Saturday, October 13, 2007

Row erupts over risk to polar bears

One of the most controversial voices in the global warming debate believes too much emphasis is put on extinction fears for ecology's poster animals

The global warming sceptic Bjorn Lomborg, has sparked fresh debate about the dangers of increasing temperatures with new claims that polar bears are not on the brink of collapse and are more threatened by hunting than by climate change.

In a new book called Cool It, Lomborg says many of the predicted effects of climate change - from melting icecaps to drought and flood - are 'vastly exaggerated and emotional claims that are simply not founded in data'.

Based on this 'hype', international leaders are spending too much time and money trying to cut carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, rather than spending cash on policies that would help humans and the environment more effectively - such as stopping the hunting of polar bears, he argues.

'This does not mean that global warming will not happen, or that it will not predominantly have negative impacts,' writes Lomborg. 'But it is important to get the facts right: exaggeration will not help us select the right priorities.'

His book comes at a highly charged time for the climate change debate. Last week a British High Court judge, Mr Justice Barton, ruled that Al Gore's Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth was guilty of 'alarmism and exaggeration' in making several claims about the impacts of climate change, including the plight of polar bears.

Claims in the film that the animals were drowning because they were being forced to swim greater distances due to disappearing ice were unfounded, the judge said. There was only evidence that four polar bears had drowned and that was due to storms.

The judge did go on to say there was good support for the four main hypotheses of Gore's film: that climate change is mainly caused by human-created emissions, that global temperatures are rising and are likely to continue to rise, that unchecked climate change will cause serious damage, and that governments and individuals could reduce its impact. On Friday, Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental work.

Lomborg's analysis has in turn been attacked by international polar bear experts saying that he has used out-of-date statistics to make his case and play down the plight of the world's biggest carnivores.

Lomborg made his name with an earlier book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which claimed fears about man-made climate change were overstated, and followed this up with Global Crises, Global Solutions, in which economists assessed the best ways of spending $50bn to improve people's lives, and put tackling global warming low on the list. Environment groups were outraged, but Time magazine listed him in the 100 most influential people in the world.

In his latest book Lomborg turns to the impacts of climate change, and says the story of the polar bears 'encapsulates the problems with many of the other scares - once you take a look at the supporting data the narrative falls apart'.

He claims that in this case many fears about polar bears being driven to extinction as global warming melts the ice floes they depend on to hunt and wean their cubs can be traced back to research published in 2001 by the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, the IUCN. It looked at 20 populations of polar bears in the Arctic, a total of about 25,000 bears.

That report, says Lomborg, found only two bear populations that were in decline, and two were showing an increase in numbers. It said the declining populations were in areas where temperatures were getting colder, and the flourishing populations in areas where temperatures were rising.

Other research referred to in the book shows that since the Sixties global polar bear numbers have increased from 5,000, says Lomborg.

More specifically, he challenges frequently repeated claims that the population of polar bears on the western coast of Canada's Hudson Bay fell from 1,200 in 1987 to 950 in 2004. The research actually goes back to 1981, when there were only 500 bears in that area, since when, he says, numbers have 'soared'. And, based on these figures, Lomborg calculates that legal hunting of 49 bears a year accounts for most of the recent decline in Hudson Bay, rather than climate change.

Finally, Lomborg says even though it is 'likely disappearing ice will make it harder for polar bears to continue their traditional foraging patterns', many can turn to the lifestyles of brown bears, 'from which they are evolved'.

'They [polar bears] may eventually decline, though dramatic declines seem unlikely,' he concludes.

He tries to explode other 'myths' too: it is too soon to say that Greenland's ice is melting fast and the threats of catastrophic sea level rise, extreme weather, drought and flooding have all been over-hyped, he says.

Last night Lomborg was accused of the same misuse of statistics which he levels at other scientists, environmental groups and the media.

Dr Andrew Derocher, chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, said Lomborg's book was based on outdated statistics because the group had published an updated report in 2006, which showed that of 19 populations five were declining, five were stable and two were increasing; and for the remaining six there was not enough data to judge.

Derocher said data from before the Eighties was considered 'very questionable', that hunting was considered a 'minor concern in some populations', and that the decision by the IUCN to classify polar bears as 'vulnerable' was based on the unanimous advice of his committee of 20 members from the five 'polar bear nations' in the Arctic, including the only previous dissenter, a scientist quoted by Lomborg in his book.

Derocher, a professor in biological sciences at the University of Alberta in Canada, also criticised the idea that polar bears can adapt to the sort of life lived by the brown bear because they need to eat vast numbers of seals, which are also threatened by the changing ice. 'The changes of sea ice are evident to local people living in the north,' he said. 'Over the last 25 years that I've worked in the Arctic the changes are astounding. Polar bears are adaptable, but there are limits to this.'

Derocher said the author had not tried to contact him: 'Lomborg choosing not to ask for accurate information or using outdated information reflects a lack of scholarship.'

Speaking to The Observer, Lomborg said he concentrated on the 2001 report because it was so influential in promoting polar bears as an icon of climate change, but added: 'I would have liked to have known there was a new one.'

However, he said the latest research did not detract from his key argument: that the best way to protect polar bears was not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but to cut or ban hunting. This is recently estimated to account for between 300 and 1,000 deaths annually. 'Shouldn't we stop shooting at least 300 polar bears a year before we spend trillions of dollars trying to save one polar bear a year through the Kyoto protocol?' he said.

Lomborg argues that international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases are too slow and expensive to solve the problems that climate change will bring. Instead money should be spent protecting threatened communities, tackling other threats, and investing in zero-carbon technology to reduce long-term emissions, he said.

'We constantly believe the only answer to any question is cut carbon emissions; very often it's one of the least efficient solutions,' he told The Observer

This is less controversial. But for many scientists it is not a question of either reducing greenhouse gases or adapting to climate change, but doing both, said Asher Minns of the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia. 'The idea of adaptation to climate change is very old and there's as much work around adaptation as there is around mitigating greenhouse gases and coming up with low carbon technologies.'

· 'Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming' is published by Cyan-Marshall Cavendish, £19.99

: Fuel and coal industry behind court attack on Gore film

Fuel and mining magnate backed UK challenge to An Inconvenient Truth

Jamie Doward, home affairs editor
The Observer, UK

The school governor who challenged the screening of Al Gore's climate change documentary in secondary schools was funded by a Scottish quarrying magnate who established a controversial lobbying group to attack environmentalists' claims about global warming.

Stewart Dimmock's high-profile fight to ban the film being shown in schools was depicted as a David and Goliath battle, with the Kent school governor taking on the state by arguing that the government was 'brainwashing' pupils.

A High Court ruling last week that the Oscar-winning documentary would have to be screened with guidance notes to balance its claims was welcomed by climate-change sceptics.

The Observer has established that Dimmock's case was supported by a powerful network of business interests with close links to the fuel and mining lobbies. He was also supported by a Conservative councillor in Hampshire, Derek Tipp.

Dimmock credited the little-known New Party with supporting him in the test case but did not elaborate on its involvement. The obscure Scotland-based party calls itself 'centre right' and campaigns for lower taxes and expanding nuclear power.

Records filed at the Electoral Commission show the New Party has received nearly all of its money - almost £1m between 2004 and 2006 - from Cloburn Quarry Limited, based in Lanarkshire.

The company's owner and chairman of the New Party, Robert Durward, is a long-time critic of environmentalists. With Mark Adams, a former private secretary to Tony Blair, he set up the Scientific Alliance, a not-for-profit body comprising scientists and non-scientists, which aims to challenge many of the claims about global warming.

The alliance issued a press release welcoming last week's court ruling and helped publicise Dimmock's case on its website. It also advised Channel 4 on the Great Global Warming Swindle, a controversial documentary screened earlier this year that attempted to challenge claims made about climate change.

In 2004 the alliance co-authored a report with the George C Marshall Institute, a US body funded by Exxon Mobil, that attacked climate change claims. 'Climate change science has fallen victim to heated political and media rhetoric ... the result is extensive misunderstanding,' the report's authors said.

Martin Livermore, director of the alliance, confirmed Durward continued to support its work. 'He provides funds with other members,' Livermore said.

