Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wilkins Ice Shelf Breaking Up More (4/28/09)...

From the Independent.co.uk/Reuters:

An area of an Antarctic ice shelf almost the size of New York City has broken into icebergs this month after the collapse of an ice bridge widely blamed on global warming, a scientist said today.

"The northern ice front of the Wilkins Ice Shelf has become unstable and the first icebergs have been released," Angelika Humbert, glaciologist at the University of Muenster in Germany, said of European Space Agency satellite images of the shelf.

Humbert told Reuters about 700 sq km of ice - bigger than Singapore or Bahrain and almost the size of New York - has broken off the Wilkins this month and shattered into a mass of icebergs.

She said 370 sq kms of ice had cracked up in recent days from the Shelf, the latest of about 10 shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula to retreat in a trend linked by the UN Climate Panel to global warming.

The new icebergs added to 330 sq kms of ice that broke up earlier this month with the shattering of an ice bridge apparently pinning the Wilkins in place between Charcot island and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Nine other shelves - ice floating on the sea and linked to the coast - have receded or collapsed around the Antarctic peninsula in the past 50 years, often abruptly like the Larsen A in 1995 or the Larsen B in 2002.

The trend is widely blamed on climate change caused by heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels, according to David Vaughan, a British Antarctic Survey scientist who landed by plane on the Wilkins ice bridge with two Reuters reporters in January.

Humbert said by telephone her estimates were that the Wilkins could lose a total of 800 to 3,000 sq kms of area after the ice bridge shattered.

The Wilkins shelf has already shrunk by about a third from its original 16,000 sq kms when first spotted decades ago, its ice so thick would take at least hundreds of years to form....

"Too Big To Fail"

I like this Greenpeace banner.

As the secretary of state opened the meeting, the Greenpeace US executive director, Phil Radford, was arrested in his first day in the job. He and six other climbers unfurled a banner from a construction crane near the state department with a message for the environment ministers: "Stop Global Warming. Rescue the Planet." Radford called for the industrialised world to commit to deeper cuts in emissions and provide assistance to developing countries.

From the Guardian:

"US admits responsibility for emissions to bring big polluters together"

The Obama administration issued a mea culpa today on America's role in causing climate change, in a move to get the major economies working together on a global warming treaty.

The admission by Hillary Clinton at a two-day meeting of the world's biggest polluters was intended to ease some of the obstacles towards a deal at UN talks in Copenhagen in December. She placed the gathering of officials from 17 countries, the European Union and the United Nations on a par with the G20 meeting on the economic crisis earlier this month.

Clinton addressed the complaints of developing countries such as India and China that America and the EU, by demanding binding emissions cuts, want to saddle them with the burden of climate change; they argue they did not cause the problem and must prioritise growth. She said the US recognised industrialised countries bore a responsibility: "Some countries like mine are responsible for past emissions." She wanted China and India to grow their economies: "We want people to have a higher standard of living."

Obama had broken with eight years of denial under George Bush, Clinton said. "The United States is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time both at home and abroad … the US is no longer absent without leave."

She saw climate change as the gravest problem facing the international community: "The facts on the ground are outstripping the worst case scenario models." ...

Monday, April 27, 2009

World Views

I've been listening to a book called "The Day the Universe Changed".

It has an abundance of interesting instances when people made discoveries (mostly those) that challenged the world view as described in the Bible and promoted by the Church. Mostly relating to understanding nature - that it works without "God's" hand active in every instance - that there are forces such as gravity - that can explain movement. That the earth is not the center of the universe, etc. Some were instances that changed how workers were viewed - such as after the Black Plague in Europe.

The one thing that struck me as odd - was in the midst of all this - the author inserts the idea that all ways of looking at the world are equally valid or should be considered equitably. While I get his assertion that we all have world views that are skewed because of one thing or another - beliefs that interfere with a truly objective view - I can't agree that all have the same value.

You could consider - in the extreme - those who justify torture - either as individuals against another individual(s) or by people in positions of power who are able to order systematic torture. Even though torture has never been shown to be a useful tool - and in fact creates many problems. One imagines that the only "benefit" is that people are intimidated and frightened into submission. (I don't consider that a benefit - but the practitioners probably do).

Or there is the world-view of business people who don't see a problem with overfishing, or polluting or what-not. They see an increase in their profits and can't see any reason to consider anything else.

And both of these world views are accepted by people who don't benefit from either of them - and are actually harmed by them - but prefer not to notice.

In this society - most people are less aware than we could be of the harm caused by things we take for granted. It's easy to use electricity and not to be constantly thinking of how a mountain somewhere is being destroyed so that I can use this computer, for instance. Or keep the refrigerator going or whatever.... We have to eat - there are consequences - to other animals, to the world from fossil fuel use, etc.

But in general - I see a problem with the European western viewpoint being against nature generally - as if we are at odds to nature. And there is a problem with that world view being exported around the world. We would all be better off adopting the Asian idea of people being an integral part of nature. As in the artwork where people are a small part of things -instead of the dominant and dominating part. The idea that Europeans don't always have the best ideas is something that many are not willing to accept. I think that it is not different in effect than thinking that the earth is the center of the universe and being opposed to any idea that challenged that belief.

So some of these world views are definitely harmful to the planet, to ecosystems and to ourselves individually and collectively. And the more people who have a more positive world view - the better for all of us. It's blind to say that to glorify consumption is just as valuable as to glorify nature. One view leads the world into a downward spiral of destruction - the other looks to solve problems in ways that are not only humane, but which would benefit all life.

Some world views are that the only thing that matters is a "life" after death (that may not even exist). Other world views prefer to consider the matter of this world where we definitely exist. If the consequences to this world are to be considered - than a "world" view that does not seriously consider this world cannot be as valid as one that does. That seems almost too obvious to mention. And yet - many people don't get it. :(

I was listening to the opening of the book again - and noticed that the author's viewpoint is that nature is "disordered, powerful and chaotic" and that people impose systems because they fear the chaos. The whole premise is goofed up. Sure, when people had little understanding as to what some of the forces of nature are - it made sense that "systems" would be created - ie. superstitions and what now can be seen as pretty delusional religious views.

Nature does not seem nearly so chaotic when it's systems are more understood. And anyway - there is quite a bit of order and systems - like seasons, cycles of life and death, water cycles- evaporation, rain, etc. that people would have had some ideas about, regardless.

The Seafood Industry - Overfishing

From the Guardian.co.uk:

No tuna, no salmon. No oysters, no skate. No cod and chips
Imagine a world without seafood for supper. It's nearer than you think.

As I step off the train at Heysel, in the shadow of the notorious football stadium, the vast art deco structure of the Palais du Centenaire rises like a cathedral. With its four soaring buttresses topped by statues, the Palais forms the centrepiece of the Parc des Expositions in Brussels - a trade-fair complex built in the 1930s to commemorate a century of independence from the Netherlands. This is the temporary home of thousands of fish products from around the world as 23,000 delegates descend from 80 countries for the annual European Seafood Exposition - the world's largest seafood trade show and a grim reminder of man's dominion over the oceans.

"If I wanted people to understand the global fishing crisis, I would bring them here," says Sally Bailey, a marine programme officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature, one of the more moderate NGOs combating the exploitation of the seas. Last year, one of the more militant groups - Greenpeace - managed to "close down" five exhibitors trading in critically endangered bluefin tuna, by deploying 80 activists to drape their stands in fishing nets, chain themselves to fixtures and put up banners that read: "Time and tuna are running out".

Their main target was the Mitsubishi Corporation, the Japanese car manufacturer that is also the world's largest tuna trader, controlling 60% of the market and accounting for 40% of all bluefin tuna imported into Japan from the Mediterranean. The other companies were Dongwon Industries (Korea), Moon Marine (Taiwan/ Singapore), Azzopardi Fisheries (Malta) and Ricardo Fuentes & Sons (Spain).

