News items, either Eurbanlab related or general news about sustainable urban development.

A harder rain’s a-gonna fall in the US

Ever-heavier downpours threaten mainland America with harder rain as a consequence of global warming. US cities need to be ready.

LONDON, 11 December, 2017 – For the US, harder rain is on the way: America’s summer thunderstorms are about to get stormier. Later this century, the notorious mesoscale convective storms of middle America will not just darken US skies: they will dump as much as 80% more water  on the farms, highways and cities of the 48 contiguous states.

Mesoscale thunderstorms cover an area of around 100 kilometres: these have been on the increase, both in frequency and intensity, in the last 35 years and new research suggests that, as the world warms, their frequency could triple.

“The combination of more intense rainfall and the spreading of heavy rainfall over larger areas means that we will face a higher flood risk than previously predicted,” said Andreas Prein, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US, who led the study.

“If a whole catchment area gets hammered by high rain rates, that creates a much more serious situation than a thunderstorm dropping intense rain over parts of the catchment. This implies that the flood guidelines which are used in planning and building infrastructure are probably too conservative.”

Thunderstorms already cost the US around $20bn a year in flash floods, landslides, debris flows, high winds and hail. Dr Prein and his colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that what they call “observed extreme daily precipitation” increased in all parts of the US from 1958 to 2012: that is because rising temperatures mean more evaporation, and at the same time a greater atmospheric capacity for moisture.

“The floods of the future are likely to be much greater than what our current infrastructure is designed for”

US President Donald Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in global warming and has promised to withdraw the US from the global climate pact agreed by 197 nations in Paris in 2015.

But research, much of it from US government agencies, suggests that climate change is happening anyway, and that US cities are at risk. The latest computer simulations suggest that the number of extreme summer storms in some parts of the US could have increased fivefold by the century’s end.

Even the eastern seaboard could be hit: intense storms over an area the size of New York City could drop 60% more rain than the heaviest now. And this could add up to six times the annual discharge of the Hudson River.

The finding should come as no great surprise. Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change, driven by global warming as a consequence of the profligate combustion of fossil fuels that dump ever greater levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, could bring ever greater extremes of heat and rain.

More Harveys

Recent research has predicted that the kind of rainfall delivered by Hurricane Harvey over Houston in Texas could become much more frequent, and Atlantic communities are more likely to be pounded by hurricanes and superstorms.

Other long-term studies have predicted that coastal flooding could create a new class of climate refugees, within America itself. The latest study is a reminder that civic authorities, and the administration itself, need to prepare.

“This is a warning signal that says the floods of the future are likely to be much greater than what our current infrastructure is designed for,” Dr Prein said.

“If you have a slow-moving storm system that aligns over a densely populated area, the result can be devastating, as could be seen in the impact of Hurricane Harvey on Houston.” – Climate News Network

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Hotter world than predicted may be here by 2100

A hotter world could be on the way, unless nations act. That’s because the gloomiest predictions may not have been gloomy enough.

 

LONDON, 8 December, 2017 – Tomorrow may experience a hotter world than anyone had feared. Global warming, under the notorious “business-as-usual scenario” in which humans go on burning fossil fuels to power economic growth, could by 2100 be at least 15% warmer than the worst UN projections so far. And the spread of uncertainty in such gloomy forecasts has been narrowed as well.

Climate scientists had worked on the assumption that there was a 62% chance that the world would have warmed on average by more than 4°C if no action was taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But a new study has not only raised the stakes, it has narrowed the uncertainty. There is now a 93% chance that global warming will – once again, under the business-as-usual scenario – exceed 4°C by 2100.

And since, in Paris in 2015, the world’s nations met and agreed to keep overall global warming to “well below” 2°C,  even that figure represents “dangerous” global warming.  One degree higher would count as “catastrophic”. And a rise of beyond 5°C would deliver the world into an unknown and unpredictable period of change.

“If emissions follow a commonly-used business-as-usual scenario, there is a 93% chance that global warming will exceed 4°C by the end of this century”

Two US scientists report in the journal Nature that they went back to the climate models used as the basis for forecasts made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and then matched the reasoning against observations.

