Friday, February 8, 2008

Turtle takes record-setting voyage

Agencies in Bangkok and Portland

The Guardian

It was a maritime adventure even Ellen Macarthur would be proud of. A leatherback turtle eager to discover more promising feeding ground across the Pacific has chalked up a new migration record after covering more than 12,000 miles in an epic journey, scientists said yesterday.

The creature travelled from a nesting beach in Jamursbamedi, eastern Indonesia, to the US Pacific north-west. The leatherback clocked up the longest recorded migration of any sea vertebrate.

Scott Benson, a researcher at the US National Marine Fisheries Service in California, tracked nine turtles using satellite transmitters. An adult female travelled the furthest. She began her journey in 2003 and was tracked for 647 days until the transmitter's battery ran out. During her travels she swam as far north as Oregon. Benson called for protection for the turtles which conservationists say could be extinct within 30 years.

"It doesn't recognize international boundaries. You can protect beaches but if you can't protect the animal in the water, you haven't done anything," he said.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Google to help green technologies amass scale

From: Reuters


By Nichola Groom

INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - Google Inc is prepared to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in big commercial alternative-energy projects that traditionally have had trouble getting financing, the executive in charge of its green-energy push said on Wednesday.

The Internet search giant, which has said it will invest in researching green technologies and renewable-energy companies, is eager to help promising technologies amass scale to help drive the cost of alternative energy below the cost of coal.

"There are a lot of technologies that get to the pilot scale and look promising, but the first few large commercial projects deploying those technologies, financing those can be extremely difficult," Dan Reicher said in an interview at the Clean-tech Investor Summit in Indian Wells, California.

"Often the usual equity and debt players will say come back to us when you've demonstrated this at scale," said Reicher, director of climate and energy initiatives for Google's philanthropic arm,

The stage between successfully developing a new technology and amassing scale is often referred in the industry as the "Valley of Death," Reicher said.

Venture capital firms typically pour tens of millions into developing new technologies, Reicher said. But that's not nearly enough to build a utility-scale solar thermal plant, for instance, and that's where Google thinks it can be helpful, he added.

"When you get to building a commercial-scale project in the energy world, you can be looking easily at hundreds of millions or even across the billion dollar threshold," Reicher said. "Over years we'll be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars. So we're very mindful of the Valley of Death."

In addition to considering project finance, Google has already committed $20 million to funding start-up firms researching solar-thermal and high-altitude wind power.

It is also looking closely at several companies with enhanced geothermal systems, Reicher said. Enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS, create power by pumping water into hot rocks in the ground rather than harvesting hot water already there.

"We arrived at these three technologies because we think they have real promise to move down the cost curve and to be competitive with coal and to get to very large scale," Reicher said.

Google said in November it planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help drive the cost of electricity made from renewable sources below the price of power generated from dirty coal-fired plants.

The company has pledged $10 million to Pasadena, California-based eSolar Inc to support research and development on solar thermal power, which concentrates heat from the sun to create steam and spin turbines. It has invested $10 million in Alameda, California-based Makani Power Inc, which is developing high-altitude wind technologies.

(Editing by Gary Hill)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

China snows show world faces new disasters

From: Reuters


By Robert Evans

GENEVA (Reuters) - China's devastating snowstorms and cold of the past months show that the world must prepare for new types of disasters caused by what was once called freak weather, United Nations experts said on Wednesday.

The experts said the Chinese events, which Beijing says affected some 100 million people and are likely to cost at least $7.5 billion, underlined the need for greater global cooperation on global weather forecasting.

"So-called freak weather is becoming more common, and reducing vulnerability to unexpected extremes must be a top priority for governments," said Salvador Briceno, head of the U.N's disaster relief agency ISDR.

Separately, World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) chief Michel Jarraud, said the freeze that swept China from the north to its normally near-tropical southern provinces underlined the need for better seasonal climate predictions.

"The world needs to strengthen existing mechanisms that predict climate events and then ensure that this information is made available to all, especially to the benefit of people in developing countries," Jarraud said.

