Category Archives: Nature

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

Rainforest and reef systems face collapse

rainforest

In less than a human lifetime, the world’s greatest rainforest could become parched grassland and scrub, and the Caribbean coral reef system could collapse completely.

LONDON, 17 March, 2020 – The entire Amazon rainforest could collapse into savannah – dry grassland with scrub and intermittent woodland – within 50 years as a result of human action.

And the study of what it takes to alter an enduring natural ecosystem confirms that, within as little as 15 years, the rich Caribbean coral reef system could be no more.

A new statistical examination of the vulnerability of what had once seemed the eternal forest and the glorious coral reefs confirms that once large ecosystems begin to change, they can reach a point at which the collapse becomes sudden and irreversible.

The research confirms an increasing fear that global heating driven by profligate human use of fossil fuels could tip not just climate but also natural landscapes into a new and potentially catastrophic states.

Dramatic warning

More directly, as reported in an interview with Brazilian scientist Antonio Donato Nobre in Climate News Network yesterday, it confirms a dramatic warning delivered in December last year that the Amazon rainforest – a landscape almost as vast as the entire 48 contiguous states of the US – may already be teetering on the edge of functional disruption.

How this disruption could happen was recently outlined by two scientists, Thomas Lovejoy, professor of biology at George Mason University in Virginia, US, and Carlos Nobre, a leading expert on the Amazon and climate change, who is the brother of Antonio Donato Nobre and is senior researcher at the University of Saõ Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre point out that most of the rain that keeps the Amazon a rainforest is actually recycled from the dense canopy that covers the region. After rainfall, evapotranspiration from the foliage returns water vapour to the air above the forest and falls anew as rain, again and again.

“Over the whole basin, the air rises, cools and precipitates out close to 20% of the world’s river water in the Amazon river system,” they warn in a Science journal report.

“Current deforestation is substantial and frightening: 17% across the entire Amazon basin and approaching 20% in the Brazilian Amazon.

“Already there are ominous signals of it in nature. Dry seasons in the Amazon are already hotter and longer. Mortality rates of wet-climate species are increased, whereas dry-climate species are showing resilience. The increasing frequency of unprecedented droughts in 2005, 2010 and 2015/16 is signalling that the tipping point is at hand.”

By contrast, the latest study in Nature Communications zeroes in on the rates at which large ecosystems could, in principle, change once the climate has begun to shift and the natural habitat is in some way degraded.

“This is yet another strong argument to avoid degrading our planet’s ecosystems; we need to do more to conserve biodiversity.”

Three scientists in the UK used computer models to test data from four terrestrial landscapes, 25 marine habitats and 13 freshwater ecosystems. They found, not surprisingly, that larger ecosystems tend to undergo regime shifts more slowly than the smaller ones.

However, as the ecosystem gets bigger, the additional time taken for collapse to happen gets briefer, so big ecosystems fail relatively more quickly.

This would mean that it would take 15 years for 20,000 sq km of Caribbean reef system to collapse, once some fatal trigger point had been reached. And the 5.5 million sq km of the Amazon tropical moist forest, once it starts to go, could be gone in just 49 years.

“Unfortunately, what our paper reveals is that humanity needs to prepare for change far sooner than expected,” says Simon Willcock, senior lecturer in environmental geography at Bangor University in Wales.

And his colleague, Dr Gregory Cooper, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of London’s Centre for Development, Environment and Policy, says: “This is yet another strong argument to avoid degrading our planet’s ecosystems; we need to do more to conserve biodiversity.”

Atmospheric carbon

Other researchers have separately found that the Amazon rainforest could be about to become a source of yet more atmospheric carbon – rather than a green machine for absorbing surplus carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – as a result of climate change and environmental destruction.

The Amazon ecosystem took 58 million years to evolve. But the message is that it could unravel in a very short time.

Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, was not one of the researchers, but he describes the results of the study as “terrifying” and warns that the Amazon could pass the point of no return this year.

He says: “Nature is fragile. Just because an area is big or a species is common, it doesn’t mean they’ll last forever.

“The Sahel – an area south of the Sahara that is six times the size of Spain – went from being vegetated and bountiful to just a desert in a few hundred years.

“The American chestnut – one of the most important trees of eastern North America – almost faced extinction after a fungal disease caused some three to four billion trees to die in the early 1900s.

“Natural ecosystems are usually resilient to change when kept intact, but after decades of disruption, exploitation and climatic stress, it should come as no surprise that they are breaking down.

“In other words, you can’t simply remove huge chunks of a rainforest and hope everything will be fine – it won’t. Based on these results, 2020 is our very last opportunity to stop Amazonian deforestation.” – Climate News Network

In less than a human lifetime, the world’s greatest rainforest could become parched grassland and scrub, and the Caribbean coral reef system could collapse completely.

LONDON, 17 March, 2020 – The entire Amazon rainforest could collapse into savannah – dry grassland with scrub and intermittent woodland – within 50 years as a result of human action.

And the study of what it takes to alter an enduring natural ecosystem confirms that, within as little as 15 years, the rich Caribbean coral reef system could be no more.

A new statistical examination of the vulnerability of what had once seemed the eternal forest and the glorious coral reefs confirms that once large ecosystems begin to change, they can reach a point at which the collapse becomes sudden and irreversible.

The research confirms an increasing fear that global heating driven by profligate human use of fossil fuels could tip not just climate but also natural landscapes into a new and potentially catastrophic states.

Dramatic warning

More directly, as reported in an interview with Brazilian scientist Antonio Donato Nobre in Climate News Network yesterday, it confirms a dramatic warning delivered in December last year that the Amazon rainforest – a landscape almost as vast as the entire 48 contiguous states of the US – may already be teetering on the edge of functional disruption.

How this disruption could happen was recently outlined by two scientists, Thomas Lovejoy, professor of biology at George Mason University in Virginia, US, and Carlos Nobre, a leading expert on the Amazon and climate change, who is the brother of Antonio Donato Nobre and is senior researcher at the University of Saõ Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre point out that most of the rain that keeps the Amazon a rainforest is actually recycled from the dense canopy that covers the region. After rainfall, evapotranspiration from the foliage returns water vapour to the air above the forest and falls anew as rain, again and again.

“Over the whole basin, the air rises, cools and precipitates out close to 20% of the world’s river water in the Amazon river system,” they warn in a Science journal report.

“Current deforestation is substantial and frightening: 17% across the entire Amazon basin and approaching 20% in the Brazilian Amazon.

“Already there are ominous signals of it in nature. Dry seasons in the Amazon are already hotter and longer. Mortality rates of wet-climate species are increased, whereas dry-climate species are showing resilience. The increasing frequency of unprecedented droughts in 2005, 2010 and 2015/16 is signalling that the tipping point is at hand.”

By contrast, the latest study in Nature Communications zeroes in on the rates at which large ecosystems could, in principle, change once the climate has begun to shift and the natural habitat is in some way degraded.

“This is yet another strong argument to avoid degrading our planet’s ecosystems; we need to do more to conserve biodiversity.”

Three scientists in the UK used computer models to test data from four terrestrial landscapes, 25 marine habitats and 13 freshwater ecosystems. They found, not surprisingly, that larger ecosystems tend to undergo regime shifts more slowly than the smaller ones.

However, as the ecosystem gets bigger, the additional time taken for collapse to happen gets briefer, so big ecosystems fail relatively more quickly.

