Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Ancient Harappan Civilization a Victim of Climate Change

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Climate change isn’t new. A recent study found that it destroyed an ancient civilization approximately 4,000 years ago. The gradual eastward movement of monsoons across Asia at first supported the formation of the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley by allowing large-scale agricultural production, then wiped out the civilization as water supplies disappeared.  This the initial reasoning behind why the Indus valley flourished for 2,000 years, became home to large cities and an empire the size of modern Egypt and Mesopotamia, then dwindled to small villages and isolated farms.

The Harappan civilization, named after its largest city, Harappa, evolved approximately 5,200 years ago and reached its pinnacle between 4,500 and 3,900 years ago, occupying what is now Pakistan, northwest India and Eastern Afghanistan.  An urban society with major cities, a distinctive style of writing and extensive trade, the society accounted for roughly 10 percent of the world’s population at its height and equaled Egypt in its power.  The Harappans’ downfall came because they did not attempt to develop irrigation to support agriculture but relied on the yearly monsoons.  The civilization was largely forgotten until the 1920s when researchers began studying it in depth.

Antiquity knew about Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the Indus civilization, which was bigger than these two, was completely forgotten until the 1920s,” said Liviu Giosan, a geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.  “There are still many things we don’t know about them.”

Nearly 100 years ago, researchers found many remains of Harappan settlements along the Indus River and its tributaries and in a vast desert region.  There were signs of sophisticated cities, sea links with Mesopotamia, internal trade routes, arts and crafts, and writing that has not yet been deciphered.  “They had cities ordered into grids, with exquisite plumbing, which was not encountered again until the Romans,” Giosan said.  “They seem to have been a more democratic society than Mesopotamia and Egypt — no large structures were built for important personalities like kings or pharaohs.  Until now, speculations abounded about the links between this mysterious ancient culture and its life-giving mighty rivers,” Giosan said.

“Our research provides one of the clearest examples of climate change leading to the collapse of an entire civilization,” Giosan said.  The researchers first analyzed satellite data of the landscape influenced by the Indus and neighboring rivers.  Between 2003 and 2008, the researchers gathered samples of sediment from the Arabian Sea coast, the irrigated valleys of Punjab and the northern Thar Desert to find their source and ages and create a timeline of landscape changes.  “It was challenging working in the desert — temperatures were over 110 degrees Fahrenheit all day long,” Giosan said.

After collecting the necessary data, “we could reexamine what we know about settlements, what crops people were planting and when, and how both agriculture and settlement patterns changed,” said researcher Dorian Fuller, an archaeologist with University College London.  “This brought new insights into the process of eastward population shift, the change towards many more small farming communities, and the decline of cities during late Harappan times.”

The insolation — the solar energy received by the Earth from the sun — varies in cycles, which can impact monsoons,” Giosan said.  “In the last 10,000 years, the Northern Hemisphere had the highest insolation from 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, and since then insolation there decreased.  All climate on Earth is driven by the sun, and so the monsoons were affected by the lower insolation, decreasing in force.  This meant less rain got into continental regions affected by monsoons over time.”

For the next several centuries, Harappans seem to have fled along an escape route toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable.  “We can envision that this eastern shift involved a change to more localized forms of economy — smaller communities supported by local rain-fed farming and dwindling streams,” Fuller said.  “This may have produced smaller surpluses, and would not have supported large cities, but would have been reliable.”

Antarctic Ice Melting Faster Than Thought

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

In a sign that global warming is a reality, a new study reveals that ice shelves in western Antarctica are melting at a faster pace than previously known. Data collected by a NASA ice-watching satellite show that the ice shelves are being eaten away from below by ocean currents, which have been growing warmer even faster than the air above.  Launched in January of 2003, NASA’s ICESat (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite) studied the changing mass and thickness of Antarctica’s ice from polar orbit.  An international research team used more than 4.5 million surface height measurements collected by ICESat’s GLAS (Geoscience Laser Altimeter System) instrument between October of 2005 and 2008.  The conclusion was that 20 of the 54 shelves studied — nearly half — were losing thickness.

