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Monday, March 31, 2008

Hansen to Australian PM: stop coal plants now

Posted by on March 31st, 2008 at 06:00 p.m.

James Hansen has written an (apparently) open letter to Kevin Rudd, urging that all new coal fired power plants be halted - via Energy Bulletin, original at Australian Science Media Centre (pdf).

27 March 2008
The Hon Kevin Rudd, MP
Prime Minister of Australia
Australian Parliament
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2600

Dear Prime Minister,

Your leadership is needed on a matter concerning coal-fired power plants and carbon dioxide emission rates in your country, a matter with ramifications for life on our planet, including all species. Prospects for today's children, and especially the world's poor, hinge upon our success in stabilizing climate.

For the sake of identification, I am a United States citizen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor at the Columbia University Earth Institute. I am a member of our National Academy of Sciences, have testified before our Senate and House of Representatives on many occasions, have advised our Vice President and Cabinet members on climate change and its relation to energy requirements, and have received numerous awards including the World Wildlife Fund's Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal from Prince Philip.

I write, however, as a private citizen, a resident of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, USA. I was assisted in composing this letter by colleagues, including Australians, Americans, and Europeans, who commented upon a draft letter. Because of the urgency of the matter, I have not collected signatures, but your advisors will verify the authenticity of the science discussion.


I recognize that for years you have been a strong supporter of aggressive forward-looking actions to mitigate dangerous climate change. Also, since your election as Prime Minister of Australia, your government has been active in pressing the international community to take appropriate actions. We are now at a point that bold leadership is needed, leadership that could change the course of human history.

I have read and commend the Interim Report of Professor Ross Garnaut, submitted to your government. The conclusion that net carbon emissions must be cut to a fraction of current emissions must be stunning and sobering to policy-makers. Yet the science is unambiguous: if we burn most of the fossil fuels, releasing the CO2 to the air, we will assuredly destroy much of the fabric of life on the planet. Achievement of required near-zero net emissions by mid-century implies a track with substantial cuts of emissions by 2020. Aggressive near-term fostering of energy efficiency and climate friendly technologies is an imperative for mitigation of the looming climate crisis and optimization of the economic pathway to the eventual clean-energy world.

Global climate is near critical tipping points that could lead to loss of all summer sea ice in the Arctic with detrimental effects on wildlife, initiation of ice sheet disintegration in West Antarctica and Greenland with progressive, unstoppable global sea level rise, shifting of climatic zones with extermination of many animal and plant species, reduction of freshwater supplies for hundreds of millions of people, and a more intense hydrologic cycle with stronger droughts and forest fires, but also heavier rains and floods, and stronger storms driven by latent heat, including tropical storms, tornados and thunderstorms.

Feasible actions now could still point the world onto a course that minimizes climate change. Coal clearly emerges as central to the climate problem from the facts summarized in the attached Fossil Fuel Facts. [See note below] Coal caused fully half of the fossil fuel increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air today, and on the long run coal has the potential to be an even greater source of CO2. Due to the dominant role of coal, solution to global warming must include phase-out of coal except for uses where the CO2 is captured and sequestered. Failing that, we cannot avoid large climate change, because a substantial fraction of the emitted CO2 will stay in the air more than 1000 years.

Yet there are plans for continuing mining of coal, export of coal, and construction of new coal-fired power plants around the world, including in Australia, plants that would have a lifetime of half a century or more. Your leadership in halting these plans could seed a transition that is needed to solve the global warming problem.

Choices among alternative energy sources - renewable energies, energy efficiency, nuclear power, fossil fuels with carbon capture - these are local matters. But decision to phase out coal use unless the CO2 is captured is a global imperative, if we are to preserve the wonders of nature, our coastlines, and our social and economic well being.

Although coal is the dominant issue, there are many important subsidiary ramifications, including the need for rapid transition from oil-fired energy utilities, industrial facilities and transport systems, to clean (solar, hydrogen, gas, wind, geothermal, hot rocks, tide) energy sources, as well as removal of barriers to increased energy efficiency.

If the West makes a firm commitment to this course, discussion with developing countries can be prompt. Given the potential of technology assistance, realization of adverse impacts of climate change, and leverage and increasing interdependence from global trade, success in cooperation of developed and developing worlds is feasible.

The western world has contributed most to fossil fuel CO2 in the air today, on a per capita basis. This is not an attempt to cast blame. It only recognizes the reality of the early industrial development in these countries, and points to a responsibility to lead in finding a solution to global warming.

A firm choice to halt building of coal-fired power plants that do not capture CO2 would be a major step toward solution of the global warming problem. Australia has strong interest in solving the climate problem. Citizens in the United States are stepping up to block one coal plant after another, and major changes can be anticipated after the upcoming national election.

If Australia halted construction of coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester the CO2, it could be a tipping point for the world. There is still time to find that tipping point, but just barely. I hope that you will give these considerations your attention in setting your national policies. You have the potential to influence the future of the planet.
Prime Minister Rudd, we cannot avert our eyes from the basic fossil fuel facts, or the consequences for life on our planet of ignoring these fossil fuel facts. If we continue to build coal-fired power plants without carbon capture, we will lock in future climate disasters associated with passing climate tipping points. We must solve the coal problem now.

For your information, I plan to send a similar letter to the Australian States Premiers.

I commend to you the following Australian climate, paleoclimate and Earth scientists to provide further elaboration of the science reported in my attached paper (Hansen et al., 2008):

Professor Barry Brook, Professor of climate change, University of Adelaide
Dr Andrew Glikson, Australian National University
Professor Janette Lindesay, Australian National University
Dr Graeme Pearman, Monash University
Dr Barrie Pittock, CSIRO
Dr Michael Raupach CSIRO
Professor Will Steffen, Australian National University


James E. Hansen
Kintnersville, Pennsylvania
United States of America

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Winter worldwide warmer than normal

Warmest U.S. areas: Texas to the Southeast and along Eastern Seaboard

Associated Press, 14 March 2008

WASHINGTON -- Winter storms and snow notwithstanding, this winter was still warmer than average worldwide, the government reported Thursday.

The global temperature for meteorological winter — December, January and February — averaged 54.38 degrees Fahrenheit, 0.58 degrees warmer than normal for the last century, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

Temperatures have been rising over recent years, raising concerns about the effects of global warming, generally attributed to human-induced impacts on the atmosphere.

While it was warmer than normal, the just completed winter was the coolest since 2000-2001, which climate experts attributed to the presence of moderate-to-strong La Nina, or cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean, which can affect conditions around the world.

For the United States, this winter's average temperature was 33.2 degrees, 0.2 degrees above the 20th century average.

NOAA's National Climatic Data Center said winter temperatures were warmer than average from Texas to the Southeast and along the Eastern Seaboard, while cooler-than-average temperatures stretched from much of the upper Midwest to the West Coast.

The agency said the winter was unusual for the above average rain and snowfall in the Southwest, where La Nina usually brings drier-than-average conditions.

For example, in January 170 inches of snow fell at the Alta ski area near Salt Lake City, Utah, more than twice the normal amount for the month, topping the record of 168 inches that fell in 1967.

Mountain snowpack exceeded 150 percent of average in large parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon at the end of February. Spring run-off from the above average snowpack in the West is expected to be beneficial in drought plagued areas.

In the Northeast, February rain and snow helped make the winter the fifth wettest on record for the region. New York had its wettest winter, while Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, and Colorado to the West, had their second wettest.

Some locations had record winter snow totals including Burlington, Vt., which received 103.2 inches, 6.3 inches above the previous record set during the winter of 1970-71.

Global winter highlights included:

  • Severe winter storms struck southern China; the causes are still under study.
  • Record Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent in January was followed by unusually high temperatures across much of the mid- and high-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere in February, reducing the snow cover. By the end of February, snow cover extent was below average in many parts of the hemisphere.
  • February was the 61st warmest in the contiguous U.S. and 15th warmest globally on record.
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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Warming affects trees, streams in American West

By Paul Foy Associated Press Writer, The Boston Globe, March 28, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY—Around the same time the American West started heating up five years ago, Colorado started losing its lodgepole pine forests to a beetle infestation.

