Thursday, December 30, 2010

Expect more extreme winters thanks to global warming, say scientists

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

The IndependentFriday, 24 December 2010

Scientists have established a link between the cold, snowy winters in Britain and melting sea ice in the Arctic and have warned that long periods of freezing weather are likely to become more frequent in years to come.

An analysis of the ice-free regions of the Arctic Ocean has found that the higher temperatures there caused by global warming, which have melted the sea ice in the summer months, have paradoxically increased the chances of colder winters in Britain and the rest of northern Europe.

The findings are being assessed by British climate scientists, who have been asked by ministers for advice on whether the past two cold winters are part of a wider pattern of climate change that will cause further damaging disruption to the nation's creaking transport infrastructure.

Some climate scientists believe that the dramatic retreat of the Arctic sea ice over the past 30 years has begun to change the wind patterns over much of the northern hemisphere, causing cold, Arctic air to be funnelled over Britain during winter, replacing the mild westerly airstream that normally dominates the UK's weather.

The study was carried out in 2009, before last year's harsh winter started to bite, and is all the more prescient because of its prediction that cold, snowy winters will be about three times more frequent in the coming years compared to previous decades.

The researchers used computer models to assess the impact of the disappearing Arctic sea ice, particularly in the area of the Barents and Kara seas north of Scandinavia and Russia, which have experienced unprecedented losses of sea ice during summer.

Their models found that, as the ice cap over the ocean disappeared, this allowed the heat of the relatively warm seawater to escape into the much colder atmosphere above, creating an area of high pressure surrounded by clockwise-moving winds that sweep down from the polar region over Europe and the British Isles. Vladimir Petoukhov, who carried out the study at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said the computer simulations showed that the disappearing sea ice is likely to have widespread and unpredictable impacts on the climate of the northern hemisphere.

One of the principal predictions of the study was that the warming of the air over the ice-free seas is likely to bring bitterly cold air to Europe during the winter months, Dr Petoukhov said. "This is not what one would expect. Whoever thinks that the shrinking of some far away sea-ice won't bother him could be wrong. There are complex interconnections in the climate system, and in the Barents-Kara Sea we might have discovered a powerful feedback mechanism," he said.

In the paper, submitted in November 2009 but published last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Dr Petoukhov and his colleague Vladimir Semenov write: "Our results imply that several recent severe winters do not conflict with the global warming picture but rather supplement it."

Arctic sea ice has been in retreat over recent decades, with record lows recorded in September 2007. The normal recovery of the sea ice during winter has also been affected, especially in the Barents and Kara seas which have seen significant losses of ice cover over the past decade.

Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at the Potsdam Institute, said the floating sea ice in winter insulates the relatively warm seawater from the bitterly cold temperatures of the air above it, which can be around -20C or -30C.

"The Arctic sea ice is shrinking and at the moment it is at a record low for mid-to-late December, which provides a big heat source for the atmosphere," Professor Rahmstorf said. "The open ocean actually heats the atmosphere above because the ocean in the Arctic is about 0C, and that's much warmer than the atmosphere about it. This is a massive change compared with an ice-covered ocean, where the ice operates like a lid. You don't get that heating from below.

"The model simulations show that, when you don't get ice on the Barents and Kara seas, that promotes the formation of a high-pressure system there, and, because the airflow is clockwise around the high, it brings cold, polar air right into Europe, which leads to cold conditions here while it is unusually warm elsewhere, especially in the Arctic," he explained.

The scientists emphasised that the climate is complex and there were other factors at play. It is, they said, too early to be sure if the past two cold winters are due to the ice-free Arctic.

"I want to be cautious, but basically in the past couple of months the sea ice cover has been low and so, according to the model simulations, that would encourage this kind of weather pattern," Professor Rahmstorf said.

"The last winter of 2009-10 turned out to be fitting that pattern very well, and perhaps this winter as well, so that is three data points. I would say it's not definite confirmation of the mechanism, but it certainly fits the pattern," he said.

The computer model used by the scientists also predicted that, as the ice cover continues to be lost, the weather pattern is likely to shift back into a phase of warmer-than-usual winters. Global warming will also continue to warm the Arctic air mass, Professor Rahmstorf said.

"If you look ahead 40 or 50 years, these cold winters will be getting warmer because, even though you are getting an inflow of cold polar air, that air mass is getting warmer because of the greenhouse effect," he said. "So it's a transient phenomenon. In the long run, global warming wins out."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Scientist, His Work and a Climate Reckoning

MAUNA LOA OBSERVATORY, Hawaii — Two gray machines sit inside a pair of utilitarian buildings here, sniffing the fresh breezes that blow across thousands of miles of ocean. They make no noise. But once an hour, they spit out a number, and for decades, it has been rising relentlessly.

The first machine of this type was installed on Mauna Loa in the 1950s at the behest of Charles David Keeling, a scientist from San Diego. His resulting discovery, of the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, transformed the scientific understanding of humanity's relationship with the earth. A graph of his findings is inscribed on a wall in Washington as one of the great achievements of modern science.

Yet, five years after Dr. Keeling's death, his discovery is a focus not of celebration but of conflict. It has become the touchstone of a worldwide political debate over global warming.

