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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

U.K. House of Commons, discussion on the Bali Climate Change Negotiations

Prepared: 16:49 on 18 December 2007, 12.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s international climate change negotiations in Indonesia.

The Minister for the Environment and I attended the 13th conference of the parties to the United Nations framework convention on climate change and the third meeting of the parties to the Kyoto protocol, in Bali. After intensive, and at times difficult, talks we reached an historic agreement in which for the first time all the countries of the world agreed to start negotiations on a new climate deal for implementation after the Kyoto protocol’s first commitment period ends in 2012. These negotiations will begin next year and will be concluded in Copenhagen in 2009.

The Bali action plan represents the most significant collective agreement to protect the world from dangerous climate change since the Kyoto protocol was signed exactly 10 years ago. It recognises the need for deep cuts in global emissions as set out in the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. In addition, in the ad hoc working group—or AWG—on further commitments for annex 1 parties under the Kyoto protocol, which forms part of what we agreed, we recognised the need for global emissions to be reduced by at least 50 per cent. by 2050 compared with 1990 levels, and for developed countries to reduce their emissions by 25 to 40 per cent. by 2020.

The Bali action plan commits developed and developing countries over the next two years to negotiate a long-term global goal for emission reductions, and to agree measurable, reportable and verifiable national and international action to mitigate climate change by all countries, including commitments to emission limitation and reduction objectives by developed countries. The action plan will bear in mind the different national economic and social circumstances of developed and developing countries, in line with the United Nations framework convention on climate change—or UNFCCC—principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Negotiations will take place in an ad hoc working group on long-term co-operative action under the convention and four meetings will take place next year.

In addition to the action plan, Bali resulted in some significant breakthroughs on technology transfer, deforestation, adaptation and carbon markets, which will begin almost immediately. On technology, there was agreement on an ambitious work programme covering both mitigation and adaptation. A UNFCCC expert group will examine ways and means of speeding up technology development and transfer, and its funding.

On deforestation, which, as the House will be aware, is responsible for about 20 per cent. of global emissions, the agreement in Bali will pave the way for incentives to reduce those emissions, and those will cover both wholesale deforestation and more gradual damage. The agreement will set the rules for projects that can be piloted to common UN-approved guidelines, so that what is learned can feed into a future climate framework. I announced a UK contribution of £15 million to the World Bank forest carbon partnership facility, which will assist countries to try out that new approach.

A decision was also reached on the governance of the adaptation fund, which will support developing countries to adapt to the climate change that is already inevitable. That will be funded by a 2 per cent. levy on the clean development mechanism.

On carbon markets, it was agreed to abolish registration fees and levies on clean development mechanism projects in the least developed countries, and to approve the use of non-renewable biomass CDM, which means that projects such as encouraging small cooking stoves will now be possible through the CDM. Changes were also agreed to improve the way in which the CDM and the CDM board function, and the UK announced the Africa Springboard project, in which we will work with 10 UK financial institutions to try to increase the number of CDM projects in Africa.

The success of the Bali conference was, I think, made both possible and necessary by the compelling clarity of the science contained in the recent intergovernmental panel on climate change report, by the strength of the economic case for urgent action set out in Nick Stern’s findings, and by the way in which our changing climate is changing our politics. I pay particular tribute to the leadership of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to the President and Government of Indonesia, to Portugal as the EU presidency, and to the recognition by every delegation that we could not let the next generation down. I also personally thank officials from across the UK Government and from the embassy in Jakarta for their extraordinary knowledge, dedication and commitment.

This agreement represents a successful outcome to extensive lobbying by the UK and the EU over the past 12 months, building on the results of G8 summits and other meetings. It very much reflects the elements of a future framework agreed by EU Heads of Government earlier this year. The hardest stage, however, begins now, and we will of course play our full part over the next two years in seeking to reach a global climate deal that will take us beyond 2012. However, without what has been agreed in Bali, there would be no negotiations and no possibility of a deal. That is the real significance of what the world resolved to do in Bali last week.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank him for it. I join him in paying tribute to Ban Ki-moon and the others involved in what appeared to be at some times tortuous and emotional negotiations.

The outcome of the Bali conference represents progress on the part of the global community, but does the Secretary of State agree that the absence of binding targets is a significant weakness? Despite the huge amount of work that went into creating an agreement, it is not quite the Christmas present for which the world hoped. On reflection, does he not think that to call the agreement historic is a little premature? What really matters now is progress on the negotiations leading up to the 2009 conference in Copenhagen. Vital decisions have effectively been deferred.

It is very good news that the United States, China and India have jointly signed up to an undertaking to work towards a new global climate accord, but does he agree that much greater political leadership is required, from the United States in particular, for the next round of talks to produce a truly historic outcome, an outcome that puts real weight behind global efforts both to mitigate the future impacts of climate change and to help those already affected?

None the less, we welcome the agreement to help developing countries with funds to meet the challenges of adaptation. Rises in global temperatures are already having an effect on some of the world’s most disadvantaged people, in the form of increased risk of flood, drought and food shortages. We also welcome the agreement to review how developed countries can share clean low-carbon technologies with the developing world. In particular, I welcome the agreement to tackle the problem of deforestation. It is vital to put a realistic value on the environmental services provided by the rainforests. I appreciate that this will not be an easy process, but it is perhaps the most essential one of all.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will want to take this opportunity to respond to reports that the United Kingdom helped the US to remove binding targets from the main text of the agreement. Did the actions of the Government deviate in any way from the EU position, which was to seek agreement on emissions cuts on the part of developed countries of 25 to 40 per cent. by 2020? Can he comment on the difficulties he faces in international negotiations on climate change when the UK's own carbon emissions have risen in four of the last seven years? Will he join us in working to develop a decentralised approach to energy with the capacity to reduce our domestic carbon emissions? Will he join us in seeking to strengthen the Climate Change Bill to ensure greater transparency and accountability?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the United Kingdom attempted, without success, to get aviation included in the Bali mandate? Does that not confirm the Government’s awareness of the contribution of aviation to climate change? How does he square this with the Department for Transport’s plans for a massive increase in aviation capacity?

Is the Secretary of State aware of the comments of Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute in New York, concerning the United Kingdom’s proposals to press ahead with a new generation of coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and storage? If we go down that path, will not the benefits of carbon reduction measures taken elsewhere be negated, and the Government’s rhetoric on climate change dissolve, as it has so often before, into a lot of hot air?

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will work closely with other Departments, especially the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Transport, to achieve the genuinely joined-up approach that is so badly needed if we are to play an effective and honourable role in rising to the greatest challenge facing this generation?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, and for his welcome for what was agreed in Bali. Of course we will need binding commitments, which is why the UK has made them, as have a number of other countries. It is inconceivable that we will deal with this problem if the largest economy in the world does not come on board. The politics is changing, including in the United States of America, as the hon. Gentleman knows: we can look at what is happening in California and Florida, and in the east coast states which will introduce an emissions trading scheme for the power sector next year, and at the Bill that has been before Congress. Different countries are at different stages of understanding and commitment on climate change. The significance of this agreement—this is why I stick with my description of it as historic—is that for the very first time every country in the world, including the United States of America, has signed up to a negotiation that recognises in its overarching document the need for deep cuts in emissions.

