Category Archives: Nature

Catastrophe imminent for the world’s oceans


The lead author of a comprehensive new survey of the world’s oceans offers of offers a stark summation of his findings: “The rate of change underway in our oceans is faster than at any point we know of in geological history.”

What is at stake is nothing less than the entire ecosystem covering 71 percent of the planet’s surface, the foundation on which all life on earth is based.

From Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh:

New research from Heriot-Watt, published on open-access journal Elementa today, shows that food supply to some areas of the Earth’s deep oceans will decline by up to half by 2100.

Dr Andrew Sweetman, associate professor at the Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science, and colleagues from 20 of the world’s leading oceanographic research centres have used earth system models and projected climate change scenarios, developed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to quantify impending changes to deep oceans.

The team looked at a number of sea and ocean beds, from the Arctic to Antarctic Oceans, focusing on bathyal (200-3000m) and abyssal (3000-6000m) depths. As well as measuring how the deep oceans’ food sources will decline, the team examined the impact that increased seabed temperatures, declining oxygen levels and increasingly acidic seawater will have, under the sea and across the planet.

Sweetman, associate professor at Heriot-Watt’s Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology, said: “The rate of change underway in our oceans is faster than at any point we know of in geological history.

“Deep seafloor ecosystems provide services that are vitally important to the entire ocean and biosphere; we should all be concerned at what’s happening on our ocean floors.”

Most of the deep sea currently experiences a severe lack of food, but according to Dr Sweetman and his research team, it is about to face a famine.

Sweetman continued: “Abyssal ocean environments, which are over 3000m deep, are some of the most food-deprived regions on the planet.

“These habitats currently rely on less carbon per m2 each year than is present in a single sugar cube.

“We’ve shown that large areas of the abyss will have this tiny amount of food halved by 2100. For a habitat that covers half the earth, the impacts of this will be enormous.”

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Map of the day: America’s fast-vanishing forests


Loss of Forest Coverage [upper maps] and Changes in Average Distance from Nearest Forest [lower maps], 1991-2000  From Forest dynamics in the U.S. indicate disproportionate attrition in western forests, rural areas and public lands, a new study published in PLOS One [open access], maps indicate tghe decline in forest area [a] and percentage of change [b] and the average distance of an individual from the nearest forest [c] and the change in distance over the decade [d].

Loss of Forest Coverage [upper maps] and Changes in Average Distance from Nearest Forest [lower maps], 1991-2000
From Forest dynamics in the U.S. indicate disproportionate attrition in western forests, rural areas and public lands, a new study published in PLOS One [open access], maps indicate the decline in forest area [a] and percentage of change [b] and the average distance of an individual from the nearest forest [c] and the change in distance over the decade [d]. Click on the image to enlarge.

Forests in the United States are dying, whether at the hands of loggers, ranchers, or real estate developers, or, as in the cases of Colorado, Oregon, and California, from disease and drought.

Loss of habitat poses a major environmental threat to countless species, but loss of the nation’s forest has another impact as well.

It further isolates us from an environment that provides us with both recreation and a source of renewal and reflection.

And with the Trump administration already implementing policies top open up yet more of the nation’s forests and other public lands to commercial exploitation, things can only get worse.

New study reveals extent of a one-decade loss

Scientists looked a forest losses over the last decade of the 20th Century, and their findings are very worrisome, especially in light of what the next four years may bring.

From the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Americans are spending their lives farther from forests than they did at the end of the 20th century and, contrary to popular wisdom, the change is more pronounced in rural areas than in urban settings.

A study published today [open access] in the journal PLOS ONE says that between 1990 and 2000, the average distance from any point in the United States to the nearest forest increased by 14 percent – or about a third of a mile. And while the distance isn’t insurmountable for humans in search of a nature fix, it can present challenges for wildlife and have broad effects on ecosystems.

Dr. Giorgos Mountrakis, an associate professor in the ESF Department of Environmental Resources, and co-author of the study, called the results “eye opening.”

“Our study analyzed geographic distribution of forest losses across the continental U.S. While we focused on forests, the implications of our results go beyond forestry,” Mountrakis said.

