Author: Tim Radford

About Tim Radford

Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.

Geo-engineering could make poor countries richer

There is still no certainty that geo-engineering could save the world. But, paradoxically, if it did work it might repair climate injustice.

LONDON, 15 January, 2020 – Californian scientists have just made a case for geo-engineering as a solution to the climate crisis. One stratospheric technology – the reflection of incoming sunlight back into space – could do more than just lower global average temperatures.

It could also enhance the economic performance of some of the world’s poorest countries and reduce global income inequality by 50%.

“We find hotter, more populous countries are more sensitive to changes in temperature – whether it is an increase or a decrease,” said Anthony Harding, of Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California at San Diego.

“With solar geo-engineering, we find that poorer countries benefit more than richer countries from reductions in temperature, reducing inequalities. Together, the overall global economy grows.”

Uneven benefits possible

Harding and his colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they simply applied climate models to the consequences of a successful international collaboration to systematically reduce or reflect incoming sunlight, to compensate for the consequences of a steady increase in global average temperatures as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions.

Geo-engineering requires technologies that are not yet proven and that many scientists think may never work in any way that helps all nations evenly.

The authors acknowledge that many climate scientists are “reluctant to pursue one global climate intervention to correct for another” – a tacit recognition that humans have already inadvertently geo-engineered the climate crisis driven by global heating simply by burning fossil fuels and destroying forests. Nor do they specify a preferred version of any technology that puts sulphate aerosols or other reflecting particles into the stratosphere to reduce incoming radiation.

They simply consider the economic impacts of global temperature reductions under four different climate scenarios: if climates stabilised naturally; if temperatures went on soaring; if they were stabilised by geo-engineering; and if geo-engineering worked too well and lowered the planet’s temperature.

“A robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure any future decisions about solar geo-engineering are made for collective benefit”

They identified historical connections between the heat of the day and the wealth of a nation. Rainfall didn’t seem to matter so much. What was important was the temperature. And in the models, temperature seemed to make all the difference.

If tomorrow’s world, thanks to geo-engineering, cooled by 3.5°C – and right now the planetary temperature seems set to rise by about that much – average incomes in countries such as Niger, Chad and Mali would rise by more than 100% in a century.

In southern Europe and the US, gains would be a more modest 20%. Impacts from country to country might vary according to each scenario. But changes in temperature driven by solar geo-engineering consistently translated, they say, into a 50% cut in global income inequality.

“We find that if temperatures cooled, there would be gains in gross domestic product per capita,” Harding said. “For some models, these gains are up to 1000% over the course of the century and are largest for countries in the tropics, which historically tend to be poorer.”

Poorest hit hardest

Researchers have consistently found that global heating brings yet more economic hardship, and even social conflict, to the world’s least developed nations: these are the countries that have benefited least from the exploitation of oil, coal and natural gas to drive wealth, and therefore contributed least to the creation of a climate crisis.

The latest study suggests that although the best way to confront the challenge is to reduce and eventually reverse greenhouse gas emissions, concerted global action – carefully agreed and executed – might in theory cool the globe and limit the losses of everybody, but especially the poorest.

There is a catch: nobody has yet agreed on the technology that would work best. And nobody knows how to achieve the other prerequisite: international co-operation.

“Our findings underscore that a robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure any future decisions about solar geo-engineering are made for collective benefit,” the authors write. – Climate News Network

There is still no certainty that geo-engineering could save the world. But, paradoxically, if it did work it might repair climate injustice.

LONDON, 15 January, 2020 – Californian scientists have just made a case for geo-engineering as a solution to the climate crisis. One stratospheric technology – the reflection of incoming sunlight back into space – could do more than just lower global average temperatures.

It could also enhance the economic performance of some of the world’s poorest countries and reduce global income inequality by 50%.

“We find hotter, more populous countries are more sensitive to changes in temperature – whether it is an increase or a decrease,” said Anthony Harding, of Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California at San Diego.

“With solar geo-engineering, we find that poorer countries benefit more than richer countries from reductions in temperature, reducing inequalities. Together, the overall global economy grows.”

Uneven benefits possible

Harding and his colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they simply applied climate models to the consequences of a successful international collaboration to systematically reduce or reflect incoming sunlight, to compensate for the consequences of a steady increase in global average temperatures as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions.

Geo-engineering requires technologies that are not yet proven and that many scientists think may never work in any way that helps all nations evenly.

The authors acknowledge that many climate scientists are “reluctant to pursue one global climate intervention to correct for another” – a tacit recognition that humans have already inadvertently geo-engineered the climate crisis driven by global heating simply by burning fossil fuels and destroying forests. Nor do they specify a preferred version of any technology that puts sulphate aerosols or other reflecting particles into the stratosphere to reduce incoming radiation.

They simply consider the economic impacts of global temperature reductions under four different climate scenarios: if climates stabilised naturally; if temperatures went on soaring; if they were stabilised by geo-engineering; and if geo-engineering worked too well and lowered the planet’s temperature.

“A robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure any future decisions about solar geo-engineering are made for collective benefit”

They identified historical connections between the heat of the day and the wealth of a nation. Rainfall didn’t seem to matter so much. What was important was the temperature. And in the models, temperature seemed to make all the difference.

If tomorrow’s world, thanks to geo-engineering, cooled by 3.5°C – and right now the planetary temperature seems set to rise by about that much – average incomes in countries such as Niger, Chad and Mali would rise by more than 100% in a century.

In southern Europe and the US, gains would be a more modest 20%. Impacts from country to country might vary according to each scenario. But changes in temperature driven by solar geo-engineering consistently translated, they say, into a 50% cut in global income inequality.

“We find that if temperatures cooled, there would be gains in gross domestic product per capita,” Harding said. “For some models, these gains are up to 1000% over the course of the century and are largest for countries in the tropics, which historically tend to be poorer.”

Poorest hit hardest

Researchers have consistently found that global heating brings yet more economic hardship, and even social conflict, to the world’s least developed nations: these are the countries that have benefited least from the exploitation of oil, coal and natural gas to drive wealth, and therefore contributed least to the creation of a climate crisis.

The latest study suggests that although the best way to confront the challenge is to reduce and eventually reverse greenhouse gas emissions, concerted global action – carefully agreed and executed – might in theory cool the globe and limit the losses of everybody, but especially the poorest.

There is a catch: nobody has yet agreed on the technology that would work best. And nobody knows how to achieve the other prerequisite: international co-operation.

“Our findings underscore that a robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure any future decisions about solar geo-engineering are made for collective benefit,” the authors write. – Climate News Network

Ice-free Arctic Ocean allowed ancient carbon leaks

As the world warms, more greenhouse gas will enter the atmosphere. Researchers now think an ice-free Arctic Ocean explains how and why.

LONDON, 10 January, 2020 – Deep in a cave in Siberia, Israeli, Russian and British scientists have identified evidence of periodic losses of carbon from the permafrost. And the unexpected link is not simply with peak periods of bygone global warming, but with an ice-free Arctic Ocean.

The escape into the atmosphere of prodigious volumes of methane and carbon dioxide from the thawing soils is in step not with average planetary temperature rise, but with long periods when the Arctic Ocean is free of ice every summer.

Fact one: about one quarter of land in the northern hemisphere is now, and has been for much of the last half million years, permanently frozen, and with it about twice as much atmospheric carbon – in the form of peat and preserved vegetation – as there exists freely in the planetary atmosphere.

Fact two: in the most recent decades, sea ice has been both thinning and dwindling rapidly, and the polar ocean could by 2050 become almost entirely ice-free in the summer months.

“This discovery about the behaviour of the permafrost suggests that the expected loss of Arctic sea ice will accelerate melting of the permafrost presently found across much of Siberia”

And this twist in the tale of a rapidly-warming Arctic is preserved in stalagmite formations in a cave deep beneath the rim of the Arctic Circle in Siberia.

The chronology of stalagmite and stalactite development can be established precisely by the pattern of uranium and lead isotope deposits in formations, built up imperceptibly by the steady drip of water from, and through, the soils far above.

That is, the speleothems – a geologist’s catch-all word for both stalactite and stalagmite – form fastest when the permafrost has thawed. And unexpectedly, the periods of thaw did not match the peaks of interglacial warming during the last 1.35 million years. They did however coincide with periods when the Arctic was ice-free in the summer.

“This discovery about the behaviour of the permafrost suggests that the expected loss of Arctic sea ice in the future will accelerate melting of the permafrost presently found across much of Siberia,” said Gideon Henderson of the University of Oxford, and one of the authors of a new study in the journal Nature.

Permafrost in jeopardy

The argument goes like this: if there is no sea ice then more heat and moisture is delivered from the ocean to the atmosphere, with warmer air flowing over Siberia, and therefore more autumn snowfall.

