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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sermilik fjord in Greenland: a chilling view of a warming world

The Sermilik fjord in Greenland: a chilling view of a warming world

'We all live on the Greenland ice sheet now. Its fate is our fate'

The Sermilik fjord

The Sermilik fjord, where hundreds of icebergs are calving from Greenland's vast ice sheets. Photograph: Philippe Roy/Getty

It is calving season in the Arctic. A flotilla of icebergs, some as jagged as fairytale castles and others as smooth as dinosaur eggs, calve from the ice sheet that smothers Greenland and sail down the fjords. The journey of these sculptures of ice from glaciers to ocean is eerily beautiful and utterly terrifying.

The wall of ice that rises behind Sermilik fjord stretches for 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from north to south and smothers 80% of this country. It has been frozen for 3m years. Now it is melting, far faster than the climate models predicted and far more decisively than any political action to combat our changing climate. If the Greenland ice sheet disappeared sea levels around the world would rise by seven metres, as 10% of the world's fresh water is currently frozen here.

This is also the season for science in Greenland. Glaciologists, seismologists and climatologists from around the world are landing on the ice sheet in helicopters, taking ice-breakers up its inaccessible coastline and measuring glaciers in a race against time to discover why the ice in Greenland is vanishing so much faster than expected.

Gordon Hamilton, a Scottish-born glaciologist from the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute, is packing up equipment at his base camp in Tasiilaq, a tiny, remote east coast settlement only accessible by helicopter and where huskies howl all night.

With his spiky hair and ripped T-shirt, Hamilton could be a rugged glaciologist straight from central casting. Four years ago he hit upon the daring idea of landing on a moving glacier in a helicopter to measure its speed.

The glaciers of Greenland are the fat, restless fingers of its vast ice sheet, constantly moving, stretching down into fjords and pushing ice from the sheet into the ocean, in the form of melt water and icebergs.

Before their first expedition, Hamilton and his colleague Leigh Stearns, from the University of Kansas, used satellite data to plan exactly where they would land on a glacier.

"When we arrived there was no glacier to be seen. It was way up the fjord," he says. "We thought we'd made some stupid goof with the co-ordinates, but we were where we were supposed to be." It was the glacier that was in the wrong place. A vast expanse had melted away.

When Hamilton and Stearns processed their first measurements of the glacier's speed, they thought they had made another mistake. They found it was marching forwards at a greater pace than a glacier had ever been observed to flow before. "We were blown away because we realised that the glaciers had accelerated not just by a little bit but by a lot," he says. The three glaciers they studied had abruptly increased the speed by which they were transmitting ice from the ice sheet into the ocean.

Raw power

Standing before a glacier in Greenland as it calves icebergs into the dark waters of a cavernous fjord is to witness the raw power of a natural process we have accelerated but will now struggle to control.

Greenland's glaciers make those in the Alps look like toys. Grubby white and blue crystal towers, cliffs and crevasses soar up from the water, dispatching millenniums of compacted snow in the shape of seals, water lilies and bishops' mitres.

I take a small boat to see the calving with Dines Mikaelsen, an Inuit guide, who in the winter will cross the ice sheet in his five-metre sled pulled by 16 huskies.

It is not freezing, but even in summer the wind is bitingly cold and we can smell the bad breath of a humpback whale as it groans past our bows on Sermilik Fjord. Above its heavy breathing, all you can hear in this wilderness is the drip-drip of melting ice and a crash as icebergs cleave into even smaller lumps, called growlers.

Mikaelsen stops his boat beside Hann glacier and points out how it was twice as wide and stretched 300 metres further into the fjord just 10 years ago. He also shows off a spectacular electric blue iceberg.

Locals have nicknamed it "blue diamond"; its colour comes from being cleaved from centuries-old compressed ice at the ancient heart of the glacier. Bobbing in warming waters, this ancient ice fossil will be gone in a couple of weeks.

The blue diamond is one vivid pointer to the antiquity of the Greenland ice sheet. A relic of the last Ice Age, this is one of three great ice sheets in the world. Up to two miles thick, the other two lie in Antarctica.

While similar melting effects are being measured in the southern hemisphere, the Greenland sheet may be uniquely vulnerable, lying much further from the chill of the pole than Antarctica's sheets. The southern end of the Greenland sheet is almost on the same latitude as the Shetlands and stroked by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Driven by the loss of ice, Arctic temperatures are warming more quickly than other parts of the world: last autumn air temperatures in the Arctic stood at a record 5 C above normal. For centuries, the ice sheets maintained an equilibrium: glaciers calved off icebergs and sent melt water into the oceans every summer; in winter, the ice sheet was then replenished with more frozen snow. Scientists believe the world's great ice sheets will not completely disappear for many more centuries, but the Greenland ice sheet is now shedding more ice than it is accumulating.

The melting has been recorded since 1979; scientists put the annual net loss of ice and water from the ice sheet at 300-400 gigatonnes (equivalent to a billion elephants being dropped in the ocean), which could hasten a sea level rise of catastrophic proportions.

As Hamilton has found, Greenland's glaciers have increased the speed at which they shift ice from the sheet into the ocean. Helheim, an enormous tower of ice that calves into Sermilik Fjord, used to move at 7 km (4.4 miles) a year. In 2005, in less than a year, it speeded up to nearly 12 km a year. Kangerdlugssuaq, another glacier that Hamilton measured, tripled its speed between 1988 and 2005. Its movement – an inch every minute – could be seen with the naked eye.

The three glaciers that Hamilton and Stearns measured account for about a fifth of the discharge from the entire Greenland ice sheet. The implications of their acceleration are profound: "If they all start to speed up, you could have quite a large rise in sea level in the near term, much larger than the official estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would project," says Hamilton.

The scientific labours in the chill winds and high seas of the Arctic summer seem wrapped in an unusual sense of urgency this year. The scientists working in Greenland are keen to communicate their new, emerging understanding of the dynamics of the declining ice sheet to the wider world. Several point out that any international agreement forged at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December will be based on the IPCC's fourth assessment report from 2007. Its estimates of climate change and sea-level rise were based on scientific research submitted up to 2005; the scientists say this is already significantly out of date.

The 2007 report predicted a sea level rise of 30-60 cm by 2100, but did not account for the impact of glaciers breaking into the sea from areas such as the Greenland ice sheet. Most scientists working at the poles predict a 1-m rise by 2100. The US Geological Survey has predicted a 1.5-m rise. As Hamilton points out: "It is only the first metre that matters".

Record temperatures

A 1-m rise – with the risk of higher storm surges – would require new defences for New York, London, Mumbai and Shanghai, and imperil swaths of low-lying land from Bangladesh to Florida. Vulnerable areas accommodate 10% of the world's population – 600 million.

The Greenland ice sheet is not merely being melted from above by warmer air temperatures. As the oceans of the Arctic waters reach record high temperatures, the role of warmer water lapping against these great glaciers is one of several factors shaping the loss of the ice sheet that has been overlooked until recently.

Fiamma Straneo, an Italian-born oceanographer, is laboriously winding recording equipment the size of a fire extinguisher from the deck of a small Greenpeace icebreaker caught in huge swells at the mouth of Sermilik fjord.

In previous decades, the Arctic Sunrise has been used in taking direct action against whalers; now it offers itself as a floating research station for independent scientists to reach remote parts of the ice sheet. It is tough work for the multinational crew of 30 in this rough-and-ready little boat, prettified below deck with posters of orang-utans and sunflowers painted in the toilets.

Before I succumb to vomiting below deck – another journalist is so seasick they are airlifted off the boat – I examine the navigational charts used by the captain, Pete Willcox, a survivor of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. He shows how they are dotted with measurements showing the depth of the ocean but here, close to the east coast of Greenland, the map is blank: this part of the North Atlantic was once covered by sea ice for so much of the year that its waters are still uncharted.

Earlier in the expedition, the crew believe, they became the first boat to travel through the Nares Strait west of Greenland to the Arctic Ocean in June, once impassable because of sea ice at that time of year. The predicted year when summers in the Arctic would be free of sea ice has fallen from 2100 to 2050 to 2030 in a couple of years.

