Tuesday, 21 March 2017

No time to lose

Photo: Clive Simpson
POLITICAL hot air was a major feature across the world in 2016 as governments and electorates began to shift significantly on their axis of travel - now confirmation has come that it was also a year of record breaking global temperatures, exceptionally low sea ice and unabated sea level rise and ocean heat.

Issuing its annual statement on the State of the Global Climate ahead of World Meteorological Day today (21 March), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.

Its report, based on multiple international datasets maintained independently by global climate analysis centres and information submitted by dozens of WMO and research institutes, is regarded as an authoritative source of reference.

Because the social and economic impacts of climate change have become so important, WMO partnered with other United Nations organisations for the first time to include information on these impacts.

“This report confirms that the year 2016 was the warmest on record – a remarkable 1.1C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06C above the previous record set in 2015. This increase in global temperature is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas.

“Globally averaged sea surface temperatures were also the warmest on record, global sea levels continued to rise and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year,” he added..

“With levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident,” said Mr Taalas.

The increased power of computing tools and the availability of long term climate data have made it possible today, through attribution studies, to demonstrate clearly the existence of links between man-made climate change and many cases of high impact extreme events in particular heatwaves.

Each of the 16 years since 2001 has been at least 0.4C above the long-term average for the 1961-1990 base period, used by WMO as a reference for climate change monitoring. Global temperatures continue to be consistent with a warming trend of 0.1 C to 0.2C per decade, according to the WMO report.

The powerful 2015/2016 El Niño event boosted warming in 2016, on top of  long-term climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Temperatures in strong El Niño years, such as 1973, 1983 and 1998, are typically 0.1 C to 0.2C warmer than background levels, and 2016’s temperatures are consistent with that pattern.

Global sea levels rose very strongly during the El Niño event, with the early 2016 values reaching new record highs.  Global sea ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometres below average in November, an unprecedented anomaly for that month.

The very warm ocean temperatures contributed to significant coral bleaching and mortality was reported in many tropical waters, with important impacts on marine food chains, ecosystems and fisheries.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached the symbolic benchmark of 400 parts per millions in 2015 – the latest year for which WMO global figures are available – and will not fall below that level for many generations to come because of the long-lasting nature of CO2.

Among some of the most extreme events in 2016 were severe droughts that brought food insecurity to millions in southern and eastern Africa and Central America. Hurricane Matthew caused widespread suffering in Haiti as the first category four storm to make landfall since 1963, and inflicted significant economic losses in the United States of America, while heavy rains and floods affected eastern and southern Asia.

Newly released studies, which are not included in WMO’s report, indicate that ocean heat content may have increased even more than previously reported.  Provisional data also indicates that there has been no easing in the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system. We are now in truly uncharted territory,” said World Climate Research Programme director David Carlson.  

At least three times so far this winter, the Arctic has witnessed the Polar equivalent of a heatwave, with powerful Atlantic storms driving an influx of warm, moist air. This meant that at the height of the Arctic winter and the sea ice refreezing period, there were days which were actually close to melting point. Antarctic sea ice has also been at a record low, in contrast to the trend in recent years.

Scientific research indicates that changes in the Arctic and melting sea ice is leading to a shift in wider oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns. This is affecting weather in other parts of the world because of waves in the jet stream – the fast moving band of air which helps regulate temperatures. 

Thus, some areas, including Canada and much of the USA, were unusually balmy, whilst others, including parts of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, were unusually cold in early 2017.

In the USA alone, 11,743 warm temperature records were broken or tied in February, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prolonged and extreme heat in January and February  affected New South Wales, southern Queensland, South Australia and northern Victoria, and saw many new temperature records.

Andrew Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds, said: “The trend in extremes continues – as anyone shopping for salads and veg earlier this year will know. This new evidence comes just days after parliament discussed the independent report they commissioned on the implications of climate change for UK food security.

“Current government strategy emphasises the ability of markets to even out price fluctuations and ensure food supply. The independent report emphasises the need for more joined up thinking across governments and internationally.”

Prof Sir Robert Watson, Director of Strategic Development at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, said: “While the data show an ever increasing impact of human activities on the climate system, the Trump Administration and senior Republicans in Congress continue to bury their heads in the sand and state that climate change is a hoax and does not need to be addressed. We are now living in an evidence-free world, where facts are irrelevant.

“Our children and grandchildren will look back on the climate deniers and ask how they could have sacrificed the planet for the sake of cheap fossil fuel energy when the cost of inaction exceeds the cost of a transition to a low-carbon economy.

“How much more evidence does the world need to recognise the dangers confronting our society? The pledges of the Paris agreement are inadequate to limit human-induced climate change to 2C and need to be strengthened significantly – there is no time to lose.”

Friday, 3 March 2017

"Brexit - we have a problem!"

The British government announced this week the intriguing appointment of life-long and passionate youth hosteller Graham Tunnock to head up the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

Mr Tunnock, in stark contrast to his predecessor Dr David Parker, has apparently no previous space industry experience and is being drafted in from the relative obscurity of the ‘Better Regulation Executive’, a demure unit buried within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where he was Chief Executive.

