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Posts Tagged Climate science

TDB Today: The weather’s getting worse, and we did it Gareth Renowden Jul 16

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At The Daily Blog today I take a look at the latest report from the World Meteorological Organisation — The Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes 1970-2012 (pdf) — which demonstrates that major climate and weather disasters have increased fivefold since the 1970s. The implications are clear enough: damage from climate change is not something that will happen in the future — it’s here now, and we need to plan to be resilient to all the dislocation it will bring. Emissions cuts are important, but so is investing in policies that will help us to ride out the storm.

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent Bryan Walker Jul 15

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Science journalist Gabrielle Walker’s book Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (Bloomsbury, 2012) tells an absorbing story of the wide variety of scientific work undertaken in Antarctica and the support services that maintain it. It also attempts to capture the human fascination of the continent, not least for the author herself in her five sojourns there. She provides close-up observations of some of the specialist teams working on an array of investigations: penguins, seals, under-ice sea creatures, meteorites, astronomy, paleoclimatology, the dynamics of ice movement and loss, and more. Stories of the early explorers find a place, and the psychology which motivates people to undertake sometimes long scientific enterprises in such a demanding environment.   Her book is striking and highly readable, often gripping.

It’s the climate change aspects of the book that I want to highlight here. Walker, who has a strong academic science background, specialises in energy and climate change. She co-authored a book on climate change with Sir David King a few years ago. I reviewed it at the time. Her knowledgeable familiarity with the subject is often in evidence in Antarctica.

Her visit to the European drilling site at Dome C she describes as a pilgrimage. She had read about the ice cores, spoken with dozens of scientists about the results of their examinations in the freezers back in Europe, and watched some of those examinations taking place. But she wanted to be present at the drilling itself. Her account of what she observed is eye-opening. The technical complexity of the operation kilometres down into ice 800,000 years old is set out in close narrative detail, with all its accompanying drama. The expensive loss of a drill 800 metres down meant starting over again.

Walker provides a readily understandable account for the general reader of how the ice cores record the succession of ice ages and interglacials over the past 800,000 years. She explains how the water in the cores reveals past temperatures through the ratio of light and heavy molecules in the snow of the time; the air trapped reveals the composition of the atmosphere at the same time. Higher temperatures went along with higher carbon dioxide and methane, lower temperatures corresponded with lower carbon dioxide and methane.

So much for the natural cycles of the ice ages, triggered by earth’s orbital changes and amplified by greenhouse gas levels. But in all that time, Walker explains, carbon dioxide has never been within striking distance of the amount we have today. Through the entire record, the highest value was about 290 parts for every million parts of air. It is now 400 and rising. Her conclusion: “The deepest voids of Dome C hold a warning that we would do very well to heed.”

Climate change is again to the fore when Walker moves her focus from East to West Antarctica, staring with the Peninsula. Here she inserts an admirably lucid explanation of the gradual process by which carbon was sucked out of the atmosphere of hothouse Earth by the burial of trees in swamps and of sea creatures in the floors of shallow seas, enabling the world to start a cooling trajectory and Antarctic to begin its transformation to the frozen continent.

But now, as we mine and extract the fossilised fuels and pour their carbon back into the air, the planet’s temperature has already risen by nearly 1 degree over the past century and the effects are being felt here on the Peninsula more strongly than anywhere else. This part of the continent is warming at an extraordinary pace – three times the global average.

“It is one of the planet’s hot spots, melting visibly under the eyes of scientists and their instruments. Its shelves of ice are shattering. It is shedding icebergs like armadas. Even the animals are feeling the heat.”

Krill are among those animals. These sea creatures so basic to the marine food chain are reported as suffering significant decline, with flow-on deleterious effects for the seals whales and penguins that rely on krill for their food.

The Peninsula is losing ice. In itself this is not enough to seriously affect sea level rise, but it is suggestive for the vulnerability of other much larger areas of ice in West Antarctica. In the year or two since Walker’s book was published there have been new studies confirming that vulnerability, but when Walker was writing there was already evidence that the supposed stability of the great ice sheet was in doubt. She explains in detail the work of scientists who discovered that the hinge lines where the West Antarctic glaciers join their floating ice shelves were moving inland at a rapid rate and that the glaciers themselves were observably thinning.

