Category Archives: Climate Change

Biochar: The Original Soil Amendment to Mitigate Climate Change

Below is an article from CSR Wire summarising the use of charcoal as a soil improver.  It’s benefits have been known for centuries as it was a principal technique used by aboriginal American peoples.  Adding charcoal to soil helps it maintain its vitality and catalyses the decomposition of plant and animal matter and its transformation in to plant food.  (Don’t use treated or manufactured charcoal which contains petroleum derivatives and toxins.)

(Previous blog on biochar here: Black is the new green)

Biochar: The Original Soil Amendment to Mitigate Climate Change

By Stefan Jirka

The man heaves another shovelful of dirt out of the 2-meter deep pit. The sun blazes overhead, an eerie stillness blanketing the midday jungle. The two dozen people gathered around peer eagerly over the edge. Along the vertical face of the soil pit, pottery shards intermingled with blackened bits of charred material are clearly visible. The crowd murmurs a small gasp as the man passes up a handful of soil. Someone swats at a mosquito buzzing incessantly as a machete is unsheathed and used to separate a bit of pottery from the blackish clumps in the dirt.

Black Earth of The Amazon

This may sound like a scene from the latest Indiana Jones movie, but in fact, it was a recent excursion of researchers, environmentalists, and journalists to investigate the phenomenon known as terra preta do indio­­—Portuguese for “black earth of the Indian”—in the Brazilian Amazon.

Terra preta soils, found across vast areas of the Amazon Basin, are charcoal-enhanced soils associated with pottery shards, bones, and other signs of human habitation, and are thousands of years old. Compared to the acidic, nutrient-poor, red clay soils from which they’re derived, terra preta are dark (from the carbonized remains of plant and animal material) and, crucially, highly fertile. They can contain as much as 70% more organic carbon than theTerraPreta(DSCN2235)_PhotoCredit_StefanJirka surrounding soils.

Archaeologists have known about these anthropogenic soils for decades but only in recent years have soil scientists and others begun to dig deeper. In doing so they’ve opened exploration of a new field of research around the sustainability benefits of “biochar”—defined by the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) as a solid material obtained from the carbonization of biomass that may be added to soils with the intention to improve soil functions. IBI is the leading global non-profit organization supporting research and commercialization for sustainable biochar production and use.

The questions researchers are finding answers to include:

  • Can the process of enhancing soil fertility via the addition of biochar be re-created?
  • What are the specific properties and mechanisms that biochar confers to the native soil matrix?
  • Can biochar be used to significantly draw down atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations?

Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation

Biochar is obtained when biomass feedstocks such as wood- or crop-residues are heated in low- or no-oxygen conditions. In a thermochemical conversion process called pyrolysis, the cellulose, lignin, and other organic carbon compounds present in raw feedstock are physically and chemically changed to highly stable forms of carbon resistant to degradation. In biochar, organic carbon—typically consumed voraciously by soil microbes—is thereby locked away from rapid degradation. This explains in large part the persistence of charred materials—and fertility—in ancient terra preta soils.

Debbie Reed, IBI’s Policy Director explains:

The conversion of degradable carbon to carbon that is orders of magnitude more stable than its feedstock carbon is what makes biochar a particularly appealing climate change mitigation technology. The ability to turn waste biomass that will otherwise degrade into a stable, beneficial soil amendment with incredible co-benefits is compelling in its own right, but also why so many researchers and governments the world over are further investigating its potential to create large carbon sinks while helping to impart multiple benefits to the global soil resource.

Biochar is produced from biomass residues that would otherwise have released their carbon into the atmosphere via the carbon burning(3)_PhotoCredit_StefanJirkacycle. For example, residues such as straw or corn stalks are often burnt or left in fields to rot. Instead these residues are pyrolyzed into biochar and then placed in the soil where the stable carbon can remain for thousands of years or more. In this way, biochar is a “carbon negative” GHG mitigation strategy; it pulls carbon out of the biogeochemical carbon cycle and places it into long-term soil carbon pools.

