Monday, November 29, 2010


Here's a fascinating Darwinian explanation from philosopher of art Denis Dutton. Following the line of reasoning from the peacock's tail he argues that beauty is not so much a cultural aesthetic or mere taste located in the individual eye of the beholder as it is an evolutionary force of sexual attractiveness in search of a promising mate. He concludes that this leads to certain universal preferences.

I would argue additionally, that many notions of beauty are rooted in ecology and reflect nature's great variety of niches. One of the most impressive things about living in Amazônia is the widespread use of dramatic and intense colors which is reflective of the way plants attract pollinators in the dense vegetation of a tropical forest. You will never see colors like these used commonplace in suburban New York or London.

(Colors everywhere)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

(Colors that are worn.)

I'll add more from time to time.

This is off the usual meander presented in this blog but it is unquestionably the hottest story going on in Brazil. I am told by my Brazilian informants who are much more knowledgeable than I am that the above report from Al Jazeera is excellent, quite a step above the normal sensational media coverage.

My take is that the government is taking advantage of a short window of opportunity when out-going President Lula is immune to criticism and before any possible civilian tragedies from military intervention can be pinned on in-coming President Dilma. Now is the time for the government to re-establish control. Of course, it's a gamble and the outcome is uncertain.

Personally, I see the solution to the drug wars coming only with decriminalization. Put simply, the drug war will end only with an end to the war on drugs. Poverty cannot be blamed as the middle class is tremendously afflicted with addictions and they provide the consumer market.

But decriminalization only addresses the drug crime issue which is a manifestation of prohibition's dark side. As long as poverty exists other dysfunctional "opportunity structures" will emerge along with their peculiar forms of exploitation and abuse. Understanding this larger context is what makes the Al Jazeera report excellent.



In recent years, Brazil has experienced all three forms of weather-driven events. But that hardly makes Brazil unique as extreme weather events are growing more frequent and more intense world-wide. Here's a moving report from a farmer in the region of my birth -- the American Midwest.

From the opinion page of the NY TIMES

November 27, 2010
An Almanac of Extreme Weather
Rushford, Minn.

THE news from this Midwestern farm is not good. The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.

My family and I produce vegetables, hay and grain on 250 acres in one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. While our farm is not large by modern standards, its roots are deep in this region; my great-grandfather homesteaded about 80 miles from here in the late 1800s.

He passed on a keen sensitivity to climate. His memoirs, self-published in the wake of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, describe tornadoes, droughts and other extreme weather. But even he would be surprised by the erratic weather we have experienced in the last decade.

In August 2007, a series of storms produced a breathtaking 23 inches of rain in 36 hours. The flooding that followed essentially erased our farm from the map. Fields were swamped under churning waters, which in places left a foot or more of debris and silt in their wake. Cornstalks were wrapped around bridge railings 10 feet above normal stream levels. We found butternut squashes from our farm two miles downstream, stranded in sapling branches five feet above the ground. A hillside of mature trees collapsed and slid hundreds of feet into a field below.

The machine shop on our farm was inundated with two feet of filthy runoff. When the water was finally gone, every tool, machine and surface was bathed in a toxic mix of used motor oil and rancid mud.

Our farm was able to stay in business only after receiving grants and low-interest private and government loans. Having experienced lesser floods in 2004 and 2005, my family and I decided the only prudent action would be to use the money to move over the winter to better, drier ground eight miles away.

This move proved prescient: in June 2008 torrential rains and flash flooding returned. The federal government declared the second natural disaster in less than a year for the region. Hundreds of acres of our neighbors’ cornfields were again underwater and had to be replanted. Earthmovers spent days regrading a 280-acre field just across the road from our new home. Had we remained at the old place, we would have lost a season’s worth of crops before they were a quarter grown.

The 2010 growing season has again been extraordinarily wet. The more than 20 inches of rain that I measured in my rain gauge in June and July disrupted nearly every operation on our farm. We managed to do a bare minimum of field preparation, planting and cultivating through midsummer, thanks only to the well-drained soils beneath our new home.

But in two weeks in July, moisture-fueled disease swept through a three-acre onion field, reducing tens of thousands of pounds of healthy onions to mush. With rain falling several times a week and our tractors sitting idle, weeds took over a seven-acre field of carrots, requiring many times the normal amount of hand labor to control. Crop losses topped $100,000 by mid-August.

The most recent onslaught was a pair of heavy storms in late September that dropped 8.2 inches of rain. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency again toured the area, and another federal disaster declaration was narrowly averted. But evidence of the loss was everywhere: debris piled up in unharvested cornfields, large washouts in fields recently stripped of pumpkins or soybeans, harvesting equipment again sitting idle.

