In Silt, Bangladesh Sees Potential Shield Against Climate Shift
BYLINE: By SOMINI SENGUPTA
SECTION: Section A; Column 0; Foreign Desk; Pg. 6
LENGTH: 953 words
DATELINE: BEEL BHAINA, Bangladesh
The rivers that course down from the Himalayas and into this crowded delta bring an annual tide of gift and curse. They flood low-lying paddies for several months, sometimes years, at a time. And they ferry mountains of silt and sand from far away upstream.
Most of that sediment washes out into the roiling Bay of Bengal. But an accidental discovery by desperate delta folk here may hold clues to how Bangladesh, one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, could harness some of that dark, rich Himalayan muck to protect itself against sea level rise.
Instead of allowing the silt to settle where it wants, Bangladesh has begun to channel it to where it is needed -- to fill in shallow soup bowls of land prone to flooding, or to create new land off its long, exposed coast.
The efforts have been limited to small experimental patches, not uniformly promising, and there is still ample concern that a swelling sea could one day soon swallow parts of Bangladesh. But the emerging evidence suggests that a nation that many see as indefensible to the ravages of human-induced climate change could literally raise itself up and save its people -- and do so cheaply and simply, using what the mountains and tides bring.
''You can do a lot with the silt that these rivers bring,'' said Bea M. ten Tusscher, the Dutch ambassador to Bangladesh. The Netherlands, itself accustomed to engineering its vulnerable low-lands, helps Bangladesh with water management projects. ''Those are like little diamonds,'' Ms. ten Tusscher said. ''You have to use it.''
Satellite images show that in the natural process of erosion and accretion -- in some places speeded up by a series of man-made dams and channels -- Bangladesh has actually gained land over the last 35 years.
Skeptics say it is folly to expect silt accretion to save the country. Accretion happens slowly, over centuries, they argue, while human-induced climate change is hurtling fast toward Bangladesh. The new land is too muddy and slushy for people to safely live on, and the force of the Himalayan rivers is so powerful that it can wash away newly gained land in one fluke season.
''If you have time to wait, it will happen,'' said Atiq Rahman of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies. His country, he added, does not have time to wait.
The silt-trapping experiment has yielded tentative but visible gains here in Beel Bhaina, a low-lying 600-acre soup bowl of land on the banks of the Hari River, a tributary of the Ganges, about 55 miles upstream from the Bay of Bengal. Even at this distance from the coast, it is among the country's most susceptible to sea rise. The river swells each day with the tides. Creeping salinity in the water table is a harbinger of future danger.
Here, misery made way for a discovery. A devastating flood 10 years ago left this soup bowl -- a ''beel'' in Bengali -- inundated with water that reached above Abdul Lateef's head. No paddy could grow, recalled Mr. Lateef, now 56. Houses went under. The river was so heavily silted it hardly moved. Many families were reduced to penury.
One night, desperate to drain the water, Mr. Lateef and his neighbors punched a hole through the mud embankment that encircled the soup bowl. They watched as the water rushed out. Then the high tide began to haul in sediment, and the soup bowl swiftly filled with silt.
When the chief engineer of the local water board, Sheikh Nurul Ala, came to measure it, he saw that in four years, Beel Bhaina had risen by as much as three feet or more near the river bank, and almost as much farther inland. Today, it is a quilt of green and gray square patches of paddy, cut by square ponds to cultivate fish and shrimp. The river flows more freely now. Mr. Lateef collects an annual harvest of rice, the local staple, and farms shrimp, the most lucrative cash crop, after the rains.
Mr. Ala is trying the experiment in other soup bowls upstream, with mixed results. At one site, the accretion was too limited; at another, it has been promising in patches, but uneven.
American scientists have recommended a somewhat similar silt diversion program: opening Mississippi River levees south of New Orleans to allow sediment-rich water to flow over the region's marshes, which have been starved of silt since levee-building began in the region hundreds of years ago.
Bangladesh is among the nations most susceptible to climate change. Already prone to cyclones, it could be hit by more frequent and intense tropical storms. Seawater is creeping into the agricultural land. Its long coast is exposed to the hungry sea.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a three-foot rise in sea levels could swallow nearly 20 percent of Bangladesh's territory. The peril is compounded by the fact that every inch of this densely populated country is settled, even those areas at the constant mercy of the water.
Taming the waters that spill into Bangladesh is no easy task. The rivers change course, banks shift, channels meander at will. They swell when the snows melt thousands of miles away and then again when the clouds burst, turning the green fields gray. They are also heavily engineered upstream: a dam built upstream in neighboring India can critically stanch the flow of freshwater down here, increasingly the chances of salinity and siltation.
