GeoLog

Energy, Resources and the Environment

Imaggeo on Mondays: Mountains, rivers and agriculture

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image blends a range of geoscience disciplines. The post, by Irenen Mazoff, a researcher at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitaet, explores how the mountains, rivers and soils of the High Atlas in Morocco are intrinsically linked to the agriculture of the region.

High Atlas landscape. Credit: Irene Marzolff (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

High Atlas landscape. Credit: Irene Marzolff (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The image was taken in the southern slopes of the Western High Atlas, north of the city of Taroudannt. The snow of these mountains, which in April is still prevailing on the highest ranges in the background of the photo, is a significant water resource for the region. The high interannual variability of precipitation and its changing patterns associated to climate change present a serious challenge for natural environment and for the sustainable use of water as a resource in agriculture and tourism, the two major economic sectors in the area.

A characteristic open cover of Argan trees (Argania spinosa) can be seen on the lower mountain slopes in the middle distance of the photo: an endemic species with small, oil-rich fruits resembling olives that yield high-quality oil used in medicine, food and cosmetics. The species is a relic of the Tertiary (66 to 2.8 million years ago) but has been under threat from human exploitation for centuries, by excessive grazing, fire-wood cutting, charcoal making and changes to the groundwater table. The area is part of the UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserve “Arganeraie” committed to the preservation and sustainable use of the trees.

The river bed in the foreground is formed by fluvial processes typical for this high-mountain region, with highly variable seasonal discharges controlled both by rainfall and snowmelt. It will in the near future drain into the Sidi Abdellah Reservoir that is currently being constructed near Tamaloukt. This reservoir will add to the 10 already existing water storage lakes in the region of Souss Massa Drâa, which is in urgent need of additional water resources: The Souss Valley to the South of the High Atlas is one of Morocco’s most intensely farmed agricultural regions, with agro-industrial production of bananas, vegetables and citrus fruit. Much of this, including 90% of Morocco’s tomato production, is exported to the European market.

By Irene Marzolff, researcher at the Institut fuer Physische Geographie, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitaet, Frankfurt.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Geosciences Column: When water is scarce, understanding how we can save it is important

Geosciences Column: When water is scarce, understanding how we can save it is important

Supplies of water on Earth are running dry. The rate at which an ever growing population consumes this precious resource is not matched by our Planet’s ability to replenish it. Water scarcity is proving a problem globally, with regions such as California and Brazil facing some of the most severe water shortages on record. Used for drinking, agriculture and industrial processes, water forms an fundamental part of our day to day life, so finding ways in which to preserve this vital resource is important.

The global population now exceeds 7.3 billion people. One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century will be to feed this ever growing population – by 2050 crop production will have to double to meet demand. At the same time, agricultural irrigation currently accounts for approximately 80-90% of global freshwater consumption, while agricultural areas requiring irrigation in the past 50 years having roughly doubled. With both space and freshwater in short supply, innovative solutions and fresh approaches will be need if the increase in crop demand is to be met.

The fields in the image are farmed on seemingly vertical hillsides, terrace their fields nearly to the top of every available mountain, and plough by hand or with a draft animal. Terraces, by Cheng Su, distributed via Imaggeo.

The fields in the image are farmed on seemingly vertical hillsides. Terraced fields are  present nearly to the top of every available mountain, and ploughed by hand or with a draft animal. Terraces, by Cheng Su, distributed via imaggeo.

It might come as a bit of a surprise that current irrigations systems operate at efficiency of 50% or below. Water is wasted as it is transported to the crops as well as whilst it is applied to the plants and is affected, not only by the irrigation system itself, but also meteorological and environmental factors. A recent paper published in the open access, EGU Journal, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, has found that improving current irrigation practices can contribute to sustainable food security.

To better understand where efficiencies might be made in irrigation systems, the scientists used a new approach: They took into account ‘manageable’ factors such as water lost through evaporation, run-off, deep percolation and that taken on by weeds. At the same time, assessing mechanical performance of the systems and the vegetation dynamics, climate, soils and land use properties of a particular region. These factors were fed into a global irrigation model implemented on the three main irrigation types: surface, sprinkler and drip.

