Massive water discovery will transform drought-prone ‘cradle of mankind’ in northern Kenya
By Paula Kahumbu, The Guardian
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 3:56 EDT
UNESCO and the Kenya Government today announce the discovery of one of the worlds largest underground water aquifers in the desert north of Turkana, an area best known for fossils, famine and poverty. The finding by Radar Technologies International (RTI) was made using space based exploration technology called WATEX system. The largest aquifer at 250 billion cubic meters of water which is equivalent in volume to Lake Turkana one of the largest lakes in the Great Rift Valley, and 25 times greater than Loch Ness. More importantly the annual recharge rate, the amount of water that can be sustainably exploited per year, is estimated to 3.4 billion cubic meters, nearly three times the water use in the New York City.
The man behind the RTI is the energetic white haired French Alain Gachet who says the worst thing he has ever seen in his life is people dying of thirst.
“This discovery will transform Turkana. In 10 years time I see no more suffering, no more dying of hunger or thirst, people will have schools, roads, farms. Life will be much better for them and famine will be a thing go the past”.
For Turkana where malnutrition rates can be as high as 37%, this discovery Is better than oil. It is an opportunity for local development.
Ikal Angelei is the Director of Friends of Lake Turkana, an organzation that champions the rights of the Lake’s communities and ensure their involvement in decision-making on issues relating to the Lake and its environment.
“This is an extremely exciting find for my community. While we celebrate however, we must be wise. The first thing we must do is confirm the recharge rate so that we do not kill the golden goose, and we must also protect against speculators and unscrupulous people who threaten to take it away from the local communities. The Kenyan leadership must plan carefully to ensure that in developing the resource we protect and respect the rights and the needs of local communities who must benefit.”
Many will celebrate that the immediate benefit of this find will be no more famine for a community that has suffered repeated droughts. Kenyans are still haunted by images of starving children in 2009/10 during the worst drought in over 60 years that affected more than 10 million people in the Horn of Africa.
Richard Leakey, Chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute is not surprised with the find.
“This discovery confirms what we have always believed. This area is an ancient lake bed, the water had to have gone somewhere. This is also the cradle of mankind and I hope that finally the importance of Turkana for Kenya and the world will finally be recognized”
© Guardian News and Media 2013
09/10/2013 02:58 PM
Japan's Nuclear Migraine: A Never-Ending Disaster at Fukushima
Von Marco Evers
Japan is stumbling helplessly from one crisis to the next as it battles the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. US nuclear inspector Dale Klein is demanding the intervention of foreign experts, but a quick solution is unlikely.
This week, the chief nuclear officers of around 100 American nuclear power plant reactors are taking a field trip. They are travelling to Japan and then taking a bus to Fukushima. There, dressed in protective suits, they will walk through the ruins left behind by the earthquake of the century, the tsunami of the century and the resulting triple nuclear reactor meltdown that occurred in March 2011.
"I can assure you when they get back from this trip, all of these chief nuclear officers will double their safety precautions," says Dale Klein, who has made the same trip and describes it as "very sobering." Klein, who was head of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission until 2009, now serves as chair of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, which advises Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that once ran the Fukushima power plant and is now responsible for cleaning up the site. In the eyes of industry experts and the Japanese public alike, the company has proved one thing unequivocally -- that it is in far over its head in trying to handle the aftermath of the disaster.
Klein is generally a polite man, but he recently announced in public exactly what he thinks of the company that hired him. "You do not know what you're doing," Klein told company president Naomi Hirose in person. "You do not have a plan."
In accordance with Japanese custom, the company head, thus chastised, inclined his head and replied, "I apologize for not being able to live up to your expectations."
TEPCO has been stumbling "from crisis to crisis," Klein says. And with no improvement in sight, it had recently become clear that Japan would find itself, out of necessity, doing something that is generally considered very un-Japanese: asking for foreign help. Klein said there were signs that the government was planning on inviting experts from Europe and the US in to help. And on Tuesday, TEPCO took what might be a first step in this direction, announcing in a statement that it had hired Lake Barrett, the former head of the US Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management to advise it on decommissioning the plant and dealing with contaminated water on the site. Barrett was also involved in clean-up efforts at the Three Mile Island plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979.
Situation Still 'Tenuous' at Fukushima
Japan had thus far taken the view that it didn't need any help -- certainly not from abroad -- and that TEPCO would take care of things. This is despite the fact that the company is an energy provider, with little more experience in complex disaster management than a commensurate energy company in Germany would have.
Accordingly, the situation at Fukushima two and a half years after the nuclear meltdown can at best be described as tenuous. Rather than implementing a clearly thought-out disaster management plan, TEPCO's approach has been a haphazard patchwork.
Perhaps the most bizarre malfunction in recent months occurred when a rat got into a switchbox and caused a short circuit. This immediately caused the makeshift cooling system for all four spent fuel pools to fail. For almost 30 hours, temperatures rose in these pools, which hold over 8,800 spent fuel rods that TEPCO hopes eventually to be able to store safely. Charred remains were all that was left of the rat.
Every day, TEPCO pumps 400 tons of contaminated cooling water and groundwater out of the radioactive wreckage of Fukushima. This water is too heavily contaminated with cesium, strontium and tritium to be emptied into the ocean. Instead, TEPCO stores the liquid in numerous tanks, the largest of which are 12 meters (40 feet) across and 11 meters high, hastily riveted together rather than welded.
Satellite images show how these behemoths have proliferated at the Fukushima site, with a few dozen of them in mid-2011, then several hundred by mid-2012. Currently, there are over 1,000 such tanks, with plans for over 2,000 of them by 2015. TEPCO is veritably drowning in contaminated water.
Contaminated Water Seeping Out
When one of these makeshift containers recently sprang a leak, it apparently took weeks before the company's two-person foot-patrol passed by and noticed it, by which time 300 tons of highly contaminated water had seeped out of the tank. This event ranks as a level three "serious incident" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). In comparison, the catastrophe at Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima triple meltdown are both classified at the maximum level, seven.
There's little question that more of these tanks will develop leaks, with a number of them approaching their expiration dates and only some of the tanks outfitted with sensors to provide early warning of leakage. "These are the wrong containers in the wrong place, made of the wrong material and built in the wrong way," declares nuclear expert Mycle Schneider, one of the lead authors of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
Malfunctions, bungling and cluelessness seem to be ongoing themes at Fukushima. Sometimes it's a radioactive cloud of steam rising from the ruined reactors; another time it's a leak plugged with nothing more than a bit of tape. Then there is the radioactive water -- it's difficult to gauge just how much -- that has already entered the groundwater and flowed into the ocean, something TEPCO until recently insistently denied. TEPCO president Hirose has now also apologized for the radiation that has affected fish off the coast near Fukushima.
"The day-to-day catastrophes are so serious that TEPCO never gets a chance to turn its attention to its actual plan," says Michael Maqua at the Society for Plant and Reactor Safety (GRS), in Cologne, Germany. He too is appalled by TEPCO's handling of the situation. "If this were a school and I were in charge of giving them a grade, they would be in danger of failing," he says.
Now, the Japanese government is providing funding for a number of more creative measures meant to turn things around at Fukushima. One plan involves a steel barrier erected between the plant and the ocean to stop radioactive water from flowing into the sea.
'We Can't Assume it will Work'
TEPCO also plans, by 2015, to freeze the ground around the entire reactor complex, creating a subterranean ring of permafrost with a circumference of 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) to prevent groundwater near the surface from seeping into the ruined complex and becoming contaminated, as it currently does. This technology has been used in mining, but has never been applied on this scale or as a long-term measure meant to last for years. "We can't assume that it will work," Maqua says. Another German engineer working in the industry criticizes the plan, saying that this sort of permafrost ring will fail to work as a barrier to water if it is not also sealed from below.
As for the contents of the 1,000 radioactive storage tanks, there is only one long-term solution -- the contaminated water must be cleaned, and then emptied into the ocean. It is possible to a large extent to filter out the cesium and strontium. The tritium, although somewhat less of a concern, can't be filtered out. Little by little, the Japanese public is being prepared for the coming release of this water -- much to the horror of fishermen.
TEPCO recently completed a large filtration facility, but even that did little to increase confidence in the company's crisis management abilities -- hardly had the facility gone into operation before it was off-line again, having begun to rust and spring leaks.
Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee chair Dale Klein will travel to Japan again this week to meet with TEPCO's managers, who have not rejected Klein's help, despite his previous harsh comments. But it's unlikely they will be particularly happy with what Klein has to say to them this time either -- he says Japan should form a new company to apply knowledge from international experts to the cleanup efforts. TEPCO, he believes, is simply not capable of handling the extremely difficult water issue, a problem that, he says, they will be dealing with "for the next decade."
Woolly Mammoths were wiped out by climate change: study
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 4:41 EDT
A wide-ranging probe into woolly mammoths has added to evidence that the towering tusker was wiped out by climate change, scientists said on Wednesday.
British and Swedish researchers sequenced DNA from 88 samples of mammoth bone, tooth and tusk, looking for a signature in the genetic code that is handed down on the maternal line.
They used this telltale to build a family tree of mammoths spanning 200,000 years, across northern Eurasia and North America.
They found two periods of big population shakeup, both of them occurring in “interglacials,” or periods between ice ages.
A warm period 120,000 years ago caused populations to decline and become fragmented, leading to the emergence of a distinct type of mammoth that lived in western Europe.
The cold then returned, for a period lasting around 100,000 years called the Late Pleistocene — the last ice age until now.
Superbly adapted to the cold, arid steppe and tundra, mammoths were the kings of the north.
They ruled from western Europe to the northern part of North America, which could be reached from Eurasia by an ice bridge across the Bering Strait.
Then as the temperatures gradually rose once more, the populations shifted again and the mammoths were again confined to small pockets of favourable habitat.
What happened next is the final chapter in the great mammoth mystery.
Other researchers have similarly concluded that climate change drove the mammoth to the brink but say it was hunting by humans that delivered the final blow.
But this argument has a flaw.
Humans could hardly be to blame if mammoths were able — as in previous interglacials — to hole up in some chilly redoubt that was too remote for habitation or hunting.
“Spells of warm climate made the mammoth more susceptible to extinction,” said Love Dalen at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
But to understand why the entire species became extinct, further investigations are needed in the final places where mammoths survived, said Dalen.
Two good candidate locations are St. Paul, an island off Alaska, and Wrangel, an island in the Siberian Arctic, said co-researcher Ian Barnes at London’s Royal Holloway University.
Wrangel Island, in the Siberian Arctic, and the island of St. Paul, off Alaska, are believed to have been the mammoths’ last refuge.
Populations there may have survived as recently as 6,000 years ago, some 5,000 years later than counterparts on the mainland.
The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published by Britain’s de-facto Academy of Sciences.
Web of life unravelling, wildlife biologist says
Brian Wilford / Oceanside Star
August 29, 2013 http://www.oceansidestar.com/news/web-of-life-unravelling-wildlife-biologist-says-1.605499
Wildlife biologist Neil Dawe says he wouldn't be surprised if the generation after him witnesses the extinction of humanity.
All around him, even in a place as beautiful as the Little Qualicum River estuary, his office for 30 years as a biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service, he sees the unravelling of "the web of life."
"It's happening very quickly," he says.
A recent news report focussed on the precipitous decline of barn swallows on Vancouver Island.
That is certainly true, says Dawe, who starting in 1978 worked on the Royal BC Museum's four-volume Birds of British Columbia project, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
People will focus on the extinction of a species but not "the overall impact," he says. When habitat diversity is lost, "it changes the whole dynamic." In 1975, when Dawe was assigned to study the newly created Marshall-Stevenson Unit of the Qualicum National Wildlife Area, which is part of the Little Qualicum River estuary, there were 24 nesting pairs of blueand-rust barn swallows in an old barn that still stands to this day after 125 years.
Registered Professional Biologist Neil Dawe has written over 80 papers on birds, ecology and the environment. He received Environment Canada's Regional Citation of Excellence Award for his work in co-founding and co-chairing the Brant Wildlife Festival. He received the Outstanding Service Award from the Federation of B.C. Naturalists and the Ian McTaggart-Cowan Award of Excellence in Biology from the Association of Professional Biologists of B.C. In 2006, he retired from the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, after 31 years of managing National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries on Vancouver Island. He is President of the Qualicum Institute: www.qualicuminstitute.ca
The fork-tailed aerobatic wonders mate for life and year after year the couples, migrating from as far as South America, would return to the same nests in the old barn.
However, their numbers began to decline as the area was developed. The trees were logged and milled, parts of the estuary were mined for gravel, rock walls were built to stop erosion, and a straight channel, in use to this day, was dug so the river no longer wound through the estuary, shifting course with the seasons.
All that meant fewer insects and that meant weak and hungry barn swallows, now susceptible to the larvae of the blowfly.
One by one, the nesting pairs slipped away over decades, Dawe says. "When I left there were none."
There are still barn swallows in the area but there aren't as many: between 1966 and 2011, barn swallows in B.C. have declined at a rate of 4.96% a year.
They're among more 30 B.C. birds known to be in decline, including the iconic Great Blue Heron (1.7% per year), the Rufous Hummingbird (1.91%), the beautiful killdeer (3.8%), the American Goldfinch (4.85%) and so on. Forty-five of the 57 coastal waterbirds using the Strait of Georgia were in decline between 1999 and 2011, including the Brant sea goose (4.7% per year), Greater Yellowlegs (10.5%) and Western Grebe (16.4%).
But it isn't just birds. The inconspicuous Pacific crabapple, once a mainstay of the estuary, is all but gone. Dawe points to a scrawny metre-high specimen near a road. "I'd guess it's a hundred years old," he says.
The Douglas fir and Sitka spruce are all but gone. The life-giving grassy carex, as Dawe and fellow biologist Andy Stewart reported in 2010, is being stripped from the estuary by resident Canada geese at a rate of 15-18 metric tonnes a year.
"Most of these plants here now are invasive species," he says.
Indeed, in his 35 years of studying what is supposed to be a wildlife sanctuary, it has almost all changed, and it no longer supports the life it once did.
It looks green and serene but to Dawe, "It's a veritable desert here."
The loss to the food web is a loss to the web of life, he says, and people are a huge part of that web.
Indeed, it's an overabundance of people, perhaps by five-fold, which is driving resource extraction and consumption beyond a sustainable planet, he says.
"Economic growth is the biggest destroyer of the ecology," he says. "Those people who think you can have a growing economy and a healthy environment are wrong. "If we don't reduce our numbers, nature will do it for us."
He isn't hopeful humans will rise to the challenge and save themselves.
"Everything is worse and we're still doing the same things," he says. "Because ecosystems are so resilient, they don't exact immediate punishment on the stupid."
September 11, 2013
Camels Linked to Spread of Fatal Virus
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
Evidence is mounting that camels are the most likely intermediary in the transmission from bats to humans of the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
While the virus itself has not been found in a camel yet, antibodies that react to it have been discovered in the blood of camels in Sudan, Egypt, Oman and the Canary Islands. The finding suggests that the animals had recovered from infection with the MERS virus or a close relative.
While many of the 114 confirmed MERS cases have had no contact with camels, it appears that the first confirmed or suspected cases in three separate clusters may have, and in two cases, the camels were observed to be ill.
According to the Saudi newspaper Asharq, a 38-year-old man from Batin, Saudi Arabia, who died of what was diagnosed as bacterial pneumonia was a camel dealer with at least one obviously sick camel. Later, other members of his family, including a mother, daughter and cousin, fell ill with what was diagnosed as MERS, and two died. They were part of a cluster of cases reported Sept. 7 by the World Health Organization.
In April, the magazine Science reported that a wealthy 73-year-old Abu Dhabi man fell ill shortly after contact with a sick racing camel in his stable. He flew by private jet to Germany for treatment; after his death, doctors there said they had been told that his brother had also fallen ill after contact with the camel.
The first confirmed MERS victim, the owner of a paint warehouse in Bisha, Saudi Arabia, had four pet camels, according to Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University who took blood samples from them. Those tests are still being done, Dr. Lipkin said.
The unconnected welter of reports shows that surveillance for the MERS virus in the Middle East is inadequate, said Henry L. Niman, a Pittsburgh biochemist who tracks viral mutations. Not enough camels are being evaluated in the countries where human cases have been found, he said, and humans who fall ill with what might be MERS in poor countries like Sudan are not being tested.
September 12, 2013
Honduras Grants Land to Indigenous Group, in Bid to Help It Protect Forests
By ELISABETH MALKIN
MEXICO CITY — The Honduran government has granted more than 7 percent of its territory to the indigenous Miskito communities who live on the land, an initiative intended to help them protect their forests.
The title agreement, which gives the Miskito people ownership of almost one million hectares (about 3,860 square miles) of their traditional land, represents an acknowledgment of the rights of the most neglected citizens in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries.
