Cannibal Wind Farms, Beating Earth’s Orbit and Other Climate Change Briefs

On preindustrial fires, mosquitoes and the oops factor: When factoring in melt in the Arctic, one needs to know what the snow is doing now, not way back when

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A wind farm in Germany.
A wind farm in Germany.Credit: Christian Charisius/AP

Middle East could face deadly heat waves lasting weeks

It is not news that climate change is expected to usher in extreme heat waves, most markedly in North Africa and the Middle East. Some cities in the Middle East are already experiencing briefly unbearable bouts of heat – but in the future they could last weeks. Reporting in npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, a team headed by George Zittis of the Cyprus Institute warns that without mitigation, the business-as-usual pathway should lead to “unprecedented super- and ultra-extreme heat waves” in the second half of this century, 56 degrees Celsius (132.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and up, especially in the cities. Nobody can take heat like that, even “heat-tolerant camels” – and may we note that air-conditioning may be a necessity but it isn’t a solution. You may breathe easier for an hour, but it just makes the Earth’s situation worse.

Here is a nice article in Slate succinctly explaining how heat kills you.

A camel is silhouetted against the setting sun in the desert in Morocco-administered Western Sahara.Credit: FADEL SENNA / AFP

Southern hemisphere on fire? It’s happened before

Modeling future climate is tricky because so many parameters are involved. Just one of the parameters is particles in the air from wildfires, volcanic eruptions and the like. We can estimate preindustrial emissions, but we had no clue about smoke aerosol in the preindustrial atmosphere. Now, a study of soot deposits in Antarctic ice cores shows that in the century preceding the industrial revolution, the southern hemisphere was fiery: producing up to four times more smoke than had been thought. Why? Mostly because of “widespread and regular burning practiced by indigenous peoples in the precolonial period.”

Sahara desert sand dunes.Credit: Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola /

Smoke particles cause cooling by blocking sunlight – so what do we have here? Apparently, we have underestimation of the preindustrial cooling effect of soot. Since the industrial revolution, vast swaths of land have been converted to farming and industry, which are producing greenhouse gases. What does this mean for the future? Climate models may have failed to factor in a cooling effect of the smoke and may be overestimating the warming effect of greenhouse gases.

So are we off the hook? No.

Oops, forgot the snow

Au contraire: The sea ice in the Arctic may be melting twice as fast as had been thought, warns a new model led by UCL that factors in snow as it is now. Excuse us? The thickness of an ice floe is estimated by measuring the height of the ice above the water, the researchers explain in The Cryosphere. But snow weighing the ice down distorts this measurement and the map the scientists have been using of snow depth in the Arctic is 20 years out of date. When they factored snow as it is now, they calculated that the ice on the Arctic’s coastal regions is thinning 70 percent to 100 percent faster than previously thought.

Also, the Arctic is warming at three times the global average, if not more. This does not augur well for coastal dwellers, especially in cities where the ground is subsiding due to the sheer weight of construction and aquifer depletion. The city sinking fastest, experts say, is Jakarta: one study says it’s sinking by 25 centimeters (10 inches) a year and has already lost 40 percent of its land to the sea.

Monsoon: Carbon dioxide beats Earth’s orbit

Apropos flooding, a study of monsoons in the Indian subcontinent in the last million years found a correlation between carbon dioxide concentrations (among other things) and the strength of the monsoon season. The research published in Scientific Advances suggests the monsoon season will grow stronger as the globe heats. Yes, cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit, changing the amount of sunlight each hemisphere receives, affected the monsoon. But the researchers detected that peaks in atmospheric CO2 and low points in global ice volume were found to correlate with more intense monsoon winds and rainfall. The monsoon is essential to agriculture and the economy, but there can be too much of a good thing.

Commuters making their way through a waterlogged street after a heavy downpour in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last year.Credit: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP

Warming U.K. may face West Nile disease risk

Not worried yet? Here you go: Scientists warn that the West Nile virus could hit Britain within 20 to 30 years. It’s already endemic in Italy and there have been outbreaks in Germany, say researchers in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface – and the relevant mosquito, the common house variety, already exists in the U.K. The warmer it gets, the happier the mosquito will be; the longer the “biting season,” the greater the probability of infection; and also, the virus may replicate faster. There is no vaccine or medication for this mosquito-borne neurological disease, which is spreading rapidly in the United States too. Horses can get it too. The only thing you can do is try to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes.

Cannibalization by wind farms

The charms of renewable energy as opposed to burning fossil fuels need no elaboration. Wind farms have been slammed for “ruining” the landscape, killing birds and bats, and “noise pollution” – and now a new study on wind farms in the German Bight and the Baltic Sea raises a new conundrum. A team led by Dr. Naveed Akhtar from Helmholtz Zentrum Hereon discovered that downstream wind farms – operating in the “shadow” of other wind farms – are significantly hampered. They are slowed down by up to 25 percent, the researchers wrote in Nature Scientific Reports. This is a real problem because wind farms take up a lot of space; planning needs to factor in this “wake effect,” the researchers warn. The worst braking effect of the upstream farms is actually in stable weather conditions – so from this perspective, stormy is good: the turbulence of the wind supersedes the cannibalization effect.

Oceanographers predict intense hurricane season

Apropos storms, the Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1 and is expected to be bad, if not as bad, as in 2020, MarketWatch reports. Why? Because the ocean surface is slowly warming, which fuels the wrath of Nature – i.e., the storms tend to build up faster and stay longer. Also, the warmer the air, the more moisture it may hold – leading to heavier rain and flooding, which is in turn exacerbated by sea level rise.