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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the climate, ecology and environment topic  (Read 133504 times)
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« Reply #1815 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:29 AM »

August 27, 2015

Normal beef twice as likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria as organic

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

The next time you’re picking up ground beef for hamburgers or meatloaf, you might want to spend a little extra and get the organic, all-natural stuff, as a new Consumer Reports study has found it is less than half as likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the researchers behind the new study conducted lab tests on 300 samples involving more than 450 pounds of conventional and sustainably-farmed ground beef purchased in 26 US cities. They found that 18 percent of traditional beef contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains versus just nine percent of organically-produced meat.

The samples were tested for five types of microbes known to commonly cause food-born illness, including multiple strains of E. coli, salmonella, and staphylococcus aureus. They found that all 458 pounds of beef tested contained enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli bacteria, or strains that signified fecal contamination.

Nearly 20 percent of them contained C. perfringens, a bacteria that causes nearly one million cases of food poisoning annually, and 10 percent of the samples contained a strain of S. aureus bacteria which can produce an illness-causing toxin that cannot be destroyed, even by proper cooking, Consumer Reports said. Only one percent of samples contained salmonella.

Safety experts: buy grass-fed organic beef, and thoroughly cook it

In light of the findings, experts are advising beef enthusiasts to make sure that their meat has been cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees and to avoid undercooking them (which means no more rare burgers, folks, sorry). They are also advocating the use of safer, “grass-fed organic beef” since traditionally-raised cows are typically administered antibiotics.

“There’s no way to tell by looking at a package of meat or smelling it whether it has harmful bacteria or not,” explained Dr. Urvashi Rangan, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports. “You have to be on guard every time.”

“The most sustainable beef-production systems don’t rely on any daily drugs, don’t confine animals, and do allow them to eat a natural diet. Our findings show that more sustainable can mean safer meat,” she added. “We suggest that you choose what’s labeled ‘grass-fed organic beef’ whenever you can,” which she noted is safer and more humane (but unfortunately more expensive as well).

The USDA also recommend keeping beef at temperatures under 40 degrees or above 140 degrees at all times, to keep raw beef from touching cutting boards and utensils used for uncooked foods, to cook or freeze it within two days of purchase, to thaw it in the microwave or refrigerator, and to avoid grinding your own ground beef, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

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« Reply #1816 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:32 AM »

August 27, 2015

Malformed plankton fossils part of mass extinction ‘kill mechanisms’

by Eric Hopton
Red Orbit

Environmental problems caused by heavy metal have been around a long time. No, we’re not talking Megadeath, Iron Maiden, or even Black Sabbath, rather, high concentrations of elements like iron, lead, and arsenic. The story goes back more than 400 million years, and new investigations of ancient “malformed” fossil plankton found that heavy metal pollution was involved in the “kill mechanism” of some of the world’s largest extinction events.

An ancient clue hidden in the rocks

Life on Earth today was shaped by such Palaeozoic mass extinction events during the Ordovician and Silurian periods, 485 to 420 to million years ago. Some of these periodic events led to the eradication of up to 85 percent of marine species. Glacial episodes also played a part, but cooling itself now looks just part of a bigger picture.

An international team led by Thijs Vandenbroucke, a researcher at the French CNRS and invited professor at UGent, and Poul Emsbo of the US Geological Survey, investigated a little known association between “teratological” or “malformed” fossil plankton assemblages that coincided with the initial stages of these extinction events.

These malformed fossil remains from the late Silurian (415 million years ago) contain highly elevated concentrations of heavy metals, including iron, lead, and arsenic. We know these toxins cause morphologic abnormalities in modern aquatic organisms, so the study’s authors came to the conclusion that metal poisoning caused the malformations seen in the Silurian fossils, and may have even contributed to their extinction as well as that of many other species.

Toxic metals warn of dying oceans

Recent studies indicate that increases in heavy metals correlate with disturbances in oceanic carbon, oxygen, and sulphur signatures, suggesting a connection with reductions in ocean oxygenation, known as “anoxia.”

The team believe metal toxicity, expressed in fossilized malformations, could be the missing link relating organism extinctions to widespread ocean anoxia. Increases in heavy metals and anoxia may be the early warning sign of the kill-mechanisms that catastrophically wiped out so much life.

This recurring correlation may be a previously unrecognized contributing agent to many, if not all, extinction events in the ancient oceans. It provides a dramatic new insight into the past and a better understanding of the threat of metal toxicity to today’s oceans.

The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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« Reply #1817 on: Aug 28, 2015, 05:35 AM »

August 27, 2015

What causes ‘strange’ earthquakes?

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Scientists know how tectonic plate boundaries cause earthquakes, but have been somewhat baffled by tremors occurring away from these geological borders.

According to a new study in the journal Nature, earthquakes not linked to fault lines are mostly driven by action occurring underneath tectonic plates.

Slightly below the Earth’s crust is a stratum of hot, semi-liquid stone that is constantly flowing, heating up and rising, then cooling and sinking. That convective course of action, interacting with the constantly changing motion of the plates at the exterior, is pushing intra-plate seismic action and establishing in a large part where those earthquakes occur. To a lesser scope, the framework of the crust above also has a bearing on the location of the quake.

