Thursday, January 29, 2015

Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow

[The Independent] The world has entered an era of “peak food” production with an array of staples from corn and rice to wheat and chicken slowing in growth – with potentially disastrous consequences for feeding the planet.
New research finds that the supply of 21 staples, such as eggs, meat, vegetables and soybeans is already beginning to run out of momentum, while the global population continues to soar.
Peak chicken was in 2006, while milk and wheat both peaked in 2004 and rice peaked way back in 1988, according to new research from Yale University, Michigan State University and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.
What makes the report particularly alarming is that so many crucial sources of food have peaked in a relatively short period of history, the researchers said.
“People often talk of substitution. If we run out of one substance we just substitute another. But if multiple resources are running out, we’ve got a problem. Mankind needs to accept that renewable raw materials are reaching their yield limits worldwide,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, of Michigan State University.
“This is a strong reason for integration ... rather than searching for a one-for-one substitution to offset shortages,” he added.
Peak production refers to the point at which the growth in a crop, animal or other food source begins to slow down, rather than the point at which production actually declines. However, it is regarded as a key signal that the momentum is being lost and it is typically only a matter of time before production plateaus and, in some cases, begins to fall – although it is unclear how long the process could take.
“Just nine or 10 plants species feed the world. But we found there’s a peak for all these resources. Even renewable resources won’t last forever,” said Ralf Seppelt, of the Helmholtz Centre.
The research, published in the journal Ecology and Society, finds that 16 of the 21 foods examined reached peak production between 1988 and 2008.
This synchronisation of peak years is all the more worrying because it suggests the whole food system is becoming overwhelmed, making it extremely difficult to resurrect the fortunes of any one foodstuff, let alone all of them, the report suggested. Read More

Monday, January 26, 2015

Climate Change Could Double the Risk Of Extreme Weather From El Niña

[Business Insider] The risk of extreme weather events from La Niña in the Pacific Ocean could double due to climate change, researchers say. The projected twofold increase in frequency could lead to more droughts, floods in the western Pacific regions and Atlantic hurricanes. Weather patterns could switch between extremes of wet and dry.
El Niño and La Niña events are opposite phases of the natural climate phenomenon, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Extreme La Niña events occur when cold sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean contrast with the warming land areas of Maritime Southeast Asia in the west.
The latest research suggests increased land warming, coupled with an increase in frequency of extreme El Niño events, will mean extreme La Niña could occur every 13 years, rather than the 23 years previously seen.
Professor Mat Collins from the University of Exeter says: “Our previous research showed a doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events, and this new study shows a similar fate for the cold phase of the cycle. It shows again how we are just beginning to understand the consequences of global warming.”
The results of the research, led by CSIRO scientist Dr Wenju Cai, are published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The U.S. has caused more global warming than any other country. Here’s how the Earth will get its revenge.

[Washington Post] Last year, we learned what is probably the worst global warming news yet — that we may have irrevocably destabilized the massive ice sheet of West Antarctica, which contains the equivalent of nearly 11 feet of sea level rise. The rate of West Antarctic ice loss has been ominously increasing, and there are fears that if too much goes, the slow and long-term process of ice sheet disintegration could accelerate.
Humans have a hard time conceiving of the incredible scale of an ice sheet, so the consequences of such a change can be lost upon us. But in a new paper in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers — Forensic Engineering, researchers Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., and John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. – summarize what we now know about West Antarctica. That includes a finding that may serve as a wake-up call for Americans in particular.
Namely: If West Antarctica collapses entirely — a process that would likely play out over centuries, but that could substantially begin in this one – the expected 11 feet of sea level rise won’t just spread out evenly across the ocean. The United States will actually get a lot more sea level rise than many other parts of the world — possibly over 14 feet. Call it geophysical karma — we’re the nation most responsible for global warming and, at least in this particular case, we’ll get more of the consequences.
So what source of cosmic equity will mete out just deserts in this case? As it turns out — and the mechanisms will be explained in much more detail below — the answer is none other than Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation — which states that all objects in the universe attract one another in relation to their masses (and the distance between them). Read More

Friday, January 16, 2015

Scientists: Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’

[Washington Post] At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.
The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They are the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.
“What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption — are destabilizing the global environment,” said Will Steffen, who holds appointments at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center and is the lead author of the paper.
These are not future problems, but rather urgent matters, according to Steffen, who said that the economic boom since 1950 and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. No one knows exactly when push will come to shove, but he said the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”
The researchers focused on nine separate planetary boundaries first identified by scientists in a 2009 paper. These boundaries set theoretical limits on changes to the environment, and include ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.
Beyond each planetary boundary is a “zone of uncertainty.” This zone is meant to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties in the calculations, and to offer decision-makers a bit of a buffer, so that they can potentially take action before it’s too late to make a difference. Beyond that zone of uncertainty is the unknown — planetary conditions unfamiliar to us. Read More