Category Archives: Land Use

Halve the farmland, save nature, feed the world

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

If we farm efficiently, scientists say, we can cut climate change, slow extinction and feed the world even as it asks for more.

LONDON, 21 April, 2020 – Forget about organic farming: get the best out of the best cropland, return the rest to nature and still feed the world. It could work, say researchers.

Once again, scientists have demonstrated that humans could restore roughly half the planet as a natural home for all the other wild things, while at the same time feeding a growing population and limiting climate change.

That doesn’t mean it will happen, or could be made to happen easily. But it does yet again address one of the enduring challenges of population growth and the potentially devastating loss of the biodiversity upon which all individual species – humans more than most – depend to survive.

The answer? Simply to farm more efficiently and more intensively, to maximise the yield from those tracts of land most suitable for crops, and let nature reclaim the no-longer so productive hectares.

Even more effective would be to release as much land as possible in those regions that ecologists and biologists like to call “biodiversity hotspots”, among them the forests where concentrations of species are at their peak.

European researchers argue, in a study in the journal Nature Sustainability, that as less land was cultivated, but more intensively, the greenhouse gas emissions from farming would be reduced: so too would water use.

“Cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency”

“The main questions we wanted to address were how much cropland could be spared if attainable crop yields were achieved globally and crops were grown where they are most productive,” said Christian Folberth, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, who led the study.

“In addition, we wanted to determine what the implications would be for other factors related to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser and irrigation water requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration potential, and wildlife habitat for threatened species.”

The problem is enormous, and enormously complex. Cropland farming alone – forget about methane from cattle and sheep – accounts for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Worldwide, about 70% of all the freshwater taken from rivers and aquifers goes into irrigation.

Human populations continue to soar, while cities continue to expand  across the countryside. By the end of this century, there could be more than 9bn people to be fed.

Global heating driven by fossil fuel investment continues to increase, and this in turn threatens to diminish harvest yields across a wide range of crops, along with the nutritive value of the staples themselves.

Nature under threat

At the same time, both climate change driven by global warming and the expansion of the cities and the surrounding farmlands continue to amplify the threat to natural habitats and the millions of species – many yet to be identified and named by science – that depend upon them.

And this in turn poses a threat to human economies and even human life: almost every resource – antibiotic medicines and drugs, food, waste disposal, fabrics, building materials and even fresh air and water – evolved in undisturbed ecosystems long before Homo sapiens arrived, and the services each element provides depend ultimately on the survival of those ecosystems.

So the challenge is to restore and return to nature around half the land humans already use, while at the same time feeding what could be an additional 2bn people, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions but still sustaining development in the poorest nations.

Dr Folberth and his colleagues from Slovakia, France, Belgium, Spain and the UK are not the first to argue that it can be done, and not just by changing the planetary lunch menu.

The scientists looked at the data for 16 major crop species around the world to calculate that at least in theory – with careful use of the right crops on the most suitable soils, and with high fertiliser use – about half of the present cropland now cultivated could still deliver the present output.

That is, the land humans occupy is not being managed efficiently. If it were, the other half could be returned to wilderness, and conserved as natural forest, grassland or wetland.

Climate benefits

If humans then thought about how best to slow biodiversity loss, they would do almost as well by abandoning farmland in those places where there was the greatest concentration of wild things – tropical rain forests, estuary floodplains and mangrove swamps, for instance. And just returning 20% of farmland to nature everywhere else would still reduce human farmland use by 40%.

In return, fertiliser use would remain about the same, but greenhouse gas emissions and water use would fall, while more land would become free to sequester atmospheric carbon.

There would be costs – nitrogen pollution would go up in some places, and many rural farmers would become even poorer – so more thinking needs to be done. The point the European researchers want to make is that, in principle, it should be possible to feed people, abandon farmland to the natural world and reduce emissions all at the same time.

“It shows that cropland expansion is not inevitable and there is significant potential for improving present land use efficiency,” said Michael Obersteiner, another author, now at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford.

“If the right policies are implemented, measures such as improved production technologies can be just as effective as demand-side measures like dietary changes. However, in all cases, such a process would need to be steered by policies to avoid unwanted outcomes.” – Climate News Network

Rising urban space demands squeeze out farmers

More people than ever now live in cities. Their growing urban space demands devour farmland, bad news for tomorrow’s hungry world.

LONDON, 9 April, 2020 – Even as people crowd into the cities, they don’t crowd the way they used to, and urban space demands are increasing. Even in some of the developing nations, townspeople are demanding more elbow-room.

And in the last four decades, worldwide, humans have claimed around 125,000 square kilometres of farmland or wilderness more than would have been necessary if urban densities had stayed at the 1970 level.

That is: to accommodate today’s city-dwellers with more space than their parents and grandparents ever expected to enjoy, an additional area almost the size of Greece has been covered by asphalt, brick, concrete, tile and glass.

In the US, urban settlements have always been fringed by more roomy suburban developments. Now in China, India and Nigeria, the cities are expanding and the population densities are decreasing.

Risk to farmers

“These three countries are expected to account for more than a third of the projected increase in the world’s urban population by 2050,” said Burak Güneralp, a geographer at Texas A&M University in the US.

“They also still have many millions of small farmers earning their livelihoods working fertile lands on the outskirts of cities. Thus any loss of these high-quality lands to urban expansion has huge implications for the livelihoods of these farmers.”

Dr Güneralp and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they looked at 611 case studies of 330 urban centres to calculate population growth, urban expansion and urban population densities between 1970 – the earliest moment for reliable statistics – and 2010.

They also factored in the size of cities, to distinguish different rates of change in centres with more and with fewer than two million citizens.

“Decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban”

Once most of humanity lived in rural areas. Now more than half the planet is crowded into cities and townships, and in a few decades the proportion could reach two-thirds.

But this crowding creates new problems. Cities are always significantly hotter than the surrounding landscape, and as global average temperatures rise, this in turn is likely to accelerate energy demand and global heating as people are forced to install air-conditioning.

The concentration of people in cities is likely to create new demands on sometimes precarious water supplies, and in any case the combination of climate change and population growth means ever greater numbers are at hazard from drought or flood.

All of this in turn increases the pressure for green spaces within the new cities and a more spacious lifestyle.

Cheek by jowl

But civilised city life comes at an environmental price. About half of India’s land is already classified as “degraded”, while India has the largest rural population but also the steepest fall in what geographers call urban land use efficiency, and the rest of the world calls living on top of your neighbours.

“Our findings suggest that decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban,” Dr Güneralp said.

“Furthermore, small-medium cities in India, China, South-east Asia, Africa and Europe are following in the footsteps of the United States in declines in urban densities.

“These findings are important, because globally, it is these small-medium-sized cities with limited institutional and financial capacity that are growing the fastest.” – Climate News Network

More people than ever now live in cities. Their growing urban space demands devour farmland, bad news for tomorrow’s hungry world.

LONDON, 9 April, 2020 – Even as people crowd into the cities, they don’t crowd the way they used to, and urban space demands are increasing. Even in some of the developing nations, townspeople are demanding more elbow-room.

And in the last four decades, worldwide, humans have claimed around 125,000 square kilometres of farmland or wilderness more than would have been necessary if urban densities had stayed at the 1970 level.

That is: to accommodate today’s city-dwellers with more space than their parents and grandparents ever expected to enjoy, an additional area almost the size of Greece has been covered by asphalt, brick, concrete, tile and glass.

In the US, urban settlements have always been fringed by more roomy suburban developments. Now in China, India and Nigeria, the cities are expanding and the population densities are decreasing.

Risk to farmers

“These three countries are expected to account for more than a third of the projected increase in the world’s urban population by 2050,” said Burak Güneralp, a geographer at Texas A&M University in the US.

“They also still have many millions of small farmers earning their livelihoods working fertile lands on the outskirts of cities. Thus any loss of these high-quality lands to urban expansion has huge implications for the livelihoods of these farmers.”

Dr Güneralp and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that they looked at 611 case studies of 330 urban centres to calculate population growth, urban expansion and urban population densities between 1970 – the earliest moment for reliable statistics – and 2010.

They also factored in the size of cities, to distinguish different rates of change in centres with more and with fewer than two million citizens.

“Decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban”

Once most of humanity lived in rural areas. Now more than half the planet is crowded into cities and townships, and in a few decades the proportion could reach two-thirds.

But this crowding creates new problems. Cities are always significantly hotter than the surrounding landscape, and as global average temperatures rise, this in turn is likely to accelerate energy demand and global heating as people are forced to install air-conditioning.

The concentration of people in cities is likely to create new demands on sometimes precarious water supplies, and in any case the combination of climate change and population growth means ever greater numbers are at hazard from drought or flood.

All of this in turn increases the pressure for green spaces within the new cities and a more spacious lifestyle.

Cheek by jowl

But civilised city life comes at an environmental price. About half of India’s land is already classified as “degraded”, while India has the largest rural population but also the steepest fall in what geographers call urban land use efficiency, and the rest of the world calls living on top of your neighbours.

