Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Study Links Stronger Pacific Trade Winds to Pause in Global Warming

Despite an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that warming trends over the past century are most likely the result of human activities, some claim that a plateau in global surface air temperatures since 2001 is evidence to the contrary. However, a new study suggests the recent stabilization of air temperatures is a result of abnormally strong east to west trade winds, causing warmth to be stored temporarily beneath the western Pacific ocean.

The joint research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change and conducted by Australian and US researchers, outlines an unprecedented intensification of trade winds, easterly surface winds swirling about near the Earth's equator, which has accelerated the circulation of the Pacific ocean.

This causes heat to be drawn from the atmosphere into the waters below the ocean's surface and the colder water to rise to the top, ultimately leading to cooler average global temperatures.

"Scientists have long suspected that extra ocean heat uptake has slowed the rise of global average temperatures, but the mechanism behind the hiatus remained unclear," said the study's lead author, Professor Matthew England of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

According to the researchers, the strengthening of the Pacific trade winds actually dates back to the 1990s. Climate models used previously had not been able to account for the stalling of global surface temperature, as they didn't incorporate the strengthening of these winds.

When England and his fellow researchers added data from the heightened winds to their modeling, they found it accounted for a cooling of 0.1 to 0.2° C (0.18 to 0.36° F) in the 2012 global average surface air temperature, very closely mirroring the offset currently being observed.

"The winds lead to extra ocean heat uptake, which stalled warming of the atmosphere," said Professor England. "Accounting for this wind intensification in model projections produces a hiatus in global warming that is in striking agreement with observations."

While the stronger winds offer respite from an overall warming trend, Professor England warns that in the grand scheme of things, the pause will be short lived and to little effect.

"This pumping of heat into the ocean is not very deep, however, and once the winds abate, heat is returned rapidly to the atmosphere," he said. "When the trade wind strength returns to normal – as it inevitably will – our research suggests heat will quickly accumulate in the atmosphere. So global temperatures look set to rise rapidly out of the hiatus, returning to the levels projected within as little as a decade."

Source: University of New South Wales

Friday, February 7, 2014

Researcher Looks into Wastewater Zooplankton as Biofuel Feedstock

February 5, 2014 -- With dwindling non-renewable fuel sources creating an enormous energy challenge, the search is on to develop sustainable, renewable types of energy such as solar, wind and biofuel. One of the recent developments in this field comes from New York's Clarkson University, where new findings suggest that small organisms found in wastewater treatment lagoons could be used as biofuel feedstock.

The research was carried out by PhD student Stefanie Kring, who examined sunlit lagoons in Canton, New York during the summer. She found them to be rich in zooplankton, also found in other water bodies such as lakes and rivers, although algae was conspicuously absent.

Its absence was due to the fact that the plankton fed on algae, and had no predators in the lagoons, leading to their high concentration. These small organisms could be useful in the making of biofuel because when they feed, they accumulate oil in their bodies, and it's easier to extract that oil from them than it is from algae.

Besides biofuel, the study suggests that protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids could be harvested from zooplankton biomass. For that, lagoons would need to be redesigned to perform tasks other than wastewater treatment.

Further lifecycle and economic assessments are needed to determine the feasibility of harvesting zooplankton, but there is potential. "These zooplankton grow fast, they select algae from among all of the other particles present in the water, " said Kring. "Collecting zooplankton from water is much easier than collecting microscopic algae, due to their larger size."

Details of the research recently appeared in the journal Environmental Technology.

Source: Clarkson University.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Macrosystems Ecology: New Scientific Field Looks at the Big Picture

Big data is changing the field of ecology. The shift is dramatic enough to warrant the creation of an entirely new field: macrosystems ecology.

"Ecologists can no longer sample and study just one or even a handful of ecosystems," said Patricia Soranno, Michigan State University professor of fisheries and wildlife and macrosystems ecology pioneer. "We also need to study lots of ecosystems and use lots of data to tackle many environmental problems such as climate change, land-use change and invasive species, because such problems exist at a larger scale than many problems from the past."

To define the new field and provide strategies for ecologists to do this type of research, Soranno and Dave Schimel from the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Lab co-edited a special issue of the Ecological Society of America's journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

They worked with many other researchers, funded from the National Science Foundation's MacroSystems Biology program, who have written nine papers showing the advantages of taking such an approach to solve many environmental problems. Data-intensive science is being touted as a new way to do science of any kind, and many researchers think it has great potential for ecology, Soranno said.

