Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Summit opens to save shrinking Niger River

Agence France-Presse: A summit of West African states met on Wednesday aiming to save the region's fast-shrinking Niger River from drying up by approving a 5.5 billion-euro plan. The leaders of Benin, Mali, Niger and Chad and representatives from five other neighbouring countries attended the eighth summit of the Niger Basin Authority (ABN), which started on Wednesday morning in Niger's capital Niamey.

In his opening speech, Niger's president Mamadou Tandja expressed his concern over the drastic fall of up to 55 percent in the river's flow over the past 20 years, mainly due to climate change and growing populations. He warned that "the challenges and stakes" of improving the Niger River basin were now more important than ever, for food security and water resources.

The summit aims to adopt a 20-year, 5.5-billion-euro (8.6-billion-dollar) plan to rescue Africa's third longest river, measuring 4,200 kilometres (2,600 miles), which suffers from silting, low rainfall and drifting vegetation. Tandja said the plan would be implemented in four five-year phases. In the first phase, the ABN would ask donors for 1.4 billion euros (2.18 billion dollars) at a meeting on June 23, he said….

The river Niger in Bamako (Mali), by Didier Coeurnelle in 2006, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

To save rivers, help farmers

Alternet, via Christian Science Monitor: Tian Jun remembers when she could still drink the water from the rivers. But that was long ago, before industrial and agricultural pollution turned the water a fetid brown. Now, she is working to turn things around. Ms. Tian is a Chinese environmentalist from Chengdu, the capital of western Sichuan Province. She lives in a small apartment in a city of 10 million people.

…. One sunny spring afternoon, Tian toured the family farm of Gao Shengdian, a longtime farmer who, together with his wife, grows wheat, rice, corn, and 10 kinds of vegetables. Like most farmers in China, Mr. Gao once used large quantities of chemical fertilizer. He purchased this fertilizer from the wheelbarrow of an unlicensed local vendor and he believes it was often impure, even toxic.

Now Gao points proudly to a series of tidy tomato plots. They are labeled with new signs that read, in neatly written Chinese characters, "Green vegetable farmland." He is converting these plots to organic farming, a three-year process. For Tian and other residents downstream, this means less agricultural pollution in their water supply.

This farm is one of a dozen now enrolled in a sustainable agriculture program that Tian helped launch three years ago. An environmental group that she heads splits the cost of equipment to produce "biofertilizer" from compost and manure on the farms, provides tips on what crops grow best, and connects farmers with nearby urban consumers who want organically grown produce.

…In the early 1990s, Tian began to lobby the city government to clean up the rivers. She helped convince local authorities that a cleaner environment would improve the city's image with foreign investors and tourists, and they hired her to establish a fledgling conservation office. In the next decade, she says the city spent about 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), on river cleanup.

Today many factories have moved outside Chengdu city limits. Local air and water quality have improved. The rivers are no longer brown. The United Nations Environment Program in 2000 recognized Chengdu at a conference on "Learning From Best Practices." The city has even built parkland and planted cherry trees along sections of the rivers…..

…Recently, Tian has turned her attention to another problem. Tests revealed that 60 percent of the remaining pollution in the rivers, which are still not fit for drinking or swimming, comes from the heavy usage of fertilizers and pesticides on farmland upstream.

…In a country where regulatory enforcement is weak, the crux of Tian's philosophy is finding common interests. She is starting small, but her philosophy is scalable….

Jingjiang River and Anshun Peaceful and Fluent Bridge in Chengdu, China. Taken by "BenBen," Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 License

Like preparing for war -- rice in the Philippines

The Inquirer (Philippines): Do we have enough rice? Probably not, considering the steady increase in rice prices over the past few weeks, the long queues for the government’s cheaper rice variety and its consequent rationing among consumers. Some have blamed the prohibitive costs of fertilizers and fuel for what has been described as a rice crisis. Others point to hoarders for supply shortfalls. The lack of irrigation systems has also been cited.

….Data from the Agriculture department confirms that although our rice production levels have generally kept pace with population growth and demand, we have not reached a point where we have an annual surplus to cover contingencies. Is it merely a production or management challenge? Or, do the roots of this problem run deeper?

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) estimates that it takes over 4,000 liters of water to produce one kilo of rice. No forests? No water. No water? No rice. Most of our freshwater comes from watersheds, which are found in forests.

A hundred years ago, we had close to 22 million hectares of old growth forest. A study by the Environmental Scientists for Social Change (ESSC) reveals that we have systematically cut this forest down and have not stopped its destruction along with its core biodiversity. At the start of the millennium, we had less than 600,000 hectares of old-growth forest left. This means that in one century, we cut down close to 97 percent of our original forest.

…Forests perform critical functions. They are watersheds. They also retain soil and manage erosion. Most importantly, they are storehouses of biodiversity that provide the natural mechanism for forests to restore themselves. The use of the FAO definition means that our capacity to restore forests, recharge aquifers, retain soil and manage erosion may actually be only 10 percent of what we think. Our water supply is at risk. We may not have that much water left.

