Friday, January 18, 2008

Trees absorbing less CO2 as world warms, study finds

· Shorter winters weaken forest 'carbon sinks'
· Data analysis reverses scientists' expectations

This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday January 03 2008 on p5 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 18:46 on January 09 2008.
Forest managed for timber near Jokkmokk, Sweden

Forest managed for timber near Jokkmokk, Sweden. Photograph: Peter Essick/Aurora/Getty Images

The ability of forests to soak up man-made carbon dioxide is weakening, according to an analysis of two decades of data from more than 30 sites in the frozen north.

The finding published today is crucial, because it means that more of the CO2 we release will end up affecting the climate in the atmosphere rather than being safely locked away in trees or soil.

The results may partly explain recent studies suggesting that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing faster than expected. If higher temperatures mean less carbon is soaked up by plants and microbes, global warming will accelerate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel peace prize with Al Gore, has concluded that humanity has eight years left to prevent the worst effects of global warming.

Carbon uptake by land and sea is crucial to predictions about future warming. "We are currently getting a 50% discount on the climatic impact of our fossil fuel emissions," the climate scientist John Miller of the University of Colorado wrote in a commentary on the research in the journal Nature - meaning that half of what we put out is sucked up by the oceans and ecosystems on land.

"Unfortunately, we have no guarantee that the 50% discount will continue, and if it disappears we will feel the full climatic brunt of our unrelenting emission of CO2 from fossil fuels."

The surprise rethink concerns abundant evidence from around the world that winter is starting later and spring earlier. In northern latitudes, spring and autumn temperatures have risen by 1.1C and 0.8C respectively in the past two decades. That means a longer growing season for plants, which scientists thought should be a good thing for slowing warming. This increased growth is even visible from space, with satellite measurements indicating a greening of the land. As plants take up more CO2, that should put a break on CO2 increases.

However, the new data suggests that is too simplistic. The team analysed data from more than 30 monitoring stations spread across northern regions including Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Europe. The data, which goes back to 1980, charts the levels of CO2 in the local atmosphere. This is a product of both uptake by plants during photosynthesis and release of CO2 by plants and microbes during respiration.

The team focused particularly on the date in autumn at which the forests switched from being a net sink for carbon into a net source. Instead of moving later in the year as they had expected, this date actually got earlier - in some places by a few days, but in others by a few weeks.

"The information that we had from satellite data, that the greening was increasing, looked like a positive sign. There was hope that this would help us to mitigate emissions," said Anders Lindroth at Lund University in Sweden, who was part of the research team. "But even if we have a greening, it doesn't mean that we have a positive effect on the carbon balance ... it's bad news."

"This means potentially a bigger warming effect," said Timo Vesala at the University of Helsinki, who led the study.

The precise effect the trend will have on future warming is hard to predict, said Colin Prentice of the University of Bristol. "Over a longer period of decades, models predict changes in vegetation structure, including tundra regions becoming forested, and the forests tend to take up far more carbon than the tundra. So I would be sceptical about reading any particular future implication into these findings."

The research could partly explain results by the Global Carbon Project, which confirmed that the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere is accelerating. Between 1970 and 2000 the concentration rose by about 1.5 parts per million (ppm), but since 2000 the annual rise leapt to an average of 1.9ppm - 35% higher than expected. Part of the rise is due to increased CO2 production by China, but the team said weakening carbon sinks were also to blame.

· This article was amended on Wednesday January 9 2008. We meant to refer to northern latitudes, not attitudes in the article above. This has been corrected.

U.S. key factor in new climate deal: Danish minister

From: Reuters


By Karin Jensen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Whether the long road from last year's Bali climate summit to the 2009 Copenhagen gathering ends with a binding deal to replace Kyoto depends crucially on the United States, according to the Danish climate minister.

"I think that the United States, and getting the United States to move, is the key to also get China and India moving," Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard told Reuters in an interview this week.

The UN climate summit in Bali late last year agreed on a two-year negotiating process aimed at securing a post-2012 deal at the Copenhagen meeting to replace the Kyoto accord.

As the world's largest emitters of CO2, blamed by scientists for global warming, the United States, China and India will be key figures in the negotiations.

Although Hedegaard is pleased that Bali resulted in a roadmap for negotiations, she acknowledges that following that path to Copenhagen 2009 will be difficult.

The workload over the next two years will be enormous and there is no guarantee it will result in an agreement.

"It is going to be an extremely hard nut to crack and there is no guarantee that we will succeed in cracking it. I have no doubt that we will succeed at some stage, but no one says it will happen in 2009," said Hedegaard.

It is also important that leaders come up with the right deal, not just an agreement for the sake of it.


