News Archives

Living on Earth: October 30, 2009

Smart Power to the People / Molten Metals to Green the Grid / Framing the Anything But Climate Debate / From Brownfields to Solar Plains / Perfect Storm for Fish Kill / New TV Rules in the Golden State / Dining with Birds / Still Life

» Read More

Umbrella species

The concept of an umbrella species has been used by conservation practitioners to provide protection for other species using the same habitat as the umbrella species.  As the term implies, a species casts an “umbrella” over the other species by being more or equally sensitive to habitat changes. Thus monitoring this one species and managing for its continued success results in the maintenance of high quality habitat for the other species in the area.  Animals identified as umbrella species typically have large home ranges that cover multiple habitat types.  Therefore, protecting the umbrella species effectively protects many habitat types and the many species that depend on those habitats. Although the effectiveness of this conservation approach is debated, it is often used by practitioners to select a minimum size for protected areas.

Read Full Article…

» Read More

Shifting mosaic steady-state


Read Full Article…

» Read More

Climate Solutions Consensus

Read Full Article…

» Read More

Climate Solutions: Chapter 4

As seawater warms up, it expands, increasing the volume of the global ocean. [28]

—Gerald Meehl and his IPCC colleagues, 2007

Global warming raises the potential of unlocking large amounts of fresh water now frozen in the vast Greenland ice sheet and in Arctic Ocean sea ice. Warming air temperatures could also increase evaporation in low latitudes and transport freshwater vapor toward high latitudes, where it falls as rain or snow into the oceans. Could these factors tip the freshwater balance in the North Atlantic in the future? [27]

—Jerry McManus and Delia Oppo, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 2006

As we have learned, the ocean is a vast reservoir, not only of water, but also of heat. The thermal layers are not uniform. Surface water warmed by the sun tends to contain more heat than layers 100 meters below the surface or deeper. The bigger the temperature difference between the warmer top water and colder bottom water, the more potential exists to convert that difference into other kinds of energy, such as electricity. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) is an energy technology that converts solar radiation to electric power.  OTEC systems use the ocean's natural thermal gradient—the difference in temperatures of the ocean's layers of water—to drive a power-producing cycle. As long as the temperature between the warm surface water and the cold deep water differs by about 20°C (36°F), an OTEC system can produce a significant amount of power, with little impact on the surrounding environment. As the OTEC Web site notes, “The oceans are thus a vast renewable resource, with the potential to help us produce billions of watts of electric power.” [31] According to some experts, this potential may be as large as 10,000 billion watts of continuous baseload power generation.

Essentially, the technology involves pumping cold deep ocean water to the surface, exchanging the thermal energy between the two reservoirs in a heat engine, and returning the water to the mixed layer between the warm top and cold deep layers. Experimental OTEC stations have been in operation since the late 1990s. The by-products of the heat exchange include clean freshwater (which rivals in quality that of modern desalination plants) and cold "waste" water, which could be used for marine aquaculture or even for growing plants on land, as the Seawater Greenhouse project shows.*


Read Full Article…

» Read More

Climate Solutions: Chapter 3

A large fraction of fossil fuel CO2 emissions stays in the air a long time, one-quarter remaining airborne for several centuries…. Thus moderate delay of fossil fuel use will not appreciably reduce long-term human-made climate change. Preservation of a climate resembling that to which humanity is accustomed … requires that most remaining fossil fuel carbon is never emitted to the atmosphere. [8]

—James Hansen and colleagues, 2008

Anyone who has traveled to the “Mile High City,” as Denver, Colorado, is known, will attest: The air is thinner in the Rocky Mountains at 1,600 meters (1 mile) above sea level than in New York City, which is at sea level. The atmosphere is thickest at sea level and decreases exponentially in density and pressure with elevation. Starting at sea level, we have a layer about 18 kilometers (km) thick, called the troposphere. Almost all human activity, from mountain climbing to flying in jet airplanes, takes place in the troposhere. The air in the troposphere is constantly circulating. (Tropos means “turning” in Greek.)

The Earth bakes the air from the bottom by radiating some heat from the Sun back into the sky. Air in the troposphere rises, expands, and cools. If the air contains moisture, the moisture may condense to form clouds of rain droplets or ice crystals. Clouds form in the troposphere. Water within the bottom 4 km of the troposphere will not freeze. Water arriving in the top 4 km can form ice. And in between, either ice or rain can form. Ninety percent of all Earth’s air lies within about 16 km (10 miles) of the Earth’s surface. At the top of the troposphere, the air is quite cold, about -55°C (-67°F).

Above the troposphere lies the stratosphere for another 30 km or so. Within the stratosphere sits a layer of large oxygen molecules, ozone (O3), that block harmful solar radiation from reaching us. Without this “good ozone,” the oceans would evaporate and life would cease. The air in the stratosphere is relatively stable. It does not mix with the air below it. Interestingly, air at the top of the stratosphere is warmer—about 0°C (32°F)—than the air in the troposphere just below it. The ozone layer’s absorbing solar radiation causes this warmth.

