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Environment - June 19

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Global warming could burn insurers
Activists call on industry to act

John Iwasaki, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The alarm sounded by scientists about global warming has deep implications for the insurance industry and consumers, participants said Thursday at a climate change summit in Seattle.

Businesses and governments can do more to reduce carbon dioxide, promote renewable resources and take other environmentally friendly actions that would benefit the world as well as their bottom line, corporate executives and politicians said.

Dramatic climate changes have the potential to affect nearly all segments of insurance coverage, including agricultural, health, life and business, said Andrew Logan, program manager of CERES, a Boston-based national network of investment funds, environmental organizations and other public interest groups.

Natural and manmade catastrophic events have steadily increased since 1970, with eight of the 10 most expensive disasters in U.S. history occurring in the past four years, he said.

New insurance models predict significantly higher losses in the next five years.
(16 June 2006)
Related: Editorial from Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


Thawing Permafrost Could Unleash Tons of Carbon

Deborah Zabarenko, Planet Ark
Ancient roots and bones locked in long-frozen soil in Siberia are starting to thaw, and have the potential to unleash billions of tonnes of carbon and accelerate global warming, scientists said on Thursday.
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This vast carbon reservoir, contained in permafrost soil in northeastern Siberia, contains about 75 times more carbon than the amount released into the atmosphere each year by the burning of fossil fuels, the researchers said in a statement.

Siberia isn't the only place on Earth with massive lodes of permafrost -- parts of Alaska, Canada and northern Europe have them too. The Siberian area is possibly the world's largest, covering nearly 400,000 square miles (1.036 million sq km), with an average depth of 82 feet (25 metres), and probably holds about 500 billion metric tons of carbon.

By any measure, this is a lot, and it is in fact twice what scientists previously believed was there, ecologist Ted Schuur of the University of Florida said in a telephone interview.
(16 June 2006)


Thawing Permafrost a Significant Source of Carbon

Mike Millikin, Green Car Congress
With global temperatures rising, the Arctic’s “permanently” frozen soil—permafrost—isn’t staying frozen. A type of soil contained deep within thawing permafrost—loess—may be releasing significant, and previously unaccounted for, amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, according to authors of a paper published this week in the journal Science.

Some have been warning about the danger of melting permafrost for a number of years. For example, Svein Tveitdal, managing director of GRID-Arendal in Norway, a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) information center, warned of the potential in 2001:

Permafrost has acted as a carbon sink, locking away carbon and other greenhouse gases like methane, for thousands of year. But there is now evidence that this is no longer the case, and the permafrost in some areas is starting to give back its carbon. This could accelerate the greenhouse effect.

The just-published work by the scientists from Russia, the University of Florida, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks found that loess permafrost—extending more deeply into the permafrost layers and covering more than a million square kilometers in Siberia and Alaska—is a very large carbon reservoir with the potential to be a significant contributor of atmospheric carbon, yet one seldom incorporated into analyses of changes in global carbon reservoirs.
(15 June 2006)


The Sahel: Climate Foresight for the Poorest

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
|The future of the Sahel (the vast semi-arid region lying south of the Sahara) is one of the wild cards of green futurism. It has, for the last two decades, suffered from unusually severe droughts, killing hundreds of thousands and throwing into doubt the future of the region's millions of pastoral nomads and subsistence farmers -- many of whom are among the poorest people in the world. The hope had been that climate change might actually benefit the Sahel to some degree, by making the region slightly wetter, but that, it turns out, may not be the case:

Last year US-based researchers Martin Hoerling and James Hurrell looked at all of the most recent climate models, averaged them out, and came to the conclusion that the Sahel's recent fate would be reversed in the 21st century.Global warming, they concluded, would bring much-needed rainfall to the region — one of the very few positive outcomes of greenhouse gas emissions.

But in late 2005, Isaac Held of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the results of a new climate model that suggested that, far from becoming wetter, the Sahel faces a period of "dramatic drying" if greenhouse gas emissions are not checked.

Held's team readily admitted that their results, from a single model, should not be the basis for policy decisions. But one striking point meant the results could not be discarded. The model mimicked the region's recent climate more faithfully than any previous one had — an important measure of how reliable it is.

As data acculmulate and climate models improve, we should be able to much more effectively forecast the general trends of impacts in specific places -- to apply regional climate foresight. Climate foresight is a vitally important planning concept for people in prosperous regions, but it may literally become a matter of life and death in places where livelihoods are already precarious, especially in the polar regions and places where small shifts in rainfall patterns could speed the progress of desertification. Knowing what's coming will not only enable outsiders to offer more effective help, it may also prepare the folks whose lives are being destroyed to with at least some ability to adapt.

Thus far, though, there's been a lack of funding for science -- especially climate science -- in the places which most need it. That needs to change. We need climate foresight for the poorest people on the planet, done in such a manner that we not only get better answers, but involve the people most likely to be affected, so that they can adopt the lessons learned as quickly as possible and on their own terms.
(17 June 2006)
See original for photo and links.


Author Tim Flannery predicts 'new dark age' if global warming not addressed

OnPoint, E&E TV
Although many lawmakers agree that climate change is a major problem that must be addressed, consensus on a solution has been elusive thus far. During today's OnPoint, Tim Flannery, author of "The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth", discusses various "tipping points" that exist within the Earth's climate, and why these changes could prove to be irreversible. Flannery also explains why he believes a carbon tax is the most efficient way to approach climate change policy, and addresses some of the potential economic and cultural impacts of global warming.
(19 June 2006)


Canada 'lagging' in global warming war

Doug Ward, Vancouver Sun
Canada is doing poorly in its quest to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions, especially in comparison to Britain, says a leading green technology expert.

"We are failing. Right now we are really struggling. It's quite alarming," said Helen Goodland, executive director of the Vancouver-based Sustainable Building Centre.

Goodland said Canada is producing about twice as much carbon dioxide, the key contributor to global warming, as Britain on a per-capita basis.

Canada and Britain consume about the same amount of energy but Britain's population is double Canada's.

One of the reason for the gap is that Britain's buildings are more energy-efficient, she added.
(17 June 2006)
Related: Canada Pays Environmentally for U.S. Oil Thirst (Washington Post).


Iraq's disastrous 'black oil' swamps

James Glanz, NY Times via International Herald Tribune
An environmental disaster is brewing in the heartland of Iraq's northern Sunni-led insurgency, where Iraqi officials say that in a desperate move to dispose of millions of barrels of an oil refinery byproduct called "black oil," the government pumped it into open mountain valleys and leaky reservoirs next to the Tigris River and set it on fire.

The resulting huge black bogs are threatening the river and the precious groundwater in the area. The suffocating plumes of smoke are carried as far as 65 kilometers, or 40 miles, downwind to Tikrit, the provincial capital that formed Saddam Hussein's base of power.

An Iraqi environmental engineer who has visited the area described it as a kind of black swampland consisting of oil-saturated terrain and large standing pools of oil stretching across several mountain valleys. The clouds of smoke, said the engineer, Ayad Younis, "were so heavy that they obstructed breathing and visibility in the area and represent a serious environmental danger."
(18 June 2006)

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