Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hard winter for honeybees

Local beekeepers attribute unusual loss of hives to strange disorder, many other factors


Sonoma County beekeepers are reporting significant losses among their honeybees this winter including what some describe as cases of Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious scourge that has wiped out thousands of colonies around the nation.

Some local beekeepers have lost up to two-thirds of their inventory, though the reasons remain unclear.

"You can ask 100 beekeepers and get 100 different answers," Sebastopol beekeeper Glen Murphy said.

The losses are critical because honeybees play an important role in crop production by pollinating about 130 different fruits, nuts, vegetables and berries, adding an estimated $18 billion annually to national crop values, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

About one in three mouthfuls consumed by the average American is the direct or indirect result of pollination, USDA Agricultural Research Service spokeswoman Kim Kaplan said.

But honeybees are not native to North America. And while there are feral colonies, they do best when managed by beekeepers now desperate to discover what's killing the bees.

Many beekeepers cited poor nutrition due to inadequate rainfall and the early disappearance of nectar-abundant flowers last fall as a likely factor.

Mike Johnson, president of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association, believes some of his bees succumbed to starvation, freezing temperatures or a combination of the two.

But four hives showed symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, a catch-all phrase developed in 2006 to described massive colony die-offs around the United States and elsewhere.

"Basically, I had 12 hives, and now I'm down to one," Johnson said.

The classic sign of CCD, whose cause is still undetermined, is that affected hives are basically empty of adult bees or corpses, save for a live queen in most cases, and a small number of larvae or brood. There's also usually plenty of honey.

In the developing CCD research, that's about the only way to determine when it's hit, UC Davis entomologist and beekeeping expert Eric Mussen said.

Though scientists have mounted several research projects since reports of mass collapses began, examining potential links between parasites, viruses and other pathogens, they remain stumped.

"It would be real nice to make it simple and clear-cut and say, 'It's this,' but we're not there yet," Kaplan said.

Her agency, like many researchers, suggests a "perfect storm" of stressors that have compromised bees' immune systems, making them more susceptible to existing or still-unidentified pathogens.

"Right now we're still thinking it's just a number of, I don't know, all the things that are stressful to bees sort of ganging up on them and hitting them at one time," Mussan said.

Some level of hive loss is natural during the winter, when the bees cluster together with whatever stores of honey they can gather to try to stay warm and healthy.

The queen bee, meanwhile, lays some eggs in December and kicks into high gear producing eggs in January.

But the queen may fail to produce enough larvae to replace short-lived adults. There may be starvation, if stores are inadequate, or too small a population to maintain a high enough temperature.

An increasing variety of parasites, especially mites, viruses and diseases have contributed to a steady decline in bee populations, which are also impacted by pesticides.

Managed bee colonies, estimated at 5 million in the 1940s, have been cut to about 2.5 million, according to the Department of Agriculture.

California almond growers alone require about 1.2 million colonies to pollinate the crop, the California Almond Board said.

Demand for bees increasingly means large commercial beekeepers truck their hives around the state and country, for a price.

Some beekepers blame the species' fragility in part on the stress of being trucked and the intermixing of species from different regions.

Sonoma County -- what Sebastopol beekeeper Doug Vincent described as "very close to bee heaven" -- boasts a number of commercial honey producers.

But few are part of the migrating pollination force.

One who is, Fulton beekeeper Hector Alvarez, has hundreds of hives at work in the Central Valley for the almond season.

He said he lost about 100 of his 700 or so colonies over the winter, but said he thinks the problem affecting most area hives is Varroa mite, a widespread pest that disables developing bees before they hatch.

Kathy Cox, who owns Bloomfield Bees Honey, attributed her losses of more than a third since July to everything from predatory yellowjackets, a bacterial disease called American foulbrood and harsh weather conditions to genetically engineered plants and the pesticides in flea-control products.

Vincent, who with his wife owns beekind honey shop in Sebastopol, said he's down to about 65 hives from 120 last season.

But he said he escaped CCD, instead losing weaker hives to normal attrition.

What marks CCD is rapid destruction of a colony that appears to be thriving weeks or days before.

That is what's so frustrating, said Ettamarie Peterson of Peterson Farms in Petaluma.

"You always lose some, maybe because they weren't all that great a hive to begin with," said Peterson, who lost six of her 11 hives this winter.

Several of them, she said, were weak going into the season, but two were so strong and healthy she hoped to split them into separate hives soon.

"Before, I was reading all this stuff (about CCD) and patting myself on the back and saying, 'Well, my hives are OK.' And now it's hit home," she said. "All of a sudden malaria has come to town."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.

Friday, February 22, 2008

U.S. ends protection for wolves in northern Rockies

From: Reuters


By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, listed as endangered for more than three decades, no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. government said on Thursday.

Environmental groups disagreed, saying the species has not fully recovered and vowed to sue to continue to protect wolves from hunting and other methods of killing that the groups said would likely follow the government's move.

"The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goal and continues to expand its size and range," Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said in a statement announcing the decision to remove this group of gray wolves from the list of wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Once plentiful across the 48 contiguous U.S. states, gray wolves were eradicated from the northern Rocky Mountain region and southwestern Canada by the 1930s. The species was listed as endangered in 1973; 66 wolves were re-introduced to the area in 1995.

There are now 1,513 wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, including 107 breeding pairs, according to Edward Bangs, western wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wolf population in these states has been growing 24 percent each year since they were re-introduced, Bangs said by telephone.


The minimum goal for recovery for gray wolves in the northern Rockies was 30 breeding pairs and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years. This goal was reached in 2002, the Interior Department said.

"Three hundred animals is not enough for the wolves to survive in the long run," said the council's Louisa Willcox. "Far more wolves are needed before the species can be considered truly recovered."

