All around the world

The Arctic Ocean has been circumnavigated by sailing vessels in a single season for the first time. The Norwegian trimaran Northern Passage reports that it has passed 74ºN, traditionally regarded as the eastern end of the NW Passage, and is now sailing into Baffin Bay heading for Pond Inlet. The Russian boat Peter 1is reported to be about one hour’s sailing ahead of them. In their blog post marking the milestone, Thorleif Thorleifsson and Børge Ousland provide this telling comment:

It is, unfortunately, the dramatic changes in Arctic sea ice conditions in recent years that have made this trip possible. On the time of Roald Amundsen it took five to six years to complete the same distance, due to the extremely difficult and demanding ice conditions. Now we have proven that it is possible to make the voyage in a 31-foot fibreglass sailing boat, equipped with a 10 horsepower outboard motor for emergencies. This shows how dramatic and how fast these changes are happening. The changes that we are witnessing will influence climate on a global scale, in addition to the whole range of animal life in the Arctic – especially seals and polar bears, whose lives are dependent on the sea ice.

It is our hope that our voyage will be seen as a strong, visible symbol of the scale and the speed of these changes.

Congratulations to both teams for their remarkable achievement. Given that the first circumnavigation by a sailing vessel was made by the French yacht Vagabond over two seasons as recently as 2002-2003, it’s clear that the pace of change in the Arctic is not slackening. Reflecting that, the Arctic Forum — a meeting of countries with claims to Arctic territory — is currently underway in Moscow. The Independent reports that the mood of the meeting is “conciliatory”, but the pressure to establish territory is growing as the rush to exploit oil, gas and mineral resources intensifies (see BBC for more).

[Updated] And to remind us that what’s at stake in the Arctic is a great deal more than a few billion barrels of oil, Yahoo News carries an IPS story on Arctic warming and the methane problem. If the average global warming is held to 2ºC (which doesn’t seem likely under present policy settings), the Arctic will warm much faster. NSIDC director Mark Serreze is characteristically blunt:

“I hate to say it but I think we are committed to a four- to six-degree warmer Arctic,” Serreze said.

If the Arctic becomes six degrees warmer, then half of the world’s permafrost will likely thaw, probably to a depth of a few metres, releasing most of the carbon and methane accumulated there over thousands of years, said Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and a world expert on permafrost. […]

That would be catastrophic for human civilisation, experts agree.

In other words, we have very good reasons to believe that settling for a 2ºC target would be to acquiesce in a global disaster. We can only hope for two things: that the climate commitment (the inevitable warming “in the pipeline”) does not push the Arctic into a huge release of methane, and that the world’s leaders wake up to the real scale and urgency of the problem. For all our sakes


Lester Brown: Russian heat hits world grain supplies

One of the things that persuaded Gwynne Dyer that it was time to write his book Climate Wars was the realisation that “the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply”. He’s not the only one to recognise that. Many of us hearing about what the Russian heat wave is doing to crops have no doubt been wondering what the effect of so much loss might be on global supplies. Right on cue Lester Brown, whose Plan B books always lays great stress on food reserves, has produced  an updateon what the failed harvest in Russia might mean.


“Russia’s grain harvest, which was 94 million tons last year, could drop to 65 million tons or even less. West of the Ural Mountains, where most of its grain is grown, Russia is parched beyond belief. An estimated one fifth of its grainland is not worth harvesting. In addition, Ukraine’s harvest could be down 20 percent from last year. And Kazakhstan anticipates a harvest 34 percent below that of 2009. (See data.)”

He notes that the heat and drought are also reducing grass and hay growth, meaning that farmers will have to feed more grain during the long winter. Moscow has already released 3 million tons of grain from government stocks for this purpose. Supplementing hay with grain is costly, but the alternative is reduction of herd size by slaughtering, which means higher meat and milk prices.

The Russian ban on grain exports and possible restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan could cause panic in food-importing countries, leading to a run on exportable grain supplies. Beyond this year, there could be some drought spillover into next year if there is not enough soil moisture by late August to plant Russia’s new winter wheat crop.