This would mean that it would take 15 years for 20,000 sq km of Caribbean reef system to collapse, once some fatal trigger point had been reached. And the 5.5 million sq km of the Amazon tropical moist forest, once it starts to go, could be gone in just 49 years.

“Unfortunately, what our paper reveals is that humanity needs to prepare for change far sooner than expected,” says Simon Willcock, senior lecturer in environmental geography at Bangor University in Wales.

And his colleague, Dr Gregory Cooper, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of London’s Centre for Development, Environment and Policy, says: “This is yet another strong argument to avoid degrading our planet’s ecosystems; we need to do more to conserve biodiversity.”

Atmospheric carbon

Other researchers have separately found that the Amazon rainforest could be about to become a source of yet more atmospheric carbon – rather than a green machine for absorbing surplus carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – as a result of climate change and environmental destruction.

The Amazon ecosystem took 58 million years to evolve. But the message is that it could unravel in a very short time.

Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, was not one of the researchers, but he describes the results of the study as “terrifying” and warns that the Amazon could pass the point of no return this year.

He says: “Nature is fragile. Just because an area is big or a species is common, it doesn’t mean they’ll last forever.

“The Sahel – an area south of the Sahara that is six times the size of Spain – went from being vegetated and bountiful to just a desert in a few hundred years.

“The American chestnut – one of the most important trees of eastern North America – almost faced extinction after a fungal disease caused some three to four billion trees to die in the early 1900s.

“Natural ecosystems are usually resilient to change when kept intact, but after decades of disruption, exploitation and climatic stress, it should come as no surprise that they are breaking down.

“In other words, you can’t simply remove huge chunks of a rainforest and hope everything will be fine – it won’t. Based on these results, 2020 is our very last opportunity to stop Amazonian deforestation.” – Climate News Network

Tropical forests may be heating Earth by 2035

Climate change so far has meant more vigorous forest growth as greenhouse gases rise. The tropical forests may soon change that.

LONDON, 6 March, 2020 – Within about fifteen years, the great tropical forests of Amazonia and Africa could stop absorbing atmospheric carbon, and slowly start to release more carbon than growing trees can fix.

A team of scientists from 100 research institutions has looked at the evidence from pristine tracts of tropical forest to find that – overall – the foliage soaked up the most carbon, most efficiently, more than two decades ago.

Since then, the measured efficiency of the forests as a “sink” in which carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere has been dwindling. By the last decade, the ability of a tropical forest to absorb carbon had dropped by a third.

All plant growth is a balancing act based on sunshine and atmospheric carbon and rainfall. Plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and surrender it as they die.

In a dense, undisturbed wilderness, fallen leaves and even fallen trees are slightly less likely to decompose completely: the atmospheric carbon in leaf and wood form has a better chance of being preserved in flooded forests as peat, or being buried before it can completely decompose.

The forest becomes a bank vault, repository or sink of the extra carbon that humans are now spilling into the atmosphere from car exhausts, factory chimneys and power station furnaces.

Theory and practice

And in theory, as more and more carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere, plants respond to the more generous fertilisation by growing more vigorously, and absorbing more carbon.

But as more carbon gets into the atmosphere, the temperature rises and weather patterns begin to become more extreme. Summers get hotter, rainfall more capricious. Then trees become vulnerable to drought, forest fire and invasive diseases, and die more often, and decompose more completely.

Wannes Hubau, once of the University of Leeds in the UK and now at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, and more than 100 colleagues from around the world, report in the journal Nature that they assembled 30 years of measurement from more than 300,000 trees in 244 undisturbed plots of forest in 11 countries in Africa, and from 321 plots of forest in Amazonia, and did the sums.

In the 1990s, intact tropical forests removed around 46 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By the 2010s, the uptake had fallen to around 25 billion tonnes. This means that 21 billion tons of greenhouse gas that might otherwise have been turned into timber and root had been added to the atmosphere.

This is pretty much what the UK, France, Germany and Canada together spilled into the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion over a 10-year period.

“We’ve found one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun. This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models”

“Extra carbon boosts tree growth, but every year this effect is being increasingly countered by the negative impacts of higher temperatures and droughts which slow growth and can kill trees,” said Dr Hubau.

“Our modeling shows a long-term decline in the African sink and that the Amazon sink will continue to rapidly weaken, which we predict will become a carbon source in the mid-2030s.”

Tropical forests are an integral factor in the planetary carbon budget – a crude accounting system that climate scientists rely upon to model the choice of futures that face humankind as the world heats up.

Around half of Earth’s carbon is stored in terrestrial vegetation and the tropical forests account for about a third of the planet’s primary productivity. So how forests respond to a warmer world is vital.

Because the Amazon region is being hit by higher temperatures, and more frequent and prolonged droughts than forests in tropical Africa, Amazonia is weakening at a faster rate.

But decline has also begun in Africa. In the 1990s, the undisturbed tropical forests alone inhaled 17% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. In the decade just ended, this proportion fell to 6%.

Catastrophic prospect

In roughly the same period, the area of intact forest fell by 19%, and global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 46%. Even so, the tropical forests store 250 billion tonnes of carbon in their trees alone: 90 years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate. So their sustained loss would be catastrophic.

“Intact tropical forests remain a vital carbon sink but this research reveals that unless policies are put in place to stabilise the Earth’s climate, it is only a matter of time until they are no longer able to sequester carbon,” said Simon Lewis, a geographer at the University of Leeds, and one of the authors.

“One big concern for the future of humanity is when carbon-cycle feedbacks really kick in, with nature switching from slowing climate change to accelerating it.

“After years of work deep in the Congo and Amazon rainforests, we’ve found one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun.

“This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models. There is no time to lose in tackling climate change.” – Climate News Network

Climate change so far has meant more vigorous forest growth as greenhouse gases rise. The tropical forests may soon change that.

LONDON, 6 March, 2020 – Within about fifteen years, the great tropical forests of Amazonia and Africa could stop absorbing atmospheric carbon, and slowly start to release more carbon than growing trees can fix.

A team of scientists from 100 research institutions has looked at the evidence from pristine tracts of tropical forest to find that – overall – the foliage soaked up the most carbon, most efficiently, more than two decades ago.

Since then, the measured efficiency of the forests as a “sink” in which carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere has been dwindling. By the last decade, the ability of a tropical forest to absorb carbon had dropped by a third.

All plant growth is a balancing act based on sunshine and atmospheric carbon and rainfall. Plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and surrender it as they die.

In a dense, undisturbed wilderness, fallen leaves and even fallen trees are slightly less likely to decompose completely: the atmospheric carbon in leaf and wood form has a better chance of being preserved in flooded forests as peat, or being buried before it can completely decompose.

The forest becomes a bank vault, repository or sink of the extra carbon that humans are now spilling into the atmosphere from car exhausts, factory chimneys and power station furnaces.

Theory and practice

And in theory, as more and more carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere, plants respond to the more generous fertilisation by growing more vigorously, and absorbing more carbon.

But as more carbon gets into the atmosphere, the temperature rises and weather patterns begin to become more extreme. Summers get hotter, rainfall more capricious. Then trees become vulnerable to drought, forest fire and invasive diseases, and die more often, and decompose more completely.