To reach their conclusion, the team used an up-to-date mantle flow simulation to analyze the action below the north-south mountain belt running through the Western United States. The region is seismically active, and the reason Yellowstone has geysers is that it rests on top of a volcanic hotspot. Past research had indicated the varying density of the plates was the primary cause for this activity.

Earthquakes go with the convective flow

However, the team learned that the small-scale convective flows below the plate connected with seismic events above in a foreseeable way. The team also tried using the different plate density or “gravitational potential energy variations” to calculate seismic occasions and discovered a much lesser correlation.

“This will not be the last word on the origin of strange earthquakes. However, our work shows how imaging advances in seismology can be combined with mantle flow modeling to probe the links between seismicity and mantle convection,” study author Thorsten Becker, a professor of Earth sciences with the University of Southern California, said in a news release.

“This study shows a direct link between deep convection and shallow earthquakes that we didn’t anticipate, and it charts a course for improved seismic hazard mapping in plate interiors,” added co-author Tony Lowry, an associate professor of geophysics and geodynamics at Utah State University.

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« Reply #1818 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:10 AM »

Extreme Arctic sea ice melt forces thousands of walruses ashore in Alaska

Survival of walruses threatened as they wash ashore on a remote barrier island just before Obama is due to visit region to draw attention to climate change

Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent
Thursday 27 August 2015 21.51 BST

The extreme loss of Arctic sea ice due to climate change is forcing thousands of walruses to crowd ashore on a remote barrier island off Alaska, and threatening their survival.

Barack Obama will be the first US president to visit the Alaskan Arctic on 31 August on a three-day tour to draw attention to the drastic consequences of climate change for the Arctic, such as warming winters and the rapid retreat of sea ice.

The first reported sighting of animals forced to come ashore in the Chukchi Sea was by a photographer on 23 August, and confirmed by villagers in the remote hamlet of Point Lay late on Thursday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Such landings, forced by the absence of sea ice on which to rest and feed, put the animals at risk of stampede in the limited space of the barrier island.

The animals are easily spooked by aircraft or onlookers, government scientists warned. Trampling deaths are one of the biggest natural risks.

Sea ice cover in the winter months fell to a new low this year because of climate change and abnormal weather patterns.

Some scientists believe the Arctic could be entirely ice-free in the summer months by the 2030s – with profound effects for local indigenous communities that rely on the ice, as well as wildlife that depend on extreme conditions.

Since 2000, the forced migration of walruses and their young to barrier islands such as Point Lay – known as a “haul out” – has become an increasingly regular occurrence, according to US government scientists.

“Many walruses seem to prefer the barrier islands just north of the native village of Point Lay to haul out,” Jim MacCracken, a supervisory wildlife biologist with the fish and wildlife service, said.

Last year, as many as 40,000 animals, mainly females and their young, were forced ashore. It was the biggest known haul-out of its kind in the US Arctic, according to government scientists. The Federal Aviation Authority re-routed flights and bush pilots were told to keep their distance to avoid a stampede.

Agency scientists said about 60 young walruses were killed because of crowding and stampedes.

“Walruses often flee haulouts in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines. Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead,” Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for the fish and wildlife service, said in an email.

The villagers have been dreading the prospect of a repeat record haul-out – and earlier this month appealed to outsiders to keep away from the area.

“We do not believe that these sorts of visits are in the best interest of the walruses and they do not align with the haul out protection role we have developed and measures we set in place to prevent disturbances,” Leo Ferreira III, the Point Lay tribal president said in a statement distributed by US government agencies.

Gary Braasch, an environmental photographer, said he first spotted the walruses coming ashore on the southern end of the barrier island, about two miles from the hamlet of Point Lay, on the evening of 23 August.

Braasch has spent about a decade photographing evidence of climate change in Alaska, and had been tracking the movement of tagged walruses through the US Geological Survey mapping projects.

“What they looked like by eye was three brown smudges along the beach. They were not visible as individual animals,” he said. But he said the blown-up images revealed large numbers of animals. “Certainly they were in the low thousands at that point.”

Fish and Wildlife Service officials accused Braasch of violating flight safeguards and putting the animals at risk – a charge he rejected. “Several of our biologists looked at the images and noted that it appeared that many animals were on shore and appeared to be agitated and fleeing the area,” Medeiros said. “Harassing walrus is against the law. Operating an aircraft in a manner which results in harassing or disturbing walruses is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

Braasch said the pilot did not overfly the barrier island, and intentionally flew several hundred feet beyond the Fish and Wildlife flight guidelines to avoid the risk of stampede. He said he took his photograph from more than a mile away. “We were not even close to the limits they set.”

He confirmed the government agency had been in contact about flight concerns.

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« Reply #1819 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:12 AM »

Middle East faces water shortages for the next 25 years, study says

Rising population and dwindling water supplies will affect millions of people and exacerbate conflict in the region

John Vidal
Thursday 27 August 2015 15.51 BST

Water supplies across the Middle East will deteriorate over 25 years, threatening economic growth and national security and forcing more people to move to already overcrowded cities, a new analysis suggests.

As the region, which is home to over 350 million people, begins to recover from a series of deadly heatwaves which have seen temperatures rise to record levels for weeks at a time, the World Resources Institute (WRI) claims water shortages were a key factor in the 2011 Syria civil war.