The simple silt-trapping engineering here was not designed as an adaptation to sea rise, but Mr. Ala is convinced that it can outpace the projected three-foot rise in sea levels and at least offer some protection. ''Some benefit it will provide, I think, by raising the beels,'' he said. ''The problem will not be as severe for the land we can raise.''
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The New York Times March 20, 2009 Friday
Late Edition - Final
Nations Near Arctic Declare Polar Bears Threatened by Climate Change BYLINE: By ANDREW C. REVKIN; Walter Gibbs contributed reporting from Oslo.
SECTION: Section A; Column 0; Foreign Desk; Pg. 8
LENGTH: 746 words
Five countries that created a treaty nearly four decades ago to protect polar bears through limits on hunting issued a joint statement on Thursday identifying climate change as ''the most important long-term threat'' to the bears.
The statement came at the end of a three-day meeting in Tromso, Norway, of scientists and officials from the United States, Norway, Canada, Russia and Denmark, all with territory abutting the Arctic Ocean that serves as habitat for the bears. (Denmark was represented through Greenland, which is moving toward becoming an independent country.)
Bear experts at the meeting said the treaty parties were committed to collaborating on programs aimed at limiting direct threats to bear populations from increasing tourism, shipping and oil and gas drilling in the warming region.
But they said the countries bound by the 1973 bear agreement would be unable, without worldwide cooperation, to address the looming risk to the species: the prospect that global warmingfrom emissions of greenhouse gases would continue to erode the sheath of Arctic sea ice that the half-ton bears roam in pursuit of seals.
In a telephone interview from Tromso, Rosa Meehan, the division chief in Alaska for marine mammals management of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said that the agreement -- among countries with a range of environmental views -- signaled the strength of the science pointing to perils for the bears.
''Polar bears are facing a pretty rough road,'' Dr. Meehan said. ''The thing we need to do is look to the global community to seriously address and mitigate climate change.'' The Norwegian government posted background on the meeting on the Internet at polarbearmeeting.org.
The species has probably existed across the Arctic for several hundred thousand years, researchers say. The animals are resilient, eating walrus, grasses and even snow goose eggs when they cannot hunt their preferred prey, bearded and ringed seals.
The bears were greatly depleted by unregulated hunting across much of the Arctic until the Soviet Union clamped down in 1956 and other countries followed, with the 1973 treaty one result. The current population across the Arctic has been estimated at 22,000 to 50,000 bears.
But last year the United States Interior Department granted the bears threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, citing the threat from retreating summertime sea ice. Other countries have been ratcheting up protections, although about 700 bears a year are still shot in Canada, Alaska and Greenland, according to Norway's environment agency.
Not everyone from countries ringing the Arctic agrees that the bears need to be singled out for protection in the face of climate change. Fernando Ugarte, head of mammal and bird science at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, said the government was concerned that the rising pressure to protect bears, particularly in the face of global warming, might prompt other countries to press Greenland to clamp down on hunting.
''I am not sure there is a scientific reason to appoint polar bears as the main icon of climate change,'' he said by telephone in Nuuk, Greenland's capital. ''There's a long list of animals that will be affected. Why not the walrus, the narwhal, the ringed seal?'' Mr. Ugarte said that scientists disagreed over why people around Baffin Bay and elsewhere had reported an increase in polar bear sightings in recent years. One explanation may be that the local bear population is robust. Another -- more likely in Mr. Ugarte's opinion -- is that climate change is forcing the bears into new migration patterns.
The Tromso meeting was watched closely by environmental groups, which had warned that some countries might press to exclude strong language about global warming. The bears have been enduring icons in climate campaigns conducted by such groups, with at least three groups seeking contributions through ''adopt a polar bear'' programs.
But the animals have also become a focal point for some elected officials and scientists who reject the need for cuts in the heat-trapping greenhouse gases, despite broad scientific consensus linking the gases to warming since 1950. Their argument, pointing to studies by American government scientists and other groups, is that hunting restrictions have caused most of the populations of bears around the Arctic to grow in recent decades and that long-term forecasts of ice retreats are flawed.
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The New York Times March 17, 2009 Tuesday
Late Edition - Final
Stimulus Money Puts Clean Coal Projects on a Faster Track
BYLINE: By MATTHEW L. WALD
DATELINE: EDWARDSPORT, Ind.
Near the middle of a dusty construction site here stands a patch of land, about the size of two football fields, notable because it is empty.
Duke Energy has high hopes for this two-acre plot: If all goes right, and there is a happy convergence of technology, money and federal energy policy, the construction project could become the first environment-friendly coal-fired power plant in the nation.
The company is studying a method for capturing the carbon dioxide produced by using coal and storing the gas underground, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. Machines to separate carbon dioxide from other elements in the coal may someday stand on the empty land.
For years, scientists have been experimenting with ways to ''clean'' coal, a carbon-heavy fuel that countries around the world increasingly rely on. But the technology for carbon capture and storage has been tried only on a small scale. Governments have not required companies to do what Duke is proposing here, in part because costs were so uncertain.
