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« Reply #195 on: Jan 06, 2013, 09:14 AM »

Belgian nuclear plants approved for restart despite ‘potential cracks’

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 5, 2013 17:00 EST

Scientific experts have greenlighted the restart of two Belgian nuclear power plants despite signs of micro-cracks in reactor vessels, the daily Le Soir said Saturday.

No independent confirmation was immediately available from Belgium’s nuclear safety authority, AFCN.

Le Soir, which did not identify its sources, said “experts on material resistance who were asked for their opinion on the fate of the Tihange 2 and Doel 3 vessels have handed in a positive report.”

AFCN had said it would hand the government a report on whether to restart the reactors in mid-January. It has already received a positive report from the country’s Electrabel power utility.

Le Soir said the experts had however asked for “more intensive” checks.

Many “potential cracks” were found during inspections early last year at the base of the reactor vessel at Doel 3, near the northern city of Antwerp, which was closed in June, as well as at Tihange 2, near the southern city of Liege.

It was halted in August for investigation after the problems at Doel came to light.

The reactor vessels, housing the nuclear core, were built in the 1970s by the Dutch firm Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM), which has since ceased business.

RDM equipped some 20 nuclear plants, half of them in Europe.

Earlier this year, the Belgian nuclear regulator said the problems in the Doel 3 reactor likely dated back to its construction and while there was little risk for the present, there was “a malaise given the large number” of defects.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan has increased sensitivity over the safety of nuclear energy, with Germany deciding to phase out its plants.

The EU counts 147 reactors in 14 countries, with more than a third of the total in France which depends almost entirely on nuclear generators for electricity.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #196 on: Jan 06, 2013, 09:15 AM »

France to use algae to create green buildings

By Samantha Kimmey

Friday, January 4, 2013 22:56 EST

France will soon move forward with an effort to use algae to make buildings more energy efficient and help the country meet quickly-approaching environmental goals, reported Al Jazeera English.

“Jean-Louie Kindler wants to breed algae in tubes on roofs and sides of apartment and office blocks, starting with his own. Nourished on the impurities from their taps and toilets, the algae will turn the waste back into pure water,” the news outlet reported.

French regulations stipulate that buildings should “recycle their own water and produce more energy than they consume” by 2020, according to Al Jazeera.

The micro-algae grows in the waste water, then the algae is taken out and turned into a source of energy, according to Kindler.

While it is set to be used commercially in a few months, the technology to turn the algae into methane — steam energy — isn’t “in place.”

France has so far not been able to keep pace with Germany and Scandanavian countries when it comes to green buildings, but it aims to play catch up now.

Watch the video, via Al Jazeera English, below.
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« Reply #197 on: Jan 06, 2013, 09:18 AM »

Study says El Nino, climate change link fuzzy

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 3, 2013 19:40 EST

The frequency and volatility of El Nino, a weather pattern that hammers the tropical Pacific Ocean every five years or so, does not seem linked to climate change, said US research released Thursday.

The study involved scientists measuring the monthly growth of ancient coral fossils found on two tropical Pacific islands to determine what, if any, impact the warming climate had on the weather phenomenon.

By reconstructing temperatures and precipitation over the millenniums, the study compared it to the frequency and intensity of El Nino and found that the latter had indeed become more intense and frequent in the 20th century.

But although the increase was statistically significant and could be linked to climate change, the long historic record provided by the coral fossils allowed the researchers to determine that the El Nino Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, has also had large natural variations in past centuries.

Thus, it is not clear that changes seen in recent decades can be linked to climate change caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide, the researchers said.

“The level of ENSO variability we see in the 20th century is not unprecedented,” said climatologist Professor Kim Cobb, from the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“But the 20th century does stand out, statistically, as being higher than the fossil coral baseline,” she added.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Science. Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Minnesota also contributed to the study.

El Nino occurs every two to seven years, when the trade winds that circulate surface water in the tropical Pacific start to weaken.

A mass of warm water builds in the western Pacific and eventually rides over to the eastern side of the ocean, causing a major shift in rainfall, bringing floods and mudslides to usually arid countries in the region.

El Nino is ushered out by a cold phase, La Nina, which usually occurs the following year.

* Planet-Earth-via-AFP.jpg (49.78 KB, 615x345 - viewed 160 times.)
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« Reply #198 on: Jan 08, 2013, 07:43 AM »

Australia wildfires rage as temperatures reach 'catastrophic' level

Sydney suffers power outages as temperature hits 41C, with 100 residents still missing in Tasmania and national parks evacuated

Agencies, Tuesday 8 January 2013 08.33 GMT   

Five of Australia's six states combat fires on Tuesday after the country's fiercest heatwave in more than 80 years Link to this video

Firefighters battled scores of wildfires raging across south-east Australia on Tuesday as authorities evacuated national parks and warned that blistering temperatures and high winds had led to "catastrophic" conditions in some areas.

