GeoLog

greenhouse gases

October GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web


Carbon dioxide plays a significant role in trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The gas is released from human activities like burning fossil fuels, and the concentration of carbon dioxide moves and changes through the seasons. Using observations from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) satellite, scientists developed a model of the behavior of carbon in the atmosphere from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015. Scientists can use models like this one to better understand and predict where concentrations of carbon dioxide could be especially high or low, based on activity on the ground. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major story

Our top pick for October is a late breaking story which made headlines across news channels world-wide. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that ‘Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had surged to new records’ in 2016.

“Globally averaged concentrations of CO2 reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400.00 ppm in 2015 because of a combination of human activities and a strong El Niño event,” reported the WMO in the their press release.

The last time Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago (around the period of the Pliocene Epoch), when temperatures were 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now. You can put that into context by taking a look at this brief history of Earth’s CO2 .

Rising levels of atmospheric CO2  present a threat to the planet, most notably driving rising global temperatures. The new findings compromise last year’s Paris Climate Accord, where 175 nations agreed to work towards limiting the rise of global temperatures by 1.5 degrees celsius (since pre-industrial levels).

No doubt the issue will be discussed at the upcoming COP 23 (Conference of Parties), which takes place in Bonn from 6th to 17th of November in Bonn. Fiji, a small island nation particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather phenomena (a direct result of climate change), is the meeting organiser.

What you might have missed

The 2017 Hurricane season has been devastating (as we’ve written about on the blog previously), but in a somewhat unexpected turn of events, one of the latest storms to form over the waters of the Atlantic, took a turn towards Europe.

Storm Ophelia formed in waters south-west of the Azores, where the mid-latitude jet stream push the storm toward the UK and Ireland. By the time it made landfall it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but was still powerful enough to caused severe damage. Ireland, battered by 160 kmph winds, declared a national emergency following the deaths of three people.

NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite took this thermal image of Hurricane Ophelia over Ireland on Oct. 16 at 02:54 UTC (Oct. 15 at 10:54 p.m. EDT).
Credits: NOAA/NASA Goddard Rapid Response Team

The effects of the storm weren’t only felt across the UK and Ireland. In the wake of an already destructive summer fire season, October brought further devastating forest fires to the Iberian Peninsula. The blazes claimed 32 victims in Portugal and 5 in Spain. Despite many of the wildfires in Spain thought to have been provoked by humans, Ophelia’s strong winds fanned the fire’s flames, making firefighter’s efforts to control the flames much more difficult.

On 16th October many in the UK woke up to eerie red haze in the sky, which turned the Sun red too. The unusual effect was caused by Ophelia’s winds pulling dust from the Sahara desert northward, as well as debris and smoke from the Iberian wildfires.

And when you thought it wasn’t possible for Ophelia to become more remarkable, it also turns out that it became the 10th storm of 2017 to reach hurricane strength, making this year the fourth on record (and the first in over a century) to hit that milestone.

But extreme weather wasn’t only limited to the UK and Ireland this month. Cyclone Herwart brought powerful winds to Southern Denmark, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic over the final weekend of October. Trains were suspended in parts of northern Germany and thousands of Czechs and Poles were left without power. Six people have been reported dead. Hamburg’s inner city area saw significant flooding, while German authorities are closely monitoring the “Glory Amsterdam”, a freighter laden with oil, which ran aground in the North Sea during the storm. A potential oil spillage, if the ship’s hull is damaged, is a chief concern, as it would have dire environmental concerns for the Wadden Sea (protected by UNESCO).

Links we liked

The EGU story

This month we released not one but two press releases from research published in our open access journals. The finding of both studies have important societal implications. Take a look at them below

Deforestation linked to palm oil production is making Indonesia warmer

In the past decades, large areas of forest in Sumatra, Indonesia have been replaced by cash crops like oil palm and rubber plantations. New research, published in the European Geosciences Union journal Biogeosciences, shows that these changes in land use increase temperatures in the region. The added warming could affect plants and animals and make parts of the country more vulnerable to wildfires.

Study reveals new threat to the ozone layer

“Ozone depletion is a well-known phenomenon and, thanks to the success of the Montreal Protocol, is widely perceived as a problem solved,” says University of East Anglia’s David Oram. But an international team of researchers, led by Oram, has now found an unexpected, growing danger to the ozone layer from substances not regulated by the treaty. The study is published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Low tide at Alexandra Fjord

Imaggeo on Mondays: Low tide at Alexandra Fjord

Today’s post takes us to the far northern reaches of our planet, to a desert like nothing you’ve seen before.