A blanket of snow insulates the soil beneath from the extreme winter cold, so ground temperatures go up, to unsettle the permafrost and start a thaw that leads to accelerated plant decay and ever-increasing escape of carbon dioxide and methane that would otherwise have been frozen into the permafrost.

So the stalagmites endure as evidence of these warmer soils and survive as a direct link to periods of ice-free ocean.

“If these processes continue during modern climate change, future loss of summer Arctic sea ice will accelerate the thawing of Siberian permafrost,” the scientists say. – Climate News Network

As the world warms, more greenhouse gas will enter the atmosphere. Researchers now think an ice-free Arctic Ocean explains how and why.

LONDON, 10 January, 2020 – Deep in a cave in Siberia, Israeli, Russian and British scientists have identified evidence of periodic losses of carbon from the permafrost. And the unexpected link is not simply with peak periods of bygone global warming, but with an ice-free Arctic Ocean.

The escape into the atmosphere of prodigious volumes of methane and carbon dioxide from the thawing soils is in step not with average planetary temperature rise, but with long periods when the Arctic Ocean is free of ice every summer.

Fact one: about one quarter of land in the northern hemisphere is now, and has been for much of the last half million years, permanently frozen, and with it about twice as much atmospheric carbon – in the form of peat and preserved vegetation – as there exists freely in the planetary atmosphere.

Fact two: in the most recent decades, sea ice has been both thinning and dwindling rapidly, and the polar ocean could by 2050 become almost entirely ice-free in the summer months.

“This discovery about the behaviour of the permafrost suggests that the expected loss of Arctic sea ice will accelerate melting of the permafrost presently found across much of Siberia”

And this twist in the tale of a rapidly-warming Arctic is preserved in stalagmite formations in a cave deep beneath the rim of the Arctic Circle in Siberia.

The chronology of stalagmite and stalactite development can be established precisely by the pattern of uranium and lead isotope deposits in formations, built up imperceptibly by the steady drip of water from, and through, the soils far above.

That is, the speleothems – a geologist’s catch-all word for both stalactite and stalagmite – form fastest when the permafrost has thawed. And unexpectedly, the periods of thaw did not match the peaks of interglacial warming during the last 1.35 million years. They did however coincide with periods when the Arctic was ice-free in the summer.

“This discovery about the behaviour of the permafrost suggests that the expected loss of Arctic sea ice in the future will accelerate melting of the permafrost presently found across much of Siberia,” said Gideon Henderson of the University of Oxford, and one of the authors of a new study in the journal Nature.

Permafrost in jeopardy

The argument goes like this: if there is no sea ice then more heat and moisture is delivered from the ocean to the atmosphere, with warmer air flowing over Siberia, and therefore more autumn snowfall.

A blanket of snow insulates the soil beneath from the extreme winter cold, so ground temperatures go up, to unsettle the permafrost and start a thaw that leads to accelerated plant decay and ever-increasing escape of carbon dioxide and methane that would otherwise have been frozen into the permafrost.

So the stalagmites endure as evidence of these warmer soils and survive as a direct link to periods of ice-free ocean.

“If these processes continue during modern climate change, future loss of summer Arctic sea ice will accelerate the thawing of Siberian permafrost,” the scientists say. – Climate News Network

Global heating drives daily weather change

Expect the climate, but prepare for the weather? Not any more. The statistics spell it out: global heating is causing daily weather change.

LONDON, 6 January, 2020 – Swiss scientists have done something many of their colleagues had claimed was impossible: they have linked the random events of the daily weather change we all experience directly to the climate crisis.

It has been an axiom of climate science for decades that – although global heating would inevitably increase the likelihood of more intense or more damaging windstorms, floods, droughts or heat waves – it would not be possible to say that this or that event could not have happened the way it did without the ominous rise in global average temperature, driven by profligate use of fossil fuels.

But that no longer holds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Weather when considered globally is now in uncharted territory,” researchers write. “On the basis of a single day of globally observed temperature and moisture, we detect the fingerprint of externally driven climate change, and conclude that the earth as a whole is warming.”

Climate scientists and statisticians from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known simply as ETH Zurich, and from a partner institute in Lausanne known as EPFL, say that the seemingly normal variations in daily weather around the world are telling a clear story – just as long as the observers look at the global picture as well as the local measurements.

Clear pattern

For instance, on the same day as the Swiss study the UK Met Office announced a set of new temperature records for Britain in the last decade. The coldest March day ever recorded was in Gwent, Wales, in March 2018, when the thermometer fell to minus 4.7°C. But during the same decade the rest of Britain experienced four new and unprecedented monthly high temperatures, including an as yet unverified high of 18.7°C late in December.

In January 2020, a village in Norway registered a high of 19°C, a whole 25 degrees above the average for the winter month. But whereas local temperatures can fluctuate wildly, the variation in global average data is very small.

The Swiss scientists combed through the daily mean temperature and rainfall and snowfall data for the years 1951 to 1980, and for 2009 to 2018. They drew bell-shaped curves for each sequence of the years and then tried to match them. Without any overall rise in average global temperatures, the two curves would cover much the same space on the graph paper. They barely overlapped.

They then used a range of sophisticated statistical techniques to make detailed sense of the information in the two patterns of decadal weather. Beyond the jargon of the statistician’s trade – the paper talks of regression coefficients and regularised linear regression models, mean squared errors and Pearson correlations – a clear pattern emerged.

“Weather when considered globally is now in uncharted territory”

The often-wild swings of natural variation could be disentangled from the intensification powered by global heating. Climate change could be detected from global weather in any single year, month or even day. No longer can climate researchers use the old escape clause, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get,” to explain away seeming seasonal inconsistencies.

Global heating driven by greenhouse gases released by human economic growth is now shaping the world’s daily weather, from the catastrophic heat extremes and wildfires in Australia to the uncharacteristic winter weather in Moscow.

“The fingerprint of climate change is detected from any single day in the observed global record since early 2012”, the scientists write, “and since 1999 on the basis of a year of data. Detection is robust even when ignoring the long-term global warming trend.” – Climate News Network

Expect the climate, but prepare for the weather? Not any more. The statistics spell it out: global heating is causing daily weather change.

LONDON, 6 January, 2020 – Swiss scientists have done something many of their colleagues had claimed was impossible: they have linked the random events of the daily weather change we all experience directly to the climate crisis.

It has been an axiom of climate science for decades that – although global heating would inevitably increase the likelihood of more intense or more damaging windstorms, floods, droughts or heat waves – it would not be possible to say that this or that event could not have happened the way it did without the ominous rise in global average temperature, driven by profligate use of fossil fuels.

But that no longer holds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Weather when considered globally is now in uncharted territory,” researchers write. “On the basis of a single day of globally observed temperature and moisture, we detect the fingerprint of externally driven climate change, and conclude that the earth as a whole is warming.”

Climate scientists and statisticians from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known simply as ETH Zurich, and from a partner institute in Lausanne known as EPFL, say that the seemingly normal variations in daily weather around the world are telling a clear story – just as long as the observers look at the global picture as well as the local measurements.

Clear pattern

For instance, on the same day as the Swiss study the UK Met Office announced a set of new temperature records for Britain in the last decade. The coldest March day ever recorded was in Gwent, Wales, in March 2018, when the thermometer fell to minus 4.7°C. But during the same decade the rest of Britain experienced four new and unprecedented monthly high temperatures, including an as yet unverified high of 18.7°C late in December.

In January 2020, a village in Norway registered a high of 19°C, a whole 25 degrees above the average for the winter month. But whereas local temperatures can fluctuate wildly, the variation in global average data is very small.

The Swiss scientists combed through the daily mean temperature and rainfall and snowfall data for the years 1951 to 1980, and for 2009 to 2018. They drew bell-shaped curves for each sequence of the years and then tried to match them. Without any overall rise in average global temperatures, the two curves would cover much the same space on the graph paper. They barely overlapped.

They then used a range of sophisticated statistical techniques to make detailed sense of the information in the two patterns of decadal weather. Beyond the jargon of the statistician’s trade – the paper talks of regression coefficients and regularised linear regression models, mean squared errors and Pearson correlations – a clear pattern emerged.

“Weather when considered globally is now in uncharted territory”

The often-wild swings of natural variation could be disentangled from the intensification powered by global heating. Climate change could be detected from global weather in any single year, month or even day. No longer can climate researchers use the old escape clause, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get,” to explain away seeming seasonal inconsistencies.

Global heating driven by greenhouse gases released by human economic growth is now shaping the world’s daily weather, from the catastrophic heat extremes and wildfires in Australia to the uncharacteristic winter weather in Moscow.