“Our findings suggest that decreasing urban population densities in India and Nigeria since 1970 caused 85% and 30% more land, respectively, to be converted to urban,” Dr Güneralp said.

“Furthermore, small-medium cities in India, China, South-east Asia, Africa and Europe are following in the footsteps of the United States in declines in urban densities.

“These findings are important, because globally, it is these small-medium-sized cities with limited institutional and financial capacity that are growing the fastest.” – Climate News Network

Tropical forests’ damage spreads catastrophically

Human inroads into tropical forests stretch far beyond oil plantations or the edge of cattle ranches and are a wider threat to conservation.

LONDON, 7 April, 2020 – Tropical forests are vital in the campaign to limit global heating. Here’s how to blunt them as a force – just put a clearing, or a plantation, a road or a ranch in the pristine wilderness. And then, as absorbers of atmospheric carbon, the trees up to 100 metres deep into the jungle will lose their edge.

Along that 100 metre width, the canopy height, leaf mass and phosphorus levels per square metre will begin to change. All three are measures of a tree’s capacity to grow vigorously and store carbon.

Researchers call this the edge effect. It matters. The world now has 1.2bn hectares of remaining tropical forest. This is an area far bigger than Canada.

But invasion of what, just one lifetime ago, were still unmapped wildernesses is now so aggressive that almost one fifth of the area of the world’s tropical forest is within 100 metres of a non-forest edge.

And about half of all the forest is within 500 metres of a ranch, road, settlement or plantation.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion”

Scientists from the US report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they mapped change in the forests of Malaysian Borneo, looking closely at the sites where forest and commercial palm oil plantation co-exist.

They report that the levels of carbon stored “above ground” – that is, in the trunk and canopy – fell by an average of 22% along the forest edges, to a depth of 100 metres. The older this forest edge, the greater the fall in stored carbon.

There are already reports that degradation of the rainforest in the Amazon and Congo, amplified by the impact of climate change in the form of extreme heat and drought, is so advanced that within a decade or two these forests could cease to be “sinks” for atmospheric carbon, and instead start adding to the world’s burden of greenhouse gases that threaten to accelerate climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The world’s forests are vital in the global plans to contain or limit climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Research has repeatedly confirmed that undisturbed forest is an efficient absorber and permanent store of atmospheric carbon and that almost any human transgression could damage the capacity of the rainforest to absorb carbon.

Road web spreads

And yet all the signs are ominous: humans will go on making inroads into natural wilderness, in the most literal sense: by 2050, there could be 25 million km new road lanes, most of them in the developing world, to carry timber trucks, livestock and minerals through the world’s forests.

There is an argument that “smart” roads can limit the damage to the environment and society caused by indiscriminate engineering: one group advocating this approach is the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS), based at James Cook University in Australia.

But the threat to the remaining forests is now so pronounced that many researchers simply point out, in the kind of understatement that comes naturally to scientists, that such changes have “far-reaching implications” for the conservation of forest biodiversity and carbon stocks.

They see their research as a potential guide to government and local authorities on the management of the remaining wild woodland.

“Not all forest-agriculture boundaries are created equal, and most remaining forests change for many years following the original land conversion that takes place nearby,” said Greg Asner of Arizona State University, one of the researchers.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion.” – Climate News Network

Human inroads into tropical forests stretch far beyond oil plantations or the edge of cattle ranches and are a wider threat to conservation.

LONDON, 7 April, 2020 – Tropical forests are vital in the campaign to limit global heating. Here’s how to blunt them as a force – just put a clearing, or a plantation, a road or a ranch in the pristine wilderness. And then, as absorbers of atmospheric carbon, the trees up to 100 metres deep into the jungle will lose their edge.

Along that 100 metre width, the canopy height, leaf mass and phosphorus levels per square metre will begin to change. All three are measures of a tree’s capacity to grow vigorously and store carbon.

Researchers call this the edge effect. It matters. The world now has 1.2bn hectares of remaining tropical forest. This is an area far bigger than Canada.

But invasion of what, just one lifetime ago, were still unmapped wildernesses is now so aggressive that almost one fifth of the area of the world’s tropical forest is within 100 metres of a non-forest edge.

And about half of all the forest is within 500 metres of a ranch, road, settlement or plantation.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion”

Scientists from the US report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they mapped change in the forests of Malaysian Borneo, looking closely at the sites where forest and commercial palm oil plantation co-exist.

They report that the levels of carbon stored “above ground” – that is, in the trunk and canopy – fell by an average of 22% along the forest edges, to a depth of 100 metres. The older this forest edge, the greater the fall in stored carbon.

There are already reports that degradation of the rainforest in the Amazon and Congo, amplified by the impact of climate change in the form of extreme heat and drought, is so advanced that within a decade or two these forests could cease to be “sinks” for atmospheric carbon, and instead start adding to the world’s burden of greenhouse gases that threaten to accelerate climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The world’s forests are vital in the global plans to contain or limit climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Research has repeatedly confirmed that undisturbed forest is an efficient absorber and permanent store of atmospheric carbon and that almost any human transgression could damage the capacity of the rainforest to absorb carbon.

Road web spreads

And yet all the signs are ominous: humans will go on making inroads into natural wilderness, in the most literal sense: by 2050, there could be 25 million km new road lanes, most of them in the developing world, to carry timber trucks, livestock and minerals through the world’s forests.

There is an argument that “smart” roads can limit the damage to the environment and society caused by indiscriminate engineering: one group advocating this approach is the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS), based at James Cook University in Australia.

But the threat to the remaining forests is now so pronounced that many researchers simply point out, in the kind of understatement that comes naturally to scientists, that such changes have “far-reaching implications” for the conservation of forest biodiversity and carbon stocks.

They see their research as a potential guide to government and local authorities on the management of the remaining wild woodland.

“Not all forest-agriculture boundaries are created equal, and most remaining forests change for many years following the original land conversion that takes place nearby,” said Greg Asner of Arizona State University, one of the researchers.

“The importance of this discovery trickles all the way down to how conservation managers work to mitigate biodiversity losses associated with agricultural expansion.” – Climate News Network

Vegetation holds key to climate control

New studies shine a light on the intricate relationship in which climate affects vegetation, which in turn impacts on the global climate.

LONDON, 23 March, 2020 − Here’s an easy way to warm the tropics even further: just fell some rainforest, and the local temperatures will soar by at least a degree Celsius, showing the role played by vegetation.

There is also a good way to temper the summer heat of temperate Europe: just abandon some farmland, leave it to go wild and leafy, and the thermometer will drop by perhaps as much as 1°C.

And, paradoxically, there is even a leafy way to warm the Arctic: burn lots of fossil fuels, precipitate a climate crisis, advance the growth of spring foliage by three weeks or so, and check the thermometer. The region will be even warmer, just because the Arctic has become greener.

These apparently contradictory findings are, more than anything else, a reminder that the pas de deux of vegetation and atmosphere is complex, intricate and finely balanced. Nor are they inconsistent, as each study simply takes the measure of vegetation change on local or regional climate.

Reducing heating

In sum, and for the time being, the big picture remains that forests absorb carbon, and more vigorous growth absorbs more carbon to significantly reduce the average rates of global heating across the entire planet.

In effect, all three studies demonstrate that vegetation moderates extremes of temperature in three climate zones.

Brazilian scientists report in the Public Library of Science journal
PLOS One that they subdivided a tract of the Atlantic rainforest in the southeast of the nation into 120-metre squares, measured those segments that had been part-felled or clear-felled, and read the local land surface temperatures.

If even one fourth of a hectare had been cleared, the local temperature went up by 1°C. If the entire hectare had been razed, the rise could be as high as 4°C.

Risk to trees

The Atlantic rainforest is one of the world’s richest ecosystems: it covers 15% of Brazil, but 72% of the population lives there. It holds seven of Brazil’s nine largest drainage basins, delivers water to 130 million people and its dams provide 60% of the nation’s hydroelectric power.

Between 2017 and 2018, around 113 square kilometres of this forest was cleared. As temperatures continue to rise, some tree species could be at risk.

“We don’t have enough data to predict how long it will take, but in the long run, rising temperatures in Atlantic rainforest fragments could certainly influence the survival of tree species in the forest, albeit some species more than others,” says one of the report’s authors, Carlos Joly, professor of plant biology at the University of Campinas in Brazil.

“The forest is extremely important to maintaining milder temperatures on the local and regional scale. Changes in its function could disrupt this type of ecosystem service.

“Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change”

“The Atlantic rainforest doesn’t produce water but it protects the springs and permits the storage of water in reservoirs for consumption, power generation, agricultural irrigation and fishing, among other activities.”

By contrast, Europeans have achieved a local 1°C cooling simply by abandoning farmland that was no longer sufficiently productive.

Between 1992 and 2014, the European Space Agency satellites compiled detailed maps of the continents, measuring the extents of evergreen needle-leaf forest, deciduous broadleaf woodland, open shrubland, crop fields, urban and built-up areas, wetlands, peatlands, grassland and mosaic areas of crops and wilderness.