Walker then tells of the suspicions that warm water in the ocean was responsible and of the discovery that indeed in the Amundsen Sea warmer deep water which was normally kept away from the Antarctic ice by a gigantic underwater shelf was here able to creep up through channels and lap against the ice, gouging it from below.

The remaining question was how far this process could extend inland. That depends on the land beneath the glaciers. In the case of the Thwaites glacier there is no such obstacle and, because it is not contained in a trough, melt could spill into other ice streams.

The prospect for sea level rise is dire. When added to the sea level rise expected from melting ice in Greenland it would be, comments Walker, “enough to cause death and destruction, particularly among the many millions living on low-lying deltas in the developing world.”

Walker acknowledges that this West Antarctica research is all very new and fresh and there remains a lot to learn. But since she wrote there has only been further scientific confirmation of how exposed the Amundsen Sea glaciers are to the predation of a warming ocean.

Walker’s book, in its patient narrative of scientific field study in the Antarctic, leaves the lay reader with an understanding both of the rigour of the science and of the way in which teams of scientists gradually contribute to the impressive edifice of knowledge that climate science has become. Whether the political world is capable of responding to that knowledge is sadly still moot, but we can’t say we haven’t been clearly told what it portends.

Little Whyte Bull Gareth Renowden Jul 09

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Late last week, New Zealand’s far right ACT party was pleased to let the media know that its leader, Jamie Whyte, had won the “prestigious Institute of Economic Affairs’ Seldon1 Award” — an award given to IEA fellows by the IEA for work published by the IEA. Whyte is an IEA fellow, which may (or may not) be prestigious in itself — the IEA is the grandaddy of British free-market “think tanks” — but the award appears to be little more than a bit of mutual backslapping. Whyte won for a paper published last year entitled Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism (pdf), in which he sets out to show that “much ‘evidence-based policy’ is grounded on poor scientific reasoning and even worse economics”. Unfortunately, in his discussion of climate science in the paper, he shows an incredibly poor understanding of what the science actually says, and an even worse appreciation of its implications for humanity.

Here’s Whyte asserting that “the science is not settled” (p80 of the pdf):

The forecasts for AGW relied upon by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other authorities are derived from modern climate science and, especially, from general circulation models (GCMs). How credible are these models and the climate science behind them? Or, more precisely, how much credence should we give their predictions of a calamitous man-made increase in the global climate (sic) in several decades’ time?

That climate models are especially important in determining a need to urgently cut carbon emissions is a common fallacy expressed by those who seek to minimise the need for action to reduce those emissions. Climate models are extremely useful tools, and they allow us to ask a great many “what if” questions about the way the ocean/atmosphere climate system works, but to know that we are in big trouble all we need is basic physics and an understanding of climate history.

What do we know with great certainty?

  • Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere must result in heat accumulating in the climate system. This is both theoretically obvious — known for 150 years — and understood down to the quantum level.
  • The pattern of warming observed — the fingerprint — is precisely what would be expected from increased greenhouse gas levels. It is supported by observations of land and ocean warming, land and sea ice reductions, and stratospheric cooling.
  • The study of past climate states — paleoclimate — tells us that when atmospheric CO2 was at levels equivalent to today’s, sea levels were 16-20 metres higher than now, and the world was a much warmer place, with little or no ice in the Arctic and a greatly reduced Antarctic ice sheet.

No models are required to suggest that dumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere is going to get us into big trouble. The models provide useful advice about what we can expect to happen and when, given assumptions about future greenhouse gas emissions, but they are not the only or even the most important reason2 why we need to act to stabilise and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas loading.

A paragraph later, Whyte suggests a null hypothesis, but gets it completely the wrong way round.

