by Emanuela Barbiroglio
Drought and desertification threatens to degrade land in Europe and around the world. We take a look at some new studies into how drought spreads and deserts develop.
The scale of the issue is sometimes under-appreciated, but drylands cover over 41% of the Earth’s terrestrial land surface. They are now home to over 38% of the world’s population. The UN sponsors the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on 17 June 2022 to highlight the issue.
Droughts lead to the loss of arable land through desertification, the death of vegetation and a scarcity of drinking water.
Europe is not immune to the intensifying aridity, quite apart from heatwaves. Water stress and aridity affect 168 000 square kilometres in Italy and 365 000 square kilometres in Spain, according to data compiled by the Joint Research Centre (JRC). (See box below).
Scientists in the DRY-2-DRY project, using climate models, satellite data and meteorological measurements, are researching the capacity of drought and heatwaves to intensify and propagate by themselves.
‘This is a process that hasn’t been studied before,’ said Prof Diego Miralles, Professor of Hydrology and Climate at Ghent University, Belgium.
‘By understanding it better, we can get better forecasts of how droughts may evolve and set early warnings for adaptation early enough,’ he said.
The availability of water is determined by two factors – ‘how much it rains and how much the atmosphere demands from the land during the process of evaporation,’ said Mirralles.
‘This balance of moisture has been changing due to global warming. While precipitation is changing differently in different regions, evaporation is mostly increasing due to the increase in temperature. Therefore, there is a tendency for most regions in the world to become increasingly arid,’ said Miralles.
Whatever the cause of drought, it affects general ecosystem dynamics, including availability of drinking water for the population. It also has serious implications for biodiversity, as plants must be able to photosynthesise with less water in the soil as well as cope with an atmosphere that evaporates more water thanks to higher temperatures.
Drought often leads to desertification, where the land is so arid it becomes infertile and loses biological productivity. This has catastrophic consequences on societies and ecosystems.
A vicious circle
In the case of a drought, the evaporation cycle becomes a vicious circle. Since evaporation is lower, there’s less likelihood of condensing water in the atmosphere and triggering rainfall. With a dry atmosphere, there is less water to moisturise the soil. Furthermore, the soil tends to dry out in spring because it’s already warmer than before.
Then, plants start to grow and consume the water earlier in the year. The summer commences with drier soil and there is no way to buffer the temperature by evaporating water.
‘This is known to happen locally,’ said Miralles, ‘But we are looking at how the wind moving that mass of dry air to another location can trigger a new drought. It becomes a bit like a wildfire.’
The impact of rising global temperatures means, not only are there heat waves and more droughts but they tend to occur at the same time.
There are two ways to improve the situation – to adapt and to mitigate. ‘Land cover change (with vegetation for example) as an adaptation measure can help us resist heat waves, but we must make sure that this is not our plan A,’ said Miralles. ‘Plan A should be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’
To learn more about Prof. Miralles’ analysis of drought ,follow the link to the Dry2Dry homepage.
Prof. Fernando Maestre, professor of Ecology at the University of Alicante, began his research in Spain in 2005. The project BIODESERT carried out the first global field survey to evaluate how changes in climate and land use, such as grazing pressure, affect drylands ecosystems.
In order to survey such a vast phenomenon, collaborative work is key. The BIODESERT project is now global and includes scientists and ecosystems from 21 countries on all continents, with the exception of Antarctica.
‘I asked all the research teams to do everything exactly as we had already done it in Spain, because using different methods would have meant we wouldn’t have been able to compare the results from the various areas surveyed across the world,’ said Maestre. ‘Our approach in Spain had proved its worth, now we had to test if it could function in a different environment. And it did!’
With the shifting sands of time, the problem of land degradation in arid areas and drylands has spread since the first UN Plan of Action to Combat Desertification was adopted in 1977. There are serious threats to food security, biodiversity and the world economy as more and more territory succumbs to desertification.
The researchers observed that plant and microbial diversity plays a key role in maintaining the capacity of drylands to provide essential ecosystem services linked to soil fertility and the production of plant biomass. These ecosystem services are fundamental for supporting the livelihood of more than one billion people globally.
They also reported that increases in aridity promote abrupt changes on the structure and functioning of drylands. This culminates with a shift to low-cover (sparse vegetation) ecosystems that are nutrient- and species-poor at high aridity values.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 call for sustainable land management and increased co-operation “on desertification, dust storms, land degradation and drought” to promote resilience and avoid disaster.