In particular, they looked again at seasonal and monthly variability in climate and the latest thinking about energy use, and carbon dioxide emissions, and their impact on temperatures.

There has always been an argument about the long-term accuracy of climate models and what they can usefully predict about the real world by the century’s end. If anything, the new results suggest that tomorrow’s reality could be even worse.

“Our results suggest that it doesn’t make sense to dismiss the most-severe global warming projections based on the fact that climate models are imperfect in their simulation of the current climate,” said Patrick Brown, of the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in California.

Deeper cuts

“On the contrary, we are showing that model shortcomings can be used to dismiss the least severe predictions.”

And, the authors warn: “Our results suggest that achieving any given global temperature stabilisation target will require steeper greenhouse gas emissions reduction than previously calculated.”

Climate models are only as good as the climate data on which they are based, and one source of uncertainty has been the effect of warming on cloud formation: a warmer world means more evaporation, which could mean more warmth is trapped in the atmosphere – or it could mean more clouds, which reflect more solar radiation back into space.

For decades, researchers have tried to calculate with precision the links between ratios of greenhouse gases released from the combustion of coal, natural gas and oil, and shifts in average planetary temperature.

Simpler evidence

One of the Carnegie authors, Ken Caldeira of the Institution’s global ecology lab, has so far calculated the rate at which carbon dioxide sets about warming the atmosphere, and the capacity of greenhouse gases to go on warming the world for millennia.

The latest conclusions have been based on simpler evidence: the accuracy with which their forecast models can “predict” the recent past.

Professor Caldeira said: “It makes sense that the models that do the best job at simulating today’s observations might be the models with the most reliable predictions.

“Our study indicates that if emissions follow a commonly-used business-as-usual scenario, there is a 93% chance that global warming will exceed 4°C by the end of this century. Previous studies have put this likelihood at 62%.” –  Climate News Network

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Shell’s green plan underwhelms critics

Shareholder intervention has helped to produce Shell’s green plan, a way to cut the energy giant’s climate impact. But questions remain.

LONDON, 7 December, 2017 – A leading producer of fossil fuels, which last month  announced its intention to reduce its contribution to the global warming stoked by society’s prodigal consumption of its products, may now be feeling a little crestfallen. Shell’s green plan leaves some critics saying the group’s figures don’t add up very impressively.

Royal Dutch Shell pledged last month to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2035 and 50% by 2050, while investing US$1-2 billion per year in renewables, and electric vehicles between 2018 and 2020. 

The group said its announcement was a response to shareholder pressure and the targets in the Paris Agreement on cutting emissions. 

“Tackling climate change is a cross-generational, global, and multi-faceted effort,” said CEO Ben van Beurden. “This is a challenge for the whole planet, for all of society, for customers, for governments, and indeed for businesses.

“It will mean meeting increasing energy demand with an ever-lower carbon footprint. And it is critical that our ambition covers the full energy life cycle, from production to consumption. We are committed to play our part.’’

“Thousands of internal company documents and witness statements…pointed to the Anglo-Dutch organisation’s alleged involvement in the brutal campaign to silence protesters”

The announcement earned measured praise from environmental groups, and van Beurden said the commitment was just a first step. But the cash infusion to Shell’s new energies division was still well below 10% of the company’s total annual investment, and the phrasing of the GHG promise suggested an intensity-based target – which would mean the 20 and 50% reductions will be calculated on fossil production levels that Shell will expect to increase year after year.

“Shell will continue to target opportunities in new fuels and power, two businesses adjacent to its downstream and gas businesses that play to Shell’s existing strengths in brand and value chain integration,” industry publication JWN Energy noted.  

“Integrated gas, conventional oil and gas, and oil products are currently cash engines; deep water and chemicals are growth priorities; shales and new energies are emerging opportunities.

“Illustrating the dynamic nature of the company’s portfolio, the intention is for deep water to have become a cash engine by 2020, and shales to have become a growth priority by 2020.

What commitment?

This might explain van Beurden’s carefully-worded commitment to “bring down the net footprint of our energy products (expressed in grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule consumed) by around half by 2050”, in a letter to Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Climate Change Convention.

“As an interim goal, we aim to reduce it by around 20% by 2035 – an ambition that we believe is compatible with a 2°C roadmap.”