In the Nineties, Durward established the British Aggregates Association to campaign against a tax on sand, gravel and rock extracted from quarries. Durward does not talk to the media and calls to the association requesting an interview were not returned last week. However, he has written letters to newspapers setting out his personal philosophy. One letter claimed: 'It is time for Tony Blair to try the "fourth way", declare martial law and let the army sort out our schools, hospitals and roads.'

He later clarified his comments saying he was merely pointing out that the army had done a 'fantastic job' in dealing with the foot and mouth crisis. He has also asked whether there has been a 'witch-hunt against drunk drivers'.

Dimmock also received support from a new organisation,, which calls for politics to be left out of the classroom. The organisation, which established an online payment system for people to make contributions to Dimmock's campaign, was set up by Tipp and several others. Its website was registered last month to an anonymous Arizona-based internet company.

Tipp, who is described on the website as having been a science teacher in the Seventies and Eighties, declines to talk about who else is backing it. 'There are other people involved but I don't think they want to be revealed,' he said.

He said he thought his organisation could bring more cases against the government. 'There are a lot of people who feel the climate change debate is being hyped up,' Tipp said. 'To try to scare people into believing the end is nigh is not helpful. We've been contacted by other teachers who raised concerns. There's a lot of interest, especially from people in the US.'

Amazon tribe hits back at green 'colonialism'

It's one of the most fashionable ideas to save the planet from global warming: buying up tropical rainforest to save it from destruction. Gordon Brown has even appointed the millionaire founder of one such charity, Johan Eliasch, as his special adviser on deforestation.

But like all big ideas it is controversial, and this week a leading Amazonian campaigner will visit Britain to protest that this latest trend is linked to a health and social crisis among indigenous people, including sickness, depression, suicide, obesity and drug addiction.

Davi Kopenawa, a shaman of the Yanomami tribe, will help launch a report that, says Survival International, the charity behind it, claims separation from the land is directly linked to the 'physical and mental breakdown' of indigenous communities, whose lifestyle and culture is already under threat from mining, logging and resettlement away from traditional lands.

In a statement issued through the group, Kopenawa said: 'You napepe (whites) talk about what you call development and tell us to become the same as you. But we know that this brings only disease and death. Now you want to buy pieces of rainforest, or to plant biofuels. These are useless. The forest cannot be bought; it is our life and we have always protected it. Without the forest, there is only sickness.'

Survival International, which announced Kopenawa's visit, said that destruction of the rainforest had been blamed for the release of 18-25 per cent of human carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest greenhouse gas blamed for climate change.

Charities such as Cool Earth, the organisation set up by Eliasch and former Labour minister Frank Field, could buy a tiny fraction of the rainforest, but their popularity 'diverts attention' from the more urgent need to return rainforest to indigenous people, claims Stephen Corry, Survival International's director.

'It's like a bucket of water in the North Sea: the amount of land that's being bought by outsiders is infinitesimally small, and if you look at [the land bought by Cool Earth] there's 15,000 times more land protected because it's under indigenous control in the Amazon,' said Corry. 'We're not saying it's imperialistic, we're not even saying there's anything wrong with it: what's wrong is the claims being put forward in its name, that this is a permanent solution.'

Matthew Owen, Cool Earth's director, defended the charity against claims that the benefits of buying rainforest were exaggerated. Cool Earth only bought land which had rights for logging and was on the 'frontier' of the risk of destruction, said Owen. The charity, which charges donors £70 an acre, has bought 32,000 acres in Brazil and Ecuador. An estimated 50 million acres of rainforest - an area the size of Britain - is cut down annually.

Cool Earth and other charities have previously been accused of 'green colonialism' - a criticism they tried to counter by giving the freehold of land to local organisations, along with funds and training to protect it, and encouraging local people to carry on traditional trades such as rubber tapping and gathering fruits and nuts. 'We give it to them with no strings attached except it's kept standing,' added Owen.

The Survival International report, 'Progress can Kill', says land ownership has the biggest impact on health of indigenous tribes because people separated from their land are prone to imported western diseases, suffer mental illnesses and high rates of suicide, said Corry.

Friday, October 12, 2007

World Bank studies rising seas in Guyana

From: Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The World Bank and Global Environmental Facility have approved $3.8 million in grant funding to protect low-lying coastal areas in Guyana threatened by rising sea levels, an official said on Friday.

This is the first project of its kind to be approved under the Global Environmental Facility's Special Climate Change Fund. It will look at ways to improve coastal drainage in the small South American country.

Gerald Meier, a consultant with the World Bank's hazard risk management group, said the project was responding to the catastrophic flooding in Guyana in 2005, which affected most of the inhabited northern coast of the country where up to 90 percent of the population lives.

He said the Conservancy Adaptation Project would collect technical data about the land and the rising seas that would help the government to make informed decisions on reducing Guyana's vulnerability to flooding.

"The idea is to try and take the results of what we do on this and then parlay that onto additional investments on the part of other donors," Meier said in an interview.

The project will identify at least 10 key drainage systems and support construction work designed to increase drainage of the so-called East Demerara Water Conservancy system to the Demerara River by 35 percent.

Meier said sea levels around Guyana have risen about 1.7 feet since the 1950s, according to a tide gauge.

While the rising seas could be blamed on the effects of global climate warming, Meier said it could also be due to Guyana's location in northern South America that is affected by sediment deposits from the Amazon. The country, with a population estimated at about 769,000, is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the north, with Suriname as its neighbor to the east and Venezuela to the west. Guyana's southern border touches Brazil.

"We see a relative change in sea level with regard to their drainage window, but what's causing it, we're not in a position to say," he said, adding, "However, given global predictions, we'd be foolish to ignore (climate change) and so as part of the project in our design parameters, we're artificially anticipating that there will be a sea-level rise."

Using a computer model and an aircraft-guided remote sensing system, World Bank experts will be able to collect topographic data of how much of the land is sloping into the sea around Guyana. It will also establish how surface water could be drained and will look at how future development will impact drainage.

"The coastal topography of Guyana is very gently sloping and if someone just builds a mound around their house, that can have an impact on somebody else downstream," Meier added.

Caroline Anstey, the bank's country director for the Caribbean, said reducing Guyana's vulnerability to floods was critical for its economic stability.

"The consequences of climate change in Caribbean nations like Guyana will impose a heavy burden on the economies of the region, in particular on the poor," she added.

Camel racing comes to Sydney

Barbara McMahon in Sydney
The Guardian, UK

Camels galloped around a racetrack in Sydney yesterday, taking the place of horses, which have been banned because of an outbreak of equine flu.

Crowds cheered on the animals at the city's Harold Park Paceway. but could only put unofficial bets on the outcome of the six races, as camel racing is not recognised by Australia's leading betting organisation, TAB.

The novelty event was staged to recoup some of the losses suffered by the horse-racing industry after Australia's first outbreak of equine flu in August halted racing across the country. Hundreds of people in the industry have been laid off. Racing has restarted in three states under strict controls, but Sydney's lucrative spring racing carnival was abandoned five weeks ago.

Equine flu is not infectious to humans but has a debilitating effect on horses and in rare cases can be fatal. Horses are being vaccinated against the disease.

The camel meet attracted hundreds of racegoers, and racecourse staff said they spent heavily in function rooms and bars. More camel race meetings are expected to be held. "There's been lots of raucous laughter. Everyone's had a good time," said a spokesman. "It's lifted everyone's spirits."

Camel racing is usually held in the outback and the animals racing in Sydney were transported from Queensland, where they normally perform for tourists. Camels were introduced to Australia in the early 1800s to help workers building railway and telegraph lines and were later released into the wild. There are now upwards of 600,000 in Australia.

Worldwatch Perspective: Can Biofuels Make or Break Iowa’s Future?

From: , Worldwatch Institute

A report profiling the impact of the current biofuels boom in the U.S. state of Iowa and painting a more sustainable path forward for the biofuels industry was released Tuesday in the state capital, Des Moines. The report, Destination Iowa: Getting to a Sustainable Biofuels Future, is a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the Sierra Club. It examines the implications of biofuel development for Iowa’s economy and environment as well as for climate change.

