Category Archives: Nature

Oxford basks in 140-year-old sunshine record

The ancient UK city of Oxford has registered a month-long sunshine record, the sunniest in nearly 150 years.

OXFORD, 4 June, 2020 – So far this year many parts of the world have seen weather records broken, and not always happily, as floods, storms, heat, cold, drought and more reach new extremes – but, in the temperate United Kingdom, swept frequently by Atlantic storms and Arctic gales, a sunshine record is something to marvel at.

That’s what has just been the experience of the city of Oxford, home not only to an ancient university but to a collection of the longest single-site weather records in the UK, with worldwide relevance.

The university’s Radcliffe Meteorological Station has measured a new record for sunshine. The total for the month just gone was 331.7 hours, making May 2020 the sunniest calendar month in the city since sunshine records began in February 1880, and far beyond the previous holder of the title, July 1911, with its total of 310.4 hours.

Oxford’s record May sunshine was 173% higher than the city’s long-term average total sunshine for the month, 192 hours. It was also higher than the long-term average May sunshine hours for Seville and Malaga (approximately 300hrs each ) in southern Spain.

“You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device”

Oxford’s statistics for the months from March to May show as well that spring 2020 has been far sunnier than anything measured in previous years, with 59.3 more hours of sunshine than the previous record, set in 1990.

This sequence of long sunny days has meant something else as well: an almost total absence of rain in Oxford, where rainfall records go back as far as 1767 (though in a different part of the city for the first five years). This month was the driest May since 1795 – only 3.5mm accumulated in the rain gauge.

The Radcliffe station measures sunshine with a robust device invented in 1853, called a Campbell–Stokes recorder, or a Stokes sphere. The original design consisted of a glass sphere set into a wooden bowl, on which the sun burnt a trace.

A modification replaced the bowl with a metal housing and a card holder set behind the sphere. The device, still in use almost unchanged after nearly 170 years, records the hours of sunshine bright enough to burn a hole through the card.

International worth

Thomas Caton Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, collected the final figures on 1 June to establish the previous day’s sunshine reading. He said: “You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device.”

The Radcliffe station has a unique place in both UK and international weather observation. Record-keeping began here in 1772, and an unbroken daily air temperature record has existed since November 1813. The daily rainfall record runs from January 1827, and sunshine from February 1880. These are the longest single-site weather records in the UK, and amongst the longest in the world.

They are especially valuable because the instruments in use and their exposure have been fully documented throughout the record. The station, based at Green Templeton College, has been managed by the university’s School of Geography and the Environment since 1935.

For more details see Oxford Weather and Climate since 1767, published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The book provides an analysis of the weather records from the Radcliffe Meteorological Station, one of the most detailed accounts for any city in the world. – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Ian Curtis is Development Officer of the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

The ancient UK city of Oxford has registered a month-long sunshine record, the sunniest in nearly 150 years.

OXFORD, 4 June, 2020 – So far this year many parts of the world have seen weather records broken, and not always happily, as floods, storms, heat, cold, drought and more reach new extremes – but, in the temperate United Kingdom, swept frequently by Atlantic storms and Arctic gales, a sunshine record is something to marvel at.

That’s what has just been the experience of the city of Oxford, home not only to an ancient university but to a collection of the longest single-site weather records in the UK, with worldwide relevance.

The university’s Radcliffe Meteorological Station has measured a new record for sunshine. The total for the month just gone was 331.7 hours, making May 2020 the sunniest calendar month in the city since sunshine records began in February 1880, and far beyond the previous holder of the title, July 1911, with its total of 310.4 hours.

Oxford’s record May sunshine was 173% higher than the city’s long-term average total sunshine for the month, 192 hours. It was also higher than the long-term average May sunshine hours for Seville and Malaga (approximately 300hrs each ) in southern Spain.

“You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device”

Oxford’s statistics for the months from March to May show as well that spring 2020 has been far sunnier than anything measured in previous years, with 59.3 more hours of sunshine than the previous record, set in 1990.

This sequence of long sunny days has meant something else as well: an almost total absence of rain in Oxford, where rainfall records go back as far as 1767 (though in a different part of the city for the first five years). This month was the driest May since 1795 – only 3.5mm accumulated in the rain gauge.

The Radcliffe station measures sunshine with a robust device invented in 1853, called a Campbell–Stokes recorder, or a Stokes sphere. The original design consisted of a glass sphere set into a wooden bowl, on which the sun burnt a trace.

A modification replaced the bowl with a metal housing and a card holder set behind the sphere. The device, still in use almost unchanged after nearly 170 years, records the hours of sunshine bright enough to burn a hole through the card.

International worth

Thomas Caton Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, collected the final figures on 1 June to establish the previous day’s sunshine reading. He said: “You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device.”

The Radcliffe station has a unique place in both UK and international weather observation. Record-keeping began here in 1772, and an unbroken daily air temperature record has existed since November 1813. The daily rainfall record runs from January 1827, and sunshine from February 1880. These are the longest single-site weather records in the UK, and amongst the longest in the world.

They are especially valuable because the instruments in use and their exposure have been fully documented throughout the record. The station, based at Green Templeton College, has been managed by the university’s School of Geography and the Environment since 1935.

For more details see Oxford Weather and Climate since 1767, published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The book provides an analysis of the weather records from the Radcliffe Meteorological Station, one of the most detailed accounts for any city in the world. – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Ian Curtis is Development Officer of the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

Pandemic and climate extremes hit India together

A fearsome cyclone, other climate extremes, Covid-19 and now locust swarms – Indians may think life could hardly get worse.

DELHI, 2 June, 2020 – India is no stranger to coping with climate extremes and natural emergencies, but this year is likely to lodge in the national memory as one of the most challenging in recent history.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global scourge, but India also has many regional and national afflictions to make 2020 a year to forget – a massive heatwave, its strongest recorded cyclone, thunderstorms bringing huge hailstones, and floods. Now it is being assailed by all-devouring locust swarms, the worst in 25 years, leaving the land scarred.

Government figures showed more than 5,000 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May. The pandemic is causing a humanitarian crisis as well, with a huge reverse migration of penniless unskilled labourers who have lost their jobs in the cities and are now returning to their rural homes.

Five states – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra – have been invaded by the locusts. The swarms normally arrive to breed in June or July but this year the first flew in in mid-April, helped to spread by a strong west wind. Climate scientists say warmer waters in the western Indian Ocean also worsened the problem.

The only saving grace is that there are not many standing crops in many of the affected districts, as the monsoon sowing is yet to begin. “It is only the vegetables, orchards and trees that are the victims of this attack,” an official said.

“This is an emergency situation. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown”

As the locust threat developed, a range of devastating climate events hit the country in May, starting with heavy rain and hail which killed 29 people in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Next came Cyclone Amphan, bringing sustained windspeeds of 270 kms per hour.

