Category Archives: Nature

Nature’s accounts show what the world does for us

People go on getting richer, and the planet pays a mounting price. There’s a better way to balance nature’s accounts.

LONDON, 24 June, 2020 – It may take a while to catch on, but one day the financial pages of the daily newspaper could be quoting a new register of national wealth: called gross ecosystem product, this way of balancing nature’s accounts makes clear how much we really depend on the Earth.

And it would be a real-world indicator of prosperity you could have confidence in: a measure in cash terms of the health of the forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife of both nations and regions and – more precisely – of the benefits heedless humans take for granted.

These include the insect pollination of crops; the control of insect pests by birds and bats; the supply of fresh, safe water from mountain streams, rivers, springs and lakes; the management of waste by scavengers and microbes; the recycling of nutrients; and all the myriad services provided by plants, animals and topography. This is sometimes called “natural capital.”

The measure has already formally been tested in one province in China and matched with the more familiar indicator: Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.

Flying blind

Chinese scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that in the year 2000, the gross ecosystem product or GEP of Qinghai province was greater than its GDP.

By 2015, after phenomenal economic growth, it was still three-fourths the size of its GDP. And the form this natural wealth took? Mostly water supplies to other crowded regions: Qinghai is where the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers rise.

“We’re basically flying blind when it comes to knowing where and how much nature to protect,” said Gretchen Daily, an environmental scientist at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences in California, and one of the report’s authors.

“GEP tracks the vital contributions of nature to society, informs investments in securing them and helps evaluate the performance of leaders and policies.”

And her British co-author, Ian Bateman, an economist at the University of Exeter, said: “The global economy as conventionally measured by GDP more than doubled between 1990 and 2015. However, at the same time our stocks of ‘ecosystem assets’ – such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, fertile soils and biodiversity – have come under increasing pressure.”

“We were able to place a value on important ecosystem services, especially water supply, that Qinghai currently exports to other provinces but receives no credit for in the GDP calculation”

He continued: “These things are obviously valuable in many ways – including to human wellbeing. However, in this study we examine the benefits they bring us measured in a way that governments and business can understand.”

Naturalists, conservationists and economists have repeatedly argued that it makes better economic sense to conserve nature rather than to exploit it: untouched natural forest or grassland contributes more to everybody’s wealth than any clear-felling project or conversion to cattle-grazing.

Scientists and economists have again and again tried to calculate the cash value to humankind of nature’s goods and services, and to steer development in a sustainable fashion.

They have repeatedly warned that global heating driven by profligate use of fossil fuels is almost certain to hit the pockets of the poorest most cruelly.

And they have warned that uncontrolled exploitation of once untouched natural forests, mangrove estuaries, grasslands, wetlands and coral reefs that precipitates mass extinction of species is certain to impoverish billions in the long run.

Direct test

But to persuade governments that natural capital represents an investment with measurable returns, economists need a standard global measure. GEP could be it.

The measure was tested directly in what is sometimes called the “water tower” of Asia. The logic is that if the people of that region care for their natural habitat, and people downstream benefit directly from that care, then those downstream should also contribute to the costs of care.

“Qinghai is rich in natural capital but its GDP alone does not reflect that value”, said the study’s lead author, Zhiyun Ouyang, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Using this new metric we were able to place a value on important ecosystem services, especially water supply, that Qinghai currently exports to other provinces but receives no credit for in the GDP calculation.” – Climate News Network

People go on getting richer, and the planet pays a mounting price. There’s a better way to balance nature’s accounts.

LONDON, 24 June, 2020 – It may take a while to catch on, but one day the financial pages of the daily newspaper could be quoting a new register of national wealth: called gross ecosystem product, this way of balancing nature’s accounts makes clear how much we really depend on the Earth.

And it would be a real-world indicator of prosperity you could have confidence in: a measure in cash terms of the health of the forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife of both nations and regions and – more precisely – of the benefits heedless humans take for granted.

These include the insect pollination of crops; the control of insect pests by birds and bats; the supply of fresh, safe water from mountain streams, rivers, springs and lakes; the management of waste by scavengers and microbes; the recycling of nutrients; and all the myriad services provided by plants, animals and topography. This is sometimes called “natural capital.”

The measure has already formally been tested in one province in China and matched with the more familiar indicator: Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.

Flying blind

Chinese scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that in the year 2000, the gross ecosystem product or GEP of Qinghai province was greater than its GDP.

By 2015, after phenomenal economic growth, it was still three-fourths the size of its GDP. And the form this natural wealth took? Mostly water supplies to other crowded regions: Qinghai is where the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers rise.

“We’re basically flying blind when it comes to knowing where and how much nature to protect,” said Gretchen Daily, an environmental scientist at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences in California, and one of the report’s authors.

“GEP tracks the vital contributions of nature to society, informs investments in securing them and helps evaluate the performance of leaders and policies.”

And her British co-author, Ian Bateman, an economist at the University of Exeter, said: “The global economy as conventionally measured by GDP more than doubled between 1990 and 2015. However, at the same time our stocks of ‘ecosystem assets’ – such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, fertile soils and biodiversity – have come under increasing pressure.”

“We were able to place a value on important ecosystem services, especially water supply, that Qinghai currently exports to other provinces but receives no credit for in the GDP calculation”

He continued: “These things are obviously valuable in many ways – including to human wellbeing. However, in this study we examine the benefits they bring us measured in a way that governments and business can understand.”

Naturalists, conservationists and economists have repeatedly argued that it makes better economic sense to conserve nature rather than to exploit it: untouched natural forest or grassland contributes more to everybody’s wealth than any clear-felling project or conversion to cattle-grazing.

Scientists and economists have again and again tried to calculate the cash value to humankind of nature’s goods and services, and to steer development in a sustainable fashion.

They have repeatedly warned that global heating driven by profligate use of fossil fuels is almost certain to hit the pockets of the poorest most cruelly.

And they have warned that uncontrolled exploitation of once untouched natural forests, mangrove estuaries, grasslands, wetlands and coral reefs that precipitates mass extinction of species is certain to impoverish billions in the long run.

Direct test

But to persuade governments that natural capital represents an investment with measurable returns, economists need a standard global measure. GEP could be it.

The measure was tested directly in what is sometimes called the “water tower” of Asia. The logic is that if the people of that region care for their natural habitat, and people downstream benefit directly from that care, then those downstream should also contribute to the costs of care.

“Qinghai is rich in natural capital but its GDP alone does not reflect that value”, said the study’s lead author, Zhiyun Ouyang, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Using this new metric we were able to place a value on important ecosystem services, especially water supply, that Qinghai currently exports to other provinces but receives no credit for in the GDP calculation.” – Climate News Network

Forest trees are growing shorter and dying younger

Temperatures could get too high for tropical forests, and forest trees everywhere are changing in response to human action.

