Ecology, Climate Change and Related News

Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Archive: Nov 2017

  1. Climate change impacts already locked in, but the worst can still be avoided

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    November 16, 2017 University of Exeter Read full ScienceDaily article here

    Some impacts of global warming — such as sea level rise and coastal flooding — are already locked in and unavoidable, according to a major research project.
    Global temperatures have already risen by around 1°C, and a further 0.5°C warming is expected. The full impacts of current warming have not yet been seen, since ice sheets and oceans take many decades to fully react to higher temperatures.

    But more severe impacts can still be avoided if global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

    More than 50 scientists from 16 institutions in 13 countries have worked on the HELIX project (High-End Climate Impacts and Extremes), which has just finished after four years. The project examined the possible effects of warming of 1.5°C, 2°C, 4°C and 6°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

    Even with rapid cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions keeping warming below 2°C, sea levels could rise by 0.5m by the end of the 21st Century, particularly affecting small island states and low-lying countries. HELIX calculations suggest this could impact 2.5 million in Bangladesh….

  2. Groundwater depletion could be significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide

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    • If left to its own devices, this carbon-rich water remains below ground for hundreds to thousands of years before surfacing in oceans or freshwater bodies. But humans are now extracting groundwater at an unprecedented pace to sustain a growing population

    November 16, 2017 American Geophysical Union Read full ScienceDaily article here

    Humans may be adding large amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by using groundwater faster than it is replenished, according to new research. This process, known as groundwater depletion, releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that has until now been overlooked by scientists in calculating carbon sources, according to the new study.

    The study’s authors estimate groundwater depletion in the United States could be responsible for releasing 1.7 million metric tons (3.8 billion pounds) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year.

    Based on these figures, groundwater depletion should rank among the top 20 sources of carbon emissions documented by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This would mean the carbon dioxide emitted through groundwater depletion is comparable to the carbon generated from aluminum, glass, and zinc production in the United States, according to the study’s authors….

    …Rain falling from the sky contains the same amount of carbon dioxide as is present in the atmosphere. But soil carbon dioxide levels are up to 100 times greater than carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, because soil microbes degrade organic carbon into carbon dioxide. When rainwater hits the ground and percolates through Earth’s rocks and sediments, the water dissolves extra carbon produced by these microbes.

    If left to its own devices, this carbon-rich water remains below ground for hundreds to thousands of years before surfacing in oceans or freshwater bodies. But humans are now extracting groundwater at an unprecedented pace to sustain a growing population….

    …Groundwater depletion’s impact on carbon emissions is significant yet relatively small compared to the leading contributors, according to the authors. For example, scientists estimate fossil fuel combustion in the United States is responsible for releasing more than 5 billion metric tons (11 trillion pounds) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, close to 3,000 times the amount released from groundwater depletion. Still, the study authors argue that understanding all sources of carbon dioxide emissions is important for making accurate climate change projections and finding solutions….

    Warren W. Wood, David W. Hyndman. Groundwater Depletion: A Significant Unreported Source of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. Earth’s Future, 2017; DOI: 10.1002/2017EF000586

  3. Groundwater recharge in the American west under climate change

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    November 16, 2017 University of Arizona  read full ScienceDaily article here

    Groundwater recharge in the Western US will change as the climate warms — the dry southern regions will have less and the northern regions will have more, according to new research. The new study covers the entire US West, from the High Plains states to the Pacific coast, and provides the first detailed look at how groundwater recharge may change as the climate changes. Groundwater is an important source of freshwater, particularly in the West.

    Groundwater…. is often used to make up for the lack of surface water during droughts, the authors note. In many areas of the West, groundwater pumping currently exceeds the amount of groundwater recharge.

    “The portions of the West that are already stretched in terms of water resources — Arizona, New Mexico, the High Plains of Texas, the southern Central Valley — for those places that are already having problems, climate change is going to tighten the screws,” Meixner said….

    R. Niraula, T. Meixner, F. Dominguez, N. Bhattarai, M. Rodell, H. Ajami, D. Gochis, C. Castro. How Might Recharge Change Under Projected Climate Change in the Western U.S.? Geophysical Research Letters, 2017; 44 (20): 10,407 DOI: 10.1002/2017GL075421

  4. Scientific Reticence: A Threat to Humanity and Nature – video link to COP23 UN press conference with Dr. Jim Hansen

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    • Hesitancy among scientists to express the gravity of our situation is a major block to our understanding and response to climate change…

    Scientific Reticence: A Threat to Humanity and Nature. Jim Hansen/Pam Pearson/Philip Duffy press conference at COP-23 in Bonn, Germany on 10 November 2017. Video link to a press conference with Drs. James Hansen, Pam Peterson, and Philip Duffy discussing how the hesitancy among scientists to express the gravity of our situation is a major block to our understanding and response to climate change. The reticence results from a combination of factors: political pressure, institutional conservatism, the desire to avoid controversy, aspiring to objectivity, etc. But when the data and the conclusions it leads to are alarming, isn’t it imperative that the alarm be transmitted publicly? Here is another facet of society’s apparent inability to assess and respond appropriately to the present immense, existential threat of climate change

  5. Can Carbon-Dioxide Removal Save the World? Elizabeth Kolbert

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    • CO2 could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe.