His new post, which he takes up on 1 April 2017, will undoubtedly be higher profile as he guides UKSA through the turbulent and uncharted waters of Brexit and beyond.

On the face of it, Brexit should have no impact on the UK’s role and contributions to ESA as the agreement and working relationship is largely outside of the EU. At least that is the argument for now.

Perhaps a bigger long term issue in terms of Brexit fallout for UK space might be that of ‘mission creep’. As well as being outside the European Single Market, there is a suggestion that the UK could leave the Customs Union, the European Convention on Human Rights and Euratom (legally distinct from the EU but is governed by it).

Stormy waters may well lie ahead for any organisation linked to Europe and, given the many unknowns ahead, it is certainly not clear where this might end, especially if those on the political right for whom the word ‘Europe’ is an anathema get their way.

Graham Tunnock, new head of the UK Space Agency
Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that Theresa May’s government has chosen to appoint a relative ‘space neutral’ at this time, someone who might be more comfortable with regulations and procedures than the technical details of a space programme that succeeds through close European cooperation.

A brief delve onto the Internet delivers a relatively ‘lite’ online footprint for Mr Tunnock. Nothing on LinkedIn, for example, and in Google his name is immediately associated with the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) and not much else, unless he is connected to the family of Tunnock’s teacake* fame.

“Graham is a lifelong hosteller”, begins the entry about him on the YHA website. “He was quickly bitten by the bug on family holidays and soon started hostelling independently with his brother and friends in his teens, his passion for hostelling developing alongside another great enthusiasm of his life, cycling. He has continued to hostel in adult life and a personal highlight is the annual YHA weekend he organises for his cycling club.”

Quite a contrast to the previous long-term and passionate space proponent Dr David Parker who brought with him a wealth of relevant space experience and contacts when he took up the post in 2013. Dr Parker is now Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration with ESA.

On leaving he was able to cite many recent advances in UK space policy, including the 25% increase in UK funding of ESA made at its Council of Ministers in 2012 as probably having the biggest impact.

One of his proudest moments was in July 2015 when ESA moved into the European Centre for Satellite Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT), a superb new facility at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

“This was a project that I lived with since 2008 and it was an emotional moment to see the flags of all the ESA member states raised in honour on UK soil for the first time. For me, it symbolised the UK anchored in ESA, and ESA anchored in the UK,” he said.

Announcing his successor’s permanent appointment on 1 March, a UKSA statement said Mr Tunnock had “extensive experience across Whitehall and at a European level, having also worked in the European Commission and held several other posts in the UK Civil Service”.

It went on: “He will be responsible for realising the agency’s aims of increasing the size of the UK space industry, using space to understand planet Earth and the universe, supporting British businesses to deliver practical help to developing countries and overseeing the Agency’s plans to establish commercial spaceflight in the UK.”

Whilst management of UK space interests related to manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft and satellites, their systems and subsystems ought not to be affected by Brexit, in reality the British space industry is strongly tied to pan-European consortia. Tunnock’s experience in handling ‘regulation’ might just come in handy.

Still, given the many unknowns still to be unravelled, it is highly likely that a future roadmap of UK participation in European space will be influenced by the shape of post-Brexit UK and its relations, good or bad, with the rest of Europe.

The present situation will evolve in some way simply because the economic profile of the UK will be different - though the magnitude of change is likely to be contingent on the terms of the negotiated settlement and the new political climate. In turn, this may well influence decisions taken in Europe about the amount of work shared out to consortia facilities in respective ESA member states.

There is also a question mark over the increasing interests of the EU itself in space programmes and policy. For example, full involvement in Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation programme, an EU-led space project, might be at risk following Brexit unless a specific agreement is reached.

European Galileo satellites.
Basic services from the Galileo satellites are available to all but use of the encrypted, robust Public Regulated Service (PRS) designed for government-authorised users - such as fire brigades and the police - may be restricted to those outside of the EU.

Whatever the post-Brexit shape of the UK, the necessary readjustment of the domestic economy along with newly placed priorities at government level may eventually change the level of support - and thus the amount of money available - for national and international projects and programmes, including those of ESA.

So far, the government has indicated it is fully committed to supporting the country’s robust and expanding aerospace sector, one of the strongest growing sectors in UK investment and revenue.

Although British civil servants traditionally remain neutral of government policy, it has already been suggested that some new appointees across government departments are being selected partly on the grounds that their personal views are more sympathetic to the political aims of Brexit.

Only time will tell whether there was any such motive behind the appointment of Graham Tunnock as chief executive of UKSA and, if so, the effects this might ultimately have on the British space industry.

Despite assurances to the contrary, a post-Brexit Britain may not sit so comfortably with Europe’s space ambitions, particularly if the EU becomes more involved. One way or another our hugely successful space industry looks set to have a fight on its hands.

*Tunnock’s teacakes are a traditional English biscuit (soft marshmallow on a biscuit base coated in milk chocolate) developed by family bakers who first started trading in the 1890s.