The researchers created maps of the global distribution of irrigation systems at a country level, based on the results from their model. The maps showed that areas where surface irrigation – were water is distributed over the surface of a field – is common, irrigation system efficiency was low, sometimes registering values of less than 30%! This is particularly applicable to Central, south and Southeast Asia due to the widespread cultivation of rice. In contrast, areas where there is a high usage of sprinkler systems – similar to natural rainfall – and drip systems (were water is allowed to drip slowly to the root of the plant), such as North America, Brazil, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Europe, efficiency was above the global average.

Global patterns of beneficial irrigation efficiency (Eb, ratio of transpired and diverted water) for each irrigation system – (a) surface, (b) sprinkler, and (c) drip, calculated as area-weighted mean over CFTs (excl. “others” and pastures). This figure is based on theoretical scenarios, in which each system is respectively assumed to be applied on the entire irrigated area.

Global patterns of beneficial irrigation efficiency for each irrigation system (a) surface, (b) sprinkler, and (c) drip. This figure is based on theoretical scenarios, in which each system is respectively assumed to be applied on the entire irrigated area. From Jägermeyr et al., 2015. Click to enlarge.

To investigate how the three irrigation system types compared to one another, irrespective of their geographical distribution, the researchers produced another map. They found that surface irrigation is the least efficient of the three methods, with values at less than 29%. Sprinkler and drip systems perform significantly better, with values of 51 and 70%, respectively. Interestingly, regardless of the system used, irrigation efficiency in Pakistan, northeast India and Bangladesh is always at below global average values. Crop type can also play an important role: rice, pules and rapeseed are linked to poor system efficiencies, whilst, maize sugarcane and root crops (such as potatoes) are above average.

Jägermeyr, the study’s lead author, and his team calculated that 2469km³ of water is withdrawn yearly for irrigation purposes – that is close to 5 times the volume of water held in the Canadian/American Lake Erie. Of that, 608 km³ is non-beneficially consumed. In other words, lost through evaporation, interception (by foliage leaves) and during delivery to the plants and represents an area where substantial water savings could be made.

Replacing surface irrigation with a sprinkler or drip system proves one of the best solutions to the problem, with a potential 76% reduction in non-beneficial consumption of water. This would mean that up to 68% less water would be needed for the purposes of irrigating crops.

Therefore, irrigation system improvements could make an important contribution to sustainably increase food production. The water saved would allow for irrigated areas to be expanded and yields increased on farms where production is currently limited by an insufficient water supply.

The upgrade of irrigations systems seems a very attractive solution to the problem, but the researchers warn that its suitability must be assessed on a river basin level. Factors such as crop management, soil type and local climate may affect the suitability of this approach in some geographical areas. The study finds that regions such as the Sahel, Korea and Madagascar, as well as temperate regions in Europe, North America, Brazil and parts of China would benefit the most from irrigation system improvements.

 

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer.

 

References

Jägermeyr, J., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Schaphoff, S., Kummu, M., and Lucht, W.: Water savings potentials of irrigation systems: global simulation of processes and linkages, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 3073-3091, doi:10.5194/hess-19-3073-2015, 2015.

Gleick, P.H., Christian-Smith, j., Cooley, H.: Water-use efficiency and productivity: rethinking the basin approach, Water International, 36, 7, doi: 10.1080/02508060.2011.631873, 2011.

Tilman, D., Blazer, C., Hill, J., Befort, B.L.: Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture, PNAS 108, (50), 20260-20264, doi:10.1073/pnas.1116437108, 2011.

Film review: Revolution

Film review: Revolution

It’s not every day you are asked to review a film, and since it’s a documentary that encompasses a few of EGU’s sciences (such as climate sciences, biogeosciences, and energy, resources and the environment), I couldn’t say no. I’ll start by giving it a rating, 3.5/5 stars, though I would probably give it more if I were part of the film’s main target audience.

Revolution, by biologist-photographer turned filmmaker-conservationist Rob Stewart, is about some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It aims to educate the audience about ocean acidification, climate change, overfishing and deforestation, alerting them to how these issues can impact our planet and, in turn, humanity. But it’s also about much more than that.

The film starts with Stewart telling his own story, revealing how his personal experiences lead him to make his first documentary, Sharkwater, and how researching and promoting that film made him want to tell the broader story of Revolution. This makes for good story telling, and it’s an interesting and candid introduction (Stewart says at one point that he had no idea how to make a movie before Sharkwater). But it seems a tad overly dramatic at times and not always scientific in its claims. For example, to illustrate how humans, responsible for many environmental problems, can also be part of their solution, Stewart tells a crowd in Hong Kong that the “holes in the ozone layer are almost a figment of our imagination now”, which is not exactly true. According to a 2014 NASA release, the ozone hole is still roughly the size of North America, though it has been shrinking over the past couple of decades. I should point out, however, that while there are some minor scientific inaccuracies here and there in the film (and a glaring typo in a sentence where CO2 appears incorrectly written as CO2) the majority of the facts and figures cited in the movie do roughly seem to be accurate, even if rather dramatic and seemingly exaggerated at first.

