Tropical forests will still exist in 2100 – but they will be a sorry sight

By Simon Lewis, UCL

By the end of the century, the world’s remaining tropical forests will be left in a fragmented, simplified, and degraded state. No patch will remain untouched – most remnants will be overrun by species that disperse well, which often means “weedy” plants like fast-growing pioneer trees and small rodents that thrive in disturbed areas. Most of the rest will be “the living dead” – tiny remnant populations of plants and animals hanging on with no future.

There is no cast-iron law that dictates this scenario – but it appears likely unless we see a series of major policy changes. What could unfold? In research published in the journal Science, colleagues and I outline an all too common chain of events.

The first cut of timber from any natural forest is the most lucrative. The most remote places, in the interior of Amazonia, in central Congo and the heart of Borneo are all coveted by industrial loggers. The logging frontier marches relentlessly on. They selectively take the biggest trees and along with them the habitat of species that rely them.

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Fukushima: The price of nuclear power

Michael Ignatieff writes: Four years ago, the fishing town of Namie, on the northeast coast of Japan, lived through an experience of malediction biblical in scope. Beginning at 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011, without warning, the town’s population of 23,000 was struck by a triple disaster in quick succession: an earthquake measuring nine on the Richter scale that severely damaged the upper town, a fifteen-meter tsunami that carried away the entire lower town, and finally, in the days that followed, a blanket of radioactivity, from explosions in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant just six miles away, that settled over the town’s ruins.

Today grass grows on the sidewalks in Namie. There are no cars, no people, anywhere. Through shop windows you can still see goods that tumbled off the shelves and remain on the linoleum floors gathering dust. Everything is as it was left in the panicked evacuation. In one building, the earthquake has left behind a three-inch fissure in a wall, a vase lies in pieces on the floor of a sitting room, and the windows of a sunroom have collapsed in shards. Nearby a store sign—in English—“Suzuki watch, jewelry, optical”—lies collapsed on the sidewalk; the bus shelter where the municipal buses turned around is empty; a sign saying “Louer: Total Beauty Salon” still hangs over a shuttered shop; and at the town’s main intersection, the single traffic light is still blinking on and off.

Four years after the calamity, no one from Namie can return home. It remains in the “red zone,” a contaminated area fifty miles by ten where the winds and rains carried a plume of radioactivity in the days after the disaster. Today there are parts of town where radiation measures twenty-six times the Tokyo level. Caesium-137 is washed down by the rains and accumulates in the weeds that grow near the gutters. Yet Japan — along with much of the world — still considers nuclear power an essential part of the energy mix necessary to meet the challenge of climate change. [Continue reading…]

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Can the Earth feed 11 billion people? Four reasons to fear a Malthusian future

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

Humanity is on course for a population greater than 11 billion by the end of this century, according to the latest analysis from the UN’s population division.

In a simple sense, population is the root cause of all sustainability issues. Clearly if there were no humans there would be no human impacts. Assuming you don’t wish to see the complete end of the human race – a desire that is shared by some deep green thinkers and Bond super-villians – then the issue is whether there is an optimal number of humans on the planet.

Discussions on population growth often start with the work of Rev Thomas Robert Malthus whose An Essay on the Principle of Population published at the end of the 18th century is one of the seminal works of demography. Populations change in response to three driving factors: fertility – how many people are born; mortality – how many people die; and migration – how many people leave or enter the population.

Malthus observed that more births than deaths would lead to exponential growth which would always outpace any improvements in farming and increases in yields. Consequently, unchecked growth was doomed to end in famine and population collapse. Malthus was right about exponential growth, but he was famously wrong about his dire predictions for the consequences of such growth.

At a global level we can ignore migration (no interplanetary migration happening just yet) and so the tremendous rise in the total numbers of humans is a result of an imbalance between fertility and mortality rates.

Over longer timescales, the recent increases look practically vertiginous. We seem to be on a trajectory that would surely exceed whatever the carrying capacity of the Earth is. However, 11 billion could be the high water mark as the UN forecasts population to slowly decrease after the end of this century.

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For years, American trophy hunters have been flocking to Iran

BBC News reports: The furore over the killing by a US dentist of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe has thrown a spotlight on trophy hunting – but while Africa is commonly associated with the sport, American enthusiasts are finding another popular hunting destination – the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Every year, Iran’s Environment Protection Agency issues about 500 licences to foreign visitors to hunt rare and protected breeds.

Many of these hunters come from the US, despite the absence of diplomatic relations and a state of tension between the two countries for the past 35 years.