No deaths had been reported, although officials in Tasmania were still trying to find about 100 residents who have been missing since a fire tore through the small town of Dunalley, east of the state capital of Hobart, last week, destroying around 90 homes. On Tuesday, police said no bodies were found during preliminary checks of the ruined houses.

"We are shaping up for one of the worst fire danger days on record," the New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said. "You don't get conditions worse than this. We are at the catastrophic level and clearly in those areas leaving early is your safest option."

Catastrophic threat level is the most severe rating applicable.

Wildfires have razed 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of forests and farmland across southern Tasmania since Friday. In New South Wales (NSW), the country's most populous state, the fires had burned through more than 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) of land.

Fire officials declared five areas of southern NSW as catastrophic, meaning if fires ignited they could not be controlled, and advised people to evacuate.

"We grabbed the photo albums, suitcases, clothes and jewellery and ended up getting out while we could," said Hallie Fernandez who runs a bed and breakfast motel at Brogo, where an out-of-control bushfire was burning.

Strong winds were hampering efforts to bring the fires under control. Wind gusts more than 62mph were recorded in some parts of the state.

In Australia's biggest city, Sydney, where the temperature hit 41.8C (107F), thousands flocked to the city's beaches, while zookeepers hosed down animals to help them cope with temperatures that tested national records.

The blistering heat also caused a blaze at a nuclear research facility in southern Sydney after cabling overheated in a nearby electricity substation, while thousands of homes in the city's north experienced power outages due to soaring demand.

In the outback city of Broken Hill, the mercury hit 45.1C (113F), while the country's biggest highway between Sydney and Melbourne was cut off by fires in the township of Tarcutta.

"The heat has been so intense that tar on the road has been melting and sticking to my shoes," retired Australian journalist Malcolm Brown said from central NSW.

The record heatwave forced the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to extend its extreme temperature limit, adding new pink and purple colours to forecast maps to allow for temperatures of above 54C (129F).
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« Reply #199 on: Jan 08, 2013, 08:03 AM »

January 7, 2013

Oil Sands Industry in Canada Tied to Higher Carcinogen Level


OTTAWA — The development of Alberta’s oil sands has increased levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes well beyond natural levels, Canadian researchers reported in a study released on Monday. And they said the contamination covered a wider area than had previously been believed.

For the study, financed by the Canadian government, the researchers set out to develop a historical record of the contamination, analyzing sediment dating back about 50 years from six small and shallow lakes north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, the center of the oil sands industry. Layers of the sediment were tested for deposits of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, groups of chemicals associated with oil that in many cases have been found to cause cancer in humans after long-term exposure.

“One of the biggest challenges is that we lacked long-term data,” said John P. Smol, the paper’s lead author and a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “So some in industry have been saying that the pollution in the tar sands is natural, it’s always been there.”

The researchers found that to the contrary, the levels of those deposits have been steadily rising since large-scale oil sands production began in 1978.

Samples from one test site, the paper said, now show 2.5 to 23 times more PAHs in current sediment than in layers dating back to around 1960.

“We’re not saying these are poisonous ponds,” Professor Smol said. “But it’s going to get worse. It’s not too late but the trend is not looking good.” He said that the wilderness lakes studied by the group were now contaminated as much as lakes in urban centers.

The study is likely to provide further ammunition to critics of the industry, who already contend that oil extracted from Canada’s oil sands poses environmental hazards like toxic sludge ponds, greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of boreal forests.

Battles are also under way over the proposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move the oil down through the western United States and down to refineries along the Gulf Coast, or an alternative pipeline that would transport the oil from landlocked Alberta to British Columbia for export to Asia.

The researchers, who included scientists at Environment Canada’s aquatic contaminants research division, chose to test for PAHs because they had been the subject of earlier studies, including one published in 2009 that analyzed the distribution of the chemicals in snowfall north of Fort McMurray. That research drew criticism from the government of Alberta and others for failing to provide a historical baseline.

“Now we have the smoking gun,” Professor Smol said.

He said he was not surprised that the analysis found a rise in PAH deposits after the industrial development of the oil sands, “but we needed the data.” He said he had not entirely expected, however, to observe the effect at the most remote test site, a lake that is about 50 miles to the north.

Asked about the study, Adam Sweet, a spokesman for Peter Kent, Canada’s environment minister, emphasized in an e-mail that with the exception of one lake very close to the oil sands, the levels of contaminants measured by the researchers “did not exceed Canadian guidelines and were low compared to urban areas.”

