Category Archives: Nature

Human impact on climate is 100 years old

When did the human impact on climate begin? At least a century ago, with the arrival of the bi-plane, the chauffeur-driven car and the Jazz Age.

LONDON, 2 May, 2019 − Our influence on the Earth’s environment has lasted for a century: the human impact on droughts and moisture patterns began at least 100 years ago, researchers now say.

US scientists used new analytic techniques and almost a thousand years of tree-ring data to build up a picture of drought and rainfall worldwide for the last century. And they report in the journal Nature that they have identified the human fingerprint upon climate variation as far back as the first days of the motor car and the infant aircraft industry.

The pattern of change, in which regions prone to drought such as the western US became more arid, grew visible between 1900 and 1949. The researchers saw the same pattern of drying in those decades in Australia, Europe, the Mediterranean, western Russia and southeast Asia.

At the same time more rain and snow fell in western China, much of central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia and central Canada.

Clear signal apparent

Kate Marvel of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who led the research, said: “It’s mind-boggling. There really is a clear signal of the effects of greenhouse gases on the hydroclimate.”

And Benjamin Cook of both the Nasa Institute and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said: “We asked, does the real world look like what the models tell us to expect? The answer is yes.

“The big thing we learned is that climate change started affecting global patterns of drought in the early 20th century. We expect this pattern to keep emerging as climate change continues.”

For four decades it has been a given of climate change research that average planetary warming will intensify all the extremes of weather: in particular, drought and flood.

“All the models are projecting that you should see unprecedented drying soon, in a lot of places”

The problem has been that droughts and floods have always happened. But could scientists identify the signature of human change – the clearing of the forests, the intensification of agriculture, the growth of the cities and the ever-increasing use of fossil fuels to dump ever more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – in any one flood or drought? Until this century, researchers were unwilling to name the guilty party.

No longer. In recent years researchers have done more than just blame overall warming on human activity, and in particular the increasing hazard of extremes of heat, drought and flood.

They have linked human behaviour with drought in California and with record temperatures in 2013 in Australia.

The Nasa-led research is not quite the first to claim to have detected very early evidence of climate change. A team led by Chinese scientists reported in April in the journal Nature Sustainability that tree ring evidence from the Tibetan plateau suggested that humans may have begun altering the pattern of seasonal temperatures – that is, the differences between winter and summer – as early as the 1870s, at least in the northern hemisphere.

Puzzle solved?

But the latest study from Dr Marvel and colleagues identifies such evidence on a wider scale, and may even have resolved the puzzle of the extremes that did not happen.

The research found three distinct periods of change. The first was marked by more drought in some places, more precipitation in others in the first half of the 20th century. But by the height of the Cold War, and the space race mid-century, it became harder to see a pattern, and climate events seemed more random, and climates cooler.

The researchers now think the huge volumes of aerosols from power stations, factory chimneys and vehicle exhausts between 1950 and 1975 altered weather patterns in different ways, affecting cloud formation, rainfall and temperature, to mask the effect of greenhouse gas increases.

These were the years of choking smog, grime and soot, sulphurous droplets, acid rain, corroding historic buildings and urban respiratory disease on an epidemic scale.

Stronger patternn expected

And then developed nations started introducing clean air legislation and other pollution controls. Round about 1981, tentative evidence of the impact of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions began to show again in the climate record, although not as boldly as in the first half of the century.

If the researchers have got it right, the pattern of increasing drought, matched elsewhere by increasing precipitation, will continue to become stronger.

“If we don’t see it coming in stronger in, say, the next 10 years, we might have to wonder whether we are right,” Dr Marvel said. “But all the models are projecting that you should see unprecedented drying soon, in a lot of places.”

And the researchers warn that the consequences for humankind, especially in North America and Eurasia, could be severe. − Climate News Network

When did the human impact on climate begin? At least a century ago, with the arrival of the bi-plane, the chauffeur-driven car and the Jazz Age.

LONDON, 2 May, 2019 − Our influence on the Earth’s environment has lasted for a century: the human impact on droughts and moisture patterns began at least 100 years ago, researchers now say.

US scientists used new analytic techniques and almost a thousand years of tree-ring data to build up a picture of drought and rainfall worldwide for the last century. And they report in the journal Nature that they have identified the human fingerprint upon climate variation as far back as the first days of the motor car and the infant aircraft industry.

The pattern of change, in which regions prone to drought such as the western US became more arid, grew visible between 1900 and 1949. The researchers saw the same pattern of drying in those decades in Australia, Europe, the Mediterranean, western Russia and southeast Asia.

At the same time more rain and snow fell in western China, much of central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia and central Canada.

Clear signal apparent

Kate Marvel of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who led the research, said: “It’s mind-boggling. There really is a clear signal of the effects of greenhouse gases on the hydroclimate.”

And Benjamin Cook of both the Nasa Institute and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said: “We asked, does the real world look like what the models tell us to expect? The answer is yes.

“The big thing we learned is that climate change started affecting global patterns of drought in the early 20th century. We expect this pattern to keep emerging as climate change continues.”

For four decades it has been a given of climate change research that average planetary warming will intensify all the extremes of weather: in particular, drought and flood.

“All the models are projecting that you should see unprecedented drying soon, in a lot of places”

The problem has been that droughts and floods have always happened. But could scientists identify the signature of human change – the clearing of the forests, the intensification of agriculture, the growth of the cities and the ever-increasing use of fossil fuels to dump ever more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – in any one flood or drought? Until this century, researchers were unwilling to name the guilty party.

No longer. In recent years researchers have done more than just blame overall warming on human activity, and in particular the increasing hazard of extremes of heat, drought and flood.

They have linked human behaviour with drought in California and with record temperatures in 2013 in Australia.

The Nasa-led research is not quite the first to claim to have detected very early evidence of climate change. A team led by Chinese scientists reported in April in the journal Nature Sustainability that tree ring evidence from the Tibetan plateau suggested that humans may have begun altering the pattern of seasonal temperatures – that is, the differences between winter and summer – as early as the 1870s, at least in the northern hemisphere.

Puzzle solved?

But the latest study from Dr Marvel and colleagues identifies such evidence on a wider scale, and may even have resolved the puzzle of the extremes that did not happen.

The research found three distinct periods of change. The first was marked by more drought in some places, more precipitation in others in the first half of the 20th century. But by the height of the Cold War, and the space race mid-century, it became harder to see a pattern, and climate events seemed more random, and climates cooler.

The researchers now think the huge volumes of aerosols from power stations, factory chimneys and vehicle exhausts between 1950 and 1975 altered weather patterns in different ways, affecting cloud formation, rainfall and temperature, to mask the effect of greenhouse gas increases.

These were the years of choking smog, grime and soot, sulphurous droplets, acid rain, corroding historic buildings and urban respiratory disease on an epidemic scale.

Stronger patternn expected

And then developed nations started introducing clean air legislation and other pollution controls. Round about 1981, tentative evidence of the impact of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions began to show again in the climate record, although not as boldly as in the first half of the century.

If the researchers have got it right, the pattern of increasing drought, matched elsewhere by increasing precipitation, will continue to become stronger.

“If we don’t see it coming in stronger in, say, the next 10 years, we might have to wonder whether we are right,” Dr Marvel said. “But all the models are projecting that you should see unprecedented drying soon, in a lot of places.”

And the researchers warn that the consequences for humankind, especially in North America and Eurasia, could be severe. − Climate News Network

Cold-blooded sealife runs double heat risk

Extremes of heat are twice as risky for cold-blooded sealife as for other ectotherms. A hot rock could be safer than the deep sea.

LONDON, 29 April, 2019 – When it comes to global warming, there may no longer be plenty of fish in the sea: new research suggests that cold-blooded sealife may be twice as likely to be at risk in its natural habitat as land-dwelling ectotherms.

