Europe’s breeding bird populations have shifted on average one kilometre north every year for the past three decades, likely driven by the climate crisis, according to one of the world’s largest citizen science projects on biodiversity.
7 DECEMBER 2020
November 2020 highlights:
• Globally, last month was the warmest November on record, by a clear margin
• For Europe, November tied for second warmest on record
• In the Arctic, Second lowest sea ice extent for November since satellite measurements began in 1979. Meanwhile, in the Antarctic levels sea ice extent was close to average, but with large regional variability
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A top scientist has warned we need to start refreezing the Arctic Ocean as soon as possible, if we are to save many of the world’s largest megacities from sinking within 30 years.
Sir David King laid out the stark picture of what could arise after a speech given by the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Carney’s BBC Reith Lecture on climate and finance was interesting enough, but it was the question from Sir David that made me sit up.
Sir David was the chief scientific adviser to both the Blair and Brown governments and is currently the chair of Independent SAGE, which has been alerting the public about what government action is actually needed during the pandemic.
He asked what should be done about the Arctic icecap melt passing the irreversible tipping point that scientists have been warning about for decades - although whether this point has been reached is still a matter of debate for many in the scientific community.
When I spoke to Sir David after the lecture, he explained that a climate tipping point occurs when levels of carbon in the atmosphere pass a point whereby the earth’s own thermodynamic processes take over and trigger greater heating. By then, even if we immediately halt all new carbon emissions, the planetary heating increases regardless. The Arctic ice-cap melt, he said, is one of these tipping points.
Rising carbon levels have already led to a 4C rise in Arctic temperatures, which has led to a 75 per cent loss of Arctic summer-ice volume. This has led, in turn, to the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean being exposed, which absorb heat from the sun. If they were covered with white ice, this would reflect it and thus keep the earth cooler.
But the warmer Arctic waters are now melting the adjacent enormous ice-cap on Greenland at a rate seven times faster than in the 1990s, which in turn is raising global sea-levels faster than predicted.
Sir David said that as adviser to the UK government, he had successfully argued that globally we should not go above a 1.5C rise in temperatures for safety. He then astounded me by saying he now realised this was wrong, and believes the passing of the Arctic tipping point has been reached.
He said the 1.1C rise that we already have is too dangerous - and candidly admitted he believed US climate professor James Hansen had been right after all; in 1988, when he warned the US Congress that we should not pass 350 ppm. We have now breached 415 ppm and are heading fast towards 500ppm, Sir David said.
So, what should governments do now that this tipping point is in crisis? And how can we now save Mumbai, Jakarta, London, Kolkata – and other vulnerable cities? According to Sir David, governments need to do three things, the first of which is to halt all new carbon emissions as soon as possible – and then get back to the Hansen safety level of 350ppm, by removing 40 to 50 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year.
But in order to do this, they would need to restore much of the planet’s destroyed peat-bogs and forests, to help absorb millions of tons of carbon using natural ecosystems. This would have the added benefit, if done correctly, of reversing the ecocidal destruction of wildlife populations.
Sir David also said his Centre for Climate Repair is working with scientists across the world to identify engineering approaches to atmospheric carbon removal – but that even this might not be enough to save our megacities from disappearing under the waves!
Third? We now have to literally refreeze the Arctic Ocean, otherwise the heat from its open seas will continue to accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice-cap – which has enough water stored in it to raise the world’s oceans by seven metres. I admit that I laughed at the outlandishness of such a concept – but he chastened me by pointing out that studies are already being carried out into how this might be achieved.
Research at Edinburgh University has proposed that if the clouds over the Arctic in summer are sprayed with sea-water, the salt in it would make the clouds whiter. This would reflect the sun’s heat and the ocean waters below them would start to refreeze. But how to get governments to take the collective action necessary?
Sir David agreed that the UN COP process appeared incapable of acting in time, as the oil-producing nations can veto, or dilute, the outcomes; and so lead to dangerous compromise.
The solution he advocated was to build on Mission Innovation, which was launched at the Paris COP in 2015 to create a $30bn climate innovation fund – by 30 countries willing to take more radical action.
Twenty-three billion dollars has already been committed, with the hope the remaining $7bn will be funded by the Biden administration.
Sir David advocated that Mission Innovation be expanded at the COP to include political agreements on how to reduce carbon emissions.
