Tag Archives: ecological disaster

9 Environmental Boundaries We Don’t Want to Cross

9 Environmental Boundaries We Don’t Want to Cross | Wired Science | Wired.com.The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

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Climate change threatens to turn the planet into a stormy, overheated mess: That much we know. But according to 28 leading scientists, greenhouse gas pollution is but one of nine environmental factors critical to humanity’s future. If their boundaries are stretched too far, Earth’s environment could be catastrophically altered — and three have already been broken, with several others soon to follow.

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This grim diagnosis, published Wednesday in Nature, is the most ambitious assessment of planetary health to date. It’s a first-draft users’ manual for an era that scientists dub the “anthropocene,” in which nearly seven billion resource-hungry humans have come to dominate ecological change on Earth. The scientists’ quantifications are open to argument, but not the necessity of their perspective.

“It’s a crude attempt to map the environmental space in which we can operate,” said Jon Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and one of the paper’s lead authors. “We need to keep our activities in a certain range, or the planet could tip into a state we haven’t seen in the history of our civilization.”

Thresholds for atmospheric carbon dioxide and ozone have already been described, and are widely known to the public. But the scientists say five other factors are just as important: ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, land use, freshwater use and biodiversity. They say chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosols may also be essential, but can’t yet be quantified.

Values for the proposed boundaries are still just estimates, and don’t account for how pushing one could affect another — how, for example, acidification that kills plankton could make it harder for the ocean to absorb CO2 and rebound from nitrogen pollution. Ecological models still can’t capture the entirety of Earth’s biological, geological and chemical processes, and it’s impossible to run whole-Earth experiments — except, arguably, for the experiment that’s going on now.

 

Despite those uncertainties, one aspect of Earth’s behavior is becoming clear. Records of global transitions between geological ages, and of regional changes between environmental stages, suggest that planet-wide change could happen relatively quickly. It might not take thousands or millions of years for Earth’s environment to be altered. It could happen in centuries, perhaps even decades.

Exactly what Earth would look like is difficult to predict in detail, but it could be radically different from the mild environment that has prevailed for the last 10,000 years. It was temperate stability that nurtured the rise of civilization, and it should continue for thousands of years to come, unless humanity keeps pushing the limits.

“The Earth of the last 10,000 years has been more recognizable than the Earth we may have 100 years from now. It won’t be Mars, but it won’t be the Earth that you and I know,” said Foley. “This is the single most defining problem of our time. Will we have the wisdom to be stewards of a world we’ve come to dominate?”

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Foley’s team put the atmospheric carbon dioxide threshold at 350 parts per million, a level the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change says should keep Earth’s average temperature from rising by more than four degrees Fahrenheit. Current atmospheric CO2 levels are already approaching 400 parts per million.

Also exceeded are limits for species loss, which the scientists set at 10 per year per million species, and nitrogen use, pegged at 35 million tons per year. The current extinction rate is ten times higher than advised, ostensibly compromising the ability of ecosystems to process nutrients. The use of nitrogen — which is needed for fertilizer, but causes oxygen-choking algae blooms — is nearly four times higher than recommended.

On the positive side, atmospheric levels of ultraviolet radiation-blocking ozone are safe, thanks to a 1987 ban on ozone-destroying chemicals. Total rates of ocean acidification, freshwater consumption and land use are also acceptable, but those thresholds are expected to be exceeded in coming decades.

The seven boundary points are certain to be controversial, and Nature commissioned seven separate critiques by leading experts in each field.

William Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, said the recommended nitrogen limit “seems arbitrary.” Echoing his words was Steve Bass of the International Institute for Environment and Development, who said the 15 percent cap on land devoted to agriculture could as easily be 10 or 20 percent.

International Water Management Institute researcher David Molden said the 4,000 cubic kilometer ceiling on freshwater use — roughly one-third of all freshwater — “may be too high.” Myles Allen, an Oxford University climatologist, argued that CO2 emissions should be counted in a different way. Cristian Samper, director of the U.S. Natural History Museum, said that taxonomic family loss is a more relevant measure than species loss.

According to Foley, who called his team’s threshold values a “cave painting” version of the true limits, the paper is less important for its details than its approach. And though the critics argued over the numbers, all agreed that exceeding them will be disastrous.

“Planetary boundaries are a welcome new approach,” wrote Molden. “It is imperative that we act now on several fronts to avert a calamity far greater than what we envision from climate change.”

Peter Brewer, an ocean chemist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, criticized the paper’s lack of proposed solutions. Given the ongoing failure of governments and citizens to follow their scientists’ advice on climate change, more than dire warnings is clearly needed.

“Is it truly useful to create a list of environmental limits without serious plans for how they may be achieved?” Brewer wrote. “Without recognition of what would be needed economically and politically to enforce such limits, they may become just another stick to beat citizens with.”

