Tag Archives: climate change

Remapping Chimborazo’s vegetation 200 years after Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the founders of biogeography and ecology.  He had an a crazy upbringing and strange life, but his integrative view of nature and focus on precise measurements had a strong impact on Science.

In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt mapped the distribution of plants and vegetation on the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador.

Physical Geography. Humboldt’s Distribution of Plants in Equinoctial America, According to Elevation Above the Level of the Sea. 1839.

Physical Geography. Humboldt’s Distribution of Plants in Equinoctial America, According to Elevation Above the Level of the Sea. 1839.

In a new paper in PNAS by Naia Morueta-Holme and others explain how they resurveyed Mt. Chimborazo in 2012, 200 years after Humbodlt’s visit, to discover and map what changes had occurred.  Their paper includes a fantastic updated version of Humboldt’s map, which supports “Humboldt’s proposal that climate is the primary control on the altitudinal distribution of vegetation”.

An update of Humboldt’s Tableau. Shown is a summary of major changes in overall vegetation limit, average glacier limit, and shifts in topmost vegetation regions on Chimborazo from 1802 to 2012. The major drivers of change, climate, and land use change are represented by the bars to the right: a constant impact of climate change—in particular, increased temperature—the stronger relative impact of land use at the lower sites, mainly through in- tensified agriculture, and the effect of grass harvesting and local burning. Illustration of glaciers is approximate.

An update of Humboldt’s Tableau. Shown is a summary of major changes in overall vegetation limit, average glacier limit, and shifts in topmost vegetation regions on Chimborazo from 1802 to 2012. The major drivers of change, climate, and land use change are represented by the bars to the right: a constant impact of climate change—in particular, increased temperature—the stronger relative impact of land use at the lower sites, mainly through in- tensified agriculture, and the effect of grass harvesting and local burning. Illustration of glaciers is approximate.



Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky

Always provocative science fiction writer/design guru Bruce Sterling on the future – from his closing keynote at SXSW 2014 

My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.

So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.

How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins… you’re gonna get older.

Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be *extremely* afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits— there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.


Impacts of Geoengineering on Biodiversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity just released a report [PDF] put together by their Liaison Expert group on geo-engineering and biodiversity. The report – to which I have contributed as one of several lead authors – brings together peer-reviewed literature on expected impacts of a suite of geoengineering technologies, on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The last chapter also elaborates social, economical and ethical dimensions as they relate to the technologies’ impacts on biodiversity. Key messages include:

10. There is no single geoengineering approach that currently meets all three basic criteria for effectiveness, safety and affordability.  Different techniques are at different stages of development, mostly theoretical, and many are of doubtful effectiveness. Few, if any, of the approaches proposed above can be considered well-researched; for most, the practicalities of their implementation have yet to be investigated, and mechanisms for their governance are potentially problematic.  Early indications are that several of the techniques, both SRM [Solar Radiation Management, my addition] and CDR [Carbon Dioxide Removal, my addition], are unlikely to be effective at the global scale.
42. Geoengineering raises a number of questions regarding the distribution of resources and  impacts within and among societies and across time. Access to natural resources is needed for some geoengineering techniques. Competition for limited resources can be expected to increase if land-based CDR techniques emerge as a competing activity for land, water and energy use. The distribution of impacts (both positive and negative) of SRM geoengineering is unlikely to be uniform – neither are the impacts of climate change itself. (Section 6.3.4)

Links: Melting glaciers, floods, and species responses to climate change

1) BBC News – Rivers of ice: Vanishing glaciers.- David Breashears retraced the steps of early photographic pioneers such as Major E O Wheeler, George Mallory and Vittorio Sella – to try to re-take their views of breathtaking glacial vistas.

2) Thai water management experts are blaming human activity.for turning an unusually heavy monsoon season into a disaster. NYTimes writes:

The main factors, they say, are deforestation, overbuilding in catchment areas, the damming and diversion of natural waterways, urban sprawl, and the filling-in of canals, combined with bad planning. Warnings to the authorities, they say, have been in vain

3) Chen et al’s conducted a metanalysis of published species response to ongoing climate change and found 2-3X faster movement than previous studies.  Their paper in Science – Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming (DOI: 10.1126/science.1206432) estimated median rates of species movement were 11m gain in elevation/ decade and poleward movement of 17 km/ decade. They conclude:

average rates of latitudinal distribution change match those expected on the basis of average temperature change, but that variation is so great within taxonomic groups that more detailed physiological, ecological and environmental data are required to provide specific prognoses for individual species.

Loss of Old Arctic Sea Ice

Age of Arctic Sea Ice in February 2008. The February 2008 ice pack (right) contained much more young ice than the long-term average (left). In the mid- to late 1980s, over 20 percent of Arctic sea ice was at least six years old; in February 2008, just 6 percent of the ice was six years old or older.

Old sea ice, which had survived several summers, used to dominate the sea ice of the winter Arctic. However, today less than half of the sea ice at winter maximum has survived at least one summer.  NOAA’s climatewatch has a video of the loss of arctic sea ice.

Climate Stablization Wedges – an update, responses and critiques

A well know proposed strategy for reducing carbon emissions was the 2004 “wedges” paper in by ecologist Stephen Pacala and engineer Robert Socolow (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1100103). For more on wedges see Carbon Mitigation Initiative website at Princeton.

Robert Socolow has recently published an update on the wedges paper, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which discusses the failures of their proposal, he reaffirms the wedges approach and argues that they should have presented their work differently – specifically:

…advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every “solution” carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have. Our audiences would have been reassured that we and they are on the same team — that we are not holding anything back and have the same hopes and fears.

and he proposes that:

To motivate prompt action today, seven years later, our wedges paper needs supplements: insights from psychology and history about how unwelcome news is received, probing reports about the limitations of current climate science, and sober assessments of unsafe braking.

