Category Archives: General

Abrupt Climate Change Fiction

Cover Fifty Degrees Below

American ecological science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson recently talked to the Guardian about his new, near-future climate change novel 50 degrees below, which presents a scenario of future climate change, its impacts and humanity’s response.

From the Guardian:

Set in an America of the almost-now, Fifty Degrees Below (and the first volume of the trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain) tells the story of the efforts of a loosely-connected group of scientists, campaigners and politicians to provoke a national response to the crisis of global warming. Unfortunately for them, as environmental aide Charlie Quibbler observes, it’s “easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit”. It is not until the combination of two colliding storm systems and an unprecedented tidal surge causes Washington’s Potomac river to bursts its banks and overwhelm the country’s capital at the climax of book one that the world sits up and takes notice. But, by this point, the polar ice caps have already begun to melt in earnest, shutting down the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and creating environmental conditions that could usher in a new ice age. The last ice age, 11,000 years ago, took just three years to start.

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Parks and People in Africa

New Scientist has an interview with Paul van Vlissingen who is the largest private parks operator in Africa. Interesting is his focus on the importance of integrating the people and the park:

No park will survive in the long run unless it is supported by the people living in and around it. They need to know there is something better to do with a zebra than eat it, that they can benefit from protecting it.

Our management philosophy is completely different from anything that has been there before. We say that the villagers in and around our parks should see the park rangers as people who will help them, not as policemen who go round beating up anybody they think is poaching. Our rangers visit the villages and ask if there is anything they can do. There is a lot of physical suffering there: hunger, malaria, AIDS, people being mauled by lions. Our rangers have radio equipment, so they can get doctors or medicine. We offer security, too. In Liuwa, our park in Zambia, there were 60 or 80 murders a year before we went there. In the first year that we were there, that number went down to 26, the next year to two.

Building resilience to deal with disasters

Last week Science had a special issue on Dealing with Disasters with focus on the role of building or conserving resilience. The Tsunami disaster on 26 December 2005 clearly highlighted the vulnerability of coastal communities, and has triggered a global discussion on how to deal with increasingly severe natural and human induced catastrophes. Today humanity increase the risk for extreme events by simultaneously e.g. accelerating climate change, simplifying ecosystems, and concentrating human populations in coastal areas and cities.

In the special issue, Neil Adger and co-authors focus on coastal communities and explore their social-ecological resilience by looking at the diverse mechanisms they have developed for living with, and learning from, change and unexpected shocks. The authors also discuss the complexity of how resilience can be both increased and decreased through the same development. For example, global tourism increases the risk of infectious and vector borne diseases, but enhance resilience through the development of interlinked local communities, improved communications and the growth of national and international NGO network that link societies.

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Global Consequences of Land Use

Growing world population and increasing wealth are driving demands for more food production. Croplands and pastures occupies today roughly 40% of the land surface and global land cover and is according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) the main modification humanity makes to land cover, and therefore a main driver of ecological change, and biodiversity loss at the global scale.

In a new paper in Science, Jonathan Foley et al. reviews the Global Consequences of Land Use , and discuss consequences of land use on food production, water resources, forests, regional climate and air quality and infectious diseases. They highlight the challenge of managing trade-offs between immediate human needs and maintaining the capacity of the biosphere to provide goods and services in the long term.

Current trends in land use allow humans to appropriate an ever-larger fraction of the biosphere’s goods and services while simultaneously diminishing the capacity of global ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and mediate infectious diseases…

…The conclusion is clear: Modern landuse practices, while increasing the short-term supplies of material goods, may undermine many ecosystem services in the long run, even on regional and global scales. Confronting the global environmental challenges of land use will require assessing and managing inherent trade-offs between meeting immediate human needs and maintaining the capacity of ecosystems to provide goods and services in the future. Assessments of trade-offs must recognize that land use provides crucial social and economic benefits, even while leading to possible longterm declines in human welfare through altered ecosystem functioning.