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that we do not know what the climate would be in 50 years’ time if the climate models that predict AGW were false. In other words, we do not know what the climate would be if the null hypothesis were correct. No one denies that the climate changes even without any human influence. But, without depending on the very models we seek to test, we cannot predict the future climate without the effects of greenhouse gases. This means that we do not know which future climatic observations would confirm the AGW hypothesis and which would disconfirm it.

When we have observations showing that the planet is warming because of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and a detailed understanding of why based on well-understood physics, then the correct null hypothesis is that warming will continue if greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. The onus of proof lies with those who want to overturn that understanding. I somehow don’t think that Whyte is quite ready to re-write quantum physics.

Whyte’s misunderstanding of climate models and what they tell us is not limited to the foregoing, and I leave it as an exercise for the reader to enumerate all the ways in which he is wrong3, but it is worth looking closely at his discussion of “uncertainty and climate policy” (p91 et sub). Here’s his introduction:

The predictions of theories that have not been tested, and are not entailed by well-known facts, do not warrant high levels of certainty. Those who insist on this are not ‘anti-science’, as they are often claimed to be. On the contrary, it is those who are willing to be convinced in the absence of predictive success who display an unscientific cast of mind. The predictions of AGW may well be true but the certainty we should have in them falls well short of the certainty properly enjoyed by the predictions of physics. Those scientists who say otherwise – who claim that the predictions of climate science warrant as much confidence as predictions based on gravity, or that the AGW thesis is ‘settled’ – do not promote the public understanding of science.

Whyte’s fixation with, and denial of, the “predictive success” of climate models is just one more straw man among many, but his misunderstanding of certainty implies that the “motivated certainty” he imputes to scientists is much more in evidence in his own thinking. He argues, but fails to convincingly demonstrate, that we can’t be certain of the truth of the “AGW thesis”, and that therefore we should not act to cut emissions. It’s been difficult to get international agreements on emissions reductions, he says, and then states:

Add to this the uncertainty about the AGW thesis, and pursuing the policy of cutting carbon emissions looks misguided.

As non-sequitors go, that has to take the biscuit, if not a whole packet of jammy dodgers. It is certainly difficult to get international cooperation on climate matters, but that is true on almost any policy matter. I don’t expect to find Whyte’s ACT party arguing against the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement on the ground that it’s difficult to negotiate and that its benefits are uncertain, though both are certainly true.

Whyte’s failure to grasp even the bare bones of the climate problem lead him to some truly facile statements about sensible policy options.

If AGW is uncertain, and if the future climate even without AGW is uncertain, how can you decide which adaptive policies are wise? The short answer is that you need only respond to market prices. [...] …adaptations to climate change will occur without any direction from governments. Insurers and investors have a private interest in adjusting the prices they charge to changing risks, and businesses and households have private interests in responding to those changing prices. No government policy is called for.

There’s one small problem for this view, and it’s a trap Whyte would have avoided had he bothered to familiarise himself with what we really know about the climate system. We no longer live in a static climate. Heat is accumulating in the system, and even if atmospheric greenhouse gases were to somehow, magically4, stabilise at current levels, the planet’s surface would continue to warm for at least another 30 years, and sea level rise would continue far into the future. If you take no steps to cut emissions and stabilise greenhouse gases, you are committed to adapt to a moving target.

Acting to reduce emissions amounts to a sensible insurance policy5, because it reduces the risk of low probability, but high cost damages in the future. We may not be certain that warming will be catastrophic, but even a low probability of that being true should motivate us to act urgently, because the ultimate costs will be so large.

Those costs, however, are not purely economic and cannot be assigned a single monetary value. You cannot simply assume that economic growth will continue in the future, or that future generations will inevitably be richer than we are today. The environmental damages of climate instability and resource restraints on an increasingly crowded planet will make continued economic growth (as it is presently defined) ever more difficult to achieve. The economy and the environment are not two separate but interacting systems. Economies exist inside earth systems that provide free support services (air, water, soil, stable climate etc). When those services fail, economies inevitably struggle. Money is of no use if there is no food to buy.