He added that an environmental monitoring program for the region announced last February 2012 was put into effect “to address the very concerns raised by such studies” and to “provide an improved understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development.”

Earlier research has suggested several different ways that the chemicals could spread. Most oil sand production involve large-scale open-bit mining. The chemicals may become wind-borne when giant excavators dig them up and then deposit them into 400-ton dump trucks.

Upgraders at some oil sands projects that separate the oil bitumen from its surrounding sand are believed to emit PAHs. And some scientists believe that vast ponds holding wastewater from that upgrading and from other oil sand processes may be leaking PAHs and other chemicals into downstream bodies of water.

* 08sands-articleLarge-v2.jpg (96.31 KB, 600x370 - viewed 168 times.)
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« Reply #200 on: Jan 08, 2013, 08:20 AM »

Environmentalists urge Obama to block Keystone XL and act on climate change

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Monday, January 7, 2013 19:49 EST

More than 70 environmental groups called on Barack Obama to take the lead on climate change on Monday, urging him to shut down ageing power plants and block a controversial tar sands pipeline project.

In an open letter (PDF), environmental groups reminded Obama of his promise to act on climate change in his second term – and then laid out three specific actions including shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline.

About 50 protesters tried to occupy the Houston offices of TransCanada Corp, the company building the pipeline, on Monday. Two were reportedly arrested.

The letter said that at the very least, Obama should lead the public debate on how to protect American cities and coastlines from climate change. “Raise your voice,” the letter said. “Lead the public discussion of what we need to do as a nation to both prepare for the changes in climate that are no longer avoidable and avoid changes in climate that are unacceptable. ”

The letter, though largely positive in tone, represents a change of strategy for environmental groups at the start of Obama’s second term.

After mixed results in Obama’s first four years, environmental groups appear to have come to the conclusion they need to be more vocal about demanding action from the White House, to keep climate change from slipping off the president’s second term agenda.

The letter urged Obama to set new pollution controls for existing power plants. A report released last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council set out a plan for cutting carbon emissions from power plants 26% by the end of the decade.

The open letter also pressed Obama to put a stop to the Keystone XL pipeline project, designed to pump crude from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Obama put a hold on final approval of the pipeline early last year, but industry and environmental groups expect a decision early in his second term.

“We should not pursue dirty fuels like tar sands,” the open letter said. “The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in our national interest because it would unlock vast amounts of additional carbon that we can’t afford to burn.”

Since the election, environmental groups have grown increasingly concerned about how to hold Obama to his commitment to act on climate change.

Obama, on the night of his re-election, ranked climate change as one of the three priorities of his second term. The devastation of superstorm Sandy also brought climate change back into the public conversation.

But some environmental leaders said they feared those opportunities could slip away, with Obama caught up in other pressing issues such as gun control or immigration.

They are also keen to avoid their own mis-steps of Obama’s first term. Early in Obama’s administration, the larger environmental groups in particular fell into line with a White House strategy of avoiding direct discussion of climate change – ostensibly to avoid a political backlash from industry groups.

Environmental leaders now concede that policy of “climate silence” was a mistake – one they do not want to replicate in an Obama second term. © Guardian News and Media 2013
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« Reply #201 on: Jan 08, 2013, 08:22 AM »

Giant squid filmed in Pacific depths: scientists

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 7, 2013 6:35 EST

TOKYO — Scientists and broadcasters said Monday they have captured footage of an elusive giant squid roaming the depths of the Pacific Ocean, showing it in its natural habitat for the first time ever.

Japan’s National Science Museum succeeded in filming the deep-sea creature at a depth of more than half a kilometre (a third of a mile) after teaming up with Japanese public broadcaster NHK and the US Discovery Channel.

The massive invertebrate is the stuff of legend, with sightings of a huge ocean-dwelling beast reported by sailors for centuries.

The creature is thought to be the genesis of the Nordic legend of Kraken, a sea monster believed to have attacked ships in waters off Scandinavia over the last millennium.

Modern-day scientists on their own Moby Dick-style search used a submersible to descend to the dark and cold depths of the northern Pacific Ocean, where at around 630 metres (2,066 feet) they managed to film a three-metre specimen.

After around 100 missions, during which they spent 400 hours in the cramped submarine, the three-man crew tracked the creature from a spot some 15 kilometres (nine miles) east of Chichi island in the north Pacific.

Museum researcher Tsunemi Kubodera said they followed the enormous mollusc to a depth of 900 metres as it swam into the ocean abyss.

