Category: Climate Change Impacts

Can SE Asian workers take the heat? Researchers tackle rising temperatures

Can SE Asian workers take the heat? Researchers tackle rising temperatures

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Jan 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The effects rising heat has on vulnerable workers in Southeast Asia is the focus of a new study that also aims to find out what employers and authorities can do to reduce the impact of soaring temperatures in cities.

The three-year study, led by the National University of Singapore (NUS), will examine how heat stress impacts outdoor and indoor workers, including women in Singapore, Hanoi and Phnom Penh, said Jason Lee, the lead researcher.

The project, titled Heat-Safe, views heat as a “complex socio-environmental problem” that affects workers not just in the workplace, but also in public spaces and at home, resulting in lasting mental stress and other health concerns, said Lee.

“The assumption is that only outdoor workers are affected, but factory workers also face heat stress – and in Southeast Asia these are mostly women in garment factories,” said Lee, a research associate professor at NUS.

“The study is all the more relevant now, when we have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers who make up the bulk of construction and shipyard workers in Singapore, and garment workers in other countries,” he said.

Heat-related deaths are soaring around the world, and higher temperatures resulted in 302 billion working hours lost globally in 2019 compared with 199 billion in 2000, according to a recent study in The Lancet medical journal.

A 2019 report by the International Labour Organization forecast that an increase in heat stress would lead to productivity losses equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs in 2030.

Besides monitoring hourly heat levels in select workplaces in the three Southeast Asian cities, Heat-Safe will also evaluate psychological strain on workers and the impact on fertility and birth rates among women workers, Lee said.

The study, backed by the Singapore government, will also examine home conditions of workers, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday.

“If they are unable to rest comfortably at home, that affects their vulnerability,” said Lee, a thermal physiologist who has studied the effects of heat on the armed forces.

While the study launched on Oct. 1, travel restrictions and curbs on movement because of the coronavirus have posed challenges, but researchers are now gearing up for easing restrictions and the warmer months ahead, Lee said.

More governments are recognising the growing health and economic threats to their workforce from scorching temperatures, exacerbated in many cases by high humidity.

A study published in November on the impact of heat stress on workers in Australia said that current health and safety laws are inadequate, and that employers prioritise productivity over workers’ health.

People whose jobs are “less secure” – including temporary, on-demand and migrant workers – are at greater risk, said the study by the University of Technology Sydney.

“Questions of social justice are deeply embedded in climate change and rising temperatures,” it said.

In Singapore, more than three-quarters of total coronavirus cases were linked to crowded dormitories that house more than 300,000 foreign workers, leading the government to pledge to improve their living conditions.

Elsewhere in the region, migrant workers have been dumped or persecuted during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’d like to think there is greater pressure now on governments and employers to take action to better protect vulnerable workers,” said Lee.

“It is time we paid attention to the working and living conditions of these workers.”

Read the original story here.
Earth is now committed to a 2°C hotter future

Earth is now committed to a 2°C hotter future

By Tim Radford

LONDON, 12 January, 2021 − We Earthlings are now unmistakably on our way to the global climate we promised barely six years ago we’d never reach − a 2°C hotter future.

Some time this year, thanks to fossil fuel combustion and the destruction of natural ecosystems, the levels of carbon dioxide in the planetary atmosphere will be half as high again as the average for most of human history. That is, they will be more than half-way to doubling.

And the warming already driven by this extra charge of greenhouse gas has reached new heights: 2020, according to one calculation, shares with 2016 the grim accolade of the hottest year in history, at the end of the hottest decade since systematic records began.

A third study warns that yet more warming is now inevitable: the greenhouse gases already released must take average planetary temperatures from the present rise of more than 1°C to beyond 2°C − the limit that 195 nations vowed not to exceed when they met in Paris in 2015.

All three studies are simply progress reports on climate change itself. It is more than a century since scientists began to link carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere with planetary temperatures, and more than 50 years since researchers began systematically monitoring atmospheric CO2 at an observatory in Hawaii, and since the first warnings that rising greenhouse gas levels could precipitate potentially catastrophic climate change.

“Our results suggest we have most likely already emitted enough carbon to exceed 2°C”

And this year, says the British Met Office, the ratio will creep up by more than 2 parts per million on last year. That will take the average to beyond 417 ppm for a number of weeks this northern hemisphere spring. And that will be 50% higher than the 278 ppm that was the norm at the close of the 18th century, when humans began to exploit coal, oil and gas as global sources of energy.

“The human-caused build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere is accelerating,” said Richard Betts, of the Met Office. “It took over 200 years for levels to increase by 25%, but now, just 30 years later, we are approaching a 50% increase.”

The last six years have all been in the hottest six years ever recorded, European scientists say in their calculations of the planetary pecking order of annual temperatures. It was 0.6°C warmer than the average for the years 1981-2010. And it is fully 1.25°C above the average for 1850 to 1900.

