Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Global Icons, Local Threats: Think Global, Act Local or Risk Losing the World’s Iconic Natural Treasures, New Study in Science Argues

by Scheffer, M., Barrett, S., Carpenter, S.R., Folke, C., Green, A.J., Holmgren, M., Hughes, T.P., Kosten, S., va de Leemput, I.A., Nepstad, D.C., van Nes, E. H., Peeters, E.T.H.M. & Walker, B., Stockholm Resilience Centre: http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-news/3-19-2015-global-icons-local-threats.html

Photo: D. Nepstad
Without better local management, the world’s most iconic ecosystems are at risk of collapse under climate change, says an international team of researchers in study recently published in Science.

Protecting places of global environmental importance such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon rainforest from climate change will require reducing the other pressures they face, for example overfishing, fertilizer pollution or land clearing.

The team of researchers warns that localised issues, such as declining water quality from nutrient pollution or deforestation, can exacerbate the effects of climatic extremes, such as heat waves and droughts. This reduces the ability of ecosystems to cope with the impacts of climate change.

"Managing local ecosystems can help maintain and enhance their resilience in the face of global changes. It is often easier to implement incentives for stewardship of the biosphere in local commons than in global commons, where the uncertainty is lower, and where positive results of management may be more visible," says Centre science director Carl Folke, one of the study’s co-authors.

Unique World Heritage Sites
The authors examined three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Spain’s Doñana wetlands, the Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. While many ecosystems are crucial to their local people, these ecosystems also have a global importance - hence their designation as World Heritage Sites. For instance, the Amazon rainforest is a globally important climate regulator.

Like coral reefs, rainforests and wetlands around the world, these sites are all under increasing pressure from both climate change and local threats.

For example, rising temperatures and severe dry spells threaten the Amazon rainforest and, in combination with deforestation, could turn the ecosystem into a drier, fire-prone and species-poor woodland. Curtailing deforestation and canopy damage from logging and quickening forest regeneration could protect the forest from fire, maintain regional rainfall and thus prevent a drastic ecosystem transformation.

"A combination of bold policy interventions and voluntary agreements has slowed deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to one fourth of its historical rate. The stage is now set to build on this success by ramping up efforts to tame logging and inhibit fire," says co-author Daniel Nepstad, executive director of Earth Innovation Institute.

An unfolding disaster
"All three examples play a critical role in maintaining global biodiversity. If these systems collapse, it could mean the irreversible extinction of species," says the study’s lead author Marten Scheffer. He is Chair of the Department of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management at the Netherlands' Wageningen University.

In the Great Barrier Reef the global threats are ocean acidification and coral bleaching, both induced by carbon dioxide emissions. Local threats such as overfishing, nutrient runoff and unprecedented amounts of dredging will reduce the reef’s resilience to acidification and bleaching.

"It’s an unfolding disaster. The reef needs less pollution from agricultural runoff and port dredging, less carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and less fishing pressure. Ironically, Australia is still planning to develop new coal mines and expand coal ports, despite global efforts to transition quickly towards renewable energy," says co-author Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

"As a wealthy country, Australia has the capability and responsibility to improve its management of the reef," adds Hughes.

No excuse - act locally
The authors suggest their evidence places responsibility on governments and society to manage local threats to iconic ecosystems, and such efforts will complement the growing momentum to control global greenhouse gases. Yet, in the three cases they examined, they found local governance trends are worrisome.

According to co-author Scott Barrett, the problem is one of incentives.

"These ecosystems are of value to the whole world, not only to the countries that have jurisdiction over them. It may be necessary for other countries to bring pressure to bear on these ‘host’ countries or to offer them assistance, to ensure that these iconic ecosystems are protected for the benefit of all of humanity," says Barrett, who is a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Above all, the paper raises awareness of the great opportunities for enhanced local action.

"Local management options are well understood and not too expensive. So there is really no excuse for countries to let this slip away, especially when it comes to ecosystems that are of vital importance for maintaining global biodiversity," says Scheffer.


