The most electric place on Earth
At one lake in Venezuela, lightning flashes 28 times a minute
29 August 2015
You know the saying “lightning never strikes the same place twice”? Forget it. On a good night, one lake in Venezuela hosts thousands of lightning strikes every hour.
The phenomenon is known variously as the Beacon of Maracaibo, Catatumbo lightning or – cue dramatic roll of thunder - the “everlasting storm”. That last one might be a slight exaggeration but where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo there is an average of 260 storm days per year.
Here the night sky is regularly illuminated for nine hours with thousands of flashes of naturally produced electricity.
Summer storms are familiar to many of us but along the equator, where temperatures are higher, skies rumble throughout the year. DR Congo in Central Africa is known as the thunderstorm capital of the world where the mountain village of Kifuka, with 158 lightning flashes per square kilometre each year, was thought to be the most electric place on Earth. That was until more detailed data was analysed.
Did you know: lightning almost never strikes the north or south poles
In 2014, official figures from NASA revealed that the Brahmaputra Valley of far eastern India had the highest monthly lightning flash rate between April and May when thunderous activity ushers in the annual monsoon.
But Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for “highest concentration of lightning” with 250 lightning flashes per square kilometre each year. The storms ease off in the dryer months of January and February and are most spectacular at the peak of the wet season around October. At this time of year, you can see an average of 28 lightning flashes each minute.
Experts have sought reasons for the area’s uniquely intense storms for decades. In the 1960s it was thought uranium deposits in the bedrock attracted more lightning strikes. More recently, scientists suggested the conductivity of the air above the lake was boosted by the abundance of methane from oil fields below.
Neither theory has been proved though, so for now this record-breaking light show is attributed to a potent combination of topography and wind patterns.
“A lot of the lightning hotspots are tied to features in the terrain - slopes of mountain ranges, curved coastlines, combinations of those,” explains Dr Daniel Cecil from the Global Hydrology and Climate Centre’s lightning team.
“Having irregularities like that in the terrain can help generate wind patterns and heating or cooling patterns that would boost the likelihood of thunderstorms.”
In North West Venezuela, South America’s largest lake flows past the city of Maracaibo to join the Caribbean Sea. It lies in a fork of the Andes, so is surrounded on the other three sides by high mountain ridges. During the day, the hot tropical sun evaporates water from the lake and surrounding wetland. As night approaches, trade winds from the sea push this warm air into cold air cascading from the mountains. The hot air rises and dense cumulonimbus clouds form as towering plumes reaching up to 12 km (39,000 ft) high.
These distinctive storm clouds might look fluffy on the outside but inside a battle is raging. Where water droplets in the rising humid air collide with ice crystals in the cold air, static charges are produced and an electrical storm is unleashed.
The static electricity discharges in zig-zags of lightning that strike the ground, pass between clouds or flash inside them. The thunder itself is the shock wave of sound created when the heat of the lightning, which can be three times hotter than the surface of the sun, suddenly compresses the surrounding air. Alongside the sound and visuals are the special effects of heavy rain and hail.
The Catatumbo lightning is bright enough that it can be seen 400 km (250 miles) away and colonial sailors were said to use it for navigation. The force and duration of the storms have inspired many tales but eyewitness claims the lightning is multi-coloured are a trick of the light.
As it passes through dust or moisture, portions of the white light are absorbed or diffracted making it appear a different colour. There are also reports of it being silent but this is another perspective trick. The sluggish speed of sound compared to light means thunder may not reach distant spectators.
If you’re wondering how scientists record all of their lightning data you can put the idea of kites and keys out of your mind. Benjamin Franklin might have famously proved the electrical nature of lightning with that equipment but in the modern age more sophisticated technology has allowed us to observe from a safe distance – an altitude of 402.5km (250 miles) to be exact.
For 17 years, instruments on board the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a joint project between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, collected a wealth of meteorological data as the satellite orbited the Earth. This included the Lightning Image Sensor which recorded flashes of light in tropical skies. With this data scientists were able to produce a map of the world’s lightning hotspots.
“To me the next generation of weather satellites is especially exciting,” says Dr Cecil, as TRMM finally runs out of fuel and returns to Earth.
“In the next few years, there are plans for lightning mapping instruments on a few different geostationary satellites placed over different parts of the globe. These will give us continuous measurements of lightning activity, instead of the brief snapshots we have seen from previous satellites in low-earth orbit.”
The ability to predict storms is becoming increasingly important as the global population grows, particularly in developing countries where people are more likely to work outdoors and lack sufficient lightning protection. To help us understand where in the world lightning strikes, storms are also analysed from below.
The World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN) comprises sensors based at 70 universities and research institutions that pick up the very high frequency signals emitted by lightning. Prof Robert H. Holzworth, who leads the network from the University of Washington, says the ground based observations compliment the satellite data.