When Dr. Keeling, as a young researcher, became the first person in the world to develop an accurate technique for measuring carbon dioxide in the air, the amount he discovered was 310 parts per million. That means every million pints of air, for example, contained 310 pints of carbon dioxide.

By 2005, the year he died, the number had risen to 380 parts per million. Sometime in the next few years it is expected to pass 400. Without stronger action to limit emissions, the number could pass 560 before the end of the century, double what it was before the Industrial Revolution.

The greatest question in climate science is: What will that do to the temperature of the earth?

Scientists have long known that carbon dioxide traps heat at the surface of the planet. They cite growing evidence that the inexorable rise of the gas is altering the climate in ways that threaten human welfare.

Fossil fuel emissions, they say, are like a runaway train, hurtling the world's citizens toward a stone wall — a carbon dioxide level that, over time, will cause profound changes.

The risks include melting ice sheets, rising seas, more droughts and heat waves, more flash floods, worse storms, extinction of many plants and animals, depletion of sea life and — perhaps most important — difficulty in producing an adequate supply of food. Many of these changes are taking place at a modest level already, the scientists say, but are expected to intensify.

Reacting to such warnings, President George Bush committed the United States in 1992 to limiting its emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Scores of other nations made the same pledge, in a treaty that was long on promises and short on specifics.

But in 1998, when it came time to commit to details in a document known as the Kyoto Protocol, Congress balked. Many countries did ratify the protocol, but it had only a limited effect, and the past decade has seen little additional progress in controlling emissions.

Many countries are reluctant to commit themselves to tough emission limits, fearing that doing so will hurt economic growth. International climate talks in CancĂșn, Mexico, this month ended with only modest progress. The Obama administration, which came into office pledging to limit emissions in the United States, scaled back its ambitions after climate and energy legislation died in the Senate this year.

Challengers have mounted a vigorous assault on the science of climate change. Polls indicate that the public has grown more doubtful about that science. Some of the Republicans who will take control of the House of Representatives in January have promised to subject climate researchers to a season of new scrutiny.

One of them is Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California. In a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, he said, "The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic."

But most scientists trained in the physics of the atmosphere have a different reaction to the increase.

"I find it shocking," said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the government monitoring program of which the Mauna Loa Observatory is a part. "We really are in a predicament here, and it's getting worse every year."

As the political debate drags on, the mute gray boxes atop Mauna Loa keep spitting out their numbers, providing a reality check: not only is the carbon dioxide level rising relentlessly, but the pace of that rise is accelerating over time.

"Nature doesn't care how hard we tried," Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist, said at a recent seminar. "Nature cares how high the parts per million mount. This is running away."

A Passion for Precision

Perhaps the biggest reason the world learned of the risk of global warming was the unusual personality of a single American scientist.

Charles David Keeling's son Ralph remembers that when he was a child, his family bought a new home in Del Mar, Calif., north of San Diego. His father assigned him the task of edging the lawn. Dr. Keeling insisted that Ralph copy the habits of the previous owner, an Englishman who had taken pride in his garden, cutting a precise two-inch strip between the sidewalk and the grass.

"It took a lot of work to maintain this attractive gap," Ralph Keeling recalled, but he said his father believed "that was just the right way to do it, and if you didn't do that, you were cutting corners. It was a moral breach."

Dr. Keeling was a punctilious man. It was by no means his defining trait — relatives and colleagues described a man who played a brilliant piano, loved hiking mountains and might settle a friendly argument at dinner by pulling an etymological dictionary off the shelf.

But the essence of his scientific legacy was his passion for doing things in a meticulous way. It explains why, even as challengers try to pick apart every other aspect of climate science, his half-century record of carbon dioxide measurements stands unchallenged.

By the 1950s, when Dr. Keeling was completing his scientific training, scientists had been observing the increasing use of fossil fuels and wondering whether carbon dioxide in the air was rising as a result. But nobody had been able to take accurate measurements of the gas.

As a young researcher, Dr. Keeling built instruments and developed techniques that allowed him to achieve great precision in making such measurements. Then he spent the rest of his life applying his approach.

In his earliest measurements of the air, taken in California and other parts of the West in the mid-1950s, he found that the background level for carbon dioxide was about 310 parts per million.

That discovery drew attention in Washington, and Dr. Keeling soon found himself enjoying government backing for his research. He joined the staff of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in the La Jolla section of San Diego, under the guidance of an esteemed scientist named Roger Revelle, and began laying plans to measure carbon dioxide around the world.

Some of the most important data came from an analyzer he placed in a government geophysical observatory that had been set up a few years earlier in a remote location: near the top of Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that loom over the Big Island of Hawaii.

He quickly made profound discoveries. One was that carbon dioxide oscillated slightly according to the seasons. Dr. Keeling realized the reason: most of the world's land is in the Northern Hemisphere, and plants there were taking up carbon dioxide as they sprouted leaves and grew over the summer, then shedding it as the leaves died and decayed in the winter.

He had discovered that the earth itself was breathing.