On deforestation, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the incentives must be changed. The forest carbon partnership facility will help to pilot ways of counting, verifying and reporting what the baseline is for the state of forestation, which will make it possible to record whether the rate of deforestation has been reduced so that we can then allow the carbon market to support that.

I can look the hon. Gentleman in the eye and say that there is no truth whatever in the suggestion made in one newspaper. I am sure that he did not really think that there was. The House will be shocked to learn that not everything that is reported in our newspapers is necessarily true. We stuck foursquare with the EU position on that, and he will see a reference to the 25 to 40 per cent. figure in the AWG report.

We will indeed have to change the way we produce our energy. The announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on renewables offers a good example of that. I look forward to working with everybody concerned as we discuss the Climate Change Bill, to make sure that it is as effective as possible.

It is true that we were unable to make progress on including aviation in the Bali discussions, and I simply say to the House that we will have to return to that. However, on Thursday of this week we will discuss the inclusion of aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the UK has been in the forefront in Europe in pressing for that, and for the earliest possible start date—I do not know what we will get as a result of that discussion—and for the baseline for emissions to be the 2004–06 level, which means that any further growth in emissions must be either constrained within the aviation sector or offset by emission reductions elsewhere. That is why inclusion in the ETS is so important.

The hon. Gentleman is right about carbon capture and storage, and the generation of power by coal. China is building one coal-fired power station a week. That is why steps such as the investment we are making in a post-combustion pilot project here in the UK, the EU NZEC—near-zero emissions from coal—project that we are supporting in China, and our willingness to work with the Government of India on carbon capture and storage, are so important, because if we cannot perfect this technology and apply it, retrofitting it to existing plants and building it into new plants, we will have little prospect of meeting the targets that the world will have to set as a result of this negotiation.

In conclusion, let me say that I genuinely look forward to working with all Members in this House and all Governments around the world as we take forward the agreement that we reached in Bali this week and get on with the tough task ahead. I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman said about it being a tough task, but at least we now have a means of achieving that deal, which we did not have a week ago.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend said, shipping and aviation emissions account for a growing share of the total carbon emissions in our atmosphere, and the EU trading scheme, although welcome, accounts for a relatively small proportion of that global share. In light of the failure to make progress on this issue at Bali, will my right hon. Friend say what he sees as the next steps towards ensuring that aviation bears the full economic cost of its environmental impact?

Hilary Benn: The best next step is, indeed, its inclusion in the EU ETS, because that will impact both on airlines from within Europe and those that choose to fly into Europe. Ideally, we would want the International Civil Aviation Organisation to take the lead, but I have to say that, as Members who follow this matter carefully will be aware, so far ICAO has failed miserably to face up to the task. For that reason, leadership from Europe is important. Just as Europe gave terrific leadership in the Bali talks—for which I pay particular tribute to Humberto Rosa, the climate change Minister from Portugal, who did an outstanding job—the strength of a common European position by being committed to Europe and using its voice to provide leadership to the world is fundamental if we are to make progress. I very much hope that when we meet on Thursday, we can take a significant step forward in getting aviation where it should be—inside the emissions trading scheme.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. The Bali conference was an opportunity for the much-maligned politicians of the world to give the planet the most important Christmas bonus it has ever had. On our common Christmas list is a road map to a climate change agreement that is tough enough to contain global warming emissions to within 2° of pre-industrial levels, fair enough to bring developing countries and emerging economies on board, and comprehensive enough to include deforestation and shipping—and of course, it must include aviation. Due credit should be given to the Secretary of State for supporting those common European objectives.

However, were the Government playing Santa’s little helper, or were they behaving like a character from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, helping Jack Frost to spoil the party? The Secretary of State needs to be absolutely specific with the House. While publicly supporting the common European position, which called for tough and specific targets in the action plan, did the Government have any contact with the United States Government that might have helped them to relegate those targets to a footnote? Among the genuine welcome achievements at Bali, that was a major failing. Even the commitment to measurable support for clean technology transfer to the developing world was only achieved, against initial American opposition, because of a united European Union acting in concert with countries such as India, showing real leadership in the battle against climate change.

Of course, we have been here before with the US. The Kyoto protocol was watered down thanks to US pressure, and the US did not even ratify it in the end. Let us all hope that by 2009 the American people will, like the Australians, have elected a leader who will not behave like a cartoon villain.

Our own credibility over the next two years is crucial, too. Does the Secretary of State accept that it undermines our own attempt to bring others into line with tough emissions reduction targets if we fiddle the cost of carbon, as we did over the Heathrow runway consultation, and fail to include the cuts of at least 80 per cent. that the science tells us are necessary in our own Climate Change Bill? The Government risk looking as silly as the Conservatives, who called for cross-party collaboration on green issues but then failed to back the Liberal Democrats, Friends of the Earth and the many other groups calling for such domestic targets.

May I finally ask the Secretary of State two questions, the answers to which could reassure us of his good intentions? When during the next two years does he expect tough binding targets to be agreed? Secondly, will he make contact now with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani and other realistic presidential hopefuls to impress upon them Britain’s absolute commitment to those targets and our expectation that, if elected, they, at least, will play ball? It is time for our special relationship with America to deliver for the planet.

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the agreement that we reached. He will know that the EU’s position, strongly supported by the UK, is that we should aim to keep the temperature increase to within 2°. There is not yet global agreement on that target, and my view is that the first thing the negotiations must address is the question of what we are trying to achieve. “Do you have a view on what sort of temperature increase your country could cope with? What impact will that have on crop failure, the availability of water and the movement of people around the world?” Those are very interesting questions to ask colleagues from other countries. Once we can get agreement on them, the science will tell us certain numbers and the size of the effort required. Then, the task of the negotiation will be to divide up who is going to do what.

I do not think that I could have been more specific than I was in answering the question asked by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) about what was reported in one newspaper. I talked to lots of delegations; that is my job, as part of the negotiations. I should point out to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) that the United States of America has made its position crystal clear before the negotiations, at them and subsequently. It does not currently sign up to a 25 to 40 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2020, it is not a ratifier of the Kyoto protocol, and it needed no encouragement from anyone, because it made its position absolutely clear. However, what we did get in the AWG report was indeed a reference to precisely those figures, because they arise from the science; they were also referred to in the overall document, albeit by way of a footnote. Nevertheless, everyone can read the documents and see what the IPCC had to say.

On the 80 per cent. figure, I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened to what the Prime Minister had to say in his speech three weeks ago, in which he said that we recognise that the science is changing. That is why we will ask the committee on climate change, when it advises the Government on the first three five-year carbon budgets, should our target be stronger still—should it be up to 80 per cent.? That is the right process for answering the legitimate question that the hon. Gentleman and other Members ask—and, believe it or not, that the Government ask themselves, which is why the Prime Minister said what he said: do we need to do more?