NHK showed footage of the silver-coloured creature, which had huge black eyes, as it swam against the current, holding a bait squid in its arms.

For Kubodera it was the culmination of a lengthy quest for the beast.

“It was shining and so beautiful,” Kubodera told AFP. “I was so thrilled when I saw it first hand, but I was confident we would because we rigorously researched the areas we might find it, based on past data.”

Kubodera said the creature had its two longest arms missing, and estimated it would have been eight metres long if it had been whole. He gave no explanation for its missing arms.

He said it was the first video footage of a live giant squid in its natural habitat — the depths of the sea where there is little oxygen and the weight of the water above exerts enormous pressure.

Kubodera, a squid specialist, also filmed what he says was the first live video footage of a giant squid in 2006, but only from his boat after it was hooked and brought up to the surface.

“Researchers around the world have tried to film giant squid in their natural habitats, but all attempts were in vain before,” Kubodera said.

“With this footage we hope to discover more about the life of the species,” he said, adding that he planned to publish his findings soon.

Kubodera said the two successful sightings of the squid — in 2012 and 2006 — were both in the same area, some 1,000 kilometres south of Tokyo, suggesting it could be a major habitat for the species.

The giant squid, “Architeuthis” to scientists, is sometimes described as one of the last mysteries of the ocean, being part of a world so hostile to humans that it has been little explored.

Researchers say Architeuthis eats other types of squid and grenadier, a species of fish that lives in the deep ocean. They say it can grow to be longer than 10 metres.

NHK said it and the Discovery Channel are scheduled to air special documentaries on the find later this month.

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« Reply #202 on: Jan 08, 2013, 09:21 AM »

Wanted by Interpol, ‘Sea Shepherd’ founder Paul Watson passes the reins

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 7:24 EST

The fugitive founder of Sea Shepherd has stepped down from key roles at the militant anti-whaling group, passing the Antarctic harpoon chase mantle to a former Australian politician.

Canadian Paul Watson is wanted by Interpol after skipping bail last July in Germany, where he was arrested on Costa Rican charges relating to a high-seas confrontation over shark finning in 2002.

Due to a raft of legal issues he has stepped down as president of the group in the US and Australia, and as captain of flagship anti-hunt vessel the “Steve Irwin”, although he will remain with the fleet during this year’s campaign.

Watson’s whereabouts had been a mystery until December, when he confirmed that he was back on board a Sea Shepherd vessel and ready for the group’s annual Southern Ocean expedition against the Japanese whaling fleet.

Sea Shepherd said he would take a back seat in the chase, with Bob Brown — founder and long-time chief of Australia’s environmentally minded Greens party — to direct operations.

The Steve Irwin will be captained by Indian sailor Siddharth Chakravarty, formerly the ship’s first officer, with Watson to “remain aboard to document the campaign”.

“I am honoured to serve the great whales of the Southern Ocean and Sea Shepherd in this way,” said Brown, a renowned conservationist.

Sea Shepherd Australia director Jeff Hansen will co-direct the campaign, and said the change in leadership was a natural evolution given the Australian chapter’s heavy involvement and the continent’s proximity to Antarctica.

Hansen said Watson’s legal problems had played a part in the decision.

“We obviously always want to stay within the law in everything that we do, and in order for us to stay within the law Sea Shepherd Australia is taking over the leadership of this campaign, the management of this campaign and Paul will step down from the board in Australia and in America,” Hansen told AFP.

Under a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Sea Shepherd must stay at least 500 yards (metres) from whaling vessels and is prohibited from physically confronting any vessel engaged by the Japanese.

They are also banned from “navigating in a manner that is likely to endanger the safe navigation of any such vessel” under the court’s order, issued last month.

Sea Shepherd claims to have saved the lives of 4,000 whales over the past eight whaling seasons, mounting ever-greater campaigns of harassment against the Japanese harpoon fleet.

They say this year’s will be its biggest yet, involving four ships, a helicopter, three drones and more than 100 crew members.

Tokyo claims it catches whales for scientific research — a loophole in the international ban on whaling — but makes no secret of the fact that they ultimately end up on dinner plates.

The whaling fleet left Japan for the Southern Ocean in late December, planning to catch up to 935 Antarctic minke whales and up to 50 fin whales.

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« Reply #203 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:31 AM »

Barack Obama 'seriously considering' hosting climate summit

Campaign groups say US president could use bipartisan summit to launch a national climate strategy

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Wednesday 9 January 2013 12.44 GMT   

President Barack Obama arrives at announcement in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House
Barack Obama listed climate change among the top three priorities of his second term. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Barack Obama may intervene directly on climate change by hosting a summit at the White House early in his second term, environmental groups say.

