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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Report: Ecosystems in Upheaval, Biodiversity in Collapse


New study documenting climate change shows sweeping changes happening faster than previously recorded and bringing 'cascading effects'

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

A new report documents how climate change is already causing rapid, massive changes with "cascading effects" on ecosystems and biodiversity.


Wolverines in Glacier National Park. (Photo: Elliott Hammer via flickr) The report (pdf), led by the US Geological Survey, the National Wildlife Federation and Arizona State University, foresees a global loss of biodiversity and major shifts in ecosystems.

"These geographic range and timing changes are causing cascading effects that extend through ecosystems, bringing together species that haven't previously interacted and creating mismatches between animals and their food sources," states Nancy Grimm, a scientist at ASU and a lead author of the report.

And these changes will have direct consequences on humans, Amanda Staudt, a NWF climate scientist and a lead author on the report adds, as many ecosystems serve as a backbone in the defense of storm damage.
"Shifting climate conditions are affecting valuable ecosystem services, such as the role that coastal habitats play in dampening storm surge or the ability of our forests to provide timber and help filter our drinking water."

Among the animals in the US affected by climate change already underway, the report states, are climate-induced changes in pests and pathogens that have been deadly to some conifer forests, small mammals which are seeking higher elevations or having their already high elevation habitats shrunk and a fragmentation in habitat for wolverines.

The USGS offers some of the key findings of the report:
  • Changes in precipitation and extreme weather events can overwhelm the ability of natural systems to reduce or prevent harm to people from these events. For example, more frequent heavy rainfall events increase the movement of nutrients and pollutants to downstream ecosystems, likely resulting not only in ecosystem change, but also in adverse changes in the quality of drinking water and a greater risk of waterborne-disease outbreaks.
  • Changes in winter have big and surprising effects on ecosystems and their services. Changes in soil freezing, snow cover and air temperature affect the ability of ecosystems to store carbon, which, in turn, influences agricultural and forest production. Seasonally snow-covered regions are especially susceptible to climate change because small precipitation or temperature shifts can cause large ecosystem changes. Longer growing seasons and warmer winters are already increasing the likelihood of pest outbreaks, leading to tree mortality and more intense, extensive fires. Decreased or unreliable snowfall for winter sports and recreation will likely cause high future economic losses.
  • The ecosystem services provided by coastal habitats are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and more severe storms. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts are most vulnerable to the loss of coastal protection services provided by wetlands and coral reefs. Along the Pacific coast, long-term dune erosion caused by increasing wave heights is projected to cause problems for communities and for recreational beach activities. However, other kinds of recreation will probably improve due to better weather, with the net effect being that visitors and tourism dollars will shift away from some communities in favor of others.
  • Climate change adaptation strategies are vital for the conservation of diverse species and effective natural resource policy and management. As more adaptive management approaches are developed, resource managers can enhance the country’s ability to respond to the impacts of climate change through forward-looking and climate science-informed goals and actions.
  • Ecological monitoring needs to be improved and better coordinated among federal and state agencies to ensure the impacts of climate change are adequately monitored and to support ecological research, management, assessment and policy. Existing tracking networks in the United States will need to improve coverage through time and in geographic area to detect and track climate-induced shifts in ecosystems and species.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Our Climate Is Headed Toward 'Extremely Dangerous' or 'Catastrophic:' Here's Our Best Off Plan For Staving Off Total Disaster


Alex Steffen's new book "Carbon Zero" offers solutions on how to pull us back from the brink of disaster.

Photo Credit: © kwest/Shutterstock.com
The following excerpt is from the introduction to Alex Steffen's new book, Carbon Zero. The rest of the book is available as chapters on Grist and in ebook form on Amazon. You can learn more about Steffen at his website AlexSteffe.com or follow him on twitter @AlexSteffen.


On Monday the 29th of October, 2012, a tidal surge 13.9 feet high (the highest ever recorded) washed up and over the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, pushed forward by the superstorm Sandy. That same week, the storm destroyed large swathes of coastline from the New Jersey shore to Fire Island, while driving torrential rains, heavy snows, and powerful winds inland across the eastern U.S. and Canada. By the time the storm blew out, it had killed more than 100 Americans, made thousands homeless, left millions without power, and caused at least $50 billion in damage. Sandy was, by any reckoning, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Maybe, though, the word “natural” belongs in quotes. Because what was surprising about Sandy wasn’t that it happened (indeed, many had predicted that rising sea levels and storms intensified by warmer oceans would make something like Sandy inevitable), but that it was seen so clearly, and so immediately, for what it was: a forewarning of what a planet in climate chaos has in store for us.

Sandy was far from the first sign that climate change is here — scientists have been warning for decades of the dangers of a heating planet, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen a flurry of unprecedented storms, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, and wildfires, as well as record-breaking heat waves following one after another. Sandy, though, knocked down walls of denial and inattention that have kept us from admitting what’s happening to our world.

What’s happening is that we’re losing the climate fight. Climate change is here, it’s worsening quickly, its effects are more dire than many thought they would be, and — if we continue with business as usual — we’re on a track to unleash an almost unimaginable catastrophe on ourselves, our children, and our descendants.

“Part of learning from [Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.” He added later, ”Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

Our choice: “extremely dangerous” or “catastrophic”

To not warm the planet at all no longer remains an option. The Earth is already dangerously hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

We used to think that warming up to 2 degrees C fell within a sort of “safe zone,” where we could expect change but not crisis. But in a world we’ve warmed only by about 1 degree C above the historical baseline, we’re already seeing massive climate impacts across the planet. These unexpected impacts, along with new projections from ever-improving climate models, tell us that the climate is not nearly as forgiving as we’d like it to be. As the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research’s Kevin Anderson puts it, “1 degree is the new 2 degrees.” Two degrees, meanwhile, now appears not just dangerous, but extremely dangerous.
That means the menu of choices in front of us no longer includes a completely safe and stable climate. Instead, our choices come down to two options: a world in which climate change becomes extremely dangerous, or one in which it becomes totally catastrophic.

To keep climate change within that merely “extremely dangerous” range, scientists say, we must limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees C. Allowing warming to accelerate beyond 2 degrees C to 4 degrees C takes us beyond extremely dangerous into downright insane.

Yet that’s where our current emissions trajectory is leading us: to a world 4 degrees C hotter, perhaps as soon as 2050; and perhaps even 6 degrees C hotter by the end of the century. Four degrees global temperature rise involves so many utterly catastrophic impacts — permanent droughts, large-scale shifts in agriculture, megastorms, rapid sea-level rise, ecosystem collapses, and so on (all triggering social instabilities) — that we can’t expect our global civilization to avoid serious disruptions, and in many places, long-term ruin. A world 4 degrees C hotter is, as some put it, “beyond adaption.” (A world 6 degrees C hotter is almost beyond comprehension: To conceive of a world 6 degrees warmer, imagine alligators in the Arctic.)

