Biodiversity and Ecosystems Archives

October 2, 2003

Earth Simulator -- tool for better climate prediction

The BBC reports that the Earth Simulator -- a massive multi-computer array in Japan designed to model natural processes including weather and earthquakes -- is now producing "very exciting" results.

Professor Julia Slingo, director of the NCAS Centre for Global Atmospheric Modelling, said: "These results are very exciting.

"They show that, for the first time, our climate models can be run at resolutions capable of capturing severe weather events such as intense depressions, hurricanes and major rainstorms.

"This means that we potentially have the capability to predict whether storms like Hurricane Isabel will be on the increase in future.

"Importantly for the UK, we will be able to predict with more confidence increases in damaging storms and extremes of temperature, and what their regional impacts will be.


"They will help us to prioritise our investment in devising strategies to adapt to climate change, for example the specification of railway lines to deal with the extreme heat experienced this summer, or storm drains to cope with extreme rainfall such as we experienced in the autumn of 2000."

December 8, 2003

Scanning the Planet

If you want to get a sense of what's going on inside of your body, you can -- if you have the money or an extremely generous insurance provider -- get a full body scan, using various devices to get detailed cross-sections of your body, a process known as "tomography." But what if you want to get a sense of what's going on inside the Earth? Well, guess what.

A group of Princeton geoscientists just announced that they have used a technique known as "Finite Frequency Tomography" to take an incredibly detailed peek at the inner workings of our home planet. In particular, they have managed to take the first direct measurements of so-called "mantle plumes," massive spouts of hot material rising from the mantle, a 2,000 mile-thick layer just below the Earth's crust. 32 plumes were identified, including one under Iceland (see image).

This gives us a new tool in understanding how our planet functions.

One novel aspect of this planetary body scan was that it used not positron emission or gravity waves or some other extremely high-tech process, but old-fashioned seismographic measurements. The vibrations from earthquakes serve as the equivalent of sound waves, as used in ultrasound scans. Details of the study can be found at Science Express, although you have to be a subscriber (or AAAS member) to download the article. A PDF of the scan images, however, is currently freely available.

What's Your Score?

Hey, USians -- do you know just how many pollutants, toxic wastes, and environmental hazards are in your neighborhood? You do now. The eco-organization Environmental Defense has set up a handy map site called "Scorecard," illustrating and detailing the latest EPA Toxic Release Inventory. National maps show concentrations of air pollutants, animal wastes from factory farms, clean water act status, and more, while community data breaks down by county just what sorts of hazards you may have around you.

Information about wastes and pollutants can be hard to find and parse, sometimes deliberately so; Scorecard makes digging up information about local environmental conditions if not exactly fun, then at least friendly. (Via MetaFilter)

December 12, 2003

Bioremediation Rocks

Geobacter sulfurreducens -- get used to seeing that name. It may well be the key to cleaning up some of the most dangerous radioactive wastes sites around. Best of all, it's completely natural.

G. sulfurreducens is a microbe that is able to turn the soluble form of uranium contaminating groundwater around nuclear weapons production sites (such as Rifle Mill in Colorado) into an easily-collected precipitate. Researchers with the Department of Energy have managed to use the bacteria to reduce uranium in the groundwater around Rifle Mill by 90%. The microbe occurs naturally in the ground; its growth is stimulated by adding vinegar to the soil.

But now, biologists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, have sequenced the microbe's DNA, figuring out how it manages to detect and "eat" uranium, producing minute amounts of electricity. Their report is in today's edition of Science; the illustration at right is from their online supporting material. TIGR and University of Massachusetts in Amherst researchers believe that they will be able to manipulate the microbe's genome to make its uranium-electricity conversion faster and more efficient.

(It's worth noting that G. sulfurreducens doesn't make the uranium go away; it makes it no longer soluble in water. This is an ideal type of bacterial bioremediation -- the contaminant becomes easy to clean up, but there's no risk of the microbe "running wild" and devouring otherwise safe material.)

December 13, 2003

Plan B

Like it or not, the Kyoto treaty on climate change is pretty much dead. The U.S. has flatly rejected it; Russia is playing games with it; and even the E.U. quietly admits that most member nations will not hit their targets. And, frankly, many environmentalists weren't too thrilled with the Kyoto treaty to begin with -- it didn't do enough, was too complex, and left many issues unaddressed.

So what's Plan B?

According to an article in this week's New Scientist, Plan B is something called "Contraction and Convergence," or "C&C." Supported by the U.K.'s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the United Nations Environment Program, the European Parliament and the German Advisory Council on Global Change, C&C has numerous advantages over Kyoto. It's more straightforward than the earlier treaty, it addresses the American government's concerns about developing world participation, and it ultimately would be more aggressive about actually dealing with atmospheric carbon build-up than was Kyoto. The C&C concept has been around for about a decade, but is receiving new attention as the death of the Kyoto treaty has become clear.

Contraction and Convergence simultaneously moves towards a reduced overall carbon emissions total and a universal per-person carbon emissions allowance. The convergence aspect, according to this plan, would be settled by 2050; by then, all nations would have the same emissions-per-person target. The plan includes some emissions trading, but all nations would be included, and the restrictions would eventually be more stringent than in the Kyoto treaty. The article has a useful graph illustrating how the Contraction and Convergence process would work over time.

December 16, 2003

Watching Growth from Above

Urban areas are growing. But by how much? Satellite imaging can help us monitor urban growth by allowing precise measurements of urbanization patterns over time. NASA researchers used Landsat pictures of 30 randomly-selected mid-size cities around the world from 1990 and 2000 to study city size changes. This will allow for better estimates of urbanization and land use around the world, which in turn is critical for better climate modeling.

These three images show the city of Chengdu in 1990, in 2000, and a combined map, with yellow representing urban areas in 1990 and orange showing the areas of new growth.

Mid-size cities, with populations ranging between 1 and 5 million, were chosen over mega-cities because the somewhat smaller urban areas are growing faster, and may have a greater overall impact on the global climate.

When the cities were compared, three common spatial patterns became clear. First, land developments have formed in clusters outside the city. While fairly common in the U.S., Schneider noticed this trend in large cities of China and India as well. Second, there are a number of cities where growth has occurred along roads leading out of the city. This trend poses challenges both to city managers and governments who must provide water, sewage, adequate housing, schools and health care services to dispersed people, and to the citizens, who face increasingly difficult commutes. Finally, Schneider found scattered, patchy development around cities, with less structure than the first two trends. This is the first time actual data have been used to confirm theories made by urban researchers during the last century.

The pictures are fascinating (even while being a bit alarming).

As a bonus, the page gives a link to NASA's Earth Observatory picture archive. I could fill my hard drive with these images...

December 19, 2003

Global Dimming

This is not so much a resource as a mystery. Why has the amount of sunlight reaching the ground declined by about .25% per year since 1958? Not the amount of light emitted by the Sun, but the amount actually getting to the lower parts of Earth's atmosphere. Is it pollution, or a complex feedback effect associated with climate change?

Global Dimming may be one of the biggest bits of climate news to show up in quite awhile, and up until quite recently, it's been largely ignored. The notion that the average amount of light hitting the ground has been falling -- and by such a great amount, more than 10% in about three decades -- seemed so odd and unexpected that many climatologists simply couldn't accept it. But in the past year, experiments have proven it -- the skies are getting darker.

The discovery of Global Dimming will help to make climate change models more accurate, as well as solve some mysteries:

But Farquhar had realised that the idea of global dimming could explain one of the most puzzling mysteries of climate science. As the Earth warms, you would expect the rate at which water evaporates to increase. But in fact, study after study using metal pans filled with water has shown that the rate of evaporation has gone down in recent years. When Farquhar compared evaporation data with the global dimming records he got a perfect match. The reduced evaporation was down to less sunlight shining on the water surface.

The causes of the reduction in light remain uncertain. Most researchers think that it's a result of atmospheric pollutants triggering more persistent cloud formation. Others argue that Global Warming-caused evaporation could be leading to more clouds; in that scenario, a continued rise in global temperatures would lead to greater average reductions in light. This is a critical question -- if the Global Dimming has been caused by pollution, efforts to clean up the atmosphere may actually speed up Global Warming.

Right now, there are far more questions than answers about Global Dimming. It will almost certainly be a key area of study in the coming years... as well as a welcome reminder not to discount the unexpected.

December 29, 2003

Personal Pollution Index

Got a spare $5,000 and a serious masochistic streak? Then you, too, can undergo biomonitoring to find out just how many biotoxins have taken up residence in your body. If you're anything like the 9 people in a new study by Commonweal and the Environmental Working Group, you're in for a nasty surprise.

The 9 subjects -- including journalist Bill Moyer -- were found to have an average of 91 different industrial compounds, pollutants, and other potentially unpleasant chemicals in their blood, urine, and (where appropriate) milk. Such chemicals have been linked to a wide variety of cancers, neuromuscular disorders, reproductive system problems, and worse. The presence in the body is due to environmental exposure -- i.e., having breathed it in, absorbed it into the skin, or consumed it in some way.

The danger posed by low doses of industrial chemicals remains subject to debate. Chemical companies point to studies showing no risks (although they often refuse to release information about the chemicals to allow for independent detection), while environmental activists point to alternative studies showing harm. Even if the corporate studies are mostly correct, the sheer variety of industrial chemicals present in the environment (and, thus, in one's body) gives pause.

Even while approaching the study with a skeptical eye, the Environmental Working Group report website is worth visiting. It's an extraordinarily good piece of web storytelling, presenting the results of the biomonitoring in manner that is simultaneously clear and damning. Besides, didn't you always wonder just how many PCBs and hexafloran derivatives were in Bill Moyer's bloodstream?


Sometimes, the sites we find for WorldChanging just make us sit back with a big grin and say, "wow."

CLIWOC (a program sponsored by the European Union) is creating a database of the world's ocean climate -- temperature, wind, precipitation -- from 1750-1850. A team at the UK's University of Sunderland is working with universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina to compile the daily (sometimes hourly) log entries from thousands of ships over thousands of voyages into a massive database. The first official release just came out, and contains over 180,000 records. The database is freely available in both ASCII and Microsoft Access format.

There's something ineffably cool about using the detailed ship logs from Dutch, Spanish, and English sailing vessels in order to track ocean climatic conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Translating two-century-old sailing jargon, deciphering the personal scripts of sailors, figuring out where the ship really was (which may or may not match where the sailors thought it was), is all, in its own way, quietly heroic. This research could prove critical for understanding climate change, as the data gives a baseline for what the world's climate was like before industrialization.

January 9, 2004

The Fishbase

The Fishbase is a web-accessible database of fish information. This may sound somewhat... dull... until you actually start playing with it. With over 28,000 fish listed (including my favorite, the Coelacanth), the Fishbase lets you explore by environmental information, location, biological data (including genetic records), class, even how dangerous a given fish may be and whether it appears on a stamp somewhere in the world. The volume of material on fish species is an object lesson in biodiversity.

The site contains more than the database. There's an online course in icthyology, links to other resources such as LarvalBase (a database of fish larvae identification), even a discussion forum for all of your pressing fish-related queries. And if you need access to the Fishbase while away from the Internet, you can purchase the entire database for a nominal fee. This is just the kind of site that makes the web great.

January 24, 2004

Warning: Hot Times Ahead

Swiss climate scientist Martin Beniston, using the cutting-edge regional climate model HIRHAM, argues that the record-breaking European heat wave of 2003 is an early warning of how European weather will be changing over the century, according to PhysicsWeb. With current trends, summer temperatures in Europe will increase by over 4°C on average, with Switzerland ending up with summertime weather closer to that found in the South of France at present. Continent-wide, climate zones will shift:

Beniston observed a general increase of about 4°C in a band stretching across central Europe to the Black Sea, with greater increases over the Iberian Peninsula and the south west of France. Moreover, he found that the number of hot days would increase - particularly in the Mediterranean region and in Eastern Europe - with an additional 40 to 60 days or more above 30°C [...]. In comparison, the period 1961 to 1990 saw an average of around 10 days.

That climate change is triggering hotter, more deadly summers is not news, but the increasingly sophisticated climate models, and the increasingly graphic predictions of how climate change will affect us all, are worth paying attention to.

February 28, 2004

Responding to Imminent Climate Dangers

We've refrained from linking to the hubbub surrounding the recent Guardian article about the Pentagon-sponsored abrupt climate change scenario -- not because we didn't find the scenario worth considering, but because (a) we'd already posted about the report a few weeks ago, and (b) the Guardian got a lot of the particulars wrong. But Bruce Sterling's Viridian Note #401 (from Friday) does a great job of deconstructing the article, pointing out where it errs and where it actually understates the worry, and is well-worth reading. The scenario itself (which was never secret, contrary to the Guardian's assertion) can be downloaded from here (PDF).

Scenarios aren't simply scary predictions or amusing stories; they're tools for planning. So what do we do if abrupt climate change became a very real likelihood? Are we simply doomed?

Or, more broadly: if we have good reason to believe that the dangers associated with climate change (abrupt or otherwise) are imminent and dramatic, what can we do about it in a short enough time to make a difference? Read on for an exploration of this dilemma.

Continue reading "Responding to Imminent Climate Dangers" »

March 5, 2004

Calculating Ecological Impact

In looking for details about figuring the cost/value of the San Francisco Moscone Center solar panels (see previous post), I came across a nice set of links to various calculators allowing you to estimate your ecological "footprint" -- that is, how much of the planet do your various activities consume. Some of the calculators are based on national averages, so the results are pretty broad, while others go into great detail.

Redefining Progress, which developed the "MyFootprint" calculator used by numerous groups around the web, has an Excel spreadsheet (XLS) letting you calculate your household footprint, if you want more detail than the web quizzes provide. They also have explanations of the Ecological Footprint concept and methodology.

I also found the CO2 Calculator at to be interesting, in part because it helps you figure out how much your carbon emissions cost, then gives you a way to donate that amount to various environmental groups directly. Clever.

March 8, 2004

Dense City, Thriving City

Is density a key metric for determining how livable a city is? It's a possibility. The Kennedy School's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Boston Society of Architects recently held a forum at Harvard (called "The 'D' Word") to discuss density in urban planning, and the ways in which a denser city is a more efficient, safer, and ultimately more lively city. The Harvard Gazette has a run-down of the forum.

In certain ways, the debate between density and its opposite - sprawl - has been going on for the past half-century, said Charles Euchner, the executive director of the Rappaport Institute, who moderated and helped organize the event.

"There's been an ongoing struggle to strengthen the city core, but not always to increase urban density. What's new, I think, is that we're realizing cities are really about people. The more people you bring in, the more vibrant the city will become," Euchner said.


According to the pro-density argument, urban institutions require a certain threshold population to support them. If not enough people want to shop or eat out, there won't be many good stores or restaurants. If the audience for music, theater, or art is small, these activities will not flourish. If the tax base is scanty, schools and municipal services will be substandard. Even parks need people to use them, and if the parks are deserted, they will not receive the upkeep they need to remain attractive.

Density is also considered good for the environment because it is easier and cheaper to provide heating, electricity, sewerage, and other services to people living in concentrated groups than to those in single-family homes in suburban areas. As a result, the impact of dense populations on the surrounding environment is less harmful.

As the Rappaport Institute site puts it, "[the] argument for density is simple: The more people live in an area, the more that area can offer economic activity, social networks, political engagement, and public service." While this argument is a clear reaction to the preference for suburban sprawl in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, it also puts a stake in the heart of the "we'll all move out to the wilderness and telecommute" futurist craze of the late 1990s. The question now becomes, how can we make sure that dense urban environments work as well as they should?

(via nicolas nova)

March 9, 2004

New Zealand Commuting Challenge

WorldChanging ally Emily J. Gertz writes to us:

Several years ago, my friends Lenny and Laine emigrated from the U.S. to New Zealand. Lenny is a plant geneticist; he and I have had spirited debates about the eco-ethics of biotechnology, me coming from a ex-Greenpeacer/deep ecology/deep distrust perspective. Politically, I'm more of an outside agitator, while he is inclined to be persuasive from within. Needless to say, there's friction there, but at the same time, a lot of love and respect.

My friends discovered that New Zealand is not terribly green. Oh, it's got a lot of greenery, and a huge culture of outdoors sports and adventure tourism. The country strongly identifies with its' magnificent landscape, but in terms of policy and practice, there's a long way to go. This extends to alternative transportation; rather amazing that some Western nations are still debating the virtues of bicycle commuting at the dawn of the 21st century, but then I'm not exactly objective about it.

Lenny, a devoted bicycle commuter longer than I have known him (which means for over 20 years), joined the Cycling Advocates' Network of New Zealand. He recently organized a bicycle commuter challenge in the Auckland area. "The event was a race between amateur cyclists, celebrities on buses, and professional race car drivers, through morning rush hour traffic," he wrote. They started out from four points in the Auckland suburbs for central Aotea Square. On three routes, the cyclists won, and on the fourth, came in at 28:04 to the car commuter's 27:37. The event was well covered in New Zealand and even picked up by the media as far away as China.

Lenny told me, "My biggest achievement of the commuter challenge event was getting Alasdair Thompson to ride a bus. He is the president of the New Zealand Employees and Manufacturers Association, the most powerful and outspoken critic of alternative transport in NZ. He has been fighting for improvements in transport on behalf of big business, and his primary strategy has been to demand that 100% of the transport budget is spent on roads (no buses, trains, cycleways, etc). Within his organisation are about 100 sub-lobby groups, doing the same thing, on behalf of different business groups in different regions. With the way I organised this event and approached him, he agreed to ride the bus in support of alternative transport, and has agreed to become an ally of the Cycle Action Network to help us reach our goal of getting more people out of their cars and into alternative transport (bike, bus, train, etc). Not only have we gained a very powerful ally, but we've just eliminated our most powerful adversary. There are good reasons to work within the system."

March 11, 2004

China and the Environment

The current (March) issue of National Geographic magazine includes a fascinating article ("China's Growing Pains") on the current state of environmental consciousness in the People's Republic of China. The full text of the article isn't online, but an excerpt is; the full article is much longer, and very much worth seeking out and reading.

All this made me wonder whether the Chinese have not so much been creating an economic superpower as committing ecological suicide. China's leaders may be wondering the same thing. "Never has the Chinese government put the environment issue in such an important position," declared Xie Zhenhua, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), in a 2002 press report. "It is vital to the stability and the prosperity of our country and people."

Certainly, if you look below the surface, you will find signs that a new consciousness is beginning to seep like rainwater through the layers of Chinese society. Not only are people coming to accept that the country's prosperity is bound up with caring for the environment, but they're now also aware that efforts at environmental protection are in turn bound up with improving systems of law and government. Good laws mean nothing when, as is often still the case, leaders don't have the will or means to enforce them, so some Chinese --those desperate enough -- are testing the limits of political constraints through acts of civil disobedience. Others, meanwhile, are looking to the outside world for expertise and money to help with conservation projects. And still others are pioneering new ways of thinking about how to live more harmoniously with nature. But promising as all this is, it still seems that every environmentally friendly measure is offset by a greater number of abuses. China's shift away from old habits and attitudes has only just begun.

Even if you've already read the print article, the web page is worth visiting, as it includes a variety of links to different environmental groups active in China, as well as a bibliography of books and articles about China's environmental condition.