Jay Zwally, a NASA scientist, recently suggested it could be virtually ice-free by late summer 2012. Between 2004 and 2008, the area of "multiyear" Arctic sea ice (ice that has formed over more than one winter and survived the summer melt) shrank by 595,000 sq miles, an area larger than France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.

Undaunted by the sickening swell of the ocean and wrapped up against the chilly wind, Straneo, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one of the world's leading oceanographic research centres, continues to take measurements from the waters as the long Arctic dusk falls.

According to Straneo, the rapid changes to the ice sheet have taken glaciologists by surprise. "One of the possible mechanisms which we think may have triggered these changes is melting driven by changing ocean temperatures and currents at the margins of the ice sheet."

She has been surprised by early results measuring sea water close to the melting glaciers: one probe recovered from last year recorded a relatively balmy 2 C at 60 metres in the fjord in the middle of winter. Straneo said: "This warm and salty water is of subtropical origin – it's carried by the Gulf Stream. In recent years a lot more of this warm water has been found around the coastal region of Greenland. We think this is one of the mechanisms that has caused these glaciers to accelerate and shed more ice."

Straneo's research is looking at what scientists call the "dynamic effects" of the Greenland ice sheet. It is not simply that the ice sheet is melting steadily as global temperatures rise. Rather, the melting triggers dynamic new effects, which in turn accelerate the melt.

"It's quite likely that these dynamic effects are more important in generating a near-term rapid rise in sea level than the traditional melt," says Hamilton. Another example of these dynamic effects is when the ice sheet melts to expose dirty layers of old snow laced with black carbon from forest fires and even cosmic dust. These dark particles absorb more heat and so further speed up the melt.

After Straneo gathers her final measurements, the Arctic Sunrise heads for the tranquillity of the sole berth at Tasiilaq, which has a population of fewer than 3,000 but is still the largest settlement on Greenland's vast east coast. Here another scientist is gathering her final provisions before taking her team camping on a remote glacier.

Invisible earthquakes

Several years ago Meredith Nettles, a seismologist from Colombia University, and two colleagues made a remarkable discovery: they identified a new kind of earthquake. These quakes were substantial – measuring magnitude five – but had been invisible because they did not show up on seismographs. (While orthodox tremors registered for a couple of seconds, these occurred rather more slowly, over a minute.)

The new earthquakes were traced almost exclusively to Greenland, where they were found to be specifically associated with large, fast-flowing outlet glaciers. There have been 200 of them in the last dozen years; in 2005 there were six times as many as in 1993.

Nettles nimbly explains the science as she heaves bags of equipment on to a helicopter, which will fly her to study Kangerdlugssuaq glacier. "It's quite a dramatic increase, and that increase happened at the same time as we were seeing dramatic retreats in the location of the calving fronts of the glaciers, and an increase in their flow speed," she says. "The earthquakes are very closely associated with large-scale ice loss events."

In other words, the huge chunks of ice breaking off from the glaciers and entering the oceans are large enough to generate a seismic signal that is sent through the Earth. They are happening more regularly and, when they occur, it appears that the glacier speeds up even more.

The scientists rightly wrap their latest observations in caution. Their studies are still in their infancy. Some of the effects they are observing may be short-term.

The Greenland ice sheet has survived natural warmer periods in history, the last about 120,000 years ago, although it was much smaller then than it is now. Those still sceptical of the scientific consensus over climate change should perhaps listen to the voices of those who could not be accused of having anything to gain from talking up climate change.

Inuit warnings

Arne Sorensen, a specialist ice navigator on Arctic Sunrise, began sailing the Arctic in the 1970s. Journeys around Greenland's coast that would take three weeks in the 1970s because of sea ice now take a day. He pays heed to the observations of the Inuit. "If you talk to people who live close to nature and they tell you this is unusual and this is not something they have noticed before, then I really put emphasis on that," he says. Paakkanna Ignatiussen, 52, has been hunting seals since he was 13. His grandparents travelled less than a mile to hunt; he must go more than 60 miles because the sea ice disappears earlier – and with it the seals. "It's hard to see the ice go back. In the old days when we got ice it was only ice. Today it is more like slush," he says. "In 10 years there will be no traditional hunting. The weather is the reason."

The stench of rotting seal flesh wafts from a bag in the porch of his house in Tasiilaq as Ignatiussen's wife, Ane, remarks that, "the seasons are upside down."

Local people are acutely aware of how the weather is changing animal behaviour. Browsing the guns for sale in the supermarket in Tasiilaq (you don't need a licence for a gun here), Axel Hansen says more hungry polar bears prowl around the town these days. Like the hunters, the bears can't find seals when there is so little sea ice. And the fjords are filled with so many icebergs that local people find it hard to hunt whales there.

Westerners may shrug at the decline of traditional hunting but, in a sense, we all live on the Greenland ice sheet now. Its fate is our fate. The scientists swarming over this ancient mass of ice, trying to understand how it will be transformed in a warming world, and how it will transform us, are wary of making political comments about how our leaders should plan for one metre of sea level rise, and what drastic steps must be taken to cut carbon emissions. But some scientists are so astounded by the changes they are recording that they are moved to speak out.

What, I ask Hamilton, would he say to Barack Obama if he could spend 10 minutes with the US president standing on Helheim glacier?

"Without knowing anything about what is going on, you just have to look at the glacier to know something huge is happening here," says the glaciologist. "We can't as a scientific community keep up with the pace of changes, let alone explain why they are happening.

"If I was, God forbid, the leader of the free world, I would implement some changes to deal with the maximum risk that we might reasonably expect to encounter, rather than always planning for the minimum. We won't know the consequences of not doing that until it's way too late. Even as a politician on a four-year elected cycle, you can't morally leave someone with that problem."


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Photos taken during the Arctic Sunrise's Greenpeace expedition to northern Greenland

A link to must see photos taken during the Arctic Sunrise's Greenpeace expedition to northern Greenland:

James Lovelock on biochar -- Let the Earth remove CO2 for us

James Lovelock on biochar: Let the Earth remove CO2 for us

James Lovelock: George Monbiot is wrong to dismiss biochar out of hand – burying carbon is one way to tackle climate change

by James Lovelock, The Guardian, March 24, 2009

I usually agree with George Monbiot and love the way he says it, but this time – with his assertion that the latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up – he has got it only half right.

Yes, it is silly to rename charcoal as biochar and yes, it would be wrong to plant anything specifically to make charcoal. So I agree, George, it would be wrong to have plantations in the tropics just to make charcoal.

I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550 bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten.

What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don't need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. Charcoal making might even work instead of landfill for waste paper and plastic.

Incidentally, in making charcoal this way, there is a by-product of biofuel that the farmer can sell. If we are to make this idea work it is vital that it pays for itself and requires no subsidy. Subsidies almost always breed scams and this is true of most forms of renewable energy now proposed and used. No one would invest in plantations to make charcoal without a subsidy, but if we can show the farmers they can turn their waste to profit they will do it freely and help us and Gaia too.

There is no chance that carbon capture and storage from industry or power stations will make a dent in CO2 accumulation, even if we had the will and money to do it. But we have to grow food, so why not help Gaia do the job of CO2 removal for us?

James Lovelock is an independent scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist. He is known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

G. C. Sewant, Arctic Sunrise at the Helheim Glacier: Greenland's Shrinking Glaciers

Greenland's shrinking glaciers

by Gaurav C. Sewant, blogging from the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, in Headlines Today, in association with India Today, August 21, 2009

"Lucky bird to Arctic Sunrise...Permission to lift off.'' The Greenpeace helicopter lucky bird lifted off effortless and so did my spirits. For the first time I was to have a bird's eye view of Greenland's famous Hellheim glacier, one of the largest and also one of the most dangerous. The five-seater Eurocopter 120 B flew low over the hundreds and thousands of ice bergs breaking off from the glacier and literally choking the mouth of Sermilik Fjord in the area.

