Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ninety years of birdwatchers' notes going online

  • Story Highlights
  • 6 million handwritten note cards could give insight on climate change
  • Citizen scientists transcribing more than 90 years worth of historical bird data
  • "This is the longest and most comprehensive legacy data set on bird migration ..."
  • One-third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered or in serious decline
By Azadeh Ansari

(CNN) -- More than 100 years ago, J.A. Loring had his eyes on the California sky and his hand on a pen.

"Citizen scientists" jot notes about birds, like this broad-tailed hummingbird, to add to a national database.

"Citizen scientists" jot notes about birds, like this broad-tailed hummingbird, to add to a national database.

His hand-scribbled notes, along with those of 3,000 other "citizen scientists," can be found lining the drawers of green filing cabinets in the basement of a U.S. Geological Survey building in Laurel, Maryland.

These note cards -- 6 million of them, spanning almost a century -- contain a trove of invaluable information that could help unravel the effects of climate change on bird behavior.

"This is the longest and most comprehensive legacy data set on bird migration that we know to exist," said Jessica Zelt, who coordinates the North American Bird Phenology Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The cards include personal observations made by the birders. Their personal information, along with recorded bird data about the abundance, arrival, departure and location of certain species, is all found in these historic records.

Some of the 2-by-5-inch cards date back to the 1880s, when educator Wells W. Cooke founded the North American Bird Phenology Program (BPP), which encouraged amateur ornithologists to record bird sightings around the United States and Canada.

Now, for the first time ever, the paper files are being scanned, transcribed and converted into a digital database for online access.

"These cards, once transcribed, will provide over 90 years of data -- an unprecedented amount of information describing bird distributions, migration time and migration pathways, and how they are changing," Zelt said.

The collection contains data on about 900 bird species, some of which -- the Guadalupe storm-petrel, Labrador duck, Guadalupe caracara, great auk, Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon -- have gone extinct.

Maintaining these records since the BPP program ended in 1970 has not been easy.

"The cards have been filed and put away and held everywhere from attics to basements to storage facilities," Zelt said. "A lot of times, they were almost thrown out."

They survived almost four decades after the program ended, thanks to the perseverance of the program's last coordinator, Chan Robbins, a retired wildlife biologist.

"Each time they would get moved and bumped around, boy, I could remember wrapping those things and wrapping string around each little batch so they would not get unsorted," Robbins said.

The BPP program, which is operating on a minimal budget, now has more than 800 online volunteers, ranging from ornithologists to amateur bird watchers to ordinary citizens looking to translate a piece of science history. They have already scanned 200,000 cards and transcribed more than 17,000.

"Anyone can do it. There is a 15-minute training video you can watch after you sign up for the program online," Zelt said. "You don't have to have a background in ornithology, you just have to have an interest."

Bird enthusiast and star volunteer Stella Walsh, a 62-year-old retiree, pecks away at her keyboard for about four hours each day. She has already transcribed more than 2,000 entries from her apartment in Yarmouth, Maine.

"It's a lot more fun fondling feathers, but, the whole point is to learn about the data and be able to do something with it that is going to have an impact," Walsh said.

Climate change already has affected bird populations. Birds use temperature as a cue for many life-cycle decisions. They are also at the mercy of weather patterns that can affect biological processes such as when and where they migrate, and when they breed.

"Warmer temperatures will lead to earlier springs, and local plants and insects will come out earlier. However, if bird arrival dates remain the same, then they are potentially at a disadvantage, as the primary food [insects] for their young may no longer be at its peak," said Sam Droege, an ornithologist at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Habitat loss, pollution, climate change and competition from invasive species have all reduced North American bird populations.

A recent survey, "The U.S. State of Birds," conducted by government agencies, conservation organizations and citizen volunteers, found that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in serious decline.

"You cannot return to the past and collect data on the status of plants and animals," Droege said. "So this data set represents one of the few windows the world has into how a group of animals react to climate change."

Because of the work of thousands of people like J.A. Loring, today's volunteers and scientists can view pieces of ornithological history and identify long-term trends while working toward solutions that could help ensure the birds' survival.

"A single bird seen on a large open flat about half a mile west of town," Loring scribbled on June 5, 1897, upon seeing a northern spotted owl in Donner Summit, California.

