Thursday, April 24, 2014

Scientists monitor huge iceberg that broke off from Antarctica

NBC News via Reuters: Scientists are monitoring an iceberg roughly six times the size of Manhattan -- one of the largest now in existence -- that broke off from an Antarctic glacier and is heading into the open ocean. NASA glaciologist Kelly Brunt said on Wednesday the iceberg covers about 255 square miles (660 square km) and is up to a third of a mile (500 meters) thick. Known as B31, the iceberg separated from Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier last November, Brunt added.

"It's one that's large enough that it warrants monitoring," Brunt said in a telephone interview, noting that U.S. government organizations including the National Ice Center keep an eye on dozens of icebergs at any given time.

The iceberg's present location is not in an area heavily navigated by ships. "There's not a lot of shipping traffic down there. We're not particularly concerned about shipping lanes. We know where all the big ones are," she said.

Scientists are especially interested in this iceberg not only because of its size but because it originated in an unexpected location, said Brunt. "It's like a large sheet cake floating through the Southern Ocean," she added.

The glacial crack that created the iceberg was first detected in 2011, according to Brunt, a scientist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Morgan State University in Maryland. Pine Island Glacier has been closely studied over the past two decades because it has been thinning and draining rapidly and may be an important contributor to sea level rise, scientists say.....

A November 2013 NASA image of the Pine Island Glacier

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Researchers question published no-till soil organic carbon sequestration rates

A press release from the University of Illinois: For the past 20 years, researchers have published soil organic carbon sequestration rates.  Many of the research findings have suggested that soil organic carbon can be sequestered by simply switching from moldboard or conventional tillage systems to no-till systems. However, there is a growing body of research with evidence that no-till systems in corn and soybean rotations without cover crops, small grains, and forages may not be increasing soil organic carbon stocks at the published rates.

“Some studies have shown that both moldboard and no-till systems are actually losing soil organic carbon stocks over time,” said University of Illinois soil scientist Ken Olson who led the review.

The review was conducted by a team of senior researchers from universities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio who studied the published soil science and tillage literature related to soil organic carbon sequestration, storage, retention, and loss. After examining hundreds of original research and summary papers, 120 papers on all sides of the soil organic carbon sequestration, storage, retention, and loss issue were selected for review and analysis.

Olson explained that the difference between the no-till and moldboard plots at the end of a long-term study is only a measure of net soil organic carbon storage difference between treatments and does not support soil organic carbon sequestration claims. No-till systems on sloping and eroding sites retain more soil organic carbon in the surface from 0 to 15 centimeters when compared to moldboard as a result of less disturbance and less soil erosion and transport of soil organic carbon-rich sediment off the plots....

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Food shortages could be most critical world issue by mid-century

Terra Daily via SPX: The world is less than 40 years away from a food shortage that will have serious implications for people and governments, according to a top scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"For the first time in human history, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy," said Dr. Fred Davies, senior science advisor for the agency's bureau of food security. "Food issues could become as politically destabilizing by 2050 as energy issues are today."

Davies, who also is a Texas A and M AgriLife Regents Professor of Horticultural Sciences, addressed the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington, D.C. on the "monumental challenge of feeding the world." He said the world population will increase 30 percent to 9 billion people by mid-century. That would call for a 70 percent increase in food to meet demand.

"But resource limitations will constrain global food systems," Davies added. "The increases currently projected for crop production from biotechnology, genetics, agronomics and horticulture will not be sufficient to meet food demand." Davies said the ability to discover ways to keep pace with food demand have been curtailed by cutbacks in spending on research.

"The U.S. agricultural productivity has averaged less than 1.2 percent per year between 1990 and 2007," he said. "More efficient technologies and crops will need to be developed -- and equally important, better ways for applying these technologies locally for farmers -- to address this challenge." Davies said when new technologies are developed, they often do not reach the small-scale farmer worldwide.

"A greater emphasis is needed in high-value horticultural crops," he said. "Those create jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities and enable more profitable, intense farming." Horticultural crops, Davies noted, are 50 percent of the farm-gate value of all crops produced in the U.S....

Photo by fir0002 |, Wikimedia Commons, under the GFDL v1.2 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Future heat waves pose risk for population of greater London

A press release from the University of Oxford: A study led by Oxford University has modelled the effects of future heat waves on people living in Greater London in 2050 and concludes that the risk of heat-related deaths could be significantly reduced if buildings were adapted properly for climate change.

The model, which takes into account future changes to urban land use and man-made heat emissions, estimates an additional 800 heat-related deaths per year by 2050. Researchers used projections on likely increases in temperatures carried out by the Met Office and Newcastle University, coupled with data on demographic changes from the Office of National Statistics, to calculate the likely health risks of future heat waves for the population of Greater London.

The research, published online by the journal Climatic Change, says that policy makers need to fo
cus on how to adapt buildings and cities for future climate change. It highlights London as particularly vulnerable, owing to the so-called ‘urban heat island’ effect, which sees cities become hotter than the surrounding areas due to high concentrations of people, buildings and activities.

The Oxford study calculates that if the likely temperature increase was lessened by 1-2°C through better ventilation, shading or other means of keeping buildings cooler, the number of heat-related deaths could be cut by between 32-69%. The study also suggests that current climate scenarios tend to underestimate the effects and risks of heat waves in urban areas because they don’t account for the additional effect of the urban heat island.

It is widely known that summer heat waves lead to rises in the number of deaths and hospital admissions from thermal exhaustion, and projections suggest that heat waves are likely to become more regular and intense in the future. During the 2003 heat wave, London experienced a rise in the number of deaths of between 650 and 1,000. Hospital admissions from other heat-related conditions such as heat exhaustion and respiratory disorders also rose....