If you accept the evidence offered by climate science at face value — that the planet is warming, and it would be wise to try to stabilise and then reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — then policy making can flow from that. The message is not itself political: it is a statement of well understood fact. The denial of that fact is, however, motivated by economic interests and political ideologies. Whyte is just another ideologue making stuff up to justify his world view. Apparently that’s enough to get a form prize in year 12 philosophy at Free Market Grammar.

In some respects it’s not surprising that the right wing, free market, libertarian-leaning wing of political thought should be uncomfortable with the recent emphasis on building government policy around real evidence, and not just gut feelings or populist sentiment. As Stephen Colbert has pointed out, reality has a well-known liberal bias. It’s hard to think of a single tenet of free-market, right wing policy which has any broad base of evidential support. So what do you do when you don’t like the facts? You shoot the messenger delivering them.

Whyte’s paper, in its section on climate science and condescending nonsense about scientific expertise, is just a well-written but intellectually lightweight exercise in building straw men and shooting them full of arrows. In right wing circles, this obviously plays well, as his award — and rapid elevation to the leadership of the ACT party — demonstrates. The real world is not about to cooperate, however hard Whyte, ACT and the ideologues of the right might wish it to.

[Tommy Steele]

  1. Not this Seldon, sadly.
  2. Ocean acidification alone should be enough to motivate steep emissions cuts and ultimately, reduction of atmospheric GHG levels.
  3. They are many, and various, but life is too short etc etc…
  4. The free market at work, perhaps?
  5. Whyte manages to get the insurance argument wrong, too, in a section in which he discusses alien abduction policies(!).

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From The Future Bryan Walker Jul 03

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Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, co-authors of the acclaimed Merchants of Doubt, have joined forces again to produce a striking short fictional work The Collapse Of Western Civilization: A view From The Future. It purports to be an essay written by a Chinese historian three hundred years after the collapse of western civilisation towards the end of the 21st century when untrammelled climate change took its full effect.

The period of the Penumbra (1988-2093) ended in the Great Collapse and Mass Migration (2073-2093). That’s the scope of our Chinese historian’s survey. He (or she)records the dawning scientific realisation of the effects human activities were having on the planetary climate, the setting up of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the first manifestations of the change in the intensification of fires, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves. Thus far he writes of matters familiar to us.

He then moves on to recount the rapidly mounting disasters as the century proceeds. It’s somewhat unnerving to read of what we know as predictions as if they had already become the stuff of history. All the more unsettling because anyone who follows climate science will recognise that the chain of disaster he traces, from failing food crops in intense heat waves to unmanageable sea level rise as the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets begin to disintegrate is entirely possible if greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the atmosphere by human activity. The resultant human suffering and death the historian records may be more speculative from our end, but his calm account of the human consequences has a dismaying ring of likelihood to it.

The startling aspect of this rapid decline to the historian is that the people caught up in it knew why it was happening but were unable to act upon what they knew. “Knowledge did not translate into power.” In fact, in full contradiction to what was known, a “fossil fuel frenzy” developed just when the urgency of a transition to renewable energy was becoming undeniable. The frenzy was exacerbated by the expansion of shale gas drilling and as gas became cheaper it supplanted nascent renewable energy industries.  Oil from tar sands also became an attractive commercial prospect and developed apace.

There were notable exceptions. China, for instance, took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources. The West didn’t like population control and didn’t notice that the rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions in China masked the renewable energy revolution taking place at the same time. China’s emissions fell rapidly by 2050. “Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different,” comments our Chinese historian, perhaps a trifle smugly.

A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment. “It is for this reason that we now know this era as the Period of the Penumbra.”  A second Dark Age, in other words.

How did it happen? Perhaps surprisingly the scientists themselves get some of the blame. They failed to recognise how much was required of them in communicating the broad pattern of climate change. They concentrated on their specialist areas. They were too concerned to demonstrate their disciplinary severity by setting unnecessarily high standards for proof that various phenomena were linked to warmer temperatures. They were culturally naïve in the face of the powerful societal institutions determined to continue to use fossil fuels.