Melting of ice by ocean currents can take place when air temperature remains cold, maintaining a steady process of ice loss — and ultimately a rise in the sea level.  “We can lose an awful lot of ice to the sea without ever having summers warm enough to make the snow on top of the glaciers melt,” said Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey and the study’s lead author.  “The oceans can do all the work from below.”  The study also found a shift in Antarctica’s winds as a result of climate change.  “This has affected the strength and direction of ocean currents,” Pritchard said.  “As a result warm water is funneled beneath the floating ice.  These studies and our new results suggest Antarctica’s glaciers are responding rapidly to a changing climate.  We’ve looked all around the Antarctic coast and we see a clear pattern: in all the cases where ice shelves are being melted by the ocean, the inland glaciers are speeding up.  It’s this glacier acceleration that’s responsible for most of the increase in ice loss from the continent and this is contributing to sea-level rise.”

Antarctica contains adequate ice to raise sea levels by approximately 187 feet, although it’s unlikely to melt for thousands of years, according to the United Nations.  Some ice shelves are thinning by a few meters a year, and glaciers in response are draining billions of tons of ice into the sea, Pritchard said.  “Most profound contemporary changes to the ice sheets and their contribution to sea level rise can be attributed to ocean thermal forcing that is sustained over decades and may already have triggered a period of unstable glacier retreat.”

Some ice shelves are thinning just a few feet a year, and glaciers drain billions of tons of ice into the sea as a result.  “This supports the idea that ice shelves are important in slowing down the glaciers that feed them, controlling the loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet,” Pritchard said.

While conducting the study, the researchers measured how ice shelf height changed, using computer models to check changes in ice thickness due to natural snow accumulation.  Additionally, they used a tide model that eliminated height changes due to rising tides.  “This study shows very clearly why the Antarctic ice sheet is currently losing ice, which is a major advance,” said Professor David Vaughan, the leader of ice2sea.  The study is significant because it shows the key to predicting how an ice sheet might change in the future.  “Perhaps we should not only be looking to the skies above Antarctica, but also into the surrounding oceans,” Vaughan added.

Tom Wagner, cryosphere program scientist at NASA, said that the study demonstrates how “space-based, laser altimetry” can expand scientists understand of the earth.  “Coupled with NASA’s portfolio of other ice sheet research using data from our GRACE mission, satellite radars and aircraft, we get a comprehensive view of ice sheet change that improves estimates of sea level rise.”

“When ice shelves completely collapse — and we’ve seen that before — the grounded glaciers behind them will speed up; we know that,” said co-author Helen Amanda Fricker of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.  “But what this study is showing, which is very new, is that you don’t need to lose the shelf entirely for this to happen; just a reduction in the thickness of the ice shelf is enough to allow more of the grounded ice behind it to flow off the continent.”

Great Lakes Are on Thin Ice

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

The Great Lakes winter ice cover has dropped dramatically over the past 40 years, according to a new report. On average, peak ice has fallen by 71 percent; Lake Michigan’s ice cover has shrunk even more than that.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compared satellite photos dating to 1973.  Jia Wang, a NOAA ice climatologist, said the changes are stark.  In a year like 1979, ice covered about 94 percent of the lakes in the coldest months of that winter.  “This winter the maximum ice cover is about five percent,” Wang said.  “It’s the lowest ever since the satellite era.”  The drop in ice cover is largely a result of rising temperatures due to climate change.  There are also other factors at play this year in particular, such as El Nino weather patterns.  According to Wang, such a loss of winter ice can cause several problems for the Great Lakes ecosystem.  For example, it can accelerate wintertime evaporation from the lakes, which could reduce water levels.  The trend could also stimulate more and earlier algae blooms, which damage water quality and habitat.  Additionally, it leaves the shoreline more exposed to waves, exacerbating erosion.

The changes in the Great Lakes could make them a dead zone. According to the University of Michigan’s Don Scavia, “By end of the century, Illinois will feel like Texas.  And Michigan will feel like Arkansas.”  Scavia, who leads the university’s Environmental Sustainability Institute, laid out a disconcerting list of changes already taking place in the Great Lakes region as the result of climate change.  According to Scavia the changes include the last frost in spring occurs earlier and earlier, while the first frost in fall is later and later.  This is extending the growing season, as well as changing what plants and crops can grow in the region.  Storms are more intense, and major weather events happen more frequently.

The most alarming potential scenario is the possibility that the Great Lakes to become a dead zone, a body of water that lacks oxygen and no fish or plants can survive.  This happened to Lake Erie in the 1960s, resulting from algal blooms caused by industrial pollution, human waste and farm run-off.  Lake Erie’s devastation led to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.  Oxygen levels in the lake improved in the 1980s, but worsened again in the 1990s.  Recent studies have shown that algae in Lake Erie is returning.