I turn to the hon. Gentleman’s two specific questions. He asked when we would get agreement on binding targets, and the honest answer is, I do not know; it depends how the negotiations go and how individual countries respond. I think that he was encouraging me to involve myself in the political decision that the American people have to make about who their new President is going to be—and tempting though it is, I hope he will understand when I say that that is not a job for me. However, whoever the new President is, I look forward to him or her bringing the United States into the world community by recognising its responsibility to lead, as the largest emitter in the world, by taking on binding commitments to reduce its emissions.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and their team on the success that they had in very difficult negotiations in Bali. When Opposition Front Benchers attack the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, they should note the respect with which our people are regarded internationally for the role that they played—diplomatically, technically and politically. It is true that the United States was not prepared to accept binding targets. It is hosting the major emitters conference, and many people believe that that is an attempt to advocate a voluntary approach, rather than a mandatory one. May I ask my right hon. Friend to use his influence and that of the EU to make it clear that that is not going to deliver the kind of changes that we need?

Hilary Benn: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that he did in Bali and the work that he does through GLOBE—the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment—in talking to other parliamentarians about how we can work together on this task; it makes a hugely significant contribution. He refers to the major economies process, and my clear view is this. Every contribution to dealing with this problem should be welcomed, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: pledging and reviewing, and saying, “We’ll have a go. We’ll come back later and find out whether it was enough,” simply will not do. That is the truth and we know it, so eventually, all the rich countries will have to acknowledge that.

However, one of the other difficult things that we will have to address in the negotiations is this plain fact: even if, for the sake of argument, every rich developed country went zero-carbon in 10 or 20 years, we would still be left with the threat of dangerous climate change because of the rising emissions from developing countries, in particular China and India. That is the tough part, and we all know it—including China and India—because we all read the science and see the impact that dangerous climate change will have on our countries. The real task, which in the end will be the only means by which we can bring the richest country in the world and developing countries together, is to work out a fair mechanism—in the end, this is an issue of equity—for dividing up the contribution that each will make, according to their ability. That is the heart of the negotiation.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): To achieve an agreement involving 130 countries is quite remarkable, but having read the White House press release of 15 December, I have to say that I still harbour concerns about the United States’ position: it quite likes the menu, but it does not want the prices. What diplomatic effort is the United Kingdom going to make, particularly with the partners in the United States who take a more positive view about climate change issues, to whom he referred in his statement, to bring them as individual entities into the negotiation process, so that there can be true internal pressure from within the United States to enable its Government to sign up properly to something that really does have prices and menus at the end of the process?

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the nature of the task. One practical thing that we can do is to try to connect the initiatives being taken at state level within the United States of America with other trading schemes, in particular, including in Europe and elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Report: Troubles rise with temps, sea level

The Times - Picayune

Louisiana could be ahead of other states
Sunday, December 16, 2007
By Mark Schleifstein

Louisiana's coastal parishes and other Gulf communities from Houston to Mobile should build higher and more resilient roads, bridges and other infrastructure to withstand more intense hurricanes and rainstorms, sea level rise and higher temperatures caused by global warming during the next 50 to 100 years, according to a draft report prepared by the federal Department of Transportation and the U.S. Geological Survey.

But Louisiana, largely in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, may be ahead of other states. Transportation and hurricane-protection planners in Baton Rouge are already responding to concerns raised in the report, forging ahead with heat-resistant pavements and higher bridges and levees.

Elsewhere along the coast, transportation planners are only now considering the effects of climate change in the next 100 years, which could include as much as a 4-foot rise in sea level, a 10 percent increase in the intensity of hurricanes, a dramatic increase in the number of days with temperatures of 90 and 100 degrees or higher, and more periods of intense rainfall.

At risk are thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of bridges and dozens of airports that will be flooded more often or could be damaged by periods of high heat or more frequent hurricanes, or whose operations could otherwise be affected by climate changes, according to the report.

The report concludes that the combination of more intense hurricanes and higher sea levels also will expand the area facing potential storm damage, a concern because existing roadway capacity is not designed for large-scale evacuations.

"This preliminary assessment raises clear cause for concern regarding the vulnerability of transportation infrastructure and services in the central Gulf Coast due to climate and coastal changes," the report concludes.

The report states that transportation planners and managers could move now to begin adapting to climate changes but that few had done so until experiencing the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

"This first study is a broad regional characterization of the coast's infrastructure and its vulnerability to climate change and sea-level rise," said co-author Virginia Burkett, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette.

Once this report and two more that identify more localized impacts and potential solutions are completed, "the study will serve as a tool that can be used by state and local planners and policymakers when planning for the needs of existing and future highways, railways, ports, pipelines and other transportation systems," said Jan Brecht-Clark, co-chair of the Department of Transportation's Climate Change Center.

More detailed assessments of the effects by region, using detailed storm-surge modeling to identify specific bridges, roads, evacuation routes and other vulnerabilities, will be completed during the next few years.

Planning needed now

But planners need to immediately consider long-term climate effects when launching transportation projects because infrastructure built during the next 20 to 30 years will be in place for another 50 years, said one transportation planner and co-author.

"They'll be out there as the effects of climate change become more dramatic," said Ken Leonard, former transportation planning director for Wisconsin now with Cambridge Systematics Inc.

"The transportation community is very concerned about climate change," he said, "but it's too early to say whether their updated long-range plans will consider climate change."

Indeed, a survey of planning documents from state and local agencies in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas found that none "directly addresses or acknowledges issues of climate change and variability."

In large part, the report states, that is because most of the planning documents are two to four years old, written before climate-change impacts became better understood in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita.

In fact, release of the study was delayed for about two years after the authors decided it needed to take into account the effects of Katrina and Rita to more than three-quarters of the study area, Burkett said.

While it's unclear whether global warming had an impact on either hurricane, Burkett said the storms "serve to illustrate the kinds of effects we'll see in the future as sea level rises and storms become more intense."

The report uses future climate scenarios, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., based on an ensemble of 21 models of atmospheric and ocean conditions for the Gulf Coast.

Among the findings are that a vast area of the Gulf Coast from Houston to Mobile may be inundated during the next 50 to 100 years based on the study's understanding of the effects of relative sea-level rise driven by global warming.

The report uses a "middle range" of 2 feet to 4 feet of sea level rise for most of its predictions, with the biggest rises in south Louisiana and east Texas, which are most affected by subsidence.

Threat of inundation

The effects would not only be in Louisiana, where concerns about coastal inundation have been raised for years. The report states just a 2-foot rise in sea level would affect 137 miles of Interstate 10 to the east of New Orleans in Mississippi. The runways at New Orleans International Airport could be affected by a 4-foot rise.

The study warned, however, that its sea-level rise estimates are conservative, based on the assumptions in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. Those reports do not include recent research indicating a more rapid rate of melting of polar ice sheets.

As global warming increases the temperature of surface water in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, the report states, the intensity of major hurricanes may increase by 10 percent or more.

The result could mean more storms of at least Category 3 strength, with winds of 111 mph or more, hitting the coast. The storm surge they produce, combined with rising sea levels, could flood facilities 30-feet high or lower.

