Archive for the ‘Climate’ Category

People have a blind spot concerning their computers, the internet, and modern communications. For a while now (since about 15 years ago) I’ve thought about the seeming inconsistency of people worrying over the internet about what is the greenest way to make a change in their lifestyle, and discussing it throughout the world wide web. The changes, while laudable, may have little impact. Meanwhile they are getting the latest PC/PDA/Cell Phone/iPod, etc every few years, leaving their machines on all the time so they stay in touch, using massive web resources to get their messages across, and happily paying the electrical bills for same. These items are often replaced every 2-4 years (half the average replacement period for a car), contain steel, non-biodegradable plastics, toxic rare earth elements, require a huge infrastructure to maintain, have probably the worst and most deliberate obsolescence factor of any class of products on the planet, and are probably expanding their markets as fast or faster than any other class of products. Bill Gates isn’t the richest man in the world for nothing. If you try and break it down into what factors may be ecologically or climatologically unsound, interesting questions arise, regarding:

  1. Construction of the devices
  2. Construction of the communications networks, including land-lines, fibre-optic cables, wireless LAN networks, satellites and their replacements
  3. The facilities and infrastructure related to the facilities used to store and retransmit data over the web, especially considering the amount of information that the general public puts online (Google has hundreds of facilities, each with lots of servers, for example)
  4. Energy needed to run them, and the “Vampire energy” they use even when “turned off”
  5. Heat production, and energy needed for the cooling systems required to dissipate the heat (air conditioners draw energy from the outside to cool things; it is not a closed cycle). There are potential local effects on the environment, for example heating streams and rivers used as cooling sources, etc.
  6. The carbon emissions for much of the above
  7. The ecological disruptions of putting in the physical internet (fibre-optic cables, older cables, launching satellites, the facilities at the hubs, and the ongoing energy costs and pollution produced in acquiring the energy).
  8. The ecological disruptions of mining and otherwise aquiring the raw materials for construction of the devices, and the pollution produced in processing the raw materials and in making the gadgets, then packaging them, then transporting them, then removing them, then getting rid of them…
  9. What happens to most of them when they become obsolete? And what does obsolete mean these days?

I could add things, but this is definitely enough to start with.

Carbon emissions due to Internet servers.

Regarding carbon emissions alone, on the CBC program Spark, Bill St. Arnaud from Global Action Plan claimed that “the worldwide ICT sector is responsible for around 2% of man made CO2 each year – a similar figure to the global airline industry.” There is also evidence that it is growing significantly faster with respect to emissions than the airline industry, at least in the United Kingdom. The magazine New Scientist published an article indication that using a server effectively produces the same carbon emissions as a 15 mile per gallon SUV. One estimate of the number of servers in the world is 160 million, half of them being Apache servers, followed by 50 million MS servers. The number of SUVs in the U.S. was estimated by the Census Bureau to be about 25 million in 2002, up 56% from five years before. So extrapolating, we’d estimate about 55 million in 2007, and then sales slumped due to oil prices and market uncertainty. So we’ll guess about 60 million now. If so, there are about 2.67 servers in the world per SUV in the United States, and they put out about 2.67 times the emissions of the entire American SUV fleet. And the carbon footprint from servers is just the cost of running the bloody things; it doesn’t count construction, maintenance, replacements, etc.

With the number of PCs in the world projected to more than double by 2015, reaching about 2 billion machines, the carbon footprint prediction above is more than plausible, especially considering that much of the increase will be in developing countries, and most of these countries don’t have the greenest energy sources. To compare growth rates and impacts, there are currently about 600 million cars in the world, and they are projected to double in number by 2030. If true, the growth rate of PCs is at least 22 times faster than cars, and there is no reason to suppose that this rate will get any smaller (unless we run out of materials…).

I think it would be safe to say that the computer/internet industry is a bigger threat in the long term than the automotive industry, and accounts for a significant percentage (defined as greater than 1%) of the human carbon impact on global climate change. They’ll definitely beat the airline industry in the short term, which is one of the more notorious polluters.