“The title is just the first step,” said David Kaimowitz, the director of natural resources at the Ford Foundation, who has been working with the Miskito communities. “The title won’t guarantee that drug traffickers and oil palm growers won’t move in, but it gives them a handle to resist these incursions.”
It is also an action that Mr. Kaimowitz and other experts say will help preserve the region’s dense pine forests and tropical rain forests. Conservation groups maintain that indigenous people have been the best stewards of their own forests. Honduras is following Nicaragua, Belize and Panama, which have all handed over title to forestland to indigenous communities.
“That is our tradition; our duty is to protect the forest,” Norvin Goff Salinas, the president of a coalition of Miskito groups, said in a telephone interview.
In addition to the 970,000 hectares (about 3,750 square miles) turned over to Miskito groups, the government has promised an additional 800,000 hectares (about 3,090 square miles) in the Río Plátano biosphere reserve, part of the most important area of tropical rain forest in Central America.
The Miskito people base their claim to the land on their continuous occupation of the region and the stilted language of a Victorian-era treaty.
They are the inhabitants of the Mosquito Coast of legend, covering the Caribbean coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua, which was a British protectorate beginning in the 17th century.
In the 1850s, the British government signed treaties to hand the land over to the unstable countries emerging from the Spanish Empire. The Wyke-Cruz treaty of 1859 offered a ringing defense of the rights of the Miskito of Honduras, declaring that they “shall not be disturbed in the possession of any lands or other property which they may hold or occupy.”
For more than 100 years, though, it was their isolation, not the law, that protected them.
Over the past 40 years, the Miskito have organized to press for recognition of those long-forgotten rights. Their claims became increasingly urgent as large ranchers moved into their territory, clearing forests for pasture land.
“There wasn’t any legal support to complain to the government,” Mr. Goff said. “Now with the backing of titles, we can stop this agenda.”
To the northwest, powerful corporations owned by Honduran oligarchs have planted vast plantations of oil palm trees, prompting violent land battles.
The Miskito protested to press their claims, putting pressure on the government of President Porfirio Lobo, who struggled to assert legitimacy after he was elected following a 2009 coup.
Ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of climate change, threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom.
Story by Craig Welch
About project →
"Sea Change" was produced, in part, with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
NORMANBY ISLAND, Papua New Guinea — Katharina Fabricius plunged from a dive boat into the Pacific Ocean of tomorrow.
She kicked through blue water until she spotted a ceramic tile attached to the bottom of a reef.
A year earlier, the Australian ecologist had placed this small square near a fissure in the sea floor where gas bubbles up from the earth. She hoped the next generation of baby corals would settle on it and take root.
Fabricius yanked a knife from her ankle holster, unscrewed the plate and pulled it close. Even underwater the problem was clear. Tiles from healthy reefs nearby were covered with budding coral colonies in starbursts of red, yellow, pink and blue. This plate was coated with a filthy film of algae and fringed with hairy sprigs of seaweed.
Instead of a brilliant new coral reef, what sprouted here resembled a slimy lake bottom.
Isolating the cause was easy. Only one thing separated this spot from the lush tropical reefs a few hundred yards away.
In this volcanic region, pure CO2 escapes naturally through cracks in the ocean floor. The gas bubbles alter the water’s chemistry the same way rising CO2 from cars and power plants is quickly changing the marine world.
In fact, the water chemistry here is exactly what scientists predict most of the seas will be like in 60 to 80 years.
That makes this isolated splash of coral reef a chilling vision of our future oceans.
‘High rates of extinction’ to come?
Imagine every person on Earth tossing a hunk of CO2 as heavy as a bowling ball into the sea. That’s what we do to the oceans every day.
Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, belches carbon dioxide into the air. But a quarter of that CO2 then gets absorbed by the seas — eight pounds per person per day, about 20 trillion pounds a year.
Scientists once considered that entirely good news, since it removed CO2 from the sky. Some even proposed piping more emissions to the sea.
But all that CO2 is changing the chemistry of the ocean faster than at any time in human history. Now the phenomenon known as ocean acidification — the lesser-known twin of climate change — is helping push the seas toward a great unraveling that threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom, and far faster than first expected.
Here’s why: When CO2 mixes with water it takes on a corrosive power that erodes some animals’ shells or skeletons. It lowers the pH, making oceans more acidic and sour, and robs the water of ingredients animals use to grow shells in the first place.
Acidification wasn’t supposed to start doing its damage until much later this century.
Instead, changing sea chemistry already has killed billions of oysters along the Washington coast and at a hatchery that draws water from Hood Canal. It’s helping destroy mussels on some Northwest shores. It is a suspect in the softening of clam shells and in the death of baby scallops. It is dissolving a tiny plankton species eaten by many ocean creatures, from auklets and puffins to fish and whales — and that had not been expected for another 25 years.
And this is just the beginning.
Ocean acidification also can bedevil fish and the animals that eat them, including sharks, whales, seabirds and, of course, bigger fish. Shifting sea chemistry can cripple the reefs where fish live, rewire fish brains and attack what fish eat.
Those changes pose risks for our food, too, from the frozen fish sticks pulled from the grocer’s freezer to the fillets used in McDonald’s fish sandwiches, to the crab legs displayed at Pike Place Market, all brought to the world by a Northwest fishing industry that nets half the nation’s catch.
And this chemical change is not happening in a vacuum.
Island reefs of Papua New Guinea offer a window on our future, while fishing ports in Alaska and along the Washington coast show how the deterioration of food webs could strike close to home.
Globally, overfishing remains a scourge. But souring seas and ocean warming are expected to reduce even more of the plants and animals we depend on for food and income. The changes will increase ocean pests, such as jellyfish, and make the system more vulnerable to disasters and disease. The transformation will be well under way by the time today’s preschoolers reach middle age.
“I used to think it was kind of hard to make things in the ocean go extinct,” said James Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “But this change we’re seeing is happening so fast it’s almost instantaneous. I think it might be so important that we see large levels, high rates, of extinction.”
Globally, we can arrest much of the damage if we bring down CO2 soon. But if we do not, the bad news won’t stop. And the longer we wait, the more permanent the change gets.
“There’s a train wreck coming and we are in a position to slow that down and make it not so bad,” said Stephen Palumbi, a professor of evolutionary and marine biology at Stanford University. “But if we don’t start now the wreck will be enormous.”
You might think that would lend the problem urgency. So far, it has not.
Combined nationwide spending on acidification research for eight federal agencies, including grants to university scientists by the National Science Foundation, totals about $30 million a year — less than the annual budget for the coastal Washington city of Hoquiam, population 10,000.
The federal government has spent more some years just studying sea lions in Alaska.
So to understand how acidification could transform marine life, The Seattle Times crisscrossed the world’s greatest ocean, from the sun-dappled reefs of the South Pacific to the ice-encrusted surface of the Bering Sea.
How much carbon are we putting into the ocean?
We’re dumping the equivalent of a hopper car of coal — about 100 U.S. tons — into the ocean every second.
Acidification will strike every ocean, and no one can predict exactly how things will look — the seas are too complex for that.
But the island reefs of Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay province offer a window on our future, while fishing ports in Alaska and along the Washington coast show how damage to fish brains and the deterioration of food webs may strike close to home.
A disturbing glimpse of the future
Papua New Guinea’s Solomon Sea island vents are remarkable because of where they are: in shallow waters normally fringed by coral reefs as striking as fields of wildflowers.
These remnants of earthquakes or eruptions come in all shapes: mini-geysers, a giant crack that burps basketball-size blobs of gas, rows of pinprick holes in the sand that exhale curtains of Champagne bubbles.
Katharina Fabricius swims through carbon-dioxide bubbles off Papua New Guinea. The waters here offer a glimpse of how acidification is likely to transform the seas.
As Fabricius glided through earlier this year, a bleak portrait emerged.
Instead of tiered jungles of branching, leafy reefs or a watery Eden of delicate corals arrayed in fans, she saw mud, stubby spires and squat boulder corals. Snails and clams were mostly gone, as were most of a reef’s usual residents: worms, colorful sea squirts and ornate feather stars.
The culprit: excess carbon dioxide. When CO2 hits seawater it becomes carbonic acid — the same weak acid found in club soda — and releases hydrogen ions, reducing the water’s pH. This chemical change robs the water of carbonate ions, a critical building block for many marine organisms. Clams rely on that carbonate, as do corals, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, barnacles, sand dollars, cucumbers and sea urchins.
In Puget Sound, for example, 30 percent of marine life — some 600 species — draws upon carbonate ions to grow.