My great-grandfather recognized that weather is never perfect for agriculture for an entire season; a full chapter of his memoir is dedicated to this observation. In his 60 years of farming he wrote that only one season, his final crop of 1937, had close to ideal weather. Like all other farmers of his time and ours, he learned to cope with significant, ill-timed fluctuations in temperature and precipitation.

But at least here in the Midwest, weather fluctuations have been more significant during my time than in his, the Dust Bowl notwithstanding. The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.

No two farms have the same experience with the weather, and some people will contend that ours is an anomaly, that many corn and bean farms in our area have done well over the same period. But heavy summer weather causes harm to farm fields that is not easily seen or quantified, like nutrient leeching, organic-matter depletion and erosion. As climate change accelerates these trends, losses will likely mount proportionately, and across the board. How long can we continue to borrow from the “topsoil bank,” as torrential rains force us to make ever more frequent “withdrawals”?

Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life. A family farm like ours may simply not be able to adjust quickly enough to such unendingly volatile weather. We can’t charge enough for our crops in good years to cover losses in the ever-more-frequent bad ones. We can’t continue to move to better, drier ground. No new field drainage scheme will help us as atmospheric carbon concentrations edge up to 400 parts per million; hardware and technology alone can’t solve problems of this magnitude.

To make things worse, I see fewer acres in our area now planted with erosion-preventing techniques, like perennial contour strips, than there were a decade ago. I believe that federal agriculture policy is largely responsible, because it rewards the quantity of acres planted rather than the quality of practices employed.

But blaming the government isn’t sufficient. All farmers have an interest in adopting better farming techniques. I believe that we also have an obligation to do so, for the sake of future generations. If global climate change is a product of human use of fossil fuels — and I believe it is — then our farm is a big part of the problem. We burn thousands of gallons of diesel fuel a year in our 10 tractors, undermining the very foundation of our subsistence every time we cultivate a field or put up a bale of hay.

I accept responsibility for my complicity in this, but I also stand ready to accept the challenge of the future, to make serious changes in how I conduct business to produce less carbon. I don’t see that I have a choice, if I am to hope that the farm will be around for my own great-grandchildren.

But my farm, and my neighbors’ farms, can contribute only so much. Americans need to see our experience as a call for national action. The country must get serious about climate-change legislation and making real changes in our daily lives to reduce carbon emissions. The future of our nation’s food supply hangs in the balance.

Jack Hedin is a farmer.

Friday, November 26, 2010

NEW YORK ( -- International visitors to New York took advantage of both an American phenomenon and the weaker U.S. dollar to bag some holiday season bargains.

The 10 p.m. Thursday opening of Toys R Us' flagship store in Times Square drew shoppers from as far away as South America and Europe. ... Ana Carolina Bonhilha and Ana Paula Cruz came all way from Brazil to experience their first Black Friday in the States. After shopping in the store earlier in the day, they were able to secure the much-coveted first spot in line about 2-1/2 hours before the open.

Here's Jared Diamond's 2008 insightful analysis of what increased consumption means for the world (recalled from the opinion page of the NY Times):

What's Your Consumption Factor?

Los Angeles
TO mathematicians, 32 is an interesting number: it’s 2 raised to the fifth power, 2 times 2 times 2 times 2 times 2. To economists, 32 is even more special, because it measures the difference in lifestyles between the first world and the developing world. The average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world. That factor of 32 has big consequences.

To understand them, consider our concern with world population. Today, there are more than 6.5 billion people, and that number may grow to around 9 billion within this half-century. Several decades ago, many people considered rising population to be the main challenge facing humanity. Now we realize that it matters only insofar as people consume and produce.

If most of the world’s 6.5 billion people were in cold storage and not metabolizing or consuming, they would create no resource problem. What really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.

The estimated one billion people who live in developed countries have a relative per capita
consumption rate of 32. Most of the world’s other 5.5 billion people constitute the developing world, with relative per capita consumption rates below 32, mostly down toward 1.

The population especially of the developing world is growing, and some people remain fixated on this. They note that populations of countries like Kenya are growing rapidly, and they say that’s a big problem. Yes, it is a problem for Kenya’s more than 30 million people, but it’s not a burden on the whole world, because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per capita rate is 1.) A real problem for the world is that each of us 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does.

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn’t specify that it’s by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists.

People who consume little want to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyle. Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy. And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia. Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don’t succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32.

Among the developing countries that are seeking to increase per capita consumption rates at home, China stands out. It has the world’s fastest growing economy, and there are 1.3 billion Chinese, four times the United States population. The world is already running out of resources, and it will do so even sooner if China achieves American-level consumption rates. Already, China is competing with us for oil and metals on world markets.

Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let’s suppose they rise to our level. Let’s also make things easy by imagining that nothing else happens to increase world consumption — that is, no other country increases its consumption, all national populations (including China’s) remain unchanged and immigration ceases. China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent.

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

Some optimists claim that we could support a world with nine billion people. But I haven’t met anyone crazy enough to claim that we could support 72 billion. Yet we often promise developing countries that if they will only adopt good policies — for example, institute honest government and a free-market economy — they, too, will be able to enjoy a first-world lifestyle. This promise is impossible, a cruel hoax: we are having difficulty supporting a first-world lifestyle even now for only one billion people.
We Americans may think of China’s growing consumption as a problem. But the Chinese are only reaching for the consumption rate we already have. To tell them not to try would be futile.

The only approach that China and other developing countries will accept is to aim to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world. But the world doesn’t have enough resources to allow for raising China’s consumption rates, let alone those of the rest of the world, to our levels. Does this mean we’re headed for disaster?

No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Other aspects of our consumption are wasteful, too. Most of the world’s fisheries are still operated non-sustainably, and many have already collapsed or fallen to low yields — even though we know how to manage them in such a way as to preserve the environment and the fish supply. If we were to operate all fisheries sustainably, we could extract fish from the oceans at maximum historical rates and carry on indefinitely.

The same is true of forests: we already know how to log them sustainably, and if we did so worldwide, we could extract enough timber to meet the world’s wood and paper needs. Yet most forests are managed non-sustainably, with decreasing yields.

Just as it is certain that within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now, it is also certain that per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours. These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects. In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends; the main thing lacking has been political will.

Fortunately, in the last year there have been encouraging signs. Australia held a recent election in which a large majority of voters reversed the head-in-the-sand political course their government had followed for a decade; the new government immediately supported the Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Also in the last year, concern about climate change has increased greatly in the United States. Even in China, vigorous arguments about environmental policy are taking place, and public protests recently halted construction of a huge chemical plant near the center of Xiamen. Hence I am cautiously optimistic. The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.
Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the author of “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs and Steel.”

Two years ago, Professor Diamond ended on an optimistic note which got devastated by the debacle in Copenhagen, the disaster in the US Congress and the determined development in China and elsewhere. There's been little progress on climate change or achieving sustainable levels of consumption, but shopping goes forward as business-as-usual.


I've previously posted about the 2010 drought in Amazônia. Now, Nick Sundt at the WWF Climate Blog has assembled the science with lots of links and the results are scary. While it can not be concluded definitively that global warming is the cause, the trends are "a growing and grave concern." Here is Nick Sundt's report re-posted in full.

[UPDATE: Here's another re-post at Climate Progress with exclusive commentary by forest scientist Simon Lewis.]

WWF Climate Blog

Another Extreme Drought Hits the Amazon and Raises Climate Change Concerns

The Amazon
The Amazon region is experiencing the third extreme drought in a dozen years -- and it may turn out to be the worst on record. The droughts coupled with recent research findings, suggest that rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will rapidly increase the frequency and severity of droughts in the region. The implications for people, biodiversity and climate are ominous.

As the map below shows, most of the Amazon region was afflicted by drought in mid-October 2010, with large areas in the north and west experiencing exceptional drought -- beyond extreme.  Drought conditions, which now are improving, have been concentrated in Brazil, but extend into parts of neighboring countries including large areas of Bolivia, Peru, Colombia.

According to the classification system used by the University College London (UCL) Global Drought Monitor, exceptional droughts normally should not occur more than a couple of times  in a century. Typical impacts include "exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses; exceptional fire risk; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells, creating water emergencies."  According to UCL,  nearly 8.7 million people live in the locations shown below (which include smaller areas outside the Amazon) that are experiencing exceptional drought conditions.

Drought in the Amazon (1 month assesment period, through 16 October 2010).  Source: University College London,
Above: Drought in the Amazon (1 month assessment period, through 16 October 2010).  Source: University College London Global Drought Monitor.

The drought results from a combination of above normal temperatures over much of the region combined with low precipitation.  As the figure below illustrates, most of the Amazon region received less than 75% of normal rainfall between 1 July and 30 September.  Large areas have received far less precipitation, in many cases less than 25% of normal.

Brazil, Percent of Normal Precipitation, 1 July - 30 September 2010.  Source: NOAA.