This finding is unexpected: the ocean is, in both area and volume, the single biggest living space on the planet. Fish that feel the heat can move towards the poles when temperatures get too high.

But when US researchers took a closer look at the data available on the thermal discomfort zones – those moments when cold-blooded creatures begin to overheat and need to find a safe, cool place in which to lie low – those spiders and lizards that survive in the tropics and temperate zones actually stand a better chance of finding somewhere to hide, and thus living through heatwaves, than their marine cousins.

“New conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition and economic activity”

“We find that, globally, marine species are being eliminated from their habitats by warming temperatures twice as often as land species,” said Malin Pinsky, of Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

“The findings suggest that new conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition and economic activity.”

He and colleagues report in the journal Nature that they searched the literature for detailed information on 400 species, and calculated the safe conditions for 88 marine and 294 land animals. They also identified the coolest temperatures available to each species during the hottest parts of the year.

More terrestrial refuges

And they found that, on average, fish and marine animals were more likely to live on the edge of temperatures that could become dangerously high. Land animals – insects and reptiles – could disappear into the forests, seek the shade or go underground: something sea creatures could not do.

That terrestrial reptiles and amphibians and marine animals are at risk is not news: researchers have already recorded significant movements of sea species in response to heat extremes off the Californian coast.

There has been repeated evidence that rising global temperature, as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, has begun to affect commercial fisheries, and other researchers have made it emphatically clear that only determined human action to contain global warming and protect breeding grounds can keep fish on the family supper table.

What most would not have expected was to find that land animals were less at risk, simply because they were land-dwellers.

Limited evidence

Research of this kind tends to deliver findings that can be challenged, and the authors concede that their conclusions are limited by the available evidence. Of 159 separate studies, 153 were in the northern hemisphere and 137 were from the temperate latitudes. Of their marine ectotherms, only 7% were pelagic: these are the fish – among them cod and tuna – that can swim to deeper, cooler layers when surface temperatures soar.

The remaining 93% included slow-moving bottom-dwellers such as lobsters, horseshoe crabs, abalone and snails, which may have nowhere left to go when life locally gets too hot to handle. The researchers make it clear that they are not talking about complete global extinctions of species: they choose the phrase “local extirpations”.

And they make it clear that land-dwelling cold-blooded animals are by no means safe from increasingly frequent, intense episodes of heat extremes driven by climate change: they would continue to be vulnerable to loss of what the researchers call “local refugia” – for example woodland cover – which “would make habitat fragmentation and changes in land use critical drivers of species loss on land.” – Climate News Network

Extremes of heat are twice as risky for cold-blooded sealife as for other ectotherms. A hot rock could be safer than the deep sea.

LONDON, 29 April, 2019 – When it comes to global warming, there may no longer be plenty of fish in the sea: new research suggests that cold-blooded sealife may be twice as likely to be at risk in its natural habitat as land-dwelling ectotherms.

This finding is unexpected: the ocean is, in both area and volume, the single biggest living space on the planet. Fish that feel the heat can move towards the poles when temperatures get too high.

But when US researchers took a closer look at the data available on the thermal discomfort zones – those moments when cold-blooded creatures begin to overheat and need to find a safe, cool place in which to lie low – those spiders and lizards that survive in the tropics and temperate zones actually stand a better chance of finding somewhere to hide, and thus living through heatwaves, than their marine cousins.

“New conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition and economic activity”

“We find that, globally, marine species are being eliminated from their habitats by warming temperatures twice as often as land species,” said Malin Pinsky, of Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

“The findings suggest that new conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition and economic activity.”

He and colleagues report in the journal Nature that they searched the literature for detailed information on 400 species, and calculated the safe conditions for 88 marine and 294 land animals. They also identified the coolest temperatures available to each species during the hottest parts of the year.

More terrestrial refuges

And they found that, on average, fish and marine animals were more likely to live on the edge of temperatures that could become dangerously high. Land animals – insects and reptiles – could disappear into the forests, seek the shade or go underground: something sea creatures could not do.

That terrestrial reptiles and amphibians and marine animals are at risk is not news: researchers have already recorded significant movements of sea species in response to heat extremes off the Californian coast.

There has been repeated evidence that rising global temperature, as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, has begun to affect commercial fisheries, and other researchers have made it emphatically clear that only determined human action to contain global warming and protect breeding grounds can keep fish on the family supper table.

What most would not have expected was to find that land animals were less at risk, simply because they were land-dwellers.

Limited evidence

Research of this kind tends to deliver findings that can be challenged, and the authors concede that their conclusions are limited by the available evidence. Of 159 separate studies, 153 were in the northern hemisphere and 137 were from the temperate latitudes. Of their marine ectotherms, only 7% were pelagic: these are the fish – among them cod and tuna – that can swim to deeper, cooler layers when surface temperatures soar.

The remaining 93% included slow-moving bottom-dwellers such as lobsters, horseshoe crabs, abalone and snails, which may have nowhere left to go when life locally gets too hot to handle. The researchers make it clear that they are not talking about complete global extinctions of species: they choose the phrase “local extirpations”.

And they make it clear that land-dwelling cold-blooded animals are by no means safe from increasingly frequent, intense episodes of heat extremes driven by climate change: they would continue to be vulnerable to loss of what the researchers call “local refugia” – for example woodland cover – which “would make habitat fragmentation and changes in land use critical drivers of species loss on land.” – Climate News Network

Restoring forests rules out growing crops

Restoring forests is helpful, but planting crops to do so is not. Only one of these options soaks up enough atmospheric carbon.

LONDON, 15 April, 2019 − Nations of the world are committed to restoring forests covering an area the size of India to soak up carbon dioxide and combat climate change. But British scientists have identified a serious flaw in the plan.

“Two-thirds of the area committed to global reforestation for carbon storage is slated to grow crops,” they write in the journal Nature. “This raises serious concerns.”

Their argument is simple. To limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C by the end of the century requires both rapid cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use, and investment in efficient ways of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Altogether 43 tropical and subtropical nations have pledged to restore 350 million hectares of forest to remove 42 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by 2100.

Little natural forest

Many of them, including Brazil, China and India, have already committed to 292 million hectares of new canopy. But in their analysis of the plans published so far, the scientists say that only 34% of this accumulated area would go back to natural forest.

Another 45% would be covered by plantations of one species harvested for biomass or timber, and 21% would be devoted to agroforestry: a mix of crops sheltered by stands of woodland.

In their calculations, this altogether would remove only 16 bn tonnes of carbon. That is because natural forests restored and subsequently protected would hold 40 times the carbon of a monoculture plantation and six times more than any mix of trees and crops.

“There is a scandal here,” said Simon Lewis, a geographer at University College London, who led the analysis. “To most people, forest restoration means bringing back natural forests, but policy makers are calling vast monocultures ‘forest restoration.’ And worse, the advertised climate benefits are absent.”

“To most people, forest restoration means bringing back natural forests, but policy makers are calling vast monocultures ‘forest restoration’”

Forests are only part of the answer to the challenge of containing climate change. To keep to the promise made by 195 nations in Paris in 2015, humankind has to find ways to remove 730 bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, which translates to 199 bn tonnes of carbon.

If the world found ways to boost the total area of global forest, woodland and woody savannahs, this could absorb perhaps a quarter of the total needed to keep planetary warming to no more than 1.5°C. And many countries have signed up to convert degraded land to new tree canopy.

“But will this policy work?” the scientists ask. “We show that under current plans, it will not. A closer look at countries’ reports reveals that almost half the pledged area is set to become plantations of commercial trees.”

Their point is that plantations can support local economies, but are poorer at storing carbon. Natural forests require little or no disturbance from humans, whereas the regular clearing and harvesting of plantations releases stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere every 10 or 20 years, while natural forests go on sequestering the greenhouse gas for decades. Natural regeneration is the cheapest and easiest option.