They say the White House has given encouraging signals to a proposal for Obama to use the broad-based and bipartisan summit to launch a national climate action strategy.

"What we talked about with the White House is using it as catalyst not just for the development of a national strategy but for mobilising people all over the country at every level," said Bob Doppelt, executive director of the Resource Innovation Group, the Oregon-based thinktank that has been pushing for the high-level meeting. He said it would not be a one-off event.

"What I think has excited the White House is that it does put the president in a leadership role, but it is not aimed at what Congress can do, or what he can do per se, so much as it is aimed at apprising the American public about how they can act."

Campaign groups and major donors have been pushing Obama to outline a strategy on climate change, in the wake of his re-election and superstorm Sandy.

Jeremy Symons, senior vice-president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), said Obama needed to give a clear indication early on of what he intended to do on climate change – ideally before the State of the Union address when presidents typically outline their agenda.

"The clock is ticking. The threat is urgent, and we would like to see a commitment in time for the president to address it in the State of the Union address," Symons said. "That would be the window I see. We can't wait forever."

The proposed summit, as envisaged by Doppelt, would be centred on Washington but would be linked up with similar events occurring in communities across the country on the same day. It would take place within the first few months of Obama's second term.

Doppelt said he has had a number of exchanges with White House staff about the summit, and he believed the proposal was under "very serious consideration". The White House would not respond to requests for comment.

Obama listed climate change among the top three priorities of his second term. He gave private assurances to donors at a White House event in early December the issue remains on his agenda.

But there is growing concern among campaign groups and fellow Democrats that Obama has yet to come up with a clear plan for deploying government agencies to protect against future events like Sandy, or for rallying the public behind a strategy to cut emissions.

The political opportunity created by Sandy could be slipping away, said Betsy Taylor, an environmental consultant in Washington DC. "We are disappointed that he hasn't talked or used his bully pulpit. When he went to New York after Sandy he said almost nothing about climate change," she said. "In the very short-term there was an opportunity post-Sandy but I don't think it has been seized."

Unlike Obama's first term, when the larger campaign groups in particular seemed reluctant to force the climate issue, environmental leaders say they intend to keep up the pressure on the White House.

Democrats in Congress are also moving more forcefully to keep climate change on the public radar. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate environment and public works committee, said this month she was reviving efforts to pass climate change legislation, focused on strengthening coastal communities against future superstorms.

"People are coming up to me. They really want to get into this. I think Sandy changed a lot of minds," Boxer told reporters, announcing the launch of a climate change caucus to push for legislation. "I think you're going to see a lot of bills on climate change," she said.

Meanwhile, Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, committed to delivering weekly speeches on climate change from the Senate floor. The senator said in a statement he wanted to counteract "a concerted rearguard action to manufacture doubt about scientific concepts that happen to be economically inconvenient to the biggest polluting industries".

But environmental groups say Obama still needs to come up with a plan. "What NWF members are asking for is a clear commitment and a plan from the president to make tackling climate change a priority in his second term, with concrete steps forward. A summit can be an important part of bringing that together, but it's not the end goal," said Symons. "First and foremost President Obama needs a plan."
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« Reply #204 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:34 AM »

US government sued over endangered sea turtles

The US has failed to take urgent steps for loggerheads' survival, required by the Endangered Species Act, says the lawsuit

Reuters, Wednesday 9 January 2013 10.09 GMT   

Three environmental groups sued the US government on Tuesday for what they said was Washington's failure to take urgent steps to ensure the survival of endangered loggerhead turtles.

"Loggerhead sea turtles are among the most imperiled of sea turtle species and have experienced alarming declines in recent years," said the lawsuit filed in US district court for the Northern District of California.

The lawsuit said loggerheads were already being pushed to the brink of extinction and that the government had failed to comply with deadlines set under the Endangered Species Act to establish protected areas or "critical habitat" for loggerhead sea turtle populations.

The suit, brought by the Centre for Biological Diversity, Oceana Inc and Turtle Island Restoration, cited the destruction or degradation of nesting and foraging habitats, pollution including oil spills, climate change and sea level rise among other threats to the long-term survival of the marine turtles.

"Loggerhead sea turtles face numerous, ongoing threats in waters off the coasts of California and Hawaii, along the continental shelf off the eastern seaboard from Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, south through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico," it said.

A government spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The legal complaint said the "incidental capture, injury and death by commercial fishing fleets" posed another clear danger to the loggerheads.

Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are found in US waters. The marine reptiles live mostly in the ocean and often migrate long distances, but adult females return to land to lay their eggs along beaches.

Florida beaches have the largest nesting population of loggerheads in the United States but face increasing threats from coastal development.