The minister said it is not just the upcoming U.S. presidential election which is important, but what happens in the U.S. Congress in the aftermath as well as public sentiment.

"That is why it is so important to use one's strength on the Senate, on the House of Representatives, on the cities, the states. Try to use all possible parts of the American society," said Hedegaard.

Over the past few years, about 20 US senators have visited Greenland, a self-govering province in the Kingdom of Denmark, to see for themselves the consequences of global warming.

Hedegaard has also taken part in hearings in the U.S. Congress and made contacts with large American NGOs. She plans to visit the United States again soon, to attend an energy conference and to talk to a number of large companies.

"Wherever it is possible we must try to influence the sentiment in the United States," she said.

She said sentiment about the climate is shifting, both in the United States and globally.

That the heated debate in Bali, where the United States initially opposed a deal, resulted in an eleventh-hour agreement proves this, the minister said.

"I interpret this to mean that the political price of being the country which blocks progress has grown and is now so high that not even the United States wants to pay it," she said.

The next two years will be hectic with four extraordinary climate meetings. The first of these will take place in Ghana this spring, financed by Denmark.

A number of other meetings will also be held as well as a smaller climate summit in Poland in December.

To cope with the workload, the Danish government decided in November to set up a separate ministry to oversee preparations for the 2009 summit and to spearhead "climate diplomacy."

With diplomacy key to bridging gaps between nations, Denmark will within a few weeks name five climate ambassadors and is currently considering where to place them.

"They will create strong contacts to all parts of society of the key countries in question. It could be political decision makers, but it could also be the NGO-milieu. And it could be corporations," said Hedegaard.

(By Karin Jensen; editing by James Jukwey)

Recovering from a mass extinction


From: University of Bristol


The full recovery of ecological systems, following the most devastating extinction event of all time, took at least 30 million years, according to new research from the University of Bristol.

About 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian, a major extinction event killed over 90 per cent of life on earth, including insects, plants, marine animals, amphibians, and reptiles. Ecosystems were destroyed worldwide, communities were restructured and organisms were left struggling to recover. This was the nearest life ever came to being completely wiped out.

Previous work indicates that life bounced back quite quickly, but this was mostly in the form of ”˜disaster taxa’ (opportunistic organisms that filled the empty ecospace left behind by the extinction), such as the hardy Lystrosaurus, a barrel-chested herbivorous animal, about the size of a pig.

The most recent research, conducted by Sarda Sahney and Professor Michael Benton at the University of Bristol and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week, indicates that specialised animals forming complex ecosystems, with high biodiversity, complex food webs and a variety of niches, took much longer to recover.

Sahney said: “Our research shows that after a major ecological crisis, recovery takes a very long time. So although we have not yet witnessed anything like the level of the extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian, we should nevertheless bear in mind that ecosystems take a very long time to fully recover.”

Sahney and Benton looked at the recovery of tetrapods — animals with a backbone and four legs, such as amphibians and reptiles — and found that although globally tetrapods appeared to recover quickly, the dramatic restructuring that occurred at the community level was not permanent and communities did not recover numerically or ecologically until about 30 million years later.

Professor Benton explained: “Diversity is most commonly assessed by tallying the number of taxa on a global scale, but these studies are subject to the vagaries of sampling. By examining well-preserved and well-studied faunas, the taxonomic and ecological recovery of communities after the Permian extinction event can be examined more accurately, and the problems of geological bias are largely avoided.”

The Permian extinctions occurred in three waves, the largest being at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods, 251 million years ago. This was the most devastating ecological event of all time, thought to be caused by large-scale volcanism in Russia which produced the ”˜Siberian Traps’,

Decide on polar bears first, then oil: lawmaker



By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government must decide first if polar bears are threatened by climate change before it opens part of their icy habitat to oil drilling, the head of a congressional environment panel said on Thursday.

The decision whether to list the big Arctic bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was supposed to happen last week but was postponed for up to 30 days.

That means it could come after the government offers 29.4 million acres in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast in a sale of oil leases on February 6.

"Rushing to allow drilling in polar bear habitat before protecting the bear would be the epitome of this administration's backward energy policy, a policy of drill first and ask questions later," Rep. Ed Markey said at a hearing of the House (of Representatives) Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which he chairs.

Testifying on the matter were two key Bush administration officials: Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service that has been investigating the polar bear's status, and Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, which announced the oil lease sale last week.

World polar bear populations are currently stable, but U.S. scientists predict that two-thirds of them could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true. Polar bears live and hunt on sea ice; when it melts they either drown or are forced onto land, where they are inefficient hunters.

This is the first time global warming has been a factor in arguing for threatened status for any species in the United States and that makes the decision more complex.

Instead of the limited measures required to rescue a species threatened by a drained swamp or denuded forest, polar bears depend on sea ice. That ice is melting at an accelerated rate, at least partly because of human-generated global warming, scientists have reported.


