Category: Climate Change Impacts

Climate change could be bad news for your retirement plans

Climate change could be bad news for your retirement plans

By Georgina Wade

A survey released just last month by Natixis Investment Managers paints a grim picture for people hoping for an old age free of financial stress. An accompanying report on the impact of global warming making the findings even worse.

Taken together, the studies suggest that retirees are at risk, due to a trifecta of issues resulting from foreseeable low interest rates, longer lifespans and the high costs of climate change.

Low interest rates may stimulate borrowing, but they also present a significant hurdle for those saving for retirement and those looking to generate income. Additionally, rapidly aging populations and longevity can result in an unbalanced old-age dependency ratio: the ratio of people over the age of 65 to the working-age population, age 15-65. This may be most important for Generation Z, with UN projections showing that by 2065, retirees should plan for living another 24 years in retirement.

Amongst these, a long-term risk to global sustainability presents an immediate financial risk today. While the risk of climate change is often viewed through a long-term lens, today it presents tangible health and financial risks to millions of retirees that will challenge policy makers round the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that extreme heat has increased the risk of illness among older adults, especially those with chronic illness. Adding to that, Natixis report states that “retirees are finding insurance costs escalating as insurers seek to keep pace with climate and weather-related property damage.”

[Get more insight into these key threats, as well as detail on the how and why of country rankings. Download the full report here.

Cover photo by James Jose Jr. on Unsplash.
Extreme heatwaves pose spreading threat

Extreme heatwaves pose spreading threat

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have added a new dimension to the growing hazard of extreme heat. As global average temperatures rise, so do the frequency, duration and intensity of heatwaves.

And that’s not the only factor to worry about. By mid-century, the area straddled by those bands of extreme heat could increase by 50% – if nations attempt seriously to contain climate change.

But if humans carry on burning fossil fuels in ever-greater quantities and felling more and more reaches of tropical forests, the most dangerous and extreme heatwaves in future could cover areas 80% bigger than at present.

“As the physical size of these regions increases, more people will be exposed to heat stress,” warns Bradfield Lyon, associate research professor in the Climate Change Institute and School of Earth and Climate at the University of Maine, US.

“Larger heatwaves would also increase electrical loads and peak energy demand on the electricity grid”

Lyon, lead author of a new study in the Environmental Research Letters journal, says: “Larger heatwaves would also increase electrical loads and peak energy demand on the electricity grid as more people and businesses turn on air conditioning as a response.”

Climate scientists have warned repeatedly that higher average temperatures must mean ever hotter extremes.

By the century’s end, under some climate projections, three out of four people on the planet could be exposed to potentially dangerous heatwaves.

Double punch

In some regions, the double punch of high heat and very high humidity could make conditions intolerable, and scientists in the US recently counted 27 ways in which high temperatures could claim lives.

In principle, extremes of heat are already a threat not just to public health, but also to national economies. Researchers in Australia have already started to count the cost.

Until now, the interest has focused on the highest temperatures by day and by night, the number of days of sustained heat, and the frequency with which extremes might return.

But the new dimension – the increased area oppressed by extreme heat – presents unexpected challenges for city authorities and energy utilities.

“If you have a large contiguous heatwave over a highly populated area, it would be harder for that area to meet peak electric demand than it would be for several areas with smaller heatwaves that, when combined, are the same size,” says one of the report’s other authors, Anthony Barnston, chief forecaster at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society

This article was originally published on the Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Asian Development Bank on Climate Visuals.
Beyond climate models: Climate adaptation in the face of uncertainty

Beyond climate models: Climate adaptation in the face of uncertainty

By Erin Owain and Richard Bater

A recently published paper calls upon climatologists to build models on decision-relevant timescales to inform shorter-term, local decision making by policy makers.

Over the past few decades, significant scientific advancements in global climate models have revolutionised our understanding and perception of climate change  By mimicking the dynamics of the global climate system, climate models have enrichened our knowledge and understanding of the knock-on impacts that changes to the climate system can have on the wider Earth system. Climate models, produced by over 20 centres around the world, have played a critical role in providing scientific evidence for decision makers to act to reduce emissions and adapt to projected impacts.