Wannes Hubau, once of the University of Leeds in the UK and now at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, and more than 100 colleagues from around the world, report in the journal Nature that they assembled 30 years of measurement from more than 300,000 trees in 244 undisturbed plots of forest in 11 countries in Africa, and from 321 plots of forest in Amazonia, and did the sums.

In the 1990s, intact tropical forests removed around 46 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By the 2010s, the uptake had fallen to around 25 billion tonnes. This means that 21 billion tons of greenhouse gas that might otherwise have been turned into timber and root had been added to the atmosphere.

This is pretty much what the UK, France, Germany and Canada together spilled into the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion over a 10-year period.

“We’ve found one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun. This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models”

“Extra carbon boosts tree growth, but every year this effect is being increasingly countered by the negative impacts of higher temperatures and droughts which slow growth and can kill trees,” said Dr Hubau.

“Our modeling shows a long-term decline in the African sink and that the Amazon sink will continue to rapidly weaken, which we predict will become a carbon source in the mid-2030s.”

Tropical forests are an integral factor in the planetary carbon budget – a crude accounting system that climate scientists rely upon to model the choice of futures that face humankind as the world heats up.

Around half of Earth’s carbon is stored in terrestrial vegetation and the tropical forests account for about a third of the planet’s primary productivity. So how forests respond to a warmer world is vital.

Because the Amazon region is being hit by higher temperatures, and more frequent and prolonged droughts than forests in tropical Africa, Amazonia is weakening at a faster rate.

But decline has also begun in Africa. In the 1990s, the undisturbed tropical forests alone inhaled 17% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. In the decade just ended, this proportion fell to 6%.

Catastrophic prospect

In roughly the same period, the area of intact forest fell by 19%, and global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 46%. Even so, the tropical forests store 250 billion tonnes of carbon in their trees alone: 90 years of fossil fuel emissions at the present rate. So their sustained loss would be catastrophic.

“Intact tropical forests remain a vital carbon sink but this research reveals that unless policies are put in place to stabilise the Earth’s climate, it is only a matter of time until they are no longer able to sequester carbon,” said Simon Lewis, a geographer at the University of Leeds, and one of the authors.

“One big concern for the future of humanity is when carbon-cycle feedbacks really kick in, with nature switching from slowing climate change to accelerating it.

“After years of work deep in the Congo and Amazon rainforests, we’ve found one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun.

“This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models. There is no time to lose in tackling climate change.” – Climate News Network

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

Greenhouse gases have a puzzling double effect

Lustier plant growth as greenhouse gases climb should counter global heating and atmospheric carbon build-up. But it’s not quite so simple.

LONDON, 21 February, 2020 – The Arctic is getting greener as greenhouse gases abound and the global thermometer rises. The vegetation of the high latitudes is moving further north, growing taller, becoming more substantial, more abundant and budding earlier, according to new studies by 40 scientists from 36 European and US institutions.

And the whole planet is getting greener too, according to a separate study in a second journal, as more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the chief cause of global heating – also acts as a fertiliser to stimulate plant growth.

It is as if researchers have finally identified a genuine negative feedback effect: as the world warms because of higher levels of greenhouse gases, the plant world responds by absorbing more of the carbon in the atmosphere and modifying the overall impact.

But both studies identify problems with what might be a comforting conclusion: it isn’t clear why in some Arctic regions the green things are getting greener, while in others the vegetation cover is becoming poorer.

And worldwide, it might be that much of the global greening can be attributed to human action – the advance of industrial-scale agriculture and commercial forest plantation – in which case most of the absorbed carbon dioxide will be returned to the atmosphere sooner or later.

“It is ironic that the very same carbon emissions responsible for harmful changes to climate are also fertilising plant growth, which in turn is somewhat moderating global warming”

Both studies confirm the value of a closer look at the evidence so far – and the need for further study.

In the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists report that they checked the big picture of polar greening based on four decades of data from large-scale satellite observation against more detailed evidence over smaller sample regions collected by sensors mounted on drones and on aircraft, as well as direct examination on the once-frozen ground.

The Arctic is the fastest-warming region of the planet: it is warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole. Snow melts earlier, plants leaf sooner. Shrubs that once stayed close to the slushy snow surface are now taller, and new species are colonising once hostile terrain.

This is expected to destabilise the Arctic tundra, the region of year-round permafrost that masks a vast reservoir of carbon buried in the frozen soils.

Natural response

So botanists and climate scientists in the high latitudes now have to begin some tricky calculations in their pursuit of reliable estimates of the global carbon budget. How much carbon will the new green growth absorb and store? And how much carbon buried for the last 100,000 years or so will escape into the atmosphere with the advance of the northern greenery and the thawing of the soils?

But at least, according to a paper in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment, the observed greening of the Arctic is a natural response to rising average temperatures and greater carbon dioxide fertilisation as a consequence of ever-higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate change.

Svalbard in the high Arctic is almost 2°C warmer in summer than it was in 1986, and at least 30% greener. But the Arctic is a region with limited human settlement and low industrial investment.

A team of researchers from China, the US, France and Norway combed through 250 earlier studies, and revisited satellite data, climate models and field observations, to make sense of the evidence of a planet that has grown a lot greener: half of all the world’s vegetated lands are leafier than they once were.

And they concluded that it was possible that the growth of global greening in the last 40 years may have slowed the rate of global heating by as much as 0.25°C.

Human footprint

But the same greening can be seen as evidence of rapid human impact on the planet as a whole: much of it can be explained by more intensive use of farmland and forest plantation, especially in the world’s most populous countries, India and China.

“It is ironic that the very same carbon emissions responsible for harmful changes to climate are also fertilising plant growth, which in turn is somewhat moderating global warming,” said one author, Jarle Bjerke of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

And his co-author Phillipe Ciais, of France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, said: “Plants are actively defending against the dangers of carbon pollution by not only sequestering carbon on land but also by wetting the atmosphere through transpiration of ground water and evaporation of precipitation intercepted by their bodies.

“Stopping deforestation and promoting sustainable, ecologically sensible afforestation could be one of the simplest and most cost-effective, though not sufficient, defences against climate change.” – Climate News Network

Lustier plant growth as greenhouse gases climb should counter global heating and atmospheric carbon build-up. But it’s not quite so simple.

LONDON, 21 February, 2020 – The Arctic is getting greener as greenhouse gases abound and the global thermometer rises. The vegetation of the high latitudes is moving further north, growing taller, becoming more substantial, more abundant and budding earlier, according to new studies by 40 scientists from 36 European and US institutions.

And the whole planet is getting greener too, according to a separate study in a second journal, as more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the chief cause of global heating – also acts as a fertiliser to stimulate plant growth.

It is as if researchers have finally identified a genuine negative feedback effect: as the world warms because of higher levels of greenhouse gases, the plant world responds by absorbing more of the carbon in the atmosphere and modifying the overall impact.

But both studies identify problems with what might be a comforting conclusion: it isn’t clear why in some Arctic regions the green things are getting greener, while in others the vegetation cover is becoming poorer.

And worldwide, it might be that much of the global greening can be attributed to human action – the advance of industrial-scale agriculture and commercial forest plantation – in which case most of the absorbed carbon dioxide will be returned to the atmosphere sooner or later.

“It is ironic that the very same carbon emissions responsible for harmful changes to climate are also fertilising plant growth, which in turn is somewhat moderating global warming”

Both studies confirm the value of a closer look at the evidence so far – and the need for further study.

