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Bosnia and Herzegovina call for a safer location for Croatia’s nuclear waste dump plan

September 24, 2020 Posted by | EUROPE, opposition to nuclear, wastes | Leave a comment

New Mexico is strongly objecting to licensing of Holtec’s multibillion-dollar nuclear waste dump plan

New Mexico objects to license for nuclear fuel storage plan, , By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press, 23 Sept 20

    • ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The state of New Mexico is strongly objecting to federal nuclear regulators’ preliminary recommendation that a license be granted to build a multibillion-dollar storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the U.S.

State officials, in a letter submitted Tuesday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the site is geologically unsuitable and technical analysis has been inadequate so far. They also say regulators have failed to consider environmental justice concerns and have therefore fallen short of requirements spelled out by federal environmental laws.

The letter also reiterates the state’s concerns that the storage facility would become a permanent dumping ground for the spent fuel, as the federal government has no permanent plan for dealing with the waste that has been piling up at nuclear power plants.

The officials pointed to a legacy of contamination in New Mexico that includes uranium mining and milling and decades of nuclear research and bomb-making at national laboratories, saying minority and low-income populations already have suffered disproportionate health and environmental effects as a result.

Given the concerns, state officials wrote that a draft environmental review of the project “fails to demonstrate that residents of New Mexico, including vulnerable populations, will be adequately protected from exposure to the radioactive and toxic contaminants that could be released to air and water by the proposed action.”

A group of Democratic state lawmakers also raised concerns, sending separate comments to the commission that pointed to resolutions passed by a number of cities and counties in New Mexico and Texas that are opposed to building the facility.

Elected leaders in southeastern New Mexico support the project, saying it would bring jobs and revenue to the region and provide a temporary option for dealing with the spent fuel.

The deadline to comment on draft environmental review was Tuesday. A study on the project’s impact on human safety is pending and will require another round of public comment.

New Jersey-based Holtec is seeking a 40-year license to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad. The first phase calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel…….

September 24, 2020 Posted by | opposition to nuclear, USA, wastes | Leave a comment

Britain’s nuclear power dreams melting away – with soaring costs, and political problems

U.K. Nuclear Fleet Plans Evaporating Amid Economic, Political Problems,    September 20, 2020, Peter Reina

The U.K.’s hopes for a fleet of new nuclear plants, potentially exceeding 13,000 MW, took another hit when Japan’s Hitachi Ltd. recently pulled out of a major project in Wales. With Chinese investment in two other projects alsolmore doubtful, only the 3,300MW Hinkley Point C project in Somerset, England, has so far progressed to construction

Having suspended development work on the Welsh two-unit plant at Wylfa Newydd in January 2019, Hitachi earlier this month announced that the already difficult investment environment had “become increasingly severe due to the impact of COVID-19.” The company wrote off $2.8 billion of investment in the Welsh plant last year.

Hitachi’s departure followed the Toshiba Corp.’s decision in late 2018 to quit the 3,400-MW Moorside plant, in Cumbria. It had failed to find co-investors for its Westinghouse powered project.

With uncertainty growing, Hinkley Point C is the only U.K. nuclear project o have started work, which is so far largely on schedule, according to Electricité de France (EdF), which controls 66.5% of the deal. China General Nuclear Corp. owns 33.5% of project, which will be powered by two French EPR pressurized water reactors.

Hitachi’s withdrawal from the U.K. market has alarmed supporters of the nuclear industry, since it also casts a cloud over the planned 3,340-MW Sizewell C project in Cumbria.

“For the first time in a generation the U.K has developed a world class nuclear construction and engineering supply chain. Without Sizewell C, we will not sustain it,” says Cameron Gilmour, spokesperson for the Sizewell C Consortium lobby group of key companies in the sector.

The Sizewell C plant would replicate Hinkley Point C and is “shovel ready” according to Gilmour. The U.K. Planning Inspectorate is considering an application for the project submitted this May. The agency’s recommendations will end up on the government’s desk for a final decision at some point.

