Friday, January 2, 2009

More polar bears going hungry

From: New Scientist


WARMER temperatures and earlier melting of sea ice are causing polar bears to go hungry. The number of undernourished bears has tripled in a 20-year period.

Seth Cherry of the University of Alberta, Canada, and colleagues monitored the health of polar bears in the ice-covered Beaufort Sea region of the Arctic during April and May in 1985, 1986, 2005 and 2006. They immobilised the bears using tranquilliser darts and measured the ratio of urea to creatinine in their blood. A low ratio means that nitrogenous waste material is being recycled within the body and indicates the animal is fasting - a state which usually only occurs temporarily in males during the spring breeding season.

In 1985 and 1986 the proportion of bears fasting was 9.6 and 10.5 per cent respectively. By 2005 and 2006 this had risen to 21.4 and 29.3 per cent.

Cherry's team believes that the increase in fasting bears is explained by warmer temperatures and earlier spring melts. Polar bears use sea ice as a hunting platform, catching seals by sitting next to their breathing holes and waiting to pounce. Spring is usually a time of feasting for polar bears, filling up before summer when the ice retreats. "It is clear that the changes in the sea ice are affecting the hunting opportunities available to the bears," says co-author Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta.

What's more, the early melting may also be resulting in a lack of prey. Sea ice is important to seals because they build dens for their pups in the overlying snow, explains Cherry, so their numbers may have dropped.

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Waning wildlife

From: San Francisco Guardian


GREEN CITY Changes to ocean and air temperatures, rising sea levels, loss of habitat, scarcity of food, altered precipitation patterns, environmental asynchronicity — these are the concerns of wildlife biologists who are watching the increased effects of climate change on the thousands of plant and animal species that share the earth with people. Overall, global warming threatens a third of existing species, with 50 percent now in general decline due to a variety of human activities.

Bay Area wildlife is already being negatively affected by a warmer world, one that locally manifests in nesting birds roasting to death during heat waves, plummeting fish populations, and starving whales. Those stories were part of "Irreplaceable: Wildlife in a warming world," a recent seminar held at the San Francisco Public Library by the Endangered Species Coalition. Maria Brown, superintendent of Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary — one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world, shared a grim account of the Cassin's auklet.

"This little seabird you maybe never heard of may predict the future of climate change in San Francisco," said Brown.

The auklet spends most of its life far out at sea, and flies inland to breed in burrows on remote islands and coastlines. Invasive grasses have choked many of the prime burrowing spots along the coast, so wildlife biologists have installed bird boxes as an alternative. April, the height of the annual nesting season, was an unusually warm month, with thermometers on the Farallones Islands clocking 90-degree temperatures. The bird boxes turned into ovens. "They literally cooked," said Brown of the breeding auklets. "This is a prediction of what's to come."

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Can aircraft trails affect climate?

From: Nature News
Published January 1, 2009 09:48 AM

Can aircraft trails affect climate?


Grounding planes after the 11 September attacks may not have caused unusual temperature effects.

When all commercial air traffic in the United States was grounded after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, scientists got an unexpected opportunity to test ideas about the climate effects of the condensation trails left behind by jets.

A study in 2002 suggested that these contrails could have a significant effect on daily temperature patterns (see 'Air-traffic moratorium opened window on contrails and climate'). But a new analysis now claims that altered US temperature patterns during the three flight-free days can be explained by natural variations in cloud cover, rather than the absence of planes.

Aircraft contrails can spread into cirrus-like clouds high in the atmosphere. Similar to natural clouds, they are thought to have an overall warming effect on the planet. But they can also moderate daily temperature extremes by trapping heat that escapes from the ground and reflecting sunlight. This raises the lowest overnight temperatures and, to a lesser degree, reduces the highs during daylight hours, scientists have suggested.

With air traffic projected to grow by 2—5% per year in the near future — amounting to at least a tripling in traffic by 2050 — the effects of contrails are expected to become an increasingly important factor in climate change. But atmospheric scientists are still unsure about the scale of the contrails' impact.

Theory or fact?

Two studies noted that when planes stopped flying on 11—14 September 2001, the average daily temperature range in the United States rose markedly, exceeding the three-day periods before and after by an average of 1.8 °C. The unusual size of the shift, says David Travis of the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater, who led both of the earlier studies, implied that an absence of contrails gave the temperature range a significant boost. But that idea, he says, was "more like a hypothesis" than a firm conclusion.

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Third of Britain's mammals 'at risk'


Climate change and habitat loss blamed as eight more species join the seriously endangered list

The hedgehog, water vole and hazel dormouse are among a number of British mammals that face becoming seriously endangered, research published today reveals.

Climate change and habitat loss have led to a dramatic increase in the number of mammals whose future survival is a cause for concern among conservationists, the study commissioned by the People's Trust for Endangered Species concludes. The Bechstein's bat, one of the country's rarest mammals, has shown a marked decline while the number of soprano pipistrelle bats has fallen by 46% in six years.

