Tag Archives: climate change

In unprecedented bid, health science journals unite and call for ambitious climate action

More than 200 health journals called on governments to take action on the climate crisis as targets to reduce emissions are still not enough to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius (a target that many already see as not ambitious enough).

It’s an unprecedented move — the first time such a large number of publications have come together to make the same statement, which shows how severe the situation has become. It’s not just a climate crisis, it’s a health crisis.

Image credit: Flickr / Jeanne

“The risks posed by climate change could dwarf those of any single disease. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but there is no vaccine for the climate crisis. Every action taken to limit emissions and warming brings us closer to a healthier and safer future,” World Health Organization head Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. 

The joint editorial was published simultaneously in 233 international journals, including The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Chinese Science Bulletin and the Medical Journal of Australia. It’s being published one week from the UN general assembly and less than two months from the COP26 climate summit in the UK — two events that could mark a turning point in our climate woes, but could also bitterly disappoint.

Health journals and health professionals have been warning for decades about the growing effects of the climate crisis, such as extreme weather events, rising temperatures and degradation of ecosystems. Far from being just isolated events, these will be taxing on people’s health, affecting especially the most vulnerable people in society, including poor communities, minorities, and the elderly. 

An urgent crisis

The editorial notes health is being affected by rising temperatures and the destruction of the natural world, with the risk of causing “catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reserve” if the current trends continue. The world can’t wait for the Covid-19 pandemic to pass in order to reduce emissions, the journals all agreed. 

Only “fundamental and equitable” changes to societies can reverse the current trajectory the world is facing. Governments have to make big changes to how societies function and how we live. This includes redesigning transportation systems, cities production and distribution of food, financial markets and the entire health system. 

“Health professionals have been on the front line of the covid-19 crisis, and they are united in warning that going above 1.5°C and allowing the continued destruction of nature will bring the next, far deadlier crisis,” Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of The BMJ and one of the editorial’s coauthors, said in a statement. “Wealthier nations must act faster.”

The same unprecedented funding provided by government for the Covid-19 pandemic has to be replicated for the environmental crisis, the editorial reads. Large investments will be needed but this will bring positive health and economic outcomes, such as reduced air pollution levels, improved housing and diet and high-quality jobs.  

Rich countries that have created the environmental crisis need to step-up their game, providing support for low-income and middle-income countries in the climate crisis. The editorial calls for them to fulfill even go further beyond the $100 billion a year financial pledge made as part of the Paris Agreement – which so far hasn’t been met. 

However, pulling the brakes on our emissions doesn’t have to damage the economy. In fact, when we factor in all the hidden costs of climate change (such as the health cost), tackling it becomes cheaper than not doing so.

Health professionals have to do all they can to encourage the transition to a “sustainable, fairer, resilient and healthier” world, the editorial continues. They have to “proactively contribute” to prevent further damage from the environmental crisis and act on the “root causes” of the crisis. This includes “holding leaders accountable.”

“The changing climate is endangering us in many ways, including its critical impacts on health and healthcare delivery. As medical practitioners, we have an obligation not only to anticipate new healthcare needs but also to be active participants in limiting the causes of the climate crisis,” Eric Rubin, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said in a statement. 

The Paris Agreement on climate change calls to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ª to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. But we are very far from that. Based on the current pledges by governments, the world is heading to a 3º to 4º warming. There’s still time to revert this but we do have to act right now. 

The full editorial can be read here. 

We need a simpler way to talk about climate change

There’s a gap between what scientists are saying on climate change and what the public is actually understanding, a sobering new study finds. US residents were found to struggle to comprehend the most frequently used terms by scientists on climate change, suggesting the need for a much simpler language instead. 

Image credit: Flickr / GPA

This is far from being a new problem. Climate science (like all fields of science) can be filled with jargon and concepts that are hard to grasp unless you are a scientist, activist, or specialized journalist. Many news articles or academic papers go on and on about mitigation, carbon neutrality, or adaptation without actually explaining what that is, which disengages most readers. We may have been guilty of that ourselves once or twice.

Plenty of studies have shown exactly that. Last year, a study by researchers from Ohio State University found that readers take jargon in any discipline as a sign that the material isn’t for them, killing their interest. This is really bad especially for climate science, as we need to get people engaged and involved if we want to have a chance of limiting the damage. 

Now, researchers from the University of Southern California wanted to get an idea of how much US citizens understand from the terms used by scientists to describe climate change. They selected eight terms from reports done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a leading group of climate experts from around the world.

The terms were mitigation, carbon-neutral, unprecedented transition, tipping point, sustainable development, carbon dioxide removal, adaptation, and abrupt change. They are commonly found on IPCC reports, such as the one published a few weeks ago, in which the IPCC warned over the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions fast. But do people know what they mean?

In the survey, the participants identified “mitigation” as the most difficult term, which refers to actions taken to tackle our emissions on different levels. Meanwhile, “abrupt change” was considered the easiest. This is when the climate system changes fast to a new climate state, bringing steep consequences for living systems (which can include people).

“We have to get better at communicating the dire threat from climate change if we expect to build support for more forceful action to stop it. We need to start by using language that anyone can understand,” Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate, and the environment at the United Nations Foundation, said in a statement.

What to do then?

In the study, the researchers asked the participants to suggest alternative ways of speaking about climate change, who suggested using simpler terms. For “tipping point,” for example, one respondent suggested “too late to fix anything” and for “unprecedented transition” a few participants suggested “a change not seen before.”

Previous studies suggest similar ideas, such as using short sentences and writing at the level of a reader who is 12 or 13 years old. In a 2011 study, climate communications experts suggested that scientists start their papers by explaining why people should care about an issue, framing climate as a threat to many aspects of our life, such as food. 

“In several cases the respondents proposed simple, elegant alternatives to existing language,” Wändi Bruine de Bruin, the study’s lead author, and researcher at USC, said in a statement. “It reminded us that, even though climate change may be a complex issue, there is no need to make it even more complex by using complicated words.”

In the context of climate, this has never been more important. We’re pretty much on the last train where we can still prevent drastic, irreversible climate changes — if we don’t act immediately, that chance is gone.

In a broader sense, this is a problem for all fields of science. Browse a hundred papers from a hundred different journals, the odds are you won’t understand much. Unfortunately, science has become so muddied with jargon that communicating science has become increasingly challenging, contributing to raising the gap between science and the general public.

The study was published in the journal Climatic Change. 

Europe’s deadly floods were much more likely because of climate change

The heavy rainfall that caused deadly flooding across Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium in July was made more likely by the climate crisis. The floods in Europe, which killed at least 220 people as towns were swamped, were up to nine times more likely because of global warming, a group of researchers found. 

Image credit: Sam Leivers

In July, heavy rainfall led to severe flooding particularly in the German states North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, as well as in Luxembourg, and along the river Meuse and some of its tributaries in Belgium and the Netherlands. The flooding resulted in 184 deaths in Germany and 38 in Belgium, as well as infrastructure damage.

Scientists from the World Weather Attribution (WVA) group compared the frequency of the rainfall seen in Europe in today’s heated climate with the frequency expected in a world with no human-caused climate change. They used meteorological measurements, high-resolution computer models, and peer-reviewed research methods. 

“We combined the knowledge of specialists from several fields of study to understand the influence of climate change on the terrible flooding last month, and to make clear what we can and cannot analyze in this event,” Sjoukje Philip, a climate researcher at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute and part of the WWA team, told BBC. 

A climate crisis

While it’s difficult to assess the climate influence on heavy rainfall at local levels, the researchers could show that increasing greenhouse gas emissions have made events like the one seen in Europe more likely. In the current climate, for any location in Western Europe, a rainfall event like the one just seen is expected once every 400 years. 

The researchers found that climate change made the extreme rainfall in Europe between 1.2 and nine times more likely to happen and that such downpours in the region are now 3% to 19% more intense. The hotter air resulting from global warming can hold up to 7% more water vapor for every 1ºC rise, according to the study’s findings.

The researchers focused on two areas that were particularly affected by the rainfall: the German districts near the Ahr and Erft rivers, where 93 millimeters of rain fell in a day, and the Belgian Meuse region, where 106 millimeters fell over two days. River levels couldn’t be analyzed mainly because measurement stations were destroyed by the floods. 