Europe in particular felt the heat: an average of 1.6° higher than the average for 1981 to 2010. And in the Arctic and in Siberia, temperatures were up to 6°C above the average for the same period.

“It is no surprise that the last decade was the warmest on record, and is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future,” said Carlo Buontempo, who directs Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Delay possible

Carbon dioxide is durable: it stays in the air, and each year’s emissions are added to those of the previous year. To keep the planet’s average temperature to a rise of no more than 1.5°C  the ideal of the Paris Accord in 2015 − then nations must bring global emissions to zero within the next 30 years. In fact the limit of 2°C explicit in the Accord must now, and inevitably, be exceeded at some point: there is already enough greenhouse gas in the mix to guarantee that. The big question is: when.

Chinese and US researchers report in Nature Climate Change that they looked more closely at the pattern of changes in the planet’s surface temperatures, and the impact of low-level clouds that normally reflect heat back into space. And they see regions that have yet to warm, but must do so sooner or later to raise average global temperatures to levels so far not accounted for.

“The important thing to realise is that this has not happened − it is not in the historical record,” said Chen Zhou of Nanjing University, the lead author. “After accounting for this effect, the estimated future warming based on the historical record would be much higher than previous estimates.”

And his co-author Andrew Dessler, of Texas A&M University, said: “The bad news is that our results suggest we have most likely already emitted enough carbon to exceed 2C.”

But this could be delayed by urgent action. “If we can get emissions to net zero soon, it may take centuries to exceed 2°C.” − Climate News Network

This article was originally published on the Climate News Network.
Cover Image: By Chris JL, via ClimateVisuals
Flash flooding hits Mandalay’s Amarapura township after embankment collapse

Flash flooding hits Mandalay’s Amarapura township after embankment collapse

By Khual Tawna, UCCRTF Country Resilience Officer for Myanmar

More than 4,000 households and about 20,000 residents in Mandalay’s Amarapura township have been hit by flashfloods caused by a river embankment that collapsed on 19 July 2020. Through a coordinated response, the city government and local communities worked together to repair the damage and prevent further flooding of surrounding communities.

Following heavy monsoon rainfall, water from the swelling Ayeyawaddy river created a large sinkhole in its embankment which caused it to fail. The embankment collapse occurred just 15 meters from the Shwe Ge flood gate and sewage pumping station in Mandalay’s Amarapura township. The collapse resulted in a flood that destroyed the roads near the embankment and affected the lowland areas and flooded surrounding villages. About 200 households in the area had to be evacuated.

The Mandalay Regional Government and City Development Committee coordinated the response, which included substantial volunteer support from local communities. Their efforts helped to stem the water flow through the embankment within 24 hours. However, the authorities estimate it would take another month before affected communities can return to their homes. In the meantime, thousands of people have been forced to stay in temporary shelters along the Sagiang-Mandalay and Kan Pat roads.

While the disaster response was swift, the incident highlights the need to integrate climate change considerations into infrastructure planning and design in order to build resilience to extreme weather events. It also shows that public awareness of flood risk during monsoon season is essential for flood risk preparedness at household level.

An aerial view the collapsed embankment near the Shwe Ge flood gate and sewage pumping station caused by flashfoods. / MCDC

UCCRTF is supporting Mandalay to build resilience under Grant 0455-MYA: Mandalay Urban Services Improvement Project.

This article was originally published on the Asian Development Bank’s Livable Cities blog.
Cover photo by Phyo Wai Kyaw/ The Myanmar Times
Overshadowed by COVID: the deadly extreme weather of 2020

Overshadowed by COVID: the deadly extreme weather of 2020

By Chloe Brimicombe, Elliott Sainsbury, Gabrielle Powell, Wilson Chan

The year 2020 will no doubt go down in history for other reasons, but it is also on target to be one of the warmest on record. And as the climate warms, natural hazards will happen more frequently – and be ever more lethal.

We are early career researchers in meteorology, geography and environmental sciences, and each of us focus on a different hazard. We may not have been as in demand as our colleagues in virology departments, but we nonetheless had a particularly interesting and busy year. So while attention was often focused elsewhere, perhaps understandably, here are some of the meteorological extremes recorded in 2020.

Wicked wildfires

The year began with apocalyptic scenes of wildfires in Australia, fuelled by heatwaves. It was an image that would play out time and time again in 2020.

In June, Siberia began to burn on an unprecedented scale, at the same time as record temperatures which climate change had made 600 times more likely.

Aerial photo of a forest fire with tall buildings visible in background through smoke.
A forest fire near the city of Cuiaba, Brazil, August 2020. Rogerio Florentino / EPA

Through July and August, the west coast of the US was ablaze. The worst wildfire season in 70 years again coincided with a heatwave, with Death Valley in California recording America’s highest temperature for at least a century – maybe ever.

By September, the Amazon rainforest and the world’s largest wetland to its south, the Pantanal, were on fire. More than a quarter of those fires happened in forest that had not been disturbed by deforestation.