“Drought and water shortages in Syria likely contributed to the unrest that stoked the country’s 2011 civil war. Dwindling water resources and chronic mismanagement forced 1.5 million people, primarily farmers and herders, to lose their livelihoods and leave their land, move to urban areas, and magnify Syria’s general destabilisation,” says the report.

New WRI rankings place 14 of the world’s 33 most water-stressed countries in the Middle East and north Africa region (Mena), including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and Lebanon. Companies, farms and residents in these countries are all highly vulnerable to the slightest change in supplies, says the WRI.

“The world’s demand for water is likely to surge in the next few decades. Rapidly growing populations will drive increased consumption by people, farms and companies. More people will move to cities, further straining supplies. An emerging middle class could clamour for more water-intensive food production and electricity generation,” say the authors.

“But it’s not clear where all that water will come from. Climate change is expected to make some areas drier and others wetter. As precipitation extremes increase in some regions, affected communities face greater threats from droughts and floods,” they say.

Areas of China, India, and the US, including Ningxia province, and the south-west US, could see water stress increase by 40 to 70% by 2040 while Chile, Estonia, Namibia and Botswana all face “especially significant” increase in stress, say the WRI authors.

“Water supplies are limited, and risk from floods and droughts make Botswana and Namibia particularly vulnerable in southern Africa where projected temperature increases are likely to exceed the global average, along with overall drying and increased rainfall variability.”

The Middle East is already prone to water conflict and is likely to remain so, says the report. “Water is a significant dimension of the decades-old conflict between Palestine and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s government said its people will depend entirely on grain imports by 2016, a change from decades of growing all they need, due to fear of water-resource depletion. The US National Intelligence Council wrote that water problems will put key north African and Middle East countries at greater risk of instability and state failure,” says the report.

Middle East water supplies depend heavily on underground aquifers, but these are drying out at alarming rates. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has estimated that the Jordan river may shrink by 80% by 2100 and that ground water supplies will deteriorate further as demand increases. Nonrenewable aquifers are the major source of water in Saudi Arabia.

Satellite images from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show that the Tigris-Euphrates basin is losing water faster than any other place in the world, except northern India, with the loss of 117m acre-feet of stored freshwater between 2003-2009. Pollution in the Tigris river caused by the discharge of drainage water from agricultural areas and sewage discharge near Baghdad is a major constraint to freshwater availability in Iraq,” says a recent Brookings Institute report.

In the Sana’a basin in Yemen, the groundwater table is falling nearly six metres per year and government has debated moving the capital city.

The report coincides with the northern hemisphere experiencing some of its most extreme heat in decades, adding to water evaporation, affecting crops, increasing demand and drying up supplies.

In Egypt, where demand for water is growing fast as population rises, the country has less water per person each year. According to government statistics the country’s annual water supply dropped to an average of 660 cubic metres a person in 2013, down from over 2,500 cubic metres in 1947.

Water shortages are already common across the region with supplies restricted to only a few hours a day, but this year many smaller cities have run out of water completely.

Israel, Syria , Turkey, Abu Dhabi and many other Mena governments have had to warn people to take extra precautions in the extreme heat that has engulfed cities. Earlier this year hundreds of people in India and Pakistan had died of heat stroke.

“In the past, Algeria usually experienced siroccos – hot blasts of wind from the Sahara – rather than heatwaves. Now we have them at any time of the year with varying intensities. Algeria has experienced over 40 days of heatwave this year,” said Mahi Tabet-Aoul, Algerian atmospheric scientist.

One reason why water is so scarce is because farming wastes so much. In addition, many rich people across the region have dug their own wells to tap into aquifers, leading to over-pumping and pollution of groundwater in cities like Damascus.

Analysts urge the ending of water subsidies for large farms, the raising of energy prices to discourage over-pumping and the use of “smart” irrigation technologies to reduce water loss on farms.

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« Reply #1820 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:16 AM »

European ‘extreme weather belt’ linked to worst drought since 2003

Severe droughts that stretched across a central European band this summer are consistent with climate models for a warming continent, experts say

Arthur Neslen in Brusels
Thursday 27 August 2015 16.34 BST

A swathe of central Europe has suffered the most severe drought since 2003 in what EU climate experts see as a harbinger of climate changes to come.

Rainless weeks and relentless heat desiccated a vast tract of central European land separating the continent’s drier south from its wetter north between 1 April and 31 July, according to a report by the European drought observatory (EDO).

“This is where we expect to see more extreme weather such as floods and droughts in the future, and what we are gradually starting to see in the present,” said Frank Raes, the head of the climate change unit at the EU’s Joint Research Centre which commissioned the report.

The drought was consistent with climate models that predicted “an extreme weather battleground” between continental weather systems in central Europe, Raes said. “The big floods and droughts of the last 20 years have been in that area,” he added.

Agricultural production has now slumped in large parts of a zone stretching eastwards from central France through south-central Germany into Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, and southwards into northern Italy and Spain.

Grain harvests in Germany have fallen 11% and apple harvests 21% on last year’s figures, while a 28% drop in corn output is expected by government officials in France. In Poland, record lows in river water levels have revealed Jewish tombstones and Soviet fighter planes, as well as human remains, buried for decades or more.