“These floods have shown us that even developed countries are not safe from the severe impacts of extreme weather that we have seen and that are known to get worse with climate change,” Friederike Otto from Oxford University told BBC. “This is an urgent global challenge and we need to step up to it. The science is clear.”

In a previous study, the same group of researchers had previously found that the heatwave seen in July in North America would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change. Before the industrial era, this type of heatwave just wouldn’t have happened. Even in today’s warming world, the heat was a once-in-a-millennium event.

The heatwaves and the floods reinforce the findings of the recent landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said there’s “unequivocal” evidence that emissions from human activities are the main cause of global warming. Still, the report said the worst consequences can be avoided by ambitious climate action.

The full study can be accessed here.

Satellite images show the massive extent of August’s wildfires

It’s been a scorching summer, and it’s no coincidence. With climate change in almost full swing, the odds of heatwaves and fires increase dramatically — and we’re seeing the effects. The European Union’s Copernicus observation program has published a collage of just some of these fires, as seen from space. Here are some of them.

Wildfires in north-eastern Algeria

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

This 3D visualization shows one of the dozens of fires ravaging through the Kabylia region in Algeria. Thousands of fires have broken out in the Mediterranean, and over 100 of them are in the Kabylia region, where there have been  65 casualties to date.

Algerians have decried the lack of governmental support as the fires rip through the country.

“We started raising funds and volunteering during the last COVID-19 wave, so a lot of organisational mechanisms were already in place to fight these fires,” said Mokrane Nessah, a 54-year-old coordinator for one of the charities on site.

Wildfire in Evia, Greece

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

Evia is the second-largest Greek island, and these two images taken just ten days apart show how the island was devastated by wildfires. Thousands of residents were evacuated, and after tireless firefighter work, the fire was contained only after seven days.

Carbon monoxide pollution from wildfires on North America’s West Coast

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-5P imagery.

Many of the dreadful effects of wildfires are visible to the naked eye — but not all. Heatwaves across North America have fueled massive wildfires (so-called “megafires”). According to data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, these megafires have triggered massive carbon dioxide emissions. Many of these fires are still not contained.

Smoke cloud from fires in Amazonia

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-3 imagery.

Every year, the fire season in the Amazon peaks in August-September. While some fires are natural, in recent years, the phenomenon is greatly exacerbated by burning of vegetation for deforestation. Recently, the Brazilian Institute of Space Research (INPE) recorded the second-highest annual deforestation rate ever. According to its data, in the period between August 2020 and July 2021, Brazil has lost 8,712 km² of forests, or about 12 times the area of New York City. 

This smoke cloud is visible from some of the areas most affected by deforestation — the states of Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Para.

Wildfire in Var, France

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

The Mediterranean basin has been hit by one of its most severe heatwaves in history. A fire broke out in south-eastern France, causing thousands to evacuate their homes or holiday sites. In the image above, the fire scar is still visible, while active fires still output smoke.

More fires in Greece

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

Greece is having a particularly painful wildfire year. The image above shows a fire in Peloponnese, also fueled by intense heatwaves and strong winds. Heatwaves cause leaves and wood to be drier and more flammable.

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-3 imagery.

Meanwhile, in western Attica, very strong winds are making firefighter intervention much more difficult.

Wildfire near Castro Marim – Portugal

Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

This image shows the massive burnt scar that resulted from wildfires in the Faro District, in southern Portugal. The wildfire is now under control, but it shows that Portugal is also vulnerable in the face of summer fires.


The bottom line: wildfires and global warming go hand in hand

The relationship between climate and fire is complex, but researchers are increasingly finding strong correlations between warm summer temperatures and large fire years. Since climate change is making heatwaves more likely, the logical conclusion is that fires will become more and more common (and more and more massive) as climate change starts to take its toll.

For instance, in the south-eastern US, models suggest that a warming of just one degree Celsius would increase the burned area by as much as 600% in some types of forests.

Of course, hotter weather doesn’t automatically bring wildfires — you also need ignition, and in many parts of the world, the majority of fires are started by humans. In the US, for instance, 84% of fires are started by humans

However, once a fire starts, hot weather can make the difference between an easily contained fire and a large-scale catastrophe — and this is pretty much what we’re seeing over the course of this summer.

Temperature extremes on both ends impair bees’ flight, raising new concerns about climate change

Rising mean temperatures could help bees in colder areas fly better. Overall, however, climate change is going to impair the insects’ ability to fly, mainly through the increase in freak and extreme weather events that it promotes.

Image via Pixabay.

In order to do their job (pollination), bees need to be able to fly. And we definitely need pollinators to do their job. But, according to researchers from Imperial College London, rising temperatures all over the world are likely to impair bees’ flight performance. While colonies in areas closer to the poles (which are naturally colder) might actually see an improvement in their flight performance, as their ranges shift closer to the bees’ ideal temperatures, the increase in extreme weather brought about by higher temperatures means that, overall, bees worldwide will have a harder time flying around.

According to the findings, bee flight performance peaks at around 25-27°C but declines rapidly in both lower and hotter temperatures.

Too hot for comfort

“Climate change is often thought of as being negative for bumblebee species, but depending on where in the world they are, our work suggests it is possible bumblebees will see benefits to aspects of an important behavior,” explains first author Daniel Kenna from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial. “However, more extreme weather events, such as cold snaps and the unprecedented heatwaves experienced in recent years, could consistently push temperatures beyond the comfortable flight range for certain species of bumblebees”.

“These risks are particularly pertinent for ‘fixed colony’ pollinators like bumblebees, which cannot shift their position within a season if conditions become unfavorable, and potentially provide a further explanation as to why losses have been observed at species’ southern range limits.”

Air temperature has a direct effect on the body temperature of flying insects, including bees, the team explains — and body temperature has an impact on their ability to fly. Temperatures that are too low impair muscle activity, making them function too slowly to support flight. In too warm temperatures, the insects overheat.

In order to measure the impact of air temperature on bees’ ability to fly, the team temporarily attached bumblebees to ‘flight mills’ — devices in which they fly in circles like a carousel while their speed and flown distance were recorded. Bumblebees of several body sizes were tested at temperatures from 12-30°C, and the results were used to construct a thermal performance curve (TPC). This TPC predicts that while bumblebees can fly around 3km at their thermal optimum, this distance would fall to under 1kmThis TPC predicts that whilst bumblebees can fly around 3km at their thermal optimum, this average flight distance could be reduced to under 1km when temperatures rise to 35°C. At 10°C, this distance could drop to as little as a few hundred meters.

Observationally, the team found that temperatures of 15°C and below would frequently limit their flights to under 100m. Larger bees were the only ones that managed to fly in these conditions, too, which suggests that smaller individuals might be more affected by cold days but stand to benefit more from warmer conditions.

At temperatures of 15°C and below, the team observed that bees were demotivated to fly and frequently would not fly past 100m. Moreover, it was only the larger bees that successfully flew at these low temperatures, suggesting smaller individuals dislike cold days but may benefit more from climate warming.

Lead researcher Dr. Richard Gill, from the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park) at Imperial, said:

“While we still need to understand how these findings translate to factors like foraging return to colonies and pollination provision, as well as applicability to other bumblebee species, the results can help us understand how smaller versus larger flying insects will respond to future climate change,” says co-author Dr. Richard Gill, also from Imperial.

“It’s not just pollination: how different flying insects respond to warming temperatures could also affect the spread of insect-borne diseases and agricultural pest outbreaks that threaten food systems. Applying our experimental setup and findings to other species can help us to understand future insect trends important for managing service delivery or pest control methods.”

For now, the team’s focus was on how climate change impacts flying efficiency exclusively, but they plan to expand their work to include its effects on other stressors such as pesticide exposure. Furthermore, they’re also looking to examine how climate change stands to impact pollination efficiency across different landscapes.

The paper “Thermal flight performance reveals impact of warming on bumblebee foraging potential” has been published in the journal Functional Ecology.