A rooftop view of London, circa 1865

Study casts doubt on climate benefit of biofuels from corn residue

A press release from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Using corn crop residue to make ethanol and other biofuels reduces soil carbon and can generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The findings by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln team of researchers cast doubt on whether corn residue can be used to meet federal mandates to ramp up ethanol production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Corn stover – the stalks, leaves and cobs in cornfields after harvest – has been considered a ready resource for cellulosic ethanol production. The U.S. Department of Energy has provided more than $1 billion in federal funds to support research to develop cellulosic biofuels, including ethanol made from corn stover. While the cellulosic biofuel production process has yet to be extensively commercialized, several private companies are developing specialized biorefineries capable of converting tough corn fibers into fuel.

The researchers, led by assistant professor Adam Liska, used a supercomputer model at UNL’s Holland Computing Center to estimate the effect of residue removal on 128 million acres across 12 Corn Belt states. The team found that removing crop residue from cornfields generates an additional 50 to 70 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule of biofuel energy
produced. Total annual production emissions, averaged over five years, would equal about 100 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule – which is 7 percent greater than gasoline emissions and 62 grams above the 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

Importantly, they found the rate of carbon emissions is constant whether a small amount of stover is removed or nearly all of it is stripped, the study found. “If less residue is removed, there is less decrease in soil carbon, but it results in a smaller biofuel energy yield,” Liska said.

To mitigate increased carbon dioxide emissions and reduced soil carbon, the study suggests planting cover crops to fix more carbon in the soil. Cellulosic ethanol producers also could turn to alternative feedstocks, such as perennial grasses or wood residue, or export electricity from biofuel production facilities to offset emissions from coal-fueled power plants. Another possible alternative is to develop more fuel-efficient automobiles and significantly reduce the nation’s demand for fuel, as required by the 2012 CAFE standards....

Corn stover in Calumet County, Wisconsin, shot by Royalbroil, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

West Africa's ebola outbreak prompts changes in Ivory Coast cuisine

Adama Bakayoko in Yahoo News via AFP: West Africa's first outbreak of Ebola fever is bad news for gourmets in Ivory Coast, but brings respite from the hunter to species sought out for tasty meat but feared to carry the disease. Late in March, Health Minister Raymonde Goudou Coffie called for her compatriots to stop eating porcupines and agoutis, which look like large river-rats, "until we can be sure there are no risks".

Bushmeat is known to be a vector of Ebola, the alarming haemorrhagic fever that has claimed at least 122 lives in Guinea, according to a UN World Health Organisation toll on April 17. Liberia, meanwhile, reports 13 deaths.

Hunters and restaurant owners in the central Ivorian town of Bouake are upset that clients have begun to steer clear of the strong taste of the agouti, a beast with a long snout and brown fur that can reach half a metre (1.6 feet) in length.

Last week, the minister's recommendation was still going unheeded or ignored by some traders and hunters in Bouake's main bushmeat market. One hunter openly carried a dead rodent. Emile, a customer in his 40s who seemed slightly tipsy, asked for "Ebola meat", meaning braised agouti. "Ebola can't survive alcohol or hot water," claimed the scarred Rigobeli, who had just eaten a large meal.

But such scenes are swiftly becoming a thing of the past. An official ban on bushmeat -- including antelopes, chimpanzees and porcupines as well as agoutis -- has been enforced and a week later, the Bouake market was empty....

I found an ew!-making picture of bushmeat, and I backed down. Just a stewpot, shot by Kriják Krisztina. The copyright holder of this file allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.  

Recycling industrial waste water

Space Daily via SPX: A research group composed of Dr. Martin Prechtl, Leo Heim and their colleagues at the University of Cologne's Department of Chemistry has discovered a new method of generating hydrogen using water and formaldehyde.

The generation of hydrogen from liquids is of particular interest when it comes to fuel cell technologies. The results of the project, entitled "Selective and mild hydrogen production using water and formaldehyde", have recently been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Among other applications, the new approach can be used to recycle industrial waste water contaminated by formaldehyde to break down the contaminants whilst simultaneously generating hydrogen.

With the aid of this method, it is possible to reclaim an important raw material from industrial waste water. Prechtl and his colleagues have also identified an air-stable and robust catalyst that can be employed with the technique. The researchers have already filed a corresponding patent application....

A water treatment plant at Bret Lake, Switzerland, shot by Rama, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license

New Egyptian satellite launched into orbit over Kazakhstan

Sara Aggour in the Daily News (Egypt): A new Egyptian telecommunication satellite is scheduled to launch on Wednesday from Kazakhstan at 8.20pm, Moscow time, by Russia’s Baikonur spaceport. This is the second Egyptian satellite to enter service.

Russian News Agency ITAR-TASS reported that the satellite is equipped with advanced technologies that are used to take “visible-range and infrared photographs”. The data collected by the satellite will be used in agriculture, ecological and geographical research. The Russian news agency quoted an anonymous source from the Russian space agency Roscosmos as saying that the satellite will separate from the rocket at 8.28pm, Moscow time.

Egyptian cabinet spokesman Hossam Al-Qaweish said that the new satellite will serve the industrial, agricultural, mineral, planning and environmental fields in Egypt, state-run news agency MENA reported. Qaweish added that the satellite will also help support development projects in the Arab region.

According to the Russian agency, the first Egyptian satellite was launched from the same Russian spaceport in 2007; however, “the contract was lost in 2011”, according to ITAR-TASS. The new agency added that Egyptian specialists stated at the time that the first satellite was an experimental project with a maximum life service of five years....