The report, the seventh annual assessment of the state of land mammals in Britain, says that more effort is needed to help the endangered species, which now number 18 - more than 30% of Britain's mammal species - up from 10 last year. Only two species on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan list, the otter and the lesser horseshoe bat, have increased their numbers.

Professor David Macdonald, conservation biologist in the wildlife conservation unit at Oxford University and co-author of the report, said: "Next year, the focus of biodiversity conservation in England will shift from individual species to a more integrated eco-system approach, incorporating climate change adaptation principles and establishing complementary species and habitat conservation."

Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions, combined with hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, were causing changes in the distribution and behaviour of some species, such as the hazel dormouse, the study finds.

Although modern agricultural practices and the disappearance of hedgerows have had a significant impact on mammals such as the hedgehog, "conflict" between mammal species, particularly involving the invasive American mink, is also posing problems for conservationists, it adds. Mink-free zones on a large scale need to be established to stop the "catastrophic decline" of water voles that has been seen over the last 20 years.

Pine martens, one of the species on the list of conservation concern and extremely rare in England and Wales, are preying on capercaillie in Scotland, one of the fastest-declining gamebirds.

Wild deer, whose distribution has been increasing over the last 30 years, are the major cause of damage to Woodland Sites of Special Scientific Interest and are also destroying vegetation cover for smaller mammals. The damage caused is likely to worsen unless more work is done to fence in deer and manage their populations, the report concludes.

"The interaction between people and nature has positive and negative parts. If people are looking for a single, simple answer then they're going to be frustrated," Macdonald said.

"Conservation is as much about control and management as it is about preservation. Sometimes you've too many and in other places too few, which involves fostering where necessary and controlling elsewhere."

The report also tackles the controversial issue of reintroducing species into the wild where they have become extinct, including the beaver, which will be put back into Scotland next spring for the first time in 400 years. The report said the introduction would bring more benefits than costs to biodiversity. Other species being considered for release are up to 450 Eurasian lynx, which would give Scotland the fourth largest lynx population in Europe. Nida al-Fulaij, development manager for the People's Trust for Endangered Species, said mammals had often been neglected in people's imagination.

"We've been funding more and more mammal conservation work in the UK and are concerned about the number of mammals on the conservation priority list. There's no overall organisation for mammals, in the way that there is the RSPB for birds, and mammal conservation has been very fragmented. Mammals are not as easy to see as birds - many are nocturnal," al-Fulaij said.

"Lots are considered vermin and it's not until numbers drop, as with the hedgehog, that people notice. Sometimes there's a misconception that they're very numerous when in fact numbers are falling. Urban areas, hedgerows and gardens are great habitats and we would encourage people to go out and enjoy them."

Windfarm revolution tangled in red tape

• 262 UK projects await planning permission
• Renewable energy target looks increasingly remote

Britain's wind power industry is facing a double blow of lengthy planning delays and rapidly rising construction costs in a crisis that threatens to sink the government's climate-change goals.

Dozens of projects are being held up by planning inquiries, with the average length of time taken to win permission being 15 to 20 months in England and far longer in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the bulk of the schemes are being developed.

There are 262 different projects representing seven gigawatts stuck in the planning stages. And the rate of approvals is slowing despite government promises, according to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA).

It said that the start of a third inquiry into one project in Norfolk that has already been delayed for seven years showed that the government has not cured the problem despite introducing the Planning Act to speed up the process.

Meanwhile Centrica, owner of British Gas and one of the most powerful energy utilities, said a 250-megawatt scheme off the Lincolnshire coast was hanging in the balance because turbine manufacturers and other suppliers had raised their prices so high they were jeopardising the economics of the scheme.

With Britain committed to producing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 to meet European Union targets, the government would be blown off course unless it intervened more robustly, said the BWEA.

"The government does not want the political problems of undermining local democracy by taking control out of the hands of local councillors," said Charles Anglin, director of communications at the BWEA. "But if it fails to act it is just storing up more difficult problems further down the road when it gives the go-ahead to coal or expensive gas projects instead."

To meet the 15% target, the BWEA estimates that Britain needs more than 30GW of wind capacity. "We think you can get 20GW offshore, which means you need 10-12GW onshore, and yet so far we have only got 2.5GW," Anglin said.

"We are aware that the planning system does need to be quicker and there are other barriers to projects," said a department of energy and climate change spokesman. "That is why we are going to unveil a renewable energy strategy with the next steps to meeting our goals."

The planning problem is highlighted by the battle waged by Ecotricity at Shipdham in Norfolk over a wind farm application submitted in December 2001. The company has won two planning inquiries only to find the final decision challenged in the high court by two local residents claiming potential noise problems.

The Planning Act applies only to schemes in England - and then only those over 50MW. "Eighty to 90% of the schemes in England are under 50MW anyway so the Planning Act does virtually nothing," Anglin said.

