Tuesday, June 18, 2013

James Balog: "We need to understand nature is off its rocker right now"

By Jessica Shankleman

When photographer James Balog set out to the Arctic eight years ago, time-lapse cameras in tow, he was deeply sceptical about climate change. He had been asked to capture the melting ice caps by National Geographic, but was interested in little more than the final photos.
But as the project took shape, he began to grasp the true scale of the climate change risks the world faces and started to the use the results in lectures as he toured the world attempting to highlight the reality of global warming.
The results of his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) sent shockwaves through the science world and his film about the project, Chasing Ice, was met with critical acclaim grossing nearly £75,000 in box offices here in the UK - a strong performance for a documentary.
Chasing Ice will be released on DVD today, allowing an even wider audience to gain an insight into the Arctic's rapidly melting glaciers. BusinessGreen sat down with Balog to discuss the challenges of the EIS, his evolving views on climate scepticism, and his next film.
This kind of project is not about journalism. It goes on for years and years and becomes more about taking artistic approach. I simply have a burning passion and desire to express what I see in the world around me.
As an earth sciences graduate and mountaineer, my own life experience has tied me to the ice and made me understand it, and [given me] an ability to function there.
We read stories about melting ice caps on the news and hear warnings about reaching 400ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. People are shocked but the next day something else happens that makes them forget. How do you think the EIS and Chasing Ice can bring the issues closer to home and leave a lasting impression?
The human mind has a built in filter that tries not to be troubled - we need to start with that. So you can have a tornado 100 kilometres away and the mind says: "Oh that was 100km away, I don't need to worry about that". Or there's a flood in Yorkshire, and people in London go: "Oh, well that's Yorkshire, that's their problem".
There's always that kind of buffer trying to protect your own psyche from the horrors of the bigger world and at EIS we're always fighting against it. I'm on the road all the time giving presentations to help people understand with a tangible photographic explanation of what's going on in their back yards, and I think it's effective.
The other thing that has made the climate change story real, immediate, and effective is that we have been seeing so many extreme weather events all round us in recent years on many continents. Australia, Europe, the US, the droughts the fires, the floods, the bug infestations, they happen and all of these things make climate change so much more of an intense part of the story.
Ultimately, the deniers are losing. They were gaining ground with a misinformation campaign for a couple of years, but nature laughs last and shows us what's going on.
Do you think that through EIS and Chasing Ice you've really managed to convince skeptics that global warming is a serious threat?
We will always have climate skeptics and we shouldn't expect there will be 100 per cent accord on this.
I was watching a film last night about how this misinformation campaign on the climate deniers' side works, and what really struck me with great force is that the kind of people who are fueling this debate are often the kinds of far out fanatics that would not have had a voice to do anything other than distribute pamphlets on a street corner 30 or 40 years ago.
They would have been considered crackpot nutcases. But because the money from wealthy crackpots gives them a voice in the media today, they're looked at as serious participants in the conversation. They ought to be living out of coverts talking to themselves. Read More

The Antarctic Half of the Global Thermohaline Circulation Is Faltering

The sudden cooling of Europe, triggered by collapse of the global thermohaline circulation in the north Atlantic and the slowing of the Gulf Stream has been popularized by the movies and the media. The southern half of the global thermohaline circulation is as important to global climate but has not been popularized. The global oceans' coldest water, Antarctic bottom water forms in several key spots around Antarctica. The water is so cold and dense that it spreads out along the bottom all of the major ocean basins except the north Atlantic and Arctic. Multiple recent reports provide strong evidence that the formation of Antarctic bottom water has slowed dramatically in response to massive subsurface melting of ice shelves and glaciers. The meltwater is freshening a layer of water found between depths of 50 and 150 meters. This lightened layer is impeding the formation of Antarctic bottom water, causing the Antarctic half of the global thermohaline circulation to falter. Read More