In a press release on 22 Oct (Seca pode bater recorde na Amazônia / Drought may hit record in the Amazon), Brazil's Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia or IPAM) said:

"The drought of 2010 still hasn’t ended in the Amazon and could surpass that of 2005 as the region’s worst during the past four decades. In the Western Amazon, the Solimões River reached its lowest level in recorded history. In Manaus, the level of the Rio Negro (Black River) is approaching that of 1963 – the lowest in a century. Even if this doesn’t occur, the forest will have already experienced three extreme dry spells in just 12 years, two of which occurred during the past five years: 1998, 2005 and 2010. And this is not including the drought of 2007, which affected only the Southeastern Amazon and left 10 thousand sq. km. of forest scorched in the region...`The Amazon that had wet seasons so well-defined that you could set your calendar to them – that Amazon is gone,' says ecologist Daniel Nepstad of IPAM..."
Among the consequences of the drought are extremely low flows on many of the region's rivers.  On 24 October 2010, the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon, reached an all time low of 13.63 m at Manaus, edging out 1963 when water levels reached 13.64 m (Monitoramento Hidrologico: 2010, Boletim no 33 – 29/10/2010, by the Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais or CPRM).  In contrast, just last year, the river saw an all time record high of 29.77 m as the region experienced devastating floods. (Relatorio da Cheia 2009 [PDF] [2010], by CPRM).  See photos of the flood [PDF]. Records for the Rio Negro extend back 107 years.  See also Flooding Near Manaus, Brazil, NASA Earth Observatory, 19 August 2010.

Writing for the New York Times upon his return from Iquitos, Peru, Nigel Pitman reports that "people were deeply upset by the lack of rain."  He explains: "Long dry spells like these in Amazonia wither crops and worsen air pollution and cut off whole towns from the rest of the world, when the arm of the river they’re on turns to mud. They also destroy forests" (Drought in the Amazon, Up Close and Personal, 12 November 2010).  Satellite imagery on 19 August showed a pall of smoke concentrated over Bolivia  (see Fires in South America, NASA Earth Observatory, 8 September 2010), where drought conditions allowed fires to burn out of control, prompting the Bolivian government in mid-August to declare a state of emergency.

Dr Richard Bodmer of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (University of Kent) and the Wildlife Conservation Society recently reported on the impacts the drought is having on the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon.  Among the species affected:  the pink river dolphin (see photo below).  "The conditions have resulted in fewer dolphins observed throughout the Samiria River," says Dr.  Bodmer.  "Overall, pink river dolphin numbers have decreased by 47 per cent and the grey river dolphin by 49 per cent compared with previous years' population estimates. The dolphins have been forced to leave their habitats in the Samiria River and find refuge in the larger channels of the Amazon." See Amazon drought results in dramatic fall in pink river dolphin populations (press release from Earthwatch).

Pink river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis)  in the Rio Negro, Brazil.  © Claudio Marigo / WWF.
For an outstanding series of photographs documenting the impacts of the drought, see Estiagem na Amazônia posted by Último Segundo (22 November 2010).  See also the Reuters video (6 Nov 2010) below for discussion of some of the major consequences of the drought.

Above: Brazil Looks to Ease Amazon Drought, Reuters Video, 6 November 2010.

The 2005 Drought

Just 5 years ago -- in 2005 -- the Amazon experienced an extreme drought that prompted the government of Brazil to declare a state of emergency in most of the region. In The Drought of Amazonia in 2005 (by José A. Marengo, Carlos A. Nobre, Javier Tomasella in the Journal of Climate, February 2008), researchers said:

"In 2005, large sections of southwestern Amazonia experienced one of the most intense droughts of the last hundred years. The drought severely affected human population along the main channel of the Amazon River and its western and southwestern tributaries, the Solimões (also known as the Amazon River in the other Amazon countries) and the Madeira Rivers, respectively. The river levels fell to historic low levels and navigation along these rivers had to be suspended. The drought did not affect central or eastern Amazonia, a pattern different from the El Niño–related droughts in 1926, 1983, and 1998."
“Freshwater, forest, species and local people are being heavily impacted by this drought,” said Urbano Lopes da Silva Junior, WWF-Brazil’s conservation officer based in Rio Branco in a press release at the time (Amazon Basin experiencing extreme drought, 19 Oct 2005).  “For the Amazonian population, especially the poor, the main problems are the shortage and even lack of potable water for their own consumption.”  WWF also cited the impact the drought was having on fire conditions in the region and on freshwater species such as the pirarucu, the largest freshwater fish in the world -- already a threatened species due to overfishing and destructive fishing practices.

