Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists

The Guardian reports: More than half the myriad tree species in the Amazon could be heading for extinction, according to a study that makes the first comprehensive estimate of threatened species in the world’s largest rainforest. Among the species expected to suffer significant falls in numbers are the Brazil nut, and wild cacao and açai trees, all important food sources.

The world’s most diverse forest has endured decades of deforestation, with loggers, farmers and miners responsible for the removal of 12% of its area. If that continues in the decades ahead, 57% of the 15,000 tree species will be in danger, according to the researchers. [Continue reading…]


Saving our future on this planet


We have 15 years to halt biodiversity loss, can it be done?

By Richard Pearson, UCL

The UN’s ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals include a target to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. The SDGs have generated a great deal of comment, with questions raised as to whether the lofty aspirations can be turned into realistic policies. An article in The Lancet even dismissed the SDGs as nothing more than “fairy tales”.

So is halting biodiversity loss a fairy tale?

“Biodiversity” refers to the diversity of life on Earth. It includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems. There are any number of statistics that confirm its decline across the globe. For instance, the Red List of threatened species, developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), identifies 22,784 that are at risk of extinction – almost 30% of the species that have been assessed. By other measures, habitats continue to be destroyed and degraded, and population sizes of most wild species are in decline.

[Read more…]


India’s war on Greenpeace

The New York Times reports: Greenpeace India said in a statement on Friday that its permit to operate in India had been revoked on the grounds that it had falsified financial documents, the latest in a series of government actions taken against the environmental organization.

The move against the group is one of many “clumsy tactics to suppress free speech and dissenting voices” by the government, Vinuta Gopal, the interim executive director of Greenpeace India, said in the statement.

The organization will fight the authorities’ cancellation of the permit in court, she said in a telephone interview. [Continue reading…]

Samanth Subramanian wrote in August: After deciding not to sleep at all before her 6.50am flight out of Delhi, Priya Pillai felt slow and drowsy as she handed her passport over the immigration counter. It was a few hours past midnight on 11 January 2015; Pillai, a campaigner with Greenpeace India, knew that two full weeks of work awaited her in London. At check-in, she had secured an aisle seat, which made her happy. Now, as the official scanned her passport, Pillai sent idle texts to a colleague in Boston and pondered a plan to visit a friend in the north of England for the weekend.

Behind the counter, the official reached for a square of paper and began taking notes. His name was VK Ojha, Pillai remembers, and he looked fresh and alert. He had a neat moustache and wore a white shirt and navy blue trousers. Minutes went by, and Ojha scribbled on.

“Is there a problem?” Pillai asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Please wait here.”

Ojha vanished. From the next counter, a curious official asked for Pillai’s name and, after typing it into his computer, said: “Greenpeace?” Pillai nodded. When Ojha returned, he led Pillai to an office run by the immigration authority. There, he asked Pillai for her passport and told her – most politely, Pillai remembers – that she couldn’t leave the country.

Pillai is a voluble person, and she spent the next four hours demanding explanations from immigration officials. She got none. When an Air India employee came by, he was asked to take Pillai’s luggage off the plane, which terrified her. She thought: “They’ll put drugs in my bags, and they’ll say: ‘This is why we’re arresting you.’”

Pillai was sure that the state was not beyond framing her. Since 2010, she had been part of a Greenpeace group that was protesting the government’s decision to commission new coal mines in the woods of Mahan in central India. She was travelling to London, in fact, to talk to an informal group of British MPs about Mahan and about Essar Energy, an Indian power and fossil fuel giant incorporated in the UK in 2009 and listed briefly on the London Stock Exchange. Essar Energy was one of two companies licensed to mine in Mahan; Greenpeace argued that the filthy process of mining coal would pulverise acres of forest and displace thousands who lived in the area.