In the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists report that they checked the big picture of polar greening based on four decades of data from large-scale satellite observation against more detailed evidence over smaller sample regions collected by sensors mounted on drones and on aircraft, as well as direct examination on the once-frozen ground.

The Arctic is the fastest-warming region of the planet: it is warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole. Snow melts earlier, plants leaf sooner. Shrubs that once stayed close to the slushy snow surface are now taller, and new species are colonising once hostile terrain.

This is expected to destabilise the Arctic tundra, the region of year-round permafrost that masks a vast reservoir of carbon buried in the frozen soils.

Natural response

So botanists and climate scientists in the high latitudes now have to begin some tricky calculations in their pursuit of reliable estimates of the global carbon budget. How much carbon will the new green growth absorb and store? And how much carbon buried for the last 100,000 years or so will escape into the atmosphere with the advance of the northern greenery and the thawing of the soils?

But at least, according to a paper in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment, the observed greening of the Arctic is a natural response to rising average temperatures and greater carbon dioxide fertilisation as a consequence of ever-higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and consequent climate change.

Svalbard in the high Arctic is almost 2°C warmer in summer than it was in 1986, and at least 30% greener. But the Arctic is a region with limited human settlement and low industrial investment.

A team of researchers from China, the US, France and Norway combed through 250 earlier studies, and revisited satellite data, climate models and field observations, to make sense of the evidence of a planet that has grown a lot greener: half of all the world’s vegetated lands are leafier than they once were.

And they concluded that it was possible that the growth of global greening in the last 40 years may have slowed the rate of global heating by as much as 0.25°C.

Human footprint

But the same greening can be seen as evidence of rapid human impact on the planet as a whole: much of it can be explained by more intensive use of farmland and forest plantation, especially in the world’s most populous countries, India and China.

“It is ironic that the very same carbon emissions responsible for harmful changes to climate are also fertilising plant growth, which in turn is somewhat moderating global warming,” said one author, Jarle Bjerke of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

And his co-author Phillipe Ciais, of France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, said: “Plants are actively defending against the dangers of carbon pollution by not only sequestering carbon on land but also by wetting the atmosphere through transpiration of ground water and evaporation of precipitation intercepted by their bodies.

“Stopping deforestation and promoting sustainable, ecologically sensible afforestation could be one of the simplest and most cost-effective, though not sufficient, defences against climate change.” – Climate News Network

Many species face threat of insect extinction

Rainforests can get too hot for beetles. Mayflies can succumb to seasonal change, bumblebees to drought. Insect extinction may soon await myriad species.

LONDON, 13 February, 2020 – Humankind could be about to bid farewell to friends it never got to know, as insect extinction overtakes countless species.

Most of the millions of insects that support life on the planet have yet to be named or described. And yet perhaps 500,000 species of beetles, butterflies, bees, ants and other six-legged creatures vital to the efficient working of natural ecosystems and commercial economies could be about to disappear – as a consequence of climate change and other pressures driven by human population growth.

And this note of alarm has been sounded within a few days in which other research groups have separately warned of the climate threats to beetles in the Amazon forest, to the burrowing mayflies of the American mid-west and to the bumblebees of North America and Europe.

Insects pollinate growing plants, dispose of dying ones and serve as lunch or supper for birds, amphibians, reptiles, bats and other mammals. There could be as many as 5.5 million distinct species of insect, of which no more than one in five has been observed, identified and catalogued by entomologists.

A million or more creatures fashioned by aeons of evolution and natural selection could be at imminent risk of extinction because of human advance. A group of 30 experts now urgently warns in the journal Biological Conservation that half of these could be insects.

“From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services”

“It is surprising how little we know about biodiversity at a global level, when only about 10 to 20% of insect and other invertebrate species have been described and named. And of those with a name, we know little more than a brief morphological description, maybe part of the genetic code and a single site where it was seen some years ago,” said Pedro Cardoso, of the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki, who led the study.

“With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends.”

The researchers argue that insect species are vulnerable to human changes to their natural habitat; to pesticide and fertiliser use; to light pollution, industrial pollution and even noise pollution. Climate change driven by fossil fuel combustion amplifies the hazard: the unfamiliar seasonal temperatures and the advance of spring mean for instance that butterflies have emerged ahead of the nectar plants that normally nourish them.

And a series of separate studies explore some of the impact of human-triggered changes to natural systems. Researchers report in the journal Biotropica that hotter and drier episodes in the Amazon rainforests have led not only to disastrous fires but to a dramatic collapse of dung beetle populations.

Vanishing beetles

These little creatures spread nutrients and seeds, and ecologists see them as evidence of the overall health of an ecosystem, which is why international teams of scientists have been monitoring dung beetles from 98 species across 30 forest plots in the Brazilian state of Pará.

In 2010, they counted 8000 beetles. In 2017, after an El Niño event had brought drought and fire to the region, they found only 2,600.

Mayflies, too, are seen as indicators of the health of rivers, lakes and streams: the more there are, the better the water quality. The burrowing mayfly makes a spectacular emergence each year from US waterways to darken the skies. Researchers have estimated more than 87 billion insects in one swarm, weighing more than 3,000 tonnes of potential bird and fish food.

But researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that between 2015 and 2019 scientists used radar to monitor the swarms over Lake Erie and found that as a consequence of a warming climate and other pressures, numbers fell in that four-year sequence by 84%.

And in the journal Science, Canadian and British scientists report that they looked at more than a century of records of 66 species of bumblebee in North America and Europe, to find that, within one human generation, as global heating amplified the frequency of extreme temperatures and droughts, the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a given place had fallen on average by 30%.

Not insects alone

That insects may be in trouble is not news: naturalists have measured huge losses over time in sample locations, often as a consequence of habitat destruction, but also as a consequence of local climate shifts in response to global heating. These losses have been mirrored in bird predator populations and even in changes in insects themselves.

As the authors of the Biological Conservation paper point out, the damage goes beyond the insect world. Other creatures depend on insects, directly or indirectly. So do humans.

“With insect extinctions, we lose much more than species,” Dr Cardoso and his colleagues write. “We lose abundance and biomass of insects, diversity across space and time with consequent homogenisation, large parts of the tree of life, unique ecological functions and traits, and fundamental parts of extensive networks of biotic interactions.

“Such losses lead to the decline of key ecosystem services on which humanity depends. From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, habitat quality indication and many others, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services.” – Climate News Network

Rainforests can get too hot for beetles. Mayflies can succumb to seasonal change, bumblebees to drought. Insect extinction may soon await myriad species.

LONDON, 13 February, 2020 – Humankind could be about to bid farewell to friends it never got to know, as insect extinction overtakes countless species.

Most of the millions of insects that support life on the planet have yet to be named or described. And yet perhaps 500,000 species of beetles, butterflies, bees, ants and other six-legged creatures vital to the efficient working of natural ecosystems and commercial economies could be about to disappear – as a consequence of climate change and other pressures driven by human population growth.

And this note of alarm has been sounded within a few days in which other research groups have separately warned of the climate threats to beetles in the Amazon forest, to the burrowing mayflies of the American mid-west and to the bumblebees of North America and Europe.

Insects pollinate growing plants, dispose of dying ones and serve as lunch or supper for birds, amphibians, reptiles, bats and other mammals. There could be as many as 5.5 million distinct species of insect, of which no more than one in five has been observed, identified and catalogued by entomologists.

