Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Latest data confirms the world is warming

graph showing increase in global average temperatures to 2010
Globally, 2010 tied with 2005 and 1998 as being the hottest year on record, despite ending in Britain with a cold spell, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Last year, global average temperature was 0.53°C (0.95°F) above the 1961-90 mean.

“The 2010 data confirm the Earth’s significant long-term warming trend,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.”

The WMO's statistics are based on data sets maintained by the UK Meteorological Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit (HadCRU), the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In addition, Arctic sea-ice cover in December 2010 was the lowest on record, with an average monthly extent of 12 million square kilometres - a staggering 1.35 million square kilometres below the 1979-2000 average for December.

This follows the third-lowest minimum ice extent recorded in September. It is this phenomenon that is paradoxically thought to be responsible for the cold weather in northern Europe in December.

The WMO said that over land, few parts of the world were significantly cooler than average in 2010, the most notable being parts of northern Europe and central and eastern Australia.

Another predicted feature of climate change is extreme weather and climate events, and 2010 experienced a high number of these, including the heatwave in Russia and the devastating monsoonal floods in Pakistan. These were described in WMO’s provisional statement on the status of the global climate issued December 2010.

Despite this scientific evidence, climate change denialism is still common, and even increasing in America. The Republican Study Committee last week released a list of proposed budget cuts totaling $2.5 trillion, including a recommendation to withdraw U.S. funding from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In the U.S., much anti-climate change rhetoric is funded by the oil industry. Chief amongst these is Koch Industries, as identified by Greenpeace.

Last month they were the target of a hoax by unknown perpetrators, who made a fake website and fake news release that falsely announced the company was discontinuing its funding for denialist organizations such as Americans for Prosperity. Last week, Koch Industries filed a federal lawsuit in Utah seeking the identities of the people behind it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Co-op calls for moratorium on shale gas drilling near Blackpool

A new report, sponsored by the Co-op, has called for a moratorium on shale gas operations in the UK just a month before mining company Cuadrilla hopes to launch its first "flare".

The UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change has accepted assurances from Cuadrilla Resources, which is backed by former BP chief Lord Browne, that their operation in the Bowland shale, four miles from Blackpool, Lancashire, will cause no environmental damage.

The secretive company - which doesn't appear to have a website - is about to drill further into what it calls the first true shale gas find in Europe, near Grange Hill.

"We understand that [cases of water contamination] are only in a few cases and that, when carried out correctly, shale gas exploration and development does not pose a threat to aquifers or local communities," DECC said in a letter to the Co-op, which had called for a halt to the drilling.

It added: "Cuadrilla, currently operating near Blackpool, has made it clear that there is no likelihood of environmental damage resulting from its shale gas project, and that it is applying technical expertise and exercising the utmost care as it takes drilling and testing forward."

What is shale gas?

Shale gas is methane that is found within natural fissures and fractures underground. Shale is a type of rock laid down under lakes and seas millions of years ago. The methane was released by rotting vegetation and trapped in millions of small pockets.

Until recently, no method of safely transporting it to the surface existed.

Now, by pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations under high pressure using a technique known as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking", energy companies believe they have found part of the solution to Europe's energy security problems.

At the moment Europe depends on gas imported from Russia, and disputes between that country and Ukraine have disrupted winter supplies in the last decade.

In the US, shale gas already accounts for over 10% of natural gas production and some analysts predict that could rise to 50% within 20 years. BP's former chief executive Tony Hayward has described shale gas as a "game changer".

But in New York State, a temporary ban has been imposed on shale gas production after an incident of ground water contamination caused by the chemicals used in fracking. These can be foams, nitrogen or carbon dioxide, containing sand, resin-coated sand, man-made ceramics, and even radioactive sand is sometimes used so that the fracture trace along the wellbore can be measured.

Water extracted for drinking can also flow through shale. A new film, 'Gaslands', shows homeowners in the state turning on their water taps and igniting the gas that comes out in areas where shale is being extracted.