The government took a dim view of these protests. Some of Pillai’s colleagues had been arrested in Mahan on flimsy charges that never stuck. Police and intelligence agencies monitored the activists closely; Pillai was sure they were aware of her London trip. “I know my phone has been tapped for years,” she said. “I’ve had experiences [such as] getting on to a train from Delhi to go to Mahan, and even the people there don’t know I’m coming, but the police or the local intelligence people there will call these people in Mahan and say: ‘Priya’s coming, right?’ I’ve had bureaucrats tell me: ‘You should be careful. You’re under surveillance.’” [Continue reading…]


Climate change implicated in death of more than half an entire species of endangered antelopes in less than a month

Carl Zimmer writes: A mysterious die-off of endangered antelopes last spring in Central Asia was even more extensive than originally thought, killing more than half of the entire species in less than a month, scientists have found.

“I’ve worked in wildlife disease all my life, and I thought I’d seen some pretty grim things,” Richard A. Kock, of the Royal Veterinary College in London, said in a telephone interview. “But this takes the biscuit.”

At a scientific meeting last week in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Dr. Kock and his colleagues reported that they had narrowed down the possible culprits. Climate change and stormy spring weather, they said, may have transformed harmless bacteria carried by the antelopes, called saigas, into lethal pathogens.

It is a scenario that deeply worries scientists. “It’s not going to be something the species can survive,” Dr. Kock said. “If there are weather triggers that are broad enough, you could actually have extinction in one year.” [Continue reading…]


It’s completely ridiculous to think that humans could live on Mars

Danielle and Astro Teller write: Our 12-year-old daughter who, like us, is a big fan of The Martian by Andy Weir, said, “I can’t stand that people think we’re all going to live on Mars after we destroy our own planet. Even after we’ve made the Earth too hot and polluted for humans, it still won’t be as bad as Mars. At least there’s plenty of water here, and the atmosphere won’t make your head explode.”

What makes The Martian so wonderful is that the protagonist survives in a brutally hostile environment, against all odds, by exploiting science in clever and creative ways. To nerds like us, that’s better than Christmas morning or a hot fudge sundae. (One of us is nerdier than the other — I’m not naming any names, but his job title is “Captain of Moonshots.”) The idea of using our ingenuity to explore other planets is thrilling. Our daughter has a good point about escaping man-made disaster on Earth by colonizing Mars, though. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Mars has almost no surface water; a toxic atmosphere that is too thin for humans to survive without pressure suits; deadly solar radiation; temperatures lower than Antarctica; and few to none of the natural resources that have been critical to human success on Earth. Smart people have proposed solutions for those pesky environmental issues, some of which are seriously sci-fi, like melting the polar ice caps with nuclear bombs. But those aren’t even the real problems.

The real problems have to do with human nature and economics. First, we live on a planet that is perfect for us, and we seem to be unable to prevent ourselves from making it less and less habitable. We’re like a bunch of teenagers destroying our parents’ mansion in one long, crazy party, figuring that our backup plan is to run into the forest and build our own house. We’ll worry about how to get food and a good sound system later. Proponents of Mars colonization talk about “terraforming” Mars to make it more like Earth, but in the meantime, we’re “marsforming” Earth by making our atmosphere poisonous and annihilating our natural resources. We are also well on our way to making Earth one big desert, just like Mars. [Continue reading…]


The African lion: What faster decline of apex predator means for ecosystems

By Matt Hayward, Bangor University

There is nothing as awe-inspiring as watching the brutal power of a lion capturing its prey. At close range, their throaty roars thump through your body, raising a cold sweat triggered by the fear of what these animals are capable of doing now, and what they once did to our ancestors. They are the most majestic animals left on our planet, and yet we are currently faced with the very real possibility that they will be functionally extinct within our lifetime.

In fact, lion populations throughout much of Africa are heading towards extinction more rapidly than previously thought, according to new research by Oxford biologist Hans Bauer and colleagues, published in PNAS. The team looked at 47 sites with credible and repeated lion surveys since 1990, and found they were declining everywhere in Africa aside from four countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

West and Central African lion populations have a 67% chance of halving in size in just two decades, and East African populations a 37% chance. Almost all large lion populations that once exceeded 500 individuals outside of southern Africa are declining. These declines in Africa’s apex predator occur at the same time that the continent’s mega-herbivores are also plummeting.