Land use shift

Most of the monoculture commitments are in large countries such as Brazil, China, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The scientists suggest such plans have been insufficiently thought through. Drastic increases in tropical plantation for commercial crops would mark a major shift in global land use and could be accompanied by a fall in prices, with potentially unsatisfactory economic consequences.

And, they argue, policymakers are in any case misinterpreting the term forest restoration: it should not include plantations of a single species, such as eucalypt or rubber, which would do little for carbon sequestration. If commercial plantations were planted across the whole 350 million hectares, the entire crop would soak up and store just one billion tonnes of carbon.

“Of course new natural forests alone are not sufficient to meet our climate goals,” said Charlotte Wheeler of the University of Edinburgh, another of the authors. “Emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation must also stop.

“Other ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere are also needed. But no scenario has been produced that keeps climate change below dangerous levels without the large-scale restoration of natural forests.” − Climate News Network

Restoring forests is helpful, but planting crops to do so is not. Only one of these options soaks up enough atmospheric carbon.

LONDON, 15 April, 2019 − Nations of the world are committed to restoring forests covering an area the size of India to soak up carbon dioxide and combat climate change. But British scientists have identified a serious flaw in the plan.

“Two-thirds of the area committed to global reforestation for carbon storage is slated to grow crops,” they write in the journal Nature. “This raises serious concerns.”

Their argument is simple. To limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C by the end of the century requires both rapid cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use, and investment in efficient ways of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Altogether 43 tropical and subtropical nations have pledged to restore 350 million hectares of forest to remove 42 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by 2100.

Little natural forest

Many of them, including Brazil, China and India, have already committed to 292 million hectares of new canopy. But in their analysis of the plans published so far, the scientists say that only 34% of this accumulated area would go back to natural forest.

Another 45% would be covered by plantations of one species harvested for biomass or timber, and 21% would be devoted to agroforestry: a mix of crops sheltered by stands of woodland.

In their calculations, this altogether would remove only 16 bn tonnes of carbon. That is because natural forests restored and subsequently protected would hold 40 times the carbon of a monoculture plantation and six times more than any mix of trees and crops.

“There is a scandal here,” said Simon Lewis, a geographer at University College London, who led the analysis. “To most people, forest restoration means bringing back natural forests, but policy makers are calling vast monocultures ‘forest restoration.’ And worse, the advertised climate benefits are absent.”

“To most people, forest restoration means bringing back natural forests, but policy makers are calling vast monocultures ‘forest restoration’”

Forests are only part of the answer to the challenge of containing climate change. To keep to the promise made by 195 nations in Paris in 2015, humankind has to find ways to remove 730 bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, which translates to 199 bn tonnes of carbon.

If the world found ways to boost the total area of global forest, woodland and woody savannahs, this could absorb perhaps a quarter of the total needed to keep planetary warming to no more than 1.5°C. And many countries have signed up to convert degraded land to new tree canopy.

“But will this policy work?” the scientists ask. “We show that under current plans, it will not. A closer look at countries’ reports reveals that almost half the pledged area is set to become plantations of commercial trees.”

Their point is that plantations can support local economies, but are poorer at storing carbon. Natural forests require little or no disturbance from humans, whereas the regular clearing and harvesting of plantations releases stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere every 10 or 20 years, while natural forests go on sequestering the greenhouse gas for decades. Natural regeneration is the cheapest and easiest option.

Land use shift

Most of the monoculture commitments are in large countries such as Brazil, China, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The scientists suggest such plans have been insufficiently thought through. Drastic increases in tropical plantation for commercial crops would mark a major shift in global land use and could be accompanied by a fall in prices, with potentially unsatisfactory economic consequences.

And, they argue, policymakers are in any case misinterpreting the term forest restoration: it should not include plantations of a single species, such as eucalypt or rubber, which would do little for carbon sequestration. If commercial plantations were planted across the whole 350 million hectares, the entire crop would soak up and store just one billion tonnes of carbon.

“Of course new natural forests alone are not sufficient to meet our climate goals,” said Charlotte Wheeler of the University of Edinburgh, another of the authors. “Emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation must also stop.

“Other ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere are also needed. But no scenario has been produced that keeps climate change below dangerous levels without the large-scale restoration of natural forests.” − Climate News Network

Termites show humans how to keep their cool

Scientists are studying the architectural skills developed by termites so we can keep cool, dry and well-ventilated in tall buildings without using fossil fuels.

LONDON, 2 April, 2019 − When humans were still living in caves termites were constructing tower blocks and tackling the difficult problems of keeping cool and dry in an adverse climate.

Now that humans, in a warming world, have the task of keeping skyscrapers comfortable and well-ventilated without the use of fossil fuels, scientists are turning to termites for advice. It appears that their architectural skills will help us solve our climate problems.

Termites live in colonies numbering thousands in inhospitable terrain in towers up to seven metres high. Inside the blocks is a complex social system of kings, queens, soldiers and worker ants living in a system of tunnels and passages, all self-ventilating, self-cooling and self-draining.

“There is a lot more to learn from Mother Nature when it comes to solving even the most important 21st century problems”

Using three-dimensional X-ray images, a group of engineers, biologists, chemists and mathematicians report in the journal Science Advances that they studied the mounds, as they are known, and found the secret lay in small holes or pores in the walls of the termite nests.

A network of smaller and larger pores helped an exchange of carbon dioxide from inside the nest to the outside. The ability of the pores to do this changed depending on the wind-speed outside, with the smaller pores sometimes taking over from the larger ones to keep the ventilation efficient. They worked regardless of the weather outside.

Lead author Dr Kamaljit Singh, from Imperial College London’s department of earth science & engineering,  said: “Termite nests are a unique example of architectural perfection by insects.

No mechanical aids

“The way they’re designed offers fascinating self-sustaining temperature- and ventilation-controlling properties throughout the year without using any mechanical or electronic appliances.”

The nests are usually found in hotter regions and the ones studied came from two West African countries, Senegal and Guinea. In the climate of these countries the mounds must be kept cool for the termites to survive. The pores also played a crucial role in this, the larger ones filling with air and reducing the heat entering the nest, a bit like the air in a double-glazed window can keep heat inside.

Remarkably the pores also had a role when it rained. Instead of getting blocked by rainwater and ruining the system the smaller pores, using capillary action, drained the larger ones, enabling the ventilation system to keep functioning.

Energy-efficiency too?

Dr Singh said: “Not only do these remarkable structures self-ventilate and regulate their own temperatures – they also have inbuilt drainage systems.”

The scientists say the newly found architecture within termite nests could help us improve ventilation, temperature control, and drainage systems in buildings – and hopefully make them more energy-efficient.

One co-author, Professor Pierre Degond from Imperial’s Department of Mathematics, said: “The findings greatly improve our understanding of how architectural design can help control ventilation, heat regulation, and drainage of structures – maybe even in human dwellings.

Nature knows best

“They also provide a new direction for future research, and will eventually bring us one step closer to understanding mechanisms that could be useful in designing energy-efficient self-sustaining buildings.”

Another of those involved in the project, Dr Bagus Muljadi from the University of Nottingham, said: “We know that nature holds the secrets to survival. To unlock them, we need to encourage global, interdisciplinary research.

“This study shows that there is a lot more to learn from Mother Nature when it comes to solving even the most important 21st century problems.” − Climate News Network

Scientists are studying the architectural skills developed by termites so we can keep cool, dry and well-ventilated in tall buildings without using fossil fuels.

LONDON, 2 April, 2019 − When humans were still living in caves termites were constructing tower blocks and tackling the difficult problems of keeping cool and dry in an adverse climate.

Now that humans, in a warming world, have the task of keeping skyscrapers comfortable and well-ventilated without the use of fossil fuels, scientists are turning to termites for advice. It appears that their architectural skills will help us solve our climate problems.

Termites live in colonies numbering thousands in inhospitable terrain in towers up to seven metres high. Inside the blocks is a complex social system of kings, queens, soldiers and worker ants living in a system of tunnels and passages, all self-ventilating, self-cooling and self-draining.