The study overturned conventional wisdom about forest loss, the researcher noted. The amount of forest attrition – the complete removal of forest patches – is considerably higher in rural areas and in public lands. “The public perceives the urbanized and private lands as more vulnerable,” said Mountrakis, “but that’s not what our study showed. Rural areas are at a higher risk of losing these forested patches.

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DroughtWatch: The worst is over, at least for now


It’s official. None of California remains in the two most severe drought categories, and just 4.19 percent is affected by Severe Drought, 12.178 percent is classified as afflicted by Moderate Drought, and 21.47 percent is listed as Abnormally Dry, for a total of 38.34 percent of California that is afflicted by one or another of the classifications defined by the United States Drought Monitor.

That compares to 100 percent just five months ago [click on the image to enlarge]:

blog-drought

Map of the day: Antarctic sea ice hits a new low


We begin with two images from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

First, the extent of Antarctic sea ice as of 20 February 2017, with the yellow line indicating the average sea ice coverage in recent years:

blog-ice-map

Second, a graph showing the progression of coverage in the 2016-2017 cycle [blue line] compared to other years:

blog-ice-chartWhat make this summer’s record low even more remarkable is that it immediately follows years of record highs. And we say summer because that’s the current season in the Southern Hemisphere.

More from MercoPress:

This year the extent of summer sea ice in the Antarctic is the lowest on record. The Antarctic sea ice minimum marks the day – typically towards end of February – when sea ice reaches its smallest extent at the end of the summer melt season, before expanding again as the winter sets in. This year, sea ice extent contracted to 2.28m sq km on 13 February, according to data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The extent is a fraction smaller than a previous low of 884,173 sq miles recorded on 27 February 1997 in satellite records dating back to 1979. Scientists, including those at British Antarctic Survey, are monitoring the data closely and trying to understand why this year is presenting a minimum.

BAS climate scientist Dr James Pope says: “At this time, so close to minimum event, it is difficult to identify what is causing the record minimum and whether anything significant has changed. Sea ice is highly variable on year-to-year time-scales and therefore the recent record maximum extent from a couple of years ago and this year’s record minimum could both be the result of short- term changes rather than longer-term trends.

“What’s interesting is that Antarctic sea ice has been steadily increasing in size, year on year from the 1970s. So what’s happening now is against the trend. And whilst it’s significant, we won’t know for a couple of years whether this is a single event or a switch away from the previously observed increase. We will now study the data with interest and look at what is causing this minimum.”

The GOP’s war on the environment begins


While Republicans are preparing to gut the Endangered Species Act, Donald Trump isn’t waiting to fire the opening salvos in the GOP war on the environment.

From the Washington Post:

President Trump is preparing executive orders aimed at curtailing Obama-era policies on climate and water pollution, according to individuals briefed on the measures.

While both directives will take time to implement, they will send an unmistakable signal that the new administration is determined to promote fossil-fuel production and economic activity even when those activities collide with some environmental safeguards. Individuals familiar with the proposals asked for anonymity to describe them in advance of their announcement, which could come as soon as this week.

One executive order — which the Trump administration will couch as reducing U.S. dependence on other countries for energy — will instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing electric utilities. It also instructs the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing.

A second order will instruct the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revamp a 2015 rule, known as the Waters of the United States rule, that applies to 60 percent of the water bodies in the country. That regulation was issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gives the federal government authority over not only major water bodies but also the wetlands, rivers and streams that feed into them. It affects development as well as some farming operations on the grounds that these activities could pollute the smaller or intermittent bodies of water that flow into major ones.

Trump has joined many industry groups in criticizing these rules as examples of the federal government exceeding its authority and curbing economic growth. While any move to undo these policies will spark new legal battles and entail work within the agencies that could take as long as a year and a half to finalize, the orders could affect investment decisions within the utility, mining, agriculture and real estate sectors, as well as activities on the ground.

Record El Niño devastates Pacific Coast beaches


Following up on the previous post, a look at another aspect of climate change.