However, general investment uncertainties and increasingly frosty relations between the U.K and Chinese governments bode ill for the deal, says Stephen Thomas, an energy policy specialist at the University of Greenwich, London.

Set up under a previous conservative administration, the Hinkley Point C deal included CGNC’s participation as a junior partner in Sizewell C. Also, CGNC would have full responsibility for a proposed 2,300 MW Bradwell plant in Essex.

Bradwell would be a global showcase for the technology as it would be the first plant in an industrialized country to use the Chinese Hualong One reactors, Thomas says.

However, the Chinese government was angered over the U.K.’s rejection this July of Huawei technology for the cell phone networks. At the same time, criticism by the country’s lawmakers of China’s participation in critical infrastructure is increasing.

Both developments make the Bradwell deal uncertain. And if Bradwell falls, the Chinese are unlikely to remain merely as passive, junior investors in Sizewell C, potentially scuppering the whole deal, says Thomas.

Investment uncertainties lie at the heart of the U.K.’s fading nuclear hopes. The government offered the Hitachi team a far less generous deal than the one secured by EdF for Hinkley Point C.

While the Hinkley deal protects U.K. electricity consumers from cost escalations, it comes at a high price, according to Thomas. The deal is based on a “contract for differences” which sets an index linked energy price of $120 per MWh at 2012 prices for 35 years. That is hugely more than the $51 per MWh now being bid for offshore wind contracts, he says.

For subsequent deals, the government last year turned to the Regulatory Asset Base (RAB) form of funding used by water and types of utilities. Rather than having a target energy price, electricity tariffs would be controlled by the regulator, which would consider factors such as need for investment and a fair rate of return on capital.

The government completed a review of the system this January but has yet to make a decision, adding to investment uncertainty, says Thomas.

Meanwhile, in the west of England, contractors recently placed the 170-tonne base of the second reactor’s steel containment liner at Hinkley Point on time, despite pandemic working restrictions.

EdF claims to have met critical path goals during the pandemic, but it has yet to reveal the extent of delays on other parts of the job. The site’s workforce is now back to its pre-pandemic level of 4,500 having fallen to 2,000 after February.

Civil and building work is being handled by a joint venture of Paris-based Bouygues Travaux Publics and the U.K.’s Laing O’Rourke Plc. in a contract signed in late 2017, then valued at around $3.6 billion.

However, “challenging ground conditions” and additional design effort have contributed to an overall project cost rise to $29 billion from around $23 billion in 2016, reports EdF. The company still plans to commission the first unit in 2025, but the project has yet to enter its trickier nuclear component phase, officials concede.

Europe’s only two other projects using the same reactor design and involving Bouygues are hugely over schedule. Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 plant and EdF’s flagship French project at Flamanvile are both running about a decade late.

With this track record and future financing doubts, prospects for new projects around the world look bleak, says Thomas.

But nuclear power “has had a history of climbing out of the coffin,” he adds.

September 22, 2020 Posted by | business and costs, politics, UK | 1 Comment

45 nations have now ratified the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

U.N. nuclear ban treaty reaches 45 signatories. NEWS KYODO NEWS21 Sept 20 Malta, a Mediterranean island country, completed the ratification process for a U.N.-adopted nuclear ban treaty Monday, bringing the number of such countries and regions to 45 with a total of 50 required for the pact to enter into force, a nonprofit antinuclear organization said.The latest ratification comes on the same day the U.N. General Assembly held a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the world body’s founding.

With the addition of one more signatory to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, hopes for an early enforcement of the pact, possibly by the end of this year.

However, the treaty’s potential effectiveness remains uncertain as all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, all of which are nuclear powers, have declined to ratify it.

Japan, the only country in the world to have experienced nuclear bombings, has not ratified the pact either, in light of its security alliance with the United States providing nuclear deterrence against adversaries.