Iowa is currently the undisputed leader in U.S. biofuels production, with nearly one-third of the nation’s ethanol capacity. The state is home to 28 ethanol refineries with a combined capacity of 1.9 billion gallons per year, and to 13 biodiesel refineries with a combined capacity of nearly 260 million gallons a year. Nineteen additional corn-based ethanol refineries are under construction that would enable Iowa to produce another 1.4 billion gallons annually, bringing it to a future ethanol capacity of 2.3 billion gallons.

Biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol, have been embraced by many in Iowa as a way to provide economic development while reaching energy security and climate goals. Yet the industry is not living up to its potential. Iowa’s corn ethanol boom has made some farmers better off but is causing a host of other problems, such as increased water pollution and soil erosion and the loss of conservation reserve lands. It is also pricing some farmers out of the market. Ethanol refineries have brought jobs to small towns—though fewer than expected—and some residents are wondering what will happen once the corn frenzy dies down and the market demands more advanced biofuels and different feedstocks.

Biofuels production has complex implications, not just for the economy but also for agriculture, health, and rural development, as well as for air and water quality, biodiversity, and climate change. The lessons from Iowa and from biofuel programs around the world show that it is important to promote “smarter,” rather than just “more,” biofuels development.

Biofuels do have enormous potential. If developed in a sustainable manner, they can improve the environment, promote social justice, and provide a carbon-neutral energy source. Yet they represent only part of the solution to our energy needs. Capturing gains from energy efficiency, improving transport systems, and developing a diverse array of renewable energy sources are other important keys to mitigating climate change and assuring a sustainable energy supply.

The positive potential of biofuels will not be realized unless there is a framework that rewards sustainable production and punishes production that imposes external costs on society and the environment. Without such precautions, biofuels could do as much harm as good. One only has to look to the oil palm takeover in Southeast Asia or the continued clearing of Amazon forests for soy and sugarcane plantations to see the devastation that can arise from poorly considered biofuels production.

Iowa—and the United States overall—needs policies that support more sustainable biofuels. But having the right policies in place is just one step. Another is building awareness of why some biofuels measure up better than others. Blind faith in a concept does little good, because the devil is in the details—in this case, the details of production from the field to the tank.

For example, consumers might think twice about buying ethanol produced in a coal-fired refinery, since these facilities release double the greenhouse gases on average that refineries powered by natural gas do. Consumers may also wish to avoid ethanol derived from corn grown on fragile soils because of the impact this can have on water quality and wildlife habitat, or because of the associated carbon losses and nitrate oxide emissions from cultivating that soil.

Consumers—and producers—might instead choose to invest in the cellulosic ethanol fuels and advanced biodiesel fuels that are now nearing commercialization. These so-called “second-generation” biofuel technologies are much more efficient and sustainable, from an energy and climate perspective, than corn ethanol or soy biodiesel. Moreover, the cellulosic crops—which include certain grasses and woody crops—may be far more effective at promoting rural development in the United States than the current corn-dominated biofuels industry, because more processing will have to be done locally to make their use economical.

The best solution would be to develop a sustainability rating for biofuels—something like a consumer labeling system that rates a fuel based on its life-cycle impacts. Policymakers in the European Union are already working on such a system, which may provide a useful model for the United States. Meanwhile, as the report on Iowa notes, Iowans—and Americans—can demand policies that support sustainable agricultural and fuel refining practices and promote second-generation biofuel technologies.

Raya Widenoja, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute, is the lead author of Destination Iowa: Getting to a Sustainable Biofuels Future.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

Gore and UN Climate Panel Win Nobel Prize

Mark Tran
The Guardian, UK
The former US vice-president Al Gore and the UN climate change panel will share the 2007 Nobel peace prize for raising awareness of the risks of climate change, the Nobel committee announced today.

Chosen from a field of 181 candidates, Mr Gore and the UN's intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) will split the $1.5m (£750,000) prize.

The Norwegian committee praised Mr Gore, who lost the 2000 presidential election to George Bush, for his strong commitment to the struggle against climate change.

"He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted," the committee said.

However, Mr Gore's award-winning film on the issue, An Inconvenient Truth, was this week criticised in a British high court case for allegedly containing inaccuracies.

Mr Gore said he was honoured by the award and would donate his share of the money to the Alliance for Climate Protection, a group seeking to change public opinion in the US and around the world about the urgency of dealing with climate change.

"I am deeply honoured to receive the Nobel peace prize," Mr Gore said in a statement.

"This award is even more meaningful because I have the honour of sharing it with the IPCC - the world's pre-eminent scientific body devoted to improving our understanding of the climate crisis - a group whose members have worked tirelessly and selflessly for many years."

On the IPCC, the Nobel committee said it had created an ever broader, informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.

"Thousands of scientists and officials from over 100 countries have collaborated to achieve greater certainty as to the scale of the warming," the panel said. "Whereas in the 1980s global warming seemed to be merely an interesting hypothesis, the 1990s produced firmer evidence in its support."

The Nobel committee said that by awarding the prize to the IPCC and Mr Gore, it wanted to bring a sharper focus on the processes and decisions needed to protect the world's future climate.

"Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man's control," the panel warned.

The joint award to Mr Gore, who was the favourite among the contenders, is expected to galvanise his supporters, who are pushing him to run again for the White House, despite his loss eight years ago.

Since then, Mr Gore has appeared more relaxed, shedding an uptight image that did him no favours in contrast to Mr Bush, who projected an easygoing charm.

Should Mr Gore take the plunge, he can count on strong grassroots support, though his detractors believe that, in the glare of presidential politics, he will revert to his old, wooden self.

The "draft Gore" movement has been gaining momentum, accumulating about 127,000 signatures this year, 10,000 of them in the last week of September alone.

Mr Gore has consistently said he is not interested in running again for the White House, insisting he can be more effective in the fight against climate change outside mainstream politics.

But his denials of interest have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of supporters, who feel that as president he would have the credibility required to push through tough measures to slow climate change.

The other presidential candidates - Hillary Clinton, in particular - have so far disappointed environmental activists by shying away from promising aggressive action to deal with America's contribution to climate change.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ancient Fossils Point to Carbon Dioxide As a Driver of Global Warming

PASADENA, Calif - A team of American and Canadian scientists has devised a new way to study Earth's past climate by analyzing the chemical composition of ancient marine fossils. The first published tests with the method further support the view that atmospheric CO2 has contributed to dramatic climate variations in the past, and strengthen projections that human CO2 emissions could cause global warming.

In the current issue of the journal Nature, geologists and environmental scientists from the California Institute of Technology, the University of Ottawa, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Brock University, and the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve report the results of a new method for determining the growth temperatures of carbonate fossils such as shells and corals. This method looks at the percentage of rare isotopes of oxygen and carbon that bond with each other rather than being randomly distributed through their mineral lattices.

Because these bonds between oxygen-18 and carbon-13 form in greater abundance at low temperatures and lesser abundance at higher temperatures, a precise measurement of their concentration in a carbonate fossil can quantify the temperature of seawater in which the organisms lived. By comparing this record of temperature change with previous estimates of past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the study demonstrates a strong coupling of atmospheric temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations across one of Earth's major environmental shifts.

According to Rosemarie Came, a postdoctoral scholar in geochemistry at Caltech and lead author of the article, only about 60 parts per million of the carbonate molecular groups that make up the mineral structures of carbonate fossils are a combination of both oxygen-18 and carbon-13, but the amount varies predictably with temperature. Therefore, knowing the age of the sample and how much of these exotic carbonate groups are present allows one to create a record of the planet's temperature through time.

"This clumped-isotope method has an advantage over previous approaches because we're looking at the distribution of rare isotopes inside a single shell or coral," Came says. "All the information needed to study the surface temperature at the time the animal lived is stored in the fossil itself."

In this way, the method contrasts with previous approaches that require knowledge of the chemistry of seawater in the distant past--something that is poorly known.

The study contrasts the growth temperatures of fossils from two times in the distant geological past. The Silurian period, approximately 400 million years ago, is thought to have been a time of highly elevated atmospheric CO2 (more than 10 times the modern concentration), and was found by the researchers to be a time of exceptionally warm shallow-ocean temperatures--nearly 35 degrees C. In contrast, the Carboniferous period, roughly 300 million years ago, appears to have been characterized by far lower levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (similar to modern values) and had shallow marine temperatures similar to or slightly cooler than today-about 25 degrees C. Thus, the draw-down of atmospheric CO2 coincided with strong global cooling.