However, in recent years demand has been placed on climate science by policy makers to produce increasingly high-resolution climate projections to inform shorter-term, local decisions. The authors of a recently published paper argues that this is partly attributable to an over-estimation, on the part of decision makers, of the level precision with which the current set of models are able to project future change.

As the authors note, “… the adaptation community should be aware that widely available climate change projections are overconfident and are advised to avoid seductive promises of information about future climate conditions at local scales and particular future dates”.  Additionally, ‘optimising’ decisions using such data, in the absence of rigorous contextualisation and evaluation, can represent poor adaptation practice, especially where inadequate, expensive, or inflexible adaptation measures become ‘locked-in’.

Decision-making timescales across the public and private sectors are often relatively short-term, relative to the timescales of climate projections. The paper draws attention to an over-reliance by decision makers on high-resolution climate projections derived from downscaled climate models. Additionally, it questions whether the demands placed on climate services to produce high resolution climate projections is warranted given that decision-making does not always require such granularity, noting that: “The predominant focus on end-of-century projections neglects more pressing development concerns, which relate to the management of shorter-term risks and climate variability.” A shorter time horizon is often more relevant in lower income countries, which can be more vulnerable to climate shocks due to higher sensitivity and lower adaptive capacity.

A common approach to meet the demand for climate projections at the local level has been to downscale General Circulation Models (GCMs). Downscaling is a process of generating higher spatial and temporal-resolution data from lower-resolution data and is used to derive local-scale data able to inform short-term decision-making.

However, the various methods of downscaling have limitations:

  • Uncertainties regarding the underlying GCM projection data can be compounded, as additional assumptions and approximations are introduced during model selection and processing.
  • Dynamic downscaling can give a false sense of spatial precision whilst relying on fewer models, whereas temporal downscaling can risk mis-portraying shorter-term projections (3 to 10 years) as being akin to forecasts.
  • The error between observed and projected climate change for some parameters can be considerable at local scales, with observed change often being more severe than that projected.
  • Models can struggle to reliably represent seasonality, extreme values, and tipping points.

These factors mean that it is important to consider both ‘outlier’ models and future values that could exceed those projected by any of the climate models, whilst bearing in mind that some models are known to perform better in some region better than others.

Embracing uncertainty

While a common reflex has been to request such high-resolution climate data, in other areas decision makers across sectors have been accustomed to acting in a context of uncertainty, whether related to cyber-attacks, political instability, fluctuation in oil prices and exchange rates, disease epidemics or natural disasters. It is well understood that such eventualities cannot be predicted with high levels of certainty beyond the short-term: as the paper also note, “Often…detailed planning is possible without detailed climate change projections”.

On the other hand, integrating historical climate data with analysis of real-time data and short-term forecasting can be an effective, high-confidence guide to making robust decisions related to climate adaptation. As noted by the authors, there should be a focus by climatologists on building models on decision-relevant timescales, encouraging further dialogue or intermediation between climate science and end users.

Climate projection data remain an indispensable and scientifically sound guide to how climate is likely to change in the future. This paper, however, is a timely corrective to a tendency to overstate the precision of climate model outputs and to make resilience building efforts contingent on the ever-finer optimisation of climate models. A broad understanding of the direction and magnitude of change in given climate parameters, and their likely impacts for given users, can be adequate to identify and prioritise adaptation strategies and measures today. Decisions can be taken today that are robust to a range of climate scenarios, and low-regret, low-cost measures can be implemented that can be easily reversed in light of experience and new information.

In future, as the paper concludes, it is important that the climate services community refocuses attention on better assessing and translating the significance of projected change versus observed variability and trends. Moreover, whilst noting the resource implications it can carry, they could improve the evaluation of climate models selected for use in climate risk analysis. In representing future climate change, it remains, as ever, imperative to consider and translate model reliability and uncertainty, and convey the range of plausible future change.

Cover photo from Marco Dormino on Climate Visuals.
Penguins in peril as winds change and heat rises

Penguins in peril as winds change and heat rises

By Alex Kirby

New weather patterns in the warming Antarctic are leaving thousands of penguins in peril, prompting calls for them to be specially protected.