‘Until a few years ago, nobody could imagine the important role of biodiversity in global drylands, nor the presence of multiple ecosystem thresholds in response to increases in aridity.’ These discoveries improve the understanding of how drylands are changing in response to climate change, now and in the future.
Eventually, these insights may be used to help design effective action to stem desertification across drylands worldwide. The JRC’s new edition of the World Atlas of Desertification specifically states that “land degradation is considered to be a global problem of human dominance”.
BIODESERT is now testing the suitability of multiple early warning indicators. Results suggest that the characteristics of dryland vegetation may be used to flag ecosystem degradation across global drylands. They also plan to expand the research programme to start exploring long-term changes in the structure and functioning of drylands, by again surveying the original field sites they surveyed over 15 years ago.
To learn more, about World Day to Combat Drought and Desertification on 17 June 2022, follow the link to the UN World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought homepage.
The EU Mission ‘A Soil Deal for Europe’ is leading the transition towards healthy soils by 2030 by establishing 100 living labs and lighthouses. Fighting desertification and restoring soils is one of its main aims. Follow the link to learn more about A Soil Deal for Europe.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Giraffes, parrots, and oak trees, among many species facing extinction
Around one million species are facing extinction, according to a report from IPBES, an independent intergovernmental science and policy body supported by the UN.
It may be surprising to learn that even giraffes, parrots, and oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
It may be surprising to learn that giraffes, parrots, and even oak trees are included in the list of threatened species, as well as cacti and seaweed.
Seaweed is one of the planet’s great survivors, and relatives of some modern-day seaweed can be traced back some 1.6 billion years. Seaweed plays a vital role in marine ecosystems, providing habitats and food for marine lifeforms, while large varieties – such as kelp – act as underwater nurseries for fish. However, mechanical dredging, rising sea temperatures and the building of coastal infrastructure are contributing to the decline of the species.
The world’s trees are threatened by various sources, including logging, deforestation for industry and agriculture, firewood for heating and cooking, and climate-related threats such as wildfires.
It has been estimated that 31 per cent of the world’s 430 types of oak are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. And 41 per cent are of “conservation concern”, mainly due to deforestation for agriculture and fuel for cooking.
Giraffes are targeted for their meat, and suffer from the degradation of their habitat due to unsustainable wood harvesting, and increased demand for agricultural land; it’s estimated there are only around 600 West African giraffes left in the wild.
Catastrophic results for humanity
The current biodiversity crisis will be exacerbated, with catastrophic results for humanity, unless humans interact with nature in a more sustainable way, according to UN experts.
“The IPBES report makes it abundantly clear that wild species are an indispensable source of food, shelter and income for hundreds of millions around the world,” says Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“Sustainable use is when biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are maintained while contributing to human well-being. By continuing to use these resources unsustainably, we are not just risking the loss and damage of these species’ populations; we are affecting our own health and well-being and that of the next generation.
The report illustrates the importance of indigenous people being able to secure tenure rights over their land, as they have long understood the value of wild species and have learned how to use them sustainably.
Examples of the kinds of transformative changes that are needed to reduce biodiversity loss, include an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, changes in social values, and effective governance systems.
Currently, governments around the world spend more than $500 billion every year in ways that harm biodiversity to support industries like fossil fuels, agriculture, and fisheries. Experts say these funds should be repurposed to incentivize regenerative agriculture, sustainable food systems, and nature-positive innovations.
In climate drama, the volcano is no villain
BY SARAH WILD
New analysis of ash clouds created from large volcanic eruptions shows the temporary cooling effects are changed as the environment becomes hotter.
On 15 June 1991, the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines erupted with a cataclysmic explosion so violent, the volcano collapsed in on itself. Its gas and ash cloud reached about 40km into the air, and in the weeks that followed, the cloud entered the stratosphere and spread around the globe. During the next year, the average global temperature dropped by about 0.5°C.
A volcano is an opening in the Earth’s crust that allows hot, molten rock to escape to the surface. It also allows gas and ash to escape from the high-temperature interior of the earth.
Volcanic eruptions play an important role in cooling the planet. The sulphur gases from the volcanic plumes combine with other gases in the atmosphere, and these aerosols scatter solar radiation, reflecting it into space. But scientists are concerned that climate change could make eruptions less effective at reducing global temperatures. This feedback loop, in which climate change could hinder or amplify the ability of volcanic eruptions to combat rising temperatures, is currently not included in future climate scenarios.
The VOLCPRO project set out to investigate two different types of eruptions to see if global heating would compromise their cooling effect.