Offshore operators are also struggling because of the mounting costs that have already chased Shell and BP off to the US.

The cost of Centrica's 250MW Lincs wind farm off Skegness has increased from £2bn to £3bn a GW. "We are committed to building wind farms," said a company spokesman, "but we have got to get the costs down to an economic level."

Nasa climate expert makes personal appeal to Obama

One of the world's top climate scientists has written a personal new year appeal to Barack and Michelle Obama, warning of the "profound disconnect" between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem.

With less than three weeks to go until Obama's inauguration, Professor James Hansen, who heads Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, asked the recently appointed White House science adviser Professor John Holdren to pass the missive directly to the president-elect.

In it, he praises Obama's campaign rhetoric about "a planet in peril", but says that how the new president acts in office will be crucial. Hansen lambasts the current international approach of setting targets through "cap and trade" schemes as not up to the task. "This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity," the letter from Hansen and his wife, Anniek, reads.

The letter will make uncomfortable reading for officials in 10 US states whose cap and trade mechanism - the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - got under way yesterday. The scheme is the first mandatory, market-based greenhouse gas reduction programme in the US.

Hansen advocates a three-pronged attack on the climate problem. First, he wants a phasing out of coal-fired power stations - which he calls "factories of death" - that do not incorporate carbon capture. "Nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground. Caps will not cause that to happen - caps only slow the rate at which the oil and gas are used. The only solution is to cut off the coal source," the Hansens wrote.

Second, he proposes a "carbon tax and 100% dividend". This is a mechanism for putting a price on carbon without raising money for government coffers. The idea is to tax carbon at source, then redistribute the revenue equally among taxpayers, so that high carbon users are penalised while low carbon users are rewarded.

Finally, he urges a renewed research effort into so-called fourth generation nuclear plants, which can use nuclear waste as fuel.

Hansen argues that the current emphasis on reduction targets combined with carbon trading schemes make it too easy for countries to wriggle out of their commitments. He cites the example of Japan's increasing coal use, which it has offset by buying credits from China through the clean development mechanism - an instrument set up by the Kyoto protocol - yet China's emissions have continued to increase rapidly. China has overtaken the US as the biggest polluter in the world.

Hansen has been one of the most prominent advocates of action to tackle climate change since he first spoke on the issue in the 1980s. His testimony to the Senate featured in Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and he has received numerous honours for his work on the issue, including the WWF's top conservation award.

Professor's wish list

• Moratorium on and phasing out of coal power stations without carbon capture, what Hansen calls the "sine qua non for solving the climate problem". Coal CO2 emissions are the same as those of other fossil fuels combined.

• Raising the price of emissions via a "carbon tax and 100% dividend". This is a tax mechanism to "decarbonise" the economy without a net take from taxpayers. Low carbon users are rewarded while high users are punished.

• Urgent research on "fourth generation" nuclear power with international co-operation. This offers one of the best options for nearly carbon-free power, according to Hansen. It would also help to solve the nuclear waste problem by using that material as fuel.

Slowdown of coral growth extremely worrying, say scientists

Slowdown of coral growth extremely worrying, say scientists

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Coral growth across the Great Barrier Reef has suffered a "severe and sudden" slowdown since 1990 that is unprecedented in the last four centuries, according to scientists.

The researchers analysed the growth rates of 328 coral colonies on 69 individual reefs that make up the 1,250 mile-long Great Barrier Reef, off north-east Australia. They found that the rate at which the corals were laying down calcium in their skeletons dropped by 14.2% between 1990 and 2005.

Corals around the world are severely threatened by coastal pollution, warming seas and over-exploitation, but the most probable explanation for the drop in the growth rate of the corals' calcium carbonate skeletons is acidification of the water due to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. More acid water makes it more difficult for the coral polyps to grab the minerals they need to build their skeletons from the sea water.

"Our data shows that growth and calcification of massive Porites in the GBR [Great Barrier Reef] are already declining and are doing so at a rate unprecedented in coral records reaching back 400 years," wrote Dr Glenn De'ath from the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, Queensland, and his colleagues in the journal Science. "Verification of the causes of this decline should be made a high priority."

Porites corals can be centuries old and grow into 6m tall mounds. Rather like a tree ring, each year's growth is visible as a band, so by drilling into the corals the scientists could examine the extent of growth in specific years. The team used x-rays and a technique called gamma densitometry to measure annual growth and skeletal density, which then allowed them to calculate the amount of calcification annually. They found that the calcification rate rose 5.4% between 1900 and 1970, but this dropped by 14.2% between 1990 and 2005. The drop was mainly due to a growth slowdown from 1.43cm a year to 1.24cm. The researchers measured the same effect in both nearshore and offshore reefs, suggesting it is not due to pollution from the land.

"This study has provided the first really rigorous snapshot of how calcification might be changing," marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland in Australia told Science. "The results are extremely worrying."


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