    • Carbon dioxide removal technology represents either the ultimate insurance policy or the ultimate moral hazard.
    • It’s been calculated that to equilibrate to current CO2 levels the planet still needs to warm by half a degree. And every ten days another billion tons of carbon dioxide are released.

    ….This past April, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record four hundred and ten parts per million. The amount of CO2 in the air now is probably greater than it’s been at any time since the mid-Pliocene, three and a half million years ago, when there was a lot less ice at the poles and sea levels were sixty feet higher. This year’s record will be surpassed next year, and next year’s the year after that. Even if every country fulfills the pledges made in the Paris climate accord—and the United States has said that it doesn’t intend to—carbon dioxide could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe, assuming it hasn’t already done so.

  6. Ice Apocalypse – Rapid collapse of Antarctic glaciers could flood coastal cities by the end of this century.

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    • High tides would creep higher, slowly burying every shoreline on the planet, flooding coastal cities and creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees. All this could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years — much too quickly for humanity to adapt.
    • Six feet of sea level rise is more likely than three feet. But if carbon emissions continue to track on something resembling a worst-case scenario, the full 11 feet of ice locked in West Antarctica might be freed up, their study showed…
    • Another recent study indicates that Pine Island’s glaciers shattered in a relatively short amount of time at the end of the last ice age.
    • A fast transition away from fossil fuels in the next few decades could be enough to put off rapid sea-level rise for centuries. That’s a decision worth countless trillions of dollars and millions of lives.

    by Eric Hothaus November 21, 2017  Read full Grist article here

    ….Land-based ice, …when it falls into the ocean, it adds to the overall volume of liquid in the seas. Thus, sea-level rise. Antarctica is a giant landmass — about half the size of Africa — and the ice that covers it averages more than a mile thick. Before human burning of fossil fuels triggered global warming, the continent’s ice was in relative balance: The snows in the interior of the continent roughly matched the icebergs that broke away from glaciers at its edges.

    Now, as carbon dioxide traps more heat in the atmosphere and warms the planet, the scales have tipped.

    A wholesale collapse of Pine Island and Thwaites would set off a catastrophe. Giant icebergs would stream away from Antarctica like a parade of frozen soldiers. All over the world, high tides would creep higher, slowly burying every shoreline on the planet, flooding coastal cities and creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

    All this could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years — much too quickly for humanity to adapt.

    …A study they published last year was the first to incorporate the latest understanding of marine ice-cliff instability into a continent-scale model of Antarctica. Their results drove estimates for how high the seas could rise this century sharply higher. “Antarctic model raises prospect of unstoppable ice collapse,” read the headline in the scientific journal Nature, a publication not known for hyperbole.

    Instead of a three-foot increase in ocean levels by the end of the century, six feet was more likely, according to DeConto and Pollard’s findings. But if carbon emissions continue to track on something resembling a worst-case scenario, the full 11 feet of ice locked in West Antarctica might be freed up, their study showed….

    At six feet, though, around 12 million people in the United States would be displaced, and the world’s most vulnerable megacities, like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City, could be wiped off the map.

    At 11 feet, land currently inhabited by hundreds of millions of people worldwide would wind up underwater. South Florida would be largely uninhabitable; floods on the scale of Hurricane Sandy would strike twice a month in New York and New Jersey, as the tug of the moon alone would be enough to send tidewaters into homes and buildings…

    In a new study out last month in the journal Nature, a team of scientists from Cambridge and Sweden point to evidence from thousands of scratches left by ancient icebergs on the ocean floor, indicating that Pine Island’s glaciers shattered in a relatively short amount of time at the end of the last ice age….

    …“Every revision to our understanding has said that ice sheets can change faster than we thought,” he says. “We didn’t predict that Pine Island was going to retreat, we didn’t predict that Larsen B was going to disintegrate. We tend to look at these things after they’ve happened.”

    There’s a recurring theme throughout these scientists’ findings in Antarctica: What we do now will determine how quickly Pine Island and Thwaites collapse. A fast transition away from fossil fuels in the next few decades could be enough to put off rapid sea-level rise for centuries. That’s a decision worth countless trillions of dollars and millions of lives. “The range of outcomes,” Bassis says, “is really going to depend on choices that people make.”

