Category Archives: News

Climate Impacts on Forests and Wildfire

In the southwest of North America, record heat has spawned an early an aggressive start to the 2016 fire season. One consequence of a warming world is the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. With increasing heat, fires burn more intensely over a steadily increasing wildfire season signaling a regime shift in global forests . A 2015 study published in the journal Nature Communications indicates that burn season has increased 20 percent from 1970 to 2013. In the U.S. fire seasons are now 78 days longer than in 1970.

It’s easy to count off recent record-breaking fires that confirm this trend: the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, Canada; the Butte and Lake fires in northern California; the Okanogan fire “complex” in Washington, the largest to date in the state’s history. In Australia, a string of bushfires are among the costliest and most deadly the nation has ever seen. The list goes on.

Wildfire is an essential component of a healthy, functioning ecosystem. In the U.S., a century of fire suppression has altered the natural cycle of burn and regrowth, ironically increasing the risk of wildfire. “Wildfires, when allowed to burn in areas where they do not impact human development, are regenerative for the forest, revitalizing for the watershed, renew the soil, and reset the clock for the ecosystem,” explains Dr. Timothy Mihuc explains, a professor of environmental science at the State Univesity of New York, Pittsburg.

“Many forests cannot sustain themselves without natural wildfire, including pine barrens, lodgepole pine forests, Eucalyptus forests and many more, says Mihuc. “These forests require canopy fires to regenerate because the trees in the forest are adapted to only produce seeds following a major fire event. Hence, fires can be regenerative for the forest, and without them many of these forest types would decline on the landscape.

Climate impacts of wildfire

Exacerbated by forest mismanagement, the impact of climate change on forest health has far-reaching implications on the future health of global forests. These impacts are interrelated and often self-reinforcing. Pine beetle infestation, aided by warmer winters in the western mountains of North America, is devastating many forests, making them more vulnerable to fire. Seasonal shifts and changing rainfall patterns increase the probability of wildfire. Changing habitats invite the spread of invasive species, force native species migration, and upset ecosystem balance.

Large wildfires are, of course, not new. They are a part of nature. But with human intervention, first through deforestation and mismanagement, and then from accelerating climate change, that natural balance becomes increasingly skewed. A healthy planet depends on healthy forests, so when they do burn, they regenerate and thrive. The intensity and frequency of wildfire we now see are not part of that natural cycle, but a sign that our forests are in trouble.


A version of this post originally published on our blog GlobalWarmingisReal.com

Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, courtesy flickr

Regime Shift for Permafrost Arctic Permafrost Thawing

Nowhere is the climate changing faster than in the Arctic. The region is warming at about twice the rate of the global average, with atmospheric temperature anomalies as much as 13 degrees Fahrenheit above normal reported in January.

Permafrost becomes especially vulnerable to these rapid changes, creating land subsidence, habitat change, and a potentially catastrophic release of carbon and methane as the once-frozen organic matter decomposes.

Arctic permafrost: the big thaw

Much of the terrestrial Arctic permafrost currently remains well below freezing.  At current rates of warming, scientists estimate it could take another 70 years for these frozen soils to fully melt.

Depending on the emissions scenario over the coming decades, researchers project anywhere from a 30 to 70 percent decline in near-surface permafrost by the end of the century. Our current emissions trajectory being the high end of that estimate, according to research cited Adam Wernick in a  Public Radio International article:

If 70 percent of the permafrost thaws, scientists expect to lose 130 to 160 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere by the end of this century,” writes Adam Wernick. “To put that in perspective, in 2013 the United States emitted 1.4 billion tons of carbon from fossil fuel combustion and cement production.

Thawing permafrost represents a potential “tipping point” for runaway climate change. As more permafrost melts, more methane and CO2 are released into the atmosphere, increasing temperatures, causing more permafrost to melt, releasing more greenhouse gasses –  a relatively sudden and abrupt oscillation into a self-amplifying feedback loop.

A “regime change” for permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes

A study accepted for publication this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters indicates an ongoing “regime shift” is underway in sub-lake permafrost. The soil below these shallow Arctic lakes is naturally warmer and is already thawing, as the following press release from the American Geophysical Union explains:

New research shows permafrost below shallow Arctic lakes is thawing as a result of changing winter climate.

Joint Release:

  • American Geophysical Union
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • U.S. Geological Survey

16 June 2016

Warmer winters combined with an increase in snowfall during the last 30 years have limited the growth of seasonal lake ice. In response, lakebed temperatures of Arctic lakes less than 1 meter (3 feet) deep have warmed by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) during the past three decades, and during five of the last seven years, the mean annual lakebed temperature has been above freezing.