The movie becomes more exciting (though, at times, depressing too) when Stewart changes the focus from his story to the story of how life evolved on Earth, and what its future might look like. The backdrop is beautiful footage, worthy of a BBC wildlife programme. Stewart starts where life itself started, underwater, and the images showing a diversity of corals and colourful fish (and the cute pigmy sea horse) are breath-taking and work well in illustrating his points. For example, as the colourful imagery gives place to shades of grey, Stewart describes and shows how corals have been affected by ocean acidification and rising temperatures.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That's an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That’s an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

If the footage, both underwater and on land, makes for a stunning background, the interviews with various scientific experts bring home the film’s key messages. To me, they are the strongest aspect of Revolution. Stewart talks to credible researchers who are able to communicate their, often complex, science in clear language. Some of the readers of this blog may be able to relate to scientists Charlie Veron and Katharina Fabricius, whose field work is shown in the film, while viewers less familiar with the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs will likely be moved by the dramatic words of these researchers.

What the scientists tell us will happen if humans continue in the business-as-usual path is indeed gloomy: deforestation increasing, fisheries collapsing, greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures on the rise at unprecedented rates, species going extinct en masse… the list goes on. The issues of deforestation and mass extinction are addressed when Stewart travels to Madagascar: the island’s tropical dry forests are home to unique animals and plants, many of which have seen their habitats destroyed by the burning of trees to make room for pastures and crops. Humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels is illustrated when Stewart talks about the Alberta tar sands, and how resource intensive and polluting it is to extract oil from them. A key message of the film is again illustrated here by one of the experts interviewed. Hans Joachim (‘John’) Schellnhuber, a scientific advisor to the German Government and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains how stopping the Canadian tar sands project “is one of the decisive battles in the war against global warming”.

Indeed, Stewart sets out not only to inform people about the environmental issues faced by humanity, but also to encourage the audience to act on them: “Revolution is not just about the environment – it’s a film about hope and inspiration.” As such, Stewart balances out this negative outlook with examples of people who are standing up for climate justice and fighting for an end to fossil-fuel burning (and, sometimes, with clips of flamboyant cuttlefish and jumping lemurs!). Although it may not seem like it halfway through the film, the overall message is positive.

This is most evident when Stewart talks to young people, particularly those who travelled to Cancun, Mexico for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2010 (COP16). It is heartening to find out how committed and courageous some young people are in fighting for our future, their future, and in wanting to make the Earth a better place by changing human behaviour. This fighting spirit is best encapsulated in a speech by Mirna Haider, from the COP16 Lebanon Youth Delegation, which is particularly bold and moving, if impatient: “You have been negotiating all my life, you cannot tell me you need more time.”

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Young people are those who may have the most to benefit from watching this film, and I think are the primary target audience of Revolution (there’s even an accompanying Educator’s guide with pre- and post-viewing resources and classroom activities teachers and parents might find useful). It inspires them towards (peaceful) revolution against corporations who profit from burning fossil fuels and from destroying natural resources, and against governments who take no action to stop them. It is a shame the film doesn’t address other ways in which individuals could help fight climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification, such as divesting from fossil fuels or eating less meat. But perhaps that’s something that resonates better with older people. Children and teenagers tend to be more optimistic about their power to save the Planet through revolution, and this film is sure to inspire them to act on the most pressing environmental problems the Earth faces.

Revolution premiered at festivals in 2012/2013, but has only been widely released earlier this year. You can watch the film online on the Revolution website, or through the platforms indicated there (sadly, it’s not free, but you can either rent it or buy it for only a few dollars, so it’s certainly affordable!).

 

By Bárbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager

The day the Earth trembled: A first-hand account of the 25 April Nepal earthquake

The day the Earth trembled: A first-hand account of the 25 April Nepal earthquake

On the 25th April 2015, Viktor Bruckman, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and a team of his colleagues were a few hours into a hike between the settlements of Lamabagar, in a remote area of northeastern Nepal, and the Lapchi Monastery when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. Their journey cut short by the trembling Earth, stranded in the heights of the Himalayas, this is their personal experience of the Gorkha earthquake, summarised by EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts. 