LA species that has come to symbolise Antarctica’s wealth of wildlife now faces mortal danger: climate change is putting emperor penguins in peril.

British scientists say the continent is warming with unparalleled speed, meaning the birds may soon have almost nowhere to breed. Some researchers think the number of emperors could be cut by more than half by 2100.

Philip Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, says: “The current rate of warming in parts of the Antarctic is greater than anything in the recent glaciological record.

“Though emperor penguins have experienced periods of warming and cooling over their evolutionary history, the current rates of warming are unprecedented.

“Currently, we have no idea how the emperors will adjust to the loss of their primary breeding habitat – sea ice. They are not agile, and climbing ashore across steep coastal land forms will be difficult.

Numbers fluctuate

“For breeding, they depend upon sea ice, and in a warming world there is a high probability that this will decrease. Without it, they will have little or no breeding habitat.”

It is not the first time scientists have sounded the alarm for the emperors. This time, though, they are urging potentially far-reaching action.

In a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, an international team of researchers, led by Dr Trathan, recommends new steps to protect and conserve the penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri).

Satellite images in 2012 suggested there were almost 600,000 of the birds in the Antarctic, roughly double the number estimated in 1992. The researchers involved in this latest report reviewed over 150 studies on the species and its environment as well as its behaviour and character in relation to its breeding biology.

“Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species”

Current climate change projections indicate that rising temperatures and changing wind patterns will damage the sea ice on which the emperors breed, with some studies showing populations likely to fall by more than 50% over this century.

Before breeding, both males and females must build their body reserves so that females can lay their single egg, and for males to fast while undertaking the entire egg incubation during the Antarctic winter.

Emperors are unique amongst birds because they breed on seasonal Antarctic sea ice which they need while incubating their eggs and raising their chicks.

They also need stable sea ice after they have completed breeding, during the time when they undergo their annual moult. They cannot enter the water then as their feathers are no longer waterproof, leaving them unable to enter the sea.

So the researchers are recommending that the IUCN status for the species be raised from “near-threatened” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.  They say improvements in climate change forecasting of impacts on Antarctic wildlife would help, and recommend that the emperors should be listed by the Antarctic Treaty as a specially protected species.

Wider appeal

Better protection will let scientists coordinate research into the penguins’ resilience to a range of different threats and stressors.

Dr Peter Fretwell, remote sensing specialist at BAS and a co-author of the study, says: “Some colonies of emperor penguins may not survive the coming decades, so we must work to give as much protection as we can to the species to give them the best chance.”

The UK was one of the countries which notified the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting at its 2019 meeting in July that emperor penguins were threatened by the loss of their breeding habitat and that further protection was needed.

A similar paper has also been submitted to this year’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which meets in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, later this month.

This article was originally published on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Yuriy Rzhemovskiy on Unsplash.
The Forest Ablaze

The Forest Ablaze

By Erin Owain

A summary of an article published last week in a Welsh culture magazine, Barn, which provides a brief update on the fires in the Amazon from both a scientific and political framing. The original, published in Welsh, is below.

Deliberate fire-setting in the Amazon basin is an annual event during the Brazilian dry season, however there has been a staggering increase in human-induced wildfires this year which has generated a strong response from the international community.

Approximately 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest and it is often called “the planet’s lungs”. It plays a key role in climate mitigation as it acts as a large carbon store, and without it, it will be very difficult for us to stay within the agreed +1.5°C increase as part of the Paris Agreement. The rainforest has an equally important role to play in climate adaptation. In countries that have experienced massive deforestation in the past, we see that they have experienced dramatic changes to their microclimate with significant knock-on environmental, social and economic impacts.

The Amazon rainforest is therefore key to managing climate change. Any threat to it is of major interest to the international community.

Since the election of the right-wing prime minister, Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, the governmental approach to development in Brazil has changed. One of Bolsonaro’s main promises was to increase Brazil’s economic growth by opening the forest up to agricultural, mining and fuel companies. While 12% of the Brazilian population live below the international poverty line, Bolsonaro argues that Brazil has the right to develop in the same way as other countries developed decades ago.