LONDON, 9 June, 2020 – There are limits to what forest trees will tolerate; many tropical forests, for instance, can cope with climate change – but only up to a point. Again, they will go on storing carbon from human greenhouse gas emissions – but only to a degree.

But at around the 32°C threshold, tree growth halts and trees start to die more frequently, putting carbon back into the atmosphere, to accelerate more global heating, according to a detailed study of trees in more than 800 tropical forests.

And a second, unrelated study of forests worldwide finds separate evidence of the impact of climate change. Thanks to human action, forest trees are now younger – and shorter.

The point of the first study is that, in their natural and undisturbed state, the world’s tropical forests can take the heat, but there may be a limit to their capacity for change, and that limit is a daytime maximum of 32.2°C.

A collective of 225 researchers in South America, Africa and Asia report in the journal Science that they made 2 million measurements of 10,000 tropical tree species in sample plots in 24 countries to examine the capacity of forests to absorb atmospheric carbon in a rapidly heating world.

Safety zone

“Our analysis reveals that up to a certain point of heating, tropical forests are surprisingly resistant to small temperature differences. If we limit climate change they can continue to store a large amount of carbon in a warmer world,” said Martin Sullivan, a geographer at the University of Leeds, and at Manchester Metropolitan University, who led the study.

“The 32-degree threshold highlights the critical importance of cutting our emissions to avoid pushing too many forests beyond the safety zone.

“For example, if we limit global average temperatures to a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels, this pushes nearly three-quarters of tropical forests above the heat threshold we identified. Any further increases in temperature will lead to rapid losses of forest carbon.”

The finding suggests that overall, and independently of species of tree, tropical forest carbon declines with higher temperatures. In all forests, trees flourish and absorb carbon, die back and release it again. But at their best, forests on balance absorb and store away for centuries more carbon than they release – until the thermometer starts to rise and goes on rising.

“Reductions in forest age and height are already happening, and they’re likely to continue to happen”

A co-author, Beatriz Marimon of the State University of Matto Grosso in Brazil, said: “Each degree increase above this 32-degree threshold releases four times as much carbon as would have been released below the threshold.”

The message is that tropical forests need to be protected from climate change, deforestation and wildlife exploitation: that way, they protect  biodiversity, protect themselves, and protect humankind, for future generations. They can adapt to warming temperatures, but this takes decades, perhaps centuries.

But according to another study, also in Science, forest trees the world over are now changing. They are responding to ever higher levels of atmospheric carbon – in effect, they are being fertilised – but also wildfire, drought, windstorm damage, insect attack and disease have become more frequent and more severe with climate change.

And then there has been the direct impact of human economic demand: clearance, disturbance and economic exploitation.

In consequence, US and European scientists conclude, from detailed satellite data and from reviews of more than 160 previous studies, that there has been a “pervasive shift” in forest dynamics, and a dramatic decrease in the age and stature of the forests. The world’s trees on average are younger, and shorter.

Drastic change

“This trend is likely to continue with global warming,” said Nate McDowell,  of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who led the research.

“A future planet with fewer large, old forests will be very different than what we have grown accustomed to. Older forests often host much higher biodiversity than young forests, and they store more carbon than young forests.”

So direct and indirect human action have – in the big picture – affected the way forests shelter new seedlings, the growth of all trees, and the rate of death of those trees. Mortality is going up, while recruitment and growth are faltering.

“Unfortunately, mortality drivers like rising temperature and disturbances are on the rise and are expected to continue increasing in frequency over the next century,” Dr McDowell said.

“So reductions in forest age and height are already happening, and they’re likely to continue to happen.” – Climate News Network

Temperatures could get too high for tropical forests, and forest trees everywhere are changing in response to human action.

LONDON, 9 June, 2020 – There are limits to what forest trees will tolerate; many tropical forests, for instance, can cope with climate change – but only up to a point. Again, they will go on storing carbon from human greenhouse gas emissions – but only to a degree.

But at around the 32°C threshold, tree growth halts and trees start to die more frequently, putting carbon back into the atmosphere, to accelerate more global heating, according to a detailed study of trees in more than 800 tropical forests.

And a second, unrelated study of forests worldwide finds separate evidence of the impact of climate change. Thanks to human action, forest trees are now younger – and shorter.

The point of the first study is that, in their natural and undisturbed state, the world’s tropical forests can take the heat, but there may be a limit to their capacity for change, and that limit is a daytime maximum of 32.2°C.

A collective of 225 researchers in South America, Africa and Asia report in the journal Science that they made 2 million measurements of 10,000 tropical tree species in sample plots in 24 countries to examine the capacity of forests to absorb atmospheric carbon in a rapidly heating world.

Safety zone

“Our analysis reveals that up to a certain point of heating, tropical forests are surprisingly resistant to small temperature differences. If we limit climate change they can continue to store a large amount of carbon in a warmer world,” said Martin Sullivan, a geographer at the University of Leeds, and at Manchester Metropolitan University, who led the study.

“The 32-degree threshold highlights the critical importance of cutting our emissions to avoid pushing too many forests beyond the safety zone.

“For example, if we limit global average temperatures to a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels, this pushes nearly three-quarters of tropical forests above the heat threshold we identified. Any further increases in temperature will lead to rapid losses of forest carbon.”

The finding suggests that overall, and independently of species of tree, tropical forest carbon declines with higher temperatures. In all forests, trees flourish and absorb carbon, die back and release it again. But at their best, forests on balance absorb and store away for centuries more carbon than they release – until the thermometer starts to rise and goes on rising.

“Reductions in forest age and height are already happening, and they’re likely to continue to happen”

A co-author, Beatriz Marimon of the State University of Matto Grosso in Brazil, said: “Each degree increase above this 32-degree threshold releases four times as much carbon as would have been released below the threshold.”

The message is that tropical forests need to be protected from climate change, deforestation and wildlife exploitation: that way, they protect  biodiversity, protect themselves, and protect humankind, for future generations. They can adapt to warming temperatures, but this takes decades, perhaps centuries.

But according to another study, also in Science, forest trees the world over are now changing. They are responding to ever higher levels of atmospheric carbon – in effect, they are being fertilised – but also wildfire, drought, windstorm damage, insect attack and disease have become more frequent and more severe with climate change.

And then there has been the direct impact of human economic demand: clearance, disturbance and economic exploitation.

In consequence, US and European scientists conclude, from detailed satellite data and from reviews of more than 160 previous studies, that there has been a “pervasive shift” in forest dynamics, and a dramatic decrease in the age and stature of the forests. The world’s trees on average are younger, and shorter.

Drastic change

“This trend is likely to continue with global warming,” said Nate McDowell,  of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who led the research.

“A future planet with fewer large, old forests will be very different than what we have grown accustomed to. Older forests often host much higher biodiversity than young forests, and they store more carbon than young forests.”

So direct and indirect human action have – in the big picture – affected the way forests shelter new seedlings, the growth of all trees, and the rate of death of those trees. Mortality is going up, while recruitment and growth are faltering.