According to the Centre for Biological Diversity, Northern Pacific loggerheads, have seen the most startling population decline in recent years. They nest in Japan, and cross the Pacific to feed along the coasts of Southern California and Mexico, and have declined by at least 80% over the past decade.

Defendants named in the lawsuit include the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The services are depriving this critically imperiled species of significant legal protections that are important for its conservation and recovery, especially in light of the continuing negative effects of climate change and commercial fishing activities which include the use of harmful longlines, trawls and gillnets," the lawsuit said.

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« Reply #205 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:36 AM »

2012 was the warmest year on record for U.S., second worst for extreme weather

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 15:23 EST

2012 marked the warmest year on record for the United States and was also the second most extreme weather year yet recorded, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

The hot weather contributed to a record drought which, at its peak, parched 61 percent of the nation.

Those dry conditions helped spark massive wildfires which charred 9.2 million acres — the third highest on record, NOAA said.

The nation suffered through 11 weather disasters that caused $1 billion in damage, including hurricanes Sandy and Isaac and tornado outbreaks in the Great Plains, Texas and Ohio Valley.

Every one of the 48 states in the continental United States had an above-average annual temperature in 2012 and 19 of those broke records.

The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3 F (12.9 C) which is 3.2°F above the 20th century average, and 1.0°F above 1998, the previous warmest year.

The nationally-averaged precipitation total of 26.57 inches (67.5 centimeters) was 2.57 inches (6.5 centimeters) below average and the 15th driest year on record.

This was also the driest year for the nation since 1988, when 25.25 inches (64.1 centimeters) of precipitation were observed.

Meanwhile, 2012 was the third year in a row with 19 named tropical storms, 10 of which packed hurricane strength. One was a major hurricane.
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« Reply #206 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:39 AM »

United Airlines halts transport of monkeys for lab tests

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 19:30 EST

Animal rights activists claimed a major victory Tuesday in their campaign to stop global airlines from transporting monkeys for use in laboratory experiments.

In a statement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it had been told by United Airlines that it would ban the transport of primates to laboratories under the terms of its cargo policy.

“The new policy reads, ‘We do not book, accept or transport primates to or from medical research facilities’,” it said.

United Airlines, responding to an email from AFP, confirmed that it would no longer transport what it called “non-human primates” to or from medical labs in the United States or abroad.

It also said it did not ship primates between zoos and other sanctuaries within the United States.

With Air Canada in the process of implementing a similar ban, PETA said “not a single major airline based in North America” will now deliver monkeys to labs where they are liable to be used in experiments.

“PETA will continue to pressure the few overseas airlines — now numbering only four — that continue this inhumane practice,” said PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo.

PETA identified the four as Air France, China Eastern Airlines, Philippine Airlines and Vietnam Airlines.

United previously banned the shipping of primates, but came under pressure from PETA supporters when it merged in 2010 with Continental Airlines, which did allow for such shipments.

Getting airlines to cease transporting primates is part of PETA’s broader campaign against the use of animals for lab tests.

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« Reply #207 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:41 AM »

01/09/2013 12:01 PM

Artificial Resuscitation: Pumping New Life into Brackish Baltic Sea

By Laura Höflinger

Polluted and virtually cut off from the restorative flow of other bodies of water, Europe's Baltic Sea is slowly running out of oxygen. But one scientist hopes to artificially oxygenate it with pumps. Critics worry there could be unforeseen consequences.

The thin ice crunches as the cutter breaks through, chugging along at a leisurely pace to the middle of the fjord. In the wheelhouse, Anders Stigebrandt has his steel blue eyes locked on the screen in front of him. He's in a great mood. It's been another good day of outsmarting nature.

The boat passes a few red wooden houses on the shore beyond the Swedish port city of Uddevalla, where too much industrial sewage has been allowed too drain into the fjord.

The nutrients contained in the runoff of fertilizers, sewage sludge and liquid manure all encourage the growth of algae. When the algae later dies, it sinks to the sea floor, where it decomposes with the help of micro-organisms, which consume the oxygen of the deep in the process. In turn, fish, mussels and crustaceans disappear from these oxygen-poor areas.

The Byfjord on Sweden's west coast serves as Stigebrandt's model for the largest marine death zone ever created by humans -- a 60,000 square kilometer patch of the Baltic Sea floor. Over the years, some 20 million tons of nitrogen and 2 million tons of phosphorus have flowed into the semi-enclosed sea, and it is slowly running out of life-giving oxygen.

Stigebrandt wants to artificially aerate it, and his experiment in the fjord is intended as the start of a much larger project in the Baltic.

