Monday, March 31, 2014

IPCC latest: We were way too conservative in climate predictions

At a utility conference on Maui last week, someone complained that the United States has had three hundred-year storms in the last decade.

Last Saturday, a downpour atop Haleakala caused a flash flood that ripped out the highway near Ulupalakua.

Do you get the feeling that more of this kind of stuff is happening than used to? 

Get used to that feeling.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just reported that things are getting worse way faster than their earlier predictions forecast.

If you want to read it for yourself (it is not easy reading), look here.
At a minimum, the headings and the graphics are interesting to view. See key examples in the summary for policy makers

The report’s authors say the poor will suffer disproportionately, but everybody will be impacted.

To the degree that the climate scientists were cautious in their assessment earlier, they are not cautious any longer. The change is upon us, they say: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. 

“The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

The oceans have warmed, the earth’s surface has warmed and the atmosphere has warmed, the authors say. They generally say they have “high confidence” in those statements. Most of the additional heat—about 60 percent of it—is stored in the upper levels of the ocean.

And about those storms, rain events, and the like? “Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950.”

Sea levels are now rising faster than they have in 2000 years. 

The Hawai`i-centric impacts? Among the key ones may be rainfall and sea level. 

We’ve already heard that we are experiencing drier weather in Hawai`i, but also that the rain may come in more severe pulses. I thought about that as I watched a brown river surging across the Ulupalakua highway. Says the report: “Extreme precipitation events over most of the mid-latitude land masses and over wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent by the end of this century, as global mean surface temperature increases.”

Sea level: By the last two decades of this century, the current best assessment is that sea levels will be 10 to 21 inches higher than they are now. And they are now 7 inches higher than they were at the start of the last century. That's likely one of the reasons that beachfront houses are falling into the ocean on Kaua`i and O`ahu.

The report is reasonably confident of that amount of sea level rise, but not extremely confident, in part because more moisture in the atmosphere could dump more snow on polar regions, locking up some of that water. 

That said, sea level rise was faster in the last 30 years than in the period before, and is likely to continue , to increase in the speed of the rise. 

“The rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971 to 2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets,” the summary says.

And we have locked out grandchildren and their grandchildren into this climate madness. Even if the world were to stop the rampant production of carbon dioxide, one of the primary causes of climate change, we’re stuck now.

“Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2,” it says.

This is all not to say there isn’t still some scientific controversy about the report. Dutch scientist Richard Tol withdrew from the panel in protest of what he called its alarmist tone. That is not because he disagrees with how significant climate change will be, but rather because he feels that in many ways it might be a good thing.

Reuters quoted Tol: ”It is pretty damn obvious that there are positive impacts of climate change, even though we are not always allowed to talk about them.”

Most of the involved scientists disagree with him generally, and argue that the negatives far outweigh likely positives.

If we keep dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect continues, and it just keeps getting warmer.

Want a scary scenario? National Geographic has an interactive map of what the world looks like if ALL the ice melts. Ocean levels rise 216 feet, and North America gets skinnier. Florida’s gone. The Eastern Seaboard is gone. The California Central Valley is a bay.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

In the Hawai`i GMO battles, everyone cites The Precautionary Principle: But which one?

The Precautionary Principle is used and often abused in response to any number of major public issues.

The problem is that while it seems simple, there is no consensus on how to apply it. The term has multiple meanings, and some of them are in pretty direct conflict with each other.

As most folks understand it, the principle translates to this: if there’s risk, use extra caution.

But that’s not an enforceable standard. Which side determines whether there is risk? Who must show whether that risk is significant? How much caution is required? And what if an action has benefits that outweigh the risks—can you balance those factors?

Some people argue that if there is any possible risk, the action must be prohibited. In the heated discussions over genetically modified crops, even folks supporting a total ban on GMOs say that’s too harsh a standard.

British mathematician Peter T. Saunders, who has argued before the U.S. Congress in support of a moratorium on all GMO research, says: “The principle does not, as some critics claim, require industry to provide absolute proof that something new is safe. That would be an impossible demand and would indeed stop technology dead in its tracks.”

That said, the libertarian Cato Institute argues that even weaker versions of The Precautionary Principle establish an impossible standard. In a 2002 paper, Cato calls it The Paralyzing Principle.