"This is a huge change in temperature," says John Eiler, a professor of geochemistry at Caltech and a coauthor of the study. "It shows that carbon dioxide really has been a powerful driver of climate change in Earth's past."

The title of the Nature paper is "Coupling of surface temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations during the Paleozoic era." The other authors are Jan Veizer of the University of Ottawa, Karem Azmy of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Uwe Brand of Brock University, and Christopher R. Weidman of the Waquoit National Estuarine Research Reserve, Massachusetts.

Edison's Dimming Bulbs -How Wal-Mart and the government are killing the incandescent light bulb.

Light bulb. Click image to expand.

Compact fluorescent bulbs cost more than regular incandescent bulbs. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, they last up to 10 times longer, use about one-fourth the energy, and produce 90 percent less heat. Over its life span of four and a half years, a CFL more than repays its higher cost in energy savings: $62.95 per light bulb. Oh, and they're good for the planet, since they produce fewer emissions. But while they've grown in popularity, CFLs have yet to emerge as a household staple, in part because consumers can't see beyond the shock of the sticker price to the long-term savings. "When you buy a compact fluorescent bulb at the cash register, you experience the higher cost vividly and all at once," says Robert Frank, a Cornell economist and author of The Economic Naturalist. "But when your electric bill goes down as a result, the savings are not as evident." Consumers routinely make such short-term economically irrational decisions.

As it aims to vanquish Thomas Edison's filament bulb—and save the Earth—the CFL is running into the brick wall of human nature. But the CFL is getting a lift from two of the globe's most powerful forces: image-conscious Western governments and Wal-Mart.

With its $346 billion in annual sales and 100 million customers, Wal-Mart is the carrot. In 2006, eager to improve its image as a low-wage emporium of Chinese imports, Wal-Mart pledged to sell 100 million CFLs this year. The megaretailer stacked CFLs front and center, hammered out deals with suppliers like General Electric, and enticed customers the only way it knew how: by appealing to their desire to save money. According to a calculator on Wal-Mart's Web site, replacing 30 incandescent bulbs with CFLs can save more than $1,000 over the life of the bulbs—real money for a Wal-Mart shopper. At Wal-Mart, CFLs are cheap: A six-pack of 26-watt GE CFL bulbs goes for $15.16. And they're getting cheaper. In September, Wal-Mart introduced a cheaper private-label CFL that undercuts name brands.

The stick has been the specter of government regulation. Around the globe, environmentalism and global warming are hot topics among politicians. "People are in a bidding war to see who can fight climate change the most," said Dr. Matt Prescott, director of Ban the Bulb, an Oxford, England-based organization. Earlier this year, Australia announced that it intends to phase out incandescent bulbs by 2010. The 27-nation European Union, whose 493 million citizens make it a powerful consumer juggernaut, piously followed. Sort of. In March, a summit of European leaders asked the European Commission to develop tough new requirements applying to incandescent bulbs and household lighting by 2009. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped on her lines. "Most of the light bulbs in my flat are energy-saving bulbs," she said. "They're not yet quite bright enough. When I'm looking for something I've dropped on the carpet, I have a bit of a problem." In August, the EC decided to maintain tariffs on Chinese-made CFLs.

Business-friendly England is seeking a middle ground. Last month, Secretary of State for the Environment Hilary Benn announced a deal struck with retailers and utilities calling for a voluntary phaseout of the incandescent bulb by 2011. And now both houses of the U.S. Congress are considering laws that would create new standards for light bulbs that would effectively consign Edison's invention to time capsules starting in 2012.

While no incandescent-bulb death-penalty law has been passed, the legacy light seems on the way to its extinction. "It's time for the technology to die," said Lowell Ungar, director of policy at the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, striking a Schwarzeneggerian tone. (Schwarzenegger's current domain, California, is considering a ban on sales.)

CFLs appear destined to become a consumer staple, either because hordes of people realize they're cheaper or because the alternative will be prohibited. My money's on the carrot. Thus far, green goods have been pitched to the top: expensive Priuses for guilty yuppies, solar installations for rich techies. But to have real impact, energy-efficiency products need to make economic sense to those who congregate on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Wal-Mart's sales of CFLs prove that energy-efficient goods don't have to be luxury items. And its success at selling them—the company last week announced it surpassed the 100 million bulb goal—is spurring manufacturers like General Electric to shut down incandescent-bulb factories.

Earth lovers fret that even if the United States and Europe get their greenhouses in order, the large populations in China, India, and Africa will ultimately overwhelm any emissions savings as they plug in. But if CFLs became a staple at Wal-Mart and other low-end retailers, and if manufacturers respond to new regulations by producing massive quantities of CFLs at low prices, the first bulbs to illuminate Indian villages may be low-emission fluorescents. It takes more than one market force to change a light bulb.

This article also appears in the Oct. 15 issue of Newsweek.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Global Warming: Bad News for Gnus

Drowned wildebeest are seen after being swept by the Mara river in Maasai Mara, Kenya's most famous game reserve September 16, 2007.
Drowned wildebeest are seen after being swept by the Mara river in Maasai Mara, Kenya's most famous game reserve September 16, 2007.
Cristina Gall / Reuters
The annual wildebeest migration is one of nature's most spectacular photo-ops. More than a million wildebeest — also known as gnus — crossing from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve and then back again in the search of fresh grass makes for some dramatic action shots, as massive herds travel across the plains before plunging into the Mara River to swim to greener pastures.

The photos from this year's migration are just as dramatic, but for a different reason. This time, piles of wildebeest carcasses line the riverbanks, after 10,000 of the animals drowned trying to cross the Mara at the start of their journey back east to the Serengeti. The deaths are natural: each year, crocodiles and the strong current claim some victims. The numbers, though, are bizarre. The migration rarely leaves more than a few thousand dead; but this year, an estimated 100,000, or about 1% of the wildebeest population, were wiped out. Conservationists say the wildebeest simply chose the wrong point to cross the river, one where the bank on the other side was too steep to climb. As those in the front drowned, they trapped those behind them.

Nature can be cruel, but sometimes it gets some help. The Mara River was especially high this year, after the heavy rains that flooded parts of Africa, killing hundreds of people and uprooting thousands more. Climatologists are pointing to the downpours as proof that predictions that Africa will suffer the most from global warming and climate change are already coming true. The human toll is what makes all the headlines, but the consequences for Africa's wildlife is just as drastic.

"During the rainy season, we should be getting mild rain spread over a long time and the dry season should be reasonably mild, not too hot," says Taye Teferi, head of the Conservation Program at the WWF's East Africa Regional Program Office. "But climate change has accentuated the difference between the seasons, making the rainy season shorter and heavier and the dry season hotter." When animals migrate to the Masai Mara every spring, it allows the vegetation they leave behind in the Serengeti to regrow, ready for them to come back in the fall. No rain means no new vegetation to return to. The animals stay put and the land can't cope: the grass stops growing, the animals die. And if it rains too much, "the water, which should be a source of rejuvenation, instead becomes a force of destruction," says Teferi.

So while conservationists at the Masai Mara work hard to protect the wildebeest from poachers, they were helpless against the combination of bad luck and global warming. Brian Heath, head of the Mara Conservancy, which covers one-third of the reserve, told Britain's Daily Mail: "In a couple of days, tens of times more animals have died than were killed by poaching." According to a blog entry by Terilyn Lemaire, who works at the reserve, they considered blocking off the point where the wildebeest were crossing but then decided "It's nature. And who are we as humans to interfere with that?"

But some would argue humans are already interfering, if global warming is indeed brought about by human activity. And that may require more human intervention. The weather extremes on the African plains are getting so intense that it may no longer be enough for conservationists to simply protect nature. They might have to start improving on it. "The best thing that conservationists can do is to better design the protected areas," says Teferi. During a very dry dry season, that could mean having an area of back-up grass that's opened to the wildlife only if they absolutely need it. Or, in a very wet wet season, creating an alternative migration route across a shallower part of the river. "That way, if one area is badly affected, animals have the opportunity to move to another area," says Teferi.