The allocation of $3.4 billion in the federal stimulus bill for carbon capture and sequestration, as carbon storage is often called, however, has allowed Duke Energy and other companies to consider mounting full-scale projects.
The federal money is the latest sign of a growing interest worldwide in clean coal technologies, which backers believe could prove one of the most significant ways to tackle global warming. The projects are being watched closely by environmentalists, engineers and energy officials.
The Duke effort, said John Thompson, a coal expert at an environmental group, the Clean Air Task Force, ''may be the first commercial carbon sequestration site in the United States.''
If Duke is successful, the plant could be capturing about 18 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions within four or five years, and an additional 40 percent a few years after that. Carbon dioxide is the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming.
Duke already received some money under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to build a $2.35 billion coal-burning power plant, the largest new construction project in Indiana. The site here is already crawling with workmen and heavy machinery.
The new plant will differ from conventional coal plants in significant ways, cooking the coal into a fuel gas rather than burning it as a powder, and then thoroughly cleaning the gas and burning it in a jet engine, similar to that used to burn natural gas. Emissions of conventional pollutants, like sulfur, soot and smog-forming nitrogen, will be extremely low.
Two other such ''gasification'' plants already operate, in Florida and Indiana. Duke's first addition would be to use a machine to strip the carbon dioxide out of the fuel gas.
Duke is conducting a $17 million study of that idea, and has asked permission from its regulators to study a second step, to capture an additional 40 percent or so of the carbon dioxide produced at a later stage. The carbon would then be stored in a deep well on the site or sent by pipeline to an old oil field, where it would stimulate oil production. Part of the test is meant to demonstrate that carbon dioxide can safely stay put underground.
Other companies around the country also are exploring carbon capture and storage projects. According to a recent report by Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm, Illinois has passed legislation that could require its utilities to buy electricity from plants that sequester their carbon. And six other states are considering legislation to help pay for carbon capture or ease the way for carbon storage.
There are several competing technologies for approaching the problem -- more than the money in the stimulus bill can pay for. And experts say that before new methods can be commercialized, projects need three to five years of planning and construction, followed by eight to 10 years of actual pumping of carbon dioxide into the ground.
''We need to get off the dime with this and build some full scale projects to demonstrate this technology at scale,'' said Edward S. Rubin, a professor of environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, ''but the price tag per project is $800 million to $1 billion.''
The Edwardsport venture might prove a little cheaper. The first step, capturing the carbon dioxide created when coal is turned into a fuel gas, would add 5 percent to 15 percent to the initial $2.35 billion cost, according to W. Michael Womack, vice president of Duke Energy in charge of the project.
In the second stage, one of the components of the fuel gas, carbon monoxide, is mixed with water to make hydrogen, for fuel, and carbon dioxide, for sequestration. The cost of that is ''a little fuzzier,'' he said, and probably higher than the cost for the first step.
Until the beginning of last year, the Energy Department had backed a more ambitious effort, the FutureGen gasification plant in Mattoon, Ill., that would have sequestered 90 percent of its carbon dioxide, compared with a maximum of less than 60 percent at Edwardsport. Companies from the United States, Britain, China and Australia were to contribute.
But in January 2008, the Bush administration decided that the price for FutureGen had grown too high and withdrew financing, proposing instead to finance add-ons like the ones contemplated at Edwardsport. Last week, a report by the federal Government Accountability Office found that because of a math error, the Energy Department had greatly overestimated the cost increase for FutureGen.
At Peabody Energy, one of the FutureGen partners, Fred Palmer, a spokesman, said that the $1 billion in the stimulus bill that seems directed toward a project like FutureGen is not enough to finish that project, but that the partners could seek another appropriation in a couple of years.
An independent expert, Sarah Forbes, head of the carbon capture and storage project at the World Resources Institute, an environmental group, said that FutureGen had a tremendous strength, demonstrating the integration of capture and of storage at a large scale. But the project was so big, she said, that it could squeeze out others. ''Perhaps it's smarter to do four rather than one,'' she said.
Proponents of smaller projects hope that there is enough money left in the stimulus bill for them. For example, Babcock & Wilcox has a different approach for capturing carbon: remove all the nitrogen from the air going into the boiler, so the output is nearly pure carbon dioxide.
A project that captured 92 percent of its carbon dioxide would cost nearly $1 billion, and the company is hoping the government will pay half, said Donald C. Langley, vice president and chief technology officer of Babcock & Wilcox. The company will make an announcement soon about its deal with a Western utility to partner in the project.
Later this year, American Electric Power will begin capturing carbon dioxide from 2 percent of the smokestack gases from its mammoth Mountaineer plant, in New Haven, W.Va., by using ammonia, and injecting the gas into a $4.2 million well nearly two miles deep.