They have been heading there since the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) made it legal for US agencies to book hunting tours to Iran more than a decade ago. [Continue reading…]

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Beyond Cecil: The illegal trade in wildlife has real consequences for the world

Achim Steiner writes: As the world agonised over the death of Cecil the lion, poachers in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park – less than 296km (183 miles) from the UN Environment Programme world headquarters in Nairobi – illegally slaughtered five elephants, plundered the carcasses and fled the country with their ivory prize. Compared to Cecil, the slaughter barely registered on the world’s radar.

The slaughter of five elephants in Kenya was no anomaly – it’s a symptom of a global epidemic. In 2014, poachers slaughtered 1,215 rhinos in South Africa alone, an increase of over 9,000% from 2007. Great apes lost to illegal activities number in the thousands worldwide.

These killings are extremely upsetting. But while we often view them as an aesthetic loss or an ethical shortfall, we frequently fail to see how such tragedies reverberate deep within our societies.

The global illegal trade in wildlife has very real consequences for the world, beyond an ethical quandary. It ruins ecosystems, destroys livelihoods, undermines governments, threatens national security and sabotages sustainable development.

The illegal wildlife trade is deeply disruptive to our ecosystems. A dramatic population collapse triggers knock-on effects throughout the entire system. Removing elephants in large numbers, for example, means that plant seeds are not spread widely. Other species, whose diets rely on plant diversity, must endure this shift. As species populations dwindle, their genetic diversity decreases and disease is more easily spread. [Continue reading…]

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Beekeepers try to keep bees — and livelihoods — from going extinct

The Washington Post reports: On a recent summer morning in a bright green meadow off a winding country road, Devon and Landon Prescott were prying open beehives. They moved quickly among the 1,400 wooden boxes, eyeing each brood and locating its queen.

Landon, 19, spoke up after finding four hives with missing queens.

“That’s pretty bad,” said Devon, 21, peering over his brother’s shoulder to search the bee-
covered screen. A hive without a queen is likely doomed. “That’s really high.”

There was a crate of replacement queens in the truck, each housed in its own tiny wooden box. Each queen, specially ordered and shipped from warm-weather climates, costs at least $20. Too many queenless hives could put young beekeepers like the Prescotts out of business.

Over the past decade, billions of bees have been lost to colony collapse disorder, an umbrella term for factors thought to be killing honeybees in droves and threatening the nation’s food supply. Amid the die-off, beekeepers have been going to extraordinary lengths to save both their bees and their livelihoods. [Continue reading…]

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Cutting emissions through biofuels will lead to water shortages – study

By Neil Edwards, The Open University

Climate change mitigation could actually increase water shortage in some areas rather than reduce it, according to new research. The source of the problem is clear: greater demand for biofuels, intended to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, requires massive increases in irrigation in productive but relatively arid American farmland.

The study, published in the journal PNAS, is alarming as it suggests one of the major strategies for dealing with global warming may lead to greater political strife. One of climate science’s most confident findings is that an increase in the average surface temperature will lead to greater extremes in amount of rainfall. That is likely to mean more damage from floods and storms in already vulnerable regions, and increased drought in areas that currently experience water shortage. Climate change mitigation strategies are, in theory, designed to avoid or reduce these consequences.

If the unhelpful impact of biofuels comes as a surprise to some, that will be because current models of energy systems typically ignore the fact that water is a limited resource. Links between different aspects of models are often missing or broken. Biofuels require land as well as water, using up valuable farmland that could be used to grow food. Meanwhile irrigation relies heavily on groundwater, a system that functions on longer timescales than most climate models as groundwater is only very slowly replaced.

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Video: Naomi Klein on visiting the Vatican & the radical economic message behind papal climate encyclical

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Russia lays claim to vast areas of Arctic seabed

The Guardian reports: Russia has submitted a bid to the UN claiming vast territories in the Arctic, the country’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The ministry said in a statement that Russia is claiming 1.2m sq km (over 463,000 sq miles) of sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles (about 650km) from the shore.

Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, which is believed to hold up to a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas. Rivalry for resources has intensified as shrinking polar ice is opening up new exploration opportunities.

Russia was the first to submit a claim in 2002, but the UN sent it back for lack of evidence. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. uses more electricity for air conditioning than Africa uses for everything

Ana Swanson writes: Some people take frequent breaks outside. Others bring in a sweater, a scarf or an “office blanket.” Some block air vents with cardboard, or quietly switch on space heaters under their desks. If you’ve ever sat shivering in your office in the dead of summer, you too may be a victim of excessive air conditioning.

Even as the temperature outside rises to sweltering temperatures, America’s extreme air conditioning habit mean that people in offices, movie theaters and restaurants end up being chilled like TV dinners.

How did this happen? How did America become the land of overpowering air conditioners? Will it ever change?