“The ground based systems can see the whole world instantaneously, and continuously, something no satellite system past, present or future can do. On the other hand, to be recorded electrically using VLF radio waves requires the more powerful lightning stroke energies. So, the global ground based systems do not see all the little strokes in the clouds, which can be seen by the satellites.”
For any aspiring storm chasers that can’t quite give up the mug of cocoa and cosy blanket, the WWLLN produce a real-time map of lightning strokes around the globe.
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Small tortoiseshell butterfly numbers have plummeted across UK
Conservationists fear this year’s cool spring and slow start to summer have taken their toll on one of UK’s best-loved butterflies
Monday 29 August 2016 10.54 BST
Conservationists are warning of the decline of one of the UK’s best-loved butterflies.
Numbers of the small tortoiseshell – which is one of the most recognisable and widespread in the country – appear to have plummeted this summer.
This year numbers have been worryingly low as the cool spring and slow start to the summer appear to have taken their toll on the butterfly’s attempts to breed and feed.
Sightings of the small tortoiseshell are significantly down across the UK and gardeners are being asked to look out for it by joining the garden butterfly survey to help build a picture of what is happening.
Conservationists said the butterfly has endured a tumultuous recent history with its population plummeting by 73% since the 1970s.
Its numbers had risen over the past few years though and hopes were high that it was on the path to recovery, but this summer’s poor showing could mean the small tortoiseshell is set for yet more years of decline.
Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation’s head of recording, is appealing for members of the public to report sightings.
“We don’t understand what is causing the drastic long-term decline of this familiar and much-loved butterfly,” he said.
“Theories involve climate change, pollution and parasitic flies that kill the butterfly’s caterpillars, but we need more information.
“If you see small tortoiseshells or any other butterflies in your garden, the garden butterfly survey provides an easy way to enter your sightings, contribute to citizen science and store your records for posterity.”
Conservationists say butterflies are important indicators of the health of the environment.
By helping them, gardeners can help create a better home for wildlife, especially beneficial insects such as bees that play a vital role in pollinating wildflowers and many crops.
Gardeners are being encouraged to plant butterfly and pollinator-friendly plants and help record the butterflies they see.
The UK’s estimated 22 million gardens represent an area roughly the size of Somerset and, at a time when butterflies are in severe decline, offer a potentially huge and vitally important habitat.
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Lessons from a meadow brown butterfly
Crewe Green, Cheshire This one has had a lucky escape; with more than half of its wings gone, it’s surprising it can fly at all. Butterflies may look ethereal and fragile, but they are survivors
Monday 29 August 2016 05.30 BST
A flock of starlings lift up from the damp grass and swerve in the harebell blue sky as I cycle by. It’s a mellow morning with a hint of a breeze. Ox-eye daisies and buttercups adorn the hedgerows, nodding their heads. There are big clouds of feathery white meadowsweet; I can smell its marzipan scent. To my left and right, jackdaws are flying over open fields drenched in light, the sun buttering their edges. A plaintive, cat-like mewling: a buzzard is circling.
The university grounds are practically deserted. I freewheel across the bridge. Below, the rippling brook glints like tiny pieces of bottle-green glass. Midges skim the surface and an iridescent dragonfly. There is a wasps’ nest in the far bank.
When I reach the conservation area I get off my bike and push it along the track worn through the trees, a short cut. I wave to Don, one of the porters, taking a tea break, and stop for a chat. We are distracted by chocolate-orange, tatty wings zigzagging tipsily between branches and leaves. It’s a meadow brown butterfly, Maniola jurtina. The butterfly’s eye spots puzzle birds, tricking them into pecking its wings rather than a vital organ in the abdomen, so it’s less likely to be eaten, explains Don. This one has had a lucky escape; with more than half of its wings gone, it’s surprising it can fly at all. Butterflies may look ethereal and fragile, but, we agree, they are survivors.
We watch the meadow brown flutter towards the greenhouse. It alights on the honeysuckle looping and twining its perfume round a tree trunk, spiralling clockwise towards the light. The red berries are food for bullfinches and thrushes, while the ivory-pink, trumpet-shaped flowers are nectar-rich nourishment for butterflies: “flowers that fly and all but sing”, according to the poet Robert Frost.
As Don saunters over to the mail room, I lock my bike in the shed, thinking I’m glad we took time out to celebrate the here and now – a lesson to be learned for when term starts and the days are not so leisurely.
Jonathan Elphick gives this year’s William Condry memorial lecture (thecondrylecture.co.uk) on the Birds of North Wales at Tabernacle/MoMA, Machynlleth, 1 October, 7pm for 7.30. £5 including refreshments (no need to book)
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Canines in court: therapy dogs making the wait for a verdict 'more human'
Unique in the UK, Chelmsford county court hosts therapy dogs each week, to reduce stress and make court less intimidating
Sunday 28 August 2016 16.49 BST
David is waiting to find out if his children are going to be taken away from him. He paces the court waiting room and appears to be nearing the end of his tether. Other people instinctively give him a wide berth.