It is important to note here that whereas dedicated “biochar crops” could be used to make biochar, IBI and other serious proponents of biochar strictly advocate the use of biomass residues deemed to be waste, i.e., residues from existing land management activities that have little or no economic value and that present waste management challenges. Numerous analyses have demonstrated that many gigatonnes of such residues are produced worldwide annually.

The American Carbon Registry’s Methodology for Biochar Projects 

Recognizing biochar’s potential as a climate change mitigation strategy, a team of organizations including The Climate Trust, The Prasino Group, IBI and Carbon Consulting came together to develop a methodology to quantify biochar’s GHG sequestration potential with the intent to both enhance the economics of biochar projects and further increase knowledge and understanding of the climate mitigation potential of biochar. The result is the recently drafted Methodology for Biochar Projects­, currently posted for public comment at the American Carbon Registry—a leading voluntary carbon offset registry that is a division of Winrock International.

The methodology quantifies two components of biochar’s carbon offsetting potential: 1) enhanced soil carbon sequestration via the addition of biochar to soil, and 2) avoided GHG emissions from decomposition or combustion of feedstock biomass.

In order to measure soil carbon sequestration, it was necessary to estimate the longevity (stability) of the stable carbon component of biochar. To this end, an expert panel of leading biochar researchers developed a Biochar Carbon Stability Test Method designed to quantify “BC+100”—defined as the stable carbon in biochar expected to remain 100 years after its addition to soil—using data from published laboratory and field experiments and a review of sophisticated analytical TerraPreta(2)_PhotoCredit_JulieMajor-BrunoGlasertechniques.

For the avoided emissions component of the methodology, the baseline scenario assumes biochar feedstocks will be burned or decompose, thereby releasing CO2 and/or CH4. The project scenario entails the pyrolytic conversion of that feedstock into biochar and subsequent addition to the soil, thereby avoiding combustion or decomposition.

One Wedge of the Climate Change Mitigation Pie

Revenues from participation in carbon markets can enhance biochar project development and hasten scale-up of technology and production. Biochar could then join other GHG reduction measures as an important wedge of the climate change mitigation pie.

Parties interested to review and submit feedback on the Methodology for Biochar Projects are invited to do so until November 8, 2013 here.

More information on biochar is available at the IBI website.


We need more trees. Many more.

Interpretation of empirical data connecting weather patterns with forests has been met with scepticism and been largely ignored by meteorologists, climate change scientists and the media, but we ought to consider the proposal.

Dr Anastassia Makarieva and Professor Victor Gorshkov of the St Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute have proposed that it is not temperature differences which are the primary drivers of wind patterns, but instead evaporation and condensation are much larger contributors to wind generation than anyone has previously recognised.

They proposed a year ago that when water condenses out of the air it lowers the atmospheric pressure, causing air to sweep in from surrounding locations – ie wind. Moreover, most of the water vapour in the atmosphere sits fairly close to the ground and condenses as it rises into cooler air so winds sweep in to replace the condensing water vapour. This airflow encourages further evaporation, followed by more condensation in the air column above, creating a positive feedback loop.

Most of the backlash to this idea is understandable since it challenges current thinking.  However, the idea is not that far fetched and doesn’t suggest that temperature is immaterial.  However, it raises the impact of forest cover to the dynamics of weather patterns, because forests offer a much greater surface area for evaporation and condensation than grassland or even ocean.   This new understanding increases the need to preserve forests and rebuild them.

Stephen Luntz points out that:

The physics aside, the primary implications of this theory are:

1) The Earth is a delicate system and we mess with it at our peril.

2) Forests matter, and are worth much more standing than as paper.

3) Intact ecosystems do their jobs much better than the crude imitations we like to put in their place after was have destroyed them.

C’mon everyone, let’s smarten up!


Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats:   The Word For World Really Might Be Forest research outlines physics behind how forests may bring rain

New Scientist: Keep rainforests – they drive the planet’s winds

Yes, the world IS melting.

Melting of polar ice sheets has added 11mm to global sea levels over the past two decades, according to the most definitive assessment so far.  More than 20 polar research teams combined forces to produce estimates of the state of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica in a paper in Science.

The study’s headline conclusion is that the polar ice sheets have overall contributed 11.1mm to sea level rise but with a “give or take” uncertainty of 3.8mm – meaning the contribution could be as little as 7.3mm or as much as 14.9mm.


BBC: Sea-level rise finally quantified

Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary)

It’s not often that you hear a conservative, traditional, esteemed financial guru advocating civil disobedience.  So it is fair to let you read why they advocate an energetic voice of change.  The summary is: Times are far more desperate than we think and we need to change the system to become sustainable with the utmost urgency.  He says teh climate problem is the crisis of our species’ existence.

Here’s the whole article by financier Jeremy Grantham published in Nature.

Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary)

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. I am a specialist in investment bubbles, not climate science. But the effects of climate change can only exacerbate the ecological trouble I see reflected in the financial markets — soaring commodity prices and impending shortages.

My firm warned of vastly inflated Japanese equities in 1989 — the grandmother of all bubbles — US growth stocks in 2000 and everything risky in late 2007. The usual mix of investor wishful thinking and dangerous and cynical encouragement from industrial vested interests made these bubbles possible. Prices of global raw materials are now rising fast. This does not constitute a bubble, however, but is a genuine paradigm shift, perhaps the most important economic change since the Industrial Revolution. Simply, we are running out.

The price index of 33 important commodities declined by 70% over the 100 years up to 2002 — an enormous help to industrialized countries in getting rich. Only one commodity, oil, had been flat until 1972 and then, with the advent of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, it began to rise. But since 2002, prices of almost all the other commodities, plus oil, tripled in six years; all without a world war and without much comment. Even if prices fell tomorrow by 20% they would still on average have doubled in 10 years, the equivalent of a 7% annual rise.

This price surge is a response to global population growth and the explosion of capital spending in China. Especially dangerous to social stability and human well-being are food prices and food costs. Growth in the productivity of grains has fallen to 1.2% a year, which is exactly equal to the global population growth rate. There is now no safety margin.

Then there is the impending shortage of two fertilizers: phosphorus (phosphate) and potassium (potash). These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.

“It is crucial that scientists sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on global warming.”

What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can’t get satisfactorily answered and, believe me, I have tried. There seems to be only one conclusion: their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20–40 years or we will begin to starve.

The world’s blind spot when it comes to the fertilizer problem is seen also in the shocking lack of awareness on the part of governments and the public of the increasing damage to agriculture by climate change; for example, runs of extreme weather that have slashed grain harvests in the past few years. Recognition of the facts is delayed by the frankly brilliant propaganda and obfuscation delivered by energy interests that virtually own the US Congress. (It is not unlike the part played by the financial industry when investment bubbles start to form … but that, at least, is only money.) We need oil producers to leave 80% of proven reserves untapped to achieve a stable climate. As a former oil analyst, I can easily calculate oil companies’ enthusiasm to leave 80% of their value in the ground — absolutely nil.

The damaging effects of climate change are accelerating. James Hansen of NASA has screamed warnings for 30 years. Although at first he was dismissed as a madman, almost all his early predictions, disturbingly, have proved conservative in relation to what has actually happened. In 2011, Hansen was arrested in Washington DC, alongside Gus Speth, the retired dean of Yale University’s environmental school; Bill McKibben, one of the earliest and most passionate environmentalists to warn about global warming; and my daughter-in-law, all for protesting over a pipeline planned to carry Canadian bitumen to refineries in the United States, bitumen so thick it needs masses of water even to move it. From his seat in jail, Speth said that he had held some important positions in Washington, but none more important than this one.