A world that’s 4 degrees C hotter would also be vulnerable to nonlinear climate feedbacks — ways in which the effects of warming (like the melting of the Arctic permafrost) could rapidly worsen warming itself (by, in this case, releasing enormous volumes of CO2 and methane now trapped in frozen soils). Some worry these feedbacks could lead to “runaway” climate change, wherein a cycle of warming and greenhouse-gas releases and more warming spirals viciously out of control. At that point, even the wildest “geoengineering” ideas — for example, creating artificial volcanoes to fill the stratosphere with sulfate particles, blocking some of the sunshine headed towards Earth — would be, at best, “Hail Mary” strategies (and would do nothing to address other catastrophic effects of rising emissions, like the acidification of the oceans and the resulting mass die-offs of ocean life). Spiraling climate chaos of this severity would leave us on a profoundly different planet than the Earth we now call home.

There is simply no way to put a cost to those kinds of impacts: Their magnitude transcends economic reckoning, because their impact could be greater than the entire human economy is worth. Four degrees of warming, Anderson and many others say, is therefore something we should avoid literally at all costs, because no economic cost we pay will be greater than the losses we risk in a climate catastrophe of that magnitude.

Now, all of this is the sort of thing that can bum you right the hell out, and it’s not irrational to let it get to you — there’s a real chance we may destroy civilization and much of the natural world in the decades ahead, and that’s a valid reason for being a bit glum. There’s just no shiny side to extreme climate chaos.

It’s not too late to avoid catastrophe

If that were the end of the story we could all just start drinking now. Hell, I’d buy the first round. But it’s not. We still have a choice. We still, just barely, have the option of choosing to limit warming to 2 degrees and then working hard to restore the climate once we’ve stabilized it. We can, yet, pause at “extremely dangerous” and pull back from the brink of chaos.

To do that, we have to limit the total amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. What’s the limit? Drawing on the scientific consensus, 350.org, the world’s leading climate advocacy network, puts the number at 565 more gigatons of CO2 (or about 450 parts-per-million [ppm] of CO2 in the atmosphere). That’s the most humanity can emit and still, probably, hold global warming to 2 degrees C.

That means we need to face a fact almost no one likes to discuss: We need to hit zero. That is, we need, as a species, to bring our global climate emissions into balance with what nature can safely absorb (actually, because we need to start rolling greenhouse gas concentrations backwards, we almost certainly need to emit less than nature can absorb, in order to take CO2 back out of the atmosphere and get back to safer greenhouse gas levels, of 350 ppm or less — but one shocking reality at a time is enough). This means that all the expressions of commitment we’ve heard from politicians about reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent off 1990 levels, say, or 80 percent by 2050 or whatever — all of those numbers are meaningless. The meaningful number is simple: zero, as soon as possible.

Zero, worldwide

A worldwide transition to a climate-balanced global economy (one which adds zero CO2 each year to the total CO2 in the atmosphere) lies completely within our reach. But to achieve it, we’ll need to be honest with ourselves about geopolitics and reality. Because we have some tough decisions to make.

Climate change is global, with people everywhere worsening the crisis. But we are not all equally responsible for the crisis we face now. Those of us who live in the wealthier nations got our wealth by cutting down forests, and burning coal and oil to fuel our industrialization. We are wealthy, to be blunt, because we’re the ones who put most of the greenhouse gases up there in the first place.
In the last century, to get wealthier, you needed smokestacks and clearcuts and coal mines. Poorer nations — whose economies rely more on older, more polluting technologies — argue that they have a right to grow their economies to help their people escape poverty and achieve prosperity. These nations are mostly willing to negotiate with wealthier countries on lowering their climate emissions rapidly, but they will need time to transition to low-carbon economies, and they expect that we in the wealthier countries will lead the way on cutting emissions rapidly to buy them time. Essentially, the poorer nations are saying, they have a right to the lion’s share of those remaining 565 gigatons of CO2.

Even ambitious plans for global emissions reductions take time. Poorer countries now emit less overall, but their economies are inefficient and largely dependent on dirty energy. Lots of work will need to be done for those countries to level off their emissions, and more work after that for their economies to become carbon neutral, even with really aggressive innovation — innovation bolder than any we have seen anywhere in the developing world. For example, one recent credible scenario by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows would have emissions in poorer countries leveling off in 2025, then declining 7 percent per year thereafter, until the global carbon balance was restored. Seven percent a year, it should be noted, would be extremely bold: but even that extremely bold goal would demand that the wealthier countries buy time by zeroing out their own emissions first. The poorer countries argue this is a matter of “climate equity.”

Since we need their agreement, and their action, it’s probably smart to just go ahead and admit they’re right. It would be unjust to ask the world’s poor countries to absorb the costs of taking actions we ourselves avoid, in order to solve a problem we mostly created. We need to go first in zeroing-out our emissions.

But here’s the thing: far from being some unbearable burden, rapid reductions to net-zero emissions may in fact offer wealthier nations our best opportunity to rebuild our economies to prosper in the 21st century. To understand why, we need to look at the kind of planet we’re becoming: an urban planet.

Our urban future

Humanity is already an urban species, with more people living in cities than in the countryside. By the middle of the century, we will likely have as many as 9.5 billion people living on the planet, with 70-75 percent of us (around 7 billion people), demographers estimate, living in cities themselves, and 95 percent or more of humanity living within a day’s travel of a city. By the 2050s, the overwhelming majority of humanity will be participating in urban systems of health care, education, communication, commerce, and government that only a few decades ago were limited to the “developed” world.

Growth is transforming the very nature of cities. Every day, at least 200,000 people move to cities or are born in them. That’s like building a city the size of San Francisco every four days. Then doing it again, four days later. Then doing it again — and repeating the process several thousand times in the next 40 years. By 2050, we will have an estimated 3.5 billion more urbanites, and to house them we will have built a constellation of thousands of large cities, including a scattering of extremely large megacities, each home to tens of millions of people. The largest city-building boom in human history will happen in the next four decades, with each decade experiencing more change than the one before.

This urban boom won’t be wonderful for everyone; for many, it may be tragic. Unless we change our priorities quickly, as many as a billion people — climate refugees, the rural and destitute, victims of conflict and deep structural poverty — will live on the very edge of existence. Perhaps as many as 3 billion people will live in informal settlements — in the huge slums springing up around many developing world cities. Hundreds of millions of these slum-dwellers will live in abject poverty. Inequalities will strain our societies. In the midst of widespread poverty, 3 or 4 billion others may rise out of poverty to enter the global middle class, living what we today would consider a “modern” — if modest — life. A billion may well live in even greater affluence than we experience today. And the one thing the vast majority of these people will have in common is their cities, and the ways in which those cities are linked together.