It was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. When it hit the coast on 20 May more than 80 people died. West Bengal, on the eastern coast bordering Bangladesh, suffered a trail of destruction. The winds even damaged the tiger stronghold of the Sunderbans, the islands  whose mangrove forests in the delta of three major rivers normally give Bengal some protection from the storms.

Amphan’s rampage caused the evacuation of 300,000 people to shelter. Many acres of agricultural land near the coast were flooded by salty water and are now unusable. The government estimated the initial losses caused by the cyclone at one trillion rupees (US$13.2 billion).

Amphan’s storm surge was among its most dangerous threats. Global sea levels have already increased by about 23 cm as a result of human carbon emissions – dramatically increasing the distance that the surges can reach. Sea levels in the North Indian Ocean have risen more quickly than in many oceans elsewhere in recent years.

Assam struck

Amphan’s tail also left its mark on the northeastern state of Assam, which experienced heavy rainfall and flooding in low-lying areas, and then several days later a massive thunderstorm. On 27 May, as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries rose above danger point at several places, over 300 villages experienced heavy flooding.

Nor was that all. The same week maximum temperatures reached 40-45C° in much of northern and central India. While Delhi sizzled at 45-46°, Churu in Rajasthan touched 50°C. Fortunately, there have been no deaths reported this year of farm workers and street vendors, as many people remain locked in their homes because of the virus.

As India braces for the annual monsoon, the government is claiming that it has contained much of the locust threat. But Devinder Sharma, an agriculture and trade policy expert, said: “The government’s preparedness has been too slow to keep pace with this rapid increase in locust swarms.

“This is an emergency situation and requires emergency measures. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown caused by Covid-19.” – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com or @nivedita_Him

A fearsome cyclone, other climate extremes, Covid-19 and now locust swarms – Indians may think life could hardly get worse.

DELHI, 2 June, 2020 – India is no stranger to coping with climate extremes and natural emergencies, but this year is likely to lodge in the national memory as one of the most challenging in recent history.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global scourge, but India also has many regional and national afflictions to make 2020 a year to forget – a massive heatwave, its strongest recorded cyclone, thunderstorms bringing huge hailstones, and floods. Now it is being assailed by all-devouring locust swarms, the worst in 25 years, leaving the land scarred.

Government figures showed more than 5,000 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May. The pandemic is causing a humanitarian crisis as well, with a huge reverse migration of penniless unskilled labourers who have lost their jobs in the cities and are now returning to their rural homes.

Five states – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra – have been invaded by the locusts. The swarms normally arrive to breed in June or July but this year the first flew in in mid-April, helped to spread by a strong west wind. Climate scientists say warmer waters in the western Indian Ocean also worsened the problem.

The only saving grace is that there are not many standing crops in many of the affected districts, as the monsoon sowing is yet to begin. “It is only the vegetables, orchards and trees that are the victims of this attack,” an official said.

“This is an emergency situation. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown”

As the locust threat developed, a range of devastating climate events hit the country in May, starting with heavy rain and hail which killed 29 people in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Next came Cyclone Amphan, bringing sustained windspeeds of 270 kms per hour.

It was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. When it hit the coast on 20 May more than 80 people died. West Bengal, on the eastern coast bordering Bangladesh, suffered a trail of destruction. The winds even damaged the tiger stronghold of the Sunderbans, the islands  whose mangrove forests in the delta of three major rivers normally give Bengal some protection from the storms.

Amphan’s rampage caused the evacuation of 300,000 people to shelter. Many acres of agricultural land near the coast were flooded by salty water and are now unusable. The government estimated the initial losses caused by the cyclone at one trillion rupees (US$13.2 billion).

Amphan’s storm surge was among its most dangerous threats. Global sea levels have already increased by about 23 cm as a result of human carbon emissions – dramatically increasing the distance that the surges can reach. Sea levels in the North Indian Ocean have risen more quickly than in many oceans elsewhere in recent years.

Assam struck

Amphan’s tail also left its mark on the northeastern state of Assam, which experienced heavy rainfall and flooding in low-lying areas, and then several days later a massive thunderstorm. On 27 May, as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries rose above danger point at several places, over 300 villages experienced heavy flooding.

Nor was that all. The same week maximum temperatures reached 40-45C° in much of northern and central India. While Delhi sizzled at 45-46°, Churu in Rajasthan touched 50°C. Fortunately, there have been no deaths reported this year of farm workers and street vendors, as many people remain locked in their homes because of the virus.

As India braces for the annual monsoon, the government is claiming that it has contained much of the locust threat. But Devinder Sharma, an agriculture and trade policy expert, said: “The government’s preparedness has been too slow to keep pace with this rapid increase in locust swarms.

“This is an emergency situation and requires emergency measures. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown caused by Covid-19.” – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com or @nivedita_Him

Plastic waste now litters Antarctic shore

From the deep Mediterranean marine mud to the desolate beaches of the Southern Ocean, plastic waste now gets everywhere.

LONDON, 12 May, 2020 – The throwaway society now has a global reach. British and German scientists have found astonishing concentrations of plastic waste in the form of tiny fibres on the sea floor. In just one square metre of marine ooze, they have counted as many as 1.9 million fragments less than a millimetre in length.

And two studies have identified sickening levels of plastic waste in the Southern Ocean that washes around Antarctica. One team reports ever greater counts of debris on the beaches of islands in South Georgia and South Orkney; the other on the increasing quantities ingested by the wandering albatross and the giant petrel, two iconic birds of the south polar seas.

An estimated 10 million tonnes of discarded food wrapping, drinking straws, disposable cups, bottles, carrier bags and fishing gear are tipped into the sea each year: plastic waste has now been found in all the world’s oceans, and even in the polar ice, an indestructible reminder of human impact on the natural world.

Tiny textile particles or microfibres of plastic have been found in every sampled litre of sea water, in the stomachs of seabirds and in the bellies of whales.

In fact the visible debris – the polystyrene cups and drinking straws and carrier bags floating on or near the surface – is thought to account for a tiny proportion of the total. Around 99% is thought to be in the deep oceans.

“Microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas”

And researchers now report in the journal Science that they have found an indicator as to the final fate of most of it. They collected sediment at depths of up to 900 metres from the floor of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west of the Italian peninsula and began counting the particles of indestructible polymer material in the marine mud, carried there by deep ocean currents.

“Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ‘garbage patches’ of floating plastic, but we were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics we found on the sea floor,” said Ian Kane of the University of Manchester, in the UK, one of the authors.

“We discovered that microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas.”

These same deep currents also carry oxygen-rich water and nutrients, which suggests that toxic microplastics are being carried into vital deep ecosystems. But the surface-borne debris has far-reaching consequences too.