Hall has previously acknowledged there is no substantial scientific uncertainty, as defined under the Endangered Species Act, about the polar bear case. He said the volume of material from scientists and public hearings caused the delay in making the decision on whether to list the bear as threatened.

Under congressional questioning, Hall noted that 20 percent of polar bear habitat has disappeared since the 1970s and said human-caused global warming must be addressed now.

"We need to do something about climate change, starting yesterday," Hall said. "And it needs to be a serious effort to control greenhouse gases, which is probably the only thing we can control. If the Earth is tilting ... we can't control that but we need to look at things we can control."

The Bush administration is alone among major industrialized countries in rejecting the carbon-curbing Kyoto protocol. Washington also opposes mandatory limits on climate-warming greenhouse emissions.

Luthi, whose agency announced the Chukchi Sea oil lease sale, said there were an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil in the area and that these were needed as world demand for petroleum is rising.

Luthi said the risk to the bears from oil drilling would be negligible and that if the oil sales went through before a decision was reached on the polar bears, there would be "an additional layer of consultation" with conservation officials as oil and gas companies worked in the area.

He acknowledged his agency's environmental impact assessment said there was a 33 to 50 percent chance of a 1,000-barrel spill in this area, but also said no wildlife had been endangered by this kind of exploratory drilling.

Steven Amstrup, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told the panel that if polar bears came in contact with spilled oil, they would probably die.

"Polar bears do not do well when they get into oil," Amstrup said. "They tend to groom themselves, they ingest the oil and the spills, basically, are most likely fatal."

(Editing by Frances Kerry)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Burning biofuels may be worse than coal and oil, say experts

· Scientists point to cost in biodiversity and farmland
· Razing tropical forests 'will increase carbon'

This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday January 04 2008 on p12 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 09:53 on January 04 2008.

Using biofuels made from corn, sugar cane and soy could have a greater environmental impact than burning fossil fuels, according to experts. Although the fuels themselves emit fewer greenhouse gases, they all have higher costs in terms of biodiversity loss and destruction of farmland.

The problems of climate change and the rising cost of oil have led to a race to develop environmentally-friendly biofuels, such as palm oil or ethanol derived from corn and sugar cane. The EU has proposed that 10% of all fuel used in transport should come from biofuels by 2020 and the emerging global market is expected to be worth billions of dollars a year.

But the new fuels have attracted controversy. "Regardless of how effective sugar cane is for producing ethanol, its benefits quickly diminish if carbon-rich tropical forests are being razed to make the sugar cane fields, thereby causing vast greenhouse-gas emission increases," Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, write in Science today.

"Such comparisons become even more lopsided if the full environmental benefits of tropical forests - for example, for biodiversity conservation, hydrological functioning, and soil protection - are included."

Efforts to work out which crops are most environmentally friendly have, until now, focused only on the amount of greenhouse gases a fuel emits when it is burned. Scharlemann and Laurance highlighted a more comprehensive method, developed by Rainer Zah of the Empa Research Institute in Switzerland, that can take total environmental impacts - such as loss of forests and farmland and effects on biodiversity - into account.

In a study of 26 biofuels the Swiss method showed that 21 fuels reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30% compared with gasoline when burned. But almost half of the biofuels, a total of 12, had greater total environmental impacts than fossil fuels. These included economically-significant fuels such as US corn ethanol, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel. Biofuels that fared best were those produced from waste products such as recycled cooking oil, as well as ethanol from grass or wood.

Scharlemann and Laurance also pointed to "perverse" government initiatives that had resulted in unintended environmental impacts. In the US, for example, farmers have been offered incentives to shift from growing soy to growing corn for biofuels. "This is helping to drive up global soy prices, which in turn amplifies economic incentives to destroy Amazonian forests and Brazilian tropical savannas for soy production."

They added: "The findings highlight the enormous differences in costs and benefits among different biofuels. There is a clear need to consider more than just energy and greenhouse gas emissions when evaluating different biofuels and to pursue new biofuel crops and technologies."

Andy Tait, campaign manager at Greenpeace, said: "We're already bought into mandatory targets for the use of biofuels with very little thought of what the environmental impacts will be. This study further confirms that there are serious risks associated with first generation biofuels, particularly from corn, soya and palm oil."

He said that the biofuel technology had been oversold by industry and politicians. "It's clear that what government and industry are trying to do is find a neat, drop-in solution that allows people to continue business as usual.

"If you're looking at the emissions from the transport sector, the first thing you need to look at is fuel efficiency and massively increasing it. That needs to come before you even get to the point of discussing which biofuels might be good or bad."

