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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the climate, ecology and environment topic  (Read 64672 times)
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« Reply #240 on: Jan 19, 2013, 08:28 AM »

Amazon rainforest showing signs of degradation due to climate change, NASA warns

By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
Saturday, January 19, 2013 1:21 EST

Rainforest area twice the size of California experiencing drought rate that is unprecedented in a century, study shows

The US space agency Nasa warned this week that the Amazon rainforest may be showing the first signs of large-scale degradation due to climate change.

A team of scientists led by the agency found that an area twice the size of California continues to suffer from a mega-drought that began eight years ago.

The new study shows the severe dry spell in 2005 caused far wider damage than previously estimated and its impact persisted longer than expected until an even harsher drought in 2010.

With little time for the trees to recover between what the authors describe as a “double whammy”, 70m hectares of forest have been severely affected, the analysis of 10 years of satellite microwave radar data revealed.

The data showed a widespread change in the canopy due to the dieback of branches, especially among the older, larger trees that are most vulnerable because they provide the shelter for other vegetation.

“We had expected the forest canopy to bounce back after a year with a new flush of leaf growth, but the damage appeared to persist right up to the subsequent drought in 2010,” said study co-author Yadvinder Malhi of Oxford University.

The Amazon is experiencing a drought rate that is unprecedented in a century, said the agency. Even before 2005, water availability had been shrinking steadily for more than 10 years, which made the trees more vulnerable. Between 2005 and 2010, localised dry spells added to the problem.

The leader of the research team, Sassan Saatchi of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said forests will find it increasingly difficult to recover if climate change makes droughts more frequent and severe.

“This may alter the structure and function of Amazonian rainforest ecosystems,” he warned.

Nasa has been monitoring the Amazon for more than 40 years. Images it released last year showed the dramatic impacts of man-made deforestation over that period.

Although the speed of forest clearance has slowed, the Amazon continues to shrink in area. The latest study suggests the quality as well as the quantity of forest is declining due to extreme climate conditions.

 © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #241 on: Jan 19, 2013, 08:29 AM »

Spotted salamander first solar-powered vertebrate discovered

By Samantha Kimmey
Friday, January 18, 2013 17:27 EST

While scientists have known about multiple animals that can turn sunlight into energy, they haven’t been sure that any vertebrate could do so — until now.

As far back as 1888, a biologist found that the eggs of a spotted salamander contained a kind of green algae, but now firm evidence now exists that the animal is powered by the sun, reported the New Scientist and according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The process takes place inside the eggs.

Scientists in 2011 found that the algae was not only present inside the eggs, but inside the embryonic cells themselves. The theory, which proved correct, was that the algae, through photosynthesis, used sunlight to trigger a chemical reaction combining water and carbon dioxide to produce glucose, or sugar, that the embryo used for fuel.

The algae is not essential, but Erin Graham, a professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University who led the study, said in the paper, “Their survival rate is much lower and their growth is slowed” without it.

Graham also said there could be more such animals, though they would likely be other amphibians or fish.

[Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma Maculatum) on Shutterstock]


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« Reply #242 on: Jan 19, 2013, 08:31 AM »

European space agency considers smashing spacecraft into asteroid

By Samantha Kimmey
Friday, January 18, 2013 21:35 EST

European space officials are considering sending a spacecraft to smash into a small asteroid — one of the pair of orbiting rocks, named Didymos, that will sail closely past the Earth in 2022 — to see if they can throw them off course, according to Ars Technica.

The idea behind the plan is to see if it is possible to substantially change the couse of a dangerous asteroid, were one to ever head directly toward the planet. Officials would measure to what degree the asteroids changed course.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is also soliciting public comments on the mission — called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment, or AIDA — and ideas for other experiments that could be performed.

The mission’s proposal to send the spacecraft at a speed of 6.25 kilometers per second would actually vaporize the materials it came into contact with due to the speed, allowing them “to study in miniature the conditions that might have existed in the earlier stages of our solar system,” according to Ars Technica.

[Image via AFP]


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« Reply #243 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:21 AM »

Mercury treaty adopted in Geneva by 140 countries

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 19, 2013 9:01 EST

Delegations from some 140 countries have agreed to adopt a ground-breaking treaty limiting the use of health-hazardous mercury, the Swiss foreign ministry said.

The world’s first legally binding treaty on mercury, reached after a week of thorny talks, will aim to reduce global emission levels of the toxic heavy metal also known as quicksilver, which poses risks to human health and the environment.

“The new treaty aims to reduce the production and the use of mercury, especially in the production of products and in industrial processes,” the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement.

Countries will be asked to sign the treaty next October in Minamata, Japan, in honour of the town’s inhabitants who for decades have suffered the consequences of serious mercury contamination, the statement said.

“The adoption of the mercury treaty shows the vitality of international environmental politics and the will of states to together find solutions to world problems,” head of the Swiss delegation to the talks, Franz Perrez, said in the statement.

Mercury is found in products ranging from electrical switches, thermometers and light-bulbs, to amalgam dental fillings and even facial creams. Large amounts of the heavy metal are released from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, metal smelters and cement production.

“It is quite remarkable how much mercury in a sense has entered into use in our lives…. We’ve been creating a terrible legacy,” Steiner said.

“Mercury accumulates in the food chain through fish… It is released through coal fired power stations and it travels sometimes thousands of kilometres. It affects the Inuit in Canada just as it affects the small-scale artisanal gold miner somewhere in southern Africa,” he said.