Once federal protections are removed, state management plans will go into effect, the department said in a statement.

The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council called the delisting of these wolves premature and said the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have stated they plan to allow hunting, trapping and other killing of wolves under their state management plans.

In a statement, the group said the recovery goal should be at least 2,500 to 5,000 wolves across the three states.

The Sierra Club's Melanie Stern criticized the government's decision, saying, "We still have a long way to go before wolf populations are sustainable over the long term."

Bangs disputed this, noting that one reason gray wolf populations have grown in this area is due to effective state management of deer, elk and moose, which are prey for wolves.

"The bottom line is, wolves are just an amazing animal and there's really, really good habitat," Bangs said. "The big fear is that somehow all the success is just going to be squandered by the states, and we know that's not true."

(Editing by Sandra Maler )

U.N. says world fisheries face collapse

From: Reuters


MONACO (Reuters) - A deadly combination of climate change, over-fishing and pollution could cause the collapse of commercial fish stocks worldwide within decades, said Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program.

"You overlap all of this and you see you're potentially putting a death nail in the coffin of world fisheries," Steiner told reporters on Friday on the fringes of a climate conference involving more than 150 nations and 100 environment ministers.

Some 2.6 billion people worldwide depend on fish for protein, said a UNEP report "In Dead Water" published on Friday.

Climate change has compounded previous problems such as over-fishing, as rising temperatures kill coral reefs, threaten tuna spawning grounds, and shift ocean currents and with them the plankton and small fish which underpin ocean food chains.

"The question is not whether we should stop fishing but to address climate change, which is creating a degree of impact we've not seen before," said lead author of the UNEP report, Christian Nellemann.

"We are getting more and more alarming signals of dramatic changes in the oceans. The recovery from the changes we're making will probably take a million years."

The report found the most affected areas included those responsible for half the world's fish catch.

A slowing of ocean currents as a result of climate change may over the next 100 years interrupt the transport of nutrients to the most valuable coastal fishing zones, and the flushing away of pollution.

In other impacts, Nellemann said he expected more than 50 percent of coral reefs to die by 2050 as a result of rising temperatures, with resulting impacts on tourism.

Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels create an acid when dissolved in water, and could over the coming decades make the sea more acidic than at any time in the past 65 million years, and by 2100 could prevent mollusks in some seas from forming shells.

Greece seen facing bleak climate future

From: Reuters
Published February 22, 2008 09:34 AM

By Karolos Grohmann

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece will face droughts, higher temperatures and sea levels, and desertification that will damage agriculture and tourism because of climate change, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said on Friday.

"The problem of parched land and drought will intensify and desertification will speed up (in Greece)," Dimas said in a speech. "Areas in seaside towns like Thessaloniki and Messolongi, will most likely find themselves under water."

Dimas said the average annual temperature around the Mediterranean had increased by 1 degree Celsius compared with a 0.74 degree rise globally. He did not say to which period this rise was compared.

Greece's average rainfall in the past few years has fallen by about 30 percent since the mid 1970s. The month of January in 2007 was the driest in half a century while last June was the hottest June on record, scientists have said.

Dimas said climate change is also affecting the flora and fauna of the country with migrating birds flying further north, citing a recent British study. Non-native viruses and diseases have also appeared.

The number of Greek forest fires will increase releasing even more carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, he said.

"This will have consequences to our health. Tourism will receive a blow," Dimas said.

The European Union's executive adopted plans last month to cut greenhouse gas emissions, seeking to push the world into tough climate action.

"Greece must meet its Kyoto (environmental) protocol targets diligently," Dimas said, adding the country must boost alternative energy production, increase investment in energy-saving measures and include climate change measures in every policy.

"Climate change is a global problem in need of a global solution," Dimas said.

(Writing by Karolos Grohmann, Editing by Elizabeth Piper)

Warmer World May Mean Less Fish

From: United Nations Environment Programme


Global Warming Adding to Pollution and Over-Harvesting Impacts on the World's Key Fishing Grounds Says New UNEP - "In Dead Water" - Report

Monaco/Nairobi, 22 February 2008 - Climate change is emerging as the latest threat to the world's dwindling fish stocks a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests.

At least three quarters of the globe's key fishing grounds may become seriously impacted by changes in circulation as a result of the ocean's natural pumping systems fading and falling they suggest.

These natural pumps, dotted at sites across the world including the Arctic and the Mediterranean, bring nutrients to fisheries and keep them healthy by flushing out wastes and pollution.

The impacts of rising emissions on the marine world are unlikely to end there. Higher sea surface temperatures over the coming decades threaten to bleach and kill up to 80 per cent of the globe's coral reefs-major tourist attractions, natural sea defences and also nurseries for fish.

Meanwhile there is growing concern that carbon dioxide emissions will increase the acidity of seas and oceans. This in turn may impact calcium and shell-forming marine life including corals but also tiny ones such as planktonic organisms at the base of the food chain.

The findings come in a new rapid response report entitled "In Dead Water" which has for the first time mapped the multiple impacts of pollution; alien infestations; over-exploitation and climate change on the seas and oceans.

"The worst concentration of cumulative impacts of climate change with existing pressures of over-harvest, bottom trawling, invasive species infestations, coastal development and pollution appear to be concentrated in 10-15 per cent of the oceans," says the report.

This 10-15 per cent of the oceans is far higher than had previously been supposed and is "concurrent with today's most important fishing grounds" including the estimated 7.5 per cent deemed to be the most economically valuable fishing areas of the world, it adds.

The report, the work of UNEP scientists in collaboration with universities and institutes in Europe and the United States, was launched today during UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Monaco.