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Deforestation could intensify climate change in Congo Basin by half

A press release from KU Leuven (Belgium): Explosive population growth and inefficient agricultural practices are causing large-scale destruction of tropical rainforests in Central Africa. A team of KU Leuven researchers examined how these practices will affect longer-term temperatures in the region. Using a sophisticated computer model, they forecasted Congo Basin temperatures anno 2050.

Their findings: Central Africa of 2050 will be an average of 1.4 °C hotter than today as a result of global greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation will add an extra 0.7 °C to that figure. The results also show a strong spatial correlation between deforestation and global warming. In certain deforestation ‘hot spots’, increases caused by deforestation could rise to 1.25 °C, in addition to the war
ming caused by greenhouse gases. Such drastic temperature increases will drive off plant and animal species and may even threaten some with extinction, warn the researchers.

The researchers used an advanced computer model based on realistic projections of the speed and the spatial pattern of deforestation to forecast changes in the Congo Basin climate. The study also maps the region’s vegetation mix – which has largely replaced felled rainforest in much of the region – for the first time.

The deforestation-induced warming forecasted by the model can be attributed in large part to reduced evaporation, say the researchers. Once deforestation has occurred, the solar energy that rainforests would otherwise use to evaporate water accumulates near the Earth’s surface, causing the atmosphere to warm.

This reduced evaporation also threatens precipitation levels in the region, the study predicts. However, because of the complexities of air circulation and cloud formation, the link between the spatial pattern of change and the deforestation pattern is less pronounced.

The researchers used an average forecast of future emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to arrive at their calculations. Their deforestation scenario is far from extreme. “The results point to the need to address the causes of deforestation in the Congo Basin,” says Tom Akkermans of the Regional Climate Studies research group at KU Leuven, and lead author of the study. “Not only does deforestation in this region contribute to the global rise in temperature through CO2 emissions from wood burning, it also has a direct impact on the climate of Central Africa.”...

NASA image of the Congo rainforest and the Lualaba River

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Landslide gains speed, threatens Wyoming resort homes

Laura Zuckerman in Reuters: A slow-moving landslide threatening the affluent Wyoming community of Jackson is picking up speed, with safety concerns prompting authorities to halt efforts to stabilize the area, city officials said on Friday.

"The acceleration in the slide has been doubling since approximately April 1st, with significant movement in the last 24 hours," the town said on its website. But officials were not issuing any warnings or critical alerts, it added.

The landslide has displaced residents of several homes and two apartment buildings near the base of the East Gros Ventre Butte, which geologists said was slumping at a rate that this week increased to a foot a day from four inches.

"The fractured mass wants to slide down and gravity is pulling it down," said Peter Ward, a retired geologic hazards expert with the U.S. Geological Survey. "How it's going to fall apart nobody knows, but it's going to come apart," Ward said at a town meeting.

Evacuations from residences and several businesses below the crumbling hillside may continue for weeks as Jackson crews and utility companies work to prevent ruptures to gas and power lines and a city water main.

Water supply was halved pending repairs set for Tuesday, when water would be shut off to several Jackson residences and businesses until the repairs were completed, authorities said. Dozens of people who wanted to return home on Saturday to retrieve possessions were allowed to do so with escorts, Jackson officials said in a statement. Homeowners will also be allowed access to their homes on Sunday, officials said...

A public domain image of Jackson, Wyoming, by Mlewis2005

Japan culls 112,000 chickens after bird flu outbreak

Seed Daily via AFP: Japan has finished slaughtering 112,000 chickens after confirming its first bird flu infections for three years, with authorities stepping up efforts to swiftly contain the latest outbreak, officials said Tuesday.

Workers on Sunday started culling 56,000 chickens kept at a poultry farm in Kumamoto, southwestern Japan, where DNA tests confirmed the H5 strain of the virus after owners reported sudden deaths in the flock on Saturday, a Kumamoto prefectural government official said.

Another 56,000 birds were slaughtered at a separate farm run by the same owner after it was identified as a location of possible infections, the official said. "We finished the slaughtering operation late Monday and are now preventing the virus from spreading to other areas," the official said, adding that no further infections had been reported by Tuesday morning.

It was the first confirmed outbreak of bird flu in Japan in three years. Scientists say there have been no cases of the disease being contracted by people who have eaten poultry or eggs....

Saving Caribbean tourism from the sea

Desmond Brown in IPS:  Faced with the prospect of losing miles of beautiful white beaches – and the millions in tourist dollars that come with them – from erosion driven by climate change, Barbados is taking steps to protect its coastline as a matter of economic survival.

“We need to be able to preserve those beaches. We need to be able to preserve our coral reefs. We need to preserve the marine life of our country, which is part of what tourists come to the Caribbean for,” Ronald Sanders, a former regional diplomat, told IPS.

 “All of those things are now, even as we speak, being eroded, and sitting back and doing nothing about it is not in our interest,” he said. “If there is continuous erosion of the beaches, that is the very thing that you are selling worldwide. You are saying ‘we have great beaches, come and enjoy them and pay for the privilege’, but if you have no beaches, what are you selling?” Sanders added.

Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world, with an estimated 500 million people spending billions of dollars on tourism-related services annually. In addition, the industry employs more than 100 million people worldwide.

Tourism accounts for 15 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Barbados, with the beaches playing a significant role. Foreign Affairs Minister Maxine McLean stresses that Barbados has not been spared the effects of climate change. “There is no greater threat to the survival, viability and security of Barbados than the threat posed by climate change,” she said...

