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El Niño and La Niña will Exacerbate Coastal Hazards Across Entire Pacific

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 05:01

U.S. Geological Survey Newsroom

The projected upsurge of severe El Niño and La Niña events will cause an increase in storm events leading to extreme coastal flooding and erosion in populated regions across the Pacific Ocean, according to a multi-agency study published in Nature Geoscience.

The projected upsurge of severe El Niño and La Niña events will cause an increase in storm events leading to extreme coastal flooding and erosion in populated regions across the Pacific Ocean, according to a multi-agency study published today in Nature Geoscience.

“This study significantly advances the scientific knowledge of the impacts of El Niño and La Niña,” said Patrick Barnard, USGS coastal geologist and the lead author of the study. “Understanding the effects of severe storms fueled by El Niño or La Niña helps coastal managers prepare communities for the expected erosion and flooding associated with this climate cycle.”

The impact of these storms is not presently included in most studies on future coastal vulnerability, which look primarily at sea level rise. New research data, from 48 beaches across three continents and five countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, suggest the predicted increase will exacerbate coastal erosion irrespective of sea level rise affecting the region.

Researchers from 13 different institutions, including the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales and the University of Waikato (New Zealand) analyzed coastal data from across the Pacific Ocean basin from 1979 to 2012. The scientists sought to determine if patterns in coastal change could be connected to major climate cycles. Data came from beaches in the mainland United States and Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Although previous studies have analyzed coastal impacts at local and regional levels, this is the first to pull together data from across the Pacific to determine basin-wide patterns. The research group determined all Pacific Ocean regions investigated were affected during either an El Niño or La Niña year. When the west coast of the U.S. mainland and Canada, Hawaii, and northern Japan felt the coastal impacts of El Niño, characterized by bigger waves, different wave direction, higher water levels and/or erosion, the opposite region in the Southern Hemisphere of New Zealand and Australia experienced “suppression,” such as smaller waves and less erosion. The pattern then generally flips: during La Niña, the Southern Hemisphere experienced more severe conditions.

The study also investigated the coastal response of other climate cycles, such as the Southern Annular Mode, which has impacts at the same time in both hemispheres of the Pacific. The data revealed that when the Southern Annular Mode trended towards Antarctica, culminating in more powerful storms in the Southern Ocean, wave energy and coastal erosion in New Zealand and Australia increased, as did the wave energy along the west coast of North America. Other modes of climate variability, such as the Pacific North American pattern, which relates to atmospheric circulation in the North Pacific, are linked to coastal impacts that are more tightly restricted to the northern hemisphere.

Linking coastal erosion to natural climate patterns, such as El Niño/Southern Oscillation and the Southern Annular Mode, can be challenging.

“Shoreline behavior can be controlled by so many different factors, both locally and regionally, that it’s been difficult to isolate the signal until now. However, utilizing the many years of data we were able pull together in this study enabled us to definitively identify how the major climate drivers affect coastal hazards across the Pacific,” said Patrick Barnard. “This will greatly enhance our ability to predict the broader impacts of climate change at the coast.”

A co-author of the paper, Professor Andrew Short from the University of Sydney, says forecast increases in the strength of El Niño and La Niña weather events driven by global climate change means coastal erosion on many Australian beaches could be worse than currently predicted based on sea level rise alone.

“Coastlines of the Pacific are particularly dynamic as they are exposed to storm waves generated often thousands of miles away. This research is of particular importance as it can help Pacific coastal communities prepare for the effects of changing storm regimes driven by climate oscillations like El Niño and La Niña. To help us complete the puzzle, for the next step we would like to look at regions of the Pacific like South America and the Pacific Islands where very limited shoreline data currently exists,” said Mitchell Harley of UNSW Australia, and a coauthor of the paper.

“It’s not just El Niño we should be concerned about,” said Ian Walker, professor of Geography at the University of Victoria and coauthor of the study. “Our research shows that severe coastal erosion and flooding can occur along the British Columbia coast during both El Niño and La Niña storm seasons unlike further south in California. We need to prepare not only for this winter, but also what could follow when La Niña comes.”

The published paper, “Coastal vulnerability across the Pacific dominated by El Niño/Southern Oscillation” is available online.

Categories: Ecological News

World Rhino Day 2015

Tue, 09/22/2015 - 23:44

Around the world, individuals and groups are celebrating the mighty rhino. From South Africa, which is suffering extraordinary pressures from rhino poachers, to London and across Europe to Asia and New Zealand, events are scheduled to focus on the plight of all five species of rhino: Black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos.

The tales of poaching and heroic endeavors by veterinarians who rescue and care for rhinos that have had their horns hacked off and are left to die, fill social media space, drawing attention to the plight of these magnificent animals.

But much more needs to be done to stem the tide of illicit rhino horn trafficking. Money is needed to recruit and train anti-poaching teams and supply the equipment, which ranges from guns to vehicles and drones. More funding is needed for medical care for the injured animals. Most of all, education and the myth of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac and cure for cancer must be demolished.

Steps are being taken. For instance, South African Youth Rhino Ambassadors are heading to Vietnam, hub for the sale of rhino horn into the lucrative Asian market, where they will  appeal to Vietnamese citizens and Asian government leaders to urgently bring an end to the rhino poaching crisis.

Across the world and out in cyberspace, rhinos are being celebrated, with lots of opportunities to join in and support literally hundred of causes, all with the same intent: protect the rhinos and stop illegal poaching.

You can help. World Rhino Day’s web site has links to numerous opportunities for involvement in this very important cause. Please visit them and help the rhinos prosper.

Categories: Ecological News

Arctic Sea Ice Summertime Minimum Is Fourth Lowest on Record

Wed, 09/16/2015 - 01:13


According to a NASA analysis of satellite data, the 2015 Arctic sea ice minimum extent is the fourth lowest on record since observations from space began.

This animation shows the evolution of the Arctic sea ice cover from its wintertime maximum extent, which was reached on Feb. 25, 2015, and was the lowest on record, to its apparent yearly minimum, which occurred on Sept. 11, 2015, and is the fourth lowest in the satellite era. Credits: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

The analysis by NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed the annual minimum extent was 1.70 million square miles (4.41 million square kilometers) on Sept. 11. This year’s minimum is 699,000 square miles (1.81 million square kilometers) lower than the 1981-2010 average.

Arctic sea ice cover, made of frozen seawater that floats on top of the ocean, helps regulate the planet’s temperature by reflecting solar energy back to space. The sea ice cap grows and shrinks cyclically with the seasons. Its minimum summertime extent, which occurs at the end of the melt season, has been decreasing since the late 1970s in response to warming temperatures.

In some recent years, low sea-ice minimum extent has been at least in part exacerbated by meteorological factors, but that was not the case this year.

“This year is the fourth lowest, and yet we haven’t seen any major weather event or persistent weather pattern in the Arctic this summer that helped push the extent lower as often happens,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It was a bit warmer in some areas than last year, but it was cooler in other places, too.”

The 2015 Arctic sea ice summertime minimum is 699,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average, shown here as a gold line.
Credits: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

In contrast, the lowest year on record, 2012, saw a powerful August cyclone that fractured the ice cover, accelerating its decline.

The sea ice decline has accelerated since 1996. The 10 lowest minimum extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last 11 years. The 2014 minimum was 1.94 million square miles (5.03 million square kilometers), the seventh lowest on record. Although the 2015 minimum appears to have been reached, there is a chance that changing winds or late-season melt could reduce the Arctic extent even further in the next few days.

“The ice cover becomes less and less resilient, and it doesn’t take as much to melt it as it used to,” Meier said. “The sea ice cap, which used to be a solid sheet of ice, now is fragmented into smaller floes that are more exposed to warm ocean waters. In the past, Arctic sea ice was like a fortress. The ocean could only attack it from the sides. Now it’s like the invaders have tunneled in from underneath and the ice pack melts from within.”

Some analyses have hinted the Arctic’s multiyear sea ice, the oldest and thickest ice that survives the summer melt season, appeared to have recuperated partially after the 2012 record low. But according to Joey Comiso, a sea ice scientist at Goddard, the recovery flattened last winter and will likely reverse after this melt season.