These rates of warming are similar to those observed in terrestrial permafrost, yet those soils are still well below freezing and thaw is not expected for at least another 70 years. However, a regime shift in lake ice is leading to sub-lake permafrost thaw now.

Since permafrost underneath lakes is generally warmer than the surrounding terrestrial permafrost, rising temperatures in the lakebeds make permafrost thaw sooner than beneath surrounding dry land. These lakes may cover 20 to 40 percent of the landscape in vast areas of Arctic lowlands.

“During the 1970s, late winter lake ice thickness measurements commonly exceeded 2 meters (6.5 feet) in northern Alaska. Such thick ice growth helps to limit sub-lake permafrost thaw by freezing the sediments solid each winter. However, during winter field surveys over the last decade, lake ice has typically only grown to 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick, and has been as thin as 1.2 meters (4 feet),” said Christopher Arp, research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Water and Environmental Research Center and lead author of the new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

These drastic reductions in lake ice, caused by changes in winter climate, are the primary reason that shallow lakebed temperatures are warming and the permafrost below them is thawing.

Interactions and feedbacks among climate, permafrost, and hydrology underscore the complexity of forecasting change in the Arctic. For example, thinner lake ice may help fish overwintering, or it may help the oil industry since they need lake water to build winter ice roads. However, sub-lake permafrost thaw will likely unlock a portion of the permafrost carbon pool and potentially release this carbon in the form of greenhouse gasses.

These findings also highlight the importance of conducting winter fieldwork in the Arctic.

“Arctic lakes and ponds are typically ice covered for nine months of the year, but research on them typically occurs during the short Arctic summer. To more fully understand Arctic lake dynamics and to document the changes we have observed requires also doing fieldwork under often harsh conditions during the cold and dark arctic winter,” said Benjamin Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage and co-author of the new study.

“With further thawing of sub-lake permafrost there is a good chance that the ground will subside, increasing the lake depth and accelerating further permafrost thawing. In contrast, the warming on the land may increase the protective vegetation layer and delay thawing of permafrost outside of lakes,” said Vladimir Romanovsky of the UAF Geophysical Institute and co-author of the new study.

With increasingly warmer and snowier winters yielding thinner lake ice, shallow lakes will likely continue to warm, Arp said.


The American Geophysical Union is dedicated to advancing the Earth and space sciences for the benefit of humanity through its scholarly publications, conferences, and outreach programs. AGU is a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 60,000 members in 139 countries. Join the conversation on FacebookTwitterYouTube, and our other social media channels.


Image credit: Anthony Kendall, courtesy Flickr

Why the World Needs More Corporate Transparency

There are powerful social, environmental and economic implications associated with transparency. Corporations are not the only ones that should be concerned about transparency; governments, employees, consumers and the whole of civil society all have a stake. Transparency is about open access to an organization’s activities and this has implications for everything from climate change to the bottom line.

Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz effectively communicated the importance of transparency when he said:

“I think the currency of leadership is transparency. You’ve got to be truthful. I don’t think you should be vulnerable every day, but there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.”

Megatrend

Transparency is a trend that has been gaining momentum in recent years and in 2016 it has emerged as a critical success factor. Corporate disclosure is a key component of sustainability and a salient element in B Corporations. Transparency is imperative that is now being integrated into university curriculums.

As explained by Dr. Chet Chaffee, the Director of Sustainability at FirstCarbon Solutions:

“Many leading global companies today are embracing sustainability practices as they understand that this method is not simply a reporting exercise; they realize that full and transparent disclosure to all stakeholders is crucial for success.”

As reviewed in an Economist article, factors contributing to the rise of transparency include greater demands for corporate accountability from governments, investigative journalism, and NGO activism from organizations like Transparency International (TI) and Global Witness.

We have come a long way in the past two decades. Ben Elers of TI described the journey as follows: “Twenty years ago our work seemed an impossible dream. Now it’s coming true.”

Transparency is now de rigueur in supply chains as fashion start-up maven Laura McCann Ramsey explained in an interview with Apparel Magazine:

“Corporate initiatives around supply chain transparency have become just as essential as a brand’s logo, mission statement and value proposition,”

Bottom line

Sustainability, including transparency, has been shown to be profitable. Investors, employees and other businesses are attracted to firms that engage in disclosure reporting and this contributes to the health and financial well-being of an organization. Corporations are becoming more transparent because they want to keep up with the progressive efforts of their competition and position themselves to prosper going forward. As quoted in the Economist article, George Serafeim of Harvard Business School said, “there is evidence that it boosts the share price by signaling that management is tackling hidden risks.”