EU to reconsider biofuels targets

Oilseed rape crops

Oilseed rape, an energy crop grown in the United Kingdom to produce biodiesel. Photograph: David Levene

The EU is to re-examine its policy on biofuels after admitting that the environmental and social impact of producing the crops may be greater than originally thought, it emerged today.

The European commission's environment minister, Stavros Dimas, admitted that the EU did not foresee the problems that would be raised by its policy of getting 10% of Europe's road fuels from plants by 2020.

He said the environmental impact and the effect on poor communities of boosting biofuel production would be greater than Brussels had originally thought.

The acknowledgement, in an interview for the BBC, follows a report published in the journal Science last week which warned that biofuels made from corn, sugar cane and soy could have a greater environmental impact than burning fossil fuels.

The research, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, found that although the fuels themselves emitted fewer greenhouse gases, they all had higher costs in terms of biodiversity loss and destruction of farmland.

"Regardless of how effective sugar cane is for producing ethanol, its benefits quickly diminish if carbon-rich tropical forests are being razed to make the sugar cane fields, thereby causing vast greenhouse-gas emission increases," the report's authors, Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance, wrote.

Another scientific study published last August also warned that the target of getting 10% of petrol and diesel needs from renewable sources by 2020 was less effective in curbing carbon emissions than a programme of restoring forests and protection plant habitats.

Dimas said today that there had been "a lot of enthusiasm" for the biofuels option a year and a half ago as a means of meeting overall targets in cutting emissions from vehicles.

That enthusiasm had "gone down" because of revelations that the environmental and social problems were greater than thought.

"We have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we thought they were," he told the BBC.

Dimas said the commission would now have to "move carefully" on the issue of biofuels, adding: "We have to have criteria for sustainability, including social and environmental issues, because there are some benefits from biofuels."

One of the criteria in pushing biofuels was that the policy had to be "sustainable" - meaning that harnessing biofuels should not mean clearing existing forest land.

If the necessary sustainability could not be achieved, said Dimas, the EU targets would not be met.

Greenpeace's executive director, John Sauven, said: "The dangers of mass biofuel production need to be taken seriously because as things stand biofuels could be worse than useless at combating climate change.

"But UK government targets mean that soon motorists will be forced to pump these fuels into their tanks, with no way of knowing where they're coming from. We need to be sure that when we fill up we are not trashing the world's rainforests. A better, quicker solution would be to make our cars far more fuel efficient."

The earlier study, published in Science last August, warned that the European biofuels policy was a "mistake".

It compared the relative environmental benefits of growing crops on arable land to produce biofuels, or replanting the same land with trees, and found that the quantity of CO2 absorbed by forests over 30 years would be "considerably greater" than the emissions avoided by using biofuels.

The extent of the benefits of biofuels will be assessed in a review being published today by the Royal Society. The report is expected to urge EU governments to ensure that they only endorse a biofuels policy which can be proven to cut carbon emissions.

Climate Change 2007: Credible Science, Tipping Points, Feedback, and the Great North

From: , Triple Pundit, More from this Affiliate
Published on

Climate Change 2007: Credible Science, Tipping Points, Feedback, and the Great North


Andrew Burger posted two excellent articles on 3P here and here regarding the general state of research, science, and the modeling of climate change. I refer you to those article for a good foundation. There are also a variety of excellent resources on the web, some of which Andrew cites in his posts, and other worthwhile sources such as RealClimate, The National Academy of Sciences, USCap (an alliance of business and environmental research and advocacy groups), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

One of the best sources for getting a grasp on science in general and climate change in particular is the video series from “WonderingMind42”, mentioned previously on this blog. If you are at all concerned or interested in climate change, even if (especially if) you harbor skepticism regarding the efficacy of the science and are bothered by words like “consensus” I can’t recommend these videos highly enough. Look especially for the “Nature of Science” videos to get a great overview of the process of science and a guideline to assessing the credibility of sources. (here’s a hint, individual bloggers are toward the bottom of the list — more on that in a moment)

Of course, not everyone agrees with the peer-reviewed science represented in the aforementioned sources and so aptly explained in Andrew’s posts. James Inhofe has released his report from 400 “prominent” scientists refuting the reality of anthropologic climate change. I make no bones about what I think of the “James Gang” — but you should make up your own mind. Good scientific theories are continually challenged as a means of making them stronger.

I’d like to follow up in this post regarding tipping points, a look at 2007, and why I expect to be very cold next month as I try to learn more about climate change.

In the WonderingMind videos there is a detailed discussion of positive feedback loops and tipping points. His method of demonstration does a great job showing the nature of thresholds and positive feedback, and relates directly to my own practical experience as well.

