Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ancient Megadroughts

I have not come across the term "megadroughts" before but I like it.

The findings to not surprise me - small changes in the climate could be enough to set off a series of feedback effects that result in large changes in local climate and of course lead to "megadroughts".

Ancient Megadroughts Preview Warmer Climate: Study [PlanetArk]
Ancient megadroughts that lasted thousands of years in what is now the American Southwest could offer a preview of a climate changed by modern greenhouse gas emissions, researchers reported on Wednesday.

The scientists found these persistent dry periods were different from even the most severe decades-long modern droughts, including the 1930s "Dust Bowl." And they determined that these millennial droughts occurred at times when Earth's mean annual temperature was similar to or slightly higher than what it is now.

These findings tally with projections by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others, according to study author Peter Fawcett of the University of New Mexico. The results were published in the current edition of Nature.

"The IPCC model suggests that when you warm the climate, you'll see extended droughts in this part of the world and this is what the paleo record seems to be telling us," Fawcett said in a telephone interview. "When you've got past temperatures that were at or above today's conditions, conditions got drier."

The U.S. Southwest has seen steep population growth over the last century, with population increasing by 1,500 percent from 1900 to 1990, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The total U.S. population grew 225 percent over the same period.

The settlement of this area depended, as all human settlements do, on access to water. There would clearly be less water available in a megadrought.


Megadroughts in the past were caused by subtle changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, which were also responsible for periodic ice ages. If these orbital changes were the only influence on the planet's climate, Earth should be heading into a cool period, Fawcett said in a telephone interview.

However, recent temperature statistics indicate that is not the case. The decade that ended last year was the hottest since modern record-keeping began in 1880. The previous decade, 1991-2000, was next-warmest and 1981-1990 was third-warmest.

Emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide help trap heat near Earth's surface and could be influencing the natural orbital cycle that would dictate a cooling period.

To figure out just how long these megadroughts lasted, and what happened during them, scientists took samples from a dried lake bed in northern New Mexico called the Valles Caldera. They analyzed these sediments for biochemical signs of drought, ranging from which trees and shrubs grew and how much calcium was in the cracked mud in the dried lake bottom.

Looking at records going back more than a half-million years, they also developed a technique to determine temperature in the ancient past by looking at signs left by soil bacteria, Fawcett said.

The fats in the walls of these bacteria change their structure in response to temperature changes, he said, and act like a "tape recorder" for antique temperatures.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Smoke in the (Tariff) Water

Although more of a "globalisation" that "globalisation and the environment" blog post the question has to be asked - did these authors mean to title this paper after the well known British hard rock group Deep Purple's track that goes my the name "smoke on the water". The introduction to this song is prety much the first thing anyone every learns on the guitar.

If so, calling a recent World Economy paper "Smoke IN the water" represents a fundamental mistake.

However, they almost make up for it with a footnote that says "Nevertheless, the views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Deep Purple."

Other than that it reprents a good effort although still not close to a recent paper in the AER called "Panic on the Streets of London" by Steve Machin and co-authors named after the well known Smiths track of exactly the SAME name.

Smoke in the (Tariff) Water

Liliana Foletti1, Marco Fugazza2, Alessandro Nicita2
and Marcelo Olarreaga3


DURING the Great Depression, protectionism spread rapidly. By 1933,
world trade was only a third of what it was in 1929. Part of this slump had
to do with the decline in economic activity, but several studies estimate the contributionof protectionist forces somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent of the
total decline in world trade.1 The protectionist response started in the United
States with the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act passed in June 1930, which raised
tariffs by 23 per cent according to Irwin (1998). Many countries retaliated.
According to Madsen (2001), the world average effective tariff (the ratio of the
value of import duties and import value) increased from 9 per cent in 1929 to 20
per cent by 1933, with values as high as 30 per cent in Germany and the UK


Monday, February 21, 2011

Vampire spiders, the smell of human feet and blood as an aphrodisiac

The law of natural selection has resulted in some pretty impressive "specialisations". The spider that lives on the mosquitoes that feed on humans (after the insect has itself fed on humans) is a pretty impressive specialism.

