Does the water for 2 billion Asians come primarily from rainfall, melting snowpack or glacial retreat?


From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The question: Are rivers that sustain more than 2 billion people fed primarily by water from rainfall, by seasonal snowmelt or by the glaciers that are vulnerable to climate change?[…]

The high-mountain glaciers, seen as water towers for Asia, have been shrinking at a rate of 0.5 percent a year — similar to glaciers in South America’s Andes and the European Alps. As Asia’s glaciers recede, Chinese and Indian governments are moving to control headwaters with at least 19 proposed dam projects, adding to eight or so existing major dams.

U.S. intelligence agencies were among those interested in enlisting University of Colorado senior research scientist Richard Armstrong and geography professor Mark Williams. “If you cannot plan for effective use of water resources, you’re in trouble,” Armstrong said last week, after launching the project in Kazakhstan with Asian policymakers and scientists.

“There are irrigation systems on these rivers. Hydroelectric plants. They need to understand where their water comes from in order to plan with respect to climate change.” Hard data has been scarce, and research is difficult at elevations up to 18,000 feet, across a 10-nation region. Project leaders plan to send researchers into Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tein Shan and Himalayan mountain watersheds covering 1 million square miles.

The researchers will collect samples of snow, river water, groundwater and glacier-melt water in 6-ounce plastic bottles that will be mailed back to CU. Investigators at an Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research lab in Boulder will use spectrometers and other instruments to analyze the water’s origins.

Meanwhile, November saw above average global temperatures, according to this report from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit County Citizens Voice. Here’s an excerpt:

The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for November 0.81 degrees above the 2oth century average. The global land temperature was 1.10 degrees above average, the 16-warmest on record, while the ocean surface temperature for the month was 0.70 above the historic average, the 12th-warmest on record. For the year-to-date, the combined global land and ocean average surface temperature was 0.94 degrees warmer than average, which is the 11th-warmest on record. For land surface temperatures separately, the year-to-date is the seventh warmest on record…

Warmer-than-average conditions were recorded across central and eastern North America, Northern and Western Europe, northern Russia, most of China and the Middle East, southeastern Australia, and southern South America. In particular, parts of northern Europe experienced much above average temperatures, with the warmest November on record in Norway, where temps for the month were 8.3 degrees above average. The United Kingdom reported its second-warmest November on record, behind 1994. In general, land temperatures were well above normal across most of the Northern Hemisphere higher latitudes, including most of Canada, Northern Europe, and most of Russia.

Arctic sea ice is lingering below average according to this report from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit County Citizens Voice. From the article:

Overall, the Arctic gained 2.36 million square kilometers (911,000 square miles) of ice during the month, slightly more than the average November ice gain. At the end of the month, sea ice covered 4.19 million square miles, the third-lowest in the satellite record for the month, behind 2006 and 2010. The linear rate of decline for November during the satellite era is now 53,200 20,500 square miles per year, about 4.7 about per decade relative to the 1979 to 2000 average.

Low sea ice extent this summer may be contributing to warmer November temperatures and lower November ice extents in some areas. Norway, for example, reported the warmest November on record. The record warmth in parts of Scandinavia is probably linked with the current positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation.

In recent years, low sea ice extent in the summer has been linked to unusually warm autumn air temperatures, resulting from the larger areas of open water that absorb more heat during the summer. This heat must escape back to the atmosphere in the fall, before the ocean can freeze over. This escaping heat contributes to warmer-than-average conditions, which have been most apparent in October but may also extend into November.

The release of more methane trapped for thousands of years under Arctic ice is another area of study by researchers. Here’s a report from Justin Gillis writing for the New York Times. Click through and read the whole article, there is a lot of great information there. Here’s an excerpt:

Experts have long known that northern lands were a storehouse of frozen carbon, locked up in the form of leaves, roots and other organic matter trapped in icy soil — a mix that, when thawed, can produce methane and carbon dioxide, gases that trap heat and warm the planet. But they have been stunned in recent years to realize just how much organic debris is there.

A recent estimate suggests that the perennially frozen ground known as permafrost, which underlies nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere.

Temperatures are warming across much of that region, primarily, scientists believe, because of the rapid human release of greenhouse gases. Permafrost is warming, too. Some has already thawed, and other signs are emerging that the frozen carbon may be becoming unstable.

“It’s like broccoli in your freezer,” said Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “As long as the broccoli stays in the freezer, it’s going to be O.K. But once you take it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge, it will thaw out and eventually decay.”

