Friday, 27 January 2017

Air pollution in London passes levels in Beijing... and wood burners are making problem worse

Air pollution in London passed levels in Beijing this week, figures have shown, with popular wood burning stoves blamed for exacerbating the problem.

On Monday London mayor Sadiq Khan issued the highest air pollution alert in London for the first time, and said on Tuesday that the capital's 'filthy air' is now a 'health crisis.'

Readings at 3pm on Monday showed that air at locations in the capital were worse than in notoriously smoggy Beijing, hitting a peak 197 micrograms per cubic metre for particulate matter on the Air Quality Index. Pollution in the Chinese city only reached 190, which is still deemed 'unhealthy.'

Although nitrogen dioxide levels in London rose higher than China in 2014, it is believed to be the first time particulate readings have exceeded those in the far east.

Experts at King's College London said the recent spell of unhealthy pollution was the worst since April 2011 in the capital and was being caused by cold, calm and settled conditions combined with 'traffic pollution and air pollution from wood burning.'

Temperatures have fallen below zero overnight over the last few days, meaning householders are burning more fuel to keep warm.

"This was the largest contribution from wood burning measured during the winter so far," said a spokesman for King's College.

More than a million homes in Britain now have a wood burning stove with 175,000 new ones installed every year.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Inbreeding threatens Marlborough kiwi population once thought to be thriving

A population of kiwi once thought to be thriving in Marlborough is being threatened by inbreeding.

Dr Helen Taylor, an expert in kiwi genetics and inbreeding, analysed a population of the little spotted kiwi on Long Island, and found poor hatching success compared to a Wellington population.

Taylor's research found nearly two-thirds of the 50-strong population were direct offspring of the Queen Charlotte Sound island's founding pair.

She said they expected to find more birds of second, third, and fourth generations.
"The overabundance of first-generation birds suggests that the damaging genetic effects of inbreeding are strongly affecting hatching, survival and possibly reproduction of the subsequent generations," she said.

The University of Otago study conducted autopsies of unhatched eggs, finding many had malformed embryos, or none at all.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Record the world did not need

In a powerful testament to the warming of the planet, two leading US science agencies jointly declared 2016 the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record set last year - which itself had topped a mark set in 2014.

The pronouncement comes just before US President-elect Donald Trump, who has tweeted that global warming is a hoax, takes office after a campaign in which he threatened to pull the US out of an international agreement to fight climate change.

Trump has since said he has an open mind about the Paris climate accord, even as he has nominated to various Cabinet posts a slate of men who have raised questions about the extent to which human activity is responsible for rising temperatures around the world.

Scientists have been far less guarded, noting the striking reality that global temperatures have set a record three years in a row.

"We don't expect record years every year, but the ongoing long-term warming trend is clear," said Gavin Schmidt, who directs Nasa's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, in a statement accompanying the government temperature report.
Nasa announced the record jointly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last year's warmth was manifested across the planet, from the warm tropical ocean waters off the coast of northeastern Australia that contribute to the widespread death of coral in the Great Barrier Reef, to the Arctic, where melting sea ice hit regular monthly record lows and overall temperatures were the highest on record, at least from January through September of 2016.

In a catalogue of some of the extremes the planet witnessed during the year, the Noaa noted the megafire that engulfed Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada, at the beginning of May, a conflagration that came relatively early in the year for bushfires.

That event was consistent with a warming climate, as well as with the role of El Nino, although scientists are reluctant to formally say that climate change has played a role in an individual event without conducting extensive analysis.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Insects imported to wage war on giant invasive reed

Two insects common around the Mediterranean will soon be chewing their way through a big problem in Northland.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has approved an application by Northland Regional Council (NRC) to introduce a wasp and a scale insect to New Zealand to control the giant reed, Arundo donax.

The reed, sometimes known as elephant grass or bamboo grass, is mainly found in Northland but could potentially establish throughout New Zealand.

It grows up to eight metres tall and inhabits streamsides, estuaries, disturbed lowland and coastal forest margins, river systems, and gullies.

Giant reed smothers, shades out and displaces all other plant species and can block streams and drains, causing flooding.

It expands via a strong rhizome network which generates large colonies of plants, growing prolifically and harming the biodiversity of insect and plant life.

The plant, which is native to eastern and southern Asia and possibly parts of North Africa, has displaced endemic and endangered species in the United States, Mexico and Canary Islands.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Death of Tilikum highlights how captivity is no place for dolphins and whales

With the death of orca Tilikum, Professor Philip Hoare, of the University of Southampton, argues the case for the end of whale and dolphin captivity.

On January 6, a 36-year-old bull killer whale named Tilikum died in Florida, "surrounded by trainers, care staff and veterinarians", according to the solemn, obituary-style announcement published by his owner.

Tilikum was, in fact, a celebrity. A star performer among the orca (as killer whales are known) at Orlando's famous SeaWorld theme park, he was also the world-renowned subject of an award-winning documentary, Blackfish, which has been credited with the dramatic decline in the fortune of such venues.

The film, which has been seen worldwide, showed the orca to be a highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive creature, condemned to a desperate existence in captivity with ultimately far-reaching tragic consequences. For Tilikum was also a real killer, implicated in the vicious deaths of three individuals.

