Category: heat

Hotter oceans make the tropics expand polewards

Hotter oceans make the tropics expand polewards

By Tim Radford

The tropics are on the march and US and German scientists think they know why: hotter oceans have taken control.

The parched, arid fringes of the hot, moist conditions that nourish the equatorial forest band around the middle of the globe are moving, unevenly, further north and south in response to climate change.

And the role of the ocean is made even more dramatic in the southern hemisphere: because the ocean south of the equator is so much bigger than in the north, the southward shift of the parched zone is even more pronounced.

Across the globe, things don’t look good for places like California, which has already suffered some of its worst droughts and fires on record, and  Australia, where drought and fire if possible have been even worse.

In the past century or so, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen from what was once a stable average of 285 parts per million to more than 400 ppm, and global average temperatures are now at least 1°C higher than they have been for most of human history.

“We demonstrate that the enhanced subtropical ocean warming is independent from the natural climate oscillations. This is a result of global warming”

And although the fastest and most dramatic changes in the world have been in the coldest zones – and particularly the Arctic – the tropics, too, have begun to feel the heat.

Researchers have observed tropical fish moving into cooler waters; they have warned that some tropical plant species may soon find temperatures too high for germination; they have mapped tropical cyclones hitting further north and south with time, and doing more damage; and they have seen evidence that tropical diseases could soon advance even into temperate Europe.

But although satellite observations have revealed that the tropical climate zone has expanded beyond the formal limits known as the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and is doing so at somewhere between a quarter and half a degree of latitude each decade, no one has been able to work out why the shift is more pronounced in the southern half of the globe.

Now a new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres offers an answer. The expansion of the tropics has been driven by ocean warming.

And if that expansion is more obvious in the southern hemisphere, it is because there is more sea to have more impact.

Clear link

Researchers analysed water temperature patterns in the great ocean gyres, those giant circular currents that take warm waters to the poles and return cold water to the equatorial regions.

They matched satellite readings from 1982 – the first year in the series of measurements – with data from 2018, and compared these to measurements of tropical zone expansion.

The connection was clear: excess heat that had been building up in the subtropical oceans ever since global warming began had driven both tropical edges and ocean gyres towards the poles.

That is, the shift in the tropics wasn’t just one of those slow pulses of expansion and retraction, of cyclic change, that happen in a complex world. And more precisely, the tropics were expanding more clearly in those places where the gyres moved poleward.

“We demonstrate that the enhanced subtropical ocean warming is independent from the natural climate oscillations,” said Hu Yang of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, who led the research. “This is a result of global warming.” – Climate News Network


This article was originally posted on the Climate News Network.
Cover image by Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons
Rising heat affects Europe’s floods and droughts

Rising heat affects Europe’s floods and droughts

By Tim Radford

Patterns of Europe’s floods and droughts are starting to change: each could be more extreme, and far likelier with rising heat.

Climate change has begun to affect the pattern of Europe’s floods. The past three decades have seen “exceptional” flooding, say Austrian scientists who have worked their way through documentary records for the last 500 years.

At the same time, heat and drought affecting the continent are on the increase. The summer of 2018 broke all records for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and by 2019 many trees in Europe’s forests were partly or entirely dead. And by 2085 rainfall could decline by a fifth, Swiss ecologists report, to alter the make-up of the forests dramatically.

Both findings are consistent with the big picture of climate change worldwide: wet seasons will become ever wetter; dry seasons too will become more extreme, according to US researchers in a third separate study.

All attempts to establish climate records involve careful interrogation of the past. Günter Blöschl of Vienna’s University of Technology and colleagues report in Nature that they sifted evidence from mountain lake beds, floodplains and 500 years of contemporary documents to identify decades more than usually rich in floods.

The floods of 1990 to 2016 in Western and Central Europe have been among the worst in history. To make sure of such a claim, the researchers identified periods of calamitous inundation across the whole region in the late 16th century and again in the 17th; and in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

“We should be preparing for the future by improving the technology to efficiently use water for crops”

If these episodes had anything in common, bygone floods happened when air temperatures were lower: fewer of them, too, happened in the summer.

“This finding seems to contradict the observation that, in some areas such as in the northwest of Europe, the recent warmer climate is aligned with larger floods,” Professor Blöschl said. “Our study shows for the first time that the underlying mechanisms have changed.