China's Meteorological Administration says the January extremes probably developed out of a La Nina -- or low sea- surface temperatures -- in parts of the Pacific in the second half of last year combined with unusual weather from the west.


It is also warning that the country, now recovering as skies clear and power is restored from the freeze which killed scores of people, must be ready for more of the same as a result of global climate change.

Briceno said in a statement from ISDR headquarters in Geneva that China's sufferings underscored the need for all governments to build infrastructure that can withstand previously unthinkable weather.

"When billions of dollars in potential losses are balanced against the low costs of prevention in the future, the choices should be clear," he said. Most countries could expect to face similar situations in the coming years, he added.

Jarraud, speaking at a news briefing, said it was essential to ensure better seasonal -- as well as short- and long-term -- climate predictions if lives were to be saved and economies protected as weather patterns change.

Speaking after a three-day meeting of specialists on weather and disaster relief from a wide range of disciplines and international and national agencies, he said it was also vital to ensure better transmission of forecasts around the globe.

The meeting was called to prepare for a U.N. World Climate Conference in Geneva in the second half of next year which will focus on the science underpinning seasonal predictions -- an area in which Jarraud said there had been too little investment.

The conference -- following two predecessors in 1979 and 1990 which set up key bodies on climate change -- will decide what science is needed over the next decade to provide reliable forecasting and urge governments to support it, he said.

(Editing by Jonathan Lynn)

UK to spur research into climate impact on poor

From: Reuters


LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will increase research into the possible impacts of climate change on the world's most vulnerable people, including deeper poverty and conflict, the international development minister said.

Secretary of State Douglas Alexander said his department will spend 20 million pounds ($39.25 million) a year over the next five years, a tenfold increase, to pinpoint where global warming will hit hardest and show how to proof development against more extreme weather and rising seas.

"Climate change is a defining global social justice issue," Alexander said on Wednesday.

Droughts and heatwaves from Kenya to Australia and southern Europe have been blamed on global warming which is happening already. Six of the first seven years this century were among the seven hottest since reliable records began in 1850, says the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

Poor countries will be hit hardest because they have the least resources to cope when crops fail or storms wreak havoc.

Rich countries' efforts to help developing nations are not entirely altruistic, as concern rises that climate change may trigger more conflict, for example over water, and migration.

"By the middle of this century there could be as many as 200 million people forced from their homes because of rising sea levels, heavier floods and more intense droughts. Where will they go?" said Alexander.

"If today's image of climate change is the polar bear tomorrow's could be the AK47."

The extra funding announced on Wednesday was separate from 800 million pounds that Britain last year pledged to support developing countries' fight against climate change, through a World Bank fund expected to be detailed at the Group of Eight leaders' summit in Japan in July.

Japan presented a $10 billion package last month to help emerging countries tackle climate change.

The United States said in January it would commit $2 billion over the next three years to promote clean energy technologies and help developing nations fight climate change.

(Reporting by Gerard Wynn, Editing by Matthew Jones)

A new year in the dark and cold

The lunar new year is China's biggest holiday. But one city has spent it shivering in the gloom after a 12-day power cut, writes Tania Branigan

Wednesday February 6, 2008
Guardian Unlimited

China power cuts
Electrical towers damaged by snow in the city of Chenzhou. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

The electricity will return tomorrow, or next Monday, or maybe in three weeks time. The state news agency just reported that it is back already, 12 days after vicious storms crippled the power lines and hours before the clocks struck midnight: a new year miracle.

But one resident says the centre is mostly dark, another that perhaps a third of the city has had power restored - for a few hours.

After living on rumours for almost two weeks, what Chenzhou's citizens know for certain is that fuel is low and they can see their breath indoors; that water is shut off and food prices are climbing; that shop after shop is locked and shuttered and that unlit apartment blocks loom from nowhere as they trudge through the darkened city.

"If you report on this situation, please make sure you have the true facts," said a stern-faced man at the railway station as I left the city this morning.

"Premier Wen Jiabao came and said it would be solved, so officials here said that 80% of power was back up. That's obviously not true. Look around you. The only lights are from people's generators. At home we hardly have enough water even for cooking."