"It was very tame and flew from roadside to fence post where it watched me for some time," he wrote.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Britain set to become most populous country in EU

Soaring population will force millions to flee water shortages in search of refuge - and, according to new figures, Britain will be one of the world's 'lifeboats'. On the eve of a major population conference, Science Editor Robin McKie asks: could the UK cope?

Britain will become one of the world's major destinations for immigrants as the world heats up and populations continue to soar. Statistics from the United Nations show that, on average, every year more than 174,000 people will be added to the numbers in the UK and that this trend will continue for the next four decades.

By then, only the United States and Canada will be receiving more overseas settlers, says the UN. This increase in British numbers is likely to put considerable strain on the country's transport, energy and housing, experts warned last week.

"The US and Canada will be taking in more people than us every year by 2050 but they are huge countries," said demographer Professor Tom Dyson of the London School of Economics. "Britain, by contrast, is a small nation. We will feel the impact of all these people. There will be no getting out of it. Simply controlling our carbon dioxide emissions will become harder and harder as more and more people arrive on our shores. In addition, housing, water supplies and transport will be strained and will need greatly increased investment."

However, other experts say such increases could also produce benefits for the nation, bringing in immigrants who could provide a vital supply of young workers. These demographers point out that, by 2050, more than a third of the UK population will be aged 60 or over. By then there will be a desperate need for bus drivers, care-workers and others to keep the country running and immigrants could fill this gap.

In addition, there is the issue of humanitarian responsibility. Britain is likely to be one of the few nations to survive the worst effects of climate change while other nations, particularly those in the developing world, have their farmland and fishing grounds destroyed. It could be argued that the UK has a moral duty to provide shelter for as many refugees as our shores can support.

But deciding what numbers the country might support is a highly controversial issue and will be the focus of a conference on sustainable populations which will be held this week in London. Organised by the Optimum Population Trust, the meeting will hear that the United Nation expects that by 2050 the world will be inhabited by around 9.2 billion people, compared to its current level of 6.8 billion. Every day, the equivalent of the population of a large city is added to the numbers of humans, a rise that is now straining the planet's resources to breaking point.

At the same time, Britain's population will rise from its current level of 61 million to 72 million by 2050. The nation will then be the most populous in the European Union, outstripping Germany, whose population will slump from 82 million to 71 million people as its immigration figures plummet.

The idea that Britain could one day support such numbers has been questioned by Aubrey Manning, emeritus professor of natural history at Edinburgh University. "There are far too many people living in Britain already," he said. "Once our population passed the 20 million level around 1850, it became too numerous. That is the figure at which we could no longer sustain our population from our own resources. We are now three times over the limit and heading for more. We have long passed the line of sustainability. As for the planet, its maximum sustainable population is no more than 3 billion, I would say."

The rise in population indicates that the country is set for some considerable overcrowding. Britain's land area is only two-thirds that of Germany, yet it will soon support the same number of citizens. "This population rise, brought about by rising immigration, will strain our infrastructures - our housing and water supplies - and bring very little advantage to the nation," said Dyson, who will address the conference. "Nor do I think these extra people will be able to help in looking after our older people."

But these points were disputed by Tim Finch, head of immigration for the Institute of Public Policy Research. "A healthy economy sucks in young, educated people and that is what has happened to this country over the past couple of decades. These young immigrants have helped keep the country running as our population has started to get older and they will become more important as the decades go past and that ageing intensifies. The immigration system picks out the best and the brightest of immigrants and they will be of great service to Britain. That is just a fact."

The problem is that discussions of population numbers in the past have been associated with talk of eugenics and with attempts at controlling ethnic populations. As a result, there is little discussion today of the subject or its impact on the environment, a point stressed by James Lovelock, the distinguished environmental scientist. "The subject has become a taboo, a matter of political correctness," he said last week. "And that is dangerous, for the numbers of humans on Earth are going to be crucial to our survival."

Manning added: "We have stopped worrying about population because other issues - acid rain, climate change and others - have occupied our attention and because past fears of global food shortages were proved unfounded. But the subject will not go away. Our planet is now dangerously overpopulated."

Another conference speaker, Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum, in London, agreed. "We desperately need to bring down our emissions of greenhouse gases but the truth is we will never get the contribution of each individual down to zero. Only the lack of the individual can bring it to zero, and that is an issue for population control which we need to talk about openly and urgently."