“It’s unsatisfactory, I agree. We don’t answer the question of how to keep humanity from crossing the boundaries,” said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and a lead author of the Nature paper. “That’s the next challenge. To stay within planetary boundaries, we need tremendous social transformation.”

See Also:

Note: The Nature paper is an edited version of the full article, which is available from the Stockholm Resilience Institute.

Citations: “A safe operating space for humanity.” By Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, III, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton, Marten Scheffer, Carl Folke, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Björn Nykvist, Cynthia A. de Wit, Terry Hughes, Sander van der Leeuw, Henning Rodhe, Sverker Sörlin, Peter K. Snyder, Robert Costanza, Uno Svedin, Malin Falkenmark, Louise Karlberg, Robert W. Corell, Victoria J. Fabry, James Hansen, Brian Walker, Diana Liverman, Katherine Richardson, Paul Crutzen, Jonathan A. Foley. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“Thresholds risk prolonged degradation.” By William Schlesinger. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“Keep off the grass.” By Steve Bass. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“Tangible targets are critical.” By Myles Allen. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“Identifying abrupt change.” By Mario J. Molina. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“The devil is in the detail.” By David Molden. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“Consider all consequences.” By Peter Brewer. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

“Rethinking biodiversity.” By Cristian Samper. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7263, September 24, 2009.

Bat killing fungus identified, but deaths continue

Bat killer identified, but deaths continue – life – 26 October 2011 – New Scientist.Movie Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

A fungus long suspected of killing more than a million batsMovie Camera in the US since 2006 has been pronounced guilty after a series of experiments on captive animals. The tests confirm that “white nose syndrome”, so called because it leaves fuzzy white smudges on the muzzles of its victims, is caused by the Geomyces destructans fungus.

When researchers infected 29 captive little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) with lab-grown samples of the fungus, they all developed the disease, showing the tell-tale signs and symptoms about three months after infection. None of the 34 controls, which were not infected with the fungus, developed the condition.

Through complementary experiments in which the researchers housed 25 infected bats together with 18 healthy bats, they demonstrated that bats catch the syndrome from each other through physical contact. It cannot spread through the air: healthy bats did not pick up the infection when housed near to, but physically isolated from, diseased bats.

The experiments confirm what many experts had suspected, and rule out the possibility that the fungus preys on sick animals but does not actually cause the disease.

“The discovery allows us to focus our research efforts to develop management and control strategies,” says David Blehert of the National Wildlife Health Center, part of the US Geological Survey in Madison, Wisconsin, who led the research team. “Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to kill the fungus.”

Hard to prevent

Most potential solutions have drawbacks, explains Blehert. Applying fungicides in caves might harm plants and other animals living there, and this would have to be done year after year to keep the fungus at bay. Even culling bats in infected caves wouldn’t work, because some infected bats would escape and return, or spread the fungus elsewhere.

Of all the possible solutions, vaccination might provide the best hope, says Blehert, because it would potentially give bats lifelong immunity. He points out that wild foxes, skunks and racoons have been successfully vaccinated against rabies by dropping vaccine-baited food into their habitats from planes.

Earlier this year, a study found that the Geomyces destructans fungus found in US bats is almost identical to one in Europe to which most native bats seem to be resistant. Finding out what makes the European bats resist the fungus could help find ways to protect their US cousins.

The earlier study also raised the possibility that the US fungus originated in Europe and was inadvertently brought to the US by humans. The US Fish and Wildlife Service says that existing precautions issued by the US Geological Survey to stop humans spreading the fungus any further remain essential.

The wildlife service has called for proposals to follow specific research objectives designed to help the US bats. These include identifying the times of the year when the fungus spreads most easily, the factors that affect bat survival, the features of bat-cave environments that might potentially be altered to obstruct spread, and screening for other microbes that may kill the fungus or hamper transmission without harming bats.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature10590

Worst Food Additive Ever is in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Produces Collateral destruction and misery

Worst Food Additive Ever? It’s in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Destroys Rainforests and Enslaves Children | Food | AlterNet.

The production of this ingredient causes jaw-dropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.
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On August 10, police and security for the massive palm oil corporation Wilmar International (of which Archer Daniels Midland is the second largest shareholder) stormed a small, indigenous village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They came with bulldozers and guns, destroying up to 70 homes, evicting 82 families, and arresting 18 people. Then they blockaded the village, keeping the villagers in — and journalists out. (Wilmar claims it has done no wrong.)

The village, Suku Anak Dalam, was home to an indigenous group that observes their own traditional system of land rights on their ancestral land and, thus, lacks official legal titles to the land. This is common among indigenous peoples around the world — so common, in fact, that it is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indonesia, for the record, voted in favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet the government routinely sells indigenous peoples’ ancestral land to corporations. Often the land sold is Indonesia’s lowland rainforest, a biologically rich area home to endangered species like the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, and the plant Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the world’s largest flower.