Forests are also the base of an agricultural value chain that contributes to our national rice output. Unfortunately, all administrations since martial law have regarded forests as a source of timber and as potential mining sites. Although we have an estimated 240 watersheds throughout the archipelago, barely 10 percent of these watersheds have been properly mapped, much less properly managed….

Rice on a plate, by "Vadakkan," Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

Metering water with no moving parts, from a press release from Severn Trent Services: With over a million water meters installed worldwide across the UK, Middle East and North America, Severn Trent Services is positioned to capture the European market following the validation of its products against the Measuring Instruments Directive (MID) standard. The SmartMeter™ SM150 and SM250 families of electronic water meters were the first battery powered residential devices to be approved to the OIML standard that forms a major part of the requirements for MID approval.

Dr Neil Furmidge, Business Development Director at Severn Trent Metering Services, said: "The MID was introduced to provide a common standard for measuring instruments across Europe. Our certification has opened a large un-tapped market for us and our presence in Germany reflects our commitment to expanding our business."

The SmartMeter™ uses fluid oscillation technology to monitor water consumption and leakage - thereby supporting the optimisation and improved efficiency of customer networks. The units can output data in different formats to accommodate Automatic Meter Reading systems (AMR)…

Image of Severn Trent product from, via the company's website

Climate change mitigation a sham, says Indian thinker

TriplePundit: Those that have been instrumental in building the institutional edifice to mitigate climate change and facilitate greenhouse gas emissions reductions come in for a severe and thorough verbal lashing in Down to Earth, a publication put out by New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.

As climate change, environmental degradation and economic development have gained currency the resulting international processes and organizational structures have been hijacked by the international political, media and corporate jet set, CSE claims. Worse, the resulting measures taken to date are not only ineffectual but serve only to further enrich those that are primarily responsible for these problems in the first place, i.e. the captains of multinational business, industry, political leaders and the media.

“The Centre for Science and Environment, in its 1999 publication on global environmental governance, Green Politics, clearly showed all global environmental conventions were designed to secure northern business in the future and had little to do with environment or sustainability,” argues Sunita Narain, the CSE’s director. “This has sharpened; industries and developed nations are looking at a new business opportunity in the time of climate change. The results are showing.

“Without any noteworthy emissions cut, the rush for biofuel to manage emissions has already created a food crisis. All technofixes—biofuel, GM crop or nuclear power—will create the next generation of crisis, because they ignore the fundamental problems of capitalism as a system that ignores justice and promotes inequity.”…

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A voice against Amazonian deforestation

Over at Mongabay, there's a tremendous interview with Sergio Abranches, a Brazilian environmentalist discussing deforestation. Well worth a look:…I would very much recommend using a fair share of the resources to create an investment fund to finance education, science and technology to develop the basis for a new pattern of development in the Amazon. I fear for the success of such programs if they become entirely dependent on governments. "Governmentalization" and "politicization" should be avoided at all costs. I'd rather see these programs under new governance mechanisms, that do not exclude governments, but that are essentially independent, and include other forces, especially for their monitoring and evaluation. Either they'll add strength to the emerging transformative forces in the region, or they'll fail to help preserving the forest. I can't figure out how such a mechanism would succeed as voluntary government programs. They must have binding targets and independent monitoring….

Flooded forest in the Amazon basin, close to the meeting of the Rio Negro and Rio Amazon at Manaus, Brazil. This was taken in Feburary when the river flooding is seasonally low, by Phil P Harris, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Monitoring of carbon dioxide will require global data collection ten times larger than current set up

Science Daily: Monitoring Earth's rising greenhouse gas levels will require a global data collection network 10 times larger than the one currently in place in order to quantify regional progress in emission reductions, according to a new research commentary by University of Colorado and NOAA researchers appearing in the April 25 issue of Science.

The authors, CU-Boulder Research Associate Melinda Marquis and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Pieter Tans, said with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations now at 385 parts per million and rising, the need for improved regional greenhouse gas measurements is critical. While the current observation network can measure CO2 fluxes on a continental scale, charting regional emissions where significant mitigation efforts are underway -- like California, New England and European countries -- requires a more densely populated network, they said.

"The question is whether scientists in the United States and around the world have what they need to monitor regional fluxes in atmospheric carbon dioxide," said Marquis, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA. "Right now, they don't."

While CO2 levels are climbing by 2 parts per million annually -- a rate expected to increase as China and India continue to industrialize -- effective regional CO2 monitoring strategies are virtually nonexistent, she said. Scientists are limited in their ability to distinguish between distant and nearby carbon sources and "sinks," or storage areas, for example, by the accuracy of atmospheric transport models that reflect details of terrain, winds and the mixing of gases near observation sites….

Greenhouse gas emissions by country (2000), World Resources Institute, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

Warming may turn Philippines into "water world"

Philippine Daily Inquirer: Half of Naga City submerged along with five eastern towns of the Bicol region, and between 20 million to 30 million turned into environment refugees across the Philippines. Speaking of the country’s own “inconvenient truth,” environmentalists painted this grim forecast at a conference on climate change and conflict at the Asian Institute of Management's Policy Center on Tuesday.

