In July and August 2016, the Roaring Lion fire devoured more than 8,000 acres of forest, along with over 60 homes and outbuildings in eastern Montana's Bitterroot Range. Here, the fire burns through dense conifers on 31 July 2016. Photo: Mike Daniels

10 October 2016 (University of Idaho) – Human-caused climate change has nearly doubled the amount of land burned in western U.S. forest fires over the past three decades, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Idaho and Columbia University.

The researchers estimate that human-caused climate change caused an additional 16,000 square miles of western forest lands to burn between 1984 and 2015. That’s about the size of the Bitterroot, Clearwater, Kootenai, Panhandle and Nez Perce National forests combined, or more than 30 times the size of the city of Los Angeles.

“We’re no longer waiting for human-caused climate change to leave its fingerprint on wildfire across the western U.S. It’s already here,” said John Abatzoglou, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of geography in UI’s College of Science. “Over the last several decades we’ve seen longer fire seasons, larger fires and more area burned — and those observations led us to ask, ‘Why?’ What we found was that human-caused climate change played a resounding role in observed increases in forest fire activity.”

The study, which was published today in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to quantify the degree to which human-caused climate change has increased wildfire activity in western U.S. forests. The study examined forested regions of the lower 48 states from the Rockies to the Pacific.

“Knowing that human-caused warming is responsible for approximately half of the western U.S. forest fire area in the past few decades, and understanding that this effect is becoming increasingly dominant, helps us better anticipate continued changes in forest fire activity in the coming decades,” said co-author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “This knowledge will allow us to make more educated fire and land management decisions.”

The United States has seen dramatic fire seasons in recent years. In 2015, 10.1 million acres burned across the country — the largest since the National Interagency Fire Center began documenting wildland fire area in 1983. Federal firefighting costs for the 2015 fire season hit a record-high $2.1 billion.

The uptick in fire activity over the past decade has led to some calling recent wildfire seasons the “new normal.” Abatzoglou and Williams goal was to parse out how much of the observed increase in the extent of forest fires was due to natural climate variability and other factors, and how much was rooted in human-caused climate change. They chose to focus on forest fires, since grassland fires respond differently to climate variability.

Abatzoglou likened the many factors that lead to forest fires to instruments in an orchestra: When any instrument plays louder, the volume of the whole orchestra increases. His and Williams’ research finds that both human-caused climate change and natural variability have been playing with increasing volume in recent decades, leading to record-breaking fire seasons.

The history of fire suppression and forest management practices in parts of the West has also played an important role in the increase. Fewer fires have led to overgrowth in many forests, so there is now more fuel available to burn when conditions get dry.

"The legacy of fire suppression has probably amplified the effect of climate change on forest fire. Opposite to how climate change would have zero effect on forest fire activity if there was zero fuel to burn, climate change probably has had an amplified effect of forest fire activity due to an artificially high number of trees in many forested areas due to past fire suppression,” Williams said.

Increased temperature and reduced relative humidity facilitate fire activity by drying out timber. Such conditions allow fires to start and spread and make them more difficult to suppress.

“Wildfire is a function of several processes, some natural and some human. But what we know is on a year-to-year basis, warm, dry summers enable large fire seasons,” Abatzoglou said. “There is a remarkable relationship between the extent of forested area burned and fuel dryness that allows us to implicate climate as the preeminent driver of annual variability in forest fire over the past three decades.”

Abatzoglou and Williams complied data from eight measures of aridity, or dryness, in western U.S. forests. They then used climate model experiments to identify how human-caused climate change influenced these aridity measures.

They found that spring and summer temperatures warmed by 2 to 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius) since 1950, which is in agreement with the warming that climate models attribute to human-caused climate change. This warming led to significant drying within western U.S. forests, accounting for approximately 55 percent of the documented increases in forest aridity from 1979 to 2015. The remaining 45 percent was due to natural climate variations that caused reductions in humidity and precipitation in some regions.

This influence has been particularly notable since the turn of the century: Abatzoglou and Williams estimate that since 2000, human-caused climate change led to a 75-percent increase in the extent of forested lands with elevated aridity and contributed about nine additional days per year with exceptionally dry fuels and high fire potential.

While human-caused climate change and natural climate variability have conspired to increase aridity in recent decades, natural variability could possibly revert and reduce aridity in coming decades, Abatzoglou said. However, unmitigated human-caused climate change will likely have a growing effect on fire seasons — like the drum section of the orchestra growing louder and louder.

“Is this the new normal? I’d say no, but we’re heading there,” Abatzoglou said. “We expect that the effects of human-caused climate change will intensify over the next several decades. So long as there are trees in our forests, climate change will continue to set the table for large fire seasons.”

“The impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests” is available upon request from the authors or from PNAS through EurekAlert.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Terrestrial Ecology Program and Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Life.


