Monday, November 29, 2010

"Nations again try to bridge rich-poor climate gap"


World governments begin another attempt Monday to overcome the disconnect between rich and poor nations on fighting global warming, with evidence mounting that the Earth's climate already is changing in ways that will affect both sides of the wealth divide.

During two weeks of talks, the 193-nation U.N. conference hopes to conclude agreements that will clear the way to mobilize billions of dollars for developing countries and give them green technology to help them shift from fossil fuels affecting climate change.

After a disappointing summit last year in Copenhagen, no hope remains of reaching an overarching deal this year setting legal limits on how much major countries would be allowed to pollute. Such an accord was meant to describe a path toward slashing greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, when scientists say they should be half of today's levels.

Eighty-five countries have made specific pledges to reduce emissions or constrain their growth, but those promises amount to far less than required to keep temperatures from rising to potentially dangerous levels.

The recriminations that followed the Danish summit have raised questions over whether the unwieldy U.N. negotiations, which require at least tacit agreement from every nation, can ever work.

Adopting scaled back ambitions for Cancun, if successful, could restore confidence in the process...

While delegates haggle over the wording, timing and dollar figures involved in any agreement, scientists and political activists at the conference will be offering the latest indications of the planet's warming. Some 250 presentations are planned on the sidelines of the negotiations.

Meteorologists are likely to report that 2010 will end up tied for the hottest year globally since records began 131 years ago.
The U.N. scientific body that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its climate change report, which called global warming "unequivocal" and almost certainly caused by human activity, is expected to tell the conference its findings and warnings of potential disasters are hopelessly out of date.

Agronomists are due to report on shifting weather patterns that are destabilizing the world's food supply and access to clean water, and that could lead to mass migrations as farmers flee drought or flood-prone regions.

As often during the three-year process, attention will focus on the United States and China, two often belligerent nations representing the industrialized and developing world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Norfolk, VA & Sea Level Rise

From the New York Times:

In this section of the Larchmont neighborhood, built in a sharp “u” around a bay off the Lafayette River, residents pay close attention to the lunar calendar, much as other suburbanites might attend to the daily flow of commuter traffic.

If the moon is going to be full the night before Hazel Peck needs her car, for example, she parks it on a parallel block, away from the river. The next morning, she walks through a neighbor’s backyard to avoid the two-to-three-foot-deep puddle that routinely accumulates on her street after high tides.

For Ms. Peck and her neighbors, it is the only way to live with the encroaching sea.

As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming.

But Norfolk is worse off. Situated just west of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, it is bordered on three sides by water, including several rivers, like the Lafayette, that are actually long tidal streams that feed into the bay and eventually the ocean.

Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.

Climate change is a subject of friction in Virginia. The state’s attorney general, Ken T. Cuccinelli II, is trying to prove that a prominent climate scientist engaged in fraud when he was a researcher at the University of Virginia. But the residents of coastal neighborhoods here are less interested in the debate than in the real-time consequences of a rise in sea level.

When Ms. Peck, now 75 and a caretaker to her husband, moved here 40 years ago, tidal flooding was an occasional hazard.

“Last month,” she said recently, “there were eight or nine days the tide was so doggone high it was difficult to drive.”

Larchmont residents have relentlessly lobbied the city to address the problem, and last summer it broke ground on a project to raise the street around the “u” by 18 inches and to readjust the angle of the storm drains so that when the river rises, the water does not back up into the street. The city will also turn a park at the edge of the river back into wetlands — it is now too saline for lawn grass to grow anyway. The cost for the work on this one short stretch is $1.25 million.

The expensive reclamation project is popular in Larchmont, but it is already drawing critics who argue that cities just cannot handle flooding in such a one-off fashion. To William Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a local conservation group, the project is well meaning but absurd. Mr. Stiles points out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already spent $144,000 in recent years to raise each of six houses on the block.

At this pace of spending, he argues, there is no way taxpayers will recoup their investment.

“If sea level is a constant, your coastal infrastructure is your most valuable real estate, and it makes sense to invest in it,” Mr. Stiles said, “but with sea level rising, it becomes a money pit.”

Many Norfolk residents hope their problems will serve as a warning.