At one point, the drought reached what the German environment agency called “catastrophic proportions”, with water levels on the river Elbe falling 9cm below the previous record low. At the same time, freak floods occurred in Demker, north of Magdeburg.

“Similarly to the summer of 2003, a large part of the continental EU was affected by a severe drought in June and July 2015, as a consequence of the combination of rain shortages and very high temperatures which resulted in high plant water requirement levels,” the EDO report said.

Andreas Friedrich, a spokesman for Deutscher Wetterdienst (Germany’s Met Office) agreed that the drought in Germany had been the worst for 12 years, and warned that is was not over yet. “In northern Bavaria and eastern Germany the situation is critical with an extreme drought and very high incidence of forest wildfires,” he told the Guardian. “Some parts of Germany now have the lowest levels of soil moisture since records began in 1951.”

Restrictions to civil and industrial water use have accompanied the water shortages, along with a drastic curtailing of inland water transportation and increases in both forest fires and energy consumption for cooling, according to the EDO report.

It found that monthly rainfall averages fell by as much as 80% in parts of France, and parts of northern Spain experienced daily temperatures over 30 degrees for more than 40 consecutive days.

Drought conditions did ease in August, but the European centre for medium-range weather forecasting predicts above average temperatures across the continent in September, with drier than usual conditions for most of central and northern Europe.

While the UK and some parts of Europe have been relatively unaffected by the water shortages, the drought was even worse than 2003 in regions such Limousin in France, Rhine Hessen-Phalz in Germany and Oost Vlaanderen, Belgium.

However, Dim Coumou, a climate modeller at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research advised caution in drawing conclusions about individual weather events. “It is too early to say how severe the current drought in Europe is,” he said.

“The Mediterranean is generally considered a hotspot and the models project strong increases in drought conditions there. But where exactly the [central European] belt is, I don’t think can be quantified,” he said.

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« Reply #1821 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:18 AM »

Slashing household solar subsides will kill off industry, government told

Renewable energy sector condemns proposal to cut feed-in-tariff for small-scale solar installations by almost 90% from 1 January

Terry Macalister
Thursday 27 August 2015 17.48 BST

The government wants to slash by 87% subsidies for householders who install solar panels on their rooftops, in a move that renewable energy experts warn could kill off a promising industry.

The potential reductions in the level of feed-in tariff (FIT), contained in a long-awaited consultation document released by the Department of Energy & Climate Change (Decc), and are far larger than expected.

The assault on solar power comes after ministerial decisions to remove financial aid from new onshore wind farms and slash home energy efficiency measures. There is even speculation that Decc could be wound up as a standalone department.

From 1 January, ministers are proposing reducing the feed-in tariff for smaller scale solar installations from 12.47p per kilowatt hour to 1.63p with large standalone units eligible for subsidies of 1.03p per kWh, compared with 4.28p today.

The government has blamed concerns that the £7.6bn budget for renewables will be drastically overspent, and argues that solar and onshore wind should be able to largely support themselves.

“We are taking urgent action to get a grip of this overspend and protect hardworking bill payers. Our support has driven down the cost of renewable energy significantly,” said a Decc spokeswoman. “As costs continue to fall and we move towards sustainable electricity investment, it becomes easier for parts of the renewables industry to survive without subsidies.”

But Decc documents include admissions that the proposed cuts in the solar tariff could lead to many fewer installations.

“There is a risk that these changes – combined with the separate consultation proposals to remove pre-accreditation – may result in significantly reduced rates of deployment,” it says in an impact assessment.

The Solar Trade Association reacted angrily to the move. “We regret that proposals to suddenly cut tariffs combined with the threat of closure of the scheme next January will spark a massive market rush,” said Mike Landy, its head of policy.

“This is the antithesis of a sensible policy for achieving better public value for money while safeguarding the British solar industry.”

Colin Calder, chief executive of a solar supply firm PassivSystems, put it more strongly, saying: “It is extremely disappointing to see the government once more targeting the rooftop solar PV [photovoltaics] market with tariff changes that are so extreme they will destroy an entire industry overnight, putting thousands of jobs and many businesses at risk.”

Juliet Davenport, chief executive of leading green power supplier Good Energy, hoped ministers would change their minds. “The feed-in tariff has transformed the way the UK generates its power over the last three years, with over 21% of the UK’s power coming from renewables in the early part of 2015, and over 700,000 homes generating their own power,” she said.

Environmental campaigners at Friends of the Earth said the move further undermined David Cameron’s credibility on tackling climate change in the runup to key talks in Paris later this year.

“These absurd solar cuts will send UK energy policy massively in the wrong direction and prevent almost a million homes, schools and hospitals from plugging in to clean, renewable energy,” said Alasdair Cameron at Friends of the Earth.

Samir Brikho, chief executive of engineering group Amec Foster Wheeler, warned that constant changes of policy were undermining confidence of the supply sector. “Uncertainty in the market is not helpful when you are trying to create a stable business,” he said.

But the government consultation, which is open to comments until 23 October, received support from the EEF manufacturers federation which has long expressed concern about high energy prices and the expense of aid going to renewable energy.

“With the costs of government energy policy surpassing previous projections and the … budget already looking like it’s been maxed out, government is right to be getting to grips with the issue,” said EEF’s Richard Warren.