“Unfortunately, mortality drivers like rising temperature and disturbances are on the rise and are expected to continue increasing in frequency over the next century,” Dr McDowell said.

“So reductions in forest age and height are already happening, and they’re likely to continue to happen.” – Climate News Network

Millions of species face extinction emergency

An extinction emergency unparalleled in the history of life on Earth could soon overtake millions of species – thanks to us.

LONDON, 8 June, 2020 – More than 500 terrestrial vertebrate species – birds, amphibians, mammals, reptiles – are on the brink of a worldwide extinction emergency. These are animal species with surviving populations of fewer than 1,000 individuals. They are to be found in tropical and subtropical regions and, significantly, they are concentrated in regions heavily affected by human activities.

Extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process. But the number of simultaneously threatened species, and the link to direct human pressure, adds support for the argument that humanity is now witnessing the sixth, and possibly greatest, mass extinction in the history of life.

The same research has identified 388 vertebrate species with fewer than 5000 individuals in the surviving populations. Of these, more than four-fifths cling to survival in the same threatened regions, and may therefore also be heading for the brink of extinction.

Three distinguished scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they analysed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species to identify 29,400 terrestrial vertebrates, 1.7% of which had fewer than 1,000 remaining individuals anywhere in the world.

There are many cases of local extinction: for a mix of reasons, birds or butterflies might disappear from places where they once were many, but continue to flourish in other zones. But too many local extinctions soon amount to global obliteration: the researchers identified 237,000 populations of vertebrates that had vanished since 1900.

Massive impact ahead

They see an ecological catastrophe in the making, and they urge governments and international agencies to act.

“What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two decades will define the fate of millions of species,” said study lead author Gerardo Ceballos, a senior researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology.

“We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably sabotaged.”

And his co-author Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in California said: “When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system.

“The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption, to which it is linked.”

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes”

Nearly a fourth of all species on the planet could face extinction. In the course of the 11,000 years since the invention of agriculture human numbers have multiplied from about one million to 7.7 billion, and are rising fast. In the last 450 million years there have been at least five major extinctions, each destroying 70% to 90% of all life on Earth.

Although creatures alive on Earth today account for only 2% of all the creatures that have ever lived, the absolute number of species is greater now than ever before. “It is into such a biologically diverse world that we humans evolved, and such a world that we are destroying,” the authors write.

Extinction may be the greatest environmental problem, because it is irreversible. It is now happening at rates perhaps a thousand times faster than the “background rate” over the last tens of millions of years.

When a species disappears, it takes with it a unique set of biological riches, and – perhaps more dangerously – it creates a loss for other species that may in some way depend upon it. Extinction breeds extinction, the authors argue.

And as plants and animals vanish into oblivion, the biosphere’s capacity to recycle atmosphere, water and nutrients, to pollinate and fertilise, and to dispose of the dead and the waste, is diminished.

‘Ecological zombies’

Ecosystems that support and enrich all life also support and enrich humanity. At one stage 60 million bison maintained the prairie ecosystems of North America and in the course of doing so supported the then Native American population.

By 1884 only 325 individuals were left. The prairies are now largely farmland, and the 4000 surviving wild bison can be considered, the authors say, as “ecological zombies.”

Among other steps, they want to see a halt to the trade in wildlife – thought to be linked to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. All three have considerable reputations within science and they have all been making much the same argument for many years.

They calculate that in the last century 543 species of land vertebrate were extinguished. The same number could go in the next two decades. Human action created the problem: only human action can repair the damage.

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes,” said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the third of the signatories. – Climate News Network

An extinction emergency unparalleled in the history of life on Earth could soon overtake millions of species – thanks to us.

LONDON, 8 June, 2020 – More than 500 terrestrial vertebrate species – birds, amphibians, mammals, reptiles – are on the brink of a worldwide extinction emergency. These are animal species with surviving populations of fewer than 1,000 individuals. They are to be found in tropical and subtropical regions and, significantly, they are concentrated in regions heavily affected by human activities.

Extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process. But the number of simultaneously threatened species, and the link to direct human pressure, adds support for the argument that humanity is now witnessing the sixth, and possibly greatest, mass extinction in the history of life.

The same research has identified 388 vertebrate species with fewer than 5000 individuals in the surviving populations. Of these, more than four-fifths cling to survival in the same threatened regions, and may therefore also be heading for the brink of extinction.

Three distinguished scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they analysed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species to identify 29,400 terrestrial vertebrates, 1.7% of which had fewer than 1,000 remaining individuals anywhere in the world.

There are many cases of local extinction: for a mix of reasons, birds or butterflies might disappear from places where they once were many, but continue to flourish in other zones. But too many local extinctions soon amount to global obliteration: the researchers identified 237,000 populations of vertebrates that had vanished since 1900.

Massive impact ahead

They see an ecological catastrophe in the making, and they urge governments and international agencies to act.

“What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two decades will define the fate of millions of species,” said study lead author Gerardo Ceballos, a senior researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology.

“We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably sabotaged.”

And his co-author Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in California said: “When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system.

“The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption, to which it is linked.”

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes”

Nearly a fourth of all species on the planet could face extinction. In the course of the 11,000 years since the invention of agriculture human numbers have multiplied from about one million to 7.7 billion, and are rising fast. In the last 450 million years there have been at least five major extinctions, each destroying 70% to 90% of all life on Earth.

Although creatures alive on Earth today account for only 2% of all the creatures that have ever lived, the absolute number of species is greater now than ever before. “It is into such a biologically diverse world that we humans evolved, and such a world that we are destroying,” the authors write.

Extinction may be the greatest environmental problem, because it is irreversible. It is now happening at rates perhaps a thousand times faster than the “background rate” over the last tens of millions of years.

When a species disappears, it takes with it a unique set of biological riches, and – perhaps more dangerously – it creates a loss for other species that may in some way depend upon it. Extinction breeds extinction, the authors argue.

And as plants and animals vanish into oblivion, the biosphere’s capacity to recycle atmosphere, water and nutrients, to pollinate and fertilise, and to dispose of the dead and the waste, is diminished.

‘Ecological zombies’

Ecosystems that support and enrich all life also support and enrich humanity. At one stage 60 million bison maintained the prairie ecosystems of North America and in the course of doing so supported the then Native American population.

By 1884 only 325 individuals were left. The prairies are now largely farmland, and the 4000 surviving wild bison can be considered, the authors say, as “ecological zombies.”

Among other steps, they want to see a halt to the trade in wildlife – thought to be linked to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. All three have considerable reputations within science and they have all been making much the same argument for many years.

They calculate that in the last century 543 species of land vertebrate were extinguished. The same number could go in the next two decades. Human action created the problem: only human action can repair the damage.

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes,” said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the third of the signatories. – Climate News Network

Oxford basks in 140-year-old sunshine record

The ancient UK city of Oxford has registered a month-long sunshine record, the sunniest in nearly 150 years.