If a substantial amount of the carbon should enter the atmosphere, it would intensify the planetary warming. An especially worrisome possibility is that a significant proportion will emerge not as carbon dioxide, the gas that usually forms when organic material breaks down, but as methane, produced when the breakdown occurs in lakes or wetlands. Methane is especially potent at trapping the sun’s heat, and the potential for large new methane emissions in the Arctic is one of the biggest wild cards in climate science [ed. emphasis mine].

And for those of you that think that human activity can’t be felt across the oceans or borders, here’s an article, from the Daily Mail about nitrogen pollution of remote watersheds from industrialization. Here’s an excerpt:

Even though they are nowhere near any cities or farms, deposits at the bottom of three quarters of the 36 lakes studied were found to contain more nitrogen than expected. Combined with global warming, the effects could alter the eco-system of the lakes in ways not seen in the last 10,000 years, it was warned.

‘It turns out the world, for nitrogen, is a much smaller place than we’d assumed,’ said author Daniel Schindler of the University of Washington. Human-sourced nitrogen comes from fossil fuels and fertilisers and once in the atmosphere it is spread before being deposited to earth in rain or snowfall.

Although it is vital for life too much can be harmful, and the US Environmental Protection Agency says humans have already doubled the rate of nitrogen released to the biosphere since 1950. We now contribute more nitrogen to the biosphere than all natural processes combined, reports the journal Science…

Prof Gordon Holtgrieve said: ‘When it comes to nitrogen associated with humans, most studies have focused on local and regional effects of pollution and have missed the planetary scale changes.

‘Our study is the first large-scale synthesis to demonstrate that biologically-active nitrogen associated with human society is being transported in the atmosphere to the most remote ecosystems on the planet.

‘Given the broad geographic distribution of our sites – and the range of temperate, alpine and arctic ecosystems – we believe the best explanation is that human-derived nitrogen was deposited from the atmosphere.’

Finally, Todd D. Stern, the top U.S. negotiator at the recently conclude Durban talks on climate change expressed relief that the sessions ended on a positive note. Here’s a report from John M. Broder writing for New York Times Green blog. From the article:

“I think this has ended up being quite a significant agreement and very much along the lines of what we’ve been pushing,” Mr. Stern said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “That was not fully expected when we went in.”

He said the United States team arrived in Durban with two goals. The first was to deepen the agreements reached at the two previous United Nations climate conferences, in Copenhagen and Cancún, Mexico. That meant establishing the terms for a fund to help poor nations adapt to climate change, strengthening programs to monitor emissions reductions and setting up a center to develop and spread clean energy technology.

There were, as always, disagreements about how countries report progress toward their emissions reductions goals and what sort of international verification regime is acceptable. Negotiators ultimately resolved these questions or agreed to deal with them later.
“There were lots of bumps, lots of difficulties, right up to the last 48 hours,” Mr. Stern said. “It would be an overstatement to say it went smoothly, but in the end it went.”

The Americans’ second goal was to find some solution to what could be called the Kyoto conundrum — that is, what sort of treaty or agreement should replace the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 deal that essentially required developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by specified amounts while putting no limits on those from the developing world, including fast-rising economies like China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

The United States never joined Kyoto, Canada just announced it was quitting it, and a number of other major countries, including Russia and Japan, said they would not participate in any further rounds of emissions pledges under it.

Resolving that problem proved to be a huge challenge, and the reason that a conference that was supposed to end Friday evening did not conclude until sunrise on Sunday. The battle pitted the European Union and a bloc of less developed countries that were determined to see Kyoto live on at least for a while, against the United States, China and India. The standoff boiled down to a dispute over what most observers would consider arcane legal language but that meant a lot to the parties involved.

In Mr. Stern’s telling, the United States was decisive in resolving the fight, first by announcing earlier in the week that it was willing to participate in some legally-binding future international climate regime, as long as all nations participated under the same terms. That was seen as a breakthrough, although, as Mr. Stern noted, it has been the American position for years.

Then, in an early-morning huddle on Sunday on the floor of the conference, the American team came up with the language that finally persuaded India to accept the legal character of any future agreement, simply by rearranging a few words.

Mr. Stern credited Susan Biniaz, a veteran lawyer at the State Department, with devising the formula that broke the logjam. At her suggestion, Mr. Stern said, the words “legal outcome” were changed to “agreed outcome with legal force.” That proved to be enough for the Indian delegate, Jayanthi Natarajan, who had insisted angrily all week that India could not agree to any climate treaty that hindered her nation’s economic growth.

“That was the last sticking point, and then we were done,” Mr. Stern said.

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