"The population built up rapidly and exploded. It takes out the mature trees," said Ingrid Aguayo, an entomologist for the Colorado State Forest Service, which estimates that about 60 percent of the lodgepole pines have turned red and brown.

"Now we're seeing a new carpet of forest coming up," she said.

Scientists can't be certain global warming is to blame, but the evidence is damning. Now, a new calculation of government temperature data shows that over the past five years, average annual temperatures in the Colorado River basin -- the heart of the West -- have risen by 2.2 degrees, or about twice as fast as the global rate.

The report is from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, a coalition of local governments, businesses and others working to protect the climate, and the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. It says the West is heating up faster than any other region in the continental U.S. with more catastrophic wildfires among the consequences.

"It's already begun. We are already seeing the effects, and scientists are telling us it's going to get markedly worse," said Stephen Saunders, the organization's president in Louisville, Colo.

Climate change researchers are hesitant to ascribe a single cause for the warming, but they agree it's happening.

"By and large, there is a very detectable warming in this region," said Martin Hoerling, a meteorologist at the NOAA-funded Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. His own research suggests the West could heat up a lot more, possibly by 5 degrees by the midpoint of the century, depending on the level of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The report, "Hotter and Drier: The West's Changed Climate," crunched numbers kept by NOAA's Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nev.

"That sounds about right," the center's acting director, Kelly T. Redmond, said.

"It's been warming in this region for the past 35 years, after a cool period in the 1970s. We've been decidedly above average. You could put an exclamation on it," he said.

Redmond has made calculations similar to the report's 2.2-degree rise, which has meant fewer subzero nights to control the population of mountain pine beetles devastating Colorado's lodgepole pines.

At first, he said, "I didn't know whether to trust these numbers or not." They came from a network of about 2,000 thermometers across the West -- from airports to weather hobbyists' backyards -- recording lows and highs since the late 1800s.

But other recent patterns -- earlier snowmelt in spring, earlier lilac and honeysuckle blooms -- convinced Redmond the recordings were accurate.

"In 100 years, this is the largest change we've seen, so it catches your attention," he said. "We can't definitely attribute it to human causes, but my suspicion is at least part of it is due to climate change."

The West also is in the grip of a decade-long drought, which tends to raise temperatures, said Hoerling, who likewise is hesitant to attribute the warming of the West solely on carbon emissions. He believes cyclical changes in sea-surface temperatures also are to blame.

The consequences, though, are plain to see. In Yellowstone National Park, aerial photographs show vast orange-needled forests of whitebark pine that were green just three years ago. Yellowstone grizzly bears depend heavily on the fatty seeds of the whitebark pine for food. Colorado's signature aspen stands also are drying up, leaving them vulnerable to fungus.

The Rocky Mountain snowpacks that melt earlier in spring leave less water for summer irrigation and heat up trout streams. Glaciers, which provide consistent stream flows during summer, are melting. The glaciers at Montana's Glacier National Park could melt entirely by 2022, U.S. Geological Survey researchers have calculated.

Montana, Idaho and Wyoming had their hottest Julys on record last summer, while Phoenix had 47 days of 109 degrees or hotter, according to the National Weather Service.

Powell and Mead reservoirs, meanwhile, are half-empty. The reservoirs collect water from the Colorado River, supplying much of the booming Southwest. If they keep drying up, it could shred the Colorado River Compact of 1922, an agreement that allocates fixed amounts of water among seven states.

The upper basin states have the water, but lower basin states including California have senior water rights -- a crisis in the making, said Bradley H. Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment Cooperative at the University of Colorado.

"There's an old saying, 'I'd rather be upstream with a shovel and a ditch than downstream with a decree,'" he said.

Link to article:

The Clean Energy Scam by Michael Grunwald

Time Magazine, 27 March 2008

John Lee / Aurora Select for TIME
A tiny sliver of transitional rain forest is surrounded by hectares of soybean fields in the Mato Grosso state, Brazil.

From his Cessna a mile above the southern Amazon, John Carter looks down on the destruction of the world's greatest ecological jewel. He watches men converting rain forest into cattle pastures and soybean fields with bulldozers and chains. He sees fires wiping out such gigantic swaths of jungle that scientists now debate the "savannization" of the Amazon. Brazil just announced that deforestation is on track to double this year; Carter, a Texas cowboy with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, says it's going to get worse fast. "It gives me goose bumps," says Carter, who founded a nonprofit to promote sustainable ranching on the Amazon frontier. "It's like witnessing a rape."

The Amazon was the chic eco-cause of the 1990s, revered as an incomparable storehouse of biodiversity. It's been overshadowed lately by global warming, but the Amazon rain forest happens also to be an incomparable storehouse of carbon, the very carbon that heats up the planet when it's released into the atmosphere. Brazil now ranks fourth in the world in carbon emissions, and most of its emissions come from deforestation. Carter is not a man who gets easily spooked--he led a reconnaissance unit in Desert Storm, and I watched him grab a small anaconda with his bare hands in Brazil--but he can sound downright panicky about the future of the forest. "You can't protect it. There's too much money to be made tearing it down," he says. "Out here on the frontier, you really see the market at work."

This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate.

Propelled by mounting anxieties over soaring oil costs and climate change, biofuels have become the vanguard of the green-tech revolution, the trendy way for politicians and corporations to show they're serious about finding alternative sources of energy and in the process slowing global warming. The U.S. quintupled its production of ethanol--ethyl alcohol, a fuel distilled from plant matter--in the past decade, and Washington has just mandated another fivefold increase in renewable fuels over the next decade. Europe has similarly aggressive biofuel mandates and subsidies, and Brazil's filling stations no longer even offer plain gasoline. Worldwide investment in biofuels rose from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2010, thanks to investors like Richard Branson and George Soros, GE and BP, Ford and Shell, Cargill and the Carlyle Group. Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class.

But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.

Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. The U.N.'s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency. Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City, and skyrocketing flour prices have destabilized Pakistan, which wasn't exactly tranquil when flour was affordable.

Biofuels do slightly reduce dependence on imported oil, and the ethanol boom has created rural jobs while enriching some farmers and agribusinesses. But the basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.

Backed by billions in investment capital, this alarming phenomenon is replicating itself around the world. Indonesia has bulldozed and burned so much wilderness to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world's top carbon emitters has surged from 21st to third according to a report by Wetlands International. Malaysia is converting forests into palm oil farms so rapidly that it's running out of uncultivated land. But most of the damage created by biofuels will be less direct and less obvious. In Brazil, for instance, only a tiny portion of the Amazon is being torn down to grow the sugarcane that fuels most Brazilian cars. More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it's subtle: U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It's the remorseless economics of commodities markets. "The price of soybeans goes up," laments Sandro Menezes, a biologist with Conservation International in Brazil, "and the forest comes down."

Deforestation accounts for 20% of all current carbon emissions. So unless the world can eliminate emissions from all other sources--cars, power plants, factories, even flatulent cows--it needs to reduce deforestation or risk an environmental catastrophe. That means limiting the expansion of agriculture, a daunting task as the world's population keeps expanding. And saving forests is probably an impossibility so long as vast expanses of cropland are used to grow modest amounts of fuel. The biofuels boom, in short, is one that could haunt the planet for generations--and it's only getting started.

Why the Amazon Is on Fire

This destructive biofuel dynamic is on vivid display in Brazil, where a Rhode Island--size chunk of the Amazon was deforested in the second half of 2007 and even more was degraded by fire. Some scientists believe fires are now altering the local microclimate and could eventually reduce the Amazon to a savanna or even a desert. "It's approaching a tipping point," says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center.

