Looking Back on Climate: “Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study (1977)”

Oil spills. Floods. Heat waves. Water wars. Biodiversity loss.

We live amid a torrent of news and information — including reports and controversies about the environment. It’s helpful to step out of the rushing stream occasionally and take a look back.

Here are two items I’ve been thinking about.

From dust to dust

First, a remark made by paleogeologist Tjeerd Van Andel (who recently passed away) about a quarter century ago in one of my college classes  managed to lodge itself in my (now increasingly addled) mind.

According to Van Andel, the United States benefited from an unusually stable weather cycle for the four decades following the Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s. This stability coincided with and facilitated the rapid development of the American agriculture and economy across a period of modernization. This period, which includes the post-WWII boom, often serves as a baseline for comparison (or expectations).

Our still-growing understanding of global geophysical and socio-ecological systems shapes our interpretation of history — and informs planning for an increasingly complex future. Any beliefs regarding national exceptionalism, the causes of economic success, or our recent path of consumerism must be evaluated in the changing ecological or environmental context. Considering increasing climate variability and planetary boundaries, past experience is not a guarantee of future growth….

“People should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

The second item is an article from the Toledo Blade, dated March 13, 1977. Given the past year’s climate controversies, this summer’s heat waves and floods, and Van Andel’s comments, it resonated with me. [I came upon the piece through Google Timeline, but that particular issue seems to be currently unavailable through the Google News link.]

Meteorologists and climate scientists have long been making the case that we should be better prepare for a more variable world. This article from over 30 years ago predates scientific consensus on man-made global warming — although even back then, climate scientists like Stephen Schneider and James Hansen had begun to recognize the warming trend. The National Weather Service meteorologists in this article, however, emphasize the need to build “resiliency” against more extreme weather patterns. The article mentions global population and development pressures and somewhat presciently identifies arid and semi-arid regions as particularly vulnerable; these regions have been in the news recently.

Also of note: the author, Robert Cowen, was the longtime science reporter/editor at the Christian Science Monitor. The world’s population in 1977 was roughly 4.2 billion (now around 6.6 billion). The largest city was Tokyo, followed by New York City. Carter was President. The cost of a gallon of gas was US$0.62 ($2.35 per liter). I was in junior high. Things change.

“Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study”

By Robert Cowen

Don Gilman, chief of the U.S. National Weather Service’s long-range forecasting group, says he as mystified as anyone as to why North America has had such a rough winter.

You can’t see through the complex interactions of the atmosphere and ocean and say “This is the cause of that,’” he explains.

But one thing he feels certain – you don’t have to invoke a return of the Ice Age to account for it. Drought in the West, freezes in Florida, or a snow blitz in new York merely show what the present climate can do. And the hardships this is causing emphasize how vulnerable the United States, indeed the world, has become to what should be expectable extremes of weather.

“People,” Dr. Gilman says, “should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

Years of analysis have produced only disagreement among the specialists as to long-term climate trends. But, on one point, they tend to put increasing emphasis – the recent past has been relatively kind as far as weather extremes are concerned in some important areas, such as the United States corn and wheat belts.

Living patterns evolved during milder years—modes of farming, energy consumption, land use, or transportation – often can’t take it when the weather turns nasty.

On a global scale, burgeoning population and economic development are putting so much pressure on resources that the surpluses of fat years are no longer adequate reserves for weather-related lean periods.

It is this loss of resiliency to cope with rare, but expectable, weather extremes that meteorologists believe to be the real climatic threat now facing the United States and the world.

Developers of arid and semiarid lands should be especially weather-wary. Such lands – for example, Africa’s Sahel, California, and the North American Southwest, or the Soviet Union’s “new” agricultural region – suffer most from unanticipated swings of weather.

“I haven’t seen anything like it since 1917-18,” says Dr. Gilman, adding by way of reassurance: “That winter broke in February, and we may see this one break too.”

Will this turn out to be a “once-in-50-years” winter unlikely to return for a long time, or could its pattern repeat next year? No meteorologist can answer this. But what Dr. Gilman and his colleagues do know is that what has happened can happen again. Moreover, the very fact that they can’t predict next winter suggests this possibility must be planned for.