A late swim in Barbados, shot by Berit, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

New-concept flood insurance could help Bangladesh's poor

IRIN: A new insurance scheme in which pre-determined flood thresholds trigger speedy compensation offers hope for poor people in flood-prone Bangladesh, experts say. “Floods adversely impact the ability of the poor to earn a livelihood both by destroying assets and limiting opportunities for labour,” said Snehal Soneji, Oxfam International’s Bangladesh country director.

“This [insurance] product is index-based and operates at the meso-level, which means that payout is triggered on the basis of a certain threshold being reached resulting in immediate payout without the long process of surveying and then payout,” he explained, referring to traditional insurance schemes that rely on time-consuming damage assessment surveys to determine compensation.

According to a 2012 article in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, “index insurance indemnifies the insured based on the observed value of a specified `index’ or some other closely related variable… [and] the most widely used index in index insurance contract designs is rainfall.”

A 2013 scoping report by the Malaysia-based research organization World Fish and a consortium of environment and agricultural agencies argued: “With current and anticipated increases in magnitude of extreme weather events and a declining consistency in weather patterns…there has been a growing interest in weather index-based insurance schemes in Bangladesh.”

Norul Amin, economic and private sector coordinator at Oxfam-Bangladesh, told IRIN: “There is strong demand for financial disaster recovery mechanisms, not only among the poor communities, but also insurance sector, donor agencies, micro-finance institutes and government officials.”...

In 2007, an aerial view over southern Bangladesh reveals extensive flooding as a result of Cyclone Sidr. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Julius Hawkins (RELEASED)

Ebola outbreak death toll in West Africa rises to 135

Voice of America News: The World Health Organization says the death toll from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has risen to at least 135. In a Thursday statement the WHO says Guinea's health ministry had reported a total of 122 deaths, while 13 deaths had been reported by Liberian health officials.

The WHO says officials are investigating more than 200 suspected or confirmed cases of the virus in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Six suspected cases in Mali tested negative and no new suspected cases have been reported.

This is the first major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Authorities say it began in a forested southeastern region of Guinea in February.

The Ebola virus is spread by contact with bodily fluids. It causes symptoms that include vomiting, unstoppable bleeding and organ failure....

A CDC image of the Ebola virus

Friday, April 18, 2014

More, bigger wildfires burning western US, study shows

A press release from the American Geophysical Union: Wildfires across the western United States have been getting bigger and more frequent over the last 30 years – a trend that could continue as climate change causes temperatures to rise and drought to become more severe in the coming decades, according to new research.

The number of wildfires over 1,000 acres in size in the region stretching from Nebraska to California increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, according to a new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union.

The total area these fires burned increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year – an area the size of Las Vegas, according to the study. Individually, the largest wildfires grew at a rate of 350 acres a year, the new research says.

“We looked at the probability that increases of this magnitude could be random, and in each case it was less than one percent,” said Philip Dennison, an associate professor of geography at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and lead author of the paper.

The study’s authors used satellite data to measure areas burned by large fires since 1984, and then looked at climate variables, like seasonal temperature and rainfall, during the same time. The researchers found that most areas that saw increases in fire activity also experienced increases in drought severity during the same time period. They also saw an increase in both fire activity and drought over a range of different ecosystems across the region.

“Twenty eight years is a pretty short period of record, and yet we are seeing statistically significant trends in different wildfire variables—it is striking,” said Max Moritz, a co-author of the study and a fire specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Cooperative Extension.

These trends suggest that large-scale climate changes, rather than local factors, could be driving increases in fire activity, the scientists report. The study stops short of linking the rise in number and size of fires directly to human-caused climate change. However, it says the observed changes in fire activity are in line with long-term, global fire patterns that climate models have projected will occur as temperatures increase and droughts become more severe in the coming decades due to global warming....

The 2009 Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, above La Cañada Flintridge in Los Angeles County, California. Shot by mbtrama, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

One fifth of China's farmland polluted

Jennifer Duggan in the Guardian (UK): A fifth of China's farmland is polluted, according to an offical report based on the results of an extensive survey. Soil pollution has long been a concern in China due to the country's rapid industrialisation and the report carried on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection confirms the extent of the problem. The report states that pollutants in more than 16% of Chinese soil exceeds national standards and that figure rises to 20% for arable land.

It describes the situation as "not optimistic" and said said that the quality of farmland is worrying while deserted industrial and mining land is seriously polluted. The main causes of soil pollution are industry and agriculture, according to the report. Cadmium, nickel and arsenic are the top three pollutants found.

The survey was carried out over seven years, ending in December 2013 and covered around 630 square kilometers of land across the country. According to state media, the survey took around 100,000 samples. Almost 70% of the samples were found to be "lightly polluted" with pollution levels twice the national standard. Around 7% were found to be "heavily polluted" with levels more than five times the national standard.

Most of the affected farmland lies along the eastern coast which is the most developed region and home to much of the country's heavy industry. Heavy metal pollution was particularly bad in the southwest of the country, the report found....

A farm in China, shot by Laika ac, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

India's worsening water crisis

Ram Mashru in the Diplomat: In northern India, groundwater supplies are being depleted faster than natural processes can replenish them. According to The World Bank, India is the largest user of ground water in the world, after China. If something is not done soon, an estimated 114 million Indians will soon face desperate domestic, agricultural and industrial shortages.

What is causing this? “Human activities”: primarily wasteful water use (mainly agricultural over-exploitation), a lack of sustainable water-management policies and insufficient public investment. These failings have each been exacerbated by rapid population growth, increasing population density and climate change.

South Asia is a desperately water-insecure region, and India’s shortages are part of a wider continental crisis. According to a recent report authored by UN climate scientists, coastal areas in Asia will be among the worst affected by climate change. Hundreds of millions of people across East, Southeast and South Asia, the report concluded, will be affected by flooding, droughts, famine, increases in the costs of food and energy, and rising sea levels.