The nuclear ban treaty, adopted in 2017, will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 50 countries and regions. According to the United Nations, 84 countries and regions have signed the nuclear ban treaty.

In a related move, a group of 56 former leaders or ministers from countries that depend on U.S. nuclear deterrence on Monday released a letter urging the leaders of their respective countries to participate in the U.N. nuclear ban treaty.

From Japan, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka and former Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka joined the petition.

September 22, 2020 Posted by | 2 WORLD, politics international, weapons and war | Leave a comment

Japanese government dangles financial carrot to persuade reluctant communities to take nuclear wastess

But there is no prospect for the establishment of such a recycling system which would allow for disposing only of the waste from reprocessing and recycling.

Eventually, Japan, like most other countries with nuclear power plants, will be forced to map out plans for “direct disposal,” or disposing of spent fuel from nuclear reactors in underground repositories.

Hokkaido Governor Suzuki has taken a dim view of the financial incentive offered to encourage local governments to apply for the first stage of the selection process, criticizing the proposed subsidies as “a wad of cash used as a powerful carrot.”


September 22, 2020 Posted by | Japan, politics, reprocessing, wastes | 5 Comments

David Suzuki on nuclear power as a climate change solution ”I want to puke.”

I want to puke. Because politicians love to say, “Oh, yeah, we care about this and boy, there’s [nuclear] technology just around the corner.”

Yeah, it’s taken a child [environmental activist Greta Thunberg] to finally have an impact that is more than all of us environmentalists put together over the past years. 

The power of that child is that she’s got no vested interest in anything. She’s just saying: “Listen to the science because the scientists are telling us I have no future if we don’t take some drastic action.”

I want to puke’: David Suzuki reacts to O’Regan’s nuclear power endorsement

The Nature of Things host also addressed the climate crisis and youth’s role in climate change

CBC Radio Sep 21, 2020   David Suzuki spoke to Checkup host Ian Hanomansing about how to tackle climate change while in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and took questions from callers, in Sunday’s Ask Me Anything segment.

With the COVID-19 pandemic at the forefront of the news cycle, it might be easy to forget about the ongoing climate change crisis.

While managing the pandemic has become the first priority of the Canadian government and other governments around the world, climate change was a major talking point in the 2019 federal election campaign.

This summer, the last intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic collapsed. South of the border, dry, hot weather conditions in states such as Oregon and Washington have led to historic wildfires.

David Suzuki is a scientist and environmental activist. He’s also the host of The Nature of Things on CBC television. Continue reading

September 22, 2020 Posted by | Canada, politics | Leave a comment

Iran will not renegotiate nuclear deal if Biden wins US presidency, Zarif says

September 22, 2020 Posted by | Iran, politics international | Leave a comment

Tsunami risk for nuclear reactors on coastlines of India and Pakistan

Nuclear plants in Arabian Sea face tsunami risk, by SciDev.Net, 21 Sep 20,  A major tsunami in the northern Arabian Sea could severely impact the coastlines of India and Pakistan, which are studded with sensitive installations including several nuclear plants, says the author of a new study.

“A magnitude 9 earthquake is a possibility in the Makran subduction zone and consequent high tsunami waves,” says C.P. Rajendran, lead author of the study, which was published this September in Pure and Applied Geophysics.

“Our study is a step towards understanding the tsunami hazards of the northern Arabian Sea,” says Rajendran. “The entire northern Arabian Sea region, with its critical facilities, including nuclear power stations, needs to take this danger into consideration in hazard perceptions.”

Atomic power stations functioning along the Arabian Sea include Tarapur (1,400 megawatts) in India’s Maharashtra state, Kaiga (being expanded to 2,200 megawatts) in Karnataka state and Karachi in Pakistan (also being expanded to 2,200 megawatts). A mega nuclear power plant coming up at Jaitapur, Maharashtra will generate 9,900 megawatts, while another project at Mithi Virdi in Gujarat may be shelved because of public opposition.