“The fingerprint of climate change is detected from any single day in the observed global record since early 2012”, the scientists write, “and since 1999 on the basis of a year of data. Detection is robust even when ignoring the long-term global warming trend.” – Climate News Network

Atlantic current could falter before 2100

The Atlantic current won’t come to a full stop the day after tomorrow. But it could face a temporary halt later this century.

LONDON, 3 January, 2020 − European scientists think they have settled one of the more alarming questions of the climate crisis: the potential collapse of the Atlantic current, the Gulf Stream that delivers heat from the tropics to the Arctic.

The answer is clear. Total collapse is not likely for another 1000 years. But there is roughly a one in six chance in the next century that the flow of the north Atlantic current may temporarily halt or falter because of climate change.

That is because faster melting of the Greenland ice cap, and more freshwater in the Arctic Ocean, could trigger a slowdown in what scientists like to call the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation.

And a team of US researchers has separately highlighted one of the potential mechanisms of ocean change: for every 1°C rise in average global temperature, there will be roughly six days fewer on which many of the world’s rivers are frozen, which will mean more freshwater in the northern seas.

The findings are based in the first case on sophisticated use of computer simulations, and in the second on the careful study of 400,000 satellite images collected over more than 30 years.

“The Dutch scientists now think that the likelihood of even a temporary halt is only 15%. This is more or less the chance offered in the grim game of Russian roulette”

Researchers from the universities of Groningen and Utrecht say, in the journal Scientific Reports, that they modelled the likelihood and impact of small changes in the flow of freshwater into the ocean at high latitudes.

The Atlantic current – sometimes called the Gulf Stream – is a massive flow of warm, salty water from the tropics to the Arctic that keeps  northwestern Europe much warmer than, for example, the same latitudes of North America.

As the water flows north, it cools and becomes more dense, and begins to sink below the fresh meltwater of the summer Arctic: the cold, dense, salty water then flows along the sea bed southwards, and this one dramatic global oceanic conveyor belt ultimately delivers nutrients and dissolved oxygen to the Southern Ocean. It also stores dissolved carbon dioxide, distributes heat and moderates high latitude weather.

But in the past 150 years the flow has been weakening, and there have been fears that the circulation could halt entirely, with unforeseeable consequences. This notional failure became the trigger for a 2004 disaster movie called The Day After Tomorrow. Something so sudden and catastrophic as the Hollywood version was never going to happen – but there have been repeated fears that the weakening could continue, and tip the planet’s climate into a new and potentially dangerous state.

The Dutch scientists now think that the likelihood of even a temporary halt is only 15%. This is more or less the chance offered in the grim game of Russian roulette, in which a player spins a six-chambered revolver with one bullet in it, and points it at his or her head.

River ice lost

Their model simulated small changes in the delivery of freshwater. This is likely to accelerate however, according to research in the journal Nature. Researchers combed through 407,880 satellite pictures taken between 1984 and 2018, to find that 56% of rivers were affected by winter freezing, which masked altogether 87,000 square kilometres of water surface.

Freezing is important to both humans and wild things: frozen rivers traditionally have provided good surfaces for ground transport in the high latitudes. The act of freezing also regulates greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise escape from the rivers. Ice-jams during the spring melt can trigger flooding, which – though damaging to human settlements – spreads fresh water, nutrients and sediments around the flood plains.

But these benefits are at risk. The researchers found that river and lake surfaces were freezing ever later, as global temperatures crept up, and that the world had lost 2.5% of its river ice in the last 30 years.

If the world’s nations stick to the agreement reached in Paris in 2015 and contain global heating to just 2°C above the average for most of human history, then by the end of the century the world could see a reduction of another 16 days in the length of ice cover, compared with the present, they calculate.

If they achieve the Paris ideal of no more than 1.5°C, this extra ice-free period could be reduced to just over seven days. Right now, global average temperatures are already 1°C above the historic average, and the planet is on course for a warming by the end of the century of more than 3°C. − Climate News Network

The Atlantic current won’t come to a full stop the day after tomorrow. But it could face a temporary halt later this century.

LONDON, 3 January, 2020 − European scientists think they have settled one of the more alarming questions of the climate crisis: the potential collapse of the Atlantic current, the Gulf Stream that delivers heat from the tropics to the Arctic.

The answer is clear. Total collapse is not likely for another 1000 years. But there is roughly a one in six chance in the next century that the flow of the north Atlantic current may temporarily halt or falter because of climate change.

That is because faster melting of the Greenland ice cap, and more freshwater in the Arctic Ocean, could trigger a slowdown in what scientists like to call the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation.

And a team of US researchers has separately highlighted one of the potential mechanisms of ocean change: for every 1°C rise in average global temperature, there will be roughly six days fewer on which many of the world’s rivers are frozen, which will mean more freshwater in the northern seas.

The findings are based in the first case on sophisticated use of computer simulations, and in the second on the careful study of 400,000 satellite images collected over more than 30 years.

“The Dutch scientists now think that the likelihood of even a temporary halt is only 15%. This is more or less the chance offered in the grim game of Russian roulette”

Researchers from the universities of Groningen and Utrecht say, in the journal Scientific Reports, that they modelled the likelihood and impact of small changes in the flow of freshwater into the ocean at high latitudes.

The Atlantic current – sometimes called the Gulf Stream – is a massive flow of warm, salty water from the tropics to the Arctic that keeps  northwestern Europe much warmer than, for example, the same latitudes of North America.

As the water flows north, it cools and becomes more dense, and begins to sink below the fresh meltwater of the summer Arctic: the cold, dense, salty water then flows along the sea bed southwards, and this one dramatic global oceanic conveyor belt ultimately delivers nutrients and dissolved oxygen to the Southern Ocean. It also stores dissolved carbon dioxide, distributes heat and moderates high latitude weather.

But in the past 150 years the flow has been weakening, and there have been fears that the circulation could halt entirely, with unforeseeable consequences. This notional failure became the trigger for a 2004 disaster movie called The Day After Tomorrow. Something so sudden and catastrophic as the Hollywood version was never going to happen – but there have been repeated fears that the weakening could continue, and tip the planet’s climate into a new and potentially dangerous state.

The Dutch scientists now think that the likelihood of even a temporary halt is only 15%. This is more or less the chance offered in the grim game of Russian roulette, in which a player spins a six-chambered revolver with one bullet in it, and points it at his or her head.

River ice lost

Their model simulated small changes in the delivery of freshwater. This is likely to accelerate however, according to research in the journal Nature. Researchers combed through 407,880 satellite pictures taken between 1984 and 2018, to find that 56% of rivers were affected by winter freezing, which masked altogether 87,000 square kilometres of water surface.

Freezing is important to both humans and wild things: frozen rivers traditionally have provided good surfaces for ground transport in the high latitudes. The act of freezing also regulates greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise escape from the rivers. Ice-jams during the spring melt can trigger flooding, which – though damaging to human settlements – spreads fresh water, nutrients and sediments around the flood plains.

But these benefits are at risk. The researchers found that river and lake surfaces were freezing ever later, as global temperatures crept up, and that the world had lost 2.5% of its river ice in the last 30 years.

If the world’s nations stick to the agreement reached in Paris in 2015 and contain global heating to just 2°C above the average for most of human history, then by the end of the century the world could see a reduction of another 16 days in the length of ice cover, compared with the present, they calculate.

If they achieve the Paris ideal of no more than 1.5°C, this extra ice-free period could be reduced to just over seven days. Right now, global average temperatures are already 1°C above the historic average, and the planet is on course for a warming by the end of the century of more than 3°C. − Climate News Network

Humans are set to hijack the fossil record

Humans have made an indelible mark on the planet: they may also have erased most of life’s other stories, distorting the fossil record, the narrative of creation.

LONDON, 2 January, 2020 – US scientists have made a prediction that some yet-to-evolve intelligent species a hundred million years into the future can test. One day the fossil record will be more than usually rich in the complete skeletons of a small number of creatures: pigs, sheep, cattle and humans, many of the last arranged seemingly in ranks.

The assemblage from what many scientists now call the Anthropocene – the geological era dominated by Homo sapiens – will be entirely unlike the pattern of preserved relics from all the other geological eras in the last 500 million years.

“Fossil mammals occur in caves, ancient lake beds and river channels, and are usually only teeth and isolated bones,” said Roy Plotnick, a palaeontologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Animals that die on farms or in mass death due to disease often end up as complete corpses in trenches and landfills, far from water.”

Also available for study will be a vast array of undisturbed examples of one species that already far outnumbers all other large wild mammals. “In the far future, the fossil record of today will have a huge number of complete hominid skeletons, all lined up in rows.”

The thesis, outlined in the journal The Anthropocene, is a simple one. The evidence of past life preserved in the rocks is the only key to the story of life on Earth, and it has unfolded until now entirely by caprice.