In September 2019, fires in the Amazon had made worldwide headlines. In 2020 there were actually 66% more fires in that month, but attention was elsewhere.

Savage storms

In November, super typhoon Goni made landfall in the Philippines while at maximum intensity, with sustained wind speeds of 195mph. One of the strongest storms to ever make landfall worldwide, Goni directly affected nearly nearly 70 million people, leading to at least 26 fatalities – a number that would have undoubtedly been higher if not for the evacuation of almost 1 million people.

But it wasn’t just wind that posed serious hazards in the western Pacific in 2020. Tropical storms Linfa and Nangka caused significant flooding across Vietnam, exacerbating the problems caused by an unusually active monsoon. More than 136,000 homes were flooded and more than 100 people died.

In the North Atlantic, 2020 was the busiest hurricane season on record, with 30 named storms and six major hurricanes. The single costliest storm of the season, Hurricane Laura, made landfall in Haiti and Louisiana, killing 77 people and causing more than US$14 billion (£10 billion) in damages.

Two major hurricanes, Eta and Iota, caused significant damage in Honduras and Nicaragua. They made landfall in the region in November, just two weeks and 15 miles apart. This is a humanitarian crisis yet one that has received relatively little attention overseas.

Woman looks away from camera at damaged buildings by the sea.
A woman in Colombia looks out at the destruction caused by Hurricane Iota. Mauricio Duenas Castaneda / EPA

Frightening floods

The world’s deadliest flooding this year took place in east Africa in March through May. At least 430 lives were lost and an estimated 116,000 people were displaced in Kenya alone. The previous dry season was particularly wet, and was followed by above average rainfall during the “long rains” of March-May, meaning the vast Lake Victoria had twice its normal rainfall.

Map showing huge areas of central and east Africa under flood alerts.
Africa on May 5 and 6, 2020: areas experiencing flood watch (red), warning (orange), or advisory (green) conditions. NASA / Margaret T. Glasscoe (JPL)

Though the rainfall was predicted in advancelocust outbreaks and COVID meant vulnerable people were already less able to handle the floods and secondary hazards such as widespread landslides and a cholera outbreak. The wet conditions were also ideal for further breeding of desert locusts. When it rains, it truly does pour.

Devastating droughts

Water crises caused by droughts and resource mismanagement were ranked as the fifth highest risk in terms of impact in the 2020 Global Risks Report – greater than infectious diseases and unemployment.

The severe drought across central and western US is the first billion-dollar drought of 2020, contributing to a record-breaking 16 weather and climate disasters with USD$1 billion or more in damages in the US in 2020 alone.

Conditions during 2020 represented the latest phase of a “mega-drought” over the past 20 years. By the peak in summer, a third of the US was in a moderate drought and much of the west was under severe to extreme drought. This coincided with abnormally hot summer temperatures and over 2 million acres of land burned nationwide, further enhancing drought conditions in a vicious cycle.

Map of the US showing much of the country in drought conditions.
Drought conditions across the lower 48 states, on August 11 2020. NASA

The Rio Grande river, a major source of water supply for southwest states, would have completely ceased to flow had water providers not decided to pause existing water diversion schemes. Other impacts included crop damage from one in 50 year dry soil moisture conditions and a rise in dust storms  reminiscent of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

A dried-out river bed.
What’s left of the Rio Grande forms much of the US-Mexico border. Piotr Kalinowski Photos / shutterstock

The latest seasonal outlooks estimate that drought conditions may extend westwards and persist into 2021, complicating the recovery from a difficult year.

Horrendous heatwaves

In May, while a large cyclone struck Bangladesh and eastern India, the north of India experienced temperatures of up to 47℃. This also delayed the onset of the monsoon, impacting farming.

The northern hemisphere summer saw repeated heatwaves, culminating in mid-August. Japan, for instance, had record-breaking temperatures with cities across the country having multiple days at 40°C. In one week, more than 12,000 people were admitted to hospital with heat-related illnesses. Even the UK’s heatwave, accompanied by tropical nights, caused 1,700 excess deaths.

A roadside thermometer shows 42°C
An all too familiar sight. Juan Carlos Caval / EPA

At the start of the summer season in Australia, temperature records have already been broken. It seems the year will go out on an extreme high.

2020 was alarming, unforgettable and traumatic – and not only because of COVID-19. Lethal natural hazards are increasing in frequency under our changing climate, and 2020 is a testament to that.

This article was published on The Conversation.
In the mild mid-winter

In the mild mid-winter

By Lydia Messling

Pristine snowy landscapes (dappled with glitter that gets everywhere) adorn cards, shop displays, and all things ‘festive’, acting as a short-hand for the festive season. And yet, the will-it-won’t-it of having a white Christmas is a game that we’ve all pretty much given up on now in the UK. Us Brits are known for our conversational obsession with the weather (indeed, it is the only permissible topic to discuss with strangers) but now climate change means that moaning about snow is likely to be a thing of Christmas-Past.