I was flying, but will we be lucky enough to land on the glacier, that was the million dollar question. While the glacier a part of the Arctic Greenland ice sheet is supposed to be rock solid, glaciologists and scientists over the past couple of years have found to their dismay it isn't. This year the news is far more depressing. The Glacier is not only melting faster it is breaking into millions of pieces and ice bergs are increasing the volume of the sea. The impact ... from New York to Sydney and from Mumbai to the Sundarbans, scientists fear the sea will continue to eat up more land.

Arctic Sunrise off the coast of Greenland
Walrus on 1st year sea ice in Kane Basin, in north Greenland

With me is Professor Gordon Hamilton, a glaciologist from the University of Maine, USA. He and his team have planted several global positioning systems and cameras along the glacier and on the glacier. The GPS devices are moving with the glacier. The speed is alarming...25 metres a day. Why are the glaciers that too in the Arctic moving so fast and breaking up? There is cutting edge scientific activity underway off the Arctic coast of Greenland.

The helicopter door is open. My camera colleague Jari Stalh, a veteran of several polar missions is leaning out in sub zero temperatures and filming. The pilot Martin Duggam swoops low to enable Jari to get better pictures. I miss a heartbeat. It is almost as if we can lean out and touch the collapsing ice wall. Visually it is a treat. We are flying over the artic ice sheet. It should be one solid mass of ice. But it isn't. Knife edged jagged ice peaks jut out into the sky. All crumbling or ready to crumble. Hellheim is one of the biggest glaciers. Though there is no scientific evidence but the folklore is that the mighty Titanic sank due to one of the ice bergs that came off either Hellheim or the other Greenlandic glaciers.

The pilot takes us to the scary part of the glacier. It is not only very crevassed but there are rivers that are flowing along. The helicopter lands on a thick ice sheet. The pilot first gently lowers the bird, tests the strength of the ice, adds a little pressure but the rotors are still whirring ready to take off if the ice gives way and then lands. We wait for a few seconds wondering if the ice will give way. But Prof Hamilton and Martin are confident. I jump out along with the professor. We walk some distance and stop. There is a river flowing down the glacier. Fast and furious. It forms a whirlpool some distance away and water gushes down. God forbid if someone falls, he will just go straight down hundreds of metres in freezing waters. I step back.

Arctic Sunrise off the coast of Greenland
A shot of the Arctic Sunrise

It is waters like these that are a cause of concern for the glaciologists. This water acts like a lubricant under the glacier forcing it to tilt forward and ultimately fall in the icy waters of the arctic. ``It is like few cubes of ice added to your drink. The volume increases. Where does that sea water go when huge chunks of ice fall in it? Well it moves into land,'' explains the professor.

For him rising sea level is not a climate issue. For him this is now a national security issue. And he gives me the example of India. Land in the Sundarban area is being eaten up by sea. What do farmers do...look for new land. It will lead to violence. But imagine when countries start losing land. What will populations do? For example in the years to come when Bangladesh loses land to the sea, the population will look to India. There will be large scale population movements in less than a decade, he predicts.

Several small islands and some island countries in the south Pacific will be wiped off the globe, he warns. The melting Greenland ice sheet will be the catalyst but the reason is climate change. Our helicopter takes off again and we land on one side of the glacier. Prof Hamilton's team has been studying the Greenlandic glaciers for several years and each year the picture is more alarming than the previous years. This year he says it is most depressing. Several time lapse cameras along the glacier have captured the collapse - the calving of the glacier. The Greenpeace team is hopeful the new scientific data will influence global leaders when they meet in Copenhagen in December to sit back and realise the enormity of the situation.

On Board the Arctic Sunrise Melanie Duchin, the Greenpeace campaigner from USA says the new scientific data points to a far more alarming picture than earlier anticipated. The political leaders world over need to appreciate there is no half way house when it comes to arresting the damage. 40 per cent green house gasses cut by the developed world and at least 15 per cent by developing world is what the environment lobby is hoping for.

After all we want our children and their children to live in a clean world. We must clean up our act...At least for their sake.

Photo Gallery: Arctic Meltdown
Link to blog post:

Joseph Romm: The Storm of the Century -- so far

The Storm of the Century (so far)

by Joseph Romm, Climate Progress blog, August 28, 2009

katrina-aftermath.jpgOn August 23, 2005, a tropical depression formed 175 miles southeast of Nassau. By the next day, it had grown into tropical storm Katrina and was intensifying rapidly. Early in the evening on August 25, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near North Miami Beach. Even though it was only a Category 1 storm, with sustained wind speeds of about 80 miles per hour, it caused significant damage and flooding, and took 14 lives.

The hurricane’s quick nighttime trip across Florida barely fazed the storm. Entering the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters quickly kicked Katrina into overdrive, like a supercharged engine on high-octane fuel. Hurricanes fuel themselves by continually sucking in and spinning up warm, moist air.

On August 28, Katrina reached Category 5 status, with sustained wind speeds of 160 mph and a pressure of 908 millibars. A few hours later, wind speeds hit 175 mph, which they maintained until the afternoon.

At 4:00 p.m., the National Hurricane Center warned that local storm surges could hit 28 feet, and “Some levees in the Greater New Orleans Area could be overtopped,” a warning that was tragically ignored by federal, state, and local emergency officials. Over the next 14 hours, Katrina’s strength dropped steadily. When the hurricane’s center made landfall Monday morning, it was a strong Category 3, battering coastal Louisiana with wind speeds of about 127 mph. The central pressure of 920 millibars was the third lowest pressure every recorded for a storm hitting the U.S. mainland.

The devastation to the Gulf region was biblical. The death toll exceeded 1300. The damage exceeded $100 billion. [Combined with the effects of Hurricane Rita] two million people were forced to leave their homes, more than were displaced during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. One of the nation’s great cities was devastated.

About 20 miles to the west of the second Gulf landfall was the small town named Pass Christian, Mississippi, where my brother lived with his wife and son.

Tropical cyclones in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, and so the most intense storm surge is just to the east of the eye, because the surge represents the intense winds pushing the sea against the shore. A 30-foot wall of water with waves up to 55 feet crashed over the town. Although my brother and his family lived one mile inland, their house was ravaged with water up to 22 feet high, leaving the contents of the house looking like they had been churned “inside of a washing machine,” in my brother’s words. While they lost virtually all their possessions, they were safe in a Biloxi shelter.

Thanks to the generosity of many people, my brother’s family was able to find a temporary home in Atlanta. But like many families whose lives were ripped apart by the storm, they had difficult choices in the ensuing months. Perhaps the toughest decision was whether to rebuild their home or to uproot themselves and try to create a new life somewhere else.

I very much wanted to give my brother an expert opinion on what was likely to come in the future. After all, climate change was my field, and while my focus has been on climate solutions, I had done my Ph.D. thesis on physical oceanography.

As I listened and talked to many of the top climate experts, it quickly became clear that the climate situation was far more dire than most people-and even many scientists, myself included-realized. Almost every major climate impact was occurring faster than the computer models had suggested. Arctic sea ice was shrinking far faster than every single model had projected. And the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica were shedding ice decades earlier than the models said. Soils appear to be losing their ability to take up carbon dioxide faster than expected. At the same time, global carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations were rising faster than most had expected.

As for hurricanes, global warming had been widely projected to make them more intense and destructive, but again the recent increase in intensity was coming sooner than the computer models had suggested. Why is that a concern? Since 1970, the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane-forming region has risen 0.5 °C (0.9 °F). Over the path of a typical hurricane, this recent ocean warming added the energy equivalent of a few hundred thousand Hiroshima nuclear bombs. On our current emissions path, the Atlantic will warm twice as much, another 1 °C, by mid-century, and perhaps another 2 °C beyond that by century’s end. Who can even imagine the hurricane seasons such warming might bring?


This is what I ultimately told my brother, the same advice I would give anyone contemplating living near the Gulf Coast:

Only a quarter of Atlantic hurricanes make U.S. landfall, and while there is no question that the frequency of intense Atlantic hurricanes is rising, it is somewhat random as to where they will actually go any given year.

