Sand Scarcity?

Nature has an article pointing out that time is running out for sand - demand is increasing beyond available supply and there’s very little monitoring or oversight into what is the world’s most extracted resource. As you’d expect, extraction is vastly outpacing the natural processes which create sand.

Desert sand grains are too smooth to be useful, and most of the angular sand that is suitable for industry comes from rivers (less than 1% of the world’s land). This extraction of sand and gravel has far-reaching impacts on ecology, infrastructure and the livelihoods of the 3 billion people who live along rivers. For example, sand mining on the Pearl River (Zhujiang) in China has lowered water tables, made it harder to extract drinking water and hastened river-bed scour, damaging bridges and embankments.

This is the earliest warning of a potential problem and the article goes on to recommend a number of steps to deal with the situation, starting with improved monitoring to get an accurate assessment of the sand trade, both legal and illegal.

Climate Stripes

Pretty interesting website allowing you to enter a country and see its temperature record as blue to red colour stripes since 1901. #globalwarming

Here’s Australia. Australia Temperature Record

Incidentally, the data they are using is from Berkeley Earth, which is the group founded, with funding from the Koch brothers, by a bunch of people who thought the temperature record data was being fudged… until they got together to analyse the raw data themselves and concluded that they were wrong and it wasn’t being fudged at all :)

The Memory of Ice

The TLS has a nice article on the memory of ice and a journey to Greenland to see glaciers up close.

Ice is a recording medium and a storage medium. It collects and keeps data for millennia. Unlike our hard disks and terrabyte blocks, which are quickly updated or become outdated, ice has been consistent in its technology over millions of years. Once you know how to read its archive, it is legible almost as far back – as far down – as the ice goes. Trapped air bubbles preserve details of atmospheric composition. The isotopic content of water molecules in the snow records temperature. Impurities in the snow – sulphuric acid, hydrogen peroxide – indicate past volcanic eruptions, pollution levels, biomass burning, or the extent of sea ice and its proximity. Hydrogen peroxide levels show how much sunlight fell upon the snow. To imagine ice as a “medium” in this sense might also be to imagine it as a “medium” in the supernatural sense: a presence permitting communication with the dead and the buried, across gulfs of deep time, through which one might hear distant messages from the Pleistocene.

Bush Fires
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Well, what can be said about the Victorian bush fires? They’re the worst natural disaster to befall Australia, and, if, as seems likely, they were started deliberately, the largest mass murder in Australia’s history. Police have declared certain areas as crime scenes, and radio news reports this morning hinted that they may be close to arresting someone they suspect of lighting some of the fires.

The weather throughout the south east has been ridiculously hot for the last two or three weeks, hitting 46C in both Adelaide and Melbourne. The inland suburbs of Sydney were regularly well over 40C this week, and at John’s wedding in Canberra at the weekend the temperature topped 40C on four consecutive days. With those sorts of temperatures fires are inevitable, even without arson. A 15yr-old boy was arrested in Sydney for starting a fire, though it appears he just let off a firework rather than deliberately trying to light vegetation with matches.

As of this morning, the death toll is 173 and it’s expected to top 200. 750+ homes have been destroyed. The Red Cross are running and appeal and you can donate on their website. They’re also looking for blood donors so I’ve signed up for that (yes Mum, I know I should have done it ages ago!)

The sad thing is that this sort of thing is likely to become more frequent due to climate change, yet there’s still some resistance to doing anything substantive about it. There were similar fires in 2003, but because they burnt through National Parks rather than towns no-one worried about them too much. SE Australia is acknowledged as being in the midst of a 12-year drought, but perhaps it’s not a drought so much as the new climate for that region?

Rudd Sells Out

On Monday, the Climate Change minister, Penny Wong, announced that Australia will aim to cut emissions by 5-15% over 2000 levels. This was widely greeted by derision and a complete cop-out on what many see as one of the central reasons for Labor’s election last year.

The Government’s cuts of between 5 and 15 per cent below 2000 emissions levels are an admission it has given up on an ambitious global climate change agreement coming out of the UN talks next year. Figures in the Garnaut review clearly show that Australia, along with other developed countries, would have to take on cuts of at least 25 per cent to get an agreement in Copenhagen that might have a chance of saving the Great Barrier Reef.

The UN’s scientific body believes the 2020 target for developed countries should be cuts in the range of 25 and 40 per cent below 1990 emissions to keep the global temperature rising above two degrees and avoid dangerous climate change. This, along with slowing the emissions from developing countries, is required to keep global greenhouse gas concentrations at about 450 parts per million and achieve an ambitious climate agreement.

As mentioned previously, the UN’s 25-40% targets are almost certainly too low to remain under 450ppm, so Australia’s 5-15% effort really is pathetic.

Rudd repeatedly said that he wanted Australia to be a leader in climate negotiations, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Howard, who wanted nothing to do with climate change at all. Rudd’s first act as prime minister was to ratify Kyoto, leading many to hope that finally we had someone in charge who was going to take the threat seriously. Unfortunately, it seems that this is no longer the case, and Australia will most definitely not be a leader on the global stage.

Our only hope now is that Obama comes forward with an aggressive US target and that Rudd then feels comfortable in raising Australia’s game. In a nice change from the orthodox, Obama has appointed a Nobel physics laureate as his energy secretary. No more oil/coal guys in charge!

We're Screwed: Now It's Official

So my semi-serious post on how I think we’re screwed when it comes to climate change may not be so wide of the mark after all. The latest information coming out of the Poznan Conference, reported by both The Guardian and Nature, makes the point that the latest IPCC report is based on scientific information from 2005 at the latest, and that all the published papers since 2005 have shown that climate change is proceeding much faster than the IPCC report suggests.