We just lived through the Earth’s hottest month on record

It was bound to happen. With temperatures rising year after year, largely as an effect of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, multiple parts of the globe have broken temperature records. Now, NOAA has recently announced that based on its measurements, July 2021 was the hottest month in recorded history.

“In this case, first place is the worst place to be,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. “July is typically the world’s warmest month of the year, but July 2021 outdid itself as the hottest July and month ever recorded. This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe.”

Around the globe, temperatures were scorching. The combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.67 degrees F (0.93 of a degree C) above the 20th-century average, making this the hottest July since records began 142 years ago. It was 0.02 of a degree F (0.01 of a degree C) higher than the previous record (set in July 2016, and tied in 2019 and 2020).

Several regional records were also set. Asia also had its hottest July on record (beating its 2010 record), while Europe had its second-hottest July on record. However, virtually all regions on the Earth had an all-time top-10 warmest July.

This was no coincidence or freak occurrence. Although some years are naturally cooler or hotter, the warming trend in the past 60 years is clear. Temperatures have been increasing steadily and show no sign of slowing down.

It’s telling that this past month was the hottest in recorded history — and we’ll likely be writing many more articles like this one in years to come — but ultimately, it’s the trend that matters more; and the trend is going up.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, the reason why temperatures are rising is human activity. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions (mostly from burning fossil fuels) are causing a greenhouse gas effect, warming the atmosphere and every corner on Earth. Although we normally talk about global heating in the form of averages, some areas get much hotter than others.

It’s very (very) likely that 2021 will rank among the world’s 10 warmest years on record, and it’s also likely that most years to come will also be among the top 10 hottest years — if we don’t take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. A recent comprehensive report from the IPCC concluded that humans are “unequivocally” causing global warming and that we need to amp our efforts as quickly as possible to avoid the worst effects of the damage.

“Scientists from across the globe delivered the most up-to-date assessment of the ways in which the climate is changing,” Spinrad said in a statement. “It is a sobering IPCC report that finds that human influence is, unequivocally, causing climate change, and it confirms the impacts are widespread and rapidly intensifying.”

It’s not just CO2. We urgently have to tackle methane emissions

Climate experts are sounding the alarm on the role methane emissions play in global warming. Atmospheric concentrations of this greenhouse gas, which is 80 times more potent than CO2 (but more short-lived), are now higher than at any moment in at past 800,000 years. If humanity could tackle these emissions, that would put a huge and fast break on climate change — giving us much-needed time to deal with carbon dioxide.

Image credit: Flickr / Mark Dixon

Earlier this week, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which groups leading climate experts, published a report on the state of the planet. Overall, it’s not looking too great. While the archvillain of the assessment is CO2, methane emissions are also on the rise, which has led to signs of concern among scientists. 

“Methane is the next crucial, fast, climate-stabilization prize,” said Rick Duke, White House liaison for the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, at a press conference following the report. “There’s simply nothing that comes close for securing our near-term climate future and buying us crucial time to decarbonize energy.”

Like CO2, methane contains carbon. Its chemical formula is CH4 — one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. It’s the main component of natural gas and of many ecosystems, and it can be released into the atmosphere in many ways. Rotting vegetation produces methane, especially in wetlands. When insects like termites and ungulates like cows digest food, they also produce methane. It’s mostly cow burps that have the gas.

While methane is a natural component of Earth’s atmosphere, the amount that has been recently added to the atmosphere is insanely high. Livestock breeding (not just cows but also sheep and pigs) is a big factor, as all the manure adds more methane to the atmosphere. In the US, meat alone is responsible for over a quarter of domestic methane emissions.

“It’s a combination of sources, from agriculture, including cattle and rice production, another large source of methane is rubbish dumps,” Peter Thorne, an IPCC author from Maynooth University in Ireland, told BBC.  “One of the biggest is from the production, transport and use of natural gas – which should be called fossil gas.”

Rising methane emissions 

There’s been a big spike in methane emissions since 2008, which researchers believed is linked to the increase in fracking for natural gas in parts of the United States. In 2019, methane in the atmosphere reached record levels, around two-and-a-half times above what it was in the pre-industrial era, according to the IPCC’s report findings.

What worries scientists is that methane is very powerful when it comes to heating the planet. Over a 100-year period, it’s 28 to 34 times as powerful as CO2. Nevertheless, one positive thing is that methane doesn’t last as long in the air as CO2. If one ton of methane is released today, only half would remain in the atmosphere in a decade. 

Reducing methane emissions by 40-45% over the next decade would avoid a 0.3ºC increase in global temperature by 2040, the IPCC said. That can make a big difference to meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, though which governments committed in 2015 to limiting temperature increase to 2ºC or even ideally 1.5º  

Researchers believe that are a range of relatively simple actions that can quickly curb the production of methane. Euan Nisbet from the Royal Holloway University of London told BBC that “it’s relatively cheap” to bring down some of the sources. That’s especially the case of methane leaks from the gas industry, which are easy to find.

In agriculture, there are also many technical changes related to manure and animal feed that can make a difference in lowering emissions. Still, making big cuts will require political actions. In countries like Ireland, New Zealand, and Brazil, where farming plays a big role in the economy, these changes are usually rejected. 

“If there’s one simple takeaway [from this report], it’s urgency,” Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, said on a press call “Drastic cuts in CO2 and, eventually, net zero CO2 emissions will be critical to limiting the extent of future warming. But cutting methane emissions is the single fastest, most effective way there is to slow the rate of warming right now.”

We can still avoid breaking the 1.5ºC climate change barrier, says IPCC scientist — but we need to act *now*

In a new report, climate experts grouped under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned over unprecedented changes faced by the planet because of man-made global warming, some of which are irreversible. Still, it’s not too late and we can still take action by reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Image credit: Flickr / UN

The IPCC found that the global average temperature has already increased 1.1ºC compared to pre-industrial times, mainly because of the extensive use of fossil fuels — yes, that’s our doing. In other words, we’re already dangerously close to exceeding the 1.5ºC limit, which scientists argue would trigger even worse consequences than the ones we are already experiencing in our climate. 

Global countries have committed to not exceeding that target in the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed back in 2015. But climate action from most of them has been less than ideal, not reducing their emissions sufficiently. With the current climate pledges, the world is closer to reaching 3ºC instead of 1.5º by the end of the century — and we’re not keeping those pledges either. 

In its new report, the IPCC warned the 1.5ºC barrier will likely be broken – unless we act now and we do it with a lot of ambition. Gregory Flato is the Vice-Chair of IPCC’s Working Group I, in charge of the report. In an interview with ZME, he described the main findings and the road ahead for the world to avoid climate change’s worst consequences. 

What’s the main new message of the climate report?

Gregory Flato: “There’s not a brand-new message but a more strong and more robust one. We have known for a long time that climate is warming, that there are many changes under way in the climate system and that the cause of that warming is human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases. The report strengthens the evidence that we have by looking at the new science that has become available over the last eight years.”

There seems to be stronger wording of the human influence on the climate compared to previous reports. Is there more evidence now than before? 

GF: “There’s more evidence of the human influence and that is why its expressed stinger than in the past. We are now able to say on the basis of the evidence that we have that is now unequivocal that human activities have influenced the climate and led to warming of the climate system. Part of that is that because of improvements in methodology and observations.”

Can we still avoid temperatures exceeding 1.5ºC?

GF: “The report looks at five illustrated scenarios from very low emission scenario to a very high emission scenario. The lowest of the emissions scenario does indeed cross 1.5 very slightly before the middle of the century but then returns back below 1.5 by end of the century. What that indicates is if we do deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we could limit warming below 1.5ºC even though there will be a slight overshoot before returning back below.”

The report also brings a lot of attention to extreme weather. Are we going to see it worsening in the future?

GF: “There is more of a focus on extremes and that is based on new understanding and better ability to measure changes in extremes and to anticipate how these will change in the future. What is clear is that extreme events like heatwaves and extreme precipitation droughts extreme fire weather those are all thing that change in line with global warming. As the climate system warms these extremes get more severe. The report highlights that. Every additional warming that we allow to happen will lead to this increase in frequency and severity on extreme events, which have a strong impact on society and ecosystems.”