Reaction to high CO2 varies by species. Acidification can kill baby abalone and some crabs, deform squid and weaken brittle stars while making it tough for corals to grow. It can increase sea grasses, which can be good, and boost the toxicity of red tides, which is not. It makes many creatures less resilient to heavy metal pollution.
Roughly a quarter of organisms studied by researchers actually do better in high CO2. Another quarter seem unaffected. But entire marine systems are built around the remaining half of susceptible plants and animals.
“What does well in disturbed environments are invasive generalists,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate expert at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science, who helped popularize the term ocean acidification. “The ones that do poorly are the more highly evolved specialists. Yes, there will be winners and losers, but the winners will mostly be the weeds.”
Many species, from sea urchins to abalone, have some capacity to adapt to high CO2. But it’s not clear if they will have the time.
“It’s almost like an arms race,” said Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We can see that the potential for rapid evolution is there. The question is, will the changes be so rapid and extreme that it will outstrip what they’re capable of?”
That is the underlying problem: The pace of change has caught everyone off guard.
Already, the oceans have grown 30 percent more acidic since the dawn of the industrial revolution — 15 percent just since the 1990s. By the end of this century, scientists predict, seas may be 150 percent more acidic than they were in the 18th century.
The oceans are corroding faster than they did during past periods of marine extinctions that were linked to souring seas. Even 55 million years ago, the rate of change was 10 times slower than today. The current shift has come so quickly that scientists five years ago saw chemical changes off the West Coast not expected for half a century.
And the seas are souring even faster in some places.
The Arctic and Antarctic have shifted more rapidly than other waters around the world because deep, cold seas absorb more CO2. The U.S. West Coast has simply seen consequences sooner because strong winds draw its CO2-rich water to the surface where vulnerable shellfish live.
Sea chemistry in the Northwest already is so bad during some windy periods that it kills young oysters in Washington’s Willapa Bay. In less than 40 years, half the West Coast’s surface waters are expected to be that corrosive every day.
That threatens to reduce the variety of life in the sea.
“That loss of biodiversity should matter to people just like a lack of diversity in your stock portfolio should bother people,” said Jeremy Mathis, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It works exactly the same way. If you go all-in on one stock and that stock crashes, you’re stuck.”
Katharina Fabricius sees plenty of reason to worry.
In six trips to Papua New Guinea, she found sea cucumbers and urchins living near the vents, but the shrimp and crab she expected to see instead were almost nonexistent. She saw only 60 percent as many hard corals as she did on healthy reefs nearby. Only 8 percent as many soft corals survived, and one species dominated. The reefs that remained were less intricate, offering fewer places for animals to hide. Dull, rounded boulder corals, which seemed to thrive, still grew a third slower than normal. Sea grasses flourished but were less diverse. There was twice as much fleshy algae.
“We’re seeing sea-grass meadows as green as golf lawns,” Fabricius said. “But corals are suffering, and they are incredibly important.”
Corals protect shorelines from erosion and severe weather and provide a dormitory where staggering varieties of life seek shelter. Those tiny plants and animals then become food for other creatures. Study after study shows the same thing — the more reefs collapse and fleshy algae spreads, the less we see of important tropical fish: wrasses, tangs, damselfish, parrotfish.
Those losses come at a price.
One-sixth of animal protein consumed by humans comes from marine fish — in some cultures nearly all of it. The vast majority of wild seafood is fish, and fish account for three-quarters of the money made from ocean catches.
Yet reefs are just the first of many ways ocean-chemistry shifts could hit seafood.
Scientists once thought fish would dodge the worst direct effects of acidification. Now it appears that might be wrong — a fact researchers learned almost by accident.
Losing Nemo: Fish harmed, with deadly results
In 2007, American biologist Danielle Dixson arrived in Papua New Guinea hoping to find out how Nemo got home.
Clownfish live in waggling anemones near coral reefs, often near islands. Scientists suspected they traced their way through the sea by following their noses. But how?
Clownfish swim through an anemone near Dobu Island, Papua New Guinea. CO2 can alter how clownfish see, hear and smell, which increases the chance of death.
Solving this riddle would help uncover one of acidification’s most haunting problems: its ability to scramble fish behavior.
Dixson, then a graduate student at Australia’s James Cook University, wanted to find the olfactory cue that drew clownfish back to the reef. She tested smells from different water. She tested dirt. Nothing was quite right, until she looked up.
Since Papua New Guinea’s island rain forests drape over the sea, Dixson took five island plants and spread the scent of their leaves in water. Young clownfish immediately swam toward the smell.
Back in Australia, she prepared to repeat the experiment in a lab. There she bumped into Philip Munday.
Munday, a James Cook University professor, had been trying to see if carbon dioxide hurts fish. He checked everything: weight, survival, reproduction. No obvious problems surfaced, which came as no surprise. Fish are excellent at altering blood chemistry to accommodate changing seas.
But he wanted to do more tests. He asked Dixson if she minded raising some extra clownfish for him.
On a whim they decided: Why not see if CO2 altered how fish use their noses?
“We thought, ‘let’s just combine the two experiments and see how it goes,’ not expecting that we’d see anything,” Munday said.
CO2-rich seas can scramble fish behavior
High levels of CO2 can alter a fish’s sense of smell, hearing and sight — even its decision-making. That leads young tropical reef fish to die more often. Here’s what happens.
Surprises came right away. Exposed to high CO2, the fish quit distinguishing between odors and were equally attracted to every scent. Since clownfish use smell to stay safe, the duo then exposed babies in high-CO2 water to dottybacks and rock cod — bigger fish that eat young clownfish.
Normal clownfish always avoided the danger. The exposed fish lost all fear. They swam straight at predators.
Over the next few years, scientists learned CO2 changed many reef fishes’ senses and behaviors: sight, hearing, the propensity to turn left or right. Baby reef fish exposed to high CO2 and placed back in the wild died five times more often. Even when baby reef fish and predators were both exposed to high CO2, young fish were bolder, ventured farther from home — and died twice as often.
Only last year did researchers learn why: Elevated CO2 disrupts brain signaling in a manner common among many fish.
The clownfish story, in other words, was no longer just about clownfish.
By then, another American living in Australia, marine scientist Jodie Rummer, was learning that high CO2 boosted aerobic capacity for some tropical fish, transforming them into super athletes. Yet even some of these fish showed behavioral problems. Rummer called it “dumb jock syndrome.”
“You might expect that a more athletic fish can be better at chasing food, or be better at getting away from a predator, or finding a mate,” she said. “But if their cognitive function — or their brain — is compromised under these high-CO2 conditions, they might make bad choices. They might turn the wrong direction and end up right in a predator’s mouth.”
Most of this research had been limited to a select few tropical species. But scientists knew it wouldn’t take much for behavioral problems to impact consumers.
Acidification need only harm the wrong fish.
Big warning for high-stakes fishery
Across the Pacific Ocean from Papua New Guinea, Tom Enlow climbed a set of stairs in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a thousand miles out in the Aleutian Islands chain. He arrived on the sorting line of a fish-processing plant owned by Redmond-based UniSea.
Behind Enlow, giant vacuum hoses spit thousands of oily walleye pollock onto a conveyor.
Pollock “is the lifeblood of our local economy, certainly, and the state’s economy, and one of the largest industries on the Northwest and West Coast,” said Enlow, the plant’s manager.
The North Pacific pollock catch is so big it sounds almost absurd. Fleets of fishermen and factory trawlers haul in 3 billion pounds annually. No other North American fishery operates on this scale. Seafood companies reel in $1 billion a year from that catch.
Pollock gets carved into frozen fish sticks, sold overseas as roe and imitation crab, or packed in blocks. McDonald’s runs television commercials trumpeting the Bering Sea fishermen who supply pollock for Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.
So pollock was among the first species the U.S. government tested in high-CO2 water. Results late last year brought no surprise: Acidification would hurt neither the fish’s body nor its growth. Adult and young seemed physically unharmed.
But after tracking clownfish research, government scientists in Oregon tried new tests.
After smelling prey, pollock scout around and hunt it down. So NOAA biologist Thomas Hurst exposed young pollock to high CO2 and introduced the scent of what they eat. Some of the fish struggled to recognize their food.
“In some of the very early work it looks like pollock may show some of the same kinds of deficits that are seen in coral-reef fishes,” Hurst said.
It’s too soon to say how — or even if — that would affect pollock fishing. Some tropical fish raised in high-CO2 water gave birth to young that adjusted to their new environment. Pollock might respond the same way.