Serious mercury poisoning affects the body’s immune system and development of the brain and nervous system, posing the greatest risk to foetuses and infants.

The treaty sets a phase out date of 2020 for a long line of products, including mercury thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices, most batteries, switches, some kinds of fluorescent lamps and soaps and cosmetics.

It however provides exceptions for some large medical measuring devices where no mercury-free alternatives exist yet.

In a controversial move, it also excluded vaccines that use mercury as a preservative, since the risk from these vaccines is considered low and for many developing nations removing them would entail losing access to vaccines altogether, Tim Kasten, head of UNEP’s chemicals division explained.

Amid pressure from dentist groups, the treaty also did not provide a cut-off date for the use of dental fillings using mercury, but did agree that the product should be phased down.

Non-governmental groups at the talks meanwhile lamented that the treaty fell short in addressing the greatest sources of mercury in the environment: small-scale gold mining, which directly threatens the health of the some 10-15 million people working in this field and contaminates water and air, and emissions from coal-buring power plants.

“We’re disappointed,” Joe DiGangi, a senior advisor with an environmental umbrella group called IPEN, told AFP, saying that “the two biggest sources of mercury have only weak controls on them.”

For coal-fired power plants, the treaty calls only for control and reduction of mercury emissions “where feasible”, which is “vague and very discretional,” he said.

As for small gold mining activities, using mercury will still be allowed, meaning imports and exports of the metal for this process will be legal, and governments will only be required to control the activity if they deem it “more than insignificant — whatever that means,” DiGangi said.

UNEP’s Steiner acknowledged the criticism but stressed that the treaty “is a dynamic instrument,” insisting it would evolve over time to address all the areas of concern.

Switzerland and Norway, which initiated the process a decade ago, had along with Japan pledged an initial $3.0 million to get things started.

Once up and running the treaty will provide funds to help transition away from mercury-linked products and processes through the UN’s existing Global Environment Facility (GEF), and probably also a second mechanism, organisers said.


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« Reply #244 on: Jan 22, 2013, 07:16 AM »

Ban Ki-moon: climate agreement tops 2013 wishlist

The UN chief said global warming, along with ending the Syrian crisis, were his priorities among an ambitious list of hopes

Associated Press
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 10.32 GMT   

The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon says his top hopes for 2013 are to reach a new agreement on climate change and to urgently end the increasingly deadly and divisive war in Syria.

The UN chief told the Associated Press that he's also hoping for progress in getting the global economy humming again, restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, promoting political solutions in Mali, Congo and the Central African Republic, and providing energy, food and water to all people.'

Ban laid out this ambitious wishlist in an interview before heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, saying he plans to take "the uncommon opportunity" of being with 2,500 government, business and civil society leaders in the Swiss ski resort to exchange frank views on these issues.

"The world is now experiencing unprecedented challenges," Ban said.

"Climate change is fast happening – much, much faster than one would have expected," he said. "Climate and ecosystems are under growing strain."

Ban spoke before President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address Monday, put a similar emphasis on tackling climate change in his second term.

Two-decade-old UN climate talks have so-far failed in their goal of reducing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that a vast majority of scientists says are warming the planet. In December, a UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar, agreed to extend the Kyoto protocol, a treaty that limits the greenhouse gas output of some rich countries, and affirmed a previous decision to adopt a new global climate pact by 2015.

"I will do my best to mobilise the political will and resources so that the member states can agree to a new legally binding global agreement on climate change," Ban said.

Ban urged progress in getting nations and people to use the world's limited resources without waste and in ways to ensure their replacement, so that all people will have enough to eat and drink and there will be electricity for their homes – and have energy to spare to promote economic growth.

"We have to have sustainable development," he said. "That's our number one priority together with climate change."

Momentum for fighting climate change has stalled amid recessions, financial meltdown and government debt crises of the past five years.

"At the same time, we need to see some economic dynamism," Ban said. "The world is still suffering, struggling to overcome its economic crisis."

The forum at Davos, opening Wednesday, focuses this year on how to ensure a more sturdy economic recovery that can withstand the kind of shocks the past few years have wrought – and includes closed-door panels on many of the things worrying Ban. Among the world leaders he may rub elbows with at Davos are Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Jacob Zuma.


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« Reply #245 on: Jan 22, 2013, 07:17 AM »


Climate change moves to forefront in Obama's second inaugural address

President's affirmation of climate science – more prominent than in the campaign – wins praise from environmental groups   

Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 January 2013 22.00 GMT   
   
Barack Obama said more about climate change in his inauguration speech – and expressed it more forcefully – than he did at any point in the 2012 election campaign and during much of his first term.

Climate change occupied a significant chunk of Monday's speech, and Obama did not stint on the language, suggesting it was a religious and patriotic duty to deal with the challenge.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said. He made a carefully calibrated appeal to Republicans, situating a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy in a religious and conservative framework of God and constitution.

"That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared," Obama said.

It was the most Obama had said on climate change for some time, and it was a stronger affirmation of the science underlying climate change than Obama has offered on other occasions.

"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms," Obama said.

The language and reaffirmation of climate science won praise from environmental groups. "This is a call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future. Now it's time to act," Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

However, campaigners pressed Obama for more. Unlike Obama's first four years, when even a glancing mention of climate was seen as an achievement, environmental groups pushed the president for specifics.

"Today's address is an important first step for using the power of the presidency to spur a practical national conversation on climate change. The importance of the president regularly raising his voice on this issue cannot be overstated," said Lou Leonard, who heads climate change for the World Wildlife Fund.