I spent a day in the Amazon with the Kamayura tribe, which has been forced by drought to replant its crops five times this year. The tribesmen I met all complained about hacking coughs and stinging eyes from the constant fires and the disappearance of the native plants they use for food, medicine and rituals. The Kamayura had virtually no contact with whites until the 1960s; now their forest is collapsing around them. Their chief, Kotok, a middle-aged man with an easy smile and Three Stooges hairdo that belie his fierce authority, believes that's no coincidence. "We are people of the forest, and the whites are destroying our home," says Kotok, who wore a ceremonial beaded belt, a digital watch, a pair of flip-flops and nothing else. "It's all because of money."

Kotok knows nothing about biofuels. He's more concerned about his tribe's recent tendency to waste its precious diesel-powered generator watching late-night soap operas. But he's right. Deforestation can be a complex process; for example, land reforms enacted by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have attracted slash-and-burn squatters to the forest, and "use it or lose it" incentives have spurred some landowners to deforest to avoid redistribution.

The basic problem is that the Amazon is worth more deforested than it is intact. Carter, who fell in love with the region after marrying a Brazilian and taking over her father's ranch, says the rate of deforestation closely tracks commodity prices on the Chicago Board of Trade. "It's just exponential right now because the economics are so good," he says. "Everything tillable or grazeable is gouged out and cleared."

That the destruction is taking place in Brazil is sadly ironic, given that the nation is also an exemplar of the allure of biofuels. Sugar growers here have a greener story to tell than do any other biofuel producers. They provide 45% of Brazil's fuel (all cars in the country are able to run on ethanol) on only 1% of its arable land. They've reduced fertilizer use while increasing yields, and they convert leftover biomass into electricity. Marcos Jank, the head of their trade group, urges me not to lump biofuels together: "Grain is good for bread, not for cars. But sugar is different." Jank expects production to double by 2015 with little effect on the Amazon. "You'll see the expansion on cattle pastures and the Cerrado," he says.

So far, he's right. There isn't much sugar in the Amazon. But my next stop was the Cerrado, south of the Amazon, an ecological jewel in its own right. The Amazon gets the ink, but the Cerrado is the world's most biodiverse savanna, with 10,000 species of plants, nearly half of which are found nowhere else on earth, and more mammals than the African bush. In the natural Cerrado, I saw toucans and macaws, puma tracks and a carnivorous flower that lures flies by smelling like manure. The Cerrado's trees aren't as tall or dense as the Amazon's, so they don't store as much carbon, but the region is three times the size of Texas, so it stores its share.

At least it did, before it was transformed by the march of progress--first into pastures, then into sugarcane and soybean fields. In one field I saw an array of ovens cooking trees into charcoal, spewing Cerrado's carbon into the atmosphere; those ovens used to be ubiquitous, but most of the trees are gone. I had to travel hours through converted Cerrado to see a 96-acre (39 hectare) sliver of intact Cerrado, where a former shopkeeper named Lauro Barbosa had spent his life savings for a nature preserve. "The land prices are going up, up, up," Barbosa told me. "My friends say I'm a fool, and my wife almost divorced me. But I wanted to save something before it's all gone."

The environmental cost of this cropland creep is now becoming apparent. One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline. Sugarcane ethanol is much cleaner, and biofuels created from waste products that don't gobble up land have real potential, but even cellulosic ethanol increases overall emissions when its plant source is grown on good cropland. "People don't want to believe renewable fuels could be bad," says the lead author, Tim Searchinger, a Princeton scholar and former Environmental Defense attorney. "But when you realize we're tearing down rain forests that store loads of carbon to grow crops that store much less carbon, it becomes obvious."

The growing backlash against biofuels is a product of the law of unintended consequences. It may seem obvious now that when biofuels increase demand for crops, prices will rise and farms will expand into nature. But biofuel technology began on a small scale, and grain surpluses were common. Any ripples were inconsequential. When the scale becomes global, the outcome is entirely different, which is causing cheerleaders for biofuels to recalibrate. "We're all looking at the numbers in an entirely new way," says the Natural Resources Defense Council's Nathanael Greene, whose optimistic "Growing Energy" report in 2004 helped galvanize support for biofuels among green groups.

Several of the most widely cited experts on the environmental benefits of biofuels are warning about the environmental costs now that they've recognized the deforestation effect. "The situation is a lot more challenging than a lot of us thought," says University of California, Berkeley, professor Alexander Farrell, whose 2006 Science article calculating the emissions reductions of various ethanols used to be considered the definitive analysis. The experts haven't given up on biofuels; they're calling for better biofuels that won't trigger massive carbon releases by displacing wildland. Robert Watson, the top scientist at the U.K.'s Department for the Environment, recently warned that mandating more biofuel usage--as the European Union is proposing--would be "insane" if it increases greenhouse gases. But the forces that biofuels have unleashed--political, economic, social--may now be too powerful to constrain.

America the Bio-Foolish

The best place to see this is America's biofuel mecca: Iowa. Last year fewer than 2% of U.S. gas stations offered ethanol, and the country produced 7 billion gal. (26.5 billion L) of biofuel, which cost taxpayers at least $8 billion in subsidies. But on Nov. 6, at a biodiesel plant in Newton, Iowa, Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled an eye-popping plan that would require all stations to offer ethanol by 2017 while mandating 60 billion gal. (227 billion L) by 2030. "This is the fuel for a much brighter future!" she declared. Barack Obama immediately criticized her--not for proposing such an expansive plan but for failing to support ethanol before she started trolling for votes in Iowa's caucuses.

If biofuels are the new dotcoms, Iowa is Silicon Valley, with 53,000 jobs and $1.8 billion in income dependent on the industry. The state has so many ethanol distilleries under construction that it's poised to become a net importer of corn. That's why biofuel-pandering has become virtually mandatory for presidential contenders. John McCain was the rare candidate who vehemently opposed ethanol as an outrageous agribusiness boondoggle, which is why he skipped Iowa in 2000. But McCain learned his lesson in time for this year's caucuses. By 2006 he was calling ethanol a "vital alternative energy source."

Members of Congress love biofuels too, not only because so many dream about future Iowa caucuses but also because so few want to offend the farm lobby, the most powerful force behind biofuels on Capitol Hill. Ethanol isn't about just Iowa or even the Midwest anymore. Plants are under construction in New York, Georgia, Oregon and Texas, and the ethanol boom's effect on prices has helped lift farm incomes to record levels nationwide.

Someone is paying to support these environmentally questionable industries: you. In December, President Bush signed a bipartisan energy bill that will dramatically increase support to the industry while mandating 36 billion gal. (136 billion L) of biofuel by 2022. This will provide a huge boost to grain markets.

Why is so much money still being poured into such a misguided enterprise? Like the scientists and environmentalists, many politicians genuinely believe biofuels can help decrease global warming. It makes intuitive sense: cars emit carbon no matter what fuel they burn, but the process of growing plants for fuel sucks some of that carbon out of the atmosphere. For years, the big question was whether those reductions from carbon sequestration outweighed the "life cycle" of carbon emissions from farming, converting the crops to fuel and transporting the fuel to market. Researchers eventually concluded that yes, biofuels were greener than gasoline. The improvements were only about 20% for corn ethanol because tractors, petroleum-based fertilizers and distilleries emitted lots of carbon. But the gains approached 90% for more efficient fuels, and advocates were confident that technology would progressively increase benefits.

There was just one flaw in the calculation: the studies all credited fuel crops for sequestering carbon, but no one checked whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if the science world assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots. The deforestation of Indonesia has shown that's not the case. It turns out that the carbon lost when wilderness is razed overwhelms the gains from cleaner-burning fuels. A study by University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman concluded that it will take more than 400 years of biodiesel use to "pay back" the carbon emitted by directly clearing peat lands to grow palm oil; clearing grasslands to grow corn for ethanol has a payback period of 93 years. The result is that biofuels increase demand for crops, which boosts prices, which drives agricultural expansion, which eats forests. Searchinger's study concluded that overall, corn ethanol has a payback period of about 167 years because of the deforestation it triggers.

