[Authors note: One of the most difficult and important articles I’ve written in 20 years of environmental journalism. Originally published Sept 6 2014 @Vice Motherboard]
Here’s the frightening implication of a landmark study on CO2 emissions:
By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again, unless they’re either replacements for old ones or carbon neutral. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions will push global warming past 2˚C of temperature rise worldwide, threatening the survival of many people currently living on the planet.
Every climate expert will tell you we’re on a tight carbon budget as it is—that only so many tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) can be pumped into the atmosphere before the global climate will overheat. We’ve already warmed temperatures 0.85˚C from pre-industrial levels, and the number rises every year. While no one thinks 2˚ C is safe, per…
Gulf states are among the most water-scarce in the world. With few freshwater resources and low rainfall, many countries have turned to desalination (where salt is removed from seawater) for their clean water needs.
But Gulf states are heading for “peak salt”: the more they desalinate, the more concentrated wastewater, brine, is pumped back into the sea; and as the Gulf becomes saltier, desalination becomesmore expensive.
“In time, it’s going to become impossible to use desalination in a way that makes economic sense,” says Gökçe Günel, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. “The water will become so saline that it will be too expensive to desalinate.”
The process is cost and energy intensive; it pumps seawater through special filters or boils it to remove the salts. The resulting brine can be nearly twice as salty as normal Gulf waters, according to John Burt, a biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi.
But the 250,000 sq km Gulf is more like a salt-water lake than a sea. It’s shallow, just 35 metres deep on average, and is almost entirely enclosed. The few rivers that feed the Gulf have been dammed or diverted and the region’s hot and dry climate results in high rates of evaporation. Add in a daily dose of around 70m cubic metres of super-salty wastewater from dozens of desalination plants, and it’s not surprising that the water in the Gulf is 25% saltier than normal seawater, says Burt, or that parts are becoming too salty to use.
Peak salt, says Günel, mirrors the concept of peak oil, a popular concept in the 1970s used to describe the point in time when the maximum rate of oil extraction had been reached. “Peak salt describes the point at which desalination becomes unfeasible,” she says.
And studies have shown that the Gulf will only get saltier in the future. Raed Bashitialshaaer, a water resources engineer at Sweden’s Lund University, says that the growth of desalination plants in the region is happening far faster than his own 2011 study estimated.
With groundwater sources either exhausted or non-existent and climate change bringing higher temperatures and less rainfall, Gulf states plan to nearly double the amount of desalination by 2030 (doc). This is bad news for marine life and for the cost of producing drinking water – unless something can be done about the brine.
Farid Benyahia, a chemical engineer at Qatar University, believes he has a solution. He recently patented a process that could eliminate the need for brine disposal by nearly 100%. The process uses pure carbon dioxide (emitted during the desalination process by burning fossil fuels for power) and ammonia to turn brine into baking soda and calcium chloride. Whether the process is cost-effective remains to be seen but Benyahia believes it could be, especially if markets are found for large volumes of the end products.
Water pricing, says Günel, is also becoming critical to improving water efficiency in the Gulf.
“Climate change policymakers in the region are pushing for water pricing and awareness campaigns around consumption to explain to governments and citizens that they can’t continue to use water in the same way.”
By Stephen Leahy [First published Feb 27 2012 (IPS)]
Rising temperatures are drying out northern forests and peatlands, producing bigger and more intense fires. And this will only get much worse as the planet heats up from the use of ever larger amounts of fossil fuels, scientists warned last week at the end of a major science meeting in Vancouver.
“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty,” said Mike Flannigan, a forest researcher at the University of Alberta, Canada.
“I’d say a doubling or even tripling of fire events is a conservative estimate,” Flannigan told IPS.
While Flannigan’s research reveals forest fire risk may triple in future, a similar increase in peat fires will be far more dangerous. There are millions of square kilometres of tundra and peatlands in the northern hemisphere and they hold more than enough carbon to ramp up global temperatures high enough to render most of the planet uninhabitable if they burn.
A forest fire in Indonesia that ignited peatlands in 1997 smouldered for months, releasing the equivalent of 20 to 40 percent of the worldwide fossil fuel emissions for the entire year, he said.
“There is the potential for significant releases of carbon and other greenhouse gases (from future peat fires),” Flannigan said.
If peat fires release large amounts of carbon, then temperatures will rise faster and higher, leading to further drying of forests and peat, and increasing the likelihood of fires in what is called a positive feedback, he said.
When the increased fire from global warming was first detected in 2006, Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at Germany’s Freiburg University called the northern forest a “carbon bomb”.
“It’s sitting there waiting to be ignited, and there is already ignition going on,” Goldammer said according to media reports in 2006.
Flannigan’s research is based on climate projections for 2070 to 2090. Forests will be drier and there will be more lightning with rising temperatures. Around the world, most fires are caused by humans, except in remote regions like boreal forest and treeless tundra, he said.
Lightning sparked the 1,000-square-kilometre tundra fire fuelled by peat in Alaska’s Anaktuvuk River region in 2007. Lightning, once nearly unknown in the far north, is becoming more common as the region is now two to three degrees C warmer. Until the past decade, fire had largely been absent from the tundra over the past 12,000 years.
The Anaktuvuk River peat fire burned for nearly three months, releasing about two million tonnes of CO2 before it was extinguished by snow. That’s about half of the annual emissions of a country like Nepal or Uganda. Surprisingly, the severely burned tundra continued to release CO2 in the following years.
Peat can grow several metres deep beneath the ground. In fact, some peat fires burn right through winter, beneath the snow, then pick up again in the spring, said Flannigan.
About half the world’s soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at Canada’s University of Guelph. This carbon has been accumulating for thousands of years, but fires can release much of this into the atmosphere rapidly, Turetsky said in a release.
Over the past 10 years, fires are burning far more boreal forest than ever before. Longer snow-free seasons, melting permafrost and rising temperatures are large-scale changes underway in the north, Turetsky and colleagues have found.
Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada’s vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany’s largest research organisation.
This “drastic change” in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist.
Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year. That’s an area larger than the size of India.
The first-ever assessment of forest and bush fires’ impact on human health estimated that 339,000 people die per year from respiratory and other fire-related illness.
“I was surprised the number was this high,” said Fay Johnston, co-author and researcher at University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.
Half of the deaths were in Africa and 100,000 in Southeast Asia. Deforestation fires in the tropics are the worst when it comes to human health impacts, she said. Heavy smoke contains high volumes of tiny particles that are very damaging to the lungs and cardiovascular system and can produce heart attacks.
“It takes humans to burn a rainforest. This would be the easiest to stop compared to other fires,” Johnston told IPS.
Forest and bush fires result in many billions of dollars in material losses every year. Last year, fires in drought-stricken Texas resulted in at least five billion dollars in losses, while the Slave Lake, Alberta fire was Canada’s second worst disaster at 750 million dollars.
Future fires will be bigger and more intense and largely beyond our abilities to control or suppress, said Flannigan.
“Virtually all of Russia, Canada, the U.S.” will be impacted, he said
[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]
The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)
“Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said
Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.
“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature.Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.
“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.
“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.
Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.
Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading →
The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.
Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 46% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.
The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.
[For story behind this explanation – a Russian journalist and a bar are involved – click here. (only 320 words!)]
One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says: “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.
“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.
“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).
“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.
Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:
“The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.
Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm. The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.
After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.
I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.
One additional thing to know is that CO2 is forever. Every little CO2 molecule we add to the atmosphere will continue to trap the sun’s heat for hundreds and thousands of years.