Chenzhou, in Hunan province, is almost five times the size of Birmingham, with 4.6m residents. It is one of the cities worst hit by China's harsh winter and one of the government's greatest anxieties. Even in the hardest times, Beijing has strived to ensure a good new year for workers. Wen's recent visit is emblematic of the government's determination to reassure people that it is on their side. Top officials have toured affected areas and almost half a million troops have been drafted in.

Tanks have delivered food and candles to remote villages, while prices have been frozen in the larger stores. Such operations are proof of the astonishing ability of the government to mobilise its resources - and of its concern that people know it is doing so. "Only when the masses are reassured, can the country be in peace," the premier said yesterday. "Only when the country is in peace, can the leaders be relieved."

Chenzhou residents don't blame the authorities for the power outage itself. They can see what happened: along the roads, branches have been wrenched from trees by the same mass of snow and ice which downed lines and toppled pylons.

But houses are bitter with cold as temperatures fall to -8C overnight. The prices of candles and coal bricks has tripled or quadrupled. Gas canisters, when they can be found, fetch 130 yuan (£9.20) instead of their usual 80. People are beginning to wonder why repairs are taking so long, and when they will be finished.

"When we need water we have to go to a well a kilometre away and carry it home," said Mrs Wang, as she tended her street kiosk by the light of a single flame last night.

"There are rumours that it could be 10 or 20 days before the power comes back because so many towers were knocked down in the storms. But the radio said the government had promised to provide electricity before the first day of spring festival [new year]."

"That's a lie - it's impossible," interrupted a customer. "They only say that to make people feel comfortable."

Even officials like Mr Peng, who had worked day and night to clear a 45 mile jam on the expressway into the city, were sceptical.

"Spring festival is the most important day of the year. We can eat at home or eat out and after dinner we sit around together watching the big TV show. If we don't have electricity, it will be meaningless," he grumbled.

"Maybe we'll just have to sit in the dark and think. It seems like life has gone back to primitive times."

Only the hoteliers with generators are happy, their rooms booked solid by wealthier residents who check in for baths and showers or the chance to charge their mobiles. Even these establishments lack heating and cut power overnight to save fuel and rest the generators. Businessmen blunder and curse their way along black corridors, but know that they are privileged compared to the poor, the elderly and those in outlying rural areas.

"To young people it's bearable, but for the older people it's really horrible. They are too old to leave and too old to fetch coal and water," said Chen Xi, a kindergarten teacher escaping the city for the New Year.

"I saw Wen Jiabao when he came and felt touched - he's a 60-year-old man and he still cares about the problems of common citizens. I feel grateful for what the government and nation have done for us.

"But I also think the [local] government was not really well prepared. When I talk to friends in Northern China they say their governments are close to Beijing and if anything is wrong the citizens or officials can report it. Chenzhou is too far away. The Beijing authorities can't really manage our business."

48 killed as tornadoes wreak havoc in US

Michael McDonugh and agencies

Guardian Unlimited

US tornados
Cyerice Martin, right, comforts her sister, Seavia Dixon in Atkins, Arkansas. Photograph: Mike Wintroath/AP

Violent storms and tornadoes ripped through five southern US states late yesterday and early today, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 100 others.

The powerful winds destroyed homes, flattened warehouses and collapsed the roof of a shopping mall.

The victims included 24 people in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama.

The severe storms moved eastwards this morning and tornado warnings were posted for Georgia and northern Florida, the New York Times said.

In Arkansas, two parents and their 11-year-old daughter died after their home "took a direct hit" from the storm, the Pope County coroner, Leonard Krout, said.

"Neighbours and friends who were there said: 'There used to be a home there,'" Krout said. Rescuers were carrying out door-to-door searches in an attempt to find more victims.

In Sumner County, Tennessee, a mother was found dead a few metres from where her house once stood. Her baby was found alive a few hundred metres away and taken to a local hospital, CNN reported.

The tornadoes, which also hit Mississippi, were part of a line of storms that raged across the middle of the country at the end of the Super Tuesday primaries, including Tennessee and Arkansas.

