting Endeavour crater with life-detection missions, says project scientist Bruce Banerdt, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Although microbes on Earth can exist in hydrothermal cracks, he says that the veins were probably originally deposited when the region was buried under kilometres of sediment — a situation much less favorable for life.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU

US oceans and atmosphere agency releases scientific integrity policy

noaa_logo_small.pngIt has been a long time in the making, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finally released its scientific integrity policy, which prohibits agency employees from distorting science and protects the rights of NOAA scientists to speak openly about their work and to report wrongdoing. The policy applies to thousands of NOAA employees who conduct research on climate, ocean oil spills, marine mammals, and other sometimes controversial topics.

Jane Lubchenco, who directs the agency, announced the policy on 7 Dec. at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. She said the policy is designed to “protect scientific findings from being suppressed, distorted or altered, to strengthen science and to encourage a culture of transparency.”

When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and his administration moved to quickly develop scientific integrity policies for each agency, but the process stalled and the administration has published final policies for just a few agencies.

NOAA’s new policy gets high marks from Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has reviewed the draft policies issued by federal agencies. NOAA’s is “the best that I’ve seen,” says Grifo. One highlight is that NOAA has committed to publically release statistics regarding the number of allegations and investigations on scientific integrity issues, something that will allow watchdog groups to track how such problems are being handled.

She still has some concerns about the protections in place for NOAA employees, especially whistelblowers. Although the new NOAA policy prohibits managers or others from punishing whistleblowers, the policy on its own will not offer true protection because court cases have weakened federal protections for whistleblowers, she says. It will ultimately require broader action by Congress and the administration to get stronger protections in place, says Grifo.