How we build this coming wave of cities will largely decide not only the quality of life of the people living in them, but also the future of our planet. Because how we build our cities will decide, more than any other factor, how much we heat the planet.

Our urban opportunity

Climate emissions are a byproduct of the global economy; but the links that connect that economy together are forged in our great cities. In this book, we’ll see how the choices cities make about how they grow will largely determine whether their economies will be clean or dirty; and the choices these cities make, in aggregate, will largely determine whether the global economy as a whole will be catastrophic or full of possibilities.

In 40 years, humanity will live in thousands of these major cities, each stamping the global economy with its own character — and burdening the planet with its consumption and pollution, to greater or lesser degrees. But right now, the economies of only about 200 cities define the global economy. These cities and the regions surrounding them are responsible for the vast majority of their countries’ prosperity, and also of their countries’ greenhouse gases.

Most of these cities are still in the wealthier nations. If our cities reinvent themselves, finding pathways to low-to-no-carbon futures, our nations can rapidly cut climate pollution, even if most of our compatriots lag behind in reducing emissions. Building cities that produce no net emissions — that reduce emissions to the extent that the greenhouse gases generated can be balanced through other actions that draw CO2 out of the atmosphere (what I call “carbon zero” cities) — may in fact be the smartest, quickest pathway to lowering national emissions.

Furthermore, the options that will be available to those thousands of emerging cities over the next 40 years largely depend on the choices we in the world’s wealthiest cities make today. The reason is that innovation and invention move slowly, yet are critical. When no new solution is available, business as usual is a given. Once a better solution to a given problem has been found, its spread can be hastened, though innovation diffusion still takes time. As the wealthier cities design away their own emissions, many excellent new solutions will be created, resulting in zero-emissions pathways poorer cities will be able to follow as they get wealthier.

There’s no time to lose. The costs of action will rise, not fall, with time. Many big investments have long life spans: They can operate for decades — and need to, in order to pay back the costs of their construction. This makes it politically very hard (and sometimes economically expensive) to shut down new infrastructure and industrial systems, even when those systems are producing unwanted results. What we build in the next two decades will probably be with us for decades more. Making new investments in old, dirty ways of doing things (like coal-fired power plants, highways, and suburban sprawl) retards change, and commits us either to continued pollution or to costly retrofits and replacements in the near future. But also, the longer we wait, the more the consequences of climate change already set in motion will hamper our progress and make us less able to act. All of the impacts of climate change have human costs, in many cases quite large. Few have any benefit at all. The longer we wait, the more our economic capacity for change will be damaged by droughts and floods, rising oceans and spreading diseases, climate refugees, and political instability. This is not even to mention the increasingly heart-wrenching human costs or the psychological trauma caused. Sandy was just a taste of what climate change could cost us.

Our cities as climate solutions

So, changing how our cities work proves to be a pretty vital job. Fortunately, our comparatively massive wealth has left us with a number of capacities the rest of the world simply doesn’t have: The majority of the world’s research universities, think tanks, engineering and design firms, advocacy groups, investment funds, venture capitalists, and so on, are all concentrated in the wealthiest cities — and even with China, India, and Brazil growing by leaps and bounds, this central fact of the concentration of the capacity for innovation in a relatively small number of rich cities is unlikely to change overnight.

Leading the way into a carbon zero future will be good for business. Cities that innovate in design, planning, policy, and products will equip their citizens with exportable skills and marketable experience before those in slower cities even know they exist. With thousands of large and small cities about to boom, the markets for urban innovations are almost inconceivably vast. There’s a 40-year boom on its way; cities that lead the way into a carbon zero future will be its great success stories.

Many of the most important kinds of innovations, policies, and plans needed to create such urban success stories are local — or are, at least, the kinds that don’t demand bold national action to succeed. In countries like the United States, where dirty energy companies have managed to clog the works of government, the ability to innovate meaningfully at a local level represents a huge advantage. Our major cities are small enough that committed people can actually change them, and large enough that changing them can produce big impacts.

Americans, Canadians, and Australians, in particular, sail now on a collision course with planetary realities. Our sprawling suburbs and low-density cities depend on abundant resources, cheap oil, and low costs for pollution, none of which the future holds. No amount of political grandstanding will change that fact. Sprawling, auto-dependent suburbs are unsustainable, and that which cannot be sustained does not long continue. For the size of their populations, our cities are the most climate-damaging in the world.

Even Northern European cities, with their older, more compact urban forms, better transit, and reputations for climate leadership, are far from sustainable — they, too, need a lot of change — but I have chosen to focus on North American cities precisely because that is where we need the biggest change in the shortest time. (Readers from the rest of the world should find a few ideas worth mulling over — much of what applies to North America applies without too much translation to Australia and New Zealand, as well as in parts to much of Europe and the prosperous parts of Asia, especially Japan and Korea. Around the world, leadership will take different forms: the imperative to lead will be the same.)

I’m writing most directly to my fellow Americans, though. That’s because I care deeply about my country, as do most Americans. I believe that if we truly love our country, we must care about its future; and we can’t care about its future without taking into account the ways our nation’s actions today are shaping that future; without attempting to steer a course that will leave our countrymen better off in the future. To love our country today is also to wish to see it secure and prosperous tomorrow. So to be patriots, we have to want to be good ancestors to those who are coming after us. And being good ancestors today means, perhaps above all else, fighting climate change. No greater threat faces America in the coming years than climate chaos. We learned that with Katrina; we’ve learned that with droughts and floods and wildfires; and now we’re learning it afresh as our nation recovers from the assault of a superstorm of unprecedented size. And the biggest storms are still ahead.

Building carbon zero cities means not only greater prosperity, but more security. Almost everything we need to do to drop our climate emissions also leaves us more rugged and resilient to disasters and global instability. Carbon zero cities mean future-proof cities, or as close as we’re likely to get.

Our choice could not be clearer, to my mind: Remake our cities into central hubs in the global climate-neutral economy we’re moving towards (and ready ourselves for the tough times to come), or shirk our responsibilities and leave ourselves even more vulnerable to the onrushing chaos. As a patriot, the right choice for America is plain to me.

Imagining carbon zero cities

How do we get to work? Well, we can’t build what we can’t imagine, so the first task in building carbon zero cities is to reimagine the cities we have.

Reimagining is hard work. It requires both a robust conversation about what carbon zero cities might be like, and a far more creative approach to envisioning the kinds of innovations and solutions that could get us there. This little book is my attempt to outline one version of a carbon-neutral city; to get a conversation going about what kind of change a 90 percent cut in emissions might entail; and to point out some of the main areas of possible innovation.