That said, the Gulf of Mexico is going to get warmer and warmer, as is the Atlantic Ocean, and so hurricanes that enter the Gulf are likely to start out and end up far more destructive than usual. I would not bet that the Mississippi Gulf Coast will get hit by a super-hurricane in any particular year, but I would certainly plan on it being hit again some time over the next ten years; I wouldn’t be surprised if it were hit by more than one.

Coastal dwellers from Houston to Miami are now playing Russian roulette with maybe two bullets in the gun chamber each year. In a couple of decades, it may be three bullets.

[This is excerpted from my book, Hell and High Water. The description of Katrina is from two terrific sources: Grauman et al., Hurricane Katrina: A Climatological Perspective, Technical Report 2005-01, NCDC, October 2005, update Jan 06, and Richard D. Knabb, Jamie R. Rhome, and Daniel P. Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Katrina, 23-30 August 2005, National Hurricane Center 20 December 2005.]

Subsequently, the scientific literature has supported the view that human-caused global warming is “more likely than not” partly responsible for the fact that “In the period 1971–2005, since the beginning of a trend towards increased intense cyclone activity, [economic] losses excluding socio-economic effects show an annual increase of 4% per annum” (see here).

I have further elaborated on the growing threat to the Gulf from warming-driven superstorms:

And the literature also supports that analysis:

Needless to say, sea level rise will turn many other coastal cities into sitting ducks pre-Katrina New-Orleans:

3 Responses to “The Storm of the Century (so far)”

The global circulation models (GCM) understated loss of Arctic Sea Ice in the 2007 to 2009 timeframe. The GCM now underestimate feedbacks from loss of ice that result in accelerated warming. This is consistent with ocean temperatures observed by NOAA last July being significantly higher than what was projected by any of the GCM for 2009. In short, it appears that actual warming will be greater than projected by the IPCC, which is the baseline for the storm damage baseline in the above post.

For engineering and public policy decisions, we should allow some margin of error. (If you expect a 10-foot storm surge, you do not evacuate to some place that is 10 feet above sea level, you go someplace that is more than 10 above sea above sea level to provide a margin of error.) In another example, building codes require stronger roofs than storms expected by the local weatherman would require. Building codes are policy documents and have a margin of error built into them. All long term public planning documents require similar margins of error.

An example of such failure is: only two years after the FAR was published we had clear evidence of significant methane releases in the Arctic. This is a powerful feedback mechanism that is not in any way contemplated in the 2007 FAR. To have it documented so soon after the publication of the 2007 FAR is indicative of the flaws in the FAR. In summary, the IPCC projections do not provide a basis for engineering design or provide decision support for public policy. We can only be sure that global warming will come sooner and be more intense than suggested by the IPCC 2007 FAR. Thus, changes in storm intensity will come sooner and be greater than suggested above.

To get back on BAU Track that the basis for the above, would take more polictial will than the globe seems to have at this time. The longer we delay, the deeper the changes will have to be, and the more polictial will required. However, we not only have to get back to the BAU, we have to get past the BAU to something that is sustainable.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Forbes, Bruinsma, Zhang, Oberheide, GRL 36, Editors' highlight: Exosphere influenced by processes near Earth's surface

Geophysical Research Letters, 36 (2009) L15812; doi: 10.1029/2009GL038748

Editors' Highlight

Exosphere influenced by processes near Earth's surface

Can processes occurring near Earth's surface, such as evaporation and condensation, affect conditions in the exosphere, the outermost portion of the atmosphere, which reaches thousands of kilometers above the surface? To explore the issue, Forbes et al. (2009) used measurements from the Challenging Minisatellite Payload (CHAMP) and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to determine the temperature of the exosphere as a function of local time, longitude, and latitude. They found that exosphere temperature varies significantly with longitude, and they showed that this variability in the exosphere is linked to several diurnal and semidiurnal thermal tides that begin near Earth's surface as heat is released by evaporation and condensation. These tides, which reflect variations at Earth's surface, such as the distribution of land and sea, had previously been shown to influence the thermosphere at about 110 km in altitude; the new results are the first to demonstrate that these tides extend all the way to the exosphere. The authors also suggest that similar effects could be occurring on other planets, including Mars.

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Published: 07 August 2009

Forbes, J. M., S. L. Bruinsma, X. Zhang, & J. Oberheide (2009), Surface-exosphere coupling due to thermal tides, Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L15812; doi: 10.1029/2009GL038748.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Steven A. Cummer et al., Nature Geoscience, 2009, Quantification of the troposphere-to-ionosphere charge transfer in a gigantic jet

Nature Geoscience, published online 23 August 2009; doi: 10.1038/ngeo607

Quantification of the troposphere-to-ionosphere charge transfer in a gigantic jet

Steven A. Cummer1, Jingbo Li1, Feng Han1, Gaopeng Lu1, Nicolas Jaugey1, Walter A. Lyons2 and Thomas E. Nelson2


Gigantic jets are the clearest manifestation of direct electrical coupling between tropospheric thunderstorms and the ionosphere. They are leaders1, 2, 3 that emerge from electrical breakdown near the top of thunderstorms4 and extend all the way to the lower edge of the ionosphere near 90-km altitude5. By contrast, blue jets6 and other related events7, 8 terminate at much lower altitudes. Gigantic jets have been observed from the ground5, 9, 10 and from orbit11. Some seem to be consistent with an upward-propagating negative discharge of 1,000-2,000 C km total charge moment change 9, but others have not been connected to distinguishable electromagnetic signatures10. Here we report simultaneous low-light video images and low-frequency magnetic field measurements of a gigantic jet that demonstrate the presence and dynamics of a substantial electric charge transfer between the troposphere and the ionosphere. The signatures presented here confirm the negative polarity of gigantic jets4 and constrain the lightning processes associated with them. The observed total charge transfer from the thunderstorm to the ionosphere is 144 C for the assumed channel length of 75 km, which is comparable to the charge transfer in strong cloud-to-ground lightning strokes.

¹Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, U.S.A.

²FMA Research, Inc., Yucca Ridge Field Station, Fort Collins, CO 80524, U.S.A.

*Correspondence: Steven A. Cummer1 e-mail:

Link to abstract:

Steven Cummer et al.: Gigantic jets blast electricity into upper atmosphere

Gigantic jets blast electricity into upper atmosphere

The gigantic jet observed by Steven Cummer and his team. The thunderstorm that produced this jet was over 300 kilometres away, below the visible horizon (Image: Steven Cummer)

The gigantic jet observed by Steven Cummer and his team. The thunderstorm that produced this jet was over 300 kilometres away, below the visible horizon (Image: Steven Cummer)

See YouTube video: Gigantic jets

by Michael Marshall, New Scientist, August 23, 2009

The ancient Greeks might have thought Zeus was furious with heaven itself. The power of lightning strikes that shoot upwards from storm clouds has been measured for the first time – and they turn out to be every bit as powerful as normal lightning.

First caught on camera in 2003, "gigantic jets" shoot upwards from thunderclouds and can reach altitudes above 80 kilometres. But it wasn't until 21 July last year that Steven Cummer at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and his colleagues managed to measure the electrical discharge from a single gigantic jet, released from tropical storm Cristobal.

"No one had been very close to one with the right radio instrumentation before," Cummer says. "So we didn't know whether they just petered out without doing anything much, or whether they actually took some charge and dumped it somewhere."

Electric jet

The jet came out of a high storm cloud, beginning at an altitude of about 14 kilometres, and shot upwards for a further 75 kilometres.

At those heights, the atmosphere is a much better electrical conductor than at ground level because of ionising radiation from space. As a result, the jet was able to discharge 144 coulombs of charge into the upper atmosphere in about 1 second.

This is comparable to the charge transferred by a large cloud-to-ground lightning strike.

"It's fantastic that they see such a high charge transfer between the thundercloud and the ionosphere," says Victor Pasko of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Changing weather

Gigantic jets could be important for our ability to predict lightning strikes.

"There is this newly identified path for discharging the thunderstorm, and a lot of charge can be moved," says Cummer. "In storms that can produce gigantic jets, it might influence what other lightning is happening in the storm."