The day I am there, Greenpeace activists are stalking EU fisheries ministers and waiting for a chance to unfurl their banners - but the security guards thwart them. However, the gargantuan catch on display speaks for itself. At the stand run by the Sea Wealth Frozen Food Company of Thailand, the shelves are groaning with jauntily designed packets of frozen squid, surimi (minced fish) dumplings, spring rolls, samosas and deep-fried cones with shrimp tails poking out of them. In the next aisle, a frenetic chef is wok-frying prawns from Madagascar, dipping them in little square dishes of cumin, coriander, chilli powder, salt, cinnamon and garlic. At the Taiwan Pavilion, the cabinets are full of chilled and frozen tilapia, barramundi, sushi, eel and vacuum packs of tobiko - orange flying-fish roe, salty, crunchy as granola and served by a young woman in national dress who literally has not heard of sustainability. "All the boats are out there catching fish with roe," she tells me. "With so many after the same species, this is a very difficult business for us."

These halls take several hours to negotiate, and the stands seemingly go on forever - 1,650 businesses in all, together peddling most of the 147m tonnes of seafood produced globally every year. Of this, 100m tonnes is caught in the wild while the rest is farmed to satisfy an insatiable demand. Already, 1.2bn people depend on fish in their diet - and in Europe we each consume 20kg per year on average, compared to 5kg per person in India. However, as the emergent middle classes in Asia develop a taste, and a budget, for seafood - considered a luxury item until now - demand will rocket further.

What the organisers must know, but are keeping mum about, is that the oceans are in a parlous state. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 70% of the world's fisheries are now fully exploited (ie, fished to the point where they can only just replenish themselves), overexploited or depleted. The majority of fish populations have been reduced by 70-95%, depending on the species, compared to the level they would be at if there were no fishing at all. In other words, only five per cent of fish are left in some cases. In more practical terms, fishermen are catching one or two fish per 100 hooks, compared to 10 fish per 100 hooks where a stock is healthy and unexploited - a measure of sustainability once used by the Japanese fleet. In England and Wales, we are landing one fish for every 20 that we landed in 1889, when government records began, despite having larger vessels, more sophisticated technology and trawl nets so vast and all-consuming that they are capable of containing 12 Boeing 747 aircraft.

Where have all those other fish gone? In short, we have eaten them. "Tens of thousands of bluefin tuna used to be caught in the North Sea every year," says Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York. "Now, there are none. Once, there were millions of skate - huge common skate, white skate, long-nosed skate - being landed from seas around the UK. The common skate is virtually extinct, the angel shark has gone. We have lost our marine megafauna as a consequence of exploitation."

Then there are the devastating effects of bottom trawling around our coasts, which began with the advent of the steam trawler 130 years ago. "Sweeping backwards and forwards across the seabed, they removed a whole carpet of invertebrates," Professor Roberts says, "such as corals, sponges, sea fans and seaweeds. On one map, dating from 1883, there is a huge area of the North Sea roughly the size of Wales, marked 'Oyster beds'. The last oysters were fished there commercially in the 1930s; the last live oyster was taken in the 1970s. We have altered the marine environment in a spectacular way."

Worse still, after stripping our own seas bare, we have "exported fishing capacity to the waters of developing countries", Professor Roberts warns. Off Mauritania, Senegal and other West African countries, fleets from the rich industrial north are "fishing in a totally unsustainable way with minimal oversight by European countries". In return for plundering the oceans, which deprives local people of food, and artisanal fishermen of their livelihood, these vessels pay minimal fees that impoverished countries are happy to accept. "It is a mining operation," Professor Roberts says, "a rerun of the exploitation of terrestrial wealth that happened in colonial days. This is colonialism in a new guise, albeit with a respectable cloak in the form of access agreements."

Such is the human feeding frenzy, there may come a time when there are no fish left to catch. In 2006, a study in the US journal Science warned that every single species we exploit would have collapsed by 2048 if populations continued to decline as they had since the 1950s. By 2003, nearly a third of all species had collapsed, the study found - meaning their numbers were down 90% or more on historic maximum catch levels. Extrapolate that on a graph, and the downward curve reaches 100% just before 2050.

That prognosis - now disputed - was based on a four-year study of fish populations, catch records and ocean ecosystems. "We really see the end of the line now," said the author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time. "It will be in our lifetime. Our children will see a world without seafood, if we do not change things." Many imagined a world where there would be no fish protein left to eat apart from jellyfish and marine algae....

The article goes on to describe that if politicians followed the recommendations of marine scientists instead of fish industry/business interests the situation would improve. Lately that hasn't been happening. There need to be more Marine Protected Areas...

"Creatures' rush to extinction..." (Australia)

From The Australian:

ONE hot, dark night midway through March, John Woinarski, principal scientist at the Northern Territory's Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport, was out doing what he most loves: surveying the wild landscape of the Top End bush. But this task, in recent years, has become a burden. Woinarski, dropped by helicopter on to the high stone-country plateau of West Arnhem Land, already half-knew what he would find at one of his remotest monitoring sites, a stretch of 50sqm - rainforested, lush - beside a waterhole: nothing. Not one native mammal.

During recent decades, scientists have been recording a vast decline in the original mammal fauna of north Australia. In the past five years, for most species, that decline has become a death spiral. The picture is consistent across the north: in parks and in Aboriginal reserves, in pastoral country, in pristine rangelands, in coastal swamps. The pattern has been too plain to miss and many of the likelier causes have been identified, but the dizzying disappearance of animals from the landscape seems like something new. It is Australia's most profound ecological crisis; it is little known in the nation at large and still quite imperfectly understood.

Woinarski, a man of precise words and restrained manner who has spent much of his life studying northern landscapes and received the 2001 Eureka Prize for his work, describes the evidence.

His group's 220 long-term monitoring sites cover the Top End's most untouched regions, places where one would expect the native wildlife to be surviving fairly well. Between 1996 and 2001, he and his colleagues observed the falling away and traced the ongoing pattern, but in the following five years it was as though the native fauna population had plunged from a cliff's edge. The newest findings were "the game-stopper". They recorded an average 70 per cent drop in species numbers and an 82 per cent drop in the total of animals seen at each site. These declines were in all environment types and all family groups. Even in national parks, where protection regimes are in place, the figures were devastating. "The most recent results are extremely alarming; indeed, catastrophic," Woinarski says...

Just more than a year earlier, Woinarski and his core team had published a preliminary report card on the vanishing. Lost From Our Landscape, their 250-page overview, constitutes an unusual field guide, a book of what's not out in the environment any more. It is filled with the details of the NT's most threatened species, including 40-odd small mammals: bilbies, mice, wallabies, quolls, bettongs, rat-kangaroos in obscure and appealing variations. It weaves a familiar narrative.

The last great wave of Australian extinctions was experienced in the Centre, between the 1930s and '60s, when most of the 20 mammal species known to have been lost from this continent disappeared. That pattern is now repeating further north: animals that were once common are critically endangered...

Scientists know very well, from fossil evidence, that animals have been dying out in Australia for the past 60,000 years as a result of large-scale climate shifts, and also as a consequence of man's arrival, and the use of fire to control the landscape. But today's looming round of extinctions is a strong clue to the strain placed on the tropical and sub-tropical region in recent decades by modern development pressures and by the abandonment of traditional land use techniques.

Mines, ports, dams, cattle stations, all these have changed the workings of the landscape. But the remote bush is also being transformed. More subtle, pervasive, insidious long-term shifts are under way. Hence a paradox: it is in the untouched far country that the most startling declines in animal populations are being recorded. As Woinarski observes, central and north Australian mammals are susceptible precisely because they had evolved through millennia to fit the scarcities and slow pace of the continent. They tend not to reproduce fast or in great numbers. When there are changes in an ecosphere, as in the north in the past century, sharp consequences ripple through the natural kingdom...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Images of Saturn from the Cassini Equinox Mission

Clouds, storms, swirls - go to the jpl/nasa link for more.

"Without Superfund Tax, Stimulus Aids Cleanups"

From the New York TImes:

VINELAND, N.J. — The Superfund program to clean up the nation’s most contaminated industrial sites was established nearly 30 years ago on the principle that those responsible for toxic pollution should pay for it.

So why is the government spending $600 million in stimulus money to work on sites like the defunct arsenic-fouled Vineland Chemical Company plant here in South Jersey?

Environmental Protection Agency officials and environmentalists say the Superfund program has been chronically underfinanced since a tax that supported it expired in 1995.

What is more, the old Vineland plant, like hundreds of other toxic dumps, is a so-called orphan site, meaning that either no responsible party has been found or money from the original polluter has been exhausted. So the taxpayer is on the hook for the remedial work.

