Archive August 2010

When warming burns… Bryan Walker Aug 19

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Severe risks to human health will accompany the disturbed global climate which comes with global warming. We have only to consider the consequences of the heat waves, the flooding, the African droughts, of recent times to be alerted to that. Our experiences of climate change in New Zealand are unlikely to reach such extreme levels, but we would be wise to think and prepare ahead for the kind of human health hazards we may expect to encounter. Chapter 8 in Climate Change Adaptation in New Zealand (pdf download) is an attempt to sketch out measures we might prepare to take. Four of the five writers are from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago and one from Victoria University.

The paper rehearses some of the widespread major impacts which will affect human health globally. Higher maximum temperature will lead to increased heat-related deaths and illnesses and contribute to an extended range of some pest and disease vectors. Droughts and forest fires will increase in severity and frequency. More intense rainfall will lead to slope instability, flooding and contaminated water supplies. More intense large-scale cyclones increase the risk of infectious disease epidemics (e.g. via damaging water supplies and sewerage systems) and the erosion of low-lying and coastal land through storm surges. Indirect effects include economic instability, loss of livelihoods and forced migrations.

We have early indications of what the changes are likely to be, and it’s important to be ready with a range of policies to address them rather than wait and react as they occur. Prevention is better than cure. New Zealand may not experience the extremes which will be felt in some parts of the world, but there is much that would wisely be given attention.

One eventuality for which we need to be prepared, and which the article highlights, is the possibility of New Zealand becoming a lifeboat to those living in more vulnerable Pacific countries who are displaced by the impacts of climate change. Particularly is this to be expected if a high carbon scenario prevails, as increasingly seems on the cards. Families forced to leave their island homes are likely to form a pattern of chain migration to New Zealand. Unless, under such circumstances, we recognise the need to build extended-family houses or generally increase the supply of low-income family housing to accommodate these immigrants, we are likely to see an increase in overcrowding in state houses and other low-income housing. This could mean a dramatic increase in the risk of a number of infectious diseases.

Infectious diseases are likely to become more prominent with climate change. Warmer temperatures and increased rainfall variability can increase food-borne and water-borne diseases. Vector organisms such as mosquitoes, ticks and sandflies are strongly affected by temperature levels and fluctuations. Hopefully the risk of dengue in New Zealand may remain below the temperature threshold for local transmission, but there is likely to be a potential for outbreaks of Ross River virus infection.

Flooding is another aspect of climate change to which the paper gives some attention. Adaptive responses, such as health and housing protection and provision during and after extreme events, should not increase health inequalities.  The spectre of New Orleans is invoked to illustrate this. The possible need for relocation of towns and even parts of cities looms in some areas of the world. In New Zealand the sustainability of Kaeo, flooded several times in recent years, has been questioned. But given low income levels and less disposable income for private insurance in such towns, government assistance is likely to be needed to facilitate relocation.   

Other possible health impacts in New Zealand are touched on, including the effects of heat stress on outdoor workers, the exacerbation of asthma symptoms from increased amounts of allergen-producing pollens, the possibility of water charging by local authorities depriving lower income households of access sufficient to ensure general cleanliness.

Isolation and poor access to services puts people at increased risk. Severe mental health problems are identified as a likely risk in rural communities suffering the effects of extreme weather events. Such vulnerability extends also to low-income populations living in socio-economically disadvantaged, residentially segregated areas where there is less public transport and fewer people who own or have access to cars. The paper makes a good deal of the need for adaptation policies to be equitable and fair and inclusive.

Individual adaptive action can be hampered by lack of understanding, but may be attractive when there are co-benefits. An example is walking, cycling and taking public transport which can be presented as less a sacrifice of time and convenience and more an opportunity to socialise, keep fit, and do one’s bit towards a smaller carbon footprint.

At the community level the paper points to the critical role of local government. The progressive modification of urban form will be an important part of adaptation. Intensifying housing, for example, can reduce the vulnerability of dispersed communities and at the same time help build social capital that links together different social and ethnic groups, while reducing car dependence and energy use. Health and environmental benefits can flow from this.

New Zealand cities have little high density housing and a good many large sprawling suburbs. Some attention is beginning to be given to climate change adaptation issues. The paper focuses on dealing with storm-water run-off and urban heat island effects. Trees, parks and roof-top gardens and reduction of roads and parking lots are among the measures to reduce heat effects. Passive cooling of buildings through good design and the painting white of some surfaces also works to this end. Measures to slow storm water run-off, such as rooftop collection, replacement of hard surfaces by porous paving and well-vegetated low-lying areas can reduce risks. Steps to prevent the incursion of storm water into sewerage systems are important.  

Enhanced social networks in cities and other local communities will be needed to provide closer monitoring of, and assistance to, vulnerable people and populations. Living behind locked doors with little neighbourhood contact is not a good preparation for the stresses climate change will bring.