The less dense mesosphere lies above the stratosphere and is considerably colder, about -85°C (-121°F) at its top. At about 80 km above sea level, the thermosphere begins above the mesosphere. The thermosphere is the least dense zone; it contains very little gas and gradually warms to about -50°C (-58°F) because the Sun is effectively baking it from above. At about 90 km above sea level, the atmosphere gradually thins until there are no air molecules left and interplanetary space begins. Both the mesosphere and thermosphere are so far removed from the Earth and have so little gas that they are scarcely affected by the processes that cause warming or cooling in the lower troposphere or stratosphere. The lower two zones of the atmosphere—the troposphere and the stratosphere—are more sensitive to temperature drivers such as greenhouse gases, and these are where we will focus our attention.

So what causes the Earth to warm or cool? The short answer is that many different processes contribute to warming or cooling of the Earth’s lower atmosphere and surface. For millions of years, three naturally occurring factors caused variation in the Earth’s average surface temperature: the Sun, volcanic eruptions, and the Earth’s orbit.

Our Sun is a star containing a thermonuclear furnace that ejects heat as radiation. Over time, very small but detectable variations occur in the output of heat from the Sun. Sunspots and their related solar flares and are examples. Slightly more or less heat arriving from the Sun will cause a rise or fall in the heat that reaches the Earth’s surface. Sunspots appear to come and go in 10-year cycles and cannot alone explain the rise in temperature we have observed since the industrial age began.

Volcanoes modify the atmosphere whenever they erupt. Explosive volcanic activity injects aerosol particles of soot high into the stratosphere where they form clouds that might cool the Earth. Such particle-laden clouds may prevent heat from the Sun from reaching the Earth’s surface and thereby cause a temporary cooling, However, volcanic eruptions also emit water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases that can have long-term warming effects. In the past century, four major volcanic eruptions have each caused a short-term drop in the Earth’s average temperature.  Volcanic activity has actually been fairly uncommon in the past 250 years, so it is not an adequate explanation for the sudden rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

Finally, the geometry of Earth’s orbit is not a uniform ellipse. Much as a spinning top may change the tilt of its axis while its axis gradually traces a conical path, the Earth’s orbit does wobble a bit over a very long period of time. This orbital eccentricity and slight variations in axis angles occur over very long time scales of ten of thousands of years. The Earth’s orbital fluctuation or axis tilt has not changed measurably in the past thousand years or more. So planetary geometry cannot explain the sudden rise in carbon dioxide since 1850, when the industrial era began.

Other smaller natural factors that affect how much carbon dioxide concentrates in the atmosphere over the long term include the number of marine organisms (which we will discuss in Chapter 4) available to extract carbon dioxide to make shells, and the abundance of mountain ranges that remove carbon dioxide through chemical weathering. But the number of mountain ranges with exposed rock has not changed appreciably in the past 150 years. So the latter does not contribute to the explanation of the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. We will learn in Chapter 4 why marine organisms do play a vital role, but not in a way that contributed to the already observed increase in carbon dioxide.

If all of the above processes could cause the Earth to warm up, what could cause the Earth to cool down? We saw earlier how volcanic clouds have a temporary cooling effect until they are dispersed. Three naturally occurring processes could cool the Earth over the long term and have done so in the past.

The first is the albedo effect that happens with good snow cover. When snow or ice forms and remains on the surface, it reflects most of the solar radiation that hits it, bouncing radiated heat back into the atmosphere and out into space. It is the albedo effect that gives snow skiers a deep tan because they get sun from above and reflected from below. Soil or water would have absorbed the heat and warmed up much more than the pale ice or snow cover. More snow or ice cover leads to more albedo and more cooling and therefore more snow and ice. The albedo effect is a positive feedback loop because its effect intensifies the process that causes it.

The second process is the ocean’s action as a heat conveyor. The ocean is a giant heat engine. As climates cools down, the evaporation of seawater slows down. Warmer air temperature causes surface ocean water to evaporate, causing a higher salt-to-water ratio and subsequently surface wa
ters that are denser but warmer than the layers below. The deep-sea sinking of water requires dense, salty water. This sinking drives currents such as the Gulf Stream, which moves warm surface water to the North Atlantic and cold deep water from the North Atlantic toward the equator. Any change in the sinking of the cold northern water will alter the Gulf Stream and, with it, northern Europe’s climate, currently warmed by it. Any cooling in northern Europe might alter the albedo effect of snow cover. So these are all interconnected.

