February 17, 2013, by Alex Kirby
This is a summary of the stories we have published in the week ending Saturday 16 February (all are archived).
10 February – Warming seas may mean that tiny marine creatures can help to repair coral reefs which have themselves been damaged by climate change. Rising sea temperatures will make life a bit cosier for the organism – a tiny variety of foraminifera (the name means “hole bearer”) called Amphistegina. Martin Langer of the University of Bonn and colleagues report in the Public Library of Science One that these little single-celled, calcareous creatures (chalky, or containing lime) will be able to extend their natural range as the sea warms – and could possibly help stabilise coastlines under threat as sea levels rise, and coral reefs that are stressed by rising temperatures.
11 February – Scientists now think the Amazon rainforest is unlikely to succumb to a widespread die-off of its trees, because they expect the main greenhouse gas to act as a powerful fertiliser. For years now there have been fears that the forest was likely to experience a mass die-off because of rising temperatures caused by climatic changes, with rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels a principal cause. But scientists now say the gas is affecting the Amazon in two ways. It is certainly increasing temperatures, they say, with the risk of droughts and other dangers to arboreal life. But it is also providing an airborne fertiliser. They think this beneficial effect is likely to exceed the damage CO2 is causing.
12 February – The melting of Arctic ice frozen for many thousands or even millions of years is speeding up, a potential route for carbon frozen deep below ground level to seep into the atmosphere. The return of the spring sun melts domes and lakes of frozen water called thermokarsts – karst is a word usually linked to limestone country, but it has been pressed into service as a label for the hard surfaces caused by ice. Within this ice is dissolved organic carbon. Once the ice melts, microbes get to work releasing carbon dioxide into the air. The soil thaws, the surface collapses, lakes form, water flows, land surfaces erode which in turn releases more carbon dioxide to create more warming, to make the tundra even more vulnerable to spring thaw, and of course to accelerated warming.
13 February – Cheap and abundant shale gas supplies could be the death knell of nuclear energy in the United Kingdom, and in many other countries as well, threatening attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power stations in Canada and the United States are closing because they cannot compete with cheap power being produced from shale gas. This revolution in the way North America produces its electricity is sending shock waves through the nuclear industry in Europe too. New nuclear build will be spectacularly uneconomic if a fracking industry is successful in the United Kingdom. Gas prices would tumble as they have across the Atlantic. Even the existing nuclear stations in France, Belgium and the UK would find themselves struggling to compete, especially if they need investment to achieve modern safety standards.
14 February – The world has missed the chance to keep greenhouse gas emissions below the level needed to prevent the temperature climbing above 2°C, according to the British scientist who used to chair the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The scientist, Professor Sir Robert Watson, chaired the Panel from 1997 until 2002, when he was ousted after US pressure for his removal. Professor Watson says there is a 50-50 chance of preventing global average temperatures rising more than 3°C above their level at the start of the industrial age, but a 5°C rise is possible. That would mean the Earth warming more than it has since the end of the last Ice Age.
15 February – A leading UK university is launching a research programme to help businesses and policy-makers to protect themselves from investments which could be left worthless by climate change. The University of Oxford has begun research to identify high-carbon sectors and assets that could be devalued or written off if the world takes resolute action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. It seeks to help investors to avoid sinking money in potentially useless assets that might ultimately lose their entire value, turning into what are known as “stranded assets”. Assets become stranded if they are replaced by greener alternatives or new technologies, or are subject to new regulations or resource constraints.
15 February – The seasonal shrinkage of the area of Arctic sea ice is now well-established. But a new study has found that it is also undergoing thinning and a pronounced loss of volume all year round. Between 2003 and 2012 the volume of the ice declined by 36% in the autumn and 9% in the winter, a UK-led team of scientists has discovered. From 2003 to 2008, they found, autumn ice volumes averaged 11,900 cubic kilometres. But from 2010 to 2012 the average had dropped to 7,600 km3 – a decline of 4,300 km3. The average winter volume from 2003 to 2008 was 16,300 km3, dropping to 14,800 km3 between 2010 and 2012 – a difference of 1,500 km3.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.