But his statement added: "A sustained national conversation isn't enough. The president should lay out the steps he can and will take to clean up our energy system, help communities prepare for climate disruption and encourage the rest of the world to ramp up action."

The BlueGreen Alliance, while praising Obama for elevating the topic, also called on Obama to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate existing power plants.

Campaigners have limited hopes for Obama's second term, because of Republicans' control of the house of representatives.

But they have been looking to Obama to speak out about the importance of climate change, urging him to adopt it as a legacy issue.

Monday's speech was a step in that direction. It was harder-edged than Obama's first inaugural address, when his single line on climate change promised: "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories."

This time around, Obama acknowledged the difficulties ahead. But campaigners said they were looking to the State of the Union address next month to see whether Obama follows up with specific policy promises.

Obama in his first State of the Union address in 2009 called on Congress to put a cap on carbon. "To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy," Obama said at the time.

By the 2012 State of the Union address, however, Obama was routinely discussing the potential of clean energy industry without even bothering to mention climate change.

On Monday, the two were linked once again. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it," he said. "We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise," he said.

"That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared."

Obama has been reaching out to environmental groups since his re-election. On Sunday night, Joe Biden, made a brief surprise visit to the Green inaugural ball. "I don't intend on ending these four years without getting an awful lot more done," he told the crowd. "Keep the faith."
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« Reply #246 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:49 AM »

Namibia offers model for taking on poachers

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 19:30 EST

Faced with poachers who are ravaging elephant and rhino populations, African nations could do worse than look to Namibia for a game plan to combat the scourge.

Wildlife poaching is on the rise across Africa’s vast savannahs and in the jungles and outmanned and outgunned governments have struggled to keep up.

Last year saw a record 668 rhino killed in South Africa, according to the government, while in east Africa elephant killings increased apace.

The blame has been directed toward Asia, where demand for rhino horn, held to have medicinal value, is on the increase. Elephants are prized for their ivory tusks.

After several quiet years, Namibia too has been touched by the bloody uptake.

Late last year a black rhino cow was killed and dehorned in the south African country’s remote and scenic northwest, her helpless calf left to die.

Though an isolated event, for Namibians, it was a rare and fearsome echo of the past.

For decades under South African rule, the country endured profligate poaching that threatened to exterminate wildlife populations and to discourage tourist dollars.

Today things are different.

Within days of the rhino’s death, a culprit was arrested. A trial is now pending.

The apparent overnight success in tracking down the poacher was in fact due to decades of work.

It began 30 years ago when Garth Owen-Smith, a pioneer of community-based conservation, visited rural homesteads to encourage residents to cherish local wildlife.

His argument was simple: wild animals and farming people with livestock can not only co-exist but actually benefit each other.

Owen-Smith recalls his point in a recent book, “An Arid Eden,” writing that “if the wildlife was conserved, it would one day attract tourists, creating jobs and bringing money to the area.”

Local communities were initially reluctant to cooperate, but eventually the plan worked.

In 1980, Namibia had an estimated 300 black rhinos left. Today their numbers total some 1,700 animals.

Desert elephants were reduced to some 155 animals in the early 1980s and now they number around 600.

According to Pierre du Preez, current rhino coordinator for the ministry of environment and tourism, the policies worked partly because tracking animals for tourists provided well-paid jobs.

“Rural neighbours to rhino populations are far more pro-conservation, making it more difficult for individuals in these communities to become poachers as this might harm the whole community,” he said.

“Better cooperation and trust exists between the (ministry), police, non-governmental organisations and the communities, thus the risk for illegal activities increases as the community will report to authorities.”

The rhino poached in December was found by local people and immediately reported to officials.

This cooperation on the ground is being augmented with high-tech tactics.

“Security devices were implanted in a significant percentage of all rhino in high-risk areas, security personnel (are) specially trained and high-tech security systems are in place,” Du Preez said.

An even more drastic measure may be on the cards. In 1989, Namibia was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to dehorn black rhinos to prevent poaching. “This might become a possibility again,” Du Preez added.

Namibia’s success also shows the importance of tackling the politics that underlie and enable poaching.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Namibia?s vast open spaces were effectively used as private hunting grounds by officials from the ruling South African government and top army personnel.

Officers visiting the war zones on Namibia?s northern borders, where guerrillas of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were waging an independence struggle, would be treated to hunting trips with army planes and helicopters.

Temporary tent camps were set up and cabinet members from Pretoria including defence minister PW Botha — later South Africa’s president — could even enjoy ice-cubes in their rum and coke or whisky.

The result was that hundreds of elephants, rhinos, giraffe and thousands of antelopes were shot for the pot, for illegal trade and for trophies.

Former prime minister John Vorster is thought to have shot an elephant by the Ombonde River in 1973.

When Namibia won its independence from South Africa in 1990, the government laid the groundwork for a new approach on poaching — “community-based natural resource management,” a clumsy name for an effective policy.

Today, politicians may be able to set the stage for similarly successful polices by addressing demand for rhino horn at the source in Asia when signatories of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — a treaty to protect wildlife — meet in Thailand in March.

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« Reply #247 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:50 AM »

One-third of fish caught in English Channel have plastic contamination

By Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian
Saturday, January 26, 2013 11:01 EST

Fish were found to contain small pieces of plastic known as ‘microbeads’, in a study of 10 species

One-third of fish caught off the south-west coast of England have traces of plastic contamination from sources including sanitary products and carrier bags, scientists have found.