Groundwater serves as a vital buffer against the volatility of monsoon rains, and India’s falling water table therefore threatens catastrophe. 60 percent of north India’s irrigated agriculture is dependent on ground water, as is 85 percent of the region’s drinking water. The World Bank predicts that India only has 20 years before its aquifers will reach “critical condition” – when demand for water will outstrip supply – an eventuality that will devastate the region’s food security, economic growth and livelihoods....

Detail of Chand Baori, a step well in Abhaneri, Rajasthan, India, shot by rajkumar1220, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Illegal logging widespread in Peru

Terra Daily via AFP: A 14-year-old policy to encourage sustainable logging in Peru's Amazonian forest has unwittingly led to large-scale plundering, a study said Thursday. In a paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers said illegal logging was a "plague" on the Amazon watershed -- a haven of biodiversity and precious hardwood species such as mahogany and cedar.

"Much of the timber coming out of the Peruvian Amazon is sourced outside of authorised concession areas," the researchers wrote. A team led by Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington trawled through data kept by agencies meant to enforce Peru's 2000 Forest and Wildlife Law.

The legislation empowers the government to award concessions for up to 40 years on public land between 4,000 and 50,000 hectares (10,000 and 125,000 acres). These contracts come hedged with conditions: loggers must submit a five-year harvesting strategy, including a highly detailed, year-by-year plan that identifies each individual tree to be cut, with Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.

Finer's team found that by September 2013, the authorities had scrutinised 388 of the 609 logging concessions. More than 68 percent of the 388 were found either to have committed "major violations", or were suspected of it....

Bamboo and ferns in in the Peruvian Amazon, shot by Tadd and Debbie Ottman, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Invasive species 'hitchhiking' on water sports kit

A press release from the University of Leeds: Foreign species that are devastating water ecosystems could be “hitchhiking” around Britain on canoeists’ and anglers’ kit, according to a new study. Invaders like the killer shrimp, zebra mussel and American signal crayfish have already caused extensive environmental damage and millions of pounds of economic costs.

The new research, led by the University of Leeds and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), found that the cleaning habits of anglers and canoeists could be a key part of the problem. The study, based on a survey of more than 1,500 water sports enthusiasts across the UK, found that 64% of anglers and 79% of canoeists used their equipment in more than one waterway in a fortnight.

A significant proportion of those people (12% of anglers and 50% of canoeists) said they did not clean or dry their kit before moving to the new waters. Dr Alison Dunn, Reader in Evolutionary Ecology in the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences, who led the Leeds group, said:  “This is really alarming because some of the most dangerous invasive species can easily survive in damp equipment.

...Co-author Dr Paul Stebbing of Cefas said: “The killer shrimp is not the only invader capable of ’hitchhiking’ into new ecosystems on water sports equipment. The signal crayfish, which has been laying waste to native white-clawed crayfish populations, persists between three and seven days. Some invasive viruses and diseases can survive well over a month.”

...The “Check, Clean, Dry” campaign asks water sports participants to:

  • Check all gear and clothing for live organisms, particularly in areas that are hard to inspect. 
  • Clean and wash all clothing, footwear and equipment properly. 
  • Dry all equipment thoroughly as many species can live for many days in moist conditions....
Angling near Kesh, shot by Kenneth Allen, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Groundbreaking nationwide study finds that people of color live in neighborhoods with more air pollution than whites

A press release from the University of Minnesota: A first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that on average nationally, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) outdoor air pollution compared to white people.

Nitrogen dioxide comes from sources like vehicle exhaust and power plants. Breathing NO2 is linked to asthma symptoms and heart disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has listed it as one of the seven key air pollutants it monitors. The researchers studied NO2 levels in urban areas across the country and compared specific areas within the cities based on populations defined in the U.S. Census as “nonwhite” or “white.”

The health impacts from the difference in levels between whites and nonwhites found in the study are substantial. For example, researchers estimate that if nonwhites breathed the lower NO2 levels experienced by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease alone among nonwhites each year.

The study entitled “National patterns in environmental injustice and inequality: Outdoor NO2 air pollution in the United States” was published in the April 15 issue of PLOS ONE, a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“We were quite shocked to find such a large disparity between whites and nonwhites related to air pollution,” said Julian Marshall, a civil engineering associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and co-author of the study. “Our study provides a great baseline to track over time on important issues of environmental injustice and inequality in our country.”...

An aerial view of Harlem and the Harlem River, New York City, shot by Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canadian economy will lose billions to climate change

Kim Nursall in the Toronto Star:   A new report on the financial implications of climate change notes that while natural catastrophes are estimated to cost Canadians $21-$43 billion per year by 2050, popular economic measures like GDP fail to capture the escalation, discouraging preventative investment.

The TD report follows a recent and alarming warning by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that governments are ill-prepared for a warming world. If action is not immediately taken, the UN report projected risks could become unmanageable.

Monday’s report detailed the Canadian perspective on increasingly frequent natural catastrophes — the average number per year has doubled over the past three decades — and how by 2020 they will sap an estimated $5 billion from the economy.

“The reality is that the frequency of weather events has increased,” said lead author and TD economist Craig Alexander. “Storms that used to occur every forty years are now occurring every six years. And because of the composition of Canadian economy and society, we’re ending up with more damaging events.”

Although increased frequency is one reason that natural disasters are leading to higher costs, Alexander explained that as Canada’s economy becomes more prosperous, and more and more people move to cities, there’s that much more to lose if a severe weather event strikes....