Not every kernel of corn diverted to fuel will be replaced. Diversions raise food prices, so the poor will eat less. That's the reason a U.N. food expert recently called agrofuels a "crime against humanity." Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that biofuels pit the 800 million people with cars against the 800 million people with hunger problems. Four years ago, two University of Minnesota researchers predicted the ranks of the hungry would drop to 625 million by 2025; last year, after adjusting for the inflationary effects of biofuels, they increased their prediction to 1.2 billion.

Industry advocates say that as farms increase crop yields, as has happened throughout history, they won't need as much land. They'll use less energy, and they'll use farm waste to generate electricity. To which Searchinger says: Wonderful! But growing fuel is still an inefficient use of good cropland. Strange as it sounds, we're better off growing food and drilling for oil. Sure, we should conserve fuel and buy efficient cars, but we should keep filling them with gas if the alternatives are dirtier.

The lesson behind the math is that on a warming planet, land is an incredibly precious commodity, and every acre used to generate fuel is an acre that can't be used to generate the food needed to feed us or the carbon storage needed to save us. Searchinger acknowledges that biofuels can be a godsend if they don't use arable land. Possible feedstocks include municipal trash, agricultural waste, algae and even carbon dioxide, although none of the technologies are yet economical on a large scale. Tilman even holds out hope for fuel crops--he's been experimenting with Midwestern prairie grasses--as long as they're grown on "degraded lands" that can no longer support food crops or cattle.

Changing the Incentives

That's certainly not what's going on in Brazil. There's a frontier feel to the southern Amazon right now. Gunmen go by names like Lizard and Messiah, and Carter tells harrowing stories about decapitations and castrations and hostages. Brazil has remarkably strict environmental laws--in the Amazon, landholders are permitted to deforest only 20% of their property--but there's not much law enforcement. I left Kotok to see Blairo Maggi, who is not only the soybean king of the world, with nearly half a million acres (200,000 hectares) in the province of Mato Grosso, but also the region's governor. "It's like your Wild West right now," Maggi says. "There's no money for enforcement, so people do what they want."

Maggi has been a leading pioneer on the Brazilian frontier, and it irks him that critics in the U.S.--which cleared its forests and settled its frontier 125 years ago but still provides generous subsidies to its farmers--attack him for doing the same thing except without subsidies and with severe restrictions on deforestation. Imagine Iowa farmers agreeing to keep 80%--or even 20%--of their land in native prairie grass. "You make us sound like bandits," Maggi tells me. "But we want to achieve what you achieved in America. We have the same dreams for our families. Are you afraid of the competition?"

Maggi got in trouble recently for saying he'd rather feed a child than save a tree, but he's come to recognize the importance of the forest. "Now I want to feed a child and save a tree," he says with a grin. But can he do all that and grow fuel for the world as well? "Ah, now you've hit the nail on the head." Maggi says the biofuel boom is making him richer, but it's also making it harder to feed children and save trees. "There are many mouths to feed, and nobody's invented a chip to create protein without growing crops," says his pal Homero Pereira, a congressman who is also the head of Mato Grosso's farm bureau. "If you don't want us to tear down the forest, you better pay us to leave it up!"

Everyone I interviewed in Brazil agreed: the market drives behavior, so without incentives to prevent deforestation, the Amazon is doomed. It's unfair to ask developing countries not to develop natural areas without compensation. Anyway, laws aren't enough. Carter tried confronting ranchers who didn't obey deforestation laws and nearly got killed; now his nonprofit is developing certification programs to reward eco-sensitive ranchers. "People see the forest as junk," he says. "If you want to save it, you better open your pocketbook. Plus, you might not get shot."

The trouble is that even if there were enough financial incentives to keep the Amazon intact, high commodity prices would encourage deforestation elsewhere. And government mandates to increase biofuel production are going to boost commodity prices, which will only attract more investment. Until someone invents that protein chip, it's going to mean the worst of everything: higher food prices, more deforestation and more emissions.

Advocates are always careful to point out that biofuels are only part of the solution to global warming, that the world also needs more energy-efficient lightbulbs and homes and factories and lifestyles. And the world does need all those things. But the world is still going to be fighting an uphill battle until it realizes that right now, biofuels aren't part of the solution at all. They're part of the problem.

Link to article:,9171,1725975-1,00.html

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Odd Crop Prices Defy Economics by Diana B. Henriques

BLOGGER'S NOTE: What does an article about anomalies in commodity hedge prices have to do with the psychology of climate change? I could be wrong (and I often am), but if the price of a hedge on its date of expiration is higher than the cash price of said commodity on the same day, then just possibly traders' behaviors are the result of their anxieties related to the idea that there may be shortages in the near future. Normally, on the day of expiration, the difference between the hedge and the cash price will be reduced to nearly zero (excluding transactions costs), but in the case of the anomalies discussed in the article, arbitrage traders are not going after the substantial profits that could be made by the spread between the two prices. This is a type of irrational behavior, as far as modern-day trading is concerned.

New York Times,
March 28, 2008

Economists note there should not be two prices for one thing at the same place and time. Could a drugstore sell two identical tubes of toothpaste, and charge 50 cents more for one of them? Of course not.

But, in effect, exactly that has been happening, repeatedly and mysteriously, in trading that sets prices for corn, soybeans and wheat — three of America’s biggest crops and, lately, popular targets for investors pouring into the volatile commodities market. Economists who have been studying this phenomenon say they are at a loss to explain it.

Whatever the reason, the price for a bushel of grain set in the derivatives markets has been substantially higher than the simultaneous price in the cash market.

When that happens, no one can be exactly sure which is the accurate price in these crucial commodity markets, an uncertainty that can influence food prices and production decisions around the world.

These disparities also raise the question of whether American farmers, who rely almost exclusively on the cash market, are being shortchanged by cash prices that are lower than they should be.

“We do not have a clear understanding of what is driving these episodic instances,” said Prof. Scott H. Irwin, one of three agricultural economists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who have done extensive research on these price distortions.

Professor Irwin and his colleagues, Prof. Philip T. Garcia and Prof. Darrel L. Good, first sounded the alarm about these price distortions in late 2006 in a study financed by the Chicago Board of Trade. Their findings drew little attention then, Professor Irwin said, but lately “people have begun to get very seriously interested in why this is happening — because it is a fundamental problem in markets that have generally worked well in the past.”

Market regulators say they have ruled out deliberate market manipulation. But they, too, are baffled. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the exchanges where these grain derivatives trade, has scheduled a forum on April 22 where market participants will discuss these anomalies and other pressure points arising in the agricultural markets.

The mechanics of the commodity markets are more complex than selling toothpaste, however. The anomalies are occurring between the price of a bushel of grain in the cash market and the price of that same bushel of grain, as determined by the expiration price of a futures contract traded in Chicago.

A futures contract is an agreement to deliver a specific amount of a commodity — 5,000 bushels of wheat, say — on a certain date in the future. Such contracts are important hedging tools for farmers, grain elevators, commodity processors and anyone with a stake in future grain prices. A futures contract that calls for delivery of wheat in July may trade for more or less for each bushel than today’s cash market price. But as each day goes by, its price should move a bit closer to that day’s cash price. And on expiration day, when the bushels of wheat covered by that futures contract are due for delivery, their price should very nearly match the price in the cash market, allowing for a little market friction or major delivery disruptions like Hurricane Katrina.

But on dozens of occasions since early 2006, the futures contracts for corn, wheat and soybeans have expired at a price that was much higher than that day’s cash price for those grains.

For example, soybean futures contracts expired in July at a price of $9.13 a bushel, which was 80 cents higher than the cash price that day, Professor Irwin said. In August, the futures expired at $8.62, or 68 cents above the cash price, and in September, the expiration price was $9.43, or 78 cents above the cash price.