But Tina Jullings from Canine Concern approaches David with a small dog. “Would you like to stroke Bushy?” she asks brightly, offering up the chaotically hairy yorkshire terrier-chihuahua mix. He pauses, smiles, then laughs. “What’s a dog doing in a court?” he asks, touching Bushy gently on his head. “That’s crazy.”
It was January when Judge Lynn Roberts, the designated family judge for Essex and Suffolk, decided to brings dogs into Chelmsford county court. Volunteers from Pets as Therapy and Canine Concern, who usually take their therapy dogs into care homes and special schools, agreed to bring their pets into the court building to visit everyone from the judges and staff to the court users and their families. Roberts also arranges bespoke visits by the dogs if a child will be at court on a day when the animals are not due to visit.
Chelmsford is the only court in the country to welcome therapy dogs, but six months into the scheme, Roberts regards it as such a success that she is planning to introduce it to Ipswich county and family court.
“For many people, coming to court is the most stressful experience in their lives,” says Roberts, stroking the sleek head of Ella, a black, flat-haired retriever, who is visiting the judge in her retiring room before the official day begins. “It’s easy for us who work in the system to lose touch with how stressful it is but litigants are here because the future of their children is being determined, or their marriage, or where they’re going to live.
“In the US, they bring llamas and alpacas into care homes but I’m not going to attempt to bring in anything larger than a dog.” She pauses and gazes at Ella, who stares back with total canine devotion: “Having said that, I would love to bring in a donkey. I love donkeys too. But no, I think I will stop at dogs.”
So-called “courthouse facility dogs” are common in America, Canada and Chile, where they help children in all legal settings, as well as crime victims and witnesses, and those appearing in front of the drug and mental health courts.
But Roberts admits there is no tangible evidence as to the scheme’s impact. “I don’t think anybody could say if there’s any concrete result,” she said. “There was a suggestion from Cafcass [the body which represents children in family court cases] that we should assess the scheme but I don’t want to do that: I don’t want to make it all scientific. It’s working for us and it doesn’t cost the courts a penny.
“No one’s pretending it’s a cure-all,” she adds, reluctantly waving Ella goodbye and turning back to her case preparations. “It just releases a bit of stress and tension.”
The dogs have a schedule to keep to at Chelmsford: first they visit the judges, then the court staff and then the court users in the waiting rooms.
The circuit judge David Vavrecka is a fan of the scheme: “My initial, immediate reaction was that it was a fantastic idea,” he said. “A dog will not change the outcome of a court case but in a very bleak and conflicted situation, it can make the experience less intimidating and more human. And if, only in a very small way, we can improve the experience for our litigants, that seems to be very important.”
The circuit judge Catriona Murfitt agreed: “All the 101 things whirling around in my brain, about the cases I’m going to hear that day, stop whirring for those five minutes when the dogs come round,” she said. “But it’s probably most helpful for litigants in person, who come to court with no lawyers and are often entirely alone, knowing very little about what’s going to happen in the courtroom.”
Stephen Hodges, another district judge, is, however, less enthusiastic. “I just about tolerate the interruption to my morning when the dogs come round,” he said. “But I have two concerns. One is that certain cultures don’t traditionally feel the same way about dogs as British people tend to feel, and it could be quite off-putting for them to be approached by a dog at a moment of great stress.
“The other is that serious business happens in court. When the dogs visit the judges – between 9am and 10am – we’re doing very serious preparation for the cases we’re hearing that day. I personally find it an unwelcome distraction and I suspect the litigants feel the same if they’re talking to their representatives.”
An hour later, however, when Ella trots into his courtroom as he sits surrounded by paperwork, even Hodges appears won over by her canine charm. “Hello,” he croons quietly, tickling her under the ear. “You go all dreamy when I do this, don’t you?”
His concern that some litigants will find the dogs offensive or intrusive is countered by Kate Miller, a family law barrister at Chelmsford: “I have heard judges and lawyers voice concern that litigants who are facing the potential for losing their children don’t want to pat a dog or that certain cultures won’t appreciate it,” she said. “But I have myself observed the contrary: lots of people do want to pat a dog, and often exactly at moments of their greatest stress.”
In the court waiting room, the dogs are welcomed by some but waved away by others.
Angela has been waiting for two and a half hours to hear whether she will be able to keep her children. Visibly shaking and teary, she bends over Bushy and hugs him tightly.
“My little boy loves dogs,” she murmurs. “Bringing dogs in is such a good idea. It distracts me: I can push what’s happening to me to the back of my mind, just for a second.”
A woman standing at the edge of the waiting room is taking a break from giving evidence. When she spots Ella emerging from the lift, her distraught expression changes. She gives a brief laugh of surprise and smiles. Then the moment passes and she turns away.
The names of people in court have been changed.