That language either implied something bad or something worse about the actual, tangible carbon reductions Shell is setting out to achieve. “CO2 equivalent per megajoule” means emissions still grow in step with the company’s production volume, so that the percent commitment is applied to a higher initial output.

“This ambition includes emissions direct from Shell operations, emissions caused by third parties who supply energy for that production, and emissions caused by the use of our products by consumers, as well as activities that reduce or offset C02 emissions,” van Beurden continued.

Product impact

But if “CO2 equivalent per megajoule consumed” means Shell’s ambition is limited to its production emissions – the energy it consumes to produce fossil fuels – it means it’s still ducking responsibility for the climate-busting impact of the product itself.

That would be like a tobacco company using only the best air filters to keep its workplace safe, the better to manufacture products that lead to a horrible, lingering death when used as directed.

While “it would be unwise to commit to an exact mix of measures to get to our ambition” at such an early stage in the transition, he said key elements of Shell’s plan would include biofuels and hydrogen, growth in electric vehicle charging points, development of natural gas markets for power and transport, renewable power from solar and wind, and carbon capture and storage.

The target received a thumbs-up from Dutch activist shareholder group Follow This. “We applaud Shell’s ambitious decision to take leadership in achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2.0°C,” said founder Mark van Baal.

Dan Becker, director of the Washington-based Safe Climate Campaign, said the promise puts Shell “ahead of their competitors in recognising that the days of oil dependence are numbered”, although “we’ll have to make progress a lot more quickly than they are projecting in order to protect the climate.”

Timing riddle

Earlier this year, Shell earned headlines with a proposal to tie 10% of executive bonuses to greenhouse gas reductions. “This is a good move by the company but we would like to see more,” Bruce Duguid, stewardship director at Hermes Investment Management, said at the time. 

Some critics also pointed to a strange coincidence of timing that had Shell releasing its new carbon targets on the day that Amnesty International called for a criminal investigation of the company’s alleged complicity in human rights abuses by the Nigerian military in the 1990s.

Amnesty’s review of “thousands of internal company documents and witness statements…pointed to the Anglo-Dutch organisation’s alleged involvement in the brutal campaign to silence protesters in the oil-producing Ogoniland region,” the Guardian reported

“Amnesty is urging the UK, Nigeria, and the Netherlands to consider a criminal case against Shell in light of evidence it claims amounts to ‘complicity in murder, rape, and torture’ – allegations Shell strongly denies.” – Climate News Network

 

Republished by permission from The Energy Mix, a thrice-weekly e-digest on climate, energy and post-carbon solutions.

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Brasilia pays UK to exploit Brazilian oil fields

British companies targeting Brazilian oil deposits stand to benefit from massive tax relief offered by Brazil itself, despite its own recession.

SÃO PAULO, 6 December, 2017 – Over 120 NGOs and indigenous organisations have protested at a US$300 billion tax relief offer to help UK companies seeking to drill for Brazilian oil in offshore deposits

In a letter to the speaker of the lower house of the Brazilian parliament just before it approved the first stage of the proposal, they said the drilling would “expose the world to unacceptable climate risks” and cause unacceptable costs to the Brazilian economy, which is already facing crisis and imposing austerity cuts in basic services.

The companies plan to drill in what is called the pre-salt region, an oil-bearing rock formation in deep water offshore. 

Its name derives from its antiquity; the region’s layers of rock were laid down about 160 million years ago and then covered by later layers which do contain salt. The Brazilian energy multi-national Petrobras describes the pre-salt product as “excellent quality, high commercial value light oil”.

The bill before parliament offers the oil companies tax relief until 2040. After heated debate, it was passed late at night, by 208 votes to 184. It is being rushed through congress at the very end of the parliamentary year; a vote on the final stage is due on 6 December.   

Targets flouted

If approved, the bill would wreck Brazil’s Paris Agreement targets to reduce carbon emissions. The known reserves of pre-salt oil are estimated at 176 billion barrels, which, if burned, would release 74.8 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. 

“This is equivalent to almost 18% of everything humanity can still release into the air to meet the most ambitious Paris target of stabilising warming at 1.5°C”, the NGOs write.

