The week that's gone: 9 March 2013

This is a summary of the stories we have published in the week ending Saturday 9 March (all are archived). Apologies that it’s late this week – again.

Glaciers on the slide

3 March – You’d have to worry about James Balog’s knees. He has an operation on one leg and then, for a bit of gentle recuperation, goes walking on a glacier. Not surprisingly, before too long he needs to return to the surgeon’s table: then it’s back to the ice once more, only this time Balog is being lowered down into a crevasse, a cascade of freezing glacier melt water rushing within inches of his camera. Balog is a photographer who has specialised for many years in what he describes as the “contact zone” between humans and nature. In 2006 he was given an assignment by National Geographic magazine to photograph glaciers and ice formations. He became a glacier groupie and the following year started the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), photographing and filming glaciers round the world. Chasing Ice, released in the US last year and now doing the rounds of selected cinemas in the UK, captures the work of the EIS project.

Ocean heat can predict malaria

3 March – Health officials may have a new way to anticipate malaria epidemics in north-west India. All they have to do is check the sea surface temperatures in the tropical south Atlantic, off the coast of western Africa. If the water is colder than normal in July, then prepare for an epidemic of the Anopheles mosquito and its little Plasmodium parasite four months later in Kutch and the Thar desert of India. Mercedes Pascual of the University of Michigan and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that monsoon rainfall totals were a reasonable predictor of breeding sites in parts of India that are normally arid or semi-arid, but these offered no more than a month’s warning… With help from statistical and computer climate models, they found that sea surface temperatures in the tropical South Atlantic proved to be a significant indicator of the rainfall to come in the Indian summer monsoon season, and thus of epidemics of malaria that peaked in October and November.

Warming means wetter weather – and drier

3 March – Welcome to the see-saw world of climate change. Rainy seasons will get rainier. Dry seasons will tend to become more parched. Even if the total annual rainfall does not change very much, the seasonal cycles will – with obvious consequences. Floods and droughts will become more frequent, according to Chia Chou of the University of Taipei, and colleagues from Taiwan and California. Like all pronouncements about the future, this one comes with caveats: the research is based on climate simulations of future warming, and the forecasts are only as good as the data fed into such simulations. But the authors start with a trend they can already measure: they report in Nature Geoscience that they looked at rainfall data between 1979 and 2010 and found that the wet seasons were already clearly getting wetter, at the rate of almost a millimetre a day per century, while the dry seasons became drier with just over half a millimetre less in rainfall per day per century.

Volcanoes may mask ‘lost’ warming

4 March – Climate scientists think they may have found at least part of the answer to a conundrum which has been puzzling them recently – why the atmosphere has not warmed as much as expected over the last decade or so. A team led by the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU-Boulder) thinks the reason may be emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2), a known inhibitor of atmospheric warming, from many of the world’s volcanoes. The puzzle is why the global average temperature has not increased as expected in step with rising greenhouse gas emissions. This has led some to suggest that global warming itself is faltering, and with it the entire scientific justification for action to stabilise the climate… India and China are estimated to have increased their industrial SO2 emissions by about 60% between 2000 and 2010 through coal burning. But the study, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests it is volcanic eruptions, not Asia’s emissions, that are largely responsible for the warming slowdown.

Fast boat to China?

4 March – The great Elizabethan explorer Martin Frobisher tried three times to get from Europe to China by sailing across the Arctic circle. In the summer of 1578 he steered his ships between the Canadian mainland and Baffin Island, in an attempt to find the fabled north-west passage. He was soon defeated by tempest, snow and ice. “There fell so much snow, with such bitter cold air, that we could not scarce see one another for the same, nor open our eyes to handle our ropes and sails”, says the account recorded in Hakluyt’s famous Principal Navigations, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Tomorrow’s mariners may have an easier time of it, according to Laurence Smith, a geographer at University of California, Los Angeles. He reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that by 2059 ships, especially if reinforced for polar waters, should be able to manage the north-west passage from the east coast of America to the west, one year in two. Right now, it is navigable perhaps one year in seven.

Palm oil power plan hits problems

5 March – A UK Government plan to use imported palm oil to generate electricity has run into opposition from campaigners, who are urging Ministers to reconsider the idea. A Parliamentary committee is due to vote on 6 March on whether to accept Department of Energy and Climate Change plans to subsidise “green electricity”. But Action for Sustainable Energy for Bristol, a city in the west of England, says scientists agree that the biofuels to be subsidised are not “green” as the Government claims, but are worse for climate change than the fossil fuels they replace. ACSEB says biofuels like palm oil, which the Government plans to subsidise for 20 years, will make climate change worse, destroy tropical forests and endangered species, and add tens of millions of pounds a year to voters’ electricity bills.