The Army Corps of Engineers has reached a similar conclusion about future sea-level rise and hurricane effects and is designing flood-control structures in eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish to be as high as 32 feet above sea level by 2057.

But a storm surge of 18 feet threatens 98 percent of port facilities along the coast and a third of coastal rail lines.

The report does not address the effectiveness of existing flood controls, however, or of the planned 100-year hurricane protection for the New Orleans area by 2011. It also does not identify the effect of hurricane winds on transportation infrastructure.

But the potential effects of surge on transportation is real, based on damage estimates from Hurricane Katrina.

"Repair costs for the more than (40-mile) CSX railroad segment damaged in Hurricane Katrina, $250 million, could be dwarfed by the costs of moving the line if the company chose to relocate the line further inland," the report concluded, based on congressional proposals after the storm to authorize $700 million in federal money to do just that.

The effects of surge during Katrina to the Interstate 10 twin spans connecting New Orleans to Slidell and a similar bridge in Bay St. Louis, Miss., also have not been lost on transportation planners in Louisiana and Mississippi, despite the lack of national surge-based construction standards for such bridges, the report states.

Louisiana is developing standards calling for elevating new bridges above surge expected from a 500-year hurricane for main spans and a 100-year event for transition spans close to shore. Mississippi is considering similar standards.

Concerns are also rising about the effects of more frequent hurricanes on pipeline operations, as operators attempt to assure emergency response for breaks and spills in a hurricane's aftermath.

"One hazardous-liquid pipeline representative stated that, prior to Ivan, obtaining pipeline maintenance and repair contract commitments was relatively easy, 'a foregone conclusion of commitment,' but, after Katrina/Rita, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain solid commitments from suppliers to respond to emergency calls," the report states.

Today, the suppliers only commit to put the customer on a response list, for a fee, with no guarantee of a response.

Thermometer rising

Increased temperatures will be a nagging problem in the region, based on predictions from all of the climate models used in the study, with the average annual temperature expected to rise between 1.6 degrees and 4.5 degrees during the next 50 years.

It's likely that the highest-temperature days will cause the most problems. The report predicts a 50-percent chance for 21 or more days a year with temperatures of 100 degrees or above within the next 50 years in 48 Gulf Coast coastal counties.

Many highway-pavement materials degrade more quickly when temperatures remain above 90 degrees. The current average of 77 days per year when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees is expected to increase to between 99 and 131 days a year during the next century.

Those high temperatures could require a change in construction materials for both highways and railroads, as well as restrictions on work-crew hours that could lengthen construction times and increase costs.

In Louisiana, state roads are being built with new, more expensive high-polymer-content asphalts to offset the higher temperatures.

The report suggests that steel- and concrete-bridge designers may also need to begin rethinking their standards, as record highs threaten to meet maximum-design temperatures of 115 to 125 degrees during the next century. The longer periods of higher temperatures also are expected to affect aircraft performance, the report states. Warm air is less dense and decreases both lift and engine efficiency in aircraft, which could require longer runways and more powerful engines.

Some experts believe those problems might be offset by recent improvements in aircraft technology, however, the report states.

But in New Orleans, the problem for airports may be the requirements for higher levees and walls on their borders, based on recent statements by Army Corps of Engineers officials.

The corps is struggling to design a floodwall at Lakefront Airport that won't disrupt air-traffic patterns, and similar problems may crop up in the design of a levee or floodwall at the canal on the western border of Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner.

Downpours ahead

An increase in the number of intense rainfall events also could mean more frequent delays for commercial travelers and could force pilots of private aircraft to rely more often on instrument-only flying, or to avoid flying during storms.

Changes in precipitation patterns also have the potential to wreak havoc with the coast, and especially with the New Orleans area. While models indicate the chances of either an increase or decrease in total precipitation is a tossup, the intensity of individual rainstorms is expected to increase.

The more intense rainfall is expected to increase maintenance for roads, airstrips, bikeways, walkways and rail beds.

Higher average temperatures will increase direct evaporation and the amount of water consumed by plants, reducing the amount of water available for agriculture and other purposes.

The higher evaporation rates throughout the central United States could result in a lower water level in the Mississippi River, which could require either deeper dredging or restrictions on the weight carried by ships and barges.

Ironically, sea level rise might actually increase the depth of the river at its mouth, allowing more cargo.

. . . . . . .

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at or (504) 826-3327.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Kevin Conrad Haripem

"And there is an old saying, 'If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way.' And, I would ask the United States: We ask for your leadership. We seek your leadership. But, if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way." (Bali, 2007)

Photo of Kevin Conrad at the Nairobi conference in 2006. (Link to original article at: )

Peter Riggs' report on the final day at Bali

The Trade Policy Expert

This note was circulated widely by Peter Riggs, who works with cities and institutions on policies and programs fostering trade that sustains communities and the environment.

Hello Friends and Family–

As the day begins in North America some of you have probably already heard the news that a deal has been cut here in Bali at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties.

The meeting was scheduled to end yesterday Indonesian central time at 6pm (Friday), but was extended overnight, and the crucial final plenary commenced at 1:10pm this afternoon (Saturday). I wanted to write while it’s still fresh and give you all a taste of what it felt like.

Given that working groups convened overnight—finally breaking up at 4:30am—it’s perhaps not surprising that this morning started a little rough. The President of the COP, Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar, re-convened a plenary at a time when the G-77+China—the main grouping of developing countries—was still at work on an alternative text for the critical parts of the ‘Ad-hoc Working Group’ review process, explained below.

Meanwhile, overnight, Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, each flew to Bali to push parties to come to an agreement. So doing raised the diplomatic profile of the end-game substantially.

At 1 pm the President and the Secretary General swept into the main plenary hall along with Minister Witoelar and the Conference’s top diplomat Yvo de Boer. Witoelar proceeded to take note of what had already been agreed to—“every item on the agenda has been read over carefully, and between 80 and 90 percent of all the items have already been adopted.” This felt ominous in and of itself, because everyone in the room knew it was that last ten to twenty percent that would make all the difference. Witoelar then apologized “if I have tread on your sensibilities,”—the reasons for that statement shortly becoming apparent.

He then introduced President Bambang Yudhoyono, who noted that he had come to Bali “to make a special appeal,” asking delegates to do more to make the Bali Road Map a complete package. He noted that the High-Level Event convened by the UN Secretary General earlier this fall had created the demand for a breakthrough at Bali, a “political commitment to concrete commitments, actions, and timelines.” In his plea, President Yudhoyono noted that the “worst thing” that could happen would be for the Bali process to crumble “because we couldn’t find the right wording.”

Ban Kin Moon then took the podium. He startled the audience by stating that he was coming before us “reluctantly,” reluctant because the UN’s top diplomat was essentially forced to acknowledge his disappointment in the lack of progress at Bali. He urged us not to risk all we had achieved thus far; he praised the “strong and good draft” put forward by the President of the COP; and he said, “it’s time to decide.” Two speeches that turned up the temperature on what would happen next. And with that, these two dignitaries left the room, their entourages scurrying after them, and Minister Witoelar turned us to Item 4 on the Agenda—the crux of the Bali Road Map—the “Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention.”