It’s worth emphasizing that this is a sketch, not a blueprint. I wouldn’t even attempt to ordain a model for zero-carbon development that every place should adopt. Every city is unique, with its own character, geography, civic culture, and history. Regional economies and politics have left every metro area with different workforces, institutions, and business cultures. The implementation of national policies and local capacities vary widely. No one set of innovations applied in a specific way will suit the needs of every city. Large teams of professionals and engaged citizens should (and I hope, will) take up the actual work of upgrading their cities. I’m not interested in dictating approaches to anyone.

Indeed, it seems to me that what we need most right now are not conclusive answers, but good hypotheses put immediately to the test; and good hypotheses spring first from reframing our understanding of a given challenge. I hope that my reframing of this challenge will influence readers to begin to see their own cities’ challenges in a new light.

But don’t expect things to look normal, illuminated by the demands of the future. We have, again and again, mistaken what we think of as “normal” for “best” and “permanent.” Normal as we knew it in the second half of the 20th century is already a thing of the past. Already, many of our older systems are crumbling, revealing themselves to be unsustainably expensive or indefensibly harmful. Even the timescales of the 20th century are out of date. Changes that took half a century before are erupting in a few years now.

The speed of change will not slow. It is both pulled along by the dire necessity of quick action — for, as Donella Meadows has written, on a planet full of limits, “Time is in fact the ultimate limit” — and driven along by the unleashing of innovation, collaboration, and competition on a planetary scale that dwarfs anything our great-grandparents could have comprehended. If the ultimate limit turns out to be time, the last infinite resource turns out to be creativity.

I believe that planetary limits and human creativity are now inextricably bound together. I doubt we’ll reinvent the physical limits of this world, at least in the next few centuries. I would bet against the emergence of any technologies that allow us to exceed our planetary boundaries on both a global scale and a sustained basis. But I would also bet we can build a civilization that works within our planetary limits, and furthermore, that the realm of possibilities for human experience within those ecological limits is essentially infinite.

Indeed, as we cease trying to maximize the volume of material growth and start emphasizing sustainable prosperity, I think we’ll find that what we’re able to do with energy and materials becomes more and more brilliant, meaningful, and enriching. Design constraints often deliver better results than a belief in complete freedom. Quite the opposite of imposing hardship, carbon zero targets may very well spur a renaissance in urban creativity.

The straining limits that pressure us to remake our cities will likely produce an unprecedented blooming of applied creativity and civic acumen. I find it completely likely that the constraints of climate neutrality and ecological sustainability, boldly met, may produce the most livable, prosperous, and resilient cities the world has ever seen.

Nothing in this book is utopian: Most of what I suggest is already being implemented or experimented with somewhere, though no city I know of has put all the pieces together in one place. Some of what I suggest still lives in the realm of conjecture, but that realm is not as far away as it used to be.

I hope you will take my sketch, use what makes sense to you, discard what doesn’t, and begin your own drawings of what the future’s possibilities can be — they are bound to be better than mine, and the world needs every well-grounded, well-crafted vision it can get. Please, don’t just read: reimagine.
Alex Steffen is the executive editor of Worldchanging.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Frightening and Amazing Photos From Those Enduring Sandy's Wrath


Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it.

As Hurricane Sandy pummels the East Coast, people who still have power and internet connections have taken to all forms of social media to show the storm's effects and how they're coping. Mashable reported earlier today that on Instagram "users are uploading 10 images per second with the hashtag #Sandy alone." A number of photos have gone viral today, but many of them are fake photos meant to dupe folks (you can see the fakes here).
While some images have given a few moments of levity to an otherwise instense and scary day, many more capture the horror that millions are facing right now as the first reports of fatalities from Sandy in the continental U.S. are begining to be reported. Below is a collection, including some by brave AlterNet staffers in New York. We'll continue to update this as the storm progresses. 
Ray Wert of Gawker posted this picture of the south end of Stone Street in lower Manhattan.
This photo from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey shows water innudating a PATH station in Hoboken, New Jersey. 
This one is from AlterNet's Kristen Gwynne, taken in New York City by Houston St. of FDR Drive underwater.

This building in New York City on 8th Ave between 14th and 15th Streets show the entire front of the buildling blown off. The photo is by @MegRobertson.
This one below is posted by @HobokenGirlBlog of lower Manhattan. 
Instagram user nicksummers caught this picture of the lights out in the Village in NYC.
Things looks scary in Brooklyn as well. Here's a shot from Instragram user doorsixteen of Plymouth St. and a flooded park in the DUMBO neighborhood. 
Here's one from earlier on Monday as the storm neared Virginia, posted to Flickr Creative Commons by doxella.
On Facebook Dan Cuellar posted this photo showing the devastation in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Further afield Instagram user factsoffishing posted this picture with the caption, "Lake Erie is looking nasty now & #Sandy is just getting started. Wave are predicted to be 22ft tonight."

More photos coming soon -- we're updating this continuously.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Scenes of 'Dust Bowl Days' Return As Oklahoma Storm Causes Highway Pileup

Year of high temps and record drought portends climate future for once fertile croplands

- Common Dreams staff 
Dramatic video footage and eye witness accounts from Oklahoma on Thursday tell the story of a scene right out of the Depression-era 'Dust Bowl days' as a massive wind-swept cloud of 'reddish-brown' dirt made invisibility impossible on a stretch of Interstate-35 between Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo.

(Photo By The Ponca City News, Rolf Clements) 

The mid-western states have experienced some of the highest temperatures on record this year and a severe drought has devastated corn crops and turned once thriving fields to brown. Scientists make direct connections between these trends and the growing impact of climate change fueled by human-caused climate change.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jodi Palmer, a dispatcher with the Kay County Sheriff’s Office, told the Associated Press. “In this area alone, the dirt is blowing because we’ve been in a drought. I think from the drought everything’s so dry and the wind is high.”

“You have the perfect combination of extended drought in that area ... and we have the extremely strong winds,” said Gary McManus, the Oklahoma associate state climatologist, also speaking with AP.