OXFORD, 4 June, 2020 – So far this year many parts of the world have seen weather records broken, and not always happily, as floods, storms, heat, cold, drought and more reach new extremes – but, in the temperate United Kingdom, swept frequently by Atlantic storms and Arctic gales, a sunshine record is something to marvel at.

That’s what has just been the experience of the city of Oxford, home not only to an ancient university but to a collection of the longest single-site weather records in the UK, with worldwide relevance.

The university’s Radcliffe Meteorological Station has measured a new record for sunshine. The total for the month just gone was 331.7 hours, making May 2020 the sunniest calendar month in the city since sunshine records began in February 1880, and far beyond the previous holder of the title, July 1911, with its total of 310.4 hours.

Oxford’s record May sunshine was 173% higher than the city’s long-term average total sunshine for the month, 192 hours. It was also higher than the long-term average May sunshine hours for Seville and Malaga (approximately 300hrs each ) in southern Spain.

“You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device”

Oxford’s statistics for the months from March to May show as well that spring 2020 has been far sunnier than anything measured in previous years, with 59.3 more hours of sunshine than the previous record, set in 1990.

This sequence of long sunny days has meant something else as well: an almost total absence of rain in Oxford, where rainfall records go back as far as 1767 (though in a different part of the city for the first five years). This month was the driest May since 1795 – only 3.5mm accumulated in the rain gauge.

The Radcliffe station measures sunshine with a robust device invented in 1853, called a Campbell–Stokes recorder, or a Stokes sphere. The original design consisted of a glass sphere set into a wooden bowl, on which the sun burnt a trace.

A modification replaced the bowl with a metal housing and a card holder set behind the sphere. The device, still in use almost unchanged after nearly 170 years, records the hours of sunshine bright enough to burn a hole through the card.

International worth

Thomas Caton Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, collected the final figures on 1 June to establish the previous day’s sunshine reading. He said: “You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device.”

The Radcliffe station has a unique place in both UK and international weather observation. Record-keeping began here in 1772, and an unbroken daily air temperature record has existed since November 1813. The daily rainfall record runs from January 1827, and sunshine from February 1880. These are the longest single-site weather records in the UK, and amongst the longest in the world.

They are especially valuable because the instruments in use and their exposure have been fully documented throughout the record. The station, based at Green Templeton College, has been managed by the university’s School of Geography and the Environment since 1935.

For more details see Oxford Weather and Climate since 1767, published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The book provides an analysis of the weather records from the Radcliffe Meteorological Station, one of the most detailed accounts for any city in the world. – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Ian Curtis is Development Officer of the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

The ancient UK city of Oxford has registered a month-long sunshine record, the sunniest in nearly 150 years.

OXFORD, 4 June, 2020 – So far this year many parts of the world have seen weather records broken, and not always happily, as floods, storms, heat, cold, drought and more reach new extremes – but, in the temperate United Kingdom, swept frequently by Atlantic storms and Arctic gales, a sunshine record is something to marvel at.

That’s what has just been the experience of the city of Oxford, home not only to an ancient university but to a collection of the longest single-site weather records in the UK, with worldwide relevance.

The university’s Radcliffe Meteorological Station has measured a new record for sunshine. The total for the month just gone was 331.7 hours, making May 2020 the sunniest calendar month in the city since sunshine records began in February 1880, and far beyond the previous holder of the title, July 1911, with its total of 310.4 hours.

Oxford’s record May sunshine was 173% higher than the city’s long-term average total sunshine for the month, 192 hours. It was also higher than the long-term average May sunshine hours for Seville and Malaga (approximately 300hrs each ) in southern Spain.

“You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device”

Oxford’s statistics for the months from March to May show as well that spring 2020 has been far sunnier than anything measured in previous years, with 59.3 more hours of sunshine than the previous record, set in 1990.

This sequence of long sunny days has meant something else as well: an almost total absence of rain in Oxford, where rainfall records go back as far as 1767 (though in a different part of the city for the first five years). This month was the driest May since 1795 – only 3.5mm accumulated in the rain gauge.

The Radcliffe station measures sunshine with a robust device invented in 1853, called a Campbell–Stokes recorder, or a Stokes sphere. The original design consisted of a glass sphere set into a wooden bowl, on which the sun burnt a trace.

A modification replaced the bowl with a metal housing and a card holder set behind the sphere. The device, still in use almost unchanged after nearly 170 years, records the hours of sunshine bright enough to burn a hole through the card.

International worth

Thomas Caton Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, collected the final figures on 1 June to establish the previous day’s sunshine reading. He said: “You can smell the burning card and sometimes see a small smoke trail. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully simple yet very clever device.”

The Radcliffe station has a unique place in both UK and international weather observation. Record-keeping began here in 1772, and an unbroken daily air temperature record has existed since November 1813. The daily rainfall record runs from January 1827, and sunshine from February 1880. These are the longest single-site weather records in the UK, and amongst the longest in the world.

They are especially valuable because the instruments in use and their exposure have been fully documented throughout the record. The station, based at Green Templeton College, has been managed by the university’s School of Geography and the Environment since 1935.

For more details see Oxford Weather and Climate since 1767, published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The book provides an analysis of the weather records from the Radcliffe Meteorological Station, one of the most detailed accounts for any city in the world. – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Ian Curtis is Development Officer of the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

Pandemic and climate extremes hit India together

A fearsome cyclone, other climate extremes, Covid-19 and now locust swarms – Indians may think life could hardly get worse.

DELHI, 2 June, 2020 – India is no stranger to coping with climate extremes and natural emergencies, but this year is likely to lodge in the national memory as one of the most challenging in recent history.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global scourge, but India also has many regional and national afflictions to make 2020 a year to forget – a massive heatwave, its strongest recorded cyclone, thunderstorms bringing huge hailstones, and floods. Now it is being assailed by all-devouring locust swarms, the worst in 25 years, leaving the land scarred.

Government figures showed more than 5,000 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May. The pandemic is causing a humanitarian crisis as well, with a huge reverse migration of penniless unskilled labourers who have lost their jobs in the cities and are now returning to their rural homes.

Five states – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra – have been invaded by the locusts. The swarms normally arrive to breed in June or July but this year the first flew in in mid-April, helped to spread by a strong west wind. Climate scientists say warmer waters in the western Indian Ocean also worsened the problem.

The only saving grace is that there are not many standing crops in many of the affected districts, as the monsoon sowing is yet to begin. “It is only the vegetables, orchards and trees that are the victims of this attack,” an official said.

“This is an emergency situation. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown”

As the locust threat developed, a range of devastating climate events hit the country in May, starting with heavy rain and hail which killed 29 people in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Next came Cyclone Amphan, bringing sustained windspeeds of 270 kms per hour.