Vineland’s former owners, now deceased, paid $3 million toward a cleanup that began a decade ago and has already cost more than $120 million. The site will get $10 million to $25 million in stimulus money to speed a continuing project to purge arsenic and other chemicals from soil and water on the site’s 54 acres.

Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the E.P.A., said the use of stimulus money would accelerate progress at 50 Superfund sites in 28 states, including eight abandoned industrial sites in New Jersey and two on Long Island.

“Under the Recovery Act,” Ms. Jackson said, using the formal term for the stimulus package, “we’re getting harmful pollutants and dangerous chemicals out of these communities and putting jobs and investment back in.”

Ronald Naman, the E.P.A. manager for the Vineland site, said the new money would create or save about 20 jobs and allow the current phase of the cleanup to be completed in as little as two years rather than four. As Mr. Naman spoke, three large earth-moving machines were scooping muck out of the Blackwater Branch creek, piling it up to dry so the toxic chemicals could be removed and shipped to landfills.

Mr. Naman said arsenic in soil and water from the company’s pesticide operations still posed a threat to human health and would take years to remedy. The agency, working with private contractors, has processed billions of gallons of tainted water and millions of pounds of polluted soil over the past several years.

Until 1995, cleanups at orphan sites like Vineland were paid in part from a trust fund based on taxes from polluting industries. But that year, the Republican-run Congress, responding to industry complaints, refused to reauthorize the Superfund tax, which once collected hundreds of millions of dollars a year from chemical and oil companies.

President Obama wants to restore the tax and assumes it will provide $1 billion in revenues for his 2011 budget...

"Drowning in plastic..."

...The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of France

From the Telegraph.co.uk:

There are now 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of the world's oceans, killing a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. Worse still, there seems to be nothing we can do to clean it up. So how do we turn the tide?

Way out in the Pacific Ocean, in an area once known as the doldrums, an enormous, accidental monument to modern society has formed. Invisible to satellites, poorly understood by scientists and perhaps twice the size of France, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a solid mass, as is sometimes imagined, but a kind of marine soup whose main ingredient is floating plastic debris.

It was discovered in 1997 by a Californian sailor, surfer, volunteer environmentalist and early-retired furniture restorer named Charles Moore, who was heading home with his crew from a sailing race in Hawaii, at the helm of a 50ft catamaran that he had built himself.

For the hell of it, he decided to turn on the engine and take a shortcut across the edge of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a region that seafarers have long avoided. It is a perennial high pressure zone, an immense slowly spiralling vortex of warm equatorial air that pulls in winds and turns them gently until they expire. Several major sea currents also converge in the gyre and bring with them most of the flotsam from the Pacific coasts of Southeast Asia, North America, Canada and Mexico. Fifty years ago nearly all that flotsam was biodegradable. These days it is 90 per cent plastic.

'It took us a week to get across and there was always some plastic thing bobbing by,' says Moore, who speaks in a jaded, sardonic drawl that occasionally flares up into heartfelt oratory. 'Bottle caps, toothbrushes, styrofoam cups, detergent bottles, pieces of polystyrene packaging and plastic bags. Half of it was just little chips that we couldn't identify. It wasn't a revelation so much as a gradual sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong here. Two years later I went back with a fine-mesh net, and that was the real mind-boggling discovery.'

Floating beneath the surface of the water, to a depth of 10 metres, was a multitude of small plastic flecks and particles, in many colours, swirling like snowflakes or fish food. An awful thought occurred to Moore and he started measuring the weight of plastic in the water compared to that of plankton. Plastic won, and it wasn't even close. 'We found six times more plastic than plankton, and this was just colossal,' he says. 'No one had any idea this was happening, or what it might mean for marine ecosystems, or even where all this stuff was coming from.'

So ended Moore's retirement. He turned his small volunteer environmental monitoring group into the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, enlisted scientists, launched public awareness campaigns and devoted all his considerable energies to exploring what would become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and studying the broader problem of marine plastic pollution, which is accumulating in all the world's oceans.

The world's navies and commercial shipping fleets make a significant contribution, he discovered, throwing some 639,000 plastic containers overboard every day, along with their other litter. But after a few more years of sampling ocean water in
the gyre and near the mouths of Los Angeles streams, and comparing notes with scientists in Japan and Britain, Moore concluded that 80 per cent of marine plastic was initially discarded on land, and the United Nations Environmental Programme agrees.

The wind blows plastic rubbish out of littered streets and landfills, and lorries and trains on their way to landfills. It gets into rivers, streams and storm drains and then rides the tides and currents out to sea. Litter dropped by people at the beach is also a major source.

Plastic does not biodegrade; no microbe has yet evolved that can feed on it. But it does photodegrade. Prolonged exposure to sunlight causes polymer chains to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, a process accelerated by physical friction, such as being blown across a beach or rolled by waves. This accounts for most of the flecks and fragments in the enormous plastic soup at the becalmed heart of the Pacific, but Moore also found a fantastic profusion of uniformly shaped pellets about 2mm across.

Nearly all the plastic items in our lives begin as these little manufactured pellets of raw plastic resin, which are known in the industry as nurdles. More than 100 billion kilograms of them are shipped around the world every year, delivered to processing plants and then heated up, treated with other chemicals, stretched and moulded into our familiar products, containers and packaging.

During their loadings and unloadings, however, nurdles have a knack for spilling and escaping. They are light enough to become airborne in a good wind. They float wonderfully and can now be found in every ocean in the world, hence their new nickname: mermaids' tears. You can find nurdles in abundance on almost any seashore in Britain, where litter has increased by 90 per cent in the past 10 years, or on the remotest uninhabited Pacific islands, along with all kinds of other plastic confetti.

'There's no such thing as a pristine sandy beach any more,' Charles Moore says. 'The ones that look pristine are usually groomed, and if you look closely you can always find plastic particles. On Kamilo Beach in Hawaii there are now more plastic particles than sand particles until you dig a foot down. On Pagan Island [between Hawaii and the Philippines] they have what they call the "shopping beach". If the islanders need a cigarette lighter, or some flip-flops, or a toy, or a ball for their kids, they go down to the shopping beach and pick it out of all the plastic trash that's washed up there from thousands of miles away.'

On Midway Island, 2,800 miles west of California and 2,200 miles east of Japan, the British wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking found that many thousands of Laysan albatross chicks are dying every year from eating pieces of plastic that their parents mistake for food and bring back for them.

Worldwide, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic is killing a million seabirds a year, and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles. It kills by entanglement, most commonly in discarded synthetic fishing lines and nets. It kills by choking throats and gullets and clogging up digestive tracts, leading to fatal constipation. Bottle caps, pocket combs, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, cottonbud shafts, toothbrushes, toys, syringes and plastic shopping bags are routinely found in the stomachs of dead seabirds and turtles.

A study of fulmar carcases that washed up on North Sea coastlines found that 95 per cent had plastic in their stomachs – an average of 45 pieces per bird.

Plastic particles are not thought to be toxic themselves but they attract and accumulate chemical poisons already in the water such as DDT and PCBs – nurdles have a special knack for this. Plastic has been found inside zooplankton and filter-feeders such as mussels and barnacles; the worry is that these plastic pellets and associated toxins are travelling through the marine food chains into the fish on our plates. Scientists don't know because they are only just beginning to study it.

We do know that whales are ingesting plenty of plastic along with their plankton, and that whales have high concentrations of DDT, PCBs and mercury in their flesh, but that's not proof. The whales could be getting their toxins directly from the water or by other vectors.

Research on marine plastic debris is still in its infancy and woefully underfunded, but we know that there are six major subtropical gyres in the world's oceans – their combined area amounts to a quarter of the earth's surface – and that they are all accumulating plastic soup...

When Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, started tinkering around in his garage in Yonkers, New York, working on the first synthetic polymer, who could have foreseen that a hundred years later plastic would outweigh plankton six-to-one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

Baekeland was trying to mimic shellac, a natural polymer secreted by the Asian scale beetle and used at the time to coat electrical wires. In 1909 he patented a mouldable hard plastic that he called Bakelite, and which made him very rich indeed.