“What people should do,” Dr. Gilman says, “is to figure it just isn’t safe to use only the past 10, 20 or even 30 years of weather data as a guide in weather-related planning. A much longer record is desirable – just as long a record as they can get.”

Update: I came across this article today: Water Scarcity in American Southwest Gets Serious. Indeed, the arid regions mentioned in the article have become recurring headlines in the news. (h/t @Blackdogworld and @InvasiveNotes)

Image credit: Tim Lindenbaum, Flickr/Creative Commons

Minor revisions: October 21, 2010

Biodiversity and the City 3: The consuming city

The last post focused on the surprising lack of conservation research on cities and biodiversity, given the rapid urbanization of mankind. Beyond direct habitat fragmentation, the other significant way in which cities impact biodiversity is through consumption.

The global footprint of cities is growing.

This is partly a function of sheer numbers: most people on the planet now live in urban areas. Three out of four Americans (United States) reside in cities and suburbs; two thirds of Latin American residents live in urban areas. By 2030, China will have more than 220 cities with a million or more inhabitants.

According to a Nature Conservancy study in 2008, urban growth around the world threatens biodiversity.

“While the effects of urbanization are very localized, cumulatively it is a big threat to biodiversity,” says [Robert] McDonald, the lead-author of the study. “Our urban footprint covers much of the globe and is coming closer to stomping out many endangered species and posing new risks to protected areas and parks.”

But it’s not simply population that creates the footprint.

Welcome to the Overshoot

Last Saturday was Overshoot Day (or Ecological Debt Day), which marks when the humanity’s consumption of the world’s resources surpasses the annual productive capacity of the planet. Or as RP Siegel writes:

In a way, it’s a bit like finding out on August 21st that you’re not going to get another paycheck until next New Year’s Day. How would you deal with that?

Mathis Wackernagel, the president of the Global Footprint Network, applies this concern to the state of the planet.

The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Overshoot Day is a useful concept to explain the impact of human society. The fact that “it now takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate what we use in a year” is pretty sobering. It’s also important to remember that the ecological debt is cumulative: the planet’s resources do not reset every year. Furthermore, the burdens created by the well-off tend to fall on more vulnerable communities elsewhere.

Finally, the rate of consumption is accelerating: this year the human footprint has reached “overshoot” a month faster than the previous year.

What drives the Overshoot?

So does population or overconsumption have the greater influence? It’s not necessarily a simple question. A couple recent items by David Biello (here) and Jonathan Foley (here) thoughtfully address the issues.

What is clear, however, is that cities have a key role in this relationship between humanity and the Earth’s resources.

Consumption driven by cities deepens the pressure on global systems. City dwellers tend to have higher incomes (and greater income disparities) and inhabit new social relationships. This combination fosters new markets and encourages consumerism — a kind of hyper-consumption stoked by advertising.

Supply chains radiate like tentacles from urban areas (themselves sprawling) to the farthest reaches of the planet. Food mile calculations start in distant landscapes and terminate in urban supermarkets and restaurants.

While large cities are notably energy efficient, the gains of urban density can be quickly outweighed by the increase in total embodied energy of goods consumed. According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP),

One third of the average US household’s carbon footprint is due to emissions caused abroad producing goods imported into the US market.

Urban dwellers in the US, Canada, Australia, and other developed nations have a much larger footprint that city folk in other countries. Wackernagel and William Rees estimate that

a typical North American city with a population of 650,000 would require 30,000 square kilometres of land—an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island, Canada—to meet domestic needs alone without even including the environmental demands of industry. In comparison, a similar size city in India would require 2,800 square kilometres.

The UNEP study suggested that agriculture and energy are the primary forces of environmental change.

“How the world is fed and fueled will in large part define development in the 21st century as one that is increasingly sustainable or a dead end for billions of people.

“Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies; triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests; intensifying disease and death rates and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels.

And it is an urban penchant for consumption that continues to drive resource extraction, manufacturing, and their related impacts around the globe.