According to Bolsonaro, this is a matter for Brazil alone. When Brazil was offered $22 million by the international community, Bolsonaro rejected it by claiming that the G7 countries were imposing a colonial mindset. The Brazilian Government argued that if the international community believes that the Amazon is a global treasure, then the international community can pay to protect it.

While the global community is keeping a close eye on South America, we should neither ignore the fires being deliberately set across the African continent which are burning on an even greater scale. Rather, it should remind us that it is a challenge on a global scale for low income countries to develop economically and sustainably in order to protect the environment from further damage.

The original article published in the Autumn edition.

Y goedwig ar dân

Fforest law’r Amazon yw un o brif ecosystemau’r ddaear. Er bod cynnau tanau yn ddigwyddiad blynyddol yn nhymor sych Brasil mae’r cynnydd yn nifer y tanau yno – ac yn wir, dros y ffin ym Molifia hefyd – wedi bod yn syfrdanol eleni ac wedi ennyn ymateb chwyrn gan y gymuned ryngwladol wrth i’r actifydd egnïol, Greta Thunberg, ddatgan ‘bod ein cartref ar dân’.

Coedwig yr Amazon yw ‘ysgyfaint y ddaear’ ac mae ganddi swyddogaeth allweddol yn nyfodol y blaned gan ei bod yn ymddwyn fel storfa anferthol o garbon. Hebddi, byddai’n anodd iawn inni aros o fewn gofynion Cytundeb Paris a chadw cynnydd tymheredd y ddaear o dan +1.5°C – y lefel y cytunwyd arno fel un sy’n osgoi gyrru’r ddaear i stad ansefydlog.

Yn ogystal, mae gan y fforest law swyddogaeth allweddol arall wrth ein helpu i wrthsefyll effeithiau posib newid hinsawdd. Mewn gwledydd sydd wedi profi datgoedwigo ar raddfa enfawr gwelwn newidiadau syfrdanol i’w meicro-hinsawdd, trawsnewidiadau i’w tirwedd wrth i gyfraddau glaw leihau, ac effeithiau amgylcheddol, cymdeithasol ac economaidd. Mae rôl fforest law’r Amazon yn allweddol, felly, i reoli newid hinsawdd yn fyd-eang. Ac mae unrhyw fygythiad iddi’n fater o bwys i’r gymuned ryngwladol fel y cydnabuwyd yn ddiweddar yn ymateb arweinyddion y byd wrth iddynt ddod ynghyd i’w drafod.

Dros y degawd diwethaf mae Brasil wedi mabwysiadu agwedd iach tuag at ddatblygiad cynaliadwy gan weithredu deddfau llym er mwyn gwarchod y fforest law. Llwyddwyd i leihau cyfradd y datgoedwigo er bod cyfradd y cynnyrch amaethyddol wedi cynyddu ar yr un pryd. Ond ers i’r prif weinidog adain dde, Jair Bolsonaro, gael ei ethol yn 2018, gwelwyd tro ar fyd.

Un o brif addewidion Bolsonaro oedd cynyddu twf economaidd Brasil drwy agor y goedwig i gwmnïau amaethyddol, mwyngloddio a chwmnïau tanwydd gael manteisio ar gyfoeth yr Amazon. Mae 12% o boblogaeth Brasil yn byw o dan y llinell dlodi ryngwladol. Dadl Bolsonaro ydi bod gan Frasil yr hawl i ddatblygu yn yr un modd ag y datblygodd gwledydd eraill y byd ddegawdau’n ôl. (A chofier bod Cymru o dan flanced o goed cyn i’r amaethwyr cynnar fynd ati i glirio rhannau er mwyn cael porfa i’r anifeiliaid.) Wrth i boblogaeth Brasil a’r byd gynyddu, cynyddu hefyd y mae’r galw am gig, ffa soya, reis a chorn o’r wlad.

Yn ôl Bolsonaro, mater i Frasil yn unig yw hyn. Pan gynigiwyd $22 miliwn i Frasil gan y gymuned ryngwladol i daclo’r tanau, ei wrthod a wnaeth Bolsonaro gan honni bod gwledydd yr G7 yn dangos meddylfryd trefedigaethol. Yr eironi yw mai llywodraeth Brasil ei hun sydd heddiw’n rhoi caniatâd i amaethwyr gymryd meddiant o diroedd gwarchodedig llwythau cynhenid yr Amazon.