So why all this destruction? Chances are you’ll find the answer in your pantry. Or your refrigerator, your bathroom, or even under your sink. The palm oil industry is one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. Palm oil and palm kernel oil, almost unheard of a decade or two ago, are now unbelievably found in half of all packaged foods in the grocery store (as well as body care and cleaning supplies). These oils, traditional in West Africa, now come overwhelmingly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They cause jawdropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.

“The recipe for palm oil expansion is cheap land, cheap labor, and a corrupt government, and unfortunately Indonesia fits that bill,” says Ashley Schaeffer of Rainforest Action Network.

The African oil palm provides two different oils with different properties: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is made from the fruit of the tree, and palm kernel oil comes from the seed, or “nut,” inside the fruit. You can find it on ingredient lists under a number of names, including palmitate, palmate, sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. Palm oil even turns up in so-called “natural,” “healthy,” or even “cruelty-free” products, like Earth Balance (vegan margarine) or Newman-O’s organic Oreo-like cookies. Palm oil is also used in “renewable” biofuels.

A hectare of land (2.47 acres) produces, on average, 3.7 metric tons of palm oil, 0.4 metric tons of palm kernel oil, and 0.6 tons of palm kernel cake. (Palm kernel cake is used as animal feed.) In 2009, Indonesia produced over 20.5 million metric tons, and Malaysia produced over 17.5 million metric tons. As of 2009, the U.S. was only the seventh largest importer of palm oil in the world, but as the second largest importer of palm kernel oil, it ranks third in the world as a driver of deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia has lost 46 percent of its forests since 1950, and the forests have recently disappeared at a rate of about 1.5 million hectares (an area larger than the state of Connecticut) per year. Of the 103.3 million hectares of remaining forests in 2000, only 88.2 million remained in 2009. At that time, an estimated 7.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations were already established, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia plans to continue the palm oil expansion, hoping to produce an additional 8.3 million metric tons by 2015 — this means a 71 percent expansion in area devoted to palm oil in the coming years.

At stake are not only endangered species and human lives, but carbon emissions. One of the ecosystems at risk is Indonesia’s peat swamps, where soil contains an astounding 65 percent organic matter. (Most soils contain only two to 10 percent organic matter.) Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network describes the draining and often burning of these peat swamps as “a carbon bomb.” Destruction of its peat swamps as well as its rainforests makes Indonesia the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.

Among the horror stories coming out of Southeast Asian palm oil plantations are accounts of child slave labor. Ferdi and Volario, ages 14 and 21, respectively, were each met by representatives of the Malaysian company Kuala Lampur Kepong in their North Sumatra villages. They were offered high-paying jobs with good working conditions, and they jumped at the opportunity. According to an account by Rainforest Action Network: “The two worked grueling hours each day spraying oil palm trees with toxic chemical fertilizers, without any protection to shield their hands, face or lungs. After work, Ferdi and Volario were forced inside the camp where they’d stay overnight under lock and key, guarded by security. If they had to use the bathroom, they’d do their best to hold it until morning or relieve themselves in plastic bags or shoes.” They escaped after two months and were never paid for their work.

What is the industry doing about such horrific claims? It has established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Kuala Lampur Kepong, Wilmar International, and Archer Daniels Midland are all members, and so are their customers, Cargill, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. But, according to Sutherlin, membership in RSPO means nothing — other than that an organization paid its dues. “That’s the first level of greenwash,” says Sutherlin.

RSPO certifies some products and companies, and Sutherlin says that does have some meaning, but leaves major loopholes open. For example, there are no carbon or climate standards, and there have been problems with the implementation of social safeguards. “It’s been a spotty record about their ability to enforce the standards for how people are treated and how communities are affected,” notes Sutherlin. Yet, he says, RSPO is “the best game in town.”

Rather than simply relying on RSPO’s certification, Rainforest Action Network has focused its campaign on the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill, which has a hand in fully 25 percent of palm oil on the global market. Rainforest Action Network is asking Cargill to sign on to a set of social and environmental safeguards and to provide public transparency on its palm oil operations. If Cargill cleans up its act, perhaps it will help put pressure on other major multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, which also source palm oil from unethical suppliers like Wilmar International.

Journalists have also criticized environmental groups for “cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties.” The World Wildlife Fund has come under attack for its partnership with Wilmar, the corporation that attacked a Sumatran village. Its involvement in RSPO serves as a reminder of the accusations in a 2010 Nation article, which claimed that “many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return.” (WWF says it received no payment from Wilmar in this particular case.)

The ugly issue of palm oil even touches the beloved American icon, the Girl Scout cookie. When Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen began a project to save the orangutan for their Bronze Awards, they discovered the link between habitat loss and palm oil. Then they looked at a box of Girl Scout cookies and found palm oil on the list of ingredients. The two 11-year-olds — who are now ages 15 and 16 — began a campaign to get the Girl Scouts to remove palm oil from its cookies.