A recent study (also here) found that the primary forces driving deforestation are the rise of big cities and international trade. Increasing urban demand for agricultural products and biofuels greatly impact land use.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

This vast shift is now happening primarily in the global South.

But the demand itself is not solely from developed nations. While cities in the developed world have a larger footprint, this pattern is being mirrored in the developing world, as more people funnel into urban areas. The food demands of cities in the emerging economies of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), in particular, will push agricultural expansion.

Agricultural output in the Bric nations will grow three times as fast as in the major developed countries, the joint United Nations-OECD study said.

And rising incomes and urbanisation in developing states will drive growth.

“Developing countries will provide the main source of growth for world agricultural production, consumption and trade,” the report said.

“As incomes rise, diets are expected to slowly diversify away from staple foods towards increased meats and processed foods that will favour livestock and dairy products.

“For virtually all commodities, the projected growth in imports and exports of developing economies [over the next decade] exceeds that of the OECD area,” said the report.

The vast demand encourages agribusiness-driven exploitation. Where the main causes of deforestation were once the cumulative impacts of individual actions, now large-scale land grabs and conversion to agriculture have become a primary concern. Opportunistic agribusiness tends to exploit nations with weak governance structures. So this is not simply an issue of urban-driven demand, but also one of land tenure in the Global South, distribution, and a global food system.

Not just mega-cities

It’s uncertain (at least to me) whether the hyperconsuming mega-cities or the small to medium-sized cities — where most of global population growth during the next few decades will occur — will have a greater collective footprint.

The carbon footprint — and impact on land use and deforestation — of the megacities may be larger given the consumption levels. The sheer number and distribution of smaller cities, however, may end up disrupting more habitat and contributing more to biodiversity loss.

The rapid expansion of cities will test the capacity of urban governance (i.e., haphazard systems, untrained managers, corruption).  Small to medium-sized cities may face the “double whammy” of rapid, unplanned expansion and a “brain drain” of more talented or educated individuals to larger cities. The urban response will determine the scale of social and environmental impacts.

In any case, the future of humanity will be found in cities. As Robert McDonald from the Nature Conservancy concludes:

“Only by addressing this growing conflict between cities and biodiversity can society achieve genuine conservation in an urbanizing world.”

Copenhagen and Istanbul: The tale of the White Stork

photo: Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin (CC)

photo: Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin (CC)

Another perspective on Copenhagen and Istanbul (see my last post on the city summits)…

A white stork launches itself from its rooftop nest in Copenhagen as cold weather pushes in from the north. Ready to head south, the stork looks for the updraft of the first thermal to ride on its journey towards the Mediterranean.

Like most of the Northern European populations of white stork, it will skirt the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, fly over the Levant and the Sinai Peninsula, and then follow the Nile. A couple months later, the stork will arrive at its wintering grounds in Southern Africa.

2000 km (1250 miles) from Copenhagen the white stork encounters the Bosporus. Also known as the Istanbul Strait, the Bosporus connects the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea; it also separates Europe from Asia. Istanbul, a city of two continents and 19 million residents and a crossroads of cultures, sits astride the Bosporus.

Image courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center.

Image courtesy of NASA

For migrating birds unable to cross the Mediterranean, the Bosporus is a bottleneck. For birdwatchers, the Bosporus is one of the world’s great migration routes and a seasonal spectacle.

Riding on warm thermals, as many as 11,000 white storks have passed over Istanbul in a single day. According to Ben Hoare, in his book Animal Migration: “In all, about 350,000 white storks move through the Bosporus during the species’ month-long fall exodus…”

Photo: Anders Bell (CC)

Photo: Anders Bell (CC)

“White stork gone from Denmark”

According to a fact sheet from the U.S. National Zoo, white stork migrate 20,000 km (12,500 miles) from Denmark to South Africa.

The only problem is that during the last decade, the last breeding couple of white storks disappeared from Denmark. The white stork, once common across Denmark, is now extinct in the wild. The expansion of modern agriculture into small ponds and wetlands, once considered “marginal land,” has been the key factor.

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