In those 24 years – partly because of dramatic political changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union – around 25 million hectares of farmland was abandoned.

Drying wetlands

Although farmland was colonised elsewhere, the continent was left with 5 million hectares – an area the size of Switzerland – to be colonised by trees and other natural foliage, European scientists report in the journal Nature Communications.

Overall, the loss of cropland in Western Europe was associated with a drop of 1° in spring and summer. In eastern and northeastern Europe, however, temperatures rose by as much as 1°C, partly because what had once been wetlands began to dry.

“We are already at a mean warming of about 1.8°C on the land, and we will be about 3°C on the land even if we are successful at stabilising the average global temperature at 1.5°C,” says one of the report’s authors, Francesco Cherubini, director of the Industrial Ecology Programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“That means we take action to adapt to a warming climate, and land use planning is one action that can bring local cooling benefits.”

The Arctic greens

“The message is quite clear. Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. And by improving agricultural systems, we can free up land for multiple uses.”

But while Europe is changing, and forest in the tropics is being lost, the Arctic is becoming greener: as temperatures rise, vegetation has moved northwards and spring has arrived ever earlier, and growing seasons have lasted longer.

The science of measurement of seasonal change in plant and animal behaviour is called phenology. Chinese and US scientists report in Nature Climate Change that they looked at computer models of vegetation change and factored in the numbers: on average, in the last four decades, leaf-out has advanced by an average of more than four days a decade, and in some cases up to 12 days a decade.

That means snow-covered ground has retreated, and green leaves have moved northwards, and become denser.

Climate feedback

Snow reflects solar radiation, and darker colours absorb it. That means that local landscapes in the north have tended to become even warmer with each decade.

In the Canadian archipelago, the air has been measured at 0.7°C warmer, and parts of Siberia and the Tibetan plateau − far from any leafy canopy − have warmed by 0.4°C and 0.3°C respectively because advanced leaf-out further south means more water vapour, which moves north to change patterns of cloud cover and snowfall.

Climate scientists see this as positive feedback: climate change begets even faster climate change. Global heating tends to accelerate. Climate change affects vegetation, which in turn affects climate yet further.

“Positive feedback loops between climate and spring leaf phenology is likely to amplify in the northern high latitudes,” says Gensuo Jia, one of the researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The impact of vegetation change on climate is profound in spring.” − Climate News Network

New studies shine a light on the intricate relationship in which climate affects vegetation, which in turn impacts on the global climate.

LONDON, 23 March, 2020 − Here’s an easy way to warm the tropics even further: just fell some rainforest, and the local temperatures will soar by at least a degree Celsius, showing the role played by vegetation.

There is also a good way to temper the summer heat of temperate Europe: just abandon some farmland, leave it to go wild and leafy, and the thermometer will drop by perhaps as much as 1°C.

And, paradoxically, there is even a leafy way to warm the Arctic: burn lots of fossil fuels, precipitate a climate crisis, advance the growth of spring foliage by three weeks or so, and check the thermometer. The region will be even warmer, just because the Arctic has become greener.

These apparently contradictory findings are, more than anything else, a reminder that the pas de deux of vegetation and atmosphere is complex, intricate and finely balanced. Nor are they inconsistent, as each study simply takes the measure of vegetation change on local or regional climate.

Reducing heating

In sum, and for the time being, the big picture remains that forests absorb carbon, and more vigorous growth absorbs more carbon to significantly reduce the average rates of global heating across the entire planet.

In effect, all three studies demonstrate that vegetation moderates extremes of temperature in three climate zones.

Brazilian scientists report in the Public Library of Science journal
PLOS One that they subdivided a tract of the Atlantic rainforest in the southeast of the nation into 120-metre squares, measured those segments that had been part-felled or clear-felled, and read the local land surface temperatures.

If even one fourth of a hectare had been cleared, the local temperature went up by 1°C. If the entire hectare had been razed, the rise could be as high as 4°C.

Risk to trees

The Atlantic rainforest is one of the world’s richest ecosystems: it covers 15% of Brazil, but 72% of the population lives there. It holds seven of Brazil’s nine largest drainage basins, delivers water to 130 million people and its dams provide 60% of the nation’s hydroelectric power.

Between 2017 and 2018, around 113 square kilometres of this forest was cleared. As temperatures continue to rise, some tree species could be at risk.

“We don’t have enough data to predict how long it will take, but in the long run, rising temperatures in Atlantic rainforest fragments could certainly influence the survival of tree species in the forest, albeit some species more than others,” says one of the report’s authors, Carlos Joly, professor of plant biology at the University of Campinas in Brazil.

“The forest is extremely important to maintaining milder temperatures on the local and regional scale. Changes in its function could disrupt this type of ecosystem service.

“Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change”

“The Atlantic rainforest doesn’t produce water but it protects the springs and permits the storage of water in reservoirs for consumption, power generation, agricultural irrigation and fishing, among other activities.”

By contrast, Europeans have achieved a local 1°C cooling simply by abandoning farmland that was no longer sufficiently productive.

Between 1992 and 2014, the European Space Agency satellites compiled detailed maps of the continents, measuring the extents of evergreen needle-leaf forest, deciduous broadleaf woodland, open shrubland, crop fields, urban and built-up areas, wetlands, peatlands, grassland and mosaic areas of crops and wilderness.

In those 24 years – partly because of dramatic political changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union – around 25 million hectares of farmland was abandoned.

Drying wetlands

Although farmland was colonised elsewhere, the continent was left with 5 million hectares – an area the size of Switzerland – to be colonised by trees and other natural foliage, European scientists report in the journal Nature Communications.

Overall, the loss of cropland in Western Europe was associated with a drop of 1° in spring and summer. In eastern and northeastern Europe, however, temperatures rose by as much as 1°C, partly because what had once been wetlands began to dry.

“We are already at a mean warming of about 1.8°C on the land, and we will be about 3°C on the land even if we are successful at stabilising the average global temperature at 1.5°C,” says one of the report’s authors, Francesco Cherubini, director of the Industrial Ecology Programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“That means we take action to adapt to a warming climate, and land use planning is one action that can bring local cooling benefits.”

The Arctic greens

“The message is quite clear. Abandoned cropland – or land cover change more generally – and its role in regional climate can help us adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. And by improving agricultural systems, we can free up land for multiple uses.”

But while Europe is changing, and forest in the tropics is being lost, the Arctic is becoming greener: as temperatures rise, vegetation has moved northwards and spring has arrived ever earlier, and growing seasons have lasted longer.

The science of measurement of seasonal change in plant and animal behaviour is called phenology. Chinese and US scientists report in Nature Climate Change that they looked at computer models of vegetation change and factored in the numbers: on average, in the last four decades, leaf-out has advanced by an average of more than four days a decade, and in some cases up to 12 days a decade.

That means snow-covered ground has retreated, and green leaves have moved northwards, and become denser.

Climate feedback

Snow reflects solar radiation, and darker colours absorb it. That means that local landscapes in the north have tended to become even warmer with each decade.

In the Canadian archipelago, the air has been measured at 0.7°C warmer, and parts of Siberia and the Tibetan plateau − far from any leafy canopy − have warmed by 0.4°C and 0.3°C respectively because advanced leaf-out further south means more water vapour, which moves north to change patterns of cloud cover and snowfall.

Climate scientists see this as positive feedback: climate change begets even faster climate change. Global heating tends to accelerate. Climate change affects vegetation, which in turn affects climate yet further.

“Positive feedback loops between climate and spring leaf phenology is likely to amplify in the northern high latitudes,” says Gensuo Jia, one of the researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The impact of vegetation change on climate is profound in spring.” − Climate News Network

Amazon rainforest reaches point of no return

rainforest

Brazilian rainforest expert warns that increased deforestation under President Bolsonaro’s regime is having a catastrophic effect on climate.

LONDON, 16 March, 2020 – Antonio Donato Nobre is passionate about the Amazon region and despairs about the level of deforestation taking place in what is the world’s biggest rainforest.

“Just when I thought the destruction couldn’t get any worse, it has,” says Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading scientists who has studied the Amazon – its unique flora and fauna, and its influence on both the local and global climate – for more than 40 years.

“In terms of the Earth’s climate, we have gone beyond the point of no return. There’s no doubt about this.”

For decades, he has fought against deforestation. There have been considerable ups and downs in that time, but he points out that Brazil was once a world-leader in controlling deforestation.

“We developed the system that’s now being used by other countries,” he told Climate News Network in an interview during his lecture tour of the UK.

“Using satellite data, we monitored and we controlled. From 2005 to 2012, Brazil managed to reduce up to 83% of deforestation.”

Dramatic increase

Then the law on land use was relaxed, and deforestation increased dramatically – by as much as 200% between 2017 and 2018.

It’s all become much worse since Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president at the beginning of last year, Nobre says.

“There are some dangerous people in office,” he says. “The Minister of Environment is a convicted criminal. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is a climate sceptic.”

Nobre argues that Bolsonaro doesn’t care about the Amazon and has contempt for environmentalists.

