The week that's gone: 6 April 2013

This is a summary of the stories we have published in the week ending Saturday 6 April.


Warming ‘increases Antarctic ice’

31 March – The Arctic may be shrinking as the world warms but Antarctic sea ice is expanding. Blame global warming for that, too, say Dutch scientists. The paradox is that increasing temperatures have set in motion a chain of events in the southern seas that have the opposite effect. Engineers call this negative feedback. So do Richard Bintanja and colleagues of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. They report in Nature Geoscience that as the Antarctic ice shelves melt, the resulting cool fresh water has actually served to insulate the offshore sea ice from the warming ocean beneath the floating floes. So, as a consequence, in 2010 southern ocean sea ice reached a record extent.

Geo-engineering ‘could imperil Sahel’

31 March – Less than three weeks after two US researchers called for global agreement on the governance of geo-engineering research, British meteorologists have provided a case study in potential geo-engineering disaster. Jim Haywood from the Met Office Hadley Centre and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that fine particles concentrated in the stratosphere could precipitate calamitous drought in the Sahel region of Africa. The team analysed historical observations from 1900 to 2010 and found that substantial volcanic eruptions in the Northern hemisphere… preceded three of the four driest summers in the region. Furious volcanic blasts have been historically associated with climate change: an eruption of Mt Tambora in what is now Indonesia in 1815 was followed by Europe’s notorious “year without a summer” in 1816, along with widespread harvest failure, famine and outbreaks of disease.

British lawyers aid climate teams

1 April – To help poor countries to play an effective part in the UN’s global climate negotiations, a group of UK lawyers are spending this week sharing their expertise with colleagues from across the developing world. Seven lawyers who are members of their countries’ national negotiation teams at the climate talks are meeting at a City of London law firm, Simmons & Simmons, which is providing help in kind, for five days of legal training by leading UK practitioners and academics. The training programme has been organised by the Legal Response Initiative (LRI). Its chairman Nick Flynn, an environmental lawyer, says: “The international climate negotiations are amongst the most complicated and complex multilateral law processes ever. Meetings are often characterised by technical jargon, conflicting interpretations of legal obligations and the use of procedural rules.”

Oxford sets new rain and cold records

2 April – Oxford, home of the oldest university in the English-speaking world and known as “the city of dreaming spires”, has another claim to fame (if that’s the right word). It has just recorded its wettest consecutive nine-month period. Nobody can say what the cause is: a stuck jet stream, climate change, or pure luck. But on 1 April 2012 local meteorologists began recording what proved to be the rainiest nine-month stretch in almost 250 years, since 1767. By 31 December, they had logged 898.7mm of rain, nearly double the average nine-month rainfall of 483.4 mm. Of the more than 2,900 rolling nine-month periods occurring since 1767, only eight others have surpassed the 800mm level.

Australians told to expect worse weather

2 April – Australians have received a stark warning that climate change is already increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather, posing serious and growing risks to people across the continent. The country’s independent Climate Commission, established in 2011 to provide authoritative information on climate science and solutions, spells out the reasons which underlie its warning in a report, The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather. It concludes that the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases will have to fall to almost nothing by 2050 in order to stabilise the climate. At the moment they are continuing to increase, with no sign that global agreement on reducing them is anywhere close.

Warming climate can drive algal blooms

3 April – Devastating algal blooms on one of the Great Lakes on the Canada-US border could become a much more frequent event, according to scientists from the Carnegie Institution and the University of Michigan. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that conditions in 2011 were just right for a perfect storm of algal growth that turned Lake Erie an ugly blue-green, killed fish, fouled harbours, clogged marine engines, created oxygen-free dead zones and released unwholesome quantities of a liver toxin poisonous to mammals. And although the bloom was a consequence of the unhappy combination of agricultural management and unusual weather conditions, global warming could make such episodes more frequent.

Linked renewables avoid blackouts

4 April – Critics of renewables have always claimed that sun and wind are only intermittent producers of electricity and need fossil fuel plants as back-up to make them viable. But German engineers have proved this is not so. By skillfully combining the output of a number of solar, wind and biogas plants the grid can be provided with stable energy 24 hours a day without fear of blackouts, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES) in Kassel. For Germany, which has turned its back on nuclear power and is investing heavily in all forms of renewables to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, this is an important breakthrough.

Clouds ’caused Greenland’s 2012 thaw’

5 April – US scientists think they can explain why the Greenland ice sheet started melting at an unexpected and alarming rate in the summer of 2012. They blame it on unusual clouds. In four days during July last year, Nasa satellite measurements revealed that 97% of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet had begun to thaw. The slush was even recorded at the summit of the icecap, more than three kilometres above sea level… Snow keeps itself cool by reflecting sunlight back into space. Low-level clouds, too, should keep land masses cool, by reflecting sunlight back into space. But the scientists calculated that, under particular temperature conditions, clouds could be thin enough to permit solar radiation to filter through, but thick enough to trap some of the Sun’s energy as infra-red radiation even if it was reflected by the snow and ice on the ground. The extra heat trapped close to the ice surface was enough to push temperatures above freezing.

No climate change? Don’t bet on it

6 April – The runners and riders are ready. It’s Grand National day in England, one of the highlights of the world’s racing calendar. Some – Climate News Network among them – might be hard pushed to tell one end of a horse from the other, but no matter. This is the day for a flutter. Down at the bookies the wallet is teased open, coins passed carefully across the counter and the betting slip, the key to undreamed-of riches, is jealously guarded. These days it’s not just the horses you bet on. Virtually anything is up for a wager – the sex of the next royal baby, who will come bottom of the football league, how long it will take the tears to fall in an Oscar winner’s thank you speech, or who will be Pope. There are even odds on how fast various species will disappear. And what about climate change?

About Alex Kirby

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.

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