Nuclear power plants are located along coasts because their enormous cooling needs can be taken care of easily and cheaply by making using abundant seawater.

“Siting nuclear reactors in areas prone to natural disasters is not very wise,” says M.V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director, Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia, tells SciDev.Net. “In principle, one could add safety systems to lower the risk of accidents—a very high sea wall, for instance. Such safety systems, however, add to the cost of nuclear plants and make them even more uncompetitive when compared with other ways of generating electricity.”

“All nuclear plants can be subject to severe accidents due to purely internal causes, but natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and storm surges make accidents more likely because they cause stresses on the reactor that could lead to some failures while simultaneously disabling one or more safety systems,” says Ramana, who has worked extensively on nuclear energy.

Rajendran and his team embarked on the study after noticing that, compared to peninsular India’s eastern coast, tsunami hazards on the west coast were under-recognized. This despite the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that occurred in the Makran subduction zone in 1945.

The study relies on historical reports of a major disturbance that struck the coast of western India in 1524 that was recorded by a Portuguese fleet off Dabhol and the Gulf of Cambay, and corroborated by geological evidence and radiocarbon dating of seashells transported inland which are preserved in a dune complex at Kelshi village near Dabhol.

Modeling carried out by the team produced results suggesting that the high impact in Kelshi could have been generated by a magnitude 9 earthquake sourced in the Makran subduction zone during the 1508 —1681 period, says Rajendran. Subduction zones occur where one tectonic plate slides over another, releasing seismic energy.

As per radiocarbon dating of the shells, the inundation may have occurred during 1432—1681 and overlaps the historical reports of major sea disturbances in 1524 that were recorded by a Portuguese fleet of 14 ships led by Vasco da Gama, the man who discovered the sea-route between India and Europe.

A future mega-tsunami originating in the Makran subduction zone could not only devastate the coasts of Iran, Pakistan and Oman but also the west coast of India, says Rajendran, adding that alternate offshore quake sources are yet to be identified in the Arabian Sea.

The larger Indian Ocean features another tectonically active tsunamigenic source—in the Andaman-Sumatra region where the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami occurred. “The next tsunami, after our experience in 2004, will likely be on the west coast,” says Rajendran.

The 2004 tsunami claimed more than 250,000 lives and devastated the beaches of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, and claimed lives as far away as Yemen, Somalia and South Africa. Significantly, an atomic power plant at Kalpakkam, on the coast of India’s south-eastern, Tamil Nadu state, was flooded.

Earlier studies, such as the one published in 2013 in Geophysical Research Letters, have indicated that tsunamis, similar in magnitude to the one caused by the 2004 Sumatra earthquake, could occur at the Makran subduction zone where the Arabian plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate by about 1.5 inches per year.

According to the 2013 study, the Makran is a wide-potential seismogenic zone that may be capable of generating a very significant (greater than 8.5 in magnitude) tsunamigenic earthquake that poses risks to the coastlines of Pakistan, Iran, Oman, and India.

Vinod Menon, a founder member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority tells SciDev.Net that the new study “raises pertinent questions on the seismic and tsunamigenic risks from a potential rupture of the Makran subduction zone.”

“The tsunami risk and vulnerability of the west coast has not received adequate attention in spite of a history of occurrence in the past as curated by the authors as well as previous studies,” says Menon, who adds that it is worth noting that there are far more sensitive installations around the northern Arabian Sea than in the Andaman-Sumatra region.

Ramana says that such studies serve as a warning against the risks and costs of setting up nuclear power plants in seismically vulnerable areas. “A decade after the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, the prefecture retains radioactive hotspots and the cost of clean-up has been variously estimated to range between US$20 billion and US$600 billion.”


