Cataclysmic warnings as Czech scientists add local factors to climate change

Photo: Jeroen Moes, CC BY-SA 2.0

In the debate about climate change, climate is often seen as the given – the main factor that is impacting nature and, of course, people. But, it’s a two way street with scientists increasingly aware of how local and regional changes are dramatically changing local environmental conditions and plants and animals as well. And that was the main theme as a host of Czech experts were brought together by the Czech Academy of Science in Prague this week.

Photo: Jeroen Moes,  CC BY-SA 2.0
Nature Protection at the Crossroads was the overall title of the debate staged this week at one of Prague headquarters of the Czech Republic’s foremost scientific institution, the Academy of Sciences. And, although not so good for radio, it is perhaps some of the images taken by heat cameras that convey the message that the scientists and experts were trying to get across.

Prague in summer – especially the central Prague one and two districts – clearly stand out along with much of the built up surroundings in such images as blobs of intense red with temperatures reaching 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. The Vltava river running through it is a cool blue at around 16 degrees and the rare forests on the outskirts around five 10 degrees or more cooler than the centre.

Zoom out, and the same picture holds true of much of rest of the country. Intensive cultivated farmland is a warm 30 degrees, but natural forests and wetlands are around half as hot in the midday sun. The basic message is that natural forests and wetlands can provide a powerful moderating effect on climate extremes. That’s a key argument with the world best attempts to curb climate change still expecting average temperatures to rise to below 2 degrees Celsius – a goal that many think is too optimistic.

And there was a stark warning for the Czech Republic at the conference from Jan Pokorný, the director of a company, ENKI, carrying out research on local ecosystems and their ability to conserve water. He also was on a board which helped shape a national strategy adopted their year aiming to better prevent drought and floods by working with nature rather than against it.

ʺIt must be changed otherwise we will follow the other historical civilisations that dried up."

Mr. Pokorný voiced a stark warning that Czech and other developed western civilisations could go the way of others which were destroyed because they got basic water and environmental management wrong. He stays staying on the same course is not an option.

ʺIt must be changed otherwise we will follow the other historical civilisations that dried up – which is Mesopotamia, which is Central Asia, which is North Africa and the Valley of the Indus. We drain the landscape in order to have comfort and we don’t consider that we need water for our climate."

And Pokorný warns that there is not that much time to play with given the need to reverse changes that have been going on already for decades:

"I think that 20 years is too long because I am 70 and I remember a landscape with small brooks and with wet meadows that you couldn’t walk across. The drying goes very fast. I would say we have to do something to retain water during the next years.ʺ

Photo: Klára Stejskalová
As another expert taking part, Jan Brom, of the South Bohemian University based in České Budějovice, pointed out the role of water meadows, often drained over the past decades to turn into agricultural land, has often been overlooked in the past for their contribution to nature preservation and curbing fluctuations in local temperature changes which can damage plants and insects in particular. This is because average temperatures were often looked at well above ground level – and not at the ground level where plants and insects are active – and because average temperature were studied.

Put a cultivated field and wet meadowland side by side and the average temperature of the wet meadowland will come out slightly higher, but that overlooks the fact that the water and vegetation helps moderate heat peaks during the day and the coldest conditions during the night.

Other images at the seminar showed the local cooling effect that is expected to take place over the next 30 years from the landscaping and recultivation of former open cast mining areas in north Bohemia. The images show a drastic reduction of local hotspots as the effects of re-forestation and the introduction of ponds and wet meadows starts to take effect.

ʺI am so afraid that our landscape is so drained and vegetation is so removed that even the islands that are conserved for some special species and so on are also endangered…ʺ

Pokorný, who has an international reputation and has taken part in work contributing to the Paris Climate Change Agreement and on the ground with water saving and landscape projects in East Africa, says his Czech homeland has gone a long way down the path of altering the local landscape conditions so that the earth is no longer able to soak up and slowly release water – vital in moves to prevent flood and curb the effects of droughts – and local vegetation, especially trees and natural vegetation no longer have a moderating effect:

ʺI am so afraid that our landscape is so drained and vegetation is so removed that even the islands that are conserved for some special species and so on are also endangered by the climate which is not just a CO2 or greenhouse gas problem. It is also the problem of the drainage of large areas for agriculture and towns which also then produce during sunshine a lot of heat – we call it sensible heat. It is air which is 40-45 degrees Celsius and takes water away from this landscape and these species. All the ecosystems that we consider as valuable, such as wetlands and so on, they are stressed. And forests are also stressed by the dry air."

Jan Pokorný,  photo: archive of Charles University
The strategy to deal with both floods and drought adopted by the government in the summer counts on tens of billions of crowns being used to curb the risks of both threats. While the strategy says water resources are sufficient at a national level, it warns that a fifth of the country is however at regular risk of drought. The risk was seen especially in the early summer this year where low snowfall and rain in Spring contributed to drought conditions in Moravia and Sothern Moravia in particular with springs and wells, often still the only source of clean water in some small villages and isolated dwellings, running dry.

Pokorný says the strategy is a good first step but more needs to be done:

ʺThe government considered the problem. There is a concept of drought, how to deal with drought and floods which was approved by the Czech government in August. I think it is a good concept, full of understanding. The main problem is subsidies and the main problem is incentives and how to stimulate agriculture, how to stimulate forests, and all landscape planners how retain to retain water and restore vegetation to where it’s possible."

Among the examples he gives is the well known national and EU incentives to bio fuels which are accused of causing more environmental damage than they are worth in terms of the fossil fuels they might be replacing in transport. And, the whole scope of long term EU agricultural subsidies – which over past decades have often encouraged the draining of wetlands and also boost intensive agriculture – also come under scrutiny here.

ʺOur cultivated landscape right now is just drained fields. roads, or just the edge of the forests. We need to restore our landscape."

And Pokorný argues that the whole question of nature preservation and protection needs to be widened from the often expressed Czech debate about how national parks should be run and whether another one or two should be added:

"I think that the expertise in the national parks is very high. But I think that we can do much more for nature outside the national parks and outside of protected landscape areas in the so called normal cultivated landscape. Our cultivated landscape right now is just drained fields. roads, or just the edge of the forests. We need to restore our landscape.ʺ