“The future mammal record will be mostly cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats and people themselves”

Animals that died in the Triassic, Jurassic or the Cretaceous were incompletely preserved. Upon death, they were liable to be dismantled by scavengers, swept away by floods, incinerated by fires, buried by lava or demolished entirely by microbes. Preservation of any kind was entirely a matter of geological caprice and bone structure: soft-bodied animals – and most living things have always been boneless – have almost no chance of preservation.

The North American passenger pigeon astonished the first European settlers. It existed by the billion-fold: one flock could be a mile wide and 200 miles long.

The last survivor perished in 1914 and, says Steve Jones in 1999, in his much-recommended examination of evolutionary insight, Almost Like a Whale, without a written record, no-one would now know it had ever existed: no fossil has ever been found.

The argument by Professor Plotnick and a colleague is a simple one. If preservation in fossilised form is a lottery, humankind has now taken over the management and rigged the odds.

Humans evolved from primate ancestors, but no primate species ever flourished in such numbers. Global population has soared almost eightfold in the last two centuries, and with humans the population of domesticated animals has multiplied dramatically: one species now threatens to eliminate many of the other inhabitants of the planet.

Preservation more probable

The mass of humanity, according to one calculation, long ago began to outweigh the gross mass of all other wild mammals on the planet, by at least 10-fold. And in such numbers, humans and their chosen species should stand a much better chance of preservation far into the future.

Homo sapiens has already fashioned cities, industries and constructions that gross up to trillions of tonnes of cement and metal, and in a few decades laid down a stratum of seemingly indestructible polymer material in the form of plastic cups, bottles, nets, cables and containers.

Erosion, earthquakes and time alone may wipe away many of the scars left by most construction work, but some will survive as evidence that at least one intelligent civilisation made it through evolution’s obstacle race before possibly ensuring its own collapse.

The chances of long-term preservation of the bones of the blue whale, the African lion, the mountain gorilla, the emperor penguin or even the jungle fowl, ancestor of the broiler chicken, will remain vanishingly small. But the factory farms and orderly cemeteries of today will dominate the evidence.

“The chance of a wild animal becoming part of the fossil record has become very small,” said Professor Plotnick. “Instead the future mammal record will be mostly cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats and people themselves.” – Climate News Network

Humans have made an indelible mark on the planet: they may also have erased most of life’s other stories, distorting the fossil record, the narrative of creation.

LONDON, 2 January, 2020 – US scientists have made a prediction that some yet-to-evolve intelligent species a hundred million years into the future can test. One day the fossil record will be more than usually rich in the complete skeletons of a small number of creatures: pigs, sheep, cattle and humans, many of the last arranged seemingly in ranks.

The assemblage from what many scientists now call the Anthropocene – the geological era dominated by Homo sapiens – will be entirely unlike the pattern of preserved relics from all the other geological eras in the last 500 million years.

“Fossil mammals occur in caves, ancient lake beds and river channels, and are usually only teeth and isolated bones,” said Roy Plotnick, a palaeontologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Animals that die on farms or in mass death due to disease often end up as complete corpses in trenches and landfills, far from water.”

Also available for study will be a vast array of undisturbed examples of one species that already far outnumbers all other large wild mammals. “In the far future, the fossil record of today will have a huge number of complete hominid skeletons, all lined up in rows.”

The thesis, outlined in the journal The Anthropocene, is a simple one. The evidence of past life preserved in the rocks is the only key to the story of life on Earth, and it has unfolded until now entirely by caprice.

“The future mammal record will be mostly cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats and people themselves”

Animals that died in the Triassic, Jurassic or the Cretaceous were incompletely preserved. Upon death, they were liable to be dismantled by scavengers, swept away by floods, incinerated by fires, buried by lava or demolished entirely by microbes. Preservation of any kind was entirely a matter of geological caprice and bone structure: soft-bodied animals – and most living things have always been boneless – have almost no chance of preservation.

The North American passenger pigeon astonished the first European settlers. It existed by the billion-fold: one flock could be a mile wide and 200 miles long.

The last survivor perished in 1914 and, says Steve Jones in 1999, in his much-recommended examination of evolutionary insight, Almost Like a Whale, without a written record, no-one would now know it had ever existed: no fossil has ever been found.

The argument by Professor Plotnick and a colleague is a simple one. If preservation in fossilised form is a lottery, humankind has now taken over the management and rigged the odds.

Humans evolved from primate ancestors, but no primate species ever flourished in such numbers. Global population has soared almost eightfold in the last two centuries, and with humans the population of domesticated animals has multiplied dramatically: one species now threatens to eliminate many of the other inhabitants of the planet.

Preservation more probable

The mass of humanity, according to one calculation, long ago began to outweigh the gross mass of all other wild mammals on the planet, by at least 10-fold. And in such numbers, humans and their chosen species should stand a much better chance of preservation far into the future.

Homo sapiens has already fashioned cities, industries and constructions that gross up to trillions of tonnes of cement and metal, and in a few decades laid down a stratum of seemingly indestructible polymer material in the form of plastic cups, bottles, nets, cables and containers.

Erosion, earthquakes and time alone may wipe away many of the scars left by most construction work, but some will survive as evidence that at least one intelligent civilisation made it through evolution’s obstacle race before possibly ensuring its own collapse.

The chances of long-term preservation of the bones of the blue whale, the African lion, the mountain gorilla, the emperor penguin or even the jungle fowl, ancestor of the broiler chicken, will remain vanishingly small. But the factory farms and orderly cemeteries of today will dominate the evidence.

“The chance of a wild animal becoming part of the fossil record has become very small,” said Professor Plotnick. “Instead the future mammal record will be mostly cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats and people themselves.” – Climate News Network

Little time left to arrest Greenland’s melting

Humans may still have time to stop Greenland’s melting, preventing Arctic ice sheet collapse and devastating sea level rise. But the time left may be short.

LONDON, 30 December, 2019 – It’s still possible, but it’s far from certain: stopping Greenland’s melting can be done, but it must be done soon.

Norwegian and US scientists have taken a close look at the ice age history of Greenland and come to a grim conclusion. All it takes to set the island’s ice cap melting away is a mean sea surface temperature higher than seven degrees Celsius. And the present mean sea surface temperature is already 7.7°C.

Greenland is the northern hemisphere’s single richest store of frozen water: the island’s bedrock holds enough to raise global sea levels by seven metres and drown or wash away the world’s coastal communities, including the great cities of New York and Miami, Shanghai and Kolkata, Amsterdam and London.

And the pattern of geological evidence – outlined in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – combined with climate models suggests that any sustained temperature rise could trigger an irreversible melt of the entire southern Greenland ice sheet.

The scientists suggest that the threshold for this calamity could be between 0.8°C above the post-Ice Age norm, and 3.2°C.

“The critical temperature threshold for past Greenland ice sheet decay will likely be surpassed this century”

In fact, because of profligate use of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the planet has already warmed by around 1°C above the level for most of human history, and warming of at least 3.2°C by the end of this century now seems almost certain.

Researchers publish their conclusions with the intention that they should be examined, tested, challenged and perhaps overturned. But widespread alarm at the rate of melt and mass loss in Greenland has been consistent and increasing with the years.

Researchers have repeatedly established that melting each summer is increasing the rate at which glaciers flow and deliver ice to increasingly warmer northern seas, and that this rate of melting has itself begun to accelerate.

So Nil Irvali of the University of Bergen and colleagues took a closer look at the story told by microfossils within cores from the ice and the ocean floor during four interglacial periods over the last 450,000 years.

During those warm spells ocean levels rose dramatically, and in two episodes Greenland’s vanishing ice could have contributed more than five metres in one case, and up to seven metres of sea level rise in the other.

Triggers identified

And in all four of those interglacials, conditions reached temperatures higher than they are right now.

Concern about the stability of the Greenland icecap is no surprise: the Arctic is already warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, thanks to profligate use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the rainforests, and researchers worldwide have begun to identify triggers that feed back into further warming: rain, for instance, in winter; the loss of cloud cover in summer; and the deposits of soot from polar wildfires that darken the snows and enhance the absorption of the sun’s rays.

Years ago, the phrase “at a glacial pace” ceased to be a valid cliché: US scientists clocked one river of ice moving at a rate of 46 metres a day.

So the new study simply confirms fears that already are widespread. What remains to be settled is the point at which the decline of the ice sheet becomes irreversible, the Bergen scientists say. As the ocean warms, this feeds back into the process of melting and triggers longer-term feedbacks.