President Barack Obama missed the chance of a lifetime to get a climate bill passed, and his great environmental and energy scientists John Holdren and Steven Chu went missing in action. Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement. These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical.

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

Antarctic sea ice grows … good news?

The Earth Observatory reports that Antarctic Sea Ice Reaches New Maximum Extent.  Yes, more rather than less.

A recent study suggests:

“The strong pattern of decreasing ice coverage in the Bellingshausen/Amundsen Seas region and increasing ice coverage in the Ross Sea region is suggestive of changes in atmospheric circulation,” they noted.

“The year 2012 continues a long-term contrast between the two hemispheres, with decreasing sea ice coverage in the Arctic and increasing sea ice coverage in the Antarctic,” Parkinson added. “Both hemispheres have considerable inter-annual variability, so that in either hemisphere, next year could have either more or less sea ice than this year. Still, the long-term trends are clear, but not equal: the magnitude of the ice losses in the Arctic considerably exceed the magnitude of the ice gains in the Antarctic.”

Well, I suppose change is happening, but it still doesn’t look good.

NASA Earth Observatory: Antarctic Sea Ice Reaches New Maximum Extent

Arctic ice disappearing faster …

4 million square kilometres and falling.  That number doesn’t mean much, but when you  read that ten years ago it was 5.6 million or 40% more you realise that it’s about to disappear.    At a rate of 1.6 million square kilometres loss a decade it will be gone in 40 years.  And it hasn’t reached its minimum this year yet.

C’mon everyone, we’ve got to get it together and stop cooking the planet.  It’s no good grabbing more stuff and assuming the government or someone else is going to do the job.  We all have to change.  Now.

NASA Earth Observatory: Earth Indicator: 4 million


Fire and Ice – sad news at both ends of the spectrum.

A couple of headlines today caught my attention.  Unimportant news to most of us, which probably won’t even make the TV version.  In the heat of Tibetan politics, two teenagers self-immolated in protest against repression, while in the chill of the Arctic there is less ice than ever before.

The stories might get some play because they offer good graphics and tragedy, but they appear to be so far from our lives that they do not affect us.  They should.  They are signs that we should change our behaviour – to love our fellow humans more and to stop burning the planet.

BBC:  Two Tibetan teenagers die in self-immolations

BBC: Arctic sea ice reaches record low, Nasa says

Climate change is here — and worse than we thought

Climate change is here — and worse than we thought

By James E. Hansen, Published: August 4 The Washington Post

When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988 , I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.

My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.

In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, which will be published Monday, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.

This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data are gathered in a few weeks’ time, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the United States is suffering through right now.

These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.

Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability.

But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the die would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.

But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you.

Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate (up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century), the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide.

When we plotted the world’s changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe.

The change is so dramatic that one face of the die must now represent extreme weather to illustrate the greater frequency of extremely hot weather events.

Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the last three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10?percent of the globe.

This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.

There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100?percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.

The future is now. And it is hot.

Climate volatility brings summer in winter!

It’s not just about climate change or global warming – trends whihc can not be confirmed or denied till it’s too late – it’s also about climate volatility.  This is already empirically demonstrated.  There are high fluctuations in temperature, precipitation, wind and cloud cover.

Sometimes it’s wonderful for us because we can enjoy warm sunny days in March.  But it makes it difficult to plan.   It is so unusual that even plants are challenged to reproduce and grow and the consequence is lower food productivity.

Check out this image from the Earth Observatory showing plus and minus 15 degree variations in March:

The unseasonable warmth broke temperature records in more than 1,054 locations between March 13–19, as well daily lows in 627 locations, according to Hamweather. Cities as geographically diverse as Chicago, Des Moines, Traverse City (Michigan), Myrtle Beach, Madison (Wisconsin), Atlantic City, New York City, and Duluth, (Minnesota) all broke records for high temperatures in recent days.