As a boy growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was obsessed with cetaceans, the group of mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Orca in particular fascinated me, with their glossy black and white markings, so sleek and streamlined.

They had a magical quality, invested with power, grace and beauty and yet capable of great violence, tearing their prey - salmon, tuna, seals and even other whales - apart with their large teeth. I saw them as supreme emperors of the sea.

Once, my two younger sisters and I persuaded our parents to take us to Windsor Safari Park where, at last, I could see orca and dolphins up close. There, in a concrete tank, barely bigger than a municipal swimming pool, a trio of dolphins went through their paces, jumping through hoops and balancing balls on their noses. Their reward? A dead fish from a bucket.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Sea Shepherd photographs Japanese whalers in Australian Whale Sanctuary with dead whale

Sea Shepherd claims to have found a Japanese ship in the Australian Whale Sanctuary with a dead minke whale on its flensing deck.

The Nisshin Maru whaler factory ship was spotted by the helicopter of Sea Shepherd's MY Steve Irwin as the crew allegedly scrambled to hide the slaughtered whale with a tarp, while the fleet's harpoons were also quickly covered.

"The whale killers from the Nisshin Maru were caught red-handed slaughtering whales in the Australian Whale Sanctuary," Ocean Warrior Captain Adam Meyerson said on Sunday.

"The Steve Irwin has shut down their illegal operations and caught them trying to hide the evidence."
It is the first documented kill since the International Court of Justice ruled against Japan's whaling operations in the Antarctic in 2014.

It comes after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Australia on an official state visit.

Jeff Hansen, Managing Director of Sea Shepherd Australia said, "The lack of action by the Turnbull government while whales are being killed in Australian waters just a day after Japan's Prime Minister was on a state visit in Australia shows that the government has no spine when it comes to protecting the wishes of Australians to defend the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary."

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Antarctica to lose enormous piece of ice - what happens next?

Last week, British scientists announced a disturbing finding - a crack in the Larsen C ice shelf in the Antarctic Peninsula had dramatically accelerated its spread, increasing 18km in length in the space of a month.

This means the floating ice shelf, which is nearly as big as Scotland and the fourth largest of its kind in Antarctica, is poised to break off a piece nearly 5180sq km in size, or over 10 per cent of its total area. An ice island the size of a small US state would then be afloat in the Southern Ocean.

That's dramatic enough, but there is uncertainty in the science world about what would happen next.
On the one hand, the researchers with Project Midas, who announced the growth of the rift, have published research suggesting that, in their words, it "presents a considerable risk to the stability of the Larsen C Ice Shelf".

If they're right, it's hard to understate how big a deal it is - Antarctica has lost ice shelves before, but not one so enormous. Not only would a loss of Larsen C change the map of the Earth itself; the shelf holds back glaciers capable of contributing about 10cm of global sea level rise over time.

The rift is now largely following the second, and worse scenario from their research, said glaciologist Daniela Jansen of the Alfred Wegner Institute in Germany - if it is correct. "This calving will be a test for our calving front stability criterion," she said by email.

However, other analyses have suggested that most of the ice that would be lost is so-called "passive ice" that does not play a key role in holding the glaciers behind the shelf in place. And some scientists have expressed scepticism about whether what's happening at Larsen C is "cause for alarm".

Time, ultimately, will show who is right. But in the meantime we can sketch, a little, the kinds of things that scientists are thinking about as they watch all of this unfold.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Without action on climate change, say goodbye to polar bears

As the Arctic warms faster than any other place on the planet and sea ice declines, there is only one sure way to save polar bears from extinction, the government announced Monday: decisive action on climate change.

In a final plan to save an animal that greatly depends on ice to catch prey and survive, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the rapid decline of sea ice as "the primary threat to polar bears" and said "the single most important achievement for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming" driven by the human emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice," the agency's plan said, "it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered."

That determination puts the plan itself on thin ice. Global climate change, of course, is completely out of the control of Fish and Wildlife, a division of the Interior Department.

An international effort to address the issue was signed about a year ago in Paris, but President-elect Donald Trump has questioned U.S. participation in a treaty that nearly 190 governments signed.
Trump has waffled in his perspective on climate change. When asked about the human link to climate change following his election, he said, "I think there is some connectivity. . . . It depends on how much." He also said he would keep an open mind about the international climate accord and whether his administration will withdraw from it.

But the president-elect has also openly doubted the findings of more than 95 percent of climate scientists who say climate change is driven by human activity. In 2012, he tweeted that "the concept of global warming was created for and by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

Fish and Wildlife officials declined to speculate on whether the next president will follow the guidance of its new plan. But the scientists had doubts about the survival of bears before Trump's election.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Huge ice fracture could create one of Antarctica's biggest icebergs ever in coming months, scientists warn

A massive rift in an Antarctic ice shelf is rapidly extending and could create one of the largest icebergs ever within months, scientists have warned.

The UK based Project Midas which is monitoring the Larsen C ice shelf in West Antarctica has warned that a rift on the shelf extended by 18km in the second half of December 2016 and is "poised to calve".