Some needed changes require central government involvement. The paper mentions such matters as retrofitting houses to make them more energy efficient, raising standards in the Building Code, providing social housing. But it also notes that the government record to date shows little sign of advance, and that lack of government progress on mitigation makes adaptation more difficult.

Local government in New Zealand is already expected to take climate change into consideration in its planning, and is provided with useful information by the Ministry for the Environment for doing so. The kind of thinking about health impacts expressed in this paper fits well into the overall intention to “avoid or limit adverse consequences and enable future generations to provide for their needs, safety and well-being.”  Some of it overlaps with measures already recommended to councils. All of it is worth taking up in the discussions and reports that mark local government.  Central government seems trickier ground, more subject to the vagaries of ministers and politics, but one hopes that the good sense represented in papers such as this makes its way there too.

NIWA v cranks 3: the economics of truthiness Gareth Renowden Aug 18

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Bryan Leyland’s dissembling about the funding of the NZ Climate Science Coalition under direct questioning from Sean Plunkett on Monday morning’s Morning Report on RNZ National — he repeatedly asserted his ignorance of financial matters, directing Plunkett to Terry Dunleavy — puts him in an awkward position. Leyland is a trustee of the NZ Climate Science Education Trust (along with Dunleavy and Doug Edmeades), the body hastily established to request a judicial review of NIWA’s national temperature record. Before lodging papers with the High Court, the trustees should have held a properly minuted meeting and discussed how they intended to fund the action — both in terms of meeting any legal fees, or dealing with any costs awarded against them. This would be standard good governance practice in a charitable trust, and if such a meeting were held then Leyland must be fully aware of the NZCSET’s current funding, and how it expects to fund an expensive and risky legal action. If no meeting were held, or Leyland has no idea how the trust expects to fund the action, then he is failing in his duty as trustee. Perhaps this is an issue that Plunkett and Morning Report might like to follow up…

Listen to the Morning Report segment here:

Climate sceptics take NIWA to court over data

Some interesting dates: I understand that the Statement of Claim lodged with the High Court is dated July 5th, and refers to the NZ Climate Science Education Trust. However the NZCSET’s Deed of Trust (go here, and enter 2539286 in the organisation number search box) is dated July 30th so did not exist when the Statement of Claim was drawn up. The Statement of Claim also states that the NZCSET is a registered trust, but registration was not granted until August 10th. Minor administrative matters, I am sure, but hardly indicative of the creation of trust intended, as its deed says, to:

…promote a heightened awareness and understanding of, and knowledge about, the climate, environment and climate and environmental issues among scholars and researchers, members of the professions and members of the public… (Sec 4.1.1)

One might suggest that the cart was put a very long way in front of the horse. More reaction to this strange affair below the fold…

In the NZ Herald this morning Brian Rudman demonstrates the value of a long memory, and the stupidity of the CSC’s stance:

In a press release coinciding with their trip to the High Court to file papers, the coalition claims “The NZ MetService record shows no warming during the last century.”

The joke is that in February 2002, I had some fun at the MetService’s expense, revealing that for $100,000 it would happily shift a weather station anywhere a mayor requested in order to improve his or her town’s temperature on the nightly television weather spot. And who did I find to criticise this sleight of hand but none other than the deniers’ bete noir, Jim Salinger, then a senior scientist at Niwa.

My investigations had been sparked by a reader noting that Wellington seemed to share Auckland’s temperature on the telly each night, which we all knew couldn’t be true.

It turned out that Mark Blumsky, the capital’s mayor from 1995 to 2001, became unhappy with the low temperatures reported from the traditional weather recording stations at Wellington airport, the Kelburn hills and Lower Hutt and demanded MetService find a warmer spot.

MetService said name your spot, and as long as it meets certain guidelines such as being over grass, and the mayor paid $100,000 in set-up costs, that would be it.

Which is how the sheltered lawn in front of the Michael Fowler Centre became a new MetService weather station, and Wellington’s daily temperature on the telly suddenly increased by about 1.5C.

Rudman also draws attention to the real losers here — the long-suffering tax payer:

The image of the flat-earthers in court making fools of themselves, trying to prove that if you travel to the horizon you’ll fall off into oblivion, is rather appealing. But court proceedings are ruinously expensive, and while the mystery money-bags funding the coalition – Act Party supporters are mentioned – may be able to afford it, taxpayers cannot.

Yet we are the ones who will have to fund Niwa’s day in court defending itself against this attention-seeking stunt of the deniers.

Meanwhile, denier-in-chief Barry Brill provides a typically wooden response (Chair challenges Science Media Centre) to comments on the case by leading scientists, and in so doing nicely demonstrates he hasn’t got a leg to sit on:

’Most of the comments by these learned scientists is limited to ad hominem, rhetorical cant, providing little confidence that they are well-informed on either the New Zealand temperature record or its significance.’