It's too early to tell how the mass drowning will affect Africa's wildebeest population as a whole. But it's safe to say that as the weather gets more erratic, these kinds of freak deaths will become more common — early last year, the Masai Mara had the opposite problem, and a drought left almost 100 hippos dead. These days, it looks like the only alternative to letting nature take its course is to change the course of nature.

Record 22C temperatures in Arctic heatwave

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Independent, UK

Parts of the Arctic have experienced an unprecedented heatwave this summer, with one research station in the Canadian High Arctic recording temperatures above 20C, about 15C higher than the long-term average. The high temperatures were accompanied by a dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice in September to the lowest levels ever recorded, a further indication of how sensitive this region of the world is to global warming. Scientists from Queen's University in Ontario watched with amazement as their thermometers touched 22C during their July field expedition at the High Arctic camp on Melville Island, usually one of the coldest places in North America.

"This was exceptional for a place where the normal average temperatures are about 5C. This year we frequently recorded daytime temperatures of between 10C and 15C and on some days it went as high as 22C," said Scott Lamoureux, a professor of geography at Queen's.

"Even temperatures of 15C are higher than we'd expect and yet we recorded them for between 10 and 12 days during July. We won't know the August and September recordings until next year when we go back there but it appears the region has continued to be warm through the summer."

The high temperatures on the island caused catastrophic mudslides as the permafrost on hillsides melted, Professor Lamoureux said. "The landscape was being torn to pieces, literally before our eyes."

Other parts of the Arctic also experienced higher-than-normal temperatures, which indicate that the wider polar region may have experienced its hottest summer on record, according to Walt Meir of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado.

"It's been warm, with temperatures about 3C or 4C above normal for June, July and August, particularly to the north of Siberia where the temperatures have reached between 4C and 5C above average," Dr Meir said.

Unusually clear skies over the Arctic this summer have caused temperatures to rise. More sunlight has exacerbated the loss of sea ice, which fell to a record low of 4.28 million square kilometres (1.65 million square miles), some 39 per cent below the long-term average for the period 1979 to 2000. Dr Meir said: "While the decline of the ice started out fairly slowly in spring and early summer, it accelerated rapidly in July. By mid-August, we had already shattered all previous records for ice extent."

An international team of scientists on board the Polar Stern, a research ship operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, also felt the effects of an exceptionally warm Arctic summer. The scientists had anticipated that large areas of the Arctic would be covered by ice with a thickness of about two metres, but found that it had thinned to just one metre.

Instead of breaking through thicker ice at an expected speed of between 1 and 2 knots, the Polar Stern managed to cruise at 6 knots through thin ice and sometimes open water.

"We are in the midst of a phase of dramatic change in the Arctic," said Ursula Schauer, the chief scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, who was on board the Polar Stern expedition. "The ice cover of the North Polar Sea is dwindling, the ocean and the atmosphere are becoming steadily warmer, the ocean currents are changing," she said.

One scientist came back from the North Pole and reported that it was raining there, said David Carlson, the director of International Polar Year, the effort to highlight the climate issues of the Arctic and Antarctic. "It makes you wonder whether anyone has ever reported rain at the North Pole before."

Another team of scientists monitoring the movements of Ayles Ice Island off northern Canada reported that it had broken in two far earlier than expected, a further indication of warmer temperatures. And this summer, for the first time, an American sailing boat managed to traverse the North-west Passage from Nova Scotia to Alaska, a voyage usually made by icebreakers. Never before has a sail-powered vessel managed to get straight through the usually ice-blocked sea passage.

Inhabitants of the region are also noticing a significant change as a result of warmer summers, according to Shari Gearheard, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. "People who live in the region are noticing changes in sea ice. The earlier break-up and later freeze-up affect when and where people can go hunting, as well as safety for travel," she said.

Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre, said: "We may see an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer within our lifetimes. The implications... are disturbing."

The North-west Passage: an ominous sign

The idea of a North-west Passage was born in 1493, when Pope Alexander VI divided the discovered world between Spain and Portugal, blocking England, France and Holland from a sea route to Asia. As it became clear a passage across Europe was impossible, the ambitious plan was hatched to seek out a route through north-western waters, and nations sent out explorers. When, in the 18th century, James Cook reported that Antarctic icebergs produced fresh water, the view that northern waters were not impossibly frozen was encouraged. In 1776 Cook himself was dispatched by the Admiralty with an Act promising a £20,000 prize, but he failed to push through a route north of Canada. His attempt preceded several British expeditions including a famous Victorian one by Sir John Franklin in 1845. Finally, in 1906 Roald Amundsen led the first trip across the passage to Alaska, and since then a number of fortified ships have followed. On 21 August this year, the North-west Passage was opened to ships not armed with icebreakers for the first time since records began.

Scientist: Greenhouse Gas Levels Grave

rom: Meraiah Foley -Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Strong worldwide economic growth has accelerated the level of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere to a dangerous threshold scientists had not expected for another decade, according to a leading Australian climate change expert.

Scientist Tim Flannery told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that an upcoming report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will contain new data showing that the level of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere has already reached critical levels.

Flannery is not a member of the IPCC, but said he based his comments on a thorough review of the technical data included in the panel's three working group reports published earlier this year. The IPCC is due to release its final report synthesizing the data in November.

"What the report establishes is that the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is already above the threshold that can potentially cause dangerous climate change," Flannery told the broadcaster late Monday. "We are already at great risk of dangerous climate change, that's what these figures say. It's not next year or next decade, it's now."

Flannery, whose recent book "The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth," made best-seller lists worldwide, said the data showed that the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions had reached about 455 parts per million by mid-2005, well ahead of scientists' previous calculations.

"We thought we'd be at that threshold within about a decade, that we had that much time," Flannery said. "I mean, that's beyond the limits of projection, beyond the worst-case scenario as we thought of it in 2001," when the last major IPCC report was issued.

The new data could add urgency to the next round of U.N. climate change talks on the Indonesian island of Bali in December, which will aim to start negotiations on a replacement for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Flannery said that the recent economic boom in China and India has helped to accelerate the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but strong growth in the developed world has also exacerbated the problem.

"It's a worldwide issue. We've had growing economies everywhere, we're still basing that economic activity on fossil fuels," he said. "The metabolism of that economy is now on a collision course clearly with the metabolism of our planet."

A spokesman for Australia's IPCC delegate, Ian Carruthers, said he was not available to comment on the report because it was still in draft form.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Can science really save the world?

Endless treaties to cut carbon emissions and halt global warming have failed to turn the tide of pollution. Now scientists want to intervene on a planetary scale, changing the very nature of our seas and skies. Ahead of a major report on 'geo-engineering' we reveal the six big ideas that could change the face of the Earth

Robin McKie and Juliette Jowit
The Observer, UK

They are the ultimate technological fixes: schemes that will span our planet and involve scientists in reshaping our world to save it from global warming. Yet only a few years ago, such projects - giant space mirrors, flotillas of artificial cloud makers and ocean fertilisation programmes - were dismissed as the stuff of science fiction.

Today many engineers and researchers - fearful of the rate at which our planet is warming - say geo-engineering projects are now mankind's only hope of saving itself from the impact of climate change. A major report and a new exhibition at the Science Museum starting next week will resurrect the debate.

Despite 10 years of international negotiations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide levels by between 60-80 per cent, global emissions are still rising. The only hope, say geo-engineers, is to change the planet, alter its oceans and reshape its cloud cover.

It is a point highlighted by Brian Launder, professor of mechanical engineering at Manchester University, who was once 'neutral' about these great geo-engineering projects but who has come to believethat current attempts to reduce CO2 emissions are doomed to failure.

'As time has gone on I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of progress on climate change and [although] they once seemed a last resort, I have to say we're going to need to do this.'

Launder is now editing a forthcoming issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society which will be devoted to the subject of geo-engineering schemes. 'We're moving, but I think we need to go a lot further.'

An exhibition - Can Algae Save The World? - opening at the Science Museum will also focus on hi-tech projects aimed at saving the planet.

The latest assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published earlier this year, considered three major techniques to reduce sunlight reaching the Earth: orbiting mirrors, sulphur particle schemes and projects for enhancing cloud cover.

The ideas 'could have beneficial consequences' by increasing agricultural productivity and forestry, the panel concluded. Carbon dioxide would be left in the atmosphere, stimulating plant growth, while reductions in sunlight would stop temperatures from rising even as CO2 levels continued to increase.