John Abatzoglou
University of Idaho Department of Geography

Park Williams
Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Tara Roberts
University of Idaho Communications

Kevin Krajick
Senior editor, science news, The Earth Institute/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Study: Human-Caused Climate Change Has Doubled Western U.S. Forest Fire Area

10 October 2016 (LDEO) – A new study says that human-induced climate change has doubled the area affected by forest fires in the U.S. West over the last 30 years. According to the study, since 1984 heightened temperatures and resulting aridity have caused fires to spread across an additional 16,000 square miles than they otherwise would have—an area larger than the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. The authors warn that further warming will increase fire exponentially in coming decades. The study appears today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear,” said study coauthor Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns. We should be getting ready for bigger fire years than those familiar to previous generations.”

Fires in western forests began increasing abruptly in the 1980s, as measured by area burned, the number of large fires, and length of the fire season. The increases have continued, and recently scientists and public officials have in part blamed human-influenced climate change. The new study is perhaps the first to quantify that assertion. “A lot of people are throwing around the words climate change and fire—specifically, last year fire chiefs and the governor of California started calling this the ‘new normal,’ ” said lead author John Abatzoglou, a professor of geography at the University of Idaho. “We wanted to put some numbers on it.”

Warmth drives fire by drying out the land. Warmer air can hold more moisture, and the air ends up sucking it out of plants, trees, dead vegetation on the ground, and soil. Average temperatures in forested parts of the U.S. West have gone up about 2.5 degrees F since 1970, and are expected to keep rising. The resulting drying effect is evident in the rise of more fires. Williams published a study last year showing how climate-driven removal of moisture from land worsened the recent California drought, which was accompanied by widespread fires.

The overall increase in fire since the 1980s is about twice what the researchers attribute to climate change; the rest is due to other factors, they say. One has been a long-term natural climate oscillation over the Pacific Ocean that has steered storms away from the western United States. Another: firefighting itself. By constantly putting out fires, authorities have allowed areas they “saved” to build up more dry fuel, which later ignites, causing ever more catastrophic blazes, the researchers say. The costs of fire fighting have risen sharply in step; last year the federal government alone spent more than $2.1 billion. “We’re seeing the consequence of very successful fire suppression, except now it’s not that successful anymore,” said Abatzoglou.

The authors teased out the effects of climate warming from other factors by looking at eight different systems for rating forest aridity; these included the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the MacArthur Forest Fire Danger Index and the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System. They then compared such measurements with observations of actual fires and large-scale climate models that estimate manmade warming. The crunched data showed that 55 percent of the increase in fuel aridity expected to lead to fires could be attributed to human-influenced climate change. Climate’s role in increasing such aridity has grown since 2000, the researchers say, and will continue to do so.

Williams and Abatzoglou say they do not account for some factors that could be offshoots of climate warming, and thus they may be understating the effect. These include millions of trees killed in recent years by beetles that prefer warmer weather, and declines in spring soil moisture brought on by earlier snowmelt. There is also evidence that lightning—the usual initial spark—may increase with warming.

The study does not cover western grasslands. These have seen more fires too, but there is little evidence that climate plays a role there, said Abatzoglou; rather, the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses appears to be the main driver.

Mike Flannigan, a fire researcher at the University of Alberta, said that previous studies have tried to understand the effects of climate on fires in parts of Canada, but that nothing had been done for the United States on this scale. “What’s great about this paper is that it quantifies this effect, and it does it on a national scale,” he said.

Worldwide, wildfires of all kinds have been increasing, often with a suspected climate connection. Many see a huge fire that leveled part of the northern city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, this May as the result of a warming trend that is drying out northern forests. Fires have even been spreading beyond, into the tundra, in places where blazes have not been seen for thousands of years. That said, fires are not expected to increase everywhere. “Increased fire in a lot of places agrees with the projections,” said Jeremy Littell, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska. “But in many woodlands, the relationship between climate and fire is not as tidy.”

So far, this year has seen huge, though not record, fires. Over the summer, some 3 million acres burned across the United States, mostly in the West, from Washington state across to the Dakotas and down into Texas. Some scientists say the worst could be yet to come; in some places, the most dangerous conditions often occur from September to December, when desert winds interact with fuels that have been drying for five or six months.

The effects go beyond loss of trees and other vegetation. A 2012 study estimates that smoke from fires worldwide causes long-term health effects that kill some 340,000 people each year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. Carbon released to the air adds to the burden of greenhouse gases already there, thus producing even more warming. Soot settling on snow and ice causes them to absorb more heat and melt faster.    

Many scientists studying the issue believe the growth in U.S. western fires will continue for many years. Williams and others say that eventually, so many western forests will burn, they will become too fragmented for fires to spread easily, and the growth in fire will cease. But, he says, “there’s no hint we’re even getting close to that yet. I’d expect increases to proceed exponentially for at least the next few decades.” In the meantime, he said, “It means getting out of fire’s way. I’d definitely be worried about living in a forested area with only one road in and one road out.”


Kevin Krajick
(212) 854-9729

Climate Change Has Doubled Western U.S. Forest Fire Area, Study Says

ABSTRACT: Increased forest fire activity across the western continental United States (US) in recent decades has likely been enabled by a number of factors, including the legacy of fire suppression and human settlement, natural climate variability, and human-caused climate change. We use modeled climate projections to estimate the contribution of anthropogenic climate change to observed increases in eight fuel aridity metrics and forest fire area across the western United States. Anthropogenic increases in temperature and vapor pressure deficit significantly enhanced fuel aridity across western US forests over the past several decades and, during 2000–2015, contributed to 75% more forested area experiencing high (>1 σ) fire-season fuel aridity and an average of nine additional days per year of high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate change accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests, highlighting both anthropogenic climate change and natural climate variability as important contributors to increased wildfire potential in recent decades. We estimate that human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million ha of forest fire area during 1984–2015, nearly doubling the forest fire area expected in its absence. Natural climate variability will continue to alternate between modulating and compounding anthropogenic increases in fuel aridity, but anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity and should continue to do so while fuels are not limiting.

SIGNIFICANCE: Increased forest fire activity across the western United States in recent decades has contributed to widespread forest mortality, carbon emissions, periods of degraded air quality, and substantial fire suppression expenditures. Although numerous factors aided the recent rise in fire activity, observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment across forested systems. We demonstrate that human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984. This analysis suggests that anthropogenic climate change will continue to chronically enhance the potential for western US forest fire activity while fuels are not limiting.

Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests

In the Liptako-Gourma region, Niger, an area that has experienced large-scale land degradation and water scarcity, a villager takes extra precautions to keep her supply of water clean. Photo: Rabo Yahaya / UNDP

18 October 2016 (UN) – The head of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification told delegations gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, to assess the treaty’s implementation, the impacts of land degradation affect the sustainability of the entire world, so a global effort is needed to tackle it, including through the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Monique Barbut, the Executive Secretary of the Convention, known by its acronym UNCCD, opened meeting by stressing: “Ignoring land degradation neutrality (LDN) could be political suicide.”

Moreover, she stressed that LDN remains a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target – under Goal 15 – and populations will experience real benefits in terms of climate change, rural employment and food security.

The Committee for the Review of Implementation of the Convention was established as a subsidiary body to the Conference of the Parties (COP). LDN will constitute a part within the CRIC15 Strategic Framework, under the Convention from 2018-2030. It is scheduled to be adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD next year.

“Ten billion people on Earth by 2050 will require food production to increase by 70 per cent, and that means expansion and exploitation of at least four million hectares of new land each year,” she said. However, there are only two billion hectares of degraded land at our disposal, 500 million of which can be restored, she added. In order to recover the ecosystems and feed the entire population, just 300 million hectares need to be restored.

“We would be able to sequester a significant amount of CO2 as well. It is the fastest and most cost-effective way to do so.” Ms. Barbut said.

Tackling impacts of land degradation vital to achieving Global Goals – senior UN treaty official

18 October 2016 (UN) – “Ignoring land degradation neutrality (LDN) could be political suicide,” said Monique Barbut, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), emphasizing the real benefits populations will feel in terms of climate change, rural employment and food security. LDN is one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the opening of the fifteenth session of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC15) being held in Nairobi, Barbut explained why LDN is so important.

CRIC, the Committee for the Review of Implementation of the Convention, was established by decision 1/COP 5, as a subsidiary body to the COP.  CRIC15 will consider LDN within the Strategic Framework that will guide action under the Convention from 2018-2030 and is set to be adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD next year.

“Ten billion people on earth by 2050 require food production to increase by 70%. That means expansion and exploitation of at least 4 million hectares of new land each year. But we have 2 billion hectares of degraded land out there, of which 500 million ha can be restored. If we restored just 300 million hectares of that, we would be able to recover lost ecosystems and feed the entire population.  We would be able to sequester a significant amount of CO2 as well.  It is the fastest and most cost-effective way to do so.” Barbut said. 

Over 100 countries have begun setting their own practical and ambitious LDN targets. Kenya who hosts CRIC15 is among them.

Opening the session, Charles Sunkuli, the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources announced, “In September, 2016 the country launched an ambitious land restoration programme targeting 5.1 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes for restoration by 2030.”

He underlined that the pressure on households to meet their immediate and urgent needs makes pushes them to prioritize the short term over long term interests and sustainable development. He said Kenya is working with the local and county governments in order to meet its targets to control land degradation, and other initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge.

Barbut also confirmed China is set to host the 13th session of the Conference of the Parties in Ordos, Inner Mongolia in 2017.

CRIC15 will be held in Nairobi until 20 October 2016. 

(Relevant links)

CRIC15 web page

Statement by the UNCCD Executive Secretary

Statement by the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Kenya

CRIC15 begins in Nairobi

Ivory trinkets. Photo: Kate Brooks / Redux

21 September 2016 (EIA) – UK Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom today announced plans for a ban on ‘modern day’ ivory sales, a move she claimed would put the country’s rules on ivory sales among the world’s toughest.

But the proposal outlined by the Government does not go nearly far enough and is effectively only a tightening of the present outdated regulations – the ivory trade in Britain will not be banned, nor even be further restricted.

Meanwhile, elephants throughout Africa will still be killed in their tens of thousands every year as domestic markets mask the illegal trade.

Other countries, including the US and France, have gone much further than the UK’s proposals and have enacted near-total bans on the ivory trade, despite survey data showing that 85 per cent of the British public supports a total ban.

The UK must pull its weight in global conservation efforts and close its domestic ivory market as well as voting in favour of a resolution to close all domestic ivory markets which will be tabled next week at the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in South Africa.

Reacting to the Environment Secretary’s statement, EIA Executive Director Mary Rice, in Johannesburg for CoP17, said: “Now is not the time for Britain to be shy in its global leadership. It’s time for a decisive announcement of substantive action at home and meaningful leadership on the global stage to ensure elephant populations are not wiped out across Africa.

“A ban on all ivory trade in the UK has been in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for some years now and it’s clear the British public wants the trade shut down. Botswana, which holds the world’s largest elephant population, announced this week that it wants to see a global ban on all international and domestic ivory markets – as clear a signal as could be wanted for all governments, including the UK, to follow.

“The evidence shows that the UK’s legal market provides cover for the illegal international trade, a wholly unacceptable state of affairs for a country which has shown strong leadership on elephant conservation over the last three years in particular.

“The only meaningful way the UK can stop contributing to the killing of elephants is to close its ivory market and in so doing show others the way forward.

“Elephants no longer have time for these kind of half-measures. It is to be hoped that the Government ultimately announces a far stronger and more meaningful commitment.”

UK’s ivory trade ‘ban’ just so much smoke and mirrors

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin declared 13 October 2016 to be "Oilfield Prayer Day". Photo: Michael Vadon / State of Oklahoma Executive Department

By Carla Hinton Published
14 October 2016

(NewsOK) – More than 400 people gathered Thursday to pray for the oil patch — Oklahoma's beleaguered energy industry, which is experiencing a downturn critically affecting the state's economy.

The sixth annual Oklahoma City Oilfield Prayer Breakfast at the Tower Hotel featured keynote speaker Harold Mathena, a retired oil and gas executive. The event was hosted by Oilfield Christian Fellowship in partnership with Oil Patch Chaplains, a ministry affiliate of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Max Holloway, interim director of Oilfield Christian Fellowship-Oklahoma City, acknowledged the upheaval caused by the energy industry downturn.

“There's a lot of pain and suffering going on in the industry right now and that affects almost everyone in this room,” he said, adding that prayer is powerful in troubling times.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of the breakfast was Gov. Mary Fallin's address to the crowd.

Fallin read her proclamation proclaiming Thursday as “Oilfield Prayer Day” in Oklahoma, noting that she may have given the prayer breakfast some “free press” when she created the official declaration.

She referred to the controversy that arose about the proclamation in the days leading up to the breakfast.

Fallin was criticized for the wording of the proclamation, which initially called for Christians to “thank God for the blessings created by the oil and natural gas industry and to seek His wisdom and ask for protection.”

Critics expressed disapproval of Fallin's decision to gear the proclamation to Christians. Some also said the proclamation was a violation of separation of church and state. [more]

Crowd gathers to pray for energy industry

Governor Mary Fallin has issued an Executive Proclamation designating 13 October 2016 as Oilfield Prayer Day. Graphic: Rob Hedrick

By Lorraine Chow
6 October 2016

(EcoWatch) – This is not us trying to be The Onion. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has officially proclaimed Oct. 13 "Oilfield Prayer Day" to raise awareness for the state's declining oil industry. Here's her official signed proclamation.

The document states:

"Whereas Oklahoma is blessed with an abundance of oil and natural gas; and … Christians acknowledge such natural resources are created by God … Christians are invited to thank God for the blessings created by the oil and natural gas industry and to seek His wisdom and ask for protection."

A series of "Praying for the Patch" breakfasts will take place in other cities before culminating at the sixth annual Oilfield Prayer Breakfast on Oct. 13 in downtown Oklahoma City, an event that Fallin has made preliminary plans to attend.

Tom Beddow, coordinator of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's Oil Patch Chaplains ministry, is one of the organizers of the Praying for the Patch initiative that was also created in partnership with the Oilfield Christian Fellowship.

The organizers have invited Oklahoma residents and churches to simultaneously pray for the state's energy industry, which directly or indirectly employs one-quarter of all job holders in the Sooner State. [more]

Oklahoma Governor Wants You to Pray for the Oil Industry (No Joke)

Ethane and propane trends at global monitoring sites. Mole fraction changes are indicated by the colour scale with marker size corresponding to the R2 of the fit multiplied by the fraction of available site data. Results from overlapping GGGRN flask and in situ measurements are shown in black. Graphic: Helmig, et al., 2016 / Nature Geoscience

By Jim Robbins
17 October 2016

(Yale e360) – For the last four years Jack Fishman, a professor of meteorology at St. Louis University, has guided the planting of five gardens in the Midwest, gardens that have a distinct purpose: to show the impacts of an invisible gas that is damaging and contributing to the premature death of forests, crops, and other plants — and also humans.

"The idea of the ozone garden is that it is a canary in the coal mine," said Fishman, who recently planted one of the gardens at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The snap beans, milkweed, coneflowers, and other plants that turn brown and sickly from exposure to ozone when it occurs at ground level, he said, are "natural bio-indicators showing this pollutant is harmful to anything that lives — a human, a squirrel, or plants. It's the only way to show the real-time impacts of something that's happening to our planet."

The ozone crisis may fly under the radar compared to climate change, but it is entwined with that mother of all problems. And it’s nothing new for Fishman. He began studying ground-level ozone for NASA in 1977 and has been warning about its impacts since the 1980s. Ozone is highly toxic, even at very low concentrations. Over the last few decades, background levels have steadily increased, though pollution controls have brought down the highest concentrations in many places. And while what scientists know about the effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth is deadly serious, the subject is not all that well-researched — and what they don't know is potentially disastrous. […]

A major and growing source of ozone in the United States is oil and gas fields. There are 1.5 million oil and gas wells in the U.S. and ethane, butane, methane, and propane are among the ozone precursors released from pipes, inadvertently and purposefully, by oil and gas companies. Over the last 40 years, ethane levels had dropped by 60 percent. But a study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Geoscience found that much of that drop had been reversed in the last five years by emissions from oil and gas wells. "If this rate continues, we are on track to return to the maximum ethane levels we saw in the 1970s in only about three more years," said Detlev Helmig, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and an author of the study. [more]

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning Of Harm to Plants and to People

Histories of atmospheric ethane. Reconstructed 1950–2010 ethane history from firn air sampling at NEEM in Greenland3 with 2009.5 mean seasonally detrended atmospheric values at five Arctic sites for comparison. Graphic: Helmig, et al., 2016 / Nature Geoscience

By Jim Scott
13 June 2016

(UC Boulder) – Global emissions of ethane, an air pollutant and greenhouse gas, are on the uptick again, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The team found that a steady decline of global ethane emissions following a peak in about 1970 ended between 2005 and 2010 in most of the Northern Hemisphere and has since reversed, said CU-Boulder Associate Research Professor Detlev Helmig, lead study author. Between 2009 and 2014, ethane emissions in the Northern Hemisphere increased by about 400,000 tons annually, the bulk of it from North American oil and gas activity, he said.

The decline of ethane and other non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC) starting around 1970 is believed to be primarily due to better emission controls, said Helmig. The controls resulted in reduced emissions from oil and gas production, storage and distribution, as well as combustion exhaust from cars and trucks.

“About 60 percent of the drop we saw in ethane levels over the past 40 years has already been made up in the past five years,” said Helmig. “If this rate continues, we are on track to return to the maximum ethane levels we saw in the 1970s in only about three more years. We rarely see changes in atmospheric gases that quickly or dramatically.”

Ethane, propane and a host of other NMHCs are released naturally by the seepage of fossil carbon deposits, volcanic activity and wildfires, said Helmig. But human activities, which also include biomass burning and industrial use, constitute the most dominant source of the NMHCs worldwide.

“These human sources make up roughly three-quarters of the atmospheric ethane that is being emitted,” said Helmig.

The air samples for the study were collected from more than 40 sites around the world, from Colorado and Greenland to Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand and the Earth’s polar regions. More than 30,000 soda bottle-sized air containers were sampled at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth Systems Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder over the past decade.

The study also showed that among the air sampling locations around the world, the largest increases in ethane and shorter-lived propane were seen over the central and eastern United States, areas of heavy oil and gas activity, said Helmig.

“We concluded that added emissions from U.S. oil and gas drilling have been the primary source for the atmospheric ethane trend reversal,” he said.

The study, published today in Nature Geoscience, also indicated that emissions of total NMHC in the Northern Hemisphere are now increasing by roughly 1.2 million tons annually.

The findings from the flask network, which INSTAAR and NOAA have been operating for more than 10 years, were supported by additional measurements showing very similar ethane behavior from a number of continuous global monitoring sites, he said.

A component of natural gas, ethane plays an important role in Earth’s atmosphere. As it breaks down near Earth’s surface it can create ground-based ozone pollution, a health and environmental risk.

Chemical models by the team show that the increase in ethane and other associated hydrocarbons will likely cause additional ground-based ozone production, particularly in the summer months, he said.

“Ethane is the second most significant hydrocarbon emitted from oil and gas after methane,” said Helmig. “Other studies show on average there is about 10 times as much methane being emitted by the oil and gas industry as ethane.”

There is high interest by scientists in methane since it is a strong greenhouse gas, said Helmig. The new findings on ethane increases indicate there should be more research on associated methane emissions.

Other CU-Boulder co-authors on the study included INSTAAR graduate student Samuel Rossabi and researcher Jacques Hueber. The paper also included scientists from NOAA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and institutes in Germany, England, Switzerland, Belgium and New Zealand.

Global ethane concentrations rising again, study finds

ABSTRACT: Non-methane hydrocarbons such as ethane are important precursors to tropospheric ozone and aerosols. Using data from a global surface network and atmospheric column observations we show that the steady decline in the ethane mole fraction that began in the 1970s1, 2, 3 halted between 2005 and 2010 in most of the Northern Hemisphere and has since reversed. We calculate a yearly increase in ethane emissions in the Northern Hemisphere of 0.42 (±0.19) Tg yr−1 between mid-2009 and mid-2014. The largest increases in ethane and the shorter-lived propane are seen over the central and eastern USA, with a spatial distribution that suggests North American oil and natural gas development as the primary source of increasing emissions. By including other co-emitted oil and natural gas non-methane hydrocarbons, we estimate a Northern Hemisphere total non-methane hydrocarbon yearly emission increase of 1.2 (±0.8) Tg yr−1. Atmospheric chemical transport modelling suggests that these emissions could augment summertime mean surface ozone by several nanomoles per mole near oil and natural gas production regions. Methane/ethane oil and natural gas emission ratios could suggest a significant increase in associated methane emissions; however, this increase is inconsistent with observed leak rates in production regions and changes in methane’s global isotopic ratio.

