Another Flower in the Wind?

This time last year I posted a note on the increased numbers of plants spotted flowering in the UK on New Year’s Day. Today the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland released the results of this year’s plant survey.

Just to keep things in context…

Average expected number of species flowering – 20-30.

2015 number of species flowering – 358

2016 number of species flowering – 612!

 

I also spotted a report on the BBC News website this morning on how Britain’s birds have been coping with our weirdly warm, wet winter. What the dickens are swifts doing in the UK in December? They should be in Africa! Apparently summer migrants are still here (or back early?) and winter migrants haven’t arrived in their usual numbers (presumably because it’s mild enough in their summering grounds they don’t feel the need to head for gentler British climes?)

It’s nice to see more birds sticking around rather than leaving, perhaps, but the milder weather has also increased disease rates amongst wild birds, which isn’t so good. Garden pests also haven’t had enough of a frosting to keep their numbers down – let’s hope that the increased bird numbers helps to predate the slugs and snails to reasonable levels!

Storm Jonas is currently giving the west of the UK a hammering but, so far (touch wood!) up in the north-east corner here it’s merely windy and warm, not yet sodden. I expect local river levels to rise soon all the same, as it’s raining over the snowpack in the Cairngorms – bad news for the snowsports industry, as they’d barely got the slopes open before this thaw and wet weather hit them, forcing them to close again.

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Intelligence and Information Sources

A bit of a change from routine here but relevant and important to anyone trying to plan for the future.

Where do you get your information from? Do you read the newspapers, watch TV, listen to friends in the pub? How good is their grip on reality? Are you hearing a load of opinionated BS, or are you hearing thoughtful, insightful comment, or are you getting anywhere within spitting distance of an actual fact?

Let’s be honest; it’s practically impossible to sift out fact from fiction in any mainstream news organisation these days, unless you know the difference before you start reading/listening to begin with. All the same, you can get a long way in the process by considering the source of your information. Is it believable? Is it coherent? And who said it?

I’m going to use a story from yesterday as my case in point. This one had some preppers I know metaphorically diving into bunkers, fearing imminent nuke exchanges as WWIII kicked off and NATO rushed to Turkey’s aid against Russian attacks.

Russian Jet Shot Down by Turkey

What happened? Who knows?

(Just as an aside, I still haven’t worked out how, assuming it was true, the Turks shooting down a Russian jet could be construed as Russia attacking NATO. Boot’s on the other foot, surely?)

For most of yesterday, various media organisations picked up this headline and regurgitated it in various ways, with varying degrees of confidence, bombast and caution, depending on their editorial policy and political leanings. I spent most of the day filtering through various sites where I’ve learned to go and find alternative information and what it boils down to is this.

Someone on Twitter reported seeing a flash in the night sky in northern Syria, near Aleppo, after seeing some fighters go by.

This was picked up by social media as “three eyewitnesses in Turkey saw Russian MiG-29 shot down in Turkish airspace by 3 Turkish F-16s which were hovering”.

Hang on a minute…. since when did F-16s hover? Being charitable, this could be a translation error and they might mean ‘circle’, I suppose. Or maybe they can’t tell the difference between a fighter jet and a chopper?

Hang on another minute…. how did eyewitnesses in Turkey see a plane shot down near Aleppo, nearly 30 miles from Syria’s border??

Hang on another minute again….. since when did Aleppo, 30 miles inside Syria, count as ‘Turkish airspace’???

And hang on just one more minute…. hands up anyone who can identify a Russian MiG-29 in the dark as it’s shot down 25-30 miles away!

I envy their eyesight.

Quick check of news reports from the past week or so and I can’t find any mention of the Russians fielding MiG-29s in Syria – they seem to be using Sukhoi 20s, 25s, 30s and 34s.

Could be a Syrian Mig-29, the Syrian airforce does use MiG-29s.