His administration is encouraging the land grabbers who illegally take over protected or indigenous tribal land, which they then sell on to cattle ranchers and soybean conglomerates.

For indigenous tribes, life has become more dangerous. “They are being murdered, their land is being invaded,” Nobre says.

In August last year, the world watched as large areas of the Amazon region – a vital carbon sink sucking up and recycling global greenhouse gases – went up in flames.

Nobre says the land grabbers had organised what they called a “day of fires” in August last year to honour Bolsonaro.

Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone . It’s losing
the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.”

“Thousands of people organized, through WhatsApp, to make something visible from space,” he says. “They hired people on motorbikes with gasoline jugs to set fire to any land they could.”

The impact on the Amazon is catastrophic, Nobre says. “Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone – it’s losing the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.

“When you clear land in a healthy system, it bounces back. But once you cross a certain threshold, a tipping point, it turns into a different kind of equilibrium. It becomes drier, there’s less rain. It’s no longer a forest.”

As well as storing and recycling vast amounts of greenhouse gas, the trees in the Amazon play a vital role in harvesting heat from the Earth’s surface and transforming water vapour into condensation above the forest. This acts like a giant sprinkler system in the sky, Nobre explains..

When the trees go and this system breaks down, the climate alters not only in the Amazon region but over a much wider area.

Time running out

“We used to say the Amazon had two seasons: the wet season and the wetter season,” Nobre says. “Now, you have many months without a drop of water.”

Nobre spent many years living and carrying out research in the rainforest and is now attached to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The vast majority of Brazilians, he says, are against deforestation and are concerned about climate change – but while he believes that there is still hope for the rainforest, he says that time is fast running out.

Many leading figures in Brazil, including a group of powerful generals, have been shocked by the international reaction to the recent spate of fires in the Amazon and fear that the country is becoming a pariah on the global stage.

Nobre is angry with his own government, but also with what he describes as the massive conspiracy on climate change perpetrated over the years by the oil, gas and coal lobbies.

Ever since the late 1970s, the fossil fuel companies’ scientists have known about the consequences of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“They brought us to this situation knowingly,” Nobre says. “It’s not something they did out of irresponsible ignorance. They paid to bash the science.” – Climate News Network

  • Jessica Rawnsley is a UK-based environmental journalist. She has written stories on the Extinction Rebellion movement and police tactics connected with demonstrations. She has a particular interest in campaigning groups and their influence on government climate policies.
  • TOMORROW: Forest and coral reef systems in danger of collapse.

Brazilian rainforest expert warns that increased deforestation under President Bolsonaro’s regime is having a catastrophic effect on climate.

LONDON, 16 March, 2020 – Antonio Donato Nobre is passionate about the Amazon region and despairs about the level of deforestation taking place in what is the world’s biggest rainforest.

“Just when I thought the destruction couldn’t get any worse, it has,” says Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading scientists who has studied the Amazon – its unique flora and fauna, and its influence on both the local and global climate – for more than 40 years.

“In terms of the Earth’s climate, we have gone beyond the point of no return. There’s no doubt about this.”

For decades, he has fought against deforestation. There have been considerable ups and downs in that time, but he points out that Brazil was once a world-leader in controlling deforestation.

“We developed the system that’s now being used by other countries,” he told Climate News Network in an interview during his lecture tour of the UK.

“Using satellite data, we monitored and we controlled. From 2005 to 2012, Brazil managed to reduce up to 83% of deforestation.”

Dramatic increase

Then the law on land use was relaxed, and deforestation increased dramatically – by as much as 200% between 2017 and 2018.

It’s all become much worse since Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president at the beginning of last year, Nobre says.

“There are some dangerous people in office,” he says. “The Minister of Environment is a convicted criminal. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is a climate sceptic.”

Nobre argues that Bolsonaro doesn’t care about the Amazon and has contempt for environmentalists.

His administration is encouraging the land grabbers who illegally take over protected or indigenous tribal land, which they then sell on to cattle ranchers and soybean conglomerates.

For indigenous tribes, life has become more dangerous. “They are being murdered, their land is being invaded,” Nobre says.

In August last year, the world watched as large areas of the Amazon region – a vital carbon sink sucking up and recycling global greenhouse gases – went up in flames.

Nobre says the land grabbers had organised what they called a “day of fires” in August last year to honour Bolsonaro.

Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone . It’s losing
the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.”

“Thousands of people organized, through WhatsApp, to make something visible from space,” he says. “They hired people on motorbikes with gasoline jugs to set fire to any land they could.”

The impact on the Amazon is catastrophic, Nobre says. “Half of the Amazon rainforest to the east is gone – it’s losing the battle, going in the direction of a savanna.

“When you clear land in a healthy system, it bounces back. But once you cross a certain threshold, a tipping point, it turns into a different kind of equilibrium. It becomes drier, there’s less rain. It’s no longer a forest.”

As well as storing and recycling vast amounts of greenhouse gas, the trees in the Amazon play a vital role in harvesting heat from the Earth’s surface and transforming water vapour into condensation above the forest. This acts like a giant sprinkler system in the sky, Nobre explains..

When the trees go and this system breaks down, the climate alters not only in the Amazon region but over a much wider area.

Time running out

“We used to say the Amazon had two seasons: the wet season and the wetter season,” Nobre says. “Now, you have many months without a drop of water.”

Nobre spent many years living and carrying out research in the rainforest and is now attached to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The vast majority of Brazilians, he says, are against deforestation and are concerned about climate change – but while he believes that there is still hope for the rainforest, he says that time is fast running out.

Many leading figures in Brazil, including a group of powerful generals, have been shocked by the international reaction to the recent spate of fires in the Amazon and fear that the country is becoming a pariah on the global stage.

Nobre is angry with his own government, but also with what he describes as the massive conspiracy on climate change perpetrated over the years by the oil, gas and coal lobbies.

Ever since the late 1970s, the fossil fuel companies’ scientists have known about the consequences of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“They brought us to this situation knowingly,” Nobre says. “It’s not something they did out of irresponsible ignorance. They paid to bash the science.” – Climate News Network

  • Jessica Rawnsley is a UK-based environmental journalist. She has written stories on the Extinction Rebellion movement and police tactics connected with demonstrations. She has a particular interest in campaigning groups and their influence on government climate policies.
  • TOMORROW: Forest and coral reef systems in danger of collapse.

A third of plants and animals risk mass extinction

As planetary temperatures rise, the chances of species survival lessen. Mass extinction is coming. The challenge is to measure the loss.

LONDON, 25 February, 2020 – Within 50 years, a third of all plant and animal species could be caught up in a mass extinction, as a consequence of climate change driven by ever-rising temperatures. What is new about this warning is the method, the precision, the timetable and the identification of a cause.

And – entirely felicitously – support for the prediction is backed by a series of separate studies of individual species survival in a world rapidly warming because of human commitment to fossil fuels.

Tiny marsupial insect-hunters in Australia could, on the evidence of direct experiment, fail to adapt to ever-higher thermometer readings, and quietly disappear.

As frogs and other amphibians in Central America are wiped out by invasive fungal pathogens – perhaps assisted by climate change – a set of snake species that prey upon them have also become increasingly at risk.

And directly because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, the polar bears of Baffin Bay in Canada are thinner than they were 30 years ago, and have fewer cubs. That’s because Ursus maritimus hunts its seal prey on the sea ice. And as the winter ice forms later and melts earlier each decade, the bears have begun to go hungry.

Biologists, ecologists and conservationists have been warning for four decades that planet Earth could be on the edge of a sixth Great Extinction, as a simple consequence of the growth of human numbers and human economies, and the parallel destruction of natural habitat.

They have also repeatedly warned that climate change driven by human-triggered planetary heating would inevitably accelerate the losses.

Repeated surveys

But researchers from the University of Arizona have now confirmed the climate connection by using another approach: they decided to look directly at the numbers. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they selected data from 538 species and 581 places around the globe: they chose these numbers and sites because they could be sure that specific animal and plant species had been repeatedly surveyed over intervals of at least a decade.

They also factored in the changes in local climate conditions at each site, and isolated 19 different variables in the climate machine to work out what it could be about global heating that would directly pose the most significant threats. They also considered the options open to their chosen species: could these, for instance, migrate easily, or tolerate longer periods of extreme heat?

And then they did the calculations. They found that 50% of the chosen species went extinct locally if temperatures rose by more than 0.5°C, and 95% if the mercury reached an additional 2.9°C.

In the last century, the planet has warmed by 1°C above the average for most of human history and prehistory. Right now, thanks to ever-increasing fossil fuel use and continued forest destruction, the planet could be more than 3°C warmer by 2100.

But the researchers also found that the climate factor most closely linked to the extinction of any population was simply the maximum annual count the hottest daily highs in summer.

This also implies that extinction could be two or even four times as frequent in the tropics as in the temperate zones: it is in the tropics – the reefs, the rainforests, the wetlands and savannahs – that the world’s species are concentrated.

