Archive for February, 2005

The retreat of Antarctic ice shelves is not new according to research published this week (24 Feb) in the journal Geology by scientists from Universities of Durham, Edinburgh and British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

A study of George VI Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula is the first to show that this currently ‘healthy’ ice shelf experienced an extensive retreat about 9500 years ago, more than anything seen in recent years. The retreat coincided with a shift in ocean currents that occurred after a long period of warmth. Whilst rising air temperatures are believed to be the primary cause of recent dramatic disintegration of ice shelves like Larsen B, the new study suggests that the ocean may play a more significant role in destroying them than previously thought.

The University of Durham�s, Dr Mike Bentley, one of the leaders of the project said,
“We know that rising air temperatures can break up ice shelves but there has been a suspicion for some time that the role of the ocean may have been underestimated. This is some of the first evidence that a shift in ocean currents can actually destroy ice shelves. In this case it’s possible that a preceding warm period may have primed the ice shelf to disintegrate when the ocean currents shifted.”

The scientists analysed sediments from the bottom of a freshwater lake close to the edge of the present George VI Ice Shelf. The results revealed that about 9500 years ago the ice shelf retreated, allowing the sea to flood into the lake. The ice shelf didn’t reform until 1500 years later, and has been present ever since.

The findings are particularly relevant for other studies on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet where scientists have found that a relatively warm current, Circumpolar Deep Water, is causing high melt rates on the underside of an ice shelf in Pine Island Bay*. The gradual removal of this ice shelf may be causing the glaciers inland to flow faster, which could lead to enhanced drainage of part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and a consequent rise in sea level.

Original press release: Antarctic ice shelf retreats happened before (BAS)

In a few days, a three-man scientific expedition called Pole Track is to embark upon a gruelling 1000 km trek across the frozen Arctic to collect valuable data for climate-change research. Throughout the demanding two-month expedition, the team will also take thousands of snow depth measurements in support of ESA’s CryoSat mission.

The international Pole Track team is led by the Dutch professional explorer Marc Cornelissen who is passionate about the polar environment and dedicated to bringing about awareness of the environment and contributing to a better understanding of climate change. With more than 10 years experience of exploring the Arctic, Cornelissen says, “Our goal is to not only bring about a heightened awareness of a changing climate and the effect it is having on the fragile Arctic, but also to collect as much accurate scientific data as possible. It has taken a lot of effort to organise the Pole Track expedition, and it is of course physically demanding, but, by providing hard data that can be plugged into climate models we will be contributing to an on-going effort to better understand the Arctic and the changes that are taking place.”

Driven by this commitment, Cornelissen and his two team-members, Petter Nyquist from Norway and Doug Stoup from the USA, will be soon setting out from Cape Arctichesky in northern Russia on a unique expedition that will take them all the way to the North Pole on a route that covers a region known as a ‘white spot’ from which no recent data have been retrieved.

On skis and dragging sledges, called ‘pulks’, loaded with around 150 kg of food and equipment, the Pole Track team will be setting up three weather beacons (one at 82°N, one at 83.5°N and a third at 85°N), which will transmit meteorological data, such as temperature and barometric pressure for up to a year. The position of the beacons will also be tracked by GPS so that the drift of the floating sea-ice can be mapped. The data will be fed into a central database for the International Arctic Buoy Programme and used by scientists all over the world for climate studies. They will also be taking numerous photos to help classify the Arctic terrain.

In addition to setting up the weather stations, the team will be taking around 200 snow depth and snow density measurements every day. This is the data that will be used by ESA to contribute to validating CryoSat. Now scheduled for launch in June this year, CryoSat is the first of a series of Earth Explorer satellites within ESA’s Living Planet Programme. It will measure changes in the elevation of ice sheets and changes in sea-ice thickness with unprecedented accuracy. The aim of the three-year mission is to provide a complete assessment of the influence that climate change is having on the Earth’s polar ice-masses.

To ensure that the data delivered by CryoSat is as accurate as possible, numerous ground and airborne campaign activities have already been carried out in the Arctic. Since the CryoSat signal is sensitive to changes in the properties of the snow and ice, it is crucial to understand, and then correct for, the seasonal changes that occur naturally. Long-term changes due to climate change can then be determined with the highest possible accuracy. To complement these dedicated data sets, the Pole Track team will be taking many measurements of the snow every day of their two-month expedition. In addition, when they encounter cracks in the ice they will also be able to take readings of the freeboard (height by which the ice rises above the water surface) floating sea ice.

“Marc’s expedition provides us with a unique opportunity to acquire information on snow thickness over the Arctic Ocean, something we know will have an influence on CryoSat ice-thickness estimates”, says Malcolm Davidson, ESA CryoSat Validation Manager. “If it were not for the Pole Track expedition, it would be very difficult for us to get this type of data. Very few people are equipped or motivated enough to make such long and perilous transects across the polar sea-ice fields, and we are grateful for Marc’s contribution.”