A million or more creatures fashioned by aeons of evolution and natural selection could be at imminent risk of extinction because of human advance. A group of 30 experts now urgently warns in the journal Biological Conservation that half of these could be insects.

“From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services”

“It is surprising how little we know about biodiversity at a global level, when only about 10 to 20% of insect and other invertebrate species have been described and named. And of those with a name, we know little more than a brief morphological description, maybe part of the genetic code and a single site where it was seen some years ago,” said Pedro Cardoso, of the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki, who led the study.

“With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends.”

The researchers argue that insect species are vulnerable to human changes to their natural habitat; to pesticide and fertiliser use; to light pollution, industrial pollution and even noise pollution. Climate change driven by fossil fuel combustion amplifies the hazard: the unfamiliar seasonal temperatures and the advance of spring mean for instance that butterflies have emerged ahead of the nectar plants that normally nourish them.

And a series of separate studies explore some of the impact of human-triggered changes to natural systems. Researchers report in the journal Biotropica that hotter and drier episodes in the Amazon rainforests have led not only to disastrous fires but to a dramatic collapse of dung beetle populations.

Vanishing beetles

These little creatures spread nutrients and seeds, and ecologists see them as evidence of the overall health of an ecosystem, which is why international teams of scientists have been monitoring dung beetles from 98 species across 30 forest plots in the Brazilian state of Pará.

In 2010, they counted 8000 beetles. In 2017, after an El Niño event had brought drought and fire to the region, they found only 2,600.

Mayflies, too, are seen as indicators of the health of rivers, lakes and streams: the more there are, the better the water quality. The burrowing mayfly makes a spectacular emergence each year from US waterways to darken the skies. Researchers have estimated more than 87 billion insects in one swarm, weighing more than 3,000 tonnes of potential bird and fish food.

But researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that between 2015 and 2019 scientists used radar to monitor the swarms over Lake Erie and found that as a consequence of a warming climate and other pressures, numbers fell in that four-year sequence by 84%.

And in the journal Science, Canadian and British scientists report that they looked at more than a century of records of 66 species of bumblebee in North America and Europe, to find that, within one human generation, as global heating amplified the frequency of extreme temperatures and droughts, the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a given place had fallen on average by 30%.

Not insects alone

That insects may be in trouble is not news: naturalists have measured huge losses over time in sample locations, often as a consequence of habitat destruction, but also as a consequence of local climate shifts in response to global heating. These losses have been mirrored in bird predator populations and even in changes in insects themselves.

As the authors of the Biological Conservation paper point out, the damage goes beyond the insect world. Other creatures depend on insects, directly or indirectly. So do humans.

“With insect extinctions, we lose much more than species,” Dr Cardoso and his colleagues write. “We lose abundance and biomass of insects, diversity across space and time with consequent homogenisation, large parts of the tree of life, unique ecological functions and traits, and fundamental parts of extensive networks of biotic interactions.

“Such losses lead to the decline of key ecosystem services on which humanity depends. From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, habitat quality indication and many others, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services.” – Climate News Network

Rare trees saved from Australia’s wildfires

This story originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Buried amid the horrific news from Australia about climate change and out-of-control wildfire was a positive story: the saving of rare trees.

CHICAGO, 5 February, 2020 − An Associated Press story  titled Firefighters in Australia save unique prehistoric trees brought a scarce gleam of hope: “Firefighters winched from helicopters to reach the cluster of fewer than 200 Wollemi Pines in a remote gorge in the Blue Mountains a week before a massive wildfire bore down… the firefighters set up an irrigation system to keep the so-called dinosaur trees moist, and pumped water daily from the gorge as the blaze that had burned out of control for two months edged closer.”

This news had particular significance to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, the successful protection of this endangered species could hint at things to come − if we play our cards right.

For another, I know the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (though I have not been to that grove of trees − whose exact location has been kept a secret by botanists ever since it was first discovered in 1994.)

I spent four years down-under, first as an American researcher on a Fulbright grant to see what we in the States could learn from looking at the Australian experience, and then as a roving foreign correspondent for science-related US magazines such as International Wildlife, Scientific American, and the journal Science, among others.

My job was to travel over the land down-under, reporting on natural history, the environment, and science in the Great South Land for publications back home in the States − as well as magazines like Australian Geographic.

Easy to miss

Which was how I became acquainted with the Blue Mountains, a lesser-known area about 120 miles west of Sydney. They’re a surprisingly steep, thickly wooded, and easily overlooked mountain chain, much like an Aussie version of our Appalachians. And much like the Appalachians, their deep ravines held up westward exploration and expansion for a long time. But there the parallels end.

Walking in Australia’s Blue Mountains is an unworldly experience. There are no squirrels or chipmunks; instead, parrots occupy that ecological niche. My edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Australia lists 23 different species of parrots alone.

Just a short list of the formal names of some of the individual species gives an idea of the colorful diversity you can see: Blue-winged, Orange-bellied, Golden-shouldered, Scarlet-chested, Red-rumped, and Turquoise parrots. Not to mention Elegant, Paradise, Superb, and King parrots.

And instead of smelling pine trees, your nose registers the scent of eucalypts. Look up at the stars at night, and there’s not a single familiar constellation; instead you see celestial objects like the Jewel Box Cluster − while hearing the mocking laugh of kookaburras.

Even the food tastes different − in place of pepperoni or sausage, toppings at the Australian Pizza Kitchen in Canberra include emu and kangaroo (I prefer the kangaroo).

“These trees are descendants of individuals that had survived since the era of the dinosaurs”

And some of the trees in parts of the Blueys − as they’re called − resemble nothing so much as short stumps with ferns popping out of their sides willy-nilly; everything looks so primeval you half-expect to see escapees from Jurassic Park poking their snouts out.

Indeed, in far-north Queensland I and my parents were to be stalked by a full-grown, adult male cassowary, defending his mate. We took shelter behind a large tropical tree, trying to keep the trunk between us and the approximately 200-pound, 6-foot-tall creature as it circled around.

This pervasive feeling of encounters with the primeval is appropriate. Australia is a very ancient land, which used to be part of what geologists call Gondwana − when most of the world’s landmasses were linked together in the distant past.

But while the other landforms went on to become continents such as South America and Africa, Australia remained a giant island continent, cut off from the rest of the planet. And species that died out elsewhere continued to thrive, and evolve, here.

(Just why species do so well on islands, and why evolution seems to speed up on them, is something that kept Charles Darwin busy. An entire field of island biogeography has sprung up to delve into its mysteries.)

Human rarities

Even now, some parts of Australia are so isolated that the wildlife has seldom seen humans. So far as researchers can tell, no Aborigines, Melanesians, Micronesians, Polynesians, or Caucasians ever settled on Australia’s Lord Howe Island until 1834; consequently, the wildlife never learned to be afraid of humans.

When I went there, you could stand at the foot of Lord Howe’s tallest mountain, call up to the providence petrels nesting as much as a hundred feet above, and watch the birds glide down to land at your feet. If you’re really good, you may be able to touch them, or at least have one land on your outstretched arm.

Due to these vagaries of isolation, ancient and unique species seem to abound in Australia − though they can be easily overlooked. Drive along the highway outside Shark Bay in the state of Western Australia, and you’ll spot weird dark, mushroom-shaped, rock-like structures in the shallows of the hyper-salty water; they’re actually living mats of blue-green algae known as stromatolites − Greek for “layered rock.”