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« Reply #1822 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:20 AM »

Ocean warming and acidification needs more attention, argues US

    Concern growing over climate change-induced warming on marine life
    US to raise issue in Paris climate talks and call for more research

Oliver Milman in Seattle
Thursday 27 August 2015 14.37 BST

The US government has urged the international community to focus more on the impact of climate change on the oceans, amid growing concern over changes affecting corals, shellfish and other marine life.
Naomi Klein on climate change: 'I thought it best to write about my own raw terror'
Read more

The US will raise the issue at United Nations climate talks in Paris later this year. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be asked to devote more research to the issue.

“We are asking the IPCC in their next series of reports to focus more on ocean and cryosphere [ice ecosystem] issues,” David Balton, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the US State Department, said.

“In my judgment, more attention needs to be paid to the climate change effects upon the ocean areas of the world,” Balton said. “We need to keep pushing up until the Paris conference and beyond.

“Ultimately, we need to change the way we live if we’re to keep the planet in the safe zone.”

Around half of all greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels and other activities are absorbed by the world’s oceans, which are warming steadily.

This has caused sea levels to rise and the oceans to become around 30% more acidic than in pre-industrial times. In acidic water, corals and shellfish struggle to form skeletons and shells.

An Australian-led study released this week, which examined the impact of climate change on 13,000 marine species, found that while some fish may be able to move into cooler areas, others face extinction due to warming waters. Species on the Great Barrier Reef are considered to be at particular risk.

US government scientists have voiced their concern over recent signals that marine life is under pressure. An enormous toxic algal bloom nicknamed the “blob”, stretching from the Gulf of Alaska to the coast of Mexico, has been linked to the deaths of 30 large whales washed up on Alaskan coasts.

More than 250,000 Pacific salmon have died or are dying, meanwhile, due to warm temperatures in the Columbia river. Scientists predict that up to 80% of the sockeye salmon population, which swim up the river from the ocean to spawn, could ultimately be wiped out.

Warming water causes outbreaks of disease among some fish, as well as triggering problems high up the food chain by reducing the number of small prey fish.

“This year is looking an awful lot like what climate-change predictions for the future look like,” said Toby Kock, a scientist at the US Geological Survey.

Another government scientist, Dr John Stein, science and research director at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, said people were “having to change the way they do things right now” because of changes to the oceans, citing the decision by some US shellfish farmers to move their operations.

Stein, who is based in Seattle, added that there was a “fair amount of political challenge” in talking about climate change.

“On this coast you can talk about climate change, in certain parts of the country you cannot,” he said, in reference to a reported ban by the Florida governor of any reference to climate change by public officials.

“We have a very diverse Congress and there are some of them that are true deniers and I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to reach them,” Stein said. “But you can talk to a broader section of Congress about severe drought and flood and they will listen.

“Sometimes you have to craft your message in a way that gets resonance.”

Michael Gravitz, director of policy at the Marine Conservation Institute, a US-based nonprofit, said: “It’s likely the IPCC has done less on oceans than the general atmosphere and we hope that will change.”

Gravitz said overfishing was another blight on ocean ecosystems, with just 10% of the world’s fish populations not under significant stress.

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« Reply #1823 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:28 AM »

The microscopic magic of plankton

Plankton are the tiny enablers of life on Earth, but their fragile ecosystems are under attack from climate change. A three-year study is helping marine experts understand them for the first time

The beauty of plankton – in pictures:

John Vidal
Aug 28 2015

In the astonishing world of plankton, bright pink, micron-sized dinoflagellates looking like spaceships glide slowly over the surface of the sea; beautiful, flute-like tintinnids exchange genes temporarily with each other; and slender chaetognatha, or arrow worms, bristle with hairs and become cannibals as they gobble up their relatives.

These and a million other mostly microscopic planktonic species of viruses, microbes, larvae and eukaryotes are the largely invisible origins of life, the very bottom of the food chain and the enablers of all existence. Together, these tiny, single-cell life forms that drift on the upper layer of the oceans produce half our oxygen, act as carbon sinks, influence our weather and serve as the base of the ocean food web.

But while they may transform the ocean, the atmosphere and the terrestrial environment, they inhabit a world that is barely known and which has only recently been understood to be as complex and diverse as anything found in the rainforests.

Thanks to new photographic techniques derived from medical imagery and the ocean schooner Tara, which has spent years plying the oceans collecting plankton, we can now see the astonishing richness of what is known as the “drifting world”. It is, says Christian Sardet, co-founder of the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the marine station of Villefranche-sur-Mer, even more extraordinary because this world of plankton represents all branches of the tree of life.

Sardet was a scientific co-ordinator of the Tara Oceans expedition, a three-year global voyage to all the world’s oceans to study plankton. “My friend Eric Karsenti, a molecular biologist, suggested we should do a study of plankton. But I did not want to do hard science. I had to learn about plankton. For me, Tara was more of an exploration than a hard scientific expedition. Plankton have not really been explored,” he says.

He spent many weeks at sea, concentrating on filming and recording, but together the teams of zoologists, marine biologists and other scientists on the Tara took more than 35,000 samples from 200 locations.