This time, however, the team found no difference in the rate of ordinary lightning strikes around the time of the gigantic jet. "I'm surprised they saw no drop in lightning rates before or after the jet – but that might be because of the sheer size of the storm," says Pasko.

Gigantic jets are one of a host of new atmospheric phenomena discovered in recent years. Other examples are spritesMovie Camera and blue jets.

Journal reference: Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo607 (in press)


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gavin Schmidt, Real Climate: Plimer’s homework assignment, given by George Monbiot of the Guardian

Plimer’s homework assignment

Filed under: — gavin @ 24 August 2009

Some of you may be aware of George Monbiot’s so-far-unsuccessful attempt to pin down Ian Plimer on his ridiculous compendium of non-science. In response to Monbiot’s request for explanation and sources for some of Plimer’s more bizarre claims, Plimer has responded with a homework assignment that is clearly beyond even his (claimed) prowess. This is quite transparently a device to avoid dealing with Monbiot’s questions and is designed to lead to an argument along the lines of “Monbiot can’t answer these questions and so knows nothing about the science (and by the way, please don’t notice that I can’t cite any sources for my nonsense or even acknowledge that I can’t answer these questions either)”. (Chris Colose and Greenfyre have made similar points). It’s also worth pointing out as Andrew Dodds has done that each question is actually referencing a very well known contrarian and oft-debunked argument, but dressed up in pseudo-scientific complexity.

However, as a service both to Plimer and Monbiot (as well as anyone else interested), we give a quick scorecard on the relevance, actual scientific content (whether the questions can actually be answered) and sources for discussion for each of the, to be charitable, ‘odd’ questions. For relevance, we grade each question on a scale from 0 to 5, 0 being irrelevant to the issue of detection and attribution of 20th Century climate change, 5 being extremely relevant. For scientific content, we rate the reasonableness of the question posed (i.e. does it make any sense at all), from A to F (A being a very well posed question, F making no sense). For sources, we generally point to a paper or discussion that addresses the real issue.