[Read more…]


Deforestation is altering the world’s climate

The New York Times reports: Like California, much of Brazil is gripped by one of the worst droughts in its history. Huge reservoirs are bone dry and water has been rationed in São Paulo, a megacity of 20 million people; in Rio; and in many other places.

Drought is usually thought of as a natural disaster beyond human control. But as researchers peer deeper into the Earth’s changing bioclimate — the vastly complex global interplay between living organisms and climatic forces — they are better appreciating the crucial role that deforestation plays.

Cutting down forests releases stored carbon dioxide, which traps heat and contributes to atmospheric warming. But forests also affect climate in other ways, by absorbing more solar energy than grasslands, for example, or releasing vast amounts of water vapor. Many experts believe that deforestation is taking place on such a large scale, especially in South America, that it has already significantly altered the world’s climate — even though its dynamics are not well understood.

“A lot of people are scrambling to make observations in the Amazon this year, with the expected big El Niño coming,” said Abigail L. S. Swann, an eco-climatologist at the University of Washington. “It’s expected to drive significant drought over the Amazon, which will change how much water trees have available.”

Humans have long settled in places where there is adequate and predictable precipitation, and large forests play a crucial role in generating dependable amounts of rainfall. Trees take up moisture from the soil and transpire it, lifting it into the atmosphere. A fully grown tree releases 1,000 liters of water vapor a day into the atmosphere: The entire Amazon rain forest sends up 20 billion tons a day. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s war helped create an epic dust storm, scientists say

The Washington Post reports: Last month, a thick yellow cloud of dust blanketed parts of the Middle East and extended all the way to Cyprus. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were forced to scurry for shelter from the choking plume, while Israelis were instructed to stay indoors and ports in Egypt were shut. Health officials in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said more than 1,200 people, including 100 children, were hospitalized with breathing difficulties; in Lebanon, two women died as a result of the dust storm.

It was an unusual, unseasonal event, as my colleague Hugh Naylor reported. And, according to a team of Israeli scientists, it may have been the consequence of extreme, man-made conditions in Syria and Iraq right now.

As Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes, researchers at Ben-Gurion University’s Institute for Desert Research scrutinized the storm, the likes of which are usually seen in the spring. They found that the particles of dust kicked up were larger than anything their instruments had previously recorded (since being operation in 1995) and that the dust traveled at a rather low level. [Continue reading…]


Nearly a third of world’s cacti face extinction, says IUCN


The Guardian reports: Nearly a third of the world’s cacti are facing the threat of extinction, according to a shocking global assessment of the effects that illegal trade and other human activities are having on the species.

Cacti are a critical provider of food and water to desert wildlife ranging from coyotes and deer to lizards, tortoises, bats and hummingbirds, and these fauna spread the plants’ seeds in return.

But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)‘s first worldwide health check of the plants, published today in the journal Nature Plants, says that they are coming under unprecedented pressure from human activities such as land use conversions, commercial and residential developments and shrimp farming.

But the paper said the main driver of cacti species extinction was the: “unscrupulous collection of live plants and seeds for horticultural trade and private ornamental collections, smallholder livestock ranching and smallholder annual agriculture.” [Continue reading…]


How do we get people to care about the environment? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

Brooke Jarvis writes: [Chris] Jordan is a photographer who once referred to himself, while joking with Stephen Colbert, as a paparazzo of garbage. Before going to [the Pacific atoll] Midway, he spent years trying to visually represent the baffling scale on which we produce and scrap the materials of consumer society. He explored ports and scrap yards, photographing immense, looming walls of crushed cars and oil drums, shipping containers and pallets, and later began creating digital composites to illustrate statistics too vast for the human brain to compute: a forest made from the cigarette butts thrown out every 15 seconds in the United States; a swirl of hundreds of thousands of cell phones, the discards of a single American day.