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FSA: 4,000 major breaches of animal welfare laws at UK abattoirs in two years
Data released by food watchdog reveals incidences of chickens being boiled alive and animals suffocating or freezing to death in trucks
Andrew Wasley and Josh Robbins
Sunday 28 August 2016 15.29 BST
There were more than 4,000 severe breaches of animal welfare regulations over the past two years at British slaughterhouses, according to data released by the government’s food watchdog under freedom of information laws.
The data, comprising reports by vets and hygiene inspectors, details instances of needless pain and distress that include chickens being boiled alive and trucks of animals suffocating or freezing to death.
The log of reports submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reveals how regular breakdowns on production lines, equipment failures and poor procedures in abattoirs result in thousands of animals being subjected to avoidable suffering each year. Many individual acts of cruelty and neglect by slaughterhouse staff, hauliers and farmers are also documented, alongside malpractice that increases the risk of food poisoning.
The FSA, which released the data to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), said “only a tiny percentage” of animals that pass through Britain’s slaughterhouses are affected, adding that “the vast majority of meat processors comply with regulations”.
Meat inspectors and campaigners argue there is an under-reporting of welfare abuses, blaming insufficient staff and the often intimidating working conditions at abattoirs.
Vets and meat hygiene inspectors working for the FSA inside abattoirs reported a total of 9,511 animal welfare breaches between July 2014 and June 2016, with records classified into three categories according to severity. Category 2 refers to a low-risk isolated incident, while category 4, the most serious, means animals were subjected to “avoidable pain, distress or suffering”.
The BIJ’s analysis reveals almost half the recorded incidents were category 4 breaches – a total of 4,455, or an average of six a day. A single breach can involve hundreds of animals. Between April 2011 and July 2014 there were 6,859 reported incidents in all categories.
Neil Parish MP, chairman of the Commons select committee for environment, food and rural affairs, described the results as shocking.
“There is no place for animal cruelty at any stage of farm production – including the slaughterhouse,” said Parish. “This country prides itself as having some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. It’s vital the authorities crack down on any abuses and ensure there is zero tolerance to any mistreatment of animals when slaughtered.”
The welfare infractions included a cow being “violently slammed” against a wall following an argument between two workers; an abattoir worker beating three bulls with a wooden stick and electric prod; and a haulier hitting and kicking cattle during unloading, an incident that was caught on CCTV. Many involved sheep being grabbed by the wool and ears or dragged by the horns, or pigs being lifted by their ears and tails.
Failures in the slaughter process were also highlighted, with thousands of instances of animals not being stunned properly and in some cases not stunned at all. Inspectors recorded cases of chickens and pigs being immersed in tanks of scalding hot water – used to soften the skin and remove hair or feathers – while still alive.
Almost 600 instances were recorded of animals arriving at slaughterhouses already dead. In one case 574 chickens, from a load of 6,072 birds, died after being left on a lorry in very hot conditions. This counts as one welfare breach despite involving hundreds of birds.
The data also highlights practices that could facilitate the spread of the bacteria campylobacter, the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. About four in five cases of the infection, which kills about 100 people a year, come from contaminated poultry.
Ensuring birds are as calm as possible when they are being caught and transported is an important preventative measure, because stressed birds defecate more, potentially spreading the infection and increasing the risk of meat contamination. However, the data includes regular instances of chickens being “overstocked” in crates and incidents of birds being left in lorries for lengthy periods of time. In one case, because of a breakdown at the plant, 14 trucks were left overnight for more than 12 hours; in another, birds were left in crates at the abattoir for 20 hours.
The British Meat Processors Association, the industry trade body, declined to comment on the findings.
More than 900 million farm animals are killed for food each year in Britain. There are 317 approved slaughterhouses across the UK, most run by a handful of large companies that dominate the meat processing sector.
It is unclear from the data how many of the breaches resulted in any sanctions or improvements. Most of the category 4 breaches were referred to regional Trading Standards offices, which have responsibility for monitoring farms and transportation, but there is no requirement for the vets and inspectors who make the referral to record details of what happens next.
A spokesperson for the FSA said it had “zero tolerance” for welfare breaches and used a “proportionate approach” to enforcement. Action could include suspending or withdrawing certificates of competence from slaughterers, referring cases for prosecution, stopping operations or serving welfare enforcement notices.
“There is a comprehensive animal verification procedure in place at every slaughterhouse for monitoring animal welfare,” the spokesperson said. “Category 4 breaches can be the result of unavoidable accidents rather than deliberate abuse.”
Between June 2014 and July 2016, the spokesperson said, all category 4 breaches resulted in enforcement action. But in 2013 and 2014 the FSA referred 14 breaches of welfare regulations to the CPS, of which four resulted in prosecutions. Three of those prosecutions were later dropped.
Of the remaining cases, four resulted in warning letters. Over the course of the two years, two slaughterers’ licences were suspended and three were revoked for failure to comply with welfare legislation.
The fact that serious welfare breaches were the exception not the norm was not the point, said Marc Cooper, head of farm animals at the RSPCA.
