Austrian Academy of Sciences Joint Academy Day 2021

Austrian Academy of Sciences Joint Academy Day 2021 is on Thursday 13th March, and I’ll be part of a panel discussion led by John Smol, on Arctic and Alpine Environmental Change. The scope of the panel is described in this summery statement:

Both Arctic and alpine ecosystems have been referred to as the “miners’ canaries of the planet”, meaning that, due to a variety of positive feedback mechanisms, they are often the first to respond to climatic and other environmental changes, and to the greatest degree. Importantly, changes in polar regions affect ecosystems world-wide (e.g. ocean levels). Moreover, melting alpine glaciers result in striking economic, social, and environmental issues, as alpine regions act as “water towers”, supplying downstream populations with water for agriculture, industry, and drinking purposes. However, once the glaciers melt, the water tap is shut. Multiple anthropogenic stressors are rapidly changing these ecosystems, often outpacing our ability to collect data on baseline conditions. Despite the importance of these ecosystems, little long-term monitoring data are available.

In this session, we will explore the following broad questions:

  • How have these sentinel ecosystems been affected by human-induced climatic and environmental changes?
  • Are these changes reversible?
  • What does the future hold?
  • What are the ecological and social repercussions of these changes?

Here is a picture of the inimitable Professor John England when I was exploring whalebones on the raised shorelines of Prince Patrick Island with him and Dr Roy Coulthard in summer 2008. This was a fascinating trip, as Prince Patrick Island is the home to caribou, musk ox and foxes, as well as many birds and other smaller creates and the fragile land remains criss-crossed with tire tracks from oil exploration of the 1970s (we added some of our own unfortunately), and the former air base of Mold Bay stands abandoned in the landscape. So a curious combination of remote wilderness, and still the interactions and traces of human activities are unavoidable.

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Denial of anthropogenic climate change

The evidence for the human impact on Earths climate is abundant and incontrovertible, based on our understanding of underlying concepts of the physics of our Earth system and on abundant direct and indirect observations (though its true that the details can get pretty complicated).

Here is an interactive history of climate science, but in its simplest form:

  1. it has been known since the late 19th century that certain ‘greenhouse’ gases would warm climate, and burning fossil fuels emits these gases
  2. since late 1960s concern about this caused fossil fuel companies, governments and academics to study the problem more intensely
  3. recognition of the scale of the problem and that it doesn’t care about international borders led to the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to collect and present the information
  4. in 2021, even the World Economic Forum put climate change and environmental degradation at the top of its global risks

Despite this, “ever since scientists first began to explain the evidence that our climate was warming – and that humans activities were probably to blame – people have been questioning the data, doubting the evidence, and attacking the scientists who collect and explain it.“

Why is that so? Why is it so hard to convince people of something thats as certain as our knowledge that smoking cigarettes can damage your lungs and potentially cause cancers? Here are some of my thoughts on this point:

Mark Maslin puts forward five corrupt pillars of climate change denial in an article covering: scientific, economic, humanitarian, political and crisis denial.

John Cook laid out the broad sweep of tactics used to deny climate science:

So, I reckon we need to make a movement – and a suggestion of how:

Find your inspirational lone nut and follow them to turn the tide on climate inaction …

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Attribution of climate change

The ‘fingerprint’ of human action on climate can be found from a number of features of global change that point towards our actions driving the changes:

But another way we can determine the cause of a change is by a so-called attribution study. For this we need:

  1. observations (e.g. temperature, precipitation, sea level)
  2. history of the potential system forcings (e.g. greenhouse gases, solar activity, volcanism)
  3. a model connecting 1 and 2 (can be simple or a complex numerical representation of real world physics)
  4. estimate of magnitude of internal variability of the system (the “noise”)

By running the model with the different possible forcing factors as inputs, and then comparing the model output to the observations we can see to which forcing we can most reasonably attribute the observations. This is nicely illustrated in this figure from the IPCC Special Report on Ocean and Cryopshere in a Changing Climate

You can explore a very nice animation of attribution of recent global temperature evolution here:

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Difference between 1.5° and 2.0°C warming

This infographic is from the WWF, and I’m just going to leave it here:

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Water-Energy-Food Nexus

The food-energy-water nexus refers to the way that water security, energy security and food security (all vital for human well-being, poverty reduction and sustainable development) are strongly linked to one another, so the actions in any one area often have effects in one or both of the others:

Source: IWA, 2018. Sustainable Development: The Water-Energy-Food Nexus.

Here are some key facts and figures about this nexus from the UN website:

  • While almost 800 million people are currently hungry, by 2050 global food production would need to increase by 50% to feed the more than 9 billion people projected who live on our planet (FAO/IFAD/UNICEF/WFP/WHO, 2017).
  • 72% of all water withdrawals are used by agriculture, 16% by municipalities for households and services, and 12% by industries. (UN-Water 2021)
  • It typically takes between 3,000 and 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice, 2,000 litres for 1kg of soya, 900 litres for 1kg of wheat and 500 litres for 1kg of potatoes. (WWF).
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, irrigated areas are expected to more than double by 2050, benefiting millions of small-scale farmers. However, it has been estimated that 41% of current global irrigation water use occurs at the expense of environmental flow requirements. (FAO 2020)
  • The food production and supply chain accounts for about 30% of total global energy consumption. (FAO, 2011)
  • 90% of global power generation is water-intensive. (UN, 2014)
  • Power plant cooling is responsible for 43% of total freshwater withdrawals in Europe (more than 50% in several countries), nearly 50% in the USA, and more than 10% of the national water cap in China. (UN, 2014)
  • Global water demand (in water withdrawals) is projected to increase by 55% by 2050, mainly because of growing demands from manufacturing (400% increase). (OECD, 2012)
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