Os yw’r gymuned ryngwladol yn credu bod yr Amazon yn drysor byd-eang, ymresymodd y llywodraeth, yna dylai’r gymuned ryngwladol dalu i’w warchod.

Tra mae sylw’r byd ar Dde America, rhaid cofio hefyd fod cymaint os nad mwy o danau sydd wedi’u cynnau’n bwrpasol yn digwydd ar draws cyfandir Affrica. Wrth gwrs, nid yw’r ffaith honno yn lleihau trychineb y dinistr yn yr Amazon. Yn hytrach mae’n ein hatgoffa mai her fyd-eang yw cysoni’r angen i wledydd incwm isel ddatblygu’n economaidd gyda’r angen i warchod yr amgylchedd rhag difrod pellach nag a gafwyd eisoes yn sgil newid hinsawdd.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay
Antarctica now has more than 65,000 ‘meltwater lakes’ as summer ice melts

Antarctica now has more than 65,000 ‘meltwater lakes’ as summer ice melts

By Jennifer Arthur

During the Antarctic summer, thousands of mesmerising blue lakes form around the edges of the continent’s ice sheet, as warmer temperatures cause snow and ice to melt and collect into depressions on the surface. Colleagues of mine at Durham University have recently used satellites to record more than 65,000 of these lakes.

Though seasonal meltwater lakes have formed on the continent for decades, lakes had not been recorded before in such great numbers across coastal areas of East Antarctica. This means parts of the world’s largest ice sheet may be more vulnerable to a warming climate than previously thought.

Lakes affect ice shelves

Much of Antarctica is surrounded by floating platforms of ice, often as tall as a skyscraper. These are “ice shelves”. And when some of these ice shelves have collapsed in the past, satellites have recorded networks of lakes growing and then abruptly disappearing shortly beforehand. For instance, several hundred lakes disappeared in the weeks before the the catastrophic disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf – when 3,250 km² of ice broke up in just two months in 2002.

Blue meltwater ponds cover the surface of Larsen B Ice Shelf in January 2002 (left) before its abrupt collapse two months later (right). Open ocean appears as black in both images. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The collapse may have depended on water from these lakes filling crevasses and then acting like a wedge as the weight of the water expanded the crevasses, triggering a network of fractures. The weight of lakes can also cause the ice shelf surface to flex, leading to further fracturing, which is thought to have helped the shelf become unstable and collapse.

Ice shelves act as door stops, supporting the huge mass of ice further inland. Their removal means the glaciers feeding the ice shelf are no longer held back and flow faster into the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise.

Melting the ice sheet surface

Scientists already knew that lakes form on the Antarctic ice sheet. But the latest study, published in Scientific Reports, shows that many more lakes are forming than previously thought, including in new parts of the ice sheet and much further inland and at higher elevations.

Since the cold and remoteness makes it logistically challenging to measure and monitor Antarctica’s lakes in the field, we largely know all this thanks to satellite imagery. In this case, one of the satellites used was the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 which provides global coverage of the Earth’s surface every five days and can detect features as small as ten metres.

Meltwater lakes on Sørsdal Glacier, Antarctica (red dot on larger map). Google Maps

My colleagues analysed satellite images of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet taken in January 2017. In total, the images covered 5,000,000 km² (that’s more than 20 times the area of the United Kingdom).

Because water reflects certain wavelengths very strongly compared to ice, lakes can be detected in these images by classifying pixels in the image as “water” or “non-water”. From these images we can pinpoint when lakes form, their growth and drainage, and how their extent and depth change over time. The largest lake detected so far was nearly 30 km long and estimated to hold enough water to fill 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Cause for concern?

In a warming world, scientists are particularly interested in these lakes because they may contribute to destabilising the ice shelves and ice sheet in future.

Like a sponge, the more that ice shelves become saturated with meltwater, the less they are able to absorb, meaning more water pools on their surfaces as lakes. More surface lakes mean a greater likelihood that water will drain out, fill crevasses and potentially trigger flexing and fracturing. If this were to occur, other ice shelves around Antarctica may start to disintegrate like Larsen B. Glaciers with floating ice tongues protruding into the ocean may also be vulnerable.