We’ve all seen the bit in TV shows and movies where some nervous (or guilty) individual steps tentatively up to a microphone, taps it (something you should never do incidentally), and causes the sound system to emit an ear-piercing screech. We all know about “feedback” in live sound systems, but did we ever relate that phenomenon to climate change?

Despite the fact that the typical scene I just described demonstrates an unrealistically low feedback threshold in most cases (unless you’re inexperienced setting up sound systems), it is an excellent example of a system reaching a threshold or “tipping point”, after which the system enters an accelerating and largely uncontrollable positive feedback loop — Screech!

Two salient points here are 1) that the exact location in the system dynamics of a tipping point or threshold, after which the system becomes unstable, is unknown until that threshold has already been crossed and 2) once crossed things get crazy and happen fast.

This is something I deal with almost every day. Even running a sound system I am very familiar with, in a room I’ve worked in for years, with sound sources that, more or less, remain the same, I can never be fully confident that I will not unexpectedly run the system into feedback.

Certainly with modern tools and experience, I am able to have a good estimate of where that tipping points is, and thus keep the system from reaching that point most of the time. But not always. Every so often a “mic will ring” and — oops — I’ve crossed a threshold and the system is out of my control until I turn the offending sound source down.

Sound systems, acoustics, and the physics of sound can be complex subjects, but they are obviously child’s play in relation to understanding the nature of our climate. I can just turn down a sound system, but once a system in our climate has reached its tipping point, something we won’t know until it is passed, the “steady-state” of the system is replaced with accelerating positive feedback loops of increasing instability that cannot simply be “turned down” and the effects of which are highly unpredictable.

And it is not always apparent that the tipping point has been reached even if we’ve reached it. In terms of global averages, last year was the second warmest year on record (behind 2005). However, in northern latitudes temperatures are increasing much more rapidly than the global average and there are indications that 2007 represents a tipping point in the far north, with arctic ice and permafrost melt.

Permafrost and peatland are an area of concern for scientists studying the climate. Alaskans are increasingly confronted with shifting land and damaged housing and infrastructure from melting permafrost. Of even more significant concern is the vast stores of methane and carbon in the permafrost of the subarctic and arctic regions and what happens when it melts, releasing that carbon and methane into the atmosphere, further warming the climate, accelerating the melting ice and permafrost, releasing more carbon and methane, warming the atmosphere even more”¦ Screech!

Dr. Peter Kershaw studies the subarctic region known as the “continental treeline”, a region where permafrost underlies the landscape, and has established several study plots throughout the Hudson Bay region near Churchill, Manitoba. Kershaw’s goal is to quantify the environmental conditions present in this region of permafrost and peatland landforms and monitor the changes in order to best asses the effects climate change has on these landforms, and how those changes in turn effect ongoing climate change.

Through the Earthwatch Institute, I will have the opportunity next month of participating in a research expedition assisting Kershaw in his ongoing work in the region.

I see 2007 as a tipping point. It is something, in one way or another, everybody that contributes to this blog is talking about — how to create a sustainable and prosperous world. In terms of climate change, I see potential environmental tipping points possibly already crossed as climate models for arctic sea ice are proven wrong — and conservative. But also where public, corporate, and even government awareness has reached it’s own tipping point — where positive feedback is good thing.

And thus, I also see 2007 as the point where the reasonable and responsible debate moves forward.

Climate change is here. Human activity is a major contributing factor. At some point, we need to respectfully choose to ignore those that refuse to act reasonably in the face of the evidence. They may think and act as they choose, of course, but we do not need to give it much credence until there is real, falsifiable evidence to warrant it.

Therefore, the debate must be: What do we do about it?

Readers of this blog are among the smart innovators, visionary business leaders, and solution-minded individuals that can help answer that fundamental question.

And so I say to you, to me, to all of us — let’s get after it.

Sea otter study reveals striking variability in diets and feeding strategies

From: University of California - Santa Cruz


SANTA CRUZ, CA--Ecologists have long observed that when food becomes scarce, animal populations exploit a wider range of food sources. So scientists studying southern sea otters at different sites in California's coastal waters were not surprised to find that the dietary diversity of the population is higher where food is limited. But this diversity was not reflected in the diets of individual sea otters, which instead showed dietary specialization in response to limited food.

The new findings by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, will be published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of January 14. The study found that all sea otters in an area with abundant food resources share the same dietary preferences. Where food is limited, however, a diverse array of feeding strategies emerges, with individual sea otters specializing on particular types of prey.

Tim Tinker, a UCSC research biologist and first author of the paper, said the study has both theoretical implications for the science of ecology and practical implications for wildlife management.

"The traditional way of viewing the relationships between predators and prey and how food webs are structured may be oversimplified," Tinker said. "When you look at the population as a whole, you may see a diversification of the diet in response to limited food resources. But when you look at individuals, you see dietary specialization."