Other reports from the US have depicted polluted water killing trees and contaminating land. But shale gas has transformed the American energy market and sent prices spiraling downward. European gas prices are currently much higher.

The Co-op takes a stand

The Tyndall Centre report, funded by the Co-operative, demonstrates how the extraction of shale gas risks seriously contaminating ground and surface waters and calls for a moratorium on shale gas development until there is a much more thorough understanding of the extraction process.

Paul Monaghan, head of social goals at the Co-operative, added there was no evidence the use of shale gas in the US was driving people away from using dirtier coal for energy.

Tim Yeo, who chairs the House of Commons’ energy and climate change committee, said drilling for shale gas raised ‘some new environmental and related questions’

Environmentalists expressed concern that calls for a ban were going unheeded. "It is absolutely dangerous because they are using technology which is not proven yet," said Darek Urbaniak, extractive industries campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe.

More fundamentally, the Tyndall centre report concludes that in an energy hungry world, any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives.

"Consequently, if we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground" said Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre and the University of Manchester, referring to the Copenhagen Accord’s commitment to limiting global warming at 2°C.

The report also says that the demand for water in shale gas extraction could put considerable pressure on water supplies at the local level in the UK.

These concerns were dismissed by Marlene Holzner, spokesperson for EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. "We believe that shale gas is an opportunity," she said. "We need gas and gas demand will increase over the years so if we're able to extract this gas, it will help us to rely less on imports," adding that this need had to be balanced against "environmental concerns".

Friday, January 14, 2011

Feed-in Tariffs budget to be slashed by 10%

The level of support for Feed-in Tariffs is to be reviewed, as the budget must be slashed in 2014/15 by at least £40m or 10 per cent.

Energy minister Chris Huhne has praised FITs for introducing renewables to individuals who would not have traditionally considered installing them, but said that there has to be a review because the recent Spending Review called for a reduction in the scheme's projected costs.

Huhne was responding to questions on the Financial Times' Energy Source blog last week on a wide range of questions covering feed-in tariffs, the Renewables Obligation, emissions targets and green jobs in the UK.

"These savings will be achieved through the planned first review of the scheme in 2012, to take effect in April 2013, unless higher than expected deployment requires an early review," he said.

Solar panel and other installers have expressed alarm over Government noises that there is to be a review. If the tarrif rates are to be changed this would affect decisions on whether to invest in micro-renewables by householders.

Huhne also said his department was keeping an eye on whether FITs were encouraging the development of "large, industrial-scale, greenfield based solar farms", which would "distort the available funding for domestic solar and other technologies".

"Whilst we won't act retrospectively, we stand ready to take measures to limit the access of such schemes to FITs if that is shown to be necessary", he said.

The Government is also to consult on the proposed support levels for the Renewables Obligation after 2013 in summer 2011, and give its response in autumn 2011, says Secretary of State Chris Huhne.

Attempting to assure investors, he said that changes to bands, if any, will come into effect from 1 April 2013 (2014 for offshore wind).

"The RO will remain in place until 2017, so developers can make decisions now, knowing what their support mechanism will be" he continued. "We are also consulting on whether to give developers the choice between the two mechanisms in advance of 2017, and would genuinely welcome views. From 2017, the whole RO mechanism will be grandfathered, so developers can know that investments made now will be protected."

Support levels for new projects between 2013 and 2017 are decided by last March's banding review, and the Government recently announced that it is speeding up that process.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mark Kennedy: should the Met prosecute itself for crimes committed by its double agent?

News that the trial against climate change activists has collapsed because an undercover cop working with them for seven years decided to switch sides and give evidence in their favour has prompted widespread reactions - of glee, surprise and outrage.

It's being questioned whether he was more than an informer but an agent provocateur - he arranged meetings, provided cash, climbed fences and much more.