The Plymouth University study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, looked at the occurrence of plastic in 10 species of fish caught in the English Channel.

Of 504 fish examined, more than one-third were found to contain small pieces of plastic less than 1mm in size, referred to by scientists as “microbeads”.

Prof Richard Thompson of Plymouth University said in a statement: “We have previously shown that on shorelines worldwide and on the seabed and in the water column around the UK, these tiny fragments of plastic are widespread. But this new reseach has shown that such fragments are also being ingested by fish. Laboratory studies on mussels have shown that some organisms can retain plastic after ingestion, hence microplastic debris could also accumulate in natural populations.”

This, say the researchers, could carry serious physical consequences for fish, creating blockages in their digestive systems or giving them a false sense of being full.

The fish – including popular species such as whiting, horse mackerel, John Dory and red gurnard – were collected from costal waters 10km south-west of Plymouth, at a depth of around 55 metres. Between one to 15 pieces of plastic were found in those 184 fish found to have synthetic polymers found in their gastrointestinal tract.

A spectrometer was used to identify 351 items removed from the fish, the majority of which was rayon, a synthetic fibre used in clothing and sanitary products. Other plastics included those “from the breakdown of larger items such as bags and bottles’ polyester”.

After years of declining use, the number of single-use plastic bags handed out to shoppers by UK supermarkets rose for the second year running in 2011. A total of 8bn “thin-gauge” bags were issued in the UK in 2011 – a 5.4% rise on the 7.6bn in 2010 – with every shopper now using an average of almost 11 a month.

Thompson went on: “There is no threat to human health as the plastic was found in the fish gut which we do not eat. But we don’t need to have plastic debris in the sea. These materials are inherently very recyclable, but regrettably they’ve been at the heart of our throw-away culture for the last few decades. We need to recognise the value of plastics at the end of their lives and need help from industry and manufacturers to widen the potential for everyday products to be reusable and recyclable.”

This month, Unilever announced it was removing microbeads from its products, such as facescrubs and soaps, after a campaign by marine conservationists.

© Guardian News and Media 2013
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« Reply #248 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:53 AM »

Leprosy: an ancient disease thrives in 21st century

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 11:51 EST

It has been called the world’s oldest recorded disease, an evil that humans have known for more than 3,500 years, as papyri from ancient Egypt testify.

Yet drugs to cure leprosy are cheap, plentiful and effective.

So why is this biblical curse still around?

Doctors speaking ahead of World Leprosy Day on Sunday point to wonderful news about the bid to stamp out this nightmare — but they also acknowledge sizeable hurdles.

“There has been enormous progress in treating and controlling the leprosy epidemic,” says British microbiologist Stewart Cole. “Six million people have been cured by multi-drug therapy.”

Multi-drug therapy, or MDT, is a cocktail of three antibiotics designed to kill the parasitic rod-shaped germ, Mycobacterium leprosae, that after a long incubation spreads from nerve cells to muscles and other tissues.

Several drugs are always used, as only one drug enables the germ to develop resistance to it.

Without treatment, the microbe causes crippling damage to the hands, skin, the nose and eyes. The condition goes hand-in-hand with ostracism, even though scientists say M. leprosae, transmitted by droplets from the nose and mouth, is generally not very infectious.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures, there were roughly 5.2 million people with leprosy in 1985.

The burden has fallen sharply, driven especially by free MDT treatment made available by the WHO to poor countries. With it, a leper can be cured in six to 12 months.

But even as the WHO is demanding a “final push” against leprosy, the decline in new infections seems to have plateaued.

In 2004, there were around 400,000 new cases, which fell to 228,000 new cases in 2010, then to 219,000 in 2011.

“The WHO is starting to wonder why this is the case,” says Cole, who chairs the scientific and medical commission of the Raoul Follereau Foundation, a French NGO inspired by a 20th-century campaigner.

“For years, they told us that if we carried on using MDT, prevalence would gradually hit zero, but this hasn’t happened, and we are concerned.”

Leprosy has been eliminated from 119 countries out of 122 countries where the disease was considered a public health problem in 1985.

But tenacious pockets remain in parts of Brazil, Indonesia, Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania, according to the UN’s health body.

– Medical infrastructure to blame –

Roch Christian Johnson, a leprosy specialist from the West African state of Benin, said one reason is poor medical facilities. Many lepers are already excluded from their communities and clinics are often located far from people in need.

As a result, many people fail to get diagnosed swiftly, and the germ incubates unseen for years.

Each year, around 12,000 people are diagnosed only after they have reached advanced stages of leprosy, when damage is irreversible, he said.

Another problem is multibacillary leprosy, a more contagious form that requires a tougher drug regimen. If undetected and untreated, it leads to more infections, which in turn may only be spotted a decade or two later.

Even though funding for research is a long-running concern, scientists say they are gaining useful insights into leprosy.

Recent evidence suggests that M. leprosae has a natural reservoir in armadillos.

In humans, according to a study published last week, the germ hijacks key cells in the nervous system called Schwann cells and then reprogrammes them into muscle cells, thus helping them to spread into muscle tissue.

And a team in Seattle, Washington, is seeking authorisation to carry out a leprosy vaccine on a small group of volunteers, the first in a three-phase trial process.

Ultimately, though, wiping out leprosy will come down to commitment and resources, say many.

“When I started this work 40 years ago, leprosy was so prevalent that people used to call it ‘The Disease’,” said Father Christian Steunou, who works at a leprosy treatment centre at Davougon in Benin. “They never called it leprosy, they simply said, ‘The Disease’.”