Marengo and his colleagues in the February 2008 Journal of Climate piece (mentioned above) cited among the drought's causes "the anomalously warm tropical North Atlantic." Other researchers, in Causes and impacts of the 2005 Amazon drought (by Ning Zeng et al, in Environmental Research Letters, January-March 2008), cited a combination of tropical SSTs in both the Pacific and Atlantic:

This episode was caused by the combination of 2002–03 El Niño [in the tropical Pacific] and a dry spell in 2005 attributable to a warm subtropical North Atlantic Ocean. Analysis for 1979–2005 reveals that the Atlantic influence is comparable to the better-known Pacific linkage. While the Pacific influence is typically locked to the wet season, the 2005 Atlantic impact concentrated in the Amazon dry season when its hydroecosystem is most vulnerable. Such mechanisms may have wide-ranging implications for the future of the Amazon rainforest.
Those same elevated sea surface temperatures in the Tropical Atlantic fueled the most energetic Atlantic hurricane season on record in 2005, as well as the worst coral bleaching episode on record in the Caribbean that year.  See Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs after Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005.
The 2005 drought in the Amazon also was notable for its impacts on the global carbon cycle.  Though the exact magnitude of the impacts are a matter of debate within the science community (see Amazon drought raises research doubtsNature News, 20 July 2010), there is evidence that the drought along with elevated air temperatures sharply reduced net primary production (NPP) in the Amazon. NPP is a measure of the amount of atmospheric carbon plants pull from the atmosphere and incorporate into biomass.  Where NPP is reduced, less carbon is fixed by plants and more is left in the atmosphere to disrupt climate.

In Drought-Induced Reduction in Global Terrestrial Net Primary Production from 2000 Through 2009 (Science, 20 August 2010)researchers using satellite data found that global NPP dropped precipitously in 2005 to its lowest level of the decade.  The largest contributor to the drop was a decline of NPP in the Amazon rainforest that they attributed largely to elevated temperatures and the severe drought.

Similarly, scientists using records from long-term monitoring plots in the Amazon reported in Science a year earlier (6 March 2009) in Drought Sensitivity of the Amazon Rainforest that the drought had a large impact on carbon flows. They note that the Amazon's old growth forests process 18 Petagrams (or Gigatons) of carbon each year -- more than twice the amount emitted annually by burning fossil fuels (1 Petagram = 1015 grams = 1 billion metric tonnes = 1 Gigaton). "Relatively small changes in Amazon forest dynamics therefore have the potential to substantially affect the concentration of atmospheric CO2 and thus the rate of climate change itself," they said.

They estimated that the drought reduced the biomass carbon balance by 1.2 to 1.6 Gigatons of carbon.  "The exceptional growth in atmospheric CO2 concentrations in 2005, the third greatest in the global record, may have been partially caused by the Amazon drought effects documented here," they add. "Amazon forests therefore appear vulnerable to increasing moisture stress, with the potential for large carbon losses to exert feedback on climate change."

The scale of such drought-induced changes in the Amazon's carbon budget can be contrasted with the magnitude of Brazil's carbon emissions from other sources, and with global carbon emissions from fossil fuels.   The Brazilian government estimates that in 2005, carbon emissions from land-use and landcover changes (including deforestation) were 1.3 gigatons of carbon and accounted for 77% of Brazil's carbon emissions from all sources in 2005  (Segunda Comunicação Nacional do Brasil à Convenção-Quadro das Nações Unidas sobre Mudança do Clima [PDF], Coordenação-Geral de Mudanças Globais do Clima, Ministério da Ciência e Tecnologia, Brasília, 2010).

That is at the low-end of the range of 1.2-1.6 gigatons of carbon that may have shifted to the atmosphere in 2005 as a result of the Amazon drought.  In other words, 2005 carbon emissions associated with the drought may have equaled or  exceeded those from deforestation in Brazil that year.  Furthermore, at the global level, the range of emissions that may have resulted from the 2005 drought is equivalent to roughly 16-22% of annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use in 2005 (about 7.4 gigatons of carbon).

The 2010 Drought

Just as the 2005 drought was preceded by an El Niño (from Apr-May-June 2002 through Feb-Mar-Apr 2003), the 2010 drought was preceded by an El Niño (May-June-July 2009 through March-April-May 2010).  Consequently, the Amazon experienced well below normal precipitation during the rainy season that normally stretches roughly from September-November through March-May.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in The South American Monsoon System Summary, July 2009-June 2010  [Powerpoint] that precipitation from July 2009 through June 2010 was well below normal over the Amazon basin, consistent with the expected impacts of an El Niño.  Furthermore, precipitation was much lower than during the 2002-2003 rainy season associated with the 2002-2003 El Niño that set the stage for the 2005 drought.