For applied economists who are forever thinking about causation (and the direction of causation) this is a good one.

The spider is attracted to the smell of human feet because that is where the mosquito that feeds on human blood will be hanging out. The spider then eats the blood filled insect thus indirectly feeding on human blood but having to go through a middle man. This in turn makes them irresistible to the opposite sex.

If the spider could feed prior to the mosquito human feast it would be worth filling one's room with them but given its post feed there seems to be little benefit in such a policy given they are prone to jumping all over the place.

I wonder if I am alone in finding this kinda cool.

Why the Vampire Spider is Attracted to the Smell of Human Feet
Crouching on the ground, it sniffs the air looking for the scent of a human foot. Finally it is in luck, it gets a hint of what it is looking for and tracks it, ready to pounce on its prey. Wait though... the prey is not the foot but the mosquito that is feeding on it! Most jumping spiders find their prey with their incredible eyesight but this one uses its olfactory organs instead.

Especially drawn to malarial mosquitoes, Evarcha culicivora goes for our blood after the mosquito has filled its belly. In an experiment carried out by Fiona Cross and Robert Jackson of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, they discovered that the scent of human feet makes them stay longer.

They found that by blowing the scent of socks into test tubes that the spiders were in (and allowed to leave), the ones that had socks worn at least 12 hours by volunteers stayed an extra 10-30 minutes than the ones who were presented with the scent of unworn socks.

In a devilish way this spider is our friend as it goes after the dangerous and annoying mosquito; but they are both drawn to the smell of our blood. In fact for the jumping spider in this case, once they have fed on the blood they become irresistible to the opposite sex so it is an aphrodisiac as well! Well they do say it takes all kinds to make a world. It seems they have worked out that places with the smell of human feet are likely to be good places to find their prey, waiting until it has fed on us first before pursuing it. So, if you find yourself in Kenya and a spider is looking at you curiously don't run necessarily, just be glad that it is after the mosquitoes feeding off you.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Economic Journal - natural resources papers

A series of interesting papers related to the resource curse that came out in the current issue of the Economic Journal.

Is it true as many suspect, that the greater the oil reserves of a country the less democratic it it likely to be?


Harnessing Windfall Revenues: Optimal Policies for Resource-Rich Developing Economies (pages 1–30)
Frederick van der Ploeg and Anthony J. Venables

The Long Term Consequences of Resource-Based Specialisation (pages 31–57)
Guy Michaels

The Quality of Political Institutions and the Curse of Natural Resources (pages 58–88)
Antonio Cabrales and Esther Hauk

More Oil, Less Democracy: Evidence from Worldwide Crude Oil Discoveries (pages 89–115)
Kevin K. Tsui

Market Power in an Exhaustible Resource Market: The Case of Storable Pollution Permits (pages 116–144)
Matti Liski and Juan-Pablo Montero


Monday, February 14, 2011

The environmental excuse for not buying roses on Valentines day

It is always handy to have an environmental excuse tucked away as a get out clause.

Not buying red roses on Valentines day and making do with a small (recycled card) is just such an occassion.

Valentine's Day roses bought in UK could 'bleed Lake Naivasha dry' warns ecologist [University of Leicester)

Valentine's Day roses bought in UK could 'bleed Lake Naivasha dry' warns ecologist

Dr David Harper of the University of Leicester's Department of Biology. Credit: Robert Llewellyn Smith

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 10 February 2011
A renowned University of Leicester ecologist who has spent over 30 years researching wetland conservation at Lake Naivasha in Kenya has warned that the country is being “bled dry” by the UK’s demand for fresh flowers. He called on UK supermarkets to show more concern about the health of the natural environment that the flowers come from.

