Rising incomes result in expanding forests

BBC News reports:

Forests are increasing around the world because of rising incomes and an improved sense of national wellbeing say researchers.

The authors refute the idea that increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are the key cause of the spread of trees.

As countries become better off, farmers focus on good quality soils and abandon marginal lands, the authors say.

As a result, trees are able to rapidly reforest these deserted areas.

The study highlights the fact that between 1990 and 2015 forest growing stock increased annually by 1.31% in high income countries and by 0.5% in middle income nations, while falling by 0.72% in 22 low income countries.

Several global climate models have attributed this change to what’s termed CO2 fertilisation – where higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere boost the growing abilities of plants and trees.

But the authors say that this greening process has been going on since the 1800s in Western Europe when CO2 in the atmosphere was just starting to rise. [Continue reading…]

In the fate of the Delta smelt, warnings of conservation gone wrong

Sharon Levy writes:

Peter Moyle, an eminent authority on the ecology and conservation of California’s fishes, stands on the narrow deck of a survey boat and gazes out over the sloughs of Suisun Marsh. The tall, tubular stems of tule reeds bend in the wind as a flock of pelicans soars past, their white wings edged in black. It’s an idyllic scene that hints at an earlier time, back before the Gold Rush, when undisturbed creeks and tidal marsh covered the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Delta smelt has high odds of becoming the first fish to go extinct in the wild while under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

In the delta, two of California’s greatest rivers meet and mingle with the ebb and flow of tides from San Francisco Bay, forming the largest estuary on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Moyle knows well how this place has changed. The delta’s once wild labyrinth of meandering rivulets and floating tule islands have been replaced by a network of levees that wall off agricultural fields, towns, and remnants of wildlife habitat from the tides. A legion of invasive species now course through the reshaped channels. The many tributaries that run down from the Sierras to feed the delta have been dammed and diverted to provide water for cities and farms — a maze of infrastructure and engineering that has pushed several species of native fish into steep decline.

The creature Moyle has studied the longest and knows most intimately is the Delta smelt, now on the brink of extinction.

Moyle was a young fishery ecologist, newly hired at the University of California, Davis, when he first encountered the finger-length, translucent fish in 1972. He chose to study the Delta smelt because it was abundant but little understood. During the 1980s, he documented a crash in the smelt population, and by 1993, the fish was listed as “threatened” under both the federal and California endangered species acts. As head of a team responsible for charting a course toward the smelt’s recovery, Moyle suggested a radical solution: Conservation in the delta, he said, should focus not just on the smelt, but on an array of native fish with different life histories and habitat needs, including steelhead and sturgeon. All of their populations were dwindling as humans reshaped the ecosystem, but only the smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon were officially listed as threatened.

Moyle’s idea didn’t take hold and government efforts instead followed the letter of the federal Endangered Species Act, focusing only on the smelt. Years of intense study and controversy followed, including a series of court cases over allocating water for smelt habitat. The species continued to dwindle. In 2009, California officials changed the smelt’s status in their listing from threatened to endangered, and by then, another run of Chinook salmon, a run of steelhead, and the region’s population of green sturgeon had all joined the smelt on the federal endangered species list.

In the spring of 2015, a survey of wild spawning smelt found only six fish. Today, an estimated 48,000 survive in the wild — a small remnant of pre-crash populations. About the same number live in culture facilities created to prevent the smelt’s extinction. To some Californians, that’s of little consequence, and they regard efforts to protect remaining smelt as an exemplar of absurd environmental overreach. Why should an obscure fish, rarely seen by anyone but researchers, impair the flow of precious delta water to the thirsty farms and cities of Southern California?

But many ecologists, Moyle among them, consider the smelt’s rapid disappearance the signature of both an ecosystem, and a conservation strategy, in crisis. [Continue reading…]

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China-backed Sumatran dam threatens the rarest ape in the world

By Bill Laurance, James Cook University

The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.

This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.




Read more:
How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra


The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.

Forest clearing for the Chinese-funded development has already begun.
Sumatran Orangutan Society

[Read more…]

Alaskan sea ice just took a steep, unprecedented dive

Scientific American reports:

April should be prime walrus hunting season for the native villages that dot Alaska’s remote western coast. In years past the winter sea ice where the animals rest would still be abundant, providing prime targets for subsistence hunters. But this year sea-ice coverage as of late April was more like what would be expected for mid-June, well into the melt season. These conditions are the continuation of a winter-long scarcity of sea ice in the Bering Sea—a decline so stark it has stunned researchers who have spent years watching Arctic sea ice dwindle due to climate change.

Winter sea ice cover in the Bering Sea did not just hit a record low in 2018; it was half that of the previous lowest winter on record (2001), says John Walsh, chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “There’s never ever been anything remotely like this for sea ice” in the Bering Sea going back more than 160 years, says Rick Thoman, an Alaska-based climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A confluence of conditions—including warm air and ocean temperatures, along with persistent storms—set the stage for this dramatic downturn in a region that to date has not been one of the main contributors to the overall reduction of Arctic sea ice. Whereas a degree of random weather variability teed up this remarkable winter, the background warming of the Arctic is what provides the “extra kick” to reach such unheard-of extremes, Walsh says. [Continue reading…]

How a Eurasian steppe empire coped with decades of drought

By Diana Crow

The bitterly cold, dry air of the Central Asian steppe is a boon to researchers who study the region. The frigid climate “freeze-dries” everything, including centuries-old trees that once grew on lava flows in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley. A recent study of the tree-ring record, published in March, from some of these archaic logs reveals a drought that lasted nearly seven decades—one of the longest in a 1,700-year span of steppe history—from A.D. 783–850.