    Robert M. DeConto & David Pollard. Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise. Nature 531, 591–597 (31 March 2016). doi:10.1038/nature17145

    Matthew G. Wise et al, Evidence of marine ice-cliff instability in Pine Island Bay from iceberg-keel plough marks, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature24458
  7. A Population of Billions May Have Contributed to Passenger Pigeon Extinction

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    • Passenger pigeons were so plentiful and so mobile that beneficial genetic mutations spread and detrimental ones disappeared very quickly throughout their population. This caused a loss in overall genetic diversity, which meant less raw material for adapting to human-induced change

    by Steph Yin November 16, 2017   read full NYTimes article here

    North America was once a utopia for passenger pigeons. When European colonizers first arrived, as many as 5 billion of the gray-backed, copper-breasted and iridescent beauties roamed the continent, possibly the most abundant bird to have ever graced the planet. When they migrated, they swept across the entire sky, obscuring daylight for hours or even days at a time, the seeming embodiment of infinity. Then, in just a few decades, the inconceivable happened: Commercialized and excessively hunted, the birds vanished.

    A paper published in Science on Thursday sheds new light on why the creatures went extinct so swiftly and thoroughly. Analyzing the DNA of preserved birds, the researchers found evidence that natural selection was extremely efficient in passenger pigeons.

    This might have made the pigeons particularly well-suited for living in dense flocks, but unable to cope with living in sparse groups once their numbers started to plummet, the authors suggest.

    Biologists generally assume that a large population corresponds to high genetic diversity, which acts as a buffer to extinction, said Susanne Fritz, an evolution expert at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt, Germany, who was not involved in the research.

    But passenger pigeons were so plentiful and so mobile that beneficial genetic mutations spread and detrimental ones disappeared very quickly throughout their population. This caused a loss in overall genetic diversity, which meant less raw material for adapting to human-induced change.

    It’s “totally the opposite of what you would expect,” Dr. Fritz said….

     

  8. COP23: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Bonn

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    Three perspectives on the outcomes of the UNFCCC’s COP23 in Bonn, Germany:

    …COP23, the second “conference of the parties” since the Paris Agreement was struck in 2015, promised to be a somewhat technical affair as countries continued to negotiate the finer details of how the agreement will work from 2020 onwards.

    However, it was also the first set of negotiations since the US, under the presidency of Donald Trump, announced its intention earlier this year to withdraw from the Paris deal. And it was the first COP to be hosted by a small-island developing state with Fiji taking up the presidency, even though it was being held in Bonn…

    Carbon Brief covers all the summit’s key outcomes and talking points.

    • Paris ‘rulebook’
    • Fights over finance
    • Loss and damage
    • Agriculture
      • One notable, yet low-profile outcome from the conference this year was the end of a deadlock on agriculture which had lasted for years. Parties agreed to work over the next few years on a series of issues linking climate change and agriculture. They agreed to streamline two separate technical discussions on this topic into one process. Countries have now been asked to submit their views on what should be included in the work by 31 March 2018, with options including how to improve soil carbon and fertility, how to assess adaptation and resilience and the creation of better livestock management systems.
    • The ‘gateway’
    • Road ahead in 2018

    Closing the climate talks, two ‘rays of light’: What happens when a major world emitter steps away from the table?

    The 23rd annual “Conference of Parties” (or COP23, in UN-speak) closed Friday with two key messages:

    1. The 195 countries signing the Paris Agreement (yes, that includes the United States, albeit quietly) remain committed to a collective framework on international climate action, and
    2. The international community still has yet to send a strong signal that it is committed to transitioning away from fossil fuels.
    True, an alliance of 19 countries, headed by the UK and Canada, committed on Thursday to phase out coal production. (The Guardian, calling the move “a political watershed” in its headline, noted that electricity produced by coal in the UK has fallen from 40 percent to 2 percent since 2012).

    But little progress was made defining specific emissions-cutting guidelines. Activists call for a “robust set of rules,” but that rulebook remains woefully thin. (A U.S. talk about the necessity of fossil fuels sparked one of the conference’s biggest protests. Our quick read: “Song, dance and protests at US energy talk.” Ecowatch has a first-person account.)

    The Center for International Environmental Law saw “two rays of light:” Governments agreed to integrate gender equality into climate action, and they committed to giving indigenous peoples equal footing in UN climate responses.

    It is further sign that the climate talks are also becoming the way the global community addresses environmental and social justice.

    “The decisions related to gender and indigenous peoples are welcome developments,” said Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney for CIEL. The climate talks, he said, are “where theory becomes practice, with real consequences for communities around the globe.