What is the main message for policymakers, who will now have to act based on the report’s findings?

GF: “As all IPCC reports, this one provides science basis for decision makers to take decisions and to change policies. IPCC doesn’t prescribe anything and doesn’t recommend actions. It lays out scientific information. The information we show is that rapid and drastic cut will allow us to stay below 1.5ºC but the longer we continue to emit the more warming that will happen. The only way to stop warming and stabilize temperature is to reach net zero carbon emission. That is the goal to have in mind to stabilize temperature.”

It’s totally our fault: Humans “unequivocally” causing global warming

Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system, according to the largest climate change report ever carried out. Many of these changes are unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years, and some, such as the continued sea-level rise, are irreversible in human time scales. Oh, and yes — we’re to blame for it.

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic

Put together by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global group of leading climate experts, the report was compiled by over 200 scientists, all experts in their fields. While the situation is bleak, strong and sustained reductions in emissions would limit climate change and allow to meet the Paris Agreement objectives. But it’s our last call.

We’ve almost missed our shot

In 2015, countries agreed to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC above pre-industrial times, ideally aiming at 1.5ºC. But the global average temperature has already increased 1ºC and is on track to reach at least 3ºC by the end of the century — that’s if countries keep their climate promises (which they are currently not).

The new report comes at a key moment: three months before the UN climate summit COP26 in the United Kingdom, where world leaders are expected to make new commitments to curb emissions. Climate experts hope the new findings will accelerate climate action even before COP26 so to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. 

“The report is a code red for humanity,” António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, said in a statement. “If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses. I count on government leaders and all stakeholders to ensure COP26 is a success.”

The role of the IPCC

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the United Nations to provide politicians with assessments every six or seven years on the science, impacts and potential options for dealing with climate change. Its reports have become more strongly worded over the years, as evidence has mounted. The IPCC doesn’t do its own novel research but rather assesses already published academic work. 

In 2013, the climate experts concluded in a report that humans were the “dominant cause” of global working since the 1950s — a strong assessment that helped to set the scene for the Paris climate agreement — the first realistic climate agreement signed by virtually all countries. Since then, the influence of mankind on the climate has become even more clear.  

For its studies, the IPCC divides the work in three areas:  physical science, the one now being published, impacts, and mitigation – both to come out next year. As well as its six- or seven-year assessments, the IPCC has also published special studies looking at specific questions. In 2018, for example, it released a report on the importance of keeping global temperature rise under 1.5ºC. 

The new report, the sixth one from the IPCC since 1988, is a comprehensive review of the latest climate science. It was eight years in the making, marshalling the work of hundreds of experts and peer-review studies. It represents the world’s full knowledge to date of the physical basis of climate change, hoping to help policy makers move much faster than before. 

“The latest IPCC report offers a wealth of scientific information that should be elevated and heeded. It provides a deeper understanding of sobering climate tipping points, advances in climate attribution science, and a reporting of regional climate change,” said Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement. 

The key findings

The report shows that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900, and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming. This is based on observational datasets to assess historical level of warming. 

Keeping below 1.5°C has always been the overarching goal, but the IPCC authors think we will now hit this much sooner, putting their best estimate at 2034. In order to have a 50-50 chance of keeping the temperature rise below 1.5ºC, we would have to emit just 500 billion tons of CO2. Now humans emit 40 billion tons of CO2 each year. It’s indeed a big challenge, because it means realistically we only have a few years to transform the economy. 

“This report is a reality check,” IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte, said in a statement. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

Global surface temperatures have risen faster than in any other 50-year period over the past 2,000 years, and this is “already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe”. Whether it’s heatwaves like now in Greece or floods like those in Germany, their attribution to human influence “has strengthened” over the past decade. 

Climate change is not uniform and proportional to the level of global warming, and will have different impacts on different parts of the globe. Image credit: IPCC

The current level of warming has also made changes to many of our planetary support systems that are irreversible on timescales of centuries to millennia. The oceans will continue to warm and become more acidic. Mountain and polar glaciers will continue melting for decades or centuries. Even a rise of sea levels of around two meters by the end of the century can’t be dismissed. 

The report projects that in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions. For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health, the report shows. 

Stephen Cornelius, chief adviser on climate change at WWF, said in a statement: “This is a stark assessment of the frightening future that awaits us if we fail to act. With the world on the brink of irreversible harm, every fraction of a degree of warming matters to limit the dangers.”

The way forward

The report is not without any hope. The scientists at the IPCC say if we can still cut global emissions in half by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050 – there is a chance we could halt and maybe even reverse the rise in temperatures. Even the extreme weather events could become less intense or frequent if we can tackle temperature rises. 

Policy, technology, and behavior have to shift across the board in order for societies to be carbon neutral. But wait, there’s good news as well. Most of the necessary technologies for carbon neutrality are already available and are getting increasingly cost-competitive with the polluting alternatives. 

Changing dietary choices, stopping deforestation, restoring degraded lands, and reducing food loss and waste have significant potential to reduce emissions. In addition, supporting politicians that take much-needed climate action and follow the existing science is also something we can all be more mindful of.

“The thought before was that we could get increasing temperatures even after net zero,” IPCC co-author, Prof Piers Forster from the University of Leeds, said in a statement.  “But we now expect nature to be kind to us and if we are able to achieve net zero, we hopefully won’t get any further temperature increase.; and if we are able to achieve net zero greenhouse gases, we should eventually be able to reverse some of that temperature increase.”

How global warming causes both extreme heat and cold weather

Texas Guardsmen assist a motorist stuck on snow and ice on February 17, 2021 in Abilene, Texas.  Photo: Texas Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Yvonne Ontiveros

It’s obvious how global warming can lead to record-breaking surface temperatures and heatwaves. After all, there’s “warming” in the term that describes the rise of global average temperatures as a result of more heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. But the same process is responsible for driving record-low temperatures as well, which seems counterintuitive. A new study explains how global warming can drive both sweltering heat waves and frostbiting blizzards by analyzing three extreme events from the past winter.

Harsh winters and blazing summers: what’s the connection

On February 26, 2015, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who quite ironically used to be the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, appeared with a snowball on the Senate floor to demonstrate, once and for all, that climate change is a hoax.

“You know what this is?’” asked Inhofe, the author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. “It’s a snowball, from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable.” Then he tossed it to a congressional page.

This tasteless stunt occurred during a period when it happened to be very cold in the eastern United States. Since then, June 2021 has officially become the hottest June on record in North America while July 2021 was the worst for wildfires since records began.

But while global warming and extreme cold might sound antithetic, they’re actually quite well connected. And if Inhofe would have been of good faith and listened to climate scientists, he would have known this, too.

Research has connected the collapse of the polar vortex — a huge ring of low-pressure, cold winds in Earth’s stratosphere above the North Pole — with extreme sub-zero temperature events. This is owed to the polar vortex’s connection with the jet stream, a band of strong air currents flowing from west to east about 10 kilometers above the surface. When the temperature abruptly increases due to global warming, the interaction between the polar vortex and jet stream can be dramatically altered. The resulting extreme weather due to the interplay can be further amplified by changes in ocean temperature or Arctic Ocean sea ice.

Researchers led by Xiangdong Zhang, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, showed this effect in action when they examined two record-setting cold air outbreaks in China from late December 2020 to mid-January 2021. During this time, the cities of Beijing and Tiajin saw their lowest temperatures in 54 years at -19.7°C (-3.46°F) and -19.9°C (-3.82°F), respectively.

Record-breaking cold weather in North America’s midwest and deep south in February 2021 was also examined, which saw the coldest recorded temperatures in almost a century in Texas and Austin, at -13.3°C (8°F) and -8.3°C (17°F), respectively.

Using observational data from the past 42 winters, the researchers plugged temperature readings into climate models that simulated how sea and atmospheric events may impact extreme weather.

“Even though global warming and loss of Arctic Sea ice occurs every year, such extreme weather events that we investigate are intermittent — they do not occur every year,” said co-author James Overland, research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in the U.S. “This is because they are caused by a combination of new global warming and extreme, but naturally occurring, precursor weather conditions in the jet stream and polar vortex.”