But the fish also might not. And a lot rides on the outcome, particularly in the Northwest.
Dutch Harbor might as well be a distant Seattle suburb. Washington businesses or residents often own or run its trawlers, crab boats and processors. Employees typically come from the Puget Sound region. Even the former five-term mayor of Unalaska, Dutch Harbor’s municipal government, used to fish out of Ballard.
“We don’t yet know whether it’s going to be a really severe impact or a modest impact,” Hurst said. But “if the fish is less able to recognize the scent of its prey and then therefore locate food when it’s foraging out in the wild, obviously that’s going to have negative impacts for growth and then survival in the long run.”
And that’s just one species. Similar tests are under way for rockfish, cod, several kinds of crab and sharks.
But brain damage is not even the biggest threat to commercial fish.
This pteropod, also known as a sea butterfly, comes from Puget Sound. The tiny shelled creatures are an important food source for many fish and seabirds. The shells of pteropods already are eroding in Antarctica, where the water chemistry isn’t as bad as it is in parts of the Pacific Northwest.
Key link in food chain dissolving
All over the ocean, usually too small to see, flutter beautiful, nearly see-through creatures called pteropods, also known as sea butterflies. Scientists have known for years that plummeting ocean pH eventually would begin to burn through their shells.
Few people would find that significant save for one fact: Many things eat pteropods.
Birds, fish and mammals, from pollock to whales, feast on this abundant ocean snack. Pteropods make up half the diet of baby pink salmon and get eaten by other fish, such as herring, that then get swallowed by larger animals.
So scientists were alarmed late in 2012 when researchers announced that pteropods in Antarctica were dissolving right now in waters less corrosive than those often found off Washington and Oregon. What did that mean for the Northwest?
Pink salmon swim through Finch Creek, near a salmon hatchery on Hood Canal. Pteropods make up roughly half the diet of young pink salmon in Alaska.
The United States does so little monitoring of marine systems that we know almost nothing about the health of creatures that form the bottom of the ocean food chain — things like pteropods, krill or other important zooplankton called copepods. The most-studied animals remain those we catch. Little is known about the things they eat.
Computer modelers such as Isaac Kaplan, at NOAA in Seattle, are scrambling to figure out how sea-chemistry changes could reverberate through the ocean.
Initial results are disturbing.
“Right now, for acidification in particular,” Kaplan said, “the risks look pretty substantial.”
Kaplan tracks the Pacific coast — temperature, pH levels, currents, salinity. He incorporates studies that detail how CO2 impacts creatures. Then he extrapolates how all those variables are likely to affect the fish people catch.
While the models are rough and uncertainty is high — too many elements cannot be controlled — the trend is clear.
Kaplan’s early work predicts significant declines in sharks, skates and rays, some types of flounder and sole, and Pacific whiting, also known as hake, the most frequently caught commercial fish off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California.
“Some species will go up, some species will go down,” said Phil Levin, ecosystems leader for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “On balance, it looks to us like most of the commercially caught fish species will go down.”
Fearing ‘a mess for this little town’
The findings confound those who rely on commercial fish.
Capt. Ben Downs stood atop the wheelhouse of the F/V Pacific Dove, in Westport, Grays Harbor County, on a recent summer day as he rolled on a fresh coat of whitewash. Downs spent years piloting one of the coast’s biggest whiting boats. This day he was prepping for shrimp fishing.
“The early warnings are there. We’ve seen the first wave that hit the oysters. We’re just hoping it doesn’t come our way.”
Who runs a hake fishing cooperative
“The ocean is always changing,” Downs said. Nearby a ship offloaded whiting at the city’s largest processor. “This is nothing different. I’ve battled the ocean all my life.”
Yet even a skeptic like Downs sees the stakes.
Coastwide, fishermen bring in tens of million pounds of whiting a year. It’s the biggest product at Westport’s fish plant, which at times employs a quarter of the city’s workforce.
“If the hake went away, it’d be a mess for this little town,” he said. “Astoria, Oregon, same thing. Newport, Oregon, same thing.”
Dave Fraser, who runs a whiting fishing cooperative, wasn’t skeptical, but weary. Fishermen already face tangible crises daily: the dollar’s value swinging wildly against the yen; quotas falling based on routine marine shifts.
“Being able to focus on something 10 or 20 years away … it’s hard,” he said. “The early warnings are there. We’ve seen the first wave that hit the oysters. We’re just hoping it doesn’t come our way.”
It is a problem not limited to fishing fleets.
“If you go 100 miles from the coast, most people say, ‘Why do I care about ocean acidification?’ ” Mathis, at NOAA, said. “Convincing a farmer in Iowa or a teacher in Kansas to care about ocean acidification is our challenge.”
He measures progress by the drop in emails from angry Alaskans challenging his findings.
“Acidification is very real: There isn’t any doubt it’s happening,” said Clem Tillion, a former Republican Alaska state Senate president, even though he still denies human contributions to global warming. “It’s obvious. And it’s going to be devastating.”
At stake: food for rural people
On a warm Papua New Guinea night, a quarter-mile from Fabricius’ CO2 vents, Edwin Morioga and Ridley Guma sat in the dark in a canoe and prepped their spears.
The rain-forest jungles of Milne Bay are home to wallabies, flying rodents, cockatoos and butterflies the size of dinner plates. Villagers raise taro, yams and other vegetables. Many know increasing storms and rising seas someday will force them to move their sago tree huts to higher ground.
But with a quarter of a million people spread across 600 islands, the threat to food may be more significant.
Most of their protein comes from the sea. Fishermen unspool hand lines to collect sweetlips and sea perch. They gather shrimp and crustaceans. And at night they dodge tiger sharks and saltwater crocodiles to spear small fish from beneath bountiful corals.
Globally, the sea provides the primary source of animal protein for a billion people. Many, like Morioga and Guma, have few alternatives.
The pair slipped into the water and floated face down, flashlights trained on the reef. Neither knew much about Fabricius’ acidification research. But they agreed they did not want CO2 from the West or an industrializing Asia transforming their reefs into places resembling the desolate nearby bubble sites.
Away from the vents, amid the coral, life of all kinds is still plentiful.
In an instant, Morioga saw a flash. He took a breath and dived, stabbing beneath a branching coral. After a pause, Morioga surfaced.
On the end of his spear writhed a tiny rabbitfish, his first catch of the night from what remains one of the world’s healthiest reefs.
At least for now.
Chevron agrees to pay $41.6 million for oil spill in Brazil
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, September 13, 2013 20:57 EDT
US energy giant Chevron and Swiss-based rig operator Transocean signed a deal with Brazilian prosecutors on Friday to settle lawsuits over an oil spill off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.
Chevron has agreed to pay $41.6 million in compensation over the leak of 3,000 barrels of crude in November 2011 from the deepwater Frade field, 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest of the picturesque coastal city, the Rio prosecutor’s office said.
The deal requires Chevron to accept “unprecedented obligations” to prevent new incidents and provide compensation to “put an end” to two civil lawsuits, the office said in a statement.
Chevron and Transocean did not immediately comment on the agreement.
The deal was reached with the consent of Brazil’s National Oil Agency and the Brazilian Environmental Institute, but must be approved by a federal court.
The offshore field, which produces 60,000 barrels of oil a day, was operated by California-based Chevron and Transocean, which ran the offshore rigs.
Though relatively small, the operation was important for Brazil to reach its goal of producing two million barrels per day.
In March 2012, a second but much smaller leak was detected in the same area in the Campos basin, and Chevron voluntarily suspended its operations in Brazil.
More than a year later, in April, Chevron was authorized to partially resume oil production in Brazil.
Chevron has already paid a 35 million real (about $15 million) fine for 24 violations stemming from the first leak. The fine imposed by the nation’s oil agency was reduced by 30 percent because Chevron did not appeal it.
The Brazilian Environmental Institute imposed two separate fines in 2011 totalling some $14.6 million for environmental damage and failures in the company’s accident emergency plan.
A criminal suit against the companies for environmental crimes and damage to the national patrimony was dismissed in February.
Brazil owns massive oil and gas reserves under a thick layer of salt in the Atlantic Ocean.
But the country needs millions of dollars in investments to explore the reserves, which could turn Latin America’s top economy into one of the biggest hydrocarbon producers in the world.
The first auction to explore the site’s Libra Field will take place on October 21. Libra is the largest oil reserve discovered in Brazil’s history and is believed to hold between eight billion and 12 billion barrels.