“There is a lot more to learn from Mother Nature when it comes to solving even the most important 21st century problems”

Using three-dimensional X-ray images, a group of engineers, biologists, chemists and mathematicians report in the journal Science Advances that they studied the mounds, as they are known, and found the secret lay in small holes or pores in the walls of the termite nests.

A network of smaller and larger pores helped an exchange of carbon dioxide from inside the nest to the outside. The ability of the pores to do this changed depending on the wind-speed outside, with the smaller pores sometimes taking over from the larger ones to keep the ventilation efficient. They worked regardless of the weather outside.

Lead author Dr Kamaljit Singh, from Imperial College London’s department of earth science & engineering,  said: “Termite nests are a unique example of architectural perfection by insects.

No mechanical aids

“The way they’re designed offers fascinating self-sustaining temperature- and ventilation-controlling properties throughout the year without using any mechanical or electronic appliances.”

The nests are usually found in hotter regions and the ones studied came from two West African countries, Senegal and Guinea. In the climate of these countries the mounds must be kept cool for the termites to survive. The pores also played a crucial role in this, the larger ones filling with air and reducing the heat entering the nest, a bit like the air in a double-glazed window can keep heat inside.

Remarkably the pores also had a role when it rained. Instead of getting blocked by rainwater and ruining the system the smaller pores, using capillary action, drained the larger ones, enabling the ventilation system to keep functioning.

Energy-efficiency too?

Dr Singh said: “Not only do these remarkable structures self-ventilate and regulate their own temperatures – they also have inbuilt drainage systems.”

The scientists say the newly found architecture within termite nests could help us improve ventilation, temperature control, and drainage systems in buildings – and hopefully make them more energy-efficient.

One co-author, Professor Pierre Degond from Imperial’s Department of Mathematics, said: “The findings greatly improve our understanding of how architectural design can help control ventilation, heat regulation, and drainage of structures – maybe even in human dwellings.

Nature knows best

“They also provide a new direction for future research, and will eventually bring us one step closer to understanding mechanisms that could be useful in designing energy-efficient self-sustaining buildings.”

Another of those involved in the project, Dr Bagus Muljadi from the University of Nottingham, said: “We know that nature holds the secrets to survival. To unlock them, we need to encourage global, interdisciplinary research.

“This study shows that there is a lot more to learn from Mother Nature when it comes to solving even the most important 21st century problems.” − Climate News Network

Worse tropical winds will kill more trees

More greenhouse gases mean worse tropical winds and fiercer storms. That could mean more forest damage . . . and more greenhouse gas emissions . . .

LONDON, 28 March, 2019 − Worse tropical winds will spell worse danger to forests, in a cycle that feeds on itself. Hurricane Maria, which in 2017 slammed into Puerto Rico, shut down the electricity supply for the entire US island of 3.3 million people, and claimed almost 3,000 lives. And it also killed or damaged at least 20 million trees, or possibly 40 million.

If what happened in the track of Maria is a pointer to the future, then hurricanes, typhoons and tropical cyclones will join drought, wildfire and men with chainsaws as a new threat to the world’s tropical forests, the biggest absorbers of carbon on the terrestrial surface.

Living forests absorb carbon. Dying and decaying trees release greenhouse gases. The damage by Maria has already been estimated to have released 5.75 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. This is about one-fortieth of all the carbon taken up by all the forests in the US.

“The expected changes in hurricane winds and rainfall may have profound consequences for the long-term resilience of tropical forests in the North Atlantic basin”

Hurricanes are linked with rising sea surface temperatures. Researchers have been warning for decades that in a warming world, extremes of heat, drought, flood and windstorm will become more destructive. So Hurricane Maria could be a taste of things to come.

“These hurricanes are going to kill more trees,” said Maria Uriarte, of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. “They’re going to break more trees. The factors that protected many trees in the past will no longer apply. Forests will become shorter and smaller because they won’t have time to regrow, and they will be less diverse.”

Maria blew into Puerto Rico in October 2017, with winds of up to 250 kms an hour. It dropped 500 mm of rain to become the island’s worst storm for 90 years.

To make their estimate of the destruction, Professor Uriarte and colleagues surveyed a 16-hectare plot of the island’s El Yunque national forest near the capital, San Juan: a plot that has been monitored after violent windstorm assault in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo and then in 1998 by Hurricane Georges.

Much fiercer impact

They report in the journal Nature Communications that Hurricane Maria killed twice as many trees outright as previous storms, and snapped more than three times as many trunks. Some species experienced breakage rates of up to 12 times that of previous hurricanes. Among them, and unexpectedly, were some of the slowest-growing, most valuable hardwoods. About half of all trees with broken trunks are expected to die within two or three years.

Some species survived well: among them the sierra palm, a tree able to bend with the wind, and if stripped sprout again from the top. Such species could be the inheritors of future hurricanes and grow quickly to take advantage of cleared forest space. So future forests could be dominated by shorter, and less diverse, foliage.

And the future is unpromising. Atlantic Ocean sea surface temperatures are rising, and climate simulations predict that by 2100 the highest sustained hurricane winds could increase by 15%. Warmer air can hold more moisture, so rainfall near storm centres could increase by 20%. Extreme winds fell trees; rain destabilises soil and makes uprooting easier.

“Maria transformed tropical forests across the island into leafless tangles of damaged and downed trees,” the researchers write. And they warn: “The expected changes in hurricane winds and rainfall may have profound consequences for the long-term resilience of tropical forests in the North Atlantic basin.” − Climate News Network

More greenhouse gases mean worse tropical winds and fiercer storms. That could mean more forest damage . . . and more greenhouse gas emissions . . .

LONDON, 28 March, 2019 − Worse tropical winds will spell worse danger to forests, in a cycle that feeds on itself. Hurricane Maria, which in 2017 slammed into Puerto Rico, shut down the electricity supply for the entire US island of 3.3 million people, and claimed almost 3,000 lives. And it also killed or damaged at least 20 million trees, or possibly 40 million.

If what happened in the track of Maria is a pointer to the future, then hurricanes, typhoons and tropical cyclones will join drought, wildfire and men with chainsaws as a new threat to the world’s tropical forests, the biggest absorbers of carbon on the terrestrial surface.

Living forests absorb carbon. Dying and decaying trees release greenhouse gases. The damage by Maria has already been estimated to have released 5.75 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. This is about one-fortieth of all the carbon taken up by all the forests in the US.

“The expected changes in hurricane winds and rainfall may have profound consequences for the long-term resilience of tropical forests in the North Atlantic basin”

Hurricanes are linked with rising sea surface temperatures. Researchers have been warning for decades that in a warming world, extremes of heat, drought, flood and windstorm will become more destructive. So Hurricane Maria could be a taste of things to come.

“These hurricanes are going to kill more trees,” said Maria Uriarte, of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. “They’re going to break more trees. The factors that protected many trees in the past will no longer apply. Forests will become shorter and smaller because they won’t have time to regrow, and they will be less diverse.”

Maria blew into Puerto Rico in October 2017, with winds of up to 250 kms an hour. It dropped 500 mm of rain to become the island’s worst storm for 90 years.

To make their estimate of the destruction, Professor Uriarte and colleagues surveyed a 16-hectare plot of the island’s El Yunque national forest near the capital, San Juan: a plot that has been monitored after violent windstorm assault in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo and then in 1998 by Hurricane Georges.

Much fiercer impact

They report in the journal Nature Communications that Hurricane Maria killed twice as many trees outright as previous storms, and snapped more than three times as many trunks. Some species experienced breakage rates of up to 12 times that of previous hurricanes. Among them, and unexpectedly, were some of the slowest-growing, most valuable hardwoods. About half of all trees with broken trunks are expected to die within two or three years.