An aside here to describe the evolution of text on Item 4 during the week. The first draft, put forward by Witoelar and his Indonesian team last Saturday, was really very good. It did four things. It reiterated the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”—which notes the historical responsibility of industrialized (“Annex I”) countries for virtually all emissions leading to the increase in the global atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses. Annex I countries who signed onto the Kyoto Protocol have binding reduction targets for their emissions.

The first official act of the new government in Australia—Prime Minister Rudd coming to power last month in what one Aussie noted as ‘the world’s first national election decided on the issue of climate change’—was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Of Annex I countries, then, that left only the United States standing obstinate and alone outside the Kyoto Protocol.
The second thing the initial Witoelar draft did was to note the need for urgent action—something that even the United States embraced—on the basis of those common but differentiated responsibilities—and that’s where the devil of details lay in wait.
Third, last Saturday’s draft set a near-term target for reductions from Annex I countries of 25 - 40% reductions. While the European Union embraced this preambular language, it drove the Americans crazy. In side-meetings throughout the week, the Bush administration’s negotiators—as well as Minority staff from Congress—repeatedly and often quite savagely noted that no current legislation, not Warner-Lieberman, not any other bill, contemplated that level of near-term reductions, and they said flatly that they were not going to agree to something in text on which they saw no prospect of delivering.
Finally, the Saturday draft also noted the need to reduce total global emissions by 50% by the year 2050. As you can see, then, some elements of this initial text referred to global responsibilities, and some to Annex I country responsibilities, and overall it tried to give shape and heft to the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

And the Americans immediately set about attacking the text.

By mid-week we had a text that had removed all the quantitative language except the ‘reduce by half’ language, which given the time-frame is more aspirational than operational. It was replaced with qualitative language, and included a phrase regarding the need for a “peak and decline” in emissions. Here too there was a tussle on whether that language on ‘peak and decline’ should be accompanied by a statement regarding timeframes. The science indicates that we have no more than ten or fifteen years to put total global emissions on a downward slope to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. One can imagine then that countries other than the United States—most conspicuously China—might have concerns about early-action ‘peak and decline’ language. So this too was part of the negotiating dance—how to get and keep China on board, so as not to drive them into the arms of the Bush science-deniers. (Meanwhile, at 3am on Friday morning, the United States had put on the table a pathetically awful text which tried to demolish ANY distinction between developed and developing countries—which is the way that this convention has been structured since its inception in the early 1990s. Almost none of the language in that submission survived into the draft presented to the plenary this morning.)

The first intervention in the Plenary dealing with Item 4 came from China. It was a ‘point of order.’ And while phrased diplomatically, it was basically a scathing attack on the way that the morning’s plenary process had unfolded, convening at a time when the G-77+China were still discussing alternative text elsewhere. On the dais (and projected onto the two acre-sized screens arrayed at the front of the hall) were Minister Witoelar and Yvo de Boer, puffy-eyed and exhausted. It fell to de Boer to answer, and twice during his short reply he had to stop to compose himself. Not out of anger, but from sheer exhaustion and frustration. He was trying not to burst into tears. He replied to the Chinese that he simply hadn’t been aware that the G-77 was still discussing Agenda Item 4 in side-meetings when the plenary had reconvened. His voiced drained out of him, and suddenly he got up and simply walked out of the hall, trailing a couple of very surprised aides. (Having composed himself—or possibly having laid down for a twenty-minute nap—he later reentered the hall and took his seat.)

And then the moment of truth: India presented the alternative text from the G-77+China. The essential point about this alternative text is that it takes into account “differences in national circumstances” amongst developing countries—that is, not just in relation to Annex I, but in relation to each other—but without the binding reduction commitments that the U.S. had sought from countries like India and China. From the developing world, this was seen as a compromise that indeed not all developing countries could be treated equally—the bigger emerging economies might have to do more—but it preserved flexibilities for them to pursue those commitments at a time to be worked out later—thus, the “Bali Road Map” over the next two years.

Portugal, speaking on behalf of the European Union, let the other shoe drop. “We support the proposal made by….India.” Deliberately echoing a phrase used by the Secretary General Ban Kin-Moon, Portugal noted that we must “travel the road together.” The room erupted in a standing ovation.

Bangladesh, on behalf of the ‘least developed countries’ (LDCs), took the floor to note that they had continued concerns about the text—it was worried about what ‘differences in national circumstances’ would mean in practice for least-developed countries. Perhaps anticipating U.S. objections to one of the two contentious paragraphs, Bangladesh pointedly noted that it was not going to block consensus on the basis of the one paragraph with which they had a quarrel. Costa Rica rose to support Bangladesh’s statement. The Philippines referred us back to already-agreed text in the Convention that precedes the language on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’—and that is the phrase on the basis of equity. The only possible basis for a truly globally-just climate regime is emissions calculated on a per-capita basis, and it has yet to get a serious hearing in the UNFCCC process. But the Philippines brought us back to that first-principle reminder. Representing small island states, the Maldives chimed in with their support, as did Switzerland on the basis of the “Environmental Integrity Group.” (That grouping includes countries north and south that are already seeing climate-change impacts in their glaciers, water supplies, sea levels, and agricultural sectors.) Even the freakin’ Saudis rose to say they could live with the G-77 text.

And then it was the turn of the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, with only the absolute bare minimum of diplomatic language, stated flatly that the United States rejected the changes. It was not prepared to accept the G-77 text.

Then occurred one of the most remarkable sounds that has perhaps ever been heard in the annals of international diplomacy—like a collective global groan—descending then to a murmer, then increasing in volume to a full-throated expression of rage and anger and booing and jeering, lasting for a full minute, so that finally the Minister had to call the meeting back to order.

Japan, predictably, followed the United States with a statement that was completely opaque, from which we could conclude only that Japan supported the G-77 text while also supporting the “major economies” convening process begun by President Bush as a supposed counterbalance to the Kyoto Protocol. (The Americans, with almost unspeakable rudeness, issued invitations to the next ‘major economies meeting’ on the first day of the Bali COP. Sort of like making a big show of announcing your engagement while at someone else’s wedding.)

Then the backlash began. South Africa’s representative, with great eloquence, noted that the U.S. statement was ‘most unwelcome’ and ‘without basis.’ He hammered on the science and winded up by wondering how, if the administration had accepted the science, it could possibly want to block progress. Echoing Bangladesh’s earlier statement, he noted that the Developing Countries were making commitments (in one of those two contentious paragraphs), and yet the U.S. was not. Referring to redrafts from earlier in the week, Brazil noted that the EU and China and the G77 had gone along with most of the amendments offered by the U.S.—they had not blocked progress. The small island states noted their survival imperative. Pakistan’s ambassador stated that “the text before us would not have come about without the flexibility shown by the G-77+China.” Uganda lamented that U.S. views were taken into account in this redraft, and yet the U.S. was blocking. Tanzania stated the situation flatly: “the United States has the power, and that is the power to wreck the progress made thus far.”