"Traditionally, ecologists are trained by studying and taking samples from the field in places like forests, grasslands, wetlands or water and measuring things in the lab," she said. "In the future, at least some ecologists will need to also be trained in advanced computational methods that will allow them to study complex systems using big datasets at this large scale and to help integrate fine and broad-scale studies into a richer understanding of environmental problems."

Ecologists have many decades of accumulated data to which to apply this new perspective. The sources include, many small, individual projects from university researchers, government agencies that have been monitoring natural resources for decades, terabytes of data collected from new or existing field sensors and observation networks, as well as millions of high-definition satellite images, just to name a few.

Paired with the near-endless data deluge is easy access to supercomputers. Analysis that once took months or years to complete can now be conducted in hours or days. Ecologists also have access to the latest statistical modeling and geographic information system tools.

"Even ten years ago, it would have been much harder to take this approach," Soranno said. "We didn't have the wonderful intersection that we have today of great tools, volumes of data, sufficient computing power and a better developed understanding of systems at broad scales."

A significant part of these new approaches involves the integration of biology with other fields, involving scientific, engineering and education areas across NSF, said John Wingfield, NSF assistant director for biological sciences The makeup of newly minted macrosystems ecology research teams should reflect the new demands of data-intensive ecology. Teams should include database managers, data-mining experts, GIS professionals and more.

"An important question we're facing right now is whether ecologists will be the leaders in solving many of today's top environmental problems that need a broad-scale approach," Soranno said. "Seeing the research that has been done to date by macrosystems ecologists already doing this work and reading the papers that make up this issue, the answer is an emphatic 'yes'," Soranno said.

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140203122829.htm

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Climate Change Threatens to Cause Trillions in Damage to World's Coastal Regions if They Do Not Adapt to Sea-Level Rise

New research predicts that coastal regions may face massive increases in damages from storm surge flooding over the course of the 21st century.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, global average storm surge damages could increase from about $10-$40 billion per year today to up to $100,000 billion per year by the end of century, if no adaptation action is taken.

The study, led by the Berlin-based think-tank Global Climate Forum (GCF) and involving the University of Southampton, presents, for the first time, comprehensive global simulation results on future flood damages to buildings and infrastructure in coastal flood plains. Drastic increases in these damages are expected due to both rising sea levels and population and economic growth in the coastal zone. Asia and Africa may be particularly hard hit because of their rapidly growing coastal mega-cities, such as Shanghai, Manila and Lagos.

"If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic," explains Jochen Hinkel from GCF and the study's lead author. In 2100, up to 600 million people (around 5 per cent of the global population) could be affected by coastal flooding if no adaptation measures are put in place.

"Countries need to take action and invest in coastal protection measures, such as building or raising dikes, amongst other options," urges Hinkel. With such protection measures, the projected damages could be reduced to below $80 billion per year during the 21st century. The researchers found that an investment level of $10 to $70 billion per year could achieve such a reduction. Prompt action is needed most in Asia and Africa where, today, large parts of the coastal population are already affected by storm surge flooding.

However, investment must also occur in Europe as shown by the recent coastal floods in South West England. Professor Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton, who is a co-author of the paper, says: "If we ignore sea-level rise, flood damages will progressively rise and presently good defences will be degraded and ultimately overwhelmed. Hence we must start to adapt now, be that planning higher defences, flood proofing buildings and strategically planning coastal land use."

Meeting the challenge of adapting to rising sea levels will not be easy, explains Hinkel: "Poor countries and heavily impacted small-island states are not able to make the necessary investments alone, they need international support." Adding to the challenge, international finance mechanisms have thus far proved sluggish in mobilising funds for adapting to climate change, as the debate on adaptation funding at the recent climate conference in Warsaw once again confirmed.

"If we do not reduce greenhouse gases swiftly and substantially, some regions will have to seriously consider relocating significant numbers of people in the longer run," adds Hinkel. Yet regardless of how much sea-level rise climate change brings, the researchers say careful long-term strategic planning can ensure that development in high-risk flood zones is appropriately designed or avoided. Professor Nicholls says: "This long-term perspective is however a challenge to bring about, as coastal development tends to be dominated by short-term interests of, for example, real-estate and tourism companies, which prefer to build directly at the waterfront with little thought about the future."

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204131549.htm