It was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. When it hit the coast on 20 May more than 80 people died. West Bengal, on the eastern coast bordering Bangladesh, suffered a trail of destruction. The winds even damaged the tiger stronghold of the Sundarbans, the islands  whose mangrove forests in the delta of three major rivers normally give Bengal some protection from the storms.

Amphan’s rampage caused the evacuation of 300,000 people to shelter. Many acres of agricultural land near the coast were flooded by salty water and are now unusable. The government estimated the initial losses caused by the cyclone at one trillion rupees (US$13.2 billion).

Amphan’s storm surge was among its most dangerous threats. Global sea levels have already increased by about 23 cm as a result of human carbon emissions – dramatically increasing the distance that the surges can reach. Sea levels in the North Indian Ocean have risen more quickly than in many oceans elsewhere in recent years.

Assam struck

Amphan’s tail also left its mark on the northeastern state of Assam, which experienced heavy rainfall and flooding in low-lying areas, and then several days later a massive thunderstorm. On 27 May, as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries rose above danger point at several places, over 300 villages experienced heavy flooding.

Nor was that all. The same week maximum temperatures reached 40-45C° in much of northern and central India. While Delhi sizzled at 45-46°, Churu in Rajasthan touched 50°C. Fortunately, there have been no deaths reported this year of farm workers and street vendors, as many people remain locked in their homes because of the virus.

As India braces for the annual monsoon, the government is claiming that it has contained much of the locust threat. But Devinder Sharma, an agriculture and trade policy expert, said: “The government’s preparedness has been too slow to keep pace with this rapid increase in locust swarms.

“This is an emergency situation and requires emergency measures. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown caused by Covid-19.” – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com or @nivedita_Him

A fearsome cyclone, other climate extremes, Covid-19 and now locust swarms – Indians may think life could hardly get worse.

DELHI, 2 June, 2020 – India is no stranger to coping with climate extremes and natural emergencies, but this year is likely to lodge in the national memory as one of the most challenging in recent history.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global scourge, but India also has many regional and national afflictions to make 2020 a year to forget – a massive heatwave, its strongest recorded cyclone, thunderstorms bringing huge hailstones, and floods. Now it is being assailed by all-devouring locust swarms, the worst in 25 years, leaving the land scarred.

Government figures showed more than 5,000 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May. The pandemic is causing a humanitarian crisis as well, with a huge reverse migration of penniless unskilled labourers who have lost their jobs in the cities and are now returning to their rural homes.

Five states – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra – have been invaded by the locusts. The swarms normally arrive to breed in June or July but this year the first flew in in mid-April, helped to spread by a strong west wind. Climate scientists say warmer waters in the western Indian Ocean also worsened the problem.

The only saving grace is that there are not many standing crops in many of the affected districts, as the monsoon sowing is yet to begin. “It is only the vegetables, orchards and trees that are the victims of this attack,” an official said.

“This is an emergency situation. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown”

As the locust threat developed, a range of devastating climate events hit the country in May, starting with heavy rain and hail which killed 29 people in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Next came Cyclone Amphan, bringing sustained windspeeds of 270 kms per hour.

It was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal. When it hit the coast on 20 May more than 80 people died. West Bengal, on the eastern coast bordering Bangladesh, suffered a trail of destruction. The winds even damaged the tiger stronghold of the Sundarbans, the islands  whose mangrove forests in the delta of three major rivers normally give Bengal some protection from the storms.

Amphan’s rampage caused the evacuation of 300,000 people to shelter. Many acres of agricultural land near the coast were flooded by salty water and are now unusable. The government estimated the initial losses caused by the cyclone at one trillion rupees (US$13.2 billion).

Amphan’s storm surge was among its most dangerous threats. Global sea levels have already increased by about 23 cm as a result of human carbon emissions – dramatically increasing the distance that the surges can reach. Sea levels in the North Indian Ocean have risen more quickly than in many oceans elsewhere in recent years.

Assam struck

Amphan’s tail also left its mark on the northeastern state of Assam, which experienced heavy rainfall and flooding in low-lying areas, and then several days later a massive thunderstorm. On 27 May, as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries rose above danger point at several places, over 300 villages experienced heavy flooding.

Nor was that all. The same week maximum temperatures reached 40-45C° in much of northern and central India. While Delhi sizzled at 45-46°, Churu in Rajasthan touched 50°C. Fortunately, there have been no deaths reported this year of farm workers and street vendors, as many people remain locked in their homes because of the virus.

As India braces for the annual monsoon, the government is claiming that it has contained much of the locust threat. But Devinder Sharma, an agriculture and trade policy expert, said: “The government’s preparedness has been too slow to keep pace with this rapid increase in locust swarms.

“This is an emergency situation and requires emergency measures. These desert locusts will not only leave a severe impact on India’s food production but also deal a double whammy to the farmers, who are already reeling from the economic lockdown caused by Covid-19.” – Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com or @nivedita_Him

Plastic waste now litters Antarctic shore

From the deep Mediterranean marine mud to the desolate beaches of the Southern Ocean, plastic waste now gets everywhere.

LONDON, 12 May, 2020 – The throwaway society now has a global reach. British and German scientists have found astonishing concentrations of plastic waste in the form of tiny fibres on the sea floor. In just one square metre of marine ooze, they have counted as many as 1.9 million fragments less than a millimetre in length.

And two studies have identified sickening levels of plastic waste in the Southern Ocean that washes around Antarctica. One team reports ever greater counts of debris on the beaches of islands in South Georgia and South Orkney; the other on the increasing quantities ingested by the wandering albatross and the giant petrel, two iconic birds of the south polar seas.

An estimated 10 million tonnes of discarded food wrapping, drinking straws, disposable cups, bottles, carrier bags and fishing gear are tipped into the sea each year: plastic waste has now been found in all the world’s oceans, and even in the polar ice, an indestructible reminder of human impact on the natural world.

Tiny textile particles or microfibres of plastic have been found in every sampled litre of sea water, in the stomachs of seabirds and in the bellies of whales.

In fact the visible debris – the polystyrene cups and drinking straws and carrier bags floating on or near the surface – is thought to account for a tiny proportion of the total. Around 99% is thought to be in the deep oceans.

“Microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas”

And researchers now report in the journal Science that they have found an indicator as to the final fate of most of it. They collected sediment at depths of up to 900 metres from the floor of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west of the Italian peninsula and began counting the particles of indestructible polymer material in the marine mud, carried there by deep ocean currents.

“Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ‘garbage patches’ of floating plastic, but we were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics we found on the sea floor,” said Ian Kane of the University of Manchester, in the UK, one of the authors.

“We discovered that microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas.”

These same deep currents also carry oxygen-rich water and nutrients, which suggests that toxic microplastics are being carried into vital deep ecosystems. But the surface-borne debris has far-reaching consequences too.