Corn has been similarly eccentric. A corn futures contract expired last September at $3.36, which was a remarkable 55 cents above the cash price, but the contract that expired in March 2007 was roughly even with the cash price.

“As far as I know, nothing like this has ever happened in the corn market,” said Professor Irwin.

Wheat futures had been especially prone to this phenomenon, going back several years. Indeed, the 2007 study by Professor Irwin and his colleagues concluded that wheat price distortions reflected a “failure to accomplish one of the fundamental tasks of a futures market.”

And while the situation improved sharply for wheat futures in Chicago late last year, it deteriorated for futures traded in Kansas City. And it has gotten worse for corn and soybeans, Professor Irwin said. Many people have a theory about why this is happening, but none of them seem to cover all the available facts.

Mary Haffenberg, a spokeswoman for the CME Group, which owns the Chicago Board of Trade, where these contracts trade, said the anomalies might be a temporary result of “a lot of shocks to the system,” including sharp increases in worldwide food demand, uncertainty about supplies and surging commodity investments.

Veteran traders and many farmers blame the new arrivals in the commodities markets: hedge funds, pension funds and index funds. These investors and speculators, they complain, are distorting futures prices by pouring in so much money without regard to market fundamentals.

“The market sends a sell signal, but they don’t sell,” said Kendell W. Keith, president of the National Grain and Feed Association. “So the markets are not behaving the way they otherwise would — and the pricing formula for the industry is a lot fuzzier and a lot less efficient than we’ve ever seen.”

Representatives of the new financial speculators dispute that. Their money has vastly increased the liquidity in the futures markets, they say, and better liquidity improves markets, making them less volatile for everyone.

And, as Professor Irwin noted, if new money pouring into the market has been causing these distortions, they probably would be occurring more consistently than they are.

Some experienced commodity analysts think the flaw may be in the design of the contracts, said Richard J. Feltes, senior vice president and director of commodity research for MF Global, the world’s largest commodity futures brokerage firm. If futures were settled based on a cash index, it would eliminate these odd disparities, Mr. Feltes said.

Ms. Haffenberg at the CME Group said cash settlement had “not been ruled out,” but it raised the question of finding the appropriate cash index. Other modest contract changes are awaiting approval of the futures trading commission, she said.

“We are continuing to have industry meetings to discuss what we need to do,” she said. “But we want to be careful, before we undertake any changes, that above all, we don’t do any harm.”

Moreover, defenders of the exchange’s current contract design note that these widely used agreements have gone largely unchanged for some time — and yet, have only begun to display this odd and inconsistent behavior in the last few years.

Some economists are exploring whether some unperceived bottlenecks in the delivery system explain what is going on. But traders say that such bottlenecks would eventually become known in the market and prices would adjust. Professor Irwin, whose research is continuing, said there might not be a single explanation for the price distortions.

Markets may simply be responding to the uneven impact of new financial technology, which allows more money to flow in and out, and to investors’ growing but fluctuating appetite for hard assets.

“Those factors may be combining to create this highly volatile environment for discovering prices,” he said. “But for now, that is pure conjecture on my part.”

What is not happening in these markets is equally mysterious. Normally, price disparities like these are quickly exploited by arbitrage traders who buy goods in the cheap market and sell them in the expensive one. Their buying and selling quickly brings the prices back into balance — but that is not happening here.

“These are highly competitive markets with very experienced traders,” he said. “Yet they are leaving these profits alone? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Link to article:

Friday, March 28, 2008

John Turner: Study finds 'classic global warming' over Antarctica

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I include this somewhat dated material because it is important to remind those who might be swayed by flat-earthers who say that it is getting colder down south on Antarctica.

"Study finds 'classic global warming' over Antarctica," Chicago Tribune, March 31, 2006.

In the winter sky over Antarctica, scientists have detected a vast cap of steadily warming air, in the first sign that record levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may be trapping heat above the ice sheets of the South Pole.

The temperature of the winter air over Antarctica has been rising at a rate three times faster than the world as a whole, the researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science.

By analyzing 30 years of high-altitude weather balloon records, meteorologists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge concluded that temperatures in the polar troposphere, the dense layer of air reaching from the surface to an altitude of about 5 miles, have risen by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1970s.

"We have the largest regional warming on Earth at the tropospheric level," said climate specialist John Turner, who led the research team.

In their study, Turner and his colleagues drew on daily temperature records from 1971 to 2003 kept by eight international research stations that rim the continent and the U.S. station at the South Pole. It was the first time anyone had been able to collate all the high-altitude atmosphere readings.

When the researchers examined the data, they not only saw evidence of winter season warming throughout the troposphere, but a cooling in the stratosphere above, a layering effect that researchers predict as a consequence of greenhouse warming.

"We have the classic global warming signal," Turner said. "It is like the blanket on the bed: When we wrap the Earth with a blanket of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, we trap heat under it at the expense of the atmosphere above, which then cools."


"The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change" by Fred Pearce

book review on by Stephen A. Haines, Ottawa, Canada

Once, climate was seen like a sedate matron, ambling along at a measured pace. According to Fred Pearce, the climate is more like a drunk, lurching from one place to another in sporadic, unpredictable lunges. Rapid climate change was once considered a local phenomenon. Older, unprepared civilisations in one region staggered under shifts of weather, collapsing in the heat, but easily replaced by more efficient neighbours. Research has shown, argues Pearce, that the entire globe is interconnected through complex patterns. Even the starting points of climate changes are hidden in the mists of time. Until today. Now it's the byproducts of our society that are prompting the changes. How drastic these may be and where the changes will be most severe is the subject of this excellent, if very frightening account.

Fred Pearce has been in the climate investigation reporting business for nearly twenty years. He knows the players and he understands their work. His intimate knowledge of their views and the science behind those outlooks provide a sound foundation for his summation of how climate change is occurring. And it is occurring, he argues. It's happening so fast that he can confidently assert that this is "The Last Generation" that will enjoy anything like climate stability. That lurching drunk is more powerful and less predictable than previously imagined.

With his long experience to buttress his presentation, Pearce covers all the bases. Moving from polar ice through ocean currents to wind patterns, he provides a thorough examination of the issues and the people studying them. The eminent Wally Broecker, who proposed "the Great Ocean Conveyor" circulating polar water around the globe is carefully described. Pearce doesn't want to invoke Broecker's ire over a mis-statement. Lonnie Thompson, who has likely spent more time above 6000 metres altitude than any other lowlander alive, offers his critique of Broecker's model as the initiator of climate change. These men are the "elder statesmen" of climate investigation. The journalist has met them all, but he also introduces us to the "newcomers" in the field. Peter deMenocal is continuing the work of Gerard Bond on "solar pulses" of energy, while Mike Mann's "hockey stick" graph of temperature increase updated Charles Keeling's earlier records on carbon dioxide increase rates. In a few cases, the later worker has almost eclipsed his forbear as Milutin Milankovich is the name associated with relating climate with Earth's orbital shifts instead of that of James Croll, the crofter's son who worked that out in the late 19th Century.

New minds, asking new questions and probing with modern instruments, have produced fresh viewpoints on climate change. The most significant pattern among those views is that major climate change is in the offing. It will be likely very soon and very abrupt. Warming air and warming seas are providing lubricant for the ice caps in Greenland and the Antartic. Will these ice mountains soon slide into their neighbouring oceans? El Nino, the enigmatic countervailing wind in the Pacific Ocean is becoming more frequent in its occurrences. Are we headed for a permanent state of monsoon-inhibiting forces? Neither simple nor immediate answers are availble to answer those questions, as Pearce and his interviewees admit. That circumstance gives the "climate sceptics" a wedge to challenge the whole idea of climate change as a serious threat. The author draws on his resources to dismiss that objection, asserting that even the resistance to anthropogenic causes of today's climate disruptions no longer is tenable.