Remedial efforts

British and Australian scientists who made surveys over three decades of beached plastic, metal, glass, paper and rubber at locations in the Southern Ocean report in the journal Environment International that between 1989 and March 2019, they recovered 10,112 items of waste weighing in total more than 100kg from Bird Island off South Georgia, and 1,304 items weighing in all 268 kg from the remote shores of Signy Island in the South Orkney archipelago.

Almost 90% of the total was plastic. The peak of the debris count was in the 1990s, which suggests that some attempts have been made to reduce the levels discarded from shipping and other sources.

And a second study in the same journal reports that in the same 30 years, levels of plastic pollution had been consumed in increasing quantities by two out of three species of albatross, and another sea bird.

Annual intake in Diomedea exulans, the wandering albatross, had increased 14-fold, and in the giant petrel Macronectes giganteus the intake had increased six-fold.

“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that fishing and other vessels make a major contribution to plastic pollution,” said Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s clear that marine plastics are a threat to seabirds and other wildlife, and more needs to be done.” – Climate News Network

From the deep Mediterranean marine mud to the desolate beaches of the Southern Ocean, plastic waste now gets everywhere.

LONDON, 12 May, 2020 – The throwaway society now has a global reach. British and German scientists have found astonishing concentrations of plastic waste in the form of tiny fibres on the sea floor. In just one square metre of marine ooze, they have counted as many as 1.9 million fragments less than a millimetre in length.

And two studies have identified sickening levels of plastic waste in the Southern Ocean that washes around Antarctica. One team reports ever greater counts of debris on the beaches of islands in South Georgia and South Orkney; the other on the increasing quantities ingested by the wandering albatross and the giant petrel, two iconic birds of the south polar seas.

An estimated 10 million tonnes of discarded food wrapping, drinking straws, disposable cups, bottles, carrier bags and fishing gear are tipped into the sea each year: plastic waste has now been found in all the world’s oceans, and even in the polar ice, an indestructible reminder of human impact on the natural world.

Tiny textile particles or microfibres of plastic have been found in every sampled litre of sea water, in the stomachs of seabirds and in the bellies of whales.

In fact the visible debris – the polystyrene cups and drinking straws and carrier bags floating on or near the surface – is thought to account for a tiny proportion of the total. Around 99% is thought to be in the deep oceans.

“Microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas”

And researchers now report in the journal Science that they have found an indicator as to the final fate of most of it. They collected sediment at depths of up to 900 metres from the floor of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west of the Italian peninsula and began counting the particles of indestructible polymer material in the marine mud, carried there by deep ocean currents.

“Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ‘garbage patches’ of floating plastic, but we were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics we found on the sea floor,” said Ian Kane of the University of Manchester, in the UK, one of the authors.

“We discovered that microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas.”

These same deep currents also carry oxygen-rich water and nutrients, which suggests that toxic microplastics are being carried into vital deep ecosystems. But the surface-borne debris has far-reaching consequences too.

Remedial efforts

British and Australian scientists who made surveys over three decades of beached plastic, metal, glass, paper and rubber at locations in the Southern Ocean report in the journal Environment International that between 1989 and March 2019, they recovered 10,112 items of waste weighing in total more than 100kg from Bird Island off South Georgia, and 1,304 items weighing in all 268 kg from the remote shores of Signy Island in the South Orkney archipelago.

Almost 90% of the total was plastic. The peak of the debris count was in the 1990s, which suggests that some attempts have been made to reduce the levels discarded from shipping and other sources.

And a second study in the same journal reports that in the same 30 years, levels of plastic pollution had been consumed in increasing quantities by two out of three species of albatross, and another sea bird.

Annual intake in Diomedea exulans, the wandering albatross, had increased 14-fold, and in the giant petrel Macronectes giganteus the intake had increased six-fold.

“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that fishing and other vessels make a major contribution to plastic pollution,” said Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s clear that marine plastics are a threat to seabirds and other wildlife, and more needs to be done.” – Climate News Network

Tigers retreat before spreading road networks

The global push to save an iconic species from extinction struggles, as tigers retreat before the relentless growth of roads.

LONDON, 4 May, 2020 − Humans have made inroads into the last territory of the tiger – literally: the inexorable increase in roads is driving the tigers’ retreat.

A new study of the wilderness set aside for the rapidly-dwindling populations of Panthera tigris in 13 countries warns that more than half of all this supposedly untouched reserve is within 5kms of a road.

Altogether, tiger conservation landscapes considered crucial for the recovery of an endangered species are now home to 134,000 kilometres of road. This intrusion alone may have reduced the abundance of both the carnivore and its natural prey by about one fifth.

And by 2050 researchers expect that another 24,000kms of road will have been built through the 1.16 million square kilometres of wilderness officially conserved in Russia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan. Many of these will have been built under China’s so-called “belt-and-road initiative” in the developing world.

“Our analysis demonstrates that, overall, tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range,” said Neil Carter, of the University of Michigan in the US, who led the research.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late”

He and colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and average species abundance in all 76 blocks of land set aside for tiger conservation, to confirm conservationists’ worst fears.

Encroaching roads discourage the herbivores that tigers might prey upon; they degrade the habitat for all wildlife in the region; and they provide easier access for poachers, for whom a tiger carcass is a valuable commodity. In the Russian Far East, collisions with road vehicles were enough to reduce tiger survival rates.

The road seems the first enemy of conservation. Researchers have recently established that even the presence of human intrusion – the border of a ranch, a commercial clearing, a palm oil plantation or just a simple road – is enough to weaken and in some way damage the integrity of the 500 metres of wilderness next to the clearing.

The global record for the protection of those areas set aside for the conservation of endemic species is not good: another study found that, worldwide, since 1993, more than 280,000 sq kms of natural reserve had been subjected to “intense human pressure.”

And a third study fingered the road itself as the problem, and a growing problem: roads already fragment the world’s landscapes, and by 2050 governments will have added another 25 million kilometres of asphalt, traffic and settlement, most of it in the developing world.

Numbers still dropping

Thanks to human population growth and climate change, the planet is poised for the extinction of wild creatures and plants on a massive scale. So the tiger study reflects a wider pattern.

The difference is that for more than 50 years conservationists and governments have encouraged international efforts to conserve one of the most iconic and at the same time one of the most endangered of all the big cats, but the numbers are still falling, as roads turn what had been undisturbed habitat into an archipelago of little “tiger islands” in which populations are isolated from each other.

The scientists found that those areas most strictly protected in the tiger conservation were less densely interrupted by roads: however, these densities varied widely across countries. China’s average road density in tiger conservation landscapes was almost eight times greater than, for example, Malaysia’s.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late,” Dr Carter said.