“Nowadays, though, it’s just another illness. The pity is that it’s no longer a serious disease but an unrecognised one.

“Few caregivers show much interest in it, which means that it can bounce back if we don’t take care.”
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« Reply #249 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:57 AM »


The Christian Science Monitor -

Mass extinction? Man may still have time to catalog Earth's species.

A trio of respected biologists and zoologists concludes that Earth's sixth mass extinction may be unfolding slower than feared, giving time for the valuable work of cataloging the planet's species.


By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / January 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm EST

For years, ecologists and biologists have warned that the planet is sliding into a mass extinction event comparable to the one that did in the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

But Earth’s species may not be vanishing as fast as previously believed – providing a fresh opportunity to catalog and conserve more of them before global warming and habitat loss take a higher toll on the planet’s biodiversity.

That's the conclusion a trio of respected biologists and zoologists has reached after reviewing recent studies on extinction, the pace at which news species are being reported, estimates of undiscovered species, and the human and technological capital available for building the catalog.

When it comes to discovering and preserving biodiversity, "things aren't hopeless," says Mark Costello, a University of Auckland marine zoologist and the lead author of the analysis, which appeared in this week’s edition of Science.

Three years ago, another, larger team of biologists and zoologists estimated that if collectively countries devoted $500 million to $1 billion a year to the project of cataloging non-bacterial life on Earth, it could be complete within 50 years.

Dr. Costello and colleagues renew that call. And their lower estimate of the number of species and a higher estimate of the people available than many thought implies the job could be done more quickly.

The stakes are high, many researchers say. Human population growth and activities – from altering landscapes and oceans to altering climate – are widely seen as the drivers behind the current mass-extinction event, the planet’s sixth.

"We are the asteroid," says Michael Novacek, provost and curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, referring to the event widely held to have triggered the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"This may be the most important century in our evolutionary history, where the environment is really transformed to a level where the nature of life on Earth is redefined," says Dr. Novacek, who was not part of the team performing the new analysis.

Getting a handle on the full range of non-bacterial species the planet hosts is important for a number of reasons, researchers say. A full listing of what lives where would provide important information for maintaining the health of ecosystems on which humans rely for food, clean water, and other so-called ecosystem services. And undiscovered species could represent new sources of compounds for pharmaceuticals or appear as novel structures human engineers could mimic for lighter, stronger materials.

At its broadest, the widespread loss of biodiversity before anyone has a chance to take the full measure of what's out there makes it difficult to fully grasp the ecological consequences of its loss.

Novacek and others say they are a bit surprised at the relatively low number of non-bacterial species the team estimates as living on the planet – about half the 10 million that others estimate as realistic. And the trio's estimate for a global extinction rate – less than 1 percent per decade – is far below the worst-case of 5 percent per decade some have estimated.

Still, Costello and colleagues acknowledge that if extinction rates are on the high side, say 5 percent per decade, half the five million non-bacterial species he and his colleagues estimate as currently inhabiting Earth will have vanished within 150 years.

The analysis, co-authored by Oxford University zoologist Robert May and Nigle Stork at Griffith University in Australia, draws on several recent studies to suggest that cataloging species before they vanish may be more tractable than many believe.

Better scientific housekeeping – settling on one scientific name for an organism, where many creatures often had several – has helped lower the estimate of known species from about 1.9 million to 1.5 million, Costello says. Improvements in the methods for estimating Earth's biodiversity have narrowed the range of extant nonbacterial species from between 30 and 100 million to perhaps 2 million to 8 million, with the team's best estimate at 5 million.

Meanwhile, the pace of discovery has been picking up. Over the past 10 years, an average of 17,500 new species have been described each year, a rate that has reached 18,000 a year since 2006.

It has been difficult to determine the overall global extinction rate for non-bacterial organisms. Some vertebrates have been disappearing at rates comparable to previous mass extinctions, the team notes. But conservation efforts, habitats that may be degraded or fragmented, but not destroyed, and the adaptability of some organisms to farmland or human-managed forests, could well be slowing the planet's overall pace of extinctions, the team suggests.

For all the efforts to improve estimates of the planet's overall species count, that number remains highly uncertain, cautions Andrew Hamilton, a biologist and executive director of academic innovation at the University of Houston.

"The fact of the matter is we don't know, even within an order of magnitude, how many species there are on the planet," he says.

In the end, however, the numbers may be less important than the analysis's overall message that while formidable, the cataloging task is attainable within a reasonable period of time, given money and creative ways to enlist more hands and eyes to the task, Dr. Hamilton says.

For instance, with the range of technologies available – from vast on-line data bases to smart phones than can take a high-resolution picture, stamp it with date, time, and a GPS location, then upload it to a central repository – the discovery effort can enlist dedicated amateurs for some aspects, researchers say.

One popular approach is known as a BioBlitz – a 24-hour assault on a particular patch of land by professionals and volunteers to record as many organisms as possible in that location.

The American Museum of Natural History's Novacek recalls a BioBlitz the museum and other groups sponsored in Central Park in 2003. More than 800 species were identified in the trees, on the ground, and in ponds, with participants discovering a new species of centipede, Novacek says.

The effort represents nothing less than planetary exploration, Hamilton suggests.

"If we organize our workforce efficiently and we treat this like a mission to a little-known planet," it's possible to assemble the catalog of nonbacterial organisms within a generation, Hamilton says.