Stromatolites are one of the oldest forms of life that we know of, essentially unchanged since their ancestors flourished 3.5 billion years ago. They were previously known to us only from fossils, until first discovered in this region in the 1980s.

So it’s not entirely surprising that Wollemi Pines should survive in the wild, undetected, a relatively short drive from Sydney for so many years; after all, these trees are descendants of individuals that had survived since the era of the dinosaurs − though they now exist in the wild in only one place in the world, with fewer than 100 adult specimens known.

Survivors for sale

What was surprising was that these wild specimens were saved from the wildfires, in a complex operation that involved firefighters being lowered from helicopters into the narrow steep-sided ridges where the trees dwell, along with planes strategically bombing the advancing firefront with fire retardant.

And well in advance of events these past months, authorities had covered their bets by doing all they could to increase the species’ chance of survival. Since 2006, a propagation program has made these trees available to botanical gardens so their numbers could be increased; I’ve subsequently run across Aussies who have grown the plants from seeds in their living rooms. (In Australia, seedlings can even be ordered online,  and the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney offer information on Wollemi care, conservation, and research.)

More than that, when it looked like the wildfires were in imminent danger of destroying the only existing stand of these trees in the wild, leaders had the foresight to rely on the recommendations of scientists, firefighters, and other experts as to how to proceed. They then worked out a plan and put it into action − actively dealing with the problem rather than denying it existed.

In short, in the time since the Wollemi Pines were discovered, government agencies, nonprofit organisations, private enterprise and volunteer efforts successfully worked together over decades to protect the trees from extinction.

Which makes one wonder, once again, what we in the States could learn from observing the Australian experience. − Climate News Network

This story originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Buried amid the horrific news from Australia about climate change and out-of-control wildfire was a positive story: the saving of rare trees.

CHICAGO, 5 February, 2020 − An Associated Press story  titled Firefighters in Australia save unique prehistoric trees brought a scarce gleam of hope: “Firefighters winched from helicopters to reach the cluster of fewer than 200 Wollemi Pines in a remote gorge in the Blue Mountains a week before a massive wildfire bore down… the firefighters set up an irrigation system to keep the so-called dinosaur trees moist, and pumped water daily from the gorge as the blaze that had burned out of control for two months edged closer.”

This news had particular significance to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, the successful protection of this endangered species could hint at things to come − if we play our cards right.

For another, I know the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (though I have not been to that grove of trees − whose exact location has been kept a secret by botanists ever since it was first discovered in 1994.)

I spent four years down-under, first as an American researcher on a Fulbright grant to see what we in the States could learn from looking at the Australian experience, and then as a roving foreign correspondent for science-related US magazines such as International Wildlife, Scientific American, and the journal Science, among others.

My job was to travel over the land down-under, reporting on natural history, the environment, and science in the Great South Land for publications back home in the States − as well as magazines like Australian Geographic.

Easy to miss

Which was how I became acquainted with the Blue Mountains, a lesser-known area about 120 miles west of Sydney. They’re a surprisingly steep, thickly wooded, and easily overlooked mountain chain, much like an Aussie version of our Appalachians. And much like the Appalachians, their deep ravines held up westward exploration and expansion for a long time. But there the parallels end.

Walking in Australia’s Blue Mountains is an unworldly experience. There are no squirrels or chipmunks; instead, parrots occupy that ecological niche. My edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Australia lists 23 different species of parrots alone.

Just a short list of the formal names of some of the individual species gives an idea of the colorful diversity you can see: Blue-winged, Orange-bellied, Golden-shouldered, Scarlet-chested, Red-rumped, and Turquoise parrots. Not to mention Elegant, Paradise, Superb, and King parrots.

And instead of smelling pine trees, your nose registers the scent of eucalypts. Look up at the stars at night, and there’s not a single familiar constellation; instead you see celestial objects like the Jewel Box Cluster − while hearing the mocking laugh of kookaburras.

Even the food tastes different − in place of pepperoni or sausage, toppings at the Australian Pizza Kitchen in Canberra include emu and kangaroo (I prefer the kangaroo).

“These trees are descendants of individuals that had survived since the era of the dinosaurs”

And some of the trees in parts of the Blueys − as they’re called − resemble nothing so much as short stumps with ferns popping out of their sides willy-nilly; everything looks so primeval you half-expect to see escapees from Jurassic Park poking their snouts out.

Indeed, in far-north Queensland I and my parents were to be stalked by a full-grown, adult male cassowary, defending his mate. We took shelter behind a large tropical tree, trying to keep the trunk between us and the approximately 200-pound, 6-foot-tall creature as it circled around.

This pervasive feeling of encounters with the primeval is appropriate. Australia is a very ancient land, which used to be part of what geologists call Gondwana − when most of the world’s landmasses were linked together in the distant past.

But while the other landforms went on to become continents such as South America and Africa, Australia remained a giant island continent, cut off from the rest of the planet. And species that died out elsewhere continued to thrive, and evolve, here.

(Just why species do so well on islands, and why evolution seems to speed up on them, is something that kept Charles Darwin busy. An entire field of island biogeography has sprung up to delve into its mysteries.)

Human rarities

Even now, some parts of Australia are so isolated that the wildlife has seldom seen humans. So far as researchers can tell, no Aborigines, Melanesians, Micronesians, Polynesians, or Caucasians ever settled on Australia’s Lord Howe Island until 1834; consequently, the wildlife never learned to be afraid of humans.

When I went there, you could stand at the foot of Lord Howe’s tallest mountain, call up to the providence petrels nesting as much as a hundred feet above, and watch the birds glide down to land at your feet. If you’re really good, you may be able to touch them, or at least have one land on your outstretched arm.

Due to these vagaries of isolation, ancient and unique species seem to abound in Australia − though they can be easily overlooked. Drive along the highway outside Shark Bay in the state of Western Australia, and you’ll spot weird dark, mushroom-shaped, rock-like structures in the shallows of the hyper-salty water; they’re actually living mats of blue-green algae known as stromatolites − Greek for “layered rock.”

Stromatolites are one of the oldest forms of life that we know of, essentially unchanged since their ancestors flourished 3.5 billion years ago. They were previously known to us only from fossils, until first discovered in this region in the 1980s.

So it’s not entirely surprising that Wollemi Pines should survive in the wild, undetected, a relatively short drive from Sydney for so many years; after all, these trees are descendants of individuals that had survived since the era of the dinosaurs − though they now exist in the wild in only one place in the world, with fewer than 100 adult specimens known.

Survivors for sale

What was surprising was that these wild specimens were saved from the wildfires, in a complex operation that involved firefighters being lowered from helicopters into the narrow steep-sided ridges where the trees dwell, along with planes strategically bombing the advancing firefront with fire retardant.

And well in advance of events these past months, authorities had covered their bets by doing all they could to increase the species’ chance of survival. Since 2006, a propagation program has made these trees available to botanical gardens so their numbers could be increased; I’ve subsequently run across Aussies who have grown the plants from seeds in their living rooms. (In Australia, seedlings can even be ordered online,  and the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney offer information on Wollemi care, conservation, and research.)

More than that, when it looked like the wildfires were in imminent danger of destroying the only existing stand of these trees in the wild, leaders had the foresight to rely on the recommendations of scientists, firefighters, and other experts as to how to proceed. They then worked out a plan and put it into action − actively dealing with the problem rather than denying it existed.