Anything on radio traffic? Apparently not – I regularly check out a forum called DEFCONWARNINGSYSTEM as they have quite a few members who monitor US military radio frequencies; even if the actual communications are coded, you can still note an uptick in activity and correlate that with something actually happening. Apparently the US military is business as usual, nobody’s excited about anything, comms traffic is normal everyday stuff.

What was the US President doing yesterday? Burning up the hotline to Moscow heading off WWIII? Nope, apparently (if you believe his own twitter feed) he was talking about the Trans Pacific Partnership being good for US jobs and workers.

Anything by way of comment from the Russians about losing an expensive warplane? Nope. Not even a ‘no comment’.

Anything from the Turks about starting an international shooting war with a country they’ve recently been doing a lot of expensive infrastructure deals with? Have they ticked off the Russians just before the Russians build them a new nuke power station and a whopping big oil/gas pipeline? Not even a ‘no comment’. They’ve got their hands full with terrorist bombings in Ankara, certainly, but you’d think they’d remember if they’d also shot down a Russian fighter.

Anything from Syria? Not that I can find, but then nobody’s reporting anything Syria says anyway. No cheering self-congratulatory back-slapping reported from any of the rebel groups or IS (not that I can actually tell the difference between any of them!) about downing a fighter, either.

No ambassadors recalled for discussions, no diplomatic notes about millions of roubles’ worth of missing jet, no jumping up and down making propaganda hay by the US – in fact, they’re withdrawing their carrier in the Med for routine maintenance and have just pulled their Patriot batteries from Turkey. Worried much? Doesn’t look like it.

My conclusion? Probably nothing happened, or if anything did happen, it most likely wasn’t the Russians and it probably wasn’t the Turks. Could have been a rebel group downing a Syrian jet inside Syria.

Move along, nothing to see here.

I did notice that almost all the mainstream media did put the word ‘unconfirmed’ in front of ‘reports’ in covering this, and the longer that ‘unconfirmed’ lingered without any confirmation, the less seriously I took the original story. It’s a classic example of Chinese Whispers, when you get down to it – but still underlines the basic principle.

The value of the information you get depends on its source. If the source is undependable, you have to treat the information warily. If the information is dependable, then you can weight the information accordingly. If it’s the Express saying the coming winter will be the worst for 50 years, I ignore it completely. The tabloid press in the UK have been running that headline yearly for the past couple of decades and they’ve yet to be correct once. If it’s the Met Office saying there’s a major storm inbound, then I take notice.

Just to lighten the mood (but stay on topic!) here’s a quick summary of the British press:

Climate Catch Up: just in case you thought it was over….

It ain’t.

In fact, the state of the climate is more worrying than ever, as the rate of climate change would appear to be accelerating rather than remaining steady. In other words, it’s getting worse, faster (more details here and here). This, in turn, will cause an acceleration in all the other problems we can already see starting, and which we should expect to get much worse in the next few years – increasing migration, decreasing crop yields, more droughts, more heatwaves, etc.

Globally, we’ve just had the hottest July on record, and those records go back to 1880. July 2015 has been the hottest of all those months, so the hottest month of the last 1,627 months..

Global average sea temperatures were 0.75 degrees C above average, too – the largest departure from the average ever recorded.

If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s almost certain that temperatures will continue well above average for the rest of this year and into 2016, thanks to what started out as a limp-wristed wimp of an El Nino but has now developed into what’s been called a Godzilla El Nino, with worse expected before this time next year. El Nino conditions tend to produce record global high temperatures anyway – which is why 1998 still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, thanks to a monster El Nino that year – but with global temperatures already well above average, nobody seems to know quite how bad the Godzilla of the Pacific might be, this year or next.

Both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice are below average extent at the moment – it’s high summer in the arctic and sea-ice is approaching its minimum, with both the North-West Passage and the Northern Russian Coastal Route open as seaways. In the Antarctic, though, it’s now the depths of winter, yet sea-ice is slightly below average (National Snow and Ice Data Centre has the details).