Some species survived well: among them the sierra palm, a tree able to bend with the wind, and if stripped sprout again from the top. Such species could be the inheritors of future hurricanes and grow quickly to take advantage of cleared forest space. So future forests could be dominated by shorter, and less diverse, foliage.

And the future is unpromising. Atlantic Ocean sea surface temperatures are rising, and climate simulations predict that by 2100 the highest sustained hurricane winds could increase by 15%. Warmer air can hold more moisture, so rainfall near storm centres could increase by 20%. Extreme winds fell trees; rain destabilises soil and makes uprooting easier.

“Maria transformed tropical forests across the island into leafless tangles of damaged and downed trees,” the researchers write. And they warn: “The expected changes in hurricane winds and rainfall may have profound consequences for the long-term resilience of tropical forests in the North Atlantic basin.” − Climate News Network

Writer’s notes show climate impact on plants

The writer’s notes left by the US thinker and naturalist known as the sage of Walden Pond have yielded more evidence of climate change.

LONDON, 27 March, 2019 − Henry David Thoreau, author of the memoir Walden, or Life in the Woods, in 1854, did more than just observe the oaks, the aspens, the “golden-rods, pinweeds and graceful wild grasses”: he left precise writer’s notes on the natural world he found during his wilful exile in the Massachusetts wilderness.

And thanks to these, US researchers now know that as the world warms, the native ecosystem that Thoreau observed and recorded is out of step.

At the close of winter, the trees now leaf at least two weeks earlier. But the wildflowers that depend on their moment in the sun for a head start now form leaves only one week earlier.

Researchers from Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maine and New York State report in the journal Ecology Letters that they combined observations around Walden in 1852 with a sequence of observations made in 37 separate years up to 2018, and with separate field experiments in a Pennsylvania forest, to conclude that wildflowers could not keep pace

“Combining our work from Pittsburgh with Thoreau’s data revealed an overlooked yet critical implication of how our changing climate is affecting native wildflowers beloved by so many people,” said Mason Heberling, a botanist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who led the research.

Novel science

The Oxford English Dictionary cites Thoreau as an authority for words and meanings more than 600 times, but not for a new science. But in effect, and without intending it, Thoreau has become one of the giants of the science of phenology, a word not recorded in use until 1884.

Phenology is the study of when natural events happen; when buds burst, flowers bloom, birds nest, insects pupate, fruit falls and leaves drop.

Thoreau, first to use the imagery of those who march to a different beat (he wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer”), has already been cited as a phenological authority.

More than five years ago scientists used his nature notes to confirm that woody plants around Walden Pond were leafing up to 18 days earlier, thanks to climate change driven by human use of fossil fuels that enrich the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and warm the world. Temperatures on average around Concord, Massachusetts have risen by around 3°C since Thoreau vacated his cabin at nearby Walden.

“Our changing climate is affecting native wildflowers beloved by so many people”

If spring happens earlier for the trees of the canopy than it does for the shrubs of the understorey, then the wildflowers have less time for photosynthesis and are placed at a disadvantage in the competition for growth.

The evidence seems to suggest that climate change could already be limiting wildflower abundance: if fewer blooms ripen, there will be less seed for following years.

The asynchrony of leaf-out that could be changing the nature of Thoreau’s woods is likely to get more pronounced: by 2080, the northeastern US temperatures could have risen another 2.5 to 4.5°C.

It was Thoreau who memorably observed in one of his essays that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It could be even more desperate for his wildflowers. − Climate News Network

The writer’s notes left by the US thinker and naturalist known as the sage of Walden Pond have yielded more evidence of climate change.

LONDON, 27 March, 2019 − Henry David Thoreau, author of the memoir Walden, or Life in the Woods, in 1854, did more than just observe the oaks, the aspens, the “golden-rods, pinweeds and graceful wild grasses”: he left precise writer’s notes on the natural world he found during his wilful exile in the Massachusetts wilderness.

And thanks to these, US researchers now know that as the world warms, the native ecosystem that Thoreau observed and recorded is out of step.

At the close of winter, the trees now leaf at least two weeks earlier. But the wildflowers that depend on their moment in the sun for a head start now form leaves only one week earlier.

Researchers from Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maine and New York State report in the journal Ecology Letters that they combined observations around Walden in 1852 with a sequence of observations made in 37 separate years up to 2018, and with separate field experiments in a Pennsylvania forest, to conclude that wildflowers could not keep pace

“Combining our work from Pittsburgh with Thoreau’s data revealed an overlooked yet critical implication of how our changing climate is affecting native wildflowers beloved by so many people,” said Mason Heberling, a botanist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who led the research.

Novel science

The Oxford English Dictionary cites Thoreau as an authority for words and meanings more than 600 times, but not for a new science. But in effect, and without intending it, Thoreau has become one of the giants of the science of phenology, a word not recorded in use until 1884.

Phenology is the study of when natural events happen; when buds burst, flowers bloom, birds nest, insects pupate, fruit falls and leaves drop.

Thoreau, first to use the imagery of those who march to a different beat (he wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer”), has already been cited as a phenological authority.

More than five years ago scientists used his nature notes to confirm that woody plants around Walden Pond were leafing up to 18 days earlier, thanks to climate change driven by human use of fossil fuels that enrich the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and warm the world. Temperatures on average around Concord, Massachusetts have risen by around 3°C since Thoreau vacated his cabin at nearby Walden.

“Our changing climate is affecting native wildflowers beloved by so many people”

If spring happens earlier for the trees of the canopy than it does for the shrubs of the understorey, then the wildflowers have less time for photosynthesis and are placed at a disadvantage in the competition for growth.

The evidence seems to suggest that climate change could already be limiting wildflower abundance: if fewer blooms ripen, there will be less seed for following years.

The asynchrony of leaf-out that could be changing the nature of Thoreau’s woods is likely to get more pronounced: by 2080, the northeastern US temperatures could have risen another 2.5 to 4.5°C.

It was Thoreau who memorably observed in one of his essays that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It could be even more desperate for his wildflowers. − Climate News Network

Rivers gain legal protection from misuse

Several countries are ensuring their rivers can gain legal protection, a move akin to treating them as people, which could help nature more widely.

LONDON, 21 March, 2019 − So Old Man River is getting a day in court: a growing international initiative is seeing to it that rivers gain legal protection against pollution and other forms of exploitation, in a move which insists that they have rights just as people do.

There are hopes that protecting rivers (and one lake) in this way could in time be extended to living species and to other features of the natural world.

The first river to win this legal safeguard is the Whanganui in New Zealand, which in March 2017 gained recognition as holding rights and responsibilities equivalent to a person. (The country had in 2014 already granted legal personhood to a forest.) The river – or rather, those acting for it – will now be able to sue for protection under the law.

The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 recognises the river and all its tributaries as a single entity, Te Awa Tupua, which has rights and interests and is the owner of its own river bed. The river can both sue and be sued. The Act also acknowledges the river as a living whole that stretches from the mountains to the sea.

Two individuals, one from the government and the other from the indigenous Whanganui people, have been appointed to serve as the river’s legal custodians, acting for its health and well-being. They work in the same way that legal guardians represent children in loco parentis (in place of a parent).

Crucial difference

Legal rights are not the same as human rights, which include civil and political rights. And conferring legal personhood on non-humans already happens with many organisations.

But the Rapid Transition Alliance, an enthusiastic backer of the idea, says: “Conferring personhood – even of this limited kind – on a part of non-human nature could prove a game changer.

“Accepting a non-human part of nature as a legal entity requires a conceptual shift away from placing humanity at the centre of everything. This understanding could generate other legal changes handing power to other parts of our natural world.”

The New Zealand example spread fast. On the day in March 2017 when it recognised the rights of the Whanganui river, the Ganges and Yamuna river system in India was also given the legal status of persons after a battle to stop it being polluted.

Growing pressure

The Indian court, treating the river system as a minor, appointed specific government posts in the state of Uttarakhand to act in loco parentis. But it is now being challenged because the river flows across state borders where local government has no jurisdiction.