In short, in the time since the Wollemi Pines were discovered, government agencies, nonprofit organisations, private enterprise and volunteer efforts successfully worked together over decades to protect the trees from extinction.

Which makes one wonder, once again, what we in the States could learn from observing the Australian experience. − Climate News Network

Ex-general takes over Brazil’s Amazon protection

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a former soldier. He’s now appointed an ex-military colleague to oversee Amazon protection, causing widespread dismay.

SÃO PAULO, 31 January, 2020 − Alarmed by warnings that his neglect of the need to protect the Amazon could lead to disinvestment and export bans, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has turned to his usual solution to problems: call in the army.

He has chosen his vice-president, retired general Hamilton Mourão, to head a new Amazon Council which will co-ordinate “the activities of all the ministries involved in the protection, defence and development and sustainable development of the Amazon”.

He has also decided to create a new environmental police force (in Portuguese) to protect the Amazon. The “Green Police” will recruit agents from local state forces.

The creation of the council is a belated attempt to undo the damage done in the first year of Bolsonaro’s government, when the environment ministry was entrusted to right-wing climate sceptic Ricardo Salles.

Salles, a São Paulo lawyer who had never set foot in the Amazon and faces charges of fraud dating from his term as environment secretary of the local state government, immediately set about dismantling the ministry’s capacity to monitor deforestation, enforce the law and fine offenders, replacing experienced, qualified staff with retired police officers, and blaming Greenpeace and other NGOs for environmental disasters.

“What finally persuaded Bolsonaro that he had to listen to the critics was pressure from Brazilian exporters and foreign investors”

As a result of his unfounded accusations of irregularities among recipients, Norway and Germany suspended their contributions to the billion dollar Amazon Fund, set up in 2000 to finance sustainable development projects and firefighting brigades.

Bolsonaro also gave the go-ahead to wildcat miners and landgrabbers to invade protected areas, with remarks that disparaged indigenous peoples and encouraged economic activities in the rainforest.

The effect of this policy was a huge surge in Amazon forest fires and a big increase in deforestation over the previous year. When confronted with the figures, Bolsonaro’s answer was to accuse the head of Brazil’s internationally respected monitoring agency, INPE, of lying and being in the pay of NGOs, forcing him to resign.

What finally persuaded Bolsonaro that he had to listen to the critics was pressure from Brazilian exporters and foreign investors.

Change of tune

With disinvestment in environmentally unsustainable areas growing, large investment fund managers warned that pressure from shareholders, increasingly worried about the climate crisis, would force them to pull out of Brazil unless the government changed its tune and began protecting the Amazon.

Brazil’s politically powerful agribusiness lobby spelt out the consequences for their grain and meat exports if the government continued to encourage deforestation, because consumers now demand sustainability.

But instead of sacking his environment minister or increasing funds to prevent deforestation and fires, Bolsonaro has appointed Hamilton Mourão, whose Amazon experience is five years as military commander in the region, to sort out the problem.

Scientists, environmentalists and NGOs with years of experience in the Amazon were not consulted before the surprise move. Even Mourão himself, when interviewed, was vague about what he is meant to do or how he will do it.

Ignoring local knowledge

The army’s involvement in the Amazon began in the 1960s when Brazil was at the beginning of a 21-year-long military dictatorship. The key word was development – highways, dams, cattle ranches – ignoring the indigenous and traditional people who already lived there. As a result, thousands were displaced and many died from diseases transmittted by outsiders.

The decision to resort to the military has caused dismay among environmentalists. Suely Araújo, former head of Ibama, the environmental enforcement agency, who resigned in protest (in Portuguese) at the minister’s and Bolsonaro’s comments, said: “The solution is not in militarising environmental policy… military support for operations in critical areas might be necessary, but it should be understood that environmental monitoring has to go way beyond troops on the ground.”

She pointed out that Ibama’s 2020 budget for monitoring work throughout Brazil has been slashed by 25% over the previous year.

The latest figures from INPE show an 85.3% increase in deforestation (in Portuguese) for the year ending in August 2019, compared with the year before. Fires for the same period were 30% higher. − Climate News Network

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a former soldier. He’s now appointed an ex-military colleague to oversee Amazon protection, causing widespread dismay.

SÃO PAULO, 31 January, 2020 − Alarmed by warnings that his neglect of the need to protect the Amazon could lead to disinvestment and export bans, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has turned to his usual solution to problems: call in the army.

He has chosen his vice-president, retired general Hamilton Mourão, to head a new Amazon Council which will co-ordinate “the activities of all the ministries involved in the protection, defence and development and sustainable development of the Amazon”.

He has also decided to create a new environmental police force (in Portuguese) to protect the Amazon. The “Green Police” will recruit agents from local state forces.

The creation of the council is a belated attempt to undo the damage done in the first year of Bolsonaro’s government, when the environment ministry was entrusted to right-wing climate sceptic Ricardo Salles.

Salles, a São Paulo lawyer who had never set foot in the Amazon and faces charges of fraud dating from his term as environment secretary of the local state government, immediately set about dismantling the ministry’s capacity to monitor deforestation, enforce the law and fine offenders, replacing experienced, qualified staff with retired police officers, and blaming Greenpeace and other NGOs for environmental disasters.

“What finally persuaded Bolsonaro that he had to listen to the critics was pressure from Brazilian exporters and foreign investors”

As a result of his unfounded accusations of irregularities among recipients, Norway and Germany suspended their contributions to the billion dollar Amazon Fund, set up in 2000 to finance sustainable development projects and firefighting brigades.

Bolsonaro also gave the go-ahead to wildcat miners and landgrabbers to invade protected areas, with remarks that disparaged indigenous peoples and encouraged economic activities in the rainforest.

The effect of this policy was a huge surge in Amazon forest fires and a big increase in deforestation over the previous year. When confronted with the figures, Bolsonaro’s answer was to accuse the head of Brazil’s internationally respected monitoring agency, INPE, of lying and being in the pay of NGOs, forcing him to resign.

What finally persuaded Bolsonaro that he had to listen to the critics was pressure from Brazilian exporters and foreign investors.

Change of tune

With disinvestment in environmentally unsustainable areas growing, large investment fund managers warned that pressure from shareholders, increasingly worried about the climate crisis, would force them to pull out of Brazil unless the government changed its tune and began protecting the Amazon.

Brazil’s politically powerful agribusiness lobby spelt out the consequences for their grain and meat exports if the government continued to encourage deforestation, because consumers now demand sustainability.

But instead of sacking his environment minister or increasing funds to prevent deforestation and fires, Bolsonaro has appointed Hamilton Mourão, whose Amazon experience is five years as military commander in the region, to sort out the problem.

Scientists, environmentalists and NGOs with years of experience in the Amazon were not consulted before the surprise move. Even Mourão himself, when interviewed, was vague about what he is meant to do or how he will do it.

Ignoring local knowledge

The army’s involvement in the Amazon began in the 1960s when Brazil was at the beginning of a 21-year-long military dictatorship. The key word was development – highways, dams, cattle ranches – ignoring the indigenous and traditional people who already lived there. As a result, thousands were displaced and many died from diseases transmittted by outsiders.