One implication of this dietary specialization for California sea otters is that some otters may be exposed to certain food-borne pathogens much more frequently than otters with different diets. "A lot of sea otters in the Central Coast population are dying from infectious diseases, and this could help us to better understand that disease mortality by allowing us to pinpoint the specific vectors of disease transmission," Tinker said.

Tinker's coauthors on the paper are Gena Bentall, who worked on the study as a UCSC graduate student and is now with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter research and conservation group; and James Estes, an adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC and a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The study compared sea otters on the Central Coast, which has the largest population of southern sea otters, to those in a much smaller population around San Nicolas Island off the coast of Southern California.

The San Nicolas population is the result of an effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the vulnerability of California sea otters to oil spills by establishing a separate population from the main one on the Central Coast. In the late 1980s, about 140 sea otters were relocated to San Nicolas Island. Most of them soon returned to the mainland, but the few that remained have prospered. With plenty of food to go around, the San Nicolas otters are in better shape than their mainland counterparts, and their population is now growing much faster than the Central Coast population.

"The San Nicolas otters are much bigger than the mainland animals, their body condition is better, and they spend less time feeding," Tinker said. "When we looked at individual diets, a few key prey types dominated, and each otter's diet looked pretty much like every other otter's diet."

The otters' preferred prey are the large, energy-rich red sea urchins, which are abundant around San Nicolas Island. On the Central Coast, red sea urchins are much less common than the smaller purple sea urchins. The San Nicolas otters also eat marine snails and crabs, but there is little difference between the population as a whole and individual otters in terms of dietary diversity. Each otter is a generalist, with the same preferences as other otters.

The mainland population is dramatically different. While the diet of the population as a whole is much more diversified than at San Nicolas, individual diets are more specialized. Estes said it is not surprising that animals are highly individual in the way they feed, but the link between individual specialization and resource availability is new.

"What's new in this paper is that individuality is a plastic characteristic that emerges when resources become limited," Estes said. "We're seeing this in sea otters, but it probably occurs broadly in nature. It may apply to people, too. When there were just a few people running around on the face of the Earth, they were probably all doing pretty much the same thing."

Individuality in feeding behavior adds a new level of complexity to the dynamics of food webs. For wildlife managers, it means that each animal has to be considered as an individual and may not be representative of the whole population. But the findings also suggest a potentially useful tool for assessing the status of wildlife populations, Estes said.

"It's very hard to know where a population stands with respect to resource limitation--we're always asking if a population is limited by the availability of food," he said. "We could conceivably look for individuality in foraging behavior as an indication that food limitation is an important factor."

According to Estes, scientists were already convinced before this study was completed that the availability of food is limiting the Central Coast sea otter population. He said the same situation probably prevailed throughout California before fur traders began hunting sea otters in the 18th century, eventually driving them to the brink of extinction. But it is not clear why sea otters are not spreading out into other areas along the California coast where they would find more food than on the Central Coast.

"Why this population does not expand into food rich areas is one of the perplexing challenges we have not been able to figure out," Estes said.

Greenland suffers from extreme ice melt

From: University of Sheffield


An international team of scientists, led by Dr Edward Hanna at the University of Sheffield, has demonstrated that recent warm summers have caused the most extreme Greenland ice melting in 50 years. The new research provides further evidence of a key impact of global warming and helps scientists place recent satellite observations of Greenland's shrinking ice mass in a longer-term climatic context.

Dr Hanna of the University's Department of Geography, alongside some of the World's leading Greenland glaciologists and climatologists, analysed a combination of key meteorological and glaciological records spanning a number of decades as part of the research.

The findings, published in Journal of Climate, show how the Greenland Ice Sheet responded to more regional, rather than global, changes in climate between the 1960s and early 1990s. However the last fifteen years has seen an increase in ice melting and a striking correspondence of Greenland with global temperature variations, demonstrating Greenland's recent response to global warming.

Summer 2003 was exceptionally warm around the margins of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which resulted in the second-highest meltwater running off from the Ice Sheet of the last 50 years. Summer 2005 experienced a record-high melt, which was very recently superseded in summer 2007 , a year almost as warm as 2003.

The team of researchers includes some of the leading Greenland glaciologists and climatologists from the Free University of Brussels, University of Colorado, Danish Meteorological Institute and NASA Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center, University of Maryland Baltimore County, as well as four members of the University of Sheffield.

Dr Edward Hanna said: "Our work shows that global warming is beginning to take its toll on the Greenland Ice Sheet which, as a relict feature of the last Ice Age, has already been living on borrowed time and seems now to be in inexorable decline. The question is can we reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in time to make enough of a difference to curb this decay?"