Aside: the airlines are taking a worse beating than shipping is from environmentalists, especially from the amateur enthusiasts, but shipping does far worse damage. The airlines are responsible for about 2% of emissions, while the shipping industry accounts for 5%. Part of the reason that shipping goes unnoticed is that airlines are more high profile and visible, and more sensitive to popular pressure on their bottom line. Very few people could tell you what the major shipping lines are, or how much pollution they produce. The ships just quietly pollute their way around the world, incidentally dropping a little bunker oil here and there near Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada…


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Twillingate Iceberg
Iceberg near Twillingate with a tour boat just clearing the right side.

Currently there are Icebergs near the Avalon Peninsula, and a small number further up the coast towards Twillingate. There are also a large number along the South Labrador Coast. If you want to check the Iceberg Chart from the Canadian Ice Service for yourself, remember that the numbers in each box are the number of bergs per square degree (about 8433 square km at the latitude of St. John’s), so the 5 currently “near” St. John’s means you will find an average of 1 berg per 1700 square kilometres. Anyway, there are more bergs further south than the last year, which was a very disappointing year for bergs.

If you want to go find some, I’d advise checking with Icebergfinder.com, which combines satellite data with reports from local observers. Also, before committing to checking out a certain area, it would be a really good idea to check with a tourism office in the area. You should do this because tides and weather will often change iceberg positions a lot from one day to the next, and the tourism offices often have good and current information on sightings. Finally, you might want to check the winds for the period to see whether the icebergs might be blown towards shore or out to sea, and of course it’s more fun to watch during good weather.

The single best area for observing for many people in Newfoundland is near Twillingate. It is about a 4 hour drive from St. John’s, there are relatively cheap accommodations between Gander and Twillingate, and there are at least three tour boats that can take you out. Going out near a berg is a lot better than seeing them from the shore, and the price isn’t that bad. The local tourism office also has daily information on sitings, and the New World Island area is well known for trapping icebergs. Also good are Cape Bonavista, Grates Cove and Old Perlican, and Cape St. Francis. The further north you go the better. If you are really obsessed try St. Anthony or Southern Labrador; you’ll be almost guaranteed many large to huge bergs.

Now for a warning. Last year the odds looked good for a large number of icebergs near Newfoundland. Hardly any made it past Twillingate, and so people on the Avalon Peninsula were left hanging. There were two reasons for this. First, the ocean was warmer than normal, making the bergs melt faster. Second and more important were the winds and currents. Most icebergs observed from shore near the Northeast Coast and the East Coast of Newfoundland are primarily driven by the winds, because there are no strong ocean currents near the shore. Since the winds last year during the spring were either light or or tended to blow out of the East or Northeast, the bergs were trapped along the Northeast Coast. In order for the bergs to get down to the Avalon there usually has to be an extended period of Northwesterlies, or a combination of Westerlies and Northerlies, to drive them down the coast without being captured near Twillingate.

Personally, if I wanted a guarantee of some good sitings, I’d head at least as far as Twillingate and New World Island, I’d hang around for a couple of days, and I’d only go if the local tourist bureau indicated a fair number of bergs. I’d also check out all the little coves near Twillingate, because there are usually some nice ones hidden away, and the coves themselves are pretty nice.

For those on the Avalon, I hope this year is better than previous years, and if anyone gets some nice pictures, let me know.

Good Hunting all that keep the Iceberg Law” -Brrr-Lou the Polar Bear

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As you’ve probably noticed in the news, the second of four assessment reports on climate change has been announced; the summary for policymakers details the main findings of the report. The first report summarised the scientific evidence of climate change and the probable future changes in climate.

The first report said “this is what is happening and what will probably happen”; this report says “these are the effects and dangers to the ecology and to us”, including water resources, species impacts, land-use and coastal effects, agricultural changes, etc. It is the first of the reports that tells us why we should be worrying about it and what we will probably have to cope with.

Because it is talking about impacts and addresses things that need to be done, some of the news media indicates increased political pressure to moderate the language in the report. Some of the scientists have decided to remove themselves from the IPCC in protest over some of the pressure applied. So when you read the summary for policymakers look for language that tries to water down the impact of results, and take it in context with the main message. Also, it might be better to err towards more significant impacts if you want to get a better idea of the consensus.