Other countries which have explored the idea of rights for nature include Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey and Nepal. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature maintains a comprehensive list of similar worldwide initiatives; they include groups such as Lawyers Responding to Climate Change (LRI) and ClientEarth.

Two years after New Zealand and India, the concept had reached the US: in February 2019 voters in Toledo, Ohio approved a ballot to give Lake Erie, which forms part of the border between the US and Canada and was heavily polluted, rights normally associated with a person.

The pressure in Toledo came partly from an insistence on an urgent clean-up of the lake’s toxic water. But it drew as well on an older tradition, kept alive by indigenous groups who still retain a folk memory of how things had been before the industrial revolution.

“Conferring personhood – even of this limited kind – on a part of non-human nature could prove a game changer”

The vote excited comment. One critic saw it as an anti-capitalism plot and cited in his support a plan to give an orang-utan in Argentina the legal right to leave a zoo. But the Australian Centre for the Rights of Nature took a more positive view, saying that recognising the rights in law meant rejecting “the notion that nature is human property.”

Another influence on the spread of the idea of rights for nature is likely to be the concept of critical biodiversity,  which argues that species diversity is needed for a healthy ecosystem to thrive.

Progress on that and on rights for nature has so far been tentative and exploratory, and there are many obstacles ahead.

But if they could reinforce each other in safeguarding species like the great apes, the forest fauna of south-east Asia and areas under pressure such as the Great Barrier Reef and Amazonia, the gains could be immense. − Climate News Network

*  *  *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Several countries are ensuring their rivers can gain legal protection, a move akin to treating them as people, which could help nature more widely.

LONDON, 21 March, 2019 − So Old Man River is getting a day in court: a growing international initiative is seeing to it that rivers gain legal protection against pollution and other forms of exploitation, in a move which insists that they have rights just as people do.

There are hopes that protecting rivers (and one lake) in this way could in time be extended to living species and to other features of the natural world.

The first river to win this legal safeguard is the Whanganui in New Zealand, which in March 2017 gained recognition as holding rights and responsibilities equivalent to a person. (The country had in 2014 already granted legal personhood to a forest.) The river – or rather, those acting for it – will now be able to sue for protection under the law.

The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 recognises the river and all its tributaries as a single entity, Te Awa Tupua, which has rights and interests and is the owner of its own river bed. The river can both sue and be sued. The Act also acknowledges the river as a living whole that stretches from the mountains to the sea.

Two individuals, one from the government and the other from the indigenous Whanganui people, have been appointed to serve as the river’s legal custodians, acting for its health and well-being. They work in the same way that legal guardians represent children in loco parentis (in place of a parent).

Crucial difference

Legal rights are not the same as human rights, which include civil and political rights. And conferring legal personhood on non-humans already happens with many organisations.

But the Rapid Transition Alliance, an enthusiastic backer of the idea, says: “Conferring personhood – even of this limited kind – on a part of non-human nature could prove a game changer.

“Accepting a non-human part of nature as a legal entity requires a conceptual shift away from placing humanity at the centre of everything. This understanding could generate other legal changes handing power to other parts of our natural world.”

The New Zealand example spread fast. On the day in March 2017 when it recognised the rights of the Whanganui river, the Ganges and Yamuna river system in India was also given the legal status of persons after a battle to stop it being polluted.

Growing pressure

The Indian court, treating the river system as a minor, appointed specific government posts in the state of Uttarakhand to act in loco parentis. But it is now being challenged because the river flows across state borders where local government has no jurisdiction.

Other countries which have explored the idea of rights for nature include Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey and Nepal. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature maintains a comprehensive list of similar worldwide initiatives; they include groups such as Lawyers Responding to Climate Change (LRI) and ClientEarth.

Two years after New Zealand and India, the concept had reached the US: in February 2019 voters in Toledo, Ohio approved a ballot to give Lake Erie, which forms part of the border between the US and Canada and was heavily polluted, rights normally associated with a person.

The pressure in Toledo came partly from an insistence on an urgent clean-up of the lake’s toxic water. But it drew as well on an older tradition, kept alive by indigenous groups who still retain a folk memory of how things had been before the industrial revolution.

“Conferring personhood – even of this limited kind – on a part of non-human nature could prove a game changer”

The vote excited comment. One critic saw it as an anti-capitalism plot and cited in his support a plan to give an orang-utan in Argentina the legal right to leave a zoo. But the Australian Centre for the Rights of Nature took a more positive view, saying that recognising the rights in law meant rejecting “the notion that nature is human property.”

Another influence on the spread of the idea of rights for nature is likely to be the concept of critical biodiversity,  which argues that species diversity is needed for a healthy ecosystem to thrive.

Progress on that and on rights for nature has so far been tentative and exploratory, and there are many obstacles ahead.

But if they could reinforce each other in safeguarding species like the great apes, the forest fauna of south-east Asia and areas under pressure such as the Great Barrier Reef and Amazonia, the gains could be immense. − Climate News Network

*  *  *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

The day the Earth’s climate went berserk

The day in 1815 when the world’s climate went berserk was only the start of months and years of global climate disruption and social unrest.

LONDON, 19 March, 2019 − If you had been in what were then called the Dutch East Indies on 10 April 1815, the day would have been etched indelibly on your memory: it was the day the global climate went berserk.

Many parts of the world are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Island nations in the Pacific are seeing their lands eaten away by rising sea levels.

Whole communities of people in Arctic regions are threatened by rapidly expanding ice melt. The foundations of houses are being swept away. Traditional hunting grounds are being lost.

Wolfgang Behringer is a climate historian who seeks to draw parallels between what is going on now and events long ago. In particular Behringer, a professor of early modern history at Saarland University in Germany, looks at how changes in climate can influence and shape events – political, economic and social.

In a new book he focuses on the 1815 volcanic explosion of Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia. The eruption still rates as the largest in human history; the cloud that burst from the volcano reached a height of 45 kilometres.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity suffice to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems”

Many thousands of people were killed on Sumbawa and adjoining islands, including Lombok and Bali. Dust clouds from Tambora were swept around the globe; the world’s climate went berserk, says Behringer.

“The dimensions of the Tambora crisis were so extraordinary because its roots lay in nature, in processes of geology, atmospheric physics and meteorology. These forces of nature respect no borders.”

The suspended particles from the volcano reduced solar radiation and led to global cooling. What scientists call a dry fog enveloped much of Asia. A blue sun appeared in Latin America. Snow that fell in Italy was red and yellow.

The winter of 1815/16 in much of the world was one of the coldest of the century. In Europe, 1816 became known as the year without summer. In North America what was described as the “Yankee chill” resulted in the worst harvest ever recorded.

Global upset

Torrential rains caused floods and thousands of deaths in China and India. Famine was widespread.

Behringer says the changes in climate provoked social unrest on a worldwide scale.

“The reactions to the crisis offer an example of how societies and individuals respond to climate change, what risks emerge and what opportunities may be associated with it”, he writes.

Epidemics broke out. In 1817 the cholera pathogen appeared for the first time. In India alone it’s believed 1.25 million died of the disease each year for more than a decade following the Tambora explosion. The suffering led to uprisings against British colonial rule in India and Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka.

Simmering revolution

In Ireland, Scotland and Wales people rioted as grain prices soared. In England the authorities became concerned at a rise in revolutionary activity. Prisons filled up.

The years following 1815 were a time of mass migration. Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, in an effort to escape hunger, travelled across the Atlantic to the US and Canada. Within the US there was a movement westwards towards California, which had largely escaped the more severe effects of the eruption.

There were other, less dramatic consequences. Behringer says Tambora inspired a new-found preoccupation with weather and climate phenomena. Not surprisingly, it spurred the emergence of the science of volcanology.