“Also, the timing is bad because a lot of those farm fields are bare. The soil is so dry, it’s like powder. Basically what you have is a whole bunch of topsoil waiting for the wind to blow it away. It’s no different from the 1930s than it is now.”
Experts have warned for year about the impact of top soil erosion caused by an over-reliance on industrial farming practices, including heavy use of chemical fertilizers.
As science journalist April Kelsey, writing for Suite 101, explains:
The chemical fertilizers and pesticides commercial farmers rely on to produce high single-crop yields kill many of the essential microorganisms and insects that aerate and build the soil, while heavy farming machinery destroys soil structure through compaction. Chemicals also leach water from the soil, making it salty and acidic and leaving crops vulnerable to drought. Dry and damaged soil erodes much faster than healthy soil.
Experts estimate that 66 percent of U.S. soil degradation and erosion has resulted directly from these kinds of agricultural practices. The corn fields of the U.S. Midwest are "an area of particular local concern," where as much as 75 percent of the topsoil has been lost to erosion.
A report by Bloomberg this week, headlined Warming climate sends US corn belt north, described how large agribusiness giants—the same companies that have fueled the great monocultures and destructive farming practices in mid-western—are already making large investments further north to prepare for the dwindling ability of now debilitated croplands further south.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

'Planetary Emergency': New Data Elevates Climate Change Alarm

Arctic exploitation 'perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we've ever faced'

- Common Dreams staff 
Drawing on new data on the rate of melting arctic ice released Wednesday by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), leading scientific experts and environmental campaigners upped the level of alarm and issued a renewed call to action by calling the growing reality of climate change a "planetary emergency".


"We are in a planetary emergency," said NASA climate expert James Hansen (Photo: Greenpeace/Danile Beltra) The NSIDC reports shows that the melted areas of Arctic sea ice had not only hit a record low this year, but that it had dramatically receded to levels not previously anticipated. NSIDC director Mark Serreze expressed shock by the center's data, declaring “we are now in uncharted territory”.

Kumi Naidoo, the international head of Greenpeace, which held a public forum on Wednesday in New York to discuss the climate change crisis, described the efforts to curb greenhouse emissions and the race to save the Arctic as "the defining environmental battle of our era".

The ice report from NSIDC, coupled with reams of growing evidence about human-caused climate change, said Naidoo, "represents a defining moment in human history."

"In just over 30 years we have altered the way our planet looks from space," he said, "and soon the North Pole may be completely ice free in summer. Rather than dealing with the root causes of climate change the current response from our leaders is to watch the ice melt and then divide up the spoils."
"Rather than dealing with the root causes of climate change the current response from our leaders is to watch the ice melt and then divide up the spoils." —Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace

Naidoo was joined by other prominent figures, including author and co-founder of 350.org Bill McKibben, who said the global response to the rapidly melting ice of the arctic ice sheets and glaciers has been exactly opposite to what's needed. Instead of responding with "alarm, or panic, or a sense of emergency" he said, the response "has been: 'Let's go up there and drill for oil'. There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we've ever faced."

It was fellow panelist and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who called the current reality a "planetary emergency".

"It's hard for the public to realize," Hansen said, "because they stick their head out the window and don't see much going on."

The science, Hansen added, is "crystal clear" and lamented the distance between what scientists understand about what's happening in the arctic and around the world and what the average person might know. "If we burn all the fossil fuels, we create certain disaster," he said.

As Naidoo indicated by his group's focus on the melting arctic, the dramatic reduction of ice there has been a focus of many scientists because they understand that changes in the polar regions has important implications for global climate system as a whole.

"Between 1979 and 2012, we have a decline of 13 percent per decade in the sea ice, accelerating from six percent between 1979 and 2000," said oceanographer Wieslaw Maslowski with the US Naval Postgraduate School, speaking at the Greenpeace event.

"If this trend continues we will not have sea ice by the end of this decade," said Maslowski.

"'Let's go up there and drill for oil' — There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we've ever faced." Bill McKibben, 350.org 

Dr. Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist at the NSIDC, is currently aboard a Greenpeace ship in Svalbard, Norway in the Arctic having just returned from conducting scientific research into the region’s record breaking ice melt. She said:
“This new record suggests the Arctic may have entered a new climate era, where a combination of thinner ice together with warmer air and ocean temperatures result in more ice loss each summer.”

“The loss of summer sea ice has led to unusual warming of the Arctic atmosphere, that in turn impacts weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, that can result in persistent extreme weather such as droughts, heat waves and flooding.”
Bringing the arctic issue to the local level, Caroline Cannon, a leader of the Inupiat community of Alaska and recipient of the Goldman Prize for her environmental activism, told the audience that her indigenous community depends on Arctic fishing and hunting for survival.

"My people rely on that ocean and we're seeing dramatic changes," said Cannon. "It's scary to think about our food supply."

The panel, as Agence France-Presse reports, stressed "that a string of recent extreme weather events around the globe, including deadly typhoons, devastating floods and severe droughts, show urgent action on emission cuts is needed."
And AFP added:
The extreme weather include the drought and heat waves that struck the United States in the summer.
One consequence of the melt is the slow but continuous rise in the ocean level that threatens coastal areas.
Another result is the likely release of large amounts of methane -- a greenhouse gas -- trapped in the permafrost under Greenland's ice cap, the remains of the region's organic plant and animal life that were trapped in sediment and later covered by ice sheets in the last Ice Age.
Methane is 25 times more efficient at trapping solar heat than carbon dioxide, and the released gases could in turn add to global warming, which in turn would free up more locked-up carbon.
Greenpeace, led by their Save the Arctic campaign, is calling for the creation of a sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole and a ban on unsustainable industrial activity in the remainder of the Arctic.

"I hope that future generations will mark this day as a turning point," Kumi Naidoo summed up. "When a new spirit of global cooperation emerged to tackle the huge challenges we face. We must work together to protect the Arctic from the effects of climate change and unchecked corporate greed."
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Climate Change Wreaks Havoc on US Power Plants

Less water, more heat putting enormous strain on aging energy infrastructure

- Common Dreams staff 
The warmest summer on record in the US, along with increased demand and diminished water supplies have put intense and unexpected pressure on the nation's power plants, according to new reporting by the Washington Post.

The massive Hoover Dam has been generating electricity since the 1930s, but falling water levels have forced engineers to develop new turbines. (Jonathan Gibby / For the Washington Post)

Citing climate change and its impact, scientists and experts interviewed by the Post say that the country's energy infrastructure -- including large hyrdoelectric dams and nuclear power plants -- is in danger. Designed for a cooler and more predictable climate, but now faced with more frequent extreme weather events, the aging energy system is strained by growing demand and diminished resources.