This picture is a view to the north across Alexandra Fjord, on the east coast of Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian High Arctic, with Sphynx island in the middle of the fjord. The south shore of Alexandra Fjord includes a polar oasis, an area of tundra vegetation and relatively mild climatic conditions normally found hundreds of kilometres further south. The oasis is surrounded by glaciers and icefields to the south, and polar desert on mountains to the east and west. Polar deserts can also be seen on the far shore in this picture; another scientist working in this area once described to me the ease of “doing geology” from the air due to the lack of plant or developed soil cover on much of the landscape.

The tundra ecosystems of the valley produce and consume greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide because of the actions of soil dwelling microorganisms. The surrounding deserts appear nearly lifeless, with only scattered plants sheltered from the harsh winds on barren, rocky ground. Nonetheless, on a per-area basis these deserts contribute nearly as much to greenhouse gas processes as the oasis ecosystems, particularly nitrous oxide.

The surface of Alexandra Fjord freezes completely each winter, to a depth sufficient to support the weight of small aircraft. Researchers visiting this area in April and May land and take off from the ice, but we arrived in late June and used the raised beach cresh that sits some 100 metres inland as our runway. As the 24-hour daylight of summer warms the land and the sea, the ice breaks up and is flushed out towards the Davis Straight to the east. Small pieces of pack ice and small icebergs frequently ground on the shore of the fjord at each low tide, creating a stark and beautiful landscape of ice, land, and water that is best viewed at a distance due to the tendency of polar bears to wander along the shoreline in search of seals and other food.

By Martin Brummell, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Fire Watch Constellation

Imaggeo on Mondays: Fire Watch Constellation

Wild fires: raging walls of flames, capable of burning down swathes of pristine, sometimes protected and ancient, landscapes have been causing havoc around the globe. Managing and controlling them is no easy task; they can unexpectedly change their course with the wind and jump across rivers, roads and man-made fire breaks.

The significant threat they pose, and damage they can cause, to valuable ecosystems worldwide has been recently evidenced by the destruction of 180 million year old forests in Tasmanian; so unique they are a designated United Nations World Heritage wilderness land. Not only that, wildfires can have sever effects on air quality, directly impacting human health, while at the same time contributing hefty amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As recently as the end of last year (2015), forest fires in Indonesia were hailed as a ‘crime against humanity‘, after causing over 500,000 cases of acute respiratory tract infections.

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays photograph highlights an emerging field of research where scientists are developing new methods to try and better understand the past impact of wildfires and how they contributed (or not) to climate change.

Of his image, Egle Rackauskaite writes: This composite shows a constellation of combined visual and infrared imaging of a smouldering combustion front spreading radially over a thin sample of dry peat. The central watch is created by a series of twelve wedges. Each wedge is extracted from a photo taken every 5 min from an elevated view looking down into the sample during the one-hour lab experiment. The circular peat sample (D=22 cm) was ignited on the centre by an electrical heater. The average radial spread rate was 10 cm/h and the peak temperature 600°C. The top figures show the virgin peat (left) and the final residue (right). The bottom figures show the wedges in visual (left) and infrared (right) imaging. Smouldering combustion is the driving phenomenon of wildfires in peatlands, like those causing haze episodes in southeast Asia and Northeast Europe. These are the largest fires on Earth and an extensive source of greenhouse gases, but poorly studied. Our experiments help to understand this emerging research topic in climate-change mitigation by characterizing the dynamics of ignition, spread and extinction, and also measure the yield of carbon emissions.

If you pre-register for the 2016 General Assembly (Vienna, 17 – 22 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

 

GeoPolicy: EGU sciences on debate at the European Parliament

GeoPolicy: EGU sciences on debate at the European Parliament

The adoption of legislation within the European Union (EU) is a complex process involving many steps. In my first blog post in this GeoPolicy series I highlighted an example of this process.

Several draft legislation pieces are currently being assessed within the European Parliament (EP) and Council of Ministers (Council) that have been influenced by EGU-related science. This blog post summarises this draft legislation and to where in the process each piece has progressed.

Much of the information for this blog post has been taken from the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) website, which produces support documents for the EP. It is here that you can find out more information about all EU legislation currently in progress.

 

 

Post-2020 reform of the EU Emissions Trading System

The EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by buying and selling emission ‘allowances’. One allowance is equal to one tonne of carbon dioxide or gas equivalent . The video below gives a good overview of the ETS.