“Given that roads will be a pervasive challenge to tiger recovery in the future, we urge decision-makers to make sustainable road development a top priority.” − Climate News Network

The global push to save an iconic species from extinction struggles, as tigers retreat before the relentless growth of roads.

LONDON, 4 May, 2020 − Humans have made inroads into the last territory of the tiger – literally: the inexorable increase in roads is driving the tigers’ retreat.

A new study of the wilderness set aside for the rapidly-dwindling populations of Panthera tigris in 13 countries warns that more than half of all this supposedly untouched reserve is within 5kms of a road.

Altogether, tiger conservation landscapes considered crucial for the recovery of an endangered species are now home to 134,000 kilometres of road. This intrusion alone may have reduced the abundance of both the carnivore and its natural prey by about one fifth.

And by 2050 researchers expect that another 24,000kms of road will have been built through the 1.16 million square kilometres of wilderness officially conserved in Russia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan. Many of these will have been built under China’s so-called “belt-and-road initiative” in the developing world.

“Our analysis demonstrates that, overall, tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range,” said Neil Carter, of the University of Michigan in the US, who led the research.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late”

He and colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and average species abundance in all 76 blocks of land set aside for tiger conservation, to confirm conservationists’ worst fears.

Encroaching roads discourage the herbivores that tigers might prey upon; they degrade the habitat for all wildlife in the region; and they provide easier access for poachers, for whom a tiger carcass is a valuable commodity. In the Russian Far East, collisions with road vehicles were enough to reduce tiger survival rates.

The road seems the first enemy of conservation. Researchers have recently established that even the presence of human intrusion – the border of a ranch, a commercial clearing, a palm oil plantation or just a simple road – is enough to weaken and in some way damage the integrity of the 500 metres of wilderness next to the clearing.

The global record for the protection of those areas set aside for the conservation of endemic species is not good: another study found that, worldwide, since 1993, more than 280,000 sq kms of natural reserve had been subjected to “intense human pressure.”

And a third study fingered the road itself as the problem, and a growing problem: roads already fragment the world’s landscapes, and by 2050 governments will have added another 25 million kilometres of asphalt, traffic and settlement, most of it in the developing world.

Numbers still dropping

Thanks to human population growth and climate change, the planet is poised for the extinction of wild creatures and plants on a massive scale. So the tiger study reflects a wider pattern.

The difference is that for more than 50 years conservationists and governments have encouraged international efforts to conserve one of the most iconic and at the same time one of the most endangered of all the big cats, but the numbers are still falling, as roads turn what had been undisturbed habitat into an archipelago of little “tiger islands” in which populations are isolated from each other.

The scientists found that those areas most strictly protected in the tiger conservation were less densely interrupted by roads: however, these densities varied widely across countries. China’s average road density in tiger conservation landscapes was almost eight times greater than, for example, Malaysia’s.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late,” Dr Carter said.

“Given that roads will be a pervasive challenge to tiger recovery in the future, we urge decision-makers to make sustainable road development a top priority.” − Climate News Network

Threats to the insect world are growing

The insect world is dwindling. By 2100, half of all insects could be gone. But there could be gainers too.

LONDON, 30 April, 2020 − The butterflies are quietly flying away, the beetles are buzzing off, and the insect world is shrinking. The Earth’s  land-based insects are in steady decline, their numbers falling by around a quarter every three decades.

And although there could be a whole world of reasons for the global loss of a vital class of animals, European scientists have pinpointed at least one, in one location.

Insect food plants are being lost in the Swiss canton of Zurich, and with them, many of the hoverflies, bumblebees, bees and butterflies that depend on them.

Scientists from Germany and Russia report in the journal Science that they examined the bigger story told by data from 166 surveys of insects and arachnids – that is, not just flies but spiders too – across 1,676 sites worldwide, over periods from 1925 to 2018, and many of them of around 20 years.

Largely missed

They found that those insects that based their lives on land rather than water were slipping away at an average of 0.92% per year. “0.92% might not sound like much, but in fact it means 24% fewer insects in 30 years’ time and 50% fewer over 75 years,” said Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and based at the University of Leipzig.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next. It’s like going back to the place where you grew up. It’s only because you haven’t been there for years that you suddenly realise how much has changed, and all too often not for the better.”

He is not the first to draw attention to insect loss: other groups have warned of dramatic instances of decline and imminent extinction, along with the changes in insect populations and the disappearance of the habitat on which so many species depend.

But the researchers found the decline wasn’t uniform. Those insects – midges and mayflies, for example – that are essentially aquatic were actually increasing in number, on average by more than 1% a year. Flying insects overall however are in decline, and ground-dwellers and grassland insects too are slowly losing the battle for survival, while the numbers of insects in the woodland treetops remain about the same.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next”

Insect declines in Europe and the US West and Midwest were marked, but those insects that live for part of their lives in water in northern Europe and the western US showed a 38% increase over 30 years: this may reflect national and international attempts to limit pollution of the waterways. In both decline and revival, the scientists at work see the impact of human handling of natural habitat.

“Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water,” Dr van Klink said. “They want to come up while we keep pushing them down. But we can reduce the pressure so they rise again.

“The freshwater insects have shown us this is possible. It’s just not always easy to identify the causes of declines, and thus the most effective measures to reverse them. And these may also differ between locations.”

But within a day of the publication of the Science analysis, German and Swiss scientists had identified the cause of decline in one closely-observed area. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that over the past century there had been an overall decline in wild food plants for all kinds of insects in the Zurich canton.

Urban spread

Wetlands had shrunk by around 90%, the cities and towns had expanded, intensive farming had meant the loss of meadows and farmland habitats.
With help from 250 volunteers, researchers had made detailed studies of the 1,719 seed plant species in 1km plots of land at 3km intervals across the whole canton, between 2012 and 2017.

They then identified 966 of those plants visited by daytime pollinators, and compared their findings with highly-detailed data assembled about the vegetation of the canton before 1930.

Some specialised groups of insects evolved in partnership with equally specialised insects. The scientists found that, for instance, greater knapweed or Centaurea scabiosa was in decline, which was bad news for those bumblebees, bees and butterflies with tongues long enough to reach the nectar. The poisonous plant aconite, or Aconitum napellus, is pollinated by a bumblebee impervious to its toxin. Once again, the loss of floral variety and insect life even in one much-occupied place may not have been obvious.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what vegetation looked like 100 years ago,” said Michael Kessler, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “But our data showed that about half of all species have experienced significant decline in their abundance, while only about 10% of the species have increased.” − Climate News Network

The insect world is dwindling. By 2100, half of all insects could be gone. But there could be gainers too.

LONDON, 30 April, 2020 − The butterflies are quietly flying away, the beetles are buzzing off, and the insect world is shrinking. The Earth’s  land-based insects are in steady decline, their numbers falling by around a quarter every three decades.

