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Ecological implications of the Amazonian drought affect all

Sue Branford, Guardian via Taipei Times
The rainy season can’t come soon enough in the Amazon, but even the end of a drought has had terrible consequences for the area’s plant and animal life
Not far from the mouth of the Amazon, dead animals, including manatees — mammals up to 3m long with flat, paddle-shaped fins — and distinctive pink dolphins, line the banks of some tributaries. Normally, you would have to take a boat to cross these rivers but today, because of the Amazon basin’s worst drought in memory, they are little more than mudflats with a trickle of water in the middle.

So far, the drought has had its most serious impact in the upper reaches of the river and its hundreds of tributaries in Brazil, Colombia and Peru. There, along many stretches, the water has fallen to the lowest levels ever recorded and has become impassable even for canoes. Some 600 Brazilian schools in Amazonas state have had to be closed and many hamlets, whose only contact with the outside world is by river, are running short of food and medicines. Several districts have been declared disaster areas and the army is having to bring emergency supplies to 900 towns and villages.

The problems are expected to get worse before the drought eventually breaks, perhaps in the next month when the Amazon’s rainy season usually comes.

… But what is worrying some scientists even more than the growing scale of the humanitarian crisis is a suspicion that this year’s drought may be the harbinger of a much greater disaster that could push the whole Amazon forest to a critical flip-over point and into an unstoppable process of self-destruction.

This is how the theory goes: the Amazon river contains a fifth of the planet’s fresh water. Over 300km wide at its estuary, it carries more water than the world’s next nine largest rivers combined. In a remarkable process, much of this water is recycled within the forest…..
(5 November 2005)

Toxic legacy of home grown Weapons of Mass Destruction

John M.R. Bull, Daily Press
Weapons of mass destruction thrown into the sea years ago present danger now – and the Army doesn’t know where they all are.

In the summer of 2004, a clam-dredging operation off New Jersey pulled up an old artillery shell. The long-submerged World War I-era explosive was filled with a black tarlike substance. Bomb disposal technicians from Dover Air Force Base, Del., were brought in to dismantle it. Three of them were injured – one hospitalized with large pus-filled blisters on an arm and hand. The shell was filled with mustard gas in solid form.

What was long feared by the few military officials in the know had come to pass: Chemical weapons that the Army dumped at sea decades ago finally ended up on shore in the United States.
It’s long been known that some chemical weapons went into the ocean, but records obtained by the Daily Press show that the previously classified weapons-dumping program was far more extensive than ever suspected. …

The Army now admits that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents into the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste – either tossed overboard or packed into the holds of scuttled vessels. …
(30 October 2005)

Melting mountains
How climate change is destroying the world’s most spectacular landscapes

Joe Simpson, lndependent/UK via Common Dreams
On 23 July 1983 Ian Whittaker and I were inching our way up the Bonatti Pillar, a legendary Alpine climb up 2,000ft of golden granite on the south-west face of Les Drus, high above Chamonix in France.

…Once ensconced inside my bivouac bag I settled myself down on the comforting solidity of the ledge. Seconds later there was a heart-stopping downward lurch accompanied by the thunderous sound of tons of granite plunging into the abyss. I heard a cry of alarm and pain above the roar of falling rock. My arms were outside the bivouac bag as I fell and I flailed them blindly trying to grab something. It must have taken only a fraction of a second but it seemed to last forever.

We bounced on the springy stretch of rope. The handrail had held. I swung gently on the rope with my arms pinned to my sides. I had held the fall on my armpits and for a confused moment I desperately tried to remember whether I had clipped myself to the handrail.

In the sudden darkness, with the sounds of falling rock echoing up from the depths, I was momentarily disorientated. Where was Ian? I remembered that sudden yelp during the fall. Had he gone with it?

…Ironically, only a few days before the Bonatti Pillar disintegrated, a man regarded by some as a half-witted religious bigot announced at the G8 summit in Gleneagles that as far as he was concerned America did not regard global warming as important nor pressing. Leastways that is how I interpreted President George Bush’s words.

Scientists now believe global warming is melting the Alps. The ice that for thousands of years had filled the deep cracks at the summit of the Dru has started to melt. The glue holding this rock tower together is leaking away.