“Such incidences of severe pain, distress and suffering are wholly unacceptable and completely avoidable,” he said. “If they’re avoidable, that means they shouldn’t be happening at all – you shouldn’t be seeing one. You would hope that strong enforcement action would be taken.”
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Tories’ failure to halt ivory trade ‘risks extinction of elephants’
Campaigners attack broken election pledge to shut down domestic market
Saturday 27 August 2016 14.08 BST
The UK is putting elephants at risk of extinction through its broken promises on the ivory trade, according to campaigners. Before the last election, the Conservative party pledged to shut down the UK’s domestic ivory market: at the time 30,000 elephants a year were being slaughtered for their tusks. But no action has been taken.
While bans on the international trade in ivory exist, a failure to observe similar measures at a national level is being exploited by criminal gangs who smuggle ivory into the UK, where it can be passed off as antique. Now, in the run-up to a major conference, more than 1.6 million people have signed a petition on the Avaaz activist website calling for the world’s domestic ivory markets to be closed down for good.
“The government’s broken promises to ban ivory sales in Britain are being paid for in the blood of African elephants,” said Avaaz campaign director Bert Wander. “As one of the world’s most vocal advocates against the illegal wildlife trade, the UK must now practise what it preaches. Otherwise, China and other ivory hotspots will see no reason to put in place the permanent ban on ivory we need to stop elephants being wiped from the face of the Earth.”
Avaaz hopes the petition will put pressure on politicians, wildlife experts and conservation groups attending next month’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Johannesburg, where they will consider a range of measures to protect endangered species.
“The existence of these domestic markets definitely has had a negative impact on African elephant populations,” said Susan Lieberman, vice-president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Simply put, if it were illegal to sell ivory – whether in China, Japan, the US, or the UK – there would be far less incentive for traffickers and organised criminal syndicates to traffic ivory, making it much harder for them to launder illegal ivory, and giving far less incentive to poachers.”
The Conservatives gave manifesto commitments to close down the trade in ivory in the UK in 2010 and 2015 and the government promoted a conference on the illegal wildlife trade in February 2014 which pushed for the measure.
A large number of African nations have promised to outlaw domestic ivory markets, while France, the US and, crucially, China have introduced their own bans or are in the process of doing so.
Between 2009 and 2014, 40% of all customs seizures in the UK were ivory items. Last year about 110kg of ivory was stopped at Heathrow alone. “The UK is really lagging behind,” said Jonathan Baillie, conservation director at the Zoological Society of London. “It’s difficult to understand why exactly. We were in a very strong leadership role. There are some potential barriers to introduction, but the Americans seem to have been able to deal with all the issues.”
Ivory is prized for a variety of reasons. In Japan it is used to make family seals; in the Philippines it is used for religious artefacts. Baillie said elephants would be protected only if all nations observed a domestic ban. “To take the economic value out of ivory it really requires everyone to play ball. If you have a number of countries that don’t go along with it, it really weakens the incentives for those nations to maintain their commitments.”
Lieberman said a UK ban would be symbolically important. “I personally have had Chinese government officials say to me, ‘Why should we close our markets, when we can find ivory very easily across London?’ The UK needs to show it is serious about stopping poaching of elephants and trafficking in ivory.”
Under the ban, owners of ivory could hand it on to others but not sell it. There would be exceptions – such as the sale of particular antique instruments that use ivory.
Experts say the ban is urgently needed. There are about 450,000 African elephants left. But 30,000 a year are being slaughtered. “I worked in south-west Africa in 2001,” Baillie said. “If I went back there would be less than half the number now than were there then. If we can close the international trade and the domestic markets there is going to be no reason for people to go in and kill these elephants.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the government was working on its pledge to implement a total ban on ivory sales. “The illegal wildlife trade is a global issue and will only be solved through global cooperation. That is why we continue to lead the international community to protect the world’s most iconic wild animals and to stop the organised criminal networks behind this brutal and unnecessary trade.”
Lieberman conceded that prohibition was not a magic bullet. “Certainly it won’t stop smuggling 100%, into the UK or elsewhere, but if the UK closes its market it will be far harder for illegal ivory to be laundered as legal.”
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>b>Five hotbeds of biodiversity
By Leigh Montgomery & Emily Powers, Monitor Library 8/29/2016
Biodiversity is biological diversity - an area having a large number of varied life forms. Biologists and conservation groups are concerned with regions deemed ‘biodiversity hotspots,’ which are threatened. Hotspots require two main criteria: at least 1500 vascular plant species(that have a system to transport nutrients and water) with over half endemic to the region, or found only there. They also have lost over 70% of their original habitat. Here are five of the highest biodiversity ecologies still over 70% intact in the world as identified by Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Arlington, VA.
1. Amazon Rain Forest
The Amazon wilderness, which spans nine countries, is renowned for its superlatives: 40,000 plant species, of which the majority are not found anywhere else. It is also home to more primate species anywhere in the world, possibly more insects as well. The Brazilian government said in December 2011 that deforestation rates in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, had fallen to the lowest levels since 1988.