…Society faces the challenge of developing strategies that reduce the negative environmental impacts of land use across multiple services and scales while maintaining social and economic benefits.

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Why the emu’s survived the human occupation

In the July 8 edition of Science an interesting study is presented by Miller et al. (2005) and commented by Johnson (2005) on the impact of human activities. Around 45,000 years ago, the human started to occupy Australia, and like similar puzzles in the Americas, the questions is the impact of human activities on the extinction of many large herbivores. Miller et al. (2005) provide “the best evidence to date that human arrival, rather than climate, played the leading role in the extinctions of many large herbivores in Australia. They look especially to the diets of the emu and of the largest flightless but now extinct bird Genyornis.

Genyornis & Emu
Figure compares Genyornis & Emu.

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Collapse in Ancient America

The American Scientist and the Scientific American both have an article in their July edition on collapse of ancient societies in America. The Scientific American article is called Simulating Ancient Societies and is written by Tim Kohler, George Gumerman and Bob Reynolds (pp. 76-84). They report on a number of studies using agent-based models to explain the disappearance of a number of Anasazi cites in the South West of the USA. They conclude that it can not just have been a drought that led to the collapse, also cultural factors need to be included to explain the observations. The article in the American Scientist is by Larry Peterson and Gerald Haug (Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization, pp. 322-329). They report on detailed climate recordings from analyzing titanium concentrations in a lake in Venezuela, which is a strong indicator for the weather patterns in the Maya sites, more north in Mexico, Guatamala and Belize. They find a strong correlation between periods of regional collapse and droughts. The spatial pattern of collapse can be affected by the local conditions since people in northern Yucatan had a natural storage of water in caves, which led to a delay of the collapse.

Both cases show that both climate and social factors play an important role to understand collapse of the diverse ancient societies in America.

New Journals

Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy is a new peer-reviewed, open access journal that provides a platform for the dissemination of new practices and for dialogue emerging out of the field of sustainability. According to the journal’s web site, “The e-Journal fills a gap in the literature by establishing a forum for cross-disciplinary discussion of empirical and social sciences, practices, and policies related to sustainability. Sustainability will facilitate communication among scientists, practitioners, and policy makers who are investigating and shaping nature-society interactions and working towards sustainable solutions.”

Foresight: The International Journal of Applied Forecasting is an official publication of the International Institute of Forecasters.
The first issue contains a special feature on judgemental adjustment of statistical forecasts. These are methods for combining soft information or mental models held by individuals with statistical or mathematical models. The issue also includes a paper by John Boylan, “Intermittent and lumpy demand: a forecasting challenge”. In business, “slow items with intermittent and lumpy demand patterns may seem unimportant, but they can make up a substantial part of an organization’s inventory”. Boylan describes several methods for determining and forecasting regularities in lumpy time series. His discussion may be of interest to researchers studying lumpy series from a wide range of systems.

The cost of memory

It would be wonderful if we can remember all our experiences as individuals and communities, in order to improve our decisions in complex dynamic environments. But memory is costly, like the many years of education needed to transfer information, imperfectly, from one generation to the next. An interesting study with fruit flies show the cost of memory on the individual level:
“If you are forever forgetting people’s names or family birthdays, take heart. Forming permanent memories is so physiologically expensive it can result in early death – at least for fruit flies. When fruit flies form lasting memories, their neurons must make new proteins. Now Frederic Mery and Tadeusz Kawecki at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland have shown that this extra work takes its toll on the flies’ ability to survive. They trained one group of flies to associate a jolt with a bad-smelling mixture of two alcohols, while other flies were subjected either to jolts only or to jolts and odours, but not at the same time. When the flies were subsequently deprived of food and water, the group that had learned the link died an average of 4 hours, or 20 per cent, earlier than the others (Science, vol 308, p 1148).
The study suggests that there is a cost to memory and learning, raising the question of whether humans lost other qualities when they evolved superior intelligence. “We have such an extraordinary memory and learning capacity, we must have paid for it,” says Kawecki.”

From issue 2501 of New Scientist magazine, 28 May 2005, page 16