Similarly, as in 2005, sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the tropical North Atlantic ocean in 2010 were elevated during the dry season (normally April-September). The maps below show the global temperature anomalies for September 2005 and September 2010 (around the usual end of the dry season) and show that SSTs in the north tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean in both years show a similar pattern.  Likewise, the surface temperatures over the Amazon during both years were elevated -- though were substantially higher in 2010.

 September 2005 surface temperature anomalies.  Source: NASA
Global Surface Temperature Anomalies, September 2010. Source: NASA.

The Monthly Tropical North Atlantic Index (TNA) (a measure of the average monthly SST anomaly in the region) has been at record high levels (and above the values for 2005) for every month of 2010 through September.  The TNA for October was second only to that of 2003. The separate Caribbean SST Index (CAR) has not been at record levels for most months, but has been anomalously high and for most months has been above 2005 levels.

For both the TNA and the CAR indices, the long term trend is upward.  See for example the long-term trend for the Tropical North Atlantic Index for the month of September below.

Above: The North Tropical Atlantic SST Index for the Month of September, 1951-2010.  SST anomalies (relative to 1951-2000) averaged over the region of the tropical Atlantic between Africa and the Caribbean (the region is indicated by NTA on this map) for the month of September from 1951 through 2010.

As in 2005, these high SSTs in the Tropical North Atlantic are resulting in one of the worst coral bleaching episodes on record in the Caribbean, as well as energizing one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record.  See our recent posting, Sea Surface Temperatures in Tropical North Atlantic Rise to Record Levels in 2010, With Impacts from the Amazon to Canada (16 November 2010).

Are the high SSTs -- as in 2005 -- also associated with the Amazon drought conditions during the 2010 dry season?  The answer is most likely "yes," but the nature of the connection and the role of other factors (such as the 2009-2010 El Niño in the tropical Pacific) will have to await the published research results of scientists.  Similarly, we will not know the impacts of the 2010 drought on the cycling of carbon to and from the Amazon until scientific assessments are conducted and research results are published.

The Climate Change Connection

What connection might these droughts have to rising concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere and what might we expect during the course of this century as GHG  concentrations continue to rise?
The connections between rising GHG concentrations on the  El Niños is a matter of scientific interest and debate.  El Niño-Southern Oscillation patterns in the tropical Pacific appear to be changing and some research suggests the changes may be related to climate change (see El Niño in a changing climate, Nature, 24 September 2010).  However, the science is very much unsettled, so we cannot say anything definitive about the relationship between rising GHGs and the El Niños that preceeded the 2005 and 2010 droughts.

In the case of rising SSTs in the tropical Atlantic -- another major contributor to the 2005 drought and likely to the 2010 drought  --  the connection to rising GHG concentrations is better understood, though there is uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the impact relative to other variables.

When asked about the degree to which rising GHG concentrations in the atmosphere were contributing to the trend of rising  sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean, Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) said at a Congressional briefing on 30 June 2010 that the temperatures could not be explained without accounting for rising GHG concentrations.  He said that while some researchers thought the rising GHG levels might account for 60-80% of the temperature anomaly, he estimated that about half was due to rising GHGs.

This is consistent with research results published in Geophysical Research Letters on 29 April 2010.  In Is the basin-wide warming in the North Atlantic Ocean related to atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming?, Chunzai Wang and Shenfu Dong of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, conclude that "both global warming and AMO [Atlantic multidecadal oscillation] variability make a contribution to the recent basin-wide warming in the North Atlantic and their relative contribution is approximately equal."

If the rise in SSTs in the tropical north Atlantic are being driven in part by rising GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, and if those SSTs are implicated in the Amazon drought of 2005 and potentially in the drought of 2010, then rising GHG concentrations are among the factors likely contributing to those droughts. However, researchers have not at this point definitively attributed either drought to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations.

More importantly rising atmospheric concentrations of GHGs in the future will continue to affect tropical sea surface temperatures in both the Pacific and the Atlantic,  and research indicates that this -- in combination with rising air temperatures over the Amazon -- will increasingly dry out the Amazon. In Amazon Basin climate under global warming: the role of the sea surface temperature (Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, 27 May 2008), researchers analyze these connections.

Using a model from the UK's Hadley Centre, they focused on a period centered around the year 2050.  The analysis suggests that SST anomalies in both the tropical Atlantic and Pacific would combine to reduce Amazon Basin rainfall, "leading to a perennial soil moisture reduction and an associated 30% reduction in annual Amazon Basin net primary productivity (NPP). A further 23% NPP reduction occurs in response to a 3.5°C warmer air temperature associated with a global mean SST warming."