Using different types of net they collected and sequenced nearly a billion genetic barcodes and discovered, at depths of up to 1,000 metres, unknown worlds of viruses, bacteria, worms, gelatinous creatures and strange photosynthetic organisms. Many had never been seen before or even imagined and the Tara expeditions have transformed the study of our oceans.

“Plankton are a huge range of sizes. They are very fragile. You have to collect them and photograph them in a day,” says Sardet. “I had a small laboratory on the Tara. New submersible cameras with micro lenses made it possible to film ocean life for the first time. I decided to film everything on black film to bring out the natural colours.

“Just as on land you have hotspots, places that are particularly rich and diverse. You may have a huge number of plankton in the Arctic, but the diversity there may be quite small and be dominated by a few species. In equatorial areas, just as on land, you have a huge diversity.”

Sardet’s book, called Plankton, merges science with art and illustrates what he calls “the irreplaceable beauty and diversity of planktonic life forms”, but it comes with a warning that the world’s oceans are being changed by climate change and acidification.

“Some data suggest phytoplankton have significantly declined in the world’s oceans over the past century,” he says. “On the other hand, some warm water predators such as jellyfish are thriving. Whether we are witnessing an actual global decline or massive changes in planktonic distribution will require more study. Certainly many species will be forced to adapt.

“We have modified the ecosystems by diminishing the big predators. No one knows if what man has done is reversible. We are closer to the start than to the end of what there is to know.”

Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World is published by University of Chicago Press. Click here to order a copy for £31.50

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« Reply #1824 on: Aug 28, 2015, 06:34 AM »

Plastic fishing in the Southern Ocean

In one of the remotest places on Earth, a scientist is measuring for the first time the concentration of plastic particles that can float on the sea surface for hundreds or even thousands of years

Alok Jha, Southern Ocean

Erik van Sebille is looking for something very much out of the ordinary in the Southern Ocean: plastic. He has come to one of the most remote parts of the world – as far as it is possible to go from major concentrations of people – to look for the stuff humans throw away.

Van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales and one of the research leaders on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was one of the first to start his scientific work aboard the Shokalskiy. In the morning on our first full day at sea, he threw a two-metre-long plankton net, with a pint-sized jar attached to one end, overboard. After five minutes dragging the assembly behind the ship, he fished out the jar and held in his hands something that looked a bit like pea soup – seawater filled with plankton, krill and, perhaps, bits of plastic. For his research, he will take many more seawater samples at different latitudes, sieving each one to identify the constituent parts.

The plastic he is looking for is the stuff that starts off as consumer goods and ends up in the sea as waste. The plastic is broken down over time, by sunlight, into fragments no more than a millimetre across. These particles can float for hundreds to thousands of years on the surface of the sea. Scientists have identified huge areas of the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans, for example, where the water currents force the plastic particles to accumulate. In some of these places, there seems to be more plastic than plankton on the surface. The particles can attract algae, absorb toxic chemicals and have major impacts on the entire marine food chain.

So far no one has carried out measurements of plastic in the Southern Ocean, partly because it is so remote but also because oceanographers have assumed that the prevailing surface currents would limit any plastic build-up there. Van Sebille is aiming to fill that knowledge gap.

“We want to find out, in a systematic way, how much plastic there is,” he tells me. “Especially if, as we go from relatively close to New Zealand and further south, how quickly the amount of plastic actually decreases.”

General measurements of the sea also began last night: one of the science teams attached a half-metre-long metal tube, bristling with electronic sensors, to a long rope and plunged it into the sea. Dragged along behind the boat for the duration of the trip to Antarctica, the $25,000 “Exoprobe” will record a range of variables – sea temperature, salinity, pH – every few seconds to build a detailed picture of the Southern Ocean along our route.

On the 1911-14 expedition that Douglas Mawson led, his team pulled up buckets of sea water a few times and used a thermometer to measure its temperature. The 2013 version can measure the sea's features almost continuously day and night, providing thousands of data points every day. In recent decades, Earth-observation satellites have measured the surface temperature of the ocean from space, but no one has directly probed it in this way for more than a century.

By lunchtime, the researchers had reeled in the Exoprobe to download its first 12 hours of measurements and, more importantly, to ensure that it was still in one piece and hadn't been bitten by any inquisitive sharks.

On board, the mood was bright. The sun unexpectedly warmed the decks and the wind was light. On the observation deck above the bridge, it was so peaceful that, at times, it would have been possible to believe we were on a tropical cruise rather than aboard a working scientific research vessel. The wave of sea sickness had, thankfully, calmed and many of my fellow passengers had recovered enough to start getting involved with the research projects.

Some identified and counted birds from vantage points at the bridge of the ship. Others looked on at the stern deck as expedition leader Chris Fogwill, a glaciologist at the University of New South Wales, began his collection of plankton from the sea surface, using the same set-up of jars and nets that van Sebille was using to find plastic.

“The Southern Ocean, at this time of year, really starts to bloom with huge amounts of biological productivity going on,” says Fogwill. “What we're going to do is sieve it and then we'll see what forms of plankton we have in there once we have it all cleaned up and ready to go. We'll do this every day to get the latitudinal variability as we go down.”

The data Fogwill collects will provide a baseline of information for scientists who want to study the variability of the Earth's climate over millions of years.