“The overarching problem to solve is why extreme weather events have more frequently occurred in a warming climate during recent decades and if the Arctic warming amplification plays a leading driving role,” Zhang added. “The extreme events of the 2020-21 winter provide a unique opportunity to examine what physical processes or mechanisms drive these events.”

The results suggest that all three events were linked to sudden stratospheric warming, although the downstream effects were different for each scenario. During the first East Asia cold event, polar air modulated the midlatitude jet stream, steering cold air southward. In the second event, the polar vortex split, deepening the region of low pressure driving more cooler Arctic air into the region. Finally, in North America, the polar vortex also split but this time the low-pressure atmosphere settled more deeply over the south.

The study shows that large-scale atmospheric circulation and temperature anomalies can lead to extreme weather across the world, but due to slightly different factors. Satellite remote sensing may help validate these model simulations; and if that’s the case, scientists may use these models to better predict how precursor events influence the monsoon season in East Asia and other weather events. But whatever may be the case, the common denominator is global heating.

“By studying these record-breaking cold spells, we can see the ’big picture‘ of extreme weather events.” said co-author, Zhe Han, scientist in the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Though the events can be different, they might share similar underlying mechanisms that are related to global warming. Along with the warming, the Arctic amplification and intensified ocean thermal anomalies may interact with the atmospheric circulation, such as the polar vortex and sudden stratospheric warming, to cause the occurrence of extreme cold or hot events.”

The findings appeared in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

A new IPCC report on climate change is coming. What should we expect?

The United Nations will release on Monday its most comprehensive assessment yet of global warming. The report includes estimates on how greenhouse gas emissions will drive extreme weather in near future. Compiled by 200 scientists (all experts in their fields), the report is also expected to emphasize that humans are responsible for climate change and are severely altering the way the planet works.

Image credit: Flickr / Chris Yakimov

The report, which covers the latest advances in climate science, comes at a key moment: three months before the UN climate summit COP26 in the United Kingdom, where world leaders are expected to make new commitments to curb emissions. Climate experts hope the new findings will accelerate climate action to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. 

In 2015, countries agreed to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC above pre-industrial times, ideally aiming at 1.5ºC. But the global average temperature has already increased 1ºC and is on track to reach at least 3ºC by the end of the century — that’s if countries keep their climate promises (which they are currently not).

Elaborated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global group of leading climate experts, the report takes place as extreme weather events shake up most of the world. North America and several parts of Europe, for example, have seen record-breaking temperatures, leading to forest fires, deaths, and hospitalizations. 

So what can we expect from the report?

“I think it’s going to be a wake-up call, there’s no doubt about that,” Richard Black, an honorary research fellow at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, told BBC News. “But then again, so are some of the real-world events that we’re seeing around us at the moment.”

Why the IPCC is so important

The IPCC was formed in 1988 to provide politicians with assessments every six or seven years on the science, impacts and potential options for dealing with climate change. Its reports have become more strongly worded over the years, as evidence has mounted. The IPCC doesn’t do its own research but assesses already published academic work.

In 2013, the climate experts stated in a report that humans were the “dominant cause” of global working since the 1950s — a strong assessment that helped to set the scene for the Paris climate agreement — the first realistic climate agreement signed by virtually all countries.

For its studies, the IPCC divides the work in three areas:  physical science, the one now being published, impacts, and mitigation – both to come out next year. As well as its six- or seven-year assessments, the IPCC has also published special studies looking at specific questions. In 2018, for example, it released a report on the importance of keeping global temperature rise under 1.5ºC. The findings triggered a massive reaction from young people, taking the streets to demand a political response.

“The 1.5C report was really kind of instrumental for young people to use that science to marshal their efforts towards action,” Ko Barrett, a vice chair of the IPCC, told BBC News. “I think maybe the report surprised us all, that the report had such an impact in getting people to think, wow, this is not some big future problem. This is like right now.”

Expectations for the report

For the new report, more than 200 climate researchers from around the world have been working together in groups over the past four years to review existing peer-reviewed literature. The final draft was subject to discussions and comments (over 75,000) from fellow researchers and from governments, leading to many rewrites. 

“The scientists come in with a proposal document that line by line gets challenged by the representative of the United Nations there, and the scientists defend their lines,” said Prof Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia, told BBC News. “Nothing gets written that is not scientifically correct. So, scientists have the right to just say this is wrong.”

The report will likely have a strong focus on mankind’s role in causing the climate crisis. In the last report in 2013, the authors said that global warming since the 1950s was “extremely likely” because of human activities, such as fossil fuels extraction. This wording is likely to be further strengthened, despite objections from a few countries. 

The IPCC report will also likely warn that we are dangerously close to breaching the Paris Goals of limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5ºC already — although that 1.5C is still within reach. Back in May, leaders of the G7 reaffirmed their commitment to the 1.5º target, while a similar sign is expected from the G20 leaders when they meet in October. Whether or not those commitments will be respected though, is a different thing.

There will also be a chapter on weather and extreme events in a changing climate. Governments asked the IPCC to look at low probability events that can be very damaging, such as the storms, floods, and droughts seen around the world recently. It will be the first time for the IPCC to provide explicit information on extreme climate events. 

With just a few months left before the COP26 climate conference, the stakes are perhaps higher than at any time in recent history. All of us are more familiarized with the issue of climate change than ever before, given the scale of the weather-related disasters, and the new IPCC report will provide new insight on the need to scale up climate action. 

Last month was the worst July for wildfires since records began

Fires on forests and grasslands in July released 343 megatons of carbon emissions, which is about a fifth higher than the previous global record for July, set in 2014, according to EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. This was driven by record heatwaves and prolonged droughts in many parts of the world, which themselves are fueled by climate heating.

Image credit: Flickr / Lotus R

“This stands out by a clear margin,” Mark Parrington, a senior scientist in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, which estimates the carbon releases, told The Guardian. “The July global total this year is the highest since our records began in 2003.”

More than half of the carbon emissions came just from two regions (North America and Siberia) that have experienced extremely hot and dry weather in the mid-summer season, according to the Copernicus report. This is only the latest in a series of unwelcomed recent records, as the world is feeling the growing effects of the climate change crisis. 

Cities in western provinces of Canada and in the US states of Oregon and Washington saw temperatures above 40ºC (104 ºF) on the last few days, with a new all-time Canadian temperature record of 49.6ºC (120 ºF) in the town of Lytton. The record temperatures led to spikes in sudden deaths and hospitalizations and forest fires in many locations.

A similar scenario was registered in Siberia, where average temperatures have soared up to 10ºC above average in the biggest and coldest region, Yakutia. Much of the area is dense taiga forest, which ignites more easily when hot and dry. Despite efforts to control them, dozens of forest fires raged out of control, with authorities asking people not to go out. 

In a recent study, scientists calculated that climate change dramatically increased the chances of this type of extreme heat happening. The study, not peer-reviewed yet, found that before the industrial era, this type of heatwave just wouldn’t have happened. Even in today’s warming world, the heat was a once-in-a-millennium event, the researchers said.

North of Athens, Greece, thousands of residents recently fled to safety from a wildfire that burned for a fourth consecutive day. The blaze tore through forest areas 20 kilometers north of the capital, tearing apart many homes. Several hundred firefighters dug fire breaks and hosed the flames. Traffic was interrupted on the country’s main highway that connects Athens to northern Greece. 

Meanwhile, in Turkey, eight people have died and thousands have been evacuated from their homes, leaving firefighters battling blazes in several coastal resort towns. A similar scenario was seen in Italy, where the number of large wildfires is estimated to have tripled this summer compared to the yearly average, causing millions worth of damage. 

Upcoming challenges

While Europe deals with a very difficult scenario, in many parts of the world the fire season hasn’t approached its peak yet. That’s especially true in South America and Africa, which contribute a far greater share of associated carbon emissions than Europe. In Brazil, a severe drought is sparking concern that forest fires might remain on the same level as last year.

The government space agency, which uses satellites to monitor forest fires, reported a larger burned area in the month of July than in any July since 2016, according to data released this week. The same was true for June. Most forest fires in Brazil are manmade and often started illegally, as land-grabbers clear forest for cattle or soy crops.