September 22, 2020 Posted by | India, Pakistan, safety | Leave a comment

Russia rejects USA’ s terms for extending the New START arms control treaty

September 22, 2020 Posted by | politics international, Russia | Leave a comment

The pandemic is a massive thrat – so is climate change


September 22, 2020 Posted by | Canada, climate change | Leave a comment

Small Nuclear Reactors look good – on paper!

Lockdown alternatives look good on paper: So do nuclear reactors, Independent Australia, By John Quiggin | 22 September 2020,  Amid mounting pressure for a “hands-off” approach to pandemic controls, Professor John Quiggin explains the real costs of the “let her rip” strategy.

BACK IN 1953, the founder of the U.S. naval nuclear program, Admiral Hyman Rickover, drew a striking contrast between “paper reactors” and “real reactors”:

An academic [paper] reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose (“omnibus reactor”). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly “off-the-shelf” components. (8) The reactor is in the study phases. It is not being built now.

On the other hand, a practical [real] reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone can see it.

Rickover’s insight has been borne out many times, as a long series of new reactor designs, promising power “too cheap to meter”, have come in over time and over budget. The latest such paper reactor, the Small Modular Reactor being developed by NuScale Power recently received design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Quietly tucked away in the announcement was the prediction that the first 12-module plant being developed for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems would be operational by 2030. Until last week, the announced target was 2027. And when the project was first funded, commercial operation was projected for 2023

The contrast drawn by Rickover applies equally well to the policies proposed by critics of the elimination and suppression policies adopted around the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic………..

Unlike Rickover’s paper reactors, these theoretical policies are typically not spelt out in much detail. Rather, the adverse effects of real policies, such as the hardship associated with travel restrictions and the economic cost of lockdowns are pointed out, and it is claimed that it would have been far better to accept a few deaths, mostly of old people who were going to die soon anyway.  ….

Broadly speaking, the earlier and more comprehensive the control policy, the better the outcomes in terms of both (market) economic activity and health outcomes. (With a proper understanding of economics, health outcomes are economic outcomes, whether or not they affect market activity). ……..


September 22, 2020 Posted by | 2 WORLD, spinbuster | Leave a comment

USA.Federal Bill to promote nuclear waste borehole system, and the dubious plan for reprocessing

September 22, 2020 Posted by | politics, reprocessing | Leave a comment

Nuke Ban: Former Statesmen, et al Promoting — limitless life

Open Letter in Support of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Under embargo until 21 September 2020, 00:00 UTC This open letter in support of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been signed by 56 former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers from 20 NATO member […]

Nuke Ban: Former Statesmen, et al Promoting — limitless life

September 22, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The week in pandemic, climate, nuclear, even bank, news

Well, all news, by its very nature is likely to be bad. (Good behaviour is pretty ordinary, not news.) But there’s  bad news, and there’s very bad news.  And this has been a week for the very bads.

Start with the pandemic. The global death toll exceeds 957,000. cases nearly 31 million.  India’s coronavirus cases pass 5 million as hospitals scramble for oxygen. A second wave grips EuropeUK cases could grow exponentially, if no action taken. Most of the US is headed in the wrong direction again with COVID-19 cases as deaths near 200,000.

Climate. Weather extremes are more frequently with us now, and as with the pandemic, the longer term future is unceetain:  abrupt changes could bring interconnected tipping points.

Economics. The FinCEN files: Dirty little secrets of the world’s banks revealed in mass US government leak.

BUT – some good news. East Asian countries – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore Malaysia -have learned, through their previous SARS epidemic, how to structure their health systems to plan for and manage pandemics,  mount particularly effective responses to COVID-19, and reduce the death rate.

Why harsh COVID-19 lockdowns are good for the economy. 

World’s Biggest Rooftop Greenhouse in Montreal is as Big as 3 Football Fields – Now Can Feed 2% of the City.

Julian Assange was offered a pardon, if he would name a source.  Julian Assange exposed “a very serious pattern of actual war crimes”.  Assange insisted on not revealing names of informants.  Julian Assange case: Witnesses recall Collateral Murder attack: “Look at those dead bastards,” shooters said.