“The thicker ice will likely continue to decline,” Comiso said. “There might be some recoveries during some years, especially when the winter is unusually cold, but it is expected to go down again because the surface temperature in the region continues to increase.”

This year, the Arctic sea ice cover experienced relatively slow rates of melt in June, which is the month the Arctic receives the most solar energy. However, the rate of ice loss picked up during July, when the sun is still strong. Faster than normal ice loss rates continued through August, a transition month when ice loss typically begins to slow. A big “hole” appeared in August in the ice pack in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, north of Alaska, when thinner seasonal ice surrounded by thicker, older ice melted. The huge opening allowed for the ocean to absorb more solar energy, accelerating the melt.

It’s unclear whether this year’s strong El Niño event, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon that typically occurs every two to seven years where the surface water of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean warms, has had any impact on the Arctic sea ice minimum extent.

“Historically, the Arctic had a thicker, more rigid sea ice that covered more of the Arctic basin, so it was difficult to tell whether El Niño had any effect on it,” said Richard Cullather, a climate modeler at Goddard. “Although we haven’t been able to detect a strong El Niño impact on Arctic sea ice yet, now that the ice is thinner and more mobile, we should begin to see a larger response to atmospheric events from lower latitudes.”

In comparison, research has found a strong link between El Niño and the behavior of the sea ice cover around Antarctica. El Niño causes higher sea level pressure, warmer air temperature and warmer sea surface temperature in west Antarctica that affect sea ice distribution. This could explain why this year the growth of the Antarctic sea ice cover, which currently is headed toward its yearly maximum extent and was at much higher than normal levels throughout much of the first half of 2015, dipped below normal levels in mid-August.

Starting next week, NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an airborne survey of polar ice, will be carrying science flights over sea ice in the Arctic, to help validate satellite readings and provide insight into the impact of the summer melt season on land and sea ice.

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives, and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

Categories: Ecological News

Climate Leaders to Obama: Champion Zero Emissions Goal at Paris Talks

Thu, 09/03/2015 - 02:32’s long-time Ambassador and spokesperson, Ed Begley, Jr., is a signatory on the open-letter to President Obama.

By World Wire

As President Obama witnessed the dramatic effects of climate chaos in Alaska today, a distinguished group of scientists and environmental, faith, civic and cultural leaders challenged him to champion a courageous U.S. goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 at the upcoming climate talks in Paris.

The challenge, issued in the form of an open letter, describes the current U.S. target of 26-28% emissions reductions by 2025 as a “weak ” goal “that cannot be described as honest, courageous, or responsible in the face of a crisis that threatens the continued existence of humanity.” The letter also calls on the Obama administration to abandon its “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

Notable signers include authors Lester Brown and Terry Tempest Williams; actors Mark Ruffalo and Ed Begley, Jr.; environmentalists David Suzuki, Winona LaDuke, Tim DeChristopher and Yeb Saño; filmmaker Josh Fox; musician Moby; and scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coordinating lead author for the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report.

The open letter references a 2011 letter sent to President Obama and signed by some of the same leaders – that called for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2020: “Because that urgent call was not heeded, we have lost precious time in the race to save civilization and must now set our sights even higher.”

Urging an “all-hands-on-deck societal mobilization at wartime speed ,” the letter states, “It is with a deepening sense of dread over the fate of humanity that we call on you today to use the powers of your presidency to champion a U.S. goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.”

The letter reflects the views of growing numbers of scientists and climate leaders who are advocating dramatic, near-term carbon cuts over the carbon gradualism that has dominated the policy discourse to date. They say the world community has squandered the time available for a leisurely transition, and that an emergency mobilization is now needed to stave off climate catastrophe.

In his groundbreaking 2015 report, Recount, signer David Spratt stated policymakers must recognize that “climate change is already dangerous, and we have no carbon budget left to divide up. Big tipping-point events irreversible on human time scales and large-scale positive feedbacks are already occurring at less than 1°C of warming.”

Signer Yeb Saño, former climate change commissioner of the Philippines , said, “Climate change presents a clear and present danger for us and is already profoundly affecting many vulnerable communities around the world. The only path to climate justice is for the US to embrace the zero emissions paradigm.”

“The Obama administration calls climate change a global threat on t he scale of World War II, so why are they not responding with a World War II-scale emergency mobilization?” asked signer Margaret Klein Salamon, founder of The Climate Mobilization. “It is time to treat climate change like the existential threat it is and mobilize off of fossil fuels.”

“Seventy years later, it is hard to comprehend the astonishing achi evement of America’s World War II mobilization, the sheer level of commitment, innovation and productivity that transformed society and led to the longest period of sustained economic growth in world history,” said signer Marshall Herskovitz, former president of the Producers Guild of America. “In the face of a crisis that now threatens our very existence, we can and must do it again.”

“If we don’t get to zero emissions within 10 years, we are looking at massive destruction and millions of lives lost,” said signer Laura Dawn, former creative & cultural director. “Finally leaders are telling the truth about the severity of this crisis and the need for a heroic response.”

“After seven years of half-measures and half-truths, the Paris clim ate talks will finally determine whether Obama’s legacy will be that of a climate champion who rose to the challenge of the climate crisis or a failure who was too scared to offer more than rhetoric and insufficient reforms,” said fossil fuel abolition activist Tim DeChristopher with the Climate Disobedience Center.

The initiator of the letter, Tom Weis, president of Climate Crisis Solutions, concluded, “Photo ops in Alaska will not salvage President Obama ’s climate legacy. Climate leaders fight for all that we love, not for all-of-the-above.”

For more information, visit

Categories: Ecological News

Reducing Tropical Deforestation is Key to Curbing Climate Change

Tue, 08/25/2015 - 15:30

By Nadia Prupis
Common Dreams

New studies show how easy it could be to curb one driving force of climate change, and the devastating consequences if we don’t

Tropical deforestation is a driving force behind rising greenhouse gases and must be curbed in order to prevent irreversible global temperature rise, new research finds. Photo: Shankar S. /flickr/cc)

Without drastic efforts to reduce deforestation, rising greenhouse gases, and unsustainable global agriculture, the planet is on track to lose a massive quantity of its tropical forests—a crucial element in the fight against irreversible climate change—in just 35 years.

Absent aggressive conservation policies, the world will lose 2.9 million square kilometers of its tropical forests by 2050, according to a new working paper published Monday by Center for Global Development (CGD) environmental expert Jonah Busch and research assistant Jens Engelmann. That’s a chunk the size of India, or one-third of U.S. land mass.

And if no changes are made to the world’s “business-as-usual” approach to agriculture, logging, and other such forces, tropical deforestation will account for more than one-sixth of the remaining carbon that can be emitted if the world is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The carbon emissions that would occur during that process would add up to 169 billion tons—the equivalent of running 44,000 typical coal plants per year, Busch explained in a blog post accompanying the report, entitled The Future of Forests: Emissions from Tropical Deforestation with and without a Carbon Price, 2016–2050 (pdf).

According to a separate study published earlier this year by NASA, tropical forests are absorbing carbon dioxide at a far higher rate than previously thought, making them an invaluable resource in curbing global warming.

That’s the bad news. The good news, Busch writes, is that there are many solutions available.

“Avoiding dangerous climate change while expanding economic prosperity is perhaps the defining challenge of the 21st century,” Busch writes. “Achieving both goals requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions where doing so has the lowest unit cost.”

Carbon pricing is one example. Applying a global fee of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide between 2016 and 2050 would keep 41 gigatons of emissions from being discharged, the researchers found.

Another option is to follow Brazil’s model of targeting greenhouse gases, which involves “satellite monitoring, law enforcement, new protected areas and indigenous territories, restrictions on rural credit, and moratoriums on unsustainable soy and cattle production,” Busch writes. “As a result of these restrictive measures, Amazon deforestation fell by nearly 80 percent since 2004 even while Brazil’s soy and cattle production increased.”

CGD’s study comes as another report from the University of Leeds, published Friday in Science, warns of a devastating future for forests, which will exist only in a “simplified” state by 2100 if climate change is not aggressively addressed.

“Earth has lost 100 million hectares of tropical forest over the last 30 years, mostly to agricultural developments,” lead researcher Dr. Simon Lewis said last week. “Few people think about how intertwined with tropical forests we all are.”