The scenario may well happen within the century if people continue to disregard the consequences of a warmer planet, they said. They shared science-backed forecasts of the Philippines at a time when ice caps surrender to a warmer Earth.

Nereus Acosta, convener of the Philippine Climate Change Initiative and former Bukidnon congressman, said a meter higher of sea levels will submerge 15 of the country's 17 regions, with the northern highlands as the only areas spared from the catastrophe.

“The Philippines as an archipelago is considered a climate hotspot ... with 20 out of 80 provinces vulnerable to a one meter rise in sea level,” said Acosta in a presentation before an audience of 60 listeners, among them officers from the environment and energy departments, the academe and non-government organizations.

Acosta said provinces in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the Zamboanga Peninsula, Eastern Visayas and the Bicol region, “incidentally those with the higher poverty incidence and greatest food insecurity in the Philippines,” are among places to be worst hit by widespread flooding because of global sea-level rise. “With these regions affected, there will be 20 (million) to 30 million people who will be dislocated, they will become environmental refugees who will be fighting for scarce resources,” said Acosta in an interview….

Map of the Philippines, CIA World Factbook, Wikimedia Commons

Harsh weather patterns to shrink Kenyan maize production

AllAfrica, via Business Daily (Nairobi): Kenyans could soon be forced to adjust their eating habits as the favourite maize meal becomes more scarce due to the effects of climate change. Options include sorghum, millet or cassava, unless scientists unveil maize varieties that can mature faster under reduced rainfall and rising temperatures.

The climate change, which has been informed by excess emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, has led to irregular rainfall and a rise in temperatures in Kenya. With a huge fraction of Kenya's agricultural activities pegged on rainfall, experts have raised the red flag that the country was facing dwindling output from rain-fed agriculture with the maize crop set to bear the brunt.

"If measures are not taken to develop highly drought resistant maize variety, production will drop significantly in the next 10 years," says Lilian Njeri, a maize breeder at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Local scientists are predicting that temperature in Kenya will rise by two degree centigrade in the next 25 years. This means arable land will become drier…

Flag of Kenya, Wikimedia Commons
Environment News Network, via Worldwatch Institute: As global freshwater reserves dry up, desalination plants are receiving greater attention as an option for providing both drinking water supplies and agricultural irrigation. But a new study released on Thursday raises several concerns about the environmental impact and cost effectiveness of the widely touted technology to convert seawater to fresh water.

Desalination plants pose a risk to marine species when the water is collected from ocean areas, as well as when the salty discharge is deposited into coastal estuaries, according to the report, which was released by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC). Also, current desalination technology often does not adequately remove the chemical element boron, which occurs naturally in seawater and is considered toxic to humans, the report said.

Despite the "considerable amount of uncertainty" regarding desalination impacts, however, the study concluded that the projects can safely continue, though further research is necessary to help reduce potential risks. "It was the committee's feeling that the uncertainties are not at the level that we should stop moving forward," said Amy Zander, chair of the council's Committee on Advancing Desalination Technology. "There are environmental effects of any water source, so let's mitigate them."…

The Shevchenko BN350 desalination unit on the Caspian Sea, the only nuclear-heated desalination unit in the world, from Argonne National Laboratory, Wikimedia commons

Monday, April 28, 2008

Crop management strategies key to healthy Gulf and planet

Terra Daily: Improved management of crops and perennials could go a long way toward alleviating the problem of hypoxia, which claims thousands of fish, shrimp and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico each spring. An assessment by a team led by Virginia Dale of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Environmental Sciences Division concludes that low oxygen levels in water, or hypoxia, causes problems throughout the ecosystem. The death zone, scientifically documented in the Gulf since 1985, has consistently covered about 6,000 square miles, usually off the coast of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River's mouth.

The problem is caused in part by fertilizer run-off from agricultural activities in the Mississippi basin, which drains about 48 percent of the U.S. land. These nutrients combined with stratification caused by warm freshwater from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers running into the colder saltwater of the Gulf sets up the deadly process. Algae grows, then dies and sinks to the bottom, where it decomposes, using up oxygen in the process.

"The oxygen-depleted water at the bottom is not replenished because of the lack of circulation," Dale said. "The more water that flows into the Gulf and the more nutrients in the water, the worse the hypoxia becomes."

While scientists initially believed nitrogen was the major culprit, the assessment team for the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency realized that phosphorus also plays a significant role. The team is recommending a 45 percent reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen from the 1980-1996 average flux during the spring (April, May and June) on a five-year running average….

The delta of the Atchafalaya River on the Gulf of Mexico. View is upriver to the northwest. Photo by Arthur Belala, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wikimedia Commons

Will corals survive the stormy future?

Science Daily: Hurricanes and storms limit the ability of corals in Belize to “recruit” new coral into their communities, according to an Earthwatch-supported study published in Marine Environmental Research. “Increasing evidence now shows that storms are becoming more intense due to climate change,” said lead author and Earthwatch scientist Dr. James Crabbe from the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom.

