Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Science Weekly: Emergency on Planet Earth

James Randerson and the team ask Prof Bill McGuire if it's already too late to save the planet. Plus, a switch-on date for the LHC. And the woman who cloned her own pit bull terrier

For a man who spends his days pondering the climatic catastrophes and geological disasters that will wipe out large chunks of the human population, this week's guest Prof Bill McGuire of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre is a surprisingly cheery chap. James Randerson and the team discuss his latest book Seven Years to Save the Planet and ask whether it is already too late.

The team also revisits the Large Hadron Collider – the greatest experiment ever built. The LHC switch-on date – 10th September – has finally been announced, but will it live up to the hype. We ask veteran theoretical physicist Prof John Ellis.

Ian Sample, environment correspondent David Adam and BA media fellow Marcus Pearce are also on hand to pick through the week's news, including saving the world's primates, an intriguing chemical find on Mars and the bizarre tale of the woman who cloned her pet pit bull terrier.

Post your comments on the blog or our Facebook Wall. and the LHC at Cern.

Superglue: the climate activist's latest weapon of choice

Sticking it to the man has recently taken on a whole new meaning, as political and environmental activists turn increasingly to the power of superglue (or indeed any non-branded fast-acting cyanoacrylate-based adhesive capable of sticking human flesh to large, immovable objects) to help them make their points.

Last month there was Dan Glass from Plane Stupid, who gamely tried to gum himself to Gordon Brown and then the Downing Street gates, and the rather more successful bonding of six members of the Heathrow Camp for Climate Action to Department of Transport offices to protest against the airport's expansion. Last week, members of the groups Rising Tide and Climate Camp fastened themselves to RBS's oil and gas division building to highlight their investments in polluting technologies, and on Monday a group of superglue-wielding activists targeted mining company BHP Billiton.

Why so? Has the soaring price of commodities on the world markets rendered iron chains and padlocks too pricey? Is throwing yourself beneath a galloping horse simply impractical in the modern era? No. "It's easy to buy and carry," explains a member of Rising Tide, a 51-year-old teacher who took part in their protest. "And you can't walk around with chains if you're a known activist because they can be construed as an offensive weapon. It's harder to construe that with glue." Most importantly, of course, glued-on protestors prolong the activity and make it more headline- and photo-worthy. "It's difficult for people to move you on. The police - in Britain at least - are unlikely to try and rip your hand away and cause injury," says the Rising Tide activist. The boys in blue are, however, apparently becoming wise to the new tactic and have taken to carrying solvents as well as the traditional bolt-cutters to protests to enable them to detach activists without injury.

Superglue deployment is, the activist agrees, a relatively recent phenomenon. "I'd never heard of it until a year ago," she says. "But we feel we have to use it because otherwise a protest can feel a little bit limp. We want to up the ante a bit because the message about climate change is a very, very urgent one that we're trying to get out."

Elephant seals join fight against climate change

From: Reuters


SYDNEY (Reuters) - Elephant seals swimming under Antarctic ice and fitted with special sensors are providing scientists with crucial data on ice formation, ocean currents and climate change, a study released on Tuesday said.

The seals swimming under winter sea ice have overcome a "blind-spot" for scientists by allowing them to calculate how fast sea ice forms during winter.

Sea ice reflects sunlight back into space, so less sea ice means more energy is absorbed by the earth, causing more warming.

"They have made it possible for us to observe large areas of the ocean under the sea ice in winter for the first time," said co-author Steve Rintoul from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

Conventional oceanographic monitoring from ships, satellites and drifting buoys, cannot provide observations under sea ice.

"Until now, our ability to represent the high-latitude oceans and sea ice in oceanographic and climate models has suffered as a result," said Rintoul, who also works with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart.

The elephant seals have provided scientists with a 30-fold increase in data recorded in parts of the Southern Ocean, said the study by a team of French, Australian, U.S. and British scientists and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Between 2004 and 2005, the seals swam up to 65 kilometers (40 miles) a day, supplying scientists with 16,500 ice profiles. The seals dived to a depth of more than 500 meters (1,500 feet) on average and to a maximum depth of nearly 2 km (a mile).

"If we want to understand what's going to happen to climate in the future we need to know what the sea ice is going to do. Will there be more or less and will it form more or less rapidly?" Rintoul told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The experiment involved 85 seals with sensors attached to their heads.

"They measure temperature and salinity as a function of depth as they dive down and up through the water column," he said.

"From that information we can determine what the ocean currents are doing and so they provide us with a very detailed record of how temperatures and salinity's changed," he added.