It’s not all bad news, though. Following the Pope’s recent declaration in favour of taking care of our poor battered environment, Muslim clerics are now standing up for the biosphere, too, with a recent gathering of top clerics from 20 Muslim countries calling on all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world to work to reduce climate change and transition to a zero-carbon economy by the middle of the century.

What effect China’s current economic belly-flop will have on their carbon emissions, I don’t know. It’s probably both good (less pollution from a less-active economy) and bad (less money to plough into greener initiatives and pollution clean-ups) but I expect, as always, that it’ll all be clear with hindsight.

And now back to everyday life….

Where Did All The Snow Get To?

Here we are, in April, officially now in Spring rather than Winter, and thinking back over the past season, I find myself wondering…. where was the snow? What happened to winter?

There are years without snow in the UK, as well as years with loads of snow (by UK standards – I can certainly remember snowdrifts over 5 foot in Cheshire as a child and we’ve been snowed in from time to time in Scotland, as well as having years when snowtyres are overkill and the salt doesn’t come out of the shed at all.) That’s just normal seasonal variation – “weather” rather than “climate”.

This has been one of the less snowy years. We have had a couple of days when we’ve watched snow blow past the windows, though nothing has stuck on the roads round here and certainly a drift hasn’t even been a possibility. It’s a mixed blessing – less snow, less frost, less powercuts and storms, less inconvenience…. but also less die-off of garden pests. We had slug problems last year because they weren’t frozen down to a smaller population in the 2013/14 winter, and this year undoubtedly we’ll have slug problems again, since they won’t have been frozen this year either.

But it always makes me wonder. If the snow wasn’t here, where was it?

Apparently it hasn’t been in the Arctic, where NSIDC has just reported the lowest ever sea-ice record for winter – and not only the lowest extent but the earliest-ever winter maximum as the ice stopped growing and started melting again earlier than usual.

It hasn’t been in Alaska, either. This year’s Iditarod sled-dog race had to be moved to a more northerly route to find enough snow and ice for the sleds – and at the “official” start in Anchorage, 350 truck-fuls of snow were spread around the city to make it suitably white and scenic! I associate many things with Alaska; until now, a need to stockpile snow for winter sporting events has not been one of them.

It hasn’t been in the Rockies in California, either. California’s water utility checked the depth of the snowpack at 6,800 feet of altitude in the Sierra Nevada recently and found….. no snow at all. This is the first time in 75 years that they’ve had no snow at this altitude on the 1st April, it appears, and doesn’t bode well for California’s continuing drought conditions. Nor does the newly-confirmed El Nino event hold out much hope for restoring California’s water balance – despite taking nearly a year to go from the first indications to officially declared status, this looks like being a very weak, late El Nino that won’t have much effect on US weather patterns, but may nudge global temperatures upwards a little more.

Eurasia also had below-average snowfall in February, though not below average for the year.

So where did the snow go? Apparently it all landed on the USA, mostly in the north-east but some even in such places as Virginia and Texas – not areas I immediately think of when it comes to snow storms!

Apart from the unusually heavy  snow and low temperatures in the north-eastern USA, this winter has also thrown up an unusually chilly patch of ocean off the north-eastern US coast. This is potentially not good news for Europe, as it seems to indicate a slow-down in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Currant (better known as the North Atlantic Drift and the Gulf Stream) which may chill northern Europe. On the other hand, it might help damp out the likelihood of heat waves, which the changing Arctic climate may be encouraging in Europe via fluctations in the Jet Stream….

That probably boils down to, if you’re in the UK, expect variable weather. It’s just a shame about all those non-frozen slugs and insects. They’re probably already anticipating a good nosh on the veg we’re starting to sow….

Drought in the Amazon

I’ve been keeping an eye on a long-running story in the Amazon basin over the past several months; an intense drought which has brought water-rationing to large areas of Brasil and just a few days ago threatened to depopulate Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America and home to 20 million people.