  1. From the distribution of the vines, olives, citrus and grain crops in Europe, UK and Greenland, calculate the temperature in the Roman and Medieval Warmings and the required atmospheric CO2 content at sea level to drive such warmings. What are the errors in your calculation? Reconcile your calculations with at least five atmospheric CO2 proxies. Show all calculations and justify all assumptions.
    • Relevance: 0 – poor. Basic logical fallacy. The existence of prior warm periods that may have been caused by different effects (such as solar changes, orbital variation, continental configuration etc.) does not imply that the human-caused increase in CO2 is not causing warming now.
    • Scientific Content: D – phenology (the distribution and timing of species) can potentially be useful for tracking climate changes, but it is just one of many different types of proxy information available, and has it’s own regional, temporal, and seasonal limitations. Even more problematic, it is well known that the patterns of surface temperature variability during the “MWP” – more accurately, the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA) – and LIA periods were spatially quite heterogeneous, and a record at one or two locations generally tells us very little if anything about global patterns. Even a cursory examination of the relevant recent literature (for instance, Osborn and Briffa, 2006) reveals that the pattern of warmth during the Medieval era was far regional in nature, and does not approach the truly global scale of warmth evident in recent decades.
    • Sources: Greater extent of vineyards today in England than in medieval times. Ice core records. Incoherence of the Medieval warm period.
  2. Tabulate the CO2 exhalation rates over the last 15,000 years from (i) terrestrial and submarine volcanism (including maars, gas vents, geysers and springs) and calc-silicate mineral formation, and (ii) CH4 oxidation to CO2 derived from CH4 exhalation by terrestrial and submarine volcanism, natural hydrocarbon leakage from sediments and sedimentary rocks, methane hydrates, soils, microbiological decay of plant material, arthropods, ruminants and terrestrial methanogenic bacteria to a depth of 4 km. From these data, what is the C12, C13 and C14 content of atmospheric CO2 each thousand years over the last 15,000 years and what are the resultant atmospheric CO2 residence times? All assumptions need to be documented and justified.
    • Relevance: 0 – pure misdirection.
    • Scientific Content: F – We know what CO2 and CH4 levels have been over the last 15,000 years and they oscillated within about 10 ppmv (CO2) and 100 ppbv (CH4) of their Holocene values since the start of the current era – until the industrial period (around 1750) since when CO2 has increased by 35%, and methane concentrations have more than doubled. In each case the values being measured today are way higher than anything measured in 800,000 years of ice core records, and likely higher than anything since the Pliocene (~3 million years ago). The idea that bacterial methane production at 4km in the Earth’s crust has anything to with this is laughable.
    • Sources: IPCC FAQ is all that is required. Do volcanoes produce more CO2 than human activity? Not even close.
  3. From first principles, calculate the effects on atmospheric temperature at sea level by changes in cloudiness of 0.5%, 1% and 2% at 0%, 20%, 40%, 60% and 80% humidity. What changes in cloudiness would have been necessary to drive the Roman Warming, Dark Ages, Medieval Warming and Little Ice Age? Show all calculations and justify all assumptions.
    • Relevance: 3 – clouds certainly have an effect on climate and understanding their variability is the subject of much research.
    • Scientific Content: F – The question makes no sense. Clouds at 0% humidity? Is humidity supposed to be globally uniform? And where should these cloud changes occur? The change for low-level clouds will be of the opposite sign to changes in high level clouds, and changes in the Arctic will give different answers than changes in the tropics. It should go without saying that Plimer is mistakenly assuming that he has accurate information for global temperatures over 2000 years.
    • Sources: Cloud Feedbacks in the Climate System.
  4. Calculate the changes in atmospheric C12 and C13 content of CO2 and CH4 from crack-seal deformation. What is the influence of this source of gases on atmospheric CO2 residence time since 1850? Validate assumptions and show all calculations.
    • Relevance: 0 – completely irrelevant.
    • Scientific Content: F – for those that don’t know ‘crack-seal deformation’ is a geologic process that causes the veins of crystals/minerals etc. in many rock types. (see here). Its relevance to atmospheric concentrations and isotopic composition is absolutely zero. It has no influence on atmospheric residence time – whether since 1850 or at any time in the past.
    • Sources Discussions of the actual carbon cycle and the real influences upon it.
  5. From CO2 proxies, carbonate rock and mineral volumes and stable isotopes, calculate the CO2 forcing of temperature in the Huronian, Neoproterozoic, Ordovician, Permo-Carboniferous and Jurassic ice ages. Why is the “faint Sun paradox” inapplicable to the Phanerozoic ice ages in the light of your calculations? All assumptions must be validated and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 0 – (again). The acknowledged climate changes in the past caused by natural events in no way implies that human effects are negligible today. Does the existence of forest fires caused by lightning imply that arson can never happen?
    • Scientific Content: C – There is a lot of interesting science related to deep time, but any discussion of such changes must be prefaced with the acknowledgment that our knowledge of greenhouse gases, temperatures or any other potential forcing or response is very limited compared to what we know about climate today or even in the last ice age. Given that we don’t know precisely what CO2 levels were (let alone CH4, N2O, ozone, aerosols, ice sheet configurations, vegetation distribution etc.), the attributions of climate change at this distance is speculative at best.
    • Sources: The faint young sun paradox.
  6. From ocean current velocity, palaeotemperature and atmosphere measurements of ice cores and stable and radiogenic isotopes of seawater, atmospheric CO2 and fluid inclusions in ice and using atmospheric CO2 residence times of 4, 12, 50 and 400 years, numerically demonstrate that the modern increase in atmospheric CO2 could not derive from the Medieval Warming.
    • Relevance:1 – There are amplifying feedbacks between climate and CO2 – which are most evident in the long ice cores from Antarctica, but this argument is trivial to dismiss without any recourse to ocean current velocities etc.
    • Scientific Content:D – You can calculate the change in CO2 per deg C global warming over long (multi-centennial) timescales from the ice age data – it’s roughly 100ppmv/5ºC = 20 ppmv/ºC. The increase in atmospheric CO2 in the last 200 years is now about 110ppmv, implying that any natural driver would have need to have been more than 5ºC natural warming in recent centuries. This would have been noticed by someone.
    • Sources: None required.
  7. Calculate the changes in the atmospheric transmissivity of radiant energy over the last 2,000 years derived from a variable ingress of stellar, meteoritic and cometary dust, terrestrial dust, terrestrial volcanic aerosols and industrial aerosols. How can your calculations show whether atmospheric temperature changes are related to aerosols? All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 4 – aerosols are an important climate forcing, and their history through time (even in the 20th Century) are quite uncertain.
    • Scientific Content: C – Calculating the impacts of aerosols is quite hard, first because we don’t have great records for their distribution through time and space, and secondly there are uncertainties in how the mix with each other and how they interact with clouds. Forcing estimates for the human-caused changes in aerosols over the 20th Century therefore have quite large uncertainties associated with them and are a principle reason why attempts to constrain climate sensitivity from the recent record along have not been very successful. Volcanic effects are however quite well characterised, and actually provide one of the many lines of evidence for why GCM simulations are reasonable since they get the right magnitude and character of the volcanic effects on climate. However, there is no evidence whatsoever for large changes in interstellar dust changes in recent millennia and trying to pin recent warming on that is really grasping at straws.
    • Sources: Climate sensitivity and aerosol forcings.
  8. Calculate 10 Ma time flitches using W/R ratios of 10, 100 and 500 for the heat addition to the oceans, oceanic pH changes and CO2 additions to bottom waters by alteration of sea floor rocks to greenschist and amphibolite facies assemblages, the cooling of new submarine volcanic rocks (including MORBs) and the heat, CO2 and CH4 additions from springs and gas vents since the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. From your calculations, relate the heat balance to global climate over these 10 Ma flitches. What are the errors in your calculations? Show all calculations and discuss the validity of any assumptions made.
    • Relevance: 0 – again more misdirection. The throwing around of irrelevant geologic terms and undefined jargon is simply done in order to appear more knowledgeable than your interlocutor. The argument appears to that climate is changing due to tectonically slow changes the direct heat input from ocean sea floor spreading. This is absurd.
    • Scientific Content: F.
    • Sources: Definition of ‘flitch’.
  9. Calculate the rate of isostatic sinking of the Pacific Ocean floor resulting from post LGM loading by water, the rate of compensatory land level rise, the rate of gravitationally-induced sea level rise and sea level changes from morphological changes to the ocean floor. Numerically reconcile your answer with the post LGM sea level rise, oceanic thermal expansion and coral atoll drilling in the South Pacific Ocean. What are the relative proportions of sea level change derived from your calculations?
    • Relevance: 2 – pretty much irrelevant.
    • Scientific Content: C – isostatic issues in sea level are important on long time scales, and there is still an effect today from the deglaciation 15000 years ago. It contributes a decease of about 0.3 mm/yr to the global sea level rise, compared to 3 mm/yr total (i.e. about 10%). If the idea was to imply that current sea level rise is simply the response to the deglaciation, then it was completely misleading.
    • Sources: Reconciliation of the sea level rise, thermal expansion and ice melt.
  10. From atmospheric CO2 measurements, stable isotopes, radiogenic Kr and hemispheric transport of volcanic aerosols, calculate the rate of mixing of CO2 between the hemispheres of planet Earth and reconcile this mixing with CO2 solubility, CO2 chemical kinetic data, CO2 stable and cosmogenic isotopes, the natural sequestration rates of CO2 from the atmosphere into plankton, oceans, carbonate sediments and cements, hydrothermal alteration, soils, bacteria and plants for each continent and ocean. All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown. Calculations may need to be corrected for differences in 12CO2, 13CO2 and 14CO2 kinetic adsorption and/or molecular variations in oceanic dissolution rates.
    • Relevance: 5 – the carbon cycle is actually a key issue.
    • Scientific Content: A – understanding the carbon cycle given multiple constraints on the carbon fluxes (including some of the issues raised in the question) is important in showing that the ~35% rise in CO2 since ~1750 is in fact anthropogenic. This has been shown numerous times to be consistent with the known human emissions, increases in oceans and terrestrial carbon, the decrease in 14C content of the atmosphere, the decrease in 13C content in the atmosphere, the decrease in O2 in the atmosphere.
    • Sources: Read the FAQ.
  11. Calculate from first principles the variability of climate, the warming and cooling rates and global sea level changes from the Bölling to the present and compare and contrast the variability, maximum warming and maximum sea level change rates over this time period to that from 1850 to the present. Using your calculations, how can natural and human-induced changes be differentiated? All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 4 – detection and attribution of climate change is an important issue.
    • Scientific Content: B – First principles calculations of climate variability are most closely approximated by GCMs and multiple modelling groups have done various Holocene simulations. Attribution of any climate changes requires model simulations with and without each particular forcing and for the Holocene, this involves changes in the orbit, greenhouse gases, solar, meltwater regimes, ice sheet change, aerosols etc. and a comparison of the signature of the responses with patterns observed in the real world. However, comparable data to 20th Century sea levels or temperature changes are not available going back to the beginning of the Holocene.
    • Sources: Attribution of mid-Holocene hydrologic changes to orbital forcing. Attribution of patterns of cooling at 8.2 kya to drainage of Lake Agassiz. Attribution of pre-industrial variability over the last millennia to solar and volcanic forcing (IPCC Ch8, p680+).
  12. Calculate the volume of particulate and sulphurous aerosols and CO2 and CH4 coeval with the last three major mass extinctions of life. Use the figures derived from these calculations to numerically demonstrate the effects of terrestrial, deep submarine, hot spot and mid ocean ridge volcanism on planktonic and terrestrial life on Earth. What are the errors in your calculations?
    • Relevance: 1 – irrelevant. Has nothing to do with current causes of species extinction nor sources of CO2.
    • Scientific Content: D – insufficient data exist to infer atmospheric composition, nor the sources of any hypothesised fluxes. We think that it is likely that mass extinctions are probably bad for “planktonic and terrestrial life on Earth” with very little error.
    • Sources: This is a good intro to the P/T extinction event which is fascinating even if mostly irrelevant to today.
  13. From the annual average burning of hydrocarbons, lignite, bituminous coal and natural and coal gas, smelting, production of cement, cropping, irrigation and deforestation, use the 25µm, 7µm and 2.5µm wavelengths to calculate the effect that gaseous, liquid and solid H2O have on atmospheric temperature at sea level and at 5 km altitude at latitudes of 20º, 40º, 60º and 80ºS. How does the effect of H2O compare with the effect of CO2 derived from the same sources? All assumptions must be justified and calculations and sources of information must be shown.
    • Relevance: 3 – radiative transfer is a key issue.
    • Scientific Content: F – the question as it stands makes no sense. How can using fossil fuel emissions of CO2 allow you to calculate the impact of total H2O? And why only three wavelengths? You would need the whole atmosphere distribution of water (in all three phases and which doesn’t exist outside a model) in order to calculate the radiative fluxes, and a full GCM to calculate all the other fluxes that influence the temperature. If Plimer is actually alluding to the impact of the direct injection of water vapour into the atmosphere from the combustion of hydrocarbons, then this makes even less sense since the perturbation time for water vapour is measured in days (rather than decades to centuries for CO2) and the relative importance of anthropogenic fluxes is much much less.
    • Sources: Importance of water vapour and clouds compared to CO2 for the total greenhouse effect (roughly, 50%, 25% and 20% once overlaps are apportioned). Complete irrelevance of anthropogenic addition of H2O. Calculation of radiative forcing for anthropogenic CO2.

In summary, the relevance of these questions is extremely low, and even when the basic question deals with an issue that is relevant, the question itself is usually nonsensical and presupposes many assumptions that are certainly not a given (at least in the real world). In fact, for the couple of cases where the scientific content is high, the answer is in contradiction to Plimer’s unstated assumptions. The most obvious use of these questions to support a ‘we don’t know everything, so we must know nothing’ type of argument, which is a classic contrarian trope, and one that is easily dealt with.