He advocated progressively increasing a global carbon tax to $150, but when I pointed out the political difficulties of implementing such high carbon taxes in poorer countries – and that it was too slow in light of the emergency – we discussed instead how to divert the $5tn planned for new fossil fuel projects over the coming decade over to renewables, instead. For this to take effect, central banks should immediately mandate the ending of all such new fossil fuel investments.
Diverting this $5tn away from dirty fossil-fuel investments into renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon-removal measures, Sir David agreed, could provide a sliver of hope in a world where some terrifying tipping points have already been passed.
Back to you, Mark Carney…
In a repeat of 2019, the three top spots on this year's Climate Change Performance Index have been left conspicuously empty. Quite simply, according to the more than 100 experts who assessed the 58 countries — and the EU — responsible for 90% of global CO2 emissions, because their climate protection efforts are lacking.
The nations on the list are scored on the basis of energy consumption per person, as well as their strategies used to reduce it, the percentage of renewables in the energy mix, the pace of clean expansion, and what policymakers are doing to implement the climate change agreement at home and internationally.
"There is gradual progress in almost every area. But this is far too slow and does not correspond to the urgency that is necessary to protect our planet," said Professor Niklas Höhne of the Cologne-based NewClimate Institute, which analyzes the climate protection activities of countries around the world.
"One thing that stands out is that the EU has improved significantly,” he said. "The EU is trying to move forward on policies with long-term goals, and the new short-term goal is to try to bring other countries along for the ride." Thanks to a much higher scoring climate policy, the EU has advanced six places to 16, and has received the overall rating "good."
According to the index, Sweden is the international role model for the fourth year in a row. While the Nordic nation did not do well enough to occupy one of the top three slots, and still has some way to go to achieving the Paris climate goals, it has set high standards in CO2 emissions, renewable energy and climate policy.
Sweden is followed by the UK, Denmark, Morocco, Norway, Chile and India — in that order — all with the rating "high." Finland, Malta, Latvia, Switzerland, Lithuania and Portugal also got the same ranking.
Until 2009, Germany was a role model in climate protection, even taking the top spot in 2008. But in the years that followed, its performance has largely been on a downward trajectory. The only exceptions were 2012 and 2013, when the expansion of renewable energies boomed in Germany following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Also around the middle of the list are Croatia (18), Ukraine (20), Egypt (22), France (23), Indonesia (24) and Brazil (25).
In recent months, China and a number of other countries have declared their intention to reduce their high CO2 emissions to zero — most by 2050, China by 2060. US president Joe Biden wants to make the US climate-neutral by 2050 and the power supply climate-neutral by 2035.
Glaciers are retreating worldwide, exposing new terrain to colonization by plants. Recently-deglaciated terrains have been a subject of ecological studies for a long time, as they represent a unique natural model system for examining the effects of global warming associated with glacier retreat on biodiversity and the spatio-temporal dynamic of communities. However, we still have a limited understanding of how physical and biotic factors interactively influence species persistence and community dynamics after glacier retreat and glacier extinction. Using hierarchical joint species distribution models, we integrated data on plant species occurrence at fine spatial scale, spatio-temporal context, environmental conditions, leaf traits, and species-to-species associations in plant communities spanning 0 to c 5,000 years on average after glacier retreat. Our results show that plant diversity initially increases with glacier retreat, but ultimately decreases after glacier extinction. The 22% of plant species non-linearly respond to glacier retreat and will locally disappear with glacier extinction. At the local scale, soil carbon enrichment and reduction of physical (topographic) disturbance positively contribute to distribution patterns in 66% of the species, indicating a strong impact of community-level environmental conditions. Furthermore, positive and negative associations among species play a relevant role (up to 34% of variance) in driving the spatio-temporal dynamic of plant communities. Global warming prompts a shift from facilitation to competition: positive associations prevail among pioneer species, whereas negative associations are relatively more common among late species. This pattern suggests a role of facilitation for enhancing plant diversity in recently ice-free terrains and of competition for decreasing species persistence in late stages. Associated to that, species persisting the most show more “conservative” traits than species of concern. In summary, although plant diversity initially increases with glacier retreat, more than a fifth of plant species are substantially declining and will disappear with glacier extinction. Even for the “winners,” the “victory” is not to be taken for granted due to the negative impact of rising competition. Integrating survey data with hierarchical and network models can help to forecast biodiversity change and anticipate cascading effects of glacier retreat on mountain ecosystems. These effects include the reduction of ecosystem services and benefits to humans, including food production from the pioneer species Artemisia genipi.
