Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wind farm promises jobs boost

ABC News Online, Posted Tue Mar 31

The developer of a proposed $800 million wind farm says the project will generate 40 jobs and boost income for landholders in the Harden Shire.

Epuron says it is planning to build up to 185 wind turbines over three areas west and south-west of Yass, including about 70 near Jugiong.

Epuron's project manager Simon Davey says about 10 farmers would lease land for the turbines.

"It's going to produce enough electricity for about 170,000 average homes over a typical year which is equivalent to taking about 310,000 cars off the road every year," he said.

"The capital investment in the project is about $800 million, making it one of the most significant infrastructure projects in that part of New South Wales."

Mr Davey says an environmental assessment is being finalised and the State Government will rule on the development.

He says if approval is given, Epuron will then seek finance for the wind farm.

"These projects are good news for the environment, but also very good news for the economy of regional NSW bringing significant investment and jobs," he said.

"We're expecting there'll be about 40 long-term ongoing jobs produced by this project."

Harden Mayor Chris Manchester has expressed some reservations about the proposal including the visual impact.

Mr Davey says the turbines near Jugiong will be visible from the Hume Highway.

"While we appreciate that not everyone likes to look at them, there certainly are a large number of people that think they are visually attractive," he said.

"The only other concern that people raise is in relation to noise, so noise is a concern that's often raised with us and we've got to comply with strict noise criteria set by the Government."

Scrap coal plan, says Rudd's man

Matthew Moore Urban Affairs Editor 
Sydney Morning Herald, April 1, 2009

A MEMBER of the Rudd Government's group charged with rebuilding Australia's infrastructure says plans to double the coal export capacity in Newcastle should be abandoned.

Professor Peter Newman, who is a member of Infrastructure Australia, said the environmental damage done from burning coal meant the construction of new coal loading facilities in what is already the world's biggest coal exporting port should be stopped now.

"If I was in charge of coal loading facilities, I would say no, don't do it," Professor Newman said in an interview with the Herald.

Professor Newman also dismissed the Federal Government's $500 million commitment into researching clean coal technology, arguing there was little prospect the technology to capture and store carbon emissions would be developed sufficiently to make coal-fired power stations environmentally acceptable.

"I don't think the science on that is anywhere near that happening," he said. "In the US it's already disappearing … it's going to disappear along with nuclear fission."

Clean coal technology is one of the key pillars of the environment policies of Commonwealth and state Labor governments. While it has been criticised by environmentalists, Professor Newman's remarks dismissing its prospects are certain to embarrass these governments and the Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese. Professor Newman is one of 11 members of the body Mr Albanese appointed last year to develop "a blueprint for unlocking infrastructure bottlenecks and modernising the nation's transport, water, energy and communications assets".

To boost coal exports Mr Rudd and Mr Albanese announced in December the Government would co-fund almost half of a $1.2 billion project with the private sector to expand Hunter Valley rail lines. Under the plan, six rail projects would help Newcastle double its coal exports within seven years.

Professor Newman predicted that while the coal industry would still be around in a decade, "there will be a painful transition" and "coal will be a declining export for Australia".

Monday, March 30, 2009

Charge car in Tassie to help save the world

Barry Park 
The Age, March 31, 2009

WANT to buy an electric vehicle and save the planet one recharge at a time?

In some parts of Australia, particularly Victoria, you would be better off buying a hybrid or even a small-capacity petrol-engined car.

Figures released by the University of South Australia reveal how much carbon dioxide an electric vehicle will produce for each kilometre travelled in each state or territory based on how the electricity is generated.

In Victoria, where 85 per cent of electricity comes from power stations burning more highly polluting brown coal, the figures show an electric vehicle will produce the equivalent of about 130 grams of carbon dioxide a kilometre — about the same as small-engined petrol hatchback.

But recharge the same electric car in Tasmania, where almost all the electricity is generated using more environmentally friendly hydroelectric power plants, and the equivalent carbon dioxide output falls to about 13 grams.

This is far better than any car on our roads today — including petrol-electric hybrids — and lower even than the next wave of ultra-efficient vehicles slated for Australia.

No mainstream car makers offer an all-electric vehicle for sale in Australia, although Mitsubishi last week announced that it would test a small five-seat hatchback — the iMiEV — before making a decision to sell the car here possibly by the end of the year.

Senior research fellow at the university Peter Pudney said high levels of carbon dioxide from Australia's traditional methods of electricity generation highlighted the need for developing more renewable energy sources.

Dr Pudney said motorists should be able to buy green electricity generated using renewable resources such as wind farms or solar stations.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Climate change could make Sydney deadly by 2060: scientist

ABC News Online, Posted Fri Mar 27, 2009 

The forecast for Sydney in summer 2060 is hot, polluted and deadly to the elderly.

Rising summer temperatures due to global warming, drier weather and smog from transport and bushfires will make the nation's biggest city a health hazard, a scientist has told a major climate change conference.

Martin Cope of the CSIRO says those most at risk will be the increasing number of elderly from heat stress and anyone with asthma or heart complaints.

"We're talking about tripling the number of hospital admissions due to respiratory conditions," he said in Perth, which is hosting the Greenhouse 2009 conference.

"There will be more warmer days, more warmer nights and an older population. It's certainly something we want to plan ahead for," he said, adding the picture might not be so grim if Sydneysiders embraced low-carbon lifestyles and industry.

Dr Cope's team at the CSIRO's Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research used computer models to generate urban weather forecasts for Sydney to test the effects of temperature increases of 1 to 4 degrees Celsius over the current annual maximum.