    Plenty of end-of-session wrap-ups on the web, from the Associated Press, France24, Climate Home News, The New York Times and The Guardian (in pictures).

  9. Bonn Climate Summit Coasting Forward, but Acceleration Needed

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    • Steady progress on implementation rules for the Paris Agreement, but more work to do
    • Two years after adopting the Paris Agreement, the global climate policy process is on cruise-control in the race toward a low-carbon, resilient future.  We are still headed in the right direction, but since the U.S. took its foot off the accelerator, the risk of global climate action slowing down has increased. the pace of increasing ambitions has slowed down.
    • We are in the race towards a low-carbon, prosperous and healthy future, being chased by a poorer and less secure one. It’s time to accelerate.

    November 20 2017  by Andrew Deutz, Director of International Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy; Read full article here

    Over the past two weeks, leaders and representatives from around the world came together to build on the promise of the Paris Agreement.

    The conference gets a grade of “meets expectations.”  The negotiators got down to the orderly business of working out the rules to implement, assess, and advance the Paris Agreement.  The processes did not get overly distracted by the U.S. government’s announced withdrawal from the accord.  In fact, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron celebrated the energy generated by the leadership of U.S. governors and mayors.  Nevertheless, the absence of national U.S. leadership was evident within the negotiating process this week and for driving more ambitious climate action in the future.

    Two years after adopting the Paris Agreement, the global climate policy process is on cruise-control in the race toward a low-carbon, resilient future.  We are still headed in the right direction, but since the U.S. took its foot off the accelerator, the risk of global climate action slowing down has increased. the pace of increasing ambitions has slowed down.  It’s time for someone to jump in the driver’s seat and floor it.

    Outside of the formal negotiations, the climate conference is also the world’s biggest trade fair of innovation and inspiration on climate action, and there were clear signs of commitments:

    • Every country needs to increase its climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.  New science shows that nature can provide up to 37 percent of the emissions reductions necessary to stay on track for the Paris Agreement goals by 2030.  Organizations including The Nature Conservancy worked to highlight the opportunities that forests, farms, and wetlands can play to help countries meet their existing climate commitments and accelerate those efforts in the future.
    • Financial innovation remains key to driving climate action and investment…[to] bring together the world’s richest and its most vulnerable nations to provide insurance solutions for poor and vulnerable people exposed to the impacts of climate change…
    • Climate leadership now comes in diverse forms.  COP 23 saw strong representation from growing state and municipal voices in the U.S., led by the U.S. Climate Alliance. Governors and mayors from across the U.S. highlighted the commitments and progress made in 14 states and hundreds of cities to advance their contributions to the goals set by the U.S. in the Paris Agreement.  Currently, those jurisdictions will reach approximately 36 percent of the original American commitment.  We look forward to the Climate Action Summit to be convened by Governor Brown of California in 2018 to augment and accelerate action.

    In the two years since Paris, governments, companies, and communities around the world have stepped up to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the risks they face from climate change.  Taking climate action presents huge opportunities for innovation in all facets of human life – in how the world produces and uses energy, designs buildings and cities, and conserves and uses lands and coastlines.  Every day, new thinking and science is emerging to contribute to safer communities, stronger economies, and healthier lands and waters.

    2017 has shown us in a myriad of places that the negative impacts of climate change are upon us. We are in the race towards a low-carbon, prosperous and healthy future, being chased by a poorer and less secure one. It’s time to accelerate.

  10. Consumption of chinook salmon increases with recovery of West Coast marine mammals

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    November 20, 2017 Oregon State University

    The researchers estimate that from 1975 to 2015, the yearly biomass of chinook salmon consumed by pinnipeds (sea lions and harbor seals) and killer whales increased from 6,100 to 15,200 metric tons, and from five to 31.5 million individual salmon.

    ….While the recovery of marine mammals represents a conservation success, it creates complex tradeoffs for managers also charged with protecting the salmon they prey on, the study concludes. The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 protects all marine mammals, including whales and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) within the waters of the United States. and the Endangered Species Act protects nine West Coast populations of chinook salmon….

    While the recovery of marine mammals represents a conservation success, it creates complex tradeoffs for managers also charged with protecting the salmon they prey on. Credit: © Lori Pagel / Fotolia

    Brandon E. Chasco, Isaac C. Kaplan, Austen C. Thomas, Alejandro Acevedo-Gutiérrez, Dawn P. Noren, Michael J. Ford, M. Bradley Hanson, Jonathan J. Scordino, Steven J. Jeffries, Kristin N. Marshall, Andrew O. Shelton, Craig Matkin, Brian J. Burke, Eric J. Ward. Competing tradeoffs between increasing marine mammal predation and fisheries harvest of Chinook salmon. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-14984-8