By Carey King
I just got back from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting that was held in Washington, DC. There were many sessions on the issue of sustainability and how to measure and track sustainability. One particular session regarding the concept of different measurements of ‘progress’ that might accompany a “steady state economy” was particularly interesting.
By Liz Kalaugher
Last year Stefan Rahmstorf of the University of Potsdam, Germany, wrote a paper over the weekend. Later the simple relationship he developed between sea-level rise and temperature change appeared in Science. This year he has surpassed himself by doing the calculations for his talk at the AAAS Meeting on the plane on the way over. While they still need checking, the sums appear to indicate that sea level rise will be substantially higher than predicted in the IPCC fourth assessment report.
By Liz Kalaugher
Yesterday the AAAS Meeting saw the re-enactment of a scene John Grisham would be proud of. Ken Alex of the State of California Attorney General Office cross-examined climate scientist Myles Allen of Oxford University, UK, in a mock trial to try and discredit Allen’s work. The aim was to show what might happen if someone decided to sue a coal company or power station for harm caused by climate change.
By Liz Kalaugher
Climate change is already bringing malaria to altitudes that were previously too cold for the mosquitoes that transmit the disease to survive long enough to pass it on. Crucially, in such areas people haven’t built up natural immunity. Now it seems that fluctuations in temperature during the day, not just the average temperature, are also important.
By Liz Kalaugher
While biodiversity is generally in the news because it is decreasing, if Paul Davies’ quest to find “weird life” on Earth is successful, biodiversity could get a major boost. Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University, reckons that one way to check whether life could begin on other Earth-like planets is to determine if life started on Earth itself more than once.
Since 2000, emissions from fossil fuel
combustion have grown three times faster than in the mid-late 1990s.
“Emissions are now outside the whole envelope of possibilities considered
in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report,” said Chris Field of Stanford
University and the Carnegie Institution for Science at a press briefing at the
AAAS Annual Meeting. “The emissions trajectory used was too optimistic –
we didn’t think broadly enough.”
To make matters worse, nobody’s certain
how effective the carbon sink currently provided by the oceans and land will be
in the future, or even whether they will become a source. For example, in
greenhouse studies, additional carbon dioxide increased plant growth by around
50% but Field says that, while this was considered an immature topic in the
fourth assessment report, we now know that nutrient and other restrictions will
stop that from happening in the field.
“Every new piece of information I
see makes the scary side look scarier,” added Field. “The situation
is more complicated than we thought in AR4 – we have higher emissions and a
less friendly natural system. We will have to avoid more carbon emissions than
we thought – either start earlier or make more aggressive cuts.”
A number of delegates were concerned
that the lengthy IPCC report process could delay policymakers from taking
action. “The challenge is that we can either be fast or we can be
good,” said Field, who is one of the leaders of the fifth IPCC assessment
report, due for publication in 2013/14. With an eye to more
“policy-relevant timescales”, the IPCC will release between two and
five special reports that take 12-18 months to produce before this. The first
will be on renewable energy; scientists will decide at a meeting in Turkey next
month whether to go ahead with a special report on climate extremes and
adaptation to those extremes.
In line with the general mood at the
conference, Field was optimistic about the new US administration and climate
change mitigation. “There is lots of talk that we may see the US re-emerge
as a leader on this important issue,” he said. “I hope it does.”
Moving from fourth to fifth
So how will the fifth assessment compare
science-wise? During AR4, eighteen
research groups contributed mainly physical climate models with century
timescales, detailed Ronald Stouffer of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics
Laboratory in Princeton, US. In contrast AR5 will see 25 groups contribute a
mix of earth system models and global climate models with decadal to century
timescales. Earth system models “close the carbon cycle” by looking
at the effect of biological changes on climate; typically they contain details
of atmospheric chemistry, ocean ecology and biogeochemistry, plant ecology and
According to Stouffer, some of the
modelling challenges that remained at the end of the fourth assessment report
include clouds and aerosols, oceanic heat uptake, regional climate information,
land ice modelling, and the carbon cycle. As well as tackling some of these
challenges, the fifth assessment will also include emerging frontiers of
research such as decadal prediction, and the feedback between climate and air
Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian
National Museum of Natural History and her husband Jeremy Jackson of Scripps
Institution of Oceanography say they’ve become known as Drs Doom and Gloom on
the conference circuit. Given that they both research coral reefs it’s no
surprise that good news is a bit thin on the ground, but now they’ve decided to
try and promote some of the few success stories through a session Knowlton’s
chairing at the AAAS Meeting. “We really just refused to write ever more
refined obituaries for nature,” said Knowlton. “There is actually
good news there.”
For example, the Northern Line islands in the
Pacific fall into a marine protected area. Pollution is virtually non-existent,
there is a large shark population and the coral is relatively healthy. Even
though coral bleaching has occurred several times as a result of rising ocean
temperatures, around half the reef is currently covered with living coral,
which is about double the average figure. It seems that being in a protected
area, and the consequent shielding from pollution and overfishing, increases an
ecosystem’s resilience to climate change.