For Pearce, the issue isn't whether climate change is occurring - it is, and we are the cause - but rather how rapidly it will develop into a clearly visible threat. It's not important who's "leading the dance", the Poles or the Tropics, it's important that we recognise that threatening change is taking place now. Since the impact is already apparent, we must undertake efforts to reduce the effects and protect ourselves. We have already created "Another Planet" by the introduction of massive use of fossil fuels. Our children will be living on that orb, and we must help safeguard their future. He adopts a list of solutions originally proposed by Robert Socolow of Princeton University. These "wedges" - so called because they will start as minimal changes, but grow in strength and effectiveness with the passage of time - will reduce the load of carbon we're placing into the environment and let us return to a more stable climate condition. If the Earth needs an AA to survive, it is these wedges that will provide the therapy. The time to apply the therapy, however, is NOW.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ocean-Wave Heights Rising Along East Coast, March 24, 2008

Ocean wave heights along the U.S. East Coast have progressively increased during the summer months — when hurricanes are most important to wave generation, a new study shows.

The study, detailed in a recent issue of the Journal of Coastal Research, analyzed measurements taken from three ocean buoys National Data Buoy Center located along the central U.S. Atlantic shore and one buoy in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1970s.

Initially, they had intended to study whether there had been increasing wave heights generated by nor’easters but found no significant change. Summer data, however, showed a different picture.

Significant wave heights measured during the hurricane season (which runs from June 1 to November 30) show that the most extreme occurrences during the 1996 to 2005 decade were both higher and more common than those of 30 years ago, having increased from about 23 feet (7 meters) to higher than 33 feet (10 meters).

Hurricane season peaks in late August to early September.

The waves recorded by the buoys depended on the annual numbers of hurricanes that followed tracks northward into the central Atlantic, how close their tracks approached the buoys, and the intensities of those hurricanes.

Examinations of the storms that have occurred since 1980 indicate that the primary explanation for the progressive increase in wave heights has been an intensification of the hurricanes, factoring in an increased numbers of storms.

Several studies have linked the recent intensification of hurricanes to global warming.

Whatever the cause of the increased wave heights is, the researchers say that still-greater hazards to communities along the coasts in the study will continue.

Copyright © 2008 Imaginova Corp.

Link to article:,2933,340937,00.html?sPage=fnc/scitech/naturalscience

Forecasters Focus on Strange Tornado Source

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is not exactly related to global warming, as such, but is still interesting.

by Andrea Thompson, LiveScience Staff Writer, 20 March 2008Atmospheric waves that ripple through clouds could spin up tornadoes when a thunderstorm gets in the way, new research shows.

Tornadoes generally form in the late spring when warming temperatures make the air unstable (though they've been known to pop up at other times of the year).

The classic tornado-forming scenario features a layer of warm, moist air trapped under a layer of cold, dry air. If this balance is upset, say by warming at the surface, the moist air rises, cools and forms clouds and thunderstorms.

If the winds high up in the atmosphere are blowing in a different direction than those at the surface (a phenomenon called wind shear), the rising air can start to spin, and can sometimes give birth to a tornado. (The spinning system isn't called a tornado until it touches the ground.)

Atmospheric waves, called gravity waves, can sometimes enter the equation and spin storms up even more.

Gravity waves "are similar to waves on the surface of the ocean, but they roll through the air instead of the water," explained Tim Coleman of the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Ala. "Gravity is what keeps them going. If you push water up and then it plops back down, it creates waves. It's the same with air."

Gravity waves get started when some impulse disturbs the atmosphere. This impulse could be wind shear, a thunderstorm updraft or a sudden change in the jet stream, the narrow, fast-moving air current that flows from west to east across North America.

When a gravity wave is created, it goes rippling out from the original disturbance like the ripples from a rock thrown into a pond.

If the gravity wave encounters a thunderstorm on its way through the atmosphere, it can compress the thunderstorm's rotation, causing the storm to spin faster. (Imagine that proverbial figure skater pulling her arms in to spin faster on her skates.)

"We've ... seen at least one case of a tornado already on the ground (in Birmingham, Ala. On April 8, 1998) which may have become more intense as it interacted with a gravity wave" Coleman said.

Coleman has developed a computer model that looks at gravity wave interactions with thunderstorms, and he and his boss Kevin Knupp are beginning to train meteorologists to look for gravity waves in real-time to improve forecasts.

Link to article:

Gore's Message To Climate Change Skeptics

CBS, March 27, 2008

Self-avowed "P.R. agent for the planet" Al Gore says those who still doubt that global warming is caused by man -- among them, Vice President Dick Cheney -- are acting like the fringe groups who think the 1969 moon landing never really happened, or who once believed the world is flat.

The former vice president and former presidential candidate talks to 60 Minutes correspondent, Lesley Stahl, in an interview to be broadcast this Sunday, March 30, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Confronted by Stahl with the fact some prominent people, including the nation’s vice president, are not convinced that global warming is man-made, Gore responds: "You're talking about Dick Cheney. I think that those people are in such a tiny, tiny minority now with their point of view, they’re almost like the ones who still believe that the moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona and those who believe the world is flat,” says Gore. "That demeans them a little bit, but it's not that far off," he tells Stahl.

Gore’s campaign to make the world more aware of man’s role in global warming won him the Nobel Peace Prize last year. He donated the $750,000 prize money to The Alliance for Climate Protection, the non-profit he started to help him on his quest. He and his wife, Tipper, tell Stahl they not only matched the Nobel money with their own, but they are also donating to the organization the significant profits from his book and Oscar-winning documentary film about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth." The funds will help The Alliance for Climate Protection execute a new $300 million ad campaign on global warming set to start next week.

Some of the ads will feature unlikely alliances to drive home the message that people of all stripes are concerned about global warming. These include the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Pat Robertson, Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks, and Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich.

Stahl also visits the Gore's Nashville home, recently refitted with touches that include roof solar panels that make it more environmentally friendly. She asks him his feelings on the Supreme Court ruling that handed his opponent, George W. Bush, the electoral votes of Florida and the presidency.

Stahl also asks Gore, an uncommitted superdelegate of the Democratic Party, who he supports for his party’s nomination.

Link to article:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Melting ice may not explain warming Arctic

by Catherine Brahic

NewScientist, 03 January 2008

Energy flowing from the equator up towards the North Pole may partly explain the rapid warming of the Arctic, say researchers.

It is well documented that the Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe, but the reason for this remains a mystery.

The leading hypothesis is that ice disappearing as a result of climate change is largely to blame. Warmer temperatures melt the Arctic ice and exposes water, which absorbs more sunlight than ice. This causes temperatures to rise further, melting more ice, and so on.

But a team led by Rune Graversen at the University of Stockholm in Sweden now challenges this theory.

The researchers analysed temperature measurements taken during the 1980s and 1990s by satellite instruments. But instead of just looking at which regions have warmed the most, they also examined the height in the atmosphere where the warming took place.

Lofty changes

The researchers found that most of the warming is happening high above ground. At midsummer, the data shows that the air that has warmed the most is 2 kilometres above land.

This, says Graversen, rules out the theory that Arctic warming is being accelerated by melting ice. Although the researchers remain unsure what is accelerating Arctic warming, they suggest it might be related to how fast energy is being transported towards the North Pole by cyclones.

The team calculated the flow of energy into the Arctic Circle using meteorological data, and looked at how this flow has changed since the 1980s.

They found that the amount of energy transported from the tropics into the Arctic has increased and that the increase corresponds to the rise of temperatures in the region.

"We are not saying this is the only explanation," says Graversen, "this could explain maybe 25% of the amplification of warming in the Arctic."

Antarctic question

The team’s findings fit well with suggestions that more and more cyclones, which carry warm air, have been moving into the Arctic Circle.

Clouds could also explain the movement of energy into the Arctic. Some studies have suggested that there are more and more clouds over the Arctic, says Graversen. These might be soaking up energy from the sun and warming up the atmosphere.