In Ancient Ice, Clues That Scientists Are Underestimating Future Sea Levels

The skies do strange things at the NEEM camp, a remote ice-drilling and research facility on the northern Greenland ice sheet. Midnight sunshine. Low clouds of sparkling ice crystals known as “diamond dust.” But when rain fell instead of snow last summer, complete with a rainbow arcing over the camp, the NEEM scientists couldn’t believe it. “I’ve been all over that ice sheet, and to have it rain that far north—that’s a shock,” says James White, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Colorado who led the American team working alongside those from 13 other countries at NEEM.
It’s fitting that part of the NEEM study’s fieldwork, which retrieved a two-and-a-half-kilometer shaft of ice, took place during one of the hottest Greenland summers on record. What that ice core has revealed about a warm period 130,000 years ago could be one of the most critical new tools for predicting how our planet will respond to a warmer future.
The NEEM ice core has provided the first picture of the Greenland ice sheet during the entire Eemian interglacial period, a 15,000-year span of natural warming that occurred between the two most recent ice ages. (NEEM is a rough acronym for North Greenland Eemian ice drilling.) During the Eemian, natural variations in Earth’s orbit brought the planet closer to the sun, making global mean temperatures up to 2°C warmer than right before the industrial revolution (the Arctic regions were made even warmer, between 3-5°C). That makes the Eemian an especially attractive period for scientists to study, because 2°C of global warming matches the temperature ceiling the UN and other international organizations have established as the limit of tolerable warming during the next century (a limit many climatologists believe we'll meet or even exceed by the end of this century). And what scientists are learning about the Eemian period could be cause for present-day concern.
Based on the study of the paleoclimate record in ice cores as well as the former locations of beaches and coral reefs, researchers believe that the Eemian temperature increase likely pushed global sea levels as high as eight meters (26 feet) above where they are today. That would put many coastal cities deep under water including Miami, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and large parts of New York [see graphic]. During the Eemian, the polar ice sheets melted over several thousand years; an abrupt increase within the next century—seen by many scientists as inevitable, despite international goals—will not result in a 26-foot rise right away. “Even if you stabilize temperature by 2100, sea levels will keep rising for many centuries after that,” says Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate modeler at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies who specializes in paleoclimate data. The ice sheets will take hundreds of years to fully react to warmer ocean temperatures, he says, “And there won’t be very much you can do about it.” Read More

Friday, June 14, 2013

Do Dying Trees Lead to More Human Deaths? The Debate Continues

by Jason Kane, PBS

The hypothesis: Trees improve people's health.
The experiment: Remove 100 million trees in the eastern and midwestern United States over the course of 10 years and see what happens.
What happened: People died.
In the 15 states infected with the emerald ash borer -- which killed all 100 million of those trees -- an additional 15,000 people died from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more from lower respiratory disease compared with uninfected areas of the country.
After studying data from 1,296 counties and accounting for other variables, research forester Geoffrey Donovan and his team at the U.S. Forest Service concluded that having fewer trees around may be bad for your health. Their study -- published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine -- concluded that there's an associative link between trees health and human health. Proving a direct, causal link will take much more research. Read More

Black Forest Fire

by Isabel Song

Last summer, I was relatively tucked safely away in western Colorado as I watched news of the Waldo Canyon Wildfire like a mother hen. Now, I live in the very city that was threatened by that same fire. This year, I'm watching the smoke from the fires across southern Colorado from my home. All I have to do is go out the door to see the Black Forest Fire, and if it wasn't for the mini-structure in front of my window, I could watch it all from my room.
I have to admit the entire thing is surreal. It's one thing to be fire hours away from it, but it's a completely different experience wondering if your friends' homes have been one of the unfortunate. I could drive and be in Black Forest within minutes. A fairly large portion of my school's student body lives in Black Forest, and the pre-evacuation area is startlingly close to my school and the other handful of schools around the area (there are at least 10-plus schools or academies in a four-mile radius from my house). They also say that people to the south and east of the evacuation areas should be wary of possible pre-evacuation; that's my cue.
Anyways, the fire has me thinking about a few different things, including what to do in the event of an evacuation and my family's failure of never having made any safety plans. Cue the mocking laughter. However, I'm more focused on worrying for the people who live right in those danger areas, and I cannot say how grateful I am or show the extent of my gratitude for the brave people who are fighting the fire or engaged in evacuations.
Here are some stats and figures about the fire. No injuries have yet been reported. Depending on what news source you get information from, 9,500 people have been evacuated and "92 homes have been destroyed," according to the Denver Post. Random tidbit: a number of the homes in Black Forest are worth over $1 million. According to the latest press conference, about 155 firefighters are currently fighting the Black Forest Fire, and about 130 law enforcement officials are engaged in evacuations. It was also announced in that conference that while it's hard to know for sure, they estimate that over 8,000 acres have been consumed by the fire. Read More