Meltwater drains away through a Sanne Bosteels

Meanwhile in Greenland, scientists have observed entire lakes draining away within a matter of days, as meltwater plunges through vertical shafts in the ice sheet known as “moulins”. A warm, wet base lubricated by meltwater allows the ice to slide quicker and flow faster into the ocean.

Could something similar be happening in Antarctica? Lakes disappearing in satellite imagery suggests they could be draining in this way, but scientists have yet to observe this directly. If we are to understand how much ice the continent could lose, and how much it could contribute to global sea-level rise, we must understand how these surface meltwater lakes behave. Though captivating, they are potentially a warning sign of future instability in Antarctica.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.
Image by JayMantri from Pixabay
More than half the world could see ‘record-setting heat’ every year by 2100

More than half the world could see ‘record-setting heat’ every year by 2100

By Sophie Turner

So far, 2019 has seen the hottest winter day on record with temperatures reaching 21.2°C in London back in February, the hottest July day on record, and the hottest August bank holiday Monday with temperatures of 33.2°C, ‘smashing’ the previous record of 28.2°C set two years ago. And that is just in the UK. In June, France recorded a new national temperature of 46°C in the southern village of Vérargues, Germany broke a record that had lasted over 70 years and new national records were set in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Research published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that more than half of the world could see new temperature records set in every single year by the end of the century if global gas emissions are not reduced.

The study looked at the rate at which existing high temperature records have been broken, and the rate at which historical records are projected to be broken over the coming century. The authors used 22 climate models to explore two possible future scenarios: one with very high greenhouse gas emissions (RCP8.5) and one where global warming is limited to below 2°C (RCP2.6).

The research found that in both scenarios, the frequency of record-breaking heat is higher than it would be in a world with no human-induced warming. But the risk is substantially higher in in the scenario where no deliberate action is taken to mitigate climate change.

We found that you’re going to smash and set records far more frequently if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise the way they have been,” said Dr Scott Power, a Bureau of Meteorology scientist from Melbourne, Australia who led the research.

The results show that under a high emissions scenario, new temperature records will be set in at least one month every year for 58% of the world, by 2100. The situation is worse for developing countries and small island developing states which will see 67% and 68% of records being set every year.

The likelihood of setting at least one monthly record that ‘smashes’ the previous record by more than 1.0°C is also eight times more likely if global greenhouse gas emissions are not markedly reduced, and over twenty times more likely than would be the case if human-induced greenhouse gas emissions had not occurred at all.

These findings reinforce the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid new temperature records being set every year until 2100. It also highlights the importance of adapting to and preparing for unprecedented temperatures over the coming decades.

However, the study also found that even if emissions are reduced, extreme monthly temperatures are projected to occur over the coming decades. This is because the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere means we are now committed to some level of climate change. People who work in sectors and manage systems that are affected by extreme temperatures will therefore need to start considering and managing the risks associated with these extreme temperatures now.

For many city leaders, the increasing vulnerability of their residents to extreme heat is something they are already acutely aware of, particularly with the risks of the urban heat island effect (UHI), a phenomenon where cities are warmer than surrounding rural areas. In Berlin, for example, heat-related mortality rates are particularly high in the city’s most densely built-up districts. In response, the city aims to become a ‘sponge city’ by replacing hard surfaces with green space and water-permeable surfaces to combat the UHI effect and adapt to more frequent days of ‘record-setting heat’.

Cover photo by Alex Takil on Unsplash.
Drought may hit half world’s wheat at once

Drought may hit half world’s wheat at once

By Tim Radford

The planet’s daily bread could be at risk as the global thermometer creeps up and climates begin to change. New research has warned that almost two thirds of the world’s wheat-growing areas could face “severe, prolonged, and near-simultaneous droughts” by the century’s end.

Right now, 15% of the world’s wheat producing regions are at risk of severe water scarcity at the same time. Even if the 195 nations that agreed in Paris to stop global average temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C by 2100 keep that promise, the chance of simultaneous water stress across continents would still double between 2030 and 2070.