It is interesting that much of the research on biological impacts has been done in Europe; 28,000 of 29,000 observational data sets, most of them from the 6 year period since the last assessment report, come from EU countries. The European Union has consistently been the most responsible political unit regarding ecological issues over recent history. However, the greatest pressure to tone down the level of certainty in the document came from the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia, according to CBC News.

Finally, the new report talks about regional (i.e. continental) impacts. From a quick read-through, the areas that will suffer the worst seem to be the polar regions, Africa mainly due to droughts, coastal Asia (especially the mega-delta regions such as Bangladesh). For North America and the Arctic (our bailiwick) some of the findings are as follows (as quoted from the report):

Polar Regions:

  • Already Arctic human communities are adapting to climate change, but both external and internal stressors challenge their adaptive capacities. Despite the resilience shown historically by Arctic indigenous communities, some traditional ways of life are being threatened and substantial investments are needed to adapt or re-locate physical structures and communities.
  • In the Polar Regions, the main projected biophysical effects are reductions in thickness and extent of glaciers and ice sheets, and changes in natural ecosystems with detrimental effects on many organisms including migratory birds, mammals and higher predators. In the Arctic, additional impacts include reductions in the extent of sea ice and permafrost, increased coastal erosion, and an increase in the depth of permafrost seasonal thawing.
  • Beneficial impacts would include reduced heating costs and more navigable northern sea routes.
  • In both polar regions, specific ecosystems and habitats are projected to be vulnerable, as climatic barriers to species’ invasions are lowered.

North America:

  • Moderate climate change in the early decades of the century is projected to increase aggregate yields of rainfed agriculture by 5-20%, but with important variability among regions. Major challenges are projected for crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or depend on highly utilised water resources.
  • Disturbances from pests, diseases, and fire are projected to have increasing impacts on forests, with an extended period of high fire risk and large increases in area burned.
  • Cities that currently experience heat waves are expected to be further challenged by an increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves during the course of the century, with potential for adverse health impacts. The growing number of the elderly population is most at risk.
  • Coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change impacts interacting with development and pollution. Population growth and the rising value of infrastructure in coastal areas increase vulnerability to climate variability and future climate change, with losses projected to increase if the intensity of tropical storms increases. Current adaptation is uneven and readiness for increased exposure is low.

You’ll note that many of the findings are similar to previous predictions. The most important thing you should take away from this, and the difference with previous results and predictions, is that there is a lot more hard evidence supporting these statements. The 29,000 data sets I mentioned earlier show trends consistent with temperature changes as predicted by global warming, or directly show temperature change over the last few decades in the areas studied. Also, the Working Group I report that came out earlier this year show strong measured physical evidence of global and regional climate warming. The previous reports depended more on model extrapolations, but there was little data to validate against the models; now there is.

The next two reports are going to be the most interesting, since they will talk about “solutions” and will encourage governments to make responsible decisions. I expect a lot of spin. The next report will be by the Working Group III (Mitigation). This will be approved on May 4, 2007, in Bangkok. It will summarise the international consensus on how we are to cope with the effects of climate change for both the near-term and long-range impacts. In November  the synthesis report will be announced in Valencia, Spain.

The problem isn’t simple, the impacts are complicated and interconnected, and mitigation will have to address all of this together with international political interests. But the more we know the more we will be able to respond with effective actions. And governments will understand what needs to be done, and why they are doing it.

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As discussed yesterday, major results from the new report on climate change have been released. This section concerns the scientific basis and conclusions of the assesment; social and political impacts and implications will be addressed later. The conclusions and predictions in the report are clearer and more compelling than ever before, and today’s press release has stirred a lot of controversy. World leaders are also struggling to address it appropriately, and having a bit of trouble.

The Policymaker’s Summary of the Physical Science Basis is a very interesting read. I’d like to highlight some of the report. Before we start, here are a few definitions:

  • Very Likely: less than a 10% chance of being wrong
  • Likely: less than a 33% chance of being incorrect
  • Very High Confidence: at least a 90% chance of being correct
  • High Confidence: at least an 80% chance of being correct

Here are the main statements in the summary:

Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years . The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.