Coral reefs—which can grow to be thousands of years old—form and grow when free-swimming coral larvae in the ocean attach to rocks or other hard surfaces and begin to develop. Intense storms can wipe out this “recruitment” process. “Storms threaten the survival of the entire reef itself,” said Crabbe, who found similar results in another Earthwatch-supported study in Jamaica a few years ago. The new study will appear in the May issue of Marine Environmental Research.

“If the storms don’t destroy corals outright, they render them more susceptible to disease, and that is certainly apparent on the Belize reefs,” said Crabbe, who is doing a lecture tour related to this work throughout 2008—deemed the International Year of the Reef by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). The study holds implications for marine park managers, Crabbe said. “They may need to assist coral recruitment and settlement [in hurricane years] by establishing coral nurseries and then placing the baby corals (larvae) in the reef at discrete locations” or by setting up artificial reef blocks to help the corals survive….

Coral in Belize, shot by "Josh from New Rochelle," Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Melting Andean glaciers imperil 30 million

Environment News Service: About 99 percent of the Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia has disappeared since 1940, says World Bank engineer Walter Vergara, in his new report, "The Impacts of Climate Change in Latin America." One of the highest glaciers in South America, Chacaltaya is one of the first glaciers to melt due to climate change. Although the glacier is over 18,000 years old, it is expected to vanish this year. "The greenhouse gases are the main driver," says Vergara. "The scientific community has a consensus - this is manmade."

Since 1970, glaciers in the Andes have lost 20 percent of their volume, according to a report by Peru's National Meteorology and Hydrology Service. Loss of glaciers in the Andes mountain range is threatening the water supply of 30 million people, and scientists say the lower altitude glaciers could disappear in 10 years.

With water supplies, agriculture, and power generation at risk, the World Bank and the funding agency Global Environment Facility are working together to develop adaptation strategies for local communities.

…Seventy percent of the world's tropical glaciers are in the high Andes Cordillera of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Of the 18 currently existing mountain glaciers in Peru, 22 percent of the surface has been lost over the past 27 to 35 years, scientists warn….

Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia, shot by "Vico ricab," Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

More refugees from climate change

IPS: Climate change is likely to lead to an increase in conflicts and forced migrations of poor people in the south, a new report warns. Developing countries can reduce this impact by adopting preventative measures now, while international law and human rights principles need to be updated. Most so-called 'climate refugees' will be displaced both by gradual environmental degradation, slow-onset disasters such as drought, and sudden disasters such as floods or storms, while rising sea levels threaten the very existence of some low-lying island states.

These are the conclusions of a report released in Oslo last week by the NGO Norwegian Refugee Council, based on a review of published research. It warns that conflicts over resources may well increase as the resources get scarcer and as migrants encroach on others' territories. The report, Future Floods of Refugees, points out that land degradation and desertification seem to be a root cause of the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, albeit in combination with other factors.

Africa is likely to be the worst hit, closely followed by the so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS), mega-deltas in Asia, and the Polar Regions. In countries with high populations such as India and China, many will be displaced when sudden environmental disasters strike. Although less people live in the Caribbean, it is also very vulnerable to sudden disasters such as cyclones, the report says. Central Asia and particularly the Sahel and Nile areas of Africa may be particularly hard hit by droughts….

Image from the website of the Norwegian Refugee Council

Asia's rainforests vanishing as timber, food demand surge: experts

Terra Daily, via Agence France-Presse: Asia's rainforests are being rapidly destroyed, a trend accelerated by surging timber demand in booming China and India, and record food, energy and commodity prices, forest experts warn. The loss of these biodiversity hot spots, much of it driven by the illegal timber trade and the growth of oil palm, biofuel and rubber plantations, is worsening global warming, species loss and poverty, they said.

Globally, tropical forest destruction "is a super crisis we are facing, it's an appalling crisis," said Oxford University's Professor Norman Myers, keynote speaker at the Asia-Pacific Forestry Week conference in Hanoi. "It's one of the worst crises since we came out of our caves 10,000 years ago," Myers said at the five-day meeting of 500 foresters, researchers, state officials and activists held last week in the Vietnamese capital.

Over-logging in Southeast Asia caused 19 percent of global rainforest loss in 2005, Myers said, compared to cattle ranching -- once a leading cause, mainly in South America -- which now caused five percent of world losses. The rapid growth of palm oil and other plantations accounted for 22 percent, and slash-and-burn farming, unsustainable as more poor people exploit fast-shrinking forests, caused 54 percent of rainforest destruction, he said.