But if nations fail to mitigate the climate change and extremes of heat and rainfall that would inevitably follow runaway global heating, then the chances of devastating failure of wheat harvests in both Europe and North America, or both Europe and Australia, or Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, begin to soar.

Wheat provides one-fifth of all the calories for humankind. It is the world’s largest rain-fed crop and the global wheat trade matches the traffic in rice and in maize combined. Ten regions account for 54% of the planet’s wheat fields, and 57% of the world’s wheat.

“The results indicate a severely heightened risk of high-impact extreme events under the future climate”

Scientists from Europe, the US and China report in the journal Science Advances that they worked with computer simulations to model the future global weather for water scarcity with changes in temperature for the next eight decades.

Wheat is a successful crop partly because its water needs are relatively low, but it can’t flourish without reliable rainfall before and during growth. And the new simulations confirm earlier fears: that extremes of heat and devastating drought could happen in more than one continent at the same time.

When this happened in the 19th century, global famine followed. Forecasts already warn that with each 1°C rise in temperature, global wheat yield will fall by between 4% and 6.5%. Researchers have repeatedly warned that extremes of heat can slash yields and limit the vital nutrients in cereal harvests. Other teams have found that climate change may already be making this happen.

Worse could follow as one heat wave is pursued promptly by another. And all this could happen in a world in which, as population grows, demand for wheat could increase by at least 43%.

Continued checking

Scientists tend not to take the research of others for granted: they keep on checking. The latest simulation analysed 27 different climate models, each with three different scenarios.

The scientists looked at evidence from the near-past to find that between 1985 and 2007, the impact of drought on world wheat production was twice that between 1964 and 1984.

They included developing countries and low-income nations in eastern and southern Asia in their survey, because these are where half of the already hungry and under-nourished live, and where bread is an important part of people’s diet.

“The results indicate a severely heightened risk of high-impact extreme events under the future climate, which would likely affect all market players, ranging from direct influences on subsistence farmers to price-mediated changes in international markets”, they write.

The article was originally published on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash.
Starvation may force nations to war

Starvation may force nations to war

By Nivedita Khandekar

A stark warning that the exposure of more and more people to water scarcity, hunger and outright starvation may lead to the “failure of fragile states and regional conflicts” has been given by the United Nations as it attempts to galvanise governments into halting the spread of deserts before more cropland is lost.

The climate summit in New York was presented with a plan to try to halt the annual loss of 12 million hectares (30mn acres) of productive land caused by the nations which are parties to the UN’s Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which recently ended a high-level meeting here.

The plan was the list of actions nations agreed at the meeting of more than 190 countries to attempt to reverse the spread of land degradation that the UN estimates will displace 135 million people by 2045. The battle to halt the spread of deserts is seen by the UN as an integral part of the international effort to halt climate change.

How successful the new plans will be remains to be seen, as although  the Convention, like the Climate Change Convention, has been in existence since the last century, the problems continue to get worse. However, all the countries involved now have national plans to halt land degradation and restore croplands and forests.

One of the key new promises made at the Delhi meeting, which ended on 13 September, was to grant land tenure to groups to give them an incentive to protect soils and the ability of the land to grow crops.

“Land restoration is the cheapest solution to climate change and biodiversity loss”

Delegates also agreed to improve the rights of women, promote land restoration and reduce land-related carbon emissions, both from poor soil management and the destruction of trees. New ways of financing these schemes from government and private sources were proposed.

The scale of the problem is enormous. Close to a quarter of global land is almost unusable, and by the middle of the century humans will need to produce twice as much grain as they do today to keep up with global population growth, the UNCCD says.

At the closing session Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UNCCD, said: “Land restoration is the cheapest solution to climate change and biodiversity loss; land restoration makes business sense if we have regulations and incentives to reward investment.”

In addition, he said, preparing for the increasing number of droughts and coping with them are critical in the face of climate change. He emphasised the need to involve young people and women and to secure land rights.

However, despite the adoption of the New Delhi Declaration, in which ministers and delegates expressed support for new initiatives or coalitions aiming to improve human health and well-being and the health of ecosystems, and to advance peace and security, there were dissenting voices at the conference.

Dilution and omissions

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said in a statement: “The New Delhi Declaration has diluted the role of international funding bodies in combating desertification. It has also sidestepped the contentious issue of tenure rights to land.”