It’s not just a matter of taste or personal comfort. Some studies have found that worker productivity falls with the temperature. Customers aren’t happy either: In a 2008 survey, 88 percent of people said they find at least some retail establishments too cold, and 76 percent said they bring extra layers of clothing with them to movies and restaurants. The Post’s Petula Dvorak has observed that in offices, the trend exacts a particular toll on women, and, of course, it wastes huge amounts of energy. The U.S. uses more electricity for air conditioning than Africa uses for everything.

America, it turns out, is addicted to A/C for reasons of fashion, physiology, gender norms, architecture and history. Over the last century, air conditioning improved our health, happiness and productivity. But somewhere along the way we grew dependent on it, and now we don’t know how to find our way back. [Continue reading…]

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In the West, drought, heat and climate change leave the land thirstier than ever

The New York Times reports: Another summer of record-breaking drought and heat has seized the West, setting off costly and destructive wildfires from Southern California, where a single blaze burned more than 30,000 acres of national forest east of Los Angeles, to Montana, where a fast-moving fire in Glacier National Park recently forced tourists to flee hotels, campgrounds and vehicles.

No measurable rain has fallen here in Walla Walla since May. Temperatures have broken decades-old records. And, though known for soaking skies and cool summers, Washington State is well on track to surpass last year’s wildfire season, its busiest on record.

Dozens of homes and thousands of acres have burned over the past few months — in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, in suburban communities on the edge of the wild lands, and in this city of wheat farms and vineyards where hundreds of firefighters are still battling a blaze on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains, digging and scraping the earth, building barriers of dirt to shield the dried-out forests from the approaching flames.

“Our fire season started a month ahead, our crops matured weeks ahead and the dry weather we usually get in August, we’ve had since May,” said Peter J. Goldmark, Washington’s commissioner of public lands. Walking along the edge of the Blue Creek fire, burning near the Oregon-Washington border, he added, “By heavens, if this isn’t a sign of climate change, then what is climate change going to bring?” [Continue reading…]

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PCBs were banned three decades ago, but they’re still hurting marine mammals

Pacific Standard reports: On April 19, 1979, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced a five-year plan to phase out nearly all uses of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The synthetic chemicals had been used in the manufacture of electronic equipment, motor oil, adhesive tapes, paint, and many other products.

“Although PCBs are no longer being produced in this country, we will now bring under control the vast majority of PCBs still in use,” EPA administrator Douglas M. Costle boasted at the time. “This will help prevent further contamination of our air, water, and food supplies from a toxic and very persistent manmade chemical.”

It turns out Costle celebrated too early — way, way too early. More than 36 years after being banned, PCBs continue to pollute ecosystems, according to a study released in the journal PLoS One. They pose a particular challenge to the survival of marine mammals like porpoises, whales, and dolphins. [Continue reading…]

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Hunting down the world’s most notorious fish poacher

The New York Times reports: As the Thunder, a trawler considered the world’s most notorious fish poacher, began sliding under the sea a couple of hundred miles south of Nigeria, three men scrambled aboard to gather evidence of its crimes.

In bumpy footage from their helmet cameras, they can be seen grabbing everything they can over the next 37 minutes — the captain’s logbooks, a laptop computer, charts and a slippery 200-pound fish. The video shows the fishing hold about a quarter full with catch and the Thunder’s engine room almost submerged in murky water. “There is no way to stop it sinking,” the men radioed back to the Bob Barker, which was waiting nearby. Soon after they climbed off, the Thunder vanished below.

It was an unexpected end to an extraordinary chase. For 110 days and more than 10,000 nautical miles across two seas and three oceans, the Bob Barker and a companion ship, both operated by the environmental organization Sea Shepherd, had trailed the trawler, with the three captains close enough to watch one another’s cigarette breaks and on-deck workout routines. In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history. [Continue reading…]

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Thousands of salmon die in hotter-than-usual Northwest rivers

Reuters reports: Unseasonably hot water has killed nearly half of the sockeye salmon migrating up the Columbia River through Oregon and Washington state, a wildlife official said on Monday.

Only 272,000 out of the more than 507,000 sockeye salmon that have swum between two dams along a stretch of the lower Columbia River have survived the journey, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries manager John North.

“We’ve never had mortalities at this scale,” said North.

The die-off comes as U.S. West Coast states grapple with drought conditions and the Columbia is seeing the third-highest count of sockeye returning from the ocean to spawn since 1960, federal figures show. [Continue reading…]

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How trees calm us down

Alex Hutchinson writes: In 1984, a researcher named Roger Ulrich noticed a curious pattern among patients who were recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban hospital in Pennsylvania. Those who had been given rooms overlooking a small stand of deciduous trees were being discharged almost a day sooner, on average, than those in otherwise identical rooms whose windows faced a wall. The results seemed at once obvious — of course a leafy tableau is more therapeutic than a drab brick wall — and puzzling. Whatever curative property the trees possessed, how were they casting it through a pane of glass?

