Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Ocean heat waves damage reefs and kill coral

Heat extremes on land can kill. Ocean heat waves can devastate coral reefs and other ecosystems – and these too are on the increase.

LONDON, 12 August, 2019 − Heat extremes on the high seas are on the increase, with ocean heat waves disturbing ecosystems in two hemispheres and two great oceans, US scientists report.

And these same sudden rises in sea temperatures don’t just damage coral reefs, they kill the corals and start the process of reef decay, according to a separate study by Australian researchers.

Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they examined data from 65 marine ecosystems over the years 1854 to 2018 to work out how frequently ocean temperatures suddenly rose to unexpected levels.

They found such deviations from the average in the Arctic, North Atlantic, eastern Pacific and off the Australian coasts. They expected to find evidence of occasional hot flushes. But they did not expect to find quite so many.

“Severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains”

“Across the 65 ecosystems we examined, we expected about six or seven of them would experience these ‘surprises’ each year,” Dr Pershing said. “Instead, we’ve seen an average of 12 ecosystems experiencing these warming events each year over the past seven years, including a high of 23 ‘surprises’ in 2016.”

Intense and sudden changes in sea temperatures affect crustaceans, algae, corals, molluscs and many millions of humans who depend on the oceans for income. And a new study by researchers from Australian universities reports that even a rise of 0.5°C is reflected in deaths during an outbreak of coral bleaching.

Corals live in symbiosis with algae: ocean warming periodically disturbs this normally beneficial relationship. The coral animals evert (turn out) the algae and once-lurid reefs will bleach, and become more vulnerable to disease.

Corals support the world’s richest ocean ecosystems so such changes are a challenge, both to the survival of biodiversity and to local incomes from the tourism linked to the beauty of the reefs.

Very warm water

“What we are seeing is that severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching: the water temperatures are so warm that that the coral animal doesn’t bleach – in terms of a loss of its symbiosis – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains,” said Tracy Ainsworth of the University of New South Wales.

The researchers report in the journal Current Biology that they used computer tomography scanning techniques to explore the marine destruction. In 2016, more than 30% of the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced temperatures higher than those in which corals can survive.

“We find that the skeleton is immediately overgrown by rapid growth of algae and bacteria,” said Bill Leggat of the University of Newcastle, a co-author.

“We show that this process is devastating not just for the animal tissue but also for the skeleton that is left behind, which is rapidly eroded and weakened.” − Climate News Network

Heat extremes on land can kill. Ocean heat waves can devastate coral reefs and other ecosystems – and these too are on the increase.

LONDON, 12 August, 2019 − Heat extremes on the high seas are on the increase, with ocean heat waves disturbing ecosystems in two hemispheres and two great oceans, US scientists report.

And these same sudden rises in sea temperatures don’t just damage coral reefs, they kill the corals and start the process of reef decay, according to a separate study by Australian researchers.

Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they examined data from 65 marine ecosystems over the years 1854 to 2018 to work out how frequently ocean temperatures suddenly rose to unexpected levels.

They found such deviations from the average in the Arctic, North Atlantic, eastern Pacific and off the Australian coasts. They expected to find evidence of occasional hot flushes. But they did not expect to find quite so many.

“Severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains”

“Across the 65 ecosystems we examined, we expected about six or seven of them would experience these ‘surprises’ each year,” Dr Pershing said. “Instead, we’ve seen an average of 12 ecosystems experiencing these warming events each year over the past seven years, including a high of 23 ‘surprises’ in 2016.”

Intense and sudden changes in sea temperatures affect crustaceans, algae, corals, molluscs and many millions of humans who depend on the oceans for income. And a new study by researchers from Australian universities reports that even a rise of 0.5°C is reflected in deaths during an outbreak of coral bleaching.

Corals live in symbiosis with algae: ocean warming periodically disturbs this normally beneficial relationship. The coral animals evert (turn out) the algae and once-lurid reefs will bleach, and become more vulnerable to disease.

Corals support the world’s richest ocean ecosystems so such changes are a challenge, both to the survival of biodiversity and to local incomes from the tourism linked to the beauty of the reefs.

Very warm water

“What we are seeing is that severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching: the water temperatures are so warm that that the coral animal doesn’t bleach – in terms of a loss of its symbiosis – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains,” said Tracy Ainsworth of the University of New South Wales.

