A longstanding brown cloud of pollution over the Indian Ocean is causing cyclones to intensify in that region, according to a new study published this month in the journal Nature and involving researchers from multiple institutions, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
After the apparent recent increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, climate watchers everywhere have speculated whether these storms were made stronger by industrial or man-made emissions. This is reportedly the first study to indicate that human activity may, in fact, affect large storms.
Amato Evan, lead author on the study and a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, notes: “The thing that stands out to me, as someone who works in climate and tropical cyclones, is that human activity, things people do, can actually change these massive atmospheric phenomena. To me, this is kind of the first study that can unambiguously tie human activity to something as enormous and powerful as a tropical cyclone.”
The Atmospheric Brown Cloud, previously known as the Asian Brown Cloud, has been observed for decades and began forming prior to World War II. From space, it resembles a dense brown smog and hangs over the northern Indian subcontinent, the northern Bay of Bengal, and the northern Arabian Sea. One of the contributors to the paper, Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, has done some of the most important work on identifying the sources of this pollution, which is made up of particles like black carbon and sulfates and is a product of industrial development but also things as common as wood cookfires from an increasing population.
Cyclones naturally form over the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, but are often limited by wind shear -– the cacophony of short-distance winds moving at different speeds and different directions in the atmosphere. Wind shear can be thought of as turbulence and prevents the cyclones from organizing into powerful storms.
As the brown cloud shades the ocean (called “atmospheric dimming”), however, it affects surface temperatures, which lessen the effects of wind shear. As wind shear effects drop, the storm intensifies. The scientists looked at wind, temperature and satellite data from 1979 to present and correlated the increased pollution to increased storm wind speeds. According to a NOAA press release, five storms in the northern Indian Ocean since 1998 have had winds over 120 mph –- including category 5 Cyclone Gonu in 2007 — and have killed more than 3,500 people and caused over $6.5 billion in damage.
James Kossin, a climatologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, N.C., and co-author on the study, cautions that it’s early to say smog causes bad storms. “It’s a hypothesis. It’s difficult to say with much certainty, and I think our main hurdle there is just a small sample of storms to look at. The results are very suggestive.”
“It gets into a tricky business when you want to start saying, ‘Here is the cost of that pollution associated with the tropical cyclones.’ That’s probably stretching it a bit far,” adds Evan. “But certainly it’s true in the Atlantic Ocean and it’s true anywhere: a bigger, stronger storm generally causes more damage.”
For Evan, the study has a significant upside: the pollutants that may be intensifying these cyclones are short-term, unlike greenhouse gases. They float into the lower or middle atmosphere and would clear out very quickly if emissions are cut.
“If emissions are reduced, we expect that this kind of trend would reverse on time scales of a few months,” Evans says. “It’s not like greenhouse gases, where we think we’re already in trouble. With these kinds of aerosols, if you just stopped all the emissions right now, the atmosphere would become much cleaner in a matter of weeks. And then the whole climate system, the ocean and the atmosphere, would essentially lose memory of those aerosols. It’s pretty dramatic.”
In an interesting side note, emails related to this study were among those listed in a recent FOIA request by the conservative American Traditions Institute as it investigates climate change science published by the former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann. The ATI has close ties to energy interests that have opposed climate legislation, and the so-called "Climategate" matter has been the subject of previous posts on this blog.
Greenhouse gases, water vapor and you
Another 'Climategate' inquiry clears professors
Judge restricts release of emails among climate scientists
-- Dean Kuipers
Photo: A NOAA satellite image showing Hurricane Katrina near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Credit: EPA/NOAA
Environmental news from California and beyond
It's a numbers game, to be sure, as humanity reaches a milestone of 7 billion people living on Earth.
The United Nations Population Division, using its best estimates, has designated Oct. 31, 2011, as a symbolic date when a baby born somewhere will push humankind into new territory. That has rekindled a ferocious debate among anti-abortion activists who love to imply that choosing Halloween to mark the occasion is just another left-wing scare tactic and those concerned about women's rights, reproductive health and a burgeoning numbers of consumers living within their means on a finite planet.