The CSE said the statement had removed any mention of the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility and the Adaptation Fund  from the Declaration and there were no mentions of specific measures that could be used for adaptation nor, in fact, the word “adaptation” itself. Countries were left to develop their own plans.

Local politics also plays an important part in creating the problem. For example, across South Asia severe drought areas are used for water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane, or for very large monoculture plantations for palm oil or rubber.

Some speakers felt it was going to be an uphill struggle for poorer countries to get funding for restoring degraded land.

Early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dry land agriculture, mangrove protection and investments in making water resources more resilient were all vital. Adapting to land degradation and climate change was in everyone’s strong economic self-interest, Thiaw said.

This article was originally published on the Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.
French wines show hot dry years are now normal

French wines show hot dry years are now normal

By Tim Radford

LONDON, 6 September, 2019 − French wines tell a remarkable story: climate scientists and historians, with a new wine list to savour, have carefully reconstructed the harvest dates for Burgundy – one of the most important wine regions of France – to highlight the dramatic change in global climate.

Grapes in Burgundy are now picked 13 days earlier than the average for the last 664 years. And the advance in harvest dates has been dramatic: almost all since 1988.

The finding is based on painstaking study of data going back to 1354. From medieval times Burgundian growers and civic authorities had an unusual communal arrangement: they each year collectively considered the growing conditions and imposed a date before which no grapes might be picked.

And scientists from France, Germany and Switzerland report in the journal Climate of the Past that they worked through all surviving records to provide an accurate record of the harvest date around the city of Beaune.

“The transition to a rapid global warming after 1988 stands out very clearly. We hope people start to realistically consider the climate situation in which the planet is at present”

Since grapes are highly sensitive to temperature and rainfall, and the quality and reputation of Burgundy has been well-established for centuries, the researchers are confident that the data confirm a dramatic warming trend.

Even in a much cooler past, exceptionally early harvests were not unknown. The researchers counted 33 altogether, and 21 of these happened between 1393 and 1719, and five between 1720 and 2002. In the 16 years since 2003, there have been eight outstandingly warm spring-summer seasons, and five of those have happened in the last eight years.

“In sum, the 664-year-long Beaune grape harvest date series demonstrates that outstanding hot and dry years in the past were outliers, while they have become the norm since transition to rapid warming in 1988,” they write.

Historical reconstructions are not easy: data had been assembled before, but these records turned out to be riddled with copying, typing and printing errors. There were administrative changes (after 1906, city authorities in the Burgundian capital of Dijon ceased to set or record a harvest date).

Narrative verified

There were accounts kept by the dukes of Burgundy, and records of payments for grapevine labourers maintained by church authorities in Beaune, evidence of purchases of food for the harvesters, and records of sales to the King of France.

But those six centuries were also marked by the Little Ice Age, the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant states from 1618 to 1648, several epidemics of plague, and the arrival of the vineyard-destroying infection phylloxera.

So the researchers had to verify their proxy history of regional climate from tree-ring data, and from vineyard records kept in Switzerland, as well as temperature records from Paris.

The wine industry is vulnerable to climate change: researchers noted three years ago that harvests in Burgundy and in Vaud in Switzerland were up to two weeks earlier and that climate change had begun to warm southern England’s chalky soils to the a degree that made them yield sparkling wines to match qualities pursued in the Champagne region of France.

Inescapable conclusion

But the same soaring temperatures that for the moment have helped the grower have begun to impose costs on the grape pickers, who become less productive as the mercury rises.

So the confirmation that harvests are earlier is not in itself news. The data from Beaune and Dijon are best seen as another example of painstaking phenological research. Phenology is the science of when insects hatch, trees bud and birds nest, and in the Burgundian series climate scientists now have a continuous record stretching back 664 years. The story told by the series is unequivocal.

“The transition to a rapid global warming after 1988 stands out very clearly,” said Christian Pfister of the University of Bern in Switzerland, one of the authors.

“The exceptional character of the last 30 years becomes apparent to everybody. We hope people start to realistically consider the climate situation in which the planet is at present.”

This article originally appeared on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash.