Saturday, January 23, 2010

2009: Second Warmest Year on Record; End of Warmest Decade

From: NASA 

10-year average global temperature index 

The map shows temperature changes for the last decade—January 2000 to December 2009—relative to the 1951-1980 mean. Warmer areas are in red, cooler areas in blue. The largest temperature increases occurred in the Arctic and a portion of Antarctica. Credit: NASA
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graph of the land/ocean temperature index

Except for a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s, Earth's surface temperatures have increased since 1880. The last decade has brought the temperatures to the highest levels ever recorded. The graph shows global annual surface temperatures relative to 1951-1980 mean temperatures. As shown by the red line, long-term trends are more apparent when temperatures are averaged over a five year period. Image credit: NASA
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graph comparing hemispheric temperatures

As seen by the blue point farthest to the right on this graph, 2009 was the warmest year on record in the Southern Hemisphere. Image credit: NASA
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More Details….

2009 was tied for the second warmest year in the modern record, a new NASA analysis of global surface temperature shows. The analysis, conducted by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, also shows that in the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year since modern records began in 1880.

Although 2008 was the coolest year of the decade -- due to strong cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean -- 2009 saw a return to near-record global temperatures. The past year was only a fraction of a degree cooler than 2005, the warmest year on record, and tied with a cluster of other years -- 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007 -- as the second warmest year since recordkeeping began.

“There’s always an interest in the annual temperature numbers and on a given year’s ranking, but usually that misses the point,” said James Hansen, the director of GISS. “There's substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Niño-La Niña cycle. But when we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find that global warming is continuing unabated."

January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Throughout the last three decades, the GISS surface temperature record shows an upward trend of about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. Since 1880, the year that modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, though there was a leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s.

The near-record temperatures of 2009 occurred despite an unseasonably cool December in much of North America. High air pressures in the Arctic decreased the east-west flow of the jet stream, while also increasing its tendency to blow from north to south and draw cold air southward from the Arctic. This resulted in an unusual effect that caused frigid air from the Arctic to rush into North America and warmer mid-latitude air to shift toward the north.

"Of course, the contiguous 48 states cover only 1.5 percent of the world area, so the U.S. temperature does not affect the global temperature much,' said Hansen.

In total, average global temperatures have increased by about 0.8°C (1.4°F) since 1880.

“That’s the important number to keep in mind,” said Gavin Schmidt, another GISS climatologist. “In contrast, the difference between, say, the second and sixth warmest years is trivial since the known uncertainty -- or noise -- in the temperature measurement is larger than some of the differences between the warmest years."

Decoding the Temperature Record

Climate scientists agree that rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap incoming heat near the surface of the Earth and are the key factors causing the rise in temperatures since 1880, but these gases are not the only factors that can impact global temperatures.

Three others key factors -- including changes in the sun’s irradiance, oscillations of sea surface temperature in the tropics, and changes in aerosol levels -- can also cause slight increases or decreases in the planet's temperature. Overall, the evidence suggests that these effects are not enough to account for the global warming observed since 1880.

El Niño and La Niña are prime examples of how the oceans can affect global temperatures. They describe abnormally warm or cool sea surface temperatures in the South Pacific that are caused by changing ocean currents.

Global temperatures tend to decrease in the wake of La Niña, which occurs when upwelling cold water off the coast of Peru spreads westward in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. La Niña, which moderates the impact of greenhouse-gas driven warming, lingered during the early months of 2009 and gave way to the beginning of an El Niño phase in October that’s expected to continue in 2010.

An especially powerful El Niño cycle in 1998 is thought to have contributed to the unusually high temperatures that year, and Hansen’s group estimates that there’s a good chance 2010 will be the warmest year on record if the current El Niño persists. At most, scientists estimate that El Niño and La Niña can cause global temperatures to deviate by about 0.2°C (0.36°F).

Warmer surface temperatures also tend to occur during particularly active parts of the solar cycle, known as solar maximums, while slightly cooler temperatures occur during lulls in activity, called minimums.

A deep solar minimum has made sunspots a rarity in the last few years. Such lulls in solar activity, which can cause the total amount of energy given off by the sun to decrease by about a tenth of a percent, typically spur surface temperature to dip slightly. Overall, solar minimums and maximums are thought to produce no more than 0.1°C (0.18°F) of cooling or warming.

“In 2009, it was clear that even the deepest solar minimum in the period of satellite data hasn’t stopped global warming from continuing,” said Hansen.