There are responses onThe Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website and Climate Central that include the Nicholas Stern and others.

Andrew Revkin on DotEarth has an number of US and energy oriented comments from earth system scientist Ken Caldeira, my former colleague at McGill economist Chris Green and others as well as response from Socolow.

Rob Hopkins from Transition Town movement presents a view from local sustainability action.  He worries that the wedges approach can actually make our current situaiton worse – in Giving Robert Socolow a Wedgie (so to speak). He argues that systemic strategies that improve local resilience could be much more successful by addressing multiple issues that focusing on energy and CO2.

Socolow argues that part of the blame for the fact that the world hasn’t adopted the wedges approach can be laid at the door of the environmental movement, for being so upbeat and chipper about the impacts and not acknowledging that there will be ‘pain’ alongside the ‘gain’ (as it were).  …  I think it is far more likely that most of Pacala and Socolow’s wedges are, ultimately, unfeasible due to their own energy intensity and cost in a contracting global economy.

Socolow and Pacala’s wedges were conceived and proposed solely as responses to climate change.  Yet, of course, climate change is not the only challenge we face.  As the World Economic Forum’s recently-released analysis of the risks facing the world over the next 10 years identified, extreme energy price volatility and the fiscal crisis sit alongside climate change, closely followed by economic disparity, collectively leading the field in terms of risks we need to be building resilience to as a matter of urgency

Scanning the Internet for Ecological Early Warnings

If Google Flu Trends can, why can’t we? The possibility to mine large amounts of individual reports and local news posted on the Internet as early warning signs of pending epidemic outbreaks has been a part of global epidemic governance for quite some time. The question is; could we do the same for ecological crises? A couple of years ago, a couple of colleagues and I wrote a conceptual piece in Frontiers entitled “Can webcrawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring?” where we elaborated issue. Until today however, the idea hasn’t moved much from its conceptual phase. Luckily, analysts and GIS-experts at the USDA Forest Service, now have begun to test the concept with real world data. In a new paper entitled “Internet Map Services: New portal for global ecological monitoring, or geodata junkyard?”, Alan Ager and colleagues, present initial results from runs with a geodata webcrawler . They report:
At the USDA Forest Service’s Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (WWETAC), we are exploring webcrawlers to facilitate wildland threat assessments. The Threat Center was established by Congress in 2005 to facilitate the development of tools and methods for the assessment of multiple interacting threats (wildfire, insects, disease, invasive species, climate change, land use change)
The Threat News Explorer (see image) visualizes some of the results.

However, they also note that
much of the online data is stored in large institutional data warehouses (Natureserve, Geodata.gov, etc.) that have their own catalog and searching systems and are not open to webcrawlers like ours.  In fact, most federal land management agencies do not allow services to their data, but allow downloading and in-house viewers (i.e. FHTET 2006). This policy does not simplify the problem of integrated threat assessments for federal land management agencies.
The group is now developing a more powerful webcrawler. You can find and search the database for geospatial data and map here. Still a long way to go it seems, but a very important first step!

Links: death threats, uprisings, social memory, nature, and LIDAR

1) From Nature News, death threats are being sent to Australian climate scientists, including our Stockholm Resilience Centre colleague Will Steffen.  More information from Australia’s ABC news 1 & 2.

2) How well are researchers able to forecast popular uprisings? Some reflections from political scientist Jay Ulfelder.

3) Economists argue that the long-gone Habsburg Empire is still visible in Eastern European bureaucracies today on Vox.eu.

4) Novelist TC Boyle, recommends five books on people and nature.  He recently wrote a good novel, When the Killings Done, on the control of invasive species in California.

5) Also from Nature News, Greg Asner and colleagues have developed a digital catalogue of the chemical and optical properties of some 4,700 plant species in different conditions. By using this information to analyze high resolution LIDAR images from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, Asner hopes that they will be able to identify the species of individual trees.

Evoking Climate Change’s Systemic Risks

Stephen Thomson of Plonomedia.com remixed 350.org climate activist Bill McKibben‘s popular sarcastic recent Washington Post op-ed “A link between climate change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!” into a video that is more gripping than the article.

McKibben is being sarcastic for a reason, for as a recent Media Matters report showed that while a majority of the public supports regulation of greenhouse gases the media over represents anti-regulation groups:

Media Matters examined TV news coverage that included elected officials, members of advocacy groups, business leaders, pundits, and others discussing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. Of these appearances, 152 out of 199 — over 76% — opposed regulation. The three outlets that hosted the greatest number of guests, Fox News (FNC), Fox Business (FBN), and CNBC, all featured opponents of GHG regulation at least four times more often than supporters.

Links: writing, activism, First Nations, Arctic, immigration, and walking

A selection of links I found interesting from around the web

1)  How to write about your science from SciDev.Net

2) Rob Hopkins from Transition Towns writes about the tension between creating change and activism in Transition and activism: a response on Transition Culture.

3) How the distant and dispersed people of Canada’s First Nations are using Facebook from Vancouver’s the Tyee.

4) How climate change will increase coastal accessibility but decrease accessibility to the interior of the Arctic by cutting ice roads.  Toronto Globe and Mail reports on new research in Nature Climate Change (doi:10.1038/nclimate1120).

5) Why more immigration means less crime.  The Walrus reports on how immigration lowers crime rates in Canadian communities in an article Arrival of the Fittest.

6) The Globe and Mail reports on how in Toronto carless recent immigrants are producing a more walkable environment.