Antechinis flavipes, or yellow-footed antechinus, is a native Australian: it is not exactly a mole, or a mouse, or a shrew. It is a little marsupial carnivore with an unhappy love life: males mate in a frenzy and then tend to die from stress-related immune system breakdown.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half”

It is also sensitive to temperature. When the mercury drops, the creature can go into a torpor and once comatose can even sleep through a bushfire.

Norwegian scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Physiology that they exposed 19 captive juveniles to spells of cold (17°C) and hot (25°C) temperatures, measured their growth and metabolic rate, and observed changes in behaviour. They conclude that, while individuals of the species can cope with short periods of high temperature, they may not have any way of surviving extended heat extremes.

Which is a problem for antechinus, because all the predictions for Australia – and indeed most of the planet – is that as the century proceeds and ever more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the hottest spells will become hotter, more frequent and more extended.

North American researchers have been tracking the polar bears who hunt seals and mate in Baffin Bay, between north-eastern Canada and Greenland, for almost three decades. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that when sea ice retreats, the bears wait on Baffin Island and live on their accumulated fat.

In the 1990s, the average stay on land – and away from the bears’ preferred prey – was 60 days. In the last decade, this rose to 90 days. Sampled females proved to be thinner than they had been, and were more likely to have one cub rather than two, all because unseasonally high temperatures in the Arctic mean that the hunting season on the ice is becoming ever shorter.

In 2004, the population of amphibians in a national park in Panama started to perish on a huge scale, and an estimated 30 species of frog and other creatures all but vanished in the wake of a pathogen fungus outbreak.

US scientists report in the journal Science that they set out to look at their wildlife observational data before and after the outbreak to measure the effect on the region’s snake species that prey on amphibians.

Rarely observed snakes

Even though the scientists logged 594 surveys in the seven years before the outbreak and 513 in the six years that followed, they had to use mathematical techniques to come up with probabilities of local snake extinction, because snakes are hard to observe at any time. Of the 36 snake species recorded there, 12 have been observed only once, and five only twice.

The bad news is there is an 85% probability that there are now fewer snake species than there had been, simply because of the disappearance of amphibian prey.

The study also highlights another worry for conservationists and ecologists: extinction of species is happening at an accelerating rate, but biologists still cannot put a number to the total of species at risk. Most of them have never been described or named. Like some of the snakes of Panama, they will have gone before scientists even knew they were there.

The climate connection with the worldwide loss of amphibian species is still uncertain. The certainty is that climate change will make life too hot for many species that – because what was once wilderness has now been cleared for cities, quarries, farms and commercial plantations – can no longer shift to cooler terrain.

John Wiens of the University of Arizona, one of the authors behind the research that predicts massive extinctions by 2070, thinks there is something that can be done.

In 2015 in Paris more than 190 nations vowed to act to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C. “In a way, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure,’” he said.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results.” – Climate News Network

As planetary temperatures rise, the chances of species survival lessen. Mass extinction is coming. The challenge is to measure the loss.

LONDON, 25 February, 2020 – Within 50 years, a third of all plant and animal species could be caught up in a mass extinction, as a consequence of climate change driven by ever-rising temperatures. What is new about this warning is the method, the precision, the timetable and the identification of a cause.

And – entirely felicitously – support for the prediction is backed by a series of separate studies of individual species survival in a world rapidly warming because of human commitment to fossil fuels.

Tiny marsupial insect-hunters in Australia could, on the evidence of direct experiment, fail to adapt to ever-higher thermometer readings, and quietly disappear.

As frogs and other amphibians in Central America are wiped out by invasive fungal pathogens – perhaps assisted by climate change – a set of snake species that prey upon them have also become increasingly at risk.

And directly because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, the polar bears of Baffin Bay in Canada are thinner than they were 30 years ago, and have fewer cubs. That’s because Ursus maritimus hunts its seal prey on the sea ice. And as the winter ice forms later and melts earlier each decade, the bears have begun to go hungry.

Biologists, ecologists and conservationists have been warning for four decades that planet Earth could be on the edge of a sixth Great Extinction, as a simple consequence of the growth of human numbers and human economies, and the parallel destruction of natural habitat.

They have also repeatedly warned that climate change driven by human-triggered planetary heating would inevitably accelerate the losses.

Repeated surveys

But researchers from the University of Arizona have now confirmed the climate connection by using another approach: they decided to look directly at the numbers. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they selected data from 538 species and 581 places around the globe: they chose these numbers and sites because they could be sure that specific animal and plant species had been repeatedly surveyed over intervals of at least a decade.

They also factored in the changes in local climate conditions at each site, and isolated 19 different variables in the climate machine to work out what it could be about global heating that would directly pose the most significant threats. They also considered the options open to their chosen species: could these, for instance, migrate easily, or tolerate longer periods of extreme heat?

And then they did the calculations. They found that 50% of the chosen species went extinct locally if temperatures rose by more than 0.5°C, and 95% if the mercury reached an additional 2.9°C.

In the last century, the planet has warmed by 1°C above the average for most of human history and prehistory. Right now, thanks to ever-increasing fossil fuel use and continued forest destruction, the planet could be more than 3°C warmer by 2100.

But the researchers also found that the climate factor most closely linked to the extinction of any population was simply the maximum annual count the hottest daily highs in summer.

This also implies that extinction could be two or even four times as frequent in the tropics as in the temperate zones: it is in the tropics – the reefs, the rainforests, the wetlands and savannahs – that the world’s species are concentrated.

Antechinis flavipes, or yellow-footed antechinus, is a native Australian: it is not exactly a mole, or a mouse, or a shrew. It is a little marsupial carnivore with an unhappy love life: males mate in a frenzy and then tend to die from stress-related immune system breakdown.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half”

It is also sensitive to temperature. When the mercury drops, the creature can go into a torpor and once comatose can even sleep through a bushfire.

Norwegian scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Physiology that they exposed 19 captive juveniles to spells of cold (17°C) and hot (25°C) temperatures, measured their growth and metabolic rate, and observed changes in behaviour. They conclude that, while individuals of the species can cope with short periods of high temperature, they may not have any way of surviving extended heat extremes.

Which is a problem for antechinus, because all the predictions for Australia – and indeed most of the planet – is that as the century proceeds and ever more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the hottest spells will become hotter, more frequent and more extended.

North American researchers have been tracking the polar bears who hunt seals and mate in Baffin Bay, between north-eastern Canada and Greenland, for almost three decades. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that when sea ice retreats, the bears wait on Baffin Island and live on their accumulated fat.

In the 1990s, the average stay on land – and away from the bears’ preferred prey – was 60 days. In the last decade, this rose to 90 days. Sampled females proved to be thinner than they had been, and were more likely to have one cub rather than two, all because unseasonally high temperatures in the Arctic mean that the hunting season on the ice is becoming ever shorter.

In 2004, the population of amphibians in a national park in Panama started to perish on a huge scale, and an estimated 30 species of frog and other creatures all but vanished in the wake of a pathogen fungus outbreak.

US scientists report in the journal Science that they set out to look at their wildlife observational data before and after the outbreak to measure the effect on the region’s snake species that prey on amphibians.

Rarely observed snakes

Even though the scientists logged 594 surveys in the seven years before the outbreak and 513 in the six years that followed, they had to use mathematical techniques to come up with probabilities of local snake extinction, because snakes are hard to observe at any time. Of the 36 snake species recorded there, 12 have been observed only once, and five only twice.

The bad news is there is an 85% probability that there are now fewer snake species than there had been, simply because of the disappearance of amphibian prey.

The study also highlights another worry for conservationists and ecologists: extinction of species is happening at an accelerating rate, but biologists still cannot put a number to the total of species at risk. Most of them have never been described or named. Like some of the snakes of Panama, they will have gone before scientists even knew they were there.

The climate connection with the worldwide loss of amphibian species is still uncertain. The certainty is that climate change will make life too hot for many species that – because what was once wilderness has now been cleared for cities, quarries, farms and commercial plantations – can no longer shift to cooler terrain.

John Wiens of the University of Arizona, one of the authors behind the research that predicts massive extinctions by 2070, thinks there is something that can be done.

In 2015 in Paris more than 190 nations vowed to act to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C. “In a way, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure,’” he said.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results.” – Climate News Network

Cities turn to freewheeling public transport

Cities worldwide are making their public transport free to use. As passenger numbers rise, car use falls. What’s not to like?

LONDON, 12 February, 2020 − In the United States, once the home of car culture, cities are increasingly experimenting with free public transport. But the idea is not an American preserve: it’s catching on fast across the globe.

In the French capital, Paris, the mayor is removing 72% of city car parking spaces. Birmingham in the UK is encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead, or to walk or cycle. More public transport use means less toxic urban air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions − and happier citizens better equipped to escape one key aspect of poverty.

Transport is one of the big polluters. Cities in particular want more efficient, cleaner ways of moving people. The good news is that recent innovations suggest an effective answer: if public transport is free, more people are likely to use it, instantly cutting car use and pollution.