Establishing the cause and effect of changes in climate – whether caused by volcanic eruptions or by the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in consequence – is an extremely tricky business.

Temporary influence

Behringer makes the point that not all of the events of 1815 and subsequent years can be directly attributed to Tambora. But the explosion did act as a catalyst.

The eruption was a single event and its after-effects were not permanent though, for a limited period, the world’s ecological framework was altered.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity sufficed (and still suffice today) to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems.

“And without their daily bread, people can very quickly become angry. In such situations it is clear – even in absolutist monarchies or dictatorships – who the sovereign is.” − Climate News Network

* * *

Tambora and the Year without a Summer, Polity Books, £25.00: to be published on 26 April, 2019.

The day in 1815 when the world’s climate went berserk was only the start of months and years of global climate disruption and social unrest.

LONDON, 19 March, 2019 − If you had been in what were then called the Dutch East Indies on 10 April 1815, the day would have been etched indelibly on your memory: it was the day the global climate went berserk.

Many parts of the world are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Island nations in the Pacific are seeing their lands eaten away by rising sea levels.

Whole communities of people in Arctic regions are threatened by rapidly expanding ice melt. The foundations of houses are being swept away. Traditional hunting grounds are being lost.

Wolfgang Behringer is a climate historian who seeks to draw parallels between what is going on now and events long ago. In particular Behringer, a professor of early modern history at Saarland University in Germany, looks at how changes in climate can influence and shape events – political, economic and social.

In a new book he focuses on the 1815 volcanic explosion of Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia. The eruption still rates as the largest in human history; the cloud that burst from the volcano reached a height of 45 kilometres.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity suffice to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems”

Many thousands of people were killed on Sumbawa and adjoining islands, including Lombok and Bali. Dust clouds from Tambora were swept around the globe; the world’s climate went berserk, says Behringer.

“The dimensions of the Tambora crisis were so extraordinary because its roots lay in nature, in processes of geology, atmospheric physics and meteorology. These forces of nature respect no borders.”

The suspended particles from the volcano reduced solar radiation and led to global cooling. What scientists call a dry fog enveloped much of Asia. A blue sun appeared in Latin America. Snow that fell in Italy was red and yellow.

The winter of 1815/16 in much of the world was one of the coldest of the century. In Europe, 1816 became known as the year without summer. In North America what was described as the “Yankee chill” resulted in the worst harvest ever recorded.

Global upset

Torrential rains caused floods and thousands of deaths in China and India. Famine was widespread.

Behringer says the changes in climate provoked social unrest on a worldwide scale.

“The reactions to the crisis offer an example of how societies and individuals respond to climate change, what risks emerge and what opportunities may be associated with it”, he writes.

Epidemics broke out. In 1817 the cholera pathogen appeared for the first time. In India alone it’s believed 1.25 million died of the disease each year for more than a decade following the Tambora explosion. The suffering led to uprisings against British colonial rule in India and Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka.

Simmering revolution

In Ireland, Scotland and Wales people rioted as grain prices soared. In England the authorities became concerned at a rise in revolutionary activity. Prisons filled up.

The years following 1815 were a time of mass migration. Hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, in an effort to escape hunger, travelled across the Atlantic to the US and Canada. Within the US there was a movement westwards towards California, which had largely escaped the more severe effects of the eruption.

There were other, less dramatic consequences. Behringer says Tambora inspired a new-found preoccupation with weather and climate phenomena. Not surprisingly, it spurred the emergence of the science of volcanology.

Establishing the cause and effect of changes in climate – whether caused by volcanic eruptions or by the burning of fossil fuels and the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in consequence – is an extremely tricky business.

Temporary influence

Behringer makes the point that not all of the events of 1815 and subsequent years can be directly attributed to Tambora. But the explosion did act as a catalyst.

The eruption was a single event and its after-effects were not permanent though, for a limited period, the world’s ecological framework was altered.

“Apparently minor changes in temperature and humidity sufficed (and still suffice today) to shake up entrenched ecosystems, but above all entrenched agricultural systems.

“And without their daily bread, people can very quickly become angry. In such situations it is clear – even in absolutist monarchies or dictatorships – who the sovereign is.” − Climate News Network

* * *

Tambora and the Year without a Summer, Polity Books, £25.00: to be published on 26 April, 2019.

Human growth robs other species of space

As human growth adds to our numbers and demands, other species’ survival chances shrink. Scientists can now name 1,700 creatures at ever greater risk.

LONDON, 11 March, 2019 − There is only one Earth, but human growth is ensuring that it carries steadily more passengers. And that leaves less and less room for humanity’s companions on board the planet.

The Nile lechwe is an antelope that lives in the swamps of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Its Linnaean name is Kobus megaceros and it stands a metre high at the shoulders so you couldn’t miss it. Except that you could.

That is because it is one of at least 1,700 species identified by biologists to be at risk from human action: quite simply, as humans take an ever-greater share of animal living space, the animals’ chances of survival dwindle rapidly.

So the Nile lechwe joins the Lombok cross frog of Indonesia (Oreophryne monticola) and the curve-billed reedhaunter (Limnornis curvirostris) that lives in the marshes of north-east Argentina to be at risk of extinction by 2070, simply because humankind will intrude on at least half of their geographic ranges.

“It is often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans …”

Biologists, conservationists and climate scientists have been warning for decades that the dangerous combination of human population growth and climate change driven by human-induced global warming puts whole ecosystems at risk, and will hasten the extinction of many species that are already shrinking in numbers.

These include many that underwrite the provision of food,  medicine, fabric for the world’s cities and air and water purification systems on which human civilisation is founded.

Most such warnings have been based on projections of economic growth, urban demand and climate change. US researchers approached the challenge in a different way.

They report in Nature Climate Change that they collected data on the geographic distributions of 19,400 species and combined this with four different projections of future changes in land use – a euphemism for scorched or felled forest, drained swamp, ploughed grassland and so on − in the next 50 years.

Shared responsibility

And they identified 1,700 species that, even with moderate changes in land use, will lose roughly a third to a half of their present habitat by 2070. This total includes 886 species of amphibian, 436 kinds of bird and 376 mammals. And this loss of living space accentuates the hazard to their lives and futures.

Many animal citizens of Central and East Africa, Mesoamerica, South America and Southeast Asia are particularly at risk. And, the authors warn, even though such losses would happen in national territories and involve species with limited range, the responsibility for their loss would be global.

“Losses in species populations can irreversibly hamper the functioning of ecosystems and human quality of life,” said Walter Jetz, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale University in Connecticut, one of the authors.

“While biodiversity erosion in far-away parts of the planet may not seem to affect us directly, its consequences for human livelihood can reverberate globally. It is also often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans – thus making us all co-responsible.” − Climate News Network

As human growth adds to our numbers and demands, other species’ survival chances shrink. Scientists can now name 1,700 creatures at ever greater risk.

LONDON, 11 March, 2019 − There is only one Earth, but human growth is ensuring that it carries steadily more passengers. And that leaves less and less room for humanity’s companions on board the planet.

The Nile lechwe is an antelope that lives in the swamps of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Its Linnaean name is Kobus megaceros and it stands a metre high at the shoulders so you couldn’t miss it. Except that you could.

That is because it is one of at least 1,700 species identified by biologists to be at risk from human action: quite simply, as humans take an ever-greater share of animal living space, the animals’ chances of survival dwindle rapidly.

So the Nile lechwe joins the Lombok cross frog of Indonesia (Oreophryne monticola) and the curve-billed reedhaunter (Limnornis curvirostris) that lives in the marshes of north-east Argentina to be at risk of extinction by 2070, simply because humankind will intrude on at least half of their geographic ranges.

“It is often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans …”

Biologists, conservationists and climate scientists have been warning for decades that the dangerous combination of human population growth and climate change driven by human-induced global warming puts whole ecosystems at risk, and will hasten the extinction of many species that are already shrinking in numbers.