Riverfront Avenue in Calgary during the 2013 flooding, shot by Ryan L. C. Quan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Building better soybeans for a hot, dry, hungry world

NASA: A new study shows that soybean plants can be redesigned to increase crop yields while requiring less water and helping to offset greenhouse gas warming. The study is the first to demonstrate that a major food crop can be modified to meet multiple goals at the same time.

The study, led by Darren Drewry of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., used an advanced vegetation model and high-performance computer optimization techniques. It found that by redesigning soybean plants in various ways, it was possible to increase soybean productivity by seven percent without using more water. Soybean plants also could be redesigned either to use 13 percent less water or to reflect 34 percent more light back to space without a loss of crop yield. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation with support from JPL and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"My intuition would have told me that some of these goals are mutually exclusive -- that there is a fundamental tradeoff between increasing productivity and conserving water," said Drewry. "We are now able to say that there actually is a combination of traits that will make progress toward all of these goals simultaneously." The study by Drewry and coauthors Praveen Kumar and Stephen Long (both of the University of Illinois) was published April 4 in the journal Global Change Biology.

The research comes at a time when global food security is threatened by population growth and climate change. The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050 to meet the world's food needs. Today, yields of major crops are increasing slowly or not at all. Soybeans are the world's most important protein crop...

USDA photo of soybean seeds

Rising activist deaths are a symptom of our global environmental crisis

Oliver Courtney in the Guardian (UK): This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed what 99.9% of those who work on environmental issues already knew: we need to change something pretty drastic if we want to avoid a rise in temperature of less than 2C.

...That same message comes through strongly in the research by Global Witness that identifies a significant recent upturn in killings of the very people who are protecting the environment and land rights.

...Huge deals for land, forests and other natural resources continue to be done behind closed doors, without sufficiently considering the social or environmental costs or consulting those who live on the land. When they resist, local communities and indigenous people are branded "anti-development" and bulldozed out of the way, often with the help of the authorities who are meant to protect them.

Ironically, such communities typically practise a better and more sustainable approach to development. Those responsible for their persecution enjoy almost total impunity, while monitoring of threats to this particularly vulnerable group is almost non-existent.

We can trace this problem back to the same forces that lie behind climate change – soaring consumption in the rich world is driving us far beyond the planet's natural boundaries. Things like forests and land are finite, but we are liquidating them faster than ever, generally for the short-term gain of a few vested interests, and at massive cost to the rest of us....

A public domain image of environmental activists, by Lorédan

Coastal homeowners in the UK should prepare for the worst as climate change brings worse weather

The Western Daily Press (UK): The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has just reported on the future risks of climate change. Richard Bagwell looks at how the issue may affect coastal property owners Climate change modelling suggests we should expect more extreme weather events, including the devastating coastal flooding we have recently witnessed.

The Environment Agency states that more than 5.5 million, or one in six, properties are at risk of flooding across England and Wales. The latest UKCP09 climate change projections indicate rising sea levels, while increasingly severe and frequent rainstorms mean risk of floods will increase.

For coastal property of any description, flood defences will be increasingly important, as will plans for managed retreats that have been announced in some parts of the country. The legislative framework, including the Water Resources Act 1991, the Land Drainage Act 1991 and the Coastal Protection Act 1949, was updated by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and associated regulations.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 required the Environment Agency to "develop, maintain, apply and monitor a strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England".

This strategy document describes what needs to be done by all organisations involved in flood and coastal erosion risk management, including councils, internal drainage boards, coastal protection authorities, water and sewerage companies, highways authorities, and the Environment Agency...

Watching the coast in Lyme Regis, shot by Wissekerke, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Amazon rain forest's biggest enemies are fire and climate change

James Maynard in Tech Times: The Amazon rain forest is facing dangers from climate change and droughts, which are leading to frequent wildfires in the ecosystem.  Fires are normally rare in the rain forest, due to thick tree cover that keeps the ground cool and wet.

Deforestation and climate change are combining to create "tinderbox" conditions in many areas of the Amazon, according to researchers from Penn State University. The ecosystem may reach a "tipping point" where fires create enough damage to make recovery difficult, new research reveals.

"We documented one of the highest tree mortality rates witnessed in Amazon forests. Over the course of our experiment, 60 percent of the trees died with combined drought and repeated fire. Our results suggest that a perfect firestorm, caused by drought conditions and previous fire disturbance, crossed a threshold in forest resistance," Jennifer Balch, an assistant geography professor at Penn State who led the study, said.

Over eight years, researchers set fire to plots of the Amazon rain forest, each of which was nearly 125 acres in size. By studying deaths of the trees, investigators were able to study how drought affects both the intensity of fire and tree mortality. The southeast area of the Amazon, where the experiment was performed, is especially vulnerable to climate change, according to the study.

The period of time during which the research was conducted included 2007, during which there was a severe drought in southeastern regions of the Amazonian rain forest. That year, fires destroyed 10 times more forest than in an average year, according to Douglas Morton at NASA. That amounts to an area the size of a million soccer fields....

Fires along the Xingu River, viewed by NASA

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Long-term predictions for Miami sea level rise could be available relatively soon

A press release from the National Science Foundation: Miami could know as early as 2020 how high sea levels will rise into the next century, according to a team of researchers including Florida International University scientist Rene Price.

Price is also affiliated with the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 25 such NSF LTER sites in ecosystems from coral reefs to deserts, mountains to salt marshes around the world.

Scientists conclude that sea level rise is one of the most certain consequences of climate change. But the speed and long-term height of that rise are unknown. Some researchers believe that sea level rise is accelerating, some suggest the rate is holding steady, while others say it's decelerating.

With long-term data showing that global sea levels are steadily rising at 2.8 millimeters per year, and climate models indicating that the rate could accelerate over time, Price posed a question to colleagues: How soon will Miami residents know what sea levels will be in the year 2100?