In Drought under global warming: a review (Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 19 Oct 2010) Dr Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says that models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 assessment "project increased aridity in the 21st century, with a striking pattern that suggests continued drying" over many land areas including "most of Americas."  While acknowledging the uncertainties, he says that the model results appear "to be a robust response to increased GHGs."  He adds: "This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling [the model results]...a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades" in Brazil and many other land areas.

Approaching -- or passing -- a Tipping Point

The possibility of increasingly arid conditions along with more frequent extreme droughts in the Amazon -- and the regional and global implications -- is a matter of growing and grave concern.  In a report to WWF, The Amazon's Vicious Cycles: Drought and Fire in the Greenhouse [2.49 MB pdf] (Dec 2007, WWF), IPAM's Daniel Nepstad concludes:

"Synergistic trends in Amazon economies, vegetation, and climate could lead to the replacement or damaging of more than half of the closed-canopy forests of the Amazon Basin over the next 15 to 25 years, undoing many of the successes currently in progress to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Counteracting these trends are emerging changes in landholder behaviour, recent successes in establishing large blocks of protected areas in active agricultural frontiers, important market trends favouring forest stewardship, and a possible new international mechanism for compensating tropical nations for their progress in forest conservation, that could reduce the likelihood of a large-scale dieback of the Amazon forest complex. In the long term, however, the avoidance of this scenario may depend upon worldwide reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that are large enough to prevent global temperatures from rising more than a degree or two."
More recently (in late 2009 and before the 2010 drought), in Major Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector [PDF], WWF identified the prospect of more frequent extreme droughts in the Amazon and the related rainforest dieback as being among the "tipping points" that could be passed in coming decades, with "significant impacts within the first half of this century." 

Given the current drought in the Amazon, the report's discussion of the 2005 Amazon drought should raise some eyebrows:

"...until more recently, 2005-like droughts may have had a frequency of between 1-in-40 and 1-in-100-years. Recent work, however, suggests that, with the now elevated concentration of GHGs  [greenhouse gases] (currently ~430 ppmv CO2e [parts per million, volume, of carbon dioxide equivalent],compared with 280 ppmv CO2e pre-industrial), the return period is of the order of 1-in-20-years and this is likely to increase to 1-in-2 and above by between 2025 and 2050 if stabilization at 450 to 550 ppmv CO2e is achieved (with a higher probability if it is not)."
Given that the 2010 drought is comparable to the 2005 drought -- and that they are only five years apart, we already may be closer to a return period of 1-in-2 years than the research suggested.
About the implications of an increase in the frequency of 2005-like droughts, the report says:

"The 2005 drought impacts were relatively severe. However, the social, environmental and economic consequences of such a significant increase in the frequency of 2005-like events are far more than the sum of 2005 impacts x drought frequency. What is currently termed ‘drought’, with such a significant increase in frequency, becomes the norm implying a potentially radical change in hydrological systems in affected regions, with knock-on effects for people, environment, and economy."


For an excellent discussion of the 2005 and 2010 droughts, climate change and the implications for the Amazon, see the video below from GlobalPost, Rumble in the Jungle: Is the Amazon Losing the Fight Against Climate Change? by Erik German and Solana Pyne

See also their online article, Rivers run dry as drought hits Amazon (GlobalPost, 3 November 2010).


Online Resources:

News on recent conditions:
Web Sites
Scientific Research

For the words and a bit more info in Portuguese click on the video.

Thursday, November 25, 2010



Richard Thayler, at Edge, writes:

I am doing research for a new book and would hope to elicit informed responses to the following question:

The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?

My favorite response so far comes from the "father of framing" George Lakoff
Cognitive Scientist and Linguist; Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, UC Berkeley; Author, The Political Mind

Enlightenment Reason and Classical Rationality have been shown over and over in the cognitive and brain sciences to be false in just about every respect. Yet they are still being taught and used throughout the academic world and in progressive policy circles. Real human reason is very different.

Here are the claims of enlightenment reason, and the realities:

Claim: Thought is conscious. But neuroscience shows that is about 98 percent unconscious.

Claim: Reason is abstract and independent of the body. Yet, because we think with our brains and thought is embodied via the sensory-motor system, reason is completely embodied.

Claim: Reason can fit the world directly. Yet because we think with brain structured by the body, reason is constrained by what the brain and body allow.

Claim: Reason uses formal logic. In reality, reason is frame-based and very largely metaphorical. Basic metaphors arise naturally around the world due to common experiences and the nature of neural learning. The literature on Embodied cognition has experimentally verified the reality of metaphorical thought. Real human reason used frame-based and metaphor based logics.

Claim: Emotion gets in the way of reason. Actually, real reason requires emotion. Brain-damaged patients who cannot feel emotion don't know what to want, since like and not like mean nothing to them and they cannot judge the emotions of others. As a result they cannot make rational decisions.