It is the largest gathering of environment ministers since the climate convention conference in Indonesia just over two months ago where governments agreed the Bali Road Map aimed at delivering a deep and decisive climate regime for post 2012.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said:" The theme of the Governing Council is 'Mobilizing Finance for the Climate Challenge for trillions of dollars can flow into climate-friendly energies and technologies if government's can provide the right kind of enabling market mechanisms and fiscal incentives".

"It is sometimes important to remind ourselves why we need to accelerate these transformations towards a Green Economy. In Dead Water has uniquely mapped the impact of several damaging and persistent stresses on fisheries. It also lays on top of these the likely impacts of climate change from dramatic alternations in ocean circulation affecting perhaps a three quarter of key fishing grounds up to the emerging concern of ocean acidification," said Mr Steiner.

"Climate change threatens coastal infrastructure, food and water supplies and the health of people across the world. It is clear from this report and others that it will add significantly to pressures on fish stocks. This is as much a development and economic issue as it is an environmental one. Millions of people including many in developing countries derive their livelihoods from fishing while around 2.6 billion people get their protein from seafood," he said.

The report comes in wake of findings issued last week by a team led by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis which estimates that over 40 per cent of the world's oceans have been heavily impacted by humans and that only four per cent remain relatively pristine.

It also comes amid concern that sea bird chicks in the North Sea may be being choked after being fed on a diet of snake pipefish-a very bony species. Over the past five years snake pipefish numbers have boomed a meeting of the Zoological Society in London was told last week.

One reason for their sharp increase in numbers might be changes in ocean currents bringing the fish into North Sea waters, the experts suggest.

The new UNEP report has been compiled by researchers including ones at UNEP's GRID Arendal centre; UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre and UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment.

It draws on a wide range of new and emerging science including the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-the 2,000 plus panel of scientists established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation.

Other contributions have come from organizations and institutions including the University of Plymouth; the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research; the University of British Columbia; the Institute of Zoology; Princeton University; the University of Barcelona and the Sustainable Europe Research Institute.

In Dead Water Key Findings

- Half the world's catch is caught along Continental shelves in an area of less than 7.5 per cent of the globe's seas and oceans.

- An area of 10-15 per cent of the world's seas and oceans cover most of the commercial fishing grounds.

- 80 per cent to 100 per cent of the world's coral reefs may suffer annual bleaching events by 2080 under global warming scenarios.

- Those at particular risk are in the Western Pacific; the Indian Ocean; the Persian Gulf; the Middle East and in the Caribbean

- Over 90 per cent of the world's temperate and tropical coasts will be heavily impacted by 2050. Over 80 per cent of marine pollution comes from the land. Marine areas at particular risk of increased pollution are Southeast and East Asia.

- Increasing concentrations of C02 in the atmosphere are likely to be mirrored by increasing acidification of the marine environment.

- Increasing acidification may reduce the availability of calcium carbonates in sea water, including a key one known as aragonite which is used by a variety of organisms for shell-building.

- Cold-water and deep water corals could be affected by acidification by 2050 and shell-building organisms throughout the Southern Ocean and into the sub-Arctic Pacific Ocean by 2100.

- Climate change may slow down the ocean thermohaline circulation and thus the continental shelf "flushing and cleaning" mechanisms, known as dense shelf water cascading,over the next 100 years. These processes are crucial to water quality and nutrient cycling and deep water production in at least 75 per cent of the world's major fishing grounds.

- Dead zones, area of de-oxygenated water, are increasing as a result of pollution from urban and agriculture areas. There are an estimated 200 temporary or permanent 'dead zones' up from around 150 in 2003.

- Up to 80 per cent of the world's primary fish catch species are exploited beyond or close to their harvesting capacity. Advances in technology, alongside subsidies, means the world's fishing capacity is 2.5 times bigger that that needed to sustainably harvest fisheries.

- Bottom trawling is among the most damaging and unsustainable fishing practices at the scales often seen today

- Alien invasive species, which can out-compete and dislodge native ones, are increasingly associated with the polluted, overharvested and damaged fishing grounds. The report shows that the concentration of 'aliens' matches with some precision the world's major shipping routes.

Christian Nellemann, who headed up the rapid response team that compiled the report, said: "We are already seeing evidence from a number of studies that increasing sea temperatures are causing changes in the distribution of marine life".

Some of these changes are being found from the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey of the Northeast Atlantic.

Warmer water copepod species or crustaceans have moved northward by around 1,000km during the later half of the 20th century with the patterns continuing into the 21st century.

"Further evidence of this warming signal is seen in the appearance of a Pacific planktonic plant in the Northwest Atlantic for this first time in 800,000 years by transfer across the top of Canada due to the rapid melting of the Arctic in 1998," said Dr. Nellemann. "We are getting more and more alarming signals of dramatic changes in the oceans. It is like turning a big tanker around. Our ability to change course and reduce emissions in the near future will be paramount to success".

The link between healthy and productive fishing grounds and ocean circulation or 'dense shelf water cascading' is in some ways only now emerging.

Three years ago the Hotspot Ecosystem Research on the Margins of European Seas of which UNEP is part, documented such a phenomenon in the Gulf of Lions in the north-western Mediterranean.

A quantity of water equal to two years-worth of the river discharge from all rivers flowing into the Mediterranean is, in four months, transported from the Gulf of Lions to the deep Western Mediterranean via the Cap de Creyus canyon.

It has a critical impact on the population of the heavily harvested deep sea shrimp Aristeus antennatus, the crevette rouge, by bringing food that in turn triggers a sharp increase in young shrimp resulting in plentiful catches three to five years after the 'cascading' event.