A more ominous finding was that each year, the peak level was a little higher than the year before. Carbon dioxide was indeed rising, and quickly. That finding electrified the small community of scientists who understood its implications. Later chemical tests, by Dr. Keeling and others, proved that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels.

The graph showing rising carbon dioxide levels came to be known as the Keeling Curve. Many Americans have never heard of it, but to climatologists, it is the most recognizable emblem of their science, engraved in bronze on a building at Mauna Loa and carved into a wall at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

By the late 1960s, a decade after Dr. Keeling began his measurements, the trend of rising carbon dioxide was undeniable, and scientists began to warn of the potential for a big increase in the temperature of the earth.

Dr. Keeling's mentor, Dr. Revelle, moved to Harvard, where he lectured about the problem. Among the students in the 1960s who first saw the Keeling Curve displayed in Dr. Revelle's classroom was a senator's son from Tennessee named Albert Arnold Gore Jr., who marveled at what it could mean for the future of the planet.

Throughout much of his career, Dr. Keeling was cautious about interpreting his own measurements. He left that to other people while he concentrated on creating a record that would withstand scrutiny.

John Chin, a retired technician in Hawaii who worked closely with Dr. Keeling, recently described the painstaking steps he took, at Dr. Keeling's behest, to ensure accuracy. Many hours were required every week just to be certain that the instruments atop Mauna Loa had not drifted out of kilter.

The golden rule was "no hanky-panky," Mr. Chin recalled in an interview in Hilo, Hawaii. Dr. Keeling and his aides scrutinized the records closely, and if workers in Hawaii fell down on the job, Mr. Chin said, they were likely to get a call or letter: "What did you do? What happened that day?"

In later years, as the scientific evidence about climate change grew, Dr. Keeling's interpretations became bolder, and he began to issue warnings. In an essay in 1998, he replied to claims that global warming was a myth, declaring that the real myth was that "natural resources and the ability of the earth's habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human activities are limitless."

Still, by the time he died, global warming had not become a major political issue. That changed in 2006, when Mr. Gore's movie and book, both titled "An Inconvenient Truth," brought the issue to wider public attention. The Keeling Curve was featured in both.

In 2007, a body appointed by the United Nations declared that the scientific evidence that the earth was warming had become unequivocal, and it added that humans were almost certainly the main cause. Mr. Gore and the panel jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But as action began to seem more likely, the political debate intensified, with fossil-fuel industries mobilizing to fight emission-curbing measures. Climate-change contrarians increased their attack on the science, taking advantage of the Internet to distribute their views outside the usual scientific channels.

In an interview in La Jolla, Dr. Keeling's widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change, he would have been dismayed.

"He was a registered Republican," she said. "He just didn't think of it as a political issue at all."

The Numbers

Not long ago, standing on a black volcanic plain two miles above the Pacific Ocean, the director of the Mauna Loa Observatory, John E. Barnes, pointed toward a high metal tower.

Samples are taken by hoses that snake to the top of the tower to ensure that only clean air is analyzed, he explained. He described other measures intended to guarantee an accurate record. Then Dr. Barnes, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, displayed the hourly calculation from one of the analyzers.

It showed the amount of carbon dioxide that morning as 388 parts per million.

After Dr. Keeling had established the importance of carbon dioxide measurements, the government began making its own, in the early 1970s. Today, a NOAA monitoring program and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography program operate in parallel at Mauna Loa and other sites, with each record of measurements serving as a quality check on the other.

The Scripps program is now run by Ralph Keeling, who grew up to become a renowned atmospheric scientist in his own right and then joined the Scripps faculty. He took control of the measurement program after his father's sudden death from a heart attack.

In an interview on the Scripps campus in La Jolla, Ralph Keeling calculated that the carbon dioxide level at Mauna Loa was likely to surpass 400 by May 2014, a sort of odometer moment in mankind's alteration of the atmosphere.

"We're going to race through 400 like we didn't see it go by," Dr. Keeling said.

What do these numbers mean?

The basic physics of the atmosphere, worked out more than a century ago, show that carbon dioxide plays a powerful role in maintaining the earth's climate. Even though the amount in the air is tiny, the gas is so potent at trapping the sun's heat that it effectively works as a one-way blanket, letting visible light in but stopping much of the resulting heat from escaping back to space.

Without any of the gas, the earth would most likely be a frozen wasteland — according to a recent study, its average temperature would be colder by roughly 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But scientists say humanity is now polluting the atmosphere with too much of a good thing.

In recent years, researchers have been able to put the Keeling measurements into a broader context. Bubbles of ancient air trapped by glaciers and ice sheets have been tested, and they show that over the past 800,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air oscillated between roughly 200 and 300 parts per million. Just before the Industrial Revolution, the level was about 280 parts per million and had been there for several thousand years.

That amount of the gas, in other words, produced the equable climate in which human civilization flourished.

Other studies, covering many millions of years, show a close association between carbon dioxide and the temperature of the earth. The gas seemingly played a major role in amplifying the effects of the ice ages, which were caused by wobbles in the earth's orbit.