“We are the front lines of climate change,” said Jim Schultz, a science and technology writer who lives on Richmond Crescent near Ms. Peck. “No one who has a house here is a skeptic.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Pittsburgh Bans Natural Gas Drilling"

From YES magazine:

by Mari Margil, Ben Price
posted Nov 16, 2010

"Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields, sees this fight as about far more than drilling, saying 'It’s about our authority as a community to decide, not corporations deciding for us.'”

In a historic vote, the City of Pittsburgh today adopted a first-in-the-nation ordinance banning corporations from natural gas drilling in the city.

Faced with the potential for drilling—and the controversial new practice known as “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing—within city limits, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously said “no.” Fracking means injecting water laced with sand and toxic chemicals underground to create deep ground explosions that release the gas. It’s a technique first tried in Texas, and which is now being used in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale geological formation, a source of natural gas, is buried over a mile down. The Marcellus Shale stretches from New York, through Pennsylvania, into Ohio and West Virginia.

Fracking has been demonstrated to be a threat to surface and groundwater, and has been blamed for fatal explosions, the contamination of drinking water, rivers, and streams. Because it disturbs rock that’s laced not only with methane, but with carcinogens like benzene and radioactive ores like uranium, forcing the mix to the surface adds to the dangers.

Pittsburgh sits atop the Marcellus Shale and corporations have already purchased leases to drill there, including under area parks and cemeteries.

"With this vote we are asserting the right of the city to make critical decisions to protect our health, safety, and welfare."
-Councilman Doug Shields
The ordinance sponsor, Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields, led the charge to ban drilling, and was later joined by five co-sponsors. During the months leading up to today’s vote, Shields passionately advocated for the ordinance, saying that the city is “not a colony of the state and will not sit quietly by as our city gets drilled.” He sees this fight as about far more than drilling, saying “It’s about our authority as a community to decide, not corporations deciding for us.”

Drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), Pittsburgh’s ordinance elevates the rights of people, the community, and nature over corporate “rights” and challenges the authority of the state to pre-empt community decision-making.

As natural gas drilling expands across Pennsylvania, there’s been a debate among opponents of fracking over the best course to take. Some are arguing for “responsible drilling” and severance taxes; others want to “zone out” drilling from residential areas or around schools.

Advocates and communities are finding, however, that calling on corporations to be more accountable, without changing the powers and authorities corporations have been given by state and federal government, means asking them to take voluntary steps. Even communities that adopt zoning restrictions requiring drilling pads to be located away from homes or schools find that because the drilling is horizontal, its impact still reaches into those places they are trying to protect.

Meanwhile, hopes that the state—either the legislature or the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection—will help, have been similarly dashed. The state was recently found to be paying thousands of dollars to a private contractor to investigate citizens advocating against drilling. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of industry dollars went to candidates in the recent elections. Those monies helped elect candidates who will ensure that drilling proceeds without interference from citizens across the region. Further, the state continues to issue permits to corporations to drill despite growing community opposition.

Corporations, empowered with constitutional privileges conferred upon them by the courts, have long worked hand-in-hand with elected officials and government agencies at the state and federal level to pave the way for drilling. They’ve been successful in exempting natural gas drilling and fracking from federal regulations and they’ve put in place state laws pre-empting municipalities from taking any steps to reign in the industry.

Communities like Pittsburgh are coming to the conclusion that it's up to them to stop practices they disagree with. Their efforts are not just about stopping the drilling, but about who gets to make decisions for the community—corporations empowered by the state, or people and their communities...

Provisions in the ordinance eliminate corporate “personhood” rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill, and remove the ability of corporations to wield the Commerce and Contracts Clauses of the U.S. Constitution to override community decision-making.

In addition, with adoption of the ordinance, Pittsburgh became the first city in the U.S. to recognize legally binding rights of nature....

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Study- 200 Years of Fish Population Data

From Wired:

By digging up and poring over old books and records of Mediterranean marine life, scientists have filled a 200-year gap in fish population data.

The data, generated from from naturalists’ accounts and fish-market records published between 1818 and 2000, shows the clear decline of fishes in the Adriatic Sea (east of Italy) and provides a crucial baseline comparison for the ongoing collapse of today’s fisheries.