Chemists were soon experimenting with variations, breaking down the long hydrocarbon chains in crude petroleum into smaller ones and mixing them together, adding chlorine to get PVC, introducing gas to get polystyrene. Nylon was invented in 1935 and found its first application in stockings, and then after the Second World War came acrylics, foam rubber, polythene, polyurethane, Plexi glass and more: an incredible outpouring of new plastic products and the revolution of clear plastic food wraps and containers...

Single-use plastic bags first appeared in the US in 1957 and in British supermarkets in the late 1960s; worldwide there are more than a trillion manufactured every year, although the upward trend is now levelling off and falling in many countries, including Britain. We reduced our plastic bag use by 26 per cent last year, to 9.9 billion. Bottled water entered the mass market in the mid-1980s. Global consumption is now 200 billion litres a year and only one in five of those plastic bottles is recycled. The total global production of plastic, which was five million tons in the 1950s, is expected to hit 260 million tons this year...

The stuff is absolutely ubiquitous, forming the most basic infrastructure of modern consumer society...

The benefits of plastic, most of which relate to convenience, consumer choice and profit, have been phenomenal. But except for the small percentage that has been incinerated, every single molecule of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still somewhere in the environment, and some 100 million tons of it are floating in the oceans.

A dead albatross was found recently with a piece of plastic from the 1940s in its stomach. Even if plastic production halted tomorrow, the planet would be dealing with its environmental consequences for thousands of years, and on the bottom of the oceans, where an estimated 70 per cent of marine plastic debris ends up – water bottles sink fairly quickly – for tens of thousands of years. It may form a layer in the geological record of the planet, or some microbe may evolve that can digest plastic and find itself supplied with a vast food resource...

What we cannot do is clean up the plastic in the oceans. 'It's the biggest misunderstanding people have on this issue,' Moore says. 'They think the ocean is like a lake and we can go out with nets and just clean it up. People find it difficult to grasp the true size of the oceans and the fact that most of this plastic is in tiny pieces and it's everywhere. All we can do is stop putting more of it in, and that means redesigning our relationship with plastic.'

...For consumers, the easiest way to make a difference is to give up plastic shopping bags and plastic water bottles, which contribute more to plastic pollution than any other products. Then comes plastic packaging, which is a little more complicated. It is easy to point out examples of excessive packaging, but plastic does have the virtue of being lighter than paper, cardboard and glass, which gives it a smaller carbon footprint. For food especially, recyclable plastic packaging is probably the best option...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Scientists discover a nearly Earth-sized planet"

(AP) HATFIELD, England – In the search for Earth-like planets, astronomers zeroed in Tuesday on two places that look awfully familiar to home. One is close to the right size. The other is in the right place. European researchers said they not only found the smallest exoplanet ever, called Gliese 581 e, but realized that a neighboring planet discovered earlier, Gliese 581 d, was in the prime habitable zone for potential life.

"The Holy Grail of current exoplanet research is the detection of a rocky, Earth-like planet in the 'habitable zone,'" said Michel Mayor, an astrophysicist at Geneva University in Switzerland.

An American expert called the discovery of the tiny planet "extraordinary."

Gliese 581 e is only 1.9 times the size of Earth — while previous planets found outside our solar system are closer to the size of massive Jupiter, which NASA says could swallow more than 1,000 Earths.

Gliese 581 e sits close to the nearest star, making it too hot to support life. Still, Mayor said its discovery in a solar system 20 1/2 light years away from Earth is a "good example that we are progressing in the detection of Earth-like planets."

Scientists also discovered that the orbit of planet Gliese 581 d, which was found in 2007, was located within the "habitable zone" — a region around a sun-like star that would allow water to be liquid on the planet's surface, Mayor said...

Gliese 581 d is probably too large to be made only of rocky material, fellow astronomer and team member Stephane Udry said, adding it was possible the planet had a "large and deep" ocean.

"It is the first serious 'water-world' candidate," Udry said...

Nearly 350 planets have been found outside our solar system, but so far nearly every one of them was found to be extremely unlikely to harbor life.

Most were too close or too far from their sun, making them too hot or too cold for life. Others were too big and likely to be uninhabitable gas giants like Jupiter. Those that are too small are highly difficult to detect in the first place.

Both Gliese 581 d and Gliese 581 e are located in constellation Libra and orbit around Gliese 581...

"Global economy is expected to shrink this year"

(AP) The world economy is likely to shrink this year for the first time in six decades.

The International Monetary Fund projected the 1.3 percent drop in a dour forecast released Wednesday. That could leave at least 10 million more people around the world jobless, some private economists said.

"By any measure, this downturn represents by far the deepest global recession since the Great Depression," the IMF said in its latest World Economic Outlook. "All corners of the globe are being affected."

The new forecast of a decline in global economic activity for 2009 is much weaker than the 0.5 percent growth the IMF had estimated in January.

Big factors in the gloomier outlook: It's expected to take longer than previously thought to stabilize world financial markets and get credit flowing freely again to consumers and businesses. Doing so will be necessary to lift the U.S., and the global economy, out of recession.

The report comes in advance of Friday's meetings between the United States and other major economic powers, and weekend sessions of the IMF and World Bank. The talks will seek to flesh out the commitments made at a G-20 leaders summit in London last month, when President Barack Obama and the others pledged to boost financial support for the IMF and other international lending institutions by $1.1 trillion.

The IMF's outlook for the U.S. is bleaker than for the world as a whole: It predicts the U.S. economy will shrink 2.8 percent this year. That would mark the biggest such decline since 1946.

Among the major industrialized nations studied, Japan is expected to suffer the sharpest contraction this year: 6.2 percent. Russia's economy would shrink 6 percent, Germany 5.6 percent and Britain 4.1 percent. Mexico's economic activity would contract 3.7 percent and Canada's 2.5 percent.

Global powerhouse China, meanwhile, is expected to see its growth slow to 6.5 percent this year. India's growth is likely to slow to 4.5 percent.

All told, the lost output could be as high as $4 trillion this year alone, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner estimated.
Besides trillions in lost business, a sinking world economy means fewer trade opportunities and higher unemployment. It raises the odds more people will fall into poverty, go hungry or lose their homes. And while keeping a lid on interest rates and consumer prices, the global recession increases the risk of deflation, which would drag down prices and wages, making it harder for people to make payments on their debt.

The jobless rate in the United States is expected to average 8.9 percent this year and climb to 10.1 percent next year, the IMF said.

In Germany, the jobless rate is expected to average 9 percent this year and 10.8 percent next year. Britain's unemployment rate is projected to rise to 7.4 percent this year and to 9.2 percent next year....

The financial crisis erupted in the United States in August 2007 and spread around the globe. The crisis entered a tumultuous new phase last fall, shaking confidence in global financial institutions and markets. Total worldwide losses from the financial crisis from 2007 to 2010 could reach nearly $4.1 trillion, the IMF estimated in a separate report Tuesday.

The crisis has led to bank failures, wiped out Lehman Brothers and forced other big institutions, like insurance giant American International Group, to be bailed out by U.S. taxpayers.

And it's triggered radical government interventions — such as the United States' $700 billion financial bailout program and the Federal Reserve's $1.2 trillion effort to lower interest rates and spur spending.

Actions by the United States and government in other countries have helped ease the crisis in some ways. But markets are still not operating normally.

The 185-nation IMF, headquartered in Washington, is the globe's economic rescue squad, providing emergency loans to countries facing financial troubles. It has urged countries to take bolder actions to bolster banks...

Because the world economy won't be back to normal next year or perhaps even in 2011, Blanchard urged countries to spend money on big public works projects — something the Obama administration is doing — to bolster activity...

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Critical turning point can trigger abrupt climate change"

From the Niels Bohr Institute:

...With completely new research results geophysicist Peter Ditlevsen, Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, has found part of the explanation for the mystery of the sudden change of the ice ages. He has made model calculations of the climate of the past and compared it to the concrete data from seabed cores, which tell us about the climatic fluctuations of the past.

From the results he has been able to construct a diagram over the possible climatic conditions resulting from the variation in solar radiation. It appears that the ice ages and interglacial periods are not a gradual fluctuation between cold and warm climates.