Despite our ongoing frustration with U.S. environmental policies, the real focus of concern for the 21st century climate has to be China. 75% of China's power still comes from coal, and current trends don't change, China could overtake the U.S. in terms of greenhouse gas output within a few decades. If the Chinese economy continues to grow, demand for cars, consumer goods, bigger homes -- all of the lifestyle accoutrement of a modern nation -- could be environmentally disastrous, if China adopts the same technologies and infrastructure as the West. But if the Chinese economy collapses, they will be unable to afford the changes in technology and infrastructure required to clean up their already massive environmental problems.

This is a situation that screams out for a "leap-frog" solution. Distributed power, alternative energy, smart building materials... China could be a showcase for what an electric green developed nation can look like. But will they take that road?

March 15, 2004

Watching for Disease

Disease outbreaks don't just arise out of nowhere. Environmental conditions have to be just right for disease-causing viruses and bacteria to flourish. This suggests a possible strategy for dealing with pathogen outbreaks: watch for signs that the environmental conditions conducive to disease are emerging, then move to protect the threatened populations.

That's just what NASA intends to do, according to Patrick L. Barry, writing for the Science@NASA newsletter, reprinted at RedNova:

Ronald Welch of NASA's Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the scientists working to develop such an early warning system. "I have been to malarious areas in both Guatemala and India," he says. "Usually I am struck by the poverty in these areas, at a level rarely seen in the United States. The people are warm and friendly, and they are appreciative, knowing that we are there to help. It feels very good to know that you are contributing to the relief of sickness and preventing death, especially the children."

The approach employed by Welch and others combines data from high-tech environmental satellites with old-fashioned, "khaki shorts and dusty boots" fieldwork. Scientists actually seek out and visit places with disease outbreaks.

Then they scrutinize satellite images to learn how disease-friendly conditions look from space. The satellites can then watch for those conditions over an entire region, country, or even continent as they silently slide across the sky once a day, every day.

In India, for example, where Welch is doing research, health officials are talking about setting up a satellite-based malaria early warning system for the whole country. In coordination with mathematician Jia Li of the University of Alabama at Huntsville and India's Malaria Research Center, Welch is hoping to do a pilot study in Mewat, a predominantly rural area of India south of New Delhi. The area is home to more than 700,000 people living in 491 villages and 5 towns, yet is only about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.


"We expect to be able to give warnings of high disease risk for a given village or area up to a month in advance," Welch says. "These 'red flags' will let health officials focus their vaccination programs, mosquito spraying, and other disease-fighting efforts in the areas that need them most, perhaps preventing an outbreak before it happens."

(Via Smart Mobs)

March 18, 2004

China Update

WorldChanging ally Roel Groeneveld links to and updates our post from a few days ago about China's environmental challenge. Groeneveld adds a few more useful and interesting links for those of us interested in China and the environment. Of particular note is a description/review of a four-part series in the Asia Times called The Ruined Land by Jasper Becker, the author of the National Geographic article in our earlier post:

• The Death of China's Rivers
• Peasants Bear the Brunt of China's Energy Plans
• China in an Energy Quandary
• China Awakens to its Devastated Environment

The articles are long; the review link gives good capsule summaries of each. Obviously, these are not inspiring models of doing the right thing. But WorldChanging readers in the West -- particularly the United States -- may be more accustomed to thinking about how bad things are at home, and may not be aware of the scale of the challenge in China. The key 21st century battle to save the planet may well be fought in the Middle Kingdom.

March 29, 2004

TREES and Green Futurism

The T.R.E.E.S. project is a few years old, and therefore hardly the state of the art, but that shouldn't stop you from checking out Tree People's vision for a sustainable L.A., complete with working proposals for the redesign of single- and multi-family homes, industrial and commercial sites, even schools. It's interesting, site-specific innovation.

And disturbingly rare. We suffer from a shortage of realistic, working visions for a sustainable future which take into account both the nature of our problems today and the new tools we have at our disposal. The problem with this, of course, is that we can't build what we can't first imagine and describe.

We're deeply interested in visions of a sustainable future, and of green futurism in general. If you know a new working vision of sustainability of which we may not be aware, by all means clue us in in the comment section below!)

April 13, 2004


A pair of companies in Arizona are about to build a system to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, attempting to prove that the "wind-scrubber" concept works. The scrubber will employ sodium hydroxide, which reacts with carbon dioxide, to remove CO2 from air drawn through the system. In principle, such systems could help to reduce carbon dioxide levels already in the atmosphere, thereby complementing attempts to reduce the amount of additional carbon being emitted.

There are a few problems with the system under consideration: it may not work; sodium hydroxide is caustic and toxic; and, according to the article, "the stored CO2 could be supplied to the oil industry for use in the process of enhanced oil recovery" -- which seems rather self-defeating, in the long-run.

All that said, the notion of figuring out ways to actively reduce existing carbon levels alongside reducing the amount of new carbon added to the atmosphere is a good idea. If, as some recent reports suggest, we may be already too late to prevent massive problems even if we manage to cut our emissions dramatically, aggressive carbon sequestration may be critical. Let's hope that the proof-of-concept test works -- and that they can then come up with a better technology (and lose the "use the carbon to pump more oil" idea).

May 7, 2004

Human-Caused Global Warming Confirmed

Almost lost amidst the (justifiable) outrage and attention regarding the Iraqi prisoner abuses is news that a team at the University of Washington has knocked down the last scientific objection to the notion that global warming is real, and that human activity is a significant causal factor.

As reported in the May 6, 2004, issue of Nature, researchers from UW investigated why, if surface temperature records show clear signs of warming, satellite measurements of the troposphere -- the atmosphere from the ground to about 11 kilometers up -- did not. Opponents of the human-caused global warming model pointed to this contradiction as a sign that climate change wasn't real or was triggered by natural causes. According to Dr. Qiang Fu's team, cooling in the upper atmosphere -- itself a known result of greenhouse gases -- alters the satellite measurements; when that is accounted for, the troposphere data matches precisely with current models of human-caused warming.

While not good news in the "we're all going to be just fine" category, it does mean that we now have a much better understanding of the mechanisms underlying global warming, as well as confirmation that the current models work. It also means that the inevitable continued objections to doing anything about global warming have likely lost any remaining scientific credibility.

The Nature link above is to a short report; the article (linked from that page) is not freely available. Better details on the story can be found in this article from the London Times, and this release from UW, via Eurekalert.

May 25, 2004

Watching Drought

We're now in the seventh year of drought in much of North America, and there are few signs that the situation will be changing any time soon. Across the American West, the snow pack -- the source of water through the summer months -- was only 40-75% of normal. Of course, "normal" may have been a historical aberration...

While the current drought run isn't yet as bad as the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s, despite our increased demand for water in agriculture and urban centers, the persistence of this condition is making a lot of people wonder what it would take to push us into another disaster. Fortunately, there's some really interesting work being done now in figuring out the climate mechanisms behind persistent droughts. Jennifer at WorldTurning points us to Why So Dry?, a non-specialist-friendly write-up produced by NASA's science news service describing how droughts work, how they connect with larger climate patterns (particularly El Niño/La Niña effects), and what more we need to learn.

One of the links from the NASA writeup is to the National Drought Mitigation Center's weekly Drought Monitor; the image at the top of this page is of the most recent map. The monitor page gives detailed analysis of current conditions and forecasts of upcoming changes, and provides animated maps of the last six weeks, twelve weeks, and year's drought.

As important as it is to understand drought as a geophysical condition, it's also a human event. If we can't change the weather, what can we do to mitigate drought effects? The Rocky Mountain Institute's "soft path" concept is one approach -- decentralize water systems, use green infrastructural systems to reclaim and reuse run-off and gray water, manage water demand more effectively, and distribute the best, most water-efficient technologies available as widely as possible -- but this may also be a time when the developed world can take a hint from the developing, and start looking at some unconventional approaches to using and acquiring water.

June 2, 2004

Sensors Under the Ice

Understanding is the first step to action.

When it comes to climate change, better information is critical. We have good models, and our data sets are improving, but the climate is a dynamic non-linear system: we need large amounts of data from key climate tipping points in order to build better predictions. Among these key climate tipping points are the Arctic glaciers. Sea-level changes, shifts in average temperatures, and level of salt in the North Atlantic all have visible manifestations in glacial conditions.

The University of Southampton's GLACSWEB team uses pervasive sensor networks in the Briksdalsbreen glacier in Norway in order to study the effects of climate change on glaciers. The GLACSWEB sensors -- the current model is shown above -- are buried at the base of the glacier, at the sedimentary layer about 60 meters under the surface. The probes have short range radios, but can communicate with each other, eventually hopping to a base station on the surface of the glacier, which directs the data to a home server.

The University's press release has the basic information; the University's Persephone (Queen of the Underworld) site has more details about autonomous probe networks; the GLACSWEB site includes a great deal of technical information, as well as fantastic photographs and videos from the 2003 trip to the glacier.

The GLACSWEB project is a test for expanded use of these probelet networks for ecosystem study, such as coastal and flood monitoring. The sensors are small and cheap enough for easy distribution, but smart enough to be able to respond to changing conditions (such as probes going offline or being moved). The GLACSWEB program isn't the only environmental sensor project around; we've covered other projects, as well.

(Via Smart Mobs)

June 11, 2004

Impact of Power Plant Pollution

Map of Pollution ImpactThe National Campaign Against Dirty Power has an interactive map showing the annual deaths per 100,000 adults attributable to the pollution coming from power plants. The statistics are based on research done for the EPA (PDF). Unsurprisingly, areas which rely heavily on coal power fare the worst.

The interactive map has a couple of key features. You can click on a state for specific information on emissions and health, as well as links to source data and policy recommendations. Some state maps include information for particular urban locations, such as Los Angeles and Houston. You can also see the effects of implementing the various proposed clean air plans, from the administration's "Clear Skies" program (which helps, but not by much) to "faithful implementation of the Clean Air Act" (which helps a bit more) to the "Clean Power Act" proposed by Senators Jeffords, Lieberman, and Collins (which has fairly dramatic results).

A PDF listing the key emissions provisions of each proposal can be found here.

June 14, 2004

Antarctic Ice Cores

AntarcticaClimatologists have long used ice core samples from Greenland to measure climate changes over the last hundred thousand years or so. But according to the BBC, a group of scientists under the banner of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, or EPICA, managed to pull a three kilometer-long ice core from Antarctica, revealing the pattern of climate change over the past 740,000 years. By studying gases trapped in the ice, these cores can tell us a great deal about changes to the temperature and atmospheric composition for much of the last million years.

The BBC article gives a good summary, but the article in the June 10 issue of Nature is available here (PDF). The article is brief, but informative. One of the interesting take-aways is the conclusion that the current "inter-glacial era" we live in is likely to go on, absent human disruption, for another 15,000 years, due to the position of the Earth's orbit. Most previous inter-glacials lasted no more than 10,000 years (and it's been about 12,000 years since the last ice age). The last time we saw a long-duration inter-glacial era was around 420,000 years ago; that one lasted for 28,000 years.

A more troubling bit of information from the research concerns CO2 levels. There is a very strong correlation of CO2 concentrations and average air temperature. At the peak of the previous similar inter-glacial period, CO2 concentrations increased to around 275-280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), up from a minimum of 200 ppmv in the previous glacial era. Measurements of CO2 concentrations on Mauna Loa from 1958 to 1998 show a growth of CO2 levels from 316 ppmv to 369 ppmv (it's a bit higher now). While we've known for awhile now that current CO2 levels are much higher than in the pre-industrial period, this is the first time we've been able to measure CO2 concentrations for such an extended period of time, and directly compare them to the last long-period inter-glacial era.

June 21, 2004

Green China

What would a positive environmental scenario for China look like? We've talked a bit here about the massive ecological challenges that China faces over the coming years. Population growth, economic growth, and a history of not paying sufficient attention to the environmental results of development result in a nightmarish combination, one not easily reshaped. In short, China is a mess. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, thinks that a more environmentally sustainable is possible.

In a brief essay for The Globalist web journal, Economy presents her take on a positive Chinese environmental scenario. (The article is excerpted from The River Runs Black; I'm definitely going to get my hands on a copy for review here.) The scenario is predicated upon a reasonable mix of solid economic growth, sound environmental policies, and supportive civil society; this seems to me to be the most likely combination leading to a sustainable China.

The article is brief, and the scenario suffers for it. The essay is more descriptive than analytical, providing a somewhat superficial overview of what the more environmentally sustainable China looks like without much discussion of how it got there. As a snapshot of a scenaric future, it's fine -- a plausible, reasonable vision of a functional, ecologically sound nation -- but it doesn't really tell us how to get there. Clearly I need to read the rest of the book to find what I'm looking for.

June 23, 2004

New Climate Models at NSF

The National Center for Atmospheric Research, funded by the National Science Foundtaion, announced today its new climate change model, CCSM3 (Community Climate System Model version 3), now the most accurate and detailed model of atmospheric systems available. The source code for CCSM3 is available for download, as well as component modules for the atmosphere, ice effects, the oceans, and more.

Although the model is publically available today, NCAR researchers have already been hard at work using it to model the effects of increased carbon dioxide.

CCSM3 shows global temperatures could rise by 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in a hypothetical scenario in which atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are suddenly doubled. That is significantly more than the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) increase that had been indicated by the preceding version of the model.

William Collins, an NCAR scientist who oversaw the development of CCSM3, says researchers have yet to pin down exactly what is making the model more sensitive to an increased level of carbon dioxide. But he says the model overall is significantly more accurate than its predecessor.

"This model makes substantial improvements in simulating atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial processes," Collins says. "It has done remarkably well in reproducing the climate of the last century, and we're now ready to begin using it to study the climate of the next century."

One of the standard global warming denial attempts is the claim that the problems are artifacts of poor models. As the above shows, the opposite is true. The better we understand the systems at work, the more we see the trouble we're in.

July 9, 2004

Greening Los Angeles

When one thinks of the city of Los Angeles, "environmentalism" doesn't immediately come to mind. LA is infamous for its suburban sprawl, automobile culture, and seemingly-constant layer of smog. But this doesn't mean that LA isn't trying to change. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the largest municipal utility in the nation, has an aggressive mix of rebate and efficiency programs for consumers (above and beyond those offered by the state of California), as well as programs for businesses.

But points us to a recent announcement by LADWP requesting proposals for the provision of renewable energy to the utility. According to Solar Access News, LADWP is "seeking to acquire up to 1,320,000 MW-hours per year of renewable energy by the end of 2010," or 13 percent of its energy supply. This is a step towards the larger goal of 20 percent by 2017.

This LADWP announcement, while itself quite laudible, is actually part of a larger program already underway to shift Los Angeles towards much cleaner energy production and much more efficient energy use:

Since adopting the IRP [Integrated Resource Plan], LADWP has moved forward with a number of projects that will produce renewable energy, reduce emissions, and increase energy efficiency.

These include the 120-megawatt Pine Tree Wind project and an agreement to purchase 40 megawatts of power annually from a proposed BioConverter green waste digestion facility. In addition, LADWP has increased energy efficiency and decreased emissions in Los Angeles by "repowering" its aging, in-basin natural gas powered generating units with combined cycle generators and state-of-the-art emissions technology, resulting in over 75% emissions reductions.

Moreover, LADWP is administering a $150 million program to install rooftop solar photovoltaic systems throughout Los Angeles. The Department is also modernizing its hydroelectric facility in San Francisquito Canyon, and installed 50 microturbines at Lopez Canyon Landfill that convert methane gas into energy.

The geography of Los Angeles may never lend itself to totally clean air and high-density, high-efficiency communities. But programs like these are a welcome step towards making one of the largest (and historically one of the most environmentally unsound) urban areas in the country a much cleaner and greener place to live.

(Thanks, Mack Reed)

July 10, 2004


Aura, the third and final satellite in NASA's Earth Observing System series, will take off Monday or Tuesday, its launch delayed by at least 24 hours due to a problem with the rocket. The EOS satellites -- Terra, Aqua, and now Aura -- study the complex interaction between geophysical systems.

Aura is designed to help answer important questions about atmospheric change, with a particular focus on the ozone layer:

One question that researchers have asked is: Is the stratospheric ozone layer is recovering? International agreements, like the Montreal Protocol, have banned ozone destroying chemicals like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but scientists are unclear about the effectiveness of these treaties. Aura will accurately detect global levels of CFCs, and their byproducts, chlorine and bromine, which destroy the ozone layer.

Another question that researchers need more information to: What are the processes controlling air quality? Aura will help greatly to unravel some of these mysteries by tracking the sources and processes controlling global and regional air quality. When ozone exists in the lower atmosphere, the troposphere, it acts as an air pollutant. Gasoline and diesel engines give off gases in the summer that create ozone and smog. Aura will help scientists follow the sources of ozone and its precursors.

Finally, Aura will offer insights into the question: How is the Earth's climate changing? As the composition of Earth's atmosphere changes, so does its ability to absorb, reflect and retain solar energy. Greenhouse gases, including water vapor, trap heat in the atmosphere. Airborne aerosols from human and natural sources absorb or reflect solar energy based on color, shape, size, and substance. The impact of aerosols, tropospheric ozone and upper tropospheric water vapor on Earth's climate remains largely un-quantified, but now Aura will have the unique ability to monitor these agents.

One way that Aura will help us better understand ozone and air pollution is with the resolution of its Ozone Monitoring Instrument. Previous satellites used to monitor ozone could only resolve a regional scale of about 50x200 miles. Aura's OMI will resolve down to 8x8 miles, sufficient to monitor a single urban center. This will greatly increase the sophistication of our understanding of how local air pollution develops, propagates, and changes.

The three EOS satellites will soon form the core of the "A-Train" set of environmental orbiters, which will work together to study the planet. The next in the series is a Cloud-Aerosol satellite intended specifically to better understand the role of cloud formation in climate change.

July 26, 2004

Earth, Laid Bare

Today's Washington Post reports on the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a multinational effort to continuously monitor our home planet's land, sea, and air. The GEOSS capabilities are potentially immense:

For starters, the network would link data from 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys and 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, officials said. Ultimately, it would vacuum up information from myriad other sources, including satellites monitoring ground and air movements, and feed it all into computers that will process it.


Much of the sensing capacity is already in place: There are 50 satellites collecting environmental data from orbit; 68 moored buoys operated by the United States and Japan monitor the equatorial Pacific; 14 nations collaborate on a network of another 1,288 buoys that constantly rise and sink over a two-week period, from the ocean's surface to more than a mile below, to measure temperature and salinity, then transmit the data to satellites. There will be 3,000 such buoys in the next three years, Lautenbacher said.

Other technology still in development, such as a synthetic aperture radar that will be flown on a satellite, can help predict volcano eruptions by measuring "how land is moving, down to a few millimeters," said Greg Withee, a NOAA assistant administrator. At the other end of the technology spectrum, data will also come from monitoring devices as simple as buckets that collect rainfall or human spotters who look out from towers for signs of smoke to detect wildfires.

While many of the tools being combined into the GEOSS network come from the United States, over 50 countries are participating in the project. As the Post article notes, this includes nations which are unhappy about American policies regarding Iraq, regarding climate change, or both -- the potential value of this network is so great, and the implications are so far-reaching, that the political friction of the moment pales in comparison. The GEOSS site at the EPA includes an impressive (albeit somewhat hard-to-read) graph mapping out the myriad "measurement and monitoring datasets, models, decision support tools, and programs" connected to GEOSS via the EPA. This is really quite a big project.