…it was the dominating ideology of market fundamentalism which prevented the West from coming to grips with the threat of climate change…

However it was the dominating ideology of market fundamentalism which prevented the West from coming to grips with the threat of climate change, although the technological knowledge and capability to do so was available to them. Even when some scientists realised that they needed to be more urgent in communicating the full implications of their knowledge to the public they could make no headway against the neoliberal economic theory which prevailed. The ideology suited those who wanted to continue with fossil fuels and who were quite prepared to jettison the science which pronounced the folly of doing so. And so the protagonists of neoliberal economics blocked a managed transition to a low-carbon economy. They were left in the end with only disaster management, and ironically with the centralised government and lack of personal choice which they most dreaded.

Is this, or something like it, really going to be our future? The authors are not being fanciful in the scope and grimness of their future historian’s record and analysis. There is no reason to suppose our civilisation can avoid the massive translocations and severe human suffering that will ensue if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their present trajectory. And there is little enough evidence of a political will to avoid that path and manage a rapid transition to non-carbon energy systems. Indeed denial is still on the rampage in many circles of government and industry. Think of Tony Abbott or Stephen Harper and their cohorts, or of the madness that is abroad in the utterances of some US Republican politicians.

The tepid and ambiguous climate concern which characterises governments such as our own in New Zealand is no more reassuring. Being hell-bent on further fossil fuel discovery and exploitation is hardly compatible with action to rein in climate change. The “fossil fuel frenzy” of the book is in full operation here.

Oreskes and Conway do justice to the full seriousness of climate change. That seems to me prime among the many values of their book. The consequences of unrestrained climate change will surely be shattering. Their sheer magnitude is hard to appreciate and few seem to grasp it. The historian the authors have imagined writes in the unimpassioned and analytical language proper to his profession. We can’t and shouldn’t match him in that regard. The future reality the book portrays is fearful. It must be our spur to insistently demand that our governments throw off the shackles of ideology and take the pragmatic steps which can yet avoid the worst that climate change will bring. For all its dispassion the book is a call to arms.

Record winter warmth in NZ: June 2014 breaks 140 year record Gareth Renowden Jul 01

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NZ7SSJune14

Hot off the press — or to be precise, Jim Salinger’s laptop: June 2014 was the warmest June in New Zealand since 1870, 2ºC above the 1971-2000 average, as measured by the long term “seven stations series” originally devised by Salinger and maintained by NIWA. On the larger 24 station series the month tied with 2003 at 2.1ºC above the 1971-2000 average. Many stations recorded warmest ever Junes, including Dunedin with 8.7ºC, +1.7°C above average, Invercargill with 7.8ºC (+2.2°C), Kaitaia (14.5, +1.7), Tauranga Aero (13.1, +2.4), Masterton Aero (9.8, +2.3), and Hokitika Aero (+10.4, +2.4). Jim points out that NZ warming is most clearly seen in the winter months (and expressed in the snow and ice record) but often escapes notice because a warm winter month is still “cool” compared with the seasons around it.

[Update 3/7: The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reports that the 12 months ending in June were the warmest July/June since records began (The Age. Jim Salinger tells me that in New Zealand July 13 to June 14 was the 3rd warmest in the long term record.]

Thin Ice: what polar science is telling us about climate Gareth Renowden Jun 30

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This guest post is by professor Peter Barrett, executive producer, and Suze Keith, marketing advisor for Thin Ice.

Scientists can tell human stories about climate change, and a group of us have been working on just that for the last few years. We’ve produced a film — Thin Ice – the inside story of climate change — which follows a scientist, geologist and camera buff Simon Lamb, who is concerned at the flak his climate science colleagues have been taking.

Simon travels from the Antarctic to the Arctic. He listens to scientists talk about their work, hopes and fears, and discovers how the astonishing range of research really does fit together. By the end there are just two messages – that our ultimate goal should be zero carbon emissions (in line with the latest IPCC report), and that science really does work. As paleoclimatologist Dave Harwood says to young people at the end of the film:

Don’t be scared by this thing. Come and join in our effort. Be the best scientists and engineers you can, and we’ll deal with it.