Fires in Brazil usually start increasing in June and peak in September, according to historical data. They can easily get out of control during the dry season, burning large swaths of forest to the ground. Brazil has the world’s largest rainforest and tropical wetlands, the Amazon and the Pantanal, which saw record forest fires in 2019 and 2020. 

Greece orders emergency measures as heatwave grips the country

If this year hadn’t been marked so deeply by the pandemic, it might have remained in history as the year of wildfires. Countries in southern Europe are now also taking measures to prevent such events from sparking up along their borders, as a body of hot air coming from Africa is causing heatwaves across the area. This heatwave is expected to last more than a week.

Image via Pixabay.

Against this background, Greek authorities have ordered additional fire patrols and emergency efforts to create air-conditioned areas for workers, the public, and refugees. Still, this is all complicated by limits and measures imposed to control the pandemic.

Heatwaveoniki

“This is a dangerous weather phenomenon. We have been saying it from the start of the week,” said Theodoris Kolydas, director of Greece’s National Meteorological Service, for Agence France-Presse. “The conditions will be stubborn and only subside gradually. Very hot air masses from the shores of Africa are heading toward our region.”

The measures were announced on Friday, and are in effect starting this week, as temperatures are expected to rise over 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 F) in many areas of the country.

Short power outages were reported in parts of greater Athens on Friday as grids are struggling to keep up with air-conditioner-fueled demand for energy. Local authorities have performed multiple infrastructure maintenance inspections on Friday to ensure the grid and water distribution network can bear the increased loads Greece is likely to see this week. Despite this, officials said that the increased use of air conditioning is ‘testing’ the country’s grids.

But it’s not just hardware that’s getting special care. Workers who are exposed to the heat, such as those in construction, manual labor, or catering will be given longer breaks between midday and 4:00 p.m., the hottest part of the day, according to guidelines set down by the Labor Ministry. Employers will also have to provide them with water and air-conditioned rest areas to prevent heat-stroke.

Greece’s concern with the heat is understandable. The country traditionally has one hot and dry season, followed by a cold and wet one. Its forests are predominantly dry and resinous, and conifers are also quite common — making them very fertile ground for wildfires. Three separate fires have swept through southern Greece this week, damaging property around the cities of Athens and Patras.

“On average (in mid-summer), we are dealing with about 50 fires per day, and many of those are under difficult conditions. That number is clearly increasing each year,” civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias said for local TV station Antenna. “It’s a phenomenon that’s gradually getting worse. Climate change is now a climate threat. I say it everywhere I go. We all have a responsibility to protect the country”.

Such measures seem extraordinary to us today, tools to be used in usual circumstances before everything gets back to normal. But, sadly, climate emergencies are likely to become the norm rather than the exception in the future. For now, in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer — so we’re dealing with heatwaves and wildfires, mostly. But freak weather events will become more common all throughout the year and, as their toll on public services mounts, we might start seeing shortages of power and water — which is exactly why Greece is now performing emergency inspections on their power grid and water distribution network.

If civilization collapses, researchers say, try to be in one of these five countries

If you’re planning on thriving while civilization worldwide crumbles, New Zealand is probably the best place to be, says new research.

Bridal Veil Falls, New Zealand. Image credits Holger Detje.

Friday is upon us, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time to ponder the collapse of modern human civilization, as a treat. New research at the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) comes to help us along our merry way, by estimating which countries today would be most resilient to future systemic threats posed by climate change and other globe-spanning problems.

The paper itself examined which factors could lead to such a scenario, focusing on a combination of ecological destruction, resource depletion, and population growth. It then looked at today’s countries and gauged which would fare the best during the “de-complexification” we’d be bound to see after such a collapse. De-complexification refers to the gradual or sudden breakdown of the multiple overlapping systems that maintain the world as we know it, including the collapse of supply chains, international agreements, and global financial structures. In essence, globalization but in reverse.

At the end of the world

The study was carried out by Nick King and Professor Aled Jones at the ARU, and they identified New Zealand as likely the best place to weather the storm. Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia (specifically Tasmania), and Ireland were the runner-ups.

The authors explain that the challenges which face us in the future, ecological destruction, limited resources, and population growth, could trigger a reduction in the complexity of our civilization — in essence, collapse — especially with climate change acting as a “risk multiplier” that makes these trends harder to deal with. Whether this will be a very rapid breakdown taking place in less than a year, or whether this will be a longer, more gradual descent, the paper doesn’t aim to answer. It could even be a hybrid of the two, according to the authors, starting as a gradual decline that picks up speed through “feedback loops”, leading to an abrupt collapse.

Since we live in such an interconnected and interdependent world today, any localized decline will quickly ripple across the world and affect us all.

So, where do you go to weather something like that? The researchers tried to determine that by looking at the self-sufficiency (energy and manufacturing infrastructure), carrying capacity (land available for arable farming and overall population), and isolation (distance from other large population centers which may be subject to displacement events) of countries around the world. The next step was to assess each candidate’s individual and local potential for agriculture and energy production.

According to them, New Zealand, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia/Tasmania, and Ireland are the countries that have the most favorable conditions to survive a global collapse while maintaining high levels of societal, technological, and organizational complexity (i.e. civilization) within their borders. All five of them are islands or island continents, have a strong oceanic climatic influence, as well as a low variability in regards to temperature and precipitation. Taken together, these conditions will likely allow the countries to remain quite stable despite the effects of climate change.

New Zealand came in first due to its low population, high geothermal and hydroelectric potential, and wide swathes of agricultural land. Iceland, Australia/Tasmania), and Ireland also have favorable characteristics, but to a lesser extent. The UK is put at risk by its complicated energy mix and high population density. Although it does have a high agricultural output today, it has low per capita availability of agricultural land, meaning each square foot of land needs to feed a lot of people. This may make it impossible to achieve self-sufficiency.

“Significant changes are possible in the coming years and decades. The impact of climate change, including increased frequency and intensity of drought and flooding, extreme temperatures, and greater population movement, could dictate the severity of these changes,” explains Professor Aled Jones.

“As well as demonstrating which countries we believe are best suited to managing such a collapse—which undoubtedly would be a profound, life-altering experience—our study aims to highlight actions to address the interlinked factors of climate change, agricultural capacity, domestic energy, manufacturing capacity, and the over-reliance on complexity, are necessary to improve the resilience of nations that do not have the most favorable starting conditions.”

The paper “An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity'” has been published in the journal Sustainability.

15,000-year-old viruses found in Tibetan glacier ice — and we know nothing about them

The viruses, recovered from two ice core samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau, are new species to science, and they’re unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Researchers say these could help us shed new light on viral evolution, but concerns also loom.

Yao Tandong, left, and Lonnie Thompson, right, process an ice core drilled from the Guliya Ice Cap in the Tibetan Plateau in 2015. The ice held viruses nearly 15,000 years old, a new study has found. Credit: Lonnie Thompson, The Ohio State University.

There are diseases in the ice

In a sense, glaciers are time capsules, preserving information from thousands of years ago. This information can relate to past climate, atmospheric chemistry, or even past inhabitants.

“These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gasses, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice,” said Zhi-Ping Zhong, lead author of the study and a researcher at The Ohio State University Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center who also focuses on microbiology. “The glaciers in western China are not well-studied, and our goal is to use this information to reflect past environments. And viruses are a part of those environments.”

Viruses and other microbes can survive thousands of years, frozen in ice. In a new study conducted by researchers from Ohio State University, researchers analyzed ice cores from the Guliya ice cap in the Tibetan Plateau. The cores, which date as far back as 14,4000 years ago, revealed 33 viruses, 28 of which were completely unknown to science.

Identifying and classifying viruses is harder than with other species, and the process of cataloging them typically takes a while. Still, the viruses would have thrived in cold environments, the researchers believe, based on the genetic analysis.

“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said Matthew Sullivan, co-author of the study, professor of microbiology at Ohio State and director of Ohio State’s Center of Microbiome Science. “These viruses have signatures of genes that help them infect cells in cold environments—just surreal genetic signatures for how a virus is able to survive in extreme conditions. These are not easy signatures to pull out, and the method that Zhi-Ping developed to decontaminate the cores and to study microbes and viruses in ice could help us search for these genetic sequences in other extreme icy environments—Mars, for example, the moon, or closer to home in Earth’s Atacama Desert.”