Lewis, a forest expert and professor at the University of Leeds and University College London, found that a new and more dangerous phase of human environmental impact threatens to deteriorate much of the world’s remaining tropical forests until they exist in a fragmented, “living dead” state. That’s a fate that can only be avoided through a shift to low-carbon energy or embracing policies that promote “development without destruction.”

“Unfortunately, most of the benefits from logging, mining and intensive agriculture flow away from local people,” Lewis wrote in an article accompanying the report. “Giving forest-dwellers long-term collective legal rights over their land would mean benefits flow to them.”

As world leaders prepare for the upcoming climate conference in Paris and the growing call to prevent full-scale destruction of natural resources continues to build, 2015 is becoming “a big year for climate,” Busch writes.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Categories: Ecological News

July 2015 Was the Warmest Month Ever Recorded on Earth

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 23:40


Global oceans record warm for July; January-July 2015 also record warm Global highlights: July 2015
  • The July average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.46°F (0.81°C) above the 20th century average. As July is climatologically the warmest month for the year, this was also the all-time highest monthly temperature in the 1880–2015 record, at 61.86°F (16.61°C), surpassing the previous record set in 1998 by 0.14°F (0.08°C).
  • Separately, the July globally-averaged land surface temperature was 1.73°F (0.96°C) above the 20th century average. This was the sixth highest for July in the 1880–2015 record.
  • The July globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.35°F (0.75°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest temperature for any month in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set in July 2014 by 0.13°F (0.07°C). The global value was driven by record warmth across large expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • The average Arctic sea ice extent for July was 350,000 square miles (9.5 percent) below the 1981–2010 average. This was the eighth smallest July extent since records began in 1979 and largest since 2009, according to analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center using data from NOAA and NASA.
  • Antarctic sea ice during July was 240,000 square miles (3.8 percent) above the 1981–2010 average. This was the fourth largest July Antarctic sea ice extent on record and 140,000 square miles smaller than the record-large July extent of 2014.
Global highlights: Year-to-date (January–July 2015)
  • The year-to-date temperature combined across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.53°F (0.85°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest for January–July in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set in 2010 by 0.16°F (0.09°C).
  • The year-to-date globally-averaged land surface temperature was 2.41°F (1.34°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest for January–July in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record of 2007 by 0.27°F (0.15°C).
  • The year-to-date globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.21°F (0.67°C) above the 20th century average. This was also the highest for January–July in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record of 2010 by 0.11°F (0.06°C). Every major ocean basin observed record warmth in some areas.

July 2015 Blended Land & Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies in °C – Image: NOAA


See Full Report

Note: With this report and data release, the National Centers for Environmental Information is transitioning to improved versions of its global land (GHCN-M version 3.3.0) and ocean (ERSST version 4.0.0) datasets. Please note that anomalies and ranks reflect the historical record according to these updated versions. Historical months and years may differ from what was reported in previous reports. For more, please visit the associated FAQ and supplemental information.

Categories: Ecological News

Senators Look to Tighten the Endangered Species Act to Stop Exploitation of African Lions

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 15:33

By Ashley Curtin
Nation of Change

With the intent to protect countless imperiled animals from further exploitation, senators have responded to the tragic killing of Cecil the Lion last month by extending protection to such species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

African Lion – Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Known as the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large (CECIL) Animal Trophies Act (S. 1918), the goal of the bill is to “extend the current import and export protections of the ESA to animals that are proposed for listing as threatened or endangered, but don’t yet have those protections under the law,” according to Animal Welfare Institute’s press release.

Introduced by Bob Menendez, D-NJ; Cory Booker, D-NJ; Richard Blumenthal, D-CT; Ben Cardin, D-MD; Barbara Mikulski, D-MD; and Edward Markey, D-MA, CECIL Act would “create a disincentive for trophy hunters to kill animals such as Cecil while their species’ ESA status is under review.”

“Cecil’s death was a preventable tragedy that highlights the need to extend the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” Sen. Menendez said. “When we have enough concern about the future of a species to propose it for listing, we should not be killing it for sport. I’m proud to be joined by my colleagues in introducing this commonsense legislation to take a necessary and prudent step that creates a disincentive for these senseless trophy killings and advances our commitment in leading the fight to combat global wildlife trafficking.”

The U.S Tis the largest importer of African lion parts in all the world with imports of over 5,750 wild lion trophies since 2000, according to Animal Welfare Institute.

CECIL Act is the direct response to such imports in an effort to “curtail the importation of animal parts for hunting trophies and commercial purposes.”

“Passing the CECIL Animal Trophies Act will allow the United States to prevent further exploitation of species like the African lion that are in urgent need of safeguarding,” said Cathy Liss, president of AWI. “We applaud Sen. Menendez for his leadership in introducing this critically needed legislation that would protect countless imperiled animals from meeting a similarly gruesome end.”

Find out more about CECIL Act here.

Republished by permission from Nation of Change

Categories: Ecological News

New Ethics and Values Required

Tue, 08/18/2015 - 23:25
The Pope, Climate Change and the Cultural Dimensions of the Anthropocene

Andrew J Hoffman, University of Michigan

Image via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

The ink is still drying on the Pope’s Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si’” or “On Care for Our Common Home,” and scholars, critics and pundits will analyze and assess it for years to come.

But one aspect of the letter becomes clear to anyone who reads it: it is impressively expansive, covering environmental science, economics, international politics, carbon credits, social equity, technology, consumerism, social media, theology, and much more. Getting to the root of our “ecological crisis,” Pope Francis calls for us to “promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature.” It’s a bold appeal to reevaluate our worldviews, values and spiritual beliefs.

But why now? The modern environmental movement has been with us for more than 50 years, leading to social movements, myriad legislation and lifestyle changes that reflect environmentalists’ modern focus on sustainability. Why does the pope’s encyclical on ecology resonate so much today?

I’d like to offer one thought on why this message is important at this point in human history. We are at a unique moment in our time on Earth as a species, one never faced before and one requiring a new system of ethics, values, beliefs, worldviews and above all, spirituality.

Geophysicists have given this moment a name; it is called the Anthropocene. The pope’s landmark encyclical provides a moral compass to help navigate this emerging era.

Changing View of Humanity

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geologic epoch, one which leaves the Holocene behind and acknowledges that humans are now a primary operating element in the Earth’s ecosystems.

Though the concept has not yet received full, formal recognition by geophysical societies, it points out that we can no longer describe the environment without including the role that humans play in how it operates. This era is argued to have started around the industrial revolution of the early 1800s, and has become more acute since “the Great Acceleration” around 1950 onwards. It is marked by the reality that, according to Nobel-prize winning, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen who first proposed the term:

Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet; Many of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted; Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems; Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff.

Though the pope singles out climate change in his encyclical letter, this is just one of a number of “planetary boundaries” that scientists say represent “thresholds below which humanity can safely operate and beyond which the stability of planetary-scale systems cannot be relied upon.”

Climate change is one of nine planetary boundaries.
Felix Mueller, CC BY SA 4.0

In terms of science, acknowledging an unprecedented shift in our geophysical reality would be a significant and unprecedented moment in history. But, the social and cultural shift is even more profound.

Consider the central cultural question of climate change: Do you believe that we, as a species, have grown to such numbers and our technology to such power that we can alter the global climate?

If you answer this question in the affirmative, then a series of related cultural challenges emerge. Climate change represents a deep shift in the way we view ourselves, each other, the environment and our place within it. Addressing this problem will require the most complicated and intrusive global agreement ever negotiated. It will also require a shift in our sense of global ethics around collective responsibility and social equity.

The fossil fuels burned in Ann Arbor, Shanghai, or Moscow have an equal impact on the global environment we all share. The kind of cooperation necessary to solve this problem is far beyond anything that we, as a species, have ever accomplished before. International treaties to ban land mines or eliminate ozone-depleting substances pale in comparison.

Climate as Proxy for Anthropocene

Recognition of the Anthropocene signals an urgency and complexity that the general idea of sustainable development lacks, compelling change deep within the structures of our collective understanding of the world around us.