Claim: Reason is universal. Actually, even conservatives and progressives reason differently, and evidence is pouring in that one's native language affects how one reasons.

Claim: Language is neutral, and can fit the world directly. Actually language is defined in terms of frames and metaphors, works through the brain and does not fit the world directly. Indeed, many of the concepts named by words (e.g. freedom) are essentially contested and have meanings that vary with value systems.

Claim: Mathematics exists objectively and structures the universe. Mathematics has actually been created by mathematicians using their human brains, with frames and metaphors.

Claim: Reason serves self-interest. Partly true of course, but to a very large extent reason is based on empathetic connections to others, which works via the neuron systems in our brains.

Given the massive failures of enlightenment reason, widely documented in the brain and cognitive sciences, why is it still taught and widely assumed?

First, it did a great historical job back in the 17th and 18th centuries in overcoming the dominance of the Church and feudalism.

Second, it permitted the rise of science, even though science doesn't really use it.

Third, unconscious mechanisms like framed-based and metaphorical thought are mostly not accessible to consciousness, and thus we cannot really see how we think.

Fourth, applications of formal logic have come into wide use, say in the rational actor model of classical economics (which failed in the economic collapse of 2008).

Fifth, we are taught enlightenment reason in our schools and universities and its failure is not directly taught, even in neuroscience classes. Seventh, most people just think and don't pay much attention to the details, especially those that are not conscious.

Much of liberal thought uses enlightenment reason, which claims that if you just tell people the facts about their interests, they will reason to the right conclusion, since reason is supposed to universal, logical, and based on self-interest. The Obama administration assumed that in its policy discourse, and that assumption led to the debacle of the 2010 elections. Marketers have a better sense of how reason really works, and Republicans have been better at marketing their ideas. The scientific fallacy of enlightenment reason has thus had major real-world effects.

(Graffiti and Wall Art)

Note: This collection evolves as I add to it from time to time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Al Gore - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2005
Photo: World Economic Forum, Flickr, CC

Corn ethanol has turned out to be a bad idea -- there's little disagreement about that, especially in environmental circles. For starters, it's an incredibly inefficient fuel source, consuming tons of water to produce a modest amount of energy. And that's to say nothing of the unintended consequences promoting ethanol has had on deforestation and food production around the world. And yet, we continue to grant ethanol producers in the US a pretty hefty subsidy -- to the tune of $8 billion. Now, Al Gore, one of the early supporters of ethanol, says that he made a mistake in creating those subsides. Read more...

On the other hand, President Obama has not learned the lesson. He started out as a strong ethanol advocate in order to get support in the Iowa caucuses, he has ignored current thinking about second generation corn ethanol and is now doubling down on the effort in order to maintain support from the powerful interests of the agro-energy-industrial complex.


It is said that stupidity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. Afghanistan runs true to form.

Maureen Dowd offers her characteristically biting brilliance:

Though we’re pouring billions into intelligence in Afghanistan, we can’t even tell the difference between a no-name faker and a senior member of the Taliban. The tragedy of Afghanistan has descended into farce. Read more...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


mirar para as estrelas

The word mirar in Portuguese has a double meaning of "to aim" (as in targeting) or "to vision" (as in having a vision).

Kids understand best how to have it both ways.

Aim for the Stars



Damaged but Firm


and Watching


Sculpture of "Justice" located in the botanical garden Horto Florestal, Rio Branco AC Brazil.

I imagine her to be saying, "Be careful."

Monday, November 22, 2010



[Update 24 November 2010 - Read the NY Times Save-the-Tigers Editorial]

It all started when Leonardo DiCaprio had re-tweeted [Andrew Revkin's] recent suggestion that Apple, which has long named its Macintosh operating systems for the tiger and other wild cats, help conserve the world’s last few dozen havens for wild tigers. DiCaprio has been working with WWF (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) to build support for tiger conservation in advance of the international meetings on tiger conservation this week in Russia. [Read the full Dot Earth story.]

Quickly, readers began the search for other institutions with tiger logos -- Princeton, Detroit, Exxon, Kellog, and more -- all of whom might appropriately "pay back" with some support for the campaign to save these great cats.

Here's the Wikipedia list of many institutions with tiger logos that might be encouraged to help save the dwindling numbers of wild tigers. If you are a Mac user or have shares in Exxon or Kellog or are simply motivated to help this campaign go viral, please spread the word and pick a few links and ask that they support the "Save the Tiger" campaign.

Sports Teams

US Universities

Other Countries

Secondary schools

(In the United States, unless otherwise noted)

Other organizations