Casting all diplomatic niceties to the winds, the representative from Papua New Guinea stood up and said: “if you’re not willing to lead, please get out of the way.” (This was a superb slap at a disgusting comment made by Council on Environmental Quality chief James Connaughton at a press conference a day earlier, when he had implied that the United States was leading, and other countries needed to “fall in line.”)

A pause. A lull. Witoelar on the dais, puffy-eyed, anxious. de Boer, returned to the stage, head in hands, peering between his fingers.

Dobriansky signals she wishes to speak, and Witoelar calls on the United States.

”We are heartened by the strong commitments made by the major developing countries here at Bali,” says the UnderSecretary. “We appreciate the contributions of Japan, the EU, and Canada in emphasizing the need to half emissions by 2050.” She went on to argue that the United States had made three commitments at Bali.

And then: “The United States will join the consensus” regarding the proposed compromise text.

A surge of emotion through the hall, and then a collective sigh of relief. No standing ovation, no cheering—but a sustained, respectful applause.

* * * * *

Let me end with two personal notes.

This is rainy season in Indonesia. When I lived here in the late 1980s, you could count on it raining in December every afternoon. A drenching rain. The rice fields were electric green. The smell was sweet. The rains knocked the humidity out of the air.

And this year—it rained only once, for perhaps ten minutes, during the entirety of COP13. In almost twenty years coming to Indonesia, I have never felt it so hot, the humidity so crushing, the air so acrid.

At dinner last night, I spoke with a young server from a village in the mountains. From a family of rice farmers. They planted in early November, anticipating the rains. But there has been no rain. The seedlings dried up. His father has had to go into debt. The son was sent from the mountains to go work in a tourist mall south of the provincial capital. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where this is no easy access to the tourist cash economy, families resort to other strategies to stay alive when their crops fail. They mortgage their homes and fields first. Then they sell their daughters. Climate change is now.

My second personal note is a Christmas wish. There is domestic climate-change legislation working its way through Congress. It’s not nearly good enough, far-reaching enough. But it’s also analogous to the first draft that Minister Witoelar put on the table last Saturday—a great start, destined to be hammered and picked at and watered down and possibly thrown off the bridge in the end anyway. We can’t let that happen. So family and friends, let me ask for some of your time in the coming weeks and months, to be ready to lobby, to call your members of Congress, to spend a little time on this issue, to stay with this. It’s time the United States really and truly joined the global consensus—that climate change is now.

And now, to sleep. From Bali, over and out.

– Peter Riggs
Director, Forum on Democracy and Trade

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Doppler Radar Map, U.S., December 12, 2007

This is a captured image of a doppler radar map of the United States on December 12, 2007, from the Weather Channel site ( showing the absolutely enormous front that stretched from the Rio Grande in Texas all the way to Maine.

Year 2007 Temperatures: January through November

Link to Dr. James Hansen's publication on the recorded temperatures this year so far:

Konrad Steffen: Greenland Melt Accelerating

Original article can be found here:

ScienceDaily (Dec. 12, 2007) — The 2007 melt extent on the Greenland ice sheet broke the 2005 summer melt record by 10 percent, making it the largest ever recorded there since satellite measurements began in 1979, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder climate scientist.

The melting increased by about 30 percent for the western part of Greenland from 1979 to 2006, with record melt years in 1987, 1991, 1998, 2002, 2005 and 2007, said CU-Boulder Professor Konrad Steffen, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet have increased by about 7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1991, primarily a result of the build-up of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere, according to scientists.

Steffen gave a presentation on his research at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union held in San Francisco from Dec. 10 to Dec. 14. His team used data from the Defense Meteorology Satellite Program's Special Sensor Microwave Imager aboard several military and weather satellites to chart the area of melt, including rapid thinning and acceleration of ice into the ocean at Greenland's margins.

Steffen maintains an extensive climate-monitoring network of 22 stations on the Greenland ice sheet known as the Greenland Climate Network, transmitting hourly data via satellites to CU-Boulder to study ice-sheet processes.

An iceberg calved in the the Jakobshavn fjord in 2005. The Jakobshavn Glacier has sped up two-fold in the last decade as the result of melt water lubricating the glacier bed. (Credit: Konrad Steffen, University of Colorado at Boulder)

Although Greenland has been thickening at higher elevations due to increases in snowfall, the gain is more than offset by an accelerating mass loss, primarily from rapidly thinning and accelerating outlet glaciers, Steffen said. "The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps, or a layer of water more than one-half mile deep covering Washington, D.C."

The Jacobshavn Glacier on the west coast of the ice sheet, a major Greenland outlet glacier draining roughly 8 percent of the ice sheet, has sped up nearly twofold in the last decade, he said. Nearby glaciers showed an increase in flow velocities of up to 50 percent during the summer melt period as a result of melt water draining to the ice-sheet bed, he said.

"The more lubrication there is under the ice, the faster that ice moves to the coast," said Steffen. "Those glaciers with floating ice 'tongues' also will increase in iceberg production."

Greenland is about one-fourth the size of the United States, and about 80 percent of its surface area is covered by the massive ice sheet. Greenland hosts about one-twentieth of the world's ice -- the equivalent of about 21 feet of global sea rise. The current contribution of Greenland ice melt to global sea levels is about 0.5 millimeters annually.

The most sensitive regions for future, rapid change in Greenland's ice volume are dynamic outlet glaciers like Jacobshavn, which has a deep channel reaching far inland, he said. "Inclusion of the dynamic processes of these glaciers in models will likely demonstrate that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment underestimated sea-level projections for the end of the 21st century," Steffen said.

Helicopter surveys indicate there has been an increase in cylindrical, vertical shafts in Greenland's ice known as moulins, which drain melt water from surface ponds down to bedrock, he said. Moulins, which resemble huge tunnels in the ice and may run vertically for several hundred feet, switch back and forth from vertical to horizontal as they descend toward the bottom of the ice sheet, he said.

"These melt-water drains seem to allow the ice sheet to respond more rapidly than expected to temperature spikes at the beginning of the annual warm season," Steffen said. "In recent years the melting has begun earlier than normal."

Steffen and his team have been using a rotating laser and a sophisticated digital camera and high-definition camera system provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to map the volume and geometry of moulins on the Greenland ice sheet to a depth of more than 1,500 feet. "We know the number of moulins is increasing," said Steffen. "The bigger question is how much water is reaching the bed of the ice sheet, and how quickly it gets there."

Steffen said the ice loss trend in Greenland is somewhat similar to the trend of Arctic sea ice in recent decades. In October, CU-Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center reported the 2007 Arctic sea-ice extent had plummeted to the lowest levels since satellite measurements began in 1979 and was 39 percent below the long-term average tracked from 1979 to 2007.

CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more information on Steffen's research, visit the Web site at:

Adapted from materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: for more on this subject, see my post on this blog:

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Exploring ice thickness, melting and global climate change

By Marc Airhart, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin

Polar ice experts once thought Antarctica's ice sheets were mostly immune to climate change. Research findings of the past decade have started to melt away their confidence.