Small particles in the atmosphere called aerosols can also affect the climate. Volcanoes are powerful sources of sulfate aerosols that counteract global warming by reflecting incoming solar radiation back into space. In the past, large eruptions at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines and El Chichón in Mexico have caused global dips in surface temperature of as much as 0.3°C (0.54°F). But volcanic eruptions in 2009 have not had a significant impact.

Meanwhile, other types of aerosols, often produced by burning fossil fuels, can change surface temperatures by either reflecting or absorbing incoming sunlight. Hansen’s group estimates that aerosols probably counteract about half of the warming produced by man-made greenhouse gases, but he cautions that better measurements of these elusive particles are needed.

Data Details

To conduct its analysis, GISS uses publicly available data from three sources: weather data from more than a thousand meteorological stations around the world; satellite observations of sea surface temperature; and Antarctic research station measurements. These three data sets are loaded into a computer program, which is available for public download from the GISS website. The program calculates trends in temperature anomalies -- not absolute temperatures — but changes relative to the average temperature for the same month during the period of 1951-1980.

Other research groups also track global temperature trends but use different analysis techniques. The Met Office Hadley Centre, based in the United Kingdom, uses similar input measurements as GISS, for example, but it omits large areas of the Arctic and Antarctic, where monitoring stations are sparse.

In contrast, the GISS analysis extrapolates data in those regions using information from the nearest available monitoring stations, and thus has more complete coverage of the polar areas. If GISS didn't extrapolate in this manner, the software that performs the analysis would assume that areas without monitoring stations warm at the same rate as the global mean, an assumption that doesn't line up with changes that satellites have observed in Arctic sea ice, Schmidt explained. Although the two methods produce slightly different results in the annual rankings, the decade-long trends in the two records are essentially identical.

"There's a contradiction between the results shown here and popular perceptions about climate trends," Hansen said. "In the last decade, global warming has not stopped."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Copenhagen is a disaster for Africa

Source: William Gumede,Guardian UK
Date: 22nd January, 2010

Climate change is frequently a matter of life and death for many Africans. From whatever angle you look at it, the climate change "deal" that was bulldozed through by rich nations at the Copenhagen climate conference was a disaster for Africa.

Compared with rich nations who dictated the terms of the "deal", African countries contribute the least to greenhouse emissions. However, they suffer the consequences the most. African nations will again disproportionally feel the pinch of this deal.

All the PR coming thick and fast from the architects of the Copenhagen deal will not ease the real life impact of climate change on Africa: water shortages, hunger and the possible disappearance of entire island states at risk of being submerged because of rising sea levels.

In September this year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation warned that poor crops, forced migration and conflict will drive millions more people to starvation across the continent. Food production has been plummeting across Africa because of increasingly irregular rainfall. In Uganda, this year the country will post its fourth successive poor harvest of first season crops. In countries such as Somalia, half of the population now depends on food aid.

Many nomadic peoples in East Africa are in a battle for survival because of increasingly severe and frequent droughts. New conflicts are arising in places such as Uganda, northern Kenya and Ethiopia, this time over access to increasingly rapidly diminishing water sources.

The World Bank, in its April 2009 report Sea-level rise and storm surges: a comparative analysis of impacts in developing countries, in which it compared population, economic and elevation maps to analyse countries most at risk from rising sea levels, identified 10 African countries as the most vulnerable to storm surges. Islands are particularly at risk: the Seychelles fear that they may lose 60% of their land because of rising sea levels.

In southwestern Uganda, temperatures have risen so much that there is now a real danger of the return of old pests such as malaria, and the outbreak of new ones. Staple crops such soya and cassava are at risk.

It is not surprising then that countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Ghana rejected the final Copenhagen conference document in the strongest terms possible. Lumumba Di-Aping, the lead Sudanese negotiator, said the deal was "devoid of any sense of responsibility or morality".

Many Africans were convinced the final text was cobbled together by rich nations long before the start of the conference. The role of Africans was to turn up, rubber-stamp it and then appear, smiling, next to leaders of the rich countries as props at the photo shoots later. This suspicion was confirmed at the start of the conference when a leaked Danish document proposed industrial nations cut fewer emissions, while the developing world should face tougher limits on greenhouse gases. This outraged African negotiators and activists such that many stormed out of the meeting room.

The final "deal", signed by 28 countries, kicked aside a UN-brokered deal that was more inclusive, financially more generous and more sensitive to the needs of African and developing countries – and which was backed by Africans. In Copenhagen, industrial nations have again successfully managed to divide African and developing countries, by co-opting the bigger developing countries, such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa, in private deals.