Reversal of global atmospheric ethane and propane trends largely due to US oil and natural gas production

A long-snouted boarfish swims among the giant kelp that once spread 250km along Tasmania's coast. Photo: Mick Baron / Mercury

By Karl Mathieson
16 October 2016

(Mercury) – It was one of the world’s great marine ecosystems. Stretching hundreds of kilometres along the eastern coastline of Australia, it provided shelter to a multitude of fish, algae and crustaceans and for many divers was considered a must-see spectacular. But this year a massive underwater heatwave smashed it into oblivion.

This is not the Great Barrier Reef, but its southern equivalent; an underwater jungle that in the middle of last century ran the length of Tasmania’s East Coast. The trees, often more than 30m tall, were Macrocystis pyrifera – giant kelp – the world’s largest seaweed.

Two weeks ago, Mick Baron, a dive operator and marine biologist, went to search for a patch on the inner coves of Munroe Bight at the extreme southern end of the East Coast. It was the last patch remaining of the great eastern forest that once choked the unbroken 250km stretch of coast from Eddystone Point to the Tasman Peninsula. But when Baron arrived an almighty storm had ripped the trees from the rocks below.

Baron has dived on the East Coast since the 1970s. Back then it was impossible to get a boat through the thick mats of canopy it left floating on the surface. “All those years ago it was everywhere. I mean, it was common as muck,” he says. “Now it’s just gone.” It has been an extraordinarily rapid decline. But unlike deforestation on land, these forests are neither being cut nor burnt. They are being starved.

The Australian arm of the huge gyre that moves water around the Pacific is the East Australian Current (well known to Finding Nemo fans as ‘the EAC dude’). Traditionally, it pushed warm water south along the coast of the mainland before turning east towards South America long before it hit Tasmania.

But in recent decades, something has gone awry. The warming global climate has discombobulated this once-reliable system. Huge eddies of “hot”, nutrient-poor water keep spinning down towards the Tasmanian coast.

Because of this, eastern Tasmania has some of the fastest-warming ocean water on Earth, rising at two to three times faster than the global average. Over the past two decades, says Baron, the ocean has been getting “more and more rapidly mad”. Tiger sharks, marlin and Queensland grouper have all been recorded in places where they have no right to be. This February, one tuna fisherman caught 500 southern bluefin before the normal season even began.

The current is bringing change, but it doesn’t carry the nitrogen the forests need to fuel their prodigious growth rate.

“You get a double-whammy for the giant kelp. They get stressed because of heat and they get nutrient-starved and that combination is lethal,” says Dr Thomas Wernberg from the University of Western Australia. [more]

TasWeekend: Tassie's disappearing underwater forests

Geothermal energy is converted into electricity and used to heat the Gourmet Mokai glasshouse in New Zealand which grows tomatoes and peppers. Photo: Evan Schneider / UN Photo

16 October 2016 (UN) – To mark World Food Day 2016, the United Nations is highlighting the close links between climate change, sustainable agriculture, and food and nutrition security, with the message: “The climate is changing. Food and agriculture must, too.”

“As the global population expands, we will need to satisfy an increasing demand for food,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message commemorating the Day.

“Yet, around the world, record-breaking temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent and severe droughts and floods caused by climate change are already affecting ecosystems, agriculture and society's ability to produce the food we need,” he added.

Mr. Ban pointed out that the most vulnerable people are world's poorest, 70 per cent of whom depend on subsistence farming, fishing or pastoralism for income and food.

“Without concerted action, millions more people could fall into poverty and hunger, threatening to reverse hard-won gains and placing in jeopardy our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” he emphasized.

According to the UN chief, agriculture and food systems must become more resilient, productive, inclusive and sustainable.

“To bolster food security in a changing climate,” he continued “countries must address food and agriculture in their climate action plans and invest more in rural development.”

The Secretary-General explained that targeted investments in those sectors would build resilience and increase the incomes and productivity of small farmers – lifting millions from poverty. “They will help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and safeguard the health and well-being of ecosystems and all people who depend on them, underscored Mr. Ban.

Next month, the historic Paris Agreement on climate change will enter into force – providing a much-needed boost to global efforts to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions, limit temperature rise and promote climate-compatible sustainable agriculture.

“On this World Food Day, I urge all Governments and their partners to take a holistic, collaborative and integrated approach to climate change, food security and equitable social and economic development,” stressed Mr. Ban.

“The well-being of this generation and those to come depends on the actions we take now. Only by working in partnership will we achieve a world of zero hunger and free from poverty, where all people can live in peace, prosperity, and dignity,” he concluded.