According to geographer and political philosopher Rory Rowan,

The Anthropocene is not a problem for which there can be a solution. Rather, it names an emergent set of geo-social conditions that already fundamentally structure the horizon of human existence. It is thus not a new factor that can be accommodated within existing conceptual frameworks, including those within which policy is developed, but signals a profound shift in the human relation to the planet that questions the very foundations of these frameworks themselves.

Droughts, wildfires, food insecurity, water scarcity, and the social unrest that results are all emergent markers of the Anthropocene Era that point to a fundamental system failure created by our social structures. We now have control over the biosphere and therefore, the human systems which depend on it, in ways that are monumental.

A response to the Anthropocene Era calls for a new set of values and beliefs about our relationship with the environment, with each other and for many, with God. And this is what the pope’s encyclical letter is trying to articulate.

This will not go down easily. The accompanying tensions that such a shift will create can be vividly observed in the currently polarized debate over climate change. The cultural and ideological elements of religion, government, ideology and worldviews that animate the climate change debate offer a glimpse into the cultural dimensions of recognition of the Anthropocene.

New Ethics and Values Required

In the end, the Anthropocene challenges our ways of understanding the environment and how they change on both regional and global scales. It leads to a transformative cultural shift that is akin to the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Enlightenment was built on a cultural shift from perceiving nature as subsuming the human endeavor, to one in which humankind embarked on the “conquest of nature” and a metaphor of the planet as an enemy to be subdued.

In similar ways, the Anthropocene is an acknowledgment that the scientific method essential to the Enlightenment is no longer fully adequate to understand the natural world and our impact upon it. As the pope points out:

“Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality…If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it.

In responding to the “urgent challenge to protect our common home,” he asks us “to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development.”

Indeed, this kind of global common cause is a challenge we have not yet faced as a species. It will require a level of cooperation that we are not prepared for, and that requires a global set of ethics and values we do not yet know.

Many have compared Pope Francis’ letter to the 1891 Encyclical Letter “Rerum Novarum” or “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” in which Pope Leo XIII addressed the condition of the working classes. In offering a way to understand the unprecedented confusion of clashing capitalist and communist notions of labor in the midst of the industrial revolution, Rerum Novarum has become a foundational document for Catholic social teaching.

Will Laudito Si’ offer a similarly transformative way to understand the unprecedented confusion over global scale environmental and social changes that we are creating?

The answer to that question is not solely a testament to the Encyclical Letter’s importance; it will be a testament to our ability to hear a message that is hard to hear, and harder still to act upon. As paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 1985:

We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.

Pope Francis is asking us to face this new reality with respect for the natural world around us and a humility to recognize our limitations in understanding how it works and what we are doing to it. He is asking it at a key moment in time when we are taking a new place in the natural world; what he is careful to call “creation” a term that connotes far more spiritual importance.

To read more on the papal encyclical, see:

Pope encyclical on ‘ecological crisis’ asks us to examine our deepest values and beliefs

The pope as messenger: making climate change a moral issue

Andrew J Hoffman is Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Categories: Ecological News

Renewables Send EU Emissions Tumbling

Wed, 08/12/2015 - 19:56
Many countries that promised to cut GHG emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are now exceeding their targets, bringing new hope for success at the Paris climate talks.

By Paul Brown
Climate News Network

“Robin Rigg Wind Farm” by John. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

LONDON, 12 August, 2015 – Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions are falling fast, mainly because of the rapid spread of the wind turbines and solar panels that are replacing fossil fuels for electricity generation.

European Union data shows that once countries adopt measures to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs), they often exceed their targets − and this finding is backed up by figures released this week in a statement by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Convention’s statistics show that the 37 industrialised countries (plus the EU) that signed up in 1997 to the Kyoto Protocol − the original international treaty on combating global warming – have frequently exceeded their promised GHG cuts by a large margin.

Beacon for Governments

The UNFCCC statement says: “This is a powerful demonstration that climate change agreements not only work, but can drive even higher ambition over time.

“The successful completion of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period can serve as a beacon for governments as they work towards a new, universal climate change agreement in Paris, in December this year.”

In the EU, the leading countries for making savings are Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and Spain, which account for two-thirds of the total savings on the continent. But most of the 28 countries in the bloc are also making progress towards the EU’s own target of producing 20 percent of all its energy needs from renewables by 2020. It has already reached 15 percent.

“This is a powerful demonstration that climate change agreements not only work, but can drive even higher ambition over time”

Part of the EU plan to prevent any of the 28 member states backsliding on agreed targets to reduce GHGs is to measure every two years the effect of various policies to achieve the reductions.

All states have to submit details of savings achieved through the introduction of renewables in electricity production, heating and cooling systems, and transport.

Because of the time taken to compile the figures, the latest report from the EC Joint Research Centre goes up only to 2012. However, it shows that each year in the three years up to the end of 2012 GHGs emitted by the EU fell by 8.8% as a result of replacing fossil fuels with renewables.

Two-thirds of the savings came from the widespread introduction of wind and solar power. Renewables used for heating and cooling achieved 31 percent of the savings, and transport 5 percent. Most transport renewables came from the use of bio-fuels instead of petrol and diesel.

Measuring the progress towards targets is vital for mutual trust between nations in the run-up to the Paris climate talks. It also gives politicians confidence that they can make pledges they can keep.

Ambitious Goal

The knowledge that the EU is likely to exceed its target of a 20 percent reduction of all emissions on 1990 levels by 2020 has led ministers to a more ambitious goal – total reductions of 40 percent by 2030. A large part of this will come from the installation of more renewables and energy-efficiency measures.

Across Europe, emissions vary widely from country to country, with Germany having the highest and Malta the lowest. Germany also had the greatest absolute reduction of emissions – a total drop of 23 percent on 1990 levels by 2012.

The highest emissions per capita were in Luxembourg (20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person), followed by Estonia (12.7), the Czech Republic (10.2), Germany (9.8), and the Netherlands (9.7).

Just five member states – Germany, Poland, the UK, Italy and Romania − together produced two-thirds of the EU’s emissions in 1990. The only change by 2012 was that Romania had been overtaken by Spain. – Climate News Network

Categories: Ecological News

Scotland Pushes GMO Ban

Tue, 08/11/2015 - 05:33

By Sarah Lazare
Common Dreams

But government will permit genetic modification for scientific research

“Scotland is known around the world for our beautiful natural environment—and banning growing genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status,” said rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead. Photo: Moyan Brenn/flickr/cc

Scottish government officials announced Sunday they will impose a ban on the domestic cultivation of genetically modified (GM or GMO) crops, attracting praise from environmental and food safety campaigners.

“Scotland is known around the world for our beautiful natural environment—and banning growing genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status,” declared rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead in a statement.

“The Scottish Government has long-standing concerns about GM crops—concerns that are shared by other European countries and consumers, and which should not be dismissed lightly,” Lochhead continued.

The government invoked recently-passed European Union powers that permits individual governments, like Scotland, to prohibit GM crop cultivation within their territory. Critics have expressed concern that the EU legislation won’t go far enough, because it does not ensure protection from legal challenges to bans.

“The Scottish government will shortly submit a request that Scotland is excluded from any European consents for the cultivation of GM crops, including the variety of genetically modified maize already approved and six other GM crops that are awaiting authorization,” the rural affairs office said.

While the statement did not indicate whether the ban extends to scientific research, the Guardian reported Sunday that “a spokeswoman confirmed that laboratory research on GMOs would continue.”

The ban signals a growing divide between the Scottish National Party and the United Kingdom’s conservative Tory government housed in London, with the latter announcing earlier this summer it will allow cultivation of GM crops.

Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth-Scotland, told Scottish newspaper The National: “The Scottish government has been making anti-GM noises for some time, but the new Tory government has been trying to take us in the direction of GM being used in the UK, so it is very good news that Scottish ministers are taking that stance.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Categories: Ecological News

70 Years Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Thu, 08/06/2015 - 23:04

Courtesy of The University of British Columbia

The Week The Bombs Fell

Seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs, the nightmarish scale of destruction and radiation left behind continue to haunt us.

August 6 marks seven decades since Hiroshima was bombed, followed by Nagasaki just three days later, both cities razed by the only atomic weapons ever used in warfare. Up to 80,000 people in Hiroshima were killed instantly, with conservative estimates of more than160,000 deaths in the four months after the bombing. In Nagasaki, an estimated 40,000 were killed instantly, and up to 80,000 in the proceeding four months.