David Attenborough now wants us to face up to the state of the planet.  In tropical areas, increasing heat and humidity will make life almost unbearable.  Importance of the ocean’s biological carbon pump

What Frogs Can Teach Us about the State of the World.

53 million tons of plastic could end up in rivers, lakes and oceans every year by 2030.  The persistence of plastic.

The coronavirus pandemic and the increased safety risks for nuclear reactors.

Nuclear exposure standards discriminate on the basis of sex .

Why NuScam and other ”small” nuclear proposals just don’t make any sense.

The hidden stumbling block to progress on nuclear weapons.

BHP betrays international safety efforts.

ARCTIC. Arctic sea ice becomes a sea of slush.  Rapid climate change has made Greenland lose a record amount of ice.  USA. Relicensing Turkey Point nuclear station – a striking example of a dangerous action in climate change times.  Global heating is disrupting the ground in Siberia.

JAPAN. Suttsu, Hokkaido, residents oppose radioactive waste dump plan.

GERMANY. Nuclear energy CHEAP? Nuclear has drained Germany of more than €1trn to date



CHINA.  China ditches US nuclear technology in favour of home-grown alternative.

CANADA. Nuclear waste flyers heading to 50,000 households in Grey-Bruce.  Indigenous woman’s long trek to protest nuclear waste dump, and encourage others..  Western Canadians do not want ”Small” Nuclear Reactors in Sakatchewan.

PHILIPPINES. Duterte asks nations to reject war, eliminate nuclear weapons.

IRAN. While other nations seek conciliation, agreement, the U.S. will declare that all international sanctions are back in force.  Iran a most transparent country for IAEA inspections.

NORTH KOREA. U.S. general says that North Korea has a ‘‘small” number of nuclear weapons (over 70?)

SOUTH KOREA. South Korea says no use of nuclear weapons in joint operational plans with U.S.

EGYPT. Egypt supports Bamako Convention banning import of hazardous waste, especially radioactive, into Africa.

RUSSIA. Russia developing a nuclear-powered missile that can ”attack from unexpected directions”.

SAUDI ARABIA. IAEA and China helping Saudi Arabia with its nuclear ambitions.

AUSTRALIA    CORONAVIRUS. The State of Victoria has achieved remarkable success in bringing down the infection rate to 11 in one day, death toll 2.  This is the result of the strict lockdown regime imposed by Premier Daniel Andrews, despite vicious attacks on him by the opposition party. You know the good result is true, when even the Murdoch Press has to admit it, and its opinion poll  backs the Premier.

September 22, 2020 Posted by | Christina's notes | Leave a comment

Global heating – abrupt changes could bring interconnected tipping points

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is not a surprising or original solution. But it is our best chance to stop the warning signs flashing red.

The tipping points at the heart of the climate crisis,   Michael Marshall, Sun 20 Sep 2020   

Many parts of the Earth’s climate system have been destabilised by warming, from ice sheets and ocean currents to the Amazon rainforest – and scientists believe that if one collapses others could follow.

The warning signs are flashing red. The California wildfires were surely made worse by the impacts of global heating. A study published in July warned that the Arctic is undergoing “an abrupt climate change event” that will probably lead to dramatic changes. As if to underline the point, on 14 September it was reported that a huge ice shelf in northeast Greenland had torn itself apart, worn away by warm waters lapping in from beneath.

That same day, a study of satellite data revealed growing cracks and crevasses in the ice shelves protecting two of Antarctica’s largest glaciers – indicating that those shelves could also break apart, leaving the glaciers exposed and liable to melt, contributing to sea-level rise. The ice losses are already following our worst-case scenarios.