Niger delta oil spill victims reject 'derisory' Shell compensation offer
London court may now decide how much firm should pay 11,000 fishermen and others who lost incomes when pipeline burst
John Vidal in Port Harcourt
theguardian.com, Friday 13 September 2013 16.28 BST
Niger delta communities devastated by giant oil spills from rusting Shell pipelines have unanimously rejected a compensation offer from the company, calling it an insult, and cruel and derisory.
A court in London is now likely to decide how much the Anglo-Dutch firm should pay 11,000 fishermen and others from the Bodo community who lost their livelihoods when the 50-year-old Shell-operated trans-Niger pipeline burst twice within a few months in 2008.
Sources close to the negotiations in Port Harcourt this week suggest Shell offered the communities £30m, or around £1,100 for each person affected. Martyn Day, a partner with the UK law firm Leigh Day who represented the those communities, said Shell's offer was rejected unanimously at a large public meeting in Bodo.
"The amount offered for most claimants equated to two to three years' net lost earnings whereas the Bodo creek has already been out of action for five years and it may well be another 20-25 before it is up and running properly again. I was not at all surprised to see the community walk out of the talks once they heard what Shell were offering."
On Friday the full scale of the spills could be seen from the air with over 75 sq km of mangrove forests, creeks, swamps and channels thick with crude oil. Estimates of how much oil was spilled ranged from around 4,000 barrels to more than 300,000. Communities this week reported that no cleanup had been done and that water wells were still polluted.
Five years after the spills the creeks and waterways around Bodo have an apocalyptic feel. The air stinks of crude, long slicks of oil drift in and out of the blackened, dying mangrove swamps and a sheen of oil covers the tidal mudflats.
"It's everywhere. The wind blows the oil on our vegetable crops, our food tastes of oil, our children are sick and we get skin rashes. Life here has stopped," said Barilido, a fisherman reduced to collecting wood.
Shell, which took a top London negotiating team including a barrister, a QC and other legal experts to the negotiations, had indicated that it wanted to be fair, saying: "We have an interest in sensible and fair compensation being paid quickly to those who have been genuinely impacted by these highly regrettable spills."
A spokesman said: "We took part in this week's settlement negotiations with two objectives – to make a generous offer of compensation to those who have suffered hardship as a result of the two highly regrettable operational spills in 2008, and to make progress in relation to cleanup."
The firm said it was disappointing that a deal had not been reached, but added that progress had been made over the cleanup process. Shell, which works in a partnership with the Nigerian government, had maintained that it had not been able to clean up the spills because the affected Ogoniland communities had insisted on getting compensation first and would not allow it access to the affected areas.
The spokesman added: "The success of any interim measures and final remediation depends on the cessation of oil theft and illegal refining in the area, which reimpacts the environment and remains the cause of most oil pollution in the Niger delta."
Philip Mshelbila, Shell Nigeria's head of communications, said: "One positive from the talks is that the Bodo community has indicated that the cleanup needs to start as soon as possible. I understand that an offer was put. We are very willing to take part in talks about the cleanup."
It emerged this week that Shell had offered the communities only £4,000 shortly after the two spills occurred in 2008-9. "Shell continue to treat the people of Bodo with the same contempt as they did from the start when they tried in 2009 to buy us off by offering the community the total sum of £4,000 to settle the claims," said Chief Kogbara, chairman of the Bodo council .
"We told them in 2009 the people of Bodo are a proud and fiercely determined community. Our habitat and income have been destroyed by Shell oil. The claim against Shell will not resolve until they recognise this and pay us fully and fairly for what they have done."
Chief Tal Kottee, Bodo elected regent, said: "We had been expecting a good settlement from Shell. Our livelihoods here have been totally destroyed. It's an outrage that it has taken so long for a cleanup and to get compensation."
Chief Patrick Porobunu, leader of a Bodo fishing community, said: "Shell is cruel, very wicked. It has given us nothing again. People here are very angry. All we have is poverty because of Shell. We have no electricity, no health. Our suffering goes on."
International and regional groups condemned Shell, which is the largest firm on the London stock exchange with a market capitalisation of £141bn, for what they called its "meanness". They accused Shell of financial racism and applying different standards to cleanups in Nigeria compared with the rest of the world.
"Is it because we are Nigerian and poor that they offer so little for the damage they have caused?" said one fisherman at the Bodo meeting. "This would be different in the US or London." Another added: "Crude is the same in every country. Does the black man not also have red blood?"
"It is a big shame on Shell that they are unwilling to pay a fraction of their profit as compensation after subjecting the people and the environment to such unthinkable harm they would not dare allow in their home country," said the Nigerian environmentalist and chair of Oilwatch International, Nnimmo Bassey.
Pastor Christian, a former fisherman from Bodo, said: "If the money had come, then people would have been able to restart their businesses. I lost everything in the pollution. Now nothing will change and poverty will only increase. This offer was derisory. We don't want our children to suffer again like we did."
An Inside Look At Living In One Of The World’s Most Sustainable Cities — Melbourne, Australia
Published on September 13th, 2013
Originally published on ClimateProgress
by Ari Phillips
Melbourne is a sprawling network of neighborhoods, trams, trains, bikes, laneways and, around almost every corner, coffee shops — a bit like Portland, Oregon but bigger, more European feeling and with giant bats. There are tall skyscrapers, Robert Moses-era public housing blocks, dense row houses, overgrown bungalows and suburban complexes.
Over 15 years ago, Melbourne mounted a long-term campaign to change the way it uses energy and has attracted international acclaim for its commitment to sustainability. This has included encouraging bike riding and public transport and improving building efficiency. One notable example of this is the Council House 2 building, Australia’s first six-star green star new office design building. Completed in 2006, some of the building’s features include recycled water use, automatic windows, sun-tracking facades for shade and roof-mounted wind turbines to draw out hot air.
While good public transport and efficient office buildings are a big part of being a sustainable city, residences — and the way people live in those residences — are likely just as important. Melbourne is only as sustainable as its Melbournians.
A person’s carbon footprint, or energy economy, is some combination where they live and how they live. Two forward-thinking approaches to this idea in Melbourne are the 5×4 House, a soon-to-be-built super energy efficient, zero carbon dwelling on a 5×4-meter plot of land, and the Murundaka Co-housing Community, a new eco-housing complex of 20 residences based on the principles of sustainable and community living.
Different Approaches To Sustainability
Design and Technology
Ralph Alphonso, a Melbourne-based photographer, is building the 5×4 House on the space occupied by his garage. His current residence is a large, modern condo is located down a small laneway, or alley, in East Melbourne. He decided to go all out and try to build Australia’s most sustainable dwelling after being somewhat disappointed in the construction practices used in building his current house.
“In Australia you find houses with one or two elements of sustainable design,” Alphonso said. “We’re using the principles of full life cycle assessment and embodied energy to reduce the total carbon emissions of the house.”
Alphonso is not an environmentalist — his emissions from flying must be in the top one percentile as he seems to be on a plane every other day (he does buy offsets) — but through this process he’s become much more aware of what it means to live sustainably. For him, this includes everything from eating less meat to sourcing local materials.
“I think the house will start changing my behavioral patterns,” Alphonso said. “A big part of sustainable living is actually living the lifestyle.”
For Alphonso, the project is also about education. He thinks there are three main reasons why people choose to live more sustainably: it doesn’t take a large economic toll, it doesn’t alter their lifestyle too much and they are educated and can make informed decisions.
Cost is a major issue with employing sustainable design, and Alphonso has gotten creative about this by establishing project partners who offer services or products at a reduced cost in or in-kind in exchange for exposure (such as this article). He sees the true value-added being in the comprehensive nature of the project.
“Manufacturers are only going to change their production patterns if there’s a demand for it,” Alphonso said. “We want to showcase sustainable products and create that demand so manufacturers will automatically include sustainability, recycled content, efficiency — all those sort of things — in their production decisions. Then, in the longer term, these products will be more available and more affordable.”
As for lifestyle, Alphonso won’t be sacrificing much. He’ll even have a hot tub on the roof, which will be geothermally heated through partner agreements with Bosch Geothermal and Direct Energy Geothermal Heating and Cooling. While the footprint of the house is small, the square footage is around 650 feet (three floors, not including the roof), not too shabby for one person. He explains that part of the reason he’s doing this is to show that it’s possible to maintain a high quality of life while significantly reducing your energy economy.
Another reason is to illustrate how dense, urban living doesn’t have to feel cramped. Alphonso used his frequent travels abroad to visit some of the densest cities in the world, including New York and Tokyo, to gather ideas for his house. Both the City of Melbourne and the Australian Conservation Foundation are supporters of the project.