Climate action

Transparency may be among the best tools we have to advance climate action. Making climate efforts public enhances a corporation’s self-awareness and invites public scrutiny. This can contribute to corporate mitigation and adaptation efforts. These efforts are aided by reporting initiatives like CDP’s Climate Performance Leadership Index (CPLI).

Sustainable development

Transparency can also advance sustainable development. This is the view of many organizations including the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

“G8 leaders need to see transparency not as an end-goal, but as the means to an end. Transparency needs to increase accountability in natural resource management. It needs to empower local people affected by resource extraction projects,” said the IIED’s Dr Emma Wilson. “People affected by resource extraction projects or land investments need to be able to access the information that the various transparency initiatives gather.”

Consumers

One of the factors driving sustainability and corporate disclosure is consumer awareness. Businesses are also coming to the realization that transparency is an essential part of forging enduring ties with consumers. Consumers are well informed and they are demanding ever more information. More knowledge translates into more responsible buying behaviors. Consumers armed with accurate information have the power to change the world through their patronage, or lack thereof. Consumers are also exerting pressure on companies directly and they also influence stockholders to table resolutions.

Tax evasion and corruption

Transparency combats the kind of secrecy that facilitates tax evasion. The tangled web of corporate subsidiaries makes it difficult to identify tax havens. By aggregating their accounts, corporations commonly obscure their tax avoidance. Country by country reporting would expose this kind of shell game that is sadly altogether common. Transparency is also bulwark against excess and greed. The gaze of watchful eyes illuminates the shadows in which corruption and corporate malfeasance can grow.

Fossil fuels

Nowhere is corruption more rampant than in the extractive industries. However, even here we are seeing signs of change. More than 50 countries and 90 companies have already signed on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative’s (EITI) reporting guidelines.  One of the companies that have backed the EITI initiative is Norway’s Statoil. Hege Marie Norheim, head of Statoil sustainability efforts, argues that disclosure is “better for the company’s long-term stability”.

Opacity

Getting on-board affords a host of benefits while failing to engage entertains a range of risks. Being opaque makes an organization vulnerable to both reputational and financial risks.  Leaks of information are one of the risks associated with opacity. In the digital age, containing these leaks is an impossible challenge.  Leaks are part of a trend that is growing alongside disclosure. As reported in the Economist article, employees now, “see it as their civic duty to leak information if their employer is shady and secretive.”

Government action

Governments are not only a crucial part of the push for transparency they are also a pivotal source of resistance. As explained by George Cazenove of Tullow Oil, “it’s more often the governments than the companies that want the terms kept quiet.” For corporate disclosure to truly come into its own, governments must also be transparent. This needs to be a global effort. In the absence of a truly global initiative, such reporting could offer unfair short term advantages to companies that do not disclose.

Conceptually, the governments of wealthy nations are onboard, as revealed by the G20’s support of central registers. Countries like Britain and Denmark have made it known that their registers will be publicly accessible. While we are seeing movement from governments, there is much work that remains to be done.

Avoiding data fatigue

Data can enable companies, investors and the public to make better decisions. However, too much data can be just as problematic as too little. Corporate disclosures need to focus on relevant clusters of data so that less than honorable activities are discernable and not buried under a mountain of information.

There are also justified concerns that demanding too much data from companies can put unnecessary demands on corporations that do not ultimately contribute to the public good.  As explained by the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) Michael Meehan, large companies have “data fatigue”. Reporting every single data point can be counterproductive to global transparency initiatives.

While open access to raw data is useful, pertinent constellations of data and a review of relevant interrelationships between these clusters of data are needed.  This is the type of work we are seeing from organizations like OpenCorporates. They have done a good job of data-scraping to cut through massive amounts of information to collate important data.

Panacea

On its own, transparency is not a panacea, but if widely implemented, it could significantly contribute to our collective social, environmental and economic betterment. Consider what detailed disclosure could have achieved had they been implemented decades ago.

Transparency could have prevented the kind of tax dodging revealed in the Panama papers. Even more importantly, corporate disclosure could have revealed the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change. Our world would be radically better today if Exxon’s insights into the relationship between climate change and fossil fuels had been made public forty years ago. On its own, it may have been enough to attenuate the climate crisis. At the very least, we may have engaged in climate action much sooner.

As explained in the Economist article:

“The world is still full of murky shell companies. But the direction of travel is clear. In tax and contract transparency, there is general acceptance that change is coming, like it or not.”

Today’s savvy consumers and a growing number of corporations want transparency and tomorrow’s consumers will expect it. The future is calling corporations to weave transparency into their DNA.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

 

Image credit: FUMIGRAPHIK-Photography, courtesy flickr

This post first published in our blog GlobalWarmingisReal.com