So as stranger small talk turns to how climate change is robbing us of that festive feeling, it is worth thinking a little more deeply about the implications of this phenomenon. The loss of habitats for example, often goes unthought, much less unsaid. Nor does the conversation turn to the implications of warming here on other parts of the world, where extreme weather is already having devasting effects. As it turns out, weather-related small talk, isn’t so small.

Climate change is a difficult topic for us to get our heads around. It’s not a physical object that we can see and bump in to, or a grazed knee that we can feel the sting of. As such, the effect of what social scientists call psychological distancing[i] also means that we think about climate risks differently,[ii] and worry about them differently. We have a ‘finite pool of worry’[iii] that means our capacity to emotionally process the effects of something as distant as climate change is much harder to do as more immediate and pressing concerns take that space.[iv] Therefore engaging with climate change and its impacts is more difficult than most other topics.

However, there are ways to bring climate change closer to home. One of the reasons that these news articles about ‘no more white winters’ are so popular is because they continue a story that we all know – one that we cherish and depict on cards and cheap jumpers and in sub-par films. In these articles, climate change is having a real, tangible impact upon something you have experienced. This often has a greater emotional impact than news of how climate change is impacting somewhere far away.

There may also be something in how these stories relate to a manufactured nostalgia for sledding and jolly family walks in the snow. Climate change destroying that idyllic scene in a deluge of slushy sleet cultivates a sense of loss and collective heartache. It’s not just changing the weather – climate change is making impossible our romantic aspirations for tidings of comfort and joy. These articles are interesting to people because this snowy narrative is part of how we collectively define and picture celebration in winter-time. Here we have a story about how climate change is affecting us that also shows how it affects our traditions, aspirations, and our relationship with nature. This goes beyond just engaging with what impacts us now, with how climate change affects our identity. Good climate communication therefore taps into the narratives that we have about our lives, our values, and our interests.

However, the conversation needs to move past melting points. Effective communications about climate change must give people time to process new information, to feel the feelings that go with it, and learn what other things they value and are interested in. Then we must talk about those things. Rather than abruptly changing the topic to talk about climate impacts in a country and timescale far away from the here and now, we must make links and build bridges to issues closer to home. In doing so, we can make climate change and its impacts easier to engage with and comprehend. There’s no doubt that us Brits, will continue to bemoan the weather, whatever it may be, because it’s part of our collective identity. However, talking about the weather with strangers can also be is a starting point for taking action on climate change together, as a community. 

[i] Moser, S., (2010) Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Process and Future Directions. WIRES Climate Change, 1, p31-53

[ii] Slovic, P., (2000) The Perception of Risk, Earthscan, UK

[iii] Linville, P.W., and Fischer, G.W., (1991) Preferences for separating or combining events,

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 1, p5-23

[iv] Hulme, M., (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, Cambridge University Press, UK

Cover photo by Adam Chang on Unsplash.
The loss and damage of climate change has pushed Sierra Leoneans far beyond their ability to adapt

The loss and damage of climate change has pushed Sierra Leoneans far beyond their ability to adapt

By Gabriel Kpaka

Over the last 15 years, residents of Freetown, Sierra Leone have witnessed first-hand the escalating trail of destruction left in the wake of floods, sea rises, mudslides, landslides and more.

My country, Sierra Leone, lies in the southwestern part of West Africa. The land is beautiful, with breathtaking mountain ranges, deep valleys and low-lying coastal areas.

We have always experienced high temperatures, heavy rainfall and high humidity. And we used to have two marked seasons: rainy and dry.

When I was young, I would await the rainy season with eagerness. I looked forward to the sharp drop in temperature that made sleeping easier. We could harvest water which helped domestic work. The heavy rains kept us cool enough to play football, and we could belly-skate on wet floor tiles with friends.

Moreover, the rains nourished our backyard garden where my family grew vegetables. On a larger scale, the favourable climate enabled farmers to grow non-scientifically enhanced varieties. Twenty years ago, here in Sierra Leone, agricultural production was thriving.

But in the past 10-15 years, more frequent and prolonged dry spells have severely disrupted the farming calendar. A cousin of mine, who used to make a living from backyard gardening, told me how less rain and low moisture content in the soil had caused her harvest to drop away.

Plants like krain–krain (a nutritious green leaf, popular in Sierra Leonean stews), lettuce, pepper and cabbage were turning yellow and failing. She was forced to abandon her vegetable gardening business for petty trading – buying and selling assorted items such cement, iron rods and nails. This is one example among thousands of how climate change is threatening our food security.

The sea rises, the rains come, disease follows

When the rains do come, they are sometimes torrential. Floods became more severe due to the rising sea level along the coast. They are also more frequent: in the past, coming every three to five years – now hitting us every year.

Seeing houses destroyed, streets flooded and crops damaged has become part of our every day. The floods also contaminate drinking water and lead to the spread of water-borne diseases including cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid.

Precarious housing

The increased flooding coincided with land use changes and rapid population growth.