Alphonso is using the One Planet Living principles as a guide to building a more sustainable life along with the house. He likes the One Planet Living concept because it’s holistic and it’s quantifiable by showing how many planets of resources we consume to sustain our lifestyle.
August 20 was Earth Overshoot Day 2013: the day humanity uses up all the natural resources the planet can sustainably provide for a given year. From that date on, we’re in ecological deficit for the rest of the year, inflicting more damage on global ecology than it can naturally repair. Every year this date moves forward at least a few days.
“Ecological footprint analysis shows that, if everyone in the world lived like the average Australian, we would need five planets to sustain us,” Alphonso said.
“I like a lot of what the 5×4 House is doing, especially with the embodied energy analysis and One Planet Living guidelines,” Heidi Lee, Future Projects Manager for the architecture firm DesignInc and Murundaka Co-housing Community resident, said.
“But I think it kind of misses the point,” Lee continued. “I feel like we’re not really making much ground if we’re going to keep on knocking things down and building something new and keeping the same area and everyone having a hot tub.”
Lee said there’s a lot of talk about hot tubs where she lives as well, but it’s about sharing one hot tub between twenty households.
The Murundaka Co-housing Community consists of 18 self-contained apartments centered around a common house. As a rule of thumb, the apartments are ten percent smaller than what’s on the market — ten percent that gets put into the common house and other shared spaces, such as an office, guest room and expansive garden.
The building is only about two years old and has large, open corridors and panel windows that give it a very welcoming and homey feel for being so large. It is a mix of families, single moms, young couples and individuals, with all different apartment sizes. It is affordable housing so it is rent controlled. They have voluntary group activities, occasional meals, and as of recently, a weekly moderation session to improve communication.
“As a microcosm of how we could live in suburbia this has been built intentionally for people to actively live and work together,” Lee said. “To share time with neighbors, although you could live totally independently and never talk to any of the community members if you didn’t want to.”
But that would also miss the point, according to Lee, which is to rediscover the kinds of things humans lost when they stopped living in the size of settlements where people could know each other and have a certain level of trust and reciprocity even with the people they might not know that well. Lee and her partner recently had a child and she said that the community support surprised even her, with members helping with everything from preparing meals to running errands.
While Alphonso sees his main contribution being to change the way new buildings are manufactured, Lee is more concerned with what’s already standing. According to her, about 80 percent of the structures that will be around in ten years are already built.
“We need to put effort into looking after and improving what’s already built,” Lee said. “Otherwise it’s only going to get worse. Old buildings often have high air infiltration, leaking around windows and doors and other energy-wasting problems.”
The Larger Landscape
In June, Melbourne and Sydney launched a new program called Smart Blocks, designed to help apartment owners and their managers save money by improving energy efficiency. Energy audits show that on average up to 30 percent can be saved on just power bills alone.
In an interview, City of Melbourne Environment Portfolio Chair Councilor Arron Wood said population growth needs to be supported by innovative and practical initiatives like Smart Blocks.
“Our population is growing quickly. By 2031, we expect an additional 42,000 homes will be built in the City of Melbourne, accommodating 80,000 people. We need to be smart about the way we develop in the future but we also need to make our existing buildings more efficient. This is a critical step to reaching our ultimate goal of becoming a carbon neutral city.”
To Lee, however, just maintaining the existing suburban home infrastructure totally misses the point as well. She shudders at the thought of the nearly 70 percent of Australian dwellings with a spare bedroom, or large, underutilized yard space.
“Overall a key part of the message is missing: that we have to be living better together,” Lee said.
In Melbourne, and even across Australia, some of these ideals may be within reach. Approximately 40 percent of all new housing in Australia is in medium to high density developments. Over 70 percent of residents in both Melbourne and Sydney live in apartments, and these figures are only set to grow.
The transition from dense living to community living is not to be taken for granted though. While living in smaller spaces may cause people to spend more time outside at cafes or in public parks, which Alphonso plans to do, the idea of cooperative living is still in its infancy in Australia.
Lee recently toured cooperative housing communities in the States, and she was surprised that most of the communities she saw were doing it for social reasons. “In Australia the idea of a co-housing community is still pretty left-wing, and gets lumped in with other lefty ideals: less environmental impact, shared resources, growing your own food,” Lee said. “What I saw in the U.S. influenced how I think of it more as a social experience now.”
Lee would also like to see more collaboration — or more sharing — within the industry, and for the manufacturing and construction bar to be raised to higher energy economy standards. Amongst other things, this involves prefabrication or modular techniques that cut down on energy and transportation demands.
“What I worry about is we’re all going to sit back and go on with a business-as-usual approach,” Lee said. “Many firms just do whatever the client says, no matter what the carbon impact of the decision. We could be doing so much more and providing leadership.”
Lee has only been Future Projects Manager for a few weeks, but this is the type of impact she hopes to have going forward. And with clients like Alphonso, it seems likely that Melbourne will build on its reputation as one of the world’s most livable and sustainable cities.
Romanians mobilise in protest against gold mine plans
Street protests are snowballing in Romania against a Canadian-led gold mining project in Rosia Montana
Claudia Ciobanu for IPS, part of the Guardian Environment Network
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 September 2013 11.28 BST
Street protests are snowballing in Romania against a Canadian-led gold mining project in the Rosia Montana area in the Apuseni Mountains. More than 20,000 people joined a protest march in Bucharest on Sunday, and thousands in other Romanian cities took to the streets.
The Sunday marches represent the third major countrywide weekend mobilisation to oppose the project since Sep. 1. They drew the biggest numbers of participants so far. Smaller numbers of people have been protesting daily in Bucharest, in the western city of Cluj, and in others cities.
The protests erupted after the Romanian government proposed a draft law Aug. 27 that gives extraordinary powers to the project promoter, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (in which Canadian group Gabriel Resources is the majority stakeholder).
According to the text, the company can relocate people whose homes are on the perimeter of the mine. Additionally, the law asks state authorities to grant the company all necessary permits within set deadlines regardless of national legislation, court rulings or public participation requirements.
Gold Corporation plans to build Europe's largest gold mine at Rosia Montana to extract 300 tonnes of gold and 1,600 tonnes of silver over 17 years. The operation would involve the destruction of three villages and four mountains.
In all, 12,000 tonnes of cyanide would be used yearly and 13 million tons of mining waste produced each year, according to a project presentation submitted by the company to the Ministry of Environment.
The proposed law is meant to give the project a definitive green light after over 14 years in which Gold Corporation has not been able to secure all necessary permits.
In 2004, the Romanian Academy of Science – the most authoritative scientific body in the country – called for the project to be scrapped because environmental and social costs far outweigh benefits. Apart from environmental risks and displacements, the large-scale mining proposed by Gold Corporation would threaten the cultural heritage in Rosia Montana, a mining area since Roman times.
Hundreds of people in the 3,000-strong village have been opposing the project for years, setting up the NGO Alburnus Maior and successfully battling the corporation and state authorities in courts.
Contributing to the growth in public sympathy for the movement has been the seemingly close alliance between Gold Corporation, politicians across the political spectrum and mainstream media.
Political arch-rivals, such as centre-right President Traian Basescu and Socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta, have at various points declared themselves in favour of the project.
Most major media outlets in the country have run Gold Corporation advertisements while failing to cover arguments against the exploitation. In a country where corruption is a big feature of public life, this consensus in favour of gold mining at Rosia reeked of backroom deals.
The predominant discourse about Rosia Montana in the public sphere has been that gold mining would create employment and enrich state coffers. According to the most recent agreement between the Romanian government and the company (annexed to the Aug. 27 draft law), Gold Corporation would employ 2,300 people during the two-year construction phase and 900 during the 17 years of exploitation. Over the duration of the operation, the Romanian budget is set to win 2.3 billion dollars while other benefits for the Romanian economy are estimated at 2.9 billion dollars.
The popular mobilisation now targets the Parliament, whose vote will effectively decide the fate of Rosia Montana. If the law is approved, even if it is challenged as unconstitutional in the Constitutional Court (the premises for such a procedure exist since a judicial committee in the Senate issued a negative opinion on the draft law), construction could begin immediately, pending the supreme court ruling.
"We cannot tell what will happen with this project, but all that we can say is that we keep fighting, that united we will save Rosia Montana," Eugen David, leader of Alburnus Maior told IPS. "We are under siege right now in Rosia Montana, but in the end we will manage to lift it."