VIDEO: UBC Associate Professor and Keidanren Chair in Japanese Research Julian Dierkes discusses the bombings, and how they resonate with us today

What was the context of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

War, initiated in 1931 by Japan, had been going on in the Asia Pacific region for nearly 15 years at that point—an undeclared war initially by Japan. American bombing raids targeting Japanese cities had been going on for months.

Japan, to some extent, had been working on a nuclear program, as was everyone else at the time. The technology was known, but its use against Japan was unexpected.

What was the immediate reaction to the bombs?

The most significant reaction, in historical terms, came a week later, with Japan’s surrender. There are remaining historical debates about what would have happened had there not been a nuclear bomb, but it’s fair to say that the use of the weapon certainly hastened the end of the Pacific War.

What were the immediate and long-term effects of the bombing?

The immediate effects were massive death and destruction. And because they were nuclear bombs, there were the long-term effects. People alive at the time, as well as next generations, continue to suffer from radiation poisoning and associated higher cancer rates.

Today, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are very involved in commemorating the events and are also taking a lead in the movement against nuclear arms. That’s quite interesting because they’re cities, and cities are not involved in weaponry in principle. But they have embraced the status of being the first and only victims of atomic bombs, and have used that status to speak out against nuclear weapons.

What was the U.S.-Japan relationship after the end of the war?

Japan’s post-war history is intimately tied up with the U.S. The way the treaty between the U.S. and Japan was framed, coupled with the new Japanese constitution, meant that Japanese military expenses were low. That freed up resources for investments and economic growth and it turned the U.S. into a major economic partner.

It’s one of the big twists of the 20th century that the U.S. unleashed this technology on an aggressor nation who then went on to become one of America’s closest partners.

What happened in the post-war era is structured around the Cold War, then the Korean War and subsequently the Vietnam War, when Japan became a staging ground for U.S. military forces. Japan was firmly in the American camp and so very quickly its future became intrinsically bound to the U.S. trajectory. That remains the case today.

What sorts of commemorations are planned in Japan?

What typically happens is a gathering on the date and time of the bombings. In Hiroshima it will be centered at what is now called the Peace Dome. It’s an iconic structure, because the building survived the bomb blast and has been preserved ever since. The Peace Museum and Peace Memorial Park were built around it and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Most likely there’ll be a large gathering involving victims, although they’re aging. What will be a little bit difficult is that Japan suffered the Fukushima nuclear disaster four years ago. Some of the residents of the Fukushima prefecture surrounding the nuclear power plant damaged by the tsunami have begun referring to themselves as “Hibakusha”, the same term applied to radiation victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It’s a controversial adoption of that term. The perception among Fukushima residents is that they were victimized by the Japanese state, because it’s involved in nuclear industry. They have taken on the mantle of adding a Japanese voice to international discussions about the risks of nuclear power. I would be very surprised if some of those voices were not be represented in the 70th anniversary commemorations. They, like those bombed and later generations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see themselves as victimized by nuclear technology.

Categories: Ecological News

President Obama on America’s Clean Power Plan and Climate Change

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 03:04

Unedited Video of Today’s Speech:
Gina McCarthy @ 3:55 / President Obama @ 7:52

For More Information:

Climate Change and President Obama’s Plan
The White House Blog: The Clean Power Plan: Myths and Facts

Categories: Ecological News

Construction Begins on U.S. First Offshore Wind Farm

Fri, 07/31/2015 - 23:21

U.S. Department of the Interior

Construction begins on the first commercial scale offshore wind farm, in Rhode Island state waters. Photo: US DOI

As part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to create American jobs, develop clean energy sources and cut carbon pollution, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Abigail Ross Hopper joined Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo, the state’s congressional delegation and representatives of Deepwater Wind – the project developers, on July 27th – in celebrating an historic “steel in the water” milestone for America’s first commercial scale offshore wind farm.

“Interior is proud to be a partner in this historic milestone for offshore renewable energy,” Secretary Jewell said. “Deepwater Wind and Rhode Island officials have demonstrated what can be accomplished through a forward-looking vision and good working partnerships. Block Island Wind Farm will not only tap into the enormous power of the Atlantic’s coastal winds to provide reliable, affordable and clean energy to Rhode Islanders, but will also serve as a beacon for America’s sustainable energy future.”

“As the Nation’s pioneering offshore commercial wind farm, the lessons learned from the Block Island project about facility design, fabrication and installation will inform future projects to be developed on the Outer Continental Shelf,” said BOEM Director Hopper. “This is an exciting development for Block Island and also demonstrates the way forward for wind energy in federal waters off America’s coasts.”

Also participating in the celebration were Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Representatives Jim Langevin and David Cicilline; Deepwater Wind’s CEO Jeffrey Grybowski; members of the state General Assembly; representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and members of the environmental community. The celebration included a boat tour of the project site to provide a close look at the turbine foundation work underway.

Deepwater Wind is constructing a five-turbine, 30-megawatt wind farm in state waters about three nautical miles southeast of Block Island. At 589 feet above sea level, the turbines will be among the tallest in the world. The project, scheduled to be online in 2016, is expected to power about 17,000 homes. The facility will provide electricity directly from the wind farm to Block Island. Because the island uses only 1 megawatt of power in the off-season and 4 megawatts in the summer peak season, the remaining 90 percent of the energy produced during the off season will be sent to other state customers via a 25-mile bi-directional submerged transmission cable between Block Island and the Rhode Island mainland.

Eight miles of the transmission line cross federal waters. After determining there was no overlapping competitive interest in the proposed right-of-way area on the Outer Continental Shelf and conducting an environmental review, BOEM issued a right-of-way grant to Deepwater Wind Block Island Transmission System, LLC in 2014.

The wind farm will produce more than 100 million kilowatt hours of clean energy annually, and Deepwater Wind will sell the electricity through a Power Purchase Agreement to National Grid, a Rhode Island utility. Project developers estimate the wind farm will reduce electric costs by 40 percent for the average ratepayer on Block Island, which currently relies on expensive diesel-powered generators. With the transmission line, Block Island has no need for backup diesel generators, as it can purchase electricity from National Grid once the cable is laid.

Because the project will be sited in state waters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was the lead federal agency for analyzing the potential environmental effects of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In addition to issuing the right-of-way grant, BOEM was a cooperating agency in the NEPA analysis and associated consultations led by the Corps.

To date, BOEM has awarded nine commercial wind energy leases off the Atlantic coast: two noncompetitively issued leases (one for the proposed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound offshore Massachusetts and one offshore Delaware) and seven competitively-issued leases (two offshore Rhode Island-Massachusetts, two offshore Massachusetts, two offshore Maryland, and one offshore Virginia). The competitive lease sales generated about $14.5 million in winning bids for more than 700,000 acres in federal waters. BOEM is expected to hold an additional competitive auction for a Wind Energy Areas offshore New Jersey later this year.

Spurring responsible development of offshore wind energy is part of a series of Obama Administration actions to increase renewable energy both offshore and onshore by improving coordination with state, local and federal partners. Since 2009, Interior has approved 56 wind, solar and geothermal utility-scale projects on public or tribal lands, including associated transmission corridors and infrastructure to connect to established power grids. When built, these projects could provide about 14,600 megawatts – enough energy to power nearly 4.9 million homes and support more than 24,000 construction and operations jobs.

The success of the Block Island project was enabled by the strong support of state and local leaders, who developed early policies for the planning and proper siting of the wind farm, as part of the state’s overall renewables goals and marine spatial planning efforts. Beginning with Governor Donald Carcieri and continuing with Governor Lincoln Chafee and now-Governor Gina M. Raimondo, Rhode Island’s top officials have all supported offshore wind and the development of the Block Island Wind Farm. Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation also supported federal tax and permitting policies important for this project and industry. Deepwater Wind worked closely with federal and state agencies and local environmental groups in developing a groundbreaking set of construction rules to minimize any impacts on marine mammals.

Maps and additional information on this project are available at this website.

Categories: Ecological News

Is the Climate Crisis Creating a Global Consciousness Shift?