“The exact point at which these feedbacks are triggered remains equivocal,” say Dr Irvali and her co-authors. “Notably, the critical temperature threshold for past Greenland ice sheet decay will likely be surpassed this century. The duration for which this threshold is exceeded will determine Greenland’s fate.” – Climate News Network

Humans may still have time to stop Greenland’s melting, preventing Arctic ice sheet collapse and devastating sea level rise. But the time left may be short.

LONDON, 30 December, 2019 – It’s still possible, but it’s far from certain: stopping Greenland’s melting can be done, but it must be done soon.

Norwegian and US scientists have taken a close look at the ice age history of Greenland and come to a grim conclusion. All it takes to set the island’s ice cap melting away is a mean sea surface temperature higher than seven degrees Celsius. And the present mean sea surface temperature is already 7.7°C.

Greenland is the northern hemisphere’s single richest store of frozen water: the island’s bedrock holds enough to raise global sea levels by seven metres and drown or wash away the world’s coastal communities, including the great cities of New York and Miami, Shanghai and Kolkata, Amsterdam and London.

And the pattern of geological evidence – outlined in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – combined with climate models suggests that any sustained temperature rise could trigger an irreversible melt of the entire southern Greenland ice sheet.

The scientists suggest that the threshold for this calamity could be between 0.8°C above the post-Ice Age norm, and 3.2°C.

“The critical temperature threshold for past Greenland ice sheet decay will likely be surpassed this century”

In fact, because of profligate use of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the planet has already warmed by around 1°C above the level for most of human history, and warming of at least 3.2°C by the end of this century now seems almost certain.

Researchers publish their conclusions with the intention that they should be examined, tested, challenged and perhaps overturned. But widespread alarm at the rate of melt and mass loss in Greenland has been consistent and increasing with the years.

Researchers have repeatedly established that melting each summer is increasing the rate at which glaciers flow and deliver ice to increasingly warmer northern seas, and that this rate of melting has itself begun to accelerate.

So Nil Irvali of the University of Bergen and colleagues took a closer look at the story told by microfossils within cores from the ice and the ocean floor during four interglacial periods over the last 450,000 years.

During those warm spells ocean levels rose dramatically, and in two episodes Greenland’s vanishing ice could have contributed more than five metres in one case, and up to seven metres of sea level rise in the other.

Triggers identified

And in all four of those interglacials, conditions reached temperatures higher than they are right now.

Concern about the stability of the Greenland icecap is no surprise: the Arctic is already warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, thanks to profligate use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the rainforests, and researchers worldwide have begun to identify triggers that feed back into further warming: rain, for instance, in winter; the loss of cloud cover in summer; and the deposits of soot from polar wildfires that darken the snows and enhance the absorption of the sun’s rays.

Years ago, the phrase “at a glacial pace” ceased to be a valid cliché: US scientists clocked one river of ice moving at a rate of 46 metres a day.

So the new study simply confirms fears that already are widespread. What remains to be settled is the point at which the decline of the ice sheet becomes irreversible, the Bergen scientists say. As the ocean warms, this feeds back into the process of melting and triggers longer-term feedbacks.

“The exact point at which these feedbacks are triggered remains equivocal,” say Dr Irvali and her co-authors. “Notably, the critical temperature threshold for past Greenland ice sheet decay will likely be surpassed this century. The duration for which this threshold is exceeded will determine Greenland’s fate.” – Climate News Network

Marine climate impacts are intensifying

Fish catches are falling in the Gulf of Maine, Baltic cod are getting smaller. Sharks suffer acid waters’ effects as marine climate impacts grow.

LONDON, 20 December, 2019 – Marine climate impacts are starting to make their mark on marine life at almost every level, according to a range of entirely unrelated scientific studies published in the last month.

Baltic codfish – a valuable commercial catch – have steadily become smaller, scrawnier and less valuable because of the loss of oxygen in ocean waters as a consequence of an increasingly warmer world.

Changes in climate over the last two decades have cost the fishermen of New England their jobs: their numbers have fallen by 16% since 1996 as the total catch has fallen, along with fishermen’s incomes.

The change may be linked to a natural ocean climate cycle, but nobody can be sure the decline will not continue as waters warm in response to ever higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, driven by ever greater use of fossil fuels to power modern economic growth.

That steady rise in carbon dioxide means that marine waters are also becoming steadily more acidic, and this could be bad news for the sharks. Laboratory experiments suggest they can respond to short-term changes in water chemistry, but in the long term increasingly acidic waters can begin to dissolve not just the characteristic skin scales of the shark family, but the teeth as well.

And if environmental change goes on hitting tropical corals and the anemones that co-exist with them, then one of the world’s most iconic and culturally popular species could also disappear: the clownfish sub-family Amphiprioninae may not survive the continued bleaching of the coral reefs. Amphiprion ocellaris swam into the world’s hearts as the much sought-after cartoon character in the 2003 film Finding Nemo.

“We find that Nemo is at the mercy of a habitat that is degrading more and more every year”

Scientists based in the US and Sweden report in the journal Biology Letters that the average weight of specimens of Gadus morhua or the cod fish 40 cms long had dropped from 900 to 600 grams in the last 30 years.

They examined the otoliths or ear stones of 134 individuals trawled in the last months of the Baltic winter to read the evidence from trace elements such as magnesium and manganese and identify the cause: the continued fall in sea water oxygen levels as a consequence of global warming and pollution.

“The cod themselves are telling us through their internal logbooks that they’re affected by hypoxia [reduced oxygen availability], which we know is driven by climate change and nutrient loading,” said Karin Limburg, an ecologist at the State University of New York, who led the study. “Our findings suggest fish are in a worse condition because of hypoxia.”

In the Gulf of Maine, off the US Atlantic coast, catches of fish and shellfish have been falling, and with them the number of people employed in the fishery. Kimberly Oremus of the University of Delaware reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that successive warm winters have hit the catch, and incomes.

Pattern found

She matched decades of climate data, landing figures and sales data to identify a pattern of decline linked principally to a hot-and-cold pattern of change known as the North Atlantic Oscillation.

“New England waters are among the fastest-warming in the world,” she said. “Warmer than average sea surface temperatures have been shown to impact the productivity of lobsters, sea scallops, groundfish and other fisheries important to the region, especially when they are most vulnerable, from spawning through their first year of life.”

The region has 34,000 commercial fishermen, a significant proportion of the 166,000 or so throughout the whole of the US. The oscillation is a shift in ocean temperatures over decades, and catches could improve in decades to come – but marine waters worldwide are warming.

“This is an important signal to incorporate into the fisheries management process,” she said. “We need to figure out what climate is doing to fisheries in order to cope with it.”

Acid hazard

One important part of the marine ecosystem might not in the long run be able to cope: short episodes of hypercapnia, or a dramatic rise in dissolved carbon dioxide, are a feature linked to seasonal oceanic upwellings, and can last for days in some waters before normal ocean chemistry is restored.

In the journal Scientific Reports, European and South Africa researchers offer evidence that though cartilaginous fishes – the huge and varied family to which sharks belong – have evolved to cope with such spells, ever more acidic oceans offer a new hazard.

They caught a number of puffadder shysharks, known to scientists as Haploblepharus edwardsii and a species small enough for laboratory tanks, from shallow waters off South Africa and exposed them to acidic conditions predicted by the year 2300.

The increasingly acid environment was, literally, corrosive. Their specimens lost a quarter of their skin denticles – the shark equivalent of scales. Sharks’ teeth are made of the same biological fabric as the skin, and the implication is that such losses could, in their words “compromise hydrodynamics and skin protection.” In other words, some of the ocean’s most feared predators might have trouble both swimming and feeding.

Poor adapters

Australian and US scientists have more bad news for Nemo, the film star from the clownfish family. Rather than experiment in a laboratory tank, they monitored the numbers and the DNA of real life specimens for decades in Kimbe Bay off Papua-New Guinea. As waters warmed and began to bleach the coral reefs, the anemones that live in the reefs were put at risk.

They report in Ecology Letters that the tiny clownfish that live in the anemone tentacles proved bad at adapting to environmental change. The implication is that, as the coral reefs are lost, many species could be homeless and helpless.

“We find that Nemo is at the mercy of a habitat that is degrading more and more every year,” said Serge Planes of the French National Centre of Scientific Research, and one of the authors.

“To expect a clownfish to genetically adapt at a pace that would allow it to persist is unreasonable.” And Simon Thorrold of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US added: “It seems Nemo won’t be able to save himself.” – Climate News Network

Fish catches are falling in the Gulf of Maine, Baltic cod are getting smaller. Sharks suffer acid waters’ effects as marine climate impacts grow.

LONDON, 20 December, 2019 – Marine climate impacts are starting to make their mark on marine life at almost every level, according to a range of entirely unrelated scientific studies published in the last month.