Rapley will tell delegates that the Earth's population is now rising at a rate of around 80 million a year. "That is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies across the world," he said. "If we can prevent unwanted pregnancies, we can halt this spiral in our numbers."

To do that, contraception will have to become universally available - and political and religious opposition to birth control removed. If that happened, the world's population could be stabilised to around 8 billion by 2050, added Rapley.

But many climatologists believe that by then life on the planet will already have become dangerously unpleasant. Temperature rises will have started to have devastating impacts on farmland, water supplies and sea levels. Humans - increasing both in numbers and dependence on food from devastated landscapes - will then come under increased pressure. The end result will be apocalyptic, said Lovelock. By the end of the century, the world's population will suffer calamitous declines until numbers are reduced to around 1 billion or less. "By 2100, pestilence, war and famine will have dealt with the majority of humans," he said.

One of the few places to survive the worst impacts will be Britain. "Our climate will be one of the least affected by global warming," added Lovelock. "As a result, everyone will want to live here. We will become one of the world's lifeboats. The trouble, of course, will be that, even if we wanted to, we will not be able to pick up everyone. There will be some hard decisions to make."

Many experts predict that disaster will strike long before 2050. Last week, the government's chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, said the planet faced "a perfect storm" of food, energy and water shortages which could strike in less than 20 years. In a speech to the Sustainable Development Commission conference in London, Beddington said that one in three people were already facing water shortages and that by 2030 world water demand would increase by more than 30%; energy demands would increase by 50%. "There are dramatic problems out there, particularly with water and food, but energy also, and they are all intimately connected."

In the long run, however, humanity should benefit, said Lovelock. "If you look at our species over the past million years, there have been a number of major climatic events, some devastating. Between the Ice Ages, sea levels rose by 120 metres and tracts of land were flooded. Yet that period covers the time that early humans emerged and evolved into Homo sapiens

"Often our numbers were brought to catastrophically low levels by climate change and numbers were reduced to only a couple of thousand on a couple of occasions. Every time things got bad, our numbers plummeted and we improved as a species. That is certainly going to happen again over the next 100 years."

The world by numbers

1 million Britain's population in Roman times

6 million Britain's population around the time of the English civil war

47 million Britain's population in 1945

52,000 The number of tonnes of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere every minute

267 The average number of births every minute worldwide; the average number of deaths per minute is 118

78 million The planet's annual population increase, a number roughly equivalent to the population of Germany

1 million The number of chimpanzees in Africa in 1900. Today, thanks to habitat loss and hunting, numbers have dropped to around 15,000

38.4 The median age in the UK rose from 34.1 years in 1971 to 38.4 in 2003 and is projected to reach 43.3 in 2031. (The median is the age that separates the oldest half of the population from the youngest.)

10 billion The number of chickens eaten by man worldwide every year

500 million The number of ducks eaten every year

1.3 billion The population of China

1.2 billion India's population

500 million The population of the EU

74 million The number of barrels of oil pumped daily across the planet; 15 million tonnes of coal are dug every day

9 Between 2010 and 2050, nine countries will account for half of the world's projected population increase: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Bangladesh, Tanzania

• Sources: World Clock; Poodwaddle; UN Population Division

Perfect storm of environmental and economic collapse closer than you think

Green measures have to be at the heart of any financial rescue packages if we are to avoid catastrophe

A "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water and high-cost energy will hit the global economy before 2030, said the government's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, last week. Factor in accelerating climate change and this lethal cocktail leads to public unrest, cross-border conflict and mass migration – in other words, an economic and political collapse that will make today's economic recession seem very tame indeed. But though I totally agree with John Beddington's analysis, I think he's got the timing wrong. This "perfect storm" will hit much closer to 2020 than 2030.

It may seem inappropriate – callous even, with unemployment at the two million mark in the UK – to be inviting people to get worked up about some possible economic collapse in the future. But if we are to avoid that ultimate recession, from which there will be no conventional recovery in a normal boom-and-bust cycle, then we have to start thinking about today's recession in a completely different way. Both in terms of our analysis of underlying causes and appropriate remedies.