The understanding of anthropogenic warming and cooling influences on climate has improved since the Third Assessment Report (TAR), leading to very high confidence that the globally averaged net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming, …

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level.

At continental, regional, and ocean basin scales, numerous long-term changes in climate have been observed. These include changes in Arctic temperatures and ice, widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and aspects of extreme weather including droughts, heavy
precipitation, heat waves and the intensity of tropical cyclones (including hurricanes and typhoons).

Paleoclimate information supports the interpretation that the warmth of the last half century is unusual in at least the previous 1300 years. The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to
4 to 6 metres of sea level rise.

Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. This is an advance since the TAR’s conclusion that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns.

Analysis of climate models together with constraints from observations enables an assessed likely range to be given for climate sensitivity for the first time and provides increased confidence in the understanding of the climate system response to radiative forcing.

For the next two decades a warming of about 0.2°C per decade is projected for a range of SRES emission scenarios. Even if the concentrations of all greenhouse gases and aerosols had been kept constant at year 2000 levels, a further warming of about 0.1°C per decade would be expected.

Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.

There is now higher confidence in projected patterns of warming and other regional-scale features, including changes in wind patterns, precipitation, and some aspects of extremes and of ice. Some of these projections include:

  • Snow cover and permafrost are projected to be reduced
  • Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic under all SRES scenarios. In some projections, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.
  • It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.
  • Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs (there is less confidence that there will be more storms) .
  • Extra-tropical storm tracks are projected to move poleward, with consequent changes in wind, precipitation, and temperature patterns, continuing the broad pattern of observed trends over the last half-century ( for Atlantic Canada this means more rain and less snow).
  • Since the TAR there is an improving understanding of projected patterns of precipitation. Increases in the amount of precipitation are very likely in high-latitudes, while decreases are likely in most subtropical land regions , continuing observed patterns in recent trends.

Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized.

One of the most interesting aspects of the summary are the figures and graphs at the end, especially the error bars. These indicate unequivocal warming, sea level rise, etc.

For me, the most compelling aspect of the report is that the climate is going to continue to warm up, even if we cap world emissions at the levels of 7 years ago. This means that my nieces and nephews may never see an iceberg pass by St. John’s harbour when they grow up. The ecology will change, fisheries will change regardless of changes in fishing practices, and copying across the pack may only be possible in northern Newfoundland. Much of Newfoundland culture is strongly linked to the sea, the land, and the weather, including things like the family going to the beach for the capelin run, families going out and picking blueberries and bakeapples in season,tobogganning and pond skating in the winter, and freezing your buns off ice-fishing for mud trout.

But the message is clearer and harder to refute than ever before, and with enough pressure the powers that be stubborn may be forced into a positive response.

For some interesting discussion of the news release, check out RealClimate.

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This is a diatribe in three chapters. It was inspired by a report this evening on CBC’s As It Happens, and is a prelude to the IPCC press conference tomorrow on the Fourth Assessment Report on the current and future state of the climate. The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is sponsored by the UN and the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation), and is the main body that determines the world consensus on the scientific, social, and economic impacts and implications on climate change.


The word consensus is very important here. People have often been disappointed by the weakness of previous statements, especially regarding the scientific consensus on what the climate is doing. Because it is a consensus everyone has to agree on the exact wording, so even if 95% of the scientists in the  working group (Working Group 1) supports a definite stand, the 5% or less that dissent can add the words “may”, “probably” , etc. This allows government and industrial leaders to cast doubt on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supporting global climate change due to anthropomorphic carbon dioxide emissions, and annoys and distresses most climate researchers to no end.  It also sends most organisations concerned with climate change up the wall, for some reason.

As It Happens interviewed a member of the IPCC who discussed a related report published in Science today (Science is one of the main journals on cutting edge research in the sciences, along with Nature).  It looks at the predictions from the last IPCC assessment report in 2001, and finds that sea level rise may be greater than the previous model predictions indicated.This led me to check out the publications of the lead author, Stefan Rahmstorf, a prominent and respected oceanographer and climate change researcher.

Facts versus Fiction 

On his web page were some interesting articles.

