What’s the News: British scientists searching for signs of climate change in banded snail shells have completed one of the largest evolutionary studies ever, a massive survey across 15 European countries. Their research associates? More than 6,000 snail-hunting volunteers.
Climatologists have long used tree rings and ancient ice to track global warming trends—and while they’re currently the methods of choice for most researchers, other scientists have found some clever (and boarderline bizarre) ways of studying our changing climate. Some clever scientists are finding hidden climate clues in places you wouldn’t expect, from old newspapers to impressionist paintings.
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One cannot look at a single storm, flood, or drought and say conclusively, “climate change caused that.” But what researchers are attempting to do lately is climate change risk assessment—figuring out how much more likely severe events may become as our world continues to warm up. Two new studies in Nature today try to do just that with heavy rains and flooding, saying definitively that warm temperatures make these events more likely.
More-localized weather extremes have been harder to attribute to climate change until now. “Climate models have improved a lot since ten years ago, when we basically couldn’t say anything about rainfall,” says Gabriele Hegerl, a climate researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK. [Nature]
Hegerl and climate researcher Francis Zwiers were authors on study number one, a broad-based look at how much humans are contributing to intense precipitation events in the Northern Hemisphere. The simple physics of it makes sense: warmer air can hold more water. To show a link, however, the researchers pulled together a half-century of rainfall records, which they compared to the results of eight different climate models.
Richard Allan, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in England who was not part of the study, called the method employed by Zwiers “very rigorous.” He added, “There’s already been quite a bit of evidence showing that there has been an intensification of rainfall” events across the globe. But until now “there had not been a study that formally identified this human effect on precipitation extremes,” Zwiers said. “This paper provides specific scientific evidence that this is indeed the case.” [Washington Post]
The drastic changes in the Arctic wrought by global warming aren’t just threatening that icon of climate change the polar bear, they’re also jeopardizing the health of other species–like the Pacific walrus. Environmentalists petitioned the federal government years ago to add the walrus to the endangered species list, but progress on the case has been slow. Now, in a decision that has angered both activists and oil drillers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that even though our be-blubbered friends deserve recognition under the Endangered Species Act, there are just too many other endangered animals to take care of first.
Specifically, the organization’s spokesman, Bruce Woods, said that protecting walruses was advised but “precluded.” That’s because other animals, like polar bears and certain species of sea birds, are more imperiled in this world of receding ice. The agency also said it’s hampered by lack of firm data on walrus population numbers.
“The main thing is that, compared to the polar bears, there are a lot of them,” Woods said of the Pacific walrus, adding that no baseline population count for the walrus exists…. “We don’t have any evidence of declines,” even if declines are suspected, he said. [Reuters]
The Agency’s decision has raised the ire of many.
For several years now, the Environmental Protection Agency has been lurching toward enacting rules to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Yesterday, the first steps of the EPA’s new rules went into effect.
The new regulations come in two parts, the first of which limits the emissions allowed by new cars and light trucks.
The rules apply to 2012 model vehicles, which can be sold starting Sunday. They must now follow toughened CAFE fuel efficiency standards laid out in May. With industry on board—though there’s some grumbling—these steps are relatively uncontroversial. [ScienceNOW]
The second and more contentious part of EPA’s action are new rules for power plants, factories, and refineries. Beginning yesterday (January 2), any new plant that will emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide (or the equivalent) annually will need an EPA permit, as will existing plants that install new capacity that emits 75,000 tons or more. The regulations for all existing plants will follow this July, when those that emit the equivalent of 100,000 annual tons will need permits to do so.
It’s beginning to look a lot like… self-inflicted doom.
This week Associated Press reporters tallied the toll of the year in natural disasters, and it added up to some depressing results. Around the world—in Haiti and Chile earthquakes, in Pakistani floods, in Russian heat waves—nature unleashed its fury in extreme fashion in 2010, the AP says, and humans made it worse through our own actions.
“It just seemed like it was back-to-back and it came in waves,” said Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. It handled a record number of disasters in 2010. “The term ’100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.” [AP]
At least 250,000 people died in natural disasters this year, up from just 15,000 last year. But, the AP’s Seth Bornstein argues, this isn’t just natural variability.
For one thing, there are the avoidable problems of not doing enough to prepare for the inevitable appearance of disaster. The 2010 death toll is skewed so high this year because of the Haiti earthquake in January that killed most of the people in that quarter-million group. There’s nothing to be done about the shifts of tectonic plates, but the death toll skyrocketed because so many poor Haitians were living in such poorly built dwellings. The more powerful Chilean earthquake, by contrast, occurred in a place with better-built structures and killed fewer than a thousand. While in Pakistan, having so many homes in the flood zone exacerbated the damage when the monsoons came in July.