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« Reply #250 on: Jan 28, 2013, 08:43 AM »

Author of climate change report: ‘I got it wrong on climate change – it’s far, far worse’

By The Observer
Sunday, January 27, 2013 21:59 EST

by Heather Stewart

Lord Stern speaks out in Davos on danger to economies as planet absorbs less carbon and is ‘on track’ for 4C rise

Lord Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change that became the reference work for politicians and green campaigners, now says he underestimated the risks, and should have been more “blunt” about the threat posed to the economy by rising temperatures.

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

He said some countries, including China, had now started to grasp the seriousness of the risks, but governments should now act forcefully to shift their economies towards less energy-intensive, more environmentally sustainable technologies.

“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

Stern said he backed the UK’s Climate Change Act, which commits the government to ambitious carbon reduction targets. But he called for increased investment in greening the economy, saying: “It’s a very exciting growth story.”

David Cameron made much of his environmental credentials before the 2010 election, travelling to the Arctic to highlight his commitment to tackling global warming. But the coalition’s commitment to green policies has recently been questioned, amid scepticism among Tory backbenchers about the benefits of wind power, and the chancellor’s enthusiasm for exploiting Britain’s shale gas reserves.

Stern’s comments came as Jim Yong Kim, the new president of the World Bank, also at Davos, gave a grave warning about the risk of conflicts over natural resources should the forecast of a four-degree global increase above the historical average prove accurate.

“There will be water and food fights everywhere,” Kim said as he pledged to make tackling climate change a priority of his five-year term.

Kim said action was needed to create a carbon market, eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies and “green” the world’s 100 megacities, which are responsible for 60 to 70% of global emissions.

He added that the 2012 droughts in the US, which pushed up the price of wheat and maize, had led to the world’s poor eating less. For the first time, the bank president said, extreme weather had been attributed to man-made climate change. “People are starting to connect the dots. If they start to forget, I am there to remind them.

“We have to find climate-friendly ways of encouraging economic growth. The good news is we think they exist”.

Kim said there would be no solution to climate change without private sector involvement and urged companies to seize the opportunity to make profits: “There is a lot of money to be made in building the technologies and bending the arc of climate change.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Image: World Economic Forum on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]


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« Reply #251 on: Jan 29, 2013, 08:43 AM »


Tigers under threat from disappearing mangrove forest

Report shows vast forest, shared by India and Bangladesh, is being rapidly destroyed by environmental change

John Vidal   
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 January 2013 12.33 GMT   

A vast mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh that is home to possibly 500 Bengal tigers is being rapidly destroyed by erosion, rising sea levels and storm surges, according to a major study by researchers at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and others.

The Sundarbans forest took the brunt of super cyclone Sidr in 2007, but new satellite studies show that 71% of the forested coastline is retreating by as much as 200 metres a year. If erosion continues at this pace, already threatened tiger populations living in the forests will be put further at risk.

Natalie Pettorelli, one of the report's authors, said: "Coastline retreat is evident everywhere. A continuing rate of retreat would see these parts of the mangrove disappear within 50 years. On the Indian side of the Sundarbans, the island which extends most into the Bay of Bengal has receded by an average of 150 metres a year, with a maximum of just over 200 metres; this would see the disappearance of the island in about 20 years."

The Sundarbans are known for vanishing islands but the scientists said the current retreat of the mangrove forests on the southern coastline is not normal. "The causes for increasing coastline retreat, other than direct anthropogenic ones, include increased frequency of storm surges and other extreme natural events, rises in sea-level and increased salinity, which increases the vulnerability of mangroves," said Pettorelli.

"Our results indicate a rapidly retreating coastline that cannot be accounted for by the regular dynamics of the Sundarbans. Degradation is happening fast, weakening this natural shield for India and Bangladesh.

"As human development thrives, and global temperature continues to rise, natural protection from tidal waves and cyclones is being degraded at alarming rates. This will inevitably lead to species loss in this richly biodiverse part of the world, if nothing is done to stop it.

"The Sundarbans is a critical tiger habitat; one of only a handful of remaining forests big enough to hold several hundred tigers. To lose the Sundarbans would be to move a step closer to the extinction of these majestic animals," said ZSL tiger expert Sarah Christie.


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« Reply #252 on: Jan 29, 2013, 08:45 AM »


Hydro dams could jeopardise 'Grand Canyon of the east', say green groups

Dams on China's last free-flowing river could harm ecosystems, displace people, and cause catastrophic seismic events

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 January 2013 10.37 GMT   

Chinese environmental groups warn that government plans for a slew of hydroelectric dams on the pristine Salween (Nu) river – often called the Grand Canyon of the east for its deep valleys and sweeping views – could jeopardise biodiverse ecosystems and indigenous cultures, and lead to potentially catastrophic seismic events.

China's state council released a notice last week revealing plans to proceed with over 60 new hydroelectric projects on three major rivers under the government's 12th five-year plan, from 2011 to 2015. Four of the projects lie on the upper reaches of the Salween.

Plans to build a cascade of 13 dams on the Salween – China's last free-flowing river – stalled nearly a decade ago under opposition from environmental groups and outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, an ostensible populist and trained geologist.

Five projects are being developed by the state-owned Huadian Group, according to the California-based NGO International Rivers. The company produces about 10% of China's power and is directly administered by a state council commission. Chinese environmental authorities have long considered hydropower an antidote to the country's overwhelming reliance on coal.

The river, also known as the Thanlwin, begins on the Tibetan plateau and winds through Thailand before ending in a Burmese estuary. Its headwaters support 5 million people from 13 ethnic groups, many of whom are subsistence farmers. Entire groups may have to be resettled, dealing a significant blow to their traditional way of life.