That kind of behaviour change can happen surprisingly fast. Around 100 cities worldwide currently run fare-free transit, most of them in Europe. Even in the US, home of the motor car, cities are showing increasing interest.

Sharing costs

Kansas City in Missouri and Olympia in Washington state have both said their buses will become fare-free this year. Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, has expressed strong support for waiving bus fares – a move that would cost $2-3 million a year in fares foregone.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

It says: “A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all.”

Fare-free transit can also help to cut poverty. The benefits of maintaining a transit system that drives the economy and helps residents at all income levels to get to their jobs, while keeping commuters off the roads, are so great that some urban leaders say the costs should be shared fairly by taxpayers.

Pollution cut

Birmingham and Paris both aim to increase the space for cyclists and walkers by taking it away from car owners, traditionally privileged by planners. Does cutting road space, far from increasing congestion, actually cut pollution instead? The RTA thinks it can.

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is basing her re-election campaign on ensuring that “you can find everything you need within 15 minutes from home.” She wants to see the return of the more self-sufficient neighbourhood, and aims to make all roads safe for cyclists by 2024.

Birmingham will introduce incentives for businesses to remove parking spaces through the introduction of an annual workplace parking levy, and the city will build 12,800 new homes on former car parks. Freight deliveries will be restricted to out-of-hours times, and there will be a blanket 20 mile an hour (32 kph) speed limit on the city’s local roads.

Free mass transit offers a practical, fast option for change − and a relatively cheap one. It can boost the local economy. The deputy mayor of Ghent, in Belgium, Filip Watteeuw, has said that since the provision of free city transit there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested”.

“A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all”

Ghent’s plan cost just €4m (£3.4m) to implement. By contrast it costs an estimated £20m-£30m to build just one mile of motorway. The city also has significantly cleaner air – nitrogen oxide levels have dropped by 20% since 2017.

Unlike many major infrastructure projects, making public transport free is easy to implement in stages if, for example, planners are unsure how it will affect particular communities. In Salt Lake City public transport was declared free for one day a week as an experiment – Fare Free Friday.

Health and city design are not the only reasons behind moves toward free mass transit. Poverty in inner city areas, with long commutes on older buses, is the norm for many at the bottom of society.

Free transport can make an immediate and disproportionate difference to the money in people’s pockets at a time when many developed societies are seeing the income equality gap grow.

Not car owners

Experiments in the US cities of Denver and Austin were initially viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; that was because new passengers tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.

But they were successful in a different sense; they increased passenger use right away, with rises of between 20 and 60% in the first few months.

Car sales are tumbling as people look for alternatives, and as rural populations – who are most dependent on cars – continue to fall. Figures for January to September 2019 showed car sales lower in all major car markets in the world except for Brazil and Japan.

Integrated transport brings impressive reductions in pollution, congestion and accidents and sometimes more. in Colombia’s second city, Medellin, a combination of rethinking public space and public transport has contributed to a reduction in crime.

Finding public transport

The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions suggests that Americans can save more than $9,738 annually by using public transport instead of driving. However, access, a problem for many, is the key to reducing emissions – 45% of Americans have no access to public transport.

Many UK cities, towns and villages are also very poorly served by public services. Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, recently built a new and very expensive tram system, with fares higher than on the city’s bus network. Passengers numbers faltered, dashing hopes that the trams could pay their way.

But Edinburgh is renowned for its summer arts festival, which brings visitors flocking in. There is now talk of fare-free trams, at least from the airport to the city centre, which could help to increase overall festival visitor numbers and boost the city’s economy.

Carrots can often work better than sticks. Perhaps fare-free public transport schemes should offer something along the lines of frequent-flyer rewards? − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Cities worldwide are making their public transport free to use. As passenger numbers rise, car use falls. What’s not to like?

LONDON, 12 February, 2020 − In the United States, once the home of car culture, cities are increasingly experimenting with free public transport. But the idea is not an American preserve: it’s catching on fast across the globe.

In the French capital, Paris, the mayor is removing 72% of city car parking spaces. Birmingham in the UK is encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home and use public transport instead, or to walk or cycle. More public transport use means less toxic urban air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions − and happier citizens better equipped to escape one key aspect of poverty.

Transport is one of the big polluters. Cities in particular want more efficient, cleaner ways of moving people. The good news is that recent innovations suggest an effective answer: if public transport is free, more people are likely to use it, instantly cutting car use and pollution.

That kind of behaviour change can happen surprisingly fast. Around 100 cities worldwide currently run fare-free transit, most of them in Europe. Even in the US, home of the motor car, cities are showing increasing interest.

Sharing costs

Kansas City in Missouri and Olympia in Washington state have both said their buses will become fare-free this year. Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, has expressed strong support for waiving bus fares – a move that would cost $2-3 million a year in fares foregone.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based organisation which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C”.

It says: “A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all.”

Fare-free transit can also help to cut poverty. The benefits of maintaining a transit system that drives the economy and helps residents at all income levels to get to their jobs, while keeping commuters off the roads, are so great that some urban leaders say the costs should be shared fairly by taxpayers.

Pollution cut

Birmingham and Paris both aim to increase the space for cyclists and walkers by taking it away from car owners, traditionally privileged by planners. Does cutting road space, far from increasing congestion, actually cut pollution instead? The RTA thinks it can.

The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is basing her re-election campaign on ensuring that “you can find everything you need within 15 minutes from home.” She wants to see the return of the more self-sufficient neighbourhood, and aims to make all roads safe for cyclists by 2024.

Birmingham will introduce incentives for businesses to remove parking spaces through the introduction of an annual workplace parking levy, and the city will build 12,800 new homes on former car parks. Freight deliveries will be restricted to out-of-hours times, and there will be a blanket 20 mile an hour (32 kph) speed limit on the city’s local roads.

Free mass transit offers a practical, fast option for change − and a relatively cheap one. It can boost the local economy. The deputy mayor of Ghent, in Belgium, Filip Watteeuw, has said that since the provision of free city transit there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested”.

“A rapid change is under way, bringing into question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all”

Ghent’s plan cost just €4m (£3.4m) to implement. By contrast it costs an estimated £20m-£30m to build just one mile of motorway. The city also has significantly cleaner air – nitrogen oxide levels have dropped by 20% since 2017.

Unlike many major infrastructure projects, making public transport free is easy to implement in stages if, for example, planners are unsure how it will affect particular communities. In Salt Lake City public transport was declared free for one day a week as an experiment – Fare Free Friday.

Health and city design are not the only reasons behind moves toward free mass transit. Poverty in inner city areas, with long commutes on older buses, is the norm for many at the bottom of society.

Free transport can make an immediate and disproportionate difference to the money in people’s pockets at a time when many developed societies are seeing the income equality gap grow.

Not car owners

Experiments in the US cities of Denver and Austin were initially viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; that was because new passengers tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.

But they were successful in a different sense; they increased passenger use right away, with rises of between 20 and 60% in the first few months.

Car sales are tumbling as people look for alternatives, and as rural populations – who are most dependent on cars – continue to fall. Figures for January to September 2019 showed car sales lower in all major car markets in the world except for Brazil and Japan.

Integrated transport brings impressive reductions in pollution, congestion and accidents and sometimes more. in Colombia’s second city, Medellin, a combination of rethinking public space and public transport has contributed to a reduction in crime.

Finding public transport

The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions suggests that Americans can save more than $9,738 annually by using public transport instead of driving. However, access, a problem for many, is the key to reducing emissions – 45% of Americans have no access to public transport.

Many UK cities, towns and villages are also very poorly served by public services. Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, recently built a new and very expensive tram system, with fares higher than on the city’s bus network. Passengers numbers faltered, dashing hopes that the trams could pay their way.

But Edinburgh is renowned for its summer arts festival, which brings visitors flocking in. There is now talk of fare-free trams, at least from the airport to the city centre, which could help to increase overall festival visitor numbers and boost the city’s economy.

Carrots can often work better than sticks. Perhaps fare-free public transport schemes should offer something along the lines of frequent-flyer rewards? − Climate News Network

* * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Rewilding the Arctic can slow the climate crisis

It would be a monumental task to start rewilding the Arctic, but the climate payoff could be mammoth.

LONDON, 29 January, 2020 − Releasing herds of large animals onto the tundra − rewilding the Arctic − to create vast grasslands could slow down global heating by storing carbon and preserving the permafrost, UK scientists say.

With no woolly mammoths available nowadays, the scientists, from the University of Oxford, suggest an alternative in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B − importing large herds of bison and horses to provide the mega-fauna that would prevent tree growth and create huge areas of grazing land.

These big animals, originally present in the Arctic together with the reindeer, wolves and other large creatures still living there, would create a natural geo-engineering project to alter the landscape, the researchers say. The idea is to preserve as much carbon in the soil as possible and reflect more sunlight back into space.

The scientists visited Pleistocene Park, a Russian experiment in north-eastern Siberia, which is an attempt to recreate the mammoth steppe ecosystem of the last ice age by re-introducing large grazing animals.