More seriously, the crust of permafrost that binds the whole mountain range together is beginning to melt. The foundations of buildings, roads, mines, tunnels, cable-car stations and their supporting pylons are entirely dependent on the frozen solidity of this permafrost. As it steadily melts, the whole infrastructure of Alpine tourism is at risk, as well as a great many lives.

All the most famous ski resorts in Europe are situated in valleys overlooked by mountains held together by permafrost. The high altitude permafrost zones lie on steep slopes above these settlements, roads, railways and valleys. Massive slope failures and landslides leading to blocked rivers, dammed lakes and catastrophic flooding will be especially pronounced in the Alps, which has such steep topography and high population levels.

Already climatologists have predicted the complete failure of the Scottish ski industry due to lack of snow within 20 years and the Alpine ski industry within 50 years. Many Alpine ski resorts would already be out of business but for the snow machines.

Because the best Alpine ski fields and lift systems are above the crucial permafrost altitude of 8,202 feet, it could spell the end of the ski industry as we know it, let alone the more esoteric world of mountaineering. When you consider that one sixth of Austria’s gross domestic product comes from Alpine tourism, the effects of permafrost meltdown could be far more wide-ranging than just screwing up our winter sports holidays.

Joe Simpson is a climber and author of ‘Touching The Void’
(5 November 2005)

The Kyoto deal is changing too

Sanjay Suri, Inter Press Service
LONDON – Like U.S. President George W. Bush, more and more leaders now hear ‘money’ and ‘markets’ when they hear ‘climate change’. And they could be going the Bush way rather than bring Bush the other way around.

Within the United States some states are introducing emission permit systems along the lines of emissions trading proposed under the Kyoto protocol, and under way in the European Union. But Americans could find several world leaders now joining the leader they are now turning their backs on.

Further signs of that were evident at a conference of environment ministers and other representatives from 20 countries at a conference called by the British government in London Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

No outcome to the meeting was announced. ”But what we are hearing in terms of the outcome from the London meeting so far are that there’s a significant shift away from commitment to targets,” Dr Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development told IPS.

”Evidently Prime Minister Blair feels that targets and legally binding commitments frighten people away and they then feel nervous so that they want to go instead on much greater emphasis like technological development,” she said.

…”I think there’s a strong worry about the economic power and competition posed by both China and India,” Toulmin said. ”A consequence of that is that people in UK, in Europe, in North America seem to be cutting back on environmental and other regulations because they think this will damage their capacity to compete effectively with India and China and that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing a move away from tighter regulations to much more what is thought to be a business friendly environment.”

This might well be an unfounded fear, she said. ”The interesting thing is that a lot of business in the UK and Europe are seeking tighter regulation. They want the government to tell them what the framework will be, so that they can plan. They need to be able to plan for the next five, ten, 15 years, and to know what the government has in mind.”
(5 November 2005)

Greenland’s ice sheet growing thicker above 1500m

European Space Agency
Researchers have utilised more than a decade’s worth of data from radar altimeters on ESA’s ERS satellites to produce the most detailed picture yet of thickness changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet. …

The result is a mixed picture, with a net increase of 6.4 centimetres per year in the interior area above 1500 metres elevation. Below that altitude, the elevation-change rate is minus 2.0 cm per year, broadly matching reported thinning in the ice-sheet margins. The trend below 1500 metres however does not include the steeply-sloping marginal areas where current altimeter data are unusable. …
(4 November 2005)

Scientists gain new insights into ‘frozen’ methane beneath ocean floor

Science Daily
An international team of scientists supported by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) has completed a unique research expedition aimed at recovering samples of gas hydrate, an ice-like substance hidden beneath the seafloor off Canada’s western coast. Gas hydrate, a mixture of water and mostly methane, is believed to occur under the world’s oceans in great abundance, but it quickly “melts” once removed from the high pressure and cold temperatures of its natural environment, making it very challenging to recover and analyze.

When brought to the surface in a core, gas hydrate is no longer in its stable pressure and temperature field and decomposes (see fizzing and bubbling). (Image courtesy of Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International)

“We’re interested in gas hydrate because we believe these deposits have played an important role in ancient global climate change,” explains Michael Riedel of Natural Resources Canada’s Geological Survey of Canada, IODP Expedition 311’s co-chief scientist.
(7 November 2005)