What happened 1 million years ago was that the climate system went from a situation where it fluctuated between two states (cold and warm) with a 40.000 year cycle, corresponding to the dominant change in the Sun's radiation. After this period the dynamic changed so that the climate jumped between 3 states, that is to say between a warm interglacial climate like our present climate, a colder climate and a very cold ice age climate. It is still the 40.000 year variation in solar radiation which controls our current fluctuations, but it results in changing climate periods of 80.000 and 120.000 years.

Chaotic dynamic climate

The climate does not become gradually colder or warmer - it jumps from the one state to the other. That which gets the climate to jump is that when the solar radiation changes and reaches a certain threshold - a 'tipping point', the existing climate state, e.g. an ice age, is no longer viable and so the climate jumps over into another state, e.g. a warm interglacial period. In chaos dynamics this phenomenon is called a bifurcation or a 'catastrophe'.

In addition to the change in solar radiation there can be random changes in the Earth's weather variations, that contribute to triggering the bifurcation or the 'catastrophe'. Such variations are called 'noise', and a theory is, that the atmosphere's CO2 level can be an important noise-factor. This means that there is the possibility that the 'noise' is a decisive factor for very large climate changes, which can therefore be unpredictable.

There is still no explanation for the change in the climate system 1 million years ago, but one theory is that the atmosphere's CO2-level fell to the lowest level ever. If so, the manmade increase in CO2 may result in a return to 40.000 year ice age cycles.

"The new results are an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the ice ages and their climate dynamics. In the manmade climate changes, that we are possibly in the middle of now, one worries a lot about the possible so-called 'tipping points'. The bifurcations that are now identified in the natural climate fluctuations are tipping points, so this is of course an important step in our understanding of climate changes", explains Peter Ditlevsen.

"The bifurcation structure and noise assisted transitions in the Pleistocene glacial cycles": http://www.agu.org/journals/pa/papersinpress.shtml#id2008PA001673

"EPA says CO2 emissions endanger human health"

(Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday unveiled a finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare, opening the door to federal regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

The finding does not "automatically trigger" new carbon rules but could allow the EPA to move forward with limiting greenhouse gas emissions under the federal Clean Air Act.

Rising levels of greenhouse gases "are the unambiguous result of human emissions, and are very likely the cause of the observed increase in average temperatures and other climatic changes," the EPA proposal said.

Environmentalists applauded the decision, while affected industries expressed concern.

* "With this step, Administrator Lisa Jackson and the Obama administration have gone a long way to restore respect for both science and law," David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

* Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have warned that the U.S. economy could grind to a halt if the EPA were to begin regulating carbon.

* Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director at the National Wildlife Federation, said "the EPA decision is historic and a game-changer for climate policy that will have political and policy repercussions domestically and abroad."

"This is the single largest step the federal government has taken to fight climate change," he said.

* Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said "such regulation would have an enormous impact on every facet of the economy, businesses large and small, as well as on the general population."..

* The move to regulate carbon through the EPA will likely place pressure on Congress to pass legislation to limit greenhouse gases. The House Energy and Commerce Committee hopes to clear such a bill by the end of May...

* The White House has said it prefers for Congress to pass a bill that caps carbon emissions and requires companies to acquire permits to release carbon into the atmosphere...

* The EPA will accept public comments on the finding for 60 days. The agency will also hold two hearings on the proposal.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Obama unveils high-speed passenger rail plan"

From CNN:

President Obama unveiled his administration's blueprint for a new national network of high-speed passenger rail lines Thursday, saying such an investment is necessary to reduce traffic congestion, cut dependence on foreign oil and improve the environment.

The president's plan identifies 10 potential high-speed intercity corridors for federal funding, including California, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Southeast, the Gulf Coast, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York and New England.

It also highlights potential improvements in the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor running from Washington to Boston, Massachusetts.

Each of the corridors identified by the president's report are between 100 and 600 miles long. The blueprint envisions some trains traveling at top speeds of over 150 mph.

Federal grants would also be directed toward separate individual rail projects that are deemed "ready to go," with preliminary engineering and environmental work already completed.

"My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come," Obama said at an event near the White House.

The president cited the success of high-speed rail in European countries such as France and Spain as a positive example for the United States.

His plan would be funded in part through the recently passed $787 billion stimulus plan, which includes a total of $8 billion for improvements in rail service. Obama has also proposed a separate five-year, $5 billion investment in high-speed rail as part of the administration's suggested fiscal year 2010 budget.

"We're going to make travel in this country leaner and a whole lot cleaner," said Vice President Joe Biden, speaking before Obama...

The city of Chicago, Illinois, would be the hub of the proposed Midwest Regional Rail System, which would stretch to Madison, Wisconsin, in the Northwest; St. Louis, Missouri, in the South; and Detroit, Michigan, in the East...

"1,500 farmers commit mass suicide in India"

From the Independent.co.uk:

Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today.

The agricultural state of Chattisgarh was hit by falling water levels.

"The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago," Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine

"Most of the farmers here are indebted and only God can save the ones who do not have a bore well."

Mr Sahu lives in a district that recorded 206 farmer suicides last year. Police records for the district add that many deaths occur due to debt and economic distress.

In another village nearby, Beturam Sahu, who owned two acres of land was among those who committed suicide. His crop is yet to be harvested, but his son Lakhnu left to take up a job as a manual labourer.

His family must repay a debt of £400 and the crop this year is poor.

"The crop is so bad this year that we will not even be able to save any seeds," said Lakhnu's friend Santosh. "There were no rains at all."

"That's why Lakhnu left even before harvesting the crop. There is nothing left to harvest in his land this time. He is worried how he will repay these loans."

Bharatendu Prakash, from the Organic Farming Association of India, told the Press Association: "Farmers' suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death."

Mr Prakash added that the government ought to take up the cause of the poor farmers just as they fight for a strong economy.

"Development should be for all. The government blames us for being against development. Forest area is depleting and dams are constructed without proper planning.

All this contributes to dipping water levels. Farmers should be taken into consideration when planning policies," he said.

"Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat"

As far as I'm concerned consumption and population are both problems. We know that the more money people have - the more they consume (generally), but water shortages, environmental degradation, and resource depletion are also worsened and more problematic due to population.

People in the US and "developed" countries should limit their families and their consumption - and it is also reasonable for people in places with inadequate food and safe water to limit theirs. It seems like a no-brainer, really.

by Fred Pearce

A small portion of the world's people use up most of the earth's resources and produce most of its greenhouse gas emissions

It's the great taboo, I hear many environmentalists say. Population growth is the driving force behind our wrecking of the planet, but we are afraid to discuss it.

It sounds like a no-brainer. More people must inevitably be bad for the environment, taking more resources and causing more pollution, driving the planet ever farther beyond its carrying capacity. But hold on. This is a terribly convenient argument - "over-consumers" in rich countries can blame "over-breeders" in distant lands for the state of the planet. But what are the facts?

The world's population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century. It is still rising and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet for at least the past century, rising per-capita incomes have outstripped the rising head count several times over. And while incomes don't translate precisely into increased resource use and pollution, the correlation is distressingly strong.

Moreover, most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.

By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world's people take the majority of the world's resources and produce the majority of its pollution. Take carbon dioxide emissions - a measure of our impact on climate but also a surrogate for fossil fuel consumption. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, calculates that the world's richest half-billion people - that's about 7 percent of the global population - are responsible for 50 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions.

Although overconsumption has a profound effect on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of our high standard of living extend beyond turning up the temperature of the planet. For a wider perspective of humanity's effects on the planet's life support systems, the best available measure is the "ecological footprint," which estimates the area of land required to provide each of us with food, clothing, and other resources, as well as to soak up our pollution. This analysis has its methodological problems, but its comparisons between nations are firm enough to be useful.

They show that sustaining the lifestyle of the average American takes 9.5 hectares, while Australians and Canadians require 7.8 and 7.1 hectares respectively; Britons, 5.3 hectares; Germans, 4.2; and the Japanese, 4.9. The world average is 2.7 hectares. China is still below that figure at 2.1, while India and most of Africa (where the majority of future world population growth will take place) are at or below 1.0.

The United States always gets singled out. But for good reason: It is the world's largest consumer. Americans take the greatest share of most of the world's major commodities: corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil, and natural gas. For many others, Americans are the largest per-capita consumers. In "super-size-me" land, Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance.