One question Graversen's findings raise is whether energy from the tropics is also being directed towards the South Pole.

The surface of the Antarctic is not warming nearly as fast as the rest of the globe, but in 2006, John Turner of the British Antarctic Survey published findings showing that the air 5 kilometres above Antarctica has warmed more than anywhere else on Earth over the last 30 years.

Journal reference: Nature (vol 451, p 53)

Link to article:

Major food source threatened by climate change

by Jim Giles

NewScientist, 24 March 2008

Rice is arguably the world's most important food source and helps feed about half the globe's people. But yields in many areas will drop as the globe warms in future years, a review of studies on rice and climate change suggests.

The poorest parts of the world, including Africa, will probably be hardest hit, the study says. Rice harvests already need to increase by about a third just to keep up with global population growth.

Predicting how a changing climate will affect crop yields is notoriously difficult. Temperature, carbon dioxide concentration and ozone levels all have a big impact on growth. Yet most studies look at just one of these factors, making it difficult to know what the combined effect will be.

It is also hard to know whether results from experiments in greenhouses with artificial climates will hold true in the real world. But when the evidence from some 80 different studies is combined, the outlook is bleak, says Elizabeth Ainsworth of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Troubling temperatures

In regions where the average daily temperatures are expected to rise above 30ºC, rice yields will start to fall off, and the impact will get worse as the temperature increases.

The drop in yield caused by rising temperatures can be counteracted by the boost to photosynthesis provided by the increased levels of carbon dioxide driving climate change. But when Ainsworth pooled the studies, she found that effect is not strong enough to counteract the stress plants suffer at high temperatures.

Harvests will also be reduced by rising ground-level ozone concentrations. They are caused by nitrogen oxides (NOX) from power stations that catalyse the formation of ozone in warm and sunny conditions. Ainsworth’s review found that ozone concentrations of around 60 parts per billion, which have already being recorded on farms in China and the United States, cause yields to drop by 14%.

Experiments on the effect of ozone using greenhouses containing artificial atmospheres are still crude, so other rice researchers are urging caution in interpreting Ainsworth's results. For example, many experiments use fixed levels of ozone, but outdoors levels fluctuate daily and plants can use the low points to recover from brief periods of high concentrations.

"Better breeds needed"

In general, however, critics agree with Ainsworth’s conclusion that new varieties of rice, bred to tolerate high ozone and increased temperatures, are urgently needed.

She points out that tropical regions need these varieties most, as temperatures there are already close to the maximum that traditional types of rice can withstand. And these many of those areas, including parts of Africa, already suffer regular food shortages.

"This won’t affect the planet equally," says Ainsworth. "In places where the demand for food is already too great, things are going to get worse."

Agricultural scientists say it is still too early to say for sure how climate change will affect yields. Very little is known about the combined effect of high ozone levels and increased carbon dioxide, for example, since the two factors are usually studied independently.

"In the real world, it's still pretty hard to know how these factors will stack up," says Daniel Taub of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, US.

But he adds that Ainsworth's study, together with her previous field experiments, have all but wiped out early hopes that increased carbon dioxide might be enough to overcome the other factors and boost yields. "Considering that we're likely to see an increase in population, if one doesn't see an increase in yields that's worrisome," Taub told New Scientist.

Climate Change - Learn more in NewScientist's continually updated special report.

Journal ref: Global Change Biology (DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2008.01594.x)

Link to article:

Rising temperatures bring their own CO2

by Fred Pearce

From NewScientist, March 22, 2008

CLIMATE sceptics are right. Temperature increases do precede rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide - the opposite of what you would expect if changes in CO2 levels were really driving climate change. That's the verdict of leading atmospheric modeller Peter Cox, a climate expert at the University of Exeter, UK. Yet far from dismissing the threat of global warming, Cox says this means things are worse than we thought. Events in the Little Ice Age, 400 years ago, prove the point, he says.

One of the most important pieces of evidence linking climate change to greenhouse gas emissions is that for tens of thousands of years, temperature changes have been in lockstep with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. But sceptics keep pointing out that temperature changes seem to come first.

That charge is true, says Cox. "In climate predictions, we have been in denial about how temperature changes CO2." But that certainly does not mean we don't need to worry about rising CO2 levels, he stresses. "People on both sides want a one-way link, but the historical record shows that causality goes both ways." Rising - or falling - temperatures and CO2 concentrations reinforce each other. Embarrassingly for climate modellers, Cox added: "Actually, CO2 is more sensitive to temperature than the other way round." This is supported by a study of the Little Ice Age by Cox and colleagues (Geophysical Research Letters, vol 33, p L10702).

The cool period began with reduced solar radiation reaching the Earth due to natural variation in sunspots. But after about 50 years, CO2 levels fell and this amplified the cooling. This is not surprising, says Cox, because in colder conditions oceans absorb more CO2, and the carbon cycle on land slows, absorbing yet more.

"There seems to be a change of about 40 parts per million (ppm) in CO2 levels for every 1 °C change in temperature," says Cox, who has revisited the Little Ice Age data. Since further global warming is inevitable in the near future, it means we're heading for big natural increases in CO2 on top of human-made emissions.

This extra increase will boost global warming in the coming century to about 50 per cent above mainstream climate projections, says Cox, because they only include the effect of CO2 on temperature, and not temperature's effect on CO2.

"The system turns out to be more sensitive than we thought. If we get 4 °C of warming in the coming century, that by itself will raise CO2 levels by an extra 160 ppm. And that may be rather conservative." Current levels are 380 ppm, compared with pre-industrial levels of 270 ppm. Many scientists believe anything above 450 ppm will create a devastating global climate.

Cox's findings were among many unnerving observations about past climate change presented at the meeting suggesting existing climate models are too optimistic.

"We are headed into unknown territory and the only things we have to guide us are physics and our knowledge of the past," says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

Link for subscribers:

Arctic Oscillation and Polar Vortices

This post is for those interested in the research on polar vortices and oscillations.

The abstract and introduction of this paper are a short primer:

More articles related to this topic are available in pdf format on the CV of Dr. David W. J. Thompson:

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ted Scambos, David Vaughn: West Antarctic -- Wilkins Ice Shelf breaking up

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I am updating this post because I found a more lucid explanation on the NewScientist site, which discusses the importance of wave action on the ice shelf.

Antarctic ice shelf 'hanging by a thread'

by Catherine Brahic, 25 March 2008, NewScientist news service

A thin strip of ice, just 6 kilometres wide, is all that is holding back the collapse of a huge ice shelf in Antarctica, according to glaciologists.

The Wilkins ice shelf – previously some 16,000 square kilometres in area – has been disintegrating fast. On 28 February, an iceberg 41 km long and 2.5 km wide broke off the ice shelf. This triggered the runaway disintegration of a further 570 square kilometres of ice.

"I would be very surprised if it survives more than a couple more melt seasons," says Ted Scambos of the University of Colorado, US.

Other researchers, including David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey, believe it could be gone within weeks. "The ice shelf is hanging by a thread – we'll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be," he says.

'Narrow brace'

Although researchers agree the disintegration of the Wilkins ice shelf will not contribute to rising sea levels, they say it may help them understand what triggers such events in order to predict when they are likely to happen again.

"There now remains just a narrow beam of ice, roughly 6 km wide, which is bracing the rest of the shelf," says Scambos. "If that beam breaks up, about half of the ice shelf will probably very quickly break apart."

However Scambos says this is not likely to happen this year, as the southern winter is settling in.

The break up is already helping researchers understand what triggers the disintegration of ice sheets. They now know that waves generated by storms over the open ocean are just as important as air and water temperature.

No sea-level rise

"The waves travel thousands of kilometres and are long and gentle. They are able to flex and break an ice shelf," says Scambos.