The geologic record suggests that as the earth began cooling, the amount of carbon dioxide fell, probably because much of it got locked up in the ocean, and that fall amplified the initial cooling. Conversely, when the orbital wobble caused the earth to begin warming, a great deal of carbon dioxide escaped from the ocean, amplifying the warming.

Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, refers to carbon dioxide as the master control knob of the earth's climate. He said that because the wobbles in the earth's orbit were not, by themselves, big enough to cause the large changes of the ice ages, the situation made sense only when the amplification from carbon dioxide was factored in.

"What the ice ages tell us is that our physical understanding of CO2 explains what happened and nothing else does," Dr. Alley said. "The ice ages are a very strong test of whether we've got it right."

When people began burning substantial amounts of coal and oil in the 19th century, the carbon dioxide level began to rise. It is now about 40 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and humans have put half the extra gas into the air since just the late 1970s. Emissions are rising so rapidly that some experts fear that the amount of the gas could double or triple before emissions are brought under control.

The earth's history offers no exact parallel to the human combustion of fossil fuels, so scientists have struggled to calculate the effect.

Their best estimate is that if the amount of carbon dioxide doubles, the temperature of the earth will rise about five or six degrees Fahrenheit. While that may sound small given the daily and seasonal variations in the weather, the number represents an annual global average, and therefore an immense addition of heat to the planet.

The warming would be higher over land, and it would be greatly amplified at the poles, where a considerable amount of ice might melt, raising sea levels. The deep ocean would also absorb a tremendous amount of heat.

Moreover, scientists say that an increase of five or six degrees is a mildly optimistic outlook. They cannot rule out an increase as high as 18 degrees Fahrenheit, which would transform the planet.

Climate-change contrarians do not accept these numbers.

The Internet has given rise to a vocal cadre of challengers who question every aspect of the science — even the physics, worked out in the 19th century, that shows that carbon dioxide traps heat. That is a point so elementary and well-established that demonstrations of it are routinely carried out by high school students.

However, the contrarians who have most influenced Congress are a handful of men trained in atmospheric physics. They generally accept the rising carbon dioxide numbers, they recognize that the increase is caused by human activity, and they acknowledge that the earth is warming in response.

But they doubt that it will warm nearly as much as mainstream scientists say, arguing that the increase is likely to be less than two degrees Fahrenheit, a change they characterize as manageable.

Among the most prominent of these contrarians is Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who contends that as the earth initially warms, cloud patterns will shift in a way that should help to limit the heat buildup. Most climate scientists contend that little evidence supports this view, but Dr. Lindzen is regularly consulted on Capitol Hill.

"I am quite willing to state," Dr. Lindzen said in a speech this year, "that unprecedented climate catastrophes are not on the horizon, though in several thousand years we may return to an ice age."

The Fuel of Civilization

While the world's governments have largely accepted the science of climate change, their efforts to bring emissions under control are lagging.

The simple reason is that modern civilization is built on burning fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, power plants, steel mills, farms, planes, cement factories, home furnaces — virtually all of them spew carbon dioxide or lesser heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Developed countries, especially the United States, are largely responsible for the buildup that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution. They have begun to make some headway on the problem, reducing the energy they use to produce a given amount of economic output, with some countries even managing to lower their total emissions.

But these modest efforts are being swamped by rising energy use in developing countries like China, India and Brazil. In those lands, economic growth is not simply desirable — it is a moral imperative, to lift more than a third of the human race out of poverty. A recent scientific paper referred to China's surge as "the biggest transformation of human well-being the earth has ever seen."

China's citizens, on average, still use less than a third of the energy per person as Americans. But with 1.3 billion people, four times as many as the United States, China is so large and is growing so quickly that it has surpassed the United States to become the world's largest overall user of energy.

Barring some big breakthrough in clean-energy technology, this rapid growth in developing countries threatens to make the emissions problem unsolvable.

Emissions dropped sharply in Western nations in 2009, during the recession that followed the financial crisis, but that decrease was largely offset by continued growth in the East. And for 2010, global emissions are projected to return to the rapid growth of the past decade, rising more than 3 percent a year.

Many countries have, in principle, embraced the idea of trying to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling that any greater warming would pose unacceptable risks. As best scientists can calculate, that means about one trillion tons of carbon can be burned and the gases released into the atmosphere before emissions need to fall to nearly zero.

"It took 250 years to burn the first half-trillion tons," Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist, said in a briefing. "On current trends, we'll burn the next half-trillion in less than 40."

Unless more serious efforts to convert to a new energy system begin soon, scientists argue, it will be impossible to hit the 3.6-degree target, and the risk will increase that global warming could spiral out of control by century's end.

"We are quickly running out of time," said Josep G. Canadell, an Australian scientist who tracks emissions

In many countries, the United States and China among them, a conversion of the energy system has begun, with wind turbines and solar panels sprouting across the landscape. But they generate only a tiny fraction of all power, with much of the world's electricity still coming from the combustion of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

With the exception of European countries, few nations have been willing to raise the cost of fossil fuels or set emissions caps as a way to speed the transformation. In the United States, a particular fear has been that a carbon policy will hurt the country's industries as they compete with companies abroad whose governments have adopted no such policy.