They point out that a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C will have dramatic consequences, not only for island nations which will be swamped by rising sea levels, but also for the drought-prone Brazilian north-east and for coastal cities like Rio de Janeiro.

British oil companies will be the main beneficiaries of this largesse with Brazilian taxpayers’ money – BP, Shell and Premier Oil, which successfully bid for licences to drill in the pre-salt area. 

“This is equivalent to almost 18% of everything humanity can still release into the air to meet the most ambitious Paris target of stabilising warming at 1.5°C”

Greenpeace says it has discovered information showing that the UK government actively lobbied on the companies’ behalf during a visit to Brazil by the British international trade minister Greg Hands in March, ostensibly to open a UK trade fair. 

After meeting the oil companies, it says, Hands put their concerns to Paulo Pedrosa, Brazil’s deputy minister for mining and energy.

Soon after, Shell and a consortium including BP were given three oil licences, and the Brazilian government decided to reduce its “local content requirements” – regulations that oblige companies to hire local workers and use local goods, to try to boost the economy of developing countries and regions.

Opposition congressman Carlos Zarattini said that, under pressure from the UK, the government of President Michel Temer had altered tax rules, environmental safeguards and the requirement for Brazilian content in equipment and labour. Zeroing taxes on the import of vessels, he said, could cause the collapse of Brazilian shipyards.

The NGOs suspect the Brazilian government’s intention is to exploit the countrys oil reserves as much as possible before the world moves inexorably to a low carbon economy. 

Precautionary principle

With the growing movement in favour of leaving-it-in-the-ground, they calculate there could be fierce  competition by oil-rich nations to sell off their reserves. By offering generous incentives to exploit the deep sea pre-salt reserves, Brazil hopes to get ahead of the game. 

And it is not only the pre-salt area which interests the oil companies. BP is also bidding to drill in the mouth of the Amazon, even after alerts that the blocks on offer are very near a coral reef and in a region with many species threatened by extinction, and with possibly several new species as well.

At recent public meetings in towns near the proposed exploration, a BP spokesman insisted the company had learned a lot from its experience in the Gulf of Mexico.

Greenpeace oil specialist Thiago Almeida, who was present at the meetings, suggested that in view of the scant knowledge available on the region, the precautionary principle should be applied, and BP should abandon its plans and stay away from the Amazon estuary. Climate News Network

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London’s great smog prompts link with Delhi

The UK has cleaner air than in 1952 when the great smog of London descended on the capital – but not yet clean enough for thousands.

LONDON, 5 December, 2017 – For Londoners approaching the mellowness of old age, today may bring back some poignant memories: the lethal great smog of London blanketed the UK capital exactly 65 years ago, bringing death to thousands of people. Now,  nearly a lifetime later, air pollution is still sending large numbers of Londoners and other Britons to an early grave.

The great smog lasted from 5 to 9 December 1952. The UK Met Office records: “The smoke-like pollution was so toxic it was even reported to have choked cows to death in the fields. It was so thick it brought road, air and rail transport to a virtual standstill.” On the Isle of Dogs, in London’s Docklands, people could not see their feet for the fog.

To remember the victims of air pollution and to stimulate ideas and action to improve modern air quality a British group, the New Weather Institute, is launching a scheme today in London.

It starts with an act of remembrance in one of central London’s most polluted spots, close to the River Thames, with the laying of a wreath of black flowers, symbolising the pollution that penetrates into people’s lungs.

But the initiative is not just about 1952, nor solely about the United Kingdom. It is a reminder that lethal air quality persists, 65 years on, in many parts of the world, causing an estimated 6.5 million premature deaths annually. 

“Lots of things in life we have choices about. Breathing isn’t one of them”

After the wreath-laying the organisers will establish a video link with Delhi, the city which has possibly the world’s worst air quality, with local people reporting on conditions there. On 3 December a cricket match in the city between India and Sri Lanka was repeatedly halted as players said they were vomiting continuously because of dangerous levels of pollution. 

The event also sees the launch of a website, Clear the air – a tale of two cities, which tells the stories and hopes of people living parallel lives in London and Delhi for whom air pollution is inescapable. It includes people who work on the street in both cities, those who drive taxis, are runners, work professionally to tackle air pollution, and those who live with its health consequences. 