“The plankton on the floor of the ocean, you can compare it with tree rings,” says van Sebille. “There's layers being formed over millions of years.”

As the plankton that lives at the surface of the sea dies, it sinks down to the bottom - what oceanographers call “marine snow”. In some places, this can be hundreds of metres deep on the sea bed. Studying what species are present in the different layers can provide insights into past climate. “Sometimes you have tropical species, sometimes sub-tropical,” van Sebille. “To interpret that data you need to have a baseline, you need to know what's at the surface of the ocean right now.”

Other scientific research projects – including surveying sea mammals and taking cores of mud and ice – will begin in the coming days. And, very soon, we'll see our first penguins. Meanwhile, as the sun went down (though it never went dark) on the second day, a few passengers reported seeing something equally beguiling: a pod of dolphins at the bow of the Shokalskiy, leaping and racing our lumbering ship.

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« Reply #1825 on: Aug 29, 2015, 05:40 AM »

McArthur river pollution: Glencore yet to put up all warning signs a year after alert

Freedom of information requests unearth inconsistent messaging from miner and Northern Territory government on the extent of heavy metal contamination

Helen Davidson in Darwin
29 August 2015 22.16 BST

Glencore has yet to finish erecting signs warning of contaminated river life near a Northern Territory mine more than a year after the miner and the state government became aware of elevated levels of heavy metals.

Government documents have revealed inconsistencies in the information given to the public about potential lead contamination of fish near the company’s McArthur river mine, despite the NT government and mining giant being aware of recommendations for warnings since July 2014.

Members of the four clans that control the lands in the remote Gulf region fish extensively from the river for food, and have previously expressed deep concern at the colour of the water downstream from the mine and potential contamination of fish.

Glencore said it was yet to finish erecting the signs about contaminated fish because it is waiting for regulatory approval from authorities.

Documents released this week show the Northern Territory government and Glencore were aware of elevated levels of heavy metals in fish, invertebrates and cattle around the McArthur river mine (MRM) in July 2014 but appeared not to immediately and fully inform residents and traditional owners of Borroloola, an Aboriginal community about 60km from the mine.

The documents were obtained under freedom of information laws by the NT Environmental Defenders Office.

A September 2014 briefing note prepared for the mines and energy minister noted an independent monitor’s report of “potential elevated levels of contaminants – in particular lead – in some fish samples in the Surprise and Barney creeks”. The two creeks are on the mineral lease and flow into the McArthur river.

Further testing from the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries was requested on 4 July, with a note that if contamination was detected an immediate warning not to eat species or to limit consumption of species must be issued.

In February 2015 another briefing document noted a “significant issue” of elevated levels of contaminants including lead in fish stock, zinc levels in oysters and lead levels in mussels in three different locations.

“The chief health officer and the Department of Health have an overall responsibility to safeguard the health of the public,” it said, recommending MRM be instructed to erect warning signs along the two rivers and around Bing Bong port “advising people not to eat fish or other species from these waters because it may pose a risk to public health”.

“MRM has not yet demonstrated that appropriate signage has been erected.”

When questioned, Glencore told Guardian Australia on Thursday MRM had received the instruction to erect signs in November and had begun discussions with the chief health officer “regarding appropriate signage and the locations they should be placed”.

“An approach was agreed to by the chief health officer in February 2015 and work began to implement the plan. Most signs have been installed as agreed. Some cannot proceed until we have clearance from the relative authorities.”

Statements from the government and Glencore have been inconsistent on the extent of the contamination problem.

Despite Glencore detailing its plans to erect the recommended signs, a spokesman for the current mines and energy minister, Dave Tollner, told Guardian Australia elevated lead levels were nothing out of the ordinary, were common in the region, and not related to the mine.

Giles on Wednesday also said there was no link to the mine, and denied the government and Glencore had failed to warn residents, pointing to existing advice to eat less fish and shellfish from the area.

On Tuesday he threatened to order the mine’s closure if it did not improve its environmental practices and raise its environmental bond to cover eventual remedial costs.

In a statement provided to Guardian Australia, Glencore Zinc’s chief operating officer, Greg Ashe, pointed to 2014 findings which did not show evidence of “mine-derived lead” in McArthur river and Surprise creek, and only recorded elevated levels in “small non-eating fish deep within the mine itself”.

The company has previously acknowledged the Barney creek contamination in a location where fishing was not permitted, and said it could have been dust from trucks.

Ashe on Thursday said the information contained in the FOI reports was out of date.

“What we do have is a very small number of fish that were identified that contained elevated levels of lead, within the mine site on Barney Creek,” he told a Mining the Territory conference. “That is seasonal and we’ve done a lot of things there to see that,” he said.

David Morris, principal lawyer at the NT Environmental Defenders Office said the inconsistencies were “remarkable”.

“There is on the one hand a view being put by the government and MRM that everything is under control, that health issues and mine design issues are being addressed,” he told Guardian Australia.

“On the other hand the FOI docs demonstrate the government is far from satisfied about MRM’s ability to manage the site … and remains concerned about health risks and potentially catastrophic impacts on the environment.”

Environmental groups and residents of Borroloola have long protested about the potential adverse environmental impacts of the mine, demanding information on the contamination of waterways and a smouldering waste rock pile emitting potentially toxic fumes.