Enter Population Action International, which has come up with a clever way to help you find your spot on the growth curve. Key in your birth date, and PAI's mathematical formula, using U.N. data, will estimate your number as a way to illustrate how much the global population has grown since you were born. Fair warning: PAI has struggled to keep up with demand on its website. That's not altogether surprising, given how many of us there are, with an estimated 227,252 added every day.
-- Kenneth R. Weiss
Image: Population Action International's interactive website
Well before the contagion of wildfires was sparked this week, the state had been experiencing a weather catastrophe. Texas has seen its driest consecutive months since record-keeping began in 1895. Parts of the state have had no measurable rain in nearly a year. The drought, warn officials from the National Weather Service, may continue into next year.
A brutal heat wave has tormented residents, with some cities experiencing 100-plus degree weather for more than a month.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a GOP presidential candidate, scoffs at the notion of human-induced climate change, even suggesting recently on the campaign trail that scientists are manipulating data to make money. He also has declared a weather-related state of emergency every month since December. Meanwhile, Texas' state climatologist has warned that his fellow citizens should get used to this new climate of extremes.
These horrible fires are driven by wind, to be sure, but are fueled by much more combustible decisions: fire-prone nonnative plants planted to benefit another nonnative -- cattle. Rampant urban incursions into wildlands, placing homes in danger. Private property owners' failure to manage the grasses and trees on their land. A budget-cutting policy that pared most of the state's volunteer firefighters.
Climate-watchers are reminding Perry that Texas' nightmare is a direct result of a political decision to ignore the reality of climate change, leaving the state unprepared for its devastating effects on public health, the livestock and agriculture industries, and, ultimately, the sustainability of life in the arid Southwest.
Photo: A nearly drained stock tank in West Texas. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times
From the safety of the political sidelines, former Vice President Al Gore is venturing into a touchy topic, presenting his holistic view of how to curb the buildup of greenhouse gases warming the planet. Besides improving technology to reduce fossil fuel emissions, he is advocating "educating and empowering girls and women."
"That's the most powerful leveraging factor," Gore said in a speech Monday in New York. "When that happens, then the population begins to stabilize and societies begin to make better choices."
Although not entirely spelled out in the speech, Gore's thinking goes this way: If women are confident their children will survive, and if they have access to "fertility management," and if they have the power to decide how many children they want and when to have them, the result would be stabilization of the global population.
As it stands now, demographers at the United Nations forecast that the world's population will hit 7 billion later this year, march past 9 billion in 2045 and exceed 10 billion by the end of the century. Nearly all of the growth is expected to come in poor nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Gore made his remarks at the eighth annual Games for Change Festival, a conference organized by those who want to promote the use of video games for social change.
Here's a jerky cam capture of the relevant bits:
-- Kenneth R. Weiss
Industrial-style farming, often known as the "green revolution," has been widely credited with saving perhaps 1 billion people from starvation by boosting the yield of grain crops in India, China, Pakistan, Mexico and other countries.
But the green revolution, which relies on intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy, has come at a cost, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says. The FAO tally of such costs include anemic soils, depleted water supplies, diminished biodiversity, resilient pests, super weeds and polluted air, water and soil.
Now the U.N. agency, tasked with solving world hunger, has thrown its support behind wider use of "sustainable agriculture" in the developing world. It has issued a new primer, "Save and Grow," specifically targeting the 2.5 billion people who scratch out a living on small farms throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The big idea? That humanity cannot just rely on intensified ag practices that require ever more powerful pesticides, fertilizers and genetically designed seeds to feed the world's burgeoning population. Experts predict farmers will need to double production to feed a global population that will add more than 2 billion more people by midcentury.
"In order to grow, agriculture must learn to save," the FAO reports. That means preserving soil's natural fertility by minimizing ploughing, and recycling crop waste to enrich the earth. It means smarter, integrated way of managing pests, rotating crops, and greater precision in the use of fertilizer and drip irrigation, the book authors say.
Some studies show that farmers can get bumper crops if they follow these practices and, at the same time, save water, energy and other costs.
To be sure, the developing world's farmers get mixed messages about how to coax more from their small plots of land. It remains to be seen how far the FAO's new advice can reach into the most remote places.