Remedial efforts

British and Australian scientists who made surveys over three decades of beached plastic, metal, glass, paper and rubber at locations in the Southern Ocean report in the journal Environment International that between 1989 and March 2019, they recovered 10,112 items of waste weighing in total more than 100kg from Bird Island off South Georgia, and 1,304 items weighing in all 268 kg from the remote shores of Signy Island in the South Orkney archipelago.

Almost 90% of the total was plastic. The peak of the debris count was in the 1990s, which suggests that some attempts have been made to reduce the levels discarded from shipping and other sources.

And a second study in the same journal reports that in the same 30 years, levels of plastic pollution had been consumed in increasing quantities by two out of three species of albatross, and another sea bird.

Annual intake in Diomedea exulans, the wandering albatross, had increased 14-fold, and in the giant petrel Macronectes giganteus the intake had increased six-fold.

“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that fishing and other vessels make a major contribution to plastic pollution,” said Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s clear that marine plastics are a threat to seabirds and other wildlife, and more needs to be done.” – Climate News Network

From the deep Mediterranean marine mud to the desolate beaches of the Southern Ocean, plastic waste now gets everywhere.

LONDON, 12 May, 2020 – The throwaway society now has a global reach. British and German scientists have found astonishing concentrations of plastic waste in the form of tiny fibres on the sea floor. In just one square metre of marine ooze, they have counted as many as 1.9 million fragments less than a millimetre in length.

And two studies have identified sickening levels of plastic waste in the Southern Ocean that washes around Antarctica. One team reports ever greater counts of debris on the beaches of islands in South Georgia and South Orkney; the other on the increasing quantities ingested by the wandering albatross and the giant petrel, two iconic birds of the south polar seas.

An estimated 10 million tonnes of discarded food wrapping, drinking straws, disposable cups, bottles, carrier bags and fishing gear are tipped into the sea each year: plastic waste has now been found in all the world’s oceans, and even in the polar ice, an indestructible reminder of human impact on the natural world.

Tiny textile particles or microfibres of plastic have been found in every sampled litre of sea water, in the stomachs of seabirds and in the bellies of whales.

In fact the visible debris – the polystyrene cups and drinking straws and carrier bags floating on or near the surface – is thought to account for a tiny proportion of the total. Around 99% is thought to be in the deep oceans.

“Microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas”

And researchers now report in the journal Science that they have found an indicator as to the final fate of most of it. They collected sediment at depths of up to 900 metres from the floor of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west of the Italian peninsula and began counting the particles of indestructible polymer material in the marine mud, carried there by deep ocean currents.

“Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ‘garbage patches’ of floating plastic, but we were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics we found on the sea floor,” said Ian Kane of the University of Manchester, in the UK, one of the authors.

“We discovered that microplastics are not uniformly distributed across the study area; instead they are distributed by powerful seafloor currents that concentrate them in certain areas.”

These same deep currents also carry oxygen-rich water and nutrients, which suggests that toxic microplastics are being carried into vital deep ecosystems. But the surface-borne debris has far-reaching consequences too.

Remedial efforts

British and Australian scientists who made surveys over three decades of beached plastic, metal, glass, paper and rubber at locations in the Southern Ocean report in the journal Environment International that between 1989 and March 2019, they recovered 10,112 items of waste weighing in total more than 100kg from Bird Island off South Georgia, and 1,304 items weighing in all 268 kg from the remote shores of Signy Island in the South Orkney archipelago.

Almost 90% of the total was plastic. The peak of the debris count was in the 1990s, which suggests that some attempts have been made to reduce the levels discarded from shipping and other sources.

And a second study in the same journal reports that in the same 30 years, levels of plastic pollution had been consumed in increasing quantities by two out of three species of albatross, and another sea bird.

Annual intake in Diomedea exulans, the wandering albatross, had increased 14-fold, and in the giant petrel Macronectes giganteus the intake had increased six-fold.

“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that fishing and other vessels make a major contribution to plastic pollution,” said Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s clear that marine plastics are a threat to seabirds and other wildlife, and more needs to be done.” – Climate News Network

Tigers retreat before spreading road networks

The global push to save an iconic species from extinction struggles, as tigers retreat before the relentless growth of roads.

LONDON, 4 May, 2020 − Humans have made inroads into the last territory of the tiger – literally: the inexorable increase in roads is driving the tigers’ retreat.

A new study of the wilderness set aside for the rapidly-dwindling populations of Panthera tigris in 13 countries warns that more than half of all this supposedly untouched reserve is within 5kms of a road.

Altogether, tiger conservation landscapes considered crucial for the recovery of an endangered species are now home to 134,000 kilometres of road. This intrusion alone may have reduced the abundance of both the carnivore and its natural prey by about one fifth.

And by 2050 researchers expect that another 24,000kms of road will have been built through the 1.16 million square kilometres of wilderness officially conserved in Russia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan. Many of these will have been built under China’s so-called “belt-and-road initiative” in the developing world.

“Our analysis demonstrates that, overall, tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range,” said Neil Carter, of the University of Michigan in the US, who led the research.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late”

He and colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and average species abundance in all 76 blocks of land set aside for tiger conservation, to confirm conservationists’ worst fears.

Encroaching roads discourage the herbivores that tigers might prey upon; they degrade the habitat for all wildlife in the region; and they provide easier access for poachers, for whom a tiger carcass is a valuable commodity. In the Russian Far East, collisions with road vehicles were enough to reduce tiger survival rates.

The road seems the first enemy of conservation. Researchers have recently established that even the presence of human intrusion – the border of a ranch, a commercial clearing, a palm oil plantation or just a simple road – is enough to weaken and in some way damage the integrity of the 500 metres of wilderness next to the clearing.

The global record for the protection of those areas set aside for the conservation of endemic species is not good: another study found that, worldwide, since 1993, more than 280,000 sq kms of natural reserve had been subjected to “intense human pressure.”

And a third study fingered the road itself as the problem, and a growing problem: roads already fragment the world’s landscapes, and by 2050 governments will have added another 25 million kilometres of asphalt, traffic and settlement, most of it in the developing world.

Numbers still dropping

Thanks to human population growth and climate change, the planet is poised for the extinction of wild creatures and plants on a massive scale. So the tiger study reflects a wider pattern.

The difference is that for more than 50 years conservationists and governments have encouraged international efforts to conserve one of the most iconic and at the same time one of the most endangered of all the big cats, but the numbers are still falling, as roads turn what had been undisturbed habitat into an archipelago of little “tiger islands” in which populations are isolated from each other.

The scientists found that those areas most strictly protected in the tiger conservation were less densely interrupted by roads: however, these densities varied widely across countries. China’s average road density in tiger conservation landscapes was almost eight times greater than, for example, Malaysia’s.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late,” Dr Carter said.

“Given that roads will be a pervasive challenge to tiger recovery in the future, we urge decision-makers to make sustainable road development a top priority.” − Climate News Network

The global push to save an iconic species from extinction struggles, as tigers retreat before the relentless growth of roads.