On the analysis front, people seem blind to the fact that the causes of the economic collapse are exactly the same as those behind today's ecological crisis – and behind accelerating climate change in particular. As Adair Turner's first report as chair of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) demonstrates, the neo-liberal obsession with deregulation has done untold damage to capital markets. But people should understand that the same deregulatory fervour has caused untold damage to the natural environment, all around the world, for the past 20 years or more.

It's exactly the same when one looks at the unholy trinity that has made today's capital markets so spuriously dynamic: mispricing of risk, misallocation of capital, and misalignment of incentives. Catastrophic impacts on markets; catastrophic impacts on the environment.

And then there's the debt issue. Governments have systematically stoked up levels of personal and national debt (including insane asset bubbles in housing, land and property) explicitly to force-feed high levels of economic growth. We will all be paying off those financial debts for decades to come.

On the environment front, as our financial debts have built up, so have our debts to nature – in terms of the unsustainable depletion of natural resources, measured by the loss of topsoil, forests, fresh water and biodiversity. Everybody knows that liquidating capital assets to fuel consumption is crazy but nobody seems to know how to stop it.

There is a simple conclusion here: the self-same abuses of debt-driven "casino capitalism" that have caused the global economy to collapse are what lie behind the impending collapse of the life-support systems on which we all ultimately depend.

As regards appropriate remedies, the link between today's recession and the perfect storm that awaits us in 2020/30 couldn't be clearer: sort out today's calamity by investing in infrastructure and technologies to help avoid tomorrow's infinitely worse calamity. In other words, a massive "green recovery package" along the lines we are now seeing in the US, South Korea and other European countries, focusing on energy efficiency, renewables, smart energy grids, new transportation solutions and so on.

The government is sort of interested in this, with lots of very eloquent words about a new low-carbon industrial strategy. But as the Sustainable Development Commission has pointed out, the percentage of the total recovery-based expenditure devoted in the UK to this kind of "sustainable new deal" to date is derisory. It's about 7% as opposed to 80% in South Korea, for instance. We simply have to ensure that the unsustainable elements in today's recovery package (such as the useless VAT giveaway) do not overwhelm the low-carbon, sustainable elements.

But the commission has gone even further than this by raising the whole issue of economic growth. Is it possible to avoid the "ultimate recession" if all we are doing is trying to get back as fast as possible to the same old "economic growth at all costs"? In a report to be published next week (provocatively entitled Prosperity without growth?), the SDC urges politicians of all parties to get serious about the very real limits to growth we're running up against today – both social and environmental.

Politicians serve us ill by disconnecting their policies for economic recovery from what has to happen very urgently indeed if we are to avoid the horrors of accelerating climate change and the kind of "perfect storm" that the chief scientific adviser is flagging up as inevitable – unless we fundamentally change the rules of the growth game.

• Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and author of Living Within Our Means: Avoiding the Ultimate Recession. He is also chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

Nearly a third of U.S. bird species in trouble

From: Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly one-third of all U.S. bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline, with birds in Hawaii facing a "borderline ecological disaster," scientists reported on Thursday.

The State of the Birds report, issued by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar along with conservation groups and university ornithologists, also noted some successes, including the recovery of the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and other species after the banning of the chemical DDT.

"When we talk about birds and we talk about wildlife, we're also talking about the economics of this country," Salazar told reporters as the report was released.

Wildlife watching and recreation generate $122 billion annually, the report saidSalazar mentioned revenue from hunting, fishing and bird-watching, but added that President Barack Obama's stimulus package and proposed federal budgets for the remainder of 2009 and 2010 offer more money for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which aims to protect birds and other creatures.

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The Nano, world's cheapest car, to hit Indian roads

From: Janaki Krishnan, Reuters

MUMBAI (Reuters) - The Nano, the world's cheapest car, will hit Indian roads in July, four months after its formal launch on Monday, and demand is expected to far outstrip supply as the price tag of around $2,000 draws legions of new buyers.

Hundreds of thousands are set to queue up to book, including motorbike owners and people who have been using public transport.

But launching six months behind schedule in a subdued market, with production in the first year severely constrained and the threat of further ratings downgrades hanging over the company, it will take over a year to deliver the first 100,000 cars.rence.

"From the drawing board to its commercial launch, the car has overcome several challenges. I hope it will provide safe, affordable four-wheel transportation to families who till now have not been able to own a car," he said.

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