Another sceptic who needs to learn the correct meaning of ad hominem.

At Pundit, Andrew Geddis considers some of the legal aspects of the cranks putative case — it’s worth reading all the comments there — while the Timaru Herald waxes equivocal in its leader today. And while the legal case was gestating, that loquacious polymath Bryan Leyland was happily predicting an imminent global cooling by drawing on the infamous McLean, De Freitas & Carter paper and his own gut-feeling about sunspots. I think we’ll file that hostage to fortune away for future reference…

Cool for cats Gareth Renowden Aug 17

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This video was embedded using the YouTuber plugin by Roy Tanck. Adobe Flash Player is required to view the video.

They say that dogs have masters, but cats have servants. I am therefore greatly encouraged by the discovery of this new organisation — Cats Against Climate Change — because it suggests that finally something’s going to get done. I don’t like puddles either…

NIWA v Cranks: Update one Gareth Renowden Aug 16

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Reaction to the news that NZ’s merry band of climate sceptics — the NZ Climate “Science” Coalition — are attempting to take NIWA to court is certainly creating a stir. The Herald updates with an NZPA story:

Court action against New Zealand’s state-owned weather and atmospheric research body is “stupid” and just creating confusion, University of Otago pro-vice chancellor of sciences Keith Hunter says.

The Science Media Centre has pulled together an extensive selection of comments by senior climate scientists outside NIWA, but my favourite take comes from associate professor Euan Mason of the University of Canterbury:

This legal suit is a nonsense designed to attract publicity and spread fear, uncertainty and doubt in the absence of a decent argument. The media should ignore it and the judge should throw it out. Let the ’Climate Science Coalition’ tender its own calculations and subject them to rigorous peer review by submitting a scientific paper.

I expect we’ll hear more from the scientific community in due course. Meanwhile, the Environmental Defence Society is considering joining the action on NIWA’s side:

The Environmental Defence Society says it might apply to the High Court for permission to join proceedings being brought by climate sceptics against the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

The more the merrier, I say! Blog reactions are coming in thick and fast. Russell Brown has covered the story at Hard News, and it will feature in this week’s Media 7 on TV NZ7, while Bomber Bradbury demonstrates a nice use of turtles (all the way down) in his response. See also a nice punchy post by r0b at The Standard, but David Farrar can only manage to reprint a chunk of the CSC press release and look forward to the action. So much for not being a sceptic, David… And as ever, Danyl at the Dim-Post has a good point to make. Below the fold, my morning media exposure.

First up was a slot on Morning Report with Sean Plunkett asking the questions. He gave Bryan Leyland a good introductory grilling on the funding of their action, and then lightly sautéed me for referring to the loss of NZ’s alpine ice — apparently that’s due to global warming or something… ;-)

Climate sceptics take NIWA to court over data

Shortly afterwards I popped up on Glenn Williams’ Breakfast Show on Radio Wammo — live via Skype video. I wish I’d shaved. Note the appearance of Rosie the trainee truffle hound towards the end…

This video was embedded using the YouTuber plugin by Roy Tanck. Adobe Flash Player is required to view the video.

Finally: we need a good “gate” for this. All suggestions welcome. Dunleavygate? Crankgate? Something pithy, preferably — but definitely not NIWAgate. ;-)

When asses go to law Gareth Renowden Aug 16

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In a bizarre twist to the tale of New Zealand’s climate sceptics and their strange obsession with the minutiae of the history of temperature measurement in New Zealand, it now emerges that they have lodged papers with the High Court [Stuff & NZ Herald, via NZPA], seeking to have the court rule that the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) should:

  • set aside NIWA’s decisions to rely upon its Seven Station Series (7SS) and Eleven Station Series (11SS), and to find the current NZTR [NZ temperature record] to be invalid
  • to prevent NIWA from using the current NZTR (or information originally derived from it) for the purpose of advice to any governmental authority or to the public
  • to require NIWA to produce a full and accurate NZTR [text from their press release]

The mind boggles. Just what is an “invalid temperature record”, and how on earth is a judge expected to rule on that? Given that NIWA has received funding to do a thorough re-working of the long-term temperature history of NZ, mainly as a result of the earlier kerfuffle, why are the cranks so keen to go to court now? Science is not done in law courts. Then there are questions to be asked about the organisation and funding of this legal effort, as well as questions about possible abuse of process and waste of taxpayer funds…

The genesis of this story goes back to November last year, when Richard Treadgold and the NZ Climate “Science” Coalition trumpeted the release of a “study” that showed (in Treadgold’s words):

We have discovered that the warming in New Zealand over the past 156 years was indeed man-made, but it had nothing to do with emissions of CO2 — it was created by man-made adjustments of the temperature. It’s a disgrace.