"In Miami, we're at the forefront of sea level rise," Price says. "With the uncertainty in what we currently know, I was looking for information that could help us plan better for the long-term."

Price and a team of international researchers set out to answer the question. They analyzed data from 10 sea level monitoring stations throughout the world. They looked into the future by analyzing the past....

A FEMA image of a 2000 flood in Miami

Making dams safer for fish around the world

Tom Rickey at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: Think of the pressure change you feel when an elevator zips you up multiple floors in a tall building. Imagine how you'd feel if that elevator carried you all the way up to the top of Mt. Everest — in the blink of an eye. That's similar to what many fish experience when they travel through the turbulent waters near a dam. For some, the change in pressure is simply too big, too fast, and they die or are seriously injured.

In an article in the March issue of the journal Fisheries, ecologists from the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and colleagues from around the world explore ways to protect fish from the phenomenon, known as barotrauma.

Among the findings: Modifying turbines to minimize dramatic shifts in pressure offers an important way to keep fish safe when passing through dams. The research is part of a promising body of work that aims to reduce such injuries by improving turbine designs in dams around the world.

PNNL researchers are working with officials and scientists from Laos, Brazil, and Australia — areas where hydropower is booming — to apply lessons learned from experience in the Pacific Northwest, where salmon is king and water provides about two-thirds of the region's power. There, billions of dollars have been spent since 1950 to save salmon endangered largely by the environmental impact of hydropower.

"Hydropower is a tremendous resource, often available in areas far from other sources of power, and critical to the future of many people around the globe," said Richard Brown, a senior research scientist at PNNL and the lead author of the Fisheries paper. "We want to help minimize the risk to fish while making it possible to bring power to schools, hospitals, and areas that desperately need it," added Brown....

A sluice at Brazil's Itaipu Dam, shot by Herr stahlhoefer, public domain

Chronic malnutrition harms Côte d’Ivoire’s north

IRIN: Forty percent of Ivoirian children in the northern region are chronically malnourished, the country’s highest rate, which has not fallen for the past six years. The effects of a drawn-out conflict, desertion by aid groups and inadequate medical staff have contributed to the situation. Food scarcity here is often due to harsh weather and high food costs.

The average rate of chronic malnutrition nationally is not much lower though, at 30 percent. Côte d’Ivoire’s northern region is mostly arid and on the fringes of the Sahel. Malnutrition levels here compare to Niger’s 40 percent and are slightly higher than Burkina Faso’s 34 percent.

The 2002-2009 political turmoil that split Côte d’Ivoire into rebel-held north and government-controlled south devastated public services in the in the north. Under rebel rule, private firms also fled, while the economy tumbled and insecurity rose. The region was, however, spared much of the violence sparked by the 2010 election dispute.

“The crisis significantly weakened the already precarious food security levels in this part of the country. Population displacements disrupted agricultural activities from 2002 to 2005,” said Bernard Kouamé, a nutrition expert based in the commercial capital Abidjan.

“Health infrastructure was degraded. The absence of health personnel for months on end and the fracturing of the health system greatly affected access to health services. The country has not totally recovered from these problems,” he said....

Deforestation of Central America rises as Mexico's war on drugs moves south

Frederic Saliba in the Guardian (UK): According to Kendra McSweeney: "Drug trafficking is causing an ecological disaster in Central America." McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University, is the co-author of a recent report on the little-known phenomenon of "narco-deforestation" that is destroying huge tracts of rainforest that are already under threat from other quarters.

Viewed from the air, the tropical forests of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua are scarred with landing strips and roads built illegally by the narco-traffickers for transporting drugs to the US, the leading world market. "These protected ecological zones have become the hub for South American cocaine," according to McSweeney, who stresses that the annual deforestation rate in Honduras more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, a boom-period for drug trafficking. In 2011 alone, 183 sq km of forest was destroyed in the east of the country, including in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, an endangered Unesco world heritage site. This was in addition to the pre-existing problem of forest destruction due to illegal logging.

The wave of devastation has been moving south down the American continent, as drug crackdowns have taken force in Mexico. This is known as the efecto cucaracha, or cockroach effect, with reference to the survival instinct this creature has of seeking refuge next door as soon as it has been of chased out of one house. In the Laguna del Tigre national park in north-east Guatemala, deforestation has increased by between 5% and 10% in the past seven years. That coincides with the war against drug trafficking launched at the end of 2006 by the former Mexican president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), with backing from the US.

Take the powerful Sinaloa cartel. When it was headed by Joaquin Guzmán, alias El Chapo, before his arrest on 22 February, the Mexican mafia extended its influence in Central America via local gangs. For McSweeney: "Narco-deforestation enables cartels to occupy territory to the detriment of their competitors. If that continues, the entire Mesoamerican [Central American] biological corridor, which stretches from Panama to Mexico, will be affected by tree felling."...

Burned jungle in Mexico, shot by Jami Dwyer, public domain

Ho Chi Minh Declaration dodges Mekong dams dispute: rivers group

Medilyn Manibo in Eco-Business: Non-profit group International Rivers expressed disappointment over the unresolved dispute concerning the proposed dams on the Mekong River at the second Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit held recently in Vietnam.

International Rivers, which works with an international network of organisa
tions that aim to protect rivers and local communities against unsustainable management, said that the actions and statements of government leaders in the region did not clearly denounce the current rush of dams being built along the mainstream portion of the lower Mekong river.

Ame Trandem, the environmental group’s Southeast Asia programme director, explained how the on-going construction of dams pursued by the Lao government poses a threat to local communities and their livelihood.