And although there could be a whole world of reasons for the global loss of a vital class of animals, European scientists have pinpointed at least one, in one location.

Insect food plants are being lost in the Swiss canton of Zurich, and with them, many of the hoverflies, bumblebees, bees and butterflies that depend on them.

Scientists from Germany and Russia report in the journal Science that they examined the bigger story told by data from 166 surveys of insects and arachnids – that is, not just flies but spiders too – across 1,676 sites worldwide, over periods from 1925 to 2018, and many of them of around 20 years.

Largely missed

They found that those insects that based their lives on land rather than water were slipping away at an average of 0.92% per year. “0.92% might not sound like much, but in fact it means 24% fewer insects in 30 years’ time and 50% fewer over 75 years,” said Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and based at the University of Leipzig.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next. It’s like going back to the place where you grew up. It’s only because you haven’t been there for years that you suddenly realise how much has changed, and all too often not for the better.”

He is not the first to draw attention to insect loss: other groups have warned of dramatic instances of decline and imminent extinction, along with the changes in insect populations and the disappearance of the habitat on which so many species depend.

But the researchers found the decline wasn’t uniform. Those insects – midges and mayflies, for example – that are essentially aquatic were actually increasing in number, on average by more than 1% a year. Flying insects overall however are in decline, and ground-dwellers and grassland insects too are slowly losing the battle for survival, while the numbers of insects in the woodland treetops remain about the same.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next”

Insect declines in Europe and the US West and Midwest were marked, but those insects that live for part of their lives in water in northern Europe and the western US showed a 38% increase over 30 years: this may reflect national and international attempts to limit pollution of the waterways. In both decline and revival, the scientists at work see the impact of human handling of natural habitat.

“Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water,” Dr van Klink said. “They want to come up while we keep pushing them down. But we can reduce the pressure so they rise again.

“The freshwater insects have shown us this is possible. It’s just not always easy to identify the causes of declines, and thus the most effective measures to reverse them. And these may also differ between locations.”

But within a day of the publication of the Science analysis, German and Swiss scientists had identified the cause of decline in one closely-observed area. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that over the past century there had been an overall decline in wild food plants for all kinds of insects in the Zurich canton.

Urban spread

Wetlands had shrunk by around 90%, the cities and towns had expanded, intensive farming had meant the loss of meadows and farmland habitats.
With help from 250 volunteers, researchers had made detailed studies of the 1,719 seed plant species in 1km plots of land at 3km intervals across the whole canton, between 2012 and 2017.

They then identified 966 of those plants visited by daytime pollinators, and compared their findings with highly-detailed data assembled about the vegetation of the canton before 1930.

Some specialised groups of insects evolved in partnership with equally specialised insects. The scientists found that, for instance, greater knapweed or Centaurea scabiosa was in decline, which was bad news for those bumblebees, bees and butterflies with tongues long enough to reach the nectar. The poisonous plant aconite, or Aconitum napellus, is pollinated by a bumblebee impervious to its toxin. Once again, the loss of floral variety and insect life even in one much-occupied place may not have been obvious.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what vegetation looked like 100 years ago,” said Michael Kessler, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “But our data showed that about half of all species have experienced significant decline in their abundance, while only about 10% of the species have increased.” − Climate News Network

London’s Kew Gardens teach respect for nature

This story originally appeared on CBS News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Kew Gardens in London are a cherished corner of the UK capital − with a life-giving lesson for humanity.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 − Kew Gardens more formally the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London have been a place of reflection and natural refuge for about 250 years, though now they sit empty because of the country’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

On April 22, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kew Gardens’ director Richard Deverell warned that more “fundamental challenges” could lie ahead for humankind “unless we start to treat the natural world better.”

“It’s exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tragic to see these beautiful gardens, 330 acres here at Kew − a world heritage site − to see them empty,” he told CBS News’ Mark Phillips.

Deverell, who lives on the property, said he “hopes” the current situation could help people understand the importance of respecting nature.

“We’ve got a situation today where four and half billion people are in lockdown, that’s extraordinary,” he said. “So I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions.”

He added that we “need to play our role” alongside Earth’s other species “in a responsible way.”

“I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions”

“And I hope too, that we’ll realise that actually the cost of pre-empting a problem, of mitigating it, is a fraction of the cost of dealing with it when it engulfs you,” he said. “If you abuse the natural world, bad things happen, including bad things to people.”

Researchers at the gardens are already working on these mitigation efforts. With new specimens arriving from all over the world, scientists are studying ways to help plants cope with a warming globe.

Among other projects, researchers are studying how to deal with coffee beans that are not getting enough rain and getting too much sunshine. The team is working to find varieties that are more tolerant to the changing conditions.

“Perhaps some have greater heat tolerance or aridity tolerance that can be bred into the commercial crop to safeguard future supplies of coffee,” Deverell explained.

He highlighted the importance of keeping nature safe and intact, not just for the natural world, but for humanity itself.

“At the simplest level, of course, plants provide us with oxygen,” he said. “About a quarter of all cancer medicines derive from plants and fungi, so they deliver many, many beneficial things to humans.”

This story originally appeared on CBS News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Kew Gardens in London are a cherished corner of the UK capital − with a life-giving lesson for humanity.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 − Kew Gardens more formally the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London have been a place of reflection and natural refuge for about 250 years, though now they sit empty because of the country’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

On April 22, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kew Gardens’ director Richard Deverell warned that more “fundamental challenges” could lie ahead for humankind “unless we start to treat the natural world better.”

“It’s exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tragic to see these beautiful gardens, 330 acres here at Kew − a world heritage site − to see them empty,” he told CBS News’ Mark Phillips.

Deverell, who lives on the property, said he “hopes” the current situation could help people understand the importance of respecting nature.

“We’ve got a situation today where four and half billion people are in lockdown, that’s extraordinary,” he said. “So I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions.”

He added that we “need to play our role” alongside Earth’s other species “in a responsible way.”

“I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions”

“And I hope too, that we’ll realise that actually the cost of pre-empting a problem, of mitigating it, is a fraction of the cost of dealing with it when it engulfs you,” he said. “If you abuse the natural world, bad things happen, including bad things to people.”

Researchers at the gardens are already working on these mitigation efforts. With new specimens arriving from all over the world, scientists are studying ways to help plants cope with a warming globe.

Among other projects, researchers are studying how to deal with coffee beans that are not getting enough rain and getting too much sunshine. The team is working to find varieties that are more tolerant to the changing conditions.

“Perhaps some have greater heat tolerance or aridity tolerance that can be bred into the commercial crop to safeguard future supplies of coffee,” Deverell explained.