The land use change is tied to shifting from building on low-lying areas to building on mountain tops, hill slopes and wetlands. As Freetown expanded, people – knowingly or unknowingly – built houses in the flood-prone areas with a narrow drainage system.

A recent questionnaire carried out by the Sierra Leone Meteorological Agency showed that people in these disaster-prone areas are living in constant worry of their homes being damaged or destroyed by climate change.

Coastal households are now significantly impacted by sea-level rise when the foundations are weakened or the infrastructure itself is damaged. Our distant neighbours close to the sea worry constantly about rising water. Flooding is a red alert for everyone during the raining season.

Deadly land and mudslides

Freetown is now home to about 30% of my country’s total population. Expansion ran not only along the coast, but into the foothills.

Here, mass deforestation and construction on wet lands and forest reserved areas couple with torrential rains that saturate the soil. This triggers rapid movement of rain or debris causing land and mudslides. Now so common, ‘mudslide’ and ‘landslide’ have become household terms for those of us living in Freetown.

14 August 2017 is a day that Sierra Leoneans will never forget, marking one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. Intense rainfall triggered a massive mudslide and flash flooding.

Due to intense overcrowding in the dense clusters of homes onto which the hillside collapsed, nearly 1,000 people were killed and many more were gravely injured. Over 3,000 were displaced. The tragedy also caused millions of dollars in damage.

What can we do?

The economic damage (PDF) from climate change – to drains, buildings, electricity poles, sea walls – is profound.

In the case of lost lives and catastrophic injury, the damage is irreplaceable.

We, the people of Freetown are doing what we can to adapt, using traditional knowledge and developing new innovations – such as constructing sea dykes out of sandbags, deploying early warning systems to help prepare for adverse weather events, or making changes in structural design and establishing strong concrete foundation walls in flood-prone areas.

Farmers and gardeners are using mixed cropping techniques to boost food production. Most farmers are now using enhanced seedlings that are resilient to contaminated water. Others are shifting livelihoods, moving away from farming and into areas such as stone mining and motorbike commercial businesses for income. But these coping strategies are not sufficient.

The diverse impacts of climate change have over the years severely affected the economy of Sierra Leone and changed my people’s lives and livelihoods.

We urgently need nations across the world to take leadership on the issue of loss and damage; my country as with the other least developed countries needs dedicated financial support to help address the profound and far reaching damage, and the deep, irreplaceable losses.

This blog was originally published on the IIED website.
Cover photo by Mark Stedman via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 2.0
China and Australia face a climate tipping point

China and Australia face a climate tipping point

By Tim Radford

The grasslands of northern China and Mongolia could be about to lurch into a climate tipping point, an irreversible sequence of heat and drought.

This is a landscape that helped shape world history. The Hun forces that humbled the western Roman Empire 16 centuries ago, and the conquering hordes led by Genghis Khan that commanded most of the Asian continent and threatened Europe eight centuries later, both emerged from tribes of nomad herdsmen from its grasslands. Now it could itself be about to be reconfigured by human-driven climate change.

And that same anthropogenic climate tipping point poses the same threat to great tracts of south-east Australia: water could become more scarce, bush fires could become more frequent, and winds could begin to blow away the parched soils in droughts that could last decades, or even centuries.

Both studies are based on evidence from the past, and both on the story told by preserved annual growth rings. The warning from inner East Asia is based on the testimony of tree stumps and timbers from the last 260 years, say researchers in the journal Science.

“They’re alarming findings, in a long list of alarming findings…if humans continue to warm the planet, this is the future we may all be looking at”

The patterns of tree growth suggest that the recent consecutive summers marked by both heat and drought are new events, and could increase in frequency.

The high plains of central Asia can be very cold in winter, very hot in summer. But soil moisture normally evaporates to cool the air at the surface. In a sustained drought, the air becomes hotter. In recent years, the region’s lakes have been shrinking in extent − and in number.

“The result is more heatwaves, which means more soil water losses, which means more heatwaves − and where this might end, we cannot say,” said Deliang Chen of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, one of the research team.

He and his co-authors warn bluntly that the double impact of sustained heat and prolonged drought “is potentially irreversible beyond a tipping point in the East Asian climate system.”

Mega-drought link

The evidence from Australia is based on a much more distant past, and preserved in stalagmites deep in a cave in New South Wales. Researchers write in the journal Scientific Reports that during a warm interval in the last Ice Age, from 129,000 to 116,000 years ago, global temperatures rose to levels much as they are today, and perhaps slightly warmer.

And the record of lower falls of snow, higher temperatures and ever-scarcer water, preserved in the ancient annual growths of underground calcium carbonate, provided the scientists with a hint of what to expect in a world of global heating driven by ever-increasing use of fossil fuels, and ever-greater destruction of natural ecosystems.

“We found that, in the past, a similar amount of warming has been associated with mega-drought conditions all over south-eastern Australia. These drier conditions prevailed for centuries, sometimes for more than 1000 years,” said Hamish McGowan of the University of Queensland, who led the study.

