• Climate scientist says research data should be freely available

    Climate science may lack the knowledge to understand the full scope of climate change. But it certainly doesn’t lack data. From records dating back to the 1600s to modern day satellite images and numerical climate model simulations, there’s a treasure-trove of data out there that are aiding scientists and government officials in addressing the changing climate. The problem, as outlined this week in a perspective piece in the journal Science, is that the data is fragmented and dispersed in many different places. Lead author Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Arizona says those most left out of the reams of expanding data are people who are not physical scientists: “an ever-increasing range of scientists (ecologists, hydrologists, social scientists, etc.) and decision-makers in society who have real money, livelihoods, and even lives at stake (resource managers, farmers, public health officials, and

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  • Spotlight on Queensland: Extreme rains becoming more common

    Queensland, in Northeast Australia, has seen a troubling years. A decade-long drought was followed this past November by the start extreme rains that flooded an area the size of France and Germany combined. The large lowlands and subtropical climate make it particularly prone to tropical cyclones and a new study shows climate change could make matters worse. Janice Lough, a climate scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville, Queensland, is publishing a paper in the journal Paleoceanography based on research into historic rainfall patterns indicated in growth patterns in near-shore corals dating back to the 17th century. The coral colonies have bands of dense and less dense material in their calcium-carbonate skeletons. The coral bands can be analyzed like tree rings determining patterns of wet and dry years. The corals show that rainfall has increased and

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  • Zombie-like microbes could impact climate change

    Which species may be most adept to climate change? The answer could very well be microbes. The microscopic critters do something that no other living thing is capable of: long term dormancy. As Jay Lennon from Michigan State University explains in his latest paper, “Microbial seed banks: the ecological and evolutionary implications of dormancy” in Nature Reviews: Microbiology, when the going gets rough, microbes can just check out and wait for better times. “There’s this transition region between life and death and maybe this is how it relates to undead and zombie- like organisms,” Lennon says in a video about his work (below). Microbes are the undead of the living world, as they tend to exist in this in-between state for a good part of the time. In soils, about 90 percent of the microbes are dormant, and nearly half

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  • Arctic waters warmest in 2,000 years

    On the heels of a study showing that Arctic ice is highly susceptible to warm water fluxes from the Atlantic Ocean, comes a new one estimating that Arctic waters are the warmest they’ve been in 2,000 years. The interesting thing about this study, published in the journal Science this week, is that it looked at the history of tiny amoeboid protists called planktic foraminifers to tell the story. The remains of these creatures in sediment cores on the western edge of Svalbard, in Norway, were counted and species type was determined at mid-summer month intervals going back in time. Researchers led by Robert Spielhagen from the Academy of Sciences, Humanities, and Literature in Mainz, Germany found a dramatic increase in sub-polar species appearing in the last century. Whereby sub-polar species accounted for 10 to 40 percent of the species count

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  • Coal ash cause of Permian extinction

    The mass Permian extinction 250 million years ago is frequently blamed on volcanoes. But a new study shows that what may have really tipped the climate was the volcanic release of massive amounts of combusted coal –  similar to modern day coal ash from coal-fired power plants. If so, modern day climate change hasn’t been the first time that burning coal was to blame. The extinction of that era wiped out some 90 percent of marine species, one of the largest extinction events in history. Scientists led by the Geological Survey of Canada, Stephen Grasby, found deposits of carbon on Permian-aged rocks in the Canadian high Arctic dated to just before extinction rates began to spike. They now believe that the eruption of volcanoes in Siberia (known as the Siberian Traps) led to the massive combustion of carbon from underlying

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  • Plants moving downhill in response to climate change

    Higher temperatures are forcing species to take to cooler climes at higher elevations, the prevailing wisdom goes. But changes in precipitation also drive change, and in the case of plant species in the Northern Hemisphere, the movement may be driven downhill, not up. That’s according to a recent study published in the journal Science by a team of researchers led by Shawn Crimmins at the Department of Forest Management, at the University of Montana. The study looked at the distribution of 64 plant species by altitude since the 1930s in California and found a “significant downward shift in species’ optimum elevations” due to wetter conditions, even when temperatures had gone up in those areas. They studied areas encompassing about half the state, including most of the mountain ranges in northern California, where temperatures have shot up more than 1 degree

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  • In Himalayas rocks buffer retreat of glaciers

    Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change erroneously reported that the Himalaya mountains would be glacier-free by 2035, the actual fate of the world’s highest range has been questioned. An accurate picture has been hard to develop because of differences in retreat rates and a lack of basic data on the glaciers. One study published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience sheds some new light on mountaintop glacial dynamics in the Himalayas. Lead author Dirk Scherler from the Institute of Geoscience at the University of Potsdam, Germany, found that some of the glaciers in the Himalayas are relatively stable because of the prevalence of rocks underneath. It appears that having a rocky base to a glacier helps insulate the cold, even as atmospheric temperatures rise. They call them “debris-covered glaciers,” and they’re present in rugged central part of

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  • How Genghis Khan may have cooled the planet