Warm ocean water melting Antarctic ice from bottom

Warming ocean waters are melting the Antarctic ice shelves from the bottom up, researchers said Thursday in the first comprehensive study of the thick platforms of floating ice.

Scientists have long known that basal melt, the melting of ice shelves from underneath, was taking place and attributed the trend to icebergs breaking off the platforms.
But the new study, to be published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, said most of the lost mass came from the bottom, not the top.
"Our study shows melting from below by the ocean waters is larger, and this should change our perspective on the evolution of the ice sheet in a warming climate," said lead author Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine.
Overall, Antarctic ice shelves lost 2,921 trillion pounds (1,325 trillion kilograms) of ice per year in 2003 to 2008 through basal melt, compared to 2 400 trillion pounds lost due to iceberg formation.
During the process known as calving, large chunks of ice break off from the part of the ice shelf facing the sea.
The researchers also made the surprising discovery that the three giant ice shelves that make up two thirds of the entire Antarctic ice shelf area only account for 15 percent of basal melting.
The melted ice shelves are also distributed unevenly across the continent.
Ice shelves tend to lose mass twice as fast as the Antarctic ice sheet on land over the same period, according to the study. Read More

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A state-by-state look at what's happening with big storm sweeping from Iowa to Mid-Atlantic

"A weather event called a derecho - spanning at least 240 miles..."

Massive thunderstorms began moving into the Midwest on Wednesday. Meteorologists warn that the line of storms could launch a weather event called a derecho, which is a straight-line wind storm spanning at least 240 miles. Here's a snapshot of what is happening, state by state:
National Weather Service officials say two tornadoes touched down in northern Iowa. They say a tornado touched down about 5 p.m. Wednesday and was moving east at 25 mph toward the town of Hampton in Franklin County. The first tornado was reported about 4:30 p.m. near Belmond in nearby Wright County and was moving east at 30 mph. Some debris was reported for the first tornado, but additional information about damage or injuries for both tornadoes is not available
National Weather Service authorities are reporting several small tornados, quarter-sized hail and winds of up to 60 mph as severe weather moves across northern Illinois. Severe storms were hitting the Rockford area and moving to the east. Meanwhile, airlines canceled more than 120 flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. And Wednesday night's White Sox game was postponed.
Northern Indiana's largest utility says it has increased staffing to cope with any outages caused by a massive line of thunderstorms bearing down on Indiana. The storms are expected to push into northwest Indiana early Wednesday evening. The Northern Indiana Public Service Co. says it is increasing staff at its customer call center and scheduling extra work crews to handle any outages. Read More

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Central Europe on alert for flooding

Homes have been evacuated across southern Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland as rivers reach dangerously high levels.

[BBC] The Czech capital Prague is on high alert as authorities fear a repeat of the catastrophic floods of August 2002.
The River Vltava has inundated towns and villages upstream of the capital, and one person is known to have died.
The German cities of Passau and Rosenheim have declared a state of emergency.
Authorities in Passau, which lies at the confluence of three rivers in Bavaria, say they expect the Danube to reach 10.5m by Sunday evening and have requested help from the German army.
The BBC's correspondent in Prague says firemen have been putting up metal flood barriers and volunteers filling sandbags as the Czech capital prepares for a swell of floodwater.
Prime Minister Petr Necas has called a special cabinet session to co-ordinate the emergency response. Read More

In the Himalayas, Journeys of Faith and Flowers

"Pilgrimages, religious or otherwise, are inspired by stories — some true, some fictional and some in which fact and legend are seamlessly stitched together. Regardless of their veracity, these stories resonate."