“They’re alarming findings, in a long list of alarming findings that climate scientists have released over the last few decades. We hope that this new research allows for new insights to our future climate and the risks it may bring, such as drought and associated bushfires. But importantly, if humans continue to warm the planet, this is the future we may all be looking at.” − Climate News Network

This article was originally published on the Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Bolatbek Gabiden on Unsplash
Climate change is making autumn leaves change colour earlier – here’s why

Climate change is making autumn leaves change colour earlier – here’s why

By Philip James

As the days shorten and temperatures drop in the northern hemisphere, leaves begin to turn. We can enjoy glorious autumnal colours while the leaves are still on the trees and, later, kicking through a red, brown and gold carpet when out walking.

When temperatures rise again in spring, the growing season for trees resumes. Throughout the warmer months, trees take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in complex molecules, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. This, in a nutshell, is the process of photosynthesis. The more photosynthesis, the more carbon is locked away.

We know that carbon dioxide is a major driver of climate change, so the more that can be taken out of the atmosphere by plants, the better. With the warmer climate leading to a longer growing season, some researchers have suggested that more carbon dioxide would be absorbed by trees and other plants than in previous times. But a new study has turned this theory on its head and could have profound effects on how we adapt to climate change.

Reaching the limit

The researchers, led by Deborah Zani at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, studied the degree to which the timing of colour changes in autumn tree leaves was determined by the growth of the plant in the preceding spring and summer.

Temperature and day length were traditionally accepted as the main determinants of when leaves changed colour and fell, leading some scientists to assume that warming temperatures would delay this process until later in the season. Studying deciduous European tree species, including horse chestnut, silver birch and English oak, the authors of the new study recorded how much carbon each tree absorbed per season and how that ultimately affected when the leaves fell.

Using data from the Pan European Phenology Project, which has tracked some trees for as long as 65 years, the researchers found in their long-term observational study that as the rate of photosynthesis increased, leaves changed colour and fell earlier in the year. For every 10% increase in photosynthetic activity over the spring and summer growing season, trees shed their leaves, on average, eight days earlier.

Climate-controlled experiments on five-year-old European beech and Japanese meadowsweet trees suggest what could be behind this unexpected result. In these trials, the trees were exposed to full sun, half shade or full shade. The results show that there is a limit to the amount of photosynthesis that a tree can carry out over a growing season. Think of it like filling a bucket with water. It can be done slowly or quickly, but once the bucket is full, there is nowhere for any more water to go.

A misty forest with trees displaying autumn colours.
Deciduous trees, which shed leaves in autumn, have a fixed amount of carbon they can absorb per season. Alex Stemmer/Shutterstock

This research shows that deciduous trees can only absorb a set amount of carbon each year and once that limit is reached, no more can be absorbed. At that point, leaves begin to change colour. This limit is set by the availability of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, and the physical structure of the plant itself, particularly the inner vessels which move water and dissolved nutrients around. Nitrogen is a key nutrient which plants need in order to grow, and it’s often the amount of available nitrogen that limits total growth. This is why farmers and gardeners use nitrogen fertilisers, to overcome this limitation.

Together, these constraints mean that carbon uptake during the growing season is a self-regulating mechanism in trees and herbaceous plants. Only so much carbon can be taken up.

Earlier autumn colours

In a world with increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere, these new findings imply that warmer weather and longer growing seasons will not allow temperate deciduous trees to take up more carbon dioxide. The study’s predictive model suggests that by 2100, when tree growing seasons are expected to be between 22 and 34 days longer, leaves will fall from trees between three and six days earlier than they do now.

A pile of yellow and orange maple leaves with a dark red leaf in the middle.
Get ready for this happening a little sooner in the future. Greg Shield/UnsplashCC BY-SA

This has significant implications for climate change modelling. If we accept that the amount of carbon taken up by deciduous trees in temperature countries like the UK will remain the same each year regardless of the growing season, carbon dioxide levels will rise more quickly than was previously expected. The only way to change this will be to increase the capacity of trees to absorb carbon.

Plants that aren’t limited by the amount of nitrogen available may be able to grow for longer in the warming climate. These are the trees which can take nitrogen from the air, such as alder. But these species will still lose their leaves at roughly the same time as always, thanks to less daylight and colder temperatures.

But on the upside, with the prospect of some trees losing their leaves earlier and others losing them at the time they do now, there might be the prospect of prolonged autumnal colours – and more time for us to kick through the leaves.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Cover photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash.
Polar link unites far extremes of north and south

Polar link unites far extremes of north and south

By Tim Radford

They are different worlds, one an ocean, the other a continent. But a polar link keeps them in touch with each other.

LONDON, 30 November, 2020 − The Arctic and Antarctica are literally a world apart, but for an unlikely polar link. Change in the mass of ice in the north can and does precipitate change in the furthest reaches of the southern hemisphere.

According to 40,000 years of geological evidence, when the Arctic Ocean ice retreats, global sea levels rise to start washing away the sea ice around the shelf of the vast frozen continent at the other extreme of the planet.