Scheffer, M., Barrett, S., Carpenter, S.R., Folke, C., Green, A.J., Holmgren, M., Hughes, T.P., Kosten, S., va de Leemput, I.A., Nepstad, D.C., van Nes, E. H., Peeters, E.T.H.M., and Brian Walker. Creating a safe operating space for iconic ecosystems, Science 2015.
Professor Carl Folke is Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and has extensive experience in transdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists. He has worked with ecosystem dynamics and services as well as the social and economic dimension of ecosystem management and proactive measures to manage resilience.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Antarctic Ice Melting Faster than Ever in “Unstoppable Decline”

View of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Laurence Padman, Fernando Paolo and Helen Amanda Fricker, The Conversation, Informed Comment: http://www.juancole.com/2015/03/antarctic-melting-faster.html

Ask people what they know about Antarctica and they usually mention cold, snow and ice.

In fact, there’s so much ice on Antarctica that if it all melted into the ocean, average sea level around the entire world would rise about 200 feet, roughly the height of a 20-story building.

Could this happen? There’s evidence that at various times in the past there was much less ice on Antarctica than there is today. For example, during an extended warm period called the Eemian interglacial about 100,000 years ago, Antarctica probably lost enough ice to raise sea level by several meters.

Scientists think that global average temperature back then was only about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today. Assuming we continue to burn fossil fuels and add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, global temperature is expected to rise by at least two degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

What will that do to Antarctica’s ice sheet? Even one meter of worldwide sea level rise - that is, melting only a fiftieth of the ice sheet - would cause massive displacements of coastal populations and require major investments to protect or relocate cities, ports and other coastal infrastructure.

Ice leaving Antarctica enters the ocean through ice shelves, which are the floating edges of the ice sheet. We expect that any changes to the ice sheet caused by changes in the ocean will be felt first by the ice shelves. Using satellite data, we analyzed how Antarctica’s ice shelves have changed over nearly two decades.

Our paper published in Science shows that not only has ice shelf volume gone down, but losses have accelerated over the past decade, a result that provides insight into how our future climate will affect the ice sheet and sea level.

Cork in a champagne bottle

The link between changing global temperature and ice loss from Antarctica’s ice sheet is not straightforward. By itself, air temperature has a fairly small influence on the ice sheet, since most of it is already well below freezing.

It turns out that, to understand ice loss, we need to know about changes in winds, snowfall, ocean temperature and currents, sea ice, and the geology under the ice sheets. We don’t yet have enough information on any of these to build reliable models for predicting ice sheet response to climate changes.

We do know that one important control on ice loss from Antarctica is what happens where the ice sheet meets the ocean. The Antarctic Ice Sheet gains ice by snowfall. The ice sheet spreads under its own weight forming glaciers and ice streams that flow slowly downhill towards the ocean. Once they lift off the bedrock and begin to float, they become ice shelves.

To stay in balance, ice shelves have to shed the ice they gained from glacier flow and local snowfall. Chunks break off to form icebergs and ice is also lost from the bottom by melting as warm ocean water flows under it.

Schematic diagram of an Antarctic ice shelf showing the processes causing the volume changes measured by satellites. Ice is added to the ice shelf by glaciers flowing off the continent and by snowfall that compresses to form ice. Ice is lost when icebergs break off the ice front, and by melting in some regions as warm water flows into the ocean cavity under the ice shelf. Under some ice shelves, cold and fresh meltwater rises to a point where it refreezes onto the ice shelf.
Helen Amanda Fricker, Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, Author provided

An ice shelf acts a bit like a cork in a champagne bottle, slowing down the glaciers flowing from the ground into it; scientists call this the buttressing effect. Recent observations show that when ice shelves thin or collapse, the glacier flow from the land into the ocean speeds up, which contributes to sea level rise. So understanding what makes ice shelves change size is an important scientific question.

Building an ice shelves map

The first step towards understanding ice shelves is to work out just how much and how quickly they have changed in the past. In our paper, we show detailed maps of changes in ice shelves all around Antarctica based on the 18 years from 1994 to 2012.