The researchers report in the journal Current Biology that they used computer tomography scanning techniques to explore the marine destruction. In 2016, more than 30% of the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced temperatures higher than those in which corals can survive.

“We find that the skeleton is immediately overgrown by rapid growth of algae and bacteria,” said Bill Leggat of the University of Newcastle, a co-author.

“We show that this process is devastating not just for the animal tissue but also for the skeleton that is left behind, which is rapidly eroded and weakened.” − Climate News Network

Animals adapt to climate heat, but too slowly

Can animals adapt to climate change? And if so, can species adapt fast enough to ensure survival? Reports so far are not promising.

LONDON, 5 August, 2019 − German scientists have an answer to the great question of species survival: can animals adapt to climate change? The answer, based on close analysis of 10,000 studies, is a simple one. They may be able to adapt, but not fast enough.

The question is a serious one. Earth is home to many millions of species that have evolved – and adapted or gone extinct – with successive dramatic shifts in climate over the last 500 million years.

The rapid heating of the planet in a climate emergency driven by profligate fossil fuel use threatens a measurable shift in climate conditions and is in any case coincident with what looks like the beginning of a mass extinction that could match any recorded in the rocks of the Permian, or other extinctions linked with global climate change.

The difference is that climate is now changing at a rate far faster than any previous episode. So can those animals that cannot migrate to cooler climates adjust to changing conditions?

“Even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence”

A team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and more than 60 colleagues from around the world report in the journal Nature Communications that they examined whether creatures could change either their physiology, size or behaviour to accommodate a rise in temperature accompanied by a change in the timing of the seasons. Biologists call this kind of response “phenotypic change.”

Questions like these are not easily answered. To be sure, the biologists needed reliable local records of temperatures across a number of locations. Then they needed sure information about the timing of migration, reproduction, hibernation and other big events in the lives of their subjects over a number of years.

And then they needed to find case studies where data had been collected over many generations in one population of creatures in one space.

And having found changes in the traits of their selected creatures, the biologists had to work out whether such changes led to higher levels of survival, or more offspring. They found reliable information about 17 species in 13 countries.

Pessimism alert

In the end, most of their data came from studies of birds, among them common and abundant species such as the great tit Parus major, the common magpie Pica pica or the European pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca.

The message is that even if bird populations can change with their environmental conditions, they may not be able to do so at the speed necessary to time migrations to coincide with ever-earlier spring flowering, or nesting to match the explosion of insect populations that provide food for nestlings.

“Even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence,” said Alexandre Courtiol of the Leibniz Institute. And the data available apply to species that are known to cope relatively well with changing conditions.

“Adaptive responses among rare or endangered species remain to be analysed,” said his colleague and co-author Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, a Liebniz ecologist. “We fear that the forecasts of population persistence for such species of conservation concern will be even more pessimistic.” − Climate News Network

Can animals adapt to climate change? And if so, can species adapt fast enough to ensure survival? Reports so far are not promising.

LONDON, 5 August, 2019 − German scientists have an answer to the great question of species survival: can animals adapt to climate change? The answer, based on close analysis of 10,000 studies, is a simple one. They may be able to adapt, but not fast enough.

The question is a serious one. Earth is home to many millions of species that have evolved – and adapted or gone extinct – with successive dramatic shifts in climate over the last 500 million years.

The rapid heating of the planet in a climate emergency driven by profligate fossil fuel use threatens a measurable shift in climate conditions and is in any case coincident with what looks like the beginning of a mass extinction that could match any recorded in the rocks of the Permian, or other extinctions linked with global climate change.

The difference is that climate is now changing at a rate far faster than any previous episode. So can those animals that cannot migrate to cooler climates adjust to changing conditions?

“Even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence”

A team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and more than 60 colleagues from around the world report in the journal Nature Communications that they examined whether creatures could change either their physiology, size or behaviour to accommodate a rise in temperature accompanied by a change in the timing of the seasons. Biologists call this kind of response “phenotypic change.”

Questions like these are not easily answered. To be sure, the biologists needed reliable local records of temperatures across a number of locations. Then they needed sure information about the timing of migration, reproduction, hibernation and other big events in the lives of their subjects over a number of years.

And then they needed to find case studies where data had been collected over many generations in one population of creatures in one space.

And having found changes in the traits of their selected creatures, the biologists had to work out whether such changes led to higher levels of survival, or more offspring. They found reliable information about 17 species in 13 countries.