As the extent of the damage became clear, candidates including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee paid tributes to the victims in speeches.

In Jackson, Tennessee, a tornado trapped college students in collapsed buildings.

"It looks like a war zone. Cars and trucks thrown from one side of the campus to the other," Union University president David Dockery told CNN television, which broadcast footage of the college.

Nine students remained in hospital overnight. None had life-threatening injuries, CNN reported.

Elsewhere in the state, a large fire erupted at a natural gas station north-east of Nashville. Authorities said the station might have been damaged by the storms.

In Memphis, high winds brought down the roof of a Sears store. Debris, including bricks and air conditioning units, was scattered on the car park, and around two dozen vehicles were damaged.

In Mississippi, the Desoto County sheriff's department commander, Steve Atkinson, said a tornado had wrecked warehouses in an industrial park in Southaven, just south of Memphis.

"It ripped the warehouses apart. The best way to describe it is it looks like a bomb went off," he added.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Migrating Birds Sophisticated Internal Compass Still a Mystery

From: ENN


Birds like the Reed warbler (shown below) are able to adjust back to their original course after been captured and taken 1000 km away. Scientists are still not sure what gives bids this amazing ability

The new evidence suggests that the birds have true navigation, meaning that they can identify at least two coordinates that roughly correspond to geographic latitude and longitude.

The findings challenge the notion held by some that birds might be limited to navigation in the north-south direction. But scientists still don't know how they do it.

"We have experimentally shown beyond reasonable doubt that long-distance, intercontinental avian migrants can correct for east-west displacements during their return migration in spring," said Nikita Chernetsov of the Biological Station Rybachy at the Zoological Institute in Russia. "This means that they can determine geographic longitude, even though we do not currently know how they do it."

Latitude, which defines the location north or south, may be relatively easily defined from the position of the sun at midday or through the use of geomagnetic information, Chernetsov explained. Experimental studies by others have strongly suggested that geomagnetic cues are indeed used by avian migrants for this purpose, he said, although other cues might also be important.

Longitude is trickier. Migrants could perhaps deduce their longitudinal location from the rotational phase of the starry sky, but experimental data do not support that idea, he said. Migrating birds might use a dual time-sense, relying on two internal clocks, one set to their "home time" and the other to their wintering grounds. They might also rely on geomagnetic information, but in some parts of the world that doesn't vary with longitude, Chernetsov said.

Many previous experiments performed with young birds on their first autumn migration have suggested that the young birds rely on a very simple navigation strategy, yet few experiments had been performed on more experienced birds during the return migration in spring.

"Consequently," the researchers wrote, "our knowledge about the spatiotemporal navigation strategies of experienced migrants in spring is very sparse and rather speculative. Do birds on return migration in spring perform true navigation towards a specific goal area?"

The answer, for the reed warblers at least, is yes. After the researchers dropped the migrants off many kilometers to the east, the birds corrected for their displacement by shifting their orientation from the northeast at the capture site to the northwest, the researchers reported. That new direction would lead the birds to their expected breeding areas.

"Our results suggest that Eurasian reed warblers are able to determine longitude and perform bicoordinate navigation," the researchers concluded. "This finding is surprising and presents a new intellectual challenge to bird migration researchers, namely which cues enable birds to determine their east-west position?"

This research is reported online on January 31st in Current Biology, a publication of Cell Press.

The researchers include Nikita Chernetsov, Biological Station Rybachy, Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kaliningrad Region, Russia; Dmitry Kishkinev, Biological Station Rybachy, Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kaliningrad Region, Russia, Animal Navigation Group, Oldenburg University, Oldenburg, Germany; and Henrik Mouritsen, Animal Navigation Group, Oldenburg University, Oldenburg, Germany.

Adapted from materials provided by Cell Press

Bad week for fish

From: Brian Halweil, Worldwatch Institute, More from this Affiliate


Last week brought a perfect storm of bad PR for the world’s seafood. Or, it might have actually been good PR from the beleaguered fish’s perspective. Interestingly, the three stories of depletion fish stocks, illegal fishing, and seafood contamination are closely related.