July 27, 2004

The Discovery of Global Warming

Critics of the global warming concept tend to come in two broad varieties. One category includes those who, for whatever reasons, simply refuse to accept the idea in any form (and which has a common sub-variant: the "global warming is not real, it has nothing to do with humans, there's nothing we can do about it, and anything we can do about it would be too expensive" complaint). The other category of critic, however, is more reasonable -- it consists of people who are cautious about the idea, wishing to see more scientific research before coming to any conclusion. While this sometimes is just a cover story for the first type of critic, there are many people out there who have understandable concerns about just how scientists know what they claim to know about climate disruption.

Although we've pointed in the past to non-specialist-level explanations of global warming and climate change as well as to specific studies and models, we haven't had a good resource for a comprehensive and detailed explanation of how we came to understand the threat of global warming-induced climate change -- until now.

WorldChanging friend and ally Arthur P. Smith alerted us to an amazing site at the American Institute of Physics entitled "The Discovery of Global Warming." The Discovery of Global Warming site encompasses the full text of the 2003 book of the same name by physicist Spencer Weart, as well as an abundance of additional graphs, documents, and -- best of all -- hyperlinks between the various concepts explained in the text. You can even grab an archive of the entire site as a Zip file, as PDF documents, and even as a CD-ROM.

The site -- all 250,000 words of it -- surveys the breadth and depth of research over the years into climate change and global warming. Although current as of mid-2003, this is not simply a summary of the most recent findings. Weart spends a good bit of effort covering the history of how scientists have come to understand how the climate works, providing valuable insights into the process of science itself. Even if you don't get a chance to browse the rest of the site, I strongly recommend that you read the essay "Reflections on the Scientific Process, as Seen in Climate Studies" -- it's one of the best examinations of the scientific method in the real world I've read in a long time.

If you already accept the global climatological consensus that anthropogenic global warming is happening and is getting worse, The Discovery of Global Warming will provide abundant detail to help you better understand how that consensus came about. If you have been honestly skeptical about the global warming threat, but willing to listen, this site will help you better understand why there is a broad scientific consensus about climate disruption in the first place. It may not change your mind, but you'll see why so many scientists take the problem so very seriously.

(And, yes, I shut comments off for this post. Entries about global warming always seem to trigger tediously atavistic aggression-dominance displays and namecalling by certain first category climate change critics who inexplicably read this site, and I don't feel like playing comment moderator tonight. If you want to comment on the post, please feel free to send me an email or a trackback ping from your own blog.)

July 29, 2004

Understanding Amazonia

Roland Piquepaille writes today about the Large-scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA) now underway in Brazil, with the cooperation of NASA. The researchers claim that this is the world's largest environmental science experiment, comprising 120 projects (of which 61 are already complete). The Earth Observatory group at NASA has an extensive introduction to the LBA.

The LBA site summarizes the program in this way:

LBA will combine newly developed analytical tools and innovative, multidisciplinary, experimental designs in a powerful synthesis which will create new knowledge to address long-standing issues and controversies. LBA will provide new understanding of environmental controls on flows of energy, water, carbon, nutrients, and trace gases between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere of Amazonia to help provide the scientific basis of policies for sustainable use of Amazonian natural resources. The enhancement of research capacities and networks within and between the Amazonian countries associated with LBA will help advance education and applied research into sustainable development, and help in the process of formulating policies for the sustainable development of the region.

800 researchers involved in the project are meeting right now at the III LBA Scientific Conference, discussing the results of the completed projects and the prospects for the ones still underway. This press release from the conference gives a good sense of the scale of the undertaking, albeit with an understandable focus on Brazilian participation. A database of the abstracts of presentations at the conference is also available, for those of you particularly interested in what's going on in Amazonia.

August 3, 2004

Project Serene

What would you do if you discovered that something you had designed could kill thousands of people?

William J. LeMessurier. a structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the Citicorp building in downtown New York, faced just that question in the summer of 1978. A chance question from a student led him to investigate the stability of his innovative design under unusual -- but not at all uncommon -- wind conditions, such as those which would occur if a hurricane were to hit New York. What he found staggered him: conditions which had a 1 in 16 chance of happening each year could bring down the building.

The story of how LeMessurier reacted to this revelation is fascinating and instructive. He created "Project SERENE" -- "Special Engineering Review of Events Nobody Expected" -- a document detailing precisely how certain engineering decisions led to the possibilty that a too-strong wind could topple a 59-story tower. He then went to the architect, and to Citicorp, to explain the problem, knowing that, in all likelihood, the revelation would lead to lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the end of his career. In the end, the building was repaired in a way that made it quite possibly the most structurally sound tower in Manhattan. LeMessurier's reputation wasn't destroyed; instead, by speaking out, by coming to Citigroup with the problem (as well as a proposed solution), his reputation was enhanced: he did the right thing.

Before the city officials left, they commended LeMessurier for his courage and candor, and expressed a desire to be kept informed as the repair work progressed. Given the urgency of the situation, that was all they could reasonably do. "It wasn't a case of 'We caught you, you skunk,'" Nusbaum says. "It started with a guy who stood up and said, 'I got a problem, I made the problem, let's fix the problem.' If you're gonna kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk?"

Ultimately, the story of William LeMessurier is both that of the triumph of professional ethics and that of the unanticipated origins of failure. It reminds us that there's a reason it's called "doing the right thing." And it reminds us that "events nobody expected" can't be ignored. The possibility of failure exists in all human endeavors. It's how we respond to the potential for disaster of our own creation that marks our character both as individuals and as a civilization.

August 17, 2004

Shipping Container Urbanism

One of the more reliable tropes of classic cyberpunk literature was the use of shipping containers as residences. Neal Stephenson used it in one of his novels, and William Gibson used it twice -- once in a novel, and again in a script he wrote for The X-Files. In cyberpunk lore, the shipping-container-cum-home was emblematic of both the "street finds it own uses for things" attitude and the life on the edge situation of the characters. As with many science fiction ideas, reality eventually caught up with the writers' imaginations, but perhaps not in the way they had anticipated.

Sunday's New York Times had a great short article about the increasingly commonplace use of shipping containers as residential and commercial building modules in South Africa (and, apparently, elsewhere in the developing world). The article includes a set of photos illustrating the ways in which standard shipping containers get used. The 20-foot-long containers are ideal replacements for the trash-bag-roof shanties which dot the landscape of developing world urban areas.

Shipping containers, which must survive harsh conditions during their travels, lose their seaworthiness in 5-10 years, after which they're typically sold for scrap. The article notes that Safmarine, a major global shipping concern, actually gives away old containers to schools and charities -- 7,000 of them since 1991.

"The street finds its own uses for things." All too true -- especially when the street is a dusty road on the outskirts of Soweto.

August 25, 2004

NASA's Drought Prediction Model

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center may have found a method of predicting drought conditions months in advance. The catch is, the method is currently based on a set of computer models. Now the test is to see if what works well on a virtual Earth can be translated into real-world predictive power.

In the Global Land-Atmosphere Coupling Experiment (GLACE), Koster and colleagues duplicated the same experiment using 12 different computer models from around the world. With each model researchers compared the rainfall behavior in two sets of simulations: one in which the soil moisture differed between the simulations, and one in which all simulations saw the same soil moisture. Any increase in rainfall agreement in the second set of simulations shows an impact of soil moisture on the rainfall.

Although the model results differed, the simulations also shared certain common features. By averaging together all the findings, the researchers identified the common features, or "hot spots" where soil moisture influences rainfall the most.

The next step is to work through satellite data to confirm the simulation results. The key will be determining soil moisture levels in key "hot spot" locations. The Aqua satellite (part of NASA's Earth Observing System satellite network) can measure soil moisture only down a couple of centimeters; the upcoming Hydrosphere State mission, set to launch in 2009, will be able to measure global soil moisture down to 5 centimeters.

September 2, 2004

A CO2 Prison?

Carbon sequestration is one of those ideas that sounds great when you first hear about it. The idea is simple: carbon dioxide is captured (either at the point of production or extracted from the air) and locked down, either in biomass (like trees), in chemical combinations, or stored underground in vast, nearly-airtight chambers. It has its drawbacks, though. Some proponents explicitly use it as a rationale for continued -- even increased -- CO2 production, arguing that if the results are still a net reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide, we shouldn't worry. Unfortunately, just how long the CO2 would remain trapped is an open question -- dead or burned biomass or leaks from underground storage could return the sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, once again increasing CO2 levels.

A Penn State research group might have developed a method of locking away CO2 without running the risk of its escape. They've figured out how to accelerate a natural process where serpentine -- an abundant mineral -- combines chemically with CO2.

When serpentine dissolves in sulfuric acid, the silicon in the mineral becomes silicon dioxide, or sand, and falls to the bottom, while the magnesium becomes magnesium sulfate. Treating some of this magnesium sulfate with sodium hydroxide also creates some magnesium hydroxide. The researchers were able to convert large amounts of the serpentine’s magnesium to these chemicals providing large surface areas for reactions to occur in solution at room temperature.

Carbon dioxide passed through the solution of magnesium sulfate and magnesium hydroxide converts both to magnesium carbonate or magnesite, which becomes a solid and falls to the bottom. This solid can be used to manufacture construction blocks and there is also a small market for hydrated magnesium carbonate in the cosmetics industry. The silicon dioxide can be used to remove sulfur dioxide from the flue gases, which can subsequently be converted to sulfuric acid to use in the first part of the process.

Sequestration alone is not a solution to increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Coupled with aggressive moves away from greenhouse gas-emitting processes, however, sequestration might make a difference in keeping the planet away from tipping into disaster. Better, then, that the method used to sequester carbon dioxide not be something that could bite back hard a few years down the road.

September 10, 2004

Not-So-Abrupt Climate Change?

We may be able to cross one potential disaster off the list (but do it in pencil).

The "whiplash" or "abrupt" climate change scenario was the scientific kernel which lay beneath the Hollywood melodrama of The Day After Tomorrow. The argument was that as warming temperatures cause glacial melting, the resulting fresh water dumped into the North Atlantic would "cut off" the warm water current that keeps Europe temperate; the resulting rapid cooling of Europe could then kick the already shaky climate into a counter-intuitive ice age. One key piece of evidence for this notion came from Greenland ice cores, which appeared to show an extremely rapid -- less than a century -- decline from the last warm "interglacial" period (like the one we're in at present) to the last big ice age, about 117 thousand years ago.

But the two ice core studies were found to have subtle problems in the data older than 105 thousand years, resulting from the ice folding near bedrock. A project to do a new ice core -- the North Greenland Ice Core Project, or NGRIP -- was undertaken in part to check this data. Drilling was completed in July of 2003, and the results were just published in Nature (PDF). The September 11-17 edition of New Scientist has a detailed article about NGRIP; unfortunately, that article is not (yet?) online.

With cleaner data stretching back 123 thousand years, the NGRIP team concluded:

This high resolution NGRIP record reveals a slow decline in temperatures from the warm Eemian isotopic values to cooler, intermediate values over 7,000 yr from 122 to 115 kyr BP. The end of the last interglacial thus does not appear to have started with an abrupt climate change, but with a long and gradual deterioration of climate. Before full glacial values are reached, however, the record does reveal an abrupt cooling [...] Thus it seems difficult to call on melting ice or other large freshwater input to the North Atlantic to trigger this event, although clearly we need more information from this and future ice cores to fully understand this first abrupt climate change of the last glacial.

In short, the transition from warm ("interglacial") climate to ice age was gradual, with an abrupt drop only towards the end of the period, not the beginning. The abrupt climate change scenario, with its rapid transition to abnormal cooling triggering mass migrations, famine and worse, seems to be a non-starter has lost one of its most important pieces of supporting evidence. While this doesn't in any way lessen the threat from global warming-induced climate disruption, it's good to know that this scenario of environmental disaster is very likely to be found only in the movies.

Added later: Looking back on the whiplash climate change material, it's worth noting that the "Lesser Dryas" cooling event of 8-12 thousand years ago isn't altered by the change in ice core findings, and still appears to have happened in a fairly abrupt fashion. While "Lesser Dryas" was severe, it wasn't a drop into an ice age, which is what the 115 thousand year data previously suggested. So it's probably most fair to say that the "abrupt climate change taking us into an ice age" scenario is likely dead, while the "abrupt climate change accelerating climate disruption by adding severe regional cooling" scenario is still very much alive.

September 14, 2004


Naturalist David Bellamy has launched a campaign to get users of camera phones in the UK, particularly Scotland, to take pictures of the endangered native Red and ubiquitous American Gray squirrels to map their migration and habitats.

Scotland is home to around 75 per cent of the UK’s 160,000 red squirrels, with around 30,000 of the species living in the Borders.

Warning of the dangers faced by the threatened red, Mr Bellamy said: "Help save this endearing native animal from extinction in Scotland."

Anyone who manages to take a picture of a squirrel is asked to e-mail the image to with details of time and location.

The campaign is in coordination with Red Squirrel Week in Scotland, Sept 13th-17th. Non-camphone users who spot squirrels can also record their observations at the Red Squirrels in South Scotland Project site.

This project is reminiscent of eBird, discussed here last December.

(Via PicturePhoning, which also has a few other articles about the use of SMS for nature-related efforts.)

September 16, 2004

Urban Pollution Sensors

BoingBoing's David Pescovitz has a new article in mobile Internet journal The Feature, "Smog-Sniffing Sensors," reporting on the Urban Pollution Monitoring Project in the UK, which combines bike-mounted pollution sensors and bluetooth messaging to alert passers-by when spot air pollution reaches threatening levels.

"Mobile sensors that are geographically tracked could help fill in the gaps to give a broad and dense picture of how pollution affects urban spaces and the people within them," says Urban Pollution investigator Anthony Steed, a computer science researcher at the University College London. "If you have several hundred or thousand sensors, you could give them to commuters and they'd make a map of the city's pollution."

The researchers have already conducted a field study using prototype devices built from a Hewlett-Packard Jornada PDA, GPS unit, and an off-the-shelf chemical sensor. Mounted on bicycles, the sensors detected phenomena like spikes in carbon monoxide around bus shelters.


[Researcher Ben] Hooker wrote the bluejacking software that enables the sensors to "self-advertise" their existence to passers-by, distribute "news-you-can-use," and promote the E-Science effort. He's also designing signs with a working sensor mounted on them to help explain how the readings are taken.

The intersection of urban life and environmental information is a topic we've been following for awhile, along with data-heavy bicycles and bluejacking. The Urban Pollution Monitoring Project is the perfect distillation of a number of WorldChanging interests, and it's exciting to see it come into being. I wouldn't be surprised to see parallel efforts spring up across Europe and Asia (they'd be less likely in the US, where Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones aren't quite as popular).

September 21, 2004

Ivan: Before and After

The US Geological Survey (motto: "science for a changing world") conducted an aerial photographic survey of some of the barrier islands hit by Hurricane Ivan. They've posted some of the photos from that survey, accompanied by "before" shots from July, to demonstrate the effects of Ivan.

The barrier islands exposed to Ivan's strongest winds, for example, the communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL, are, in places, low lying, their dunes rising up only several meters, which is insufficient to have contained Ivan's storm surge. The Gulf spilled across the islands in a strong current capable of transporting massive amounts of sand landward, undermining buildings and roads, and opening new island breaches. On top of the surge, breaking waves nearly as tall as the water was deep, eroded dunes and battered structures.

They have a similar page for Hurricane Frances (2004), with more discussion and fewer images, as well as Hurricanes Charley (2004), Isabel (2003), Dennis (1999), Georges (1998), Bonnie (1998), and Fran (1996). They also have a page describing how the USGS impact studies are carried out.

October 10, 2004

Seeing Pollution

Nicolas Nova's blog points us to MetPhoMod: the METeorology and atmospheric PHOtochemistry mesoscale MODel project (and don't blame me for the funky capitalization, that's what they use) in Switzerland. MetPhoMod is a 3D visualization tool for modeling meteorology and atmospheric chemistry -- that is, smog. MetPhoMod was used to study pollution patterns in Europe in the late 1990s, with a particular focus on the air chemistry over Grenoble and over the Swiss canton of Obwalden. The illustration at right is from work done in 1996 looking at smog patterns in Athens.

What makes this application interesting is the fact that it's free software, under a GPL license. The source code (as well as binaries for Solaris, AIX, Linux and Windows) can be found on the download page. A set of test data as well as data from a 1993 Swiss Plateau study are also available. The technical reference explains the theory and math behind the latest version of the app. MetPhoMod is complex stuff, clearly not meant for casual play, but I'm always happy to see these sorts of simulations made more widely available.

October 11, 2004

ESA Maps the Atmosphere

The European Space Agency has been involved in some very cool projects lately. Now comes word that the ESA "Envisat" -- the largest Earth Observation satellite ever built -- has just completed 18 months of observations of Nitrogen Dioxide accumulation. Using its "Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY)," it has produced the most detailed map yet of global atmospheric pollution.

"The higher spatial resolution delivered by SCIAMACHY means we see a lot of detail in these global images, even resolving individual city sources" said Steffen Beirle of the University of Heidelberg's Institute for Environmental Physics, responsible for the map shown above.

"High vertical column distributions of nitrogen dioxide are associated with major cities across North America and Europe, along with other sites such as Mexico City in Central America and South African coal-fired power plants located close together in the eastern Highveld plateau of that country.

"Then a very high concentration is found above north eastern China. Also across South East Asia and much of Africa can be seen nitrogen dioxide produced by biomass burning. Ship tracks are visible in some locations: look at the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean between the southern tip of India and Indonesia. The smoke stacks of ships crossing these routes send a large amount of NO2 into the troposphere.

This map is average out across all available data, spanning 18 months. This has the effects of reducing seasonal variations in biomass burning and also those due to human activity changes due to the time of year."

NO2 is a major component of smog, triggering the development of tropospheric ozone. The map shown above is a small version of a massive (1.6 MB jpeg, 7.8 MB TIFF) display of NO2 density observed between January 2003 and June 2004. I have to say, the image makes an impressive, if disturbing, computer desktop.

October 14, 2004

Counting Contrails

It's tough when two worldchanging philosophies conflict. On the one hand, we strongly believe that (as a general rule) international travel is a Good Thing. It can broaden intellectual horizons, letting one experience life in a wholly different culture, reminding one that the world does not end at one's nation's borders. As a perspective-shaking epiphany, it's not quite the same as seeing the Earth from space, but it's as close as most of us can come for now.

Unfortunately, airplanes -- the most practical means of international travel -- are not environmentally benign. We've mentioned before the greenhouse gas problem from air travel (and the hope that a shift to biofuels will reduce the footprint), but another issue of increasing concern are the contrails left by planes flying through cold reaches of the atmosphere. NASA research suggests that contrails can add significantly to greenhouse heat-trapping. The picture at right -- click it for a larger version -- shows a single day's contrails over the southeastern US.

To help ongoing research into the effects of contrails, NASA is promoting a contrail-counting effort as part of their "Earth Science Week" education project. Today (October 14th) and tomorrow (October 15th), students, teachers, parents and other interested citizens are asked to count the contrails they see and enter a report at NASA. A similar count was done on Earth Day 2004; the results and initial analysis are now available online.

(Thanks for the tip, Bernard!)

Twelve Tipping Points

When the Caribbean and Florida were hit by multiple big hurricanes last month, the question on the lips of many people was whether global warming was at fault. Climatologists had the scientifically correct answer: hard to say, probably not, but quite possibly a contributing factor. Because the environment is a complex system of system, it's very difficult to pinpoint precise cause-and-effect for specific weather or environmental effects. But that doesn't mean we can't see particular signs of change.