Asia's forest cover, including tree plantations, in fact grew by three million hectares from 2000 to 2005 -- largely because of China's 1998 logging ban and afforestation -- said the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Rainforest on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, "Mbcmf217 ," Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sierra Madre fire in California -- a selection of stories

Wildfires force Californians from homes
CNN - 54 minutes ago
An airplane drops flame retardant on a slope Sunday in Sierra Madre, California. About 50 people in a wedding party were among those stuck in the area ...
1000 people evacuated near Sierra Madre wildfire Los Angeles Times
California wildfire forces hundreds to evacuate
Wildfire Forces Evacuations in Pasadena, California, AP Reports Bloomberg
PRESS TV - Reuters
all 918 news articles »

Southern California Wildfire Causes Sierra Madre Evacuations
TransWorldNews (press release), GA - 7 hours ago
The evacuations affected the residents near Pasadena as the wildfire moves through Sierra Madre, a small community near the San Gabriel Mountains . Fire ...
Video: Hard-to-control Wildfires Burn So. Cal. AssociatedPressMore evacuate as S. California wildfire creeps closer Houston Chronicle
About 100 homes evacuated as Calif. wildfire burns Fox 12 Boise
all 104 news articles »

The Associated Press
100 homes evacuated as SoCal wildfire creeps toward town
The Associated Press - 17 hours ago
SIERRA MADRE, Calif. (AP) — Authorities were evacuating 100 homes as a 100-acre wildfire cr

Right to climate and green growth: conference in India

Economic Times (India): Leading national civil society organisations from India, Pakistan, Maldives, Malaysia, Singapore and Bangaladesh demanded right to climate and green growth at the First Asian Commonwealth Conference on Climate and Disaster Risks.

The participants from 43 national civil society organisation argued that the performance of various climate change related national plans, initiatives, committees, and funds in Asia need civil society contributions, cooperation and even contestations.

….There is little known about the overlap between the climate risk and disaster risk. “To the poor and vulnerable a flood is a flood. For the citizens climate change is a local issue. By making it a global issue we weaken the citizen action,” said Mihir Bhatt of All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI).

A road in Chennai, India, where this conference was held. Photo by "nikkul," Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

Brief ozone exposure linked to premature death

Environment News Service: Exposures of less than 24 hours to current levels of ground-level ozone in many areas are likely to contribute to premature deaths, finds a new National Research Council report.

Ozone, a key component of smog, can cause respiratory problems and other health effects. In addition, evidence of a relationship between exposures of less than 24 hours and mortality has been mounting, but interpretations of the evidence have differed, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to request the Research Council report.

The committee that wrote the report was not asked to consider how evidence has been used by the EPA to set ozone standards, including the new public health standard set by the agency last month.

But the evidence is strong enough that the EPA should include ozone-related mortality in health-benefit analyses related to future ozone standards, says the committee, which is chaired by John C. Bailar III, professor emeritus, Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago

Smog in New York City in 1988, by Dr. Edwin P. Ewing, Jr., Wikimedia Commons

Human warming hobbles ancient climate cycle

Reuters: Before humans began burning fossil fuels, there was an eons-long balance between carbon dioxide emissions and Earth's ability to absorb them, but now the planet can't keep up, scientists said on Sunday. The finding, reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, relies on ancient Antarctic ice bubbles that contain air samples going back 610,000 years.

Climate scientists for the last 25 years or so have suggested that some kind of natural mechanism regulates our planet's temperature and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Those skeptical about human influence on global warming point to this as the cause for recent climate change.

This research is likely the first observable evidence for this natural mechanism. This mechanism, known as "feedback," has been thrown out of whack by a steep rise in carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal and petroleum for the last 200 years or so, said Richard Zeebe, a co-author of the report…..

Eleven layers of the GISP2 ice core from a depth of 1855 meters, NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

US cities looking to Europe

A great editorial in the Houston Chronicle by Neal Peirce: Are Americans up to shedding their mental blindfolds to learn powerful climate-change strategies from Europe's metropolitan regions? Or put another way: Can we afford to wait any longer?

The issue was front and center earlier this month as the first-ever joint conference of major U.S. and European regional councils met in northern Virginia. The regional leaders adopted a Declaration of Cooperation focused on innovative strategies to promote a raft of climate-friendly development practices.

Areas in which Europe has outpaced the United States include energy efficiency, renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal power, "green" buildings, more transit and less car use, and smarter land use practices. The Alexandria setting was fitting because the Northern Virginia Regional Commission — through a decade of exchanges with counterparts in Stuttgart, Germany — has been inspired to adopt a range of conserving strategies. Among them: pedestrian-friendly streets and traffic-calming measures, car-sharing, low-impact stormwater management, and steps to make the entire Washington capital region a national leader in green rooftop gardens that consume carbon dioxide.

But such success stories are rare. Too often, when our local government officials travel overseas to observe other practices, political opponents and/or our local newspapers pillory their trips as "junkets."…

….Bottom line: We lose out, lagging both environmentally and economically. In today's fiercely competitive and dangerously warming world, it seems high time to kick our superior attitudes of "American exceptionalism." That's the notion that since we led the world on every step from the Declaration of Independence to winning two world wars and putting men on the moon, we're inherently superior and don't need to learn from others.

….What could be reported by Barry Seymour, director of the Philadelphia region's Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, was a sharp rise in interest — among utilities, local officials, the public — in climate-change projects. Indeed, said Seymour, "climate change gives us a new way to package" an array of measures that his planners have long recommended but Philadelphia area leaders ignored. Among them: promoting walkable communities, creating more transit-oriented development, and saving open spaces and natural systems in the path of development….