Over 4,000 people are thought to have died in London’s 1952 smog. By today 8,700 people in London will have died prematurely in 2017 because of major air pollutants, with more than one person an hour dying before their time. Globally, premature deaths linked to air pollution are estimated to be more than 12 per minute, or about one every five seconds.

People are also being invited to share their experiences of air pollution on social media with the hashtag #SmogDay – because for some, the New Weather Institute says, pollution in cities is a problem that never goes away.

Ending the air pollution that causes early death and makes the lives of millions much more difficult will also tackle the emissions that lead to climate change, the Institute stresses.

Visibility problem

This is a time of year when swathes of the most populated parts of the planet suffer choking pollution. But despite the clouds of smog, it says, too often this is an invisible problem. And even when it is in clear sight, finding reasons not to act is often easy.

Another Asian capital with an unenviable record for its pollution levels is Beijing, although it does not reach Delhi’s saturation. For Beijing, separating cause and effect in the relationship between climate change and air quality is not straightforward.

At the UN HQ in New York 193 countries are involved in negotiating a series of resolutions on pollution, and cities everywhere are being encouraged to be part of UN Environment’s BreatheLife campaign to improve urban air quality.

The great smog of 1952 led to UK legislation on clean air. But campaigners insist that that now needs updating, with a right to clean air enshrined in law. 

“Lots of things in life we have choices about. Breathing isn’t one of them,” says the New Weather Institute. “We hope Smog Day becomes an annual day which helps keep the issue visible for the whole year.” – Climate News Network

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Mixed forests may not resist climate change

Variety is not just life’s spice, but its support system. But it may not be so simple for mixed forests, researchers say.

LONDON, 4 December, 2017 – German researchers have confirmed once again that a good forest is a mixed forest, a natural one, with a diversity of species. The more diverse the forest, the better it becomes at doing what forests do.

Forests with a greater number of species grow at a faster rate, store more carbon, and are more resistant to pests and diseases, according to a six-nation study of European woodlands.

But this safety-in-species-numbers approach may not offer quite the protection against climate change and its consequences that such a finding should predict. A second study by European researchers suggests that when conditions become extremely wet, or extremely dry, diversity may not confer automatic resilience.

The message is that healthy, diverse, natural forest systems remain important buffers against climate change – but also that climate extremes could diminish the capacity of the forest to absorb carbon and limit global warming.

At the heart of both studies is a deeper concern about the response of the natural world to human-induced change, in the destruction of habitat, the loss of the plants, birds, insects, mammals, amphibians and reptiles that depend on habitat, and in the steady increase in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, as a consequence of profligate combustion of fossil fuels.

“There are numerous and non-trivial exceptions to the purported general rule that biodiversity increases stability”

Repeated studies have confirmed that the world’s forests are under threat. Repeated studies have confirmed that in overall rewards for humanity, undisturbed natural forests deliver a greater economic return. And repeated studies have confirmed that rising global temperatures offer a threat to plant diversity around the planet in general and to Europe in particular.

Researchers at the Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Germany report in the journal Ecology Letters that they selected plots of forest in Germany, Finland, Poland, Romania, Italy and Spain.

Within these plots the numbers of species varied: there might be one species, or five. The German plot, for example was home to beech, oak, Norway spruce, birch and hornbeam.

The scientists then measured 26 functions in these plots that could answer questions about nutrients, carbon cycles, growth and resilience and forest regeneration. Those stands of timber with more species grew faster and withstood pests and disease assault better than those with fewer.

Christian Wirth, who directs the centre, and heads the department for systematic botany at Leipzig University, said: “Our summers will be drier and longer as a result of climate change. We are therefore presuming that in future, it will be even more important to manage forests in a way that they have a high diversity of tree species.”

Mixed answer

But a study in the Journal of Ecology suggests that the answer may not be so simple.

Researchers led by Hans de Boeck from the University of Antwerp report that they looked at a wide range of studies of what scientists call ecosystem stability and biodiversity during climate extremes – that is, unusual heat, drought or flooding.

The answer, they found, was mixed. A greater range of diversity in an ecosystem seemed to speed up recovery after an extreme climatic event, but if the event was extreme enough biodiversity alone might not offer much protection.