It took five years to get a response from the supposedly wholesome Girl Scouts USA (whose 2012 slogan is “Forever Green“). While the organization ignored its own members for several years, it was unable to ignore the coverage the girls received from Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and several major TV networks. Once the story was so well-covered by the media, Girl Scouts USA responded, promising it would try to move to a sustainable source of palm oil by 2015. In the meantime, it would continue buying palm oil that could have come from deforested lands or plantations that use child slave labor, but would also buy GreenPalm certificates, which fund a price premium that goes to producers following RSPO’s best practice guidelines.

So what should consumers do? For the time being, avoiding products containing palm oil is probably your best bet. Since palm oil is so ubiquitous this will likely mean opting to buy fewer processed foods overall. Don’t forget to check your beauty and cleaning products, too. In a handful of cases, such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps, palm oil comes from fair trade, organic sources. But this is hardly the norm, and with the immense amount of palm oil used in the U.S., it’s unlikely that sustainable sources could cover all of the current demand.

Chronicling the Ecological Impact of C. Columbus

Chronicling the Ecological Impact of Columbus’ Journey | Magazine.

Columbus’ discovery of the New World unleashed centuries of geopolitical turmoil. But humans weren’t the only creatures whose fortunes were forever altered. Entire species of plants and animals either thrived or suffered as well. In the book 1493, author (and Wired contributor) Charles C. Mann traces the far-reaching biological consequences of Columbus’ journey across the ocean blue. “There is a Rube Goldberg aspect to this,” Mann says. “Things are connected in ways that you would never expect.” And just as with human societies, some organisms came out on top, while others were radically subjugated. Here are a few key flora and fauna and how they weathered the storm.

  1. PLANTAINS ENABLE FIRE ANTS. The African plantain is plagued by insects called scale. Back in Africa, however, predators help combat these scavengers. But when the fruit was brought to Hispaniola, it received no such aid. So the bugs proliferated—along with fire ants, which fed on the other insects’ sugary excrement. Both pests thrived until their unchecked appetites destroyed the local plantain crop.
  2. RUBBER CONQUERS ORCHIDS. For centuries, orchids thrived in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The damp terrain and omnipresent mist provided the perfect environment for the moisture-loving epiphytes. But when rubber trees from the Amazon rain forest were imported to southern China, their thirst for water dried out the soil. The once-plentiful morning fog began to disappear. Soon the orchids started to as well.
  3. EARTHWORMS STARVE TREES AND POWER UP MAIZE. Before being brought to the US, the common earthworm aided farmers in England by humbly tilling their soil. But once transplanted, the wrigglers’ tu nneling disrupted the nutrient-absorbing fungi on the roots of sugar maples, causing the trees’ decline. And by aerating the newly cleared land, the worm allowed crops like maize to grow year-round.
  4. POTATOES BATTLE NEW FOE. In its Andean motherland, the resilient potato grew in all shapes and sizes. But as the mighty tuber spread across the globe, its varieties dwindled to a monoculture—an easy target for opponents in adopted lands. None was quite so vicious as the Colorado potato beetle. Carried to North America in the manes of traveling horses, the bug became a permanent scourge to the plant in regions around the world.

Beyond the Worst Case Climate Change Scenario

State of the Science: Beyond the Worst Case Climate Change Scenario: Scientific American.

Or, ‘expecting what is likely to actually happen’; an OLD article but still relevant

Climate change is “unequivocal” and it is 90 percent certain that the “net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) —a panel of more than 2,500 scientists and other experts—wrote in its first report on the physical science of global warming earlier this year. In its second assessment, the IPCC stated that human-induced warming is having a discernible influence on the planet, from species migration to thawing permafrost. Despite these findings, emissions of the greenhouse gases driving this process continue to rise thanks to increased burning of fossil fuels while cost-effective options for decreasing them have not been adopted, the panel found in its third report.

The IPCC’s fourth and final assessment of the climate change problem—known as the Synthesis Report—combines all of these reports and adds that “warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.” Although countries continue to debate the best way to address this finding, 130 nations, including the U.S., China, Australia, Canada and even Saudi Arabia, have concurred with it.

“The governments now require, in fact, that the authors report on risks that are high and ‘key’ because of their potentially very high consequence,” says economist Gary Yohe?, a lead author on the IPCC Synthesis Report. “They have, perhaps, given the planet a chance to save itself.”

Among those risks:

Warming Temperatures—Continued global warming is virtually certain (or more than 99 percent likely to occur) at this point, leading to both good and bad impacts. On the positive side, fewer people will die from freezing temperatures and agricultural yield will increase in colder areas. The negatives include reduced crop production in the tropics and subtropics, increased insect outbreaks, diminished water supply caused by dwindling snowpack, and increasingly poor air quality in cities.