The data came from continuous measurements of surface height collected by three European Space Agency radar altimeter satellites. By comparing surface heights at the same point on the ice shelf at different times, we can build a record of ice height changes. We can then convert that to thickness changes using ice density and the fact that ice shelves float.

Prior studies of changes in ice shelf thickness and volume have given averages for individual ice shelves or approximated the changes in time as straight-line fits over short periods.

In contrast, our new study presents high-resolution (about 30 km by 30 km) maps of thickness changes at three-month time steps for the 18-year period. This data set allows us to see how the rate of thinning varies between different parts of the same ice shelf, and between different years.

This map shows eighteen years of change in thickness and volume of Antarctic ice shelves. Rates of thickness change (meters/decade) are color-coded from -25 (thinning) to +10 (thickening). Circles represent percentage of thickness lost (red) or gained (blue) in 18 years. The central circle demarcates the area not surveyed by the satellites (south of 81.5ºS). Original data were interpolated for mapping purposes.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, Author provided

We find that, if recent trends continue, some ice shelves will thin dramatically within centuries, reducing their ability to buttress the ice sheet. Other ice shelves are gaining ice, and so could slow down the loss of ice from the ground.

When we sum up losses around Antarctica, we find that the change in volume of all the ice shelves was almost zero in the first decade of our record (1994-2003) but, on average, over 300 cubic kilometers per year were lost between 2003 and 2012.

The pattern of acceleration in ice loss varies between regions. During the first half of the record, ice losses from West Antarctica were almost balanced by gains in East Antarctica. After about 2003, East Antarctic ice shelf volume stabilized, and West Antarctic losses increased slightly.

Changes in climate factors like snowfall, wind speed and ocean circulation will lead to different patterns of ice shelf thickness change in time and space. We can compare the “fingerprints” of these factors with our new, much clearer maps to identify the primary causes, which might be different in different regions around Antarctica.

Our 18-year data set has demonstrated the value of long and continuous observations of the ice shelves, showing that shorter records cannot capture the true variability. We expect that our results will inspire new ways of thinking about how the ocean and atmosphere can affect ice shelves and, through them, ice loss from Antarctica.
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article at The Conversation.

Laurence Padman is Senior Scientist at Earth and Space Research; Fernando Paolo is a PhD candidate, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego; and Helen Amanda Fricker is Professor, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at University of California, San Diego.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Countries Big and Small Are Connecting Economic Growth to Renewable Energy, and It's Working

Taylor Hill is TakePart's associate environment and wildlife editor. full bio

The United Kingdom saw the steepest single-year drop in greenhouse gas pollution in more than two decades in 2014, according to government data released on Thursday.

The country's carbon emissions fell 8.4 percent, even as its economy grew by 2.6 percent. The decline in carbon emissions was the largest ever in a year when the U.K. economy expanded, according to The Carbon Brief.

It’s a big step forward for a country that has legally committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to just 20 percent of its 1990 levels. The U.K. is currently emitting about 28 percent less than it was in 1990.
U.K. carbon dioxide emissions fell by 9.7 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year, according to figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. (Graph: Courtesy DECC)
In Europe as a whole, energy use dropped to 1990 levels last year, despite population and economic growth. Worldwide, emissions from the energy sector flatlined even as economic activity grew in 2014 - a development not seen in 40 years.

Different factors contributed to decreasing the U.K.'s greenhouse gas emissions. The country gets a fifth of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar farms; in 2014 energy generated from coal-fired power plants fell 23 percent, taking emissions of carbon dioxide down almost 10 percent.
CO2 created by burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of global warming.
Since 1990, U.K. carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by 29 percent, due in part to the changes in the mix of fuels being used for electricity generation, including the growth of renewables. (Graph: Courtesy DECC)
Environmental activists praised the record drop in carbon emissions while calling for even stronger steps to curb climate-changing pollution.

“We must remember that more ambitious carbon emissions reductions are required across different sectors to meet our climate change commitments,” said Emma Pinchbeck of the World Wildlife Fund. “We have the technology for a clean, green, low-carbon economy, we just need to see it rolled out to reduce our reliance on dirty fossil fuels.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Costa Rica also hit a big energy milestone: For the first 75 days of 2015, the Central American country produced all of its energy without burning any coal, gas, or other fossil fuels.