This pattern of action at a distance is confirmed by computer simulations: the planet’s two hemispheres are in a kind of conversation, according to a new study in the journal Nature.

“Our results highlight how interconnected the Earth system is, with changes in one part of the planet driving changes in another,” said Natalya Gomez, of McGill University in Canada, who led the study.

“In the modern era, we haven’t seen the kind of large ice sheet retreat that we might see in our future warming world. Looking to records and models of change in Earth’s history can inform us about this.”

“Ice sheets can influence each other over great distances. It’s as though they were talking to one another about sea level changes”

The Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet: what happens in the far north has reverberations throughout the hemisphere. And Antarctica, too, is changing swiftly.

Although both extremes of cold are vulnerable to global heating driven by profligate fossil fuel use and global-scale loss of forests, climate scientists have tended to consider them as separate cases.

But a closer look at geological records − ice cores and samples from the ocean bottom that offer evidence of iceberg drift across the millennia − revealed a connection. The polar link is real.

At the height of the last ice age more than 20,000 years ago, the mass of ice in the north lowered global sea levels and the Antarctic ice shelf advanced. As the world began to warm again, ice in the north began to flow into the sea. Sea levels rose in the southern hemisphere and this began to force a retreat of the Antarctic ice.

“Ice sheets can influence each other over great distances due to the water that flows between them. It’s as though they were talking to one another about sea level changes,” Dr Gomez said.

Dynamic ice

“Polar ice sheets are not just large static mounds of ice. They evolve on various different time scales and are in constant flux, with ice growing and retreating, depending on the climate and the surrounding water levels.

“They gain ice as snow piles up on top of them, then spread outwards under their own weight, and stream out into the surrounding ocean where their edges break off into icebergs.”

The evidence showed that sea level change in Antarctica and ice mass loss in the Arctic were linked, over a sequence of at least 40,000 years.

“These ice sheets are really dynamic, exciting and intriguing parts of the Earth’s climate system. It’s staggering to think of ice that is several kilometres thick, that covers an entire continent, and that is evolving on all of these different timescales with global consequences,” Dr Gomez said.

“It’s just motivation for trying to better understand these really massive systems that are so far away from us.” Climate News Network

Cover photo by W Bulach, via Wikimedia Commons
Social Movements Lead Recovery from Devastating Back-to-back Hurricanes in Central America

Social Movements Lead Recovery from Devastating Back-to-back Hurricanes in Central America

By Christina Schiavon

With a sequence and strength described by meteorologists as unprecedented, a pair of category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota, have slammed into Central America less than two weeks apart. Iota struck while accounting of the ongoing damages of Eta was still underway, leaving the full magnitude of total damages from both hurricanes yet to be determined. What is known at the time of writing is that the death toll, currently nearing 200, continues to grow, while more than 200,000 are without homes and millions more are impacted by the combined effects of the hurricanes and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Faced with voids in government support, particularly in two of the hardest-hit countries, Honduras and Guatemala, social movements have stepped in to carry out essential needs assessments and emergency relief efforts. Simultaneously, movements are coordinating at the regional level to ensure not only emergency relief, but a just recovery grounded in radical self-management and mutual support, building upon a people-to-people model popularized by Puerto Rican social movements in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Grassroots International has launched an emergency appeal to support these efforts in Central America and is in close contact with partners on the ground. The following is some initial analysis of the situation shared by movement partners on the frontlines of the crisis


In the midst of a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, that Eta struck Central America just as the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement became official could not be more tragically ironic. The Honduran government rightly pointed to the Eta catastrophe as yet another example of the uneven impacts of climate change, with countries that have contributed least to global emissions often among those hit the hardest. What it failed to acknowledge, however, was its own promotion of environmentally destructive projects and its complicity in the extreme suffering of its population at present, particularly among peasant, Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities that have faced systemic marginalization and repression since the country’s military coup of 2009.

Miriam Miranda of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), representing Afro-Indigenous Garífuna communities, connects multiple dots as she puts the current situation into context. She explains that Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged the country over two decades ago, followed by numerous other manifestations of climate chaos, provided ample warning of Honduras’ great vulnerability, yet:

There does not exist any disaster prevention strategy on the part of the government, nor has any sort of national disaster response been prepared… The very difficult situation we’re in not only lays bare the lack of prevention, but also how corrupt governments and political classes do not plan to save lives.

Miranda adds that the extent of devastation is also a direct result of government policies supporting expansion of palm oil plantations and other extractive industries, often involving violent displacements of the communities inhabiting the land. As a result:

Many parts of Honduras’ mountains have been destroyed, and many watersheds have been destroyed to such a degree that heavy rains are converted into a threat for the whole of the Honduran population.