But does the film work? You be the judge and let us know (add your comments below). Reports from the global launch last April (200 sites world-wide) were enthusiastic. As film distributor Green Planet Films CEO Suzanne Harle says:

I love this film. It’s like a one-to-one chat with the scientists. They do come to an alarming conclusion, but at least you can see why, and what has to be done to deal with it.

It’s also working with community groups and schools. Terry Burrell, leader of the science team from Wellington’s Onslow College, screened the film in a 5 week course on climate change involving both science and social studies for Year 10 students. “Many students before watching the film saw it simply as something people had opinions about. Thin Ice explains the science so clearly.” Terry will running a workshop on the film and course at the NZ science educators conference next month.

Others find the film useful because of questions it raises, such as who you trust for reliable information, and of course how can we reduce carbon emissions.

Thin Ice is a David Sington/Simon Lamb film, and a collaboration between Oxford University, Victoria University of Wellington, and DOX Productions, London. The film is available with subtitles in 6 languages by streaming, download or DVD to individuals from www.thiniceclimate.org, and to educational institutions and community groups through www.greenplanetfilms.org.

The website also supports over 30 free video shorts, which explore climate science topics further, and provides background information on the scientists. As an example, here’s VUW’s Tim Naish (and others) discussing the Andrill seabed core and what it tells us about the stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet:

People talkin’ #16 Gareth Renowden Jun 25

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I promised an open thread, so here’s one to hold all your latest thoughts and wisdom. What’s it to be? Wind power, silly “solar models” built on notch filters and fudge factors, or the abysmal climate politics afflicting our friends across the Tasman? You decide. I only ask that you abide by the comment policy and stay roughly on the climate beat.

In vino, climate veritas: Salinger on warming and the new world of wine Gareth Renowden Jun 23

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Wine grapes are a climatically sensitive crop grown across a fairly narrow geographic range. Growing season temperatures for high-quality wine production is generally limited to 13–21°C on the average. This currently encompasses the Old World appellation regions of France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the Balkans, and those developing New World regions in California, Chile, Argentina, southern Australia and New Zealand.

Speaking at the International Masters of Wine Symposium last month in Florence in Italy, professor Greg Jones, the wine climate specialist from the University of Southern Oregon, noted that the overall growing season temperature trend was upwards. This is for numerous wine regions across the globe from 1950–2000, by 1.3°C. Greater growing season heat accumulation with warmer and longer seasons has occurred. At the same time frost days (days below 0°C) have decreased from 40 to around 12 per year at Blenheim.

There has been a decline in the number of days of frost that is most significant in the dormant period and spring, earlier last spring frosts, later first frosts in autumn with longer frost-free periods. For example in Tuscany, the Chianti region of Italy, summer temperatures have increased by 2°C from 1955-2004. The warming is extending the world’s wine map into new areas such as British Columbia in Canada, Exmoor in England and into the southern Baltic.

The climate impacts of these warming trends in the Old World regions has been earlier budburst and flowering and altering ripening profiles which affect wine styles. For example, potential alcohol levels of Riesling at harvest in the Alsace region of France have increased by 2.5% (by volume) over the last 30 years and are highly correlated to significantly warmer ripening periods, earlier budbreak and flowering. In Napa, California from 1971-2000 average alcohol levels have risen from 12.5% to 14.8% while acid levels fell and the pH climbed. Soil temperatures are increasing in the wake of air temperatures, and will likely present numerous additional issues.

Similar warming trends are being observed in viticulture areas in New Zealand. For example in New Zealand’s largest wine production region in Marlborough, mean annual temperatures over the last 80 years have increased by 0.9°C, with the number of summer days (days above 25°C ) at Blenheim increasing from 24 to 36 a year.

Blenheimhotdays

At the same time frost days (days below 0°C) have decreased from 40 to around 12 per year at Blenheim.

Blenheimfrost

Greg Jones noted that climate model projections by 2100 predict growing season warming of an additional 2.0–4.5°C on average. NIWA mid-range projections for the New Zealand wine grape areas are for a warming of 1°C by 2030 and 2°C by 2090.