Heavy rainfall levels at the sites of four hydropower plants, combined with increased solar, wind, and geothermal energy capacity, allowed Costa Rica to power its grid solely with renewable sources from January 1 to March 16.

“2015 has been a year of electricity totally friendly with the environment to Costa Rica,” the Costa Rican Electricity Institute announced in a press release.

Like the U.K., Costa Rica saw economic growth at the same time its energy-based greenhouse emissions decreased. The 3.6 percent increase in the country’s 2014 gross domestic product is just the latest in a five-year streak in economic growth. The Central American country and its 5 million citizens have a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021. Mixing new geothermal energy projects in with its existing hydropower plants will make it even less reliant on fossil fuels.

Countries able to limit emissions while growing economically is good news and a “welcome surprise,” said Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency executive director - especially ahead of climate treaty talks in Paris later this year. Negotiators at those talks will be seeking to finalize the next formal international agreement on cutting carbon pollution to limit climate change.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Death of US Coal Exemplifies Need for Paradigm Shift for Global Energy System

The Kayford Mine, a mountaintop removal project near Charleston, West Virginia. (Photo: Dennis Dimick/cc/flickr)
Kayford Mine in West Virginia (Dennis Dimick/cc/flickr)
A new report released Tuesday by the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative warns that the crash of U.S. coal markets is but a harbinger of things to come for all fossil fuel investments.

The report, The U.S. Coal Crash - Evidence for Structural Change (pdf), found that the slump in coal prices has forced more than two dozen U.S. coal companies into bankruptcy over the past three years.

With the rise of renewable energy and a growing call for countries to adapt their energy infrastructures for a more carbon-constrained future, the authors of the report argue that the crash of the U.S. coal economy "provides an excellent example of how the future may pan out globally and with other fuels as the world moves to a low-carbon economy."

According to the study, the market's demise has been driven by a combination of factors, including: lost market share to cheap shale gas, the falling cost of renewable energy sources, and increased environmental protections and industry regulation - driven largely by the Environmental Protection Agency. Further, international markets in Asia have similarly moved to adapt their energy usage in the face of growing concern over carbon emissions.

"The roof has fallen in on U.S. coal, and alarm bells should be ringing for investors in related sectors around the world," said Andrew Grant, Carbon Tracker’s financial analyst and report co-author. "These first tremors are amongst the clearest signs yet of a seismic shift in energy markets, as high carbon fuels are set to be increasingly outperformed by lower carbon alternatives."

On Monday, the international market research firm Macquarie Research warned investors that the outlook for U.S. coal producers is "increasingly bleak," and the sector is likely to undergo "a wave of bankruptcies."

Where the U.S. coal market was historically tied to economic growth, as Carbon Tracker notes, "there is now clear evidence" that the two indicators have been "decoupled."

"The Dow Jones Total Market Coal Sector Index is down 76 percent in the last five years compared with the Down Jones Industrial Average that grew by 69 percent in the same period," says the report.

Andrew Logan, director of the oil and gas program at Ceres, a sustainable investment organization, said, "We’ve known for decades that coal posed serious health and environmental risks, but now coal has also become an investment risk as countries take serious actions to clear their air and protect the climate."

Logan added that investors have now taken up the call of environmentalists and are now "pushing for coal and other fossil fuel companies to face facts and adapt their business models to thrive in a carbon-constrained world."

The warnings come amid a growing call for universities and other large endowments to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies. Last week, the Guardian newspaper publicly challenged the world's two largest foundations, the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust, to pull their combined $70 billion from fossil fuel investments.

It is worth noting that these market shifts have occurred without any global climate deal or U.S. federal measures specifically labelled "carbon" or "climate." Leaders are set to meet in Paris in December to hash out an international climate agreement.

"The evolution of the U.S. energy sector is far from over," the report continues. "Companies and investors by and large underestimated the risks in U.S. coal and did not see the way the wind was blowing until it was too late, and suffered very material losses because of it."