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Environment - Mar 14

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


Pollution [CO2] soaring to crisis levels in Arctic
Scientists plead for action to save poles from 'tipping point' disaster

Robin McKie, The Observer
Researchers have uncovered compelling evidence that indicates Earth's most vulnerable regions - the North and South Poles - are poised on the brink of a climatic disaster.

The scientists, at an atmospheric monitoring station in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, have found that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere near the North Pole are now rising at an unprecedented pace.

In 1990 this key cause of global warming was rising at a rate of 1 part per million (ppm). Recently, that rate reached 2 ppm per year. Now, scientists at the Mount Zeppelin monitoring station have discovered it is rising at between 2.5 and 3 ppm.

'The fact that our data now show acceleration in the rise of carbon dioxide level is really a source for concern,' said Professor Johan Strom, of Stockholm University's department of applied environmental science, which runs the Mount Zeppelin station. 'The increase is also seen at other stations, but our Zeppelin data show the strongest increase.

...In the last two decades, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen from 350 to 380 ppm and scientists warn that once levels reach 500, there could be irreversible consequences that would tip the planet toward disaster: glacier melts triggering devastating sea-level rises and spreading deserts across Africa and Asia.

Scientists and campaigners are desperate for politicians to reach agreements that will prevent the 500 ppm 'tipping point' being breached in the next half-century. These new data suggest they may have a far shorter period of time in which to act.
(12 March 2006)
Also posted at Common Dreams.


Sweating It
Review: climate change books by Tim Flannery and Elizabeth Kolbert

Carl Zimmer, NY Times
...Tim Flannery, a distinguished Australian scientist, and Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, hope to seize this moment and make the world take global warming seriously. "If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century, I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable," Flannery warns. His book may be having an impact already: last October, Australia's environment minister cited Flannery's book when he told a reporter unequivocally that the debate over global warming was over and industrialized nations needed to take urgent action. Still, it's hard to know whether these two passionate, well-researched books will have an enduring effect or will just join a long list of earlier titles on global warming that have not slowed down the greenhouse express. And both books have flaws that may blunt their effectiveness.

While "The Weather Makers" and "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" cover much of the same scientific ground, they are not carbon copies. Flannery, who has written several previous books for a popular audience, takes a long view, offerng an account of the history of earth's shifting climate.

...In "Field Notes From a Catastrophe," Kolbert sets out to see the signs of this change. Kolbert — whose book first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker — visits researchers drilling ice cores in Greenland in order to study ancient climates. Parts of the Greenland ice cap are melting rapidly, and her tent fills up with water. In Alaska, houses are falling into holes in the collapsing permafrost. In England, Kolbert finds changes that are subtler but no less significant. She meets with biologists who survey the ranges of butterflies each year; they've found that some species are steadily shifting their ranges north as the planet warms. Scientists — who have observed similar migrations elsewhere — are concerned that this may cause catastrophic extinctions in coming decades.
(12 March 2006)
Kolbert's articles in the New Yorkers on global warming are online. See energybulletin.net/5649.html for a starting place.


Ecopunkt

Jamais Cascio, WorldChanging
The Earth's environment, particularly its climate, is not a linear, obvious-cause-and-immediate-effect system. This has a number of implications, but the one that troubles many of us who pay close attention is the resulting potential for "phase change" shifts in the climate system, where seemingly-small perturbations lead to a major change in how the climate behaves (the classic example of this kind of change is a pile of sand with grains dropping down on the peak; some will slide down, some will stack up, but eventually the entire peak will collapse, radically changing the shape of the pile). As we develop the tools and techniques to better understand the overall global climate and ecological system, these "tipping points" should be at the top of our list of processes to identify and, if at all possible, defend.

This concept of particular points of environmental vulnerability bears a striking resemblance to a seemingly very different concern: the vulnerability of economies and societies to attack by those who would intentionally do harm. Analyst John Robb, in his Global Guerillas weblog (which should be required reading for all of us), calls these points of vulnerability systempunkt (we first mentioned this over a year ago); we could, in turn, think of these points of environmental vulnerability as ecopunkt. Robb defines "systempunkt" in this way:

In Blitzkrieg warfare, the point of greatest emphasis is called a schwerpunkt. It is the point, often identified by lower level commanders, where the enemy line may be pierced by an explosive combination of multiple weapon systems. [...] In global guerrilla warfare (a combination of open source innovation, bazaar transactions, and low tech weapons), the point of greatest emphasis is called a systempunkt. It is the point in a system (either an infrastructure or a market), always identified by autonomous groups within the bazaar, where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse in the targeted system.[...] The ultimate objective of this activity, in aggregate, is the collapse of the target state and globalization.

Working with that description, we could define "ecopunkt" as: the point in an ecological system where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse, leading to a chaotic destabilization of the environmental system.
(13 March 2006)


NASA puts its weight behind warming signs

Miguel Llanos, MSNBC
Following two recent studies on changes to Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, NASA is touting a survey that it says confirms “climate warming is changing how much water remains locked in Earth’s largest storehouses of ice and snow.”

In a press release for the survey, NASA directly tied the changes to warming and described the survey as “the most comprehensive” ever in both regions.

That stand can in part be explained by lead author Jay Zwally’s warning.

“If the trends we’re seeing continue and climate warming continues as predicted, the polar ice sheets could change dramatically,” he said in the press release last Wednesday. “The Greenland ice sheet could be facing an irreversible decline by the end of the century.”

But Zwally, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told MSNBC.com that the press release also follows an internal NASA change that seems to be taking place to allow scientists greater freedom.

A change in policy appears to be occurring after NASA scientist Jim Hansen complained about being silenced because of the Bush administration’s opposition to mandatory curbs on greenhouse gases that many scientists tie to global warming.
(13 March 2006, Leanan at The Oil Drum)

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