Not only will the Pole Track team face the challenges of acquiring precise scientific data throughout their 1000 km trek, the punishing Arctic environment will put their physical fitness and endurance to the test. It takes time to acclimatise and adapt to surviving in such a cold and hostile climate so during the early part of the expedition the team expect to travel less than 10 km a day. Their progress is also dictated by hours of daylight at this time of year.

Since they are walking on floating ice, navigation is always a major issue, so constant compass readings are necessary to ensure that they are still heading north. Each of the three men will be on skis and pulling a sledge that can also be used as a canoe if they have to cross open water – although it is often quicker to actually get in and swim across wearing special dry suits.

The physical energy required to endure the cold and walk on skis pulling the heavy load is immense. This means that the team have to consume around 6000 kilocalories every day, which is more than double the amount an average male would normally consume. Marc Cornelissen explained, “At first it is very difficult to eat such a lot, as it is normal to experience a loss of appetite at the outset of the expedition. However, it is important to build up our food intake gradually so that our bodies get the right amount of energy at the right time. We eat loads of fatty sausages, pasta, cereals, nuts, and of course a lot of chocolate. Even with this high calorie intake, we each expect to have lost around 10 kilos in body weight by the time we reach the North Pole – however, I’m not sure it would catch on as the next diet craze!”

The Pole Track expedition expects to reach the North Pole by 26 April 2005.

Original press release: Polar expedition contributes to ESA’s ice mission CryoSat (ESA)

NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for collaboration on mutually beneficial Earth science programs for the preservation, enhancement and interpretation of U.S. natural resources. The new partnership also advances NASA’s mission to understand and protect our home planet and inspire the next generation of explorers.

The MOA is a comprehensive, five-year agreement that will, foster a collaborative effort between NASA and NPS to use Earth science research results and extend the benefits of NASA exploration and science for the preservation, enhancement and interpretation of the natural resources of the United States.

“I am confident that this agreement will provide the framework for a positive cooperative relationship for years to come as well as advance NASA’s goal of improving our understanding of Earth’s system,” said Woody Turner, Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters.

NPS and NASA data managers have agreed to share information and collaborate on training, technical support, information and education. Both agencies bring unique science content, observations, and educational tools that benefit each other’s goals. Whereas NASA has the unique vantage provided by space-based platforms, NPS has extensive ground-based data about natural and cultural resources. The MOA allows NPS and NASA personnel to explore the breadth of opportunities for utilizing Earth observations systems, including spacecraft data and models, in managing park resources and educating park visitors.

Both NPS and NASA share the commonality of educating and inspiring the public through exploration of natural environments. NASA science programs offer substantial benefits to NPS interpretation that inform and inspire park visitors about our place in the natural world and the universe. The two agencies have already begun to foster closer connections in education. For example, in October 2004, NPS collaborated with NASA to offer an “explorer institute” aimed at enabling Park Rangers to incorporate NASA science content into public programs or written material for use in National Parks.

Currently, one program is using Landsat data combined with ground measurements to better understand the effects of land use patterns on large migratory wildlife in and around Yellowstone, and changes in glaciers at Glacier National Park, Alaska. The NPS Inventory and Monitoring Division is also beginning to use Landsat for vegetation mapping, in an ongoing program.

In Acadia and Shenandoah National Parks, park interpreters and education specialists are working with Landsat EPO to develop a web-based interpretive exhibit that will use Landsat and possibly other NASA data to convey concepts of historical and present day use patterns on the landscapes in and around the parks.

The mission of the NPS is to preserve and interpret natural and cultural resources on the federal lands it manages for this and future generations. To achieve this mission, NPS decision makers are asking for more remotely sensed observations, which NASA can and is providing. NASA scientists also benefit from the NPS measurements gathered on the ground, as it helps them check the accuracy of spacecraft research results.

The agreement stipulates that NASA will provide space-based observations, and the NPS will review innovative Earth system science results, scientific, educational and interpretation materials, information services, and related products. Some specific opportunities that will result from this MOA include coordinating teams on the ground to survey parks and compare the measurements to observations from NASA spacecraft instruments, compiling science image-products of parks, developing databases of key parameters of ecosystem indicators, and evaluating the use of research-quality results to make decisions on managing the parks’ resources.

This collaboration provides opportunities at NPS Research Learning Centers, conferences, and training workshops for NASA experts to present papers, and to conduct hands-on and specialized tutorials. Universities will also benefit, as joint projects are coordinated and promoted with them through the NPS regional Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technical support centers.

Original press release: NASA and National Park Service to Share Satellite Data (NASA)

Located at the CSIRO Energy Centre site in Newcastle NSW, the NSETC will be a showcase for solar thermal technologies and play a key role in CSIRO’s ongoing research into efficient, low emission energy generation.

The NSETC will be the only multi-collector facility of its type in Australia and home to the largest high concentration solar array in the Southern Hemisphere. At peak operation it will generate enough electricity to power more than 100 homes.