The total amount of allowances is capped relative to 1990 emission totals, but this cap is reduced every year by 1.74 % to incentivise industries to reduce their emissions. If companies have reduced their emissions to below this cap they can sell surplus allowances, or keep them for the next year. The price of the allowance depends on supply and demand. Industries are incentivised to invest in carbon-reducing technology if this is a cheaper alternative than buying allowances. If carbon prices are lower than alternative technologies, extra allowances can be purchased from companies who have already reduced their emissions.

This EU legislation concentrates on the 4th phase of the ETS which spans the years 2020-2028 (we are currently in the 3rd phase, 2013-2020). The major policy points are:

  • The introduction of a market stabilisation reserve where 12 % of surplus annual allowances are stored for future use;
  • The annual cap decrease will change from 1.74 % to 2.2 % to reduce emissions faster;
  • Industries will now have to account for indirect carbon leakages in their emission inventories;
  • New funds will be available to aid start-up renewable projects.

This legislation is in the early stages of the process: the EC proposal document is currently receiving feedback and suggested amendments.  National parliaments, the European Economic & Social Committee and/or the Committee of Regions must still give feedback before an edited draft can be formed.

ETS Progress Bar

Progress stage of the drafted legislation. Sourced from the ‘Emissions Trading Scheme legislation EP progress briefing’.

 

 

National emission ceilings for air pollutants

Qir Quality Exposures

Percentage of the urban population in the EU28 exposed to air pollutant concentrations above EU and WHO reference levels (2010-12). Sourced from the ‘European Environment Agency: Air quality in Europe’. 

In December 2015 the EC produced an impact assessment focusing on five different policy options to achieve the EU’s health and environment objective goals. Despite considerable improvements, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has indicated that the EU still breaks pollutant levels that are considered to result in unnacceptable risks to humands and the environment. These levels are defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and are based exclusively on scientific findings. EU targets are much less restrictive than those of the WHO, but these levels are still being broken, as the figure on the right shows. Health-related costs of air pollution in the EU range between €330–940 billion per year.

The Gothenburg Protocol (1999) aimed to reduce acidification, eutrophication, and ground-level ozone by setting emissions caps for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia by 2010. This new EU legislation aims to further reduce emissions by setting new caps and larger fines for non-compliance. The European Commission estimates that implementation costs would range from €2.2 to 3.3 billion per year.

The legislation has been reviewed by impacted stakeholders and the EP advisory committee. The next stage is to discuss and amend the proposal in the EP plenary session. Once accepted, it will become the official stance of the EP. Negotiations are then continued with the Council in the trilogue before a final decision is made and the legislation is adopted.

 

 

Organic Farming Legislation

Organic farming is a political object of the EU, described as an “overall system of farm management and food production that respects natural life cycles”. Since the initial adoption in 2009,

 European Union Organic Produce Logo . Credit: ec.europa.eu (distributed via Wikimedia Commons )

European Union Organic Produce Logo . Credit: ec.europa.eu (distributed via Wikimedia Commons )

legislation has been continuously edited and expanded. The percentage area of agricultural land in the EU used for organic farming has remained at 6 % despite a steady expansion of the organic market. Currently, the EU imports organic produce to cover this gap in supply and demand.

The new legislation proposed by the European Commission (EC) has streamlined current legislation and removed historical ‘exception rules’ in order to define organic farming more rigorously. These changes include:

  • Organic farmers would no longer be able to use non-organic seed or introduce non-organic young poultry;
  • Organic farmers would be compensated if unintentional non-authorised products are found within their farms;
  • Mixed farming techniques (organic and conventional farming) would be allowed only during the conversion period from traditional to organic practices.

Market for organic foodstuffs: the top 10 countries. Sourced from the FiBL and IFOAM report ‘ORGANIC IN EUROPE: Prospects and Developments’

 

The figure below shows the progress of this drafted legislation: currently at the ‘trilogue’ step. This means the drafted legislation has been proposed by the EC and submitted to the Council, the EP and relevant stakeholders who have been able to give their feedback (a staggering 950 amendments were received!). Both the EP and the Council have produced their amended legislation drafts, which have been approved by their respective allocated subcommittees. Now, selected members from the EP and Council are to produce the final drafted legislation in the trilogue, which then will be voted to be adopted by the EP.

Progress stage of the drafted legislation. Sourced from Organic farming legislation EP progress briefing.

Progress stage of the drafted legislation. Sourced from the ‘organic farming legislation EP progress briefing’.

 

More information about the current draft legislation being considered in the European parliament can be found here.