'Geo-engineering is one of the types of thing that are worth investigating,' says Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. 'If we can generate 100 ideas, and 97 are bad and we land up with three good ones, then the whole thing will have been worthwhile.'

Opponents to such schemes point out that it is technology that got mankind in its current fix. An even bigger dose of technology is therefore the last thing the planet needs. Schemes for fertilising the oceans with iron compounds pose immense risks to marine life, for example. Geo-engineers defend their schemes by pointing out that emissions of greenhouse gases are already bringing huge changes to natural ecosystems.

It is a point stressed by the distinguished ecologist James Lovelock: there are dangers in intervening but the risks posed by doing nothing are worse. 'There may be all sorts of ecological consequences,' he said. 'But then the stakes are terribly high.'

Ocean pumps

Two of Britain's leading environmental thinkers, Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum, and James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia concept, suggest vertical pipes could pump deep cold water to the sea surface. Cold ocean water is considered to be more 'productive' than warmer water because it contains more lifeforms. And these lifeforms are vital for absorbing CO2.

Using special valves, cold water would be made to flow up floating pipes and out on to the ocean surface, bringing increased numbers of lifeforms into contact with the atmosphere and its carbon dioxide. These lifeforms would absorb CO2, die and then sink to the ocean floor, storing the carbon away for millennia.

Marine biologists point out that the scheme could pose major problems for sea life, in particular for creatures such as whales and porpoises.

Chance of success: 3/5 Impact on marine life could count against the scheme.

Sulphur blanket

During major volcanic eruptions, the Earth often undergoes significant cooling. For example, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991 the average temperature across the Earth decreased by 0.6C. Scientists pointed the finger of blame at the 10 million tonnes of sulphur that the volcano ejected into the stratosphere. So why not copy Pinatubo? That is the suggestion of Professor Paul Crutzen who won a Nobel prize in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer.

He has proposed creating a 'blanket' of sulphur that would block the Sun's rays from reaching Earth; to do this, he envisages hundreds of rockets filled with sulphur being blasted into the stratosphere. About one million tonnes of sulphur would be enough to create his cooling blanket, he says.

The idea alarms other scientists, who fear such a massive input of sulphur into the upper atmosphere could increase acid rain or damage the ozone layer. Crutzen believes his idea may still be necessary if Earth continues to warm up at its current rate. 'I am prepared to lose some bit of ozone if we can prevent major increases of temperature, say beyond two degrees or three degrees,' he says.

Chance of success: 1/5 Risks of acid rain and ozone depletion will provoke opposition.


Radiation from the Sun heats our planet and sustains life here. But as Earth warms up, scientists want to cut that radiation and one of the most ambitious ideas involves firing giant mirrors into its orbit.

Physicist Lowell Wood, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has put forward the idea of using a mesh of aluminium threads, a millionth of an inch in diameter. 'It would be like a window screen made of exceedingly fine metal wire,' he explains. The screen wouldn't completely block sunlight but would filter infra-red radiation.

However, such mirrors would be expensive to make and put into orbit. To produce a 1 per cent cut in solar radiation would require mirrors with surface areas of 600,000 square miles. But once in space such mirrors would be extremely cheap to operate.

'It's very hi-tech,' said John Shepherd, professor of marine science at the National Oceanographic Centre at Southampton University. 'Who knows whether they can really do it? And it's going to cost a lot of money to find out.'

Chance of success: 1/5 Incredibly expensive.

Cloud shield

John Latham, at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, and Stephen Salter, of Edinburgh University estimate that increasing cloud cover using a seawater spray 'seeding' process could increase cloud cover by 4 per cent - enough to counter a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by shielding Earth from solar radiation.

Their plan is one of the cheaper ideas for countering rising carbon dioxide levels and is relatively low-tech, leading to hopes that, if computer simulations give good results, a field trial could start in five years.

Latham acknowledges there are dangers in changing weather patterns. 'We certainly shouldn't implement [it] in any global sense until we've done our best to examine what implications it might have,' he says.

'But if one felt that there are unlikely to be any implications that are more severe than the damage global warming is causing, then I think we'd begin.'

Chance of success: 2/5 Will need major global commitment to succeed.

Synthetic trees

Planting trees that absorb carbon dioxide has become a major eco-industry. But now scientists are proposing a surprise technological variant: synthetic trees. These trees would not grow or flower or leaf - but they would absorb carbon dioxide.

This startling concept is the brainchild of Klaus Lackner of Columbia University who first outlined his proposal at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He describes his synthetic trees as looking like 'goal posts with Venetian blinds'.

Lackner has calculated that one of his synthetic trees could remove about 90,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in a year - the output of more than 15,000 cars and a thousandfold improvement on the natural behaviour of a real, living tree.

Lackner's concept is a variant of carbon sequestration technology which involves the seizing of carbon and storing it underground. Already schemes exist for removing carbon dioxide produced by burning coal, gas or oil at power plants before it reaches the atmosphere. Other projects are investigating ways to liquefy this carbon dioxide and store it in old mines or oilfields.

However, the process does not work for all polluters, in particular cars and lorries - hence Lackner's synthetic trees which would act like filters, removing carbon dioxide from that atmosphere. An absorbent coating, such as limewater, on slats would capture carbon dioxide so that it could be removed and then buried. However, critics say the scheme suffers from the fact that engineers could end up expending more energy in capturing carbon dioxide than they would save.

Chance of success: 4/5 Carbon sequestration is likely to play a major role in the world's battle against climate change, though perhaps not in the form of synthetic trees.

Forests of the seas

Blooms of plankton and algae are the grasslands and prairies of the oceans. They absorb carbon dioxide, die and then sink to the seabed carrying the carbon dioxide they absorbed during their lifetimes. Increase such blooms and you could take out more and more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, scientists argue - an idea that formed the core of a recent meeting of experts at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US.

The favoured method for stimulating plankton growth is to use iron fertilisers. It is known that tiny amounts of iron are critical in stimulating phytoplankton growth in seas. However, in many parts of the world iron in seawater is virtually non-existent and plankton levels correspondingly low.

Several groups of US entrepreneurs have begun experiments aimed at correcting this problem by pumping tonnes of soluble iron compounds into sea areas. Several trial schemes are now under way. But some critics warn that very little carbon dioxide would be removed from the atmosphere this way, while there is a danger such schemes could cause dangerous pollution.

Chance of success: 2/5 Method already in trials, but faces considerable opposition over potential damage to marine life.

Egypt plan to green Sahara desert stirs controversy

From: Will Rasmussen -Reuters

CAIRO (Reuters) - It looks like a mirage but the lush fields of cauliflower, apricot trees and melon growing among a vast stretch of sand north of Cairo's pyramids is all too real -- proof of Egypt's determination to turn its deserts green.

While climate change and land over-use help many deserts across the world advance, Egypt is slowly greening the sand that covers almost all of its territory as it seeks to create more space for its growing population.

Tarek el-Kowmey, 45, points proudly to the banana trees he grows on what was once Sahara sands near the Desert Development Centre, north of Cairo, where scientists experiment with high-tech techniques to make Egypt's desert bloom.

"All of this used to be just sand," he said. "Now we can grow anything."

With only five percent of the country habitable, almost all of Egypt's 74 million people live along the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. Already crowded living conditions -- Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities on earth -- will likely get worse as Egypt's population is expected to double by 2050.

So the government is keen to encourage people to move to the desert by pressing ahead with an estimated $70 billion plan to reclaim 3.4 million acres of desert over the next 10 years. Among the incentives are cheap desert land to college graduates.

But to make these areas habitable and capable of cultivation, the government will need to tap into scarce water resources of the Nile River as rainfall is almost non-existent in Egypt.

The plan has raised controversy among some conservationists who say turning the desert green is neither practical nor sustainable and might ultimately backfire.

Anders Jagerskog, director of the Stockholm International Water Institute in Sweden, questions the wisdom of using precious water resources to grow in desert areas unsuited to cultivation and where water will evaporate quickly under the scorching sun.

"A desert is not the best place to grow food," he said. "From a political perspective, it makes sense in terms of giving more people jobs even though it is not very rational from a water perspective," he added.