Thomas Aubry, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellow on VOLCPRO, wondered whether an eruption like Mount Pinatubo would have had the same cooling effect were it to happen a hundred years later in a world where global temperature rise – through the effects of climate change – continues unchecked.
High intensity eruption
The first type of eruption, similar to Mount Pinatubo, is known as a high intensity eruption. This type emits plumes of ash and particles that reach 25km or higher into the atmosphere, and contains billions of tons of sulphur gases. Relatively rare, an eruption of this very powerful type arises every few decades –– Mount Pinatubo was one of the largest eruptions the world had seen in a century.
The second type is smaller, but more frequent. ‘We were wondering how climate change will affect these two different types of eruptions, the small ones versus the big ones,’ said Aubry.
The VOLCPRO team modelled historical eruptions showing their influence on climate, and then simulated what would happen if those same eruptions took place in the future, when the climate has changed and global temperatures are hotter.
Their simulations relied on the UK Met Office’s advanced climate model. ‘Inside that (UK Met Office) model, we added another model that can simulate the rise of a volcanic plume and how high this volcanic column can rise depending on, for example, the wind condition during eruption day, or the temperature in the atmosphere on the day, and so on,’ Aubry said.
For the large eruptions, they found that the cooling would be amplified by global warming, ‘which is kind of good news,’ said Aubry. ‘More global warming, more volcanic cooling.’
In a warmer atmosphere, the plumes of high intensity eruptions will rise even higher, allowing the tiny volcanic particles to travel further. This haze of aerosols will cover a wider area, reflecting more solar radiation and amplifying these volcanoes’ temporary cooling effect.
The opposite was true of the smaller, more frequent volcanic eruptions. In those cases, the hotter temperatures thwarted the cooling effects from the eruptions.
However, before they push to have their findings included in scientists’ global climate change projections, Aubry wants to investigate other volcanoes and other models to reinforce their results.
VOLCPRO focused on tropical volcanoes, as eruptions around the equator tend to affect climate globally because the volcanic particles spread to both hemispheres easily. By including volcanoes closer to the poles, the researchers will be able to determine how other eruptions respond to higher temperatures. They also want to include more climate models, not just the UK’s, to make sure that their findings are robust.
Meanwhile, Elena Maters, a former MSCA fellow now based at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is working to figure out what happens to volcanic ash in the atmosphere and how it influences cloud formation and, ultimately, climate.
Volcanic ash promotes ice formation in the atmosphere, which ultimately replaces water in clouds. Clouds are one of the biggest question marks in climate research, and the more we understand how they are formed and behave, the more precise our models.
‘The common assumption is that liquid water will turn to ice below zero (degrees),’ Maters explained. That is not always the case and small droplets can remain as liquid down to around minus 35°C. But particles in the atmosphere create ‘catalytic surfaces that make it easier for water molecules to form an ice crystal.’
Mineral dust, from sand originating in desert regions around the world such as the Sahara and Gobi deserts, is the dominant source of solid particles in the atmosphere. However, there are many other sources, including volcanic ash.
The INoVA project sought to determine the extent to which volcanic ash aids ice formation.
‘On a yearly average, there’s about 10 times less volcanic ash (than mineral dust) in the atmosphere,’ Maters said. ‘But you can have big eruptions that can quickly, in a matter of hours to days, release huge amounts of particles, and this has been neglected in a lot of climate modelling and even in cases that look at the impacts of volcanoes.’
As part of INoVA, Maters and colleagues investigated the efficacy of volcanic ash in promoting ice formation. They compared this to the ubiquitous mineral dust, testing to see which types were the most successful.
Volcanic ash is mostly glass, with a sprinkling of minerals like feldspars and iron oxides. The composition of the ash depends on the make-up of the magma roiling underneath, and the speed at which it is explosively ejected from the volcano, among other things.
Previous studies compared only a handful of ash types, said Maters, whose research focuses on volcanic ash reactivity and chemistry. ‘You can’t measure two or three samples and then make a conclusion for all volcanic ash and volcanic eruptions worldwide. They vary hugely in the glass composition, the proportion of glass to minerals, the types of minerals, and so the experiments I did were trying to get to the bottom of the range of efficacy of volcanic ash from different types of eruptions,’ she said.
Maters took nine ash samples with a range of compositions and used them to create nine synthetic samples through melting and rapid cooling. She compared these 18 samples to identify which properties make volcanic ash more active in creating ice. In another study with a group at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, Maters and colleagues analysed another 15 volcanic samples to identify their ice-making properties.