LONDON, 4 May, 2020 − Humans have made inroads into the last territory of the tiger – literally: the inexorable increase in roads is driving the tigers’ retreat.

A new study of the wilderness set aside for the rapidly-dwindling populations of Panthera tigris in 13 countries warns that more than half of all this supposedly untouched reserve is within 5kms of a road.

Altogether, tiger conservation landscapes considered crucial for the recovery of an endangered species are now home to 134,000 kilometres of road. This intrusion alone may have reduced the abundance of both the carnivore and its natural prey by about one fifth.

And by 2050 researchers expect that another 24,000kms of road will have been built through the 1.16 million square kilometres of wilderness officially conserved in Russia, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan. Many of these will have been built under China’s so-called “belt-and-road initiative” in the developing world.

“Our analysis demonstrates that, overall, tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range,” said Neil Carter, of the University of Michigan in the US, who led the research.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late”

He and colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that they calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and average species abundance in all 76 blocks of land set aside for tiger conservation, to confirm conservationists’ worst fears.

Encroaching roads discourage the herbivores that tigers might prey upon; they degrade the habitat for all wildlife in the region; and they provide easier access for poachers, for whom a tiger carcass is a valuable commodity. In the Russian Far East, collisions with road vehicles were enough to reduce tiger survival rates.

The road seems the first enemy of conservation. Researchers have recently established that even the presence of human intrusion – the border of a ranch, a commercial clearing, a palm oil plantation or just a simple road – is enough to weaken and in some way damage the integrity of the 500 metres of wilderness next to the clearing.

The global record for the protection of those areas set aside for the conservation of endemic species is not good: another study found that, worldwide, since 1993, more than 280,000 sq kms of natural reserve had been subjected to “intense human pressure.”

And a third study fingered the road itself as the problem, and a growing problem: roads already fragment the world’s landscapes, and by 2050 governments will have added another 25 million kilometres of asphalt, traffic and settlement, most of it in the developing world.

Numbers still dropping

Thanks to human population growth and climate change, the planet is poised for the extinction of wild creatures and plants on a massive scale. So the tiger study reflects a wider pattern.

The difference is that for more than 50 years conservationists and governments have encouraged international efforts to conserve one of the most iconic and at the same time one of the most endangered of all the big cats, but the numbers are still falling, as roads turn what had been undisturbed habitat into an archipelago of little “tiger islands” in which populations are isolated from each other.

The scientists found that those areas most strictly protected in the tiger conservation were less densely interrupted by roads: however, these densities varied widely across countries. China’s average road density in tiger conservation landscapes was almost eight times greater than, for example, Malaysia’s.

“Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late,” Dr Carter said.

“Given that roads will be a pervasive challenge to tiger recovery in the future, we urge decision-makers to make sustainable road development a top priority.” − Climate News Network

Threats to the insect world are growing

The insect world is dwindling. By 2100, half of all insects could be gone. But there could be gainers too.

LONDON, 30 April, 2020 − The butterflies are quietly flying away, the beetles are buzzing off, and the insect world is shrinking. The Earth’s  land-based insects are in steady decline, their numbers falling by around a quarter every three decades.

And although there could be a whole world of reasons for the global loss of a vital class of animals, European scientists have pinpointed at least one, in one location.

Insect food plants are being lost in the Swiss canton of Zurich, and with them, many of the hoverflies, bumblebees, bees and butterflies that depend on them.

Scientists from Germany and Russia report in the journal Science that they examined the bigger story told by data from 166 surveys of insects and arachnids – that is, not just flies but spiders too – across 1,676 sites worldwide, over periods from 1925 to 2018, and many of them of around 20 years.

Largely missed

They found that those insects that based their lives on land rather than water were slipping away at an average of 0.92% per year. “0.92% might not sound like much, but in fact it means 24% fewer insects in 30 years’ time and 50% fewer over 75 years,” said Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and based at the University of Leipzig.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next. It’s like going back to the place where you grew up. It’s only because you haven’t been there for years that you suddenly realise how much has changed, and all too often not for the better.”

He is not the first to draw attention to insect loss: other groups have warned of dramatic instances of decline and imminent extinction, along with the changes in insect populations and the disappearance of the habitat on which so many species depend.

But the researchers found the decline wasn’t uniform. Those insects – midges and mayflies, for example – that are essentially aquatic were actually increasing in number, on average by more than 1% a year. Flying insects overall however are in decline, and ground-dwellers and grassland insects too are slowly losing the battle for survival, while the numbers of insects in the woodland treetops remain about the same.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next”

Insect declines in Europe and the US West and Midwest were marked, but those insects that live for part of their lives in water in northern Europe and the western US showed a 38% increase over 30 years: this may reflect national and international attempts to limit pollution of the waterways. In both decline and revival, the scientists at work see the impact of human handling of natural habitat.

“Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water,” Dr van Klink said. “They want to come up while we keep pushing them down. But we can reduce the pressure so they rise again.

“The freshwater insects have shown us this is possible. It’s just not always easy to identify the causes of declines, and thus the most effective measures to reverse them. And these may also differ between locations.”

But within a day of the publication of the Science analysis, German and Swiss scientists had identified the cause of decline in one closely-observed area. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that over the past century there had been an overall decline in wild food plants for all kinds of insects in the Zurich canton.

Urban spread

Wetlands had shrunk by around 90%, the cities and towns had expanded, intensive farming had meant the loss of meadows and farmland habitats.
With help from 250 volunteers, researchers had made detailed studies of the 1,719 seed plant species in 1km plots of land at 3km intervals across the whole canton, between 2012 and 2017.

They then identified 966 of those plants visited by daytime pollinators, and compared their findings with highly-detailed data assembled about the vegetation of the canton before 1930.

Some specialised groups of insects evolved in partnership with equally specialised insects. The scientists found that, for instance, greater knapweed or Centaurea scabiosa was in decline, which was bad news for those bumblebees, bees and butterflies with tongues long enough to reach the nectar. The poisonous plant aconite, or Aconitum napellus, is pollinated by a bumblebee impervious to its toxin. Once again, the loss of floral variety and insect life even in one much-occupied place may not have been obvious.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what vegetation looked like 100 years ago,” said Michael Kessler, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “But our data showed that about half of all species have experienced significant decline in their abundance, while only about 10% of the species have increased.” − Climate News Network

The insect world is dwindling. By 2100, half of all insects could be gone. But there could be gainers too.

LONDON, 30 April, 2020 − The butterflies are quietly flying away, the beetles are buzzing off, and the insect world is shrinking. The Earth’s  land-based insects are in steady decline, their numbers falling by around a quarter every three decades.

And although there could be a whole world of reasons for the global loss of a vital class of animals, European scientists have pinpointed at least one, in one location.

Insect food plants are being lost in the Swiss canton of Zurich, and with them, many of the hoverflies, bumblebees, bees and butterflies that depend on them.