Heat Waves—Scientists are more than 90 percent certain that episodes of extreme heat will increase worldwide, leading to increased danger of wildfires, human deaths and water quality issues such as algal blooms.

Heavy Rains—Scientific estimates suggest that extreme precipitation events—from downpours to whiteouts—are more than 90 percent likely to become more common, resulting in diminished water quality and increased flooding, crop damage, soil erosion and disease risk.

Drought—Scientists estimate that there is a more than 66 percent chance that droughts will become more frequent and widespread, making water scarcer, upping the risk of starvation through failed crops and further increasing the risk of wildfires.

Stronger Storms—Warming ocean waters will likely increase the power of tropical cyclones (variously known as hurricanes and typhoons), raising the risk of human death, injury and disease as well as destroying coral reefs and property.

Biodiversity—As many as a third of the species known to science may be at risk of extinction if average temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Sea Level Rise—The level of the world’s oceans will rise, likely inundating low-lying land, turning freshwater brackish and potentially triggering widespread migration of human populations from affected areas.

“As temperatures rise, thermal expansion will lead to sea-level rise, independent of melting ice,” says chemical engineer Lenny Bernstein?, another lead author of the recent IPCC report. “The indications are that this factor alone could cause serious problems [and] ice-sheet melting would greatly accelerate [it].”

Such ice-sheet melting, which the IPCC explicitly did not include in its predictions of sea-level rise, has already been observed and may be speeding up, according to recent research that determined that the melting of Greenland’s ice cap has accelerated to six times the average flow of the Colorado River. Research has also shown that the world has consistently emitted greenhouse gases at the highest projected levels examined and sea-level rise has also outpaced projections from the IPCC’s last assessment in 2001.

“We are above the high scenario now,” says climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, an IPCC lead author. “This is not a safe world.”

Other recent findings include:

Carbon Intensity Increasing—The amount of carbon dioxide per car built, burger served or widget sold had been consistently declining until the turn of the century. But since 2000, CO2 emissions have grown by more than 3 percent annually. This is largely due to the economic booms in China and India, which rely on polluting coal to power production. But emissions in the developed world have started to rise as well, increasing by 2.6 percent since 2000, according to reports made by those countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also recently argued that U.S. emissions may continue to increase as a result of growing energy demand.

Carbon Sinks Slowing—The world’s oceans and forests are absorbing less of the CO2 released by human activity, resulting in a faster rise in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. All told, humanity released 9.9 billion metric tons (2.18 X 1013 pounds) of carbon in 2006 at the same time that the ability of the North Atlantic to take in such emissions, for example, dropped by 50 percent.

Impacts Accelerating—Warming temperatures have prompted earlier springs in the far north and have caused plant species to spread farther into formerly icy terrain. Meanwhile, sea ice in the Arctic reached a record low this year, covering just 1.59 million square miles and thus shattering the previous 2005 minimum of 2.05 million square miles.

“The observed rate of loss is faster than anything predicted,” says senior research scientist Mark Serreze of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “We’re already set up for another big loss next year. We’ve got so much open water in the Arctic now that has absorbed so much energy over the summer that the ocean has warmed. The ice that grows back this autumn will be thin.”

The negative consequences of such reinforcing, positive feedbacks (white ice is replaced by dark water, which absorbs more energy and prevents the formation of more white ice) remain even when they seemingly work in our favor.

For example, scientists at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel in Germany recently discovered that plankton consumes more carbon at higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2. “The plankton were carbon-enriched,” says marine biologist Ulf Riebesell, who conducted the study. “There weren’t more of them, but each cell had more carbon.”

This could mean that microscopic ocean plants may potentially absorb more of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, other research (from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) has shown that such plankton does not make it to the seafloor in large enough amounts to sequester the carbon in the long term.

Further, such carbon-heavy plankton do not begin to appear until CO2 concentrations reach twice present values—750 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere compared with roughly 380 ppm presently (a level at which catastrophic change may be a certainty)—and they are less nutritious to all the animals that rely on them for food. “This mechanism is both too small and too late,” Riebesell says. “By becoming more carbon-rich, zooplankton have to eat more phytoplankton to achieve the same nutrition” and, therefore, “they grow and reproduce more slowly.”

The IPCC notes that there are cost-effective solutions, such as retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, but says they must be implemented in short order to stem further damage. “We are 25 years too late,” Schneider says. “If the object is to avoid dangerous change, we’ve already had it. The object now is to avoid really dangerous change.”

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NZ oil spill

NZ oil spill ship’s safety breaches.

A CARGO ship spewing oil, shipping containers and rubbish along the New Zealand coastline after it hit a reef was detained in Fremantle in July for safety and cargo breaches and given three months to repair its ”safety management system”.

The Liberian-flagged MV Rena was inspected again in Sydney on September 22, but the safety management system was not checked because the three months had not expired. It was allowed to sail on to New Zealand.