  • The first is a very nice fact sheet summarising the main findings of climate change research, which summarises the scientific predictions, the social, economic, and ecological impacts, and addresses an approach to reducing and coping with the problem.
  • Second is RealClimate, a well-respected  blog written by climate change scientists.
  • The Climate Skeptics looks at the arguments and approaches taken by climate changes skeptics, and gives advice on how to come to your own conclusion,
  • and finally, there is a review of a “popular” movie on climate change.

Facts within Fiction

In the last few years I’ve seen two movies that relate to climate change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is possibly the best discussion of the science and implications that I’ve seen, and the science is very close to being impeccable, with the problems being extremely minor. As I’ve said before, it is a must-see.

The seconds movie is one that I despised so much that I went to see it again, so as to find all the errors and pitfalls. As a person who has been around climate change science, and who did a Master’s Degree in climate change modelling, it was particularly annoying that people with little real knowledge besides what they see in the news (almost zip) and popular science magazines (often not much better) enjoyed it as an action adventure, and totally missed much of the fantasy in this near-future SF&F movie.

However, Rahmstorf made some very relevant comments regarding some positive elements of the movie that I missed in the avalanche of small to major bloopers. Here are a few of the more insightful and cogent remarks from his comments.

  • Early in the movie the protagonist gives a talk on the shut-down of the North-Atlantic Current (the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift). He argues that the shut-downs could occur in a few hundred years, a few thousand, or not at all. Rahnstorf gave the same talk with the same diagram in real life.
  • The politics and skepticism portrayed in the movie also rang true.
  • Some of the dialog and the research work areas also rang true.
  • Relevant and important questions were raised.

Rahmstorf believes that most of the audience would understand the main fantastic elements of the movie, and would understand and be intrigued by the implications of rapid climate change (but less rapid than what would fit into a feature-length movie). If you grit your teeth and ignore the sciencific errors, it isn’t that bad, and its heart is in the right place.

Addendum and Example: At the beginning of the movie is a sequence where an Antarctic Ice shelf splits  from the mainland, and an actor has a leg on either side of the split. Also, the split occurs in about 5 minutes. Now if you check out the story of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, you’ll see the truth behind the fantasy. There are several other cases in the movie (Jack Frost chasing people around to show the cold air isn’t one of them, however.)


The press conference tomorrow will hopefully have the strongest statment about climate change to date, and might be very useful to hear. Make up your own minds, but looks at the preponderence of evidence first.

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Here are three reasons to walk in the fog.

1. Mystery, a different beauty, and soft silence.

Blue Mist

2. A slightly nagging sense that there is something beyond the purely physical.

Through the Glade

3. Seeing the ordinary in a new light.


Take a walk in the mist whenever you can. It’s good for your soul.

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WordPress’s online blog hosting service just released some of their statistics. I’ve just been browsing through them, and have noticed one or two things.

  • For their daily signups, there seems to be a strong weekly cycle. The minima seem to occur Friday or Saturday; I guess it is a TGIF(S) phenomena? It’s only reasonable that people would be away from their tin gods more on the weekends. Also, it reminds me of the Hawaii observations of carbon dioxide increase, but on a much shorter timescale.
  • For posting activity, the same pattern occurs, but there is more “CO_2 increase” going on, and it actually looks even more like the Mauna Loa observations.

For those unfamiliar with the Mauna Loa observations, you’ll note a yearly oscillation within the general upward trend. Some people call it Gaia breathing, or the Earth breathing. Basically, there is a significant difference in landmass between the northern and southern hemispheres, and the plant life on land (and the microbes in the soil) is much less in the southern hemisphere. Also, land biota dominate over oceanic species in their influence on oxygen/carbon dioxide variations in the atmosphere. So in a northern winter there is less net carbon dioxide uptake by plant life in the winter; in the summer the plants get more sunlight, the deciduous trees have their leaves out, and mid to high latitude plant life has its spring bloom, so the uptake of carbon dioxide is much larger.

Here is an animation of the planet breathing from the NASA Ames Research Centre. It is part of a study of the role of microbes in the soil on the greenhouse gas budget, but it does show the net transfer of carbon dioxide between the surface and the atmosphere as “seen” from space.

So go the dangers of free association, pattern recognition, and Google.

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