Baltic codfish – a valuable commercial catch – have steadily become smaller, scrawnier and less valuable because of the loss of oxygen in ocean waters as a consequence of an increasingly warmer world.

Changes in climate over the last two decades have cost the fishermen of New England their jobs: their numbers have fallen by 16% since 1996 as the total catch has fallen, along with fishermen’s incomes.

The change may be linked to a natural ocean climate cycle, but nobody can be sure the decline will not continue as waters warm in response to ever higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, driven by ever greater use of fossil fuels to power modern economic growth.

That steady rise in carbon dioxide means that marine waters are also becoming steadily more acidic, and this could be bad news for the sharks. Laboratory experiments suggest they can respond to short-term changes in water chemistry, but in the long term increasingly acidic waters can begin to dissolve not just the characteristic skin scales of the shark family, but the teeth as well.

And if environmental change goes on hitting tropical corals and the anemones that co-exist with them, then one of the world’s most iconic and culturally popular species could also disappear: the clownfish sub-family Amphiprioninae may not survive the continued bleaching of the coral reefs. Amphiprion ocellaris swam into the world’s hearts as the much sought-after cartoon character in the 2003 film Finding Nemo.

“We find that Nemo is at the mercy of a habitat that is degrading more and more every year”

Scientists based in the US and Sweden report in the journal Biology Letters that the average weight of specimens of Gadus morhua or the cod fish 40 cms long had dropped from 900 to 600 grams in the last 30 years.

They examined the otoliths or ear stones of 134 individuals trawled in the last months of the Baltic winter to read the evidence from trace elements such as magnesium and manganese and identify the cause: the continued fall in sea water oxygen levels as a consequence of global warming and pollution.

“The cod themselves are telling us through their internal logbooks that they’re affected by hypoxia [reduced oxygen availability], which we know is driven by climate change and nutrient loading,” said Karin Limburg, an ecologist at the State University of New York, who led the study. “Our findings suggest fish are in a worse condition because of hypoxia.”

In the Gulf of Maine, off the US Atlantic coast, catches of fish and shellfish have been falling, and with them the number of people employed in the fishery. Kimberly Oremus of the University of Delaware reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that successive warm winters have hit the catch, and incomes.

Pattern found

She matched decades of climate data, landing figures and sales data to identify a pattern of decline linked principally to a hot-and-cold pattern of change known as the North Atlantic Oscillation.

“New England waters are among the fastest-warming in the world,” she said. “Warmer than average sea surface temperatures have been shown to impact the productivity of lobsters, sea scallops, groundfish and other fisheries important to the region, especially when they are most vulnerable, from spawning through their first year of life.”

The region has 34,000 commercial fishermen, a significant proportion of the 166,000 or so throughout the whole of the US. The oscillation is a shift in ocean temperatures over decades, and catches could improve in decades to come – but marine waters worldwide are warming.

“This is an important signal to incorporate into the fisheries management process,” she said. “We need to figure out what climate is doing to fisheries in order to cope with it.”

Acid hazard

One important part of the marine ecosystem might not in the long run be able to cope: short episodes of hypercapnia, or a dramatic rise in dissolved carbon dioxide, are a feature linked to seasonal oceanic upwellings, and can last for days in some waters before normal ocean chemistry is restored.

In the journal Scientific Reports, European and South Africa researchers offer evidence that though cartilaginous fishes – the huge and varied family to which sharks belong – have evolved to cope with such spells, ever more acidic oceans offer a new hazard.

They caught a number of puffadder shysharks, known to scientists as Haploblepharus edwardsii and a species small enough for laboratory tanks, from shallow waters off South Africa and exposed them to acidic conditions predicted by the year 2300.

The increasingly acid environment was, literally, corrosive. Their specimens lost a quarter of their skin denticles – the shark equivalent of scales. Sharks’ teeth are made of the same biological fabric as the skin, and the implication is that such losses could, in their words “compromise hydrodynamics and skin protection.” In other words, some of the ocean’s most feared predators might have trouble both swimming and feeding.

Poor adapters

Australian and US scientists have more bad news for Nemo, the film star from the clownfish family. Rather than experiment in a laboratory tank, they monitored the numbers and the DNA of real life specimens for decades in Kimbe Bay off Papua-New Guinea. As waters warmed and began to bleach the coral reefs, the anemones that live in the reefs were put at risk.

They report in Ecology Letters that the tiny clownfish that live in the anemone tentacles proved bad at adapting to environmental change. The implication is that, as the coral reefs are lost, many species could be homeless and helpless.

“We find that Nemo is at the mercy of a habitat that is degrading more and more every year,” said Serge Planes of the French National Centre of Scientific Research, and one of the authors.

“To expect a clownfish to genetically adapt at a pace that would allow it to persist is unreasonable.” And Simon Thorrold of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US added: “It seems Nemo won’t be able to save himself.” – Climate News Network

Food at risk as third of plants face extinction

More than a third of the world’s plants are so rare they face extinction. In a warmer world, that would leave supplies of food at risk.

LONDON, 17 December, 2019 – Botanists have made a new census of terrestrial plants – only to find that with nearly 40% of them rare, or extremely rare, this may put food at risk.

And a second team of researchers, in a separate study, has established that some of these rare or vanishing species could include the wild relatives of some of the planet’s most popular vegetables.

The two studies matter. The first underlines yet another reason for new and determined conservation strategies to preserve the extraordinary natural variety and richness of life – the shorthand word that scientists use is biodiversity – already under pressure from the explosion in human numbers, the destruction of natural habitats and the looming catastrophe of climate change driven by rapidly rising global temperatures.

And the second study is simply a matter of the next lunch or dinner: many rare plants are survivors with the resources to adapt to change. In a fast-changing world, crop breeders may need to go back to the wild relatives to look for the genes that will keep the commercial carrots, courgettes, pumpkins and chilli peppers on the grocery shelves.

US scientists and international colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they worked for 10 years and compiled 20 million observational records to establish a simple plant census: the forests, grasslands, scrublands, tundra and swamps of the wild world are home to about 435,000 unique plant species.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to difficult conditions. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action”

And of this huge number, a surprising 36.5% are “exceedingly rare.” By this, researchers mean that these species have been observed and recorded no more than five times in the last 300 years of systematic botanical research.

“According to ecological and evolutionary theory, we’d expect many species to be rare, but the actual observed number we found was pretty startling,” said Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona, who led the consortium. “There are many more rare species than we expected.”

The rare species were most likely to be clustered in what ecologists call hotspots: the northern Andes in South America, Costa Rica, South Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia.

What these places have in common is that, over millions of years, they have maintained stable climates, and as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, these tropical mountains and valleys provided refuge for life’s variety.

But these survivors may not enjoy a stable future, as ever higher levels of greenhouse gases are spilled into the atmosphere from human use of fossil fuels, and global temperatures continue to rise, and as human communities expand into what was once wilderness.

Significant loss ahead

“In many of these regions, there’s increasing human activity such as agriculture, cities and towns, land use and clearing,” said Professor Enquist.

“So that’s not exactly the best of news. If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in biodiversity – mainly in rare species – because their low numbers makes them more prone to extinction.”

Humans depend on the natural world for survival: biodiversity – plants, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and so on – provides all human nourishment, most of the medicines, fuels, fabrics and textiles that warm and shelter 7.7bn people, and at the same time maintains supplies of water, air, crop pollinators and so on.

But new research in the journal Plants, People, Planet confirms once again that many of the wild ancestors and cousins of the crops that nourish billions could be at risk.

And these wild relatives – which have survived climate shifts over millions of years – represent a vital resource for plant breeders anxious to cope with rapid global heating.

Unpreserved

The latest study confirms that 65% of wild pumpkins and more than 95% of wild chilli peppers are not formally preserved in any gene banks protected by conservation scientists.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions,” said Colin Khoury of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

“But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

Dr Khoury and his colleagues have prepared a series of detailed maps of the range and distribution of the wild relatives of a range of important food species: the aim is to focus on the most effective kinds of protection for what, literally, could become tomorrow’s lunch in a world of rapid change.

“If they disappear, they are gone,” said Dr Khoury. “Extinction is forever, which is a loss not only in terms of their evolution and persistence on the planet, but also a loss to the future of our food.” – Climate News Network

More than a third of the world’s plants are so rare they face extinction. In a warmer world, that would leave supplies of food at risk.

LONDON, 17 December, 2019 – Botanists have made a new census of terrestrial plants – only to find that with nearly 40% of them rare, or extremely rare, this may put food at risk.

And a second team of researchers, in a separate study, has established that some of these rare or vanishing species could include the wild relatives of some of the planet’s most popular vegetables.