The MV Rena was detained in Fremantle on July 21 by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority because of problems with hatch covers and cargo storage and its safety management system.

The stricken Rena leaks more oil on October 13, 2011 in Tauranga, New Zealand. Up to 350 tonnes of oil has spilled from the Click for more photos

New Zealand Cargo Ship Rena

The stricken Rena leaks more oil on October 13, 2011 in Tauranga, New Zealand. Up to 350 tonnes of oil has spilled from the “Rena” a Liberan cargo ship stricken off the coast of Tauranga since October 5. Photo: Getty Images

  • The stricken Rena leaks more oil on October 13, 2011 in Tauranga, New Zealand. Up to 350 tonnes of oil has spilled from the
  • An Air Force iroquis helicopter lowers crew onto the Rena.
  • Fly-over shots of stranded cargo vessel Rena grounded on the Astrolabe Reef,in Tauranga, New Zealand.
  • The container ship Rena grounded on the Astrolabe reef off Tauranga. A large crack appears in the side of the stricken vessel Rena.
  • The Cargo ship Rena Thursday morning.
  • A tugboat and a helicopter work around the grounded cargo ship Rena.
  • Oil from the stricken vessel Rena coats  Papamoa Beach in Tauranga, New Zealand.
  • Local residents come to look at a washed up container from the stricken ship Rena on the beach in Tauranga.
  • Local residents come to look at a washed up container with part cooked burger patties littering the beach on October 13, 2011 in Tauranga, New Zealand.
  • A dead fish lies on the beach in Tauranga, New Zealand.
  • Volunteers stand at Papamoa beach dirty with fuel oil from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena stuck aground on a reef off the coast of Tauranga.
  • Local volunteers rescue deer skins washed up on the beach from the stricken ship Rena in Tauranga.
  • A container washed ashore on Motiti Island.
  • Papamoa Beach clean up by the Army.
  • Dead birds found on Mount Manganui beach after oil from the ship Rena starts to wash ashore.
  • Clean-up workers rake sand oiled following the leak from the stricken container ship 'Rena' at Mount Maunganui near Tauranga.
  • People stand on the beach as a container from the stricken ship 'Rena' lies in the water at Mount Maunganui near Tauranga.
  • Material from spilt containers from the ship 'Rena' litter the beach.

A spokesman for the authority said ”two minor defects related to equipment were given two weeks for rectification and these were subsequently verified as completed”.

The third defect with the safety management system was given three months to fix. ”No defects were related to charts, passage planning, navigation equipment or fatigue,” the spokesman said.

A safety management system means a structured and documented system enabling ship personnel to implement effectively the ”company and ship safety and environmental protection policy”.

The ill-fated Rena visited Melbourne on September 19 before heading on to Port Botany on September 22.

Port of Melbourne spokesman Peter Harry said the port considered events such as the Rena incident as a ”high consequence, low probability” event for Port Phillip Bay and worked to minimise the probability.

Peter Corcoran, director maritime safety with Transport Safety Victoria, said ”the mandatory use of pilots for large vessels entering the ports of Melbourne, Geelong, Hastings and Portland is one of Victoria’s key risk controls”.

Phillip Starkins, from the Department of Transport, said the department ”owns, stores and maintains specialised pollution response equipment throughout the state to utilise in the event of an incident”.

A German shipping company was ordered to pay more than $1 million in fines in 2005 after one of its vessels discharged 30,000 to 40,000 litres of waste oil sludge about nine nautical miles off Phillip Island in 2003.

Arctic ozone loss at record level

BBC News – Arctic ozone loss at record level.

 

The Arctic ozone hole lay over over populated regions for parts of winter and spring

Ozone loss over the Arctic this year was so severe that for the first time it could be called an “ozone hole” like the Antarctic one, scientists report.

About 20km (13 miles) above the ground, 80% of the ozone was lost, they say.

The cause was an unusually long spell of cold weather at altitude. In cold conditions, the chlorine chemicals that destroy ozone are at their most active.

It is currently impossible to predict if such losses will occur again, the team writes in the journal Nature.

Early data on the scale of Arctic ozone destruction were released in April, but the Nature paper is the first that has fully analysed the data.

“Winter in the Arctic stratosphere is highly variable – some are warm, some are cold,” said Michelle Santee from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“But over the last few decades, the winters that are cold have been getting colder.

Start Quote

Why [all this] occurred will take years of detailed study”

Michelle Santee JPL

“So given that trend and the high variability, we’d anticipate that we’ll have other cold ones, and if that happens while chlorine levels are high, we’d anticipate that we’d have severe ozone loss.”

Ozone-destroying chemicals originate in substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that came into use late last century in appliances including refrigerators and fire extinguishers.

Their destructive effects were first documented in the Antarctic, which now sees severe ozone depletion in each of its winters.

Their use was progressively restricted and then eliminated by the 1987 Montreal Protocol and its successors.