Higher temperatures caused increased heat stress in the elderly but also helped intensify air pollution, he said.

"From the modelling, we were looking at a 20 per cent increase in the number of days above 30 degrees Celsius ... You can be looking at a 100 per cent increase of the small number of extreme temperature days," he said, referring to temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius.

Dr Cope said the number of people aged 65 and over were expected to double by 2060, increasing the numbers at risk from heat and rising pollution in Sydney.

"That has the biggest effect on the changes in mortality from heat stress. We are talking about roughly a doubling of heat-stress related deaths. If you then factor in a change in the demographic, you could be talking about a doubling again," he said.

Sydney's air would also become more toxic during summer because of higher temperatures and the interaction between sunlight and the chemicals released by burning fossil fuels, even from painting, grass cutting and eucalyptus trees.

"A lot of these emissions are temperature dependent. As things warm up then you get more of the gases being released from the liquids," Dr Cope said.

Add to this the carbon monoxide from tailpipes and ozone created in the smog that blankets the city and "it's a big soup", he said.

By 2060, the projections for Sydney would also be drier with potentially more drought, more dust storms, more high-fire risk weather, he added, further adding materials to the smog mix.

Dr Cope said the computer models also showed how to trim the worst of the impacts, for example, improving household insulation and reducing the city's heat-island effect.

Shifting to electric or hybrid cars would also help.

"That's really the key. The steps that we will take to reduce carbon emissions will also be beneficial to reducing air pollution," he said.

- Reuters

The power to make a difference

Adam Morton 
March 28, 2009

PUT Andrew Bray's life on a poster and the environment movement would have something to stick up around town as a how-to guide. There are solar panels on his roof, fluorescent bulbs in his light sockets and green power charges on his electricity bill. His family of five get around Ballarat in a small car. That's when they drive — most of the time they jump on bikes or, if they are heading to Melbourne, the train.

A little over a year ago he gave up red meat, not wanting to encourage greenhouse-intensive cattle farming. His family's food is as local and organic as possible, and kept cool in an energy-efficient fridge that cost Bray several hundred dollars more than other less environmentally friendly appliances.

Not content with just reducing emissions at home, he last year quit his three-day-a-week job teaching music theory at Ballarat University to volunteer with BREAZE (Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions), a community climate action group.

Bray knows more about emissions trading than most people would consider healthy. But there is a difference between understanding how it works and deciding the best way to respond. Even for someone with Bray's expertise, the scheme throws up questions that are hard to answer. Such as this one: if the Government's carbon pollution reduction scheme passes the Senate, should individuals cut their own emissions?

Under one view, individual action will do nothing immediately to reduce the national carbon footprint. This position has gained momentum recently, largely thanks to a campaign by Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss. He argues emissions reduction by individuals, community groups and governments — anyone except the 1000 biggest carbon-emitting businesses covered by the scheme — will be a waste of time and effort.

The argument gained further credibility this week when The Age revealed a high-level Victorian Government ministerial brief had advised that state climate change programs — for example, large-scale solar power stations and compulsory energy ratings for new homes — will be redundant once emissions trading is introduced.

Concern about this has thrown a cloud over a coming climate change policy paper and is creating havoc in local government, with some councils wondering if their pledges to be carbon neutral by 2020 will be nothing but hot air. It is understood the most recent draft of the Brumby Government's policy paper makes no mention of its 2006 election promise to cut emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

For Bray, the debate prompted an internal wrestle about whether his plans to install a solar hot water system will be worthwhile if the current model gets up. He believes they will — at least eventually, when the country finally accepts it must make deeper cuts to emissions than proposed by the Rudd Government. But he understands why some think otherwise. "I am in a minority, but it's a reasonably significant minority, in that I will act this way because I think it is right. Most people are not going to act this way unless there is a clear benefit."

Brunswick environmental consultant Peter Allan is beyond persuading that it is still worth playing his part. Already this year he has removed solar panels from his roof in frustration over what he sees as a lack of support for the industry by state and federal governments. To him, the design of the emissions trading proposal is just a further sign of Canberra's contempt for the environmentally minded.

"If I was making my decisions now, the $16,000 I have put into solar and the equivalent amount I've put into cars and lighting and so forth, I would be spending on political lobbying," he says.

Why is Allan so angry? It comes down to an inherent feature of emissions trading schemes. By definition, they involve a cap being placed on annual greenhouse emissions. Enough carbon permits are issued to allow the industries that pump out the most greenhouse gases — coal-fired electricity, aluminium smelting — to emit up to that level. Permits can be traded. The cap is designed to be tightened over time, forcing industries to eventually find ways to cut their carbon pollution.

But the cap is not reset quickly. For example, let's say enough households put solar panels on their roofs to substantially reduce the amount of coal-fired power needed. This will do nothing to reduce the number of permits in the system. Coal-power companies can sell any leftover permits to other emitters. Unless concerned activists buy permits and take them off the market, the national emissions for that year remain the same. According to Denniss, "the harder households work, the harder the councils work, or the harder the state governments work to cut emissions, the less the big polluters have to work".

This issue is further confused by the Government's legislation allowing industrial polluters to buy as many international permits as they want to cover their emissions. As it now stands, there is no need for a company to cuts its emissions in Australia at all — as long as it is paying for enough cuts in developing countries to offset its footprint.

The issue of whether to tell the environmentally conscious that their efforts mean nothing — or take the logical, but drastic, next step of encouraging them to stop making greenhouse cuts — is causing no small amount of angst within the green movement. How, they ask, can we even be having a discussion about whether it is right to reduce people's carbon footprint?