These questions have as much to do with a debate on human caused climate change as tribbles have to do with astrobiology. Both are troubling, but for very different reasons.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Egypt's Nile Delta: 'We are going underwater. The sea will conquer our lands'

Nile Delta: 'We are going underwater. The sea will conquer our lands'

The Nile Delta is under threat from rising sea levels. Without the food it produces, Egypt faces catastrophe
  • by Jack Shenker, The Guardian, 21 August 2009
A farmer ploughs his rice paddy in the Delta
A farmer ploughs his rice paddy in the Delta. Photograph: Jason Larkin
Maged Shamdy's ancestors arrived on the shores of Lake Burrulus in the mid-19th century. In the dusty heat of Cairo at the time, French industrialists were rounding up forced labour squads to help build the Suez Canal, back-breaking labour from which thousands did not return. Like countless other Egyptians, the Shamdys abandoned their family home and fled north into the Nile Delta, where they could hide within the marshy swamplands that fanned out from the great river's edge.
As the years passed, colonial rulers came and went. But the Shamdys stayed, carving out a new life as farmers and fishermen on one of the most fertile tracts of land in the world. A century and a half later, Maged is still farming his family's fields. In between taking up the rice harvest and dredging his irrigation canals, however, he must contemplate a new threat to his family and livelihood, one that may well prove more deadly than any of Egypt's previous invaders. "We are going underwater," the 34-year-old says simply. "It's like an occupation: the rising sea will conquer our lands."
Maged understands better than most the menace of coastal erosion, which is steadily ingesting the edge of Egypt in some places at an astonishing rate of almost 100 metres a year. Just a few miles from his home lies Lake Burrulus itself, where Nile flower spreads all the way out to trees on the horizon. Those trunks used to be on land; now they stand knee-deep in water.
Maged's imperial imagery may sound overblown, but travel around Egypt's vast, overcrowded Delta region and you hear the same terms used time and again to describe the impact climate change is having on these ancient lands. Egypt's breadbasket is littered with the remnants of old colonisers, from the Romans to the Germans, and today its 50 million inhabitants jostle for space among the crumbling forts and cemeteries of those who sought to subjugate them in the past.
On the Delta's eastern border, in Port Said, an empty stone plinth is all that remains of a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who built the Suez Canal; somewhere along the Delta's westernmost reaches, the long-lost tomb of Cleopatra lies buried. With such a rich history of foreign rule, it's only natural that the latest hostile force knocking at the gates should be couched in the language of occupation.
"Egypt is a graveyard for occupiers," observes Ramadan el-Atr, a fruit farmer near the antiquated town of Rosetta, where authorities have contracted a Chinese company to build a huge wall of concrete blocks in the ocean to try to save any more land from melting away. "Just like the others, the sea will come and go – but we will always survive."
Scientists aren't so sure. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared Egypt's Nile Delta to be among the top three areas on the planet most vulnerable to a rise in sea levels, and even the most optimistic predictions of global temperature increase will still displace millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on earth.
The Delta spills out from the northern stretches of the capital into 10,000 square miles of farmland fed by the Nile's branches. It is home to two-thirds of the country's rapidly growing population, and responsible for more than 60% of its food supply: Egypt relies unconditionally on it for survival. But with its 270 km of coastline lying at a dangerously low elevation (large parts are between zero and 1m above sea level, with some areas lying below it), any melting of the polar ice caps could see its farmland and cities – including the historical port of Alexandria – transformed into an ocean floor. A 1-m rise in the sea level, which many experts think likely within the next 100 years, will cause 20% of the Delta to go underwater. At the other extreme, the 14-m rise that would result from the disappearance of Greenland and western Antarctica would leave the Mediterranean lapping at the northern suburbs of Cairo, with practically all of the Delta underwater.
Already, a series of environmental crises are parking themselves on the banks of the Nile. Some are subtle, like the river's quiet vanishing act in the Delta's northern fields; others, like the dramatic collapse of coastal lands into the ocean, are more striking. Major flooding is yet to become a reality but, from industrial pollution to soil salinity, a whole new set of interconnected green concerns is now forcing its way into Egyptian public discourse for the first time.
"The Delta is a kind of Bangladesh story," says Dr Rick Tutwiler, director of the American University in Cairo's Desert Development Centre. "You've got a massive population, overcrowding, a threat to all natural resources from the pressure of all the people, production, pollution, cars and agricultural chemicals. And on top of all that, there's the rising sea. It's the perfect storm."
Follow the Nile north out of Cairo on the old agricultural road, and you find it hard to pinpoint where the city ends and the lotus-shaped Delta begins. Carpeted with redbrick apartment blocks and spliced with streets in every direction, the lush greenery of the Nile's splintered arteries is almost impossible to appreciate in isolation. This is where the urban and the rural get lost in each other, with livestock living in doorways and workers camping out in fields. In the past, literary giants venerated the Delta's wild marshlands; today, any clear-cut divisions between the metropolis and the countryside have long faded away.
Urban encroachment – the steady chipping away at arable land through unauthorised construction – haunts the Delta everywhere you look. Despite a web of legislation outlawing illegal building practices and theoretically "fencing off" agricultural land, in every direction the sweeping vista of wheat fields and rice paddies always ends abruptly in a cluster of half-built homes. There are more than 4,000 people per square mile in the Delta; it's hard to think of any other place where humans and the environment around them are more closely intertwined. With Egypt's present-day population of 83 million set to increase to more than 110 million in the next two decades, the seemingly unstoppable spread of bricks and mortar over the soil is both the most visible symptom of the country's demographic time-bomb and an inevitable response to it.
More people in the Delta means more cars, more pollution and less land to feed them all on, just at a time when increased crop production is needed most. Yet the desertification of land through human habitation is, worryingly, only the beginning of the problem. Although few in the Delta have noticed it yet, the freshwater of the Nile – which has enabled Egypt to survive as a unified state longer than any other territory on earth – is creaking under the strain of this population boom. The world's most famous river has provided the backdrop to all manner of dramas throughout history, real and fictional. Now, around its northernmost branches where the minarets and pylons thin out and the landscape becomes more windswept, another is playing out to devastating effect.
The villain is salinity. I visit one of the worst-affected regions, Kafr el-Sheikh, on a Friday morning when the fields have emptied out for the noon prayer. The streets are eerily silent; with its people gone, the area takes on the appearance of one of Italo Calvino's fantastical string cities, chock-a-block with the shells of human habitation but no living souls remaining. The exception is Maged, who owns six feddan (about six acres) of land near the village of el-Hadadi.
Maged is halfway down a hole when I approach his house. Clambering out apologetically, he explains that German experts visited this area last year and declared that the fresh water being pumped to local villages "wasn't fit for a dog to drink." After months of phone calls to the national water company, none of which were answered, Maged decided to lay down a new set of pipes himself in the hope it would improve the quality of drinking water for his two young daughters. It's hot, exhausting work, which he fits in between his farming duties and a new part-time job as an accountant in a local alfalfa plant. "We don't have much time on our hands at the moment," Maged says, dusting himself off and gulping down some fresh melon juice. "Nobody can make a living solely off the land any more."
On a tour of his fields, I see why. The rich brown soil has greyed out in recent years, leaving a barren salt-encrustation on the surface. The cause is underground saltwater intrusion from the nearby coast, which pushes up through the soil and kills off roots. Coastal farmland has always been threatened by saltwater, but salinity has traditionally been kept at bay by plentiful supplies of fresh water gushing over the soil and flushing out the salt. It used to happen naturally with the Nile's seasonal floods; after the construction of Egypt's High Dam in the 1970s (one of the most ambitious engineering projects on earth), these seasonal floods came to an end, but a vast network of irrigation canals continued to bring gallons of fresh water to the people who worked the land, the fellahin, ensuring salinity levels remained low.
Today, however, Nile water barely reaches this corner of the Delta. Population growth has sapped its energy upstream, and what "freshwater" does make it downriver is increasingly awash with toxins and other impurities. Farmers such as Maged now essentially rely on waste water – a mix of agricultural drainage and sewage – from the nearby town of Sidi Salim.