It’s not the first time drought has hit the Amazon basin. In 2010, the Amazon was hit by a devastating drought which caused major rivers to run dry, trees to die and led to extensive fires as the dry, dead wood was set alight by lightning strikes. There were astounding pictures of the Brazilian government flying water supplies to villages normally on the banks of the world’s biggest river, because there was nothing but sand in the riverbed. There was a lot of discussion at the time about climate change in the Amazon basin and what it could mean for the rest of the planet if we allowed the Amazon rainforest to disappear.

As we can now see, the net result of all that worry was….. nothing happened. No new reservoirs, no restrictions on logging, illegal or legal, and as a consequence, here’s another drought and it’s nearly brought Brazil’s biggest city to the point of rationing water to just 2 days a week to all its 20 million residents.

2 days a week. Think about that. How would you cope if you turned the taps on and nothing came out? You’d be okay for a day, perhaps, maybe go buy some bottled water? (Except there are other people with the same idea). Every human needs 2L of clean, potable water a day to survive – more in hot climates or if you’re working hard and losing fluids through sweat. You need more to cook food, wash clothes, clean your teeth, flush the toilet…. the average UK household uses 150L of water a day.

Do you have 150L of water stored in your home? It weighs 150kg, plus packaging, so be careful where you stack those bottles! Upstairs is not a good idea. Ideally you want it in a dark, cool place (to restrict the growth of algae) and on a solid floor, not the loft. You need to rotate your water stash – about every 18 months or so – otherwise when you crack open the bottle, you’re might find a complex ecosystem flourishing in there. A couple of drops of thin unscented household bleach per litre helps prevent it all going green, but over time the chlorine wears off and you need to empty the bottles, scrub them out and refill them.

That’s a fair bit of work, though you can spread the load over time by doing a few bottles a month rather than all at once. You can lessen the load by conserving water! 50L a day to flush the loo with clean drinking water? Do you really need a long hot shower every day? And don’t even think about watering the garden or washing the car….

Back in the mid-70s, we had a severe drought in the UK – the first I was aware of.  I remember my parents taking us for a picnic at one of the reservoirs for Manchester, up in the Peak District. I remember the cracked mud that stretched for such a long way (I was only small!) from the grass at the top to the not-very-much water at the bottom. Cars had bumper stickers reading ‘Save Water – Have a Dirty Weekend’ to remind everyone only to bathe when necessary. We shared bathwater – eldest brother had first dip, then next brother used the same (cooling) water for his bath, then my sister and I shared the (tepid and somewhat grimy) water for our quick splash around. We put a brick in the toilet cistern to reduce the capacity, so less water was used in flushing the toilet (you can get the same effect with a plastic bag of water – or anything else that displaes water and don’t bung the works up). As things continued, we had a rule that you only flushed for excrement, not urine. Then we went on to saving the washing-up water in a bucket to pour down the loo so we weren’t using drinking water for flushing at all. I’ve retained the habit of having a daily wash rather than a daily shower ever since. You can get just as clean from a basin of hot water, a bar of soap and a flannel as you can from a shower or a bath, and it saves an immense amount of water and heating energy!

Most people in the UK don’t store water. You turn the taps and it falls out, no problem. But the people of Sao Paulo thought that, too, a few months ago. Now they’re facing reservoirs with only 8.9% of their water and the taps don’t work. Restaurants can’t wash plates, people can’t wash clothes, schools can’t cook dinners. People are reduced to trudging to whatever water sources they can locate and filling up every container they can carry. The Brazilian government were getting close to telling people to leave the city and flee, apparently.

It’s now started raining there, apparently, so they’re breathing sighs of relief, but what odds they don’t learn from this lesson either? In which case, in a few years, it’ll happen again, when the next drought arrives.

I wonder if anyone in Sao Paulo will think to start storing clean drinking water?