“Effective local protection can buy
time for corals,” said Jackson. “Protection from overfishing really makes an enormous
difference. Marine protected areas clearly work but they only work if they are
large and truly protect against fishing.”
Andrew Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire,
meanwhile, spoke about the recovery of fish stocks off New England following the
imposition of catch limits. “In the mid-90s the haddock fisheries nearly
collapsed,” he explained. “A limit of 400 pounds a day was put on in
1994 and they could barely catch it.” Today trip limits have been removed
and the haddock stock has recovered. Rosenberg also sang
the praises of marine protected areas; he says that catch limits and protected
areas are more effective in combination.
Al Gore last night called for climate
scientists’ help: “if I could I would motivate you to leave this city
after this meeting and get involved in politics. We need you.” According
to the Nobel prize winner, scientists can no longer in good conscience accept
“this division between the work you do and the civilization in which you
live.” He did, however, recommend that researchers keep their day jobs.
Speaking to a packed conference room,
Gore detailed how he believes the US is facing three crises – a credit crisis,
a world security crisis brought on at least in part by the need for oil, and a
climate crisis. “All three crises have a common thread,” he said,
“our absurd overdependence on fossil-based fuels.” And Gore reckons
the solution for all three is a one-off investment to shift to an
infrastructure based on “fuels that are free” such as wind, solar and
geothermal. This should help boost the economy and create jobs, reduce
dependence on oil supplies from abroad, and cut carbon emissions.
“This is a moment in our history
that is completely without precedent,” said Gore. “There is an old
African proverb, if you want to go quickly go alone, if you want to go far go
together. We have to go far quickly.”
It looks like changing ocean conditions
are leading Magellanic penguins from the Punta Tombo reserve in Argentina to
move their colonies north, onto privately-owned land where they are no longer
protected from predators.
“I think of penguins as our ocean
sentinels – they tell us a lot about what’s happening in the ocean and also on
land,” said Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, US.
“Penguins are telling us there are
already problems. The good news is they’re voting with their feet and trying to
colonize new places.”
It seems the penguins are following the
hake, squid and anchovies they prey on, which have shifted north due to
changing ocean conditions. For once, overfishing doesn’t appear to be a factor
– the area is one of the few that hasn’t been overexploited, although this may
change in the future.
According to Boersma the penguins are
typically having to swim 25 miles further from their nest to find food for
their partner left behind incubating the egg. “It’s like if you buy a
house in the suburbs of Chicago and your job gets shifted to Des Moines,”
said Boersma. “The cost of living for the penguin is rising.”
Boersma says that the penguins are
racing their own physiology – one member of a breeding pair sits on the eggs
fasting while the other heads out to find food, swimming back with fish for its
partner in its stomach, which it inevitably starts to digest en route.
The penguins are also starting to breed
three days later on average, because they are finding it harder to find food in
their winter feeding grounds to the north before they return south to breed. If
a female Magellanic penguin does not find enough food to be in good breeding
condition, she will skip a year of reproduction. At Punta Tomba penguin numbers
have declined by more than 20% since 1997, from 300,000 breeding pairs to just
What’s more, twelve of the currently
known 19 penguin species are in trouble. “The real elephant in the room is
human numbers and consumption,” said Boersma. “It took 100,000
generations for Earth to reach one billion people, now we can add a billion in
three generations. We have to have control over our consumption if we are to
This year’s American Association for the
Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting has the all-encompassing subtitle
“Our planet and its life: origins and futures”. As AAAS president
James McCarthy put it, “it’s been fun but my advice to any future AAAS
president is to pick a theme with just one word”.
McCarthy explained how
scientists from different disciplines have been joining together to link up our
understanding of the Earth’s systems. In the past it was rare for physical
oceanographers to communicate with biological oceanographers, for example, but
nowadays there’s much more insight into how biology influences climate.
Appropriately enough for a theme that
encompasses the origins of life, the conference kicks off on the 200th
anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin, founder of the theory of
evolution. The mid- to late- 1800s, when Darwin’s ideas appeared, also saw the
development of new technologies such as the internal combustion engine and oil
extraction and refinement.
“We were beginning, although no-one knew it at
the time, technologies that today we look to as having significantly altered
the environment of this planet, especially with regards to climate
change,” said McCarthy. “We have choices to make and the choices we
make today will have a profound effect a few decades out. Organisms that have
co-evolved with other species to a particular climate regime now have to
Today is also the birthday of US
president Abraham Lincoln, which prompted a lot of questions for McCarthy at
this morning’s press briefing about the latest US government administration.
“Obama has recruited scientific talent of extraordinary calibre,” he
said. “In energy and environment it would be hard to find better people. I
am very optimistic.” And McCarthy remains optimistic despite the fact that
there will be “distractions, such as the economy”. He reckons that
Obama is “not simply saying let’s invest in climate change research, he’s
saying let’s look at the broader picture, the employment problem – how
renewable energy can create new jobs and improve energy security”.