John Schellnhuber, research director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, has helped to develop a list of twelve "tipping points" where small increases in average atmospheric temperature due to global warming could produce "sudden and dramatic environmental damage." The list varies from locations where changes could have significant global effects to locations where the changes would be more "canary in a coal mine" warnings. What's most troubling is the manner in which such disruptions would very often trigger positive-feedback loops -- environmental changes which would in turn serve to accelerate the effects of global warming.

Follow the link for the full list; read on for a couple of excerpts.

Continue reading "Twelve Tipping Points" »

November 13, 2004

Knowing the Planet from Above

Satellites are able to take the measure of our planet in ways that are essentially impossible from the ground. Both NASA in the United States and ESA in Europe are devoting considerable effort to expanding their Earth-observing satellite fleets. The results of these efforts are quite often worldchanging in the best possible ways.

The European Environment Agency, working with the ESA's Earth Observation Directorate, is set to publish a broad set of data based on satellite studies of land use data in Europe. Part of the ESA's Global Monitoring for Environment & Security program, the land use information will be of great value to both leaders and citizens.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA, believes remote sensing from space opens plenty of new ground. She takes flooding as an example: “Based on satellite observations of actual floodings in recent years we will be able to see some trends. We can point out which areas are at higher risk of future flooding, and we can analyse how roads and other forms of sealing of the soil will impact flooding.

"This information is obviously of interest to policy makers. At the same time information on flooding will attract attention from people living in these areas. They might not be so interested in the overall trends but they want to know 'Will my house be flooded?' Similarly people might want to check a number of other environmental developments in their neighbourhood."

We've said it before, but it's always worth reiterating: the more we know, the better the choices we'll make. We can no longer afford to be ignorant of the implications of our decisions. Projects like this are small but important steps towards understanding what we're doing to and with Earth's environment.

November 18, 2004

NASA to Provide Data to World Conservation Union

sat.jpgIt's almost as if NASA and the European Space Agency are in some kind of competition. Such a space race would not be without precedent. Only this time, it's not a race to get to the moon, it's an information race to make Earth-orbiting satellite data available to broad audiences. Last week, I posted about the ESA making land use data available. Now it's NASA's turn.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration today signed an agreement with the World Conservation Union to provide satellite data to help with a variety of conservations efforts. The IUCN (as it's known) is the world's largest "environmental knowledge network," comprising members from 140 countries, 114 government agencies, and over 800 NGOs, and has been in operation for over fifty years. Since 1999, it's been accorded "Observer" status at the United Nations.

NASA satellite data will be used in several IUCN support systems for conservation, including the Species Information Service, Protected Areas Learning Network (PALNet) and the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).

IUCN's Species Information Service is a worldwide biodiversity and conservation management tool [...]. NASA will help IUCN develop this globally accessible, biodiversity database.

PALNet and the WDPA also will benefit from NASA data. Many of the world's 100,000 protected areas are poorly mapped, due to inaccessibility and lack of resources. NASA's satellite imagery will enable creation of accurate maps. In addition, the data will help create a "Protected Area Archive," which will be incorporated into PALNet and WDPA projects.

NASA data will also be provided under the IUCN Conservation Commons Initiative on sharing environmental knowledge.

Your move, Paris.

November 20, 2004

How Cities Evolve

Cities are alive, organic, vibrant with motion on the streets, pulsing with citizens crowding the sidewalks. They grow, and decline, and sometimes die. They evolve, transforming at the pace of nature, not fashion, changing in response to changes of both their constituent populace and the broader social environment. At their worst, cities are overwhelming; at their best, cities are stimulating. Quite often, they're both, and more.

Continue reading "How Cities Evolve" »

November 22, 2004

The Map is not the Terrain; the Sim is not the City

windfarm.jpgAll models of reality make assumptions about reality. The better sorts of models try to make those assumptions explicit and, best of all, changeable. More worrisome are the models which hide the assumptions within swanky graphics and animations. Many of us here greatly enjoy SimCity, the well-known and highly-regarded urban planning simulation from Maxis. We're not alone -- SimCity is now in its fourth iteration (Windows users can even play the original SimCity online for free.), and continues to be a steady selling game. Unfortunately, SimCity is often seen as more than a game: SimCity, in all of its versions, shows up in classrooms, research papers, and (rumor has it) planning offices around the country. And that has some troubling implications.

Continue reading "The Map is not the Terrain; the Sim is not the City" »

November 23, 2004

The Methane Option

WorldChanging reader John Atkinson alerts us to an article in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled "Greenhouse Gas Growth Rates" -- a fairly innocuous title for what could be a very important bit of research. In this article (which PNAS has made Open Access, Drs. James Hansen and Makiko Sato of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Earth Institute at Columbia University show that reducing methane (CH4) in combination with reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would be both more feasible and more effective as a means of keeping global warming to 1-2°C over this century than reductions in either alone.

The argument is fairly straightforward: in order to prevent coastal flooding, global warming needs to be kept to 1-2° C above current averages; doing so via CO2 emissions controls alone would require that atmospheric CO2 be kept to below ≈440 ppm (parts per million) -- not much of an increase over current CO2 levels of around 375 ppm; but because methane is more powerful a greenhouse gas per molecule, by cutting methane emissions by 400 ppb (parts per billion) while reducing or keeping stable other fractional non-CO2 greenhouse gases (such as N2O, nitrous oxide), the CO2 limit rises to ≈520 ppm, a level which can be more readily achieved.

Continue reading "The Methane Option" »

November 24, 2004

Restoring the Grand Canyon, Experimentally

The Grand Canyon, no matter how much a work of natural beauty it appears, shows numerous signs of human handiwork. Perhaps the most subtle is the gradual loss of sandbanks resulting from the 1963 construction of the Geln Canyon dam upstream. Along with controlling water flow, the dam traps the sediments which had, for millennia, filtered through the canyon, creating sandy habitats for land and river life alike. As a result, four out of eight fish native to the Grand Canyon have died out, and a fifth extinction looks likely soon.

But the Independent reports that an experiment is now underway to see if restoration is possible. For 90 hours, additional water has been piped in at the rate of 41,000 cubic feet per second, stirring up 800,000 tons of sediment. The flow will end today, but the experiment is just beginning. Over the next 18 months, scientists with the US Geological Survey will be watching the formation of sand bars and silt pools to see if the result is a resurgence of native species. If so, further water flows will help keep the sediment moving the way it should. More information is available from the Bureau of Reclamation and the USGS.

The scientists working on this project will not be able to restore the Grand Canyon entirely, but may be able to shift it back towards a state closer to natural. This will be difficult, but it's worth trying. The Independent talked to Bennett Raley, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior about this issue:

[Raley] said the experiment was a process by which scientists try something, learn from their mistakes and then try something else.

"Speaking tongue in cheek, playing God is harder than it looks," he said.

December 17, 2004

How Do We Know That CO2 Increases Come From Human Activity?

RealClimate has an interesting post up today explaining how climatologists can say with some certainty that the observed increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere comes from human activity. The IPCC report goes into detail about many of the lines of reasoning, but RealClimate adds another scientific argument. The article is a bit technical -- enough so that the author has noted that it needs a rewrite -- but makes sense if you follow the reasoning. Let me break it down:

Continue reading "How Do We Know That CO2 Increases Come From Human Activity?" »

January 12, 2005

Climate Models and Real Science

If you're not reading RealClimate, you should be. It's quickly becoming an excellent resource not just for understanding why climatologists argue that the Earth is warming and that human-introduced greenhouse gases are to blame, but for seeing how science works in general. Their recent examination of how we know that the measured increases in CO2 come from human activity was an excellent example of how breadth of evidence across disciplines can be applied to a given subject. Today, RealClimate contributor Gavin Schmidt takes a look at how climate models work, and asks "Is Climate Modeling Science?" Although the article focuses on climate models, it's a useful treatise on how sciences of all sorts use models to further understanding.

While Schmidt comes down in favor of using models (no real surprise), the article emphasizes how much work goes into checking the models, and how difficult getting them right can be:

Continue reading "Climate Models and Real Science" »

January 13, 2005

Climate Models as Science -- at Home

modelcp.jpgYesterday, we mentioned a RealClimate article discussing the value of climate models. In a bit of fortuitous timing, Columbia University, the National Science Foundation's Paleoclimate Program and NASA's Earth Science Directorate have released "EdGCM," Global Climate Model software for use by students and educators, allowing non-specialists to examine climate simulations for themselves. It uses the same NASA global climate model that real climate researchers use, wrapped up in a comfortable graphical interface. It comes with a selection of pre-built simulations -- from the ancient "iceball Earth" to changes in solar luminosity to a number of global warming variations -- as well as the tools to tweak the data and assumptions.

Using EdGCM teachers and students can easily create experiments that simulate a wide variety of climates of the past, present and future. In this way the teacher can supplement textbook-based lessons on the fundamentals of the climate system with experiential learning, which involves students in the method that scientists themselves are using to study the Earth’s climate system. Teachers can simulate climates of various periods in geologic history, for example, the Cretaceous Period or the Last Glacial Maximum. They can simulate climate changes that may occur in the future, such as global warming or the effects of deforestation. And, they can simulate the impacts of modern climate events such as El Niño/La Niña cycles or volcanic eruptions. The new interface allows such detailed control over model functions that EdGCM arguably has more user-definable capabilities than does the research-only version.

This is serious software, and requires a combination of serious hardware and serious time to complete useful runs. An old iMac can do about 10 simulated years in a day, while a new dual-G5 machine can do over 200 simulated years in the same amount of time. The software guide suggests that global warming simulations need at least 35 simulated years to generate useful outputs. Once you've completed a run, however, the software includes tables, maps and plots to make it easy to understand (and, as needed, present) the results.

Continue reading "Climate Models as Science -- at Home" »

February 5, 2005


NASA has installed a regional climate monitoring system in a decommissioned US military base in Panama now used by UNESCO. SERVIR -- the Spanish acronym for the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System for Mesoamerica -- is a hub for monitoring environmental conditions across Central America. It's now part of the facility run by The Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC).

NASA's main site gives the overview:

Featuring a massive, Web-based data archive of maps and satellite imagery, decision-support tools and interactive visualization capabilities, SERVIR is designed to aid government and industry across the seven countries of Central America and the southern Mexican states. [...] The system contains user-friendly, interactive tools. It is designed to make NASA Earth observations and predictions freely and readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Designed to track weather, climate and ecological events, the system has already shown results in Central America, monitoring wildfires, red tides, and blooms of toxic algae threatening local fishing areas.

...and SERVIR's home site gives a few more details:

Continue reading "SERVIR" »

February 6, 2005

The Exeter Conference

Why are we so concerned with the minutiae of diesel engines, the availability of satellite maps, the disclosure of carbon emissions, and so forth? Because they all connect back to global warming-induced climate disruption: why it's happening, how we know about it, and what we can do about it. The results of continued rapid increases of levels of greenhouses gases in our atmosphere will be pretty awful -- world-changing, one might say, but in a bad way. But just how bad? How fast will they happen? And what are our best choices for mitigating the worst of it?

These were the questions asked at the "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" conference held in Exeter, UK, on February 1-3, bringing together around 200 climate scientists from around the world. Although the initial trigger for the conference was the need to define precisely what constituted "dangerous climate change," the scientists ended up instead detailing "critical thresholds that we should aim not to cross" -- a less dramatic phrase, but an approach more focused on science than policy. The conference covered three broad issue: an assessment of impacts, an examination of climate sensitivity and emission pathways, and what our technological options for mitigation will be. Impressively, the presentations from each of three days are already on the website for download. The Steering Committee report (PDF) summarizes the findings.

Continue reading "The Exeter Conference" »

February 7, 2005

California Pulls Out the Stops

Since taking on the entire auto industry was clearly an insufficient challenge for the government of California, the state's public utilities commission has now decided to embark on a project to change the way it regulates utilities in order to address climate disruption and greenhouse gas emissions:

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) today announced it is gearing up for its groundbreaking Feb. 23 en banc to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions by identifying best practices for all PUC regulated companies (electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, and transportation). Presenters include representatives from the academic, research, business, insurance, shareholder activist, and state government organizations.

"We are the first PUC in the nation to squarely address the issue of climate change, as it relates to all of our regulated utilities.  This is an unprecedented and much needed step in the United States, and I am pleased that, working with Governor Schwarzenegger and his administration, we are leading the charge on this important issue," said PUC President Michael R. Peevey. [...]

Opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to business operations include power plant operation, fleet vehicle efficiency, building efficiencies, and overall reduction of energy consumption.

If you thought the lawsuits came fast when California started pushing for reduced vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, just wait. The power, telecom and transportation companies officially regulated by the CPUC include some pretty mammoth corporations. It will be interesting to see if any of them have the foresight to work with the CPUC on this instead of against it.

The first meeting of the project will be Wednesday, February 23, in San Francisco. I'm going to try to attend. Interested parties are encouraged to read the CPUC climate change background paper, which goes into some detail about why they've decided to take this step. Unfortunately, they've only made the background paper available as a Word document. When I found that the paper was little more than text and a single table, I used Word's HTML conversion utility to produce an HTML version of the CPUC climate change paper.

February 12, 2005

Barcoding Life

barcode.jpgHow many species are left on Earth -- and how would you know if you've stumbled across a new one?

We now about 1.7 million of the estimated 10-30 million species on the planet. If we had a database of unique genomes of every one, such questions would be readily answered; such information may be years away at best. Nonetheless, various efforts are underway to get an accurate accounting of the life forms on our planet (see WorldChanging posts here, here and here). The most promising pathway appears to be the "DNA barcoding" project. DNA barcoding narrows the particular characteristics of each species to a few, easily-identified genetic markers, which can then be read in the field with a handheld device. We talked about the initiation of the Barcoding Life program a year ago -- and we're now starting to see the results.

The BBC reports on the proceedings of last week's International Conference on the Barcoding of Life, hosted by the UK's Natural History Museum. At the conference, three major new projects were announced:

Continue reading "Barcoding Life" »

February 16, 2005

Britain and India, Together Again

While we can often be found extolling the virtues of South-South science, it's good to see a bit of North-South science in the mix, too. reports that India and the UK have announced plans to "collaborate on sustainable development projects, including conducting research on climate change together." The UK is taking the lead on the project, and this is only the first step:

UK environment minister Elliot Morley... added that China would be the next country that Britain engages with in this way, which is aimed at addressing the issue of achieving economic growth without damaging the environment.Climate change is one of the areas of collaboration identified in a joint statement issued by Tony Blair and Manmohan Singh, the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and India, during Singh's visit to the United Kingdom last year.The other areas include clean sources of energy, biotechnology and bioinformatics, nanotechnology, agriculture, and health research.

The UK, which is ranked #6 in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, has very clearly gotten religion on the subject. India, while seeing its own emissions grow, is also quite conscious of its geography. Climate disruption has a good chance of altering monsoonal rainfall patterns, with potentially nasty results, as a fluctuation of just ten percent in the monsoon rainfall amounts can trigger widespread flooding or drought.

February 18, 2005

Warming the Oceans

It's almost time to put a moratorium on WorldChanging stories pointing to yet more research showing that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity. Opposition to the idea at this point is entirely political, not scientific, and while the added data points are undoubtedly useful to researchers, such stories tend to run together. Our focus now should be on doing something about the problem. That said, the latest "it's happening" story, coming from this week's 2005 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is still worth noting -- because of its certainty, its depth and its provenance.

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, working with colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI), have found "clear" and "compelling evidence" of human-forced global warming in the oceans. The Times of London has the an extensive write-up:

Continue reading "Warming the Oceans" »

February 19, 2005

The New Oceanography

The combination of sensors, robots and cheap information technology is triggering a transformation of oceanography, according to a lengthy article from SeaWeb published at PhysOrg. High-tech oceanography is moving away from connect-the-dots sampling and towards a whole-system, big-picture understanding of the oceans, marine life, and the role of the sea in the global climate. From mapping via multi-beam sonar arrays to tracking fish migrations using microelectronic tags to the discovery of new species using deep sea remote-operated vehicles, oceanographers and ocean biologists have tools at their fingertips now that rival those of space exploration.

"For every tool we have to explore outer space - space stations, tethered missions, rovers, mapping - we have a comparable tool for ocean exploration," says James Lindholm of the Pfleger Institute. "This suite of technologies allows us to study an environment that is equally hostile to human life."

"It's exciting," adds Les Watling of the University of Maine. "There hasn't been this level of true exploration in the ocean for a hundred years."

Of course, some of the tools now used are the direct result of space research, such as satellites able to see across the breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, peering into the ocean's depths, identifying changes in temperature and chemistry.

Continue reading "The New Oceanography" »

February 28, 2005

Green Space, Green Transportation

urbanbike.jpgWhy don't people walk or bicycle more often? The benefits of doing so are well-known: improvements in health, lowered stress levels, reduction in pollution, etc.. Some people clearly do, of course; whenever we post articles about green improvements in automobile technology, we're sure to get comments telling readers to just get on a bike. But many people, it seems, have a strong aversion to biking and walking for transportation. Is sprawl the main reason, making it hard to get to work on time (and not looking and smelling like one just completed a leg of the Tour de France)? Is it the weather? Or is there another factor at work?

Epidemiologist Amy Zlot, at the Oregon Department of Human Services, sees a strong correlation between bicycling/walking for transportation and the amount of green space in the urban environment. The amount of green space, in turn, is connected to the relative diversity of the urban environment. The findings were published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

“In this set of observations, walking and bicycling for transportation was positively associated with parkland acreage,” say Zlot and co-author Tom Schmid, who did the research while employed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data did not show a significant relationship between the level of walking or cycling for pleasure and the percentage of urban parks.

Continue reading "Green Space, Green Transportation" »

Vancouver Abides

vancouverchange.jpgFor many of us, cities are the most tangible example of slow change. Buildings rise and fall, streets and wires unfurl, but at a pace which is simultaneously gradual enough to be almost invisible to our day-to-day wanderings, and still fast enough to be shockingly evident within the space of our lifetimes. That's what makes before/after and 'century cam' projects so particularly appealing when it comes to cities -- they collapse a slow change that normally only registers on the periphery of our consciousness down to an instant.

Alexandra Samuel points us to the City of Vancouver's community planning website, which has an abundance of before-after shots on a site called The Changing City. Probably the most gripping are the panoramas linked from the top of the site -- ultra wide images (over 3700 pixels wide) of various parts of the city (False Creek, Stanley Park, Granville Bridge), eight sets in all. In 1978, the first of these photos were taken for a planning study; in 2003, the images were re-shot, from more-or-less the same locations. Each before and after is set up to fade from one to the other, or flip back and forth as a rollover graphic (I found the rollovers to be much more reliable). The contrasts, the changes over 25 years, are startling, sometimes jarring.

(A minor nit -- unlike Douglas Levere's New York Changing project, the 2003 photographers did not take great pains to line up their cameras at exactly the same locations and angles as the original pictures. In the cropped combination shown here, for example, I had to rotate the top image by a few degrees to get it to line up better with the bottom. Some of the shots are off by much more than that.)

Follow the "Other Changes in the City" link for some more before/after shots of different buildings. The pictures are set up to contrast how much and how little some buildings change. They aren't as dramatic as the panoramas, but bring the changes down to a more human scale -- this corner, that apartment house.

Cities evolve at their own pace; projects like the Vancouver Changing City site give us a glimpse of that evolution.

March 1, 2005

Measuring Phytoplankton

worldplank.jpgPhytoplankton -- microscopic plant forms floating in the oceans -- are the closest thing on the planet to the underlying fuel for life. Phytoplankton are at the base of the marine food chain, and produce around half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. We know that they bloom and are consumed quickly; phytoplankton have an annual production comparable to all terrestrial plants on Earth. Up until now, however, nobody had figured out a way to determine precise phytoplankton growth rates.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and NASA have done just that, using satellite observations of phytoplankton color.