The relationship between diversity and resistance wasn’t always obvious. Researchers, the scientists suggest, have more questions to resolve.

In the stilted language of sciencespeak, the researchers conclude that “there are numerous and non-trivial exceptions to the purported general rule that biodiversity increases stability. This raises the question of whether existing concepts of biodiversity-stability derived from the context of mild fluctuations are readily transposable to extreme events.” – Climate News Network

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Vulnerable infrastructure at risk from climate

Damage to vulnerable infrastructure caused by climate hazards could triple by the 2020s and rise over ten-fold by the end of the century.

LONDON, 1 December, 2017 – Europeans need to prepare for an increasingly risky century because of the growing impact of climate change on vulnerable infrastructure, scientists say.

The risks they see ahead are not those usually associated directly with rising temperatures. What they are concerned about is the fragility of the physical structures and systems that keep industrial societies running – the infrastructure of roads and railways, power plants, industry, water supplies, schools and hospitals – in the teeth of the increasing ferocity of extreme weather.

Over the past three decades, most natural disasters (90%) have been caused by climate-related events, they say, and extreme climatic events are likely to become more frequent because of global warming.

Much of the harm these events cause in Europe comes from physical damage to its industrial life support system, as the global average temperature continues to rise as a consequence of warming driven by ever higher greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, in response to the profligate global consumption of fossil fuels.

The study finds that Europe will be a continent of two halves, with the southern and south-eastern regions hit hardest, because of increasing droughts and heatwaves.

An analysis led by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and published in the journal Global Environment Change says that damage by one or more climate-related hazards to this infrastructure is likely to grow between now and 2100.

The study is by no means the first warning Europe has been given about the probable impact of climate change. But the JRC says the analysis provides for the first time an estimate of the expected financial damage to the continent’s critical infrastructure caused by such hazards. It focuses on seven of these hazards: heat and cold waves, river and coastal floods, droughts, wildfires, and windstorms.

Its results show that Europe will face a continuous and ever-sharper increase in damage in the coming decades. The expected annual damage today is €3.4 billion per year (US$4.05bn) for the EU+ (EU28 plus Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland), but is projected to be almost three times higher (about €9.3bn) as early as the 2020s, €19.6bn by the 2050s and by the 2080s ten times bigger – €37.0bn. All of this, the authors say, will result solely from the effects of climate change.

Energy and transport

They expect economic losses to be highest for energy and transport, rising from today’s €0.5bn for the energy sector to €8.2bn by the 2080s. For transport, the current annual expected damage of €0.8bn is likely, on present trends, to reach €11.9bn by the end of the century.

The study finds that Europe will be a continent of two halves, with the southern and south-eastern regions hit hardest, because of increasing droughts and heatwaves.

River and coastal floods will remain the most critical hazard in many floodplains and coastal stretches of western, central, and eastern Europe, the study says, including the British Isles, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, and northern coastlines of the Iberian peninsula.

Unequal impact

For Europe as a whole, the damage caused by climate hazards to infrastructure rises progressively, from 0.12% of the current gross net investment in fixed capital assets to 1.37% by the end of this century. For northern Europe the expected damage corresponds to less than 1% of annual investments, but in southern European countries it is far higher, with Greece reaching 4.43% and Croatia 5.21%.

The damage estimates suggest that future infrastructure projects with a long lifespan may need a substantial additional upfront investment in order to ensure life-long resilience to climate hazards. Standards currently used for designing and building infrastructure are being revised by the three European Standardisation Organisations.

The JRC says it hopes the study’s findings could help countries to set priorities for regional investments that address the unequal burden of impacts and the differences in adaptation capacities across Europe.– Climate News Network

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Subsiding soils may sink southern Spain

When the heat is on, ground shrinkage means subsiding soils. Sustained drought could cause structural problems in parts of Spain.

LONDON, 29 November, 2017 – Some citizens of the Granada region of south-eastern Spain have that sinking feeling, thanks to their subsiding soils. They are going down in the world.

Researchers who have checked data from three satellites confirm that the land on which they live is subsiding at the rate of a centimetre a year in times of drought.