“While in the past floods have occurred more frequently under colder conditions, the opposite is the case now. The hydrological conditions of the present are very different from those in the past.”

Now, 55% of Central European floods happen in the summer, compared with 41% in previous centuries. It’s a message for planners, city chiefs and governments across the region: flood management is going to have to adapt.

So, too, is forest and woodland management, say scientists in Switzerland and Germany, who have been measuring changes in the canopies of their forests.

Growing vulnerability

For most of Europe, the single most extreme heatwave has been that of 2003: that is, until 2018. The sustained heat and aridity made temperatures in the growing season of 2018 on average 1.2°C higher than 2003, and 3.3°C higher than the average from 1961-1990.

Woodland foliage showed signs of drought stress. Leaves wilted, aged and dropped much earlier, and by 2019 many trees were dead, or partly dead. Those that survived were more vulnerable to beetle or fungal pests. Losses included beech, long considered the most drought-resistant.

Ten out of the 12 hottest growing seasons in the last 120 years have all happened this century. Climate forecasts already predict more of the same, with precipitation falling by a fifth by 2085. Foresters will have to think again about woodland design.

“Spruce was most heavily affected. But it was a surprise for us that beech, silver fir and pine were also damaged to this extent,” said Ansgar Kahmen of the University of Basel in Switzerland.

“We still need to study which tree species are good in which combinations, including from a forestry perspective. That will take time.”

Keeping Paris promise

And worldwide, farmers, foresters and water managers can also expect more of the same. As temperatures rise worldwide, dry seasons will tend to become drier, and wet seasons wetter.

US researchers report in the journal Nature Communications that they divided the world into nine land regions, and looked at annual rain or snowfall and how this fluctuated through the seasons in each of the nine from 1971 to 2000. They then looked at future temperature predictions for the rest of the century to see what happened to water availability.

The best outcome for relatively stable water supplies would be if nations could act to limit the planet’s average global temperature rise to no more than 2°C by 2100, in line with a promise made by 195 governments in Paris in 2015.

At higher temperatures the predicted scatter of flood and drought became more extreme. Once again, the message is: start planning. “We need to take precautions to optimally use how much water we have,” said Ashok Mishra of Clemson University in South Carolina.

“As the climate changes and population increases, we should be preparing for the future by improving the technology to efficiently use water for crops.” − Climate News Network


Cover photo by Villy, via Wikimedia Commons.
This article was originally posted on the Climate News Network.
Antarctic melting could bring a much hotter future

Antarctic melting could bring a much hotter future

By Tim Radford

Antarctic melting can force sea ice retreat of 50 metres daily. CO2 levels are at their highest for 23 million years. Learn from the past.

Antarctic melting starts with dramatic speed. Ice shelves during the sudden warm spell at the close of the last Ice Age retreated at up to 50 metres a day.

This finding is not based on climate simulations generated by computer algorithms. It is based on direct evidence left 12,000 years ago on the Antarctic sea floor by retreating ice.

The finding is an indirect indicator of how warm things could get – and how high sea levels could rise – as humans burn ever more fossil fuels and raise atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to ever higher ratios.

And as if to highlight the approaching climate catastrophe, a second and separate study finds that the measure of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now is not just higher than at any time in human history or at any interval in the Ice Ages. It is the highest for at least 23 million years.

“Should climate change continue to weaken the ice shelves in the coming decades, we could see similar rates of retreat, with profound implications for global sea level rise”

British scientists report in the journal Science that they used an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), cruising at depth in the Weddell Sea, to read the pattern of the past preserved in ridges of the Antarctic seabed.

The original push for the expedition had been to search for the ship Endurance, commanded by the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton on his doomed voyage in 1914. The loss of the ship, crushed in the polar ice, and the rescue of his crew became one of the epic stories of maritime history.

The researchers did not find Endurance. But they did find an enduring record of past ice retreat.

Sea ice skirts about 75% of the continent’s coastline: when it melts it makes no difference to sea levels, but while it remains frozen it does serve the purpose of buttressing glacial flow from the high Antarctic interior. Brushed by increasingly warm air each summer, and swept by slowly warming ocean currents all year round, the ice shelves are thinning and retreating.