The decision to resort to the military has caused dismay among environmentalists. Suely Araújo, former head of Ibama, the environmental enforcement agency, who resigned in protest (in Portuguese) at the minister’s and Bolsonaro’s comments, said: “The solution is not in militarising environmental policy… military support for operations in critical areas might be necessary, but it should be understood that environmental monitoring has to go way beyond troops on the ground.”

She pointed out that Ibama’s 2020 budget for monitoring work throughout Brazil has been slashed by 25% over the previous year.

The latest figures from INPE show an 85.3% increase in deforestation (in Portuguese) for the year ending in August 2019, compared with the year before. Fires for the same period were 30% higher. − Climate News Network

Climate heat means new wine from familiar places

Each great wine is a unique product of place and climate. Rising heat could force new wine into old, prized bottles from famous cellars.

LONDON, 30 January, 2020 – As global average temperatures rise, so does uncertainty for the world’s wine-growers – with new wine the likely result. The great Bordeaux region of France will survive – but only if it stops serving claret.

Burgundy will still value its vines, but these won’t produce the high-priced tipple that the law defines as burgundy. Instead, what comes out of the cellars of Beaune or the Cote d’Or will be more like the output now from the southern Rhone.

That is always supposing that the growers keep up with rising temperatures by choosing grape varieties more likely to flourish with climate heating. A new study by European, Canadian and US scientists suggests that, even if the world’s most prized vineyards do abandon the grape varieties that made them prized in the first place, they will still lose up to a quarter of the space now in cultivation.

And if they don’t, the great wine regions of Europe could say goodbye to half their vineyards altogether. Producers in cool climates – Germany, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest – could avoid major losses, but they will be tempted to switch to later-ripening varieties.

“Wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive”

In the United Kingdom, where until very lately any wine harvest has been a gamble, the terrain might become suitable for at least five new varieties. New Zealand’s range of grape choices could double.

But Burgundian growers might have to forego the famously temperamental pinot noir grape and switch to grenache, or mourvedre, known in Spain as monastrell. The vintners of St Emilion, Pomerol and Medoc could see their cabernet sauvignon and merlot varieties replaced by mourvedre, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In fact, Europe’s growers have already had several warnings: hot and dry summers are now, for France, the norm. Extreme summer temperatures take their toll not just of the yield on the vine, but also of the people who have to pick the grapes, and even of the oak trees that provide the bark for the corks in the finished product.

Temperatures have already risen by more than 1°C worldwide, and the cool region of Champagne could be about to lose its sparkle.

Medieval records

But the new study is about far more than just the high-priced product of high-status wine regions. There are more than 1000 varieties of the grape Vitis vinifera, many of them sensitive to specific temperature and rainfall conditions. Even more helpfully, scientists can call upon harvest records that date back to medieval times.

So the grape seemed a good proxy for all of agriculture: from apples to wheat, from bananas to brassicas, the world’s growers can call on a huge range of crop varieties to buffer them from the shock of climate change driven by ever-increasing use of fossil fuels and ever-greater emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive,” said co-author Benjamin Cook, of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in the US.

The scientists considered 11 kinds of cultivar and dates of budding, flowering and harvest matched to seasonal temperature records, and found that if global temperatures rise by 2°C – and there is every indication that they could rise by more than 3°C – at least 51% of current wine-growing regions could be wiped out.

Higher warmth difficulties

“These estimates however ignore important changes that growers can make,” said Elizabeth Wolkovich, of the University of British Columbia, another author.

“We found that by switching to different varieties, vintners can lessen the damage to just 24% of areas lost. For example, in Burgundy, France, vintners can consider planting more heat-tolerant varieties such as syrah and grenache to replace the dominant pinot noir. And growers in regions such as Bordeaux may swap out cabernet sauvignon and merlot for mourvedre.”

But that’s if warming is limited to just 2°C. “At four degrees, around 77% of all areas may be lost, and planting new varieties will limit this to 58% losses,” said Ignacio Morales-Castilla, of the University of Acalá in Spain, who led the study.

“Wine-growing regions can adapt to a lower level of warming but at higher warming, it’s much harder.” – Climate News Network

Each great wine is a unique product of place and climate. Rising heat could force new wine into old, prized bottles from famous cellars.

LONDON, 30 January, 2020 – As global average temperatures rise, so does uncertainty for the world’s wine-growers – with new wine the likely result. The great Bordeaux region of France will survive – but only if it stops serving claret.

Burgundy will still value its vines, but these won’t produce the high-priced tipple that the law defines as burgundy. Instead, what comes out of the cellars of Beaune or the Cote d’Or will be more like the output now from the southern Rhone.

That is always supposing that the growers keep up with rising temperatures by choosing grape varieties more likely to flourish with climate heating. A new study by European, Canadian and US scientists suggests that, even if the world’s most prized vineyards do abandon the grape varieties that made them prized in the first place, they will still lose up to a quarter of the space now in cultivation.

And if they don’t, the great wine regions of Europe could say goodbye to half their vineyards altogether. Producers in cool climates – Germany, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest – could avoid major losses, but they will be tempted to switch to later-ripening varieties.

“Wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive”

In the United Kingdom, where until very lately any wine harvest has been a gamble, the terrain might become suitable for at least five new varieties. New Zealand’s range of grape choices could double.

But Burgundian growers might have to forego the famously temperamental pinot noir grape and switch to grenache, or mourvedre, known in Spain as monastrell. The vintners of St Emilion, Pomerol and Medoc could see their cabernet sauvignon and merlot varieties replaced by mourvedre, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In fact, Europe’s growers have already had several warnings: hot and dry summers are now, for France, the norm. Extreme summer temperatures take their toll not just of the yield on the vine, but also of the people who have to pick the grapes, and even of the oak trees that provide the bark for the corks in the finished product.

Temperatures have already risen by more than 1°C worldwide, and the cool region of Champagne could be about to lose its sparkle.

Medieval records

But the new study is about far more than just the high-priced product of high-status wine regions. There are more than 1000 varieties of the grape Vitis vinifera, many of them sensitive to specific temperature and rainfall conditions. Even more helpfully, scientists can call upon harvest records that date back to medieval times.

So the grape seemed a good proxy for all of agriculture: from apples to wheat, from bananas to brassicas, the world’s growers can call on a huge range of crop varieties to buffer them from the shock of climate change driven by ever-increasing use of fossil fuels and ever-greater emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive,” said co-author Benjamin Cook, of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in the US.

The scientists considered 11 kinds of cultivar and dates of budding, flowering and harvest matched to seasonal temperature records, and found that if global temperatures rise by 2°C – and there is every indication that they could rise by more than 3°C – at least 51% of current wine-growing regions could be wiped out.

Higher warmth difficulties

“These estimates however ignore important changes that growers can make,” said Elizabeth Wolkovich, of the University of British Columbia, another author.

“We found that by switching to different varieties, vintners can lessen the damage to just 24% of areas lost. For example, in Burgundy, France, vintners can consider planting more heat-tolerant varieties such as syrah and grenache to replace the dominant pinot noir. And growers in regions such as Bordeaux may swap out cabernet sauvignon and merlot for mourvedre.”

But that’s if warming is limited to just 2°C. “At four degrees, around 77% of all areas may be lost, and planting new varieties will limit this to 58% losses,” said Ignacio Morales-Castilla, of the University of Acalá in Spain, who led the study.

“Wine-growing regions can adapt to a lower level of warming but at higher warming, it’s much harder.” – 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