The new approach is based on the premise that the "greenness" in phytoplankton, its level of pigmentation per cell, is a reflection of its growth rate, said David Siegel, professor of geography and director of the Institute for Computational Earth System Science at UCSB. The researchers have discovered a means, by satellite, to measure the biomass of phytoplankton from ocean light-scattering properties, and to infer growth rates from simultaneous measurements of the greenness of the individual phytoplankton cells.

Continue reading "Measuring Phytoplankton" »

March 8, 2005

Watching the Oceans

gloss_mini.jpgThis week's Nature also includes an outstanding editorial by Keith Alverson, "Watching Over the World's Oceans" (PDF), arguing that the oceanographic response to the December tsunami should not be limited to a handful of tsunami sensors. Previous implementations of stand-alone tsunami warning systems have had mixed results, and because tsunamis are such rare events, funding for their maintenance often doesn't have a high priority. A better solution, he suggests, would make tsunami observations part of a larger system:

...the best way to ensure that a tsunami warning system remains fully operational for decades to come is to embed it in broader efforts to observe the ocean. ...

Continue reading "Watching the Oceans" »

March 9, 2005


bii_sm.jpgHow do you know when an ecosystem is dying? Discovering species on the edge of extinction -- or already past the edge -- doesn't always give the bigger picture. Changes to a region will affect different species in different ways, letting some flourish even as others die.

Bob Scholes and Oonsie Biggs, Systems Ecologists at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, have devised a measurement they call the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII). Their discussion of the BII appears in this week's Nature; a paper presented at a conference (PDF) last year provides more details about the BII:

Continue reading "Intactness" »

March 11, 2005

To Go Where Nomad Has Gone Before

Carnegie-Mellon's sensor-laden Nomad robotic explorer, which traveled 135 kilometers across Chile's Atacama desert in 1997, is set to take on a new adventure. It's going to be sent to Antarctica to search for signs of microorganisms living in the ice -- and may be powered, in part, by an on-board wind turbine and solar panels. In preparation, Nomad took a trip across a lake in New Hampshire:

Nomad, which successfully traversed 10 kilometers through the snow and ice on Lake Mascoma, was equipped with a wind turbine for the first time, while researchers studied the possibility of powering a robotic investigation with combined wind and solar energy.

Carnegie Mellon and NASA researchers worked with the Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, to arrange the long-distance autonomous navigation tests on Lake Mascoma, which they say simulates the flat, icy terrain of the Antarctic plateau.

A more detailed description of the Lake Mascoma excursion -- as well as some great high-res pictures of Nomad in the field -- can be found at the LORAX site (Life On ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer -- yeah, it's a stretch, but it's still a good acronym!).

This won't be Nomad's first trip to Antarctica; in 2000, it was used to search out and find meteorites in the ice, becoming the first robot to perform scientific experiments autonomously. This time around, it's been upgraded with even more sophisticated software and newly designed biosensors allowing it to seek out and identify microbes in hostile environments.

(Via Gizmodo)

March 16, 2005

Goodbye, Kilimanjaro

For most of us in the west, the African mountain Kilimanjaro is known for two things: its summit is the point on the planet at which one can see more surface area of Earth than from any other location (the North American champ for that is Mount Diablo, which I can see from my back window); and, although it sits close to the equator, its summit is perpetually shrouded in snow, a fact immortalized by Ernest Hemingway's 1938 short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Make that, "was perpetually shrouded."

In 2000, images from Landsat, one of the various Earth-observing satellites, took an alarming picture, showing that much of the snow and glaciation at the Kilimanjaro summit had disappeared in just ten years. The 1990 and 2000 photos are shown to the right; click them for larger versions at NASA. At the time, scientists estimated that the remainder of the ice and snow would be gone by 2015.

They now have to revise their estimates. Recent photos (small version to the left, click for larger) show that very little of the mountain's snow remains; what's left will probably be gone in a just a few more years. Before the decade is out, Kilimanjaro will lose the snow which covered it for the last 11,000 years -- the snow which fascinated travelers, inspired artists, and gave it the name "shining mountain." Global warming and deforestation are both culprits; the relative balance between the two is still subject to debate (see comments for links). We've linked to other before/after images showing the effect of climate disruption, but there's something deeply symbolic about this particular example.

The 2004 image is part of a collection called NorthSouthEastWest: A 360° View of Climate Change, given to the attendees of this week's G8 energy and environment summit. The UK, which becomes the head of the G8 this year, has already stated that it will try to make climate disruption the top agenda item for the organization. Pictures like these are useful for making visceral the often-academic discussions of carbon and timelines, and for driving home the point that global warming isn't a problem off in the future, but is happening -- and having serious consequences -- right now.

March 21, 2005


Fabien Cousteau -- grandson of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau -- has adopted a remarkable new way to study sharks in their natural environment: become one of them.

"Troy" is a custom-designed submarine allowing him to swim with Great White Sharks. Designed by a team of Hollywood special effects technologists and shark biologists, Troy is... anatomically correct, 14-foot-long, 1000-pound, one-man “wet” sub (there’s water inside) that Cousteau operates in full diving gear. Troy’s experimental motors haul as fast as five knots. “The sub is an observational platform that lets me swim along at shark speed,” says Cousteau. “The whole point is to fool them into thinking I’m a shark.”

Troy moves with a natural tail motion fast enough to keep up with with shark packs. Its steel frame gives it sufficient strength to support the pneumatic propulsion system, but the material used to simulate shark skin is only camouflage, offering no protection. The eyes are sophisticated video cameras, used both for navigation and recording the activities of nearby sharks.

Continue reading "Shark-Sub" »

March 28, 2005

Can't Buy Conservation

What's the best way to maintain the health of rain forest parks? Perhaps that's better asked as, what's the best way to dissuade people from damaging the health of rain forest parks? A logical answer would be to invest in the economic well-being of the people who live near the parks. Logical -- but, as new research suggests, quite possibly wrong.

A recent survey of 16 African parks and wildlife preserves in 11 countries (published in the May 2005 issue of Biological Conservation -- summary here) found that one of the most important factors correlated with rain forest park success is a positive public attitude towards the parks. Direct financial support for development -- even sustainable development -- seems to be much less effective.

"You can't buy conservation," said Struhsaker. "Our evidence was contrary to beliefs expressed by such organizations as the World Bank -- that investment in economic development around parks aids in their success.

Continue reading "Can't Buy Conservation" »

March 30, 2005

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios

If you even come close to the sustainable blogosphere (as I increasingly see it called) today, you know that the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report is out. The vast majority of news reports about the Assessment emphasize its dark, "sobering" presentation. This isn't surprising -- the planet's environmental systems are under a lot of stress, and if things don't change, we're in for disaster. But that's an important caveat -- if things don't change.

What most readings of the Assessment have so far seemed to miss is that the listing of the ways in which we're harming the planet is not all the report contains. The report also includes a chapter on scenarios of what the next fifty years might hold (Chapter 5, pp. 123-141, for those of you reading along at home). They're more summaries than fully-fleshed out scenaric worlds, but even so, they dispel the notion that the MEA is just about how bad things are and how much worse things can become. In fact, of the four, only one could be called openly pessimistic, and the remaining three have distinctly WorldChanging overtones.

Continue reading "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios" »

April 4, 2005


IOOC.jpgThe Indian Ocean Observing System -- IOOS -- is an international project to build a sensor network across the Indian Ocean in order to monitor ocean and atmospheric conditions. Started in 2000, nine deep ocean moorings are already in place (three each from Japan, the United States, and India), with more planned, including a cooperative venture between Australia and China, along with the integration of existing ocean monitoring systems. The Indian Ocean Panel, which is coordinating the system's development, is a joint effort of CLIVAR (the Climate Variability and Predictability project) and GOOS (the Global Ocean Observing System project).

While the December tsunami heightened the awareness of the need for greater ocean monitoring in the region, the need for more information about changes to the environment has been growing for some time.

Dr [Gary] Meyers [of Australia's CSIRO] said the recent discovery of El Nino-like phenomena in the Indian Ocean - strong two-way interactions between ocean and atmosphere - has highlighted the importance of regional data collection to understand and predict seasonal and longer-term climate variability over all the surrounding continents.

Continue reading "IOOS" »

April 7, 2005

A Cycle of Extinction?

biodiversitycycle.jpgUC Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller and grad student Robert Rohde have found something odd, and a bit troubling. Looking at the marine fossil record for the last 545 million years -- that is, from the start of the so-called "Cambrian Explosion" of life -- Muller and Rohde found that the diversity of genera drops significantly every 62 million years. (Genera are the level above species in taxonomy.) Some of the best-known mass extinctions in paleontology, including the end of the dinosaurs, occurred on this 62 million year schedule. But what causes it?

Muller and Rohde's article, published last month in Nature, also shows a weaker 140-million year cycle. The full text of the article is behind a subscription wall, but supplementary material -- including details on the statistical math of their study -- can be freely downloaded.

There are a number of possible explanations for the cycle of extinctions, but none fit perfectly.

Continue reading "A Cycle of Extinction?" »

April 22, 2005

Sustainability: The Journal

sustjournal.jpgWhat does "sustainability" mean? The question is harder than it first appears. It's hard to pin down a precise meaning, and even terrific explorations of the concept end up heavy on the metaphor. Part of the problem is that "sustainability" has different meanings when looked at from a scientific, a design, a social or a policy perspective, and too often those who focus on the particular categories talk past each other, or ignore each other completely.

Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy seeks to change that.

Continue reading "Sustainability: The Journal" »

April 28, 2005

Earth Out Of Balance

The issue of whether the planet is warming due to human activity is well settled, and over the past few months, we haven't devoted much blog space to pointing out Yet Another Global Warming Confirmation every other week. Today's press release from the Earth Institute at Columbia University is worth noting in passing, however, due to its cosmic phrasing of scientific results.

The Earth's energy is out of balance.


The study [...] reveals that Earth's current energy imbalance is large by standards of Earth's history. The current imbalance is 0.85 watts per meter squared (W/m2) and will cause an additional warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This is equal to a 1-watt light bulb shining over an area of one square meter or 10.76 square feet. Although seemingly small, this amount of heat affecting the entire world would make a significant impact. To put this number in perspective, an imbalance of 1 W/m2 maintained for the last 10,000 years is enough to melt ice equivalent to 1 kilometer (6/10ths of a mile) of sea level.

Of perhaps more practical interest are the details about "thermal inertia," the lag between processes that have the potential to trap more heat and the realization of that potential. This thermal inertia is caused by the slower rate at which the oceans take up and release heat.

...there is an additional global warming of about 1 degree Fahrenheit that is already "in the pipeline," and has not yet manifested in overall ambient temperatures. Even if there were no further increase of human-induced gases in the air, climate would continue to warm about that much over the next century. [...] The delayed response of thermal inertia provides an opportunity to reduce the magnitude of human-made climate change before it is fully realized, provided that actions to reduce climate forcing agents are undertaken. On the other hand, if the world decides to wait for more overwhelming evidence of climate change, thermal inertia implies that still greater climate change will be in store, which may be difficult or impossible to avoid.

This is why policy responses to global warming-induced climate disruption are difficult to craft. We face a pace disconnect between our tools -- industries and technologies -- and the problem. We're used to situations where changes to the causal factors result in visible, near-term changes in the effects. Geophysical processes don't work at that pace; improvement or worsening of greenhouse gas emissions will have no immediate consequences. Indeed, we may find that actions to cut greenhouse gases seemingly have negative results, as temperatures continue to climb. That's thermal inertia biting us in the backside, and those of us in the realm of analysis and explanation need to be prepared for the resulting public confusion.

May 10, 2005

Tracking Diseases From Orbit

epidemio.jpgAs long-time readers of WorldChanging know, I am especially enthusiastic about the use of space-based tools for watching and understanding geophysical and environmental systems. Big-picture views of the world can capture subtle interactions across large areas, as can the use of sensors picking up signals outside of the visible light spectrum. These are not replacements for ground observation, but important supplements.

The recently-unveiled Epidemio project is an excellent example of the application of satellite observation well beyond what most people might expect. Epidemio is a European Space Agency effort to use Earth observing satellites to track the spread of diseases in Africa. EO satellites don't monitor microbes directly -- they aren't quite yet up that -- they instead monitor the environmental conditions associated with the spread of disease. Heat, wind patterns, rainfall, dust, humidity -- all of these are clues for understanding an outbreak, when examined with an epidemiologist's eye. The ESA has provided satellite support for medical and epidemiological research before; Epidemio focuses the ESA's efforts, working closely with a variety of medical NGOs and agencies.

Epidemio data will cover urban maps, digital elevation maps, bodies of water, vegetation, land cover, land surface temperature and a service for monitoring wind-blown Sahelian dust. The last may be related to regular outbreaks of meningitis in North Africa.

"Meningitis outbreaks take place after a period without rain, low humidity and lots of dust in the air," explained Isabelle Jeanne of the Niger-based Centre de Recherche Médicale et Sanitaire (CERMES), associated with the international network des Instituts Pasteur and a partner in ESA's Epidemio project."The exact correlation is not yet known. But making use of satellite data enables us to follow week by week the development of the dust storms and the appearance of conditions favourable for an epidemic to start." [...] "The dryness and dust does not spread the bacteria directly," Jeanne explained. "Instead it seems as though the irritation caused to local inhabitants' mucus membranes renders them more vulnerable to bacterial infection. However an epidemic begins to decrease as soon as the first rain comes."

Epidemio is also working with CERMES to monitor environmental precursors for malarial outbreaks, is working with the Gabon-based International Centre for Medical Research to search for Ebola-carrying plants or animals. This last week, Epidemio made large sets of Sahel dust maps available for download, along with maps of Luanda and Lusaka to aid with WHO relief efforts fighting an outbreak of the Ebola-like Marburg virus in Angola.

May 13, 2005

Mapping Biodiversity

Nature conservation is an information-intense process. After all, you need to know what you're saving in order to tell whether or not you're successful. But tools for measuring biodiversity haven't always kept up with conservation needs. In the new issue of Journal of Biogeography, however, botanists from the Bonn University have produced the most detailed global atlas of plant biodiversity yet created.

A central innovation here is the breakdown of data by vegetation zone. Tropical rainforests are, unsurprisingly, shown to be among the most species-rich areas on earth. Indeed, Borneo's lowland rainforest is the most diverse of all, with around 10,000 plant species. By comparison, the whole of the Federal Republic of Germany contains some 2,700 different native plants. [...] An important "spin-off" from the project is a map showing how thoroughly the plant world has been studied in different regions. Among the "white patches" on the map, showing areas for which floristic knowledge is very poor, we find the southern Amazon basin and North Colombia, which are two of the world's most biodiverse areas.

The atlas will have immediate applicability to conservation work.

Continue reading "Mapping Biodiversity" »

May 20, 2005

Global Change, Local Effects

How will global warming-induced climate disruption affect your hometown?

Analyses of worldwide effects aren't terribly hard to come by, but analyses that look at the results of increased temperatures, rising sea levels, and more energetic storms in particular locations are actually few and far between. The first one of any detail I've found is one coordinated by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University -- the Climate Change Information Resource for the New York Metropolitan Region, or CCIR-NYC. (If any of you have found similar sites for other locations, please post links in the comments.)

The CCIR-NYC covers pretty much what you'd hope it might: an overview of climate change; how to adapt to a changing environment; strategies for mitigating climate disruption; and, of course, regional impacts. Each of these sections go into greater detail, but since the last is the unique aspect of the CCIR-NYC site, it's worth looking at in particular.

The Regional Impacts category is split into five sections: projected changes; major consequences; coastal impacts; transportation effects; and economic impacts. Each section is filled with charts and graphs, laying out the sobering details about what the New York metropolitan region can expect to face over the next century. Special attention is paid to the effects of flooding, unsurprising given the rising sea level projections (potentially over 11 inches by 2020). Storms -- so-called "Nor'easters" and hurricanes -- are anticipated to become more common, with corresponding damage to beaches, coastal wetlands, and fresh water supplies.

The CCIR-NYC site includes a moderately extensive bibliography and link list, as well as a mailing list for people wishing to "discuss items related to climate change and variability impacts on urban environments" (yes, I've signed up). The one downside of the site is that it appears to be updated only sporadically; the last update was in late March, reflected by the "Upcoming Events" page listing (what sound to have been quite interesting) meetings in April...

May 23, 2005

Global Wind Map, Revisited

windmap_sm.jpgI managed to get ahold of the global wind map article we mentioned a few days ago. "Evaluation of Global Wind Power" by Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson is a detailed analysis of wind data from over 8,000 wind speed measurements around the world. The results are generally more conservative than other regional studies, but even so, nearly 13 percent of the stations recorded sustained wind speeds in the "Class 3" category (6.9-7.5 meters/second) or better, with some few locations topping out over "Class 7" (9.4 meters/second or greater). Generally speaking, with currently-deployed wind turbine technology, Class 3 winds or greater are required for economically useful generation.

Read on for more details from the Global Wind Power report, as well as a larger version of the global wind map.

Continue reading "Global Wind Map, Revisited" »

Earthquake Prediction Map

quakemap.jpgSomeday, we'll be able to predict the onset of a major earthquake with the same relative accuracy as weather forecasts -- not perfect, but definitely useful days or sometimes a week or more in advance. Someday, but not today.

But what we do have today is a growing body of knowledge around what happens prior to a quake. Quite often, it's another quake -- a small foreshock to something much larger, or even a tremor on another fault line. With this in mind, the US Geological Survey has opened up a "Real Time Forecast" map for California earthquakes. The forecasts only look out 24 hours, a short but still better-than-nothing warning.

Nature News, unsurprisingly, has the details:

The forecast is generated by combining two types of information. First, a 'background' assessment is made of earthquake risk around California, by assessing the physical properties of various geological sites, along with the statistical behaviour of fault lines over long periods of time.Added to this are the anticipated knock-on effects of any seismological activity that has occurred over the previous days, months or years. This is what causes day-to-day percentages to change. This week, for example, a magnitude-4.7 aftershock in the Parkfield area, where a medium-sized quake occurred last September, has caused probabilities in the region to jump to around 1%.

The quake forecast map is something of a proof-of-concept for now. While it would be good to see similar maps for other parts of the world, I suspect they need to work out the idea's utility a bit more. The percentages are generally quite low, sufficiently so to make the map unlikely to impinge on people's day-to-day awareness. Still, I'd like to see a daily RSS feed, or maybe one which only sends out a new map if a forecast goes above a certain percentage.

We're likely to see more of these sorts of maps and displays in the coming years, as we learn more about how geophysical systems work, and (with regards to weather phenomena) as global warming triggers greater climate uncertainty.

June 1, 2005

What Does Peak Oil Look Like?

oildepletion.jpg"Peak oil" -- the notion that global production of oil will soon reach its maximum, and will subsequently decline (even while demand continues to rise) -- is getting quite a bit of attention lately. It's not surprising; peak oil is a useful metaphor for the broader problem of not paying attention to longer-term problems, as well as an implicit driver for a move away from fossil fuels. If global warming isn't reason enough, the argument goes, and if sending money to corrupt and unstable nations isn't reason enough, running out of oil is.

Today's Green Car Congress has a brief post that provides a useful visual companion to the peak oil argument; I've reproduced it at right. It's an image of the Abqaiq oil field in Saudi Arabia taken by a device that measures vertical fluid density.