The government notice approves similar projects on the Jinsha river, a major headstream of the Yangtze, and the Mekong river, which is already heavily dammed. Two proposed projects border protected areas which contain 7,000 types of plants and up to 25% of the world's animal species, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Ma Jun, head of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that because local governments and state-owned enterprises profit enormously from building large-scale infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric stations, they often cut corners on legally required environmental impact assessments.

"We had a chance to review some of the summaries of the large dam projects on the Jinsha river – there are major gaps identified in those reports, and some of them are very basic ones," he said.

Scientists warn that building new dams in seismically active south-west China could expose residents to increased risks of landslides, mudslides and earthquakes. A recent analysis of up to 60 Chinese and American scientific papers suggested that the weight of water in the massive Zipingpu Dam reservoir may have caused the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed about 80,000 people.

The state council notice also mentions the Xiaonanhai hydropower station on the Yangtze river, a $4.75bn, seven-and-a-half-year project designed to have a capacity of 1.76 gigawatts to provide electricity to the sprawling south-western metropolis Chongqing.

Critics say that the project will displace about 40,000 people, submerge about 20 miles of arable land and destroy endangered fish species including the Dabry's sturgeon, a 140m-year-old "living fossil" which has appeared on a Chinese postage stamp.

Wang Yongchen, president of the Beijing-based environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers, said that the new leadership's environmental record is uncertain, and that environmental NGOs will lose a key supporter when Wen steps down in March. "We wrote reports to the new leaders, but they haven't answered," she said. "We're still waiting."


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« Reply #253 on: Jan 29, 2013, 08:48 AM »


World Bank spending on forests fails to curb poverty, auditors claim

Report by World Bank's own evaluators say its investments support logging and do little to help rural poor people

John Vidal   
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 January 2013 07.00 GMT   

The World Bank's $4.1bn (£2.6bn) investments in forestry over the past 10 years have done little to reduce poverty, improve conservation, tackle climate change or benefit local communities in developing countries, a study by its own inspectors has found.

The 202-page report – a copy of which has been seen by the Guardian – was compiled by the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), which consists of senior bank staff and outside consultants. The document says the bank's financial support helped to protect 24m hectares (59m acres) of forest around the world and to classify 45m ha of forest as being on indigenous people's land. But it says the bank mostly failed to address critical social and environmental issues.

The World Bank funded 345 major forestry projects in 75 countries in the decade to July 2011. The IEG panel, which visited many of the projects and interviewed hundreds of people, criticised the bank strongly for:

• Continuing to support industrial logging.

• Not involving communities in decision-making.

• Assuming that benefits would accrue to the poor rather than the rich and powerful.

• Paying little attention to rural poverty.

The IEG report has been sent to the UK and other major contributors to bank funds, and is due to be discussed on 4 February. It is particularly embarrassing for Britain because the government has donated $600m since 2008 to the bank's forest investment programme, and the departments of energy and climate change, environment, and international development (DfID) have all claimed to be committed to fighting forest loss in developing countries. Last year, DfID said in response to a select committee inquiry into its funding of the World Bank that it "is one of the most effective uses of British aid" (pdf).

It is not known which bank forestry projects UK money has been invested in, but the IEG said that forestry financing often failed to achieve its environmental targets: only one-third of the protected-area projects designed since 2008 included climate change in project design, and "sustainability of the environmental outcomes in three-quarters of bank-supported projects was found to be at risk". It found that only two out of 37 projects that the bank funded in protected areas achieved their aims to help people find work, and three-quarters of these projects forced people to move against their will.

One of the problems identified was that the bank mostly worked in officially managed forests in the poorest countries, but consistently ignored the unmanaged areas where millions of people live and depend on forests. "By neglecting the informal sector, the World Bank has missed an opportunity to reach more forest-dependent rural poor," says the report.

"Poverty reduction, for the most part, has not been adequately addressed," said Caroline Heider, director general and a senior vice-president of IEG, in a memo to the bank's president and directors. "Projects that promote participatory forest management [where communities have a say in decision-making] have been the most successful at balancing poverty reduction and environmental aims but this integration is lacking in other interventions … There have been negligible outcomes in integrating natural forests into economic development in a socially and environmentally sustainable way, particularly in the tropics."

The report undermines confidence in bank policy because its mission is to reduce poverty in developing countries. In addition, it suggests the largest multilateral bank in the world is continuing to invest in large-scale logging and agriculture concessions that have been shown to generate only limited local benefits.

NGOs say the bank has not learned from previous mistakes. Internal inspections in 2001 and 1991 forced reforms after they accused the bank of being a major force in the destruction of the world's forests and failing to address climate change and poverty. "The World Bank must profoundly change its approach and address the drivers of deforestation to contribute to poverty reduction and forest protection," said Korinna Horta, senior scientist at German environmental and human rights NGO Urgewald. "This includes ensuring that projects in its own portfolio, such as loans for agribusiness and large-scale infrastructure, do not generate forest destruction."

"It is high time that the bank shifted its funding away from finance for logging companies and government-run protected areas, towards support for community-controlled forests, which are proven to bring benefits for the environment, local livelihoods and the global climate," said Tom Griffiths of the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme.


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« Reply #254 on: Jan 29, 2013, 08:59 AM »


China's air pollution again at danger levels

Beijing residents advised to stay indoors as much as possible with severe pollution at levels 'beyond index'

Associated Press in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 January 2013 06.28 GMT      

Dangerously high pollution levels have shrouded Beijing in smog for the second time in about two weeks, forcing airlines to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting the city government to warn residents to stay indoors.