Although lakefront residents may enjoy the more temperate beachfront this year, ice is crucial in maintaining coastal wetlands and water depth.  The wetlands act as an incubator for wildlife in the Great Lakes basin.  Wetlands — the marshy shorelines that harbor numerous plants and animals — require the constant variation of the seasons and Great Lakes water levels.  The lack of substantial ice coverage results in greater evaporation, which leaves water levels across the Great Lakes lower over the long term.

“Having low water levels next year doesn’t make me nervous.  Having low levels over the last 10 years makes me worry,” said Donald Uzarski, director of Central Michigan University’s Institute for Great Lakes Research.  “We’ll see what happens with respect to the water levels.  When the water level’s lower, the coastal wetlands stretch out towards the water’s edge,” out into exposed shoreline areas that are usually under water.

Rather surprisingly, extreme summer and winter temperatures are actually considered good for wetlands. These conditions can feed the growth of wetlands, which are “very dynamic and very responsive to water levels,” according to Kurt Kowalski of the United States Geological Survey.  Climatologists studying lake ice have noticed a steadier pattern of temperatures within the last 10 years.  “The frequency of mild winters has been on the increase.  We’re certainly in a trend for milder winters now,” said Ray Assel, a retired climatologist, recently of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

According to the Canadian Ice Service, ice cover on the Great Lakes for the week of March 5, 2011 was approximately 36 percent and close to the historical average of 38 percent.  By contrast, ice cover for the week of March 5, 2012 has been exceptionally low and is only about 12 percent.

Writing on the earthsky.org website, Deanna Conners says that “In fact, ice cover has been so low this year on Lake Erie that officials began removing the ice boom that prevents large chunks of ice from flowing out into the Niagara River on February 28, 2012.  This is the earliest date for removal since the boom was first installed in the mid 1960s.  The ice boom acts to prevent ice damage to hydropower intake equipment.  Early boom removal is our harbinger of an early spring in western New York.  Dare I say that I think the groundhog was wrong this year?”

Another sign of the times comes from the Daily Great Lakes Seaway Shipping News, which notes that “Shipments of iron ore on the Great Lakes totaled 3,587,016 net tons in January, an increase of 24 percent over a year ago, and 57 percent ahead of the month’s five-year average”.  In typical winters when the Great Lakes have a more widespread ice cover, the billion dollar shipping activity comes to a virtual halt.  Click on this link to view a map of the extent of Great Lakes ice during the cold and snowy winter of 1979, the last time the Great Lakes were more than 95 percent frozen over.

Experts Agree (Sort of): 2011 Was One of the Warmest Years on Record

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Depending on who you listen to, 2011 was either the 11th warmest on record — that’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the 9th — according to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration — NASA.

According to scientists at NOAA, 2011 broke records for climate extremes, as much of the United States faced historic levels of heat, precipitation, flooding and severe weather.  This was driven in part by La Niña events at both ends of the year that impacted weather patterns in the United States and around the world.  NOAA’s annual analysis of U.S. and global conditions, conducted by scientists at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, reports that the average temperature for the contiguous 48 states was 53.8 degrees F, 1.0 degree F above the 20th century average, making it the 23rd warmest year on record.  Rain from coast to coast averaged near normal, despite record-breaking extremes in both drought and precipitation.

Kathryn Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator, described 2011 as an “extraordinary year.”  “It was extraordinary regarding major weather and climate disasters in particular in our country, from tornadoes to droughts to floods and extreme storms,” she said.  “America endured an unusually large number of extreme events causing damages totaling more than $55 billion dollars.”

By contrast, NASA research counters that 2011 was the 9th warmest year since records were first taken in 1880.  In fact, since that year, nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been in the decade since 2000, a rise in global temperature is evident. The only of the 10 warmest years that was not during the past decade was in 1998. Meanwhile, 2010 is still the warmest year on record overall.  The data was gathered from more than 1,000 meteorological stations across the globe.  NASA estimates that over the next few years we’ll see a year that will top 2010′s record breaking temperatures.  “It’s always dangerous to make predictions about El Niño, but it’s safe to say we’ll see one in the next three years,” James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said. “It won’t take a very strong El Niño to push temperatures above 2010.”