That is the riddle that underlies a new study in the journal Scientific Reports by a team of researchers in the United States, Canada, and Australia, led by the University of Chicago psychology professor Marc Berman. The study compares two large data sets from the city of Toronto, both gathered on a block-by-block level; the first measures the distribution of green space, as determined from satellite imagery and a comprehensive list of all five hundred and thirty thousand trees planted on public land, and the second measures health, as assessed by a detailed survey of ninety-four thousand respondents. After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. “To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars — or make people seven years younger,” Berman told me.

Are such numbers fanciful? The emerald ash borer, which has killed a hundred million trees across North America in recent years, offers a grim natural experiment. A county-by-county analysis of health records by the U.S. Forest Service, between 1990 and 2007, found that deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses rose in places where trees succumbed to the pest, contributing to more than twenty thousand additional deaths during the study period. The Toronto data shows a similar link between tree cover and cardio-metabolic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. For the people suffering from these conditions, an extra eleven trees per block corresponds to an income boost of twenty thousand dollars, or being almost one and a half years younger. [Continue reading…]

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UK suspends ban on pesticides linked to serious harm in bees

The Guardian reports: Farmers will be able to use blacklisted pesticides linked to serious harm in bees after the UK government temporarily lifted an EU ban.

Opponents called the decision “scandalous” and criticised the government’s secrecy, which has included gagging its own expert advisers.

Bees and other pollinators are essential for many crops but are in decline due to pesticides, loss of habitat and disease. Over 500,000 people signed a petition opposing the suspension of the ban. [Continue reading…]

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Continued destruction of Earth’s plant life places humankind in jeopardy

University of Georgia: Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable, according to a paper published recently by University of Georgia researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years,” said the study’s lead author, John Schramski, an associate professor in UGA’s College of Engineering. “The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”

Earth was once a barren landscape devoid of life, he explained, and it was only after billions of years that simple organisms evolved the ability to transform the sun’s light into energy. This eventually led to an explosion of plant and animal life that bathed the planet with lush forests and extraordinarily diverse ecosystems.

The study’s calculations are grounded in the fundamental principles of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationship between heat and mechanical energy. Chemical energy is stored in plants, or biomass, which is used for food and fuel, but which is also destroyed to make room for agriculture and expanding cities.

Scientists estimate that the Earth contained approximately 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass 2,000 years ago. Since that time, humans have reduced that amount by almost half. It is estimated that just over 10 percent of that biomass was destroyed in just the last century.

“If we don’t reverse this trend, we’ll eventually reach a point where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can no longer sustain us,” Schramski said.

Working with James H. Brown from the University of New Mexico, Schramski and UGA’s David Gattie, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, show that the vast majority of losses come from deforestation, hastened by the advent of large-scale mechanized farming and the need to feed a rapidly growing population. As more biomass is destroyed, the planet has less stored energy, which it needs to maintain Earth’s complex food webs and biogeochemical balances.

“As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest,” Schramski said.

If human beings do not go extinct, and biomass drops below sustainable thresholds, the population will decline drastically, and people will be forced to return to life as hunter-gatherers or simple horticulturalists, according to the paper.

“I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics,” Schramski said. “These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”

Schramski and his collaborators are hopeful that recognition of the importance of biomass, elimination of its destruction and increased reliance on renewable energy will slow the steady march toward an uncertain future, but the measures required to stop that progression may have to be drastic.

“I call myself a realistic optimist,” Schramski said. “I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong, but I haven’t found it.”

The study, on “Human Domination of the Biosphere: Rapid Discharge of the Earth-Space Battery Foretells the Future of Humankind,” is available online here.

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Human impact on the oceans is growing — and climate change is the biggest culprit

The Washington Post reports: The world’s oceans have suffered a lot at the hands of humans — ask any marine conservationist. Unsustainable fishing, pollution and the effects of climate change are just a few of the issues that worry scientists and environmentalists.

While we have a good idea of which activities are causing harm to the ocean, scientists have been less clear on which ones are the most damaging and which regions of the ocean are getting the worst of it. Now, new research has allowed scientists to map the impacts of 19 different types of human activity that have harmed the ocean over a span of five years. The study was published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The researchers used global-scale data to map the cumulative impacts of human activities between 2008 and 2013, pinpointing which areas are under increasing stress, which areas are experiencing a decrease and which human activities are having the biggest impacts in which areas. They found that nearly two-thirds of the ocean in experiencing an increase in these man-made impacts — and climate change is the worst of all, driving the majority of the changes the researchers observed. [Continue reading…]

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