Normally, a slurry of sea ice floating in front of the ice shelf would act as a wave breaker, keeping the surrounding waters still. But this year – as in 2002 when the Larsen B shelf dramatically disappeared in just 30 days – warm temperatures melted away much of the sea ice. The glaciologists believe this is what has caused the break up of the Wilkins ice shelf in recent weeks.

The Wilkins ice sheet is not connected to inland glaciers in the same way as Larsen B was. As a result, its collapse will not accelerate the flow of glaciers into the ocean, and so will not immediately cause a sea-level rise.

Link to article (you might need to be a subscriber to open this page):

(Link to a different article on the BBC News website, with an embedded video:

Huge Iceberg Breaks Away

ScienceDaily (Mar. 25, 2008) — British Antarctic Survey has captured dramatic satellite images of an Antarctic ice shelf that looks set to be the latest to break out from the Antarctic Peninsula. A large part of the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula is now supported only by a thin strip of ice hanging between two islands. It is another identifiable impact of climate change on the Antarctic environment.

Scientists monitoring satellite images of the Wilkins Ice Shelf spotted that a huge (41 by 2.5 km) km2 berg the size of the Isle of Man appears to have broken away in recent days -- it is still on the move.

Glaciologist Ted Scambos from the University of Colorado alerted colleagues Professor David Vaughan and Andrew Fleming of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) that the ice shelf looked at risk. After checking daily satellite pictures, BAS sent a Twin Otter aircraft on a reconnaissance mission to check out the extent of the breakout.

Professor Vaughan, who in 1993 predicted that the northern part of Wilkins Ice Shelf was likely to be lost within 30 years if climate warming on the Peninsula were to continue at the same rate, says, "Wilkins is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula yet to be threatened. I didn't expect to see things happen this quickly. The ice shelf is hanging by a thread -- we'll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be."

Jim Elliott was onboard the BAS Twin Otter to capture video of the breakout for Vaughan and colleagues. He says, "I've never seen anything like this before -- it was awesome. We flew along the main crack and observed the sheer scale of movement from the breakage. Big hefty chunks of ice, the size of small houses, look as though they've been thrown around like rubble -- it's like an explosion."

The breakout is the latest drama in a region of Antarctica that has experienced unprecedented warming over the last 50 years. Several ice shelves have retreated in the past 30 years - six of them collapsing completely (Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and the Jones Ice Shelf.)

Professor Vaughan continues, "Climate warming in the Antarctic Peninsula has pushed the limit of viability for ice shelves further south -- setting some of them that used to be stable on a course of retreat and eventual loss. The Wilkins breakout won't have any effect on sea-level because it is floating already, but it is another indication of the impact that climate change is having on the region." Ted Scambos of the University of Colorado says,

"We believe the Wilkins has been in place for at least a few hundred years. But warm air and exposure to ocean waves are causing a break-up."

The Wilkins Ice Shelf covered an area of 16,000km2 (the size of Northern Ireland). Having been stable for most of the last century it began retreating in the 1990s. A major breakout occurred in 1998 when 1000km2 of ice was lost in a few months.

Satellite images processed at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed that the retreat began on February 28 when a large (41 by 2.5 km) iceberg calved away from the ice shelf's south-western front. The edge of the shelf proceeded to crumble and disintegrate in a pattern that has become characteristic of climate-caused ice shelf retreats throughout the northern Peninsula, leaving a sky-blue patch spreading across the ocean surface compose of hundreds of large blocks of exposed old glacier ice. By 8 March, the ice shelf had lost just over 570 km2, and the patch of disintegrated Antarctic ice had spread over 1400km2. As of mid-March, only a narrow strip of shelf ice was protecting several thousand kilometres of potential further break-up.

The recent break out leaves a thin strip of ice between Charcot and Latady islands on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Climate warming has increased the volume of summer meltwater on glaciers, which has weakened ice shelves. Sea ice, which protects ice shelves from ocean swell, has reduced also as a result of warming temperatures.

The collapse of the 3250 km2 Larsen B Ice Shelf took place in 2002. During the past 40 years the average summer temperatures in this region of the north-east Peninsula has been 2.2°C. The western Antarctic Peninsula has showed the biggest increase in temperatures (primarily in winter) observed anywhere on Earth over the past half-century.

The Antarctic Peninsula is an area of rapid climate change and has warmed faster than anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere over the past half century. Climate records from the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula show that temperatures in this region have risen by nearly 3°C during the last 50 years -- several times the global average and only matched in Alaska.

Background info

Ice sheet -- is the huge mass of ice, up to 4 km thick, that covers Antarctica's bedrock. It flows from the centre of the continent towards the coast where it feeds ice shelves.

Ice shelf -- is the floating extension of the grounded ice sheet. It is composed of freshwater ice that originally fell as snow, either in situ or inland and brought to the ice shelf by glaciers. As they are already floating any disintegration (like Larsen B) will have no impact on sea level. Sea level will rise only if the ice held back by the ice shelf flows more quickly into the sea.

This discovery follows the recent UNEP report that the world's glaciers are continuing to melt away. Data from 30 reference glaciers in nine mountain ranges show that between the years 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 the average rate of melting and thinning has more than doubled.

Adapted from materials provided by British Antarctic Survey.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

James Hansen: Rampant Negativity -- No Reason To Be So Glum

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BLOGGER'S NOTE: The text below is from Dr. Hansen's latest communique.

Predictably, as scientific evidence clarifies that the dangerous level of atmospheric CO2 is at hand, there are cries that it is impractical to avoid climate catastrophe. Such negativity is part of the playbook of those who stand to gain from business-as-usual. A recent report by the Scripps Howard News Service claims that I stated “we must reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent within 12 years or it will be too late to prevent a climate catastrophe.” What nonsense.

The “Peak Oil” paper by Kharecha and Hansen has been accepted for publication in
Global Biogeochemical Cycles. The final form is available at:
In this paper we show that if emissions from coal are phased out linearly between 2020 and 2050 atmospheric CO2 will not exceed ~450 ppm, with the exact peak CO2 depending on the true amount of oil and gas reserves, about which there is some dispute. (Long-term coal use is permitted, but only with carbon capture and storage). The ~450 ppm CO2 peak also depends on the assumption that the world does not turn to unconventional fossil fuels (such as tar shale) as fossil fuels are depleted. Emissions from unconventional fossil fuels so far are negligible (mainly a small bit from tar sands), and that will always be the case if an appropriate price is placed on carbon emissions.

In our draft ( “Target CO2” paper we show that 450 ppm CO2 is far into the dangerous zone, and we recommend a goal of phasing out coal emissions by 2030 (the practical difficulty of phasing out coal emissions in 20-25 years is acknowledged and discussed at the end of the paper). This keeps peak CO2 close to 400 ppm, again with some variation depending on the magnitude of true undiscovered oil reserves.

People can help assure that maximum CO2 stays close to 400 ppm by vociferously
opposing oil drilling in environmentally sensitive regions such as the Arctic and Antarctic, on public land, in off-shore regions where states and other governments can foil the desire of oil companies to extract every last drop of oil, etc. Of course the most effective way to assure that we do not act as desperate addicts, refusing to move to the cleaner world beyond fossil fuels, tearing up the land for every last bit of fossil fuels, is via a significant and gradually rising price on carbon emissions.

The public must take the lead, because there are so many “well-oiled” officials in our governments, and not just in the United States. To summarize the present and prior discussions, important things that the public can do are:

1. Fight for a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants,

2. Oppose extraction of fossil fuels in public and environmentally sensitive regions,

3. Vote for politicians who take the Stewardship pledge
-- do not vote for “well-oiled” politicians who accept funding from fossil fuel interests.

The Earth’s history shows us that we cannot put all the carbon in fossil fuels back into the air without producing a very different planet from the one to which humanity is adapted. There is still time to phase off fossil fuels, but it requires sensible policies in the public interest. This will not be easy: the special interests are pouring huge amounts of funding into disinformation campaigns.

More on this soon.