According to NASA scientists, 2011 demonstrated a continuing strong trend linked to greenhouse gases.  NASA noted that the current warmer temperatures are primarily sustained by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is created by a variety of human activities, such as coal-fired power plants to fossil-fueled vehicles to human breath.  At present, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceed 390 parts per million (ppm), compared with 285 ppm in 1880 and 315 by 1960, according to NASA.

Writing in The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen says that “In 1880, when the study’s temperature record-keeping begins, the concentration of carbon dioxide was 285 parts per million. Today it is more than 390 parts per million and rapidly rising. Many top climate scientists, including NASA’s James Hansen, have argued that a level not exceeding 350 parts per million is necessary ‘if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.’”

Grape Expectations

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

The English wine industry – once something of a national joke – is coming into its own as climate change has raised temperatures in southern Britain an average of three degrees Fahrenheit between 1961 and 2006.  Today, Britain has approximately 400 commercial vineyards.  Sparkling wines are beating their French rivals in international competitions.  “We’ve noticed the climate has improved consistently. The weather has improved, the ripening period has become longer, and year after year we’re getting quality fruit,” said Chris White, the general manager of the Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, England’s largest vineyard at 265 acres.  Denbies anticipates an even warmer future and last year planted seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc vines, a grape originating from France’s significantly warmer Bordeaux region.

Scientists have been analyzing the effects of climate and weather on wine since before global warming became an issue.  Over the past 20 years, studies have analyzed the emerging impacts of warming temperatures on vineyards in Europe, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere, and modeled the possible effects over the next century.  They see accelerating change that the earth has previously not experienced.  “If we look at the best data we have — there’s some data that goes back 500 or so years, and some paleoclimate stuff going back much further — on balance, changes underway today are as big or bigger than anything in those records,” said Gregory V. Jones, a climatologist at the University of Southern Oregon who specializes in climate’s impact on wine.

To date, rising temperatures have had a mostly favorable impact on wine.  Jones led a study that found the average growing-season temperature in 27 prime wine-producing regions had risen 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the previous 50 years.  In the vineyards of Spain, Portugal, southern France, and parts of California and Washington state, it rose 4.5 degrees.  Jones also found that wine quality ratings rose with the temperature.

According to an article on the Environmental Research website, the world’s vineyards need to alter some of their practices to cope with climate change.  “The diversity of wine production depends on subtle differences in microclimate and is therefore especially sensitive to climate change.  A warmer climate will impact directly on wine-grapes through over-ripening, drying out, rising acidity levels, and greater vulnerability to pests and disease, resulting in changes in wine quality (e.g. complexity, balance and structure) or potentially the style of wine that can be produced.  The growing scientific evidence for significant climate change in the coming decades means that adaptation will be of critical importance to the multi-billion dollar global wine-industry in general, and to quality wine producers in particular.  Adaptation is understood as an adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected environmental change, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.”

There is also the potential for a critical decline in grape production in the United States. “If current trends continue, the (premium-wine-grape production area (in the United States)…could decline by up to 81 percent by the late 21st century,” a team of scientists wrote in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The culprit was not so much the rise in average temperatures but an increased frequency of extremely hot days, defined as above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).  If no adaptation measures were taken, these increased heat spikes would “eliminate wine-grape production in many areas of the United States,” the scientists wrote.

Winemakers in California’s celebrated Napa Valley naturally worry that their reason for being might become untenable.  Napa growers will adapt to climate change and continue making fine wines, Steve Matthiasson of Premiere Viticulture and Matthiasson Wines, said.  He does not anticipate extreme changes anytime soon.  “I don’t doubt any of their data or modeling, and I appreciate them tackling the important issue of climate change,” he said.  “But I think we are much more resilient here in Napa, and we’ll be able to adapt to the changing climate and continue to make world-class wine without losing land to production.”

Is the Minnesota Forest Fire a Symptom of Climate Change?

Monday, September 19th, 2011

An August 18 lightning strike in a northern Minnesota forest after an unusually hot summer started a month-long fire that brought a pall of smoke to Chicago nearly a month after the blaze started.  Driven by northwest winds, the fire in the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that straddles the Canadian border grew from about 11,000 acres to more than 100,000, said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort.