Pessimism alert

In the end, most of their data came from studies of birds, among them common and abundant species such as the great tit Parus major, the common magpie Pica pica or the European pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca.

The message is that even if bird populations can change with their environmental conditions, they may not be able to do so at the speed necessary to time migrations to coincide with ever-earlier spring flowering, or nesting to match the explosion of insect populations that provide food for nestlings.

“Even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence,” said Alexandre Courtiol of the Leibniz Institute. And the data available apply to species that are known to cope relatively well with changing conditions.

“Adaptive responses among rare or endangered species remain to be analysed,” said his colleague and co-author Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, a Liebniz ecologist. “We fear that the forecasts of population persistence for such species of conservation concern will be even more pessimistic.” − Climate News Network

Elephants’ diets help forests to thrive

Elephants may throw their weight around, but they pay their dues to the environment: they help the great forests store ever more carbon.

LONDON, 30 July, 2019 – Like humans, all social animals exploit, disturb and alter their natural environment. Biologists have just identified at least one species, elephants, that – in the course of bulldozing their way through the undergrowth and destroying young trees – actually make the forest more efficient at storing carbon and thus containing global heating.

The African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis browses upon and uproots young trees with stems smaller than 30cms and deposits the digested foliage as fertiliser, rich in seeds for the next generation of saplings.

Researchers from Italy, France, Brazil and the US report in the journal Nature Geoscience that this simple act – performed by perhaps one elephant in one square kilometre of forest – actually adds to the biomass locked in the remaining timber at the rate of by between 26 and 60 tonnes per hectare.

And if these ancient mega-herbivores were not crashing through the forest, consuming young trees, the forest would be home to 7% less biomass in the form of dense timber.

Forest elephants, the same scientists say, are rapidly declining in numbers. The researchers had been studying the species for years, and devised a mathematical model of their impact on the environment that supported them.

“Humanity is doing its best to rid the planet of elephants as quickly as it can. Forest elephants are facing extinction. All of their positive effect on carbon and their roles as forest gardeners and engineers will be lost”

Humans convert forest to farmland and increase the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that fuel global heating and the climate emergency. Forest elephants, on the other hand, simply alter the composition of the forest and make their environment a little cooler.

They do so by clearing away the fast-growing species to make more space for trees slower to climb towards the sunlight but with timber of higher density.

“Lo and behold, as we look at numbers of elephants in a forest and we look at the composition of forest over time, we find that the proportion of trees with high-density wood is higher in forests with elephants,” said Stephen Blake of St Louis University in the US, one of the authors.

“The simulation found that the slow-growing plant species survive better when elephants are present. These species aren’t eaten by elephants and, over time, the forest becomes dominated by these slow-growing species. Wood (lignin) has a carbon backbone, meaning it has a large number of carbon molecules in it.

“Slow-growing high wood-density species contain more carbon molecules per unit volume than fast-growing low wood-density species. As the elephants ‘thin’ the forest, they increase the number of slow-growing trees and the forest is capable of storing more carbon.”

Support for Gaia

The finding is consistent with the Gaia theory of earth system science: that life unconsciously but collectively tends to work in ways that keep the planet’s atmosphere stable and the planetary temperatures within comfortable boundaries.

So far humans are the most conspicuous exception to this rule. Biologists have wondered about the contribution of the mega-herbivores: in this one case, it seems that forest elephants are good for the forest and good for climate control.

The finding is also consistent with an argument put by conservationists, biologists and climate scientists: the healthiest and most efficient forests at absorbing atmospheric carbon are those that are home to the richest levels of biodiversity – that is, forests that remain natural wilderness.

Biologists and conservationists talk a lot about “ecosystem services” and “natural capital”: that is, the contribution of the natural world,  directly or indirectly, to human wealth. The researchers put a cash value on the carbon contribution of the African forest elephants: they perform a carbon storage service of $43 bn.

“The sad reality is that humanity is doing its best to rid the planet of elephants as quickly as it can,” said Dr Blake. “Forest elephants are rapidly declining and facing extinction. From a climate perspective, all of their positive effect on carbon and their myriad other ecological roles as forest gardeners and engineers will be lost.” – Climate News Network

Elephants may throw their weight around, but they pay their dues to the environment: they help the great forests store ever more carbon.

LONDON, 30 July, 2019 – Like humans, all social animals exploit, disturb and alter their natural environment. Biologists have just identified at least one species, elephants, that – in the course of bulldozing their way through the undergrowth and destroying young trees – actually make the forest more efficient at storing carbon and thus containing global heating.