The researchers were careful to avoid contamination. When studying microbes, it’s always important to ensure that you’re not bringing your own microbes into the mix. So researchers first decontaminated the surface of the ice core, and then looked at the untainted parts. This method could also come in handy when looking for microbes on other planets (or satellites).

Growing importance

While this could help us better understand how viruses evolved and adapted to extreme environments, it’s also becoming increasingly important to study viruses and other pathogens frozen in ice.

So far, this is only the third study to identify viruses in glaciers, and it may pay to carry out more studies of this type. As temperatures continue to rise as a result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, more and more ice will continue to melt — not just from glaciers, but also from ice caps and permafrost. Ice that has remained frozen for thousands of years is about to melt, bringing dormant viruses and bacteria back to life.

“We know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments, and what is actually there,” Thompson said. “The documentation and understanding of that is extremely important: How do bacteria and viruses respond to climate change? What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”

The study has been published in the journal Microbiome.

Climate change is slowing down Europe’s storms, raising flooding risks

Europe should brace for more intense storms, new research reports, as climate change stands to power them up in the future.

Flooding in Sigonella, Sicily, Italy, in 2005. Image via Pixabay.

Intense, slow-moving rainstorms on the old continent will become more common in the future, according to experts at Newcastle University and the Met Office, UK. In absolute terms, we may see a 14-fold increase in their current frequency across dry land by the end of the century, they report. Such storms generally carry large amounts of precipitation which can cause extensive damage through flooding.

Slower storms tend to pose more of a risk because they dump precipitation on overall smaller areas, which means these are affected more strongly.

More of a bad thing

“With recent advances in supercomputer power, we now have pan-European climate simulations resolving the atmosphere in high detail as short-range weather forecasting models do,” explains lead author Dr. Abdullah Kahraman, of Newcastle University’s School of Engineering. “These models have grid spacing of approximately 2 km, which allows them to simulate storm systems much better, resulting in better representation of extremes”.

Although we’re already seeing flash floods across areas of Europe that traditionally never had to face them, such events will become even more common by the end of the century. Heating climate stands poised to make storms move slower over land, making them more likely to produce flooding through rainfall accumulation.

This, the team explains, is the first study to look at how the speed storms move at will be influenced by climate change. Most research regarding climate change and weather are focused on estimating the frequency and violence of freak or severe weather events to come.

“Using these state-of-the-art climate simulations, we have developed metrics to extract potential cases for heavy rainfall, and a smaller, almost-stationary subset of these cases with the potential for high rainfall accumulations. These metrics provide a holistic view of the problem, and help us understand which factors of the atmosphere contribute to heavy rainfall changes.

Since governments the world over have lagged behind on efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions, there isn’t much we can do to avoid this increase in slow storms, according to the team. Under a RCP8.5 (business as usual) scenario, we can expect serious impacts throughout Europe, they add, from a combination of freak weather and more common storms, as well as the increase in slow-moving storms. The recent flooding seen in Germany and Belgium sadly underscores why such storms are dangerous to life and property, they add.

Europe itself is poorly suited to deal with slow-moving storms, as they are naturally very uncommon occurrences here, and generally confined to parts of the Mediterranean Sea. This means that predicting how they will evolve in the future, and which areas are likely to see the most of them, is vital to help people adapt and put systems in place to prevent loss of life due to flooding, as well as to limit the damage they can incur.

The paper “Quasi‐Stationary Intense Rainstorms Spread Across Europe Under Climate Change” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“No more delays” — Developing countries urge for real climate action before crucial summit

Developing countries have laid out their demands ahead of the key climate change summit COP26 in November in the United Kingdom – asking rich countries to move much faster to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as well as providing financial assistance to poor nations to cope with the growing climate crisis. 

Climate activists stage a protest at a recent G7 summit. Credit: Oxfam

COP26 will be the most important meeting on climate change since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. During the first two weeks of November, delegates from all countries in the world will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss ways to further increase climate action and ensure that we avoid catastrophic climate damage. 

Highlighting a “worrying lack of urgency” from the recent G7 and G20 summits, more than 100 developing countries’ governments said the COP26 talks need to deliver help to communities already impacted by climate-driven extreme weather. As the effects of the climate crisis get more visible, delegates are under pressure to act much faster. 

The to-do list for COP26 is long and complex. Governments have to finalize the rulebook on how the Paris Agreement will be implemented, as well as make good on a 2009 promise to give vulnerable nations $100 billion per year to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Climate finance reached $78 billion in 2018, according to a OECD report

“Despite Covid understandably taking the headlines, climate change has been getting worse over the past year as emissions continue to rise and the lives and livelihoods on the frontline suffer,” Sonam P Wangdi of Bhutan, the chair of the least developed countries (LDC) group, said in a statement. “Richer countries, who have caused this problem, have to take responsibility.”

Richer countries have an added responsibility because they became richer in large part by burning fossil fuel — and at the same time, less developed countries are suffering the brunt of climate damage.

Demands for COP26

The LDC group published a list of demands ahead of COP26. They are calling for developed countries to strengthen the plans for cutting their emissions this decade, provide $100 billion a year in climate finance, help countries adapt to an extreme climate, bring the Paris Agreement into full effect and contribute to loss and damage to poor countries from the impacts of climate change. 

The five points are actually quite similar to the aims set out by the United Kingdom for COP26, including strengthening targets on emissions cuts. Nevertheless, the developing countries are frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations. With only three months before the start of the climate summit, they want to raise the alarm and avoid another toothless summit, as has been the case in previous years. 

A COP26 spokesperson told The Guardian that the list of demands “aligns closely” with the “ambitious goals” set up for the climate summit. The COP26 President “has been pressing” on these issues in regular conversations with leaders and decision-makers, bringing countries together to “resolve the differences and set the direction for a shared future, the spokesperson said. 

In the report, the countries asked for a “fair share accounting” of greenhouse gas emissions, claiming countries should make cuts based on historical responsibility and the capacity to act. Under that scenario, for example, the US would need to reduce emissions by 195% by 2030. This could be made up of a 70% cut in domestic emissions plus $80 billion a year in support for developing countries.

“Developed countries are currently not pulling their weight or keeping their promises on their obligations to provide climate finance. Like any negotiation, you need to have faith that pledges and commitments will be met. In 2009 and 2015, they promised to deliver climate finance by 2020. Yet this is still to be met, “Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale of Gabon, the chair of the Africa group of negotiators, said in a statement.

Greenhouse gas emissions must fall more than 7% every year by 2030 in order to keep the 1.5ºC Paris temperature goal in reach, according to United Nations estimates. While the Covid-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions saw emissions plunge in 2020, concentrations of planet-warming CO2 continue to climb ever higher – with no end in sight. 

EU unveils sweeping climate plan to drastically reduce CO2 emissions

The European Union announced a set of climate change proposals in which every industry will be forced to accelerate its shift away from fossil fuels in order to cut emissions by at least 55% by 2030 (from 1990 levels). 

Image credit: World Bank

No more diesel cars by 2035

The legislation, presented by the EU’s executive branch (the European Commission) includes a dozen major proposals, ranging from new levies on greenhouse gases to a phase-out of gasoline and diesel cars by 2035. They also involve a revamp of the bloc’s emission trading program, through which companies for the CO2 they emit.

“By acting now we can do things another way… and choose a better, healthier and more prosperous way for the future,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference. “It is our generational task [to secure] the wellbeing of not only our generation, but of our children and grandchildren. Europe is ready to lead the way.”

The aim of the legislation is for the bloc to move away from fossil fuels and take better care of the environment by policy design, rather than being forced into urgent measures at some point in the future. European Executive Vice-President Rans Timmermans said failing to act now would mean “failing our children and grandchildren.”

Considering their implications, the proposals will likely be subject to intense lobbying from both environmental and industry groups as they move through the legislative process over the next year. They will also face resistance because of the very different energy mixes in member countries, from France that heavily relies on nuclear to Poland on coal.  