The Pagami Creek fire jumped about 16 miles east in a single day, “unprecedented for northern Minnesota,” said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, a firefighting spokeswoman.  The conflagration is in an area popular with canoeists and campers deep within the three million-acre Superior National Forest, approximately 80 miles north of Duluth.  According to Radosevich-Craig, the fire was spread by near-drought conditions that had already prompted the Forest Service to close some parts of the reserve and limit campfires in others.  “Typically more than an inch of rain would have fallen in this area during this time but didn’t,” Radosevich-Craig said.  “Where the winds are coming from and the strength of the winds is unprecedented.”  The fire has burned at least 160 square miles at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, making it one of Minnesota’s largest on record.

The smoke was heavy enough in the Chicago area – which is 600 miles to the south — that some people complained about burning eyes and breathing problems, the National Weather Service said.  No one has been injured by the fire and no buildings have been destroyed.  “Nobody would have guessed it would be doubling and quadrupling in size,” said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.

“Sometimes it’s like snow falling, there’s so much ash coming down.  And the smoke is so thick it hurts your eyes and throat.  But other times the wind switches and you can’t tell there’s a fire at all. It’s kind of odd,” said Sue Butler, owner of the Trestle Inn saloon on Crooked Lake.  The forest fire is the largest in Minnesota since 1918, surpassing 2007’s Ham Lake fire, which burned about 38,000 acres in Minnesota and another 38,000 in Ontario while also burning 163 buildings. 

“But the colder temperatures should really help.  It’s a lot harder for fire to spread when it’s in the 50s than when it’s in the 80s,” said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the inter-agency team battling the blaze.  “People (fire officials) were pretty surprised when they saw that 100,000-acre number go up on the board.  But I think there’s some optimism out there now.”  Fires in wilderness areas typically are allowed to run their course because they renew the forest naturally.  That was the initial policy with this fire as well, but Superior National Forest officials began an all-out assault to prevent the fire from spreading.  Those efforts came too late, and officials say they didn’t have enough firefighters or aircraft to stop the fire from growing significantly.

In terms of the haze that has blanketed the Chicago area, “The smoke is a big problem, added to the impact that mold count is higher, highest number we’ve had all year. The mold makes the smoke worse, and the smoke makes the mold worse,” said Dr. Joseph Leija, of Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, IL.

The fact that Minnesota is having its biggest forest fire in nearly a century naturally leads to the subject of global warming’s role in the blaze.  Wausau, WI-based WAOW.com’s “Weather You Like It or Not” column notes that “According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Climatic Data Center, the meteorological summer 2011 (June – August) was the second warmest in recorded history.  The average temperature across the U.S was 74.5 degrees which is 2.4 degrees above normal.  The hottest summer ever was that of 1936 with an average temperature of 74.6 degrees.  However the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana did have their hottest summer on record in 2011.  Of course they also had exceptional drought.  Their number of days with 100 degrees or higher was off the charts.  Some areas had over 70 days of such heat.”

Global warming and years of outdated fire-prevention strategies are setting the stage for massive “mega-fires” that scar communities’ homes and pocketbooks.  Early findings from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) trace the circumstances around eight mega-fires across the world in an effort to find clues on how best to avoid them and minimize potential damage.  These fires are defined more by their impact on people and the environment than by their specific size.  “Mega-fire is more of a concept than a construct,” said Robert Keane, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory who was not involved with the report.  “What I interpret (mega-fire) to mean is not only is it large, but it affects a lot of people,” he said.  In the United States, just one or two percent of all wildfires become large incidents, but they engulf about 85 percent of total suppression-related costs and total more than 95 percent of the total acres burned, the report notes, citing earlier work.  “Among all wildfires, mega-fires are the most costly, the most destructive and the most damaging. Against the backdrop of global warming, their onset may be signaling that many conventional wildfire protection strategies are ‘running out of road.’” 

“The growing number of large wildfires and the increasing incidence of mega-fires — along with climate change projections for hotter and drier fire seasons — lend urgency to this issue,” according to the report.

Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

As Hurricane Irene literally tore up the nation’s East Coast, leaving 42 people dead in 12 states in its wake, the question naturally arises about global warming’s role in the disaster.  In a year when spring tornadoes wreaked havoc on towns like Tuscaloosa, AL and Joplin, MO, and with the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) budget stretched to its limit, the clean-up after Irene is almost impossible to imagine.