He highlighted the importance of keeping nature safe and intact, not just for the natural world, but for humanity itself.

“At the simplest level, of course, plants provide us with oxygen,” he said. “About a quarter of all cancer medicines derive from plants and fungi, so they deliver many, many beneficial things to humans.”

Halve the farmland, save nature, feed the world

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

Tree rings and weather data warn of megadrought

Farmers in the US West know they have a drought, but may not yet realise these arid years could become a megadrought.

LONDON, 17 April, 2020 – Climate change could be pushing the US west and northern Mexico towards the most severe and most extended period of drought observed in a thousand years of US history, a full-blown megadrought.

Natural atmospheric forces have always triggered prolonged spells with little rain. But warming driven by profligate human use of fossil fuels could now be making a bad situation much worse.

The warning of what climate scientists call a megadrought – outlined in the journal Science – is based not on computer simulations but on direct testimony from more than a century of weather records and the much longer story told by 1200 consecutive years of evidence preserved in the annual growth rings of trees that provide a record of changing levels of soil moisture.

“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future. We are no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in the US.

“We now have enough observations of current drought and tree ring records of past drought to say we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”

Repeating the past

Previous research has already linked catastrophic drought to turmoil among pre-Columbian civilisations in the American Southwest.

Studies by other groups have also warned that what happened in the past could happen again, as carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion enrich the atmosphere, raise temperatures and parch the soils of the US West.

Global heating has been repeatedly linked to the last devastating drought in California, and to the possible return of Dust Bowl conditions in the Midwestern grain belt.

The latest study delivers a long-term analysis of conditions across nine US states, from Oregon and Montana in the north down to California, New Mexico and part of northern Mexico.

With the evidence preserved in old tree trunks, the scientists identified dozens of droughts in the region from 800 AD. They found four megadroughts – periods in which the conditions became extreme – between 800 and 1600. Since then there have been no droughts that could be matched with these – so far.

And then the researchers matched the megadrought tree ring evidence with soil moisture records collected in the first 19 years of this century, and compared this with any 19-year period in the prehistoric droughts.

“We’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to get into drought”

They found that the current prolonged dry spell is already more pronounced than the three earliest records of megadrought. The fourth megadrought – it ran from 1575 to 1603 – may still have been the worst of all, but the match with the present years is so close that nobody can be sure.

But the team behind the Science study is sure of one thing. This drought right now is affecting wider stretches of landscape more consistently than any of the earlier megadroughts, and this, they say, is a signature of global heating. All the ancient megadroughts lasted longer, and sometimes much longer, than 19 years, but all began in a way very similar to the present.

The snowpack in the western high mountains has fallen dramatically, the flow of the rivers has dwindled, lake levels have fallen, farmers have been  hit and the wildfires have become more prolonged and more intense.

Drought and even the chance of megadrought may be a fact of life in the US West. During occasional natural atmospheric cycles, the tropical Pacific cools and storm tracks shift further north, taking rainfall away from the US drylands.

But since 2000, average air temperatures in the western states have risen by more than 1.2°C above the normal over earlier centuries. So soils already starved of rain began to lose their stored moisture at an ever-increasing rate.

Worsened by heating

Without the additional global heating, this drought might have happened anyway, and perhaps even been the 11th worst ever recorded, rather than almost the worst ever in human experience.

“It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said Benjamin Cook, a co-author, from Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it could have been because of climate change.”

The researchers also found that the 20th century was the wettest century in the entire 1200 year record, and this relatively plentiful supply of water must have helped enrich the US West and make California, for instance, become the Golden State, the most populous in the US.

“Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded towards longer and more severe droughts,” Professor Williams said. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while.

“But going forward, we’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to get into drought.” – Climate News Network

Farmers in the US West know they have a drought, but may not yet realise these arid years could become a megadrought.

LONDON, 17 April, 2020 – Climate change could be pushing the US west and northern Mexico towards the most severe and most extended period of drought observed in a thousand years of US history, a full-blown megadrought.

Natural atmospheric forces have always triggered prolonged spells with little rain. But warming driven by profligate human use of fossil fuels could now be making a bad situation much worse.

The warning of what climate scientists call a megadrought – outlined in the journal Science – is based not on computer simulations but on direct testimony from more than a century of weather records and the much longer story told by 1200 consecutive years of evidence preserved in the annual growth rings of trees that provide a record of changing levels of soil moisture.

“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future. We are no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in the US.

“We now have enough observations of current drought and tree ring records of past drought to say we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”

Repeating the past

Previous research has already linked catastrophic drought to turmoil among pre-Columbian civilisations in the American Southwest.

Studies by other groups have also warned that what happened in the past could happen again, as carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion enrich the atmosphere, raise temperatures and parch the soils of the US West.

Global heating has been repeatedly linked to the last devastating drought in California, and to the possible return of Dust Bowl conditions in the Midwestern grain belt.

The latest study delivers a long-term analysis of conditions across nine US states, from Oregon and Montana in the north down to California, New Mexico and part of northern Mexico.

With the evidence preserved in old tree trunks, the scientists identified dozens of droughts in the region from 800 AD. They found four megadroughts – periods in which the conditions became extreme – between 800 and 1600. Since then there have been no droughts that could be matched with these – so far.

And then the researchers matched the megadrought tree ring evidence with soil moisture records collected in the first 19 years of this century, and compared this with any 19-year period in the prehistoric droughts.

“We’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to get into drought”

They found that the current prolonged dry spell is already more pronounced than the three earliest records of megadrought. The fourth megadrought – it ran from 1575 to 1603 – may still have been the worst of all, but the match with the present years is so close that nobody can be sure.

But the team behind the Science study is sure of one thing. This drought right now is affecting wider stretches of landscape more consistently than any of the earlier megadroughts, and this, they say, is a signature of global heating. All the ancient megadroughts lasted longer, and sometimes much longer, than 19 years, but all began in a way very similar to the present.

The snowpack in the western high mountains has fallen dramatically, the flow of the rivers has dwindled, lake levels have fallen, farmers have been  hit and the wildfires have become more prolonged and more intense.

Drought and even the chance of megadrought may be a fact of life in the US West. During occasional natural atmospheric cycles, the tropical Pacific cools and storm tracks shift further north, taking rainfall away from the US drylands.

But since 2000, average air temperatures in the western states have risen by more than 1.2°C above the normal over earlier centuries. So soils already starved of rain began to lose their stored moisture at an ever-increasing rate.

Worsened by heating

Without the additional global heating, this drought might have happened anyway, and perhaps even been the 11th worst ever recorded, rather than almost the worst ever in human experience.

“It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said Benjamin Cook, a co-author, from Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it could have been because of climate change.”

The researchers also found that the 20th century was the wettest century in the entire 1200 year record, and this relatively plentiful supply of water must have helped enrich the US West and make California, for instance, become the Golden State, the most populous in the US.

“Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded towards longer and more severe droughts,” Professor Williams said. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while.

“But going forward, we’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to get into drought.” – Climate News Network

Entire wild systems at risk from rising global heat

Rising global heat raises risks to the creatures and ecosystems that sustain human society. Collapse could be sudden and near-total.

LONDON, 14 April, 2020 – Worldwide, entire ecosystems could collapse as the planetary thermometer soars: rising global heat could see the Earth’s average temperature rise by 4°C (right now the world is heading for a rise of more than three degrees).

And then one in six of the complex communities of plants and animals in wetlands, grasslands, forests or oceans could drastically alter or fail.

That is because at such temperatures more than one in five of the creatures in that network of co-dependencies would in the same decade experience temperatures beyond their normal tolerance levels.

The prediction is based on data that pinpoint the geographical ranges of 30,652 birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants, and climate data from 1850 to 2005.

“We found that climate change risks to biodiversity don’t increase gradually,” said Alex Pigot of Imperial College London, in the UK, who led the research.

Abrupt change

“Instead, as the climate warms, within a certain area most species will be able to cope for a while, before crossing a temperature threshold, when a large proportion of the species will suddenly face conditions they’ve never experienced before.

“It’s not a slippery slope, but a series of cliff edges, hitting different areas at different times.”

The finding – published in the journal Nature – should come as no great surprise to the world’s zoologists, botanists, ecologists, foresters, marine scientists and conservationists.

They have repeatedly warned that as global temperatures rise, and climate patterns become increasingly unstable, in response to ever-higher greenhouse gas emissions from power stations and car exhausts, and forest destruction, both individual species and even whole habitats could be exposed to loss and species extinction.

Such threats can be prefigured even in subtle changes in species behaviour. Within this month, Spanish ornithologists who have studied the nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos since 1995 report in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances that in two decades, as Spanish summers became hotter and more parched, the wings of each new generation of birds have become progressively shorter.

“Our findings highlight the urgent need for climate change mitigation, by immediately and drastically reducing emissions, which could help save thousands of species from extinction”

A shorter wingspan in proportion to body length creates potential survival problems for a species that breeds in Europe but prefers to fly to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter.

And across the Atlantic, another species, the American robin Turdus migratorius now takes wing 12 days earlier each spring in Mexico and the US to fly to its summer breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

The ornithologists report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that GPS tracking of 55 individual birds confirms that the bird may be timing its migration to the snow melt and the first arrival of insects in the high latitudes nearer the fast-warming Arctic.

So far, the planet on average has warmed around only 1°C above the long-term average for most of human history. But Dr Pigot and colleagues in the US and South Africa wanted to look at the big picture of potential change in species everywhere as global heating reaches 2°C – the upper limits that the world’s nations promised in a key international agreement reached in Paris in 2015 – and then goes on soaring.

So they took their species data, and mapped it onto a global grid divided into 100-km-square cells, and then fine-tuned the temperature predicted by climate scientists to see where species and their habitats would experience ever-rising heat beyond their comfort zone.

Unprecedented ocean heat

Any ecosystem is a network of interdependencies: insects pollinate flowers, animals disperse seed and prey upon pests and each other in an intricate set of arrangements that have evolved over tens of thousands of years in a particular pattern of temperature and precipitation. Any disturbance ripples through the entire habitat.

The scientists’ atlas of potential ecological disruption included isolated bits of the world such as the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia as well as the Amazon basin and the forests and clearings in the Congo, and one of the world’s richest marine habitats, the so-called Coral Triangle bounded by the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Western Pacific.

They found that if warming could be contained to 2°C or less, only about one community in 50 would be faced with exposure to such disruption: they warn however that even this 2% includes some of the richest habitats on the planet.

They also warn that by 2030, the tropical oceans will start to experience temperature regimes that have no precedent in human history. The tropical forests could be at risk by 2050. Ominously, almost three-fourths of all the species to face unprecedented temperatures before the end of this century will all do so more or less at the same time.

“Our findings highlight the urgent need for climate change mitigation, by immediately and drastically reducing emissions, which could help save thousands of species from extinction,” Dr Pigot said. – Climate News Network

Rising global heat raises risks to the creatures and ecosystems that sustain human society. Collapse could be sudden and near-total.

LONDON, 14 April, 2020 – Worldwide, entire ecosystems could collapse as the planetary thermometer soars: rising global heat could see the Earth’s average temperature rise by 4°C (right now the world is heading for a rise of more than three degrees).

And then one in six of the complex communities of plants and animals in wetlands, grasslands, forests or oceans could drastically alter or fail.

That is because at such temperatures more than one in five of the creatures in that network of co-dependencies would in the same decade experience temperatures beyond their normal tolerance levels.

The prediction is based on data that pinpoint the geographical ranges of 30,652 birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants, and climate data from 1850 to 2005.

“We found that climate change risks to biodiversity don’t increase gradually,” said Alex Pigot of Imperial College London, in the UK, who led the research.

Abrupt change

“Instead, as the climate warms, within a certain area most species will be able to cope for a while, before crossing a temperature threshold, when a large proportion of the species will suddenly face conditions they’ve never experienced before.

“It’s not a slippery slope, but a series of cliff edges, hitting different areas at different times.”

The finding – published in the journal Nature – should come as no great surprise to the world’s zoologists, botanists, ecologists, foresters, marine scientists and conservationists.

They have repeatedly warned that as global temperatures rise, and climate patterns become increasingly unstable, in response to ever-higher greenhouse gas emissions from power stations and car exhausts, and forest destruction, both individual species and even whole habitats could be exposed to loss and species extinction.

Such threats can be prefigured even in subtle changes in species behaviour. Within this month, Spanish ornithologists who have studied the nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos since 1995 report in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances that in two decades, as Spanish summers became hotter and more parched, the wings of each new generation of birds have become progressively shorter.

“Our findings highlight the urgent need for climate change mitigation, by immediately and drastically reducing emissions, which could help save thousands of species from extinction”

A shorter wingspan in proportion to body length creates potential survival problems for a species that breeds in Europe but prefers to fly to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter.

And across the Atlantic, another species, the American robin Turdus migratorius now takes wing 12 days earlier each spring in Mexico and the US to fly to its summer breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

The ornithologists report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that GPS tracking of 55 individual birds confirms that the bird may be timing its migration to the snow melt and the first arrival of insects in the high latitudes nearer the fast-warming Arctic.

So far, the planet on average has warmed around only 1°C above the long-term average for most of human history. But Dr Pigot and colleagues in the US and South Africa wanted to look at the big picture of potential change in species everywhere as global heating reaches 2°C – the upper limits that the world’s nations promised in a key international agreement reached in Paris in 2015 – and then goes on soaring.