As he watches these difficulties, Ralph Keeling contemplates the unbending math of carbon dioxide emissions first documented by his father more than a half-century ago and wonders about the future effects of that increase.

"When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they're older," he said. " 'Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won't be around.' It's basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it."

On Dec. 11, another round of international climate negotiations, sponsored by the United Nations, concluded in CancĂșn. As they have for 18 years running, the gathered nations pledged renewed efforts. But they failed to agree on any binding emission targets.

Late at night, as the delegates were wrapping up in Mexico, the machines atop the volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean issued their own silent verdict on the world's efforts.

At midnight Mauna Loa time, the carbon dioxide level hit 390 — and rising.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Facing the hard local realities of a warming world

 Michael Bachelard 
Sunday Age, December 19, 2010
CLIMATE change has done Nat White a big favour. It has provided his boutique Mornington Peninsula vineyard with the perfect conditions for growing pinot noir and chardonnay.
Warmer temperatures in the hills that run down the spine of the Mornington Peninsula mean Mr White is now virtually assured that his grapes will ripen every year, even though he is harvesting them a full month earlier than he did in 1975.
This is just one of dozens of changes that warmer, drier conditions have already wrought in Victoria.
Lower average rainfall means that the water table has shrunk deeper underground, easing the threat of salinity; crops such as wheat can now be grown reliably in Victoria's Western District, formerly mainly suitable for livestock; populations of birds, frogs and butterflies have plummeted or changed their behaviour; trees native to Victoria are struggling and people in cities and towns are suffering more heatwaves and bushfire-threat days.
Across Victoria, the climate is changing - not just in models of the future but also in observed events. These have already altered the landscape, forcing us to change the way we interact with it. This process has created both winners and losers.
Victoria University professor Roger Jones said these changes all flow back to two facts: maximum daily temperatures have risen almost 1 degree on average in the past 14 years, while average annual rainfall has dropped 15 per cent in that time.
This year, Professor Jones said, a rare conjunction of climatic events had dumped a lot of tropical rain on Victoria, something that last happened in 1975. The ''general meteorological view'' is that this season, unfortunately, is a ''blip'' that is unlikely to be repeated soon.
Averages also mask vastly different regional effects. Stream flows in south-east Australia are down 44 per cent on average, but the drier, warmer soil and reduced autumn rainfall means reductions of up to 86 per cent in some catchments.
''These changes are highly significant,'' Professor Jones said.
''People assume that historical climate is stationary and climate change will be gradual but what we're seeing isn't a trend … it's a step change … a change of state.''
Every climate model shows an abrupt shift for this part of the world, he said.
Nat White, who has been growing the same grapes on the same land since 1975, finds this change of state suits him well. In the old days his grapes were not ready for picking until late April, even early May. But in some years it was too cold and difficult to ripen them.
Now, with good rainfall in his corner of Victoria and warmer weather, the harvest is reliably a month earlier. ''We've come into what I think is a fairly optimum condition from a condition that was really too marginal.''
On the downside, the warmer weather is accelerating the production of sugar, which is in danger of outpacing the development of flavour in the grapes. ''If you get too much sugar you get a higher alcohol content, and it gets out of balance,'' he said.
But the change that has favoured Mr White's operation has devastated some vineyards in the north of the state. Melbourne University professor Snow Barlow said some winemakers had closed, while others were investigating introducing Sicilian or Spanish grapes that are adapted to dry heat.
Corporate winemakers such as Brown Brothers and Foster's were busy buying land in Tasmania to grow their chardonnay grapes. Other crop growers have also been forced to adapt to the changing conditions.
Derrimut wheat was bred for the dry, hot Wimmera region. But now John Hamilton, and dozens of other farmers, are growing it south of the Dividing Range. His farm is near Geelong, where it has previously been too wet and cold for wheat. ''There's no doubt that it's happening across the region; not just our farm,'' Mr Hamilton said.
Two decades ago, farms in his area west of Geelong had 60 per cent stock and 40 per cent crops. ''Now I'm 95 per cent crops,'' he said.
A similar move is happening in Gippsland, in the state's south-east.
Meanwhile, in the Mallee region, the hot, dry conditions until this year have increased the stress on plants, making farming more difficult. Dairying has also been forced south.
The Birchip Cropping Group was set up by farmers in the Wimmera-Mallee to help them navigate these changes. But agronomist Harm van Rees says farmers in the north have few alternatives for adaptation.
''In the Mallee it's been very difficult to see what farmers can do other than grow the traditional crops and run their livestock,'' he said.
Some farmers are buying land in the south as insurance or so they can move stock between properties.
Professor Jones said the Wimmera had ''the smallest, most exposed economy to climate change'', with 30 per cent of its income exposed to highly climate-sensitive industries. The Mallee was not far behind.
Victoria has traditionally been a hugely productive orchard, but that too has changed, ''driven'', in the words of John Wilson of Fruit Growers Victoria, ''totally by lack of water''.
Science is reinventing the shape of fruit trees: they are smaller so they spend less energy on growing wood and more on growing fruit; they are planted 40 times more densely; and they are productive within four years rather than 10.
But increasing temperatures are also changing fruit behaviour. Mr Wilson said that two years ago the Gala apples failed supermarket specifications because the nights were not cold enough to produce the typical red, stripey colour.
Scientist Rebecca Darbyshire says apple trees need at least 100 very cold nights in winter to ensure proper fruit in the next season. At Tatura, near Shepparton, the number of cold nights has fallen from 150 to 120. It's not enough to have an effect, but it's a worrying trend.
Hot weather is also affecting forestry operations, with Rowan Reid, co-ordinator of the Australian Master TreeGrower Program and a former academic, noticing that trees such as shining gum, which have adapted to Victoria, are suffering because of hot, dry conditions. ''We're growing dryland species like red ironbark in high rainfall areas now because of climate uncertainty and higher temperatures,'' he said.
Salinity, on the other hand, has improved markedly, says Greg Hoxley of consultant SKM.
Water tables rise as a result of excess water collecting on the surface when thirsty plants such as trees are replaced by crops. With drier conditions, water tables are sinking again.
''It's a topic of active consideration as to whether saline areas will need to be actively managed to the extent they were a decade ago,'' Mr Hoxley said.
The story of agriculture in Victoria is of adaptation to change: shifting where crops are grown, developing new varieties or methods.
But some birds and animals will find it hard to adapt. Of the 108 woodland bird species in central Victoria studied by Deakin University scientist Andrew Bennett, two-thirds had declined significantly over the years of drought to 2007.
Much of the decline, seen among both insect-eating and nectar-eating birds, was driven by the failure of the red ironbark trees to flower over four successive seasons.
Another study showed frogs decimated by the hot, dry weather, with a team led by Monash University professor Ralph Mac Nally observing in 2006-07 that fewer than half the species expected in areas of central Victoria were still surviving. In Victoria's redgum forests, 65 per cent of the trees are now in poor condition.
Scientists are eager to establish whether this year's big wet will re-establish some of the populations of birds, frogs or trees, or whether too much damage has already been done.
Climate changes are also beginning to affect human settlement patterns.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal has rejected two coastal developments - one in Lakes Entrance and one near Wilsons Promontory - for fear of inundation by bigger, more frequent storms.
And councils, starting with Wodonga, are developing heatwave plans to move vulnerable groups to cooler areas if necessary. Deaths increased in Melbourne during the late-January heatwave of 2009.
According to Professor Jones, Victoria's climate is already variable, but his work shows that ''if you force it [with human-induced factors], it will be even more variable''.
The change in Victoria's climate happened 12 or 13 years ago and the result is ''extreme events that are unprecedented in the historical record''.
The results can now be measured in dozens, perhaps hundreds of shifts in environment and behaviour.
''The changes will require a significant planning response,'' Professor Jones says, ''and nobody should underestimate the risks''.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Emissions cuts can save polar bears, study finds