The result is plummeting fertility; local farmers say that whereas their fathers spent just a handful of Egyptian pounds on chemicals to keep the harvests bountiful, they now have to put aside between 25 and 80% of their profits for fertilisers just to keep their crops alive.
"We can see with our own eyes that the water is no good, it's less and less pure," Maged says. He points out huge swaths of neighbouring land that once glimmered with rice paddies; recently they have been dug up and replaced by fish farms, the ground too barren for crop cultivation. Further out, in the village of Damru, the green fields of 10 years ago are cracked and brown, now put into service as informal football pitches and rubbish dumps.
Experts believe the problem is only going to get worse. "We currently have a major water deficit in Egypt, with only 700 cubic metres of freshwater per person," explains Professor Salah Soliman of Alexandria University. "That's already short of the 1,000 cubic metres per person the UN believes is the minimum needed for water security. Now, with the population increase, it will drop to 450 cubic metres per person – and this is all before we take into account the impact of climate change."
That impact is likely to be a 70% drop in the amount of Nile water reaching the Delta over the next 50 years, due to increased evaporation and heavier demands on water use upstream. The consequences of all these ecological changes on food production are staggering: experts at Egypt's Soils, Water and Environment Research Institute predict that wheat and maize yields could be down 40% and 50% respectively in the next 30 years, and that farmers who make a living off the land will lose around $1,000 per hectare for each degree rise in the average temperature.
The farmers here feel abandoned by the state; there are regular dismissive references to the "New Age," a euphemism for the much-hated regime of President Hosni Mubarak, whose neoliberal reform programmes and widespread corruption scandals have provoked a wave of popular discontent across the country. This disconnect between the state and its people has led to distrust of government scientists who think coastal erosion, rather than freshwater scarcity, is the main reason for the farmers' problems. And, in a worrying twist for Egypt's creaking economy, the erosion isn't only affecting farmers. "Unfortunately, most of our industry and investment has been built on sites very close to the shore," says Soliman. "There's only so much water we can hold back."
Ras el-Bar is a small holiday resort at the mouth of the Nile's Damietta branch. This was the summer paradise that Nobel prizewinning novelist Naguib Mahfouz's well-heeled characters would escape to when the heat of the capital became unbearable; today its squat pink lighthouse and endless boulevards of deserted, low-rise holiday homes have the faded feel of a 1950s Disneyland.
Although still popular in July and August, Ras el-Bar has been overtaken as a seaside destination by the brash consumerism of a new generation of towns: Sharm el-Sheikh, Marina, Hurghada. In place of tourists, however, new factories have arrived here in abundance, including some that nearby residents believe are poisoning the air. The arrival of one industrial plant in Damietta, which coincided with the ministry of environment's last-minute decision not to designate the area a protected nature reserve, is a familiar story of shady backdoor deals, public outrage and the studious disregard of local opinions. In this case, the locals managed to postpone the factory's construction, but other plants remain. "In the morning here you can see nothing but smoke," says Mohammed Fawzia, who is fishing in a canal down by the side of an industrial complex run by the state-owned Mopco company. "Take photos of it for us so we can show who is killing our children. We want the factories gone."
Many Cairo-based experts, however, insist that the task of coping with the dramatic ecological changes faced by the Delta is made harder by the ignorance of people such as Mohammed. They claim the fellahin are too uneducated to change their ways. But they are wrong: while farmers in the southern Delta, where Nile water is still relatively plentiful, have little knowledge of climate change, those in the north are painfully aware of the science behind the death of their land. However, they also have little time to listen to the harrying of a government which is widely seen to preach green rhetoric on the one hand but is only too willing to sell out the environment on the other, along with the local people.
Money talks in Egypt, and sustainable development is forgotten when the interests of the rich and powerful – such as the industrial plants in Damietta or the influential Badrawi clan in Daqahliyah – are at stake. The repression and self-interest of Mubarak's inner circle have left them bereft of any moral authority on environmental issues.
And while scientists, academics and community organisers are making a concerted effort to educate Egyptians about the dangers of climate change, there is confusion over whether the focus of all these programmes should be on promoting ways to combat climate change, or on accepting climate change as inevitable and instead encouraging new forms of adaptation to the nation's uncertain ecological future.
Efforts are further hampered by a popular feeling that this is a crisis made by the west. "We're not responsible for climate change," says Soliman, pointing out that Egypt's contribution to global carbon emissions is an underwhelming 0.5%, nine times less per capita than the US. "But unfortunately the consequence of climate change is no respecter of national borders."
The scale of the crisis – more people, less land, less water, less food – is overwhelming, and has infected discussion of climate change with a toxic combination of cynicism and fatalism at every level. There are senior environmental officials in top scientific jobs here who do not believe climate change is real; others are convinced the problem is so great that human intervention is useless. "It's down to God," one environmental officer for a major Delta town tells me. "If the Delta goes we'll find new places to live. If Egypt was big enough for Mary and Joseph, then it will be big enough for all of us."
Of course, if sea levels do rise significantly, "then the debate is over," says Dr Tutwiler. "The land will be underwater and crop production will be over."
As a result, many now believe that Egypt's future lies far away from the Delta, in land newly reclaimed from the desert. Since the time of the pharaohs, when the Delta was first farmed, Egypt's political leaders have rested their legitimacy on their ability to feed it by taming the Nile. Mohammed Ali, Lord Cromer and Gamal Abdel Nasser all launched major projects to control and harness the river's seasonal floods; now Mubarak is following in their footsteps – not by saving the Delta, but by creating a bewildering array of canals and pumping stations that draw water out from the Nile into sandy valleys to the east and west, where the desert is slowly being turned green.
You can see evidence of these new lands on the Delta's fringes; mile upon mile of agri-business-owned fields peeking out behind the advertising billboards of the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. The billboards depict gated compounds and luxury second homes, escapist dreams for the Egyptian upper-middle class.
The new lands behind them are another sort of escape, this time for the whole country. Their very water-intensive existence is, though, only hastening the demise of the Delta; once the glittering jewel of Egypt and bedrock of its survival, but now a region whose death warrant may already have been signed.
Invasion of the Nile: The Delta's troubled history
• 4,000 – 3,000 BC approx – The Delta is populated by migrants from the Sahara and intensive farming begins in the region
• 1,300 BC approx – According to the Bible, the Delta is home to the Israelites, and miraculously survives God's plague of hail
• 343 BC – The Persians kill Egypt's last native pharaoh, ushering in more than 2,000 years of foreign rule over the Delta
• 332 BC – Alexander the Great invades and founds Alexandria at the tip of the Delta
• 30 BC – Cleopatra and Marc Anthony kill themselves
• 639 AD – Muslim Arabs sweep into the Delta, forcing out the Byzantine rulers
• 1517 AD – The Delta is absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and ruled from Turkey
• 1798 AD – Napoleon Bonaparte begins a three-year French occupation
• 1805 AD – The Albanian pasha Muhammad Ali seizes power but his dynasty falls under the control of the British Empire
• 1952 AD – Gamal Abdel Nasser restores Egyptian rule for the first time in two millennia
• 1970 AD – The Aswan Dam is completed, ending seasonal flooding in the Delta
• 2007 AD – Delta declared among top three areas vulnerable to rising sea levels
Alexandria: An ancient city under threat
Alexandria has been through several reincarnations: as a small Pharaonic town in the 4th century BC, as the capital of Egypt for 1,000 years, and as a cosmopolitan melting-ground in the early 20th century. While most of its former glories are already lying on the seabed, scientists now fear the city's outer fringes could be among the first victims of any rise in sea levels.
A rise of only 1m will leave the city centre cut off from the mainland. If it does disappear, its literary chroniclers may provide some comfort. Lawrence Durrell called it "the capital of memory", a city where recollections stay "clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve". The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy shared Durrell's sense of being trapped by history. In what may prove a remarkable piece of foresight, he wrote in The City:
You'll find no new places, you won't find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you'll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you'll grow old.
You'll always end up in this city. Don't bother to hope
for a ship.