Mon, 07/20/2015 - 10:18

By David Suzuki

People’s Climate March in NYC. Photo via Flickr CC

When an assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, no one called it the start of the First World War. That happened years later, after the implications, consequences and scale of the response could be assessed. It’s often the way. That’s why historians are important; they put events in context.

Similarly, I doubt anyone knew how our world would change after Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first computer in Jobs’ parents’ garage in 1975.

In 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen testified in Washington that human-caused global warming was kicking in, people might have been excused for failing to grasp the significance of his early warning. But there’s no excuse for humanity’s subsequent dismissal and denial of the reality of his statements and the deliberate, aggressive opposition to any action to reduce the threat.

For years, environmentalists have called for an urgent response to runaway climate change. Evidence has poured in from around the world to corroborate Hansen’s conclusions, from melting glaciers, sea level rise and ocean acidification to increasing extreme weather events and changes in animal and plant behaviour and ranges.

Despite the evidence, few governments have taken the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of listening to scientists and citizens, many leaders have chosen to heed the fossil fuel industry’s massive PR machine and right-wing ideologues who see the call for global action as a socialist threat to capitalism.

There has been progress, at national and subnational levels, and among forward-thinking corporations and organizations. Some, like the commitment by countries including Denmark and Germany to reduce dependence on fossil fuels after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, were in response to markets rather than the climate crisis, but it positioned them well as evidence for climate change mounted.

More recently, people on the frontlines of climate change such as Pacific Islanders and Inuit have warned of the changes they’re experiencing. The insurance industry and a number of corporations have called for action, with some, like Tesla, designing solutions. But many in the media and government continue to downplay the problem.

I’ve been astounded by the lack of response over the years, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest a shift is now taking place. Although we may not recognize its significance without the benefit of hindsight, we appear to be in the early stages of something huge.

Even some news outlets are shifting. The U.K.’s Guardian decided earlier this year to increase its coverage of climate change, going so far as to encourage divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The New York Times decided to use the more accurate term “denier” rather than “skeptic” to refer to those who reject the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change.

People’s Climate March in NYC. Photo via Flickr CC

People power is another sign of the growing shift: 400,000 at the largest climate march in history in New York in September, with 2,646 simultaneous marches in 162 countries; an unprecedented gathering of 25,000 in Quebec City in advance of a premiers’ climate change summit in April; and more than 10,000 in Toronto (including me) on July 5 for the March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate in advance of the Climate Summit of the Americas.

When Pope Francis reached beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to call for action on climate change, his message was endorsed by other religious leaders and organizations, including the Dalai Lama, the Islamic Society of North America, an influential group of Jewish rabbis and the Church of England.

Beyond visible evidence of the increasing willingness to meet the challenge of global warming, one of the biggest signs of a shift has been the almost unnoticed but spectacular increase in renewable energy investment in countries like the U.S., Brazil and China.

It’s easy for governments and industry to prioritize corporate profits and short-term gain over the best interests of complacent citizens. But when enough people demand action, take to the streets, write to business, political and religious leaders and talk to friends and family, change starts happening. We never know how big it will be until it’s occurred — but this time, it looks like it could be monumental! Let’s hope so.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at

Categories: Ecological News

New Horizons: Pluto and Charon

Thu, 07/16/2015 - 08:27
Historic close-ups of Pluto and its moon Charon present puzzle for scientists

By David Rothery, The Open University

High resolution view of a 300 km wide region of Pluto. But where are the impact craters? Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

After a decade-long journey by the New Horizons spacecraft through our solar system, we can finally add Pluto and its main moon Charon to the roster of large icy bodies whose landscapes we have seen. And it was worth the wait. The first detailed images are surprising, showing a remarkable lack of impact craters on both Pluto and Charon.

NASA’s probe passed within 14,000 km of Pluto on July 14, and – after a nervous 12-hour wait for its call home – has begun to send back its trove of data, which includes images revealing details as small as 100 metres across.

The most detailed image of part of Pluto (see lead image) is truly staggering. Not a single impact crater is to be seen in this region, so the surface must be very young – reshaped by some sort of geological activity such as faulting or icy volcanism.

It is rather early to speculate, but maybe Pluto captured Charon only a few hundred million years ago (rather than billions), and we are seeing the effect of the very strong tidal interactions that would have ensued. Pluto could, in fact, even be geologically active today. I watched this image come in via a NASA press conference with a group of colleagues, and we were both amazed and mystified.

Pluto – which has a diameter of 2,370km – shares its orbital space with many comparable-sized bodies and crosses the orbit of the giant planet Neptune, which is why it does not qualify as a planet. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating world, as indeed is Charon (1,208km diameter).

Both are bodies whose rocky interiors are deeply buried by ice of various kinds. There is probably water-ice at depth on Pluto, but the surface ice is a mixture of frozen methane, ethane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

Latest image of Charon with its enigmatic dark polar cap, and a stupendous fracture system running near to its equator. Photo: NASA

Charon, with its weaker gravity, has lost the substances that can turn to vapour and escape more easily, and is mostly water-ice tainted by ammonia. That much we already knew. But New Horizons has been gathering data that will show us how these ices are arranged across each surface – and may find traces of other constituents.

Pluto (left) and Charon (right) in slightly exaggerated colour. Image: Adapted from multiple datasets via

Already the images are throwing up new questions. The composite image above, compiled from various images during New Horizons’ approach, shows slightly enhanced colour views of Pluto and Charon. Pluto is notable for patches of both bright and dark material in a belt straddling its equator. What are these? Is the bright, heart-shaped patch some kind of nitrogen frost or snow deposit? Is the dark stuff carbon or tar of some kind? (We know that solar ultraviolet radiation turn methane into tar). Charon, unique among known worlds, has a dark polar cap. Is that old, radiation-damaged methane, whereas the greyer equatorial region is cleaner water-ice?

The fact that Pluto has a red tint seems to have been surprising to some, but it has actually been well-known for decades.

An Open University PhD student has already made a preliminary photogeologic map of the half of Pluto seen during approach (see below). It shows the “heart”, the dark patches and other units in different colours – representing different terrains. Several impact craters have also been marked in green, and a few wrinkles on the surface.

A preliminary map of terrain units on Pluto (right), based on the image on the left. Peter Fawden, Open University. Photo: Author provided

Then there are the tectonic features, the faulting or other deformation of the outer layer of a planet, to consider. These are better seen in black-and-white images. For example in the next image, just inside the eastern (right-hand) edge of the disk, the surface is cut by a fracture deep enough to cast shadows.

Pluto seen about a quarter of a rotation before the top image. The fractures at the lower right had rotated out of view by the time of closest approach. The ‘heart’ was just beginning to rotate into view on the left. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Charon has similar fractures too. These are also known on several icy moons, such as Ariel and Titania at Uranus, and Tethys at Saturn, where they are described as chasmata (Latin for chasms). The image below shows Charon and Uranus’s moon Titania at the correct relative scale. They both have fractures visible near their right-hand edges, which could be a remnant of a time when the surface became broken, perhaps by tidal forces.

Fractures can be seen both on Charon (left) and Titania (a moon of Uranus). Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI and NASA/JPL

Scientists are eagerly awaiting more data from New Horizons’ onboard memory, which is now nearly full, that will take a total of 16 months to transmit to Earth. This is because at a range of more than 4.6 billion km from Earth the signal is so weak that it has to be transmitted at a slow rate of about 1 kilobit per second (you may be reading this via wi-fi operating at tens or hundreds of megabits per second). Although we may have to wait a while before we see the best of the pictures, what we already have already seen is enough to greatly intrigue planetary scientists such as myself.

David Rothery is Professor of Planetary Geosciences at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Categories: Ecological News

President Obama Designates 3 New National Monuments, Protecting More than 1 Million Acres of Public Land

Sat, 07/11/2015 - 03:44

By Christy Goldfuss
White House Council on Environmental Quality

President Barack Obama signs National Monument designations in the Oval Office, July 10, 2015. The three new monuments include Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, Waco Mammoth in Texas, and the Basin and Range in Nevada. Standing behing the President, from left, are: Victor Knox, National Park Service, April Slayton, National Park Service, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Chief Tom Tidwell, Randy Moore, Forest Service, and Director Neil Kornze. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Today, we joined community members from California, Texas, and Nevada to celebrate the President’s announcement of three new national monuments. The new monuments include Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, Waco Mammoth in Texas, and Basin and Range in Nevada. Together, these striking places demonstrate the wide range of historic, cultural, and natural values that make America’s public lands so treasured.

With these new designations, President Obama will have used the Antiquities Act to establish or expand 19 national monuments. Today’s addition of three national monuments will protect more than 1 million acres of public land, adding to the more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters President Obama has protected for future generations – more than any other President.

Protecting our lands is about more than just protecting our great outdoors. These designations provide a boost to the local economies of surrounding communities by attracting visitors and generating more revenue and jobs, building on an outdoor recreation industry that already generates $646 billion in consumer spending each year.

The public lands President Obama designated today protect significant cultural and historical landmarks. Native Americans have inhabited the Berryessa Snow Mountain area for at least the last 11,000 years, leaving behind their cultural influences and artifacts, such as seasonal hunting camps and earth-covered round buildings. The Basin and Range National Monument tells the story of a rich cultural tradition from petroglyph and prehistoric rock art panels, to the earliest human inhabitants 13,000 years ago, to miners and ranchers in the past century. The unique cultural and historic City installation by artist Michael Heizer captures the natural beauty of the Basin and Range, and is one of the most ambitious examples of the distinctively American land-art movement.

In addition to preserving the history of our past ancestors, these designations offer scientific value and a glimpse into the past. The Waco Mammoth National Monument features remains of Columbian Mammoths from more than 65,000 years ago, as well as other animals of the Pleistocene Epoch, such as the Western Camel, Saber-toothed Cat, and giant tortoise. The protection of this site will provide unparalleled opportunities for scientific studies, while also opening up the wonder of discovery to student groups and visitors from around the world.

In addition to the cultural, historic, and scientific value of the designations, the areas also offer a variety of recreational opportunities – from the vastness and solitude of the unbroken expanse of the Basin and Range, to the hiking, hunting, fishing, and camping activities of the Berryessa Snow Mountain.

These are just a few of the many reasons such a broad set of groups support these designations. Local city and county governments, Tribes, recreational, conservation and cultural preservation groups, local chambers of commerce, and hundreds of local businesses have voiced their support for preserving these precious areas.

National monuments bring so many values to communities across the country, and they are so popular because they are permanent. They stand the test of time. And their benefits – for local economies, for wildlife and our natural resources, and for Americans who visit them to enjoy the outdoors and embrace our country’s history – only get stronger and more tangible over time.

Categories: Ecological News

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Remain the Primary Threat to Polar Bears

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 23:42


Greenhouse gas emissions remain the primary threat to the preservation of polar bear populations worldwide. This conclusion holds true under both a reduced greenhouse gas emission scenario that stabilizes climate warming and another scenario where emissions and warming continue at the current pace, according to updated U.S. Geological Survey research models.

Greenhouse gas emissions remain the primary threat to the preservation of polar bear populations worldwide. This conclusion holds true under both a reduced greenhouse gas emission scenario that stabilizes climate warming and another scenario where emissions and warming continue at the current pace, according to updated U.S. Geological Survey research models.

Under both scenarios, the outcome for the worldwide polar bear population will very likely worsen over time through the end of the century.

The modeling effort examined the prognosis for polar bear populations in the four ecoregions (see map) comprising their range using current sea ice projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for two greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Both scenarios examined how greenhouse gas emissions may affect polar bears: one looked at stabilization in climate warming by century’s end because of reduced GHG emissions, and the other looked at unabated (unchanged) rates of GHG emissions, leading to increased warming by century’s end.

“Addressing sea ice loss will require global policy solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and likely be years in the making,” said Mike Runge, a USGS research ecologist. “Because carbon emissions accumulate over time, there will be a lag, likely on the order of several decades, between mitigation of emissions and meaningful stabilization of sea ice loss.”

Under the unabated emission scenario, polar bear populations in two of four ecoregions were projected to reach a greatly decreased state about 25 years sooner than under the stabilized scenario. Under the stabilized scenario, GHG emissions peak around 2040, decline through 2080, then decline through the end of the century. In this scenario, USGS projected that all ecoregion populations will greatly decrease except for the Archipelago Ecoregion, located in the high-latitude Canadian Arctic, where sea ice generally persists longer in the summer. These updated modeling outcomes reinforce earlier suggestions of the Archipelago’s potential as an important refuge for ice-dependent species, including the polar bear.

The models, updated from 2010, evaluated specific threats to polar bears such as sea ice loss, prey availability, hunting, and increased human activities, and incorporated new findings on regional variation in polar bear response to sea ice loss.

“Substantial sea ice loss and expected declines in the availability of marine prey that polar bears eat are the most important specific reasons for the increasingly worse outlook for polar bear populations,” said Todd Atwood, research biologist with the USGS, and lead author of the study. “We found that other environmental stressors such as trans-Arctic shipping, oil and gas exploration, disease and contaminants, sustainable harvest and defense of life takes, had only negligible effects on polar bear populations—compared to the much larger effects of sea ice loss and associated declines in their ability to access prey.”

Additionally, USGS researchers noted that if the summer ice-free period lengthens beyond 4 months – as forecasted to occur during the last half of this century in the unabated scenario – the negative effects on polar bears will be more pronounced. Polar bears rely on ice as the platform for hunting their primary prey – ice seals – and when sea ice completely melts in summer, the bears must retreat to land where their access to seals is limited. Other research this year has shown that terrestrial foods available to polar bears during these land-bound months are unlikely to help polar bear populations adapt to sea ice loss.

USGS scientists’ research found that managing threats other than greenhouse gas emissions could slow the progression of polar bear populations to an increasingly worse status. The most optimistic prognosis for polar bears would require immediate and aggressive reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that would limit global warming to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 due to the threat posed by sea ice loss. The polar bear was the first species to be listed because of climate change. A plan to address recovery of the polar bear will be released into the Federal Register by the USFWS for public review on July 2, 2015.

The updated forecast for polar bears was developed by USGS as part of its Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative, together with collaborators from the U.S. Forest Service and Polar Bears International. The polar bear forecasting report is available online.

Polar Bear Ecoregions: In the Seasonal Ice Ecoregion (see map), sea ice melts completely in summer and all polar bears must be on land. In the Divergent Ice Ecoregion, sea ice pulls away from the coast in summer, and polar bears must be on land or move with the ice as it recedes north. In the Convergent Ice and Archipelago Ecoregions, sea ice is generally retained during the summer

Categories: Ecological News

Flatworms Could Replace Mammals for Some Toxicology Tests

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 13:44

By Kim McDonald
UC San Diego News Center

Laboratories that test chemicals for neurological toxicity could reduce their use of laboratory mice and rats by replacing these animal models with tiny aquatic flatworms known as freshwater planarians.

Freshwater planarians are small, inexpensive, easy to breed, sensitive to chemicals in the water and develop within a week. Credit: UC San Diego

Scientists at UC San Diego have discovered that planarians, commonly used in high-school biology labs to study regeneration and the primitive nervous system, are actually quite sophisticated when it comes to modeling the response of the developing human nervous system to potentially toxic chemicals.

The researchers published their findings in the current issue of the journal Toxicological Sciences.

“Because planarians have unique features such as a brain of intermediate complexity, a short regeneration time and offer the possibility of studying adults and developing worms in parallel, they make a good complementary system to existing animal models for studying developmental neurotoxicity,” said Eva-Maria Schoetz Collins, an assistant professor of biology and physics who headed the research group. “Using such alternative animal models will not only reduce costs, but will also significantly reduce the number of laboratory mammals used in toxicology tests.”

Humans are faced with thousands of potentially toxic compounds in their environment and new chemicals are added daily in the products we use, from pesticides to cosmetics to food additives. How to test these new chemicals for their safety has become a growing problem, given that traditional toxicology testing has long relied on laboratory rodents. Now, efforts are being made to replace them with alternatives that employ cultured cells or alternative animal models, such as zebrafish, that permit researchers to screen thousands of potential toxins more quickly and at a reduced cost.