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At my age Ive given up driving fast to keeping the damned vehicle nice and rust free for a few years.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Something lurks beneath the Arctic Ocean. While it’s not a monster, it has largely remained a mystery.
According to 25 international researchers who collaborated on a first-of-its-kind study, frozen land beneath rising sea levels currently traps 60 billion tons of methane and 560 billion tons of organic carbon. Little is known about the frozen sediment and soil — called submarine permafrost — even as it slowly thaws and releases methane and carbon that could have significant impacts on climate.
Researchers combine expert analysis on known data
The team of researchers led by Brigham Young University graduate student Sara Sayedi and senior researcher Ben Abbott compiled available articles and reports on the subject to create a base analysis of submarine permafrost’s potential to affect climate change. The study was coordinated through the Permafrost Carbon Network, which has more than 400 members from 130 research institutions in 21 countries.
The study was conducted through an expert assessment that sought answers to several central questions: What is the current extent of submarine permafrost? How much carbon is locked in submarine permafrost? How much has been and will be released? What is the rate of release into the atmosphere?
The participating experts answered questions using their scientific skills, which could include modeling, data analysis or literature synthesis. Frederick, one of the original advocates of the study, has been modeling submarine permafrost for almost 10 years and answered the questions through the lens of her research, which is primarily in numerical modeling. She said she uses published material for model inputs or works directly with researchers who visit the Arctic and provide datasets.
Her work on the study was funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program that enables Sandia scientists and engineers to explore innovative solutions to national security issues.
Frederick’s work aligned with Sandia’s Arctic Science and Security Initiative. For more than 20 years, the Labs have had a presence in northern Alaska, said Sandia atmospheric sciences manager Lori Parrott.
Working for the Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Sandia manages the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility that collects atmospheric data continuously. Researchers measure and predict the speed of de-icing at the North Slope to help federal leaders make decisions on climate change and national security. In addition, Sandia creates accurate models for both sea and land ice and develops technologies for greenhouse gas monitoring. With more than 20 years of data, researchers can begin to decipher trends, Parrott said.
Permafrost study a reason to unite
“I hope this study begins to unite the research community in submarine permafrost,” said Frederick. “Historically, it’s not only been a challenging location to do field work and make observations, but language barriers and other obstacles in accessibility to the existing observations and literature has challenged international scientific progress in this area.”
The team estimates that submarine permafrost has been thawing since the end of the last glacial period 14,000 years ago, and currently releases about 140 million tons of carbon dioxide and 5.3 million tons of methane into the atmosphere each year. This represents a small fraction of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions per year, about the same yearly footprint as Spain, Sayedi said.
However, modern greenhouse gas releases are predominantly a result of the natural response to deglaciation, according to the study. Expert estimates from this study suggest human-caused global warming may accelerate greenhouse gas release, but due to lack of research and uncertainties in this area, determining causes and rates of the release will remain unknown until better empirical and modeling estimates are available.
“I’m optimistic that this study will shed light on the fact that submarine permafrost exists, and that people are studying its role in climate,” Frederick said. “The size of the research community doesn’t necessarily reflect its importance in the climate system.”
Almost every expert involved in the study mentioned the permafrost knowledge gap, which makes it harder for scientists to anticipate changes and reduces the reliability of estimates of carbon pools and fluxes, as well as the thermal and hydrological conditions of permafrost. Frederick said that while there is a wealth of ongoing research on terrestrial permafrost, submarine permafrost hasn’t been taken on like this before, and hasn’t been the subject of nearly as much international collaboration.
The amount of carbon sequestered or associated with submarine permafrost is relevant when compared to the numbers of carbon in terrestrial permafrost and what’s in the atmosphere today, Frederick said.
“This is an example of a very large source of carbon that hasn’t been considered in climate predictions or agreements,” she said. “While it’s not a ticking time bomb, what is certain is that submarine permafrost carbon stocks cannot continue to be ignored, and we need to know more about how they will affect the Earth’s future.”
Study of tree rings dating back to Roman empire concludes weather since 2014 has been extraordinary
The series of severe droughts and heatwaves in Europe since 2014 is the most extreme for more than 2,000 years, research suggests.
The study analysed tree rings dating as far back as the Roman empire to create the longest such record to date. The scientists said global heating was the most probable cause of the recent rise in extreme heat.