Sunday, January 13, 2008

WMO to seek satellites to monitor climate change


By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations' weather agency will ask NASA and other space agencies next week to make their next generation of satellites available to monitor climate change, a senior official at the U.N. body said on Friday.

The aim is to ensure that satellites launched over the next 20 years constantly record parameters such as sea levels and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.

"The main focus of the meeting next week will be the expansion of the global observing system by satellites to not only monitor severe weather, which is a core function, but also to monitor climate on a very continuous and long-term basis," WMO expert Jerome Lafeuille told a news briefing in Geneva.

Senior officials from NASA, the European Space Agency, and space agencies in Japan, China, Brazil and India are due to attend the WMO meeting in New Orleans from Jan 15-16.

Satellites are an essential part of efforts to track severe weather and climate change by providing a global picture of shifts in the climate system, rising ocean levels, impacts on land and in the atmosphere, says the WMO.

Scientists blame climate change mainly on human emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and warn it will bring extreme weather including more heatwaves, droughts, floods and rising seas.

At least 16 geostationary and low-earth orbit satellites currently provide operational data on the planet's climate and weather as part of WMO's global observation system.

There are also numerous experimental satellites designed for scientific missions or instrument technology demonstration -- measuring variables such as wind, precipitation and temperature -- whose data WMO wants to ensure is captured long-term.

"We know there are gaps. Climate monitoring needs very long-term continuity of measurement," Lafeuille, who heads the space-based observing system division of WMO's space program, told Reuters.

"When you look at satellites programmed over the next two decades there are a number of extremely useful satellites but there is no guarantee of continuity of key measurements."

High on WMO's agenda will be ensuring constant monitoring of sea levels for several decades, said the French expert.

Measuring the chemical make-up of the atmosphere -- including greenhouse gases such as CO2 as well as aerosols -- is also key, Lafeuille said.

A record number of 17 satellites are planned for launch in 2008 by countries from China to India and Russia, he said. "Our challenge at WMO is to make sure programs are complementary and that all together we build an optimized system."

Britain Readies Itself for Future Jellyfish Attacks


After a massive swarm of mauve stinger jellyfish wiped out £1 million worth of salmon in a Northern Ireland fish farm, the British government has launched emergency measures to protect their citizens from the purple creatures.

The government fears the swarms of jellyfish could return to British waters at any time, and they’re funding new scientific studies and programs to help prevent another catastrophe.

The jellyfish are a huge threat to salmon farms, a big business in Scottish waters. They’re small enough to slip through the cages, but they deliver a powerful sting which is deadly to young salmon. They’re also a danger to swimmers. 14,000 people were treated after being stung on the Spanish coast in the Mediterranean last year.

The incident in Northern Ireland was the first ever swarm of the jellyfish in British waters. The animals usually stick to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean, but scientists think heated seas due to global warming mean they could return in short order.

The National Environmental Research Council recently approved an immediate £50,000 grant for marine biologist Jon Houghton of Swansea University to study the jellyfish. Houghton began his study on ferries in the Irish Sea. Houghton said: “The trouble is that we know so little about these jellyfish. Until recently, they were viewed as bags of water that had little or no impact on our ecosystem. Now we need to learn, very quickly, about their behaviour and about their breeding patterns in our waters.”

Researchers will spend the next several months doing counts of the jellyfish in the area and attempting to study their movement patterns and the great “blooms “of thousands of jellyfish.

Tending to California's Tallest Trees

Guardian Weekly, UK

Not only is the coast redwood the world's tallest tree, it's also one of the most ancient. Having long populated the earth in swathes, now only two forests remain along the fog belt on the coast of California; over the past 150 years the number of redwoods has been further diminished by logging and property development. Ruskin Hartley, who works with Save-the-Redwoods League to turn forested areas into protected parkland so that people can continue to come and enjoy them, explains the uniqueness of these trees and the challenges that face them

Wednesday January 9th 2008

Lead article photo

Looking up at the high canopies of the redwoods. Photograph: Ruskin Hartley

The coast redwood is the world’s tallest tree. What’s special about it is not just its size (redwoods grow up to 116 metres tall, which is like a 38-story building), it’s their longevity: a redwood can live for up to 2,200 years.

As a species, they trace their ancestry back 150-200m years, when they were much more widely distributed across the globe. You can find fossil remnants of the redwoods’ ancestors across North America and Europe. These days they are restricted to two populations here in California: coast redwood and giant sequoia; and one in China: the dawn redwood.

Despite studies and explorations of the redwoods for the better part of 150 years, a lot remains unknown. Why there are vastly fewer now than there were before, for instance. Over the past 200m years, as the world changed, perhaps the environment wasn’t so kind to them.