“In recent years, several government agencies have begun to work together in what is called the ‘Tox21 Initiative,’ with the goal of changing the way toxicology testing has been done through in vitro assays such as cultured cells and alternatives to laboratory rodents,” explained Schoetz Collins. “Because each testing platform, be it an animal model or in vitro assay, has its limitations, it is important to perform tests across several platforms to determine the toxic concentrations and mechanisms of action for the development of reliable exposure guidelines for humans.”

Schoetz Collins and her collaborators began their study when they noticed that the planarians they were using in their laboratory experiments were particularly sensitive to different environmental conditions.

As an experiment, they developed a five-step semi-automatic screening platform to characterize the toxicity of nine known “neurotoxicants”—consisting of commonly used solvents, pesticides and detergents—and a neutral agent, glucose, on a species of planaria called Dugesia japonica. The researchers then quantified the effects of the various compounds on the planarians’ viability, stimulated and unstimulated behavior, regeneration and brain structure.

“Comparisons of our findings with other alternative toxicology animal models, namely zebrafish larvae and nematodes, demonstrated that planarians are comparably sensitive to the tested chemicals,” the scientists concluded in their paper.

“Like zebrafish and nematodes, freshwater planarians are small, inexpensive and easy to breed, sensitive to chemicals in the water and develop quickly,” in approximately one week, the researchers added.

But planarians also have important advantages to these alternative animal models.

“What renders freshwater planarians unique and particularly well-suited for developmental neurotoxicology is our ability to simultaneously study genetically identical adult and developing animals, allowing us to directly compare the effect of potential toxicants on the adult and developing brain, without possible complications from the variability of genetic factors,” the scientists wrote.

In addition, they added that the planarian nervous system is much more complex than that of nematodes, but simpler than that of zebrafish, and shares “the same neuronal subpopulations and neurotransmitters as the mammalian brain, to be relevant to human studies. In fact, the planarian brain is thought to be more similar to the vertebrate brain than to other invertebrate brains in terms of structure and function.”

Schoetz Collins emphasized that while her group’s research study demonstrates the viability of freshwater planarians as an alternative animal model for neurotoxicity, the aquatic flatworms won’t replace laboratory rodents, but will instead limit their use.

“Mammalian models will still be necessary,” she added, “but pre-screening with different models will allow us to select a smaller number of toxicants to be tested in mammals, thus reducing their use to the strict minimum.”

Other UC San Diego researchers involved in the study were Danielle Hagstrom, Olivier Cochet-Escartin, Siqi Zhang and Cindy Khuu.

Their paper in Toxicological Sciences is referenced at doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfv129. The project was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (5T32GM007240-37), Hellman Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Categories: Ecological News

Death Toll Soars in ‘Unbelievable’ Pakistan Heat Wave

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 13:52

By Nadia Prupis
Common Dreams

State of emergency declared for hospitals as heat stroke and dehydration claim hundreds of lives

Quetta, Pakistan

A deadly heat wave spreading through southern Pakistan has killed nearly 800 people in just a few days—a number that threatens to rise as temperatures remain unusually high this week.

At least 740 people have died of dehydration, heat stroke, and other heat-related illnesses in Karachi, the country’s largest city, since Saturday, with various sources estimating the death toll to have hit anywhere from 744 to 775. Local media reports that an additional 38 people have died in other provinces.

As temperatures hit 45°C (113°F) on Tuesday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared a state of emergency for hospitals, many of which have hit full capacity, with thousands needing care for heat stroke and dehydration.

Al Jazeera writes:

“The mortuary is overflowing, they are piling bodies one on top of the other,” said Dr Seemin Jamali, a senior official at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), the city’s largest government hospital.

“We are doing everything that is humanly possible here,” she said, adding that since Saturday, the JPMC had seen more than 5,000 patients with heat-related symptoms. Of those, 384 patients had died, she said.

“Until [Tuesday] night, it was unbelievable. We were getting patients coming into the emergency ward every minute,” she said.

Among those who have died, most have been either elderly or poor, officials say.

A former director of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, Asif Shuja, said earlier this week that the soaring temperatures are an impact of climate change, fueled by rapid urbanization, deforestation, and car use. “The last 30 years – from 1993-2012 – had been warmer than the last 1,400 years. Scientists envisage a rise of 1-6.67°C in temperature till 2100 which will be disastrous,” he told the Express Tribune.

But as the Daily Pakistan points out, a study conducted by the Lancet/UCL commission this week found that only 15 percent of Pakistani citizens believe climate change is a major threat, while 40 percent are unaware or deny its existence. That makes Pakistan the “least aware” country in the South Asian region of the threats of climate change.

Commentator Juan Cole adds:

Average temperatures are set to go up by at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit because of the carbon dioxide we have already spilled into the atmosphere by burning petroleum, coal and natural gas. That will put Pakistan’s temperatures up to more like 114. It will go on up from there if we don’t find ways to stop emitting so much CO2.

Discontent is rising, too. Many residents are reportedly angry with some of the government measures being taken, such as power cuts, which they say prevent locals from using air conditioning and fans.

BBC reports:

Hot weather is not unusual during summer months in Pakistan, but prolonged power cuts seem to have made matters worse, the BBC’s Shahzeb Jillani reports.

Sporadic angry protests have taken place in parts of Karachi, with some people blaming the government and Karachi’s main power utility, K-Electric, for failing to avoid deaths, our correspondent adds.

The prime minister had announced that there would be no electricity cuts but outages have increased since the start of Ramadan, he reports.

Three weeks ago, India faced a similar deadly heat wave, which saw 1,200 people killed as temperatures hit nearly 50°C (122°F).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Categories: Ecological News

Hope from the Pope

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 09:50
Pope Francis offers hopeful perspective on global crises

By David Suzuki

Pope Francis at Vargihna” by Tânia Rêgo/ABr – Agência Brasil. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 br via Wikimedia Commons

Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, humans for somewhere around 150,000. But in my brief lifetime — less than 80 years — human populations have exploded exponentially, from two billion to more than seven billion. In that short time, we’ve created consumer societies and decimated the planet’s natural systems, used up resources, filled oceans with plastic and pollution, altered water cycles, and upset the Earth’s carbon cycle, disrupting global climate systems.

Our impacts on this small blue planet have been so rapid, widespread and profound that many scientists call this the Anthropocene Epoch. Much of it has coincided with the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, which showed great promise when I was a child. They were abundant and we didn’t understand the consequences of recklessly burning them. Cars were designed to use lots of gas and propel oil industry profits, not to conserve energy. Factories were built to create products and increase distribution efficiencies.

No longer confined to growing food and providing agricultural services, people moved to cities and, freed from the constraints of limited access to resources, grew rapidly in number, dramatically increasing consumption.

Because our technological prowess has grown faster than our knowledge, wisdom and foresight, much of what we’ve created is now crashing down around us — battered by pollution, ecosystem collapse, species extinction, resource scarcity, inequality, climate change and overpopulation.

Pope Francis recently put humanity’s situation in context — and offered hope for the future. Regardless of how you feel about religion or the Catholic Church, or even some ideas in the Pope’s encyclical, there’s no denying it contains a powerful, scientifically and morally valid call for radical change that will reach an audience far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

In his June 18 address, the Pope called on the world — not just Catholics — to recognize the need for change in the face of ecological crises such as human-caused global warming and the failure of growth-fueled market economics to facilitate human survival, happiness and prosperity. “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” he said.

In his wide-ranging address, Pope Francis spoke about pollution, climate change, water, biodiversity, inequality, poverty, economics, consumerism and spirituality. “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world,” he said. “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.”

He also called out those stalling or preventing action to confront environmental problems, especially global warming: “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.”

Connecting the dots between environmental degradation and inequality, he urged people to “integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Although parts of the address are bleak, the Pope argued that open conversation and changes in thinking, acting and governing could bring about positive change, even for the economy: “Productive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment.”

And, he noted, “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.”

The Pope joins a diverse global chorus of people calling for changes in our destructive lifestyle to confront crises such as climate change and the ever-growing gap between poor and rich.

These expanding and increasingly urgent calls to confront our hubris for the sake of humanity’s future represent a necessary shift in a way of thinking that has propelled us along what is, after all, just a recent and brief destructive course in our history. As Pope Francis said, “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

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Categories: Ecological News