By Ashley Hall
ABC News Online, 16 December 2010
A new study by US researchers has found polar bears could be saved from likely extinction if the world makes rapid and large cuts to carbon emissions.
It is an about-face from earlier research which suggested emissions were already too high for them to survive.
"The difference is that in the 2007 studies our model outcomes were based entirely on the assumption we would continue on the greenhouse gas emissions task we had followed for the last several years," said Dr Steve Amstrup, scientist emeritus with the US Geological Survey.
Both studies were led by Dr Amstrup, who is also the senior scientist for the conservation organisation Polar Bears International.
He says three years ago there was no suggestion that anybody was prepared to do anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"What we've done now and what we didn't do then is considered what effect reducing greenhouse gas emissions substantially would have on ice habitats and on polar bears," he said.
"And in fact there's one major publication we cite in our paper that predicted that we had already emitted enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to cause the Earth to warm enough that it would be beyond the tipping point."
But Dr Amstrup's team now believes there are mechanisms at play that put paid to the tipping point analysis.
"This is an important finding because if there were these tipping points, it might mean greenhouse gas mitigation efforts that we would do in the future might not be able to confer any conservation benefit," he said.
Dr Amstrup argues we need to take drastic action quickly if we want to preserve the habitat and the polar bears.
"Indeed the emissions trajectories we tested that had the best and most benefit to polar bears and their habitats were very aggressive mitigation scenarios," he said.
The size of cut he is talking about is much bigger than even the most ambitious targets mooted at the recent international climate change talks in Cancun.
"It's important to recognise the savings of polar bears, taking the actions we describe to preserve a more secure future for polar bears, have ramifications for the rest of the world," Dr Amstrup said.