The polar regions play an important role in the earth's climate and are changing more rapidly than any other part of the world, with the Southern Ocean warming more rapidly than the global ocean average.

Sea ice not only affects the amount of energy reflected back into space, but also the amount of dense water around the Antarctic which drives ocean currents that transports heat around the globe.

Sea ice also provides a critical habitat for krill, penguins and seals.

(Additional reporting by David Fogarty; Editing by David Fogarty)

Oil and gas projects in western Amazon threaten biodiversity and indigenous peoples

From: Public Library of Science


The western Amazon, home to the most biodiverse and intact rainforest left on Earth, may soon be covered with oil rigs and pipelines.

According to a new study, over 180 oil and gas "blocks" — areas zoned for exploration and development — now cover the megadiverse western Amazon, which includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and western Brazil. These oil and gas blocks stretch over 688,000 km2 (170 million acres), a vast area, nearly the size of Texas. The study appears in the August 13 edition of the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

For over three years, researchers from two U.S. non-profit organizations — Save America's Forests and Land Is Life — and scientists from Duke University tracked hydrocarbon activities across the region and generated a comprehensive map of oil and gas activities across the western Amazon. The result is an alarming assessment of the threats to the biodiversity and indigenous peoples of the region.

"We found that the oil and gas blocks overlap perfectly with the most biodiverse part of the Amazon for birds, mammals, and amphibians," said study co-author Dr. Clinton Jenkins of Duke University. "The threat to amphibians is of particular concern because they are already the most threatened group of vertebrates worldwide."

The study also found that the oil and gas blocks are concentrated in the most intact part of the Amazon. Even national parks are not immune; exploration and development blocks cover the renowned Yasuní National Park in Ecuador and Madidi National Park in Bolivia.

"The most dynamic situation is unfolding in the Peruvian Amazon," warned lead author Dr. Matt Finer of Save America's Forests.

The study reports that 64 oil and gas blocks cover approximately 72% of the vast Peruvian Amazon (~490,000 km2 or ~121 million acres), an area much larger than California. All but eight of these blocks have appeared since 2003, when Peru launched a major effort to boost exploration across the Amazon. National parks are off limits to hydrocarbon activities in Peru, but oil and gas blocks do overlap a variety of other types of protected areas.

Many of the oil and gas blocks in the western Amazon overlap titled lands of indigenous peoples and encroach on the territories of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation. These isolated peoples have chosen to live in the forests without contact with the outside world. They are extremely susceptible to outside illnesses due to lack of natural resistance.

In the second part of the study, the researchers delve into the most cutting policy issues related to oil and gas activities in the Amazon.

The authors highlighted new access roads as the greatest single threat from hydrocarbon development. Roads trigger deforestation, colonization, overhunting, and illegal logging in previously remote areas.

"The elimination of new oil access roads could significantly reduce the impacts of most projects," said Finer, echoing one of the studies' main conclusions.

The analysis points out that the current environmental assessment process is inadequate due to a lack of independence in the review process and a lack of comprehensive analyses of the long-term, cumulative, and synergistic impacts of multiple oil and gas projects across the wider region. The authors stress the need for regional Strategic Environmental Assessments in order to correct this situation.

The study also addresses the complex policy issues related to indigenous peoples.

"The way that oil development is being pursued in the Western Amazon is a gross violation of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the region" said Brian Keane of Land is Life, "International agreements and Inter-American human rights law recognize that indigenous peoples have rights to their lands, and explicitly prohibit the granting of concessions to exploit natural resources in their territories without their free, prior and informed consent."

The authors also detail the growing conflict of hydrocarbon activities slated for the territories of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.

Finally, the study highlights the role of the international community. Growing global energy demand is driving the search for more oil and gas in the Amazon and companies from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and China are carrying out most of the development.

"Filling up with a tank of gas could soon have devastating consequences to rainforests, their peoples, and their species" remarked co-author Dr. Stuart Pimm of Duke University.

Ecuador's innovative Yasuní-ITT Initiative is held up as a potentially precedent-setting example of how the global north and south can collaborate on both protecting the Amazon and combating climate change. The initiative is the Government of Ecuador's limited-time offer to keep its largest untapped oilfields unexploited in exchange for financial compensation from the international community.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Birds head north as climate heats up

From: SUNY College

Birds head north as climate heats up


A study by researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) has documented, for the first time in the northeastern United States, that a variety of bird species are extending their breeding ranges to the north, a pattern that adds to concerns about climate change.

Focusing on 83 species of birds that have traditionally bred in New York state, the researchers compared data collected in the early 1980s with information gathered between 2000 and 2005. They discovered that many species had extended their range boundaries, some by as much as 40 miles.