Arctic oil and gas will exact high price

6 March – First, there’s a new assessment report by Ernst & Young, the international accountancy firm. It says the high-cost, high-risk resources of oil and gas available inside the Arctic Circle are both commercially exploitable and affordable. After analysis of the tax and incentive schemes offered by the eight countries with hopes of drilling oil and gas wells in the Arctic, the firm concludes that Russia is a good investment opportunity with massive Arctic gas reserves. However Alaska is the best bet for oil, with the largest untapped Arctic reserves. Norway, because of the stability of its government, and the opening up of Greenland for exploration also present good business opportunities. This assessment contrasts with an influential American view – that international gas prices will fall because of an energy glut, making Russian gas too expensive to sell.

Coal triggers carbon level rise

6 March –  The level of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere increased significantly in 2012, US scientists have found. Measurements taken at Mauna Loa in Hawaii show that it rose by 2.67 parts per million (ppm) to reach just under 395 ppm, the second-largest rise since record-keeping began in 1959. The increase is thought by scientists to reflect the beginnings of a recovery in the global economy and the burning of more fossil fuels as a result, especially in China. It is likely to mean that the prospect of holding the rise in global average temperature to below 2°C, the goal of international climate negotiations, has receded still further.

Coal-burning exacts a lethal price

7 March – Campaigners are urging a halt to the building of coal plants and an end to the burning of coal throughout the European Union by 2040. They say this is needed both to ensure better public health, and to help to lessen the damage from climate change. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is blamed for causing thousands of premature deaths and for damaging children’s lives. A report by the group says moving away from fossil fuels would significantly reduce chronic lung disease and some heart conditions. It puts the health costs of coal-fired power stations to the people of Europe at up to €42.8 billion (almost £37 billion) a year.

Canadian glaciers are melting fast

7 March – Canada’s Arctic Archipelago glaciers will melt faster than ever in the next few centuries, research by European-funded scientists has shown. They say 20% of the Canadian Arctic glaciers may have disappeared by the end of this century, which would mean an extra sea level rise of 3.5cm. The results of the research, part of the EU-funded ice2sea programme, will be published in Geophysical Research Letters this week, and the paper, Irreversible mass loss of Canadian Arctic Archipelago glaciers, is now available online.

Why we should be cooling, not warming

7 March – US scientists have checked climate history for the past 11,300 years and come to one comforting conclusion. It has been warmer in human history, but those long hot summers happened long before the invention of cities, empires and scribes to record them. But soon all records will be broken: by 2100, when global temperatures will be higher than at any point since the end of the last Ice Age, according to a study in the journal Science (see EurekAlert! for the release). Shaun Marcott and colleagues from Oregon State University and Harvard University… examined reconstructions of past climates from fossil data, along with isotopes from terrestrial and marine sediments, from 73 sites around the globe, and tried to assess the main trends of climate change from the beginning of the Holocene – the geologists’ label for the epoch in which we now live.

Tar sands struggle reaches Europe

8 March – A leader of Canada’s Indigenous peoples has arrived in Europe to try to stop the tar sands industry, which he says is “destroying the way of life of First Nations peoples”, from making inroads here. He is Chief Bill Erasmus, head of the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories, who has come to Europe ahead of a vote by the European Council later this year which could make the export of oil from the tar sands to Europe more difficult. Canada has huge oil reserves, mostly in the form of unconventional crude, including tar sands – deposits that need more energy to extract than conventional crudes. The oil, found in clay-like deposits, is widely judged one of the oil industry’s most polluting fuels.

Cool heads needed by geo-engineers

9 March – Geo-engineering of the climate is fraught with all manner of technical, ethical and governance issues but needs to be taken into consideration if targets for limiting global temperature increases are going to be met. Steve Rayner, James Martin Professor of Science and Civilisation at Oxford University, UK, says that while climate geo-engineeering is at  a “very early, imaginary stage” at present, it should neither be lauded as the potential saviour of humanity nor dismissed as completely fanciful. Climate geo-engineering is defined as the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment in order to counteract anthropogenic climate change. In an Oxford lecture Professor Rayner said various ideas were being put forward – each with its own set of challenges and potential problems.

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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