A growing number of environmentalists are calling on the Federal Government to change its proposal in order to directly and immediately reflect voluntary cuts. Household cuts are tiny in the scheme of things (voluntary acts through schemes such as green power are equivalent to only 1 per cent of Australia's national emissions), but campaigners say people must feel empowered — that they can make a difference.

FOR this to happen, voluntary cuts would have to be measured and the cap available to big polluting industry reduced by this amount. Is this possible? Experts say yes — in some cases. Alan Pears, an RMIT academic and a member of the interim board of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Association, says green power sales are independently audited, and the impact of energy efficiency measures is already being calculated by the NSW Government. He says reducing the amount industry can pollute by the amount of savings from these verifiable household schemes would be straightforward.

"At the moment the scheme discriminates against a legitimate way of making cuts … We need credible ways of documenting the voluntary abatement and once we have done that, the Government needs to tighten the cap."

Environment Victoria campaigns director Mark Wakeham says schemes such as green power — with about 900,000 subscribers and responsible for two-thirds of measurable voluntary cuts — must survive under emissions trading. Most expect it will fall over if the current scheme gets up. "We have been told constantly by all governments that it is up to all of us to solve climate change. Why, then, cut voluntary effort by businesses or individuals out of the picture?"

Not everyone wanting to see a successful emissions trading scheme agrees with this emphasis. For a quiet minority, most of whom will not speak publicly for fear of starting a slanging match within the green movement, the debate about voluntary action is a distraction from the main game — campaigning to get the Rudd Government to set more ambitious greenhouse targets.

It is noteworthy that, while the Federal Opposition has embraced the populist appeal of saying personal action must count, the Greens refuse to enter the debate. They are much more focused on arguing for the Government to go further than its proposed 2020 target of a 5 to 15 per cent cut below 2000 levels.

Most who are concerned about voluntary action, including Wakeham, agree that securing a stronger emissions reduction target is more important. They say a target of say, a 25 per cent cut, would force a radical change in the way industry operates. There would then be a legitimate argument for everyone to pull together.

There is another view: that the push for personal cuts to be recognised under the scheme is misleading people. Tony Wood, a former Origin Energy executive and an adviser to the Garnaut Climate Change Review, says the push to tighten the cap to reflect voluntary action suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how emissions trading works. The whole point, he says, is to price carbon so companies are forced to find ways to recover the cost. These include embracing technology that limits emissions, and passing the cost on to consumers.

He says the idea that steps by households and governments to cut emissions would give polluters a free ride fails to acknowledge that emissions trading is meant to lower the cost of change across the board. As electricity prices rise, putting up rooftop solar panels immediately becomes more cost effective. So does improving energy efficiency through insulation or double-glazing. And there remain good arguments for governments to invest in, for example, large-scale solar power stations. On one level it will create jobs. On another it will address a market failure that discourages people to develop new technology.

Bureaucrats and even supporters privately express frustration that Climate Change Minister Penny Wong is struggling to sell the merits of the Government's scheme to the public.

The message Wong is trying to send is that the scheme does take voluntary action into account, but the importance of personal cuts should not be overstressed. Under the proposed legislation, the Government can take evidence of cuts by the wider community into account when deciding the next cap. But the cap is set five years out — community-level cuts in 2011 will not lead to a tighter cap until 2016. And widespread action on greenhouse abatement beyond the big polluters will do nothing to change the Government's 2020 target.

Wong told The Age: "What all of us do to reduce our carbon footprint is important, but the fact is that what the Government is proposing through the scheme will achieve far greater reductions in emissions across the economy than even the most determined groups of individuals can achieve on their own."

Despite this, nearly all determined groups contacted by The Age said they would continue to encourage people to make cuts if the scheme were passed by the Senate. Most take a similar approach to that adopted by Andrew Bray at community meetings in Ballarat.

"I just tell people, this is the right thing to do and in time things will change."

Adam Morton is environment reporter.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hopes sink of artificially capturing carbon in seas

Andrew Darby, Hobart 
The Age, March 27, 2009

THE most determined attempt to make the ocean soak up more greenhouse gas has failed to make a significant dent.

The Indo-German LOHAFEX iron fertilisation experiment went ahead in the South Atlantic earlier this month, despite an international outcry. Its chief scientists have admitted that it sank only a "modest" amount of carbon dioxide — in the process dampening hopes that the Southern Ocean could cool a warming Earth.

This is likely to add weight to calls for regulations to restrict iron fertilisation schemes.

Ocean fertilisation is an unproven remedy with a range of side effects, according to the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre (ACE CRC) in Hobart.

"(It) may cause changes in marine ecosystem structure and biodiversity, and may have other undesirable effects," it said in a paper.

Three hundred square kilometres of ocean was "seeded" with six tonnes of dissolved iron, stimulating the growth of microscopic algae that initially took up the gas.

Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition spokeswoman Sian Prior said the experiment should not have gone ahead and, until an international regulatory regime was established, there should be no more.

A US company, Planktos, which advocates selling carbon offsets from ocean fertilisation, praised the experiment's outcome. "We are tickled green that the LOHAFEX ocean replenishment and restoration project has gone so well," it said.

The International Maritime Organisation's London Convention is drafting regulations on ocean fertilisation, which are not believed to support commercial applications.

But the ACE CRC's Tom Trull said he did not believe LOHAFEX would be the last iron fertilisation experiment.

"Certainly the paperwork's going to get more complicated," he said. "My own view is that we should be focusing on what happens using natural situations … rather than going out doing additional experiments."