2. Congo Basin
Second only to the Amazon in terms of area, the Congo Basin is home to biologically important species from large mammals - antelopes, elephants, and most famously, gorillas - as well as human communities and old growth forests. With a reach across seven African nations, it is only 11% protected - largely through national parks.
3. New Guinea
Islands often have exceptionally rich biodiversity as does New Guinea - it is the world’s highest and second largest behind Greenland, located in the Southwest Pacific. 1000 species were discovered since 1998 - from birds, butterflies, coral, dolphins, fish, orchids, reptiles, and sharks.
4. North American deserts
The Mojave, Colorado, Chihuahua, Sonoran, and Baja California deserts that stretch from the southwestern US to Mexico are some of the most biologically diverse in the world, with 6000 vascular plant species, as well as other special types of animals who have adapted to the climate, from bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, roadrunners, and wild horses.
5. Southern Africa
The Miombo-Mopane woodlands and savannahs stretch across ten countries in central southern Africa from Angola to Mozambique. They are home to animal species including the endangered black rhinoceros and almost 80% of all African elephants. This wilderness area is threatened by climate change, drought, development and the need to balance the survival needs of the people who live there with conservation efforts.
on: Today at 05:12 AM
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Planting mangrove trees pays off for coastal communities in Kenya
Members of the Dabaso Creek Conservation Group have planted an estimated 10 million mangrove trees. The forests, in turn, have provided for the community, bringing in birders and other tourists and becoming a habitat for crabs and fish to harvest.
By James Karuga, Thomson Reuters Foundation 8/29/2016
Dabaso, Kenya — When Kahindi Charo gathered 30 of his friends to replant mangroves in the 32 square kilometer (12 square mile) Mida Creek area, people in his village of Dabaso in Kilifi County dismissed them as crazy idlers.
Charo recalls that back then, in 2000, the creek had suffered badly from unregulated harvesting that had left the area bare, with rotting stumps and patches of old mangrove trees.
Today, Mida Creek, about 60 km (38 miles) north of Mombasa, flourishes with dense mangrove plantations that provide a habitat for birds, fish, and crabs. There is also a boardwalk leading to a 12-seat eco-restaurant perched beside the Indian Ocean.
“If there were no mangroves, we would be dead, since most of us are fishermen and fish lay their eggs and get their food from mangrove marshes,” Charo said, sitting at the restaurant.
The task of the Dabaso Creek Conservation Group (DCCG) was not an easy one. At first, the group planted mangrove seeds that had washed ashore, not realizing that some were from different ecological zones and unsuited to the environment at Mida Creek. Fewer than half the trees first planted by the budding conservationists survived, Charo said.
Some discouraged members left, but others pushed on with the work. Nowadays the 26-member organization is one of more than 50 mangrove conservation community groups with a total of around 1,500 members, spread along Kenya’s 600 km (375 mile) coastline.
Over the last 10 years, conservationists in the region have planted an estimated 10 million mangroves, and the forests have in turn provided for the community. During the peak tourism season, which runs from August to March, the Dabaso Creek Conservation Group earns over 300,000 Kenyan shillings (around $3,600) from the eco-restaurant, birding excursions, and selling crabs and fish to hotels in Dabaso.
As the project’s supervisor, Charo himself receives a salary and no longer relies on selling groundnuts to make a living.
Like Charo, 29-year-old Mwatime Hamadi, a nursery school teacher from Gazi, 50 km (31 miles) south of Mombasa, has seen her earnings rise through mangrove conservation.
Hamadi belongs to Gazi Women Mangrove, a group whose 36 members farm fish and crabs and keep bees for honey in the mangroves. There is also a boardwalk for visitors interested in touring the marshes, with a fee ranging from 50 shillings ($0.60) to 300 shillings (around $4) for international tourists. The women also run a curio shop targeted at tourists.
Some of the earnings from these projects fund classes for illiterate adults in the community.
Michael Njoroge, a researcher with Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) Gazi station, explained that the institute also trains communities on planting other trees as well as mangroves – such as the fast-growing casuarina tree, which matures in just three to five years. Researchers hope it could take pressure off mangrove forests.
“We now use casuarina for building and wood fuel,” said Hamadi. “If you cut mangrove it takes 25 years (for a new tree) to mature, and other trees can’t shield us from high tide like (mangrove).”
Last year, the research institute provided almost 3,000 casuarina seedlings for planting around Gazi, a village with some 1,000 residents. Local institutions like Gazi Primary School have provided land for communal woodlots where the trees are planted. Once mature, the trees will be sold to locals, for construction and other uses.
The casuarina woodlots should help reduce the pressure on mangroves from unlicensed harvesting, although some mangroves are still felled by people who are too poor to afford other sources of fuel, according to Njoroge.