The heatwaves have had devastating consequences, the researchers said, causing thousands of early deaths, destroying crops and igniting forest fires. Low river levels halted some shipping traffic and affected the cooling of nuclear power stations. Climate scientists predict more extreme and more frequent heatwaves and droughts in future.
The study also found a gradual drying of the summer climate in central Europe over the last two millennia, before the recent surge. The scientists ruled out volcanic activity and solar cycles as causes of this long-term trend and think subtle changes in Earth’s orbit are the cause.
“We’re all aware of the cluster of exceptionally hot and dry summers we’ve had over the past few years,” said Prof Ulf Büntgen, of Cambridge University, who led the study. “Our results show what we have experienced is extraordinary. The series is unprecedented for the last 2,000 years.” The available data ends in 2018, but 2019 and 2020 also had very hot European summers.
The scientists said changes in the position of the jet stream and the circulation of air over the continent caused the droughts, and that climate change was probably the underlying driver. “Climate change [means] extreme conditions will become more frequent, which could be devastating for agriculture, ecosystems and societies as a whole,” said Büntgen.
Prof Mrislav Trnka, of the CzechGlobe research centre in Brno, who was part of the study team, said the sharp increase in droughts was particularly alarming for agriculture and forestry. “Unprecedented forest dieback across much of central Europe corroborates our results,” he said.
Dr Friederike Otto, of Oxford University, said a lack of historic data often hindered the clear identification of the drivers of observed events, making the new work important and useful. “It corroborates from a long-term perspective that the huge increase in heat extremes observed over Europe in the summer, which has clearly been attributed to human-induced climate change, does indeed change the nature of summer in Europe,” she said.
The study, which was published in the journal Nature Geoscience, analysed 27,000 growth rings from 147 oak trees. Living oaks were used for the last century, then timber from old buildings such as churches. For the middle ages, the researchers used oak that had been preserved in river deposits or gravel beds, and for the Roman period they used remains such as wood used to construct wells.
Previous climate reconstructions from tree rings used width and wood density to determine temperature. The Büntgen-led study used measurements of carbon and oxygen isotopes to show how much water was available to the trees, giving a record of droughts. This showed that the high frequency of recent European droughts was unprecedented, even compared with severe historical droughts such as the Renaissance drought in the early 16th century.
The wood samples come from the Czech Republic and Bavaria in Germany, and represent climate conditions across central Europe. High temperatures were the main cause of recent droughts, and these have been seen across Europe.
The climate crisis is also linked to extreme wet weather in winter. The rainfall in the UK on 3 October 2020 was the highest in records dating back to 1891, and a study published last Wednesday said this had been made three times more likely by global heating. The research by the UK Met Office also found that such downpours will be 10 times more likely by 2100 without major cuts to carbon emissions.
More than a third of the vast floating platforms of ice surrounding Antarctica could be at risk of collapsing and releasing “unimaginable amounts” of water into the sea if global temperatures reach 4C above pre-industrial levels, UK scientists say.
Researchers from the University of Reading said that limiting the temperature rise to 2C could halve the area at risk and avoid a drastic rise in sea levels.
The findings, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggest that 4C warming could leave 34% of the area of all the Antarctic ice shelves – amounting to about half a million square kilometres – at the risk of collapse.
Ice shelves are permanent floating sheets of ice that connect to a landmass; most surround the coasts of Antarctica.
Ella Gilbert, a research scientist in the University of Reading’s meteorology department, said: “Ice shelves are important buffers, preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise. When they collapse it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea.
“We know that, when melted ice accumulates on the surface of ice shelves, it can make them fracture and collapse spectacularly.
“Previous research has given us the bigger picture in terms of predicting Antarctic ice shelf decline. But our new study uses the latest modelling techniques to fill in the finer detail and provide more precise projections.”
Gilbert said the team’s work highlighted the importance of limiting the global temperature increases as set out in the Paris climate agreement, which promotes a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels.
As part of their modelling study, the researchers also identified Larsen C, the largest remaining ice shelf on the peninsula, as being particularly at risk in a warmer climate. They said other ice shelves facing this threat included Shackleton, Pine Island, and Wilkins.
Gilbert said: “If temperatures continue to rise at current rates we may lose more Antarctic ice shelves in the coming decades. Limiting warming will not just be good for Antarctica – preserving ice shelves means less global sea level rise, and that’s good for us all.”