Estimates of the financial damage vary widely, but Peter Morici, an economist at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, says that the direct costs are likely to be $20 billion, primarily in the Northeast.  Lost economic activity caused by closed restaurants and shops could add an additional $20 billion to the losses, he said. 

 Irene’s effects were particularly savage in parts of New England, as flooding and widespread power failures continued to impact thousands of people.  “I think this is going to end up being a bigger event than people think it is,” according to Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy.  “All of this is massive in scope. What the final dollar amount is, I don’t know.”  

 In southern Vermont, which was especially hard hit, the National Guard airlifted food, water and other supplies to people stranded in 13 communities cut off by floods.  “I think it’s probably a very scary thing to not know when you can get out of town and to have a water system that’s not working and a general store that has run out of bottled water,” Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the Vermont Office of Emergency Management, said.  “People are extremely nervous about being isolated.”  

Although Irene’s floodwaters were gradually receding in parts of Vermont, the governor warned that further flooding and loss of life are likely ahead for the small, rural state.  “It’s just devastating,” Governor Peter Shumlin said.  “Whole communities under water, businesses, homes, obviously roads and bridges, rail transportation infrastructure.  We’ve lost farmers’ crops,” he said.  “We’re tough folks up here but Irene…really hit us hard.” 

 Irene could prove to be one of the 10 costliest calamities in United States’ history; analysts believe that a significant amount of the damage might not be covered by insurance because it was caused by flooding and not by winds, which typically is excluded from many standard policies.  

 While insurers have typically covered roughly 50 percent of the total losses in past storms, they might end up covering less than 40 percent of the costs associated with Hurricane Irene, according to an analysis by the Kinetic Analysis Corporation.  That is in part because of the sheer amount of damage caused by flooding, and it is not known how many owners of damaged homes have flood insurance.  Another reason is the fact that deductibles have risen precipitously in coastal areas recently, requiring some homeowners to cover $4,000 worth of damages or more before insurers pick up the loss.  

 “This could make it harder for many stricken homeowners to rebuild, and could dampen any short-term boost to the construction industry that typically accompanies major storms, Jan Vermeiren, the chief executive of Kinetic Analysis, said.  Especially now that the economy is tight, and people don’t have money sitting around, local governments are broke, and maybe people can’t even get loans from the banks.”  

 Writing for Democracy Now, environmental activist Bill McKibben of 350.org,  says that “Hurricane Irene received a massive amount media coverage, but television reports made little or no reference to the role global warming played in the storm.  We’ve had not only this extraordinary flooding, but on the same day that Hurricane Irene was coming down, Houston set its all-time temperature record, 109 degrees.  We’re in a new situation.” 

In an opinion piece for the Daily Illini, Jason Febrey, writes that “Of course, climate change did not ‘cause’ Hurricane Irene in the strictest sense.  Hurricanes have been ravaging coastal areas since the dawn of time, mostly due to moist tropical air, the spin of the Earth and differential pressure fronts.  But there is no denying that climate change was a contributing factor to Irene’s severity.  Hurricanes normally lose their strength long before they approach Virginia, where ocean temperatures are not warm enough to sustain hurricane-force winds.  This year, however, has been one of the warmest on record with ocean surface temperatures of 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages — enough to sustain a hurricane all the way up to the New England states.  Record temperatures, coupled with rising sea levels and growing amounts of moisture and energy trapped in our atmosphere, are all adding fuel to the destructive potential of natural disasters like Hurricane Irene.  Now that the worst of Irene has passed, we all ought to be grateful that damage wasn’t as terrible as some models predicted.  But we can’t rely on luck or the whims of nature forever.  How long will it be before the hurricanes of tomorrow, strengthened by warmer waters, begin to batter their way even further up the East Coast?  How long before New York turns into New Venice?  Contemplating these possibilities is a sobering exercise.”

A recent editorial written before Irene hit the East Coast in the Newark Star-Ledger  raises some interesting points about climate change.  “We can now add Hurricane Irene among the symptoms that scientists warned we’d experience as global warming occurs.  Wind of up to 100 mph, predicted to lash the East Coast.  Ocean waves as high as 12 feet.  That’s in line with what scientists have said, that hurricanes would become more severe as ocean temperatures rise.  Yet there’s another growing trend on climate change, and that’s denial.  Polls show that while most Americans believe climate change is occurring, most Republicans do not.  Climate complacency is at an all-time high, thanks to those political winds.  How big a disaster will it take to push our leaders back to scientific fact?”