At the same time, the scientists have monitored extraction of groundwater from the aquifer beneath the Granada basin – the Vega de Granada – to find that water uptake could be matched with the slow collapse of the clays and soils in parts of the river basin.

And the finding has been confirmed by study of 50 years of ground explorations and the presence of cracks in the streets and pavements in at least one municipality. The region suffered sustained drought from 2003 to 2009. During the rainiest period between 2011 and 2014, the evidence of subsidence vanished.

“These data are of enormous interest for an adequate management of the aquifer, especially during periods of drought, such as the one we are currently experiencing”

The study, led by José Miguel Azañón of the University of Granada and Rosa Maria Mateos from the Spanish Geological Survey, published in the Journal of Hydrology, is based on data that the authors say “are not alarming, and do not imply any risk at the moment.

“These data are of enormous interest for an adequate management of the aquifer, especially during periods of drought, such as the one we are currently experiencing.”

The authors present the study as a test of Europe’s earth observation satellite Sentinel-1 and its ability to deliver radar measurements to accuracies of millimetres.

But there is also an implication that sustained drought could one day deliver hazard.

That is because heat waves and drought could become the new normal for southern Spain in a world in which climate change follows global warming driven by profligate consumption of fossil fuels.

Researchers have warned that parts of Europe could by 2020 experience twice the number of extremes of heat, and that by 2040 these could have quadrupled. Longer-term studies suggest that temperatures could become dangerously high for southern Europe, in effect bringing the Sahara across the Mediterranean

Practical concerns

And there have already been concerns about the impact of heat and drought upon agriculture in the Iberian peninsula, including the cork oak forests of the region.

So the response of local water-bearing rocks and clays – hydrologists call this the phreatic level – to extremes of flood or drought is a matter of intense practical interest to local authorities, town planners, home buyers, builders and the insurance industry.

If a whole village sinks at a uniform rate, nobody will notice. If subsidence happens in some streets or zones but not others, cracks begin to appear.

“In very vulnerable areas, with high content of clays, decreases of just a couple of metres in the phreatic level could cause subsidence. An accumulation of displacements could lead to a subsidence of several centimetres per decade, which would present a long-term danger for the villages located in the Vega de Granada area,” the authors say. – Climate News Network

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Warming pause isn’t over: it never began

The puzzle of the warming pause that stopped continues to perplex. Scientists now think the global climate hiatus never started anyway.

LONDON, 28 November, 2017 – Just weeks after one group of scientists officially declared an end to the global warming pause, the so-called hiatus, another group has returned to the argument.

They argue that there never was a pause in global warming. There was instead a global misperception that warming slowed between 1998 and 2012, but only because of gaps in the data, in particular from the Arctic, the fastest-warming region of the planet.

“We recalculated the average global temperatures from 1998 to 2012 and found that the rate of global warming had continued to rise at 0.112°C per decade instead of slowing down to 0.05°C per decade as previously thought,” said Xiangdong Zhang, of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

He and colleagues report in the journal Nature Climate Change that their new estimates suggest that the Arctic had warmed by more than six times the global average during the first dozen or so years of this century.

The argument about the apparent slowdown in the rate of increase in global warming – that warming slowed but never stopped – provides a case study of science in action.

Many theories

From the mid-1980s to almost the century’s end, atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide continued to rise as economies expanded, energy demand increased and humans burned ever more coal, oil and natural gas. And in the course of this, global temperatures inched up, in line with the greenhouse gas ratios.

And then, after the hottest year ever, in 1998 – a year in which a natural cyclic climate phenomenon called El Niño bumped up the temperatures even more – the rate of warming seemed to slow to a dawdle, even though carbon dioxide ratios continued to increase.

Scientists don’t care for readings they cannot explain. In Asia, Europe and America, researchers went back to the calculations. Some groups blamed it on shifts in a natural cycle of oceanic warming and cooling, some on volcanic eruptions that could have subtly screened solar radiation, and some on changes in the trade winds.

Others challenged the conclusion: perhaps the so-called slowdown was a problem of perspective. Perhaps the increases in extremes of temperature over the last decade and a half had distorted the dataset.

And even if the dip in the rate of increase of global warming was indeed real, it made no difference to the long-term predictions. So the latest study may not be the last word on the subject.