It was a shonky study, as I showed conclusively at the time, in what has proved to be the most widely-read Hot Topic post to date. NIWA’s response was to develop a new temperature series, using data from places where adjustments had either never been required or were very minor, and it demonstrated that warming was unequivocal — if anything slightly greater than in the original “seven station” series. Since then, Treadgold and the C”S”C have — with their friends in the far-right ACT Partytried to turn the affair into a scandal, with no success. This latest legal ploy is a transparent attempt to get some more mileage out of what should, by all sensible measures, be the deadest of dead horses.

The case is being brought not by the NZ Climate Science Coalition or Climate Conversation Group, but by a newly-incorporated charitable trust, the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust. The trustees are NZ CSC stalwarts Terry Dunleavy and Bryan Leyland, together with relative newcomer Doug Edmeades. An application for charitable status was made at the end of July and it was granted on August 10th. The Deed of Trust can be read at the Ministry of Economic Development’s Societies and Trusts Online site: search for “2539286 – NEW ZEALAND CLIMATE SCIENCE EDUCATION TRUST”. The stated aims of the trust (section four of the trust deed) look innocuous enough, but include a standard “do what you like” clause: 4.2.8: Such other activities and enterprises to further the charitable purposes of the Trust as the Trustees may decide. The documents sent to the press over the weekend can be read, in lightly edited form, at Treadgold’s blog.

It’s clear that Dunleavy, Leyland and Edmeades have some questions to answer. Their “charitable trust” was registered on August 10th, and within days they had lodged their legal action with the court. Was the trust formed specifically to bring the action? I understand that using a trust to bring a legal action provides some protection for the litigants if they lose their case and find costs awarded against them. But if that is the real reason for the trust’s existence, then surely it cannot be regarded as a charitable trust? Whatever the law may say — and I am sure that Dunleavy and co will have had legal advice (C”S”C chairman Barry Brill is a retired lawyer) — it cannot be morally or ethically acceptable for them to hide behind or misuse a charitable trust in this way. It also demonstrates rather nicely that they have no confidence that their case will succeed…

There are also questions to be asked about the funding of this legal effort to discredit NIWA and its scientists. Legal advice isn’t cheap, especially when seeking to bring a case before the High Court. The NZ C”S”C has always been rather coy about its funding, maintaining that it’s just a group of interested individuals who volunteer their efforts. Nevertheless, it has strong links with the US think tanks organising and funding campaigns against action to reduce carbon emissions, and has developed close ties with the Rodney Hide’s ACT Party — one of whose most generous supporters is climate sceptic and multi-millionaire Alan Gibbs. Of course, the NZ C”S”C might just have had a sausage sizzle outside a North Shore New World, and a bit of a whip round their membership, but on Radio NZ National’s Morning Report this morning [at 8:13am] Bryan Leyland admitted that Gibbs was “one of our friends”.

The question of funding is particularly important, because any reasonably objective assessment of their statement of claim shows it to be highly unlikely to succeed. The summary attached to the NZ C”S”C press release is pretty tedious, but it’s worth taking a look at the second paragraph:

The official NZ Temperature Record (NZTR) [...] the historical base for most Government policy and judicial decisions relating to climate change, wholly relies upon a ’Seven-station series’ (7SS), adopted in 1999.

You don’t to need to read any further, to be honest, because this is sufficient to establish the statement of claim as nonsense. As I’ve said before, the NZ temperature record is interesting, fascinating even for those of a meteorological or climatological bent, but there is no such thing as an “official” temperature record that has formed any sort of “historical base for most government policy and judicial decisions relating to climate change”. No NZ government of any flavour has ever relied on NIWA’s temperature series for anything much, certainly not used it as the basis for any policy. NZ government policy in this area depends far more on the international scientific and diplomatic context than it does on the temperature in Hokitika in 1890.

So if the case is pretty much certain to fail, why go to the expense of bringing it in the first place? It’s a waste of good money, surely? Dunleavy et al, and their mysterious backers, clearly disagree — and the reason’s obvious. This is not about science, or improving the NZ temperature record, it’s about attention seeking. Having failed to get the government to delay the introduction of the ETS at the beginning of July, the C”S”C and its “friends” are getting desperate. Like spoilt children, they’re pouting and screaming and throwing toys out of the pram.

The results of this hissy fit are predictable. My guess is that the court will refuse to consider the case — which will give the CSC another excuse for a loud public whinge. Questions in Parliament by Hide and Boscawen? A racing certainty, I reckon. But much judicial time and public money will have been wasted in the process, and the NZ temperature record will continue to show what it always has and always will do — significant warming over the last 100 years. Meanwhile the world will continue to warm

On fire inside a snowball Gareth Renowden Aug 15

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Fire: NOAA’s National Climate Data Centre has posted its report on global climate for July (press release). The combined global land and sea surface temperature of 16.5ºC was the second warmest in the NOAA record, 0.66°C above the average for the last 100 years of 15.8°C. The January to July period was the warmest in the record. The map below shows the anomalies for the month — spot the heatwave in Russia.