    If human consumption and population growth can be linked to warming the climate, there’s certainly a sensible argument to be made that a reversal in the trend could cool the planet down. War, invasion, disease epidemics, and societal collapse — all events that are devastating to humans — may actually have helped drop temperatures momentarily, according to a study published this week in the journal, The Holocene. It’s kind of a morbid perspective, and one that pits humans squarely as the enemy of a stable climate. But there it is, worth a little chewing on. Lead author Julia Pongratz from the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University used a climate-carbon cycle model to look at several devastating events in human history: Genghis Khan in the Mongol invasion (1200-1380 AD), the Black Death (1347-1400AD), the conquest of the Americas (1519-1700

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  • Seabed may be too turbulent to store carbon

    The ocean floor has been eyed as a potential site to sequester carbon, the idea being that we can get CO2 far, far away from human activity by banishing it to the earthly equivalent of the Final Frontier. But if you get CO2 out of the way of humans, it may instead be smack dab in the middle of natural forces. In an editorial published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, the fallibility of burying carbon below the sea bed is explored. The chief point of concern is that the ocean bed is actually a hot bed of volcanic activity, and may have, in fact, influenced the global carbon cycle in the past through large-scale off-gassing of stored methane. This has apparently been the case in at least several areas of the ocean, including the Gulf of California, where

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  • Earth’s sensitivity to CO2 may be twice what climate models show

    Climate modeling is an inexact science, and scientists have long known that the models don’t account for everything, even though precision and accuracy is a big goal. But the limitations of climate modeling may have caused scientists to underestimate the Earth’s sensitivity to CO2 by a factor of two, according to an analysis by National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Jeffrey Kiehl. In a perspectives piece published in the journal Science this week, Kiehl says that the models have typically not factored in some of the long term feedback processes that determine the Earth’s temperature over the course of centuries or millennia, including ice sheet loss and processes related to vegetation and carbon cycle changes. He came to this conclusion by looking into periods of high CO2 levels in Earth’s history. At current rates of CO2 emissions, the Earth is

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  • Melting Arctic ice the result of warming Atlantic waters, not just atmosphere

    Although air temperatures are often to blame for the melting of sea ice at the North Pole, scientists have been looking for another culprit, this time from below. Like a hot plate warming up a refrigerated meal, warm water circulating at 200-800 meters in the Atlantic flows underneath the surface layer of ice in the Arctic, toasting its underside. Normally, Arctic ice would be thick enough to create a cool enough buffer to the warm water below. But the underlying layer of warm water has further heated up by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit in some spots, it’s encroaching on the ice. Research was published recently in the Journal of Physical Oceanography by Igor Polyakov from the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska and colleagues. They found that the worst of it seems to be happening in the Eurasian Basin,

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  • Invasive species can trigger mass extinction

    Invasive species are becoming more rampant today as a result of climate change and other factors. Changes in precipitation and temperature patterns often favor invasives, which have an uncanny ability to adapt and spread in stressed ecosystems. A new study shows how invasives can actually trigger a mass extinction similar, perhaps, to what we’re seeing under modern day biodiversity loss. Geologist Alycia Stigall at Ohio University explored the late Devonian extinction, one of five mass extinctions in Earth history about 378 to 375 million years ago. During the Devonian, sea levels rose and two continents, Euramerica and Gondwana, closed in to form the single land mass of Pangea. In the process, certain species gained access to new ecosystems, thriving in ways that out-competed the natives. Stigall claims that the extinction rate during the late Devonia was actually not all that

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  • The messiness surrounding weather and climate

    I’m gazing out the window of my family’s house in North Carolina where 8.5 inches of snow dropped suddenly late Christmas Day. There hasn’t been a snowflake on Christmas in some 50 years, according to the weather records that were meticulously researched by my snow-crazed family. It’s been a white Christmas all up and down the East Coast, making it easy to forget (or scoff off) that 2010 will be one of the warmest years on record by world meteorological standards. The distinction between weather and climate has featured center-stage every time there’s a hurricane, snowstorm, or drought and both sides can overstate the signs in favor or against climate change. It can be confusing because climate is the accumulation of weather patterns over a long period of time. Yet it can be hard to see the anomalies for what

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  • Nitrous oxide from streams contributing to climate change at three times rate previous expected

    Carbon dioxide is bad for global warming, but nitrous oxide (N2O) may be one of the worst chemical compounds you can pump up into the air. Not only does it have 300 times the potency of CO2, but it also destroys stratospheric ozone (the good kind) — a double whammy on the atmosphere. That’s why it’s unnerving to read a new study out of the Biological Sciences department of the University of Notre Dame that found N2O emissions coming from streams and rivers at three times the rate of IPCC estimates. Waterways may be responsible for some 10 percent of human-caused NO2 in the atmosphere, which from all sources accounts for 6 percent of global warming. Nitrogen gets into rivers and streams as runoff from agricultural areas, where it’s applied as fertilizers, and from urban areas. Once it gets there

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  • Changes in human culture match major climate shifts

    A changing climate changes the environment. We know that. But it also may change culture. In a lesson that could have some relevance to human societies today, geographers at the University of Ottawa examined the overlap between climatic change and the changes in tool technology and other artifacts by Native American tribes during three ancient time periods. Humans have lived on the North American continent long enough to have experienced dramatic shifts in climate caused by ice sheet expansion and retraction that altered patterns in temperature and precipitation. Plant and animal communities changed with these shifts, resulting in new ecosystems by which humans would have relied on. In a comprehensive look at these shifts beginning 11,250 years ago, the researchers matched pollen and charcoal records with archaeological remains along the Eastern seaboard. They found with every major shift in climate

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