The two studies matter. The first underlines yet another reason for new and determined conservation strategies to preserve the extraordinary natural variety and richness of life – the shorthand word that scientists use is biodiversity – already under pressure from the explosion in human numbers, the destruction of natural habitats and the looming catastrophe of climate change driven by rapidly rising global temperatures.

And the second study is simply a matter of the next lunch or dinner: many rare plants are survivors with the resources to adapt to change. In a fast-changing world, crop breeders may need to go back to the wild relatives to look for the genes that will keep the commercial carrots, courgettes, pumpkins and chilli peppers on the grocery shelves.

US scientists and international colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they worked for 10 years and compiled 20 million observational records to establish a simple plant census: the forests, grasslands, scrublands, tundra and swamps of the wild world are home to about 435,000 unique plant species.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to difficult conditions. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action”

And of this huge number, a surprising 36.5% are “exceedingly rare.” By this, researchers mean that these species have been observed and recorded no more than five times in the last 300 years of systematic botanical research.

“According to ecological and evolutionary theory, we’d expect many species to be rare, but the actual observed number we found was pretty startling,” said Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona, who led the consortium. “There are many more rare species than we expected.”

The rare species were most likely to be clustered in what ecologists call hotspots: the northern Andes in South America, Costa Rica, South Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia.

What these places have in common is that, over millions of years, they have maintained stable climates, and as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, these tropical mountains and valleys provided refuge for life’s variety.

But these survivors may not enjoy a stable future, as ever higher levels of greenhouse gases are spilled into the atmosphere from human use of fossil fuels, and global temperatures continue to rise, and as human communities expand into what was once wilderness.

Significant loss ahead

“In many of these regions, there’s increasing human activity such as agriculture, cities and towns, land use and clearing,” said Professor Enquist.

“So that’s not exactly the best of news. If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in biodiversity – mainly in rare species – because their low numbers makes them more prone to extinction.”

Humans depend on the natural world for survival: biodiversity – plants, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and so on – provides all human nourishment, most of the medicines, fuels, fabrics and textiles that warm and shelter 7.7bn people, and at the same time maintains supplies of water, air, crop pollinators and so on.

But new research in the journal Plants, People, Planet confirms once again that many of the wild ancestors and cousins of the crops that nourish billions could be at risk.

And these wild relatives – which have survived climate shifts over millions of years – represent a vital resource for plant breeders anxious to cope with rapid global heating.

Unpreserved

The latest study confirms that 65% of wild pumpkins and more than 95% of wild chilli peppers are not formally preserved in any gene banks protected by conservation scientists.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions,” said Colin Khoury of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

“But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

Dr Khoury and his colleagues have prepared a series of detailed maps of the range and distribution of the wild relatives of a range of important food species: the aim is to focus on the most effective kinds of protection for what, literally, could become tomorrow’s lunch in a world of rapid change.

“If they disappear, they are gone,” said Dr Khoury. “Extinction is forever, which is a loss not only in terms of their evolution and persistence on the planet, but also a loss to the future of our food.” – Climate News Network

Ultra-fast computers could avert global disaster

The world can be saved. It needs global co-operation, careful research and the building of ultra-fast computers.

LONDON, 13 December, 2019 – The way to steer the planet safely away from overwhelming climate crisis may sound familiar, though it’s staggeringly ambitious: just use incredibly powerful and ultra-fast computers.

Studies in two separate journals have called for new thinking about global change. One warns that only a genuine accommodation with nature can save humankind from catastrophic change. The other argues that present understanding of the trajectories of global heating is so uncertain that what is needed is a global co-operation to deliver what scientists call exascale supercomputer climate modelling: exascale means calculations at rates of a billion billion operations a second.

There’s a snag: nobody has yet built a working exascale computer, though several groups hope to succeed within a few years. But when it’s done it could transform the prospects of life on Earth.

“We cannot save the planet – and ourselves – until we understand how tightly woven people and the natural benefits that allow us to survive are,” said Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University, one of the authors of a paper in the journal Science.

“We have learned new ways to understand these connections, even as they spread across the globe. This strategy has given us the power to understand the full scope of the problem, which allows us to find true solutions.”

“Human actions are causing the fabric of life to unravel, posing serious risks for the quality of life of people”

And Tim Palmer of Oxford University, an author of a perspective paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has called for a new and international investment in sophisticated climate modelling, exploiting a new generation of computers, in much the same way that physicists at CERN in Geneva co-operated to explore the sequence of events in the first microsecond of creation.

“By comparison with new particle colliders or space telescopes, the amount needed, maybe around $100 million a year, is very modest indeed. In addition, the benefit/cost ratio to society of having a much clearer picture of the dangers we are facing in the coming decades by our ongoing actions, seems extraordinarily large,” he said.

“To be honest, all is needed is the will to work together across nations, on such a project. Then it will happen.”

The point made by authors of the Science study is that humankind depends acutely on the natural world for at least 18 direct benefits: these include pollination and the dispersal of seeds, the regulation of clean air, and of climate, and of fresh water, the protection of topsoils, the control of potential pests and diseases, the supplies of energy, food and animal fodder, the supplies of materials and fabrics and yields of new medicines and biochemical compounds.

Massive change

“Human actions are causing the fabric of life to unravel, posing serious risks for the quality of life of people”, the authors warn.

“Human actions have directly altered at least 70% of land surface; 66% of ocean surface is experiencing cumulative impacts; around 85% of wetland area has been lost since the 1700s and 77% of rivers longer than 1000 km no longer flow freely from source to sea.”

There was a need for “transformative action” on a global scale to address root economic, social and technological causes and to avert catastrophic decline of the living world. “Although the challenge is formidable, every delay will make the task harder”, they warn.

But in a world of rapid change – with species at increasing risk of extinction and global heating about to trigger catastrophic climate change – there is still the challenge of working out what the implications of any change might be.

The argument is that human society must change, and so too must the scientific community. Climate modelling might deliver broad answers, but researchers would still need to be sure what might work best in any particular circumstances, and that would require new and vastly more complex levels of mathematical calculation and data interpretation.

Space-race urgency

Professor Palmer and his colleague Bjorn Stevens of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg call for better understanding of the need for change.

“What is needed is the urgency of the space race aimed, not at the Moon or Mars, but rather toward harnessing the promise of exascale supercomputing to reliably simulate Earth’s regional climate (and associated extremes) globally”, they argue.

“This will only be possible if the broader climate science community begins to articulate its dissatisfaction with business as usual – not just among themselves, but externally to those who seek to use the models for business, policy, or humanitarian reasons.

“Failing to do so becomes an ethical issue in that it saddles us with the status quo: a strategy that hopes, against all evidence, to surmount the abyss between scientific capability and societal needs.” – Climate News Network

The world can be saved. It needs global co-operation, careful research and the building of ultra-fast computers.

LONDON, 13 December, 2019 – The way to steer the planet safely away from overwhelming climate crisis may sound familiar, though it’s staggeringly ambitious: just use incredibly powerful and ultra-fast computers.

Studies in two separate journals have called for new thinking about global change. One warns that only a genuine accommodation with nature can save humankind from catastrophic change. The other argues that present understanding of the trajectories of global heating is so uncertain that what is needed is a global co-operation to deliver what scientists call exascale supercomputer climate modelling: exascale means calculations at rates of a billion billion operations a second.

There’s a snag: nobody has yet built a working exascale computer, though several groups hope to succeed within a few years. But when it’s done it could transform the prospects of life on Earth.

“We cannot save the planet – and ourselves – until we understand how tightly woven people and the natural benefits that allow us to survive are,” said Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University, one of the authors of a paper in the journal Science.

“We have learned new ways to understand these connections, even as they spread across the globe. This strategy has given us the power to understand the full scope of the problem, which allows us to find true solutions.”

“Human actions are causing the fabric of life to unravel, posing serious risks for the quality of life of people”

And Tim Palmer of Oxford University, an author of a perspective paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has called for a new and international investment in sophisticated climate modelling, exploiting a new generation of computers, in much the same way that physicists at CERN in Geneva co-operated to explore the sequence of events in the first microsecond of creation.

“By comparison with new particle colliders or space telescopes, the amount needed, maybe around $100 million a year, is very modest indeed. In addition, the benefit/cost ratio to society of having a much clearer picture of the dangers we are facing in the coming decades by our ongoing actions, seems extraordinarily large,” he said.

“To be honest, all is needed is the will to work together across nations, on such a project. Then it will happen.”

The point made by authors of the Science study is that humankind depends acutely on the natural world for at least 18 direct benefits: these include pollination and the dispersal of seeds, the regulation of clean air, and of climate, and of fresh water, the protection of topsoils, the control of potential pests and diseases, the supplies of energy, food and animal fodder, the supplies of materials and fabrics and yields of new medicines and biochemical compounds.