Meanwhile, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) has posted its take on the the July numbers: What Global Warming Looks Like. Click on the thumbnail image at the top of the post to see their map of July temperatures. One striking point they comment on:

…the area warmer than climatology already (with global warming of 0.55°C relative to 1951-1980) is noticeably larger than the area cooler than climatology. Also the magnitude of warm anomalies now usually exceeds the magnitude of cool anomalies.

GISS also note that the 12-month running mean (below) of global temperature is well into record territory, and that it’s possible that calendar 2010 could also set a record.


Meanwhile, up North….

Ice: The Arctic sea ice is still melting, and there’s a lot to watch at the Arctic Sea Ice Graphs page compiled by Neven, who is also providing exemplary coverage of the melt season at his blog. He drew my attention to a remarkable expedition by two Norwegians, Børge Ousland and Thorleif Thorleifsson, who are attempting to sail their catamaran the Northern Passage through the northern sea route above Siberia, and then back to Europe through the northwest passage — all in a single season. Here’s a great picture of their vessel in the Kara Sea:


The huge ice island calved from the Petermann glacier this month is dramatically confirmed by this graph of ice loss from Greenland glaciers, monitored by Jason Box and the team at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University on their MODIS Studies of Greenland blog.


Here’s an excerpt:

We just updated our survey to include year 2010. Retreat continues at the 110 km (68 mi) wide Humboldt glacier and at the 23 km (14 mi) wide Zachariae ice stream. Humboldt, Zachariae, and Petermann (16 km or 10 mi wide) have bedrock trenches that lead inland below sea level to the thickest parts of the ice sheet. Sleeping giants are awakening…

Ominous words…

[Cathy Bush, from her home demos]

Farming’s future in NZ: adapt or decline Bryan Walker Aug 14

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How will our land-based primary industries manage the climate changes ahead? That’s the question addressed by chapter 3 in Climate Change Adaptation in New Zealand (pdf download here). The general impression given is that they won’t fare too badly provided appropriate adaptive measures are taken. The chapter, contributed by a team of nine, reports on modelling examples from the three major areas of forestry, arable farming and pastoral farming. It’s apparent that there is a level of complexity to farming operations which is very difficult to embrace in any study and the writers make it clear that much ongoing research will need to be undertaken. I’ll pick out a few salient points from the paper.

So far as forestry is concerned productivity is likely to be affected by changed CO2 levels, rainfall and temperature. Fire danger will increase in most areas of New Zealand. Increased severe winds are also predicted in some parts of the country. Pests and fungal diseases are likely to be strongly affected and the impacts of weeds and fungal pathogens could change, as could the establishment and distribution of insect pests.

The forestry modelling reported was focused on two common fungal diseases which affect forest productivity. One of the two diseases responds positively to aerial applications of copper oxychloride, and there may need to be changes to the way these are made as risk areas are identified. Other adaptation options for both diseases might include developing disease resistant genotypes, changing the regimes to modify the within forest microclimate (especially air movement and humidity), changing the tree species totally on at risk sites, and possibly moving the forests to less risky sites as the climate changes.

Adaptation strategies in general will involve normal forest practices and, provided a good understanding of the changes needed is obtained, the study concludes we should be able to maintain the health and productivity of our forests.

Arable farming is likely to benefit from climate change, provided nutrients and water supply are not limited. (That  struck me as a big proviso.) The advantages result from a number of factors. One is the fertilising effect of increased CO2 . Another is the rise in temperature causing crops to grow faster, be harvested earlier, and leave more options for subsequent crops. A warmer drier spring means soil dry enough for earlier cultivation and sowing operations.  An extended frost free period enables frost-sensitive crops to extend their range. And so on. A model run of one crop showed a 16% increase in yield by 2090 under the high carbon scenario and a 3 week earlier harvest.

But the water and nutrient caveat is important, particularly as most cropping occurs on the east coast, which is expected to see more hot, dry weather. Irrigation systems will need to be efficient, and crops with a deeper root system may fare better.  For although climate change increases yield potential and management flexibility in systems that have good water availability, it does the opposite for dryland systems and those with limited irrigation.  The paper notes that there remains significant uncertainty around the impacts of climate change on water flows in the major alpine rivers which underpin the east coast irrigation water supply.