She suggested that the most ice-active component in volcanic ash is alkali feldspar, a mineral composed of aluminium, silicon and oxygen commonly found in the Earth’s crust. ‘Now, having this understanding of which minerals in ash are good at nucleating (forming) ice,’ said Maters, ‘you might be able to predict when a volcano erupts whether that volcano, based on its magma composition, could produce ice-active ash.’
While her work was previously very laboratory-based, the Covid pandemic has forced her into modelling, she joked. She is now investigating the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions in Iceland to see how that introduced ice-forming particles into the atmosphere, and how those particles compared to the abundance of mineral dust.
The study will examine how volcanic ash has a role in ice formation when we actually plug it into the atmosphere. It will compare it to other types of particle, such as mineral dust and asks the question, “Does it matter?”
As better climate models are developed, ‘It’s a proof of concept to demonstrate that explosive eruptions could be important to include’, said Maters.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
New Net-Zero Tracker Gives Heavy Industries a Platform to Catch Up on Climate Goals
The World Economic Forum released today the first edition of a report on the state of the net-zero transition in key industrial sectors, the Net-Zero Industry Tracker 2022. The report highlights the need to fully understand the scope and scale of the challenge for these sectors and identifies a significant gap versus the pace of decarbonization necessary to achieve net-zero goals to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2050. The urgency for industrial decarbonization is reinforced by high energy prices and energy supply chain disruptions.
This initiative, launched by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Accenture, establishes a common, fact-based understanding of the industrial sector’s net-zero transformation enabling cross-industry and multistakeholder collaboration. The report introduces a holistic framework for a 360-degree perspective and standard metrics needed to measure progress, as well as key recommendations for industrial firms, policymakers, consumers and other stakeholders.
Progress-tracking and transparency are essential to help industries determine the trajectory of their decarbonization, maintain steady progress, and inform necessary course corrections along the way.
“While there are efforts under way and climate commitments being made, we currently lack a robust and comprehensive mechanism to understand the pace and direction of the progress of transformation of heavy industries, which account for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Roberto Bocca, head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure, World Economic Forum. “Several industrial sectors and individual companies have set up targets with the aim of reaching net zero emissions. We believe that bringing transparency to closing net-zero gaps and reporting on this progress is critical to achieve these ambitious goals.”
The report provides qualitative and quantitative measures to track the evolution of key enabling dimensions such as maturity of technology, access to enabling infrastructure, supporting policy frameworks, demand for low-emission products and availability of capital for investments in low-emission assets. It assesses the state of these enablers, which need to advance simultaneously, and highlights sector-specific accelerators and priorities in five heavy industries – steel, cement, aluminium, ammonia, and oil and gas, which together generate 80% of industrial emissions, according to Accenture analysis.
Given the cross-sector nature of barriers and priorities for industrial net-zero transformation, innovative forms of partnership within and across sectors, and with other stakeholders, will be fundamental to addressing the challenge. Other measures include consensus on defining “low-emission” industrial products and processes, robust and stable green demand signals, and risk-sharing mechanisms to attract necessary capital in technology and infrastructure development.
The report points out that over $2 trillion will be required to make low-emission industries a reality and that the first full-scale commercial projects still hold significant risks for companies to invest in.
Espen Mehlum, head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Programs for Benchmarking, World Economic Forum, said: “Investments in low-emission assets are riskier for companies due to their dependencies on new technologies and infrastructure. Collaboration will be at the heart of making the enablers of policy, fuel demand, technology, capital and infrastructure all pull in the same direction to accelerate progress towards climate goals.”
Muqsit Ashraf, a senior managing director and global Energy industry lead, Accenture, said: “Accelerating the transformation of industries, and in particular hard-to-abate industries such as cement and steel, is critical to realize net-zero ambitions. In addition, in today’s high energy and material prices environment, reducing the energy intensity of industries will also become a source of competitive advantage. Along with innovation, regulation and investments, the Net-Zero Industry Tracker will become an essential tool by bringing transparency to the decarbonization and energy efficiency journey.”
The report underlines that concerted efforts also should include policy-makers, financial institutions and consumers.
“Companies are at a sustainability inflection point, where embedding sustainability by design deep into their enterprises is no longer an option,” said Kathleen O’Reilly, global lead, Accenture Strategy. “To lead in this moment, companies must focus on multi-stakeholder collaborations — for example, helping customers reshape demand, teaming with industry peers to bring technology costs down and developing shared infrastructures and working with policy-makers on regulations to create differentiated markets for low-emission products.”
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