“The understanding of fish communities’ changes over the past centuries has important implications for conservation policy and marine resource management,” the authors wrote in a study published Nov. 17 in the journal PLoS ONE. Ignoring old records, they added, has led to a “historical myopia” in fishery science that underestimates the loss of natural resources.

It’s no puzzle why. Prior to the mid-20th century, large-scale surveys of marine life didn’t happen and, for that matter, there wasn’t the modern-day level of concern about natural resources or the impetus to conserve them. Back then, there were only fish-catch records and naturalists’ qualitative descriptions of life beneath the waves.

To gather the information, an Italian team of ecologists and marine scientists scoured the libraries, museums and archives of six European cities. In total, the search turned up 36 books by naturalists and dozens of detailed catch records from fish markets spanning almost two centuries.

Using statistical methods to combine and integrate the descriptive naturalist records with fish-catch tallies, the scientists partially reconstructed the rise and fall of 255 fish species in the region.

Sharks in the Adriatic Sea made up about 17 percent of the total fish population in 1800, while bottom-dwellers (such as hake, flounder and anglers) made up 27 percent of all fish. By 1950, the populations had dipped to 11 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the proportion of smaller and faster-breeding fish rose from about 12 percent of the population to more than 28 percent.

“Chondrichthyes are highly vulnerable to [human] disturbances, and especially to fishery,” the authors wrote, thanks to their large size, slow growth and breeding behavior. As fishermen nabbed such large fish, the smaller and more-nimble species thrived because they weren’t being eaten as readily (by sharks or humans).

Fish population declines due to human activity since the mid-20th century are established and substantial, with encroachment by non-native fish species, habitat alteration and pollution all contributing to shrinking and more-fragile populations of fish. While it’s not entirely clear how large a role fishing pressure played prior to 1950, the authors say their “results indicate that pre-industrial fisheries had already had significant impacts” on fish populations in the Adriatic.

The study can’t offer a worldwide assessment of fishery health in the past. But turning old records of marine life into useful datasets may prove promising for assessing past fish populations in other regions.

“Naturalists’ eyewitness accounts of fish species, which have long been disregarded by fishery biologists as being ‘anecdotal’ and not ‘science,’ proved to be a useful tool for extending the analysis into the past, well before the onset of field-based monitoring programs,” the authors wrote.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Scientists find toxic algae in open ocean"

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

SANTA CRUZ - Blooms of toxic algae can occur in the open ocean, a team led by UC Santa Cruz and Moss Landing Marine Lab scientists reported last week.

Once thought to be a problem plaguing only the coast, causing fisheries closures and wildlife deaths, the research shows that open sea algae populations also occasionally bloom into toxic soup.

The scientists found toxin-producing algae almost everywhere they looked within open regions of the Pacific. The scientists also detected domoic acid, the toxin that the algae produces. The toxicity exploded whenever iron was added to the water, producing a population boom.

"They grew like a fury," said UCSC ocean scientist Mary Silver, who designed the research. "They are really responsive to iron."

Algae blooms visible from the moon grew during previous studies fertilizing open ocean waters with iron. Kenneth Coale, director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, led these studies in 1995 and 2002. The toxicity of the blooms could not be confirmed until more sensitive measures were invented.

Even up to 12 years later, algae toxin remained in the iron-enriched seawater samples Coale had in storage.

"It was always a nagging, gut feeling about domoic acid," said Coale. "After teaming up with Mary Silver's group, that nagging suspicion was confirmed."

Since the algae consume the carbon dioxide, Coale's research led to proposals to fertilize the ocean on a mass scale to stave off global warming. The discovery of the algae's toxicity throws a wrench into these plans.

"We should use this as a caution," said Silver. "Using iron fertilization as a remedy for global warming would be dangerous."

Domoic acid attacks the nervous system. During blooms, the algae that produces it become a dominant food for small fish and shellfish. Animals higher up in the food chain amass poisonous amounts of the toxin because the algae lodges in the guts of their prey.

"With high algae levels, fish pick them up," said Silver. "With their stomachs loaded with cells, they can be quite toxic."