The outlines of buildings in the Chinese capital receded into a white mist as pedestrians donned face masks to guard against the thick, caustic air. The US embassy reported a level of PM2.5, one of the worst pollutants, at 526 micrograms per cubic metre, or "beyond index", and more than 20 times higher than World Health Organisation safety levels over a 24-hour period.

The Beijing city government advised residents to stay indoors as much as possible because the pollution was "severe". It said that because there was no wind, the smog probably would not dissipate quickly.

Visibility was less than 100 metres (109 yards) in some areas of eastern China, the official Xinhua news agency reported. Air China cancelled 14 domestic flights in or out of the Beijing airport, and an airport in the eastern city of Qingdao was closed, cancelling 20 flights.

The disruptions came in the first week of the country's peak, six-week period for travel, linked to the 10 February lunar new year. Every year, China's transport system bursts at the seams as tens of millions of people travel for the holiday, in the world's largest seasonal migration of people.

Celebrity real estate developer Pan Shiyi, who has previously pushed for cities to publish more detailed air quality data, called for a clean air act on Tuesday and said he would use his status as a delegate to the National People's Congress to propose such legislation.

In less than three hours, his post was forwarded more than 2,300 times and received 14,184 votes, with 99.1% in favour.

Beijing also had exceptionally high pollution two weeks ago, with the US embassy readings of PM2.5 reaching as high as 886 micrograms per cubic metre.

************

Beijing is not the only Asian city with lethal air pollution

The Chinese capital is just one of hundreds of cities where poisonous air is the fastest growing cause of death

Associated Press in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 January 2013 06.28 GMT      

Air pollution in Beijing has been described as "apocalyptic" this week with people choking their way through murky streets, short of breath and their eyes stinging from toxic air. But Beijing is just one of hundreds of cities, largely in Asia, where poisonous air is now the fastest growing cause of death in urban populations.

In the past few months there have been acute air pollution incidents reported in Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan. In Tehran, the desperate authorities had to close all public offices, schools, universities and banks twice in the last two months; In Nepal the army has had to give up its cars and in Kabul it has been reported that there are now more deaths as a result of air and water pollution than from conflict.

Statistics are unreliable, with few cities able to monitor accurately either the source or the level of the cocktail of pollutants emitted by traffic, ships, industry, brick kilns and domestic heating. But go to the hospitals and doctors will tell you that up to 80% of people admitted come with respiratory or other chronic diseases linked to air pollution. In Tehran, more than 4,500 people were said to have died last year because of air pollution – but because cancers can take years to develop the true figure may be far higher.

Perhaps because there are no drugs available to counter air pollution, it has never been taken as seriously by governments as other diseases like HIV/Aids or malaria, even though the World Health Organisation estimates more than 2 million people worldwide die every year from bad air and that it is now among the top 10 killers in the world. But governments may have to act as new research shows it to be rapidly worsening.

The biggest study done so far, published one month ago in the Lancet suggested that, worldwide, a record 3.2 million people died from air pollution in 2010, compared with 800,000 in 2000. The annual Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report ranked air pollution for the first time in the world's top 10 list of killer diseases, with 1.2 million deaths a year in east Asia and China, and 712,000 in south Asia, including India.

But while Beijing got the headlines this week, there is mounting evidence that air pollution in India is as bad, if not worse, than in China. A study conducted by satellite imagery by Tel Aviv University last year reported that Indian megacities were seeing double digit increases in air pollution. From 2002 to 2010, said the paper, Bangalore saw the second highest increase in air-pollution levels in the world at 34%,with Pune, Mumbai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad not far behind. Improvements in car and fuel technology have been made since 2000 but these are nullified by the sheer increase in car numbers. Nearly 18m cars are expected to be sold this year alone in India.

The blame is variously levelled on the geography of cities, the inversion of temperatures especially in cold months which trap pollutants, the vastly increasing number of cars, power plants, forest fires and the boom in building construction. However, the Lancet study found that it was specifically the type of air pollution caused by car and truck exhaust that was doing the most health damage.

There is increasing evidence too that the air pollution now plaguing cities is because the fuel being burned by millions of cars and motorbikes is heavily contaminated by dealers who mix petrol and diesel with kerosene, waste industrial solvents and other additives to produce cheaper fuel. The result is a cocktail of poisonous emissions, many of which are not picked up by government monitoring stations and which are not filtered out by catalytic converters.

The scale of illegal fuel adulteration is unknown, but academic studies suggest it is rampant in poor countries like Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of which depend on importing fuel from outside. One study in Nepal found that at least half the motorbikes in use had engines damaged by contaminated fuel.

But rich countries should not think their air is clean. A report by the European environment agency found that almost one third of Europe's city dwellers are exposed to PM10 particulate concentrations above EU legal limits and 90-95% to concentrations of smaller and even more deadly PM2.5 particulates. If nothing is done to improve it, the EU expects to see 200,000 premature deaths a year in Europe by 2020 due to particle emissions alone.

EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik spelled out the financial costs on the European economy in September: "Clean air is an investment. We cannot afford not to act. In monetary terms … the associated costs [will] amount to between €189-609bn per year in 2020. Our current analysis shows that if we do nothing, we will see 200,000 premature deaths in the EU by 2020 due to particle emissions alone - but with concerted action, this number can be pushed down to 130,000. To invest in clean air means to invest in our future."



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