Satellites have revealed that the ice sheets are thinning and their glacial slide into the sea is speeding up. Ice cores show that at times in the geologic past, Antarctica was ice free. Complicating matters, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), a mass of ice the size of Texas storing enough water to raise global sea level by 5 meters (about 17 feet), is resting on rock below sea level.

View of Antarctica from space.
© iStockphoto / Giorgio Fochesato / NASA

“Not just a bit below sea level, it's 2,000 meters below sea level,” said David Vaughan, a principal investigator with the British Antarctic Survey. “If there was no ice sheet there, this would be deep ocean, deep like the middle of the Atlantic.”

Concerns about stability. The ice sheet covering West Antarctica is the last great marine ice sheet. Its bed lies below sea level and slopes down inland from the coast. This profile is based on Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica. In the top panel, the ice sheet is in equilibrium; influx from snowfall (q) is balanced by outflow. A small retreat (lower panel) will provoke changes in both the influx and the outflow. If these changes act to promote further retreat, the ice margin is unstable.

Some scientists have theorized that this makes the WAIS inherently unstable. If the ice sheet retreats beyond a certain point, a positive feedback mechanism should, they say, lead to runaway retreat that would not stop until most of the ice sheet disappears.

The recent series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not include such bold predictions for the possible loss of Antarctic ice. The IPCC's estimate was that Antarctic ice flow would continue at the same rate it did from 1993 to 2003, despite an observed acceleration since then.

The IPCC's restrained estimate about the ice flow, and its possible contribution to sea level rise, was not, however, a heartening sign. Rather, it reflected the consensus view that changes in the Antarctic have been so rapid, science can not yet account for them.

“Models used to date do not include . . . the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking,” stated the reports. “[U]nderstanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.”

The IPCC's mid-range projection is that seas will rise 44 centimeters (17 inches) by the year 2050. That would put 100 million people each year at risk from being displaced from their homes by coastal flooding. If the WAIS were to entirely melt—which most experts doubt will happen in our lifetimes—seas would rise ten times higher.

Will the WAIS sit on the global warming sidelines? Will it gradually drip away, speeding up the slow motion flooding of our coasts? Or will it collapse in front of our eyes? And when will scientists know for sure?

These questions inspired an international conference held at The University of Texas at Austin last March, co-sponsored by the U.K. Department of Food and Rural Affairs and the Jackson School of Geosciences. While not arriving at definitive answers, the participants in the West Antarctic Links to Sea-level Estimation (WALSE) Workshop developed a new hypothesis to explain recent observations of ice sheet thinning and charted a course for future research that might be incorporated into a new National Science Foundation polar research initiative.

Pulling the Plug?

Don Blankenship and Jack Holt, polar researchers at the Jackson School's Institute for Geophysics, are especially concerned about the Amundsen Sea Embayment, a vast block of ice that makes up one third of the WAIS. Recent satellite observations show the embayment is the most rapidly changing portion of the WAIS. It's also thought to contribute as much to sea level rise as the entire Greenland Ice Sheet.

Jack Holt (left) is a polar researcher at the Institute for Geophysics.

Blankenship and Holt led the American half of a joint project between the Institute for Geophysics and the British Antarctic Survey in 2004 to reveal what lies below the Amundsen Sea Embayment. Using airplanes with radar antennas strapped under the wings and logging tens of thousands of air miles in a couple of months, the two teams were able to create detailed topographic maps of the rocks and sediment that form the bed on which miles of ice sits. The researchers even identified lakes of liquid water which remain unfrozen due to the enormous pressures of the ice above.

Researchers were surprised to discover the depth and shape of the bed beneath the Amundsen Sea Embayment offers little protection for the ice. Like a plug in a bathtub, part of the embayment could act as an avenue for the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet to drain to the sea. Topographic map produced in 2006 from data collected by a joint UT/UK airborne geophysical survey two years earlier.

One alarming result of that work was the discovery that part of the embayment known as Thwaites Glacier is not only experiencing accelerated thinning, but it also acts as a sort of plug in the bath tub.

“Thwaites Glacier has access to the rest of the ice sheet,” said Blankenship. “So changes there can propagate to the interior and indeed we have an avenue for draining all of the ice from West Antarctica into the ocean via Thwaites Glacier.”

The topography of the bed underneath doesn't provide any additional protection to hold the ice back.

“The bedrock goes very deep a long way inland and even provides a mechanism for ice to connect through from the other side of the ice divide,” said Holt. “There's no big impediment there. This was somewhat of a surprise.”

It came from the deep

A lay person hearing that the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is speeding up might not be all that surprised given the routine nature over the past few years of news reports describing how the greenhouse effect is warming our atmosphere, speeding the arrival of spring, melting glaciers, and altering plant and animal ranges.

For Antarctica, the emerging picture is far more complex than the headlines. If the hypotheses of polar experts like Blankenship and Holt are correct, Antarctica might resemble less a block of ice liquefying in a sunny greenhouse than a cog in an intricate Rube Goldberg machine.

The surface of Antarctica is so cold and the ice so thick that raising the region's air temperature a few degrees is not enough to cause significant melting. Instead, scientists have long suspected that warm water in the Amundsen Sea is flowing up under ice shelves—platforms of floating ice attached to the grounded ice sheet—and melting them from below. This increased melting speeds the flow of grounded ice sheet into the water.

But it's unlikely these warmer waters result directly from recent climate change. By measuring oxygen content, oceanographers have discovered that the warm water welling up below the glaciers has not been near the sea surface in the past few centuries. In oceanographer's terms, the water is “old.” It is part of a mass known as Circumpolar Deep Water connected to the North Atlantic through the globetrotting ocean conveyor belt. This water has been at depth for too long, scientists believe, for its temperature to reflect recent global warming.

Polar scientists meeting at the three-day WALSE Workshop knew that explaining this upwelling could go a long way towards predicting the future of the WAIS. Fortunately, the workshop brought together experts in atmosphere, oceans, and ice—all critical players in this story.

A new hypothesis

Adrian Jenkins, a polar researcher from the British Antarctic Survey and WALSE participant, developed a computer model that showed a possible solution.

Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth's climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be. Jenkins' model showed that these circumpolar currents, sometimes called “Westerlies,” “the Screaming 50s,” or “the Roaring 40s,” actually push surface waters out away from the continent. This results from the Coriolis Force, the byproduct of Earth's rotation that causes cyclonic systems to turn counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.

If the atmospheric currents speed up, more water is pulled up. Indeed, observations indicate these atmospheric currents have sped up in recent decades in response to global warming. So increased upwelling seems likely.

There isn't enough observational data to validate this hypothesis yet. For one thing, sea ice makes it difficult to get there to do the work. Polar experts say repeated missions over several years are necessary to correlate wind speeds with the temperature structure of the water.

Blankenship said when the workshop began, fewer than five attendees suspected this link between atmosphere, ocean, and ice; by the end, all 25 agreed it was the most plausible explanation. He said each person was an expert in one, maybe two areas.