Tell-tale line

Underneath the ice, the research team’s robot submarine spotted wave-like ridges, each about a metre high and 20 to 25 metres apart: ridges formed at what had once been the grounding line – the point at which a grounded ice sheet starts to float, and evidence of ice rising and falling with the tides.

There are twelve hours between high tide and low, so by measuring the distance between the ridges, scientists could measure the pace of retreat at the end of the last Ice Age. It is estimated at 40 to 50 metres a day.

Right now, the fastest retreat measured from grounding lines in Antarctica is only about 1.6 kms a year. The implication is that it could get a lot faster.

“Should climate change continue to weaken the ice shelves in the coming decades, we could see similar rates of retreat, with profound implications for global sea level rise,” said Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, who led the research.

Faster change ahead

Past warm periods are associated only with relatively modest rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Right now, researchers have repeatedly confirmed that the present increasingly rapid rise is the highest in the last 800,000 years.

Now a team from the US and Norway report in the journal Geology that they have measured past atmospheric carbon levels in fossil plants to establish that present day carbon levels are higher currently than at any time in the last 23 million years.

This means that – unless there are drastic steps to contain global warming – the retreat will become increasingly more rapid, and the rate of glacial flow towards the sea ever faster.

Were all the ice in Antarctica to melt, sea levels would rise by about 60 metres, completely submerging many of the world’s great cities. 


This article was originally posted on the Climate News Network.
Cover photo: View from Agulhas II, the vessel from which the AUVs were deployed.Courtesy of Julian Dowdeswell
African city heat is set to grow intolerably

African city heat is set to grow intolerably

By Tim Radford

An entire continent faces lethal conditions for many of its people: by 2090, one person in three can expect African city heat in the great conurbations severe enough to expose them to potentially deadly temperatures.

That is: the number of days in which the apparent temperature – a notional balance of thermometer-measured heat and maximum humidity – could reach or surpass 40.6°C will increase dramatically, and the days when individuals could be at risk could in some scenarios multiply 50-fold.

The scientists selected this “apparent” temperature of 40.6°C because it is significantly beyond the natural temperature of the human body, which must then be kept cool by perspiration. This is possible in arid climates.

But as humidity goes up – and with each 1°C rise in temperature, the capacity of the air to hold moisture rises by 7% – cooling by perspiration becomes less efficient.

So at this notionally-defined apparent temperature, people who cannot retreat to air-conditioned or cooler, shadier places could die. Heat kills: researchers recently counted 27 ways in which extreme temperatures could claim lives.

“If we follow the Paris Agreement, we’ll halve the number of people at risk in 2090, which is encouraging”

And more, and more intense and prolonged heat waves are on the way, and with them episodes of potentially extreme humidity. By 2100, according to some studies, certain regions of the planet could become dangerous habitat.

European scientists report in the journal Earth’s Future that they considered the hazard for just one, rapidly-growing continent: Africa. They selected 173 cities of more than 300,000 people in 43 nations across a range of climates, from Algiers on the Mediterranean to the burgeoning monsoon cities of the equatorial west coast, such as Lagos and Kinshasa, the drier east African states, and the relatively mild townships of Southern Africa.

They then considered how much cities might grow, by migration or birth-rate increases, and how they might develop. Then they factored in a range of climate scenarios and looked at possible forecasts for the years 2030, 2060 and 2090.

They found that because of population growth, the numbers of days on which people could be at risk – measured in person-days (one person working for one full day) – would in any case increase.

Sharper rise

“In the best case, 20 billion person-days will be affected by 2030, compared with 4.2bn in 2010 – a jump, in other words, of 376%” said Guillaume Rohat, of the University of Geneva, who led the study. “This figure climbs to 45bn in 2060 (up 971%) and reaches 86bn in 2090 (up 1947%).

And that is the best-case scenario. When the researchers factored in the steepest population increases, the most rapid growth of the cities and the worst disturbances in climate, the figures rose more sharply. By 2030, 26 billion, a fivefold increase, could be at risk, 95bn in 2060 and 217 bn in 2090. This is an increase of 4967%, or nearly 50-fold.

The researchers assumed that not everybody in their 173 cities would be exposed to dangerous levels of heat. Were that to happen, the number of person-days could hit 647 billion. But the researchers made a conservative estimate of one in three people who would be exposed to a minimum temperature of 40.6°C.