Researching land use in Nepal

Bruckman is part of an international team of researchers, from Austria, Nepal and China, studying the land use and forest resource management in the densely wooded and remote Gaurishankar Conservation Area, in eastern Nepal. Bruckman and his team want to better understand how the local communities are linked to the resources in the area and how their daily life has been affected since the introduction of the Conservation Area. Their research project also aims to explore how the ongoing building of the largest hydropower plant in Nepal: the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (UTHP) might disrupt the local populations.

The team conducted a set of semi-structured interviews in order to assess land management practices and the impact of new management policies since the Gaurishankar Conservation Area was set up in 2010 (by Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

The team conducted a set of semi-structured interviews to assess land management practices and the impact of new management policies since the Gaurishankar Conservation Area was set up in 2010 (Credit: Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

To answer these questions, Bruckman and his colleagues travelled to Nepal in April to participate in workshops with government and institutional bodies based in Kathmandu, as well as visiting local communities deep within the Gaurishankar Conservation Area to conduct face-to-face interviews.

Beyond the hydropower construction site there are no roads, meaning the team had to hike across the rugged Himalayas to reach the residents of the most remote settlements and the target location for setting up monitoring plots. Their planned route would take them 25 km from Lamabagar, at 2000 m above sea level, reaching Lapchi Monastery, close to the Tibetan border, two days later having climbed to an altitude of 3800 m.

The hike

On the morning of the 25th April, a team composed of Bruckman, his Nepalese colleague Prof. Devkota, Devkota’s student Puskar and Prof. Katzensteiner from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU), set off on the trek to Lapchi. They were accompanied, albeit a little later following breakfast, by three porters who carried the bulk of their scientific equipment, some food and other ‘home comforts’ such as sleeping bags and mattresses. Given the physical effort the trek would involve, many of the food supplies were delivered to Lapchi via helicopter, a few days in advance – local porters would meet the team at settlements downstream of the monastery and deliver the provisions over the course of the next few days.

Despite the constant drizzle and strains of the climb, the entire team was stuck by the beauty of the surroundings: steep cliffs of metamorphosed sedimentary series (Tethys Himalaya within the Central Himalayan Domain), diverse mix deciduous forests and glistening streams.

The moment everything changed

At 12:05, not long after having traversed the most challenging section of the hike thus far, walking along the Lapchi River Valley, the ground under the team’s feet started to quiver. The quiver quickly grew to a strong shake dislodging football sized rocks from the surrounding slopes. The realisation hit the researchers that they were experiencing an earthquake and their primary concern was to seek shelter from the ongoing rock fall triggered by the ground shaking.

“Large rocks, with size equal to small houses, smashed into the river breaking into smaller pieces which where flung in all directions”, describes Bruckman, who by now had found protection, alongside Prof. Devkota, behind a large tree.

A few moments later, the earthquake ended and both emerged from behind the tree unharmed.

Left: Rockfall from the opposite cliffs made our location a highly dangerous place. Right: Seconds after the main tremor was over, everything was changed. The river color turned brown, dust and Sulphur smell was in the air and the path was destroyed by small landslides or rocks (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

Left: Rockfall from the opposite cliffs made the researchers’ location a highly dangerous place. Right: Seconds after the main tremor was over, everything was changed. The river color turned brown, dust and Sulphur smell was in the air and the path was destroyed by small landslides or rocks (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

They found Prof. Katzensteiner sheltering under a large rock overhang, but there was no sign of Puskar. The three men eyed up a large boulder which had come to rest on the path and feared the worst. Some minutes later, Puskar appeared, unharmed, along the path accompanied by a lama – a Buddhist monk – who’d encouraged the student to run up hill away from the projectiles from the river.

“The lama saved our student’s life; he was almost hit by a large rock which destroyed the water bottle attached to his backpack,” says Bruckman.

A stroke of luck

With their porters some hours trek behind them, almost no food supplies and no other equipment, and worried about potential flash floods as a result of landslides upstream, the group decided to make their way out of the valley and head back towards Lamabagar, only to find that the trail had been wiped out by a massive landslide.

The lama’s knowledge of the local terrain was invaluable as he guided the scientists to a meditation centre, where a group of about 20 lamas kindly took them in, sharing their food, offering tea and a place to sleep.