“But to say that atmospheric changes are causing the ocean changes that are causing ice sheet changes, that requires more self confidence than most of the people had,” he said. “That could only happen by bringing together so many people with overlapping skill sets. The result was a surprise and a significant moment. We all agreed that was the most likely answer.”

Where to now?

On the final day of the WALSE workshop, the attendees locked themselves in a conference room and hashed out a consensus statement including the state of knowledge in their field, the new hypothesis on the cause of upwelling, and a list of challenges that lie ahead in answering the outstanding questions.

In a draft article for EOS magazine, the participants wrote an ambitious to-do list for their community: collect baseline oceanographic data from the Amundsen Sea to begin charting changes that might relate to ice sheet melting; create a better history of deglaciation by dating marine sediment cores and rock exposure ages; create more realistic ice sheet models; couple climate models with ice sheet models; develop better tools for measuring ice sheet mass balance with satellites; and restore satellite capability that was lost in 2000 for measuring grounding-line retreat rates. (The grounding line is where an ice sheet goes afloat. Behind the line is grounded ice sheet, beyond that is floating ice shelf.)

The new IPCC reports on climate change had essentially sidestepped the issue of Antarctica's potential contribution to sea level rise. The authors pointed out, rightly, that there was just too much uncertainty to make predictions. The workshop participants were able to say, Okay, now what are we going to do about it?

Blankenship said the timing of the workshop was perfect.

“Two months later, we were sitting on the 12th floor of NSF presenting the WALSE conclusions to 30 polar scientists on what to do for the next decade in polar science,” he said.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) had organized the meeting to start charting the course of a new interdisciplinary program called Antarctic Integrated and Systems Science. The program is part of the International Polar Year (2007-2008), a global campaign of polar research.

“There was no forum to work on problems that were that complex and interdisciplinary,” said Blankenship. “And chances are, that will show up in next year's NSF budget. That's what WALSE did. That's what it was intended to do.”

by Marc Airhart

For more information about the Jackson School contact J.B. Bird at, 512-232-9623 - or visit their website.

This article is from this site:

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Expanding tropics 'a threat to millions'

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Published: 03 December 2007, The Independent

The tropical belt that girdles the Earth is expanding north and south, which could have dire consequences for large regions of the world where the climate is likely to become more arid or more stormy, scientists have warned in a seminal study published today.

Climate change is having a dramatic impact on the tropics by pushing their boundaries towards the poles at an unprecedented rate not foreseen by computer models, which had predicted this sort of poleward movement only by the end of the century.

The report comes as representatives from 191 countries around the world assemble on the island of Bali in Indonesia, to negotiate a new international treaty to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have found that, during the past 25 years the equatorial region classified as climatologically tropical has expanded polewards by about 172 miles which has meant that a further 8.5 million sq miles of the Earth are now experiencing a tropical climate, compared to 1980.

The scientists warned there are grave implications for the many millions of people living in dry, subtropical regions bordering the tropics, which are at risk of becoming even more arid because of changes to rainfall patterns and wind directions.

"Several lines of evidence show that, during the past few decades, the tropical belt has expanded. This expansion has potentially important implications for subtropical societies and may lead to profound changes to the global climate system," the scientists say in their study published online in the journal Nature Geoscience.

"Most importantly, poleward movement of large-scale atmospheric circulation systems, such as jet streams and storm tracks, could result in shifts in precipitation patterns affecting natural ecosystems, agriculture and water resources," they say.

They are particularly concerned about the poleward movement of subtropical dry belts that could affect water supplies and agriculture over vast areas of the Mediterranean, the south-western United States, northern Mexico, southern Australia, southern Africa and parts of South America.

"A poleward expansion of the tropics is likely to bring even drier conditions to these heavily populated regions but may bring increased moisture to other areas," the scientists warn.

"An increase in the width of the tropics could bring an increase in the area affected by tropical storms, or could change climatologically tropical cyclone development regions and tracks," they say.

They also point out that the expansion of the tropical band could exacerbate global warming by increasing the rate at which water vapour – an important greenhouse gas – is being pumped naturally into the upper atmosphere. They warn that could lead to irreversible climate change.

The study was carried out by Dian Seidel of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, her colleagues from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the universities of Washington in Seattle and Utah in Salt Lake City.

They found that, during the past quarter-century, the area defined as tropical, based on a list of five recognised climatological criteria, has moved further north and south by about 2.5 degrees of latitude, or about 172 miles in total in both directions. That is greater than the predicted shift of 2 degrees by 2100 predicted under the "extreme scenario" envisaged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"We looked at how certain aspects of the structure and circulation of the atmosphere have been altered over the past few decades and how models predict they may change as the climate changes in the future," Dr Seidel said. "We are seeing indications that a warming climate is associated with expansion of the tropical region towards the poles, and the rate of expansion that has occurred in recent decades is greater than projected by climate models to occur in the 21st century," she said.

Climatologists have long suspected that a warmer world will lead to an expansion of the tropics, which are defined by patterns of wind circulation, ozone concentrations and the height of the troposphere, but few had predicted that the dramatic shift observed by Dr Seidel and her colleagues would have occurred already.

Computer models of the global climate, for instance, had suggested a polewards shift of the tropics by as much as 2 degrees of latitude by the end of the 21st century. "Remarkably, the tropics appear to have already expanded – during only the last few decades of the 20th century – by at least the same margins as models predict for this century," Dr Seidel said.

"The edges of the tropical belt are the outer boundaries of the subtropical dry zones and their poleward shift could lead to fundamental shifts in ecosystems and in human settlements.

"Shifts in precipitation patterns would have obvious implications for agriculture and water resources and could present serious hardships in marginal areas," she said.

Australia is one of the countries likely to be worst affected by the shifting tropics because westerly winds bringing much-needed rain to the continent's arid south coast are likely to be pushed further south, dumping their water over open ocean rather than on land, scientists said.

"An expansion of tropical pathogens and their insect vectors is almost certainly sure to follow the expansion of tropical zones," said Professor Barry Brook of the University of Adelaide.

"The global implication is the unexpectedly rapid expansion of the tropical belt constitutes yet another signal that climate change is occurring sooner than expected," Professor Brook said.

"The case for rapid action on greenhouse gas emissions becomes that much more compelling," he said.

A defining feature of our climate system

The tropics are one of the defining features of the Earth's climate system. Their existence is due to the fact that the region receives the greatest amount of the Sun's energy per unit of surface area. Map makers define the boundaries as the Tropic of Cancer, about 23.5 degrees north of the equator, and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south. These are the points where the Sun is directly overhead during the summer and winter solstices. However, climatologists define the tropical boundaries in a more complicated manner, based on five different sets of criteria, which are mostly connected to the way the air and oceans circulate around the hot equatorial region. Directly over the equator, the hot air rises, bringing with it moisture that accounts for tropical storms. Further away from the equator, the air descends, which tends to make these subtropical regions drier. Scientists have found that the boundaries of the tropics are shifting polewards.