The protests that began on Sep. 1 are remarkably strong for Romania. Since their start, misinformation in the public space has been abundant: the main television channels originally failed to cover the protests despite their size; on Sep. 10, media wrongly announced that the draft law had been rejected by the Senate; and Ponta declared that the project could not go ahead against popular will, only to later express again support for the project.
In spite of this, protesters – who function according to a non-hierarchical structure and have no official leaders – have skillfully kept the public informed and engaged via Facebook. The weekly hours-long marches go through neighbourhoods with the goal of spreading the word about opposition to the project and showing that protesters are not hooligans as depicted on TV.
Their strategy seems to have worked since numbers this Sunday were bigger than ever. The first days of mobilisation brought mostly youth to the streets, but older participants and youth-parent couples are increasingly visible. After two weeks of well-mannered street actions, police presence on Sunday can be considered symbolic.
"It is very interesting that such a revolt began with a case of protecting the environment, but this is not only about the environment," Claudiu Craciun, an active participant in the protests, told IPS. "It is also about the right of people to keep their properties, about our duty to safeguard a patrimony that belongs not only to us, but also to the world and to future generations.
"The Rosia Montana case – in which you see legislation custom made to serve the interests of a corporation – highlights some failures of both democratic institutions and of the economic system, capitalism in a broader sense," Craciun added.
"Rosia Montana is the battle of the present and of the next decades," the activist said. "It illustrates the end of post-1989 cleavages [communist vs anti-communist, European vs. non-European] and the emergence of new ones. People today confront a corrupted political class backed up by a corporation and a sold out media; and they ask for an improved democratic process, for adding a participatory democracy dimension to traditional democratic mechanisms."
Mythical sea creature joins campaign to ban bottom trawling
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 16, 2013 19:01 EDT
Environmentalists on Monday unveiled unprecedented footage of a legendary sea creature, the giant oarfish, as they stepped up a campaign against bottom trawling.
The origin of the myth of the sea serpent — a snake deemed capable of capsizing vessels and swallowing crew — the giant oarfish reaches a length of 11 metres (36 feet) and more than 250 kilos (550 pounds).
Eel-like in appearance, the creature (Regalecus glesne) is the world’s longest bony fish.
It is only rarely seen by humans, and usually only as a bizarre, unwanted bycatch from commercial fishing.
At a press conference in Paris, ocean conservationists showed exclusive footage of the sinuous giant in its deep-sea environment as part of its effort to highlight dangers from trawling the sea bed.
“It’s a key moment for the deep ocean,” said Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, an umbrella of more than 70 associations.
Marine biologists say deep-sea bottom trawling, in which nets are scraped along the ocean floor, causes catastrophic damage to corals, sponges and micro-flora that are vital for the ecological web.
Places that were ploughed up decades ago have still to recover, said Claire Nouvian, head of a non-profit group called Bloom.
Bottom trawling also accidentally nets species such as the regalec which have no commercial value.
France and Spain, whose fishing industries wield political clout, are fighting attempts by the European Commission to outlaw the practice.
A key vote takes place in Brussels on October 3.
EU countries account for about 60 percent of global catch for deep-sea bottom trawling, the coalition said on its website, citing figures for 2001.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Brachiaria ‘super grass’ could vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, say scientists
By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 7:41 EDT
Brachiaria grasses inhibit the release of nitrous oxide, which has a more powerful warming effect than carbon dioxide or methane
Scientists will call for a major push this week to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture through the use of a modified tropical grass.
Brachiaria grasses have been found to inhibit the release of nitrous oxide, which has a more powerful warming effect than carbon dioxide or methane, leading them to be called a super grass.
The authors of several new papers on this grass, which is already used in pastures across much of Latin America, say enhanced strains, wider usage and improved management will provide the most effective means of tackling climate change through agriculture, which accounts for about a third of all greenhouse gases.
Nitrous oxide – largely from livestock production – makes up 38% of agriculture emissions, but this share could be substantially reduced, they say.
“On a conservative estimate, we assume that at least half of the gases can be saved in livestock production in tropical environments,” said Michael Peters, of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. “I think this is the best strategy you can have in agriculture to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”
The papers, which will be presented at an International Grasslands Congress in Sydney this week, claim that additional benefits will also include higher productivity, less need for fertiliser, lower levels of nitrate pollution in waterways and considerable carbon capture.
Brachiaria grasses originated in Africa, but have been most extensively used for grazing in Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua and parts of Australia and south-east Asia.
During the past decade, scientists have discovered the chemicals that enable the plant to bind nitrogen into the soil, thus making it more productive and less “leaky”.
They are now breeding different strains of brachiaria to maximise these nitrogen-inhibiting properties and encouraging wider use of the grass in pastures and in rotation with crops such as soy and corn.
Although the authors hope it can be used in an additional 100m hectares, the brachiaria is not a solution for all countries as it does not grow well in temperate climes.
There are potential downsides. The extra productivity could provide an additional economic incentive for the clearance of forests and – as with all monocultures – the proposed expansion of brachiaria pastureland poses a challenge to biodiversity.
But the scientists say the benefits outweigh the risks.
“There will be positive impacts on the economy and at the same time benefits for the environment,” Peters said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Researchers create battery that recycles sewage into energy
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 16, 2013 21:26 EDT
U.S. scientists may have found a new way to produce clean energy by way of dirty water, according to a new study out Monday.
The engineers have developed a more efficient method to use microbes to harness electricity from wastewater.
They hope their technique could be used in wastewater treatment facilities and to break down organic pollutants in the “dead zones” of oceans and lakes where fertilizer runoff has depleted oxygen, suffocating marine life.
However, for now the team from Stanford University have started small, with a prototype about the size of a D-cell battery, consisting of two electrodes — one positive and one negative — plunged into a bottle of wastewater, filled with bacteria.
As the bacteria consume the organic material, the microbes cluster around the negative electrode, throwing off electrons, which are captured in turn by the positive electrode.
“We call it fishing for electrons,” said environmental engineer Craig Criddle, one of the lead authors of the study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciences (PNAS).
“You can see that the microbes make nanowires to dump off their excess electrons,” Criddle added.
Scientists have long known of microbes, dubbed exoelectrogenic, that live in airless environments and are capable of “breathing” oxide minerals, instead of oxygen, to generate energy.
Over the past dozen years, several research groups have tried different approaches for transforming these microbes into bio-generators — but it has proven difficult to harness this energy efficiently.
The researchers said their new model is simple, yet efficient, and can harness about 30 percent of the potential energy in the wastewater — about the same rate as commercially available solar panels.
There is far less energy potential available in wastewater than the sun’s rays, they concede, but say the process has an added benefit: it cleans the water. That means it could could be used to offset some of the energy currently being consumed to treat wastewater.
Greenpeace activists arrested during Russian Arctic oil protest
Two arrested after scaling the Prirazlomnaya oil platform in the Barents Sea are in custody on the coastguard vessel
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 September 2013 12.36 BST
Greenpeace said on Wednesday two of its activists have been arrested after scaling the Prirazlomnaya oil platform in Arctic waters in a fresh protest over the potential threat to the environment from operations slated to start by the end of the year.
Production at the Gazprom-owned rig, Russia's first such project in the Barents Sea, was delayed last year after similar action. Gazprom put the delay down to technical reasons.
Hydrocarbon production in its vast offshore areas is seen by Russia as vital to maintaining oil output, the world's largest, at no less than 10m barrels a day this decade.
Global majors including ExxonMobil, Eni and Statoil have agreed deals with Russia's top oil producer Rosneft to enter the region. Their projects are not expected to begin extracting oil before the 2020s.
Greenpeace said in an emailed statement it sent five boats to the rig early on Wednesday. One was arrested by the Russian coastguard which fired warning shots across the bows of its Arctic Sunrise base vessel.
It said two of its members climbed the rig and are now in custody on the coastguard vessel.
"Despite massive financing for Prirazlomnaya, it is not able to guarantee safe production of Arctic oil," Greenpeace said.
Offshore safety concerns have grown after BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing millions barrels of oil into the Mexican Gulf.
The Prirazlomnoye field is the first Arctic offshore oil deposit to be developed by Russia and is located in the Pechora Sea, a part of the Barents Sea, 40 miles from the northern coast.
It is expected to reach peak production of 6m tonnes a year (120,000 barrels per day) in 2019.
Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of state gas export monopoly Gazprom, is expected to obtain a licence to develop the field. It expects overall investment in the project to be around 200bn roubles (£4bn), of which half had already been spent.
Gazprom Neft and Gazprom declined immediate comments.