Big Plans for the Baltic

His two colleagues jump onto a raft anchored in the water, where two pumps with propellers as large as cement mixers are rotating above the surface. They are pushing water masses into the depths below.

At this location the fjord is around 40 meters (131 feet) deep. From the shore, the sea floor drops rapidly to form a basin, and the conditions are comparable to those in the Baltic Sea, where the water near the surface has more oxygen and less salt than the water below. Due to the difference in salt content, the two layers hardly mix naturally at all.

The propellers whir, and the apparatus sounds like an oversized aquarium. Slowly, the pumps begin to mix the water layers, bringing more oxygen to the deep and more salt to shallower depths. This helps the water to mix better. But Stigebrandt is also hoping to take advantage of another effect: When oxygen is present on the sea floor, it also helps to bind the phosphates that are so damaging to sea life populations to the sediments -- thus reducing the amount of phosphorus found in the water column.

Next, Stigebrandt wants to test the pumps in the Baltic Sea, preferably powered by wind. Swedish authorities have funded his initial experiment with some €230,000 ($302,000). It is estimated that oxygenating the Baltic Sea would require around 100 pump stations, and would come at a cost of around €200 million.

Doubts About Environmental Benefits

Stigebrandt's biggest critic, Daniel Conley, says he finds the experiment fascinating, but hopes the idea never comes to fruition. "Of course it could work," says the biochemistry professor at Sweden's Lund University. "We sent people to the moon and dried up one of China's largest lakes. If we wanted to, we could oxygenate the entire Baltic Sea." But, he adds, it would likely never be the same.

The oceanographer warns that a lower salt content on the sea floor could drive marine life away. "It's possible the codfish would cease to spawn," Conley says. Furthermore, toxins from the sediment that has thus far been resting on the sea floor could be introduced into the food chain -- poisons such as DDT, an insecticide that was banned in Germany in 1972.

"That's ridiculous," Stigebrandt says, adding that his group has examined the project's risks closely. Far more remarkable, he says, are the results of the testing in the fjord, where sea worms have settled in because there is now enough oxygen for them to inhabit the area. Certainly his critics could have wished for nothing more, the scientist adds.

Unpredictable Sea

At the same time, it is also true that immense water circulation can still occur naturally in the Baltic, which is connected to the North Sea via small straits. When wind conditions are favorable, oxygen-rich water flows in, although this has been happening less frequently in recent decades.

In the 1980s, countries that border the Baltic Sea coast began modernizing sewage systems and restricting excessive fertilization by farmers. The result was that fewer nutrients have been drained into the water, but it is likely the state of the inland sea will only change slowly over the next 50 to 100 years. The intent was to make the waters ecologically sound again by 2021.

Advocates of the artificial oxygenation like Stigebrandt argue that waiting alone won't suffice and urge that action be taken. Similar experiments involving pumps are being conducted in the Gulf of Finland. And in the Stockholm archipelago, another group is testing a chemical in the water that has been used to purify sewage. Nevertheless, none of these projects eliminates the root cause of the glut of nutrients in the water.

As to the question of what the effects the project would have on the ecosystem, both supporters and critics are cautious. The sea is unpredictable, they say.

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« Reply #208 on: Jan 10, 2013, 08:02 AM »

Australian firefighters race to beat rising heat and out-of-control fires

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 10, 2013 6:48 EST

Australian firefighters raced to control a series of blazes on Thursday before a forecast rise in temperatures brings the risk of more infernos, as dramatic accounts of survival emerged.

Fires have been raging across southeast Australia for nearly a week. While many have been contained, 120 are still burning and at least 17 remain out of control in the country’s most populous state, New South Wales.

Cooler weather that brought some relief on Wednesday continued in many parts Thursday. But temperatures are set to soar again to well over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Friday, piling pressure on firefighters.

In Tasmania residents of the fishing village of Dunalley, where 90 homes and businesses were destroyed, could be allowed to go home Friday, police said, as gripping stories of survival emerged.

“We saw tornadoes of fire just coming across towards us and the next thing we knew everything was on fire, everywhere all around us,” Tim Holmes, who took refuge in the sea under a jetty with his five young grandchildren, told the ABC.

“We were all just heads, water up to our chins just trying to breathe because… the atmosphere was so incredibly toxic.”

The family survived but are now homeless.

NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said crews were working flat-out containing blazes before the heat returned.

“It’s about focusing on getting as much contained and consolidated as we can ahead of a return to hotter and dryer conditions dominating much of NSW over the coming days,” Fitzsimmons told ABC television.

“We’re looking at temperatures across much of NSW into low-to-mid 40s and extending into the high 40s on Saturday.

