Tag Archives: Global warming

Using spatial science and lightning to predict thunderstorms

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham

Lightning, while visually stunning and often quite exciting, poses a very real threat to humans (e.g. Europe in May; increased deaths in the USA) and associated thunderstorms can endanger lives and livelihoods through high winds and intense rainfall. An improved ability to predict thunderstorms may help to mitigate their impacts. Using spatial science to study lightning patterns has the potential to assist in this area of research and ‘save lives rather than end them’ (p. 196), say the authors of a recent Geography Compass article (Ellis and Miller, 2016).

'Shocking Lightning!' by Darren Hsu via flickr. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/darren8221/9193099396/

‘Shocking Lightning!’ by Darren Hsu via flickr. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/darren8221/9193099396/

The behaviour of lightning can be reflective of a storm’s intensity. Short-term storm intensity is very difficult to predict, even when forecasters are confident in the coverage and direction of a storm. Indeed, a rapid increase in the frequency of lightning strikes may be observed before a storm that produces severe weather. With this in mind, spatial science might be able to help us analyse the vast spatial datasets of lightning strikes and contribute towards understanding these systems and predicting ‘imminent storm severity’ (Ellis and Miller, 2016). Specifically, this work addresses lightning jump algorithms (LJAs) and understanding storm-specific lightning trends and the importance of their spatial and temporal components. By doing this, lighting strikes can be clustered in space and time and the overall patterns understood and hopefully linked to short-term storm severity.

Increased quantity and quality of data nearly always assists with science, where the analytical skills and technology exist in parallel. As discussed in Ellis and Miller (2016) a new instrument called Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) will soon be integrated with NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (also see this NASA article). This will be able to monitor lightning from space, providing novel data and enhancing our ability to monitor and predict storms, complementing (and providing a backup for) existing, ground-based instruments such as radar.

Such an advancement seems all the more important when we consider that the number of lightning strikes (Romps et al., 2014) and overall storm intensity (NASA Earth Observatory) are expected to increase with global warming, as well as overall storm intensity. These are therefore very interesting times for understanding and predicting storm activity. Hopefully all of these efforts from spatial scientists, geographers, and meteorologists will lead to fewer losses and a reduced numbers of deaths and injuries from thunderstorm events and lightning strikes.

books_icon Ellis, A. and Miller, P. (2016). The Emergence of Lightning in Severe Thunderstorm Prediction and the Possible Contributions from Spatial Science. Geography Compass, 10, 192–206.

60-world2 Romps et al. (2014). Projected increase in lightning strikes in the United States due to global warming. Science, 346, 851–854.

Our Nation is Sinking: The Maldives and Global Warming

by Benjamin Sacks

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

The Maldives is sinking. Like several other South Asian and Oceanic archipelagos, the Maldives’s topography suffers from a lethal combination of high surface erosion and rising sea levels. The former stems from the islands’ soft soils, but most scientists agree that the latter is a direct consequence of global warming. Although rising sea levels may not pose much of a concern to residents of Salisbury or Kinross, it has become an extraordinarily important issue for a country where the highest point above sea level is a paltry 2.4 metres. Heightening tensions, the archipelago is remarkably dense and urbanised. In Malé, the country’s political, social, and cultural capital, Over 100,000 people reside on an island with an area less than 6 square kilometres (2.24 miles).

The Maldives’ susceptibility to erosion and land loss has been acknowledged for at least a century. In a 1901 Royal Geographical Society expedition, J Stanley Gardiner noted how the islands of Minikoi Atoll were sharply controlled by currents (pp. 287-88). But Gardiner evidently recognised the beauty in the erosion process. ‘Together with the washing away of the land’, he recalled in The Geographical Journal, ‘fresh conditions tend to be found on its reefs’ (p. 293). But what Gardiner perceived as interesting, if not dangerous phenomena proved increasingly problematic in the years following the Maldives’ independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. In the early 1990s, British geographers and climate specialists repeatedly warned that such archipelagos as the Maldives were at increasing risk of flooding or disappearing altogether. Even a ‘slightly higher rise in sea level increase the areas of potential inundation, threaten[ing] the existence of certain island states (e.g. the Maldives) (Jones p. 127)’. Rising sea levels and increased erosion prompted Erlet Cater to accuse, in 1995 article in The Geographical Journal, the Maldives’ government of willful negligence and destruction for the sake of tourism. Cater identified a increasingly negative cycle:

  1. Rising sea levels and increasingly fast erosion led to fewer tourists, and hence much-needed income.
  2. To increase tourism levels, Malé increased mining of coral reefs around the islands, selling the dried corals as souvenirs and permitting tourists to travel in and around the fragile reefs.
  3. Coral levels plummeted, not only creating an oceanic environmental crisis, but destroying islands’ natural barrier against erosion. Erosion increased, to the shock and amazement of officials.
  4. The Maldives tried to both stem rising water levels and continue fostering tourism through coral sales. They failed in both instances.