He’d created other series in the past — nature scenes, studies of alleys and puddles and urban trees bathed in the glow of neon signs — but nothing felt relevant to contemporary culture until he began trying to make the grand scale of human waste visible. It was his way of hunting the perpetual, elusive quarry familiar to environmentalists: a message that can get people to care.

But over time this work began to feel cold and conceptual, almost numbing. Jordan began to doubt that it could accomplish the breakthrough he wanted. So he started searching for something different: a way to help people make a powerful emotional connection to a broken world.

That’s when he heard about what happens to many Laysan albatrosses on the verge of flight. [Continue reading…]


Pope Francis encourages Congress and the U.S. to promote a ‘culture of care’

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis said: In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue—a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons—new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223). [Continue reading…]

For readers unfamiliar with Thomas Merton, here’s a video with clips from the last lecture he gave, shortly before his death in 1968.


Nature can’t pay its own way – so let’s take the market out of conservation

By Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

For years, scientists and environmentalists have debated the best ways to conserve and protect natural resources from pollution and over-exploitation.

In the late 19th century, conservation advocates with the help of President Roosevelt succeeded in making Yellowstone the first US national park. Yellowstone’s status sent a strong message against unregulated commercial extraction and the model has since been replicated worldwide. However, the strict exclusionary nature of national parks was extremely burdensome for local and indigenous peoples who remained reliant on natural resources within protected areas.

The policy of “fortress conservation” was intended to give way in the late 20th century to a host of more sustainable alternatives, announced at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Conservation and development would be better integrated, and rural poverty addressed by bringing the poor into a global marketplace, while simultaneously delivering the market deep into the rainforests.

Since Rio, market-based conservation has gained a lot of traction, and almost all forms of nature have been commodified. Packaged into sleek financialised terminology such as carbon credits, ecosystem services or species banking, the market has become such a supposed panacea for conservation that selling nature has become, for many, the only method of conserving it.

[Read more…]


Our seas are being degraded, fish are dying – but humanity is threatened too

Callum Roberts writes: Sardines were once extraordinarily abundant in the south-west of England, leading one 19th-century guidebook to say: “Pursued by predaceous hordes of dogfish, hake and cod, and greedy flocks of seabirds, they advance towards the land in such amazing numbers as actually to impede the passage of vessels and to discolour the sea as far as the eye can reach … Of a sudden they will vanish from view and then again approach the coast in such compact order and overwhelming force that numbers will be pushed ashore by the moving hosts in the rear. In 1836 a shoal extended in a compact body from Fowey to the Land’s End, a distance of at least 100 miles if we take into consideration the windings of the shore.” (Handbook for Travellers in Devon and Cornwall, John Murray and Thomas Clifton Paris, 1851).

Today people travel thousands of miles to dive and film such scenes, not realising they were once commonplace on our own coasts. Last week the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London issued their most comprehensive look at the state of life in the sea. The report makes uncomfortable reading. Taking in more than 1,000 species worldwide and 5,000 populations of fish, turtles, marine mammals and a host of others, it draws the bleak conclusion that there is only half the amount of wildlife in the sea today as in 1970.

Although 1970 is their baseline year and seems long ago, life in the sea has been in decline for much longer. In short, that means the picture is worse than the report suggests. And the waters around Britain demonstrate the same patterns that are slashing fish stocks around the world. [Continue reading…]


Tuna and mackerel populations suffer catastrophic 74% decline, research shows

The Guardian reports: Tuna and mackerel populations have suffered a “catastrophic” decline of nearly three quarters in the last 40 years, according to new research.

WWF and the Zoological Society of London found that numbers of the scombridae family of fish, which also includes bonito, fell by 74% between 1970 and 2012, outstripping a decline of 49% for 1,234 ocean species over the same period.

The conservation charity warned that we face losing species critical to human food security, unless drastic action is taken to halt overfishing and other threats to marine life.

Louise Heaps, chief advisor on marine policy at WWF UK, said: “This is catastrophic. We are destroying vital food sources, and the ecology of our oceans.” [Continue reading…]