Are the ice caps in trouble? Disappearing? You're getting warmer

The Age, March 26, 2009

Polar ice is melting at such an alarming rate the rest of the world can't help but feel the heat, reports Marian Wilkinson.

Before the summer heatwave hit Australia in January, climate scientists around the world were already turning their attention in our direction.

The popular belief that Antarctica might be resistant to global warming was punctured with new research based on data from satellites and weather stations, confirming that for the past 50 years, much of the continent has been warming at the same rate as the rest of the planet.

Antarctica is split into two huge ice sheets: east and west, separated by mountains. Because the Eastern Antarctic ice sheet has been extremely cold and stable, many believed it would hold down temperatures across the vast continent. But the new data found West Antarctica has been warming faster than previously believed, "meaning that on average the continent has gotten warmer", says Eric Steig, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington.

Until recently it was mainly the fragile Antarctic Peninsula, jutting up from West Antarctica towards South
America, that was seen as vulnerable to global warming. The peninsula was already warming more rapidly than much of the rest of the world, with temperatures rising 2.5 degrees in the past 50 years and ice loss increasing 140 per cent in a decade. Around the peninsula, ice shelves have broken up or disappeared, exposing the glaciers on the land behind them and speeding up the discharge of ice and fresh water into the ocean. As Dr Ian Allison of the Australian Antarctic Division explains, this activity on the peninsula appears to be linked to air and water temperatures rising.

So far, Australian scientists say, the main Western Antarctic ice sheet, outside the peninsula, is still cold enough to resist the melting of its surface. If this 900,000-square-kilometre ice sheet were to succumb to melting, it holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by five metres, swamping coastal regions from the Indian sub-continent to south Florida.

That is not expected to happen in this century or even the next. But, disturbingly, glaciers on the Western Antarctic ice sheet are also discharging more ice and water into the ocean. Scientists are trying to find why this is happening, whether there is a link to global warming or whether there is a natural glaciological explanation.

The role of global warming in the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is clearer, says Allison, the co-chairman of International Polar Year, a global research effort that focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic during 2007 and 2008.

"Greenland is of major concern," Allison says. "In Greenland, the rate of ice loss is getting greater over the last 10 years and the surface [ice] melt is definitely related to the warming."

The Polar Year leaders concluded: "It now appears certain that both the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass and thus raising sea level and that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is growing.
"The potential for these ice sheets to undergo further rapid ice discharge remains the largest unknown in projections of the rate of sea level rise by the (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Allison and many of the world's top climate scientists met in Copenhagen last week to update the warnings on climate change that the intergovernmental panel delivered in 2007. The findings, including the threat of sea-level rise, will be given to political leaders before they meet to debate the new global climate agreement at the end of the year.

When the UN Environment Program delivered its annual review on the planet last month, it gave a blunt warning on climate change: "The potential for runaway greenhouse warming is real and has never been more clear."

Among the danger signs noted in the report are the shrinking Arctic sea ice and the accelerating melting rates in Greenland and Antarctica. Last year, the Arctic sea ice shrank to its second-lowest extent since satellite monitoring began in 1979. The previous low was the summer of 2007. "Taken together, the two summers have no parallel," the report says.

In 2007 and 2008, an ice-free channel opened in the famous Northwest Passage in Arctic Canada, the passage where many colonial navigators perished when they were trapped by sea ice. But last year also marked the opening of the Northern Sea Route along the Siberian coast in the Arctic. "The two passages have probably not been open simultaneously since before the last ice age, 100,000 years ago," the report finds.

The Arctic is not only warming faster than most of the rest of world, the warming is feeding back on itself. As the reflective snow and ice disappear in the northern summer and are replaced by dark sea, more heat is being drawn into the Arctic. There are now some scientists predicting there will be an ice-free Arctic summer by 2012. More cautious scientists still say we could see this by 2030.

Dr Don Perovich, a research scientist with the US Army Cold Regions Research Laboratories, explained the enormity of this event in simple language: "You might say, 'Well, OK, what if we have an ice-free summer Arctic? Is that a big deal?' As near as we can tell, looking at the historical record, there's been ice in the Arctic in the summer for at least 16 million years, so this would be a big difference."

The ramifications of the warming will not be confined to the poles because weather patterns are likely to change. As scientist Mark Serreze, from the US Snow and Ice Data Centre, explains, the poles are like the Earth's refrigerators. "What we're doing by getting rid of that [Arctic] sea ice is radically changing the nature of that refrigerator," he says.

"We're making it much less efficient. But everything is connected, so what happens up there eventually influences what happens in other parts of the globe."

Since the intergovernmental panel delivered its findings, it had been widely accepted that the planet's warming is almost certainly due to human-induced climate change. The causes are principally the burning of fossil fuels, cement manufacture and land clearing, all of which release greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the scientific warnings and the promises of politicians, these emissions are still growing at an unprecedented rate. The Arctic contains large amounts of carbon in the form of methane that until now has been locked in permafrost on the land and below the Arctic Ocean bed. Two studies last year found there could be double the amount of carbon in the permafrost as there is in the atmosphere.

Large areas of Alaska's permafrost are within just one or two degrees of thawing. If the Arctic keeps warming, the unfreezing of the permafrost and the release of carbon could rapidly increase the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and in turn accelerate warming.

Dr Ted Scambos, of the Snow and Ice Data Centre, warns: "What will happen, I think, is that we'll get this whole new source of CO2 [carbon dioxide] and methane from the thawing permafrost that we won't easily be able to shut off, even if we get our act together."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Arctic meltdown is a threat to humanity

I AM shocked, truly shocked," says Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "I was in Siberia a few weeks ago, and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them."