“The only reprieve, if you can call it that, is that we are not expecting significant wind strengths to build.”

The blazes have scorched more than 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of land in New South Wales alone, with one fire burning just two kilometres (1.2 miles) from a former weapons range littered with unexploded bombs.

The 5,840-hectare Deans Gap fire is near the Tianjara plateau which, until the mid-1970s, was used by the army as a practice bombing range.

“If it was required they’d be looking to put in a firebreak in that area,” a New South Wales Rural Fire Service spokeswoman told AFP.

Were the flames to reach the plateau south of Sydney, it could complicate firefighting efforts, with the unexploded bombs making water-drops impossible.

The fires are so large they can be seen from space, with astronaut Chris Hadfield uploading images of “streamers of smoke visible all across the country” to Twitter from the International Space Station.

While more than 100 homes were razed by fires in Tasmania state last weekend, only a handful have since been destroyed nationwide and no deaths have been reported.

The biggest impact has been on farmers, with vast amounts of pasture, crops and animal feed lost, as well as thousands of head of stock and sheds and outbuildings.

One of the worst-hit areas is Yass Shire west of Canberra where a fire has so far burnt out 16,000 hectares and killed 10,000 sheep.

As well as New South Wales, fires continue to burn in the states of Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation’s worst natural disaster of modern times.

Most are ignited naturally, but in Sydney’s west three teenage boys were charged with deliberately lighting a fire on Tuesday, and on Wednesday a man was charged after sparks from his angle grinder caused a blaze.
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« Reply #209 on: Jan 10, 2013, 08:03 AM »

Worst storms in decade bring parts of the Middle East to near standstill

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 10, 2013 6:38 EST

The worst storms in a decade left swathes of Israel and Jordan under a blanket of snow and parts of Lebanon blacked out on Thursday, bringing misery to a region accustomed to temperate climates.

Freezing temperatures and floods since Sunday across the region have claimed at least 11 lives and exacerbated the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees huddled in tented camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

But for students in countries battered by the snow, rain and bitter winds, the storms meant they could cut classes as authorities ordered schools and universities closed in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan Israel.

With snow blanketing the war-hit Syrian capital Damascus, the education ministry Thursday announced that mid-term exams would be postponed in the country until further notice due to “the prevailing weather conditions.”

In Jordan, a blizzard brought the country to a near halt, as snow blocked most of roads in Amman and other parts in the desert kingdom, police said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II ordered the army to support the government, which declared Thursday a public holiday, in opening roads and helping those stranded in the snow, the palace said.

The storm has also triggered power blackouts in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

In Lebanon parts of the country were plunged into darkness, leaving those who rely on electricity to heat their homes shivering.

Officials and residents blamed the outage on the storm and an open-ended strike by employees of the state-run Electricite du Liban power company over salaries and pension issues.

“There is a storm, and there is a problem in the grid. The electricity workers are on strike, and they’re not letting anyone fix the problem,” Lebanese Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil told AFP on Thursday.

Residents of several Beirut districts and in snow-capped mountain areas reported via social network sites that the blackout began on Wednesday night affecting electrical supply, heating and hot water boilers.

“Our boiler works with electricity, so of course we have no hot water,” said Elsa, a housekeeper living in Beirut, adding that her family has been struggling to find ways to keep warm.

The storm also highlighted the poor infrastructure in Lebanon where chronic power shortages since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war have been a main source of grievance among Lebanese who must put up with daily rationing.

A Beirut international airport weather expert said the storm is the worst ever to have hit Lebanon while other met officials in the region said it was the worst in 10 years.

Media reports said the cold weather originated in Russia, with one daily dubbing the storm “Olga”.

At least 11 people have reportedly been killed in the region, including a man who froze to death after he fell asleep drunk in his car in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley and a baby swept away in a flash flood in the centre of the country.

In the Palestinian territories, officials reported four fatalities since Tuesday, one of them a woman in the southern West Bank village of Jabaa who died from a fire she started in her home to keep warm.

The storm also took a heavy toll on regional economies.

The Manufacturers Association of Israel said the storm was set to cost the country’s industry at least about 300 million shekels ($80 million/60 million euros) in damages, most of it due to flooding.

Three days of driving rains and strong winds that struck normally warm Egypt paralysed activity, including in most ports, with the commercial harbour in Alexandria on the Mediterranean sea worst affected, officials said.

Snow was even seen capping the northwestern Tabuk region of the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where roads leading to Mount Alluz were packed with motorists excited at the sight of rare snow.

But for children across the region, including in Holy City of Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah, the snow was a godsend which saw youngsters — and no shortage of adults — rush outside to make snowmen and enjoy snowball fights.
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