Food security and nutrition top international agenda

“Food is the most basic human right” said Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva at a dedicated special event Friday in Rome, “yet nearly 800 million people still suffer from hunger in the world.”

He noted that without food security and adequate nutrition for all, sustainable development simply could not be achieved, which is why the 2030 Agenda called for the eradication of hunger and all forms of malnutrition, as well as the promotion of sustainable agriculture.

“But these objectives are clearly at risk, as climate change advances,” he continued. “Droughts and floods are more frequent and intense. We have seen first-hand their terrible impacts in the past months, as El Niño hit Africa, Asia, and other parts such as the Dry Corridor of Central America. We have also just witnessed the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti,” he added.

Echoing the Secretary-General, the top FAO official, natural disasters and extreme weather events are more likely to happen – and yet more difficult to predict, with the poorest suffering most.

“The vast majority of them are small holders and family farmers that live in rural areas of developing countries,” elaborated Mr. da Silva. “They are the least equipped to deal with the threats. Even under normal circumstances, these people barely manage to survive,” he added.

Mr. Griaziano da Silva revealed that FAO would propose to its Council Session next December the establishment of a new Department on Climate Change. He also shared news that FAO had been accredited to the Green Climate Fund.

“We cannot allow the impacts of climate change to overshadow our vision of a world free of hunger and malnutrition, where food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all, especially the poorest,” he concluded. “No one can be left behind."

‘Climate change is not waiting. Neither can we’

Speaking at the event, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi linked the fight against hunger to politics. "Italy maintains that the fight for food security is, at this point in history, a question of politics with a capital 'P'," he said in an FAO COP22, said the talks would be "action-oriented" and geared towards implementing the Paris Agreement with a “special emphasis on adaptation, primarily for countries of the South and for small island States."

In a special message read out at the event, Pope Francis linked the impact of climate change to people migrating from rural areas of developing countries. "The most recent data tell us that the numbers of 'climate refugees' are growing, swelling the ranks of the excluded and forgotten, who are being marginalized from the great human family," the pontiff said.

For her part, Executive Director of the World Food Ertharin Cousin Programme (WFP) said that climate change was already stretching the international humanitarian system financially and operationally, “so moving beyond disaster relief to managing risk is an urgent task for all of us. Climate change is not waiting, neither can we."

UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate, Macharia Kamau, spoke about building stronger solidarity and better partnerships while Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) stressed the need to bolster rural smallholder producers against the impacts of climate change.

Agriculture must transform to feed a hotter, more crowded planet, UN says on World Food Day

How the proposed Carmichael coal mine project compares in size to Sydney, Australia. The mine will cover an area seven times the size of Sydney Harbour. Graphic: BBC News

[Interestingly, the Australian Government’s Reef 2050 Plan for restoring the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t once mention the Carmichael coal mine. –Des]

15 October 2015 (BBC News) – Australia's government has given its approval for one of the world's biggest coal mines to be built by India's Adani Mining in Queensland.

In August, a court temporarily blocked the project because of environmental concerns.

But the approval has now been granted subject to "36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history" environment minister Greg Hunt said.

Critics say the decision was "grossly irresponsible".

The approval was signed on Wednesday by Mr Hunt and follows a long running debate between those for and against the mine.

"I have the power to suspend or revoke the approval and strict penalties apply if there is a breach of the strict conditions," he said in a statement on Thursday.

First proposed in 2010, the Carmichael project is worth some A$16bn ($12bn; £8bn) and will dig up and transport about 60 million tonnes of coal a year for export, mostly to India.

The mine will cover an area seven times the size of Sydney Harbour. […]

However, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) spoke out against the approval of the mine and railway project.

"To approve a massive coal mine that would make species extinct, deplete 297 billion litres of precious groundwater, and produce 128.4 million tonnes of CO2 (carbon dioxide) a year is grossly irresponsible," said ACF president Geoff Cousins.

"At a time when the world is desperately seeking cleaner energy options this huge new coal mine will make the effort to combat climate change all the more difficult," he added. [more]

Australia approves controversial Carmichael coal mine

Map of the proposed Carmichael coal mine project in Queensland, Australia. The mine threatens the Great Barrer Reef. Graphic: BBC News

17 October 2016 (ACF) – After failing to listen to consistent calls for stronger emissions reduction targets and a credible set of climate policies, the Australian government this week found itself under growing international pressure to explain what it is doing to tackle climate change – and how we will meet even the modest targets set in Paris while we continue to approve new coal-fired power stations around Australia.

For a fortnight the federal government has been attacking state governments including South Australia, Victoria and Queensland on their renewable energy targets despite the fact that those states have targets that are much closer to what’s needed to meet our Paris commitments, and they will provide demonstrable economic and environmental benefits.

In Queensland for example, a draft report of an independent expert panel – Credible Pathways to a 50 per cent renewable energy target for Queensland delivered to the Queensland Government yesterday shows that their 50 per cent target by 2030 is not only achievable, but can be cost neutral and can provide around 6,700 full-time jobs between 2020 and 2030, while also reducing emissions.