"Imagine what will happen if climate change slows down or stops these natural food transport and "flushing" effects in waters that are often already polluted, heavily fished, damaged and stressed", said Dr. Nellemann. "We are gambling with our food supply".

Stefan Hain of UNEP's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, said it was critical that existing stresses were also addressed too in order to conserve fish stocks and coral reefs in a climate constrained world.

He said there was growing evidence that coral reefs recover from bleaching better in cleaner, less polluted waters.

Dr Hain cited monitoring of corals around the main Seychelles island of Mahé which were among corals world-wide that suffered from the high sea surface temperatures of the late 1990s. Here coral reefs recovery rates have varied between five to 70 per cent.

"Coral reefs recovering faster are generally those living in Marine Protected Areas and coastal waters where the levels of pollution, dredging and other kinds of human-induced disturbance are considered low," he said.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Alarm over new oil-from-coal plans

This article was first published on on Wednesday February 20 2008. It was last updated at 14:31 on February 20 2008.
Truck in Chinese coal mine

China is already the world's biggest coal user. Photo: Qilai Shen/EPA

A Chinese energy company is poised to open a chemical plant to make liquid fuels for cars and aircraft from coal, a move that has alarmed environmental campaigners who say it will increase carbon emissions and worsen global warming.

The plant, in Inner Mongolia, will use technology developed by Germany during the second world war to convert coal directly into synthetic diesel, dubbed "Nazi fuel". China says the process will help break its booming economy's reliance on foreign oil, and that it will build more such plants.

The US and India are also investing heavily in the technology, which is being heavily promoted by coal companies across the world as a cost-effective solution to soaring oil prices and concerns about energy security.

The Chinese facility, operated by Shenhua Corporation, will be the first of its type in the world. Shenhua would not say when it expects the plant to open, but industry experts said it would be within weeks. Last month, company officials said construction work was 99.5% complete.

Three similar plants were built in South Africa to beat the apartheid-era oil sanctions, and still produce almost a third of South Africa's energy needs.

Gordon Couch, of the International Energy Agency's clean coal centre in London, said the plant's opening was "imminent". and that it marked a surge of interest across the world. An IEA report on the technology, due to be published this spring, will highlight similar projects planned or under way in Japan, the US, Australia, China, New Zealand, India, Botswana, Indonesia, the Phillippines and South Africa. The US Air Force is very interested, and recently flew a B-52 bomber on fuel made from coal.

Couch said: "There is now considerable interest in these types of fuels, mainly in countries like China and the US that have large reserves of coal and are worried about relying on imported oil." He said the high price of oil could persuade more companies to turn to the coal conversion technology, which has traditionally been too expensive to compete with conventional petroleum-based fuel.

Analysts say the fuel could be economic if oil prices stay consistently above US$25-40 a barrel. Oil currently costs double that, and briefly touched $100 a barrel last month.

A study last year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences said: "Production of liquid fuels from coal is practically the most feasible route to cope with the dilemma in oil supply."

It concluded: "Establishing large-scale CTL [coal-to-liquids] plants on the pitheads of several main coalfields is feasible and competitive when oil price is well over US$25 per barrel."

At least two more commercial scale coal-to-liquids plants are under construction in China, although the Chinese government has expressed concern about the possible environmental impact of uncontrolled expansion, and has taken steps to limit the number of smaller facilities.

Companies that promote the coal-to-liquids technique claim it is clean, because contaminants such as sulphur are removed from coal during the process. Some also herald it as a way to fight global warming, despite the industry's own figures, which show that converting and burning the liquid coal together releases almost twice the carbon pollution as using conventional diesel.

Nick Rau, a climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said the move was "in totally the wrong direction". He added: "We have great concerns about the rush to develop new sources of energy-intensive energies such as synthetic fuels from coal. We know they are technically feasible and it looks like they are going to happen, unless more people emphasise the sustainable options available."

Luke Warren of the World Coal Institute, admitted the process was "carbon dioxide intensive", but said the greenhouse gas could be captured and stored underground.

But the UN's intergovernmental panel on climate change says that large-scale carbon capture and storage remains unproven, and will not be available for decades.

Of the 30 or so large-scale coal-to-liquids plants being worked on around the world, only one in Australia plans to conduct a carbon capture trial.

Even capturing the carbon may not solve the problem. An analysis by the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory last year said that liquid fuels from coal, even with carbon capture and storage employed, would still produce at least 20% more carbon dioxide than petrol and diesel made from oil. The energy-intensive conversion plants also require massive amounts of cooling water to stop them overheating.

The World Coal Institute is among the organisers of a major industry conference in Paris this April to promote the coal-to-liquid technology. US coal giant Peabody, the largest coal company in the world, is listed as the event's main sponsor.

Coal is not the only unconventional source now being exploited for oil substitutes. Other companies across the Middle East and North Africa are making diesel in a similar way from natural gas. Airbus recently carried out a test flight of its giant A380 aircraft that used gas-derived liquid fuel. And Shell has just started an advertising campaign in the UK that promotes its gas-to-liquids technology as a "clean fuel" which provides "significantly lower emissions of local pollutants". Shell says a study commissioned by the company shows its new fuel produces no more greenhouse gas emissions than using conventional diesel.

But scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have found the gas-to-liquids process is typically some 7-16% worse for global warming than using oil. Adam Brandt and Alexander Farrell of the university's energy and resources group said a widespread transition to both gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids technology was looking "increasingly likely" but warned such "unconventional petroleum production could be a significant source of additional carbon dioxide unless mitigation steps are taken".

Farrell told the Guardian: "If companies are marketing these fuels as environmentally friendly then they are misleading people. At best, they could be as good as [existing] fossil fuels, but is that what we want in a world where we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions?"