In a separate study in Nature, researchers outline their concerns that the shrinking Arctic ice may lead to the extinction of polar bears no matter what emission cuts are achieved.
As marine mammals move into newly freed-up areas, they are increasingly inter-breeding.
In 2006 a hunter shot a polar bear with brown fur thought to be a crossbreed between a polar bear and a grizzly bear.
"And a second one was shot in 2010 and in this case, again it was a hybrid. In this case the DNA results indicated the mother of the hybrid was herself a hybrid," Dr Amstrup said.
Brendan Kelly, a research scientist with the US National Marine Mammal Laboratory, says his team has identified 34 examples of where crossbreeds have emerged.
"If you have a population [that] is reduced for whatever reason and it starts interbreeding with a more numerous species, then you have a real potential there to lose the rare species," he said.
"So sometimes this kind of breeding is sort of a final death knell of a depleted species."
Dr Kelly says the first breed likely to disappear from the Arctic thanks to crossbreeding is the North Pacific right whale, which has begun breeding with the bowhead whale.
It is thought there are only about 200 of them left.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

At last, the climate changes

The Independent on Sunday

12 December 2010

Environment Editor Michael McCarthy witnesses the successful conclusion of the UN talks on global warming – and explains why the deal is good news

Ministers and officials from nearly 200 countries pulled off one of modern history's major repair jobs yesterday when they revived the global project to counter global warming, which had seemed critically damaged by the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference a year ago.

At a successor conference in Cancun, Mexico, they agreed a package of measures which are not yet enough to save the climate, but are enough to save the 20-year-old international climate change negotiating process from collapse – a real danger if the talks had ended in deadlock once again, as many observers expected.

After a fortnight's negotiations in the Mexican "super-resort" on the Caribbean coast, in which prospects of success often seemed bleak, the 15,000 delegates bridged their differences in the early hours of yesterday with a comprehensive deal, which was announced to thunderous applause and cheering.

They signed off a new framework in which all countries – and not just the rich nations, as previously – now have official, UN-recognised goals to cut their emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing the atmosphere to warm (with this year likely to prove the warmest in the 150-year-old instrumental record).

They recognised that industrialised nations need to do more to cut emissions, officially adopted the target of keeping warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels, agreed that world emissions must soon peak, and agreed to a new international regime of monitoring of every country's emission-cutting efforts, which was previously anathema to China – now the world's biggest CO2 emitter.

Furthermore, in two radical new initiatives, they set up a huge, multi-billion-dollar Green Fund to help developing countries fight climate change, which will start operating in a year's time, and outlined a new world-wide agreement to halt deforestation, which alone is responsible for 20 per cent of the CO2 emissions total.

Some environmentalists criticised the deal because, in the emissions cuts it prescribes, it does not yet go far enough to keep warming to a two-degree rise. Yet there was widespread recognition that Cancun's restoration of momentum to the negotiation process, in the wake of the Copenhagen "car crash", was an achievement of great significance.

"The UN climate talks are off the life-support machine," said Tim Gore of Oxfam. "The agreement falls short of the emissions cuts that are needed, but it lays out a path to move towards them – crucially moving the world closer to the global deal that eluded the Copenhagen summit."

Wendel Trio of Greenpeace said that some people had called the process dead. "But governments have shown that they can co-operate and move forward to achieve a global deal," he said.

Britain's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, who headed the UK delegation, said the agreement marked "a really important moment".

"This is a turning point in the long-running saga of international climate change negotiations," he said. "We've got a deal here which, if I had to mark it, I would have said 8 out of 10. It's way beyond what we were expecting only a few weeks ago, and, indeed, way beyond what we expecting at the beginning of the week."

Mr Huhne, who had warned that failure at Cancun would have turned future climate talks into "a zombie process" in which nothing of significance could be agreed, played a major role in the meeting's successful outcome, chairing a special group of ministers dealing with its most difficult problem.

This was a seemingly intractable argument between some rich and poor countries over renewing the Kyoto protocol, which runs out at the end of 2012, and which commits rich industrialised countries to make legally binding cuts to their emissions, while committing the poorer developing nations to do nothing. The row pitched Japan and Russia, on the one hand – refusing point-blank to countenance a renewed protocol – against developing countries led by Bolivia and Venezuela, who insisted on renewal as the price of a deal.

Mr Huhne and his group drafted text of such Byzantine subtlety that it allowed both sides to hold their positions while putting off a decision on Kyoto 2, probably to the next UN climate conference which will take place next year in Durban, South Africa.

The resolution of the Kyoto argument made possible all the rest of the package, of which the carbon-cutting measures are probably the most important, but the Green Fund and the draft of a deforestation treaty are the most eye-catching,

The fund will be used to disburse large sums in annual aid for climate defence in developing nations. Rich countries promised the fund should reach $100bn by 2020 in the Copenhagen Accord, the ad hoc agreement cobbled together by heads of state as a face-saver at the end of the failed meeting in Denmark.

The forest agreement, which is known as REDD+ – the acronym stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (plus a few other things such as replanting) – foresees the eventual "monetisation" of the great rainforests of countries such as Brazil, Congo and Indonesia, with the host nations receiving funding for not cutting them down and so releasing CO2 (perhaps eventually in the form of carbon "credits" that can be traded in emissions trading schemes).

Mr Huhne, a Liberal Democrat, was clearly elated by the success of the meeting, as were all the British team, including his Tory deputy, Greg Barker; they were particularly pleased that Britain had achieved its main objective, which was to "anchor" inside the UN climate process the informal emissions pledges made by many nations under the Copenhagen Accord, a document which, however, has no official status.