And it is not even always protective of health and the environment. The Precautionary Principle has occasionally been used AGAINST the environment, preventing actions that promote conservation on the grounds that they may have negative conseuences as well.

Commentators have identified three versions of the principle: weak, moderate and strong.

The “weak” version requires actual evidence of environmental harm rather than a suspicion of it. It can place the burden of proof of harm on those proposing regulation of an activity.  And it may permit a balancing of the cost of mitigation against the benefits of the activity.

In the Hawaiian GMO controversy, as an example, the anti-GM forces would be required to prove that there are more than anecdotal impacts of GM farming. And regulations on those growing genetically modified crops could be balanced against the economic and other costs of shutting down those businesses.

A “moderate version,” as in the United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan, suggests actual evidence isn’t needed, but “a significant chance of damage” is. The burden of proof is still with those insisting on precaution. And if that case is made, balancing of costs and benefits may not be required.

A “strong” version of The Precautionary Principle put the burden on the person or agency proposing an activity to prove it will not cause significant harm. In this example, Hawai`i’s seed industry would need to provide evidence that their activities are benign.

With so much variation, one issue with asserting The Precautionary Principle, is: “Which Precautionary Principle?”

One of the early attempts to define The Precautionary Principle in legal terms came in the 1982 United Nations Charter for Nature. It said, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically. In this context the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

The 1992 Rio Declaration, which was also adopted by the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety says in Principle 15: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
The Science and Environmental Health Network puts that alittle more clearly: “When the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action.” 

That is a restatement of the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Supporters of a stronger version argue that it protects human health, protects the environment and ultimately makes the planet a safer place. Opponents argue that it stifles innovation, raises costs, provides regulators with too much power since no version is an entirely clear standard, and that it promotes legal challenge.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Collapsing fisheries? Maybe it's starvation, not overfishing.

Some years back, researchers in Honolulu learned that the trick to raising mahimahi in captivity was figuring out what they ate when they were still tiny larvae.

Now University of Hawai`i researchers are among those who have developed similar information about wild fish in the deep ocean. Maybe, they suggest, it isn’t overfishing that’s destroying fisheries, but starvation of the keiki.

(Image: The copepod Calanus finmarchicus, superimposed on a map of the Gulf of Maine. credit: Patrick Hassett, Ohio University.)

Petra Lentz and Andrew Christie, researchers with Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, are among the authors of a new paper that looks at the collapse of the cod fishery and other fisheries in the North Sea. 

The paper has the unwieldy title, “De Novo Assembly of a Transcriptome for Calanus finmarchicus (Crustacea, Copepoda) – The Dominant Zooplankter of the North Atlantic Ocean.”

Like mahimahi, when they’re still babies, cod eat tiny oceanic crustaceans called copepods. And recently, the species of copepod that cod larvae prefer have themselves been in collapse. That same copepod is a major food source for other creatures as well, including right whales and Atlantic herring. And since bluefin tuna feed on herring, it's at the base the food chain.

So maybe focusing on regulating the fishermen isn’t the answer to restoring fisheries. Maybe you need to look at what’s starving their babies.

The researchers have developed a new genetic technique for assessing what’s going on with the health of the copepods. It’s very technical stuff, but using an approach called transcriptomics, they can study how the copepods’ cells respond to changes in their environment.

And as they learn how that works, they hope to be able to determine which environmental changes are impacting the copepod health—for instance, whether it's ocean acidification, or changes in water temperature, or altered current patterns, or something else.

The researchers are assuming that something in their environment is preventing the copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, from completing its life cycle. And that means that when cod larvae go looking for breakfast, the table is bare.

Several presentations at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting at the Hawai`i Convention Center in late February described the new techniques, which were developed, in addition to Hawai`i researchers, by team members from Ohio University and Indiana University’s National Center for Genome Analysis Support. Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine and the University of Georgia Genomics Facility.

The University of Hawai`i news release on the research is here

Citation: Lenz PH, Roncalli V, Hassett RP, Wu L-S, Cieslak MC, et al. (2014) De Novo Assembly of a Transcriptome for Calanus finmarchicus (Crustacea, Copepoda) – The Dominant Zooplankter of the North Atlantic Ocean. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88589. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088589

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014