Back in 2006, in a paper in Nature, Walter warned that as the permafrost in Siberia melted, growing methane emissions could accelerate climate change. But even she was not expecting such a rapid change. "Lakes in Siberia are five times bigger than when I measured them in 2006. It's unprecedented. This is a global event now, and the inertia for more permafrost melt is increasing."

The dramatic changes in the Arctic Ocean have often been in the news in the past two years. There has been a huge increase in the amount of sea ice melting each summer, and some are now predicting that as early as 2030 there will be no summer ice in the Arctic at all.

Discussions about the consequences of the vanishing ice usually focus either on the opening up of new frontiers for shipping and mineral exploitation, or on the plight of polar bears, which rely on sea ice for hunting. The bigger picture has got much less attention: a warmer Arctic will change the entire planet, and some of the potential consequences are nothing short of catastrophic.

Changes in ocean currents, for instance, could disrupt the Asian monsoon, and nearly two billion people rely on those rains to grow their food. As if that wasn't bad enough, it is also possible that positive feedback from the release of methane from melting permafrost could lead to runaway warming.

The danger is that if too much methane is released, the world will get hotter no matter how drastically we slash our greenhouse gas emissions. Recent studies suggest that emissions from melting permafrost could be far greater than once thought. And, although it is too early to be sure, some suspect this scenario is already starting to unfold: after remaining static for the past decade, methane levels have begun to rise again, and the source could be Arctic permafrost.

What is certain is that the Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. While the average global temperature has risen by less than 1 °C over the past three decades, there has been warming over much of the Arctic Ocean of around 3 °C. In some areas where the ice has been lost, temperatures have risen by 5 °C.

This intense warming is not confined to the Arctic Ocean. It extends south, deep into the land masses of Siberia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Scandinavia, and to their snowfields, ice sheets and permafrost. In 2007, the North American Arctic was more than 2 °C warmer than the average for 1951 to 1980, and parts of Siberia over 3 °C warmer. In 2008, most of Siberia was 2 °C warmer than average (see map).

Most of this is the result of positive feedbacks (see illustration) from lost ocean ice, says David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. His modelling studies show that during periods of rapid sea-ice loss, warming extends some 1500 kilometres inland from the ice itself. "If sea-ice continues to contract rapidly over the next several years, Arctic land warming and permafrost thaw are likely to accelerate," he says.

Changes in wind patterns may accelerate the warming even further. "Loss of summer sea ice means more heat is absorbed in the ocean, which is given back to the atmosphere in early winter, which changes the wind patterns, which favours additional sea ice loss," says James Overland, an oceanographer at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. "The potential big deal is that we now may be having a positive feedback between atmospheric wind patterns and continued loss of sea ice."

Incidentally, the changing winds might also be to blame for some of the cold and snowy weather in North America and China in recent winters, Overland says. Unusual poleward flows of warm air over Siberia have displaced cold air southwards on either side.

The rapid warming in the Arctic means that a global temperature rise of 3 °C, likely this century, could translate into a 10 °C warming in the far north. Permafrost hundreds of metres deep will be at risk of thawing out.

This is where things go global. The Arctic is not just a reflective mirror that is cracking up. It is also a massive store of carbon and methane, locked into the frozen soils and buried in icy structures beneath the ocean bed.

A quarter of the land surface of the northern hemisphere contains permafrost, permanently frozen soil, water and rock. In places, deep permafrost that formed during the last ice age, when the sea level was much lower, extends far out under the ocean, beneath the seabed. Large areas of permafrost are already starting to melt, resulting in rapid erosion, buckled highways and pipelines, collapsing buildings and "drunken" forests.

The real worry, though, is that permafrost contains organic carbon in the form of long-dead plants and animals. Some of it, including the odd mammoth, has remained frozen for tens of thousands of years. When the permafrost melts, much of this carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere.

No one knows for sure how much carbon is locked away in permafrost, but it seems there is much more than we thought. An international study headed by Edward Schuur of the University of Florida last year doubled previous estimates of the carbon content of permafrost to about 1600 billion tonnes - roughly a third of all the carbon in the world's soils and twice as much as is in the atmosphere.

Time bomb

Schuur estimates that 100 billion tonnes of this carbon could be released by thawing this century, based on standard scenarios. If that all emerged in the form of methane, it would have a warming effect equivalent to 270 years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels. "It's a kind of slow-motion time bomb," he says.

One hotspot is the 40,000-year-old east Siberian permafrost region. It alone contains 500 billion tonnes of carbon, says Philippe Ciais, co-chair of the Global Carbon Project, a research network analysing the carbon cycle. East Siberia was at times 7 °C warmer than normal during the summer of 2007, he says.

Higher temperatures mean the seasonal melting of the upper layer of soil extends down deeper than normal, melting the permafrost below. Microbes can then break down any organic matter in the thawing layer, not only releasing carbon but also generating heat that leads to even deeper melting. The heat produced by decomposition is yet another positive feedback that will accelerate melting, Ciais says.

What's more, if summer melting depth exceeds the winter refreezing level then a layer of permanently unfrozen soil known as a talik forms, sandwiched between the permafrost below and the winter-freezing surface layer. "A talik allows heat to build more quickly in the soil, hastening the long-term thaw of permafrost," says Lawrence.

The carbon in melting permafrost can enter the atmosphere either as carbon dioxide or methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas, molecule-for-molecule. If organic matter decomposes in the low-oxygen conditions typical of the boggy soils and lakes in these regions, more methane forms.