Having found a place of shelter, Bruckman and his colleagues, knowing how worried their families would be, were desperate to contact them. But amongst the high peaks of the Himalayas, in one of the most remote parts of Nepal, mobile phone signal is hard to come by. Only once, on the morning of the 26th of April, were the group successful in reaching loved ones, but it was enough: they were able to communicate they had survived, but were now trapped in the Lapchi River Valley.

The retreat where lamas provided the scientists with food and shelter (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

The retreat where lamas provided the scientists with food and shelter (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

Back home, a rescue mission started: The scientists’ families, the officials of their institutions, their countries Foreign Ministries’, Embassies and the local military all rallied to locate and bring home the researchers. Five days after first arriving at the Buddhist meditation centre, the group was rescued by a helicopter, which took them to the safety of military camp Charikot.

Retracing their steps, this time in a helicopter, Bruckman and his colleagues realised the scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake. The first village they’d intended to reach on their hike, Lumnang, was completely destroyed. 80% of the building structures in the valley had disappeared. Landslides has wiped out large sections of the trail, meaning returning to Lamabagar would have been out of the question.

Tragedy

The team’s porters, travelling behind the researchers when the earthquake hit, were far less fortunate. Tragically, one of the team’s porters was killed by a landslide triggered by the earthquake, whilst another was seriously injured. Only one returned safely to Lamabagar. Whilst hiking, the scientists overtook several groups of people also headed towards Lapchi and a team of hydropower experts – they are all reported missing.

The region, already damaged by the April 25th earthquake, was further rocked by a powerful, magnitude 7.3, aftershock. Since then, Bruckman and his colleagues have been unable to reach their contacts in Lamabagar. Reports indicate that hardly any structures were left standing in the village.

A view of Lamabagar prior to the earthquakes. At 2000m a.s.l., the village lies on the flat riverbed of the Upper Tamakoshi River, which developed as a consequence of a massive landslide (probably earthquake-induced) in the past (by Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

A view of Lamabagar prior to the earthquakes. At 2000m a.s.l., the village lies on the flat riverbed of the Upper Tamakoshi River, which developed as a consequence of a massive landslide (probably earthquake-induced) in the past (Credit: Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

The future

Following the earthquake, the scientists realise that the original research aims are no longer valid and “we would probably not meet the communities’ needs if we stick to the original ideas”, explains Bruckman.

Therefore, the plan is to carefully assess the regions current situation and develop a new research proposal which will focus on supporting the remote villages on a long-term and sustainable basis. In the event of any future field work in the region, the scientist will ensure they carry, at the very least, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), if not a satellite phone.

Science aside, their experience in the Nepal means the scientists were deeply touched by the kindness extended to them by the lamas and now seek to support the communities affected by the earthquakes. In particular they want to raise funds for the families of the porters who passed away and were injured while transporting their supplies.

 By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

A message from Bruckman and his colleagues

Please help us support the affected families.

For the purpose of collecting donations, we opened an account at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). Funds will be collected in a transparent manner and directly used for supporting the porter’s families and the villagers of Lumnang, who have lost everything and they will most likely not receive help from other sources soon. We will facilitate support through the trustworthy Nepalese project partners (including full documentation) and the Lamas of Lapchi monastery and from the retreat where we were able to stay. Please help us to support this remote region; even a small contribution is very much appreciated. Our direct contacts ensure that 100% of the donations reach the target group.

Here are the account details for wire transfer:

Recipient: Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, Spenden IBAN: AT48 3200 0018 0050 0512 BIC: RLNWATWWXXX Payment reference: 7912000003

Payments via Credit Card are also possible (Master Card and Visa). Should you wish to pay per credit card, please send an e-mail containing your name, address, card number, expiry date and security code (3-digits) to c.hofer@boku.ac.at.

We thank you very much for your contribution!

The team after their ordeal. They extend their deepest condolences to the family of the porter that lost his life during our the Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

The team after their ordeal. They extend their deepest condolences to the family of the porter who lost his life during the expedition. (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

 

This blog post is a summary of: How a geophysical extreme event dramatically changed fieldwork plans – a personal account of the Gorkha Earthquake, originally posted on the EGU’s Energy, Resources and the Environment Division Blog.

For more information about the 2015 April and May earthquakes, please see the links provided in the original blog post. You can also access more information via this information briefing issued by the EGU.

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