Harsh spring sandstorms forecast for north China

From: Reuters


BEIJING (Reuters) - Northern China is likely to be hit with more frequent and more severe sandstorms this year, Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday, posing a challenge to Olympics organizers hoping for blue skies over Beijing.

Sandstorms were forecast to increase this spring in the northern provinces of Inner Mongolia and Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, Xinhua said, citing the China Meteorological Administration.

Eastern regions would be prone to drought, which could raise the risk of forest fires.

Meteorologists said the adverse forecasts were related to the La Nina weather phenomenon.

But decades of overgrazing and deforestation mean that China is also fighting to contain its deserts, whose spread has helped fuel the sandstorms that lash the country's north every spring and whose effects are felt in South Korea and Japan.

Beijing has pledged to hold a sandstorm-free Olympics come August, and has launched campaigns to restore denuded land and plant trees, with its noxious air quality a major concern for both athletes and organizers.

(Reporting by Lindsay Beck; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Scientists blame ocean dead zones on climate change

(02-20) 04:00 PST Newport, Ore. --

Peering into the murky depths, Jane Lubchenco searched for sea life, but all she saw were signs of death.

Video images scanned from the seafloor revealed a boneyard of crab skeletons, dead fish and other marine life smothered under a white mat of bacteria. At times, the camera's unblinking eye revealed nothing - a barren undersea desert in waters renowned for their bounty of Dungeness crabs and fat rockfish.

"We couldn't believe our eyes," Lubchenco said, recalling her initial impression of the carnage brought about by oxygen-starved waters. "It was so overwhelming and depressing. It appeared that everything that couldn't swim or scuttle away had died."

Upon further study, Lubchenco and other marine ecologists at Oregon State University concluded that that the undersea plague appears to be a symptom of global warming. In a study published in the journal Science, the researchers note how these low-oxygen waters have expanded north into Washington and crept south as far as the California state line. And, they appear to be as regular as the tides, a cycle that has repeated itself every summer and fall since 2002.

"We seem to have crossed a tipping point," Lubchenco said. "Low-oxygen zones off the Northwest coast appear to be the new normal."

Although scientists continue to amass data and tease out the details, all signs in the search for a cause point to stronger winds associated with a warming planet.

If this theory holds up, it means that global warming and the build-up of heat-trapping gases are bringing about oceanic changes beyond those previously documented: a rise in sea level, more acidic ocean water and the bleaching of coral reefs.

Low-oxygen dead zones, which have doubled in number every decade and exist around the world, have a variety of causes.

A massive dead zone off Louisiana is created each spring by a slurry of nutrient-rich farm runoff and sewage that flows out the Mississippi River, causing algae to bloom riotously, die and drift to the bottom to decompose. Bacteria then take over. In the process of breaking down the plant matter, they suck the oxygen out of the seawater, making it unable to support most forms of sea life.

Off Oregon, the dead zone appears to form because of changes in atmospheric conditions that create the oceanic river of nutrient-rich waters known as the California Current.

The California Current along the West Coast and the similar Humboldt Current off Peru and Benguela Current off South Africa are rarities. These powerful currents account for only about 1 percent of the world's oceans but produce 20 percent of the world's fisheries.

Their productivity comes from wind-driven upwelling of nutrient-rich waters from the deep. When those waters reach the surface and hit sunlight, tiny ocean plants known as phytoplankton bloom, creating food for small fish and shellfish that in turn feed larger marine animals up the food chain.

What's happening off Oregon, scientists believe, is that as land heats, winds grow stronger and more persistent. Because the winds don't go slack as they used to do, the upwelling is prolonged, producing a surplus of phytoplankton that isn't consumed and ultimately dies, drifts to the sea floor and rots.

"It fits a pattern that we're seeing in the Benguela Current," said Andrew Bakun, a professor at the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science who wasn't part of the Oregon study. "It's reasonable to think these hypoxic and anoxic zones will increase as more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere."

The Benguela Current has seen sporadic dead zones. There, rotting clumps of algae have released clouds of hydrogen sulfide gas that smell like rotten eggs and poison sea life. Residents along the coast of South Africa and Namibia have witnessed waves of rock lobsters crawl onto shore to escape the noxious gases.

Bakun considers the Benguela, the world's most powerful current, to be a harbinger of changes in other currents. His theory is that warm, rising air over the land makes upwelling more frequent and more intense. The phenomenon, he said, is complicated by decades of heavy fishing that has reduced schools of sardines to a tiny fraction of their former abundance.

Not enough fish remain to consume phytoplankton before it dies and settles on the bottom, creating an anoxic dead zone.

The size of the Oregon zone has fluctuated. In 2006, it was the largest ever measured, covering an expanse slightly larger than Rhode Island. Last year, it was smaller but detected over a longer stretch of coastline.

To make sure the phenomenon was actually new, Oregon State marine ecologist Francis Chan reconstructed data from water sampling at 3,100 stations dating to 1950.

He found that low-oxygen areas have long existed in deeper waters, but there was virtually no evidence until recently of hypoxic waters in prime fishing waters, which extend down to 165 feet.

"It's pretty clear this is unprecedented," Chan said. "It's never been detected since we began to measure oxygen levels."

This article appeared on page A - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, February 18, 2008

Juggle a few of these numbers, and it makes economic sense to kill people

Britain's official approach to climate change puts a price on human lives. And the richer you are, the more yours is worth

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday February 19 2008 on p29 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:04 on February 19 2008.

This is a column about how good intentions can run amok. It tells the story of how an honourable, intelligent man set out to avert environmental disaster and ended up accidentally promoting the economics of the slave trade. It shows how human lives can be priced and exchanged for goods and services. The story begins in a village a few miles to the west of London. The government proposes to flatten Sipson in order to build a third runway for Heathrow airport. The public consultation is about to end, but no one doubts that the government has made up its mind.