Researchers have been monitoring the Stordalen mire in northern Sweden for decades. The permafrost there is melting fast and, as conditions become wetter, it is releasing ever more methane into the air, says Torben Christensen of Lund University in Sweden. This is the future for most of the northern hemisphere's permafrost, he says.

It's not just existing boggy patches that are the problem. In low-lying areas, the loss of volume as ice-rich permafrost melts leads to the collapse of the ground and the formation of thermokarst lakes from the meltwater. Satellite surveys show the number and area of these lakes is increasing and, as the work by Walter and others shows, they could be a major source of methane.

Put together, the latest research paints a disturbing picture. Since existing models do not include feedback effects such as the heat generated by decomposition, the permafrost could melt far faster than generally thought. "Instead of disappearing in 500 years, the deepest permafrost could disappear in 100 years," Ciais says.

The permafrost is not the only source of methane in the Arctic. Shallow ocean sediments can be rich in methane hydrates, a form of ice containing trapped methane. Particularly worrying are the huge amounts of methane hydrate thought to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean. Because the waters here are so cold, methane hydrates can be found closer to the surface than in most other parts of the world. These shallow deposits are far more vulnerable to the warming of surface waters.

Juergen Mienert at the University of Tromso in Norway, who has analysed past eruptions of methane hydrates from the Arctic, says current conditions are disturbingly similar to those in the past when warming waters penetrated sediments, triggering the release of hydrates. "Global warming will cause more blowouts, more releases," he says.

While shrinking sea ice in 2007 may have attracted all the headlines, some researchers say what is really scaring them is a simultaneous jump in methane levels. While the level of methane in the atmosphere has more than doubled since pre-industrial times, for the past decade or so there has been little change.

Then, in 2007, several million tonnes of extra methane mysteriously entered the atmosphere. Detailed analysis from methane monitors around the world suggests that much of it came from the far north. Ciais says it looks like the biggest source was Siberian permafrost.

This is still contentious. Matt Rigby of the Center for Global Change Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has analysed the methane surge, says we cannot yet say whether emissions from melting permafrost contributed most to the rise. "But 2007 was unusually warm in Siberia, and we would expect emissions increases when temperature rises," he adds.

The rise could just be a blip - or the start of something big. "Once this process starts, it could soon become unstoppable," Ciais says.

Walter agrees. Right now, she estimates, only a few tens of millions of tonnes of methane are being emitted. "But there are tens of billions of tonnes potentially available for release." And the faster the warming, the faster the emissions will rise.

Most worrying of all is the risk of a runaway greenhouse effect. The carbon stored in the far north has the potential to raise global temperatures by 10 °C or more. If global warming leads to the release of more greenhouse gases, these releases will cause yet more warming and still more carbon will escape to the atmosphere. Eventually the feedback process would continue even if we cut our greenhouse emissions to zero. At that point climate change would be out of control.

There is another concern about Arctic melting: the growing amount of fresh water flowing into the Arctic Ocean. The shrinking thickness and extent of sea ice has added a huge amount of fresh water already. Meanwhile, rivers are pouring up to 10 per cent more water into the ocean than they did half a century ago. This is partly the result of rising precipitation as the air warms - warmer air can hold more moisture - and partly the result of melting permafrost, ice and snow. Yet more fresh water is coming from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. As the Arctic warms further, these flows of fresh water will increase.

All this extra fresh water could weaken the pump that drives the thermohaline circulation, or ocean conveyor current. Its most famous element is the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic, but the conveyor travels all the oceans. It has its beginnings in the far north of the Atlantic, off Greenland, where unusually dense water plunges to the ocean floor. The water becomes dense here partly because it cools and partly because the formation of sea ice increases salinity. As the water gets a bit warmer and a bit less salty, thanks to all the extra fresh water, the worry is that the pump could slow down.

Fears that the conveyor will soon shut down altogether, causing a fall in temperatures in northern Europe, have receded. Models of the climate system do not predict a shutdown any time within the next century, says oceanographer Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Monsoon warning

Even a slowdown in the conveyor could produce dramatic changes, though. Climate models suggest that changes in the ocean conveyor will alter rainfall patterns around the world. The models are backed by studies of how the climate has changed during past shutdowns of the ocean conveyor.

The biggest consequence, says Buwen Dong of the Walker Institute for Climate System Research at the University of Reading, UK, is likely to be a disruption, and quite probably a complete collapse, of the Asian monsoon, causing severe droughts in south Asia. "It could have enormous social and economic impacts on these nations," he says.

You can say that again. The Asian monsoon is the main source of water for large areas of the most heavily populated continent. An estimated 2 billion - getting on for 1 in 3 citizens on the planet - rely on it to grow their food. Take away the monsoon and they would starve. All because of warming in the Arctic.

Nobody can be sure how likely all this is. Indeed, the scientists at the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who compile its reports cannot even reach agreement on how to quantify the probabilities of such events. As a result, the "scary scenarios" were barely mentioned in the last report.

Nonetheless, the latest findings suggest we cannot afford to ignore these possibilities, especially given that everything to do with global climate is linked. The loss of Arctic sea ice could lead to the release of ever more methane from permafrost and methane hydrates. That in turn would make a dramatic reduction in the strength of the ocean conveyor sometime this century increasingly likely, which could lead to abrupt changes in the Asian monsoon.

With the summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean already shrinking much faster than the IPCC models predicted, one thing is for sure. It is not just the polar bears who should be worrying about the warming Arctic.