Such undercover work is nothing new, but the turning of an undercover operator is relatively uncommon.

Ever since Lord Monteagle was planted by Elizabeth I's Secretary of State Robert Cecil amongst the Gunpowder Plotters and helped them obtain the gunpowder they needed, not to mention the cellar under the Houses of Parliament when Cecil felt their tunnelling waas taking too long, the State has used this type of agent.

When I was part of a co-op producing a grassroots newspaper called Monochrome in Brixton during the '80s, an MI5 informant used to come to the open co-op meetings.

He stood out a mile, though, unlike PC Kennedy. He was older, dressed conservatively and shabbily, and his "street level" language was laughably out-of-date. We used to make fun of him.

He claimed to be a sympathetic lawyer offering legal advice, and also attended meetings at the anarchist centre at 121 Railton Road, Brixton.

He was exposed by the then Time Out / City Limits journalist Duncan Campbell and disappeared. He seemed a lonely, isolated chap.

We had our own undercover agent who infiltrated far right groups, such as National Front football supporters, to get stories for our paper. His technique was to say little, appear pliant, agree with everythng, and use personal contacts to gain trust.

A few years later the protest group London Greenpeace (nothing to do with the larger Greenpeace) imploded when it was found that there were more agents (seven) within the group than members! Several were private investigators employed by McDonalds, who were the target of their actions.

Each did not know the identity of the others, another innovation of Robert Cecil's to keep check on his own agents to ensure they could be trusted, one well used later by Stalin.

The subsequent McLibel trial established the argument that "those who employ agents are responsible or liable for any action they take within the scope of their employment".

Are we now to suppose then that the Metropolitan Police will prosecute itself for the offences committed by Mark Kennedy, aka Mark Stone, and his as yet unnamed female accomplice?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Join me for a free webcast on sustainable home renovation

Join me for a free Webcast presentation on sustainable home renovation, and ask any questions you like. It's Wed. 12th January at 5pm. Register here!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

After the cold December - is climate change real?

ice floes on the Dyfi Estuary, mid-Wales on 24 December 2010. Photo: Richard Collins
Many sectors of the media suggested last month that the exceptionally cold weather that gripped the UK and other parts of northern Europe challenged the science of climate change.

Sceptics, however, tend to look for easy, local, black-and-white answers to the problem of climate change and whether it is caused by human activity. Unfortunately, the climate is much more complex than this, and scientists are still struggling to adapt the models to the observed and collected data.

However, this does not mean that climate change is not happening: it is, and extreme weather events are part of the expected pattern.

Weather and climate

A basic mistake is to confuse weather with climate. The weather is not the same as the climate. A pattern of 'climate' in a region changes over a number of years. 'Weather' is local and changes by the hour.

There is no doubt than in general, the Earth is warming - global average annual temperatures are increasing. This is a view held by the vast majority of climate scientists.

The term 'climate change' is used because in the chaotic transition from one stable climate pattern (recent centuries) to whatever the future holds, there is and will be turbulence and unpredictability locally - an increased number of extreme weather events.

For example, last year saw also a Russian heat wave resulting fires that killed 56,000 people and the loss of 39% of the grain harvest. Furthermore, 15 nations around the world reported large scale coral bleaching events , as a result of record sea surface temperatures, including 94oF in the waters of the 'Coral Triangle'.

In fact, 2010 was one of the hottest on record around the world. The weather in north-west Europe is just one part of the global picture. Many variable factors affect it, meaning cold winters are perfectly possible in a warming world.

So what did cause the cold weather?

A big high centred on Greenland - one of the most intense ever, say meteorologists - spread south and blocked warm westerly winds from crossing the Atlantic. To fill the vacuum, bitterly cold air from the Arctic flowed down over Europe.

The culprit is widely blamed as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).

The NAO has two phases: the positive phase when air pressure is low over Iceland, but high down south over the Azores islands off West Africa, driving strong westerly winds and weather fronts, whipping up storms and sometimes causing floods; and the negative phase as occurred in December.