Trees that are growing ever further north as the Arctic warms are in turn leading to the melting of more permafrost by breaking up the snow which otherwise reflects sunlight away from the Earth. Instead, the snow absorbs more of the sunlight, enhancing the warming further.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”

By removing woody vegetation, enhancing grass growth and trampling on snow in search of winter forage, the scientists say, large mammals increase the amount of incoming solar energy that bounces back to space − the albedo effect.

Unlike shallow-rooted trees, grasslands also favour the capture of carbon in the deep roots of grasses and enable cold winter temperatures to penetrate deeper into the soil. Altogether, they say, these changes would have a net cooling effect on Arctic lands and delay permafrost melt.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”, says lead author Dr Marc Macias-Fauria, at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

“Although the science of Arctic eco-engineering is largely untested, it has the potential to make a big difference, and action in this region should be given serious consideration.”

Big emissions savings

The study estimates that carbon emissions from thawing permafrost could be around 4.35 billion tonnes a year over this century. This is around half as much as fossil fuel emissions, and three times more than estimates of the emissions produced by current and projected land use change, for example in tropical forests.

One of the drawbacks to the scheme is the need to import large quantities of relatively scarce animals like bison into the vast expanses that would need to be rewilded. It would take time to build up the numbers of animals required.

The fossil record in the period the scientists are trying to recreate shows that each square kilometre contained an average of one mammoth, 5 bison, 7.5 horses, 15 reindeer, 0.25 cave lions, and one wolf. This is around the animal density of present-day African savanna game reserves. Rewilding efforts would initially focus on bison and horses.

The researchers believe the scheme could be economic, especially if the price of the carbon saved is reckoned in. They provide a detailed analysis for an experiment over a period of 10 years for the introduction and monitoring of three large-scale trial areas, which includes importing 1,000 animals for each of the three at a cost of US$114 million (£88m).  On an annual basis this alone would keep 72,000 tonnes of carbon in the ground.

The scientists believe that rewilding could be a cost-effective solution and bring extra benefits like new tourism and “carbon-negative wild meat”, which would cut the demand for farmed beef and reduce pressure on forested areas in the tropics. They also say the study constitutes a potential opportunity for UK-Russia cooperation on climate change mitigation. − Climate News Network

It would be a monumental task to start rewilding the Arctic, but the climate payoff could be mammoth.

LONDON, 29 January, 2020 − Releasing herds of large animals onto the tundra − rewilding the Arctic − to create vast grasslands could slow down global heating by storing carbon and preserving the permafrost, UK scientists say.

With no woolly mammoths available nowadays, the scientists, from the University of Oxford, suggest an alternative in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B − importing large herds of bison and horses to provide the mega-fauna that would prevent tree growth and create huge areas of grazing land.

These big animals, originally present in the Arctic together with the reindeer, wolves and other large creatures still living there, would create a natural geo-engineering project to alter the landscape, the researchers say. The idea is to preserve as much carbon in the soil as possible and reflect more sunlight back into space.

The scientists visited Pleistocene Park, a Russian experiment in north-eastern Siberia, which is an attempt to recreate the mammoth steppe ecosystem of the last ice age by re-introducing large grazing animals.

Trees that are growing ever further north as the Arctic warms are in turn leading to the melting of more permafrost by breaking up the snow which otherwise reflects sunlight away from the Earth. Instead, the snow absorbs more of the sunlight, enhancing the warming further.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”

By removing woody vegetation, enhancing grass growth and trampling on snow in search of winter forage, the scientists say, large mammals increase the amount of incoming solar energy that bounces back to space − the albedo effect.

Unlike shallow-rooted trees, grasslands also favour the capture of carbon in the deep roots of grasses and enable cold winter temperatures to penetrate deeper into the soil. Altogether, they say, these changes would have a net cooling effect on Arctic lands and delay permafrost melt.

“The Arctic is already changing, and fast. Taking a ‘do nothing’ approach now is a decision to allow rapid, irreversible changes to occur”, says lead author Dr Marc Macias-Fauria, at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

“Although the science of Arctic eco-engineering is largely untested, it has the potential to make a big difference, and action in this region should be given serious consideration.”

Big emissions savings

The study estimates that carbon emissions from thawing permafrost could be around 4.35 billion tonnes a year over this century. This is around half as much as fossil fuel emissions, and three times more than estimates of the emissions produced by current and projected land use change, for example in tropical forests.

One of the drawbacks to the scheme is the need to import large quantities of relatively scarce animals like bison into the vast expanses that would need to be rewilded. It would take time to build up the numbers of animals required.

The fossil record in the period the scientists are trying to recreate shows that each square kilometre contained an average of one mammoth, 5 bison, 7.5 horses, 15 reindeer, 0.25 cave lions, and one wolf. This is around the animal density of present-day African savanna game reserves. Rewilding efforts would initially focus on bison and horses.

The researchers believe the scheme could be economic, especially if the price of the carbon saved is reckoned in. They provide a detailed analysis for an experiment over a period of 10 years for the introduction and monitoring of three large-scale trial areas, which includes importing 1,000 animals for each of the three at a cost of US$114 million (£88m).  On an annual basis this alone would keep 72,000 tonnes of carbon in the ground.

The scientists believe that rewilding could be a cost-effective solution and bring extra benefits like new tourism and “carbon-negative wild meat”, which would cut the demand for farmed beef and reduce pressure on forested areas in the tropics. They also say the study constitutes a potential opportunity for UK-Russia cooperation on climate change mitigation. − Climate News Network

Wildfire risk can be reduced with agroforestry

As Australia struggles to recover from months of wildfires, farmers and foresters say agroforestry could help to protect the country.

LONDON, 28 January, 2020 – Researchers in Europe have found that simply adopting a way of managing land to support animals, crops and trees – a system known as agroforestry – can help significantly to cut the risk of wildfires breaking out in areas around the Mediterranean.

As uncontrolled wildfires threaten natural vegetation, biodiversity, communities and economies – and lives – and release large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global temperature rise, the pressure to find ways of controlling them is urgent.

Studying ten years’ worth of data, the researchers analysed the relationship between the incidence of fire and several different uses of land (for agroforestry, forests, shrublands and grasslands). Agroforestry, occupying 12% of the land area, was linked to just 6% of the fires, while shrubland, which occupied 16%, suffered from 41% of the fires (these figures are based on two European Union documents – LUCAS, its Land use and land cover survey, and the European Forest Fire Information System, EFFIS, 2008-17.

Paul Burgess, reader in crop ecology and management at Cranfield University, UK, said: “Areas of shrubland were at particular risk of wildfire – where the land is not proactively managed or used, there is a build-up of dry vegetation and shrubs creating fuel.

Work boost

“Agroforestry is shown to reduce wildfire risk by encouraging rural employment and removing part of the dry ground-level vegetation through livestock grazing. Taking into account the effect of climate change in this region, it is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being.”

Combining livestock and trees on agroforestry land can create habitats rich in a variety of species that provide an annual income for farmers through livestock products. For clearing vegetation, agroforestry uses less machinery and fossil fuel.

Dr Burgess, who is secretary of the Farm Woodland Forum, told the Climate News Network that agroforestry could help countries like Australia and Portugal to cut the extreme fire risk they have been facing.

He said: “Compared with unmanaged shrubland areas, agroforestry can provide three benefits. Firstly, it encourages local employment and management on the ground which can allow for more rapid initial responses. Then, in most agroforestry systems, the understorey, the vegetation between the forest canopy and the floor, is managed, and this reduces the store of fuel. Third, in many agroforestry systems there are breaks between the trees, which can also help to limit fire spread.”

“Agroforestry is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being”

The proportion of burnt land in the area studied by the team over 10 years ranged from 0.1% of the area of France to 1-2% of the area of Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, and to 14% of the area of Portugal. The researchers report their study in the journal Agroforestry Systems.

Land abandonment is an important element in the risk of wildfires. In many parts of the Mediterranean, an ageing population and the end of traditional farming and forestry activity have led to extensive unmanaged lands.

This results in an increase in decayed biomass, plant material which readily serves as fuel in shrublands that can be easily ignited by natural events such as thunderstorms, or by human activity.

Other suggestions for reducing wildfires include using sunlight to replace fossil fuel-derived kerosene with a synthetic version, and cutting fossil fuel reliance through wide use of new generation batteries. – Climate News Network

As Australia struggles to recover from months of wildfires, farmers and foresters say agroforestry could help to protect the country.

LONDON, 28 January, 2020 – Researchers in Europe have found that simply adopting a way of managing land to support animals, crops and trees – a system known as agroforestry – can help significantly to cut the risk of wildfires breaking out in areas around the Mediterranean.

As uncontrolled wildfires threaten natural vegetation, biodiversity, communities and economies – and lives – and release large amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to global temperature rise, the pressure to find ways of controlling them is urgent.

Studying ten years’ worth of data, the researchers analysed the relationship between the incidence of fire and several different uses of land (for agroforestry, forests, shrublands and grasslands). Agroforestry, occupying 12% of the land area, was linked to just 6% of the fires, while shrubland, which occupied 16%, suffered from 41% of the fires (these figures are based on two European Union documents – LUCAS, its Land use and land cover survey, and the European Forest Fire Information System, EFFIS, 2008-17.