“We’re trying to manage a changing climate, its impact on water supplies and our ability to generate power, all at once,” Michael L. Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department’s water management agency, told the Post.
And nuclear power plants have already felt the strain. As Juliet Eilperin reports:
Warmer and drier summers mean there is less water available to cool nuclear and fossil-fuel plants. The Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its reactors in mid-August because the water it drew from the Long Island Sound was too warm to cool critical equipment outside the core. A twin-unit nuclear plant in Braidwood, Ill., needed to get special permission to continue operating this summer because the temperature in its cooling water pond rose to 102 degrees, four degrees above its normal limit; another Midwestern plant stopped operating temporarily because its water intake pipes ended up on dry ground because of the prolonged drought.
Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the safety of America’s nuclear plants “is not in jeopardy” because the sources of water cooling the core are self-contained and might have to shut down in some instances if water is either too warm or unavailable.
“If water levels dropped to the point where you can’t draw water into the condenser, you’d have to shut down the plant,” he said.The commission’s new chairman, Allison Macfarlane, has asked her staff to look at “a broad array of natural events that could affect nuclear plant operations” in the future, such as climate change, Burnell added.
And US coal plants:
Rising temperatures have started to affect U.S. coal plants as well. This summer’s drought disrupted the transport of coal delivered by barges on the Mississippi, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to use dredges to deepen the navigation channel.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency granted special exceptions to four coal-fired plants and four nuclear plants this summer, allowing them to discharge water into local waterways that was hotter than the federal clean water permits allowed. Normally the discharge water cannot exceed 90 degrees, but the waiver allowed utilities to release water as hot as 97 degrees.
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Climate change: The great civilisation destroyer?


Climate change: The great civilisation destroyer?

War and unrest, and the collapse of many mighty empires, often followed changes in local climes. Is this more than a coincidence?

1200 BC. The most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, is abducted by Paris of Troy. A Greek fleet of more than a thousand ships sets off in pursuit. After a long war, heroes like Achilles lead the Greeks to victory over Troy.

At least, this is the story told by the poet Homer around four centuries later. Yet Homer was not only writing about events long before his time, he was also describing a long-lost civilisation. Achilles and his compatriots were part of the first great Greek civilisation, a warlike culture centred on the city of Mycenae that thrived from around 1600 BC.

By 1100 BC, not long after the Trojan war, many of its cities and settlements had been destroyed or abandoned. The survivors reverted to a simpler rural lifestyle. Trade ground to a halt, and skills such as writing were lost. The script the Mycenaeans had used, Linear B, was not read again until 1952.

The region slowly recovered after around 800 BC. The Greeks adopted the Phoenician script, and the great city states of Athens and Sparta rose to power. "The collapse was one of the most important events in history, because it gave birth to two major cultures," says anthropologist Brandon Drake. "It's like the phoenix from the ashes." Classical Greece, as this second period of civilisation is known, far outshone its predecessor. Its glory days lasted only a couple of centuries, but the ideas of its citizens were immensely influential. Their legacy is still all around us, from the maths we learn in school to the idea of democracy.
But what caused the collapse of Mycenaean Greece, and thus had a huge impact on the course of world history? A change in the climate, according to the latest evidence. What's more, Mycenaean Greece is just one of a growing list of civilisations whose fate is being linked to the vagaries of climate. It seems big swings in the climate, handled badly, brought down whole societies, while smaller changes led to unrest and wars.
The notion that climate change toppled entire civilisations has been around for more than a century, but it was only in the 1990s that it gained a firm footing as researchers began to work out exactly how the climate had changed, using clues buried in lake beds or petrified in stalactites. Harvey Weiss of Yale University set the ball rolling with his studies of the collapse of one of the earliest empires: that of the Akkadians.

It began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, a belt of rich farmland where an advanced regional culture had developed over many centuries. In 2334 BC, Sargon was born in the city state of Akkad. He started out as a gardener, was put in charge of clearing irrigation canals, and went on to seize power. Not content with that, he conquered many neighbouring city states, too. The empire Sargon founded thrived for nearly a century after his death before it collapsed.

Excavating in what is now Syria, Weiss found dust deposits suggesting that the region's climate suddenly became drier around 2200 BC. The drought would have led to famine, he argued, explaining why major cities were abandoned at this time (Science, vol 261, p 995). A piece of contemporary writing, called The Curse of Akkad, does describe a great famine:

For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel's worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel's worth of grain was only one-half quart. …
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.

Weiss's work was influential, but there wasn't much evidence. In 2000, climatologist Peter deMenocal of Columbia University in New York found more. His team showed, based on modern records going back to 1700, that the flow of the region's two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, is linked to conditions in the north Atlantic: cooler waters reduce rainfall by altering the paths of weather systems. Next, they discovered that the north Atlantic cooled just before the Akkadian empire fell apart (Science, vol 288, p 2198). "To our surprise we got this big whopping signal at the time of the Akkadian collapse."
It soon became clear that major changes in the climate coincided with the untimely ends of several other civilisations (see map). Of these, the Maya became the poster child for climate-induced decline. Mayan society arose in Mexico and Central America around 2000 BC. Its farmers grew maize, squashes and beans, and it was the only American civilisation to produce a written language. The Maya endured for millennia, reaching a peak between AD 250 and 800, when they built cities and huge stepped pyramids.
Then the Maya civilisation collapsed. Many of its incredible structures were swallowed up by the jungle after being abandoned. Not all was lost, though - Mayan people and elements of their culture survive to the present day.

Numerous studies have shown that there were several prolonged droughts around the time of the civilisation's decline. In 2003, Gerald Haug of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found it was worse than that. His year-by-year reconstruction based on lake sediments shows that rainfall was abundant from 550 to 750, perhaps leading to a rise in population and thus to the peak of monument-building around 721. But over the next century there were not only periods of particularly severe drought, each lasting years, but also less rain than normal in the intervening years (Science, vol 299, p 1731). Monument construction ended during this prolonged dry period, around 830, although a few cities continued on for many centuries.

Even as the evidence grew, there was something of a backlash against the idea that changing climates shaped the fate of civilisations. "Many in the archaeological community are really reticent to accept a role of climate in human history," says deMenocal.

Much of this reluctance is for historical reasons. In the 18th and 19th centuries, anthropologists argued that a society's environment shaped its character, an idea known as environmental determinism. They claimed that the warm, predictable climates of the tropics bred indolence, while cold European climates produced intelligence and a strong work ethic. These ideas were often used to justify racism and exploitation.

Understandably, modern anthropologists resist anything resembling environmental determinism. "It's a very delicate issue," says Ulf Büntgen, also at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, whose work suggests the decline of the Western Roman Empire was linked to a period of highly variable weather. "The field is evolving really slowly, because people are afraid to make bold statements."

Yet this resistance is not really warranted, deMenocal says. No one today is claiming that climate determines people's characters, only that it sets limits on what is feasible. When the climate becomes less favourable, less food can be grown. Such changes can also cause plagues of locusts or other pests, and epidemics among people weakened by starvation. When it is no longer feasible to maintain a certain population level and way of life, the result can be collapse. "Climate isn't a determinant, but it is an important factor," says Drake, who is at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "It enables or disables."