If the ammonia works well, and if the carbon dioxide flows underground as expected, the company will try using the method to treat about 20 percent of the plant's smoke and seeking government help to do it. The approach is important because it is intended for old plants.
Some environmentalists oppose carbon capture from coal under any circumstances. Greenpeace argues that the energy required to capture the carbon, pressurize it and pump it underground is too large and the risks of underground storage too high. The effort, thegroup says, would divert money from more promising alternatives. Others argue that making coal safe to burn would simply encourage damaging mining, like mountaintop removal.
But energy experts predict that countries around the world are certain to keep using coal, so someone had better find a safer way.
''With a big lump of money, the No. 1 priority is moving out with urgency,'' said Ernest J. Moniz, a professor at M.I.T. and a former under secretary of energy. ''If we want sequestration to have a serious market share in managing the climate problem by 2040, we have to start yesterday,'' he said.
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The New York Times March 15, 2009 Sunday
Late Edition - Final
Life With Mother
BYLINE: By M. JOHN HARRISON.
M. John Harrisonis the author of the novels ''The Course of the Heart'' and ''Light.''
280 pp. Razorbill/ Penguin Young Readers Group. $16.99. (Ages 12 and up)
Honor arrived only recently on Island 365. She came down with her parents, from the North. Barriers and warning signs mark the shoreline, where the ancient hotels emerge from the water. The ocean is frighteningly close to Honor's new home, but there are bars on the windows and everything is safe. Honor's parents are less safe. They wear the wrong kinds of colors. They don't seem to have tutored her well enough in the Corporate Creed. And, of course, naming her Honor wasn't the wisest choice, because the initial ''H'' in Honor isn't sounded. Other children might think her name begins with ''O.'' As a result there might be confusion. She might not fit in.
All the worst predictions of our time have come true. The ozone layer has vanished. Global warming has raised sea levels so suddenly that most of the world's population has been wiped out. In the aftermath, the corporation known as ''Earth Mother'' took charge with a plan to make the survivors safe forever. Everyone does as Earth Mother says now. They go where they're put. Everyone is afraid of a ''watery grave.'' But beneath that their real fear is of being swept away by change, and of that consequence of change, death. Earth Mother vigorously exploits these basic human anxieties to achieve a controlled, swaddling, formal society. In ''The Other Side of the Island'' the direct, clever and impatient Honor discovers the ways truth is hidden beneath the culture of safety.
Allegra Goodman develops her world with deft strokes, bringing together the linguistic traditions of the dystopian novel with those of classic post-disaster stories like Russell Hoban's ''Riddley Walker'' or Walter M. Miller Jr.'s ''Canticle for Leibowitz,'' in which language is used to demonstrate catastrophic change. For instance, the planet is in the process of being ''ceiled,'' that is, roofed over. The delight of this is that it has been ''sealed'' too: in her attempt to produce a safe environment, Earth Mother has closed off many kinds of behavior. The New Weather produced by her huge engineering project is as much ideological and emotional as it is climatic. Word games like this allow Goodman to deliver her background efficiently, but they also provide continual puzzles for the enjoyment of the reader. This is a world in which ''the Forecaster'' is the bogeyman. Weather forecasting is a forbidden concept because it implies unpredictability.
Like all dystopias, ''The Other Side of the Island'' is a story of rebellion. Honor, age 10, finds her parents' lack of conformity hard to bear. She can't understand their refusal to wear the right clothes or do the right thing at the right time. Goodman writes with such cleverness and sympathetic humor that, for a while at least, it's Honor who seems the mature one -- especially in her recognition that people want and need to fit into social structures. Of course, Honor soon finds out that if you don't fit into Earth Mother's structure you will be hurt, first emotionally and socially, by exclusion; then, if you are immune to that, for real: the punishment for not filling in forms is ''24 hours of Persuasive Reasoning and Positive Reinforcement,'' during which you might lose some teeth.
''The Other Side of the Island'' doesn't make enough, perhaps, of necessity. After all, our world, the world before Honor's, has destroyed itself totally. We cannot imagine -- and Goodman is no help here -- how ghastly things must have been at the time of the Flood, how impossible it must have seemed to build upon the ruins, how welcome the corporation must have seemed then. Goodman's rhetoric of freedom hides that behind the straw woman of Earth Mother. As a result, the plot, unfurling as a suite of dystopian revelations, ends less interestingly than it might have, in a kind of Hollywood shoot-out. The ideological argument -- safety or freedom? -- takes a back seat to heroics. In the attempt to pivot Honor from a puzzled and conflicted young person to a character with her own agency, Goodman produces a climax that appeals a little too obviously to the reader's narcissism, losing a quiet, wry humor somewhere along the way.