An independent environmental report last year found 90% of fish stock in a nearby creek had shown dangerously high lead levels.

At a minerals summit in Darwin in December, which residents picketed, the chief minister, the NT’s chief minister, Adam Giles, dismissed their concerns, saying “emotional” people opposed to projects just needed to be better educated about the benefits of mining.

The documents also detailed the potential contamination of cattle grazing on the mine site.

Last week, just days before the documents were released, the government sent out a media statement revealing the cattle contamination which began more than a year ago and saw a large number of animals shot, and hundreds more quarantined since.

Before the FOI release, a traditional owner, Jack Green, suspecting it was the McArthur river mine the government was referring to, called for answers as many Borroloola families ran cattle stations around and downstream from the mine.

“How can they guarantee the problem is fixed when cattle are still able to wander into Surprise creek and drink from the water because the surrounding stations are not fenced off properly?” he asked “We need to know if it is safe to hunt and drink the water there.”

Tollner’s spokesman said the issue was with cattle owned by MRM getting on to the mine site which sits on MRM’s pastoral lease, and there was no need for any other cattle owners to be informed.

The Environment Centre NT called on the mines and energy department head, Ron Kelly, to release information about the mine’s management plan, and the Environmental Defenders Office has called for a temporary closure while the contamination issues are sorted out.

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« Reply #1826 on: Aug 29, 2015, 08:31 AM »

American forests at risk due to climate change ‘megasdisturbances': researchers

International Business Times
29 Aug 2015 at 09:26 ET 

The world’s temperate forests are threatened by increasingly severe disturbances caused by changing climate conditions, including longer, hotter droughts and more severe wildfires, according to a research published Friday.

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Southwest Research Station have found that without an updated forest management system, the fiercer droughts and wildfires could render some forests into shrubland or grassland within the next few decades.

“While we have been trying to manage for resilience of 20th century conditions, we realize now that we must prepare for transformations and attempt to ease these conversions," Constance Millar, lead author and USDA forest ecologist, said in a press release.

While many forests have managed to regrow after years of logging, displaying remarkable resilience, scientists have found that long-term climate changes and rising global temperatures have led to more severe droughts than those seen in the last century. During these droughts, higher air temperatures increase the stress on trees by drawing moisture from their tissues and overheating leaves. Snow that would normally function as emergency water storage in the dry season now instead falls as rain.

"Some temperate forests already appear to be showing chronic effects of warming temperatures, such as slow increases in tree deaths," Nathan Stephenson, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and co-author, said. "But the emergence of megadisturbances, forest diebacks beyond the range of what we've normally seen over the last century, could be a game-changer for how we plan for the future."

The researchers said that the increased chronic stress on temperate forests could also increase their exposure to insect and disease outbreaks, further threatening them. They added that these stresses could result in the loss of forest ecosystems like national park recreational areas, and could affect the forests’ roles in storing carbon dioxide. The results of their research were published in the journal Science.

The news comes as the state of California enters the fourth year of its worst drought in over a century. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency across California in January and imposed strict water-rationing measures.

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« Reply #1827 on: Aug 30, 2015, 05:31 AM »

Purple potatoes slow down colon cancer in mice

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit
Aug 30 2015

It might be an exotic root vegetable that doesn’t make it onto your plate every day, but eating purple potatoes could help your body fight off cancer.

According to a new study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, baked purple-fleshed potatoes held down the growth of colon cancer in petri dishes and rodents by targeting the cancer's stem cells. Colon cancer causes the second-highest amount of American cancer-related deaths and accountable for over 50,000 deaths each year, based on data from the American Cancer Society.

According to study author Jairam K.P. Vanamala, associate professor of food sciences at Penn State, attacking stem cells is a highly effective way to combat cancer.

"You might want to compare cancer stem cells to roots of the weeds," Vanamala said in a news release. "You may cut the weed, but as long as the roots are still there, the weeds will keep growing back and, likewise, if the cancer stem cells are still present, the cancer can still grow and spread."

In the study, the scientists discovered the baked potato extract held down the spread of colon cancer stem cells while boosting cell deaths. Scientists then tested the impact of whole baked purple potatoes on mice with colon cancer and discovered very similar outcomes. The portion size for a human would be approximately the same as consuming one large purple-fleshed potato per day.

Become a purple potato eater

Based on the findings, there may be many substances in purple potatoes that work concurrently on a number of routes to help kill colon cancer stem cells.

"Our earlier work and other research studies suggest that potatoes, including purple potatoes, contain resistant starch, which serves as a food for the gut bacteria, that the bacteria can covert to beneficial short-chain fatty acids such as butyric acid," Vanamala said. "The butyric acid regulates immune function in the gut, suppresses chronic inflammation and may also help to cause cancer cells to self-destruct."

The Penn State research noted the same compounds that give the potatoes their color may be effective what is effective in suppressing cancer growth.

"When you eat from the rainbow, instead of one compound, you have thousands of compounds, working on different pathways to suppress the growth of cancer stem cells," said Vanamala. "Because cancer is such a complex disease, a silver bullet approach is just not possible for most cancers."

The team said their next step would be to check the whole food approach using purple potatoes in humans and on other kinds of cancer.

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