Research of this kind makes assumptions about how the climate is going to change, and separately about how nations are going to develop, how populations are going to grow and change, and how governments are going to respond to the climate emergency, and the authors recognise the problems.

Conservative conclusions

The sample is biased towards the larger cities. Their calculations don’t include predictions for capital investment. But the researchers say their conclusions are if anything conservative. They do not, for instance, factor in the notorious urban heat island effect that tends to make cities 3°C or more hotter than the surrounding countryside, and therefore even more dangerous.

The good news to emerge from the study is that concerted action, by governments and civic authorities, can reduce the risk. Were nations to stick to an agreement made by 195 of them in Paris in 2015, and keep global temperature rise to “well below” 2°C, the final exposure hazard would be reduced by 48%.

“This proves that if we follow the Paris Agreement, we’ll halve the number of people at risk in 2090, which is encouraging,” said Rohat.

“We can see the importance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: access to education, a drop in the number of children per woman, developments in the standard of living and so on.”


This article was originally published on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash.
Extreme heat is growing threat to harvests

Extreme heat is growing threat to harvests

By Tim Radford

When the planet becomes on average 1.5°C warmer than it was for most of human history, then for two out of every three years, one-fourth of the northern hemispherewill experience the kind of blistering heat waves recorded in 2018.

And should planetary average temperatures creep up by 2°C – the maximum proposed by 195 nations at the global climate conference in Paris in 2015 – then the probability rises to 100%. That is, extreme heat over a large area of the hemisphere will be guaranteed every summer.

Heat extremes are all too often accompanied by devastating thunderstorms or extended drought and massive outbreaks of wildfire, with potentially disastrous consequences for harvests in the blighted regions.

“Ultimately, extreme events affecting large areas of the planet could threaten food supply elsewhere, even in Switzerland”

In 2018, people died of heatstroke, roads and even rails started to melt, forests went up in flames, and power generation systems sometimes failed, not just in one region but in a number in the temperate zones and the Arctic at the same time.

Between May and July, 22% of agricultural land and crowded cities of the northern half of the globe were hit simultaneously by extended periods of extreme heat. In all, 17 countries were affected, from Canada and the US across the Atlantic and Pacific to Russia, Japan and South Korea. In Europe, temperatures in the rivers Rhine and Elbe reached such heights that fish suffocated; there were wildfires in Sweden, Latvia and Greece and record temperatures in Germany.

“Without climate change that can be explained by human activity, we wouldn’t have such a large area being simultaneously affected by heat as we did in 2018,” said Martha Vogel, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known as ETH Zurich, who presented her findings at a press conference held by the European Geosciences Union in Vienna.

Serious impacts

The reasoning and methodology have yet to be published, but the authors say their paper is in review for the journal Earth’s Future. “If in future more and more key agricultural regions and densely populated areas are affected by simultaneous heatwaves, this would have severe consequences.”

Other research teams have already warned that global warning could bring a repeat of the simultaneous drought and heat outbreaks across the world that triggered calamitous famines in Asia and Africa between 1875 and 1878.

They have repeatedly warned of potentially catastrophic levels of heat that could arrive with increasing frequency to claim greater numbers of lives especially when accompanied by extreme levels of humidity.

The Swiss scientists focussed on data from agricultural regions and busy urban areas above latitude 30° for the years 1958 to 2018 to find occasions of heat extremes in more than one region and then used computer modelling to simulate probabilities as average planetary temperatures continued to grow.

Poor are hardest-hit

The choice of agricultural areas was purposeful: in such scenarios where more than one region suffers harvest failures, food prices begin to soar. In the 2010 heatwave, Russia ended all its wheat exports and prices in Pakistan rose by 16%, with harsh consequences for the poorest. Governments, agriculture ministries and international aid agencies need to be prepared.

“Such incidents cannot be resolved by individual countries acting on their own. Ultimately, extreme events affecting large areas of the planet could threaten food supply elsewhere, even in Switzerland,” said Sonia Seneviratne, an ETH climate scientist who has also shared in the study.

“We are already clearly feeling the effects just from the one degree that global average temperature has risen since the pre-industrial era.” − Climate News Network


This article was originally published on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by pragmart on Unsplash.