"The Larsen C Ice shelf in Antarctica is primed to shed an area of more than 5000 square km following further substantial rift growth," the team, which is led by Professor Adrian Luckman, wrote on their website.

"Only a final 20km of ice now connects an iceberg one quarter the size of Wales to its parent ice shelf."
"When it calves, the Larsen C Ice Shelf will lose more than 10 per cent of its area to leave the ice front at its most retreated position ever recorded; this event will fundamentally change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula."

Monday, 9 January 2017

Map links consumer goods to wildlife damage

The hidden danger to wildlife posed by imported consumer goods - an espresso coffee in Beijing, a tofu salad in Chicago - can now be pinpointed and measured, researchers say.

Crunching huge amounts of data, they unveiled a global "threat map" detailing the impact on endangered species of exports to the United States, China, Japan and the European Union.

To procure beans for that coffee or tofu, for example, forests have been cleared in Sumatra, Indonesia and in Brazil's Mato Grosso, adding incrementally to the habitat loss driving dozens of animals and plants towards extinction.

The global supply chain of manufactured goods - from iPhones to Ikea furniture - can also contribute to wildlife decline.

Focusing on nearly 7000 land and marine species classified as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the researchers traced "hotspots" of biodiversity loss to hundreds of commodities and their distant markets.

In earlier work, they concluded that 30 per cent of worldwide species threats are due to international trade.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution this week, reveals which nations' consumers drive species loss most.

It also suggests where conservation efforts should be focused.

Currently, 90 per cent of the more than US$6 billion ($8.5b) mobilised each year for species conservation is spent within rich nations where money is raised.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Toxic threat to polar bears

Already struggling to cope with climate change, polar bears, the giant Arctic carnivores, also face a chemical poisoning risk 100 times above levels considered safe for adult bears, according to a study released yesterday.

For bear cubs feeding on contaminated milk, that risk is 1000-fold greater, researchers reported in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

"This work is the first attempt to quantify the overall risk of persistent organic pollutants (known as POPs) for the Arctic ecosystem," said lead author Sara Villa, a toxicologist at Italy's University of Milano Bicocca.

For the study, Villa and her team canvassed 40 years of research on the exposure of polar bears, seals and Arctic cod to the deadly compounds.

The data covered bears living between Alaska and the Svalbard Islands above Scandinavia - far less is known about the population in the Russian Arctic.

POPs are easily spread chemicals that can persist in natural environments for decades, and become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.

By the time they travel, say, from plankton to fish to seals to polar bears, these compounds accumulate into highly toxic doses.

Used in industry and agriculture, some are also found in consumer products such as fabric flame retardants. In the 1970s, a class of industrial chemicals called PCBs - found to cause cancer and wreak havoc with hormones - were widely banned, but concentrations in Arctic mammals remained high well into the 1990s.

A new family of pollutants now pose the greatest chemical threat to polar bears, the study found.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

NZ scientist alarmed at vanishing sea ice

A Kiwi climate scientist says he's been alarmed at how much sea ice the planet's poles lost in 2016, in what was one of the hottest years on record.

Dr James Renwick of Victoria University has been tracking levels of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctica, where, as 2017 dawned, more than one million square kilometres of ice was missing when compared with the historical average.

Renwick said sea ice extent had been more than two million square kilometres below normal every day since September 1, according to the Sea Ice Index published by the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

Over a 76-day stretch between October 13 and December 27, more than three million square kilometres of ice were missing.

Although overall ice extent had been below average at both poles, the picture in the Arctic has been much clearer and more dramatic over time.

There, the rate of loss was much more rapid - it now had 40 per cent less ice in late summer than it did in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Antarctica overall saw around 4 per cent more sea ice in winter, up to 2014.
In the past two years, however, sea ice has been in decline around the frozen continent, with the extent falling to record lows in the last few months of the year.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the sea extent had been close to record low levels on most days in 2016, and, as winter advanced, ice extent decreased three separate times at a time ice should have been growing.

"So, after the sun went down and the Arctic ocean became dark and cold, even then, sea ice managed to melt, which is pretty remarkable."

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Calls for cheetah status upgrade to 'endangered': Big cat in race to cheat death

Urgent action is needed to stop the cheetah - the world's fastest land animal - sprinting to extinction, experts have warned.

Scientists estimate that just 7100 of the fleet-footed cats remain in the wild, occupying just 9 per cent of the territory they once lived in.

Asiatic populations have been hit the hardest with fewer than 50 individuals surviving in Iran, according to a new investigation led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have plummeted 85 per cent in little more than a decade.
The cheetah's dramatic decline has now prompted calls for the animal's status to be upgraded from "vulnerable" to "endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species.

Dr Sarah Durant, from ZSL and WCS, project leader for the Rangewide Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dog, said: "This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date. Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked. Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought."
The cheetah is one of the world's most wide-ranging carnivores and needs a lot of space. Partly because of this, 77 per cent of its remaining habitat falls outside protected areas.

The cats have suffered as a result of humans hunting their prey, habitat loss, illegal trafficking of cheetah parts, and the exotic pet trade, say the researchers writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sunday, 1 January 2017