Oxfam: Food Prices to Rise as More Go Hungry

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Climate change and decreasing natural resources will put greater pressure on the world’s supply of food over the next several decades,  threatening millions of people with chronic hunger, according to a report from Oxfam International. The British-based charity says that the world’s food system is “broken,” and that food price increases have driven 44 million people worldwide into poverty already  in 2011.  “Our world is capable of feeding all of humanity yet one in seven of us are hungry today,” said Oxfam Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs.  “As climate change impacts become increasingly severe and fertile land and fresh water supplies become increasingly scarce, feeding the world will get harder still.  Millions more men, women and children will go hungry unless we transform our broken food system.”

Oxfam blames the coming crisis on governments, businesses and wealthy elites.  “Paralysis is imposed upon us by a powerful minority of vested interests that profit from the status quo,” says the report, titled “Growing a Better Future.”  Oxfam points to the price of corn as one example of the system’s problems.  The price of this staple is expected to double over next 20 years.  The impact of climate change on the crop is blamed for 50 percent of that increase.  Use of corn for biofuels also is responsible.  “U.S. policy ensures 15 percent of the world’s maize is diverted to engines, even at times of severe food crisis.  The grain required to fill the petrol tank of an SUV with biofuels is sufficient to feed one person for a year,” Oxfam said.

According to the report,  “Now the major powers, the old and the new, must cooperate, not compete, to share resources, build resilience, and tackle climate change.  The economic crisis means that we have moved decisively beyond the era of the G8, when a few rich country governments tried to craft global solutions by and for themselves.  The governments of poorer nations must also have a seat at the table, for they are on the front lines of climate change, where many of the battles — over land, water, and food — are being fought.”

According to the report food demand will soar 70 to 90 percent by 2050, and that doesn’t take the impact of climate change into account.  Additionally, droughts, floods and changes in agricultural patterns from global warming will add pressure on the food system.  “The food system is buckling under intense pressure from climate change, ecological degradation, population growth, rising energy prices, rising demand for meat and dairy products and competition for land for biofuels, industry and urbanization,” the report says, noting that the number of people going hungry is expected to surpass one billion by the end of 2011.

Oxfam wants governments, especially the G20 nations, “to lead the transformation to a fairer more sustainable food system by investing in agriculture; valuing the world’s natural resources; better managing the food system; and delivering equality for women who grow much of the world’s food.  The report also points out that the private sector needs to change to a business model where profit “does not come at the expense of poor producers, consumers and the environment.”

The average cost of key crops will increase by 120 to 180 percent in the next 20 years, according to the report.  “The food system must be overhauled if we are to overcome the increasingly pressing challenges of climate change, spiraling food prices and the scarcity of land, water and energy,” Stocking said.

The “Oxfam Grow” campaign is led by Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.

Record Rain Predicted in the 100-Year Forecast

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

It’s going to rain.  According to a study by climatologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Texas Tech University, temperatures in Chicago will continue rising over the next century, largely due to human emissions of heat-trapping gasses.  The strength of that warming trend and the impact it brings depends on the amount of future emissions produced by the city and the world.  Katharine Hayhoe, a research associate professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Geosciences, co-led the team of more than 20 researchers along with Donald Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois.

Rains of more than 2 ½ inches a day, an amount that can activate sewage overflows into Lake Michigan, are expected to rise by 50 percent between now and 2039.  By the end of the century, the number of big storms could jump by an almost unbelievable 160 percent.  “We’ve already seen an increase in these extreme weather events, especially in the Midwest and Northeast,” said Don Wuebbles, a U. of I. climatologist who co-authored the study.  “Chicago has had two 100-year storms in three years.  Iowa has had three 100-year floods in less than 20 years.  That’s telling us something.”

Researchers studying Milwaukee’s sewer system concluded that heavy rains caused by climate change could equal a 20 percent increase in the number of sewage overflows, a disturbing sign for Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and other Midwestern industrial cities with similar systems.  As new research points to a changing climate — including heaver rains punctuated by periods of drought — Chicago officials are struggling with the likelihood that the city will need solutions other than the $3 billion Deep Tunnel, an underground network of giant sewer pipes and reservoirs that won’t be completed until 2029.  “There is no doubt that things are going to get tougher,” said Marcelo Garcia, a U. of I. hydrological engineer who is studying Deep Tunnel’s effectiveness.  “I like to think of the entire system as a giant bathtub.  They built a really big bathtub to collect all this water, but it turns out it isn’t nearly as big as what they need.”