“We recalculated the average global temperatures from 1998 to 2012 and found that the rate of global warming had continued to rise at 0.112°C per decade instead of slowing down to 0.05°C per decade as previously thought”

There is now no doubt that warming has resumed at a predictable rate and each of the last three years 2014-16 has been the hottest ever recorded, with 2017 likely to be listed among the hottest three.

And the continued warming of the world would have been registered more plainly had instrumentation in the Arctic been more complete.

To recalculate, the Fairbanks team used temperature data from the University of Washington’s International Arctic Buoy programme and newly-corrected sea surface temperatures from the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Until the last few years, researchers had not thought changes in the Arctic – and in November 2016, Arctic temperatures were 20°C above the normal for the time of year –  would be huge enough to influence average global temperatures.

“The Arctic is remote only in terms of physical distance,” Professor Zhang said. “In terms of science, it’s close to every one of us. It’s a necessary part of the equation and the answer affects us all.” – Climate News Network

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Solar-powered jets could some day take off

Sun-fuelled flight is now at least theoretically possible  but solar-powered jets won’t be on the runway for some years yet.

LONDON, 27 November, 2017 – Swiss scientists are closer to making solar-powered jets a reality. They now know how to make jet fuel out of air, sunlight and water.

With a high temperature solar reactor fashioned from a helpful ceramic, they split carbon dioxide and water to make carbon monoxide and hydrogen, known as syngas or synthetic natural gas, with oxygen as the only exhaust.

They then handed the compressed syngas to chemists in Amsterdam who used a standard industrial process to turn the syngas into kerosene, the fuel that flies jumbo jets around the world.

Aviation is estimated to be responsible for only 2% of the emissions that drive potentially dangerous global warming. But while wheeled traffic can function on electricity or hydrogen as fuel, only flight-quality hydrocarbon fuel refined from crude oil can deliver the engine thrust to lift continental and intercontinental commercial flights.

And the latest experiments offer for the first time the chance of a carbon-neutral high-octane aviation spirit.

Modest start

The initial quantities of syngas from the first trial run are hardly likely to change the world of commercial airlines: 700 litres were shipped from Zurich to Shell Global Solutions in the Netherlands to be turned into kerosene by the Fischer-Tropsch process.

But the trial is yet further evidence of the optimism and ingenuity generated in the world’s research laboratories, in search of energy from renewable, or at least neutral, resources.

Scientists have already reported work on vegetable and bacterial agents to deliver a biochemical variant of rocket fuel: this, too, is some way from the launch pad.

But the aviation industry is under pressure to respond to the greenhouse consequences of fossil fuel combustion on a prodigal scale and has been looking for ways to curb emissions from jet engine exhausts.

Phillipp Furler of the Swiss technology institute known as ETH Zurich reports in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that he and colleagues used solar thermochemistry to split water and carbon dioxide at a temperature of 1,500°C.

“Oil is a limited resource; at some point you will run out. What we propose is another route to the same chemical, using solar energy”

This technology effectively concentrates sunlight to create great heat which can then be used to generate electricity. In this case, it generated flows of syngas and oxygen from a reactor based on ceria, an oxide of the rare earth cerium.

“Ceria is state of the art material. It has the ability to release a certain amount of its oxygen and then, in the reduced state, it has the capability of splitting water and CO2,” Dr Furler said.

“Our long-term vision, and what we are following, is that we will be extracting the CO2 from the atmosphere. This way, we are able to close the carbon cycle and produce CO2-neutral fuels. The technology is expensive, but commercially available.”

The research offers the possibility that tomorrow’s air journeys could be driven essentially by sunlight, captured carbon dioxide, and water. However, the synthesis process is not likely to be competitive for a while: the researchers hope to triple the efficiency of the process.

But even then, it requires the reflected energy of 3,000 times the power of the sun to achieve the necessary temperatures. Until governments start imposing higher carbon taxes on fossil fuels to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it is unlikely to compete with kerosene from the oil refineries. But even so, solar-derived jet fuel could be here to stay.

“Oil is a limited resource; at some point you will run out,” Dr Furler said. “What we propose is another route to the same chemical, using solar energy.” – Climate News Network

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