Some view even this notion as too simplistic. Karl Butzer of the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the collapse of civilisations, thinks the role of climate has been exaggerated. It is the way societies handle crises that decides their fate, he says. "Things break through institutional failure." When it comes to the Akkadians, for instance, Butzer says not all records support the idea of a megadrought.

In the case of the Maya, though, the evidence is strong. Earlier this year, Eelco Rohling of the University of Southampton, UK, used lake sediments and isotope ratios in stalactites to work out how rainfall had changed. He concluded that annual rainfall fell 40 per cent over the prolonged dry period, drying up open water sources (Science, vol 335, p 956). This would have seriously affected the Maya, he says, because the water table lay far underground and was effectively out of reach.

So after a century of plentiful rain, the Maya were suddenly confronted with a century of low rainfall. It is not clear how they could have avoided famine and population decline in these circumstances. Even today, our ability to defy hostile climes is limited. Saudi Arabia managed to become self-sufficient in wheat by tapping water reservoirs deep beneath its deserts and subsidising farmers, but is now discouraging farming to preserve what is left of the water. In dry regions where plenty of water is available for irrigation, the build-up of salts in the soil is a serious problem, just as it was for some ancient civilisations. And if modern farmers are still at the mercy of the climate despite all our knowledge and technology, what chance did ancient farmers have?

Greek Dark Ages

While many archaeologists remain unconvinced, the list of possible examples continues to grow. The Mycenaeans are the latest addition. The reason for their downfall has been the subject of much debate, with one of the most popular explanations being a series of invasions and attacks by the mysterious "Sea Peoples". In 2010, though, a study of river deposits in Syria suggested there was a prolonged dry period between 1200 and 850 BC - right at the time of the so-called Greek Dark Ages. Earlier this year, Drake analysed several climate records and concluded that there was a cooling of the Mediterranean at this time, reducing evaporation and rainfall over a huge area.

What's more, several other cultures around the Mediterranean, including the Hittite Empire and the "New Kingdom" of Egypt, collapsed around the same time as the Mycenaeans - a phenomenon known as the late Bronze Age collapse. Were all these civilisations unable to cope with the changing climate? Or were the invading Sea Peoples the real problem? The story could be complex: civilisations weakened by hunger may have become much more vulnerable to invaders, who may themselves have been driven to migrate by the changing climate. Or the collapse of one civilisation could have had knock-on effects on its trading partners.
Climate change on an even greater scale might be behind another striking coincidence. Around 900, as the Mayan civilisation was declining in South America, the Tang dynasty began losing its grip on China. At its height, the Tang ruled over 50 million subjects. Woodblock printing meant that written words, particularly poetry, were widely accessible. But the dynasty fell after local governors usurped its authority.

Since the two civilisations were not trading partners, there was clearly no knock-on effect. A study of lake sediments in China by Haug suggests that this region experienced a prolonged dry period at the same time as that in Central America. He thinks a shift in the tropical rain belt was to blame, causing civilisations to fall apart on either side of the Pacific (Nature, vol 445, p 74).

Critics, however, point to examples of climate change that did not lead to collapse. "There was a documented drought and even famines during the period of the Aztec Empire," says archaeologist Gary Feinman of the Field Museum in Chicago. "These episodes caused hardships and possibly even famines, but no overall collapse."
Realising that case studies of collapses were not enough to settle the debate, in 2005 David Zhang of Hong Kong University began to look for larger patterns. He began with the history of the Chinese dynasties. From 2500 BC until the 20th century, a series of powerful empires like the Tang controlled China. All were eventually toppled by civil unrest or invasions.
When Zhang compared climate records for the last 1200 years to the timeline of China's dynastic wars, the match was striking. Most of the dynastic transitions and periods of social unrest took place when temperatures were a few tenths of a degree colder. Warmer periods were more stable and peaceful (Chinese Science Bulletin, vol 50, p 137).

The Thirty Years war

Zhang gradually built up a more detailed picture showing that harvests fell when the climate was cold, as did population levels, while wars were more common. Of 15 bouts of warfare he studied, 12 took place in cooler times. He then looked at records of war across Europe, Asia and north Africa between 1400 and 1900. Once again, there were more wars when the temperatures were lower. Cooler periods also saw more deaths and declines in the population.

These studies suggest that the effects of climate on societies can be profound. The problem is proving it. So what if wars and collapses often coincide with shifts in the climate? It doesn't prove one caused the other. "That's always been the beef," says deMenocal. "It's a completely valid point."

Trying to move beyond mere correlations, Zhang began studying the history of Europe from 1500 to 1800 AD. In the mid-1600s, Europe was plunged into the General Crisis, which coincided with a cooler period called the Little Ice Age. The Thirty Years war was fought then, and many other wars. Zhang analysed detailed records covering everything from population and migration to agricultural yields, wars, famines and epidemics in a bid to identify causal relationships. So, for instance, did climate change affect agricultural production and thus food prices? That in turn might lead to famine - revealed by a reduction in the average height of people - epidemics and a decline in population. High food prices might also lead to migration and social unrest, and even wars.

He then did a statistical analysis known as a Granger causality test, which showed that the proposed causes consistently occurred before the proposed effects, and that each cause was followed by the same effect. The Granger test isn't conclusive proof of causality, but short of rerunning history under different climes, it is about the best evidence there can be (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108, p 17296).
The paper hasn't bowled over the critics. Butzer, for instance, claims it is based on unreliable demographic data. Yet others are impressed. "It's a really remarkable study," deMenocal says. "It does seem like they did their homework." He adds that such a detailed breakdown is only possible for recent history, because older civilisations left fewer records.

So while further studies should reveal much more about how the climate changed in the past, the debate about how great an effect these changes had on societies is going to rumble on for many more decades. Let's assume, though, that changing climates did play a major role. What does that mean for us?

On the face of it, things don't look so bad. It was often cooling that hurt past civilisations. What's more, studies of the past century have found little or no link between conflict and climate change. "Industrialised societies have been more robust against changing climatic conditions," says Jürgen Scheffran of the University of Hamburg, who studies the effects of climate change.

On the other hand, we are triggering the most extreme change for millions of years, and what seems to matter is food production rather than temperature. Production is expected to increase at first as as the planet warms but then begin to decline as warming exceeds 3 °C. This point may not be that far away - it is possible that global average temperature will rise by 4 °C as early as 2060Movie Camera. We've already seen regional food production hit by extreme heatwaves like the one in Russia in 2010. Such extreme heat was not expected until much later this century.

And our society's interconnectedness is not always a strength. It can transmit shocks - the 2010 heatwave sent food prices soaring worldwide, and the drought in the US this year is having a similar effect. The growing complexity of modern society may make us more vulnerable to collapse rather than less.

We do have one enormous advantage, though - unlike the Mycenaeans and the Mayas, we know what's coming. We can prepare for what is to come and also slow the rate of change if we act soon. So far, though, we are doing neither.