I couldn't resist this picture of a red squirrel with pronounced winter ear tufts in the Hofgarten in Düsseldorf, shot by "Ray eye," Wikimedia Commons, under Creative CommonsAttribution ShareAlike 2.0 Germany License.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Neglect of farming led to rice crisis"

IPS: The headlines screaming about a global food shortage have not aroused surprise in a leading non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with farming communities across Asia. To its members, warnings of hunger on a biblical scale are hardly news. After all, the Asia-Pacific arm of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), a global environmental lobby, has been raising the alarm about an impending rice shortage for years. Among its more recent campaigns was one launched to coincide with ‘’The International Year of Rice,’’ which was marked globally in 2004.

But the alarm bells rung by PAN were ignored by governments in the region, home to nine of the world’s top 10 producers of the grain. They are China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines and Japan. The only non-Asian in this rice league is Brazil.

‘’Governments refused to listen to our concerns. In the last five years we have been saying that we are in rice crisis, that food security and food sovereignty were being undermined,’’ Clare Westwood, campaign coordinator for PAN’s ‘Save Our Rice Campaign, said during a telephone interview from Malaysia. ‘’It was only a matter of time before the warnings became real.’’

PAN’s primary concern was the push towards rice cultivation on an industrial scale that promoted monoculture, where a few high-yield rice varieties that needed large doses of chemicals were held up as the answer to growing demand. Marginalised, consequently, were the small farmers, who came from rural communities that had used local knowledge over centuries to generate new varieties of paddy seeds that blended with the local environment.

‘’The high-yielding seeds prompted in the monoculture style of farming are not as hardy as local varieties produced through the ecological style of farming,’’ adds Westwood. ‘’This hybrid rice can only perform well under certain circumstances and they need a lot of fertiliser and pesticides and they are water intensive. These are their inherent weaknesses.’’…

Rice paddy shot by Jean-Louis Vandevivère from Paris, Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Extreme ocean storms on the rise, tremors show

National Geographic: Extreme ocean storms have ramped up in frequency over the past 30 years, according to new research based on small tremors. The faint tremors, called microseisms, are periodic movements of Earth's surface that can last anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds.

Unlike earthquakes, which are caused by movements of Earth's tectonic plates, microseisms are created by the incessant beating of waves along the coasts.

The phenomena are usually dismissed as background noise by scientists studying earthquake readings. "The gist is that we monitor pervasive seismic tremors observed around the world that arise from wind-generated waves to [assess] Earth's wave climate," said study co-author Richard Aster, a geophysics professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

The new findings, while still in their early stages, could be used to test long-held theories about whether global warming leads to more violent ocean storms, Aster added. Aster and colleagues studied microseisms at 22 seismographic stations scattered across the world, from Antarctica to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They also looked at worldwide ocean-borne microseism data taken from 1972 to 2008.

The researchers found that the microseisms' power increased with time, perhaps as storm winds intensified or changed direction. The data also showed that each of the 22 seismographic stations registered an uptick in extreme ocean gales….

A wave in Cornwall, England, Earth Network Editor, generously released into the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Biodiversity crucial to ecosystem productivity

Science Daily: In the first experiment involving a natural environment, scientists at Brown University have shown that richer plant diversity significantly enhances an ecosystem's productivity. The finding underscores the benefits of biodiversity, such as capturing carbon dioxide, a main contributor to global warming.

Osvaldo Sala, director of the Environmental Change Initiative and the Sloan Lindeman Professor of Biology at Brown, and Pedro Flombaum, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown, said the results confirmed tests charting how biodiversity affects aboveground plant productivity in artificial ecosystems. Aboveground plant productivity (ANPP) is the amount of biomass, or organic material, produced by plant growth.

But the Brown team also learned that the correlation between plant species richness - the number of plant species in a unit of area - and ANPP in a natural ecosystem was greater than had been expected. What that means, the researchers wrote in a paper published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that the greater the number of plant species, the more productive the ecosystem.

Conversely, species loss has a decidedly negative impact on ecosystems. This is especially true in light of the role ecosystems play in capturing the global warming gas carbon dioxide: The fewer the plant species in a given natural environment, the less carbon dioxide they capture. "It's a double whammy," Sala explained. "We not only are disturbing our planet by putting more carbon into the atmosphere, but we're reducing the ability of ecosystems to capture and store it."

Sala and Flombaum conducted their experiments in the Patagonian steppe, a semiarid grassland located on the east side of the Andes Mountains in Argentina. They marked 90 plots, each containing three species of native grasses and three species of native shrubs. The team then removed a certain number of species from the plots and measured each revised plot's productivity. "The water is the same, the nitrogen is the same, the sunlight is the same," Sala said. "What is different is the diversity of the plants."….

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, shot by "Trango Tango," who generously released the image into the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Climate change blamed as Canadian insurance payouts increase

The Gazette (Canada): Insurance claims relating to water damage are the fastest-growing category of all claims in Canada. But those payouts involve water damage caused mainly by flash storms in summer that result in sewer backups and basement flooding.

Quebec insurers paid out more than $500 million in water-related claims in 2005-06, said Jack Chadirdjian, director of public affairs for the Quebec branch of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. That amount represents 45 per cent of $1.1 billion in payouts overall, he noted. The 45-per-cent figure is significant because water-related payouts represented only 21 per cent of the total as recently as 2001-02, he said.

