Climate Change & Extinctions Notebook, February 2010

Posted on February 10, 2010


Connection Cemented Between Australia’s Deadly Wildfires and Climate Change

After thirty years of study, scientists have found intriguing link between the climate of  southwestern Australia and eastern Antarctica.  When there is a drought in Australia, there is a heavy snowfall in Antarctica at least 40% of the time, indicating a strong link between these climate systems.  Going back in time, scientists have further shown that current changes in climate associated with anthropogenic global climate have only strengthened Australia’s link with the climate of Antarctica, and in ways that are predicted by climate models.  The study also indicates that the continuing forty year drought, which caused a major wildfire season and 100s of deaths last year in Australia, is entirely anomalous, not appearing on the record previously, and thus is attributable to changes brought about by climate change.



NASA launches new kid-friendly website to teach climate change


Parents and educators who want children to learn about climate change can hardly do better than with NASA’s new website for children.  This website is attached to NASA’s general climate change website, which is worthwhile visiting for its own sake.

I had not seen the award-winning NASA website before following up this news item.  In my opinion, it’s an excellent resource for understanding climate science, and NASA’s graphics can clarify many difficult points where words are inadequate.

For instance, a recent feature showed how El Niño and La Niña are tracked by scientists.  Satellites can measure how seawater expands and shrinks with temperature change, and can use this expanding and shrinking to photograph the warm El Niño and the cold La Niña in action.  The feature also pointed out that the El Niño system of 1997-98 was the strongest on record–a detail I had myself missed–accounting for the unusual spike in world temperatures in 1998.

It’s hard to doubt the evidence once you’ve seen the photograph.

The site’s Vital Signs of the Planet feature includes information about Arctic Sea ice, carbon dioxide concentrations, sea level rise, global temperature and the ozone hole.


Find the NASA website at:

Climate Change Encourages Tree Growth


Trees in the northeastern US are growing two to four times faster under the influence of increased carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.  Tree growth is considered to be a major player in plans to combat climate change, since trees can sequester major amounts of carbon.  However, according to Geoffrey G. Parker, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, natural processes cannot be expected to do the job for us.  What is happening with tree growth now will encounter natural limitations.  “We don’t think this [tree growth spurt] can persist for too long because other limiting factors will come into play, like water availability and soil nutrients,” he said.



Decreasing Water Vapour in Stratosphere May Have Slowed Climate Change


A slowdown of the rate of climate change in the last decade may be attributable to an unexplained decrease in water vapour in the middle atmosphere, above the troposphere where we all live.  The new finding “doesn’t alter the fundamental conclusion that the world has warmed and that most of that warming has to do with greenhouse gas emissions caused by man,” said Susan Solomon, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The new report by Solomon highlights the difficulty of nailing down the details of climate change in a system as complicated as as the one around us.

But it also indicates that understanding is growing steadily.



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When Whales Ruled the Oceans:  Old Fish Tales Might Be True

Because whale populations have partly rebounded, there is lobbying afoot to revive whaling.  However, new evidence indicates that old stories about the abundance of whales—fisher tales which have long been dismissed by scientists—might be true.   In fact, before the era of commercial whaling, whales may have been the dominant species in the world’s oceans.  This would mean that whale populations have not rebounded nearly as much as was hoped, and that it is still too soon to consider a commercial harvest.

(See my Of Pteropods & Armageddon Timepieces, Nov. 2008, for reasons why a commercial harvest of whales may never be possible–oceanic acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.)



Only 50 Tigers Left in China


Almost all Chinese tiger populations are endangered, primarily because of loss of habitat and the sale of tiger parts.


Tipping Points in Climate May Be Hard to Predict


When you are traveling in dangerous territory, you want to know where the hazards are.  Alan Hastings, theoretical ecologist at the University of California, Davis, says that tipping points in the earth’s climate  and in ecosystems may be more difficult to predict than thought.  Sometimes the early indicators are too subtle to unequivocally indicate a regime change, and before we know for sure something is happening, it may be too late to do anything about it.

“This means that some effects of global climate change on ecosystems can be seen only once the effects are dramatic. By that point returning the system to a desirable state will be difficult, if not impossible,” says Hastings.



Climate Change Rewrites Walden

Climate change favours invasive species.  Thus the ecology that Henry David Thoreau wrote about in Walden is already being replaced by a new and sparser ecology.  The changes are being driven by invasive species moving north under the influence of climate change.

A study of a 150 year old data set indicate that “some 27 percent of all species Thoreau recorded from 1851 to 1858 are now locally extinct, and another 36 percent are so sparse that extinction may be imminent,” according to Professor Charles C. Davis of Harvard who authored the new study.



Posted in: climate change