The Khmer

The Khmer empire, centred in what is now Cambodia, began in 802 AD. It built the astounding temple of Angkor Wat, dedicated to the god Vishnu, in the 12th century.

We now know that Angkor Wat was not, as long thought, a lone structure. It was the heart of a teeming city covering 1000 square kilometres, surrounded by even larger suburbs. Before the Industrial Revolution, Angkor was perhaps the world's largest city. But it was sacked and abandoned in 1431 apart from the temple, which by then had been taken over by Buddhists.

What made the Khmer abandon their metropolis? According to Brendan Buckley of Columbia University in New York, changes to the monsoon were a contributing factor. Buckley used tree rings to produce a yearly record of monsoon rainfall from 1250 to 2008. He found that the monsoon was weak in the mid to late 1300s. This was followed by a short but harsh drought in the early 1400s, just before Angkor fell. There were also a few years when the monsoons returned with a vengeance, causing severe floods.

Like many south Asian societies, the Khmer relied on the monsoon to water their crops. Canals and reservoirs channelled water to farms and homes in Angkor. Many are now filled with sand and gravel, carried in by floods, and Buckley showed the deposits in at least one canal date to the time of the collapse. This damage would have made it even harder to manage the water supply, at a time when it was already limited and unpredictable.

The Moche

Between 300 and 500 AD, a people called the Moche thrived and established cities along the coast of Peru. Their farmers built a network of irrigation canals, and grew maize and lima beans. Their capital boasts the largest adobe structure in the Americas, the Huaca del Sol.

Some of the people were giants for their time, reaching 180 centimetres, and may have had a ceremonial role as "kneeling warriors" who were ultimately sacrificed to the gods. After 560, however, the Moche civilisation began to decline. By the time they abandoned the coastal cities around 600 and moved inland, their irrigation channels had been overrun by sand dunes.

The decline may have been triggered by changes in climate. Studies of ice cores suggest that an especially intense El Niño cycle around this time produced intense rainfall and floods, followed by a long and severe drought.

Michael Marshall is an environment reporter for New Scientist

7 Climate Change Diseases to Ruin Your Monday

Mother Jones

Climate change is creating favorable conditions for several (unpronounceable, gross) diseases.

| Mon Aug. 6, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Cryptococcus gattii, a pathogenic yeast

From the known and treatable (Lyme disease) to the unpronounceable and potentially deadly (Cryptococcus gattii), climate change is giving gross diseases a leg up, clearing their way onward to the United States.

Increased rainfall, warmer temperatures, dying reefs, and hotter oceans are handing illnesses that afflict humans—algal, fungal, mosquito-borne, tick-borne—a chance to spread, meaning diseases previously unheard in the US of are now emerging.

George Luber an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the deadly fungal infection C. gattii, once considered limited to places like Papua New Guinea and Australia, "popped out of nowhere" when it first moved to Vancouver Island around the early 2000s. Scientists were alarmed by its readiness to set up shop in a new climate, well outside its comfort zone. If subtropical C. gattii could settle down in just any backyard, what was next?

"You've got to be prepared, otherwise it will catch you off guard," said Luber, a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Climate change will drive extreme events leading to the potential for multiple system failures…to upend all of the protections we have in place."

So with that grim warning in mind, Climate Desk has prepared this handy guide to help you identify the nasty critters that could be knocking on your door soon. (A somewhat obvious disclaimer: This is not to be taken as medical advice. If you have symptoms, see a doctor.)

James West, Climate Desk
James West, Climate Desk

James West, Climate Desk

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Scientists Tell Senate Panel: Climate Change Is Here and Disaster Costs Will Be Huge


- Common Dreams staff 
Climate scientists who appeared Wednesday morning before a Senate committee hearing on climate change and extreme weather impacts had stark warnings for the lawmakers: climate change is here, climate change is man-made, and climate change is going to cost us big time.


 Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe, a prominent climate sceptic, told the committe: 'The global warming movement has collapsed.' (Photograph: Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty) Dr. James McCarthy, professor at Harvard University and lead author of several climate impact studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other international papers, told the committee that there is "widespread agreement among specialists who devote their careers" to monitoring key indicators of global warming.

He acknowledged that, of course, climates fluctuate on a yearly basis, but that the mounting evidence of a warming world was changing the baseline of those fluctuations.

"In the future," he said, as greenhouse gases continue to increase, natural events like El Nino cycles, "Will wreak even more havoc as they break old records for warm and wet conditions across much of the globe, because they will be occurring upon a higher baseline of warming."

His IPCC colleague and climate scientist at Stanford University Dr. Christopher Fields, said that these events will have an increasingly strong impact on communities.

"Understanding the role of climate change in the risk of extremes is one of the most active areas of climate science," he said. "As a result of rapid progress over the last few years, it is now feasible to quantify the way that climate change alters the risk of certain events or series of events."

Giving examples, and citing studies to back them up, he continued:
"Climate change at least doubled the risk of the European heat wave of 2003, a high-impact extreme that led to tens of thousands of premature deaths, especially among the elderly or infirm. On the other hand, there is no evidence that climate change played a role in the serious flooding in Thailand in 2011. The primary causal agent there was altered land management. For the 2011 Texas drought, La Niña (cold water in the eastern Pacific) played a role, but recent research by David Rupp and colleagues concludes that, in a La Niña period, extreme heat is now 20 times more likely than in the 1960s."
"There is no doubt that climate has changed," Fields said. "There is also no doubt that a changing climate changes the risks of extremes, including extremes that can lead to disaster."

Despite the evidence presented, however, Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma was unwavering in his denial of the scientific communities findings. In his prepared opening remarks, Inhofe said: "The global warming movement has completely collapsed."

What drove the collapse, he argued, "was that the science of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was finally exposed" and said the IPCC was "a political body, not a scientific body."

Also in attendance, however, was Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who earlier this week gave Senator Inhofe a scathing rebuke from the Senate floor on his climate science denialism. "The bottom line," Sanders said on Monday, "is that when Senator Inhofe says global warming is a hoax, he is just dead wrong, according to the vast majority of climate scientists."

“For better or worse, when Sen. Inhofe speaks, the Republican Party follows," Sanders declared. "And when the Republican Party follows, it is impossible to get real work done in the Congress."

According to The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg, Sanders continued his assault on Inhofe's denialism at Wednesday's hearing, "asking the scientists on the panel for their opinions on some of Inhofe's more notorious assertions – that climate change is a hoax, that the planet is actually in a state of cooling, and that such environmental concerns were a conspiracy by the UN, Al Gore, and Hollywood."

The scientists, reported Goldenberg, did not support Inhofe's claims.

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