The scope of the reclamations could also add to regional tension over Nile water sharing arrangements as in order to green its desert Egypt might need to take more than its share of Nile water determined by international treaties.

Egypt's project to reclaim deserts in the south, called "Toshka", would expand Egypt's farmland by about 40 percent by 2017, using about five billion cubic meters of water a year.

That worries neighbors to the south who are already unhappy about Nile water sharing arrangements. Under a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt won rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters per year, more than half of the Nile's total flow.

Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile begins, receives no formal allocation of Nile water, but it is heavily dependent on the water for its own agricultural development in this often famine ravaged country.

"The Toshka project will complicate the challenge of achieving a more equitable allocation of the Nile River with Ethiopia and the other Nile basin countries ," said Sandra Postel, director of the U.S.-based Global Water Policy Project.

"Egypt may be setting the stage for a scenario that's ultimately detrimental to itself."

But other experts suggest that in the delicate arena of water politics, it may be more of an imperative for Egypt's government to mollify its own population rather than heed its neighbors concerns.

Overcrowding is straining infrastructure in the cities and the government is worried that opposition groups such as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has a fifth of the seats in Parliament, might capitalize on discontent.

"The government feels it needs to reduce the number of people in high density areas, which puts a lot of pressure on resources like fertile land," said Mostafa Saleh, professor of ecology at Al Azhar University in Cairo.

"They are trying to spread the population to other parts of the country."


Some critics say that Egypt should look at desert tourism rather than agriculture, which might not be sustainable or particularly profitable and could destroy fragile wildlife habitats that might otherwise be a drawcard for tourists.

A desert reclamation project last decade, south of Cairo, destroyed much of the Wadi Raiyan oasis and its population of slender horned gazelles.

"The price tag on these assets is huge, both as natural heritage and as a resource for tourism," said ecologist Saleh.

Saleh is vice president of an Egyptian firm that built an electricity-free ecolodge, consisting of rock salt and mud houses, amid olive and palm groves in the desert oasis of Siwa.

The lodge, which costs $400 per night and has attracted guests such as Britain's Prince Charles and Belgium's Queen Paola, shows that the desert would be better used for ecotourism than farming, he says.

"In Egypt, water is the most critical resource and we should be careful to use it to maximize revenue," Saleh explained. "Agriculture is not the best option for Egypt. Nature-based tourism could bring in much more money."

At the Desert Development Center, irrigation water comes through a canal connected to the Nile, about 15 km (nine miles) away, where it is used to keep crops flourishing and grass green for hardy hybrid cows to graze.

Experts at the centre believe greening the Sahara might be Egypt's best hope of bringing prosperity to its people.

Workers graft fruit-bearing plants onto the stems of plants that survive well in the desert. Favorite fruits are citrus as they flourish in hot climates and can land on supermarket shelves in Europe hours after harvesting.

Proximity to markets in Europe and a lack of pests, which usually thrive in humid environments, make desert farming economically viable, said Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo.

Water supply, Tutwiler said, shouldn't be an issue at least for the next ten years. It makes sense, he says, to expand agriculture onto land that was once useless.

"There is no frost and there is sun all the time here," he said. "Plants just go nuts."

Inner Mongolia grasslands turning to sand

From: Tan Ee Lyn -Reuters

BAOLIGEN, China (Reuters) - The steppes of Inner Mongolia are arid even at the best of times, but low rainfall as world temperatures rise is turning these grasslands into sand.

"The wild grass reached up to my knees in the past," said Chaogula, a 40-year-old herdsman as he pointed to barren fields in this remote part of China near the Mongolian border.

"But there's very little grass now. It hasn't rained here in six years and we have to buy fertilizers and feed for our livestock. We never needed these before," he said.

Deserts make up about 27.5 percent of China's total land area today compared to about 17.6 percent in 1994, experts say.

Many homes in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu have been swallowed up by sand. In spring, dust storms dump sand not only on Beijing but also send dust particles as far away as Korea, Japan and even the United States.

Doctors are seeing the health effects as fine dust inhaled during increasingly frequent dust storms cause respiratory problems, especially for children and the elderly.

"Eye infections are getting more serious and common because of the sandstorms," Hai Mei, chief of the Xilinhot City Peoples' Hospital in Inner Mongolia, told Reuters.

China's "Green Great Wall", a 700 km (435 mile) barrier of shrubs and trees planted to hold back the advancing desert, has slowed down the desertification but hasn't stopped it completely.

Environmentalists say the government needs to do more than just plant trees, it needs to prevent overexploitation of the land which is another cause of the expanding deserts.

"With the pursuit of more profit and lack of regulation, some grazing is done all year round, when it should be seasonal to allow the land to recover. Pastures don't have a chance to rest and it leads to more degradation of the land," said Li Yan, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace in Beijing.

The problem has been compounded by agriculture projects and development such as mining, especially coal mining.

" (Past) campaigns pushed agriculture into the desert so rivers started drying up, lots of wells were dug and lots of water was used ... mining activities have also dried up the land," said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Beijing is battling the problem in earnest, especially as the deserts are moving east, threatening even the capital city.

Bao Wendong, a local official, said the government was pushing hard to reduce exploitation of the fragile grasslands.

"We are urging herders to rear fewer livestock. If their land is small and grass quality is bad, they should have fewer animals," Bao told Reuters.

"In the last century, the directive was to rear as much livestock as possible. Now, we are more concerned with quality."

But for the herders living on the harsh, dry steppes, life appears unlikely to get better any time soon.

"The desert is becoming bigger and sandstorms very severe. It was really bad in the last two years, there was not enough grass for the animals. There is just no rain," said herder Xintouya.

Vietnamese villages submerged as floods kill 67

From: Reuters

HANOI (Reuters) - The homes of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese villagers were still underwater on Monday after days of some of the worst flooding in decades that killed up to 67 people.

The northern province of Thanh Hoa and its southern neighbor Nghe An were worst hit by floods and landslides after Typhoon Lekima blew in last Wednesday night.

Officials there and in Ninh Binh province measured the highest river levels since the mid-1980s. Water levels were receding on Monday, but many buildings were still mostly

"People are telling us they have not seen flooding like this in a generation," said Joe Lowry of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies after visiting Thanh Hoa and Nghe An.

"Preparations were made for the storm but they didn't take the flood warnings seriously enough," Lowry said.

The underdeveloped Southeast Asian country of 85 million faces up to 10 storms a year that cause millions of dollars in damage and kill hundreds of people.

Lowry said two million people in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An were affected, according to the Vietnam Red Cross and government officials. More than six million people live in the provinces, just two out of nine suffering damage from the storm.

Up to 67 people have been killed and 14 were missing, government reports said.

In Thanh Hoa, wells supplying fresh water were submerged. Maintaining sanitary conditions and the threat of water-borne diseases were among the difficulties facing people.

"Our focus now is to deal with environmental pollution," Nguyen Cong Thanh, vice minister of natural resources and environment, told state-run Vietnam TV.

Mudslides closed roads and thousands of electricity lines were felled, isolating villages in several mountainous areas.

The IFRC said it released 200,000 Swiss francs ($170,000) to re-supply Vietnam Red Cross stocks and prepared an emergency appeal to buy 500 tons of rice, kitchen sets, water jars, mosquito nets and blankets for more than 12,000 families.

Over the weekend, stricken villagers received medicine, bread and instant noodles dropped by helicopters or delivered in boats.

Since last Wednesday, the storm and floods have washed away dykes and irrigation systems.

A dyke broke on the Buoi river in Thanh Hoa, causing severe flooding. The river rose to 14.25 meters (47 feet), 0.26 meter (10 inches) above the level of floods in 1985, officials said.

In Nghe An, the Ca river measured 7.9 meters (26 feet), at the most dangerous level.

Preliminary reports said nearly 58,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. Estimated damages were at least 1.6 trillion dong ($99 million).

Melting Ice Pack Displaces Alaska Walrus

From: Dan Joling -Associated Press

Thousands of walrus have appeared on Alaska's northwest coast in what conservationists are calling a dramatic consequence of global warming melting the Arctic sea ice.