And before everyone outside Brazil starts feeling smug, remember those drought predictions for the US? Here’s a good site to start doing some research, too. Pay attention to that throwaway comment on the fifth line about the Brazilian coffee crop not happening this year! (Hint: price of coffee likely to rise so stock up now, coffee drinkers!)

IPCC AR5 indicated that the dry areas would get drier, so a good guess as to future conditions can be made by looking at current drought areas and simply enlarging them over time. If (when?) the Amazon rainforest succumbs to drought, fire and logging, we can probably expect tropical and subtropical droughts to get much more severe and prolonged – the Amazon, like other large rainforests, creates its own climate and without it, rainfall is going to drop.

Think it can’t happen here? Think again. Think hard, particularly if you live in an area already prone to droughts, like the south-east of England. London already gets less rain than Istanbul!

There’s another question here that I’m mulling over, and that’s…. how long will people cling to their homes, jobs, businesses, when they know they face not having any water? (three days without water and your body starts to die!) And why? Did anyone look at the reservoir levels and think, blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m offski? Or do humans have this irrational attachment to place, even over survival? How bad does it have to get before you give up your belongings in favour of safeguarding your life?

More importantly yet, when dire circumstances do finally get people on the move….. how desperate are they and what will they do if you’re in the way?

TANSTAFFL

This stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Particularly when a politician or a political party starts offering “free” anything, remember the money has to come from somewhere. If you’re not paying for it up front, then where are they skinning the money from out of sight?

A few “free” things that get my goat.

“Free” university tuition. Here‘s a hint that not all Scotland’s universities are happy with this. I’m particularly suspicious when it comes to comments like

“opposing government policy isn’t always welcomed”

Is this a hint that free speech is being stifled?

You can’t have something for nothing. I’m not against the state shouldering tuition fees – I did my degree back in the old days when every local authority in the UK paid tuition fees, and my daughter’s away in Glasgow at the moment, fee-less. If you want a top-class education system, however, then you have to pay for it somehow. If students aren’t paying for it, then you have to fund it to the same level via public funds…. in other words, every tax payer takes a share. I’m perfectly happy, as a tax payer, knowing that I’m paying a few quid towards the education of the next generation, including Michelle. But when you see that tuition fees aren’t being paid by students and you discover that the government isn’t paying enough either…. well, then there’s only one outcome. The quality of the university education is going to suffer. As a parent, that’s not good enough.

Here’s another nice “free” offer from the Scottish Government. “Free” childcare for every child between 3 and 4 for 16 hours a week. Except it appears a lot of parents have to pay for their childcare because the council-funded places aren’t opening the right hours, or simply can’t handle that many children. Next year it’s going to include 27% of all 2 year olds, as well – at least in theory. Yet Scotland has less provision for nursery places under the “free” childcare that the Nats are bleating about, than England does without it. And where’s the money coming from? Local authorities raise their money from the Council Tax and the Scottish Government hasn’t allowed a rise in that for 8 years now. Holyrood’s providing £329 million to fund the expansion…. hang on a minute, there’s only 5.3 million people in Scotland and not all of them are taxpayers! Say we assume that it’s falling equally on all tax payers, and there’s a national average of 72.5% employment for those between 16 and 64, which is 63% of the population, then we’re looking at…. (bear with me, maths isn’t my favourite subject….) 2.43 million taxpayers, so each tax payer will be paying an extra  £135.39 for the “free” childcare that these children aren’t adequately receiving, on top of whatever we’re already paying, which I haven’t been able to track down yet.

“Free”. Yeah, right.

So, as all the politicians get revved up to offer bread-and-circus in one hand and smoke-and-mirrors in the other to fool the mugs into voting for them in May, just remember, if they’re busy saying “it’s free!”…. they’re lying.

TANSTAAFL!

In other news, no wonder the Russians are feeling their oats and flying bombers around our coasts with increasing frequency, just look at the way the EU’s busy arguing amongst itself! Brussels says Greece’s loan application is a positive move, and a couple of hours later Germany tells Greece where to go, with hints that it’s because the German finance minister has taken a huff at the Greek finance minister’s negotiation style.