Such co-opting often starts with the demonising of these countries: those who insist on a fair deal are being mercilessly portrayed as stubborn obstacles in the march for a greener future, or as much to blame for global problems as industrial nations, and therefore should make the same compromises – and pay for it also. Of course, the big developing countries – China, India, Brazil and South Africa – are not blameless when it comes to polluting the earth.

Industrial nations also isolated certain African nations into allying with them, either by promising or withdrawing future aid. That is why Sudan and Ethiopia, among the African countries that stand to lose the most from this bad deal, were there among those signing the accord, although they afterwards attacked it as unfair.

African countries lack the money and access to technology – restricted by patent laws in industrial nations – to counter the effects of climate change, or to build green economies. The offer of $100bn a year by 2020 to be financed by governments and the private sector not only ridiculously lacks the detail, it is simply inadequate. The big fear among African nations is that the financial mathematics to finance the deal is all a con: industrial dangers will just transfer existing aid commitments to this fund, as they did before. It is not surprising that the deal is rather vague on just how the private sector is going to partially finance African and developing countries' efforts to overcome the effects of climate change – as it proposes.

It is imperative that African and developing countries understand that progressive efforts to tackle climate change in Africa and the developing world are unlikely to happen, unless there is also a parallel reform of the global political, trade and finance rules.

Yet Africans can take some good also from this climate talk failure. In spite of the divide-and-rule tactics of industrial nations, there are positive signs that African countries may yet be able to unite in seeking solutions to important global problems that affect them. Africans need such a genuine common union.

Civil society groups in these countries will have to provide the intellectual leadership that is lacking among the political leaders. The political leaders who led the African delegations, many of them ruling their own countries undemocratically, did their countries a disservice.

In African countries, civil society, together with ordinary citizens and communities, must keep the pressure on their leaders and hold them accountable. They must start national conversations in which their governments must account for what happened in Copenhagen, and how to rectify it.

In industrial countries, civil society organisations and individuals must expose their leaders' bullying of African countries to their citizens and unmask the blame-shifting (to developing countries) used by their leaders to cover up the bullying. A failed climate change deal is not only bad for citizens of African and developing countries – it is for industrial nations too.

Threat of rising seas looms over coastal Africa

Source: Reuters

Date: 22nd January

BIDJAN (Reuters) - Africans living on the coast, who face the loss of their cities, homes and livelihoods to rising seas, are less interested in haggling over greenhouse gas emissions than getting aid to move to higher ground

Speaking as talks on a global climate deal in Copenhagen ran into disagreements over how to share the burden of emissions cuts, some residents of low-lying coastal Africa said they had more pressing concerns.

"We want the authorities of the world powers to come and rescue the poor people from the sea," said Diakite Abdullaye, 46, looking over his shoulder at the ruins of a house he said had already been destroyed by the advancing ocean.

"If they can't stop the sea rising, then help us move somewhere else," said the resident of Ivory Coast's biggest city.

Rising sea levels caused by the melting of polar ice caps are seen by climate experts as largely unavoidable for centuries to come, even if substantial cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are made.

"Like a slowly boiling kettle, the oceanic system has very long response time to changing conditions and the seas will go on slowly rising for centuries even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow," wrote Mark Lynas, a British climate expert and author who advises the government of the Maldives.

The U.N.'s climate change panel in 2007 predicted global warming would raise sea levels by between 18 and 59 cm (7 and 24 inches) this century. Many climate scientists believe the estimate is conservative, and a rise of a meter or more is likely.

Either way, it could spell disaster for much of coastal Africa, especially densely populated tropical West Africa whose economic centers sprawl along the coast.

The United Nations estimates Africa has 320 coastal cities and about 56 million people living in "low lying" coastal zones, those less than 10 meters above mean sea level.


Some expects say sea levels have risen by about 20 cm since the start of the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe.

That is no surprise to residents of Abidjan's Port Bouet, where abandoned concrete shacks litter the beach. Some have lost their front walls. Scaffolding is all that remains of others.

"Twenty years ago the sea was far away from here," said Samassa Awa, 39, an unemployed nurse whose wooden shack has been flooded by the Atlantic many times. "You see all these destroyed houses? Many people fled but we decided to stay."

Poor planning and the haphazard construction of homes on reclaimed land subject to erosion has compounded the problem.

In Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, millions may have to move. The city is home to 15 million people spread over creeks and lagoons. The Lagos state government has been battling to reinforce the long sand spits that protect the mouth of the main lagoon from the Atlantic.

Gilbert Pandy, a resident of the Congolese capital Brazzaville, said advancing seas had washed away a village cemetery. "We are exposed to a disaster ... Sadly, no one cares," he said.

Africa's island paradises such as the Seychelles could be among the first to suffer.

Rolph Payet, an adviser to the government who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore for his work on climate change, told Reuters half of the Seychelles' islands were barely two meters above sea level.

"All of our infrastructure, telecommunications, fuel, ports, airports, are located on the coast," he said, adding that tourist resorts in outlying islands risked being submerged.

"The most frustrating thing is that we can do something. If an asteroid hits the planet, fine, we will all be doomed, but we are in a situation where we can actually solve the problem."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Global warming is devastating coral reefs, warns Bay zoologist

From: Weekend Post

BIG BLUE: New NMMU zoology academic Pierre Pistorius carries out coral reef research in the Seychelles where he discovered particularly devastating effects of global warming.

Nicky Willemse Weekend Post correspondent

THE devastating effects of global warming on some of Earth’s most pristine environments has been encountered face to face by a Bay zoologist who has described his alarming findings.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s newest zoology lecturer Dr Pierre Pistorius has lived and worked in some of the most unspoilt environments on earth in order to grasp the impact of environmental and ecological changes on animal populations.

His vast and varied research includes in-depth studies into the dwindling southern elephant seal populations on Marion Island, tracking reproduction changes in Norwegian moose, and monitoring coral reef resilience at the world’s largest raised atoll, Aldabra, in the Seychelles.

The latter, in particular, gave him chilling insight into the devastating effects of global warming. “I looked at the impact of coral bleaching, which is a fairly new phenomenon caused by increasing sea temperatures in the tropics.”

A rise of just half a degree can upset the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae, resulting in the expulsion of the algae and the death of the coral, and its gradual breakdown over two to three years.

“This has a cascading effect. Butterfly fish feed on the coral, while larger fish use the structure of the reef for shelter to hide from sharks. The result is that fish populations decline, which then impacts on subsistence fishermen in the area.

“It’s becoming a massive problem, especially in the Seychelles. In 1997, there was a massive bleaching event, resulting in the loss of almost 90% of coral around the inner granitic islands, and about 40% around the outer islands. The result is white, flat, dead reefs.” What is even more sobering is that even if the world halved its greenhouse emissions from today, coral reef degradation would still continue for the next 20 to 30 years. In fact, it is predicted that from 2050, coral bleaching will take place on an annual basis, with the tropics worst-affected.

Pistorius, who grew up in Pretoria, completed his BSc (zoology and entomology) at the University of Pietermaritzburg before moving to the University of Pretoria to complete his BSc Hons (entomology).

Pretoria University’s Mammal Research Institute then offered him an opportunity to go to Marion Island to look at the reasons for the long-term population decline of southern elephant seals – and he made this the subject of his master’s and doctoral studies. “From the 1950s to the 1990s, the population has declined by 90%.”

Pistorius found this was largely because adult females had a very low survival rate and food limitation, a likely result of large-scale oceanographic changes, was ultimately related to the decline.

After his PhD, he joined Pretoria University’s Conservation Ecology Research Unit, and spent six months working on environmental management at a game farm near the Bushmans River. He then received an invitation to work for the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research as a research biologist.

He tracked reproductive changes of Norwegian moose over latitudinal shifts, spent much time modelling geese populations (Norway’s popular hunting birds) to help the country set sustainable shooting quotas, and studied the changes in phenology (periodic life cycle events influenced by climate variation) of migratory birds associated with increasing spring temperatures.

After returning to South Africa, Pistorius applied for a two-year contract as chief research officer on Aldabra, where, apart from his studies into coral reef resilience, he initiated several other long-term research projects.

His most recent trip was to the Falkland Islands, which has the world’s largest populations of black-browed albatrosses, Gentoo penguins and rockhopper penguins. There, he monitored the changing numbers of these sea birds for the NGO Falkland Conservation

Keen to translate his many years of practical experience into academic research, Pistorius joined NMMU’s zoology faculty in October. He is continuing with several projects in the Falkland Islands and Aldabra, and is in the process of setting up projects in South Africa.

“It’s not just climate change that influences populations – however it is increasing, and fast becoming an umbrella factor in terms of its importance and relevance.”