These include many that underwrite the provision of food,  medicine, fabric for the world’s cities and air and water purification systems on which human civilisation is founded.

Most such warnings have been based on projections of economic growth, urban demand and climate change. US researchers approached the challenge in a different way.

They report in Nature Climate Change that they collected data on the geographic distributions of 19,400 species and combined this with four different projections of future changes in land use – a euphemism for scorched or felled forest, drained swamp, ploughed grassland and so on − in the next 50 years.

Shared responsibility

And they identified 1,700 species that, even with moderate changes in land use, will lose roughly a third to a half of their present habitat by 2070. This total includes 886 species of amphibian, 436 kinds of bird and 376 mammals. And this loss of living space accentuates the hazard to their lives and futures.

Many animal citizens of Central and East Africa, Mesoamerica, South America and Southeast Asia are particularly at risk. And, the authors warn, even though such losses would happen in national territories and involve species with limited range, the responsibility for their loss would be global.

“Losses in species populations can irreversibly hamper the functioning of ecosystems and human quality of life,” said Walter Jetz, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Yale University in Connecticut, one of the authors.

“While biodiversity erosion in far-away parts of the planet may not seem to affect us directly, its consequences for human livelihood can reverberate globally. It is also often the far-away demand that drives these losses – think tropical hardwoods, palm oil or soybeans – thus making us all co-responsible.” − Climate News Network

Food supply falls as fish flee warmer seas

On the fishing grounds, they already know about global warming. As fish flee warmer seas there are winners – but many more losers.

LONDON, 4 March 2019 – Global warming has already begun to affect fishing worldwide as fish flee warmer seas, a new study says.

In the last 80 years, there has been an estimated drop of more than 4% in sustainable catches for many kinds of fish and shellfish. That is the average. In some regions – the East China Sea, for instance, and Europe’s North Sea –  the estimated decline was between 15% and 35%.

In the course of the last century, global average temperatures have crept up by about 1°C above the average for most of human history, as a reaction to the unconstrained burning of fossil fuels. If the world continues to burn ever-greater volumes of coal, oil and natural gas, it could be 3°C warmer or more by the end of the century.

Last year was only the fourth warmest for air surface temperatures, but the warmest since records began for the world’s oceans.

“Fisheries around the world have already responded to global warming. These aren’t hypothetical changes some time in the future”

US researchers report in the journal Science that they looked at the impact of ocean warming in 235 populations of 124 species of fish, crustaceans and molluscs in 38 ecological regions between the years 1930 and 2010.

They then matched the world data on fish catches with ocean temperature maps to estimate what warming has done to the sustainable catch – that is, the biggest haul fishing crews can make without reducing breeding stocks for the seasons to follow.

“We were stunned to find that fisheries around the world have already responded to global warming,” said Malin Pinsky of Rutgers University, and one of the authors. “These aren’t hypothetical changes some time in the future.”

The researchers found that some species in some climate zones actually benefited from warming, and fish with faster life cycles sometimes responded well, sometimes badly to the temperature changes. Some responded by shifting their geographical range.

More climate losers

But overall, said Christopher Free, once of Rutgers and now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “among the populations we studied, the climate losers outweigh the climate winners.”

And his colleague Olaf Jensen, also from Rutgers, said: “Fish populations can only tolerate so much warning, though. Many of the species that have benefited from warming so far are likely to start declining as temperatures continue to rise.”

Fishermen off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, in the Baltic, the Indian Ocean and the northeast US shelf may have seen more productive hauls of fish. But the biggest losses were in the Sea of Japan, the North Sea, off the Iberian coast and the Celtic-Biscay shelf.

Many fish species are adapted to a precise range of temperatures: they flourish not just in specific marine ecosystems but in thermal niches as well. Once things begin to change, they swim away or perish.

Marauding invaders

Fishermen in the North Atlantic have repeatedly observed changes in the available catch, as the cod shift north and the sardines migrate from increasingly uncomfortable warm waters. Warming in Mediterranean waters creates enticing conditions for invaders from the Red Sea and further south, at huge cost to the resident species.

The lesson is that fish stocks must be carefully conserved, and ocean reserves protected. Researchers have consistently warned that global warming and climate change – especially when combined with changes in ocean water chemistry as a consequence of carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere – could soon start to constrain an important source of nutrition: an estimated 3.2 billion people rely on the sea for an estimated 20% of their animal protein, especially in East Asia.

“This means 15% to 35% less fish available for food and employment in a region with some of the fastest-growing human populations in the world,” said Dr Free.

“Knowing exactly how fisheries will change under future warming is challenging, but we do know that failing to adapt to changing fisheries productivity will result in less food and fewer profits relative to today.” – Climate News Network

On the fishing grounds, they already know about global warming. As fish flee warmer seas there are winners – but many more losers.

LONDON, 4 March 2019 – Global warming has already begun to affect fishing worldwide as fish flee warmer seas, a new study says.

In the last 80 years, there has been an estimated drop of more than 4% in sustainable catches for many kinds of fish and shellfish. That is the average. In some regions – the East China Sea, for instance, and Europe’s North Sea –  the estimated decline was between 15% and 35%.

In the course of the last century, global average temperatures have crept up by about 1°C above the average for most of human history, as a reaction to the unconstrained burning of fossil fuels. If the world continues to burn ever-greater volumes of coal, oil and natural gas, it could be 3°C warmer or more by the end of the century.

Last year was only the fourth warmest for air surface temperatures, but the warmest since records began for the world’s oceans.

“Fisheries around the world have already responded to global warming. These aren’t hypothetical changes some time in the future”

US researchers report in the journal Science that they looked at the impact of ocean warming in 235 populations of 124 species of fish, crustaceans and molluscs in 38 ecological regions between the years 1930 and 2010.

They then matched the world data on fish catches with ocean temperature maps to estimate what warming has done to the sustainable catch – that is, the biggest haul fishing crews can make without reducing breeding stocks for the seasons to follow.

“We were stunned to find that fisheries around the world have already responded to global warming,” said Malin Pinsky of Rutgers University, and one of the authors. “These aren’t hypothetical changes some time in the future.”

The researchers found that some species in some climate zones actually benefited from warming, and fish with faster life cycles sometimes responded well, sometimes badly to the temperature changes. Some responded by shifting their geographical range.

More climate losers

But overall, said Christopher Free, once of Rutgers and now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “among the populations we studied, the climate losers outweigh the climate winners.”

And his colleague Olaf Jensen, also from Rutgers, said: “Fish populations can only tolerate so much warning, though. Many of the species that have benefited from warming so far are likely to start declining as temperatures continue to rise.”

Fishermen off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, in the Baltic, the Indian Ocean and the northeast US shelf may have seen more productive hauls of fish. But the biggest losses were in the Sea of Japan, the North Sea, off the Iberian coast and the Celtic-Biscay shelf.

Many fish species are adapted to a precise range of temperatures: they flourish not just in specific marine ecosystems but in thermal niches as well. Once things begin to change, they swim away or perish.

Marauding invaders

Fishermen in the North Atlantic have repeatedly observed changes in the available catch, as the cod shift north and the sardines migrate from increasingly uncomfortable warm waters. Warming in Mediterranean waters creates enticing conditions for invaders from the Red Sea and further south, at huge cost to the resident species.

The lesson is that fish stocks must be carefully conserved, and ocean reserves protected. Researchers have consistently warned that global warming and climate change – especially when combined with changes in ocean water chemistry as a consequence of carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere – could soon start to constrain an important source of nutrition: an estimated 3.2 billion people rely on the sea for an estimated 20% of their animal protein, especially in East Asia.

“This means 15% to 35% less fish available for food and employment in a region with some of the fastest-growing human populations in the world,” said Dr Free.

“Knowing exactly how fisheries will change under future warming is challenging, but we do know that failing to adapt to changing fisheries productivity will result in less food and fewer profits relative to today.” – Climate News Network