As if deliberately echoing Cater’s call to action, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami most violently demonstrated the existential threat the Maldives faced. Although the country suffered remarkably few casualties relative to its neighbours, much of the islands were completely flooded, quickly leading to a national disaster. Malé – and most government administration and private business – came to a chaotic standstill for weeks while locals tried to apprise the situation on dozens of widely scattered and isolated islands.

In the most recent edition of The Geographical Journal (June 2014), Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) returned to the Maldives question, albeit with a new – and fascinating – perspective. In order to combat rising sea levels, recent successive Maldivian governments have sought to resettle thousands of residents from some of the more remote, impassable islands to larger, more populated, and accessible atolls. In total, the government intends to reorganise the country’s total population – currently thought to reside on some 200 islands and oversize reefs – onto about ten larger islands.

On the surface this appears logical, (relatively) efficient for a small state with a small population, and even honourable, given the Maldives’ enormous environmental obstacles. As Kothari explains, however, Malé is also influenced by longstanding political and economic priorities; environmental concerns, to an extent at least, have become a convenient mask. Although the government’s commitment to drastic environmental reforms is undeniable (In 2009 then-President Mohamed Nasheed pronounced that the Maldives intends to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2020), ‘environmental concerns have also been used to justify and legitimise other agendas’ (p. 135). Since the early years of independence, both the government and private sector elites have pushed for population consolidation as a means of reorganising national spending, raising the profile of tourism, and effecting greater political and social control (pp. 136-37). Although some Maldivians have vocally resisted the government’s declarations, the very real threat posed by climate change seems to have swung the balance far in Malé’s favour.

How does the Maldives’ approach and handling of rising sea levels and increasing land erosion compare to other, similarly at-risk states? Kiribati? Micronesia? Nauru? Has climate change become a front for consolidating other agendas?

 J Stanley Gardiner, ‘The Formation of the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 19.3 (Mar., 1902): 277-96.

 Erlet Cater, ‘Environmental Contradictions in Sustainable Tourism‘, The Geographical Journal 161.1 (Mar., 1995): 21-28.

 David K C Jones, ‘Global Warming and Geomorphology‘, The Geographical Journal 159.2 (Jul., 1993): 124-30.

 Richard Warrick and Graham Farmer, ‘The Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change and Rising Sea Level: Implications for Development‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 15.1 (1990): 5-20.

 Uma Kothari, ‘Political discourses of climate change and migration: resettlement policies in the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 180.2 (Jun., 2014): 130-40.

No change from climate change: island vulnerability

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

by Ilan Kelman

Climate change is often touted as humanity’s biggest development challenge. Low-lying, tropical islands are particularly highlighted as potentially experiencing future devastation. How accurate is this rhetoric?

No doubt exists that many islanders are suffering under climate change. Residents of the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea have been forced to move as sea-level rise encroaches on their villages.

Many other island locations are also experiencing climate change impacts, but in tandem with other development challenges which have existed for decades. Also in the Pacific, Kiribati is severely threatened by sea-level rise. But the people there have long been trying to solve other devastating problems including urban planning, land use, and water resources.

Focusing on climate change problems has the unfortunate consequence of distracting from other development challenges. In particular, the physical hazard of climate change to islands and islanders is often emphasised, tending to promote technocratic responses for only climate change. Integrated approaches focusing on island peoples, communities, and livelihoods are frequently sidelined.

The fundamental question is why inequality and power relations have left many island communities with few options for responding to climate change. That is the same as the long-standing questions about why inequality and power relations have left many island communities unable to tackle the root causes of their multiple vulnerabilities.

The difficulty is not so much addressing the hazard of climate change per se. Instead, it is understanding why islanders often continue to be denied the resources and options to address climate change themselves–just as with the other development challenges that have pervaded for decades.

In that regard, climate change brings little to the islands that is new.

The author: Dr. Ilan Kelman is Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).

books_icon Kelman I 2013 No change from climate change: vulnerability and small island developing states The Geographical Journal DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12019

60-world2Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2013 Mangroves in the Marshall Islands to protect local community (Press release) Scoop 24 January

Mapping carbon emissions

I-Hsien Porter

Power stationThe Guardian website recently published a map of carbon emissions by country. There were few surprises. China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. hile recession-hit Europe and America have seen a fall in their emissions due to reductions in industrial output, it has not been enough to offset the rapid expansion of emerging economies in China and India. Developing countries in South America and Africa have some of the smallest carbon emissions in the world.