I do not deny that fast-rising populations can create serious local environmental crises through overgrazing, destructive farming and fishing, and deforestation. My argument here is that viewed at the global scale, it is overconsumption that has been driving humanity's impacts on the planet's vital life-support systems during at least the past century. But what of the future? ...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Attenborough warns on population"

From the BBC:

The broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has become a patron of a group seeking to cut the growth in human population.

On joining the Optimum Population Trust, Sir David said growth in human numbers was "frightening".

Sir David has been increasingly vocal about the need to reduce the number of people on Earth to protect wildlife.

The Trust, which accuses governments and green groups of observing a taboo on the topic, say they are delighted to have Sir David as a patron.

Sir David, one of the BBC's longest-standing presenters, has been making documentaries on the natural world and conservation for more than half a century.

In a statement issued by the Optimum Population Trust he is quoted as saying: "I've never seen a problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more."

The Trust, which was founded in 1991, campaigns for the UK population to decrease voluntarily by not less than 0.25% a year.
It has launched a "Stop at Two" online pledge to encourage couples to limit their family's size...

This was understood by many people since at least the 70's - though some still don't accept it. It's good to make a topic in the news again.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Algae Can Save the World..."

From NaturalNews:

Scientists at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom are conducting research into ways to use algae to not only remove global warming-causing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also in the synthesis of new biofuels that do not compete with food production.

Algae is being eagerly investigated for its ability to remove vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turning it into oxygen. It was this process that originally led to the creation of the Earth's current atmospheric composition and allowed for life as we know it. It was also the decomposition of algae on the ocean floor that eventually led to many of today's existing petroleum deposits.

"So we are harvesting sunshine directly using algae, then we are extracting that stored energy in the form of oil from the alga and then using that to make fuels and other non-petroleum based products," said Steve Skill of Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Plymouth scientists are not the only ones working on turning algae into viable fuel. Companies trying to get into the game include Sapphire Energy, Origin Oil, BioCentric Energy and PetroAlgae. Japan Airlines has already test-flown a plane fueled with a combination of biofuels (some derived from algae) and conventional jet fuel.

Part of the appeal of algae biofuel is the same as that of other biofuels -- because plants absorb carbon dioxide while they grow, they are thought to make up for the carbon dioxide emissions when fuels derived from them are burned. Algae has the added benefit of growing well in places unsuitable for human food production, this making it less likely to affect food prices as corn-derived ethanol has been accused of doing. It also grows 20-30 times faster than most food crops.

Scientists from Plymouth and elsewhere are also investigating algae for its ability to absorb the carbon dioxide given off by the burning of fossil fuels. Brazilian company MPX Energia is already planning to start using algae to capture emissions from a coal plant as soon as 2011.

"Water Shortages Go Global"

From the Economist:

...there is some admittedly patchy evidence that, given current patterns of use and abuse, the amount now being withdrawn is moving dangerously close to the limit of safety—and in some places beyond it. An alarming number of the world’s great rivers no longer reach the sea. They include the Indus, Rio Grande, Colorado, Murray-Darling and Yellow rivers. These are the arteries of the world’s main grain-growing areas.

Freshwater fish populations are in precipitous decline. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, fish stocks in lakes and rivers have fallen roughly 30% since 1970. This is a bigger population fall than that suffered by animals in jungles, temperate forests, savannahs and any other large ecosystem. Half the world’s wetlands, on one estimate, were drained, damaged or destroyed in the 20th century, mainly because, as the volume of fresh water in rivers falls, salt water invades the delta, changing the balance between fresh and salt water. On this evidence, there may be systemic water problems, as well as local disruptions.

Two global trends have added to the pressure on water. Both are likely to accelerate over coming decades.

The first is demography. Over the past 50 years, as the world’s population rose from 3 billion to 6.5 billion, water use roughly trebled. On current estimates, the population is likely to rise by a further 2 billion by 2025 and by 3 billion by 2050. Demand for water will rise accordingly.

Or rather, by more. Possibly a lot more. It is not the absolute number of people that makes the biggest difference to water use but changing habits and diet. Diet matters more than any single factor because agriculture is the modern Agasthya, the mythical Indian giant who drank the seas dry. Farmers use about three-quarters of the world’s water; industry uses less than a fifth and domestic or municipal use accounts for a mere tenth.

Different foods require radically different amounts of water. To grow a kilogram of wheat requires around 1,000 litres. But it takes as much as 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef. The meaty diet of Americans and Europeans requires around 5,000 litres of water a day to produce. The vegetarian diets of Africa and Asia use about 2,000 litres a day (for comparison, Westerners use just 100-250 litres a day in drinking and washing).

So the shift from vegetarian diets to meaty ones—which contributed to the food-price rise of 2007-08—has big implications for water, too. In 1985 Chinese people ate, on average, 20kg of meat; this year, they will eat around 50kg. This difference translates into 390km3 (1km3 is 1 trillion litres) of water—almost as much as total water use in Europe...

The other long-term trend affecting water is climate change. There is growing evidence that global warming is speeding up the hydrologic cycle—that is, the rate at which water evaporates and falls again as rain or snow. This higher rate seems to make wet regions more sodden, and arid ones drier. It brings longer droughts between more intense periods of rain.

Climate change has three big implications for water use. First, it changes the way plants grow. Trees, for example, react to downpours with a spurt of growth. During the longer droughts that follow, the extra biomass then dries up so that if lightning strikes, forests burn more spectacularly. Similarly crops grow too fast, then wilt.

Second, climate change increases problems of water management. Larger floods overwhelm existing controls. Reservoirs do not store enough to get people or plants through longer droughts. In addition, global warming melts glaciers and causes snow to fall as rain. Since snow and ice are natural regulators, storing water in winter and releasing it in summer, countries are swinging more violently between flood and drought. That is one big reason why dams, once a dirty word in development, have been making a comeback, especially in African countries with plenty of water but no storage capacity. The number of large dams (more than 15 metres high) has been increasing and the order books of dam builders are bulging.

Third, climate change has persuaded western governments to subsidise biofuels, which could prove as big a disaster for water as they already have been for food. At the moment, about 2% of irrigated water is used to grow crops for energy, or 44km3. But if all the national plans and policies to increase biofuels were to be implemented, reckons the UN, they would require an extra 180km3 of water. Though small compared with the increase required to feed the additional 2 billion people, the biofuels’ premium is still substantial.

In short, more water will be needed to feed and heat a world that is already showing signs of using too much. How to square that circle? The answer is by improving the efficiency with which water is used. The good news is that this is possible: vast inefficiencies exist which can be wrung out. The bad news is it will be difficult both because it will require people to change their habits and because governments, which might cajole them to make the changes, are peculiarly bad at water policy...

To make water use more efficient, says Koichiro Matsuura, the head of UNESCO, the main UN agency dealing with water, will require fundamental changes of behaviour. That means changing incentives, improving information flows, and improving the way water use is governed. All that will be hard.

Water is rarely priced in ways that reflect supply and demand. Usually, water pricing simply means that city dwellers pay for the cost of the pipes that transport it and the sewerage plants that clean it.

Basic information about who uses how much water is lacking. Rainwater and river flows can be measured with some accuracy. But the amount pumped out of lakes is a matter of guesswork and information on how much is taken from underground aquifers is almost completely lacking.

The governance of water is also a mess. Until recently, few poor countries treated it as a scarce resource, nor did they think about how it would affect their development projects. They took it for granted...

As is often the way, business is ahead of governments in getting to grips with waste. Big drinks companies such as Coca Cola have set themselves targets to reduce the amount of water they use in making their products (in Coke’s case, by 20% by 2012). The Nature Conservancy, an ecologically-minded NGO, is working on a certification plan which aims to give companies and businesses seals of approval (a bit like the Fairtrade symbol) according to how efficiently they use water. The plan is supposed to get going in 2010. That sort of thing is a good start, but just one step in a long process that has barely begun.

Australia - What Global Warming Looks Like

From the LA Times:

Reporting from The Murray-Darling Basin, Australia -- Frank Eddy pulled off his dusty boots and slid into a chair, taking his place at the dining room table where most of the critical family issues are hashed out. Spreading hands as dry and cracked as the orchards he tends, the stout man his mates call Tank explained what damage a decade of drought has done .

"Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It's devastation," he said, shaking his head. "I've got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men -- big, strong grown men. We're holding on by the skin of our teeth. It's desperate times."

A result of climate change?

"You'd have to have your head in the bloody sand to think otherwise," Eddy said.

They call Australia the Lucky Country, with good reason. Generations of hardy castoffs tamed the world's driest inhabited continent, created a robust economy and cultivated an image of irresistibly resilient people who can't be held down. Australia exports itself as a place of captivating landscapes, brilliant sunshine, glittering beaches and an enviable lifestyle.

Look again. Climate scientists say Australia -- beset by prolonged drought and deadly bush fires in the south, monsoon flooding and mosquito-borne fevers in the north, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse in agriculture and killer heat waves -- epitomizes the "accelerated climate crisis" that global warming models have forecast.

With few skeptics among them, Australians appear to be coming to an awakening: Adapt to a rapidly shifting climate, and soon. Scientists here warn that the experience of this island continent is an early cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

"Australia is the harbinger of change," said paleontologist Tim Flannery, Australia's most vocal climate change prophet. "The problems for us are going to be greater. The cost to Australia from climate change is going to be greater than for any developed country. We are already starting to see it. It's tearing apart the life-support system that gives us this world."

Many here believe Australia already has a death toll directly connected to climate change: the 173 people who died in February during the nation's worst-ever wildfires, and 200 more who died from heat the week before. A three-person royal commission has convened to decide, among other things, whether global warming contributed to massive bush fires that destroyed entire towns and killed a quarter of Victoria state's koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife.

The commission's proceedings mark the first time anywhere that climate change could be put on trial. And it will take place in a nation that still gets 80% of its energy from burning coal, the globe's largest single source of greenhouse gases.

The commission's findings aren't due until August, but veteran firefighters, scientists and residents believe the case has already been made. Even before the flames, 200 Melbourne residents died in a heat wave that buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti. Cities experienced four days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds. In areas where fires hit, temperatures reached 120.

On the hottest day, more than 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropped dead out of trees in one Melbourne park.

"Something is happening in Australia," firefighter Dan Condon of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade wrote in an open letter. "Global warming is no longer some future event that we don't have to worry about for decades. What we have seen in the past two weeks moves Australia's exposure to global warming to emergency status."

The possibility that a high-profile royal commission may find a nexus between climate change and the loss of human life is significant for many scientists here.

"That will be an important moment in its own right," said Chris Cocklin, a climate change researcher at James Cook University in Townsville, in Queensland state, and lead author on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"It may mean that climate change will be brought to the fore in a way that has never happened before."...

Some Global Warming Effects to National Parks

From the CSMonitor.com:

With a scruffy, desert floor extending as far as the eye can see in all directions – dotted with the Mojave Desert’s signature spiky, gnarled Joshua trees – veteran park ranger Joe Zarki kneels down in the dust.

Pointing to an invasive, red brome grass, which has proliferated here in the past few years, he explains why the rise in temperatures that have helped it thrive could signal the end of Joshua trees within a century. “These exotic grasses dry out, which means that the fires we have are getting larger in size, spread more rapidly, and are harder to put out,” Mr. Zarki says.

Unlike lodgepole pines and other conifers that were replenished in Yellowstone National Park after devastating fires in 1988 in Wyoming, the moisture-sensitive Joshua tree grows in a specific microclimate and cannot easily reproduce itself in the wake of widespread destruction. A recent study showed that Joshua trees are not replenishing after fires that now routinely claim thousands of acres. In the 1970s, a typical fire scorched less than an acre.

The disappearance of the Joshua tree may be just one way in which climate change is affecting our national parks. According to researchers, climate change is contributing to:

• The possible loss of all the glaciers in the Glacier National Park within 20 years.

• Dying coral reefs in Biscayne and Virgin Island National Parks due to increased heat and disease.

• Insect pests thriving and destroying forests ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone.

• Declining water levels at Lake Mead because of extended droughts.

Global climate change is “the single greatest threat to the health of our national parks,” says Michael Cipra, California desert program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association.

In the case of the Joshua Tree National Park, Mr. Cipra points out that the red brome grasses are also fertilized by nitrogen deposited by greenhouse gases moving east from the Los Angeles Basin. The nitrogen levels are 15 to 30 times higher than in undisturbed ecosystems, nurturing exotics such as the red brome and cheatgrass, which now represent up to 60 percent of the park’s biomass from annual plants.

And when the Joshua tree goes, so may the creatures that depend on it – the Yucca night lizard that nests in its decaying bark and the red-tailed hawks and Scott’s orioles that perch in its branches.

“Keeping wildlife populations, rivers, forests, deserts, and our national parks healthy will allow us to support nearly 6.5 million existing jobs and continue to generate $88 billion in state and national tax revenue,” Cipra told the panel, pointing to a 2006 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, which found that fishing, hunting, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits contribute $730 billion annually to the US economy....


Re: that last paragraph -> I think it's nuts that people would have to argue for this stuff based on jobs, etc. It seems that there was a time when it was understood that unique environments were priceless. I guess Limbaugh and company put an end to that.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

"All US electricity demands could be met by wind power"

Offshore wind turbines could meet all of the US' electricity needs, according to a report from the country's interior department.

Speaking at a renewable energy conference, secretary of the interior Ken Salazar said wind off the coasts of the lower 48 states had the capacity to generate a total of 1,900 gigawatts.

"The wind potential off the coasts of the lower 48 states actually exceeds our entire US electricity demand," he said.

While he was optimistic about the potential for a clean energy future, he also noted that "the realities of climate change are upon us" and highlighted a range of problems to which wind energy could be a solution.

"Our dependence on foreign oil is a national security problem, an environmental security problem, and an economic security problem," said Mr Salazar.

The report claims that the commercially feasible locations for wind power developments given current technologies could provide at least a fifth of almost all of the electricity needed in the country's 28 coastal states.


"Ice bridge holding Antarctic ice shelf cracks up"

(Reuters) - An ice bridge which had held a vast Antarctic ice shelf in place for hundreds of years at least shattered on Saturday and may herald a wider collapse linked to global warming, a leading scientist said.

"It's amazing how the ice has ruptured. Two days ago it was intact," David Vaughan, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, told Reuters of a satellite image of the Wilkins Ice Shelf. "We've waited a long time to see this."

The satellite picture, by the European Space Agency (ESA), showed that a 40-km (25 mile) long strip of ice believed to pin the Wilkins Ice Shelf in place had snapped at its narrowest point of about 500 meters wide off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The break left a jumble of huge flat-topped icebergs in the sea. The loss of the ice bridge, which was almost 100 km wide in 1950 and had been in place for hundreds of years at least, could allow ocean currents to wash away more of the Wilkins.

"My feeling is that we will lose more of the ice, but there will be a remnant to the south," Vaughan said. The remaining shelf is about the size of Jamaica or the U.S. state of Connecticut.

Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula, the which snakes up toward South America, have risen by up to about 3 Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) in the past 50 years, the fastest rate of warming in the Southern Hemisphere.

"We believe the warming on the Antarctic Peninsula is related to global climate change, though the links are not entirely clear," Vaughan said. Antarctica's response to warming will go a long way to deciding the pace of global sea level rise.

Nine other shelves have receded or collapsed around the Antarctic Peninsula in the past 50 years, often abruptly like the Larsen A in 1995 or the Larsen B in 2002 further north, and shrinking maps of the frozen continent...

Friday, April 03, 2009

"Arctic sea ice melting faster than expected"

AP - Arctic sea ice is melting so fast most of it could be gone in 30 years. A new analysis of changing conditions in the region, using complex computer models of weather and climate, says conditions that had been forecast by the end of the century could occur much sooner.

A change in the amount of ice is important because the white surface reflects sunlight back into space. When ice is replaced by dark ocean water that sunlight can be absorbed, warming the water and increasing the warming of the planet.

The finding adds to concern about climate change caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels, a problem that has begun receiving more attention in the Obama administration and is part of the G20 discussions under way in London.

"Due to the recent loss of sea ice, the 2005-2008 autumn central Arctic surface air temperatures were greater than 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above" what would be expected, the new study reports.

That amount of temperature increase had been expected by the year 2070.