It's because of climate change, Chadirdjian said. "Not just more rain," he said, "but more rain compressed into shorter periods of time" - like the 100 millimetres (about four inches) of rain that fell in one hour in Montreal in July 1987….

The flood at Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge in 2006, Québec, Canada, by “Antaya,” Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

NASA studies arctic haze (Alaska): Earlier this month NASA launched the most extensive study ever to determine what's going on in the air over Alaska's Arctic and what role "Arctic haze" may be playing when it comes to climate change. Recently, a DC-8 jetliner, a science laboratory with wings, took to the skies to study the haze. Daniel Jacob is a NASA project scientist. "We're trying to understand what global change is doing to the Arctic," Jacob said.

To do that NASA has sent the plane and several others crammed with equipment and scientists, like Hanwant Singh, to study the phenomenon known as Arctic haze. "Arctic haze is mostly a hazy aerosol layer that usually comes from industrial Eurasian emission of pollutants and generally it has some black carbon in them," Singh said.

NASA is trying to learn how the pollutants that make up this haze contribute to climate change in the Arctic....

No haze in this US Air Force picture of the Northern Lights by Senior Airman Joshua Strang, Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 25, 2008

ALOS will provide advanced data to help Latin America better adapt to climate threats

Terra Daily: Up-to-the-minute-data and expertise derived from the Advanced Land Observation Satellite (ALOS) developed and operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will contribute a better formulation of measures to adapt to climate change threats in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to an agreement signed today between JAXA and the World Bank.

ALOS will be used by the World Bank as an effective tool to detect changes in vulnerable ecosystems region wide. ALOS capabilities will enhance the World Bank's adaptation initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Using highly advanced instrumentation, ALOS capabilities includes capturing high resolution photos of land cover and natural resources. ALOS images and data will be used in support of World Bank adaptation projects in Colombia, Mexico, the Andes region of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador and the West Indies. Images taken by ALOS of the tropical glaciers in the Andes are already being facilitated and used for the assessment of glacier dynamics under an adaptation project in the region.

"It represents a big step forward for our institution and our partners to have access to a state of the art system capable of high resolution imaging," says Laura Tuck, World Bank Regional Director for Sustainable Development. "Climate change impacts will impose a heavy tax on the economies of the region, in particular on the poor. Adaptation to climate change is key given the severe and largely irreversible effects in the region," Tuck added....

Latin America from space, NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Recovering ozone hole may intensify warming

Science Daily: A full recovery of the stratospheric ozone hole could modify climate change in the Southern Hemisphere and even amplify Antarctic warming, according to scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

While Earth's average surface temperatures have been increasing, the interior of Antarctica has exhibited a unique cooling trend during the austral summer and fall caused by ozone depletion, said Judith Perlwitz of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA. "If the successful control of ozone-depleting substances allows for a full recovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica, we may finally see the interior of Antarctica begin to warm with the rest of the world," Perlwitz said.

…The authors used a NASA supercomputer model that included interactions between the climate and stratospheric ozone chemistry to examine how changes in the ozone hole influence climate and weather near Earth's surface, said Perlwitz.

The study authors calculated that when stratospheric ozone levels return to near pre-1969 levels by the end of the 21st century, large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns now shielding the Antarctic interior from warmer air masses to the north will begin to break down during the austral summer. The circulation patterns are collectively known as a positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode, or SAM….

Data taken by the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) instrument aboard NASA's Earth Probe satellite, NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Arctic getting wetter thanks to anthropogenic warning

National Geographic: In addition to heating up faster than almost anywhere else on the planet, the Arctic has gotten wetter and snowier because of global warming, according to a new study. The extra precipitation could freshen ocean water in the Arctic and North Atlantic, researchers say, which might disrupt the so-called ocean conveyor belt, a current that runs through the Atlantic and carries warm water northward from the Equator.

The new study is the first to show that changes in precipitation in the Arctic are in part human-induced, said study leader Francis Zwiers of the government agency Environment Canada. The study also shows that previous computer models underestimated how much precipitation would change because of global warming.

Contrary to the simulations, Arctic rain and snowfall increased by 7 percent over the past 50 years, the study found. In just the Canadian Arctic, precipitation jumped 11 percent. "That might not seem very big, but a 10 percent change is quite a lot" when it comes to precipitation, Zwiers said.

The discrepancy means that models predicting future change "may underestimate what's coming down the pipeline," he said. "If people are using these models for planning, they should keep in mind that what the models show may be weaker than what will happen."…

A moulin at the Athabasca Glacier, photo by "China Crisis," Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

Quanitifying progress in emissions reductions

Scientific Blogging News: Monitoring Earth's rising greenhouse gas levels will require a global data collection network 10 times larger than the one currently in place in order to quantify regional progress in emission reductions, according to a new research commentary by University of Colorado and NOAA researchers appearing in the April 25 issue of Science.