Coast redwoods trees grow on the California coastline where they need the winter rains and summer fogs to provide them with water. For some of the trees, 40% of their water intake will come directly through fog drip during the otherwise dry summers.

The trees are enormous. Since the first European settlers strayed into the forests people have been awed and inspired by looking up into their lofty, cathedral-like reaches. When you’re a six-foot individual walking through the forest, it can feel like being an ant.

It wasn’t until maybe 15 years ago that people ascended into the redwood canopies and discovered a whole new ecosystem. The trees branch into a candelabra near the top; while there’s one trunk on the ground there might be 130 mini trees growing out of that. In the crooks and crannies of that very complex tree, there is a rich life system assembling with soil mats and ferns, and with other trees. It’s been referred to as a coral reef in the sky.

An amphibian called the arboreal wandering salamander lives for its entire life up in the crowns of the trees. Salamanders are commonly found in or around water, so it’s a mystery how they came to live in these trees. It’s now a specialist at tree life, having found a safe, nutrient-rich environment in which to thrive. The soil accumulates from the debris flow from the trees themselves, and the moisture creates deep soil mats on the limbs of the trees into which the salamander can burrow in the dry summer months.

The sad thing about the coast redwoods is that 150 or so years ago there was about 2m acres of ancient forest, but since then timbering and logging has reduced it to a fraction of its former self. Now only about 5% remains. The trees are different: instead of old, complex trees that might be 3 metres in diameter and 90 metres high, there is a young, relatively simple forest.

Most of the coast redwoods continue to be in private ownership – about 1m acres are owned by four timber companies. Ninety years ago the single greatest threat to the forest was logging. Ancient trees don’t recover after they’ve been chopped; which makes cutting in an ancient forest more like mining than a sustainable activity.

If you roll the clock forward, these days the redwoods are posed between two threats: on one hand resource extraction (aggressive logging), and on the other residential development and suburban sprawl as people find new places to live.

One of the opportunities that lie ahead is to work with timber companies to manage the forest in a more sustainable manner so that we can continue to produce a supply of wood locally, rather than importing it from the tropical rainforest or arboreal forests of Canada and Russia.

The forestry regulations here in California are among the strictest in the world: they require the timber companies to replenish the forest, but the classic long-term timber model (they say that they’ll take a long-term perspective) spans a mere 30 or 40 year time horizon. There is a disconnect between the human timescale and that of the forests, as 40 years is a fraction of the natural lifespan of these trees.

What Save-the-Redwoods League has done from the very beginning is develop a conservation plan to identify the places where our protection efforts should be focused. Rather than let a timber company cut the land down or a developer build on it, we negotiate a purchase on fair market value from the company or owner. We then donate that land to the state park system here in California or the national park system.

There are no laws in California that preclude harvesting an old-growth tree, and they continue to be chopped down. There are wood pirates out there, too. A redwood tree is extremely valuable: if you cut it down, mill it up and sell the timber it might be worth $60,000. There’s a relatively small percentage of ancient redwoods that remain in private ownership, but they continue to be at risk.

The immediate threat is the population. As it grows it expands into the forest, which disrupts the natural rhythm. Forest fires – a natural process that helps to regenerate the forest – now burn down people’s homes. It is only possible to protect the trees on a meaningful scale when parks and reserves are part of a broader protected landscape that is managed for multiple natural values.

The other challenge – and it’s hard to know precisely how it will pan out – is global climate change. When you have a tree that thrives on the summer fog it’s clear that reductions in that fog will affect the forest. In the Sierra Nevada, earlier snow melt will cause drought conditions in the summer and increase the risk of catastrophic fire. While it’s an area of keen concern, it’s as yet unknown what changes will take place in temperature and ocean current over the coming century.

On top of that, California has a budget crisis; it being one of the richest nations in the world and one of the richest states we still have problems managing public land. We’re expecting the state to announce a 10% budget cut. The California State Parks department has already suffered multiple budget cuts. A 10% cut, when you’ve been cut to the bone already, has a significant impact on the ability of the state to steward these lands and provide public access to them.

Save-the-Redwoods League has had a good start with the parks we’ve been creating, but there’s more work to be done to ensure that they are viable long-term. There’s also the challenge of protecting the larger landscapes around those parks, so that they’re connected and can function naturally rather than being isolated islands of trees surrounded by residential developments or aggressive logging.

Many of the members of our organisation describe visiting the redwood groves as a transformational experience. Having gone to the forest as a child with their family and stood in awe, they remember that feeling throughout their lives. It inspires them both to work with us to continue protecting the forests and, I think, causes people to think about their own actions as they go home, about what they can do to make the world around them a better place.

• Ruskin Hartley was talking to Anna Bruce-Lockhart. For more information on the redwoods, visit the Save-the-Redwoods League website, here.


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