Speaking of the deal in the round, Mr Huhne said: "I think this shows that there is still a real consensus internationally – and I would say a growing consensus in places such as China and India, where you would not, a year ago, have expected it – that we do have to go down this path to a low-carbon economy, and that, actually, it is the road to prosperity."

What has been agreed?

Shared Vision:

This means the big overall picture.

The Aim An official aim, accepted by all, of halting global warming at a rise of less than 2C above pre-industrial levels (it presently stands at about 0.8C above those levels). Recognition that industrialised countries must do more. Setting a date for a global peak in carbon emissions.

The Deal The 2C target was agreed and the need for stronger action by developed countries was recognised, The idea that the world's CO2 emissions should peak was recognised – for "as soon as possible" – but no date was set.

What are we waiting for? A date for this emissions peak – 2020 was what Chris Huhne wanted – and perhaps an even tougher target than 2 degrees, such as 1.5. (Small island states threatened with sea level rise want this). A scientific review will look at this in 2013.

Legal Form:

This means what future agreements are going to look like.

The Aim Developing countries wanted a pledge to renew the Kyoto protocol, with its commitments only on rich countries to cut their emissions. Rich countries want a universal emissions treaty binding on everyone.

The Deal A compromise in which both of these potentially irreconcilable positions were held in abeyance without wrecking the talks through clever language drafted by Chris Huhne and his team.

What are we waiting for? A second commitment period of Kyoto, with perhaps a parallel treaty legally binding everyone (which Britain would accept). A target for next year's climate conference in Durban.

Emissions Pledges:

This refers to the cuts in carbon emissions that countries say they will carry out

The Aim The bringing into the official UN climate change negotiating process of the pledges that many developing countries, such as China, have made over the past year under the Copenhagen Accord. This was an ad-hoc document drafted by heads of state as a face-saver at the meeting last year that has no official status.

The Deal The pledges have been brought into the UN process and documentation, or in the jargon, "anchored".

What are we waiting for? Industrialised countries, including Britain, would like to make these developing country pledges legally binding; that's some way off yet.


This refers to Monitoring, Reporting and Verification

The Aim A system by which the world community as a whole could be guaranteed that countries which claimed they were cutting their carbon emissions were actually doing so.

The Deal A softened version of the original MRV proposals that the Chinese angrily rejected as too intrusive at Copenhagen. It was drawn up by the charismatic Indian minister for the environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh.

What are we waiting for? Widespread application of monitoring.

Forests Agreement:

An outline treaty to prevent deforestation because of the carbon emissions released.

The Aim Financial sticks and carrots to halt deforestation. Many countries wanted the full-scale "monetisation" of protected forests so rainforest countries could generate carbon credits and there would be a new market commodity, forest carbon.

The Deal A large-scale agreement to halt deforestation in developing countries in return for rich-world funding, but reference to market mechanisms was left out at the insistence of Bolivia. Various safeguards, including rules to protect forest peoples and wildlife.

What are we waiting for? The emissions-credits-from-forests idea is the big attraction for many investors, private and public. It will doubtless creep back in.

Green Fund:

A new institution to channel some of the vast new flows of climate finance to the developing countries – likely to be $100bn (£63bn) annually by 2020.

The Aim To bring the fund into existence now. Developing countries wanted a big say in how it will be run.

The Deal It was brought into existence yesterday at Cancun, with the World Bank as its trustee. It has got a board, a design committee, terms of reference and a one-year deadline for it to be up and running. Developing countries are well represented.

What are we waiting for? For the fund to start lending money for climate change projects. This will probably happen after the next UN climate meeting in Durban next year.

What they said: 'It's saved the process, but not yet the climate'

"The Cancun agreement is a very significant step forward in renewing the determination of the international community to tackle climate change through multilateral action."

David Cameron

British Prime Minister

"Cancun marks a step forward for the international community on climate change, building on key provisions of Copenhagen."

Ed Miliband

Labour leader

"This has been a victory for you all, delegates. This has been a success for humanity and reason."

Felipe Calderon

President of Mexico

"Responsibly, we cannot go along with a situation that my President has termed 'ecocide and genocide'."

Pablo Solon

Bolivian ambassador to the UN

"The emissions cuts on the table could still lead to a global temperature increase of up to five degrees which would be catastrophic for hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people."

Asad Rehman

Friends of the Earth

"Despite some last-minute hiccups, countries leave here with a renewed sense of goodwill and some sense of purpose."

Keith Allott

Head of climate change, WWF-UK

"Cancun may have saved the process but it has not yet saved the climate."

Wendel Trio


"Developing countries can now see new money on the table which they can draw on to adapt to the impacts they're already facing and reduce emissions."

Claire Parker

International Union for Conservation of Nature

"We have seen some progress on all key elements of an eventual agreement ... because there has been a much more positive atmosphere, with less hype and more realistic expectations."

Lord stern

Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

"A year after the Copenhagen Accord little has changed, and 300,000 more people have died from climate change-related impacts. Another year will pass where more lives will be ruined by climate change."

kate blagojevic

World Development Movement

"It's a very weak deal – enough to keep the ongoing negotiation process alive, but not enough to save the climate."

Caroline lucas MP

Green Party leader