The Florence Symposium turned its attention to how the European wine industry is preparing for a warmer world — and these lessons are very pertinent to our wine industry in New Zealand.

While challenges exist for all New Zealand wine regions, opportunities for a more sustainable industry are being addressed in the overseas industry and research communities. At the vineyard level the terrain slope (utilizing north rather than south facing slopes), training systems and vineyard design can be changed. For example many vine rows, have been oriented to maximize sunshine in places where this is no longer the optimal objective and shade will become a positive rather than a negative in many places.

Another option is wine variety diversification. The Piedmont region of Italy is noted for its red wines which are made from either Dolcetto or Nebbiolo varieties. Although both varieties are grown over a relatively narrow climate range, Nebbiolo performs better in a warmer climate (17.8 to 20.4°C) with a long growing season. Dolcetto does better in a slightly cooler climate (16.4 to 18.4°C). This represents an expansion in quality and production potential.

There are about 5,000 or so varieties of grape that are known presently. In Bordeaux (France) the Parcelle 52 project, underway since 2009, is monitoring the performance of all sorts of locally unfamiliar grapes such as Grenache, Tempranillo and Georgia’s Saperavi in order to prepare for a hotter climate in the future.

Wineclimates

Climate-maturity groupings based on relationships between plant life cycle requirements and growing season average temperatures for high to premium quality wine production in the world’s benchmark regions for many of the world’s most common cultivars. Diagram supplied by Greg Jones.

Other tips for a more glorious future in wine production from researchers include Rabigato and Alfrocheiro in Portugal; Sumoll, Escursac and one of the two different Maturanas in Spain; Counoise and Verdesse in France; Lagrein on the Italian mainland and Nieddera in Sardinia. The fastest growing varieties globally have been away from the cooler wine styles to Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and, especially, Tempranillo. The New Zealand wine industry can seize the opportunities with similar evaluations for each region with different varieties.

Finally the traditional appellation regions in Europe are in areas of significant topography and research programmes have been mapping potential new areas for production at higher elevations. New Zealand has a long latitude range and the South Island, in particular, has significant areas above 300 metres which can be utilised. This allows the migration of warmer wine styles south, with the cooler wine styles to higher elevations. For example, the MacKenzie Basin in inland Canterbury very likely has a significant potential for a future viticulture area – with a dry climate, hot summers and cold winters.

The Romans said: ‘Vino veritas — In wine there is truth’. The truth now is that the earth’s climate is changing much faster than the wine business, and virtually every other business is preparing for. The gradual nature of climate change should provide the industry sufficient time to develop and utilise some of the adaptation strategies discussed in Florence. A warming world represents opportunities for the New Zealand wine industry – both producers and growers.

This guest post is by Dr Jim Salinger, who is currently a visiting scientist at IBIMET-CNR, in Rome. He is conducting research on climate and wine quality in Tuscany. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it… An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Lucy Lawless edition of the NZ Herald earlier this month.

TDB Today: You ain’t seen nothing yet Gareth Renowden Jun 18

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Last week was something of a trial: bits of my little farm were being washed out to sea, tracks were eroding, and our road was closed by slips and rockfalls. Just another in a sequence of extreme weather events that have got the locals in North Canterbury wondering about the weird weather being inflicted on them. In my Daily Blog post this week — You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet — I note that worse is on the way, and there’s little we can do beyond battening down the hatches.

[Smashie & Nicey]

The Sixth Extinction Bryan Walker Jun 16

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Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is science journalism of a high order. As with her earlier notable book on climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, she includes lively narrative accounts of her visits to places around the world where scientists are at work and communicates the import of their work with clarity and intelligence. Well-informed background discussions on the general topic of extinction are woven into these narratives, in passages well pitched to the understanding of the general reader. Foreboding though the subject may be the book is a pleasure to read.

The phenomenon of species extinction has only begun to be understood in relatively recent times. Kolbert traces the discussions of the 19th century from the ground-breaking conclusion of Cuvier to the doubting Lyell and finally Darwin, whose theory of evolution necessarily involved the disappearance as well as the emergence of species.