First, Elizabeth Rosenthal at the New York Times reported that the strengthening Euro and a traditional taste for seafood has made Europe the world’s largest market for fish, importing about $22 billion worth a year. But this roaring import market isn’t just evidence of Europe’s traditional taste for fish. It’s also buoyed by Europe’s depletion of its own fish stocks, since much of this fish comes from waters hundreds or thousands of miles away. Europe now imports 60 percent of its fish.

Second, in a monumental transfer of nutrition and wealth, much of this growing import tab includes fish stolen from the waters of West Africa, the Caribbean, and other poorer regions, where local populations used to depend on the catch for dinner. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, up to half the fish sold in Europe is illegally caught or imported.

Third, the New York Times Dining Section reported that tuna served in Manhattan sushi houses often contains dangerous levels of mercury, a pattern ostensibly present with tuna served anywhere in the nation or the world. A follow-up editorial in the Times made the profound point that “the food you eat is only as safe as the environment it comes from.” For decades, industry, coastal cities, and unsuspecting citizens have taken advantage of the diluting power of the oceans for dumping grounds. In particular, coal-burning power plants release massive amounts of mercury into the air, which eventually enters the ocean food chain only to come right back at us in our seafood, particularly in large, long-lived species like tuna, swordfish, and cod.

The connection between the first two stories is straightforward. As Europeans—not to mention Americans and Japanese and Chinese—crave more seafood, the price goes up, as does the incentive to get fish by any means necessary. A reef fish caught off the coast of Senegal commands a much higher price in Europe than it does in a coastal fishing village.

It may not be immediately clear what tuna with dangerous levels of mercury has to do with depleted, illegal fish being sold in Europe. But the same large fish that command the highest prices in seafood shops, sushi bars, and restaurants from London to Berlin also tend to be the most endangered fish in the sea. Their size—and their fatty flavor and texture—makes them highly desirable, but also makes them high in contaminants. (See my previous post on choosing safer seafood.)

And because these problems are integrated, the solutions naturally are as well. Avoiding these big, luxury fish will mean fewer international fleets scouring the waters, and less competition for the fish that poor fishing villages depend on. But it will also mean less risk of consuming unsafe levels of mercury. As with so many environmental issues, self-interest ends up also being in the best interest of the planet.

Is Climate Change Making Us Sick?

From: , Organic Consumers Association, More from this Affiliate

You might think that a little climate change would not go amiss in the British Isles. We'd have more warm summers and fewer freezing winters. What's wrong with that?

Ask the people of Yorkshire. As a result of global warming, many homeowners this week are up to their waists inmuddy water. Andflooding could be just the beginning of our worries. This week a paper in the British Medical Journal gave warning that climate change could be particularly damaging to the health of people in the developing world, but research also suggests that it could be bad news for Britain. Delegates at a conference in London on Tuesday will be told that global warming will drive up rates of cardio-respiratory disease, diarrhoea and insect-borne diseases such as malaria in the UK.

Global warming is believed to be occurring because human activities, particularly burning fossil fuels, have released into the atmosphere huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" that are trapping more heat in the Earth's lower atmosphere. Average global surface temperatures are already rising and are predicted to increase by between 1.4C and 5.8C over the next century, bringing a higher risk of floods, droughts and heat waves.

"We are already witnessing the effects of climate change on health," says Dr Hugh Montgomery, the director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, who has organised next week's conference at the Royal College of Physicians. The heat wave of 2003, when temperatures in the northern hemisphere reached the highest on record, killed up to 35,000 people - 2,000 of them in the UK. Last summer's floods have been shown to increase rates of mental illness (see box, left). And milder weather is likely to be behind the arrival here from Europe of the midge-borne cattle disease bluetongue.

"Each of us is, in effect, moving 6km (4 miles) south a year or 60km a decade," says Dr Montgomery. "The result will be fewer deaths from colds and flu, but more from strokes and heart attacks because of the heat. Global warming means a higher baseline temperature from which there will be more surges and extreme events."

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