The NSETC comprises three main elements:

  • A high concentration tower solar array that uses 200 mirrors to generate more than 500kW of energy. It will be capable of achieving peak temperatures of over 1000 C
  • A linear concentrator solar array that generates a hot fluid at temperatures around 250 C to power a small turbine generator
  • A control room facility that will house the centre’s communications and control systems and serve as an elevated viewing platform.

CSIRO Engineer and NSETC Project Manager, Wes Stein, believes collaboration is integral to the progress of solar renewable energy research.

“CSIRO is very keen to use the NSETC to promote collaboration through shared use of the facility by Australian and international researchers,” he explained.

“Solar energy is the world’s largest energy resource and the NSETC will enable us to conduct research that sets us on the road to the ultimate objective of renewable-based energy supplies.”

The National Solar Energy Technology Centre is set to open in July 2005.

This project is proudly supported by the International Science Linkages programme established under the Australian Government’s innovation statement Backing Australia’s Ability, as well as the NSW Government’s Sustainable Energy Research & Development Fund (SERDF).

Original press release: CSIRO gets sun smart (CSIRO)

Kyoto and Beyond

February 18th, 2005
Posted in: Press: Politics

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change went into effect to begin a global rescue mission. It’s a historic first step. Yet the U.S., the top greenhouse gas producer hasn’t signed on, and developing countries, including China and India, are exempt.

Even if every country in the world met Kyoto’s goals it wouldn’t save our children from the catastrophes a consensus of scientists predict. “Meeting the Climate Challenge,” a report from the International Climate Change Task Force, warns we’re approaching a point of no return. If we don’t act decisively, average global temperatures could over decades rise almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit above 1750s levels. They’re already up over 1 degree. We’d face agricultural failures, diseases, droughts and floods. Some experts forecast a 10-degree jump, much higher sea levels and possible abrupt, runaway changes to ocean currents.

Europe’s 30,000 heat-wave casualties in 2003 and the four hurricanes that battered Florida’s coasts may have been statistical flukes. Yet, especially for billions of coastal residents, these images, along with the earthquake-generated tsunami, are horrifying harbingers of future disruptions. Concerned citizens and leaders worldwide may now be more inclined to think about the unthinkable and our closing window of opportunity.

But how do you wake up a planet divided and mesmerized by political, social, economic, religious and cultural conflicts?

H.G. Wells and Ronald Reagan both said only an external threat could motivate humanity to see beyond our differences to common goals. In films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, unlikely personalities team up to avert collisions with asteroids � life-ending million-megaton warheads. This June, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake will show us uniting against space invaders.

What if we redefine global warming as an asteroid barrage, hitting earth with deadly impacts through this century � and decide to defend ourselves? If enough of us become convinced that’s our future, would that change global priorities?

If so, we still have time to conserve far more energy and find substitutes for most uses of coal, oil and gas. Unfortunately, we can’t stop climate change entirely. But we can slow it way down.

There is a growing coalition to bring to market new vehicles known as “gas-optional” or “plug-in” hybrids. This missing technological link can triple gasoline efficiency and pave the way to zero-carbon cars. When skeptics warn how long it takes industry to introduce new automobiles, I remind them what happened after Pearl Harbor. When the War Production Board ordered tanks and aircraft engines, Detroit’s factories re-tooled in under a year.

We can apply our abundant resources strategically and with similar determination. We can harness existing technologies, without awaiting R&D. Wind and photovoltaic power, improving batteries, a modernized electricity grid and conservation can take us very far. So do cellulose biofuel plantations and reforestation.

What would this transformation cost? A few percent of the gross global product for many decades, along with institutional and political changes giving us enormous economic and social benefits.

Today, fossil fuels seem cheaper than renewables only because we subsidize them. We pay their hidden costs with wars, diminished health and environmental damage. And who can estimate the full price our children will pay for climate change?

What’s the cost of business as usual? Ask Californians to envision life with no Sierra snow pack for reservoirs, flood control or winter sports. Ask Central Valley farmers to feed the world from saltwater-soaked fields. Ask people living on coastlines that will become uninsurable, then uninhabitable. Then ask the Pentagon how often droughts, famines and epidemics fuel political instability.

What sounds like the better deal?

Original article: Kyoto and Beyond (by Felix Kramer – AlterNet)

Kyoto – Canada will host the first Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal in conjunction with the eleventh session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention. The Convention’s Bureau accepted the offer of the Government of Canada today at a meeting in Kyoto, Japan. The Conference will take place from 28 November to 9 December 2005 at the Palais des Congres de Montreal.

The Bureau warmly welcomed the generous offer of Canada to host this historic meeting, which underlines Canada’s commitment to the UNFCCC process. Montreal with its long-standing international reputation will make an excellent venue. Following the Bureau’s decision, the Canadian Minister of the Environment, Stephane Dion, declared: “As humanity embarks on the long journey towards controlling our influence on the climate, Canada is honoured to host the world in Montreal in late fall. We hope that the meeting in Montreal will help identify how all the international family can contribute to the effort while developing a thriving economy for everyone, on all continents – an economy that will be clean and climate-friendly.”

Original press release: Canada to host annual climate change conference (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – UNFCCC)