But Chicago needs to do more, said Thomas Cmar, an attorney in the Chicago office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Every time the city tears up a street for improvements, they should be thinking about porous pavement in the parking lanes and street trees and rain gardens,” he said. “These things don’t require a lot of money upfront but can pay huge dividends down the line.”

The majority of climate scientists agree that rising global temperatures are changing rain patterns because of increased evaporation and more moisture in the air.  They are less certain about how fast climate change is happening and how human disruption of natural climate cycles affects day-to-day weather.

Another report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) concurs. More Extreme Weather and the U.S. Energy Infrastructure, The study details National Wildlife Federation how severe droughts, heavier rainfall events, changing snowmelt, and more intense tropical storms may cause significant disruptions to the nation’s energy grid, all while the existing system calls for upgrades. “Our hospitals, homes, and economy depend on an energy infrastructure that will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather events related to climate change,” said Amanda Staudt, Ph.D., a NWF climate scientist and the report’s author.

With Inflation on the Rise, Is the Era of Cheap Food Over?

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

The long-feared specter of inflation is finally rearing its ugly head, as consumer prices rose by 0.5 percent in February, according to a report from the Department of Labor.  Take away food and gas prices and the increase was jut 0.2 percent.  “All signs indicate that, against the backdrop of a strengthening economy, inflation is beginning to heat up as well,” said Jim Baird, chief investment strategist of Plante Moran Financial Advisors.  The Department of Agriculture says that food prices could climb three or four percent in 2011.

Although core consumer prices have risen at the slow pace of 1.1 percent over the past year, they’ve also started rising more quickly in the past five months.  The Federal Reserve pays closer attention to the core rate when it determines interest rates and examining whether inflation is under control.  The central bank believes recent price increases are likely to prove temporary.  Critics of the Fed argue its looser-money policies have contributed to the price spikes.  “If core inflation continues to rise, while job growth remains slow and the U.S. expansion is threatened by developments in the Middle East and Japan, then the Fed will be in a very tight spot,” said Ellen Beeson Zentner, senior U.S. macroeconomist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

The lion’s share of the blame for renewed inflation is sharply rising energy prices, which soared 3.4 percent in February alone and represent an 9.8 percent increase over the last three months.  A gallon of gas has risen 50 cents in the first months of 2011, primarily a result of political unrest in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain.  The cost of food rose 0.6 percent in February and 2.8 percent in the last year, driven largely by global demand.  Prices for corn and wheat have soared to a two-year high; sugar prices have climbed to their highest level in 30 years.  Large-scale crop failures around the world have contributed to the spike.  Because these farm staples are used to feed livestock or are included in many packaged goods, the prices of many grocery items — ranging from chicken to cereal — have risen accordingly.  Housing prices, which constitute approximately 40 percent of the core Consumer Price Index, rose for the fifth consecutive month, by 0.1 percent.

For Americans, the return of inflation could signal the end of the era of inexpensive food. Typically, Americans have spent just 10 percent of their paychecks on food, compared with as much as 70 percent in some countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.  Some economists are wondering if the nation’s cornucopia of affordable food is a thing of the past.  “Food prices have been rising a lot faster, because underlying costs have really shot up. You’re seeing some ingredients up 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent over last year,” said Ephraim Leibtag, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist.  “When you see wheat prices close to 80 percent up, that’s going to ripple out to the public.”

Fierce weather patterns, which some scientists blame on climate change, are making the problem worse.  Unprecedented floods in Australia destroyed much of the wheat crop, while a drought threatened China’s.  “We’re not sure if these extremes in weather are the new normal,” said Clive James, founder of the not-for-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.  “But the patterns we’ve seen in the past few years show that this may become more the rule than the exception.”

In nations where people spend 30 to 70 percent or more of their income on food, starvation is on the rise.  The World Bank has reported that as many as 44 million people have been forced into hunger because of rising food prices.  That has helped fuel the conflict in Libya and ousted leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.  “The situation is volatile and we’re at a point of transition,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a grain economist with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.