Cap-and-trade is coming to California. The market-based system intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions is the key part of the Golden State’s effort, set into law four years ago, to cut its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Yesterday the California Air Resources Board finally approved the complex set of rules, which will go into effect in 2012.
Power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities that emit carbon dioxide and can’t cut their emissions by the required amount will be able to obtain pollution allowances from the state or buy them from other emitters with excess allowances. [Wall Street Journal]
Cap-and-trade is widespread in Europe, but California‘s plan would be the first large-scale, legally mandated version of this idea to get going in the United States.
“We’re inventing this,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state’s air quality board. “There is still going to be quite a bit of action needed before it becomes operational.” She said California is trying to “fill the vacuum created by the failure of Congress to pass any kind of climate or energy legislation for many years now.” [USA Today]
Polar bears, the poster-species for climate change, have been the subject of reports about new or growing threats in 2010: One story noted that the warming Arctic is pushing grizzlies north into polar bear territory, while another questioned whether polar bears can change their diet as their icy habitat melts. But the journal Nature this week brought an antidote to all that doom and gloom. A study modeling the Arctic climate suggests that it’s still not too late to protect the polar bear habitat, and therefore save the polar bear. The world just needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The question is one of tipping points: Is the total demise of the Arctic summer sea ice already inevitable, or could a slowing of emissions also slow down the ice loss?
The dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 prompted some researchers to warn that the system may have reached a tipping point that would lead to the disappearance of summer sea ice within the next several decades, regardless of actions humans took to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That concern, in turn, helped elevate the polar bear to climate-icon status and reportedly fed into then-President George W. Bush’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The new study, however, finds no “tipping point” now or in this century in Arctic sea-ice decline, but rather a relatively steady fall-off in ice extent as average temperatures increase. [Christian Science Monitor]
Study author Steven Amstrup, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and now at Polar Bears International, modeled five different scenarios for greenhouse emissions in the future. He saw a linear relationship between rising temperatures brought on by those emissions and the retreat of Arctic ice. What he didn’t see was a sharp sudden drop, a point at which crossing some temperature boundary led to an irrevocable disappearance of the ice that would doom the bears.
When the Cancun Climate Summit began, we mentioned the modest goals most nations set going in (especially in the wake of 2009′s messy Copenhagen meeting). Indeed, the United Nations climate meeting in Mexico didn’t shoot for the stars in terms of emissions reductions, but the nations assembled at least agreed to a few limited proposals and set the stage for next year.
The agreement is not a legally binding one, but it includes:
1. The package known as the Cancún Agreements gives the more than 190 countries participating in the conference another year to decide whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires most wealthy nations to trim their emissions while providing assistance to developing countries to pursue a cleaner energy future. [The New York Times]
Kyoto’s targets were for the year 2012. The question for the 2011 meeting in South Africa, then, will be whether it’s possible to get everyone on board with a Kyoto extension or some other emissions reduction agreement. (Cancun did bring one promising sign, as the nations agreed in principle to allow outside inspection to check the validity of their emissions cuts.)
2. It includes a scheme to provide financial support for countries to preserve their forests, in a bid to combat deforestation which accounts for almost a fifth of global annual emissions, and makes progress on how countries’ actions are going to be monitored and verified. [The Independent]
Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear what could be the most important environmental case it will decide this year: Huge power companies like Xcel Energy and Duke Energy are appealing a ruling by an appeals court that they can be sued under public nuisance law. If that ruling is confirmed at the highest level, it could open the door to a flood of lawsuits claiming the power companies’ greenhouse gas emissions constitute a nuisance to the general public.
This one has been a long time coming. The case, brought by eight states including New York and California plus some environmental groups, dates back to 2004. First a federal judge threw out the states’ claim, essentially saying that emissions should be dealt with in legislative bodies, not courtrooms. Then the appeals court reversed that ruling, recognizing the eight states’ claim that these emissions contribute to global warming and could be considered under public nuisance law, prompting the power companies to balk and appeal.
In their appeal, the companies argue that the states lacked the legal right, or standing, to sue because they can’t show that they were harmed by anything the utilities did or that they would benefit from a ruling against the power companies. “A court is not a regulator and may not enter relief against a particular defendant where the plaintiff’s injury is not traceable to that defendant and where relief against the defendant would not redress that injury,” the companies argued. [Bloomberg]