“They are indeed moving northward in their range boundaries,” said researcher Benjamin Zuckerberg, whose Ph.D. dissertation included the study. “But the real signal came out with some of the northerly species that are more common in Canada and the northern part of the U.S. Their southern range boundaries are actually moving northward as well, at a much faster clip.”

Among the species moving north are the Nashville warbler, a little bird with a yellow belly and a loudly musical two-part song, and the pine siskin, a common finch that resembles a sparrow. Both birds have traditionally been seen in Northern New York but are showing significant retractions in their southern range boundaries, Zuckerberg said.

Birds moving north from more southern areas include the red-bellied woodpecker, considered the most common woodpecker in the Southeastern United States, and the Carolina wren, whose “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” song is surprisingly loud for a bird that weighs less than an ounce.

“There are a wide spectrum of changes that are occurring and those changes are occurring in a relatively short amount of time. We’re not talking centuries, we’re talking decades,” said William Porter, an ESF faculty member and director of ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center, who worked with Zuckerberg on the study.

“New York citizens need to recognize that these changes are occurring,” Porter said. “Whether they are good or bad, whether they should be addressed, whether we should adapt to them, whether we should try to mitigate some of this, those are questions that really, rightfully, belong in the political arena.”

The study compared data collected during the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Breeding Bird Atlas census, which engaged thousands of citizen volunteers to observe and report the birds they could identify. The first atlas was created between 1980 and 1985; the second was done between 2000 and 2005.

New York was the first state to complete two breeding bird atlases, Zuckerberg said, making it the only state that is able, at this point, to produce this kind of research.

Zuckerberg said similar changes were found in birds that breed in forests and those that inhabit grasslands, in both insectivores and omnivores, and even in new tropical migrants that are typically seen in Mexico and South America.

“What you begin to see is a systematic pattern of these species moving northward as we would predict with regional warming,”

Big Dry' claims River Murray lakes

Big Dry' claims River Murray lakes

After seven years of drought, flooding with seawater may be river system's only hope

Australia's epic drought is tightening its grip as a deepening ecological crisis unfolds in the south of the country. After seven years of the Big Dry, water levels in lakes at the mouth of the mighty Murray river have fallen by up to 50cm below sea level and environmental damage is spreading on a massive scale, according to conservationists.

At Bottle Bend Lagoon, drought and over-use of water by farmers for irrigation has left swaths of riverbed exposed, producing a toxic chemical reaction that is spreading. The banks are lined with poisonous aluminium and manganese salts and the water is dun-coloured, smells like rotten eggs and is as corrosive as battery acid. Fish have died in their thousands and red gum trees and plants are also dying.

The same environmental disaster is happening in nearby Lakes Albert and Alexandrina, internationally recognised wetlands that are home to a wide range of migratory birds. Australia's water minister, Penny Wong, has said the lakes may be beyond salvation. But she dismissed calls for more fresh water to be allowed to flow down the Murray - the river is controlled by dams, weirs and locks - saying dwindling supplies were needed for essential human demands.

Now, a controversial option of flooding the area with seawater is being considered. Professor Tim Flannery, Australia's best-known climate-change commentator, said that the action would be 'risky and probably unpopular', but that it could help save the dying eco-system by preventing the exposed lake bed from turning irreversibly acidic and toxic. A weir would be constructed to prevent salt or acidic water contaminating Adelaide's drinking water supply.

Peter Cosier, of the pressure group Concerned Scientists, is leading the opposition to the plan, saying it would alter the ecosystem beyond recognition. 'The advice I have is that, once the salt water's in there, it's next to impossible to get out,' he said.

The Murray Darling Basin Commission manages the vast river system that provides water to Australia's 'food bowl', a vast expanse of land that runs down the continent's eastern coast. It is studying options for the endangered lakes and is due to report to ministers on the seawater plan by October.

The crisis has come about because Australia is in the grip of the worst drought in a century. Years of scant rainfall have left vast areas parched and last month it was predicted that up to a million people could face a shortage of drinking water if the drought continues. The report from government officials warned that there could be problems supplying drinking water from the Murray Darling in 2008-2009 unless there is significant rainfall soon.

Another report by scientists predicted that Australasia would experience a tenfold increase in heatwaves as a result of climate change. Exceptionally hot years, which used to occur once every 22 years, would come every one or two years, making drought a part of the landscape. Water in public storage in the basin is at only 21 per cent capacity.

Arlene Buchan, director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the lakes need 300 to 400 gigalitres of water - a gigalitre is equivalent to 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools - before the year's end. 'Unless we get that water, we are facing an ecological disaster.'


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