Its central case is that the economic benefits of building a third runway outweigh the economic costs. The extra capacity, the government says, will deliver a net benefit to the UK economy of £5bn. The climate change the runway will cause costs £4.8bn, but this is dwarfed by the profits to be made.

There is plenty of evidence suggesting that the government's numbers are wrong. An analysis by the environmental consultancy CE Delft shows that the official figures overestimate both the number of jobs the runway will generate and the value brought to Britain by extra business passengers. In an excoriating article last week in the Guardian's Society section, Professor Paul Ekins demonstrates that the government has rigged the cost of carbon. (Delightfully, the web address for the consultation document ends "completecondoc.pdf".) But while the runway's opponents don't like the results, most people seem to agree that weighing up economic costs and benefits is a sensible method of making this decision. The problem, they argue, is that the wrong figures have been used.

When Sir Nicholas Stern published his study of the economics of climate change, environmentalists - myself included - lined up to applaud him: he had given us the answer we wanted. He showed that stopping runaway climate change would cost less than failing to prevent it. But because his report was so long, few people bothered to find out how he had achieved this result. It took me a while, but by the time I reached the end I was horrified.

On one side of Stern's equation are the costs of investing in new technologies - or not investing in old ones - to prevent greenhouse gas emissions rising above a certain level. These can reasonably be priced in pounds or dollars. On the other side are the costs of climate change. Some of them - such as higher food prices and the expense of building sea walls - are financial, but most take the form of costs that are generally seen as incalculable: the destruction of ecosystems and human communities; the displacement of people from their homes; disease and death. All these costs are thrown together by Stern with a formula he calls "equivalent to a reduction in consumption", to which he then attaches a price.

Stern explains that this "consumption" involves not just the consumption of goods we might buy from the supermarket, but also of "education, health and the environment". He admits this formula "raises profound difficulties", especially the "challenge of expressing health (including mortality) and environmental quality in terms of income". But he uses it anyway, and discovers that the global disaster that would be unleashed by a rise in temperature of between 5° and 6°, and that is likely to involve widespread famine, is "equivalent to a reduction in consumption" of between 5% and 20%.

It is true that as people begin to starve they consume less. When they die they cease to consume altogether. But Stern's unit (a reduction in consumption) incorporates everything from the price of baked beans to the pain of bereavement. He then translates it into a "social cost of carbon", measured in dollars. He has, in other words, put a price on human life. Worse still, he has ensured that this price is buried among the other prices: when you read that the "social cost of carbon" is $30 a tonne, you don't know - unless you unpick the whole report and its methodology and sources - how much of this is made of human lives.

The poorer people are, the cheaper their lives become. "For example," Stern observes, "a very poor person may not be 'willing to pay' very much money to insure her life, whereas a rich person may be prepared to pay a very large sum. Can it be right to conclude that a poor person's life or health is therefore less valuable?" Up to a point, yes: income, he says, should be one of the measures used to determine the social cost of carbon. Stern was by no means the first to use such a formula. What was new was the unthinking enthusiasm with which his approach was greeted.

Stern's methodology has a disastrous consequence, unintended but surely obvious. His report shows that the dollar losses of failing to prevent a high degree of global warming outweigh the dollar savings arising from not taking action. It therefore makes economic sense to try to stop runaway climate change. But what if the result had been different? What if he had discovered that the profits to be made from burning more fossil fuels exceeded the social cost of carbon? We would then find that it makes economic sense to kill people.

This is what the government has done. Its consultation paper boasts that "our approach is entirely consistent with the Stern review". It has translated his "social cost of carbon" into a "shadow price of carbon", which is currently valued, human lives and all, at £25 a tonne.

Against this is set the economic benefit of a new runway. Part of this benefit takes the form of shorter waiting times for passengers. The government claims that building a third runway will reduce delays, on average, by three minutes. This saving is costed at between €38 (£28.50) and €49 per passenger an hour. The price is a function of the average net wages of travellers: the more you earn, the more the delays are deemed to cost you, even if you are on holiday.

Consider the implications. On one side of the equation, human life is being costed. On the other side, the value of delays to passengers is being priced, and it rises according to their wealth. Convenience is weighed against human life. The richer you are, the more lives your time is worth. The people most likely to be killed by climate change do not live in this country. Most of them live in Africa and south Asia. Hardly any of the economic benefits of expanding Heathrow accrue to them. Yet the government has calculated the economic benefits to Britain, weighed them against the global costs of climate change and discovered that sacrificing foreigners - especially poor ones - is a sensible economic decision.

I can accept that a unit of measurement that allows us to compare the human costs of different spending decisions is a useful tool. What I cannot accept is that it should be scrambled up with the price of eggs and prefixed with a dollar sign. Human life is not a commodity. It cannot be traded against profits or exchanged for convenience. We have no right to decide that others should die to make us richer.

Salmon's brain gives clues to pesticides toxicity in people

From: ENN


In his research, scientist Nat Scholz examines how pesticides that run off the land and mix in rivers and streams combine to have a greater than expected toxic effect on the salmon nervous system. These pesticides are widely used in the United States and their occurrence as mixtures in the food supply for humans may also pose an unexpected risk for people.

“We have a pretty good handle on how to assess the health effects of single chemicals in conventional toxicity trials,” said Scholz, a fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “But the real world is usually more complex, and exposures to mixtures of chemicals can be more of the rule than the exception. One of the major scientific challenges of our generation is to develop new approaches to anticipate and head off any ill effects of interacting chemicals.”