Communities already inundated with water are receiving more water, Miranda laments, and the natural systems that could have helped to protect against flooding such as wooded areas have been largely destroyed. Furthermore, land clearings for plantations and megaprojects have not only left the land degraded and more prone to flooding, but have pushed communities onto marginal lands, making them particularly vulnerable to landslides and other dangers when storms strike. This is why, “In a city like San Pedro Sula, there are thousands of displaced peoples, thousands of people, including Garífunas, who lost absolutely everything due to living in high-risk zones.”

Faced with such conditions, OFRANEH is supporting emergency relief efforts, as it has throughout the COVID pandemic, while continuing to mobilize against their people’s displacement and increased vulnerability in the face of stronger and more frequent climate shocks. Such work forms a core part of OFRANEH’s approach to Black and Indigenous liberation.

Representatives of the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) of Guatemala describe a similarly dire situation, with “dozens of flooded and isolated communities, damaged houses and infrastructure, hundreds of hectares of peasant crops completely lost to overflowing rivers, absence of shelters and overcrowding of families,” adding that: “As with other tragedies, the government response has been absent, slow or inefficient.” Situations of overcrowding among evacuees, both in Guatemala and Honduras, are particularly concerning given that both countries are still reeling from COVID-19, with government inaction contributing to skyrocketing rates of the virus in both countries. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was already sounding the alarm on new outbreaks of the virus within makeshift shelters of Hurricane Eta victims before Iota struck.

CUC has lambasted the Guatemalan government for the inadequacy of its response in this moment of greatest need, in contrast to “the hundreds of thousands of quetzals (Guatemalan currency) that have been spent to mobilize police and military personnel who only carry fear and anxiety during states of exception,” including violent evictions of peasant and Indigenous communities from their lands. Government misuse and abuse of resources in the face of the combined COVID and climate crises have been similarly called out by OFRANEH and by other movements in the region. The regional coordinating body of peasant movements, CLOC-Vía Campesina (the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations), sums it up that:

In countries with neoliberal governments, we’ve seen much corruption in the face of the pandemic, and now the hurricanes, along with a lack of disaster prevention and support plan for the people. This has generated loss of human lives, together with infrastructural and economic losses. Under such circumstances, we reaffirm the refrain “Only the people save the people (Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo).”


Taking this refrain to heart, social movements have been among the first responders in the aftermath of Eta and now Iota, conducting needs assessments and emergency relief in communities that have lost nearly everything yet are largely cut off from any other forms of support. In Guatemala, where impacts have been more confined to particular parts of the country, CUC has put out a call for support to impacted peasant communities, reminding Guatemalans that:

During these months of pandemic, the foods that have arrived at the tables of Guatemalan families have been provided by the hands of peasants who have not stopped working from sunrise to sunset to produce food, many of whom have now lost crops, animals, clothing and housing.

At the regional level, CLOC-Vía Campesina has formed an emergency committee that is coordinating directly with government, UN and nongovernmental bodies on emergency relief efforts, as well as coordinating with global allies like Grassroots International to bring direct support to movements on the frontlines of the crisis for the rebuilding of homes, farms and infrastructure. At the same time, they are pushing for a just recovery process over the medium and longer terms, supported by “progressive public policies that respect people’s lives and that support peasant agriculture.” A key component of this vision is a rebuilding of now-devasted food and agricultural systems with an orientation toward food sovereignty, in which communities are empowered to feed themselves and the broader population through diverse, resilient food systems. According to La Vía Campesina Honduras:

The agricultural sector has suffered its greatest destruction in the last 20 years; the losses are millions and incalculable. Until now the production of basic grains such as corn, rice, beans, vegetables that are basic products for food sovereignty have disappeared up to 80%, likewise thousands of hectares of coffee in the hands of small producers have been affected in the different regions of the country as a result of landslides and floods… Livestock has drowned.

Rebuilding from such devastation, as underscored by CLOC-Vía Campesina, will require “promoting the production of agroecological food, short circuits (of food transport) and healthy communities to avoid hunger” as well as “expanding the production of agri-food chains, transport, storage and distribution in nearby markets, native seeds, natural medicine and healthy consumption.” These are among the priorities that social movements are both calling for and making steps toward, even as they confront the extreme emergency needs of the present.

For Grassroots international’s Solidarity Program Officer for Latin America, Jovanna Garcia Soto, who has been coordinating directly with movement partners on the emergency appeal, the current crisis “brings back overwhelming memories of what happened when Hurricane Maria struck my archipelago, Puerto Rico, whose ultra-neoliberal government, like the governments of Honduras and Guatemala, placed the interests of capital above those of the people.” Another parallel she sees is how both the response by movements in Puerto Rico and by movements today in Central America demonstrate how community solutions based on mutual support and self-management save lives:

This is the path for a just recovery and the way to win the self-determination of our peoples. In these critical moments we have to stand up in solidarity with the Central American people impacted by hurricanes Eta and Iota. Our solidarity will define life or death, as we support grassroots groups and social movements organizing on the frontlines of the crisis now and working to dismantle the oppressive system over the long term. They are the backbone of the change towards a just and dignified world.

This article was originally posted on Relief Web.