Yet "Save and Grow," available in six languages, already has lined up the endorsement of a key agricultural scientist in India.
M.S. Swaminathan, who joined with American agronomist Norman Borlaug to bring the green revolution to India, offered this blurb on the FAO website: "This book shows how we can launch an 'evergreen' revolution, leading to increases in productivity in perpetuity, without ecological harm."
-- Kenneth R. Weiss
Photo: Farmworkers harvest rice paddy in India. Credit: Bikas Das / Associated Press
Smith, a UCLA professor and geographer, traveled the Arctic region after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006. In Russia, Canada and the northern regions of Europe, he visited remote aboriginal villages, and studied both permafrost and demography.
He concludes that the future is a mixed bag of positive and negative: People will urbanize further; the global population will age; and aboriginal groups of the far north will gain a voice in how we spend our natural resources. It’s not how many people live on Earth, but rather how we live that will affect outcomes.
He recently spoke with The Times about his work.
By 2050, who will be the winners and losers?
The definition of a winner and loser depends on your point of view. There will be a surprising rise of indigenous power; from a human rights perspective, the indigenous groups are huge winners.
Most climate change will be overwhelmingly negative. But there will be milder winters and a longer growing season in the northern countries, even in the northern U.S. like Minnesota. If you are a raccoon pushing north, it’s good. But if you are a polar bear, it’s bad.
There will be reduced ice cover in the Arctic, which will allow for easier access for shipping. But the interiors of the north will become less accessible. So, we’ll see a rising maritime economy –- with greater access by sea, but reduced access by land.
What’s happening with the aboriginal people through the high latitudes?
During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, these people were pushed out, but in recent years there’s a been a rise in aboriginal power. It started in 1971 in Alaska with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
This means that the northern people are now stakeholders. From a human rights perspective, it’s great. From an environmental perspective, once the agreements are in place, aboriginal people will be able to favor resource development. Though the aboriginal people deeply care about the land and want to minimize damage. This is happening in Canada. But it’s not echoed in most of Europe and in Russia it's bleak.
The perception Americans have of Arctic people is different from the way Arctic people view themselves. To them, they are changing like everyone else –- they want to move to town, they want the Internet. To us, the Arctic is a pristine part of the planet that we like to protect; we like to know it exists. In terms of hunting, to them, they have lived off of these animals for thousands of years. To them, oil and gas are bounty of the land.
How will Canada fare in the future as compared to Russia?
Throughout most of northern Canada, they are all urbanizing and moving to cities. It’s a young population. Kids there today don’t want to live in a cabin, hunting and fishing; they want to live in town with a Wii.
Canada is growing, while Russia is falling. They differ in their attitudes toward immigration. Canada has been good at attracting a skilled immigrant population. In Russia, they are actually headed toward a population crash. Their population will drop by 17% in 2050.
Canada prizes education, work skills, and language. Russia is xenophobic. It’s a political issue -- if a Russian politician says we need to open the door to immigrants, they get crushed. Because of their differing attitudes toward immigration, one nation is thriving and one will crash.
And the winner is: the Center for Biological Diversity, for the oddest Earth Day commemorative.
The organization that spends most of its time suing the government to protect endangered species is passing out a quarter of a million endangered-species condoms in U.S. cities, Mexico and Puerto Rico on Thursday.
Actually, the nonprofit had been passing out the prophylactics since February but upped the pace for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The group says it wants to highlight the role of human overpopulation in the elimination and endangerment of other species.
Several thousand volunteers will hand out the two-condom packets at concerts, bars, universities, spiritual-group meetiongs, local events and farmers' markets. Each package includes information on the species, facts about overpopulation and species extinction, and suggestions on how the human population can be stabilized.
-- Geoff Mohan
Photo: Artwork of the polar bear endangered-species condom. Credit: Center for Biological Diversity
Environmentalists tend to avoid the topic of population control. Too touchy. But the politically incorrect issue is becoming unavoidable as the global population lurches toward a predicted 9 billion people by mid-century. Will there be enough food? Enough water? Will planet-heating carbon dioxide gas become ever more uncontrollable?
The greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more significant than the amount any American would save by such practices as driving a fuel-efficient car, recycling or using energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, according to Paul Murtaugh, an OSU professor of statistics. Under current U.S. consumption patterns, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of an average parent--about 5.7 times a person's lifetime emissions, he calculates.
"Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth," Murtaugh said. "Future growth amplifies the consequences of people's reproductive choices, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance."
Given how much less the average developing nation consumes per capita, the impact of a child born in the U.S., along with all his or her descendants, is more than 160 times that of a Bangladeshi child, the OSU research found. And the long-term impact of a Chinese child is less than one fifth the impact of a U.S.-born child. But as China, India and other developing nations hurtle toward prosperity, that is likely to change.
Photo: Christine Cotter/LA Times
It turns out the Beijing Olympics were smoggier than we thought. Even Los Angeles on a bad day couldn't compete.
Chinese environmental experts under-reported levels of particle pollution by about 30%, according to scientists at Oregon State and Peking universities. New research shows that levels of particle pollution, which enters the lungs and can cause serious health problems, consistently surpassed what the World Health Organization would call "excessive."
Scientists said particulate matter pollution was twice as high as the Olympics in Athens, three times as high as Atlanta and three-and-a-half times higher than Sydney, Australia.
And compared with smoggy Los Angeles? The levels exceeded the L.A. average by about two to four times.
To give the Chinese government credit, Beijing had a big decrease in particle pollution leading up to the Games because of limits placed on driving ahead of time, according to the study. Still, it seems shifting winds and fortuitous rains had more impact in scaling back pollution than government restrictions.
The study was jointly funded by the U.S. and Chinese National Science Foundations.
Photo: Beijing's smog surpassed Los Angeles' levels by two to four times. Credit: Jean Chung / For The Times
Worried about collapsing financial markets? The World Wildlife Fund says that’s nothing compared to the looming ecological credit crunch, as human society continues on a spending binge that vastly exceeds the planet’s ability to provide clean water, air and other essential ingredients for success.
The 45-page Living Planet Report attempts to quantify how the human race’s consumption patterns now “overshoot” the planet’s capacity to regenerate itself, replenishing water and timber as well as absorbing carbon dioxide and other human-caused pollution.
The recent downturn in the global economy, writes James P. Leap, director-general of the World Wildlife Fund International, offers a reminder of the consequences of living beyond our means.
“Yet our demands continue to escalate, driven by the relentless growth in human population and in individual consumption,” he wrote in the report. “Our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent. If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s, we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.”
The Living Planet Index, produced with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, offers a measure of nature’s overall health. The snapshot finds that wildlife has dropped about a third, freshwater is increasingly scarce in some countries, and about 40% of the oceans are severely affected by overfishing and other human activities.
Most of this, if not all, is attributed to human demands on the planet, the report says. In 1961, the first time such global data were available, most countries managed to live within their ecological means. By 2005, more than three-quarters of the world’s people lived in nations that were “ecological debtors,” meaning their national consumption outstripped their country’s biological capacity.
Although the United States often takes the lead in consumption, the United Arab Emirates edges out U.S. in the ecological footprint per person. That measurement is taken by adding up all of the cropland, grazing land, forests and fishing grounds required to produce food, fiber and timber, as well as the sum of a country's carbon dioxide emissions.
In its global analysis, the report notes that both population and average footprint have increased since 1961. Since around 1970, the global average per-person footprint has been relatively constant while population has continued to grow. That’s because so many of the additional people on the planet, such as those in sub-Saharan African nations, are so poor.
One notable exception is the increasing affluence among China's growing populace. Its population and per-person footprint doubled from 1961 to 2005, resulting in a four-fold increase in its overall ecological footprint.
“With the world already in ecological overshoot," the report concludes, the "continued growth in population and per-person footprint is clearly not a sustainable path."
It offers a prescription to slow, or reverse, the trend:
Encourage new technology and innovation in developing nations to help them leapfrog over dirty industries that are typically steps on the path to modern industrialized society;
Design cities, which now house more than half of the world’s population, in such a way to reduce demand on energy, water and other natural resources;
Help women obtain education, economic power and access to voluntary family planning, as a way to slow population growth.
-- Kenneth R. Weiss
Photo: Planet Earth; Credit: NASA/Corbis