These developments show that the harmful impacts of global heating are mounting, and should be a prompt to urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the case for emissions cuts is actually even stronger. That is because scientists are increasingly concerned that the global climate might lurch from its current state into something wholly new – which humans have no experience dealing with. Many parts of the Earth system are unstable. Once one falls, it could trigger a cascade like falling domino

Tipping points

We have known for years that many parts of the climate have so-called tipping points. That means a gentle push, like a slow and steady warming, can cause them to change in a big way that is wholly disproportionate to the trigger. If we hit one of these tipping points, we may not have any practical way to stop the unfolding consequences.

The Greenland ice sheet is one example of a tipping point. It contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by seven metres, if it were all to melt. And it is prone to runaway melting.

This is because the top surface of the ice sheet is gradually getting lower as more of the ice melts, says Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. The result is familiar to anyone who has walked in mountains. “If we climb down the mountain, the temperature around us warms up,” she says. As the ice sheet gets lower, the temperatures at the surface get higher, leading to even more melting. “That’s one of these self-reinforcing or accelerating feedbacks.”

We don’t know exactly how much warming would cause Greenland to pass its tipping point and begin melting unstoppably. One study estimated that it would take just 1.6C of warming – and we have already warmed the planet 1.1C since the late 19th century.

The collapse would take centuries, which is some comfort, but such collapses are difficult to turn off. Perhaps we could swiftly cool the planet to below the 1.6C threshold, but that would not suffice, as Greenland would be melting uncontrollably. Instead, says Winkelmann, we would have to cool things down much more – it’s not clear by how much. Tipping points that behave like this are sometimes described as “irreversible”, which is confusing; in reality they can be reversed, but it takes a much bigger push than the one that set them off in the first place.

In 2008, researchers led by Timothy Lenton, now at the University of Exeter, catalogued the climate’s main “tipping elements”. As well as the Greenland ice sheet, the Antarctic ice sheet is also prone to unstoppable collapse – as is the Amazon rainforest, which could die back and be replaced with grasslands.

A particularly important tipping element is the vast ocean current known as the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), which carries warm equatorial water north to the Arctic, and cool Arctic water south to the equator. The AMOC has collapsed in the past and many scientists fear it is close to collapsing again – an event that was depicted (in ridiculously exaggerated and accelerated form) in the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. If the AMOC collapses, it will transform weather patterns around the globe – leading to cooler climates in Europe, or at least less warming, and changing where and when monsoon rains fall in the tropics. For the UK, this could mean the end of most arable farming, according to a paper Lenton and others published in January.

Tumbling dominoes

In 2009, a second study took the idea further. What if the tipping elements are interconnected? That would mean that setting off one might set off another – or even unleash a cascade of dramatic changes, spreading around the globe and reshaping the world we live in.

For instance, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is releasing huge volumes of cold, fresh water into the north Atlantic. This weakens the AMOC – so it is distinctly possible that if Greenland passes its tipping point, the resulting melt will push the AMOC past its own threshold.

“It’s the same exact principles that we know happen at smaller scales,” says Katharine Suding of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has studied similar shifts in ecosystems. The key point is that processes exist that can amplify a small initial change. This can be true on the scale of a single meadow or the whole planet.

However, the tipping point cascade is very difficult to simulate. In many cases the feedbacks go both ways – and sometimes one tipping point can make it less likely that another will be triggered, not more. For example, the AMOC brings warm water from equator up into the north Atlantic, contributing to the melting of Greenland. So if the AMOC were to collapse, that northward flow of warm water would cease – and Greenland’s ice would be less likely to start collapsing. Depending whether Greenland or the AMOC hit its tipping point first, the resulting cascade would be very different.

What’s more, dozens of such linkages are now known, and some of them span huge distances. “Melting the ice sheet on one pole raises sea level,” says Lenton, and the rise is greatest at the opposite pole. “Say you’re melting Greenland and you raise the sea level under the ice shelves of Antarctica,” he says. That would send ever more warm water lapping around Antarctica. “You’re going to weaken those ice shelves.”