Massive change

“Human actions are causing the fabric of life to unravel, posing serious risks for the quality of life of people”, the authors warn.

“Human actions have directly altered at least 70% of land surface; 66% of ocean surface is experiencing cumulative impacts; around 85% of wetland area has been lost since the 1700s and 77% of rivers longer than 1000 km no longer flow freely from source to sea.”

There was a need for “transformative action” on a global scale to address root economic, social and technological causes and to avert catastrophic decline of the living world. “Although the challenge is formidable, every delay will make the task harder”, they warn.

But in a world of rapid change – with species at increasing risk of extinction and global heating about to trigger catastrophic climate change – there is still the challenge of working out what the implications of any change might be.

The argument is that human society must change, and so too must the scientific community. Climate modelling might deliver broad answers, but researchers would still need to be sure what might work best in any particular circumstances, and that would require new and vastly more complex levels of mathematical calculation and data interpretation.

Space-race urgency

Professor Palmer and his colleague Bjorn Stevens of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg call for better understanding of the need for change.

“What is needed is the urgency of the space race aimed, not at the Moon or Mars, but rather toward harnessing the promise of exascale supercomputing to reliably simulate Earth’s regional climate (and associated extremes) globally”, they argue.

“This will only be possible if the broader climate science community begins to articulate its dissatisfaction with business as usual – not just among themselves, but externally to those who seek to use the models for business, policy, or humanitarian reasons.

“Failing to do so becomes an ethical issue in that it saddles us with the status quo: a strategy that hopes, against all evidence, to surmount the abyss between scientific capability and societal needs.” – Climate News Network

Racing ice loss strips Greenland of mass

Greenland is shrinking, losing ice seven times faster than a generation ago. Scientists have taken a new and ominous measure of polar loss.

LONDON, 11 December, 2019 – Greenland – the largest body of frozen water in the northern hemisphere – is now losing ice seven times faster than it did during the last decade of the 20th century.

From 1990 to 1999, the Greenland ice sheet spilled an average of 33 billion tonnes of ice into the oceans every year. In the last decade the rate of loss has accelerated to an average of 254 billion tonnes a year.

Altogether, the Greenland ice cap has surrendered 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992. This alone is enough to raise global sea levels by 10.6 millimetres.

Glaciers and icecaps are in retreat in two hemispheres, and on every continent, as a consequence of profligate human combustion of fossil fuels, to drive up greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and accelerate global heating.

Devastating

“As a rule of thumb, for every centimetre rise in global sea level another six million people are exposed to coastal flooding around the planet”, said Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds in the UK.

“On current trends, Greenland ice melting will cause 100 million people to be flooded each year by the end of the century, so 400 million in total due to all sea level rise. These are not unlikely events of small impacts; they are happening and will be devastating for coastal communities.”

Professor Shepherd is one of 96 polar scientists from 50 international organisations in a partnership known by the cumbrous name IMBIE, which stands for Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise. They made this assessment, based on data from 11 satellite missions and 26 separate surveys between 1992 and 2018, and published their conclusions in the journal Nature.

Greenland is not just the largest ice mass in the Arctic, it is probably the polar landscape studied for the longest time, and the most intensively.
Researchers have monitored the rate of summer melt, tried to match increases with other phenomena – for instance the darkening of snow by sub-Arctic wildfires – and tried to explore the mechanisms by which volumes of water that might in the past have frozen again each winter now accelerate glacier melt and escape into the ocean.

No surprise

The icecap is so big that – were it all to melt, which would take centuries – it would raise sea levels by as much as seven metres.

The news of a dramatic increase in rates of melting is not a surprise, and certainly not to the people who live in Greenland.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global sea levels would rise by 60 cms by 2100. What matters about the latest survey is that it confirms the worst fears of many climate scientists and suggests that sea level rise is heading for the high end of the 2013 projections.

That is, by the end of this century, seas could have risen by nearer 70 cms. Around 100 million people already live at levels below the highest tides: the numbers increasingly at risk may be much higher.

The same study also explores the rates of change. Although the warmest years ever recorded have happened in the last century, as fossil fuel emissions and rainforest losses have continued to increase, the impact of global heating has been uneven.

“Our project is a great example of the importance of international collaboration to tackle problems that are global in scale”

The greatest loss of Greenland ice in any one year was in 2011, when the island lost 335 billion tonnes. Nor does the survey include all the data from 2019, and researchers could yet find that this summer’s ice loss has set new records.

Greenland’s loss of ice has been mirrored by continued loss of sea ice during successive Arctic summers, and since the world’s seasonal weather patterns have – for most of human history – been driven by the temperature difference between tropics and poles, the continued loss of ice will almost certainly impose worldwide costs in harvest losses, freak storms, droughts, wildfires and of course coastal flooding.

And ultimately, the study is a test of computer simulations of change in the northern hemisphere. Climate models have consistently predicted polar ice loss and sea level rise. But the latest study is a confirmation that such loss is real, and beyond argument.

“While computer simulation allows us to make projections from climate change scenarios, the satellite measurements provide prima facie, rather irrefutable evidence,” said Erik Ivins of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and a co-author.

“Our project is a great example of the importance of international collaboration to tackle problems that are global in scale.” – Climate News Network

Greenland is shrinking, losing ice seven times faster than a generation ago. Scientists have taken a new and ominous measure of polar loss.

LONDON, 11 December, 2019 – Greenland – the largest body of frozen water in the northern hemisphere – is now losing ice seven times faster than it did during the last decade of the 20th century.

From 1990 to 1999, the Greenland ice sheet spilled an average of 33 billion tonnes of ice into the oceans every year. In the last decade the rate of loss has accelerated to an average of 254 billion tonnes a year.

Altogether, the Greenland ice cap has surrendered 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992. This alone is enough to raise global sea levels by 10.6 millimetres.

Glaciers and icecaps are in retreat in two hemispheres, and on every continent, as a consequence of profligate human combustion of fossil fuels, to drive up greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and accelerate global heating.

Devastating

“As a rule of thumb, for every centimetre rise in global sea level another six million people are exposed to coastal flooding around the planet”, said Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds in the UK.

“On current trends, Greenland ice melting will cause 100 million people to be flooded each year by the end of the century, so 400 million in total due to all sea level rise. These are not unlikely events of small impacts; they are happening and will be devastating for coastal communities.”

Professor Shepherd is one of 96 polar scientists from 50 international organisations in a partnership known by the cumbrous name IMBIE, which stands for Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise. They made this assessment, based on data from 11 satellite missions and 26 separate surveys between 1992 and 2018, and published their conclusions in the journal Nature.

Greenland is not just the largest ice mass in the Arctic, it is probably the polar landscape studied for the longest time, and the most intensively.
Researchers have monitored the rate of summer melt, tried to match increases with other phenomena – for instance the darkening of snow by sub-Arctic wildfires – and tried to explore the mechanisms by which volumes of water that might in the past have frozen again each winter now accelerate glacier melt and escape into the ocean.

No surprise

The icecap is so big that – were it all to melt, which would take centuries – it would raise sea levels by as much as seven metres.

The news of a dramatic increase in rates of melting is not a surprise, and certainly not to the people who live in Greenland.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global sea levels would rise by 60 cms by 2100. What matters about the latest survey is that it confirms the worst fears of many climate scientists and suggests that sea level rise is heading for the high end of the 2013 projections.

That is, by the end of this century, seas could have risen by nearer 70 cms. Around 100 million people already live at levels below the highest tides: the numbers increasingly at risk may be much higher.

The same study also explores the rates of change. Although the warmest years ever recorded have happened in the last century, as fossil fuel emissions and rainforest losses have continued to increase, the impact of global heating has been uneven.

“Our project is a great example of the importance of international collaboration to tackle problems that are global in scale”

The greatest loss of Greenland ice in any one year was in 2011, when the island lost 335 billion tonnes. Nor does the survey include all the data from 2019, and researchers could yet find that this summer’s ice loss has set new records.

Greenland’s loss of ice has been mirrored by continued loss of sea ice during successive Arctic summers, and since the world’s seasonal weather patterns have – for most of human history – been driven by the temperature difference between tropics and poles, the continued loss of ice will almost certainly impose worldwide costs in harvest losses, freak storms, droughts, wildfires and of course coastal flooding.

And ultimately, the study is a test of computer simulations of change in the northern hemisphere. Climate models have consistently predicted polar ice loss and sea level rise. But the latest study is a confirmation that such loss is real, and beyond argument.

“While computer simulation allows us to make projections from climate change scenarios, the satellite measurements provide prima facie, rather irrefutable evidence,” said Erik Ivins of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and a co-author.

“Our project is a great example of the importance of international collaboration to tackle problems that are global in scale.” – Climate News Network