[New York Times] Deep in the gorge that it carves through the Himalayas, the Alaknanda River rushed beneath a footbridge. On the right bank sat a busy Indian village, Govindghat, its one street lined with spartan hotels and shops brimming with Sikh religious items and souvenirs. On the left bank, a man wearing a frayed sweater-vest and a ski cap greeted me imploringly.
“Horse?” he asked, hoping I would hire his mules to haul me and my pack up the path to Ghangaria, an isolated mountain hamlet in Uttarakhand state. Ghangaria is the base for visiting the legendary Valley of Flowers National Park — where some 300 varieties bloom in peak season — and Hemkund, a lake and sacred Sikh pilgrimage site in the Garhwal Himalayas.
“Horse?” he repeated. “Five hundred rupees...”
I thought about it. Ghangaria can be reached only by foot, hoof or helicopter (the latter being way beyond my budget). The route is about eight miles long and climbs some 4,000 feet, to 10,006 feet above sea level. It was already afternoon and I’d eaten only a few biscuits that morning. But it was a brilliantly sunny day and I felt energetic. Even as the price dropped to 400 rupees — less than $8 — I declined and headed up the first set of switchbacks, knowing I could eat Maggi masala (Indian ramen noodles) at a trailside stand and hire a “horse” along the way if I changed my mind. (Eventually, I did).
The cobblestone trail rose through a valley flanked by steep, forested slopes, capped by bare cliffs. Below, the Lakshman Ganga — a tributary of the Alaknanda — surged with startling force, as glacial snowmelt poured down over huge boulders.
Between early June and early October — except when landslides triggered by monsoon storms block the mountain roads — hundreds of Sikh pilgrims tackle the trail each day. When I was there in late September, it flowed with people eager to worship at one of the holiest places in the Sikh religion. Many traveled as families, most of them headed by bearded men in colorful turbans. Some wore traditional kurtas or blue warrior robes, others wore jeans and sweatshirts. The most devout walked barefoot. Some who couldn’t manage the climb rode mules. Others sat on wooden litters carried on the shoulders of four men, or in wicker chairs hauled like backpacks by porters. The latter two options, I thought, surely belonged on a list of “stuff in India that you’d never see in the United States.”
Shortly before dusk I reached Ghangaria, where it was so cold I was soon wearing every piece of warm clothing I had with me. My hotel room, like all others in town, had no heat; hot water was available only in buckets, for a small fee. On the plus side, the bed was piled with blankets, and prices were negotiable (I paid 300 rupees, about $5.50 at 55 rupees to the dollar.)
By the time I set out for Hemkund the next morning many pilgrims were already on the trail. We’d have to climb another 4,000 feet in just four miles to reach the hallowed lake, which sits 14,200 feet above sea level. The place had to be special, really special, to inspire all of these people — most of whom wouldn’t be described as “outdoorsy” — to undertake this kind of trek. There was clearly something at stake here beyond sightseeing, which I reflected on as I hiked. Read More

As Glaciers Melt, Alpine Mountains Lose Their Glue, Threatening Swiss Village

GRINDELWALD, Switzerland — Marco Bomio recalls that bright Sunday morning in June 2006 as if it were yesterday. Mr. Bomio, 59, a school principal and mountain guide, attended a religious service on a high mountain meadow to mark the founding of a local guide group.
“Suddenly we saw this immense cloud,” he said over coffee in a wood chalet typical of this Alpine village. “Normally, it might have been snow. But in June?”
“Then we saw that it wasn’t snow,” he went on. “It was rock dust: part of the mountain had come down.”
Grindelwald, population 3,800, lies in the foothills of a wall of Alpine peaks, rising to more than 13,000 feet. It is also home to two of Switzerland’s largest glaciers, the Upper and Lower Grindelwald Glaciers, which for millenniums have snaked their way through Alpine gorges toward the town.
With global warming, the glaciers are melting. Once stretching to the edge of town, they now end high in the mountains. Moreover, their greenish glacial water is forming lakes. In summer, when the melting accelerates, floodwaters threaten the area. But the avalanche witnessed by Mr. Bomio shows that the shrinking of the glaciers removes a kind of buttress supporting parts of the mountains, menacing the region with rock slides. Read More