The cream of the UK climate science community sat in stunned silence as [Kevin] Anderson [an expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University] pointed out that carbon emissions since 2000 have risen much faster than anyone thought possible, driven mainly by the coal-fuelled economic boom in the developing world. So much extra pollution is being pumped out, he said, that most of the climate targets debated by politicians and campaigners are fanciful at best, and “dangerously misguided” at worst.

In the jargon used to count the steady accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s thin layer of atmosphere, he said it was “improbable” that levels could now be restricted to 650 parts per million (ppm).

All our current efforts are based on trying to stabilise at 450ppm and even that’s proving “too hard”. Now it seems that we’ve almost no chance of staying under 650ppm, virtually guaranteeing a 4C rise in global temperatures.

What’s worse is that calculations seem to indicate that for every decade we delay CO2 reductions result in higher temperatures:

Each decade that the global peak [of CO2emissions] is delayed, the temperature increase goes up by .4 to .5 degrees. According to this model, an eighty percent reduction by mid-century delivers 1.4 degree of warming with a peak in 2015; 1.8 degrees if the peak is in 2025; and 2.4 degrees with a peak in 2035. In other words, there is a penalty for delayed action.

Why We're Screwed
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On Tuesday evening I watched a two-part Frontline documentary called HEAT, looking at whether we are capable of dealing with the issue of global warming. As part of the documentary, they showed a clip from a 1958 science show which talked about global warming, and said essentially the same things that we’re hearing about now.

50 YEARS! That’s how long we’ve been talking about this and doing absolutely nothing about it. That’s why I think we’ll never be able to deal with it, and if by some miracle we do address the problem, rather than talking about it, it will only be when the environment is a hell of a lot worse off than it is now.

Climate Change Summary

Following on from yesterday’s post, The Institute of Physics has a paper summarising the results of various CO2 reduction schemes based on running the scenarios through all of the best climate models around. The results are pretty interesting:

Using a scheme to emulate the range of state-of-the-art model results for climate feedback strength, including the modelled range of climate sensitivity and other key uncertainties, we analyse recent global targets. The G8 target of a 50% cut in emissions by 2050 leaves CO2 concentrations rising rapidly, approaching 1000 ppm by 2300. The Stern Review’s proposed 25% cut in emissions by 2050, continuing to an 80% cut, does in fact approach stabilization of CO2 concentration on a policy-relevant (century) timescale, with most models projecting concentrations between 500 and 600 ppm by 2100. However concentrations continue to rise gradually. Long-term stabilization at 550 ppm CO2 requires cuts in emissions of 81 to 90% by 2300, and more beyond as a portion of the CO2 emitted persists for centuries to millennia. Reductions of other greenhouse gases cannot compensate for the long-term effects of emitting CO2.

So if we want to avoid trashing the place, we need to reduce to less than 10% of today’s emissions! That’s more than most people realise. Thankfully we’ve got more than two hundred years to get there, which should be doable.

Climate Change

Yesterday saw a flurry of news regarding climate change, dominated by Treasury’s assessment of the costs of implementing a carbon tax in Australia. Serious news outlets like SBS and the SMH reported the cost to the average household as $1/day, whereas the tabloid news on Ten went for the sensationalist approach with tag lines like “see how the carbon tax could cost you hundreds of dollars!”

The business associations are trying to get the Government to hold off on implementing the carbon tax now that the global economy is in freefall, spreading fear and doubt about loss of jobs, but Treasury’s analysis correctly points out that there’s massive opportunities for job creation in alternative energy fields and other areas which would be projected to grow significantly once polluters have to pay. The delayers also fail to realise that the longer we wait to start, the sharper the emissions drops we’ll have to implement and therefore the greater the impact on the economy as a whole. Long, gradual change is going to do less damage to the economy than a short, sharp shock.

Elsewhere on TV, probably SBS again, I saw a news item about the increase in atmospheric methane levels which has recently been detected. Methane is 20 times more effective as an insulator than CO2, and one of the side effects of a temperature increase is predicted to be that as permafrost melts, massive amounts of methane will be released. The scientists interviewed seemed to think that this year’s increase was due to the record low in the extent of Arctic sea ice last year.

The final item was an interview with a professor who studies the Great Barrier Reef, specifically coral bleaching and its relationship to sea temperature and acidity. He claimed that if we continue at our current pace, the reef will be dead in 30 years. Given that our rate of CO2 pollution is only increasing, that timeframe will probably prove optimistic.

That’s just sad.

Overwhelming The Earth

One of the arguments of global warming deniers is that CO2 levels have been higher in the past than they are now, and that therefore it shouldn’t be a problem. Reuters has a good article which explains why this argument is false: it’s not really the absolute amount of CO2 that’s the problem, but the rate of change. We’re currently pumping CO2 into the atmosphere about 14,000 times faster than any stage in the last 600,000 years.

The average change in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 600,000 years has been just 22 parts per million by volume, Zeebe said, which means that 22 molecules of carbon dioxide were added to, or removed from, every million molecules of air.

Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, ushering in the widespread human use of fossil fuels, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 100 parts per million.

That means human activities are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere about 14,000 times as fast as natural processes do, Zeebe said.

And it appears to be speeding up: the U.S. government reported last week that in 2007 alone, atmospheric carbon dioxide increased by 2.4 parts per million.

The natural mechanism will eventually absorb the excess carbon dioxide, Zeebe said, but not for hundreds of thousands of years.