A 2010 study by Coastal and Marine Resources Development Africa (COMRED Africa) reported that 70 percent of coastal Kenya’s wood requirement was met using mangroves, including 80 percent of the poles used for building houses. But since a presidential ban on mangrove harvesting was enacted in 2000, there has been an increase in mangrove planting and losses have slowed.
A study released last year by Landsat, Ocean Coast Management, and KMFRI showed that from 2000 to 2010 mangrove depletion in Kenya totalled 1,340 hectares (3,310 acres), compared to 4,950 hectares (12,230 acres) lost in the eight years prior to that.
Currently there are 54,000 hectares (133,000 acres) of mangrove spread across 18 forest formations along the Kenya’s coastline, according to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). In Gazi and Dabaso any mangroves cut must be licensed by the service, which consults with community forest associations that act as grass-roots protectors of the mangroves. Communities also provide guards for the mangroves, paid for by the forest service.
Mangrove conservation is important in the fight against climate change, and not just because mangroves can slow storm surges, prevent erosion, and lower disaster risk for coastal communities.
An Earth Watch study reported that 1 hectare of mangroves can sequester 1.36 tons of carbon in a year, equivalent to the annual emissions of six cars. Mangroves and other coastal vegetation like seagrasses and salt marsh grass, which are collectively known as blue carbon, can sequester carbon up to 100 times more effectively than terrestrial forests, one study shows.
Locals hope the carbon-absorbing properties of the trees will help produce more income for communities around Gazi Bay once a “payment for ecosystem services” scheme dubbed Mikoko Pamoja is assessed and certified by Plan Vivo, a charity working on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).
According to project coordinator Noel Mbaru, the project covers about one-fifth of the 615-hectare Gazi Bay Mangrove Forest. The scheme is expected to sell carbon credits equivalent to 3,000 tons each year, earning the community about $15,000.
Mikoko Pamoja also oversees the casuarinas woodlots, and aims to replenish degraded land with 4,000 mangroves annually for the next 20 years.
“If mangroves are destroyed, we won’t get any more money or educate our children, (so) we need to conserve them carefully,” said Hamadi of Gazi Women Mangrove.
• James Karuga is a Nairobi-based journalist interested in agriculture and climate change issues.
on: Today at 05:08 AM
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Organic farming buds in Laos
Boosting incomes in land-locked Laos means selling more value-added crops, such as organic fruits and vegetables.
By Simon Roughneen, Correspondent 8/29/2016
Vientiane, Laos — Every Wednesday, Sengphachan Phommaxay wakes at 4 a.m. and heads across town to the That Luang market in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
There she meets a truckload of papaya, onions, pumpkins, and more dispatched that morning from the 32-acre family farm 20 miles outside Vientiane in the green, sun-dappled countryside near the Mekong River.
As the sun comes up and orange-clad monks plod barefoot around the funereal Vientiane streets seeking alms, the 23-year-old business student at the Lao American College gets in some hands-on practice for life after graduation, selling the family's produce at Vientiane's main organic market.
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“10,000 kip for one kilo,” or $1.25 for just over two pounds, Ms. Sengphachan says, when asked how much the papaya costs. She expects to clear her stall by mid-morning, when the market winds down, but concedes that organic vegetables and fruits are a new thing for many Laotians.
“The population that takes organic vegetables is not that much, and the group that grows organic produce is not so big,” she says.
“The taste [of organic foods] is different, better. If you are used to eating organic vegetables, you will notice the difference,” says Sonethong Syhalath, who detours for some pumpkin and onion shopping while out for her early morning exercise. “The price is more expensive, but for the extra time it keeps and for the health it is worth [it] to pay more,” she explains.
One reason organic foods are more expensive is the extra work needed to get the vegetables from farm to market.
“The process and the difficulty is more than with ordinary vegetables, where you use pesticide, so that's why many people are not ready to turn to this farming,” says Sengphachan, handing Ms. Sonethong her change.
Around three-quarters of Laos' 6.5 million people live off the land, with agriculture making up about 25 percent of the country's $19.5 billion GDP (numbers adjusted for for purchasing power parity). The Laotian economy is small, about half the size of Cambodia's, and miniscule compared with Thailand's $662 billion or Vietnam's $325 billion GDPs.
Laos' main export earnings, and much of the country's recent 7 to 8 percent growth, come from mining and hydropower, industries that do not provide many jobs. Farming is expected to be the main employer for Laotians for the foreseeable future.
Laos is a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party, meaning that there is scant recourse for people to push for a change in economic policies that might benefit the wider population. Laos' restrictions on freedom of speech do not usually prompt much international criticism. But the disappearance a year ago of Sombath Somphone, a well-known activist who lobbied for the rights of Laos' rural poor, has drawn fire, with foreign governments criticizing Laos for not doing enough to help find the missing man.
Much of the agriculture here is subsistence, so boosting incomes in the countryside means selling more value-added crops, such as organic fruits and vegetables. But as the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, Laos faces additional costs in getting goods to markets overseas.