The ozone layer blocks ultraviolet-B rays from the Sun, which can cause skin cancer and other medical conditions.

Longer, not colder

Winter temperatures in the Arctic stratosphere do not generally fall as low as at the southern end of the world.

Polar stratospheric clouds Ozone destruction takes place within polar stratospheric clouds, with chlorine the main culprit

No records for low temperature were set this year, but the air remained at its coldest for an unusually long period of time, and covered an unusually large area.

In addition, the polar vortex was stronger than usual. Here, winds circulate around the edge of the Arctic region, somewhat isolating it from the main world weather systems.

“Why [all this] occurred will take years of detailed study,” said Dr Santee.

“It was continuously cold from December through April, and that has never happened before in the Arctic in the instrumental record.”

The size and position of the ozone hole changed over time, as the vortex moved northwards or southwards over different regions.

Some monitoring stations in northern Europe and Russia recorded enhanced levels of ultraviolet-B penetration, though it is not clear that this posed any risk to human health.

While the Arctic was setting records, the Antarctic ozone hole is relatively stable from year to year.

This year has seen ozone-depleting conditions extending a little later into the southern hemisphere spring than usual – again, as a result of unusual weather conditions.

Chlorine compounds persist for decades in the upper atmosphere, meaning that it will probably be mid-century before the ozone layer is restored to its pre-industrial health.

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Roadwork Can Spread Invasive Species

Roadwork Can Spread Invasive Species: Scientific American Podcast.

Invasive species get a bad rap—but we humans are usually to blame for their spread. Take Japanese stiltgrass, an invasive that arrived from Asia nearly 100 years ago as a packing material for porcelain. When it creeps into forests, it forms dense carpets that can choke out native tree seedlings. And in the last 15 years, the grass has infested rural roads throughout Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest—much faster than foresters expected.

Researchers thought the cause could be another human activity—road maintenance. They spray-painted 320,000 dead safflower seeds, and placed them along state forest roads. After routine road grading, they combed through the gravel to recover them. And they found that some seeds had been carried hundreds of feet down the road. Much farther than the few feet seeds can travel on their own—perhaps explaining the grass’ rapid spread.

They presented those results at a meeting of the Ecological Society of America. [Emily Rauschert and David Mortensen, Human-mediated spread of invasive plants across a landscape]

Still, roads need to be safe for drivers. So the researchers propose smoothing shorter segments at a time, or doing it less frequently. Because where humans go, invasives often follow—whether by sea or on land.

—Christopher Intagliata

El Niño Events May Tip Nations to War

El Niño Events May Tip Nations to War – ScienceNOW.

 

 

Tensions between the Peruvian government and the rebel group the Shining Path erupted into bloody clashes in 1982—the same year that an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event scoured potato fields across the hilly nation. Doomsayers might see cause and effect, but scientists have so far struggled to connect widespread violence with global climate phenomena. Now, a new study suggests that civil strife is twice as likely to break out in many nations worldwide during El Niño years.

“More and more of the evidence is pointing toward a strong link between adverse weather or adverse climate and political violence in the world’s poor regions,” says Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in this study. “This is an important piece of evidence in that debate.”

In 2009, Miguel and colleagues published a controversial paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, arguing that spikes in temperature had played a dramatic role in igniting African civil wars. While some scientists criticized the study’s statistical methods, many questioned its basic claim, says Solomon Hsiang, lead author of the new study, who studies the confluence of political and climate science at Columbia University. The question, Hsiang says, became, “Is it at all possible that global climate can affect conflict?” Scientists, he adds, don’t have the know-how to turn the thermostat up or down on the planet and then sit back to watch how angry people get.

But the planet does flip from hot to cold naturally: every few years as waters in the tropical Pacific cool, during La Niña events, or heat up, during El Niño years. These rapid, periodic shifts in climate, Hsiang and his colleagues realized, might make a good proxy for studying how climate might impact war around the world.

So the team examined 234 clashes each claiming more than 25 lives between governments and rebel groups across the globe from 1950 to 2004. In the tropical nations most affected by ENSO swings, such as Peru, the Sudan, or India, the likelihood of civil violence erupting doubled during El Niño years, from about 3% to 6%, amounting to an extra 48 clashes, the group reports online today in Nature. In nations separated from the steep climatic shifts associated with ENSO events, including the United States, France, and China, the chances of civil strife remained at a steady low of 2%. But just how El Niño events fanned the flames in what were largely the world’s poorest nations is unclear, Hsiang says.

Such a relationship between climate swings and political instability seems, at least anecdotally, to have a long history, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, a nature and society researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada: “What we’re seeing is a modern-day manifestation of a phenomenon that goes back millennia.” The city of Angkor in modern Cambodia, for instance, known for its web of monsoon-fed irrigation canals, fell to invaders in the mid-15thcentury. A series of droughts began to dry up those famous canals during the same period in history. As Hsiang and colleagues found, those societies most at the whim of climate tended to also be the nations with economies still rooted in agriculture, Homer-Dixon notes.