The grain-importing countries have in recent times seen China added to their list. In recent months China has imported over half a million tons of wheat from both Australia and Canada and a million tons of corn from the US. A Chinese consulting firm projects China’s corn imports climbing to 15 million tons in 2015. China’s potential role as an importer could put additional pressure on exportable supplies of grain.

The bottom line indicator of food security, Brown explains, is the amount of grain in the bin when the new harvest begins. When world carryover stocks of grain dropped to 62 days of consumption in 2006 and 64 days in 2007, it set the stage for the 2007–08 price run-up. World grain carryover stocks at the end of the current crop year have been estimated at 76 days of consumption, somewhat above the widely recommended 70-day minimum. A new US Department of Agriculture estimate is due very soon, which will give some idea of how much carryover stocks will be estimated to drop as a result of the Russian failure.

We don’t know what all this will mean for world prices. The prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007–08 run-up in grain prices began. Whether prices will reach the 2008 peak again remains to be seen.

Brown performs the obligatory ritual of acknowledging that no  single event can be attributed to global warming, though I would have thought that by now that proviso could be taken as read. It’s surely more important to affirm, as of course he does, that extreme events are an expected manifestation of human-caused climate change, and their effect on food production must be a major concern.

“That intense heat waves shrink harvests is not surprising. The rule of thumb used by crop ecologists is that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent. With global temperature projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius during this century, this effect on yields is an obvious matter of concern.”

Demand isn’t going down to match the reduction:

“Each year the world demand for grain climbs. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million more people. In addition, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. And this year some 120 million tons of the 415-million-ton U.S. grain harvest will go to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.”

And the obvious conclusion:

“Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly—before climate change spins out of control.”

There’s a podcast in which Lester Brown speaks at greater length, elaborating the matters covered in his written update, and amongst other things commenting on how we might be thankful, from a global grain harvest perspective, that it was Moscow and not Chicago or Beijing which experienced temperatures so far above the norm. The grain loss would have been much higher in either case.

It’s worth adding that while the Russian event is dramatic in terms of its obvious impact on exports of grain globally, there are plenty of other places where food production is threatened by extreme events or by other  trends which are in line with climate change predictions. It is impossible to look at the vast flooding of land in Pakistan and not wonder how they will cope with the washing away of millions of hectares of crops — there have been “huge losses” according to the BBC.

“We need to cut carbon emissions and cut them fast.”

Fire and rain

The last few weeks have seen some extraordinary weather events around the world: relentless extreme heat in Russia, biblical flooding in Pakistan and devastating landslides in China. Tens of millions of people have had their lives disrupted and thousands have died, and — beyond reasonable doubt — global warming is playing a part in creating these extremes. But how much of a part? Michael Tobis asked this question in a recent post:

Are the current events in Russia “because of” “global warming”? To put the question in slightly more formal terms, are we now looking at something that is no longer a “loading the dice” situation but is a “this would, practically certainly, not have happened without human interference” situation?

The answer, at least in the case of the current extremes, would appear to be yes.

Continue reading “Fire and rain”

The inner mounting flame


The rapid climate change underway in the Arctic has the potential to disrupt weather patterns around the planet, and brings with it the risk that methane bubbling out of the permafrost that rings the Arctic Ocean and from gas hydrates under the sea floor could make our attempts to restrain emissions and stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases completely irrelevant. These concerns will not be news to Hot Topic regulars (try the methane and Arctic tags for earlier posts and background), but a thorough overview by Fred Pearce in last week’s New Scientist (Arctic meltdown is a threat to all humanity) pulls all the threads together and presents them in a compelling fashion. Pearce begins by looking at the experiences of Katey Walter:

“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.”

Not good news.

Continue reading “The inner mounting flame”

Reelin’ in the year

IPYWMO.jpg The International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-8 formally draws to a close today, and when today arrives in Geneva there will be a press conference to mark the release of a summary report, The State of Polar Research [PDF], which covers some of the preliminary findings. [BBC report here]. In the run up to this event, there’s been a blizzard (…sorry) of stories from the teams working at both ends of the world, and they make fascinating reading. From huge pools of freshwater building up in the Arctic Ocean to new mountain ranges as big as the Alps under Antarctica, methane plumes off Siberia and the death knell for summer sea ice in the Arctic, there’s a lot to cover…

Continue reading “Reelin’ in the year”