Harmful algae blooms occur seasonally along California's coast, leading to a ban on shellfish harvesting between May and November to protect public health. In humans, the toxin attacks the brain, producing confusion, memory loss and hallucinations.

Marine mammals with domoic acid poisoning rarely recover, according to Coale.

"They can't forage; they can't migrate. They get lost and re-strand themselves," he said. "It's pretty much the end of the line for them."

"Sea level rise threatens Alexandria, Nile Delta"

(Reuters) - Twenty years ago, Taher Ibrahim raced his friends across Alexandria's beaches, now rising seas have swept over his favorite childhood playground.

Alexandria, with 4 million people, is Egypt's second-largest city, an industrial center and a port that handles four-fifths of national trade. It is also one of the Middle East's cities most at risk from rising sea levels due to global warming.

"There were beaches I used to go to in my lifetime, now those beaches are gone. Is that not proof enough?" asked Ibrahim, a manager at a supermarket chain who is in his 40s.

Flooding could displace entire communities in Alexandria and the low-lying Nile Delta, the fertile agricultural heartland of Egypt's 79 million people.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the Mediterranean will rise 30 cm to 1 meter this century.

More than half of Egypt's people live within 100 km of the coast. A 2007 World Bank study estimated that a one-meter sea level rise could displace 10 percent of the population.

Officials say salt water could submerge or soak 10 to 12 percent of farmland in the world's largest wheat importer.

"Climate change is happening at a pace that we had not anticipated," Suzan Kholeif of the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries told Reuters. "Our records are clear and in my line of work, it is already a reality."

But reliable data on local climate patterns is scarce and official responses are slow and uncoordinated, experts say.

Egyptian officials do not deny there may be risks but doubt the scale of Egypt's vulnerability, saying more research is needed...

More than 58 meters of coastline have vanished every year since 1989 in Rasheed, also known as Rosetta, said Omran Frihy of the Coastal Research Institute...

Increased salinity seeping into underground waters will degrade farmland and cut production, experts say, in a country where food price rises have sparked unrest in the past.

Yet Egypt has no clear and unified climate change strategy.

"There are lots of plans but they are not integrated nor are they complete," said Mohamed Borhan, manager of a U.N.-supported project on how the Nile Delta can adapt to climate change.

"The right priorities are not set and the people working on the plans are failing in communicating," he said.

Some experts argue that uncertainty about the scale of the risk Egypt is facing makes it hard to adopt strategies...

Taxi driver Ahmed Fattah said he doubted Alexandria itself would disappear beneath the Mediterranean but that he and his family could only wait and see.

"I worry that the government won't do anything until a crisis hits us. By then, we may be swept away by the waves."

"Whales in México Are Getting Sunburn"


As if the marine ecosystem wasn’t threatened enough by oil spills and excessive noise, the thinning of the ozone layer may be scarring the world’s whales from severe sunburn, experts said Wednesday.

A study of whales in the Mexican coast over the past few years, shows that the biggest mammals have blisters and other typical damage of exposure to the ultraviolet radiation. Simply put, whales are getting sunburned.

Whales seem to be particularly susceptible to sunburns, partly because they must spend extended periods of time on the surface of the ocean in order to breathe, socialize, and feed their calfs. Lacking fur or feathers, whales sunbathe naked.

Laura Martinez-Levasseur, the lead author of the study puts it: “Humans can put on clothes or sunglasses — whales can’t.”

Photographs were taken of the whales to examine any visible damages, and small skin samples were collected to analyze the state of their skin cells.

Her study confirmed suspicions first raised by one of her colleagues: The cetaceans are showing lesions associated with sun damage, and many of their skin samples revealed patterns of dead cells associated with exposure to UV radiation.

As with humans, the lighter-skinned whales seemed to have the most trouble dealing with the sun. Blue whales had more severe skin damage than darker-skinned mammals—like fin whales and sperm whales—even though the latter spend bigger chunks of time at the surface.

Fortunately, the study found no indications of skin cancer among the whales studied, although Martinez-Levasseur, who is also a Ph.D. student at Queen Mary, University of London, noted that only tiny samples were taken of the massive animals.