Decades of prolonged drought would have killed much of the grass that the Orkhon Valley’s domesticated horses relied upon. Yet the dominant steppe civilization of the era, an empire of Turkic horse nomads called the Uyghurs, somehow survived nearly 60 years of the drought, a period about seven times longer than the Dust Bowl that devastated the central U.S. in the 1930s.

Based on surviving Chinese and Uyghur documents from the drought years, the study’s authors concluded that the Uyghurs survived by diversifying their economy and using international diplomacy to boost trade.

Rather than driving the Uyghurs to plunder neighboring territories—as other steppe empires tended to do—the drought led them to take advantage of their location on the Silk Road and reinvent their economy. The Uyghurs’ relatively peaceful strategies seem to have staved off total collapse for a surprisingly long time. “They were champs,” says physical geographer and study co-author Amy Hessl of West Virginia University.

Prior to this paper, no one knew that the Uyghurs faced an “epic drought,” Hessl says. The recognition that they did may change the way historians interpret the social, political, and economic strategies of the Uyghurs.

[Read more…]

The water war that will decide the fate of 1 in 8 Americans

Eric Holthaus writes:

Lake Mead is the country’s biggest reservoir of water. Think of it as the savings account for the entire Southwest. Right now, that savings account is nearly overdrawn.

For generations, we’ve been using too much of the Colorado River, the 300-foot-wide ribbon of water that carved the Grand Canyon, supplies Lake Mead, and serves as the main water source for much of the American West.

The river sustains one in eight Americans — about 40 million people — and millions of acres of farmland. In the next 40 years, the region is expected to add at least 10 million more people, as the region’s rainfall becomes more erratic.

An especially dismal snowpack this past winter has forced a long-simmering dispute over water rights to the fore, one that splits people living above and below Lake Mead. [Continue reading…]

Person of the forest

EU agrees total ban on bee-harming pesticides

The Guardian reports:

The European Union will ban the world’s most widely used insecticides from all fields due to the serious danger they pose to bees.

The ban on neonicotinoids, approved by member nations on Friday, is expected to come into force by the end of 2018 and will mean they can only be used in closed greenhouses.

Bees and other insects are vital for global food production as they pollinate three-quarters of all crops. The plummeting numbers of pollinators in recent years has been blamed, in part, on the widespread use of pesticides. The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops that attract bees, such as oil seed rape, in 2013.

But in February, a major report from the European Union’s scientific risk assessors (Efsa) concluded that the high risk to both honeybees and wild bees resulted from any outdoor use, because the pesticides contaminate soil and water. This leads to the pesticides appearing in wildflowers or succeeding crops. A recent study of honey samples revealed global contamination by neonicotinoids.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European commissioner for Health and Food Safety, welcomed Friday’s vote: “The commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from Efsa. Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”

The ban on the three main neonicotinoids has widespread public support, with almost 5 million people signing a petition from campaign group Avaaz. “Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees,” said Antonia Staats at Avaaz. “Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.” [Continue reading…]

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A solitary journey across Antarctica

David Grann writes:

The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground.

The man, whose name was Henry Worsley, consulted a G.P.S. device to determine precisely where he was. According to his coördinates, he was on the Titan Dome, an ice formation near the South Pole that rises more than ten thousand feet above sea level. Sixty-two days earlier, on November 13, 2015, he’d set out from the coast of Antarctica, hoping to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, had failed to do a century earlier: to trek on foot from one side of the continent to the other. The journey, which would pass through the South Pole, was more than a thousand miles, and would traverse what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world. And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before. [Continue reading…]

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How do you celebrate Earth Day when Scott Pruitt is still at the EPA?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

Today is Earth Day, and, to mark the occasion, thousands of Americans will flock to parks, beaches, and hiking trails. Others will stay home, monitoring their Twitter feeds for the latest Scott Pruitt scandal.

Like clockwork, the most recent one broke on the eve of the celebrations. The Hill reported on Friday that the lobbyist whose wife had rented a room to Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, at a very favorable rate, had tried to set up a meeting earlier this year with the E.P.A. on behalf of the philanthropic arm of one of his clients, despite having insisted he had had no business before the agency in two years. The firm, Williams & Jensen, had not, it appears, filed the needed disclosure forms for such contact, although a spokesman for Williams & Jensen told The Hill that it was in the process of correcting this mistake. (The firm, the spokesman said in an e-mail, “is filing/has filed the requisite disclosure forms required by law accordingly.”)

As of last week, at least ten investigations into Pruitt’s lordly spending habits and droit-de-seigneur ethical standards were under way. (More may have been initiated since then; it’s hard to keep track.) As many commentators have noted, in an Administration founded on the motto “You’re fired,” it’s remarkable that Pruitt has lasted as long as he has. And it’s unclear whether he can tough it out much longer; on Wednesday, the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told lawmakers that he was looking into Pruitt’s widely lampooned “privacy booth.”

“I’m not any happier about it than you are,” Mulvaney assured members of the House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, referring to the unauthorized expenditure of forty-three thousand dollars on the phone booth.

In the upbeat spirit of Earth Day, it’s worth hoping that Pruitt will soon be gone. But in the planetary-crisis spirit of the event, it’s worth pointing out that, if he is in fact booted, it will probably be for the wrong reasons. Pruitt’s lavish spending—on an oversized security detail, on weapons and bulletproof vests for said detail, on trips to Morocco and Italy that included his security detail, on trips to his home state of Oklahoma, on art for his office, on the Maxwell Smart phone booth—represents a variation on a familiar theme. Government officials who have pledged to serve the electorate instead use their offices to benefit themselves or their friends, or to indulge their taste for first-class travel or fancy furniture. But in Washington, as the saying goes, it’s not what’s illegal that’s the scandal, it’s what’s legal. Pruitt’s gravest wrongs involve not tens of thousands of dollars but, potentially, tens of millions of lives. [Continue reading…]

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