Paul Burgess, reader in crop ecology and management at Cranfield University, UK, said: “Areas of shrubland were at particular risk of wildfire – where the land is not proactively managed or used, there is a build-up of dry vegetation and shrubs creating fuel.

Work boost

“Agroforestry is shown to reduce wildfire risk by encouraging rural employment and removing part of the dry ground-level vegetation through livestock grazing. Taking into account the effect of climate change in this region, it is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being.”

Combining livestock and trees on agroforestry land can create habitats rich in a variety of species that provide an annual income for farmers through livestock products. For clearing vegetation, agroforestry uses less machinery and fossil fuel.

Dr Burgess, who is secretary of the Farm Woodland Forum, told the Climate News Network that agroforestry could help countries like Australia and Portugal to cut the extreme fire risk they have been facing.

He said: “Compared with unmanaged shrubland areas, agroforestry can provide three benefits. Firstly, it encourages local employment and management on the ground which can allow for more rapid initial responses. Then, in most agroforestry systems, the understorey, the vegetation between the forest canopy and the floor, is managed, and this reduces the store of fuel. Third, in many agroforestry systems there are breaks between the trees, which can also help to limit fire spread.”

“Agroforestry is a land management option that can successfully reduce fires, protect the environment and improve human well-being”

The proportion of burnt land in the area studied by the team over 10 years ranged from 0.1% of the area of France to 1-2% of the area of Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, and to 14% of the area of Portugal. The researchers report their study in the journal Agroforestry Systems.

Land abandonment is an important element in the risk of wildfires. In many parts of the Mediterranean, an ageing population and the end of traditional farming and forestry activity have led to extensive unmanaged lands.

This results in an increase in decayed biomass, plant material which readily serves as fuel in shrublands that can be easily ignited by natural events such as thunderstorms, or by human activity.

Other suggestions for reducing wildfires include using sunlight to replace fossil fuel-derived kerosene with a synthetic version, and cutting fossil fuel reliance through wide use of new generation batteries. – Climate News Network

Food at risk as third of plants face extinction

More than a third of the world’s plants are so rare they face extinction. In a warmer world, that would leave supplies of food at risk.

LONDON, 17 December, 2019 – Botanists have made a new census of terrestrial plants – only to find that with nearly 40% of them rare, or extremely rare, this may put food at risk.

And a second team of researchers, in a separate study, has established that some of these rare or vanishing species could include the wild relatives of some of the planet’s most popular vegetables.

The two studies matter. The first underlines yet another reason for new and determined conservation strategies to preserve the extraordinary natural variety and richness of life – the shorthand word that scientists use is biodiversity – already under pressure from the explosion in human numbers, the destruction of natural habitats and the looming catastrophe of climate change driven by rapidly rising global temperatures.

And the second study is simply a matter of the next lunch or dinner: many rare plants are survivors with the resources to adapt to change. In a fast-changing world, crop breeders may need to go back to the wild relatives to look for the genes that will keep the commercial carrots, courgettes, pumpkins and chilli peppers on the grocery shelves.

US scientists and international colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they worked for 10 years and compiled 20 million observational records to establish a simple plant census: the forests, grasslands, scrublands, tundra and swamps of the wild world are home to about 435,000 unique plant species.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to difficult conditions. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action”

And of this huge number, a surprising 36.5% are “exceedingly rare.” By this, researchers mean that these species have been observed and recorded no more than five times in the last 300 years of systematic botanical research.

“According to ecological and evolutionary theory, we’d expect many species to be rare, but the actual observed number we found was pretty startling,” said Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona, who led the consortium. “There are many more rare species than we expected.”

The rare species were most likely to be clustered in what ecologists call hotspots: the northern Andes in South America, Costa Rica, South Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia.

What these places have in common is that, over millions of years, they have maintained stable climates, and as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, these tropical mountains and valleys provided refuge for life’s variety.

But these survivors may not enjoy a stable future, as ever higher levels of greenhouse gases are spilled into the atmosphere from human use of fossil fuels, and global temperatures continue to rise, and as human communities expand into what was once wilderness.

Significant loss ahead

“In many of these regions, there’s increasing human activity such as agriculture, cities and towns, land use and clearing,” said Professor Enquist.

“So that’s not exactly the best of news. If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in biodiversity – mainly in rare species – because their low numbers makes them more prone to extinction.”

Humans depend on the natural world for survival: biodiversity – plants, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and so on – provides all human nourishment, most of the medicines, fuels, fabrics and textiles that warm and shelter 7.7bn people, and at the same time maintains supplies of water, air, crop pollinators and so on.

But new research in the journal Plants, People, Planet confirms once again that many of the wild ancestors and cousins of the crops that nourish billions could be at risk.

And these wild relatives – which have survived climate shifts over millions of years – represent a vital resource for plant breeders anxious to cope with rapid global heating.

Unpreserved

The latest study confirms that 65% of wild pumpkins and more than 95% of wild chilli peppers are not formally preserved in any gene banks protected by conservation scientists.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions,” said Colin Khoury of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

“But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

Dr Khoury and his colleagues have prepared a series of detailed maps of the range and distribution of the wild relatives of a range of important food species: the aim is to focus on the most effective kinds of protection for what, literally, could become tomorrow’s lunch in a world of rapid change.

“If they disappear, they are gone,” said Dr Khoury. “Extinction is forever, which is a loss not only in terms of their evolution and persistence on the planet, but also a loss to the future of our food.” – Climate News Network

More than a third of the world’s plants are so rare they face extinction. In a warmer world, that would leave supplies of food at risk.

LONDON, 17 December, 2019 – Botanists have made a new census of terrestrial plants – only to find that with nearly 40% of them rare, or extremely rare, this may put food at risk.

And a second team of researchers, in a separate study, has established that some of these rare or vanishing species could include the wild relatives of some of the planet’s most popular vegetables.

The two studies matter. The first underlines yet another reason for new and determined conservation strategies to preserve the extraordinary natural variety and richness of life – the shorthand word that scientists use is biodiversity – already under pressure from the explosion in human numbers, the destruction of natural habitats and the looming catastrophe of climate change driven by rapidly rising global temperatures.

And the second study is simply a matter of the next lunch or dinner: many rare plants are survivors with the resources to adapt to change. In a fast-changing world, crop breeders may need to go back to the wild relatives to look for the genes that will keep the commercial carrots, courgettes, pumpkins and chilli peppers on the grocery shelves.

US scientists and international colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they worked for 10 years and compiled 20 million observational records to establish a simple plant census: the forests, grasslands, scrublands, tundra and swamps of the wild world are home to about 435,000 unique plant species.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to difficult conditions. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action”

And of this huge number, a surprising 36.5% are “exceedingly rare.” By this, researchers mean that these species have been observed and recorded no more than five times in the last 300 years of systematic botanical research.

“According to ecological and evolutionary theory, we’d expect many species to be rare, but the actual observed number we found was pretty startling,” said Brian Enquist of the University of Arizona, who led the consortium. “There are many more rare species than we expected.”

The rare species were most likely to be clustered in what ecologists call hotspots: the northern Andes in South America, Costa Rica, South Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia.

What these places have in common is that, over millions of years, they have maintained stable climates, and as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, these tropical mountains and valleys provided refuge for life’s variety.

But these survivors may not enjoy a stable future, as ever higher levels of greenhouse gases are spilled into the atmosphere from human use of fossil fuels, and global temperatures continue to rise, and as human communities expand into what was once wilderness.

Significant loss ahead

“In many of these regions, there’s increasing human activity such as agriculture, cities and towns, land use and clearing,” said Professor Enquist.

“So that’s not exactly the best of news. If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in biodiversity – mainly in rare species – because their low numbers makes them more prone to extinction.”

Humans depend on the natural world for survival: biodiversity – plants, fungi, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and so on – provides all human nourishment, most of the medicines, fuels, fabrics and textiles that warm and shelter 7.7bn people, and at the same time maintains supplies of water, air, crop pollinators and so on.

But new research in the journal Plants, People, Planet confirms once again that many of the wild ancestors and cousins of the crops that nourish billions could be at risk.

And these wild relatives – which have survived climate shifts over millions of years – represent a vital resource for plant breeders anxious to cope with rapid global heating.

Unpreserved

The latest study confirms that 65% of wild pumpkins and more than 95% of wild chilli peppers are not formally preserved in any gene banks protected by conservation scientists.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions,” said Colin Khoury of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

“But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

Dr Khoury and his colleagues have prepared a series of detailed maps of the range and distribution of the wild relatives of a range of important food species: the aim is to focus on the most effective kinds of protection for what, literally, could become tomorrow’s lunch in a world of rapid change.

“If they disappear, they are gone,” said Dr Khoury. “Extinction is forever, which is a loss not only in terms of their evolution and persistence on the planet, but also a loss to the future of our food.” – Climate News Network