Fred Pearce is an environment correspondent for New Scientist

Indian Ocean may hold key for bushfire predictions

By Dani Cooper for ABC Science Online


Posted Wed Mar 25, 2009 

Bushfire risk: the scientists' findings provide another warning that climate change could mean more extreme fires. (Getty Images: Stephen Henderson/CFA, file photo)

A weather pattern centred on the Indian Ocean may provide an early warning system for major bushfires in southern Australia, climate experts say.

Dr Wenju Cai and Tim Cowan, of CSIRO's marine and atmospheric research centre, have uncovered a link between the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and Victoria's killer bushfires.

Dr Cai will tell the Greenhouse 2009 conference today that 11 of 16 major bushfires in Victoria since 1950 have been preceded by what is known as a positive IOD event.

He says an unprecedented three consecutive positive IOD events preceded February's devastating Black Saturday bushfires.

The IOD refers to temperature fluctuations in the east and western Indian Ocean.

In its negative phase, the IOD brings cool water to the ocean west of Australia and warm water to the north, leading to winds that bring rain-bearing air over the continent.

In the positive phase, water temperatures are reversed and less rainfall travels to Australia, particularly to Victoria where the negative IOD provides winter and spring rains.

Unprecedented dry

As part of their research, Dr Cai and Mr Cowan recorded changes in the IOD using Argo floats, robotic devices that measure the sub-surface ocean temperature.

They found the IOD was in an "unprecedented" positive state for three consecutive years leading up to 2009.

They say this preconditioned the environment to the extent that it was almost inevitable the bushfires, which claimed more than 200 lives, would occur.

"If you look at the accumulative soil moisture in Victoria, it's unprecedented, it's never been so dry," Dr Cai said.

The researchers also found an IOD link to the Ash Wednesday bushfires of February 1983, with a positive event reducing rainfall during the winter of 1982.

Mr Cowan says of the 11 bushfires preceded by a positive IOD, six were coupled with an El Nino event.

But, there was only one occasion where an El Nino alone preceded a bushfire, compared to the five times when only an IOD impacted on the rainfall.

This shows the influence of the IOD was enough to precondition the environment to high bushfire risk, says Mr Cowan.

Increased frequency

Dr Cai and Mr Cowan say climate change projections show the frequency of positive IOD events will increase in the future.

"Almost all climate models say under climate change we are going to have an Indian Ocean warming pattern," Dr Cai said.

"That means it has to be manifested in either more frequent positive IOD events or higher intensity positive IODs."

According to Dr Cai, the effects of climate change can already be seen. Between 1900 and 1930 there were four positive IOD events, he says.

But in the past 30 years there have been 12 positive IODs, a 400 per cent increase.

For Victorian residents living in bushfire-prone areas that is bad news. Dr Cai says the continued suppression of rainfall in Victoria will only make conditions more fire friendly.

"The implication [of the research] is if we have a positive IOD in one year then the following season you have a higher bushfire risk," he said.

According to Dr Cai this knowledge could provide an early warning system.

"It gives us four to five months' lead time [to prepare for bushfires]," he said.

He says modelling shows that climate change will also lead to a 30 per cent increase in the number of consecutive events, while the odds of three consecutive IODs occurring increases by 300 per cent.

"In 1,000 virtual years without climate change we get two occurrences [of three consecutive positive IOD events].

"With climate change factored into the modelling this becomes eight."

The research is due to be published in a series of papers in the Geophysical Research Letters.

More aged deaths predicted due to increase in extreme heat

Adam Morton 
The Age, March 26, 2009

THE number of elderly Melburnians dying due to extreme heat is expected to rise dramatically as climate change takes hold this century, research suggests.

Heat stress is also projected to hit workplaces, with more regular oppressive days affecting productivity.

A separate study found the projected increase in bushfires would reduce air quality, leading to more cases of potentially fatal respiratory illness.

Nicole Joffe from consultants Net Balance found the number of days with an average temperature above 30 degrees would double by mid-century - from two to at least four a year - even if governments acted to cut greenhouse emissions. Failure to tackle climate change would trigger a steeper rise.

In the past, extreme heat in this range has increased deaths among Melburnians aged 65 and older by nearly a fifth.

Ms Joffe said her results posed questions about how people adapt to climate change.

"We need to look at air-conditioning and evaporative cooling as a start, but we also need policymakers to drive innovation in the area so we can find other solutions," she said from the Greenhouse 2009 conference in Perth.

Separate work by the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research found future bushfires were likely to substantially increase pollution over the city, undoing work to improve air quality over the past two decades.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cabinet talks on target's futility

The Age, Royce Millar and Adam Morton 
March 24, 2009

THE future of Victoria's greenhouse emissions target is in doubt as the Brumby Government grapples with advice that its policies will make little difference to Australia's carbon reduction plans.

A leaked high-level report, obtained by The Age, reveals that a cabinet committee has discussed how the proposed federal scheme nullifies state targets. Dropping state targets may be contained in a forthcoming policy paper.

Senior advisers have claimed the Victorian target, and a host of other state policies and programs, would become redundant under the Rudd Government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Well-placed government insiders have confirmed that the Rudd scheme has thrown the state environment policy — including the question of emission targets — into turmoil.

The State Government's formal policy is to cut greenhouse emissions to 60 per cent below 2000 levels by 2050. The target was expected to be part of climate change legislation to be introduced this year.

The Age yesterday revealed a high-level ministerial brief advised the State Government to rethink key environmental policies and programs, including subsidies for solar farms and solar panels and mandatory energy ratings for new homes, arguing that they will not contribute to any additional greenhouse gas cuts under the proposed federal scheme.