By using different colors the authors have shown the different fluid densities, and these can simply be translated into four zones. Over time the field has been injected with water (the blue zone) and this has pushed up the oil (the green zone) into the wells. The red is the overlying gas cap. When the reservoir was untapped it was likely all red and green. After all these years of pumping you can see how little of the green—the oil—remains.

Political blogger Kevin Drum, over at the Washington Monthly, has written a short series of posts going into a bit more detail about peak oil arguments, avoiding the energy industry jargon that often infects them. Part 1 nicely illustrates the sometimes-ignored fact that oil production peaks differentially -- it peaked in the US in 1970, and will peak in the non-OPEC world around 2010 (according to ExxonMobil, hardly a scare-monger in that regard). When oil will peak in OPEC countries remains a point of debate. Drum's Part 2 gives a bit of history to the peak oil concept, and Part 3 looks at where future oil production will come from once the easy-to-get oil is gone. Drum promises that more posts on the subject are to come.

It's worth pointing out that peak production does not mean final production. That is, once we hit the global oil peak, petroleum production does not subsequently collapse. It's a decline, to be sure, but it can be a slow one, and will fluctuate with new (albeit hard to reach) discoveries and improved technologies. And even if we can't do anything about the planet running out of accessible oil, we can do something about our consumption. Lower oil production only matters if demand is greater than supply. As we've demonstrated here time and again, we have the tools and models necessary to shift into a high-efficiency, low-energy-consumption, high-quality lifestyle.

We just need to make the decision to do so.

June 8, 2005

If You're Looking For Me, You'd Better Check Under the Sea...

sea-labs.jpgSEA-LABS -- Sensor Exploration Apparatus utilizing Low-power Aquatic Broadcasting System -- may be a bit of an acronymic stretch, but the idea underlying the jargon is rather exciting. SEA-LABS is a student-designed project to use low-power wireless transmission to monitor coral reefs in real-time -- and the technology could be applied to any remote undersea sensor scenario.

Five engineering undergraduates at the University of California, Santa Cruz (disclosure: I did my undergraduate degrees at UCSC) came up with the SEA-LABS design to assist with biological monitoring of the reefs of Midway. The SEA-LABS sensors will be installed this summer, and will make it possible for biologists and oceanographers to keep tabs on coral conditions from thousands of miles away.

The core of SEA-LABS is a Programmable Ocean Device (POD), which consists of a processor, a memory storage component, and a battery that can last up to two years, all housed in a waterproof casing about the size of a small wastebasket. The POD can be bolted to the seafloor near a reef. It must be completely waterproof at depths up to 60 feet and sturdy enough to withstand heavy wave action.The POD has cable connections to sensors that independently record pressure, light, salinity, and temperature. The sensors are small enough to fit in any desired location on or within a reef and can be placed right next to plants, corals, and other reef inhabitants.

Continue reading "If You're Looking For Me, You'd Better Check Under the Sea..." »

June 11, 2005

Visions of Change

One Planet, Many Peopleis the UN Environment Program's new atlas, released last week in connection with World Environment Day. Using satellite photos, it documents the ways in which human activities have changed the planet's environment. A hardcover version costs $150, but the book can be downloaded chapter by chapter as PDFs, in resolutions suitable for screen or for print display (warning: the print versions are significantly larger in file size).

Although the book contains a wide variety of images and graphs, the heart of the atlas is found in the before-after shots, comparing satellite photos of various locations -- usually cities, but not always -- from recent years and from a decade or more ago. The image to the right (clicking leads to a much larger version) compares Las Vegas in 1973 and in 2000. This is what we mean when we talk about "sprawl."

Continue reading "Visions of Change" »

June 19, 2005

Global Warming and Hurricanes

ivan-sm.jpgHurricane season is now underway (and if you live in a hurricane-prone area, or simply want to follow the season in detail, don't forget about the National Hurricane Center's RSS alert feeds), and a great deal of attention will be focused on whether this year's storms will match the ferocity of last year's. Climatologists were quick to deny any explicit causal connection between global warming and the multiple big hurricanes last year, only going so far as to say "this is what we could expect to see." If this year is a repeat of the last, however, expect some climate scientists to become a bit more assertive with their claims.

One who is already ahead of the trend is Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In a piece written for the current issue of Science, Trenberth argues that --

"Trends in human-influenced environmental changes are now evident in hurricane regions," says Trenberth. "These changes are expected to affect hurricane intensity and rainfall, but the effect on hurricane numbers remains unclear. The key scientific question is how hurricanes are changing." [...]

The strongest links between hurricane intensity and climate change, according to Trenberth, are a long-term rise in ocean temperatures and an increase in atmospheric water vapor. Both processes are already under way and expected to continue, he says. The additional water vapor will tend to produce heavier rains within hurricanes and an increased risk of flooding at landfall, Trenberth notes. [...]

"Computer models also suggest a shift in hurricane intensities toward extreme hurricanes," says Trenberth.

Because the climate is a complex system, transient interactions can lead to unexpected local weather. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that this year's hurricane season will be far milder than last year's. But if that happens, we should be guard against seeing it as a sign that global warming's effect on hurricanes isn't so bad. Instead, we should look to a mild season as an opportunity to build up our disaster warning, response and relief systems up -- particularly in the Caribbean nations -- before things do turn ugly.

June 20, 2005

Air Pollution Alerts

yourair.jpgWe posted about the European Space Agency's Global Monitoring for Environment & Security (GMES) program back in November, 2004. The program is intended to put useful satellite information about Earth's environment in the hands of citizens. The initial focus was on mapping land use and agriculture, but the ESA has now come up with an altogether different application.

YourAir is a project providing air quality forecasts in great geographic detail, down to the street level. It currently serves London as a prototype, but if successful, will be expanded to other European cities. Forecasts are made for particulate, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone pollution. Last month, the service added a new feature: pollution warnings sent via SMS to mobile phones.

Continue reading "Air Pollution Alerts" »

June 23, 2005

The Kaya Identity and the "Conservation Bomb"

onepercent.jpgNot a spy thriller, the Kaya Identity is the formula which projects the amount of atmospheric CO2 as a function of population, GDP per capita, watts per dollar, and CO2 per watt. It's pretty straightforward: our carbon output depends on how much power we use, how efficiently we use it, and how "dirty" the production is. Recall that current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are just under 380 parts per million, and that the general consensus among climatologists is that (looking just at CO2), the climate is up for some serious problems once we hit the 440ppm level. With the Kaya Identity, we can calculate just what combination of factors would keep us below that level.

The math isn't hard -- it's just multiplication -- but charting it out over course of the next century can get a bit tedious. Fortunately, for a class in the Geosciences department at the University of Chicago, Professor David Archer put together a Kaya Calculator allowing you to plug in preferred figures for each element and see what results. For most factors, you don't have to give absolute numbers, just the amount of change every year. The calculator is set to show the results over the course of the 21st century, and displays a number of graphs detailing the figures. The most important of the resulting graphs is "Carbon-Free Energy Required for CO2 Stabilization" -- that is, how much of our overall energy production will have to be carbon-free in order to stabilize CO2 at a given portion by 2100.

With the default figures -- taken from the global trends of the last century -- we'd need over 17 terawatts of carbon-free power (out of the total produced) to stabilize at 450ppm in 2100. I've reproduced the graph showing these results above. Unfortunately, the chart doesn't indicate just what the total energy production would be; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can help here -- their average scenario for energy use in 2100 is roughly four times the present, or about 40-50 terawatts.

But that assumes we don't try to change things.

Continue reading "The Kaya Identity and the "Conservation Bomb"" »

June 24, 2005

Plankton, El Niño, and Sinking Carbon

phytoplanktonnasa.jpgIt's hard to overestimate the importance of phytoplankton to the planet's global ecosystem. Plankton are pretty much the bottom of the food chain, and as their numbers rise and fall, so too do the fortunes of nearly every other creature of the sea. But it turns out that the oceans aren't the only part of the Earth with a fate dependent upon plankton -- they affect the atmosphere, too.

Dr. Wendy Wang and her colleagues at the University of Maryland, working with data from NASA's EOS global monitor satellite, have determined that phytoplankton account for about half of the carbon dioxide absorbed annually by plants. Moreover, the cycle of El Niño/La Niña weather phenomena strongly correlates with the decline and growth of phytoplankton.

Continue reading "Plankton, El Niño, and Sinking Carbon" »

June 25, 2005

El Niño and Global Warming, Revisited

elnino.jpgYesterday, I discussed the interaction between the El Niño weather phenomenon, its suppression of phytoplankton blooms, and the importance of phytoplankton in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and suggested that this connection was worth paying close attention to. If climate disruption resulted in weaker El Niños, the accelerated growth of phytoplankton might be a useful moderator to global warming; if it resulted in stronger El Niños, the suppression of phytoplankton might end up making matters worse. I expected that research about the interrelation between climate disruption and the El Niño/La Niña phenomena would emerge in the future.

The future came faster than anticipated.

In an upcoming issue of Science, Michael Wara, Ph.D. student in Ocean Science at UC Santa Cruz, along with his professors Christina Ravelo and Margaret Delaney, argue in an article entitled "Permanent El Niño-Like Conditions During the Pliocene Warm Period" that the most recent era in which the Earth was warmer than it is now (the Pliocene epoch, 5mya-1.7mya), conditions in the southeast Pacific were essentially identical to those found during an El Niño -- but without a cyclical return to a La Niña period.

Continue reading "El Niño and Global Warming, Revisited" »

July 9, 2005

The Sensor Web

NASA is set to test a new project they call the "Sensor Web," combining data from multiple sources to build a more complete picture of atmospheric pollutants. It will make heavy use of the Earth Observing System satellites we've mentioned before, and the initial test will rely just on the Aqua and Aura satellites. But, when deployed, the Sensor Web won't stop there:

This interconnected "web of sensors" coordinates observations by spacecraft, airborne instruments and ground-based data-collecting stations. Instead of operating independently, these sensors collect data as a collaborative group, sharing information about an event as it unfolds over time. The sensor web system is able to react by making new, targeted measurements as a volcanic ash plume is transported to air traffic routes, or when smoke of a wildfire is carried aloft, then dispersed over large metropolitan areas. The sensor web has the potential to improve the response time of our observing systems by reconfiguring their sensors to react to variable or short-lived events and then transmit that information to decision makers so that appropriate alerts can be issued to those people living in the impacted areas.

What makes this project particularly notable is the system collaboration aspect. Previous multi-sensor projects would simply combine the data after-the-fact; the Sensor Web will use inputs from one set of sensors to guide another. Moreover, the Sensor Web will be using a "model-based" approach, using simulations and forecasts to project where the sensors should point next.

If a model forecasts high concentrations of CO, the sensor web's instruments can be commanded to make targeted observations of those locations. The actual sensor measurements can then be fed back into the computer model to improve the accuracy of the forecast. Talabac's team hopes to illustrate how such a model-driven sensor web could be used to enhance current measurement techniques, and bring to bear multiple complementary instruments to respond to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

NASA intends to start Sensor Web operations later this year.

July 20, 2005

The Struggle to Go Global

We posted about GEOSS -- the Global Earth Observation System of Systems -- just about a year ago. GEOSS is a multinational program to monitor the Earth's land, sea and air, using data pulled from more than 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys, 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, and more than 50 satellites. This is a massive undertaking, and given that several dozen nations are involved, quite complex both technically and politically. A recent article in Nature (PDF) covers what has happened over the last year and, as should be expected, successes are well-mixed with roadblocks.

The December tsunami was a wake-up call for many potential participants, emphasizing the danger that they face by not having good access to broad sources of information. It's ironic, then, that one of the countries proving a bit recalcitrant is India:

Continue reading "The Struggle to Go Global" »

July 21, 2005

Sats and the City

urbanSE_USA.jpgGlobal climate models are pretty good -- better than some give them credit for -- but they're not perfect. There are still elements of atmospheric systems that they don't adequately cover. One such element is the effect of cities upon the climate. Arguably, this is not a disaster, as cities cover all of about 0.2 percent of the planet's land surface. But cities are growing, both in number and in size, and will soon hold half the planet's population. Even if the overall effect of urban development on the global climate is slight, results like the "urban heat island" effect certainly alter the local climates around cities.

How, then, could climate scientists account for cities in their models? J. Marshall Shepherd, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and Menglin Jin, at the University of Maryland-College Park, have authored a paper (in the May edition of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society) with one possible answer. Their solution uses satellites.

What is it about cities that changes the atmosphere?

Continue reading "Sats and the City" »

July 24, 2005

Terraforming Earth, Part II

droughtplantcells.jpgI wrote recently about "terraforming Earth" as a way of discussing the potential need for large-scale engineering of geophysical systems in order to stave off the worst ravages of climate disruption. I was using the term "terraforming" largely metaphorically; although terraforming can mean simply making changes to a planet to render it more livable, its primary meaning is making geophysical changes to a planet to render it more Earth-like. The ideas are similar (after all, the places we would find livable are also apt to be Earth-like), but not identical.

But upon further consideration of the idea, it struck me that I was using "terraforming" correctly. Our goal with such megaprojects would be to restore the global environment to pre-disruption conditions, to return Earth to a general ecosystem status more-or-less characteristic of the Earth prior to the most problematic of the human-caused changes. Although none of the potential worst-case results of massive climate disruption (atmospheric carbon loads in the 600+ ppm, with corresponding temperature increases; "whiplash" ice ages; the melting of oceanic methane clathrates; widespread extinctions) are unprecedented in the history of the planet, they are by no means typical of the planet's history, and historical changes to the atmosphere do not normally happen with the speed we've seen for the human-induced disruption.

The goal of geo-engineering efforts would be, in short, to make Earth Earth-like again -- or, in other words, to terraform the Earth.

Continue reading "Terraforming Earth, Part II" »

August 5, 2005

The End of Oil

endofoil.gifDuring a multi-hour delay at the airport for my return home yesterday, I picked up the newly-released paperback version of journalist Paul Roberts' The End of Oil(originally released in 2004, the paperback includes a new Afterword), and finished the book on the plane. Although I disagree with some of Roberts' analysis, I was impressed at his ability to draw together a number of factors and ideas that aren't often spoken of in the same sentence outside of places like WorldChanging. Environmental pressures moving us away from oil are given similar weight to issues of scarcity and depletion; efficiency of use is accorded as much importance as hydrogen fuel cells (although the book was clearly written before a number of recent breakthroughs in battery technologies); the economics of global development are taken into account alongside great power profligacy. The End of Oil is impressive and sobering introduction to the gravity of the energy and environmental challenge we face globally. It's less impressive -- although still useful -- when it addresses what to do to meet that challenge.

It's not a Bright Green book by any means -- Roberts seems hesitant to put some pieces together, and is ultimately too attached to the conventional wisdom -- but neither is it a rehash of commonplace arguments and examples. Call it Tarnished Green, just needing a bit of work to make it Bright.

Continue reading "The End of Oil" »

August 8, 2005

Pump Up The Volume

The precise nature of the relationship between global warming and hurricanes remains the subject of debate. Although it's highly likely that increased atmospheric (and, as a result, ocean) temperatures has some effect on the location, frequency and/or intensity of hurricanes, a number of climate scientists remain hesitant to draw any specific conclusions about that effect. That's a wise course of action, in my view; it's important that, if climate scientists do present findings that global warming is increasing the threat from hurricanes, they do so in a way that is convincing to the broadest spectrum of climatologists.

That said, a growing number of climate researchers think that such a case is now being made.

MIT's Kerry Emanuel has published a piece in Nature arguing that, although research trying to link hurricane frequency with global warming has yet to find a connection, the same is not true for hurricane intensity:

Continue reading "Pump Up The Volume" »

August 12, 2005

Urban Density, Left-Coast Style

LA_at_night.jpgWe know that there's a strong correlation between urban density and energy efficiency. Communities packing 12 or more households per acre are more efficient than less-dense communities built with the latest Energy Star appliances and materials. When planned and executed well, high-density residential areas can be appealing even to those reluctant to give up the space of single-family-home suburbia. When high density is the result of lack of planning or poor decisions, however, the result can be bad -- very bad.

The article in Tuesday's Washington Post talking about urban density patterns has generated a bit of attention because of its seemingly counter-intuitive ranking (based on US Census data) of the Los Angeles metropolitan area as having the highest density of any urban region in the US. Indeed, this is surprising to those of us accustomed to thinking of density as meaning skyscrapers and closely-packed townhouses. But the story that leapt out at me from the numbers was just how close the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan region was to LA in terms of density. Based on the 2000 census, Los Angeles has 7,068 people per square mile, while SF-Oakland has 7,004 people per square mile.

Flying into Los Angeles International Airport at night, it's easy to believe that density figure. There are points during the approach when, from thousands of feet in the sky, all an airplane passenger can see is a sea of lights stretching from horizon to horizon, hundreds of square miles of human occupation, stopped only by the Pacific Ocean to the west. From the ground, during the day, it doesn't have quite the same character (except perhaps when trying to drive the 405), due to the "polycephalic" character of the city. Los Angeles doesn't have a single center or downtown, it has dozens. San Francisco, conversely, has the trappings of the conventionally dense city: strong core, abundant pedestrian and mass transit traffic, mixed-use neighborhoods and residential streets with houses pushed (sometimes literally) right up against one another.

Los Angeles and San Francisco, neck-and-neck at #1 and #2 on the population per square mile list, represent two very different models for the urban density future -- and both versions face important challenges.

Continue reading "Urban Density, Left-Coast Style" »

August 18, 2005

Making the Involuntary Park Permanent?

The so-called "de-militarized zone" between South Korea and North Korea (who are technically still at war) is devoid of any human habitation or activity, and has been for about 50 years. As a result, this space -- 250 kilometers long, 4 kilometers wide -- has become home to a staggering array of rare plants and animals, including the highly endangered red-crown crane. Bruce Sterling wrote about the DMZ as an "involuntary park" a couple of times on his Viridian mailing list, and it's back in the news now.

Reunification between the Koreas remains a stated goal of both governments, and it's hard to imagine the North Korean regime remaining in its current brutal stasis indefinitely. At the very least, global climate disruption may well aggravate the poor harvests and famine that are already too common there, and the question of North Korean nuclear weapons development remains a global concern. In short, there's every reason to believe that the Koreas may reunify (or, at least, adopt a more peaceful and open relationship) within the next decade. When that happens, the DMZ will go away. So what happens to the "involuntary park?"

Ted Turner (yes, that Ted Turner) wondered, too, but is in a position to do something about it.

Continue reading "Making the Involuntary Park Permanent?" »

Re-Introducing the Wild

elephant.jpgThirteen thousand years ago or so, North America was home to a variety of well-established species and one new one. The well-established species included relatives of modern elephants, lions, cheetahs and numerous other animals now found only in a few places in Africa and Asia; the new species was Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, when the new species met the old species, something had to give. Although paleontologists and archaeologists haven't pinpointed precisely why many of the North American megafauna died out, it looks highly like that humankind had no small role in their fate. These extinctions meant more than the disappearance of wild animals; they were massive disruptions to the continental ecosystem, the effects of which are still being felt.

Is it possible to correct a 13,000 year old mistake?

Josh Donlan thinks so. Donlan, at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, is the lead author on a paper in the latest issue of Nature entitled "Re-wilding North America" (subscriber-only, unfortunately), which argues that a range of megafauna once found (in somewhat ancestral form) in North America should be gradually re-introduced the American mid-western plains. Such animals include Bolson Tortoises, Bactrian Camels, wild horses of different types, Cheetah, African and Asian Elephants and, eventually, Lions. All roaming free over the American Great Plains.