Pastoral farming, the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s agricultural exports, was approached through modelling a Manawatu dairy farm. It was modelled on a single mid-range climate change scenario. Two soil types were modelled, clay and sand. Pasture production increases, especially between 2000 and 2030, were predicted, particularly in late winter, spring and summer.  Potentially this is due to increased temperatures and solar radiation and increased prevalence of C4 (warm season) grasses. But the C4 grasses led to a reduction in pasture quality during summer and spring.

Unadapted systems resulted in a decline in milk solids production per cow and per hectare in both 2030 and 2080, compared with 2000.  The picture changed when adaptation measures were undertaken. Key adaptation measures included a range of farm management decisions which included earlier calving and increased stocking rates.  With such measures the paper reported adaptation can be profitable and turn the potential negative of lower pasture quality into the positive of more production.  However the writers acknowledge that they did not consider the impacts of the recommended adaptations on significant environmental issues. More cows may increase nutrient and greenhouse gas losses from the farm.

It was such consequences that left me wondering how robust some of the adaptation measures may prove to be. Currently more cows mean more methane. Adaptation measures which also increase greenhouse gas emissions will surely be looked at askance by 2030. And the prospect of more nutrient run-off is fraught with environmental consequences. For arable farming the irrigation issue carries many questions likely to prove difficult of resolution. However there will no doubt be closer examination of these and other adaptation possibilities as time proceeds.  Presumably Federated Farmers will eventually emerge from its bunker and share in the process. The paper speaks of farm producers in New Zealand as innovative and adaptable and able to live with climate variability. But it points to climate change as more than variability when it goes on to ask whether those producers will be adaptable enough to manage a changing as well as variable climate. In the current mind-set of denial displayed by much of the farming community that seems to me an open question.

Lester Brown: Russian heat hits world grain supplies Bryan Walker Aug 13

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One of the things that persuaded Gwynne Dyer that it was time to write his book Climate Wars was the realisation that ’the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply’. He’s not the only one to recognise that. Many of us hearing about what the Russian heat wave is doing to crops have no doubt been wondering what the effect of so much loss might be on global supplies. Right on cue Lester Brown, whose Plan B books always lays great stress on food reserves, has produced  an update on what the failed harvest in Russia might mean.

’Russia’s grain harvest, which was 94 million tons last year, could drop to 65 million tons or even less. West of the Ural Mountains, where most of its grain is grown, Russia is parched beyond belief. An estimated one fifth of its grainland is not worth harvesting. In addition, Ukraine’s harvest could be down 20 percent from last year. And Kazakhstan anticipates a harvest 34 percent below that of 2009. (See data.)’

He notes that the heat and drought are also reducing grass and hay growth, meaning that farmers will have to feed more grain during the long winter. Moscow has already released 3 million tons of grain from government stocks for this purpose. Supplementing hay with grain is costly, but the alternative is reduction of herd size by slaughtering, which means higher meat and milk prices.

The Russian ban on grain exports and possible restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan could cause panic in food-importing countries, leading to a run on exportable grain supplies. Beyond this year, there could be some drought spillover into next year if there is not enough soil moisture by late August to plant Russia’s new winter wheat crop.

The grain-importing countries have in recent times seen China added to their list. In recent months China has imported over half a million tons of wheat from both Australia and Canada and a million tons of corn from the US. A Chinese consulting firm projects China’s corn imports climbing to 15 million tons in 2015. China’s potential role as an importer could put additional pressure on exportable supplies of grain.

The bottom line indicator of food security, Brown explains, is the amount of grain in the bin when the new harvest begins. When world carryover stocks of grain dropped to 62 days of consumption in 2006 and 64 days in 2007, it set the stage for the 2007—08 price run-up. World grain carryover stocks at the end of the current crop year have been estimated at 76 days of consumption, somewhat above the widely recommended 70-day minimum. A new US Department of Agriculture estimate is due very soon, which will give some idea of how much carryover stocks will be estimated to drop as a result of the Russian failure.

We don’t know what all this will mean for world prices. The prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007—08 run-up in grain prices began. Whether prices will reach the 2008 peak again remains to be seen.

Brown performs the obligatory ritual of acknowledging that no  single event can be attributed to global warming, though I would have thought that by now that proviso could be taken as read. It’s surely more important to affirm, as of course he does, that extreme events are an expected manifestation of human-caused climate change, and their effect on food production must be a major concern.

’That intense heat waves shrink harvests is not surprising. The rule of thumb used by crop ecologists is that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent. With global temperature projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius during this century, this effect on yields is an obvious matter of concern.’

Demand isn’t going down to match the reduction:

’Each year the world demand for grain climbs. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million more people. In addition, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. And this year some 120 million tons of the 415-million-ton U.S. grain harvest will go to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.’

And the obvious conclusion:

’Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly–before climate change spins out of control.’