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government already questioned the plan, saying it threatened to undo its utility price cuts. The EU package includes a regulation that toughens energy taxation rules to discourage fossil fuels and promotes cleaner energy sources. “The choice of tools is untenable and unacceptable,” Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas told reporters. 

But the EU has drawn its line in the sand: emissions must go down, and quick.

The sticky points

One of the most controversial elements of the climate plan is a “carbon border adjustment mechanism,” which would impose duties on foreign companies – increasing the price of certain goods such as steel, aluminum, concrete, and fertilizer. The aim is to ease pressure on EU producers that cut emissions but struggle to compete with importers.

Such a move could be seen as protectionist amid the World Trade Organization rules and could be difficult to justify for the EU, which is known for its strict defense of open trade. Corporate lobby BusinessEurope already denounced the plan, saying it “risks destabilizing the investment outlook” for sectors such as steel, cement, aluminum, fertilizers and electric power “enormously”.

The plan also involves a revamp of the bloc’s emissions trading program, under which companies pay for carbon dioxide they emit, and introduce taxes on shipping and aviation fuels for the first time. The bloc will create a $85 billion fund to compensate those who lose out, with the money coming from the expanded market for carbon emissions.

Yet, for all the organizations who say the plan is too far-fetched, many claim the proposals don’t go far enough. Climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said that unless the EU “tears up” its proposals, “the world will not stand a chance of staying below 1.5ºC of global heating”. Meanwhile, Greenpeace EU Director Jorgo Riss said celebrating the plan would be like “a high-jumper claiming a medal for running under the bar.”

The EU Commission set out in September its plan to reach a 55% emissions reduction by 2030, saying at least 30% of the EU’s long-term budget would be spent on climate-related measures. The targets are part of a global effort to tackle climate change by cutting atmospheric pollution, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

In 2015, countries agreed under the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit temperature increase to 2ºC, aiming at 1.5ºC. Nevertheless, global temperatures have already increase by 1ºC and could reach 3ºC with the current trajectory. More ambitious climate action is urgently needed to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. 

The new climate normal: Extreme, “once in a century” floods rip houses, kill dozens in Western Europe

Dozens of people were killed and even more are missing after torrential rains triggered extreme floods in Germany and neighboring Belgium. While at this point, we can’t say with certainty that the floods were caused by climate change, experts believe these are once-in-a-century type floods — and climate change is known to amplify this type of extreme events.

In the peaceful, wine-growing, hilly Eifel region in Germany, six houses collapsed, and a further 25 buildings are at extreme risk of caving in. At least 70 people are missing, and 44 were confirmed killed already. Belgium is also affected, as is the Netherlands.

Western Europe is not prone to flooding, or any extreme weather events for that matter. But this summer, heatwaves, floods, and even tornadoes seem to be on the table.

“There are people dead, there are people missing, there are many who are still in danger,” the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, Malu Dreyer, told the regional parliament. “We have never seen such a disaster. It’s really devastating.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was distraught by the news of the floods. “My sympathy goes to the relatives and of the dead and missing,” she said during a trip to Washington.

The situation is still unfolding, and the full extent of the damage is not yet known. To make matters even worse, the worst may not yet be over — authorities are bracing themselves for more rain today, although drier weather is expected over the weekend.

This level of rainfall has not been seen in one hundred years. Local municipalities have basically seen two months of rainfall in a single day. Meanwhile, high temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) are expected in parts of northern Europe, and the night between Wednesday and Thursday was the hottest in Finland’s history.

While it’s very difficult to link individual weather events to larger climate change shifts, researchers have warned for decades that these shifts will bring more extreme weather events like floods and heatwaves. Even a tornado hit the central European nation of Czech Republic, killing five people in the process.

These once-in-a-century extreme weather events are expected to become more and more common as the new climate normal enters into force. The current climate shifts are driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and will continue to accentuate as long as we continue emitting.

Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor at a general election in September and the premier of the hard-hit state of North Rhine Westphalia, also pointed this out during a visit to the area:.

“We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures, on European, federal and global levels, because climate change isn’t confined to one state,” he said.

Shark teeth found in Antarctica unlock mystery of Earth’s ancient climate cooling

The Eocene was the hottest period in the past 50 million years. With temperatures some 13 °C hotter than today, no ice around the poles, and mammals just starting to take over the world, our planet was a very different environment. But something weird happened. Some 50 million years ago, the climate transitioned from a “greenhouse” to cooler “icehouse” conditions, which impacted the evolutionary history of flora and fauna. 

Teeth from an ancient shark could now help us understand what happened.

Image credit: Flickr/ NOAA

Researchers have worked on several theories about what drove this climate shift, some focusing on Antarctica due to its contiguity to tectonic gateways and amplified temperature effects at high latitudes. The tectonic theory notes that as the Australian and Antarctic tectonic plates were spreading apart, this produced increased volcanism and CO2 emissions.

The Antarctic also played a key role in the eventual cooling — once the oceans around it began to freeze, Antarctic waters sent cold water and icefloes There’s evidence, for example, that the Drake Passage and the Tasman Gateway (two now-icy passages around the Antarctic) widened and deepened during this time.

The wider and deeper passages would have been necessary for the waters of the major oceans to come together and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to form, studies showed. That current, which currently flows around Antarctica, traps cold waters in the Southern Ocean, keeping Antarctica cold and frozen.

In a new study, researchers from the University of California analyzed the chemistry preserved in the teeth of the now-extinct sand tiger shark species Striatolamia macrota. The shark used to hunt in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula tens of million years ago and left well-preserved fossil teeth in what’s now Seymour Island. 

“By studying the chemistry preserved in these shark teeth, my colleagues and I found evidence of when the Drake Passage opened, which allowed the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to mix, and what the water felt like at the time,” lead author Sora Kim wrote in a commentary. “The temperatures recorded in shark teeth are some of the warmest for Antarctic waters.”

Teeth filled with information

For the study, the researchers studied 400 teeth from Seymour Island from all ages of sharks, which lived between 45 million to 37 million years ago. 

Illustrations of sand tiger shark teeth used by the scientists. Image credits: Christina Spence Morgan

Sand tiger sharks have sharp teeth that protrude from their jaw to grasp prey. They have hundreds of teeth on multiple rows, and over a lifetime, they shed and regrow thousands of teeth. Each tooth contains important environmental information, which is encoded within its chemistry and preserved there over millions of years. Essentially, a tooth can serve as a proxy, telling researchers information about the waters in which it was formed.

The outer layer of the teeth is formed by an enamel-like layer, with oxygen atoms from the water the shark lived in. The researchers analyzed the oxygen to determine the temperature and salinity of the water and found that the Antarctic waters stayed warmer than previously estimated

“It’s possible the difference was between waters closer to the surface and deeper on the sea floor, or the sharks whose teeth we found may have spent part of their lives in South America,” Kim wrote. 

The modern-day analog of sand tiger sharks spends summer and early fall between coastal Massachusetts and Delaware. When the waters cool off, they migrate to North Carolina and Florida. The researchers believe that ancient sand tiger sharks also migrated when Antarctic waters cooled off, heading north to warmer waters.

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the teeth were 3-6 higher than today, which indicates the atmospheric levels of C02 were also much higher than they are today — which fits with an overall higher temperature.

Another finding came from the element neodymium, which adsorbs and replaces other elements in the outer enamel-like material of the tooth during early fossilization. Its analysis provided the researchers with the earliest chemical evidence of water flowing through the Drake Passage, which aligns with existing tectonic evidence. If conditions are stable, the neodymium would remain stable through the years, but if the neodymium composition does change, it means that there are changes in oceanography.

“The early timing of the Drake Passage opening, but the delayed cooling effect, indicates there are complex interactions between Earth’s systems that affect climate change,” Kim wrote.

Ultimately, although the sand tiger sharks went extinct, other relatives managed to adapt to the changing conditions. However, the current climate events are different from the ones in the Eocene, because they happen much faster and leave less time for adaption. In addition, the current events are also coupled with other stressors, like pollution and shrinking ecosystems.

The study was published in the journal Advance Earth and Space Science