Scholz will present his research along with five other scientists from the U.S. government, the Canadian government and academia in the symposium entitled “From Kitchen Sinks to Ocean Basins: Emerging Chemical Contaminants and Human Health.” Organized by NOAA’s Oceans and Human Health Initiative, the symposium is one of the features of the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Scholz and his colleagues found that salmon died when exposed to combinations of pesticides that were not deadly when tested in individual trials. The findings for salmon could have important implications for the recovery of many threatened and endangered salmon populations throughout the western United States. The research also points to the need for more study of how combinations of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables may be affecting humans.

Crop biofuels 'create carbon debt'

From: , Science and Development Network, More from this Affiliate


Two studies have shown that changes in land use to produce crop-based biofuels can actually result in more greenhouse-gas emissions than burning fossil fuels.

The studies, both published in Science last week (8 February), estimate the impact of converting forests and grasslands into cropland for the production of biofuels.

Both conclude that the resulting carbon emissions, released through decomposition or burning of biomass, create a 'carbon debt' that takes decades or even centuries to be paid back through biofuel usage.

This finding undermines previous claims that substituting fossil fuels with biofuels should offset greenhouse-gas emissions because biofuels sequester carbon while they grow.

According to Timothy Searchinger, researcher at Princeton University and the lead author of one of the studies, previous assessments did not include the carbon storage and sequestration sacrificed when diverting land from its existing use.

Searchinger and colleagues looked at the use of US cropland to produce corn-based ethanol and calculated it would take 167 years to repay carbon emissions resulting from land-use change, and that in 30 years greenhouse-gas emissions from corn ethanol could be nearly double those from gasoline.

"Biofuels in the US and Europe are increasing the price of crops, which naturally results in more efforts to clear land. In that way, farmers make more money," he says.

Much of this land clearing will occur in Brazil, China and India, the authors write.

In the other study, by the Nature Conservancy and University of Minnesota, researchers estimate carbon debts and pay back years for different cases of conversion from native vegetation.

They found soybean biodiesel produced on converted Amazonian rainforest would take around 320 years to gain a 'carbon benefit' over petroleum diesel. For biodiesel and sugarcane-based ethanol produced on Brazilian cerrado — tropical savannah — the estimations are 37 and 17 years, respectively.

Improving the productivity of agricultural land, creating biofuels from waste biomass and municipal waste, or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural land, are all ways to avoid the need for a change in land use, the authors suggest.

The results of the studies do not surprise Roberto Schaeffer, researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "Nobody thought deforestation for biofuel production would be a good solution," he told SciDev.Net.

"Biofuels are only effective in specific situations, as in the case of Brazilian ethanol. It is possible to increase production without devastating forests."

Link to the article by Searchinger et al [85kB]

Link to article by Fargione et al [93kB]

Southern Ocean rise due to warming, not ice melts

From: Reuters


By Michael Byrnes

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Rises in the sea level around Antarctica in the past decade are almost entirely due a warming ocean, not ice melting, an Australian scientist leading a major international research program said.

The 15-year study of temperature and salinity changes in the Southern Ocean found average temperatures warmed by about three-tenths of a degree Celsius.

Satellites also measured a rise of about 2 centimeters (about an inch) in seas in the southern polar region over an area half the size of Australia, Rintoul told Reuters.

"The biggest contribution so far has been from warming of the oceans through expansion," said Steve Rintoul, Australian leader of an Australian-French-U.S. scientific program.

Melting sea ice or Antarctic ice shelves jutting into the ocean do not directly add to sea level rises.

Rintoul was speaking as French ship L'Astrolabe prepared to depart on Monday from Hobart, on Australia's southern island of Tasmania, for its fifth voyage of the current summer season for the Surveillance of the Ocean Astral (Survostral) program.

The research program has been taking temperature and salinity readings for 15 years to a depth of 700 meters along the 2,700 km, six-day route between Hobart and the Antarctic.

This has produced the longest continuous record of temperature and salinity changes in the Southern Ocean for scientists studying how the ocean contributes to global climate.

"Survostral has given us a foundation for much of what is known about the way the ocean in this inhospitable and difficult-to-access region controls the global climate," Rintoul said.

The project leader said sea level rise was not uniform in the Southern Ocean and that rises were not guaranteed to continue at the same rate in the future.

The study had also shown that the Southern Ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide changed with the seasons.

In summer, an increase in phytoplankton brought about by the greater light caused the Southern Ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than in colder months, he said.

The study showed that as waters warmed, some species of phytoplankton were extending further south, although more research was needed to determine the importance of this finding.

"What's significant is that we've detected changes in the physical environment and now we're also detecting changes in the biology in response to those physical changes.

"The next challenge is to figure out what these biological changes mean for carbon uptake and for higher levels of the food chain," he said.

Tiny phytoplankton are at the bottom of the food chain and are a crucial food source for a number of species.

Investigations by the L'Astrolabe in the world's largest ocean current between Tasmania and Antarctica had shown that deep streams of water were taking warming deep into the ocean.

"The program started as just measuring temperature and salinity. We've now recently begun a much more comprehensive chemistry and biology program of measurements," Rintoul said.

This would widen the scientific investigation to the impact of climate change on biology and on the carbon cycle, he said.

(Editing by David Fogarty)

Biofuels and the Fertilizer Problem: Can a 'Renewable Fuel' Rely on Mining a Finite Resource?

From: , Organic Consumers Association, More from this Affiliate


While scrolling through news accounts of the recent boom in the agrochemicals industry -- yes, that's how I spend my days -- I came across an interesting take on biofuels and phosphate, a key element of soil fertility.

The article, from Investors Business Daily, takes a standard rah-rah position on what it deems a "heyday in the heartland." The journal wants to make sure its readers know there's plenty of cash to be made investing in the companies catering to the great boom in industrial agriculture.