Third, the biological processes that change CO2 concentrations could also contribute to cooling the Earth. While biological processes may not initiate climate changes, they may amplify changes underway by altering the composition of the atmosphere in small but significant ways. For example, if more plankton grew in the oceans, their photosynthesis and shell-making process would take up and store more carbon, removing it from the atmosphere during the life cycle of the plankton. Biological processes, such as forest growth, are carbon stores but not necessarily long-term carbon sinks.  Biological processes alone cannot explain the sudden rise in modern atmospheric carbon dioxide. Lowering the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would reduce the greenhouse effect and lower temperatures. We will discuss plankton more in Chapter 4.

Read Full Article…

» Read More

Paper: Assessing Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity to Climate Risks: Methods for Investigation at Local and National Levels

Anne Kuriakose, Livia Bizikova, Carina Bachofen – Effective planning for climate change adaptation programming in developing countries requires a fine-grained assessment of local vulnerabilities, practices, and adaptation options and preferences. While global models can project climate impacts and estimate costs of expected investments, developing country decision-makers also require national assessments that take a bottom-up, pro-poor perspective, integrate across sectors, and reflect local stakeholders experiences and values, in order to determine appropriate climate responses. This paper outlines the methodological approach of the social component of the World Banks Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change study. The social component features both village-level investigations of vulnerability and adaptive capacity, and innovative, participatory scenario-development approaches that lead diverse groups at local and national levels through structured discussions using GIS-based visualization tools to examine trade-offs and preferences among adaptation activities and implementation mechanisms. This dynamic, multisectoral approach allows for real-time analysis, institutional learning and capacity development. The paper presents the research and learning approach of the study and offers emerging findings on policy and institutional questions surrounding adaptation arenas in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Ghana and Mozambique.

» Read More

Editorial Board

Read Full Article…

» Read More

BellagioSTAMP: Enhances accountability and effectiveness in facing growing sustainability challenges

BUSAN—October 28, 2009—BellagioSTAMP, a new set of guiding principles to tackle emerging threats that jeopardize the sustainability of entire communities, regions, countries and the planet itself, will be presented today by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the OECD at a global forum on measuring the progress of societies in Busan.

“BellagioSTAMP enables true accountability in governance and management for sustainable development, by addressing the totality of the assessment process,” said László Pintér, director of the Measurement and Assessment program at IISD, one of the main architects of BellagioSTAMP.

The need for a new system of measurement and assessment is driven by unprecedented and concurrent crises to climate, food, health, energy and the economy and the need to respond to even greater challenges ahead.

“Despite the high and growing costs of unsustainable development, our ability to identify and measure risks and capitalize on opportunities is weak,” Pintér said.

BellagioSTAMP can be used to review the adequacy of existing measurement and assessment practices or to guide the development of new initiatives. The principles offer flexibility in the choice of design of indicators, and how they are interpreted, communicated and used.

“BellagioSTAMP’s power is its simplicity and ability to capture and distill complex concepts and issues.”

For more information, please contact László Pintér, Ph.D., director IISD Measurement and Assessment,, or IISD media and communication officer, Nona Pelletier Phone: +1-(204)-958-7740, Cell: +1-(204)-962-1303.

About BellagioSTAMP (SusTainability Assessment and Measurement Principles)

A first set of Bellagio Principles for assessing progress toward sustainability was published in 1996 and was subsequently used by local and international organizations in sustainability assessments. Though successful, new assessment methods and sustainability challenges overtook the original principles. As with the original set, BellagioSTAMP has been established by a group of international experts meeting in Bellagio, Italy, organized by IISD and the OECD’s Measuring the Progress of Societies initiative.

About the Conference

Third OECD World Forum on “Statistics, Knowledge and Policy” Charting Progress, Building Visions, Improving Life (PDF – 485 kb) focuses on three questions: What does progress mean for our societies?; What are the new paradigms to measure progress?; and How can there be better policies within these new paradigms to foster the progress of our societies?

About IISD

The International Institute for Sustainable Development contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations on international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change and energy, measurement and assessment, and natural resources management, and the enabling role of communication technologies in these areas. We report on international negotiations and disseminate knowledge gained through collaborative projects, resulting in more rigorous research, capacity building in developing countries, better networks spanning the North and the South, and better global connections among researchers, practitioners, citizens and policy-makers.

» Read More

Natural Community

A natural community is an interactive assemblage of organisms, their physical environment, and the natural processes that affect them. Environmental factors such as soil type, bedrock type, moisture level, slope, slope aspect, climate, and the natural disturbance regime play a key role in determining a species' ability to survive there. The organisms within a natural community include: plants, animals, fungus, and microorganisms. Natural communities occur in patterns throughout the earth and range in size from thousands of acres, such as a Northern Hardwood Forest, to less than one acre, such as a seep. Natural communities change over geological and evolutionary time, and are not static.

Natural communities classification is used as a management tool. By grouping complex systems into categories, people are able to process information about those systems which may otherwise prove difficult. Ecologists categorize complex natural systems to better understand spatial patterns in nature.

Read Full Article…

» Read More