Anyone would think Germany wanted Greece to turn to Russia for a bail-out. Wouldn’t that be an interesting twist? Part of the EU busy baiting the Bear over the Ukraine, part of the EU extending the begging bowl to the Bear and part of it (us) being wagged as the tail of the US dog-of-war.

Oddly enough, I actually have a high enough opinion of Putin’s nerve, guts and brinksmanship to think he’ll dance a smart line and avoid outright war (this does not imply, by the way, that I approve of him, his morals, his ethics, his methods or his ambitions…. just that I think he’s one smart, savvy, ruthless and clever son of a female dog. The West has nobody with Putin’s political skills, though plenty who can match his bad qualities.) Russia nipped the Crimea off very neatly and made the West look like a bunch of blundering buffoons on the world stage, I suspect they’ll succeed in the Ukraine as well. Particularly as the EU is busy attacking its own members.

Too bad for the Ukrainians. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania next?

Who’d a Thunk it?

Look out for formation-flying pigs! At last, the weight of the evidence and the severity of the crisis is hitting home for Big Business – and the ones with the biggest stakes in the denial game, too!

Some big companies have been active in climate change mitigation and adaptation schemes for some time – Apple, for instance, is a high-profile company which has for some time acknowledged climate change and sought ways to reduce its reliance on  fossil fuels. This week, Bloomberg reports Apple has invested $850 million in ensuring that it will be powering all its offices, machines, stores and data centres from solar sources for at least the next 25 years.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, had acknowledged the urgent necessity of dealing with climate change, reducing the world’s reliance on oil and switching to natural gas as a less polluting alternative, along with more renewables, and even called for governments to set carbon prices to discourage the use of fossil fuels.

Today, in reports from the Guardian and Telegraph, I note that British Petroleum, another massive multinational oil company, has stepped up to the plate. Increasing energy demand is not compatible with fighting climate change, its Energy Report has declared, and carbon emissions are ‘unsustainable’! BP, too, would like carbon prices, please.

Well, woo-hoo!! Finally, the emperors of carbon production are looking in the mirror and noticing a certain draftiness around their nethers! BP and Shell are two of the five biggest oil companies in the world – the others being ConocoPhillips, Chevron and ExxonMobil. When you consider the massive investment these companies have in exploiting any fossil fuel they can lay hands on, even two out of five ain’t bad (apologies to Meatloaf for misquoting!)

This is a long way from fixing any problems, but at least the big players are beginning to admit there are problems. If they withdraw their funding for climate change denial thinktanks and propagandists (and they should!)  then the artificial and false “controversy” over whether climate change exists and will be a major existential challenge for humanity should begin to die down. With their financial clout, these companies also have the ears of politicians and have for many years been stridently arguing that jobs now are more important than TEOTWAWKI for the next generation.

Maybe, just maybe, we can look forwards to getting to grips with the adaptation and mitigation measures our grandchildren need us to put in place.

And it’s official….

2014 was the warmest year on record, globally, according to NASA.

The BBC are reporting that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century. Since we’ve only had 15 years since the turn of the century (allowing 2000 to count in there, of course) and the instrumental temperature records go back to 1880,  that’s fairly damning. (In case you’re wondering, that other ‘warmest’ year was 1998 – so not very far back!)

Couple that with the research that was published a few days ago on sea level rise trends that indicates the sea is rising 25% faster that was thought (3.2mm per year may not sound like a terrifying amount but it’s worse than the previous estimate!) and it looks like climate change is still accelerating – and the rate of acceleration is increasing.

Bad news for the kids. Not good for the rest of us, either, but we won’t have to live with the consequences for so long, since “the rest of your life” gets shorter as you get older.

If you’re planning on moving to the seaside, have a think about rising tides and storm surges – and don’t live too close to the tideline!