Record waves generated by El Niño have devastated beaches all along the Pacific coast, and as a new study [open access] concludes, “climate change projections suggest a possible increase in the frequency of extreme El Niño and La Niña events,” meaning this year’s disaster could be just the beginning of worse to come.

More from the U.S. Geological Survey:

In a new study, U.S. Geological Survey scientists and their colleagues document how the 2015-16 winter featured one of the most powerful El Niño climate events of the last 145 years.

Investigating 29 beaches along the U.S West Coast from Washington to southern California, researchers found that winter beach erosion was 76 percent above normal, by far the highest ever recorded, and most beaches in California eroded beyond historical extremes. If severe El Niño events such as this one become more common in the future as studies suggest, this coastal region, home to more than 25 million people, will become increasingly vulnerable to coastal hazards, independently of projected sea level rise.

The authors assessed seasonal changes on 29 beaches along approximately 2000 kilometers (1243 miles) of the U.S. West Coast. Surveying the beaches included making 3-D surface maps and cross-shore profiles using aerial lidar (light detection and ranging), GPS topographic surveys, and direct measurements of sand levels, combined with wave and water level data at each beach, collectively spanning 1997-2016. Winter beach erosion or the removal and loss of sand from the beach is a normal seasonal process, but the extent of erosion can be more severe during El Niño events than in other years.

“Wave conditions and coastal response were unprecedented for many locations during the winter of 2015-16. The winter wave energy equaled or exceeded measured historical maximums along the U.S. West Coast, corresponding to extreme beach erosion across the region,” said USGS geologist and lead author of the report, Patrick Barnard.

The 2015-16 El Niño was one of the three strongest events ever recorded, along with El Niño winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98. While most beaches in California eroded beyond historical extremes, some beaches fared better. “The condition of the beach before the winter of 2015 strongly influenced the severity of erosion and the ability of the beach to recover afterward through natural replenishment processes,” said UC Santa Barbara marine ecologist and co-author David Hubbard.

Rivers still supply the primary source of sand to California beaches, despite long-term reductions in the 20th century due to extensive dam construction. But as California is in the midst of a major drought, the resulting lower river flows equated to even less sand being carried to the coast to help sustain beaches.

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Scientists find a number for human climate change


From “The Anthropocene equation” [open access], a scientific review of climate change states, a look at the rates of change in earth systems and the degree to which human activity has accelerated them. Click on the image to enlarge.

From “The Anthropocene equation” [open access], a scientific review of climate change states, a look at the rates of change in earth systems and the degree to which human activity has accelerated them. Click on the image to enlarge.

And it’s a frightening number, too.

From the Australian National University:

Humans are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces, new research co-led by The Australian National University (ANU) has found.

Co-researcher Professor Will Steffen from ANU said the study for the first time came up with a mathematical equation to describe the impact of human activity on the Earth system, known as the Anthropocene equation.

“Over the past 7,000 years the primary forces driving change have been astronomical – changes in solar intensity and subtle changes in orbital parameters, along with a few volcanoes. They have driven a rate of change of 0.01 degrees Celsius per century,” said Professor Steffen, from the Fenner School of Environment and Society and the Climate Change Institute at ANU.

“Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions over the past 45 years have increased the rate of temperature rise to 1.7 degrees Celsius per century, dwarfing the natural background rate.”

The paper published in The Anthropocene Review examines the Earth system as a single complex system and assesses the impact of human activities on the system’s trajectory.

“We are not saying the astronomical forces of our solar system or geological processes have disappeared, but in terms of their impact in such a short period of time they are now negligible compared with our own influence,” Professor Steffen said.

“Crystallising this evidence in the form of a simple equation gives the current situation a clarity that the wealth of data often dilutes.

“It also places the contemporary human impact in the context of the great forces of nature that have driven Earth system dynamics over billions of years.”

Professor Steffen said humanity still had a chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, but time was rapidly running out.

“The global economy can function equally well with zero emissions. Research shows we can feed nine billion people – the projected world population by 2050 – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time,” he said.