The new report by Muyin Wang of the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean and James E. Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, appears in Friday's edition of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

They expect the area covered by summer sea ice to decline from about 2.8 million square miles normally to 620,000 square miles within 30 years.

Last year's summer minimum was 1.8 million square miles in September, second lowest only to 2007 which had a minimum of 1.65 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The Center said Arctic sea ice reached its winter maximum for this year at 5.8 million square miles on Feb. 28. That was 278,000 square miles below the 1979-2000 average making it the fifth lowest on record. The six lowest maximums since 1979 have all occurred in the last six years.

Overland and Wang combined sea-ice observations with six complex computer models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to reach their conclusions. Combining several computer models helps avoid uncertainties caused by natural variability...

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Republican's April Fools Budget

"Insane Republicans Reveal An Insane Budget Plan" By Bob Cesca

It only makes sense that a party currently being wagged by fringe crazy people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michele Bachmann would release its alternative budget on April Fools' Day.

Not only does the Republican plan freeze discretionary spending for five years in the midst of a recession which, by most accounts and proved by history, will countermand any sort of economic recovery, but it also cuts taxes by 10 percent for the same Wall Street executives whose actions largely got us into this economic mess in the first place. In other words: Congratulations, Republicans, you just released a budget that rewards wealthy corporate executives while blocking any attempt to dig us out of the economic catastrophe they created....

The marquee item, however, in the Republican plan is their inexplicably regressive tax cut for the super rich. Wealthy Americans in the top three tax brackets would see their tax burden cut to a flat 25 percent from previous rates of 35, 33 and 28. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, CEOs from any of the top 800 corporations would receive a tax break of around $1.5 million a year. Meanwhile, if you earn $15,000 a year, your tax break will be around $0 a year.

But get this. Under the Republican plan, Americans are given the option of paying the old tax rates instead of the new, expensive and regressive Republican rates. So, for example, if your household income is $100,000, you could pay the same tax rate as someone earning $15,000. Or you could be a swell egg and go back to your old rate. Aside from the utter lack of fairness in the notion of a $100,000 household paying the same rate as a $15,000 household, who in their right mind would voluntarily pay higher taxes?

Now you might be asking, given that the Republicans are all about fiscal responsibility, how much does this Republican tax cut for the wealthiest three brackets actually cost? Some estimates, according to Steve Benen, project upwards of a $4 trillion price tag. At the very least, according to their own projections, the Republican plan would run up a $500 billion annual budget deficit through at least 2080. Again, the Republican grasp of fiscal responsibility is about as firm as their grasp of reality and sanity. The subtext here being: The trillion dollar Bush tax cuts weren't irresponsible enough. Let's go crazy! WOOO!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Europe’s Solution: Take More Time Off"

The New York Times featured several points of view about work-related solutions to economic woes. Some snips:

"How to Help the Economy, and Families" - Heather Boushey

Firms in the United States should consider cutting back in this recession by introducing shorter workweeks, flexible schedules and more time off, rather than laying off workers. These kinds of policies could help to keep consumption more stable than increased layoffs, as well as being potentially more popular with workers...

A complete layoff — especially in this economy where there are more than four unemployed workers for each job available — could be devastating to a family’s economic well-being. On top of lost income, since most workers get their health insurance from their employer, a layoff can mean the loss of access to health care for the worker and quite possibly their entire family.

"Germans Have Rights, Not ‘Benefits’" - Susan Neiman

The specter of unemployment creates special fears in Germany. They are not fears of mass homelessness or hunger: unemployed German workers can count on the state to pay their rent, health insurance and other basic living costs. Add a system where college education is virtually free, and you have a set of safety nets that any American worker must envy...

Even where unemployment doesn’t lead to homelessness (much less fascism) it does lead to humiliation and misery.

And so companies here are choosing the option of “Kurzarbeit” — short work — to shorten workers’ hours rather than laying them off. For up to 18 months, the government provides partial supplements to their salaries. Thus workers are spared unemployment, employers need not train new workers when the economy improves and the government need not worry about instability.

It’s an option that should be chosen by individual American companies wherever possible. To implement it nationally the United States would have to learn from a host of European social policies. The European system, in which health care, pensions and vacations are not called “benefits” but considered to be rights, is based on fundamentally different assumptions about humanity than the system Americans have...

"A Stimulus for Working Fewer Hours" - Dean Baker

More than 12 million workers in the United States are currently unemployed, with the number rising rapidly. The problem with the economy is that we can produce more goods and services than is being demanded. The way we generally deal with lack of demand is to lay people off, leaving a relatively small segment of the work force (the unemployed) to bear the pain of our economic problems.

An alternative would be to have everyone share in the adjustment to excess supply by reducing work hours. Fewer work hours would mean roughly proportionate reductions in pay, but there would be the offsetting benefit of more leisure time. Workers would have more time to spend with their families or in nonwork activities. This would bring us more in line with the rest of the world, where the standard workweek and year is considerably shorter...

"Ocean mercury on the increase"

From Nature:

Mercury levels in the Pacific Ocean are rising, a new study suggests.1 The increase may mean that more methylmercury, a human neurotoxin formed when mercury is methylated by microbes, accumulates in marine fish such as tuna.

The research comes as researchers and policymakers, who have tended to focus on atmospheric concentrations of the element, are looking for a fuller picture of the mercury cycle. US guidelines on methylmercury in fish are currently under review.

It remains unclear exactly how atmospheric mercury — whether dumped directly into oceans or carried there through rivers or coastal deposits — is methylated and eventually taken up by fish, which are a major source of human exposure to methylmercury. But the new data, collected by Elsie Sunderland of Harvard University and colleagues, also provide a possible mechanism for mercury methylation within the ocean.

The researchers collected samples from the eastern North Pacific, an area also monitored by research cruises in 1987 and 2002.2 They estimate that methylated mercury accounts for as much as 29% of all mercury in subsurface ocean waters, with lower concentrations occurring in deeper water masses. The group's modelling indicates that atmospheric deposition of mercury could lead to a doubling of the total ocean mercury concentrations recorded in the mid-1990s by 2050.

Sunderland's team also found a relationship between levels of methylated mercury and organic carbon. Particles of organic carbon from phytoplankton or other sources may provide surfaces on which microbes could methylate mercury in the ocean, the researchers suggest. That methylated mercury could then be released back into the water.

"We don't have a causal mechanism yet, but it does seem to be linked to the biological pump in the ocean," says Sunderland. Previous findings in the southern and equatorial Pacific, she adds, observed similar high methylmercury concentrations where biological activity was highest. That connection has implications for climate change and the mercury cycle: warmer, more productive oceans, with more phytoplankton and more fish, might increase the amount of methylated mercury that ends up on human plates.

The researchers also hypothesize that waters in the western Pacific could be picking up mercury deposited from increasing atmospheric emissions in Asia, and then moving to the northeast Pacific. The ocean may only now be responding to higher mercury loads from past atmospheric deposition, Sunderland says...

"State of the Birds"

From the New York Times:

Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior, released a new, nationwide survey last month that assesses the state of bird populations in America. The news is grievous. Over all, a third of the bird species in this country are endangered, threatened or in serious decline.

There is special concern for grassland birds — whose habitat has been vanishing steadily for decades — for birds in Hawaii, where a variety of species face a variety of threats, and for coastal species. The good news is that wherever nature is allowed to recover, especially in the case of wetland birds, it shows its usual resilience.

But there is no glossing over these staggering losses, and there is no dismissing what they mean. There is nothing accidental or inevitable about the vanishing of these birds. However unintentional, it is the direct result of human activity — of development, of global warming, of air and water pollution and of our failure to set aside the habitat these birds need to flourish. Every threatened species reveals some aspect of our lives that could be adjusted.

The survey also shows that where humans have made an effort — as with migratory waterfowl and with endangered species like the peregrine falcon — good things have happened, with some species recovering even as others declined. This in turn argues that the programs now in place to protect habitat should not only be spared the budgetary wrecking ball but also expanded — most conspicuously those managed by the Agriculture Department that seek to preserve wetlands and prairie grasslands as well as the Interior Department’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The remarkable recovery of ducks and geese and other wetland species — thanks to strong conservation efforts — should remind us of what is possible. The only other outcome is too grim to consider — a landscape steadily emptying of birds.