There’s a podcast in which Lester Brown speaks at greater length, elaborating the matters covered in his written update, and amongst other things commenting on how we might be thankful, from a global grain harvest perspective, that it was Moscow and not Chicago or Beijing which experienced temperatures so far above the norm. The grain loss would have been much higher in either case.

It’s worth adding that while the Russian event is dramatic in terms of its obvious impact on exports of grain globally, there are plenty of other places where food production is threatened by extreme events or by other  trends which are in line with climate change predictions. It is impossible to look at the vast flooding of land in Pakistan and not wonder how they will cope with the washing away of millions of hectares of crops — there have been “huge losses” according to the BBC.

’We need to cut carbon emissions and cut them fast.’

Fire and rain Gareth Renowden Aug 12

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The last few weeks have seen some extraordinary weather events around the world: relentless extreme heat in Russia, biblical flooding in Pakistan and devastating landslides in China. Tens of millions of people have had their lives disrupted and thousands have died, and — beyond reasonable doubt — global warming is playing a part in creating these extremes. But how much of a part? Michael Tobis asked this question in a recent post:

Are the current events in Russia “because of” “global warming”? To put the question in slightly more formal terms, are we now looking at something that is no longer a “loading the dice” situation but is a “this would, practically certainly, not have happened without human interference” situation?

The answer, at least in the case of the current extremes, would appear to be yes.

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground has (as usual) been providing exemplary coverage of the Russian heat wave, and in a post on August 6th he described it as “one of the most remarkable weather events of my lifetime”. Over the month of July, Moscow’s mean daily temperature was 7.8ºC above normal (the previous record, set in 1938, was 5.3ºC above normal), and since the beginning of August the daily maximum has been consistently 15ºC above average, which Masters describes as “a truly extraordinary anomaly”. At the time of writing, Moscow had experienced 29 successive days with temperatures over 30ºC, easily the longest and most intense heat wave since records began. Masters quotes Alexander Frolov, head of Russia’s weather service:

Our ancestors haven’t observed or registered a heat like that within 1,000 years. This phenomenon is absolutely unique.

What’s particularly striking about this event is the large margin by which previous long-standing records are being smashed. The Economist, in an excellent article on climate change and extreme weather, quotes Dutch meteorologist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh on the odds:

…a straightforward comparison of the temperatures seen this summer with those of the past 60 years suggests that a large patch of Russia is experiencing temperatures which might be expected only once every 400 years or so. Some places within that patch are hotter than might be expected over several millennia.

Those numbers assume the climate isn’t warming. When van Oldenburgh assumes warming:

…the heatwave starts to look less improbable–more like the sort of thing you might expect every century. As the warming trend continues in the future, the chances of such events being repeated more frequently will get higher.

Van Oldenborgh did a similar analysis of the heat and cold anomalies of last northern hemisphere winter, which I covered back in April. The key point is that if the climate were not changing, an event as dramatic as the Russian heatwave would be very, very unlikely. If we factor in the warming trend, it remains unusual, but less so. And if that warming trend continues (and it will), then we can expect more record-breaking heat waves around the world.

Global warming impacts the weather we experience in two ways: by increasing the probability of new records — when a heat wave happens, you are likely to get more warmth (see the graph in my post on rainfall). But there is a second impact: the potential for changes in the circulation of the atmosphere. The climate of any part of the planet depends on lots of factors, but the flow of weather systems is crucial. As an example, consider the South Island of New Zealand. The prevailing (or normal) wind is westerly, and when that wind bumps into the Southern Alps it drops rain, and lots of it. Hence rainforest, speedy glaciers and tourism. On the other side of the Alps, we get warm dry winds and little rain. Now imagine that the frequency of easterly winds increases and westerlies decrease. The east coast gets wetter, and the west coast dryer. Cue big change in climate, even if the temperature doesn’t warm. There’s actually a hint of this happening in the modelling toward the end of the century — though for the east coast of the north island, not down here.

So can we draw a line between Russian heat, flooding in Pakistan and China and changes in the pattern or shape of weather? Perhaps a combination of the after-effects of El Niño, record sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and a reduction in Arctic sea ice are affecting the way the jet stream meanders around the northern hemisphere, creating a persistent ridge of high pressure over Russia — a blocking pattern that has flow on effects for Asia. Wired asked Kevin Trenberth if the heat and floods could be linked:

’The two things are connected on a very large scale, through what we call an overturning or monsoonal circulation,’ he said. ’There is a monsoon where upwards motion is being fed by the very moist air that’s going onshore, and there are exceptionally heavy rains. That drives rising air. That air has to come down somewhere. Some of it comes down over the north.’

Rob Carver at Weather Underground explains more here, New Scientist discusses the “frozen” jet stream here and UK Met Office scientist Peter Stott (who wrote the definitive paper on the record-breaking European heat wave of 2003) offers his thoughts at the Guardian.