“Even if the distance is quite far, a larger domino might still be able to cause the next one to tip over,” says Winkelmann.

In 2018, Juan Rocha of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden and his colleagues mapped out all the known links between tipping points. However, Rocha says the strengths of the interconnections are still largely unknown. This, combined with the sheer number of them, and the interactions between the climate and the biosphere, means predicting the Earth’s overall response to our greenhouse gas emissions is very tricky.

Into the hothouse

The most worrying possibility is that setting off one tipping point could unleash several of the others, pushing Earth’s climate into a new state that it has not experienced for millions of years.

Since before humans existed, Earth has had an “icehouse” climate, meaning there is permanent ice at both poles. But millions of years ago, the climate was in a “hothouse” state: there was no permanent polar ice, and the planet was many degrees warmer.

If it has happened before, could it happen again? In 2018, researchers including Lenton and Winkelmann explored the question in a much-discussed study. “The Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions – Hothouse Earth,” they wrote. The danger threshold might be only decades away at current rates of warming.

Lenton says the jury is still out on whether this global threshold exists, let alone how close it is, but that it is not something that should be dismissed out of hand.

“For me, the strongest evidence base at the moment is for the idea that we could be committing to a ‘wethouse’, rather than a hothouse,” says Lenton. “We could see a cascade of ice sheet collapses.” This would lead to “a world that has no substantive ice in the northern hemisphere and a lot less over Antarctica, and the sea level is 10 to 20 metres higher”. Such a rise would be enough to swamp many coastal megacities, unless they were protected. The destruction of both the polar ice sheets would be mediated by the weakening or collapse of the AMOC, which would also weaken the Indian monsoon and disrupt the west African one.

Winkelmann’s team studied a similar scenario in a study published online in April, which has not yet been peer-reviewed. They simulated the interactions between the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets, the AMOC, the Amazon rainforest and another major weather system called the El Niño southern oscillation. They found that the two ice sheets were the most likely to trigger cascades, and the AMOC then transmitted their effects around the globe.

What to do?

Everyone who studies tipping point cascades agrees on two key points. The first is that it is crucial not to become disheartened by the magnitude of the risks; it is still possible to avoid knocking over the dominoes. Second, we should not wait for precise knowledge of exactly where the tipping points lie – which has proved difficult to determine, and might not come until it’s too late.

Rocha compares it to smoking. “Smoking causes cancer,” he says, “but it’s very difficult for a doctor to nail down how many cigarettes you need to smoke to get cancer.” Some people are more susceptible than others, based on a range of factors from genetics to the level of air pollution where they live. But this does not mean it is a good idea to play chicken with your lungs by continuing to smoke. “Don’t smoke long-term, because you might be committing to something you don’t want to,” says Rocha. The same logic applies to the climate dominoes. “If it happens, it’s going to be really costly and hard to recover, therefore we should not disturb those thresholds.”

“I think a precautionary principle probably is the best step forward for us, especially when we’re dealing with a system that we know has a lot of feedbacks and interconnections,” agrees Suding.

“These are huge risks we’re playing with, in their potential impacts,” says Lenton. “This is yet another compulsion to get ourselves weaned off fossil fuels as fast as possible and on to clean energy, and sort out some other sources of greenhouse gases like diets and land use,” says Lenton. He emphasises that the tipping points for the two great ice sheets may well lie between 1C and 2C of warming.

“We actually do need the Paris climate accord,” says Winkelmann. The 2016 agreement committed most countries to limit warming to 1.5 to 2C, although the US president, Donald Trump, has since chosen to pull the US out of it. Winkelmann argues that 1.5C is the right target, because it takes into account the existence of the tipping points and gives the best chance of avoiding them. “For some of these tipping elements,” she says, “we’re already in that danger zone.”

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions is not a surprising or original solution. But it is our best chance to stop the warning signs flashing red.





September 21, 2020 Posted by | 2 WORLD, climate change | Leave a comment