Government leaders from Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand and Vietnam presented the Ho Chi Minh Declaration as the outcome of the summit, which concluded on April 5. The declaration set new priorities for the MRC, an intergovernmental body that facilitates regional cooperation agreements between the four member countries.

The actions proposed in this document include expediting the implementation of MRC’s basin-wide studies to reduce negative impacts of development projects in the river, including hydropower, as well as prioritising initiatives on battling the effects of natural disasters and the impact of climate change and rising sea level on the river basin...

Khon Phapheng Falls on the Mekong River in Laos, shot by Rup11, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Monday, April 14, 2014

New disaster risk reduction strategies needed rather than “rearranging deckchairs on Titanic”

Stella Dawson at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Countries must develop new strategies for preventing damage from natural disasters and invest in rapid-response systems so that they can bounce back quickly after catastrophe hits, development officials and policymakers said.

The number of natural disasters has doubled in the last 30 years, economic costs have quadrupled in size, and low-income countries and small islands are at risk of having their entire economy wiped if disaster hits, according to the World Bank.

Without a new strategy, the number of lives lost and the economic costs will escalate at an even faster rate, officials said.  For instance by 2050, 1.5 billion people will live in cities exposed to major storms and earthquakes, double the number today. “We must make this part of a comprehensive policy to be prepared for tougher weather and more natural disasters that are coming out of climate change in the years ahead,” Borge Brende, foreign affairs minister for Norway, during World Bank spring meetings, which wrapped here in Washington this weekend.

“We are doing too much rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic rather than dealing with what will be hitting us,” he said.

For every $100 spent today on official development aid, only 40 cents goes to disaster prevention and preparedness, a sum that is clearly inadequate given the increasing frequency of natural disasters, according to Rachel Kyte, special envoy for climate change at the World Bank.

The damage is getting worse. The World Bank says 2011 was the costliest year on record for disasters at $380 billion, and between 1980 and 2011 over 70 percent of disaster-related losses were weather related....

A feral goat grazing in the Valley of Rocks in the UK, shot by Mark Robinson, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Cyclone warning lifted on Australia's Barrier Reef coast

Terra Daily via AFP: Cyclone Ita rolled out into the Coral Sea on Monday leaving thousands of homes without power and floods down Australia's Barrier Reef coast, officials said, as danger warnings were lifted. Downgraded from a category four to a category one storm after making landfall late Friday, Ita swept off the coast with gales and torrential rain trailing in its wake.

Electricity was slowly being restored to some 16,000 homes that were cut off while floods closed local roads, emergency officials said. No deaths or major destruction were reported. The Bureau of Meteorology lifted the last cyclone warning south of Mackay and north of Rockhampton on Monday morning and Ita was expected to be further downgraded to a low pressure system during the day.

"Tropical Cyclone Ita is expected to maintain a southeast track as it moves offshore away from the Queensland coast," the latest bulletin said.

Further north in Cooktown, which bore the brunt of the storm, water was rationed to drinking and "minimal" sanitation only, with severe shortages due to storm damage.

Queensland premier Campbell Newman inspected the damage in Cooktown on Sunday, where four buildings were destroyed and another 50 were damaged by the storm. Banana plantations in the region were flattened....

On April 11, 2014, Ita was a Severe Tropical Storm. Via NASA

REDD+ and a green economy are inseparable – but concerns for equity remain

Angela Dewan in Landscapes: The world is transitioning to a green economy, but the many synergies between greater sustainability and the forest-focused REDD+ mechanism are underutilized, according to a recent United Nations report.

Countries with tropical forests have for years been preparing for a full-scale implementation of REDD+, and can offer a wealth of knowledge and lessons learned for the broad shift towards a green economy, according to the report.

“If designed well, REDD+ can thereby contribute to the key elements of a green economy: low-carbon development, social inclusiveness, increased human well-being and respect for natural capital,” says the report, “Building Natural Capital: How REDD+ Can Support a Green Economy” by the UN Environment Program’s International Resource Panel.

The relationship works in both ways — REDD+ is only likely to flourish in a world dedicated to greening the global economy, the report says, as many policies targeted at sustainability could be conducive to REDD+ implementation.

Jeff McNeely, chief author of the report, says that to avoid the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire projections of global warming and its effects on the economy, “the transition to sustainability must be accelerated, not postponed.  REDD+ is one indication of what can be done,” he says...

A small bridge in a tropical forest, shot by Steve Hillibrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service 

Climate change adaptation tool helps predict disease risk

The Poultry Site: A tool to calculate the risk of food and waterborne diseases under current or future climate change conditions has been established following a recent EU funded study. Free to use, the online tool can help guide climate change adaptation, such as improvements to water management, by estimating the likelihood of contracting four diseases under a range of environmental conditions.

It is known that climate affects health, for example, excess rainfall can cause sewage overflow, leading to outbreaks of waterborne disease, and higher temperatures can influence disease incidence by either encouraging or restricting pathogen reproduction, depending on the species.

Concerns have therefore been raised about the impacts of climate change on public health. In response to a World Health Organization call for new decision-support tools to assess climate change’s potential health impacts, the authors of this EU-funded study,A Decision Support Tool to Compare Waterborne and Foodborne Infection and/or Illness Risks Associated with Climate Change, J Schijven, M Bouwknegt, A M de Roda Husman et al developed a software package to assess the risk from climate change (CC-QMRA: Climate Change Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment).

This study was funded by the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an agency of the EU. It estimates the risk of infection by norovirus, Cryptosporidium, and Campylobacter and non-cholera Vibrio species, which can all cause gastroenteritis....

Feeding chickens in Hungary, shot by Civertan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license