What I find scary in all this is the multiple coincidence of record heat and catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and China — in a year where the first six months had already set a record for insurance losses on extreme events. The last 12 months have been the warmest in the global record. A modest El Niño event has boosted temperatures and affected weather patterns in an eery echo of events that followed the great El Niño of 1997-98. Back in 1999, Kevin Trenberth reviewed the extreme weather events of 1997-98. It was, as he suggests, a wild ride:

In early August, for example, major floods devastated parts of Korea, and in August and September 1998, extensive monsoon-related flooding struck heavily-populated eastern India and Bangladesh. Widespread heavy rains in China, at about the same time, released the mighty Yangtze River from its banks, with ensuing reports of more than 3,000 deaths, some 230 million people homeless, and over $30 billion in flood damage. In the summer of 1998 heat waves and air pollution episodes plagued many regions of the world, particularly in Egypt and other Mediterranean countries, and in southern Europe. In New Zealand, record floods in July and October 1998 were the worst in 100 years. But the costliest disaster of them all, in terms of human life, struck the Caribbean in late October. Hurricane Mitch caused the deaths of more than 11,000 people in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, primarily through the extensive flooding that followed prolonged and heavy rains.

This time round the floods are in Pakistan instead of India and Bangladesh, and the heat has moved north from the Mediterranean to Russia. The Atlantic hurricane season has not yet really got going, but we can only hope there won’t be another Mitch. In the 12 years since that El Niño, the climate system has continued to accumulate energy. When an ENSO event releases that energy it has to go somewhere, and that’s into heatwaves, floods, hurricanes and melting ice.

As the years go by and the warming continues, those extremes are only going to get worse. To me, it looks very much as though it won’t be a gradual warming that causes us the biggest problems, it’ll be the direct and indirect effects of increasing weather extremes. Hot years are going to be hard years for humanity.

[Update: The Wonk Room covers the same subject, but includes an interview with Rob Carver:

I agree with Michael Tobis’s take at Only In It For the Gold that something systematic has changed to alter the global circulation and you’ll need a coupled atmosphere/ocean global model to understand what’s going on. My hunch is that a warming Arctic combined with sea-surface-temperature teleconnections altered the global circulation such that a blocking ridge formed over western Russia leading to the unprecedented drought/heat wave conditions. Without contributions from anthropogenic climate change, I don’t think this event would have reached such extremes or even happened at all.


[Update 2 (in quick succession): Stu Ostro at The Weather Channel posts on Russian heat, extremes and 500mb anomalies:

The upshot: Whether with temperatures, precipitation, or storms (tropical or otherwise), and regardless of in which direction the extremes are, it's a case of Weather Gone Wiggy, and this is happening at the time when the Earth's climate is at an exceptionally warm level compared to that of at least the past century. There have been extremes for as long as there has been weather; it's their nature which is changing along with changing atmospheric moisture, stability, and circulation patterns.


[Update 3 (on a roll!): World Meteorological Organisation on recent extremes]

[Update 4: The Guardian expands on Weather Underground's list of new temperature records.]

[Update 5, 14/8/10: Jeff Masters posts on the jetstream and its influence on the heatwave: The Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 is one of the most intense, widespread, and long-lasting heat waves in world history.]

[Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground]

It breaks Gareth Renowden Aug 09

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The Petermann Glacier in northwest Greenland has calved a massive “ice island” from its floating tongue (the largest in northern hemisphere), as the MODIS image above demonstrates. The island is approximately 260 square kilometers in area, making it equivalent to (arbitrary choice of geographical comparison appropriate to blog) eleven Rangitoto Islands (or four Manhattans, or about one eightieth of the area of Wales), and broke off at the end of last week. It contains enough fresh water (being nearly 200m thick) to keep the USA supplied with tap water for 120 days. NOAA’s National Ice Centre provides another view, with the ice island outlined in red:


University of Delaware researcher Andreas Muenchow describes its likely future thus:

“In Nares Strait, the ice island will encounter real islands that are all much smaller in size,” Muenchow said. “The newly born ice-island may become land-fast, block the channel, or it may break into smaller pieces as it is propelled south by the prevailing ocean currents. From there, it will likely follow along the coasts of Baffin Island and Labrador, to reach the Atlantic within the next two years.”

I’ve been watching the area in the daily MODIS Arctic mosaic imagery, half expecting to see a calving event (based on Mauri Pelto’s comments), but persistent cloud cover (and my lack of persistence) meant that Science2.0 blogger and Arctic watcher Patrick Lockerby was the first person to spot the big berg — something he’d forecast back in July. Congratulations, Patrick. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the ice front over the next few weeks, and where the island heads. My own tip? I’ve got my suspicions about the Humboldt glacier to the west of the Petermann…

See also: Climate Progress, BBC, Guardian, earlier HT posts.


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