Against this backdrop, the Turnbull government has come under fire after a new UN expert review [pdf] found that Australia’s carbon emissions will be 11.5 per cent higher in 2020 than they were in 1990.

The review also found that Australia’s industrial emissions – not counting those from forestry and land-clearing – were expected to rise 33.5 per cent over the three decades.

Australia also faced a barrage of questions from foreign governments on how it will achieve emissions reductions including from the USA, asking us what our longer term policies are to meet our 2030 targets, and from China on the impact that dropping carbon pricing has had and whether we are considering other mechanisms.

So just as the Prime Minister and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are out criticising the more ambitious efforts of their state counterparts, they are facing pressure from our most important strategic allies about dropping the ball on our own targets.

This so-called ‘emissions gap’ is making Australia an international embarrassment, Shadow Climate Change Minister Mark Butler said this week.

But the answer might be closer at hand than the government realises.

Labor and the Greens have joined forces to successfully push through an inquiry looking at ways to meet Australia’s climate targets – and namely to examine how best to close old polluting coal-fired power stations. This might yet prove to be a timely gift for a federal government feeling pressure from all sides over climate.

At present, Australia’s climate and energy policy is still lagging, as the government continues to ignore the biggest elephant in the room – the need to decarbonise our energy sector by phasing out coal. Australia is still in urgent need of a national plan for replacing coal-burning power plants with clean energy that ensures just transitions for workers and communities. If handled properly – this Inquiry should help to carve out a meaningful plan.

One of the key problems is that the majority (around 72 per cent) of Australia’s coal-burning plants are already well past their original design lifespan.

The average age of Australia’s coal-fired power stations is over 30 years. Old power stations create more pollution that is damaging to our health and climate, and their inefficiency makes them more expensive to run. Retirements are as unavoidable as they are necessary.

Without retiring coal-burning power plants that pollute the equivalent of 30 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions – it will be impossible for Australia to meet our commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.

But, as recent experience from South Australia and elsewhere shows, the closure of power stations will impact on local communities. Without a national plan for coal retirement the process will be unplanned, disorderly and much more disruptive.

This newly announced Inquiry into how best to close down Australia’s coal-fired power stations has the potential to get to the heart of the problem and help pave the way for the clean energy transition we need, while properly supporting affected workers.

This could provide a very helpful opportunity for the Turnbull government to move ahead with the task of shutting down Australia’s polluting old dinosaur power stations while properly supporting workers.

But given its recent record of resistance to state-based renewable energy targets and lack of credible climate policies – the Coalition will need to be dragged kicking and screaming before it pays proper heed to the Inquiry’s likely outcomes.

Good for the goose: Australia’s please explain on coal

Visitors take pictures of a glacier in the Kongsfjorden fjord from onboard the 'Polarsyssel', the ship of the Governor of Svalbard, in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, 20 September 2016. Picture taken 20 September 2016. Photo: Gwladys Fouche / REUTERS

[cf. As the world burns, the rich cruise in luxury through a melting Arctic]

By Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Toby Chopra
10 October 2016

SVALBARD, Norway (Reuters) – A surge in Arctic tourism is bringing ever bigger cruise ships to the formerly isolated, ice-bound region, prompting calls for a clamp-down to prevent Titanic-style accidents and the pollution of fragile eco-systems.

Arctic nations should consider limiting the size of vessels and ban the use of heavy fuel oil in the region, industry players said, after a first luxury cruise ship sailed safely through Canada's Northwest Passage this summer.

The route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic, was once clogged with icebergs but is now ice-free in summer due to global warming.

With a minimum ticket price of $19,755, the 1,700 passengers and crew on board the Crystal Serenity followed - in reverse - the route first navigated more than a century ago by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. They left Anchorage in Alaska on Aug. 15 and docked in New York on Sep. 16.

The ship's operator, Crystal Cruises, says on its website it will repeat the voyage in 2017. It declined a request for comment when contacted by Reuters.

Two shipping executives expressed concern that the one-off trip could become a trend, citing worries over safety, risks to the environment and the impact on small communities, in an area where there is no port between Anchorage and Nuuk, in Greenland.

"The Northwest Passage is thousands and thousands of nautical miles with absolutely nothing … There is a need to discuss possible regulation," said Tero Vauraste, the CEO of Arctia, a Finnish shipping firm specializing in icebreakers.

Were a ship to be in trouble in the Northwest Passage, there would be little authorities could do given the lack of infrastructure, he said. […]

Another concern is environmental. "Potentially, an accident involving a mega-ship could represent an environmental disaster," said Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten, a cruise ship operator in the Arctic and the Antarctic, whose biggest ships can accommodate 646 passengers.

Cruise ships usually use heavy oil, a type of fuel that takes longer to break down in the event of a spill. The Crystal Serenity did not use heavy oil during its trip, its operator has said.

"Heavy oil in cold conditions is sticky and takes much longer time to break down so it has a prolonged effect on the environment," said Marco Lambertini, director-general of World Wildlife Fund International.

"If something happens at the beginning of winter, no cleanup can be done. Oil can get trapped under the ice and travel for a hundred kilometers," he told Reuters. [more]

Uncharted waters: Mega-cruise ships sail the Arctic


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