It might have been helpful to see this illustrated in relation to carbon emissions per person, since countries are not all the same size. However, it provides a useful indication of where strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might be best focused.

Market based solutions, where carbon is commodified (e.g. carbon credits), have become the focus for international strategies to reduce emissions. However, in a recent paper in The Geographical Journal, Samuel Randalls warns of the dangers of this approach.

Simplifying carbon emissions into a quantity that must be managed comes with broader ethical and moral issues. Management of the issue by distant national or international markets makes assumptions about the fair allocation of personal carbon allowances.

Randalls argues that wider political participation is needed to consider the ethical implications of imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution across countries with different cultural and social characteristics.

The Guardian (31st January 2011) ‘An atlas of pollution: The world in carbon dioxide emissions.’

Randalls, S. (2011) ‘Broadening debates on climate change ethics: beyond carbon calculation.’ The Geographical Journal [Early View]

An insight into the consequences of climate change?

Arctic sea iceMethane is a potent greenhouse gas. Human activities, e.g. farming, have resulted in the release of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. However, in locations across the world, large amounts of methane and carbon are stored in soil or the sea bed. These are released gradually as a natural process.

In a Geography Compass paper, William Bowden raises concerns over this process as Arctic ice and permafrost (frozen ground) begin to thaw in response to climate change. Bowden suggests that stored methane and carbon may be released into the atmosphere, further contributing to the volume of greenhouse gases.

Switching our attention to the Gulf of Mexico, last April’s Deepwater Horizon oil leak also caused the release of a large quantity of methane. Research discovered that methane-absorbing bacteria multiplied rapidly in response. As a result, much of the additional methane was not released into the atmosphere.

The Arctic and Gulf of Mexico may behave very differently from each other. However, research into the Deepwater Horizon oil leak offers an insight into the potential consequences of much greater environmental change.

BBC News (6th January 2011) ‘Gulf of Mexico oil leak may give Arctic climate clues’.

Bowden, William B. (2010) ‘Climate Change in the Arctic – Permafrost, Thermokarst, and Why They Matter to the Non-Arctic World’. Geography Compass 3 (10): 1553-1566

Overcoming inertia not to act on climate change

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009I-Hsien Porter

In a commentary in The Observer, Robin McKie outlines some of the statistics that reinforce the argument for man-made climate change.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased significantly over the past 50 years, causing temperature rises of 0.80C. Many scientists argue that a total increase in temperature of at least 20C is inevitable by 2100, leading to more extreme weather events, water shortages and disruption to food production.

Despite the warnings, surprisingly little has been done to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. In an article in Area, Andrew Sayer expresses pessimism about whether this attitude will change.

Sayer argues that in the Global North, states are too dependant on capital to meet the costs of acting against climate change. Governments are too electorally dependant on the middle classes to reduce their consumption.

Overcoming the incentives not to act on climate change provides a challenge for those in government. However, the need to do so is clear. Geographers can contribute to this debate by improving our understanding of both the physical processes driving climate change, and the human processes driving our response.

‘After a wasted year, climate change must once again be our priority.’ The Observer 26th December 2010.

Andrew Sayer (2010) ‘Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened?’ Area 41 (3): 350-353

Learning for food

I-Hsien Porter

Global climate change is likely to cause significant changes, or at least greater uncertainty, in human lifestyles. One vulnerable area of our relationship with the environment is food production.

The BBC recently reported that over the past 25 years, rice yields in Asia have fallen 10 – 20% in response to rising temperatures. This trend is expected to continue. Meanwhile, a summer heatwave (a relatively short-term climatic event) has caused the Russian government to ban the export of wheat, with far-reaching impacts for food prices. In this light, some might be concerned for future food security.

However, many small-scale farmers in the Global South have been dealing with adverse climatic conditions and resource scarcity for decades. In a recent paper in Geographical Journal, Lindsay Stringer and others look to these groups to inform countries in the Global North, which are now facing similar challenges.

Many of the strategies employed by farmers in developing countries were specific to particular places, so had limited transferability to other contexts. As a result, Stringer et al. looked at the process-related aspects of farmer’s experiences, rather than those rooted in place.

Farmers who were faced with adversity were found to have much greater political awareness (e.g. of trade agreements). Those responsible for food production in the developed world could learn from the way that other actors have influenced food and farming policies.

Redefining the traditional North-to-South flow of knowledge into a two-way exchange generates a much larger pool of ideas to mitigate and cope with pressures on food production.

“Rice yields to “fall” under global warming”, BBC News, 9th August 2010

Stringer et al. (2008) “Learning from the South: common challenges and solutions for small-scale farming” Geographical Journal 174(3): 235-250