So they took their species data, and mapped it onto a global grid divided into 100-km-square cells, and then fine-tuned the temperature predicted by climate scientists to see where species and their habitats would experience ever-rising heat beyond their comfort zone.

Unprecedented ocean heat

Any ecosystem is a network of interdependencies: insects pollinate flowers, animals disperse seed and prey upon pests and each other in an intricate set of arrangements that have evolved over tens of thousands of years in a particular pattern of temperature and precipitation. Any disturbance ripples through the entire habitat.

The scientists’ atlas of potential ecological disruption included isolated bits of the world such as the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia as well as the Amazon basin and the forests and clearings in the Congo, and one of the world’s richest marine habitats, the so-called Coral Triangle bounded by the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Western Pacific.

They found that if warming could be contained to 2°C or less, only about one community in 50 would be faced with exposure to such disruption: they warn however that even this 2% includes some of the richest habitats on the planet.

They also warn that by 2030, the tropical oceans will start to experience temperature regimes that have no precedent in human history. The tropical forests could be at risk by 2050. Ominously, almost three-fourths of all the species to face unprecedented temperatures before the end of this century will all do so more or less at the same time.

“Our findings highlight the urgent need for climate change mitigation, by immediately and drastically reducing emissions, which could help save thousands of species from extinction,” Dr Pigot said. – Climate News Network

Poles attract marine life avoiding rising heat

In a warming ocean, some species will swim, others sink. But all agree: the poles attract marine life without exception.

LONDON, 3 April, 2020 − It’s the same the whole world over: everywhere in the oceans of this warming planet, the poles attract marine life.

Molluscs are on the move, haddock are feeling the heat, and penguins are shifting further south. Nautilus are heading north, and plankton are edging towards both poles.

New analysis of marine species has confirmed what commercial fishermen already know to their cost: that as the oceans warm, the sea’s citizens shift their grounds.

Researchers report in the journal Current Biology that they surveyed the evidence assembled in 540 records of 304 widely distributed marine animals over the last century, to find that all of them are shifting their range: away from the equatorial waters, and in both hemispheres nearer to the poles.

In the past century, overall, the world’s oceans have warmed by around 1°C. By 2050, the rise may reach 1.5°C, and all the evidence so far suggests fish and shellfish, along with the microbial creatures at the bottom of the food chain and the marine mammals and seabirds that prey on them all, will have shifted their latitudinal range.

“Both increasing and decreasing abundances may have harmful knock-on effects for the wider ecosystem”

The greatest abundance of any species, the researchers found, was likely to be at the poleward edge of the preferred range, and the sparsest nearest to the tropical waters.

“The main surprise is how pervasive the effects were. We found the same trend across all groups of marine life we looked at, from plankton to marine invertebrates, and from fish to seabirds,” said Martin Genner, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Bristol in the UK.

“This matters because it means that climate change is not only leading abundance changes, but intrinsically affecting the performance of species locally. We see species such as the Emperor penguin becoming less abundant as the water becomes too warm at their equatorward edge, and we see some fish such as the European sea bass thriving at their poleward edge, where historically they were uncommon.”

Fish and many marine animals have a preferred range of temperatures, and even seemingly imperceptible shifts can have unpredictable effects. Both individual research and commercial catch data have confirmed a series of shifts in response to global heating.

Winners and losers

Tropical fish are shifting away from the hottest waters, North Sea catches are more likely to be found in north Atlantic waters, and some Mediterranean species have now shifted to the waters of Western Europe.

The latest research suggests that whole ecosystems may be on the move, and with them Atlantic herring and Adelie penguins, loggerhead turtles and phytoplankton.

“Some marine species appear to benefit from climate change, particularly some populations at the poleward limits that are now able to thrive,” said Louise Rutterford, another of the research team at Bristol.

“Meanwhile, some marine life suffers as it is not able to adapt fast enough to survive warming, and this is most noticeable in populations nearer the equator.

“This is concerning, as both increasing and decreasing abundances may have harmful knock-on effects for the wider ecosystem.” − Climate News Network

In a warming ocean, some species will swim, others sink. But all agree: the poles attract marine life without exception.

LONDON, 3 April, 2020 − It’s the same the whole world over: everywhere in the oceans of this warming planet, the poles attract marine life.

Molluscs are on the move, haddock are feeling the heat, and penguins are shifting further south. Nautilus are heading north, and plankton are edging towards both poles.

New analysis of marine species has confirmed what commercial fishermen already know to their cost: that as the oceans warm, the sea’s citizens shift their grounds.

Researchers report in the journal Current Biology that they surveyed the evidence assembled in 540 records of 304 widely distributed marine animals over the last century, to find that all of them are shifting their range: away from the equatorial waters, and in both hemispheres nearer to the poles.

In the past century, overall, the world’s oceans have warmed by around 1°C. By 2050, the rise may reach 1.5°C, and all the evidence so far suggests fish and shellfish, along with the microbial creatures at the bottom of the food chain and the marine mammals and seabirds that prey on them all, will have shifted their latitudinal range.

“Both increasing and decreasing abundances may have harmful knock-on effects for the wider ecosystem”

The greatest abundance of any species, the researchers found, was likely to be at the poleward edge of the preferred range, and the sparsest nearest to the tropical waters.

“The main surprise is how pervasive the effects were. We found the same trend across all groups of marine life we looked at, from plankton to marine invertebrates, and from fish to seabirds,” said Martin Genner, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Bristol in the UK.

“This matters because it means that climate change is not only leading abundance changes, but intrinsically affecting the performance of species locally. We see species such as the Emperor penguin becoming less abundant as the water becomes too warm at their equatorward edge, and we see some fish such as the European sea bass thriving at their poleward edge, where historically they were uncommon.”

Fish and many marine animals have a preferred range of temperatures, and even seemingly imperceptible shifts can have unpredictable effects. Both individual research and commercial catch data have confirmed a series of shifts in response to global heating.

Winners and losers

Tropical fish are shifting away from the hottest waters, North Sea catches are more likely to be found in north Atlantic waters, and some Mediterranean species have now shifted to the waters of Western Europe.

The latest research suggests that whole ecosystems may be on the move, and with them Atlantic herring and Adelie penguins, loggerhead turtles and phytoplankton.

“Some marine species appear to benefit from climate change, particularly some populations at the poleward limits that are now able to thrive,” said Louise Rutterford, another of the research team at Bristol.

“Meanwhile, some marine life suffers as it is not able to adapt fast enough to survive warming, and this is most noticeable in populations nearer the equator.

“This is concerning, as both increasing and decreasing abundances may have harmful knock-on effects for the wider ecosystem.” − Climate News Network