For farmers further inland, away from the border, those costs are raised by Laos' relatively primitive infrastructure.
“The roads in Laos need to be improved and developed," says Somphone Phasanvath, deputy head of the Lao Freight Forwarder company, which, as the name suggests, makes a living by helping companies forward goods from, say, Bangkok, Thailand, to Hanoi, Vietnam, a road trip that involves crossing Laos.
The Asian Development Bank, based in Manila, The Philippines, is “helping promote organic vegetable production” in Laos and Thailand, according to a paper by Rattanatay Luanglatbandith, an economist at the bank. With organic food consumption increasing five-fold in the last six years in Thailand, Laos has “enormous cross-border trade opportunities,” the bank says.
According to an October report by Transparency Market Research, the global demand for organic food and drink could jump from $70.7 billion in 2012 to $187.85 billion in 2019. But for farmers in Laos to get a foothold in bigger, often protected Western markets, the country's distance to a port presents an added burden.
Loumkham Vongsay owns a vegetable-processing factory near the Mekong River, about an hour's drive from Vientiane. It's another 20 minutes from the capital to the Laos-Thailand border. He buys organic corn from local farmers, which he processes before sending by road across the border to Thailand and on to Laem Chabang port, where the corn is shipped to buyers in Germany and Britain, where it appears, branded as organic, on supermarket shelves.
He could not export to Europe, however, without Laos being included in the European Union's preferential trade scheme for poor-country exporters.
“It costs around 50 percent more to send a container of corn from here to the port, compared with someone sending from the Thai side of the border,” he explains.
• Sengphachan Phommaxay and Sonethong Syhalath are pseudonyms. Both women asked that their real names not be used.
on: Today at 05:05 AM
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Why Airbus wants slime from green algae to fuel its planes
Algae grows faster and produces higher energy yields than other plants, but is much more expensive to turn into fuel than traditional petroleum byproducts.
By Ben Rosen, Staff 8/29/2016
Your next flight could be powered by slime. As long as you don't fly for a few decades.
Airbus researchers are growing algae for biofuel in tanks near Munich, just one in a growing number of efforts to make flying more environmentally sustainable.
But algae won't fuel the commercial flights any time soon, says researcher Thomas Brueck, an associate professor of industrial biocatalysis at Munich Technical University, who predicts algal biofuel could supply up to 5 percent of jet fuel needs by 2050.
“To substitute 100 percent of the kerosene use today, we will not do it with algae alone,” Professor Brueck told Reuters. “We need a combination of different technologies to actually enable that substitution.”
Because the aviation and shipping industries are on pace to contribute nearly half of all carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, algal fuel might not be the sole answer to curbing the airline industry’s fossil fuel addiction.
But these and other efforts to develop commercially practical biofuel point to an industry committed to discovering a sustainable solution.
Although emissions from air travel contribute only two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, they contribute about 12 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from all transportation sources, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor’s Olivia Lowenberg.
The growing popularity of air travel is expected to drive those numbers up. Aviation and shipping are expected to contribute 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, according to a study by University College London’s Energy Institute. Scientists around the world are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Airbus isn't the only company exploring biofuels. In 2008, Air New Zealand conducted a test flight of a Boeing 747-400 flown on a 50-50 mixture of biofuel made from jatropha oil, derived from the plant with the same name, and traditional jet fuel, according to The New York Times.
A few months later, Japan Air conducted test flights of planes also powered by a half-and-half mixture of biofuel and kerosene jet fuel. The biofuel was made up of 84 percent camelina oil, 16 percent jatropha oil and less than 1 percent algal pond scum, the Monitor reported at the time.
Solazyme, a California biotech firm, already produces algal jet fuel, in addition to algal-based diesel fuels for cars, trucks, and navy vessels, according to Popular Science.
Algal fuel offers advantages over biofuels like ethanol. Algae can grow 12 times faster than plants grown in soil, and it produces an oil yield about 30 times that of rapeseed. But turning algae into biofuel is expensive and technically challenging.
Growing algae requires much more carbon dioxide than other plants, according to Popular Science, which recommended either growing it near high-carbon sources such as coal-fired power plants, or genetically modifying it to need less CO2.
After it has grown, converting algae to biofuel requires removing plant cellulose from the biomass, an expensive process, reported the Monitor’s Cristina Maza. To do this, plants must sit in hot acid or under steam pressure, which requires an expensive grade of stainless steel.
Researchers are working to genetically modify plants to make it easier and cheaper to remove plant cellulose, writes Ms. Maza, but this might reduce their yield and make them more susceptible to pathogens or rust.
At the same time, oil prices are low, reducing incentives to develop biofuel, which can cost up to three times more than traditional fuels, reported the Monitor’s Ms. Lowenberg.
Regardless, Airbus has high hopes for its project.
“We are sure that over time we will make it possible to offer kerosene made of algae for a competitive price,” said a spokesman.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.