Alaska's walrus, especially breeding females, in summer and fall are usually found on the Arctic ice pack. But the lowest summer ice cap on record put sea ice far north of the outer continental shelf, the shallow, life-rich shelf of ocean bottom in the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Walrus feed on clams, snails and other bottom dwellers. Given the choice between an ice platform over water beyond their 630-foot diving range or gathering spots on shore, thousands of walrus picked Alaska's rocky beaches.

"It looks to me like animals are shifting their distribution to find prey," said Tim Ragen, executive director of the federal Marine Mammal Commission. "The big question is whether they will be able to find sufficient prey in areas where they are looking."

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, September sea ice was 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000. Sea ice cover is in a downward spiral and may have passed the point of no return, with a possible ice-free Arctic Ocean by summer 2030, senior scientist Mark Serreze said.

Starting in July, several thousand walrus abandoned the ice pack for gathering spots known as haulouts between Barrow and Cape Lisburne, a remote, 300-mile stretch of Alaska coastline.

The immediate concern of new, massive walrus groups for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is danger to the animals from stampedes. Panic caused by a low-flying airplane, a boat or an approaching polar bear can send a herd rushing to the sea. Young animals can be crushed by adults weighing 2,000 pounds or more.

Longer term, biologists fear walrus will suffer nutritional stress if they are concentrated on shoreline rather than spread over thousands of miles of sea ice.

Walrus need either ice or land to rest. Unlike seals, they cannot swim indefinitely and must pause after foraging.

Historically, Ragen said, walrus have used the edge of the ice pack like a conveyor belt. As the ice edge melts and moves north in spring and summer, sea ice gives calves a platform on which to rest while females dive to feed.

There's no conveyor belt for walrus on shore.

"If they've got to travel farther, it's going to cost more energy. That's less energy that's available for other functions," Ragen said.

Deborah Williams - who was an Interior Department special assistant for Alaska under former President Bill Clinton, and who is now president of the nonprofit Alaska Conservation Solutions - said melting of sea ice and its effects on wildlife were never even discussed during her federal service from 1995 to 2000.

"That's what so breathtaking about this," she said. "This has all happened faster than anyone could have predicted. That's why it's so urgent action must be taken."

Walrus observers on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea have also reported more walrus at haulouts and alerted Alaska wildlife officials to the problems with the animals being spooked and stampeded.

If lack of sea ice is at the heart of upcoming problems for walrus, Ragen said, there's no solution likely available other than prevention.

"The primary problem of maintaining ice habitat, that's something way, way, way beyond us," he said. "To reverse things will require an effort on virtually everyone's part."


On the Net:

U.S. Marine Mammal Commission:

Sunday, October 7, 2007

'Remarkable' Drop in Arctic Sea Ice Raises Questions


Melting Arctic sea ice has shrunk to a 29-year low, significantly below the minimum set in 2005, according to preliminary figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, part of the University of Colorado at Boulder. NASA scientists, who have been observing the declining Arctic sea ice cover since the earliest measurements in 1979, are working to understand this sudden speed-up of sea ice decline and what it means for the future of Earth's northern polar region.

This data visualization shows the annual sea ice minimum in 2007. Image right: At the end of each summer, the sea ice cover reaches its minimum extent and the ice that remains is called the perennial ice cover, which consists mainly of thick multi-year ice floes. The area of the perennial ice has been steadily decreasing since the satellite record began in 1979, at a rate of about 10% per decade. But the 2007 minimum, reached around Sept. 14, is far below the previous record made in 2005 and is about 38% lower than the climatological average. This data visualization shows the annual sea ice minimum from 1979 through 2007.
+ Click to view streaming Windows Media Viewer animation
+ Click to download .mpg file (12.9 Mb)
+ Click for print resolution still JPG Credit: NASA

"The decline in the amount of thick ice that survives the summer melt season this year is quite remarkable," said Josefino C. Comiso, senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "The extent of this 'perennial' sea ice and the area it covers are both nearly 38 percent lower than average. Compared to the record low in 2005, the extent and area are 24 percent and nearly 26 percent lower this year, respectively."

"From what we know of how Arctic sea ice behaves after nearly 30 years of continuous satellite observations, this kind of drop in sea ice usually takes more than three years to happen. The rapid trend of the perennial ice previously reported in 2002 appears now to be in an accelerated mode," Comiso observed.

This data visualization shows Arctic sea ice on Sept. 16, 2007. Image right: The Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) is a high-resolution passive microwave Instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite. AMSR-E provides a remarkably clear view of sea ice dynamics in greater detail than has ever been seen before. Researchers use this information to study polar bear habitats, plan expeditions to the ice, and to study the interactions between the ocean and sea ice from season to season. This data visualization shows Arctic sea ice from Jan. 1, 2007 to Sept. 16, 2007.
+ Click to view streaming Windows Media Viewer animation
+ Click to download .mpg file (15 Mb)
+ Click for a print resolution still TIF Credit: NASA

Because Arctic ice cover varies so much year to year, it can be dangerous to look at any one year and draw too much of a conclusion from it," said Waleed Abdalati, head of Goddard's Cryospheric Sciences Branch. "But this year, the amount of ice is so far below that of previous years that it really is cause for concern. The trend in decreasing ice cover seems to be getting stronger and stronger as time goes on."

NASA developed the original capability to observe the extent and concentration of sea ice from space using passive microwave sensors. More recently, NASA launched an advanced microwave instrument in 2002 -- the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) on the Aqua satellite -- that provides a view of sea ice dynamics in greater detail than has ever been seen before. Researchers use this information to study polar bear habitats and the unique movements of sea ice from season to season. AMSR-E is a joint project of NASA and the National Space Development Agency of Japan.

Still from the Albedo ice animation Image left: Polar ice reflects light from the sun. As this ice begins to melt, less sunlight gets reflected into space. It is instead absorbed into the oceans and land, raising the overall temperature, and fueling further melting. This results in a positive feedback loop called ice albedo feedback, which causes the loss of the sea ice to be self-compounding. The more it disappears, the more likely it is to continue to disappear.
+ Click to view streaming Windows Media Viewer animation
+ Click to download .mpg file (26.7 Mb) Credit: NASA

The accelerating decline in sea ice may be due to changes in climate brought on by the lack of sea ice itself, Comiso believes. "When there is less sea ice in the summer, the Arctic Ocean receives more heat. The warmer water makes it harder for the ice to recover in the winter, and, therefore, there is a higher likelihood that sea ice will retreat farther during the summer. This process repeats itself year after year," Comiso said.

"The longer this process continues, the less likely recovery becomes," Abdalati believes. "The implications on global climate are not well known, but they have the potential to be quite large, since the Arctic ice cover exhibits a tremendous influence on our climate. It really is imperative that we try to understand the interactions between the ice, ocean and atmosphere. And satellites hold the key to developing this understanding."

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer  instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of the ice free Northwest Passage on Sept. 15, 2007. Image right: In September 2007, the Northwest Passage was ice-free for the first time since satellite records began. The passage is a direct route from Europe to Asia for ships traveling through the Arctic. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of the ice-free Northwest Passage on Sept. 15, 2007. + Click for high resolution image Credit: NASA

Current satellites, however, can map sea ice in two dimensions, but it is much more difficult to find out how the thickness of the ice contributes to the change in the total volume of the ice. NASA's ICESat spacecraft (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite), launched in 2003, with the primary goal of determining how much ice sheets are contributing to sea-level rise. ICESat is also collecting data that enables scientists to make estimates of sea ice thickness with unprecedented detail.

"What we need to truly understand the interaction of the ice, ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic is sea ice thickness information," said Abdalati. "The new capability we have with ICESat is expected to be extended into the next decade based on recent recommendations by the National Research Council for a follow-on mission. Ultimately, like the 29-year record we have now of sea ice cover, a long-term ice thickness record will help scientists understand these complex interactions and what the changes in the ice cover will mean to the ecology of the Arctic and to life on Earth."

Still from the Fleet animation Image left: NASA has been observing sea ice from space since the 1970s, beginning with the Electricallly Scanning Microwave Radiometer (ESMR), Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SSMR) and Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I) sensors on the US Defense Meteorological Space Program (DMSP) satellites, and now with the AMSR-E instrument on NASA's Earth Observing System/Aqua satellite. Data collected by these instruments have been instrumental in shaping public policy and international perspectives on the Arctic


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