Senior sources say uncertainty over the future of Mr Rudd's scheme as it faces a hostile Senate has made the state legislation even more of a headache.

A policy paper, or green paper, preceding the bill was due in December, but is being reworked in light of the federal scheme and last month's bushfires. Its release has been pushed back to "early 2009". It is to be followed by a final policy paper, or white paper, in the middle of the year.

It is believed the green paper will now put greater weight on programs helping people adapt to climate threats, such as rising sea levels and more days of extreme bushfire conditions.

The State Government's predicament reflects a raging debate about the environmental benefits of voluntary actions to cut emissions.

Economists and environmentalists warn that, because of the design of the federal scheme, voluntary steps by those outside the scheme, such as householders, will only ease the pressure on big polluters to cut emissions. This view is backed by the confidential Victorian ministerial brief.

Concerns about the role of voluntary action under the Rudd scheme are now surfacing at local government level. Many councils have invested heavily in programs to cut emissions.

The City of Boroondara, in Melbourne's inner east, is finalising a policy of carbon neutrality.

Cr Heinz Kreutz said confusion and anger was growing over the role of household action under the Rudd scheme.

"It is very disappointing, because we are left in a very uncertain space," he said.

"We are encouraging people to install solar water and buy GreenPower. But trying to convince people it is still necessary or worthwhile is hard."

Cr Kreutz said the Rudd Government was sending mixed messages that local councils were left to try to interpret.

"We are talking about mums and dads here — not everyone is an expert. Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong are intelligent people. I can't help but think their obfuscation is deliberate," he said.

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong has denied that voluntary actions will be just a subsidy to big polluters, but has failed to answer a list of questions about voluntary action sent to her office on Friday.

The Greens attacked the leaked State Government advice, saying it would lead to the "worst possible outcome" of weak climate action at every level if state and local governments abandon their policies.

Greens senator Christine Milne called on the states to push the Federal Government to adopt a stronger target. "If a target is hard enough, everyone will embrace action to help reach it. A weak target disempowers the whole of Australia, from householders to State Governments," she said.

Neither the State nor Federal government has responded to questions about the impact of the Rudd scheme on state policies.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Protests call for carbon changes

PROTEST and direct action may be the only ways to tackle soaring carbon emissions, a leading climate scientist has warned.

James Hansen, a climate modeller with NASA, claimed corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution.

"The democratic process doesn't quite seem to be working," he said.

Speaking before joining a protest yesterday at the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, England, Mr Hansen said: "The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

"The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I'm not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we're running out of time."

Dr Hansen called for a world moratorium on new coal power stations. E.ON wants to build such a station at Kingsnorth in Kent, an application that Britain's Energy Minister Ed Miliband recently delayed.

"I think that peaceful actions that attempt to draw society's attention to the issue are not inappropriate," Dr Hansen said.

Officials will gather in Bonn this month to continue talks on a new global climate treaty, which campaigners want signed at a UN meeting in Copenhagen in December.

However, Dr Hansen warned that the treaty was "guaranteed to fail" to bring down emissions. "What's being talked about for Copenhagen is a strengthening of the Kyoto (protocol) approach, a cap and trade with offsets and escape hatches, which will be guaranteed to fail in terms of getting the required rapid reduction in emissions," he said.

"They talk about goals which sound impressive, but when you see the actions are such that it will be impossible to reach those goals, I can understand the informed public getting frustrated."


Thursday, March 19, 2009

New call for massive cut in emissions

A LABOR-DOMINATED committee has recommended the Federal Government toughen its 2050 emissions reduction target to 80 per cent.

But it has refused to make recommendations on Australia's 2020 target of 5-15 per cent on 2000 levels because "there was not enough evidence presented do so".

The chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Kelvin Thomson, yesterday told The Age 80 per cent was the only target the Labor members of the committee could reach based on the scientific evidence presented to them.

Mr Thomson said the Government's aim to stabilise the atmospheric carbon level at 450 parts per million would need a stronger 2050 target. He added that though it was not the committee's role to develop wholesale policy — the committee was investigating Australia's role in the Kyoto Protocol and beyond — it has also recommended a large revegetation program and increased investment in public transport to lower emissions.

"Public transport in major metro areas has been totally inadequate for a long time," Mr Thomson said.

Australian Conservation Foundation executive director Don Henry backed the committee's recommendation to beef up the targets and bring Australia into line with the US position under President Barack Obama.

But Greens senator Christine Milne jumped on comments by Mr Thomson that the 80 per cent reduction targets should be based on 2009 emissions, rather than 1990 levels, as is the global convention.

A spokeswoman for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had flagged a stronger 2050 target in a speech at the National Press Club in December, when he said that Australia would move to an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 if a "truly ambitious global agreement" was reached and the Government was re-elected.

A report to be released today says a dramatic cut in emissions — more than 90 per cent by 2050 — could be reached by tweaking existing policies and investing $28.3 billion in renewable energy and clean coal over the next four decades.

The modelling, by consultants Climate Risk and commissioned by WWF, found the transformation could be set up with a 2020 greenhouse reduction target of 15 per cent.

Report co-author Karl Mallon, Climate Risk's corporate analysis director, said the solution was "relatively simple".

"The emissions trading scheme (target) needs to be set at a minimum of 15 per cent. It is actually hard to go much beyond that domestically," he said.

Dr Mallon said the shift would also require renewable policy to be recast to ensure investment in at least five existing technology forms — wind, biomass, geothermal, solar and ocean power, such as wind and tidal.