In evolutionary terms the mass extinctions of the distant past are a special case, arising from relatively sudden events for which natural selection over long periods of time had not prepared many of the species which disappeared under the stress of a rapidly changed environment. Kolbert comments on the fact that just as we have recovered the story of these past events and identified five of them we have discovered that we are causing another. Whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five is not yet known, but the indications are significant enough for it to be called the Sixth Extinction. She notes the estimation that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles , and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. It’s no small matter.

Sometimes it is perfectly obvious what has caused the disappearance of a species. The Great Auk was simply hunted to final extinction by the 19th century, a fate similar to that of the Moa in New Zealand. The book notes that the disappearance of megafauna such as the mammoth and mastodon is increasingly seen as caused by human killing rather than climate change, though either count gives cause for worry.

Other extinctions or near-extinctions are more mystifying. Kolbert visits Panama to report on the fungus that is killing off large populations of frogs in many countries. She also describes a cold-loving fungus destroying large populations of hibernating bats in the north eastern United States. In the context of the bat chapter she embarks on an extended discussion of introduced and invasive species and their sometimes destructive effects in their new environments.  By transporting species “we are, in effect, reassembling the world into one enormous supercontinent”.

Ocean acidification, global warming’s “equally evil twin”, is occurring at what may well be a record pace in the geological scale of Earth’s history as a consequence of the increased carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Acidification clearly played a significant part in at least two of the Big Five extinctions, and it is difficult to see how the current increases in ocean acidity can avoid serious loss of diversity in sea life.  Kolbert points out that oceans are now 30 percent more acidic than they were in 1800; under a business as usual scenario that will rise to 150 percent this century. The destructive visible effects of a more acid ocean on vulnerable species are described in a visit she makes to a research station on a tiny island near Naples close to a volcanic vent on the seabed.

The profound effect of acidification on coral reefs is highlighted in a chapter describing the author’s stay on a research station on a Great Barrier Reef island where a team headed by climate scientist Ken Caldeira was stationed. A recent paper by Caldeira and members of his team concluded that if current emissions trends continue, within the next fifty years or so “all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve.” Add the effect of warming oceans to acidification, and the future of coral reefs and all they mean for ocean life looks bleak indeed. Kolbert reports a group of British scientists saying reefs “will be the first ecosystem in the modern era to become ecologically extinct”.

I found myself wondering when reading this chapter what Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, making common cause with Canada’s Stephen Harper as I was writing this review, would make of such judgments. He seems to have dropped ‘crap’ from his climate change vocabulary, but he said recently that he could think of few things more damaging to Australia’s future than leaving coal in the ground and not  selling it. The Great Barrier Reef reduced to rubble looks a great deal more damaging, but I guess Abbott doesn’t read troubling books like Kolbert’s.

Migration or adaptation of finely-adapted species as temperature increases occur is in some cases likely to be essential to survival. One of Kolbert’s chapters tells of her visit to one of the world’s diversity “hot spots”, Manú National Park in Peru. Here she accompanied a forest ecologist Miles Silman who regularly checks the trees in seventeen plots which sit at different elevations and hence have different average annual temperatures. In the diverse world of the park this means that each plot represents a slice of a fundamentally different forest community.

Silman has found that global warming is driving the average genus up the mountain at a rate of two and a half metres per year, though the average masks a range of response. Kolbert points out that global warming is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all the earlier glaciations. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate, or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly. It’s a big ask and so far in the monitored plots only the most “fleet-footed” trees are keeping pace. How many species overall will be capable of moving fast enough remains an open question, but  one  likely  to be answered within decades. The answer could be devastating.

In conclusion Kolbert faces up to the “transformation of the ecological landscape” for which our species has in many diverse ways already been responsible and which it looks set to continue through felling tropical forests, altering the composition of the atmosphere and acidifying the ocean. We are putting our own survival in danger, for we remain dependent on the earth’s biological and geochemical systems. Kolbert quotes Paul Ehrlich’s memorable words: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

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