The authors, CU-Boulder Research Associate Melinda Marquis and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Pieter Tans, said with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations now at 385 parts per million and rising, the need for improved regional greenhouse gas measurements is critical. While the current observation network can measure CO2 fluxes on a continental scale, charting regional emissions where significant mitigation efforts are underway -- like California, New England and European countries -- requires a more densely populated network, they said.

"The question is whether scientists in the United States and around the world have what they need to monitor regional fluxes in atmospheric carbon dioxide," said Marquis, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA. "Right now, they don't."

…Marquis and Tans propose increasing the number of global carbon measurement sites from about 100 to 1,000, which would decrease the uncertainty in computer models and help scientists better quantify changes. "With existing tools we could gather large amounts of additional CO2 data for a relatively small investment," said Marquis. "The next step is to muster the political will to fund these efforts."…

Smokestack photo at the Power Plant Contemporary Gallery at Harbourfront Centre by "Tonyhewer," generously released into the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tackling drought crucial in finding food crisis solution – UN

UN News Center: Addressing drought is essential in resolving the food crisis the world faces, the United Nations agency tasked with minimizing the threat posed by natural disasters said today. Both drought and unsustainable water management have played a key role in the current problem, and managing drought risk is essential to finding a long-term solution to the crisis, according to a press release issued by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).

Reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate – have shown unequivocally that the world is warming, almost certainly due to human activity, with potentially disastrous effects including worsening drought in some regions and heavier rainfall in others.

“Drought creeps, so we can outrun it,” said Sálvano Briceño, Director of the ISDR Secretariat. “But this will take a genuine mindset and policy shift towards the ethos that prevention is better than cure, and serious political and economic commitment to saving harvests and lives on a global economic level.” Major food exporters such as Australia and Ukraine are experiencing the effects of drought, serving as examples of how climate change can trigger future food crises.

Two images of the Etosha Pan in Namibia. The upper view (March 2006) shows the point where the Ekuma River flows into the salt lake; the lower regional image (June 2005) shows the same inlet—but dry—on the north shore of Etosha Pan. Both photos taken from the International Space Station. NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Confined animal feeding operations cost US taxpayers billions, new report finds

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: Misguided federal farm policies have encouraged the growth of massive confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, by shifting billions of dollars in environmental, health and economic costs to taxpayers and communities, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). As a result, CAFOs now produce most of the nation's beef, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs, even though there are more sophisticated and efficient farms in operation.

"CAFOs aren't the natural result of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of rational planning or market forces," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in UCS's Food and Environment Program and author of the report. "Ill-advised policies created them, and it will take new policies to replace them with more sustainable, environmentally friendly production methods."

"CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations" enumerates the policies that have allowed CAFOs to dominate U.S. meat and dairy production. For example, it found that from 1997 to 2005 taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved CAFOs nearly $35 billion in animal feed, which comprises a large percentage of their supply costs. Cattle operations that raise animals on pasture land do not benefit from the subsidy....

The report also details how other federal policies give CAFOs hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to address their pollution problems, which stem from the manure generated by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of animals confined in a small area. The report estimates that CAFOs have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which was established by the 2002 Farm Bill.

"If CAFOs were forced to pay for the ripple effects of harm they have caused, they wouldn't be dominating the U.S. meat industry like they are today," said Margaret Mellon, director of UCS's Food and Environment Program. "The good news is that we can institute new policies that support animal production methods that benefit society rather than harm it."…

Hog confinement in a barn interior, US EPA, Wikimedia Commons

Nicaragua: A hard rain's gonna fall...

IPS: Having been hit by three hurricanes and 25 tropical storms in less than 10 years, Nicaragua is looking ahead to the next rainy season, due to begin in May, with wariness and trepidation. The government is alarmed by forecasts of an active cyclone season ahead.

Colorado State University in the United States has forecast that during the North Atlantic hurricane season from June to November this year, there will probably be 15 named tropical storms, eight of which will become hurricanes. Four of these will be capable of inflicting severe damage, they predict.

Nicaragua’s Civil Defence chief, Colonel Mario Pérez-Cassar, told IPS he is taking this forecast seriously, because over the years the university’s predictions have been "98 percent accurate." "Every year we assess the different scenarios and analyse climate conditions using national and international instruments," he said. Forecasts by Dr. William Gray, a Colorado State University meteorologist with 25 years’ experience of predicting hurricanes, "are always accurate, so this year we are preparing for the worst."

Pérez-Cassar said the army is drawing up evacuation and shelter plans for at least half a million Nicaraguans living in 996 areas that are extremely vulnerable to storms and flooding. He estimates a 50 percent chance that Nicaragua will be lashed by another hurricane like Felix, a Category 5 storm that destroyed a large part of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) in the northeast of the country last year. Category 5 is the highest level of hurricane intensity on the Saffir-Sampson scale.

…The Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) has also predicted a turbulent rainy season. "Given the variation in temperatures of the continental platform in the Atlantic off Nicaragua because of the effects of global warming, the conditions are such that any tropical storm in that area will gather strength and become a hurricane," it warned….

Nicaragua's coat of arms rendered by Caleb Moore, Wikimedia Commons