Continue reading "Re-Introducing the Wild" »

August 19, 2005

Genetic Efficiency and the Carbon Cycle

sar11.jpgA bacteria known as SAR 11 -- or Pelagibacter ubique -- now has the distinction of being the living organism on Earth with the most efficiently-coded genome. There are no signs of junk DNA, duplicate entries, or viral genes, and the code length itself is only 1,354 genes long (compared to the 30,000 genes in humans, which itself was a surprisingly low number). The only microbes with fewer genes are "obligate parasites" or symbionts, creatures that rely on another organism for some of their physiological processes. (The chart at right shows where Pelagibacter ubique (in red) fits in terms of genes and gene families -- other bacteria are in green, parasitic and symbiotic microbes in black.

The researchers who figured all of this out argue that this goes a long way to explain why Pelagibacter ubique is the dominant species in the ocean. The mass of Pelagibacter ubique outweighs the combined weight of all the fish in the sea. Moreover, SAR 11 appears to be critical for the function of carbon cycle.

Continue reading "Genetic Efficiency and the Carbon Cycle" »

August 22, 2005

The Green Ribbon

GreenRibbon.jpgThe demilitarized zone between North and South Korea wasn't the first "involuntary park" to spring up in the ripples of the Cold War. The border between East and West Germany saw similar -- if smaller-scale -- conditions; the space along the border was often a "no man's land," and, left unmolested, plants and wildlife thrived. The "Green Ribbon" stretches from the Baltic to the Franconian Forest, running for about 1,400 kilometers (but only 20-100 meters wide in most locations). The total area of the Green Ribbon is just under 200 square kilometers. About half of the wildlife and plants in the Green Ribbon is considered threatened or endangered -- and therein lies an opportunity.

Recognizing the ecological value of this stretch of land, the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) [Alliance for Environment and Nature Conservation in Germany] and the Bund Naturschutz Bayern [Alliance for Nature Conservation in Bavaria] have started the process of acquiring the Green Ribbon, with the goal of keeping it out of the hands of developers -- as of June, they had purchased 140 hectares. Although the federal government initially promised to help protect the space, the post-reunification conditions and laws made keeping that promise complex; in the vacuum, the German states stepped in. Saxony put its entire stretch of the Green Ribbon under conservation protection in 1996. Federal steps have been less bold, but with a much larger agenda:

Continue reading "The Green Ribbon" »

August 30, 2005

Foresight in the Age of the Storm

katrina0829.jpgIn the age of climate disruption, clear-eyed foresight is a necessity -- but hurricane Katrina was a reminder that foresight means more than imagining the worst and preparing for it.

Katrina came as a surprise to few of its victims. The storm, which had been just a Category 1 when it crossed Florida, grew stronger over the warm ocean as it drew towards the Gulf Coast; in the age of real time satellites and doppler radar, residents of the region had ample warning that danger was coming. Nor was Katrina's arrival a surprise to meteorologists at the National Weather Service, who had earlier this month predicted that this hurricane season would be a strong one. Katrina's strength was certainly no surprise to climate scientists such as Kerry Emanuel or Kevin Trenberth, each of whom had published recent articles in top-notch journals arguing that greater hurricane intensity is the inevitable effect of global warming.

No, climate foresight means recognizing the signs that the game has changed, and that simply doing more of the same, but better, won't suffice.

Continue reading "Foresight in the Age of the Storm" »

August 31, 2005


waterlevels.jpgOne of the results of the December tsunami was increased interest in the development of integrated systems for monitoring the Indian Ocean. It's likely that Katrina, too, will lead to greater attention to our ability to keep tabs on the ocean environment. A key difference, however, is that there are already numerous sensors and monitors in place around North America, unlike the pre-tsunami Indian Ocean; the focus probably won't be so much on putting more sensors in place as on making better use of the data we already receive.

The OpenIOOS is a good start at this, and deserves to get greater attention and support. OpenIOOS -- the IOOS, in this case, stands for Integrated Ocean Observing System -- is a project of the Office of Naval Research and NOAA's National Ocean Service, and combines a wiki with tools for displaying data meeting the Open Geospatial Consortium standards. Government and academic ocean monitoring resources are brought together in a single package, making both the data and the display available for general use. It's almost staggering how much data can be brought together in one site: storm tracks (both historic and forecast); coastal water levels; ocean currents; wave heights and models; a variety of satellite images (including sea surface height, temperature, and chlorophyll levels); wind observations; radar reports; and much more, all able to be combined on a single map.

The map shown is part of a time series on sea level surges over the past 24 hours; a satellite image and wind map covering the last couple of days can be seen here.

OpenIOOS is an impressive example of what can be done with open standards and abundant information.

September 8, 2005

Recycling the City

Ed Burtynsky: Densified Scrap Metal No. 3a
In email, Eric Townsend asks,

Hey Jamais,

Do you know anyone that can discuss all the stuff that's about to get thrown away and how it could possibly be recycled? Maybe someone in waste management and recycling at a city level that could do envelope calculations on how much trash Katrina created? How many cars are totaled, how many household appliances will need to be replaced? How many televisions and monitors loaded with heavy metals are going to get tossed? Will any of this crap get recycled or will it just become landfill?

These are really good questions, but they might not have good answers. (If any of you know the answers, or know where the answers can be found, please let us know in the comments.) The disaster is still too fresh for many people to think about something like recycling and trash disposal, but the cleanup efforts are already underway; by the time it's comfortable to think about the subject, it will be too late. We may not know what is done with the material remains of New Orleans until well after the fact.

Chances are, the vast majority of inundated buildings will be bulldozed, swamped cars will be towed to wrecking yards, and many tons (hundreds of thousands? millions?) of debris will be loaded into dump trucks and hauled off to landfill. As Eric suggests, much of the debris will be appliances and electronic gear filled with toxins. What kind of effect will putting a city's worth of metal into the waste stream all at once have on the environment?

Continue reading "Recycling the City" »

September 12, 2005

Better Health through Environmental Regulation

economic benefits of eco regulationA common argument against the implementation of stricter pollution regulations (including greenhouse emission caps) is that they would exact too high a cost on the economy. Businesses and governments would have to lay out billions of dollars on retrofits and cleanups, the argument goes, slowing economic growth. A new study from MIT (from the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment) shows why such claims have no merit -- and why environmental regulations are actually good for the economy.

It all comes down to public health.

Pollution in the air, water and soil has a measurable impact upon human health. Pollution can increase the rates at which people get sick, and prolonged exposure to pollution can shorten the productive lifespan. These effects, in turn, have a measurable impact upon economic growth. Reducing pollution by regulating environmental pollution, therefore, should lead to greater public health, which should then lead to greater economic productivity -- and it's a bit startling to see how much greater.

Continue reading "Better Health through Environmental Regulation" »

September 21, 2005


rita09211830hrs.jpgThe National Hurricane Center now says that Rita is currently the third most powerful hurricane on record. This is up from fifth most powerful earlier today.

The NHC has made an RSS feed for Rita available -- it will only include reports on this hurricane.

The latest report, as of posting time:


It's my understanding that, at this strength, Rita could maintain hurricane status as far inland as Austin, Texas. It undoubtedly does not need to be said, but if you live in the at-risk area (see map to the right), please start making plans now to evacuate.

September 26, 2005

Using Rita

vorticity.jpgThere's been a flurry of understandable attention of late about the relationship between global warming and hurricanes. Climate scientists have emphasized that the number of storms this season -- unusually high, so much so that we may run out of storm names and have to move to Greek letters -- is still within the historical context of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or "hurricane cycle." There's not much evidence that the increased sea surface temperatures have resulted in more storms. Instead, climate science suggests that the effect of warmer oceans is two-fold: heated water expands, so warmer oceans mean higher storm surges; and, as hurricane strength is primarily driven by ocean surface temperatures, warmer seas can mean stronger storms. A number of recent studies, both historical and model-based, have shown this relationship, and you can find more detail on the relationship between hurricane intensity and global warming here.

As a result of this increased attention to storm intensity, research agencies around the world are putting more effort into better observations and forecasts of hurricane strength. This week, both the American National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced ongoing storm intensity projects. NCAR is using this year's hurricane season as a test of their new Weather Research and Forecasting model, known as ARW, while the ESA has turned its Envisat network to watch North Atlantic hurricanes, providing novel insights into the inner workings of hurricane Rita. Both organizations are making their work available to the public over the web.

Continue reading "Using Rita" »

October 5, 2005

Real-Time River and Lake Levels

centralafrica.jpgResearchers and civic officials in Africa will soon have access to near-real-time information on the height of rivers and lakes, thanks to the European Space Agency's Envisat program. Envisat is turning out to be one of the most significant ecological information projects ever; the "River-Lake" project is just the latest in a series of investigations of the global environment from orbit. Envisat is providing data for hurricane intensity forecasts, monitoring phytoplankton blooms, mapping atmospheric pollution, helping to coordinate aid efforts in Darfur, even assembling the sharpest and most detailed photograph ever of the Earth's surface.

The Envisat River-Lake project is intended to assist with water management planning, as well as supporting efforts to prevent water-born illnesses such as malaria and cholera. The satellite uses a radar altimeter (similar to those used to map Mars and Venus) for surface measurements. As the system approaches its ultimate goal of 3-hour turnaround for the data, the River-Lake project may also have significant value as a monitor of flooding or storm surges.

The River-Lake project wasn't actually an original goal of the Envisat, but is a new application of the satellite sensors:

Continue reading "Real-Time River and Lake Levels" »

October 15, 2005


wgtube.jpgPlaceopedia is yet another example of a couple of growing trends: the integration of online data resources with online mapping; and the drive to make urban environments "smart."

As with most of the map-mashups, Placeopedia uses Google Maps, this time mixing it with (as the name suggests) Wikipedia. The concept here is that users can add links at Placeopedia to relevant pages on Wikipedia, allowing users to browse the interesting bits of trivia or useful local information appropriate to a given spot. There's already a decent mix of the two, at present, with both transit maps and tourist highlights easy to find.

Continue reading "Placeopedia" »

October 17, 2005

Climate Model Sees Extreme Future

morehotevents.jpgA new set of model results from Purdue University give us a foreshadowing of what the effects of global warming-induced climate disruption will be on the nation that currently puts the most greenhouse gases into the air: the United States.

In an article to be published later this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, geophysicist Noah Diffenbaugh and colleagues Jeremy S. Pal, Robert J. Trapp and Filippo Giorgi discuss the results of a five-month supercomputer simulation of global warming across North America over this century. This simulation exercise ranks as one of the most sophisticated ever run; the model was able to consider effects on individual regions 25 kilometers square, down from 50 square kilometers used in previous models.

It's something of an article of faith among the remaining holdouts denying the existence of global warming that computerized climate models, as they abstract aspects of the climate, are essentially useless -- and (implicitly) if they had more details, they'd show that all was right with the world. Unfortunately, as our modeling methods and technologies have gotten better, quite the opposite has occurred. These days, reports from computer models are apt to show that things are worse than we thought, climate-wise. This one is no exception:

Continue reading "Climate Model Sees Extreme Future" »

November 17, 2005

Global Warming, Global Health, Global Ethics

climateandhealthnature.jpg"Impact of Regional Climate Change on Human Health," a new report in the latest edition of Nature, makes for sobering reading. A combined effort from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the World Health Organization, the report reviews the evidence connecting changes to climate conditions and threats to human health. The study looked at both empirical data from past observations and model-based simulations of future interactions. Unusually, the full report is available to non-subscribers; a good summary can be found at

The nations that have been, and will be, hardest-hit by climate-related health effects are those least able to respond; they're also the least responsible for the global temperature increases both over the past century and (with the arguable exceptions of India and China) likely over the next. This is not a happy article, or a study full of solutions; it does, however, underscore why global warming is so dangerous -- and why the need to respond to environmental risks can't be disconnected from the need to respond to global poverty.

The World Health Organization now estimates that at least 150,000 deaths each year are directly attributable to the effects of climate disruption. Over the next 25 years, that risk will rise substantially:

Continue reading "Global Warming, Global Health, Global Ethics" »

November 18, 2005

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sequestration and Oil Production

co2_sequestration.jpgThe US Department of Energy trumpeted the result this week: the DOE-funded “Weyburn Project” successfully sequestered five million tons of carbon dioxide into the Weyburn Oilfield in Saskatchewan, Canada, while doubling the field’s oil recovery rate. The press release goes on to say,

“The success of the Weyburn Project could have incredible implications for reducing CO2 emissions and increasing America’s oil production. Just by applying this technique to the oil fields of Western Canada we would see billions of additional barrels of oil and a reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to pulling more than 200 million cars off the road for a year,” Secretary of Energy Bodman said.

I'm quite certain that you folks have already picked up on the key underlying problem. The additional barrels of oil put out carbon dioxide even while the sequestration buries it. In fact, as I show in the extended entry, the additional oil puts out more CO2 than is buried. The Weyburn sequestration model is a study in the need to pay attention to the trade-offs involved in quick-fix solutions to big problems.

Continue reading "Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Sequestration and Oil Production" »

November 25, 2005

Happy (Belated) Peak Oil Day!

Reasonable people may disagree, but Princeton geology professor emeritus Ken Deffeyes, author of 2001's Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage and 2005's Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak (sense a theme?), stated on his blog in early 2004:

Although it is a bit silly, we can now pick a day to celebrate passing the top of the mathematically smooth Hubbert curve: Nov 24, 2005. It falls right smack dab on top of Thanksgiving Day 2005. It sounds a little sick to observe a gloomy day, but in San Francisco they still observe April 18 as the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.

That's right -- according to one of the more preeminent peak oilers, yesterday was the day the world saw its maximum oil production. Probably.

The reality is that oil peaking is not a smooth curve, of course. Unexpected discoveries, technology improvements, and the like will sporadically increase output, even after the decline has truly begun. And, as we've noted in the past, peak oil matters most when demand exceeds supply. The best defense against peak oil nightmares is to stop using so damn much of the stuff. We know how to move to a cleaner, greener, higher-efficiency civilization; the time to do so is now.


December 4, 2005

Hurricane Epsilon

IR image of atlantic weatherAs most of you know, this year's Atlantic hurricane season, which just ended officially (even if the Atlantic hurricanes haven't noticed), was the most active on record. What you might not have heard, however, is that all National Weather Service predictions were for Epsilon to weaken instead of getting stronger. This year's hurricane season wasn't just stronger and more active than anyone expected, it was also weirder.

This point is driven home by the latest update on Epsilon published by the National Hurricane Center at NOAA. I've reproduced the discussion here in its entirety:

10 AM EST SUN DEC 04 2005




When the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are visibly disturbed by the progress of a storm, you know things have gotten bad.

December 6, 2005

Whistler 2020

whstemp.jpgWhistler 2020, a comprehensive civic sustainability plan crafted by the small Canadian town earlier this year, has just been given the International Livable Communities Award in the category of "Planning for the Future."

Whistler 2020 reimagines the resort community as a fully-sustainable, very low-footprint community, and spells out an ambitious -- yet practical -- agenda to make it so. The main document (PDF), published last May, outlines the goals and vision for the community; the resulting strategies document, adopted in August, provide more concrete steps for achieving that vision. Each of the sixteen categories, from arts & culture to water, gets a thorough examination of short and medium-term goals, along with policy recommendations for the next two years. The strategy documents have a good mix of idealism and practicality, with well-articulated (and plausible) descriptions of what a success scenario would look like alongside specific actions to be taken by civic planning authorities.

Continue reading "Whistler 2020" »

December 9, 2005

OMI Goodness

OMI.jpgAlthough Aura is one of the US-launched Earth Observing System satellites, it includes instruments made by scientists from around the world. An excellent example is the Ozone Monitoring Instrument -- OMI -- made by scientists in the Netherlands and used to watch the formation of air pollution over Europe. OMI can measure the level of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in a 10 km column of air above the surface; the presence of nitrogen oxides, particularly nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a strong indicator of smog.

The gas - which comes from motor vehicle exhausts, power plants and industry - is an important precursor in the production of ground-level ozone, part of the photochemical smog that can blight city air, particularly in summer.
By following the development and spread of NO2, OMI can be used to help make forecasts of where problem air might develop. Long-term tracking of the gas can also identify emission hotspots.

The Dutch scientists use the OMI readings to generate daily maps of NO2 levels above Europe. To an extent the results aren't terribly surprising; the air above cities like London, Paris and Rotterdam is far dirtier than the air above rural and smaller urban areas. It is useful, however, to see how the NO2 moves, and -- as with many of the satellite studies -- the primary value comes from continued monitoring of changes, so as to better see the real-world effects of mitigation programs.

OMI measures more than just Europe, of course. Aura is on a polar orbit, so covers all of the Earth; the OMI team intends to expand their daily reports to more cities around the globe in the coming months and years.

(Thanks, Tim du Toit)

December 12, 2005

Understanding Methane Hydrates

As bad as the more obvious effects of global warming may be (e.g., drought, rising sea levels, and the like), the less-well-known effects are the ones that could prove the most worrisome in the long run. Take frozen methane, for example. We've discussed the role of methane in climate change before -- it's 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2, but cycles out of the atmosphere far more quickly. The major risk from methane comes from large amounts being released in a relatively short period. Such large amounts exist frozen beneath the Siberian permafrost and deep in the oceans.

RealClimate explores in some detail today just how the frozen methane could melt, and what the result could be if it does so. The situation, as RealClimate sees it, could be disastrous, but there's still a great deal more research that needs to be done. Unfortunately, the article's key points are obscured by unusually dense prose. For example:

The juiciest disaster-movie scenario would be a release of enough methane to significantly change the atmospheric concentration, on a time scale that is fast compared with the lifetime of methane.

Continue reading "Understanding Methane Hydrates" »

December 14, 2005

Stabilization Wedges

wedgies.jpgFar too often, discussions of efforts to mitigate the worst effects of global warming bog down under an argument that is simultaneously factual and irrelevant: there's no single solution. Solar power (or wind, or nuclear, or sonofusion) is not going to be sufficient to replace all coal and oil use. Efficiency won't improve fast enough. Sequestration can't bury enough CO2. These are all true, but only in isolation. The solution that will work comes not as a single bolt from the blue, but from a combination of multiple, varied efforts.

Princeton's Robert Socolow has captured this beautifully in a concept he calls "stabilization wedges."

With stabilization wedges, a multitude of projects, from efficiency to de-carbonization to sequestration and more, combine to reduce overall carbon emissions, a task that at times can seem impossible. Individually, the wedges are difficult but achievable. As Scolow is quoted by the Economist, this approach "decomposes a heroic challenge (eliminating the emissions in the stabilisation triangle) into a limited set of merely monumental tasks."

Socolow's model for stabilization attempts to prevent a doubling of the amount of carbon emissions by 2050 by stabilizing at the current rate of 7 gigatons of carbon/year, globally. This is sufficient to prevent the kinds of disastrous results arising from a much higher CO2 concentration, but would have to be followed by further efforts to reduce emissions once stabilized. Socolow argues that we have more than enough different ways to achieve this goal, with current technologies and practices, and that the real question becomes not "can we do it?" but "what are the best ways to do it?"

