Leafing Out

There are few places in the world, if any, that aren’t touched by human activity, including places with no humans. And one of our chief human activities over the past couple of centuries has been the transfer of carbon from reservoirs deep within the planet out into the atmosphere.

We’ve been re-creating the environment during this industrial dream. Like a dream, we aren’t always conscious of our decisions and the impact they will have as we weave the story forward.

Several recent studies show that the phenology of leaves around the world, i.e. the annual cycle of vegetation changes, has dramatically altered since the mid-20th century.

Smoke & Mirrors (2010) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors (2010)
Photo: Ellie Davies


It might not seem particularly important if the first vegetation leafs out a week earlier every year, or drops a week later in autumn.

But a study published in Nature Climate Change measured severe phenological changes on 54% of the planet’s land surface between 1981 and 2012, with resulting shifts for entire ecosystems.

Warmer temperatures, new rainfall patterns and increased atmospheric carbon are altering the rate of energy exchange between land and atmosphere in complex ways that we don’t yet entirely understand.

Increased carbon uptake due to earlier springs and later autumns mitigate climate change, at least in theory (and leaving out the issue of deforestation, of course).

But as it turns out, phenological change alters different forests in different ways. Temperate forests react differently from boreal forests, and the overall impact on a global level is as yet unclear.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies


Truly long-term studies of leaf-out times aren’t widely available, but the Marsham family of Norfolk, England, kept records of leafing and flowering times of estate woodland plants from 1736 to 1947.

By matching historical temperature records (back to 1772) to the family log, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland found that while a warmer autumn causes early leafing species such as birch to take longer to come into leaf the following spring, while late-leafing species, such as oak trees, seem unaffected by autumnal temperatures.

These citizen scientist observations allow researchers to test predictions regarding the effects of temperature on leaf cycles and woodland environments.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

What is clear on a global scale is that the countless organisms with life cycles synchronized to vegetation cycles are being dramatically affected.

Meanwhile, we continue to emit carbon sighs during our long industrial dream of plenty, not yet knowing where it will lead, or how the earth will look we will wake up.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

A Larger Slice

Click to go to interactive infographic. Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies via The Guardian

Click here to go to interactive infographic.
Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies
via The Guardian

The infographic above came out in The Guardian, and is an exploration of the role played by private companies, nation-states and state-run companies in the generation of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. There are 90 companies listed – all but seven are companies that deal mainly in fossil fuels.

The infographic below is an exercise in refinement. Lars Boelen was reading the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, edition 2013 that came out in early November. He came across the small pie chart here,

Carbon budget for 2 C° Source: IEA via Stormglas

Carbon budget for 2 C°
Source: IEA via Stormglas

which illustrates the ‘remaining budget’ of carbon emissions left for humanity to generate if the goal is to limit a global temperature increase to 2 C°.

Mr. Boelen was irritated by the simplicity of the chart, which had the largest slice allocated to 1750 – 2011.

The pie chart implies, to me at least, that we – meaning the current generations – aren’t necessarily responsible for the cumulative effect of carbon emissions because, after all, this is a process that has been going on since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Why should we take all the blame and by extension, have to make drastic changes?

Mr. Boelen thought the pie chart needed a bit of refinement, and lo, the distribution of culpability looks a bit different when we find out that the vast majority of ‘carbon budget’ has been ‘spent’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘squandered with profligacy’) since 1970.

Almost all the major fossil fuel companies in the top infographic, at least in their original forms, were founded in the glory years of oil and gas discovery between 1870 and 1920, although the past 30 years have seen countless mergers. The companies have grown ever larger. As for nation-states, China accounts for 8.5% of emissions, with a continued rise due to its dependence on coal.

Together, according to the soberly-titled report published in the journal Climate Change, Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010, these companies account for two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the industrial era.

Half of all emissions have occurred in the past 25 years alone.

So when we hear about how hard it will be to curb emissions, or that ‘this is the way things are done’ and how expensive it will be to change course, keep in mind that there is no long history or tradition behind our current carbon spending spree. This is as new as cars that are still driving on the road today.

Carbon Budget  Graphic: Lars Boelen

Carbon Budget
Graphic: Lars Boelen

Krill Gratitude

Via: OneYearNovel

Massive ocean krill swarms – hundreds of millions of tons of them – are a keystone of one of the great planetary life cycles.

A new Australian study published in the journal Nature Climate Change called Risk maps for Antarctic krill under projected Southern Ocean acidification, looks at the threshold at which krill – specifically, their eggs – no longer survive acidification levels caused by CO2 emissions. Krill eggs, as it turns out, are more resistant that some other calcifying creatures such as oysters and sea butterflies. Like the sea butterfly, krill shells are critical to the global carbonate cycle, part of which is the deep-sea calcium carbonate sediment formed by the shells of krill – these shells bind carbon and carry it to depths of the ocean.

But even krill have their limits and those are rapidly approaching.

The impact of higher acidification comes with an increase in fishing – krill are industrially harvested for food products, health supplements, and as feed for fish farming.

Researchers for the study estimate that by 2300, unless drastic measures are undertaken to reduce carbon emissions, the world’s krill might be gone. But they state these estimates might be conservative – a tipping point could be reached earlier.

One proposal underway is the creation of a protected Antarctic zone.

What would really help is the same old answer: a move away from a carbon-based fuel economy.

Krill (watercolor) Source: Wikipedia

Krill (watercolor)
Source: Wikipedia


The Guardian articleAntarctic krill face unhappy Hollywood ending if fossil fuel emissions keep rising by Graham Readfearn