With corn and soy prices both at or near record highs, the article tries to handicap which crop farmers will plant more of in the coming growing season. Impossible to tell, it concludes. Nevertheless:

Fertilizer producers benefit either way. Corn demands more fertilizer than soy or wheat. But price competition among the grains, stoked largely by federal supports for ethanol production, has bled generously into fertilizer markets.

That's boilerplate. Anyone who's checked out the stock chart of Mosaic -- the fertilizer giant, two-thirds owned by agribiz behemoth Cargill, recently profiled here -- knows that the fertilizer industry has been essentially printing money.

But the Investors Business Daily article really started to pique my interest when it turned to phosphorus -- the "P" of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), the main macronutrients required for plant growth.

Of course, industrial agriculture makes a fetish of NPK. Like a '70s-era faddist who thinks you can maintain health while eating whatever junk food you want, so long as you take a vitamin pill containing "100 percent RDA" of every vitamin, industrial agriculture enthusiasts insist that by isolating NPK and dumping it into soil, you've solved the problem of soil fertility.

NPK mentality neglects micronutrients and forgets that healthy soil relies on teeming populations of microorganisms, whose function we don't fully understand. Lashing the soil with industrial fertilizer doesn't renew life in the soil; it squeezes life out. Someday, I predict, NPK dogma will crumble and seem as absurd as relying on a bowl of Total for nourishment.

For now, though, we live in an NPK world -- and biofuel production relies absolutely on mined and synthesized macronutrients.

OK, back to the Investors Business Daily article and phosphorus. Toward the bottom, we find this:

Phosphates shot to $300 and then to $400 a ton last year, and are now on track to break $800 ... Out of 50 billion tons of potential phosphate rock reserves worldwide, the USGS estimates the U.S. holds only 3.4 billion tons. Morocco owns 21 billion, China has 13 billion. All are keen to closely manage the resource.

Wow, so our big "renewable," domestic energy source relies heavily on a mined substance, of which we own a tiny reserve. The biggest store lies in a nation run by Islamicists, a group with whom we're engaged in hostilities. The second-biggest store is lodged within the borders of a budding geopolitical rival. Hmm.

Then we get this:

Global consumption of phosphate rock is projected to grow 2.3% a year. But that rate of growth could increase due to demand for biomass used in biofuel production.

Farmers are harvesting larger shares of the plant rubble left after harvest -- a natural source of potassium and phosphate when turned back into the soil. The loss of that natural fertilizer means more P & K demand.

What the article is saying is this: If we transition to cellulosic ethanol -- which utilizes whole plants, not just the seeds, as in conventional ethanol -- we'll need even more phosphorus. And demand for this finite resource, located mainly in geopolitically troublesome places, will grower at an even faster clip than the current 2.3 percent compounded annual rate.

I should note here that phosphate mining, as I laid out in the above-linked post on Mosaic, is environmentally ruinous. It leaves behind radioactive waste.

Note further that cellulosic ethanol -- perpetually five years away from commercial viability -- counts in some quarters as biofuel's great green hope.

To me, all of this exposes the folly of relying on industrial agriculture to create a "clean" fuel source for transportation. To avoid the political and ecological troubles of mining, we need to nudge agriculture back toward the nutrient loop -- recycling animal and vegetable waste back into the soil and building true and sustainable soil fertility. I believe we can "feed the world" that way; we surely can't feed the world (or its cars) for long using an agriculture style that relies on finite mined products.

As for biofuels, I don't see how they fit in to a return to sustainable agriculture. Sustainably fertilized land can feed our bellies, but not our cars, too. We surely can't squeeze enough excess grain out of sustainably managed land to make a dent in the fuel demands of a country with a 210 million-plus auto fleet.

Rather than flog biofuels, environmentalists should be pushing for alternatives to the internal-combustion engine -- and for a return to sustainable agriculture.

Here's a talking point. The Global Subsidies Initiative reckons that the U.S. government supports biofuels to the tune of $5.5-$7.3 billion per year. Amtrak gets about $1.2 billion per year. Let's defund biofuels and invest the proceeds in a functional national rail system. No?

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Sharks disappearing as fin chopping rises

From: Reuters
published on


NEW YORK (Reuters) - Populations of tiger, bull, dusky and other sea sharks have plummeted by more than 95 percent since the 1970s as fisherman kill the animals for their fins or when they scoop other fish from the ocean, according to an expert from the World Conservation Union, or IUCN.

At particular risk is the scalloped hammerhead shark, whose young swim mostly in shallow waters along shores all over the world to avoid predators.

The scalloped hammerhead will be listed on the 2008 IUCN Red List as globally "endangered" due to overfishing and high demand for its valuable fins in the shark fin trade, said Julia Baum, a member of the IUCN's shark specialist group.

"As a result of high and mostly unrestricted fishing pressure, many sharks are now considered to be at risk of extinction," Baum said in a statement.

The numbers of many other large shark species have plunged due to increased demand for shark fins and meat, recreational shark fisheries, as well as tuna and swordfish fisheries, where millions of sharks are taken as bycatch each year, said Baum, a fellow at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Last year, IUCN put the great hammerhead, the largest of the nine species of hammerhead, on the Red List as "endangered." IUCN said in September that numbers of the shark in the eastern Atlantic may have crashed by 80 percent in the last 25 years.

Hammerhead meat has a very low value but the sharks are among the most endangered species because their fins are highly prized for the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup. In shark finning, fishermen chop the fins of the animals and dump the sharks back into the sea.

Fishing for sharks in international waters is unrestricted, said Baum, who supports a recently adopted U.N. resolution calling for immediate shark catch limits and a ban on shark finning.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, editing by Stuart Grudgings)


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