Scientists from Germany and Russia report in the journal Science that they examined the bigger story told by data from 166 surveys of insects and arachnids – that is, not just flies but spiders too – across 1,676 sites worldwide, over periods from 1925 to 2018, and many of them of around 20 years.

Largely missed

They found that those insects that based their lives on land rather than water were slipping away at an average of 0.92% per year. “0.92% might not sound like much, but in fact it means 24% fewer insects in 30 years’ time and 50% fewer over 75 years,” said Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and based at the University of Leipzig.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next. It’s like going back to the place where you grew up. It’s only because you haven’t been there for years that you suddenly realise how much has changed, and all too often not for the better.”

He is not the first to draw attention to insect loss: other groups have warned of dramatic instances of decline and imminent extinction, along with the changes in insect populations and the disappearance of the habitat on which so many species depend.

But the researchers found the decline wasn’t uniform. Those insects – midges and mayflies, for example – that are essentially aquatic were actually increasing in number, on average by more than 1% a year. Flying insects overall however are in decline, and ground-dwellers and grassland insects too are slowly losing the battle for survival, while the numbers of insects in the woodland treetops remain about the same.

“Insect declines happen in a quiet way and we don’t take much notice from one year to the next”

Insect declines in Europe and the US West and Midwest were marked, but those insects that live for part of their lives in water in northern Europe and the western US showed a 38% increase over 30 years: this may reflect national and international attempts to limit pollution of the waterways. In both decline and revival, the scientists at work see the impact of human handling of natural habitat.

“Insect populations are like logs of wood that are pushed under water,” Dr van Klink said. “They want to come up while we keep pushing them down. But we can reduce the pressure so they rise again.

“The freshwater insects have shown us this is possible. It’s just not always easy to identify the causes of declines, and thus the most effective measures to reverse them. And these may also differ between locations.”

But within a day of the publication of the Science analysis, German and Swiss scientists had identified the cause of decline in one closely-observed area. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that over the past century there had been an overall decline in wild food plants for all kinds of insects in the Zurich canton.

Urban spread

Wetlands had shrunk by around 90%, the cities and towns had expanded, intensive farming had meant the loss of meadows and farmland habitats.
With help from 250 volunteers, researchers had made detailed studies of the 1,719 seed plant species in 1km plots of land at 3km intervals across the whole canton, between 2012 and 2017.

They then identified 966 of those plants visited by daytime pollinators, and compared their findings with highly-detailed data assembled about the vegetation of the canton before 1930.

Some specialised groups of insects evolved in partnership with equally specialised insects. The scientists found that, for instance, greater knapweed or Centaurea scabiosa was in decline, which was bad news for those bumblebees, bees and butterflies with tongues long enough to reach the nectar. The poisonous plant aconite, or Aconitum napellus, is pollinated by a bumblebee impervious to its toxin. Once again, the loss of floral variety and insect life even in one much-occupied place may not have been obvious.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what vegetation looked like 100 years ago,” said Michael Kessler, a botanist at the University of Zurich. “But our data showed that about half of all species have experienced significant decline in their abundance, while only about 10% of the species have increased.” − Climate News Network

London’s Kew Gardens teach respect for nature

This story originally appeared on CBS News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Kew Gardens in London are a cherished corner of the UK capital − with a life-giving lesson for humanity.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 − Kew Gardens more formally the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London have been a place of reflection and natural refuge for about 250 years, though now they sit empty because of the country’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

On April 22, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kew Gardens’ director Richard Deverell warned that more “fundamental challenges” could lie ahead for humankind “unless we start to treat the natural world better.”

“It’s exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tragic to see these beautiful gardens, 330 acres here at Kew − a world heritage site − to see them empty,” he told CBS News’ Mark Phillips.

Deverell, who lives on the property, said he “hopes” the current situation could help people understand the importance of respecting nature.

“We’ve got a situation today where four and half billion people are in lockdown, that’s extraordinary,” he said. “So I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions.”

He added that we “need to play our role” alongside Earth’s other species “in a responsible way.”

“I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions”

“And I hope too, that we’ll realise that actually the cost of pre-empting a problem, of mitigating it, is a fraction of the cost of dealing with it when it engulfs you,” he said. “If you abuse the natural world, bad things happen, including bad things to people.”

Researchers at the gardens are already working on these mitigation efforts. With new specimens arriving from all over the world, scientists are studying ways to help plants cope with a warming globe.

Among other projects, researchers are studying how to deal with coffee beans that are not getting enough rain and getting too much sunshine. The team is working to find varieties that are more tolerant to the changing conditions.

“Perhaps some have greater heat tolerance or aridity tolerance that can be bred into the commercial crop to safeguard future supplies of coffee,” Deverell explained.

He highlighted the importance of keeping nature safe and intact, not just for the natural world, but for humanity itself.

“At the simplest level, of course, plants provide us with oxygen,” he said. “About a quarter of all cancer medicines derive from plants and fungi, so they deliver many, many beneficial things to humans.”

This story originally appeared on CBS News, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

Kew Gardens in London are a cherished corner of the UK capital − with a life-giving lesson for humanity.

LONDON, 26 April, 2020 − Kew Gardens more formally the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London have been a place of reflection and natural refuge for about 250 years, though now they sit empty because of the country’s coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

On April 22, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Kew Gardens’ director Richard Deverell warned that more “fundamental challenges” could lie ahead for humankind “unless we start to treat the natural world better.”

“It’s exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tragic to see these beautiful gardens, 330 acres here at Kew − a world heritage site − to see them empty,” he told CBS News’ Mark Phillips.

Deverell, who lives on the property, said he “hopes” the current situation could help people understand the importance of respecting nature.

“We’ve got a situation today where four and half billion people are in lockdown, that’s extraordinary,” he said. “So I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions.”

He added that we “need to play our role” alongside Earth’s other species “in a responsible way.”

“I hope, if nothing else, this Covid experience has given us a dose of humility… we are just one species of many, many millions”

“And I hope too, that we’ll realise that actually the cost of pre-empting a problem, of mitigating it, is a fraction of the cost of dealing with it when it engulfs you,” he said. “If you abuse the natural world, bad things happen, including bad things to people.”

Researchers at the gardens are already working on these mitigation efforts. With new specimens arriving from all over the world, scientists are studying ways to help plants cope with a warming globe.

Among other projects, researchers are studying how to deal with coffee beans that are not getting enough rain and getting too much sunshine. The team is working to find varieties that are more tolerant to the changing conditions.

“Perhaps some have greater heat tolerance or aridity tolerance that can be bred into the commercial crop to safeguard future supplies of coffee,” Deverell explained.

He highlighted the importance of keeping nature safe and intact, not just for the natural world, but for humanity itself.

“At the simplest level, of course, plants provide us with oxygen,” he said. “About a quarter of all cancer medicines derive from plants and fungi, so they deliver many, many beneficial things to humans.”

Halve the farmland, save nature, feed the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature under threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature under threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate benefits

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

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

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

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

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