Continue reading "Stabilization Wedges" »

December 21, 2005

Concordia Station

concordiastation300.jpgConcordia Station is one of the most isolated -- and most important -- permanent scientific outposts on Antarctica. A joint project of French and Italian national research programs, with the involvement of the European Space Agency, Concordia has just completed its first "overwinter" mission and is now home to its second crew. Antarctic research, while interesting, isn't inherently worldchanging, but Concordia is special: its location, Dome C, is rapidly becoming the best spot for a variety of scientific missions on Antarctica; and this year's overwinter crew at Concordia has the assignment of prepping for a mission to Mars.

The Dome C location has several notable -- and nearly unique -- characteristics.

Continue reading "Concordia Station" »

December 23, 2005

Satellites for a Changing Planet

esasrilankamap.jpgSpace-based scientific research has an underappreciated role in building a better world. This week alone has three stories of important work being done from space on issues critical to WorldChanging.

The timelist example is the European Space Agency's retrospective piece on how satellite-based tools helped the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the December 26, 2004, tsunami. Readers who followed our posts at the time will recognize some of the projects discussed, including the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters and the Respond group. The ESA article provides useful details as to how the ICSMD and Respond helped out, including examples of the images and maps given freely to rescue and relief organizations, such as the French ADU (Architects de l'Urgence, or Emergency Architects):

Continue reading "Satellites for a Changing Planet" »

January 10, 2006

Abrupt Climate Change -- How Bad Could It Be?

thedayaftertomorrow25.jpgIf global warming results in the "abrupt climate change" scenario of a "little ice age" in the Northern Hemisphere, just how bad might it be? A couple of new studies take a look at the paleogeological evidence to find out.

Although the idea of global warming triggering an ice age may be couter-intuitive, the science is pretty solid. Melting icepack in Greenland results in the dumping of large amounts of fresh water right into the path of the North Atlantic warm water flow, resulting in the slowing and eventual cut-off of the circulation; this, in turn, results in lower temperatures in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, with Europe likely to be hit the hardest. Such a pattern has happened in the past due to the slower natural cycles of global temperatures; the fossil and ice core evidence suggests that the shift from a warm, wet environment to a cold, dry climate could take place over a matter of a few years.

Recent findings that the warm water flow may, in fact, be seeing a dramatic reduction has turned this concept from a theoretical possibility to a very real threat. But what would that world look like? Two studies give us very different images of what might happen.

Continue reading "Abrupt Climate Change -- How Bad Could It Be?" »

January 18, 2006

Don't Blame the Plants

A few days ago, a report in Nature from the Max Planck Institute suggested that plants may be responsible for quite a bit more methane than previously believed (methane is, as we know, 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but isn't nearly as abundant in the atmosphere). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this report exploded across the newsosphere, usually with headlines suggesting that plants were responsible for global warming, that planting trees to mitigate atmospheric CO2 just made things worse, and otherwise striking an odd balance of "we're doomed" and "it's not our fault!"

We didn't write about it here because we've read enough scientific reports to know when something is very preliminary, and not nearly as big a deal as press reports claim, a decision underscored by RealClimate's take on the report. Today, the researchers who wrote the Nature article issued a new press release trying to get everyone to calm down:

...our discovery led to intense speculation that methane emissions by plants could diminish or even outweigh the carbon storage effect of reforestation programs with important implications for the Kyoto protocol, where such programs are to be used in national carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction strategies. We first stress that our findings are preliminary with regard to the methane emission strength. Emissions most certainly depend on plant type and environmental conditions and more experiments are certainly necessary to quantify the process under natural conditions. As a first rough estimate of the order of magnitude we have taken the global average methane emissions as representative to provide a rough estimate of its potential effect on climate. These estimates... show that methane emissions by plants may slightly diminish the effect of reforestation programs. However, the climatic benefits gained through carbon sequestration by reforestation far exceed the relatively small negative effect, which may reduce the carbon uptake effect by up to 4 per cent. Thus, the potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive. The fundamental problem still remaining is the global large-scale anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels.

Emphasis mine. The press release includes a brief paragraph explaining in more detail how the estimates were calculated; the amount of methane (CH4) emitted by plants is a tiny fraction of the amount of CO2 captured in the same time frame -- no more than 2g of CH4 for every kilogram of CO2. The greater greenhouse characteristics of methane make the effect of that small amount of methane disproportionately large, but (as quoted above) the overall reduction in carbon uptake is 1-4%.

In short, don't worry. Planting trees for carbon sequestration is still a good idea -- you should just plan to plant 1-4% more of them now.

January 19, 2006

Lester Brown's Plan B 2.0

PB20.jpgAbout two years ago, we posted a brief piece on Lester Brown's book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Brown is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and head of the Earth Policy Institute, and is best-known for the State of the World series. Brown has just come out with Plan B 2.0, updating the original work, and it looks to be one of the better summations of the WorldChanging perspective yet in print (but keep an eye out for the WorldChanging book...). Best of all, the entire work is online as both HTML and PDF (you can, of course, purchase a paper copy as well).

A listing of some of the chapter titles will give you a sense of the direction Brown's taking (the links are to the PDF version of the chapter; follow the "entire work" link above to get the HTML versions):

2. Beyond the Oil Peak
4. Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas
9. Feeding Seven Billion Well
11. Designing Sustainable Cities
13. Plan B: Building a New Future

Brown also discusses global poverty, energy efficiency, water shortages, and what would need to be done to shift the global economy towards greater sustainability.

Read on for some excerpts from the last chapter, "Plan B: Building a New Future."

Continue reading "Lester Brown's Plan B 2.0" »

January 23, 2006


damocles.jpgGoogle Earth is fast becoming a key tool for the monitoring of changes to our planet, via the use of online information layers -- the combination of networked data and Google maps are known as "mash-ups" (after the music genre). The latest mash-up is DAMOCLES, a project by the Technical University of Denmark to provide compelling and useful information on the effects of climate change on Arctic ice (unsurprisingly, the university has numerous projects related to arctic sea ice). DAMOCLES adds satellite and ground-level sensor data to Google Earth polar maps, providing daily-updated readings of ice motion and thickness.

DAMOCLES, a tortured acronym for "Developing Arctic Modelling and Observing Capabilities for Longterm Environmental Studies," seeks to reduce the uncertainties regarding the effect of global warming-induced climate disruption on the polar regions, with a current focus on the north pole. Climate scientists now recognize that global warming hits the poles much harder than the equatorial and temperate regions -- as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years -- with dramatic results. At the south pole, the warming threatens to break up the Antarctic ice sheet (if the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, it would raise sea levels by at least 60 meters), while at the north pole, warming has already led to the disappearance of vast stretches of ice pack, eliminating areas once used by Inuit communities and threatening wildlife.

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January 25, 2006

Money, Viruses, and Unexpected Resources

viralmoney.jpgUC Santa Barbara's Lars Hufnagel, along with Theo Geisel and Dirk Brockmann from the Max Planck Institute, have taken an Internet curiosity involving the travels of dollar bills and used it to create a breakthrough model of human travel patterns, one that could greatly boost our ability to respond to emerging epidemics.

Back in the days when few people ever traveled more than a few miles from their homes, diseases spread in a fairly linear way, slowly marching across the countryside. Today, the extreme mobility of the average industrialized country citizen (and their general aversion to wearing tags in their ears to facilitate tracking) makes figuring out how travel patterns relate to epidemic spread a difficult task. The research team theorized that tracking currency -- cash money -- would be the next best thing to collars and tags. But where could they find enough data about how individual bills migrate around the country? The Internet, of course.

Where's George? is a website allowing individuals to enter the serial numbers of the dollar bills (and other US currency) and their location, then to return later to see where those dollars have gone. It's an online curiosity -- not really a game, more like an information toy. As of this afternoon, over 76 million bills have been entered into the site, totaling over $430 million. The research team took this enormous wealth of data and found that human domestic travel patterns, as represented by currency, matched an unexpected -- but easily understood (for mathematicians, at least) -- scaling and diffusion model. This model will make it possible to build far more accurate simulations of epidemic spread and response, potentially saving many lives.

Continue reading "Money, Viruses, and Unexpected Resources" »

January 31, 2006

GlobCarbon and the Global Carbon Cycle

globcarbon.jpgWe know that we're adding millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, with demonstrably negative results for the global climate. But precisely how the planetary ecosystem reacts to this additional carbon is dependent upon the details of the global carbon cycle -- the ongoing transfer of carbon between the Earth's atmosphere, ocean, ground and biosphere. GlobCarbon, a European Space Agency effort to chart a decade's worth of data on changes to global plant life, will provide critical data to emerging carbon cycle models, making it possible to predict with much greater accuracy the ecosystem effects of the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon. GlobCarbon is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2007, but the first six year's worth of data have now been made available to researchers.

GlobCarbon relies on a variety of ESA satellites for long-term observations, and the project has accumulated 45 terabytes of input data so far:

[GlobCarbon] is focused on the generation of various global estimates of aspects of terrestrial vegetation: the number, location and area of fire-affected land, known as Burnt Area Estimates (BAE), the area of green leaf exposed to incoming sunlight for photosynthesis, known as Leaf Area Index (LAI), the sunlight actually absorbed for photosynthesis, known as the Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation (fAPAR) and the Vegetation Growth Cycle (VGC).

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February 1, 2006

Carbon, Global Warming and Understanding Our Options

realclimateco2stab.jpgNew articles on RealClimate and The Oil Drum provide useful insights into the state of our current understanding of the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- and what we need to do in order to forestall disaster.

Peak oil community website The Oil Drum is playing host to an absolutely terrific series of posts from Stuart Staniford, examining the prospects for reducing carbon emissions and avoiding dangerous climate disruption, all from a perspective informed by the current peak oil debates. Stuart is a physicist and computer scientist by training, and brings that quantitative analytic eye to his work on understanding the climate; although his posts are written for a general audience, they are fairly math-heavy -- but even if formulae make your eyes glaze over, I encourage you to make the effort to follow his argument. He's not a climate scientist trying to explain his findings to the lay person, he's an educated non-specialist trying to understand what's going on.

In his first piece in the series, The Carbon Economy, Stuart lays out his plan:

Continue reading "Carbon, Global Warming and Understanding Our Options" »

February 2, 2006

Global Warming Maps

globalwarmingmapmash.jpgHere's an interesting first pass at an enviro mashup for Google Maps: the Global Warming maps at

X-Maps appears to be a search interface for Google Maps (and just why Google Maps needs another search interface I'll leave as an exercise for the reader). Buried within the site, however, is a listing of well over a hundred different locations in the US that produce large-scale emissions of CO2; each entry reveals the tons of CO2 output in 2004, and links to a Google Map satellite view of the offending site. The vast majority are power plants, unsurprisingly.

Most states are represented, and it's perversely fun to search for locations nearby one's home or office.

It would be easy to criticize aspects of the map: they misspell "emissions;" there's no pointer to references for the data (although the numbers I checked at random roughly match other sources); there's no way to dig down for deeper info; the map and listing are forced into small frames, requiring a lot of scrolling around, even on a big screen. But as a hint at what a climate reportage mashup might look like, the Global Warming X-Map is definitely worth checking out.

Clearly, though, there's room to do this better.

February 9, 2006

A New Model for Understanding the Climate

Duke University's Adrian Bejan, along with colleagues from the University of Evora in Portugal, has discovered something potentially quite important: a recently-developed theory of optimizing flow configurations over time called Constructal theory can be used to model key parts of the global climate, and do so using only a small number of well-known inputs. Moreover, this theory could be used to build models of changes to weather patterns resulting from greenhouse gas accumulation. What makes this notable -- and possibly worldchanging -- is that Constructal theory is shaping up to be a universal physics principle applicable to everything from traffic flows to the evolution of the circulatory system. This is kind of abstract, but bear with me -- this could be a major discovery.

Constructal theory, developed in the late 1990s by Dr. Bejan, is the formalization of a superficially obvious notion: "For a flow system to persist in time (to survive) its configuration must evolve (morph) in time in such a way that it provides easier flow access." That is, over time, physical structures and processes evolve towards optimization of the imperfections of a system; because conditions of a system can change, such optimization may never be complete. Constructal theory takes this concept and turns it into a series of mathematical and geometric principles. The principles, in turn, have been able to predict a variety of well-known physical and biophysical laws, from the proportion of metabolic rate and size to the relationship between optimal cruising speed and mass of flying bodies. Constructal theory isn't just predictive, though; it can be used as a design application, and has been employed as a tool for optimizing travel time for people in buildings such as airports.

What Bejan and his colleagues have now done is to demonstrate that Constructal rules apply to the flows of heat in the atmosphere, and that fundamental climate systems can be derived directly from the theory. The researchers needed just four inputs: temperature of the sun, the solar constant, cloud cover and the Earth’s greenhouse factor. They believe that they will also be able to use the model to predict the effects of changes to these inputs:

Continue reading "A New Model for Understanding the Climate" »

February 22, 2006

Seeing the World Through Digital Eyes

googleearthbig.jpg2005 will be remembered for many reasons, but perhaps the most worldchanging is the explosion in online geographic information systems, led by Google Earth. We've covered myriad Google Earth overlays in recent months, and the number and variety of useful datasets continues to grow. Scientists are particularly glad to have access to easy online digital globe software, as these new tools are significantly easier to experiment with than traditional GIS applications. The scientific journal Nature has been a leader in the advocacy and use of digital globes, and last week's issue included multiple articles about the application of Google Earth and other online virtual maps to scientific pursuits.

The reason why scientists are so excited by Google Earth and similar applications is easy to understand: not only do they allow for the quick visualization of the geographic context of research data, they allow for ready comparisons between different -- and often superficially unconnected -- sets of information. This, in turn, is already leading to new, important discoveries:

Rita Colwell, a microbiologist and former head of the National Science Foundation, has described GIS as the "ultimate, original, multidisciplinary language". Her own research is a shining example. Realizing that cholera epidemics spread inland from the coast, she correlated them with seasonal plankton blooms, discovering on the way that the Vibrio cholerae bacteria that cause cholera associate with gravid copepods, helping to break open their egg sacs by secreting chitinases. She went on to use remote sensing for a global predictive system for epidemics. As she has said, a major need is "to appreciate the complex reactions that characterize ecosystems — it is too complex for any one discipline".

Continue reading "Seeing the World Through Digital Eyes" »

February 23, 2006

Climate Pathology

The human body makes for an appealing metaphor when talking about the planet's ecosystems. We're all more-or-less familiar with the workings of our bodies, and know, at least in broad terms, what kinds of threats are potentially fatal and what kinds are potentially painful but survivable. There's a risk of going too far, though, and either stretching the metaphor past the point of real science (e.g., referring to the Amazon rain forest as the "lungs of the planet") or being a bit haphazard with how the various metaphorical body parts fit together (e.g., James Lovelock's use of bodily analogies in his recent bit of apocaphilia). So when I saw the announcement that a collection of respected planetary scientists -- including WorldChanging friend Dr. Jon Foley -- would be discussing the "Vital Organs in the Earth System" at last week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I was a bit worried.

Fortunately, the "vital organs" metaphor was used sparingly, but quite appropriately:

There is a growing awareness that the Earth, like the human body, operates as a complex, coupled system. This has led to the concept of "vital organs "or "hotspots," i.e. components, processes or regions that help regulate the functioning of the entire planet. Many of them are sensitive to human influences and all have the potential to reach critical thresholds that, once tipped, could lead to large-scale, abrupt changes.

Continue reading "Climate Pathology" »

March 2, 2006

Spam Filtering the Climate

globalwarming5.gifThese days, most spam-filtering programs rely on something called "Bayesian math" to determine whether a given item probably is or probably is not spam. It's not perfect, but it works better than pretty much any previous method. As it turns out, Bayes' Theorem applies to more than figuring out whether "Make Money Fast" is junkmail -- it may well be able to tell us the likely temperature increase from greenhouse gas accumulation.

James Annan is a researcher working on climate prediction for the Global Environment Modelling Research Program at Japan's Frontier Research Center for Global Change. In a paper to be published in Geophysical Research Letters (PDF), Annan and his colleague JC Hargreaves examine a variety of detailed predictions of "climate sensitivity" -- the amount of temperature increase coming from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations from pre-industrial levels (from roughly 280ppm to roughly 560ppm). Most projections of the temperature increase give a range of 1.5°C to 4.5°C, with a decent chance of 6° or higher -- and anything that high being an utter catastrophe.

But, as Annan puts it in his weblog,

We made the rather elementary observation that these above estimates are based on essentially independent observational evidence, and therefore can (indeed must) be combined by Bayes' Theorem to generate an overall estimate of climate sensitivity. [...] The question that these previous studies are addressing is not
    "What do we estimate climate sensitivity to be"
but is instead
   "What would we estimate climate sensitivity to be, if we had no information other than that considered by this study."

So what is Bayes' Theorem?

Continue reading "Spam Filtering the Climate" »

March 22, 2006

Seven Meters

7MinDC.jpgFor some people, global warming is a hard sell. Temperatures going up by a few degrees doesn't sound all that bad, and even results like drought or increased spread of mosquitos and other pests, while certainly unpleasant, are familiar issues. Mega-problems like whiplash/abrupt climate change, where warming leads to an ice age, can sound more surreal than threatening. But this website might change their minds. It shows something that is obviously warming-related, is already starting to happen (not just a "might happen 50 years down the road" possibility), and is a clear danger to the industrialized world's economies and societies: a seven meter rise in sea levels.

Flood Maps mashes up NASA elevation data and Google Maps, and offers a visualization of the effects of a single meter increase all the way to a 14 meter rise. The default increase of seven meters -- about 23 feet for those who avoid the whole metric thing -- is the amount the world's oceans will rise once Greenland's glacial ice pack melts completely. This melting is already underway, and is happening with startling speed.

[From February:] ... researchers found that [Greenland's] glaciers were traveling faster than anyone had predicted. They also determined that even more northerly glaciers were on the move and that in just 10 years the amount of fresh water lost by all the glaciers had more than doubled from 90 cubic kilometers of ice loss a year to 224 cubic kilometers. "The amount of water Los Angeles uses over one year is about one cubic kilometer," Rignot points out. "Two hundred cubic kilometers is a lot of fresh water."

Continue reading "Seven Meters" »

March 28, 2006

Rice, Climate and "Effects Mitigation"

irri.jpgEven in the best case climate scenarios, the planet is going to face years of rising temperatures and some pretty unpleasant (and often tragic) results across much of the world. Given that many of the worst-hit locations will be in the poorer nations, it's important that we spend some time thinking about ways not just to mitigate the process of climate disruption -- that is, to reverse it -- but also to mitigate its effects. This isn't "adaptation," it's harm reduction; think of it as suppressing the worst symptoms while fighting to cure the disease.

Changes to temperature and rainfall patterns will affect many elements of how we live, but one of the most important will be agriculture. Staple foods that have been grown in various regions for hundreds or thousands of years will be harder and harder to cultivate; it's highly likely that global warming will lead to repeated crop failures and famine. Fortunately, some organizations have begun to consider this scenario, and to work on responses. This month, the International Rice Research Institute announced a new plan to do just that:

"Clearly, climate change is going to have a major impact on our ability to grow rice," Robert S. Zeigler, IRRI director general, said. "We can't afford to sit back and be complacent about this because rice production feeds almost half the world's population while providing vital employment to millions as well, with most of them being very poor and vulnerable."
For these reasons, Dr. Zeigler announced at the workshop that IRRI – in an unprecedented move – was ready to put up US$2 million of its own research funds as part of an effort to raise $20–25 million for a major five-year project to mitigate the effects of climate change on rice production. "We need to start developing rice varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures and other aspects of climate change right now," he said.

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About Biodiversity and Ecosystems

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Biodiversity and Ecosystems category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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