But Halvard Buhaug, an international relations specialist at the Centre for the Study of Civil War in Oslo and a sharp critic of Miguel’s 2009 study, doesn’t see cause and effect just yet. “I still believe that socioeconomic and political factors are the most important, common drivers of civil wars,” he says. “But the intriguing finding … certainly deserves further scrutiny.” Without knowing how exactly climate swings can lead to violence, if at all, he says, it becomes an uphill battle for humanitarian organizations to direct preventative measures.

Fukushima Reactor Damage Detected in California Winds

Fukushima Reactor Damage Picked Up in California Winds – ScienceNOW.

on 15 August 2011, 4:23 PM | 2 Comments
sn-fukushima.jpg

Dousing Fukushima’s reactors. Air laden with radioactive material that was formed after emergency teams soaked cores at an imperiled nuclear power plant in Japan (shown) blew into San Diego, California, about 2 weeks later.
Credit: Self Defence Force Nuclear Biological Chemical Weapon Defense Unit/Reuters TV

On 28 March, scientists got a whiff of something strange in the air off a pier in San Diego, California. The atmosphere had suddenly become flush with radioactive sulfur atoms. That sulfur, it turns out, had traveled across the Pacific from a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, that was shaken by the 11 March earthquake and the tsunami and aftershocks that followed. Now the same team has studied those radioactive winds to come up with the first estimate of damage to the plant’s cores at the height of the disaster.

To cool fuel rods and spent fuel while stanching a total meltdown, responders pumped several hundred tons of seawater into three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The white-hot rods fizzled off steam, which had to go somewhere. So workers vented it into the air.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, atmospheric scientist Antra Priyadarshi of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), remembered a study she had read a while back: Following underwater nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and ’60s, physicists noticed that a heavy form of sulfur—sulfur-35—had mushroomed. Nuclear reactions spit out lots of fast and therefore “hot” particles called neutrons, which can then bang into abundant chloride ions in saltwater, converting them to sulfur-35. Priyadarshi and her colleagues were already tracking tiny traces of radioactive sulfur to study how layers of air mix in the atmosphere, so all they had to do was wait.

They didn’t have to wait long. The sulfur was already swirling over Fukushima, where it had combined with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide gases and fine particles of sulfates called aerosols. Soon, strong winds pushed them east. Sulfur-35 does occur naturally—cosmic rays zap argon atoms in the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere, to make radioactive sulfur. But little of it makes its way down to the lowest slice of atmosphere, called the marine boundary layer. On a normal day, Priyadarshi sees between 180 and 475 sulfur-35 atoms as sulfates per cubic meter of air, but on the 28th, her team recorded about 1500. “No one has ever seen such a high percentage of the stratospheric air coming into the marine-bound layer,” she says.

The UCSD team ran a computer simulation to trace the path of the gases and aerosols from Fukushima to the West Coast. Most sulfur-35 atoms likely dispersed or rained down into the sea before hitting San Diego, but Priyadarshi estimates that about 0.7% completed the trip, too few to become harmful. Based on the simulation, about 365 times the normal levels of radioactive sulfates had gathered over Fukushima during the disaster, Priyadarshi and colleagues report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

And because the researchers knew how many neutrons it would take to make that much sulfur, they could estimate how many were expelled during the disaster: For each square meter of reactor space doused by saltwater, the nuclear material ejected 400 billion neutrons before 20 March. And that, in turn, may give scientists a good look at the damage done to the cores during the disaster, says study co-author Mark Thiemens, an atmospheric scientist who is also at UCSD. If unchecked, these particles can heat up fuel rods and stores of spent fuel to the point of causing disastrous meltdowns like the one that rocked Chernobyl in 1986.

But Andreas Stohl, a scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller, isn’t convinced. Trying to figure out what happened to Fukushima’s sulfur-35 as it was buffeted by haphazard winds on its nearly 10,000 kilometer journey to San Diego requires a lot of guesswork, he says: “The uncertainties must be huge.”

Karl Turekian, an atmospheric geochemist at Yale University who edited Priyadarshi’s paper for PNAS, agrees. But he adds the San Diego researchers did their best to account for that atmospheric chaos. And scientists haven’t yet come up with any other way to estimate neutron “leaks” from nuclear fuel. “Somebody didn’t have a neutron thermometer in Fukushima,” he says.

Now that Fukushima’s reactors have cooled back down, the biggest challenge facing scientists will be to contain radioactive elements that escaped during the disaster. Thiemens will be working with Japanese researchers to follow sulfur-35’s path through soil and streams near Fukushima to find where even more harmful elements may have hidden.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that winds pushed sulfur over Fukushima west. It has been corrected to say east.