According to science writer Fred Pearce, "the NAO has been in a generally positive phase for the past 25 years. As a result, winters have usually been mild since the late Eighties, encouraging one climatologist to predict an end to winter snow in Britain.

"But in the middle of summer 2009, it slipped back into a negative phase that has persisted month after month since, bringing us last winter's snow and now our current record-breaking December freeze."

What has caused the change? Well, fingers are being pointed at the thawing of the Arctic ice due to global warming. This has had two effects: the sea absorbs more heat from the sun than the white ice, which reflects the radiation back into space; and it also warms the air above the sea, which ice does not. It's a positive feedback loop for warming, and it has given rise to the high pressure.

The Arctic Dipole

But the climate is more complex even than this. According to climate-watcher John Mason, "a new atmospheric circulation pattern has been identified: the Arctic Dipole, which has become an increasingly-important feature of the Arctic climate during the first decade of the 21st Century."

He says that Arctic weather has until recently been driven by the NAO and its close relative, the Arctic Oscillation (AO), both of which broadly produce a circumpolar airflow from west to east. But the newly identified Arctic Dipole pattern features anomalously high and low pressure systems - they are occurring and persisting where previously they did not.

"Now, with the Dipole, they have competition and it is having some strange affects on the climate of the Arctic and further afield," says Mason.

The open water in the Barents-Kara seas reaches its maximum extent in mid-September: during the Autumn, the research has found, it returns some of that heat back to the lower atmosphere, driving up air temperatures and thereby affecting pressure and atmospheric circulation patterns, which in return go on to cause further excessive summer ice-loss in subsequent years.

This potential influence - the 'B-K Effect' - has been analysed using a global atmospheric circulation model by Vladimir Petoukhov of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Vladimir Semenov of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University in a study submitted in November 2009 and recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

They found that the model responded in a non-linear fashion: rather than resulting in a warming over adjacent continents as might have been expected, a strong regional cooling was generated  within a certain range of sea-ice cover.

In the abstract, they state: "Here we show that anomalous decrease of wintertime sea-ice concentration in the Barents-Kara (B-K) seas could bring about extreme cold events like winter 2005-2006."

Changing climate models

Climate models may need to be updated to account for the readings observed. Rasmus Benestad of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, writing on the Realclimate blog on December 14th 2010, said that, while Petoukhov and Seminov's findings sound plausible, "There is a limit to what they are able to describe in terms of local regional details, and it is reasonable to ask whether the response to changes in regional sea-ice cover is beyond the limitation of the global model."

The extremity of the NAO is measured by an index from negative to positive. Whilst 2009-10 caused major problems in parts of the UK and had an index just under -4.0, it was not as cold as the 1962-63 winter, which had a lower NAO index of -4.0.

That winter had a Central England Temperature (CET) of -0.3C. The CET for the equivalent period in 2009-10 was 2.4C.

If the NAO was the only control-mechanism with respect to the severity of our winters, then by rights 2009-10 should have been colder than 1962-3. But it wasn't, and the difference might be due to overall average global temperatures increasing. The jury is still out.

Climate trends are multidecadal affairs and the research discussed above is relatively recent. The influence of open sea water in the Arctic, where at one time there was extensive sea-ice, is clearly crucial to watch in the coming years. As with most matters of science, the truth will come out in due course.

Other references:

> Budikova, D. (2009): Role of Arctic sea ice in global atmospheric circulation: A review. Global Planet. Change, 68(3), 149–163.
> Honda, M., J. Inoue, and S. Yamane (2009): Influence of low Arctic sea-ice minima on anomalously cold Eurasian winters. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L08707, doi:10.1029/2008GL037079.
> Overland, J.E., and M. Wang (2010): Large-scale atmospheric circulation changes associated with the recent loss of Arctic sea ice. Tellus, 62A, 1–9.