Dr David Harper, of the Department of Biology, University of Leicester, said UK supermarkets should do more than simply selling “Fair Trade” roses. They should look beyond the farm gate at the sustainability of the natural resource that feeds the flowers - Lake Naivasha.

He said: “A notable few of the farmers sending roses to Europe are showing concern and an eagerness to pioneer a sustainable way forward: the best flower farms have achieved Fair Trade status, which brings money back into the workforce for social welfare improvements. Two farms have even seconded senior managers to help Kenya's water management agency at Naivasha.”

He warned that increased UK supermarket promotions of flowers over Valentine’s Day, and subsequently on Mother’s Day, without showing concern about where or how environmentally sustainable roses can be grown, will just increase the export of water – the scarcest natural resource in Kenya.

“There are just a few good farms but many more that don’t care how much damage they do to the lake. Seventy percent of the roses sold in European supermarkets come from Kenya and the majority of those are from Naivasha, many thus coming without any ecological certification. This has to change for the future of the industry as well as the lake and the country,” said Dr Harper.

Switzerland is the only country in Europe that cares about selling environmentally sustainable Kenyan roses, says Dr Harper, because the Swiss Coop – its largest supermarket - recycles some of its profits to fund sustainability projects at the lake.

He said: “Over the past 20 years, Lake Naivasha has been seriously degraded by over-abstraction of water. The blame has invariably been put onto flower farmers, who use irrigation to grow the roses that adorn the vases in our homes - especially on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.

“The ecology of the lake has deteriorated due to lack of government enforcement of the laws that regulate water abstraction, prevent over-fishing or stop clearance of wetland vegetation”.


“The Kenyan Government, whom I have advised through the Prime Minister's Office, has launched "Imarisha Naivasha", a campaign to bring all parties together to change damaging behaviours and enforce laws. People who live and work around the lake are showing concern and eagerness to be taught a sustainable way forward. The few farms have led the way with innovations like hydroponics for growing flowers in minimal water and wetland systems for wastewater treatment.


Dr Harper called for UK supermarkets to accept more responsibility by promoting sustainable management policies that reach beyond the farms and help to conserve the ecosystem which will allow flowers (and profits) to flourish beside a healthy, restored lake. If the flowers they sell could show a ‘water ecological footprint’ customers might be able to choose more discerningly, as they presently are seeking to do with food miles.


Friday, February 04, 2011

Stop human air pollution (breaking wind) now - the Malawi experiment

A new policy in Malawi may have made breaking wind in public a criminal offense. I am all for it especially in lectures, classrooms and most importantly in staff meetings.

It is amusing (in a broad sense) that the BBC chose to picture someone holding their nose to illustrate this story.

Collecting evidence of such criminal behaviour must be a little tricky.

Malawi row over whether new law bans farting
Two of Malawi's most senior judicial officials are arguing over whether a new bill includes a provision that outlaws breaking wind in public.

Justice Minister George Chaponda says the new bill would criminalise flatulence to promote "public decency".

"Just go to the toilet when you feel like farting," he told local radio.

However, he was directly contradicted by Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga, who says the reference to "fouling the air" means pollution.

"How any reasonable or sensible person can construe the provision to criminalising farting in public is beyond me," he said, adding that the prohibition contained in the new law has been in place since 1929.

The Local Courts Bill, to be introduced next week reads: "Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanour."

Mr Chaponda, a trained lawyer, insists that this includes farting.

"Would you be happy to see people farting anyhow?" he asked on the popular "Straight Talk" programme on Malawi's Capital Radio.

He said that local chiefs would deal with any offenders.

When asked whether it could be enforced, he said it would be similar to laws banning urinating in public.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Per capita carbon

A fantastic graphic (HT: Env-econ) that clearly shows why the odds of finding a climate solution are so distant.

Simply look at the China circle on both pictures and there is your answer.

Click HERE for a large version.

Those naughtly Gibratarians.