The African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis browses upon and uproots young trees with stems smaller than 30cms and deposits the digested foliage as fertiliser, rich in seeds for the next generation of saplings.

Researchers from Italy, France, Brazil and the US report in the journal Nature Geoscience that this simple act – performed by perhaps one elephant in one square kilometre of forest – actually adds to the biomass locked in the remaining timber at the rate of by between 26 and 60 tonnes per hectare.

And if these ancient mega-herbivores were not crashing through the forest, consuming young trees, the forest would be home to 7% less biomass in the form of dense timber.

Forest elephants, the same scientists say, are rapidly declining in numbers. The researchers had been studying the species for years, and devised a mathematical model of their impact on the environment that supported them.

“Humanity is doing its best to rid the planet of elephants as quickly as it can. Forest elephants are facing extinction. All of their positive effect on carbon and their roles as forest gardeners and engineers will be lost”

Humans convert forest to farmland and increase the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that fuel global heating and the climate emergency. Forest elephants, on the other hand, simply alter the composition of the forest and make their environment a little cooler.

They do so by clearing away the fast-growing species to make more space for trees slower to climb towards the sunlight but with timber of higher density.

“Lo and behold, as we look at numbers of elephants in a forest and we look at the composition of forest over time, we find that the proportion of trees with high-density wood is higher in forests with elephants,” said Stephen Blake of St Louis University in the US, one of the authors.

“The simulation found that the slow-growing plant species survive better when elephants are present. These species aren’t eaten by elephants and, over time, the forest becomes dominated by these slow-growing species. Wood (lignin) has a carbon backbone, meaning it has a large number of carbon molecules in it.

“Slow-growing high wood-density species contain more carbon molecules per unit volume than fast-growing low wood-density species. As the elephants ‘thin’ the forest, they increase the number of slow-growing trees and the forest is capable of storing more carbon.”

Support for Gaia

The finding is consistent with the Gaia theory of earth system science: that life unconsciously but collectively tends to work in ways that keep the planet’s atmosphere stable and the planetary temperatures within comfortable boundaries.

So far humans are the most conspicuous exception to this rule. Biologists have wondered about the contribution of the mega-herbivores: in this one case, it seems that forest elephants are good for the forest and good for climate control.

The finding is also consistent with an argument put by conservationists, biologists and climate scientists: the healthiest and most efficient forests at absorbing atmospheric carbon are those that are home to the richest levels of biodiversity – that is, forests that remain natural wilderness.

Biologists and conservationists talk a lot about “ecosystem services” and “natural capital”: that is, the contribution of the natural world,  directly or indirectly, to human wealth. The researchers put a cash value on the carbon contribution of the African forest elephants: they perform a carbon storage service of $43 bn.

“The sad reality is that humanity is doing its best to rid the planet of elephants as quickly as it can,” said Dr Blake. “Forest elephants are rapidly declining and facing extinction. From a climate perspective, all of their positive effect on carbon and their myriad other ecological roles as forest gardeners and engineers will be lost.” – Climate News Network

Crop diversity keeps bees buzzing happily

Big business agriculture could be bad for pollinators, which need crop diversity. And that could mean very bad news for an ever-hungrier world.

LONDON, 26 July, 2019 − Tomorrow’s world could be a hungrier world. That is because as large-scale agribusiness gets busier crop diversity diminishes, and the pool of potential pollinators will become increasingly at risk.

Those crops that rely on pollination by the animal world can only deliver the reward of nourishment to bees and other insects for a very short time. As developing nations switch increasingly to massive plantations of soy, canola and palm oil, the creatures farmers rely on to set seed and begin the process of setting fruit will have a problem finding a food supply for the rest of the year.

The message of the latest research is simple: a sustainable world must be a diverse one. And that means a diversity of crops and crop varieties as well as a diversity of forest, grasslands and wildflowers to keep the honeybees buzzing.

Scientists from Argentina, Chile, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Korea report in the journal Global Change Biology that without an increase in crop diversity, agricultural productivity worldwide could be put at risk by its increasing dependence on pollinators – and insects of all kinds could be on the decline, even as crop-devouring predator insects could be on the increase.

The researchers looked at data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization on the cultivation of field crops between 1961 and 2016. They found that more and more land is being colonised for agriculture, and the area cultivated for crops that rely on pollinators has increased by 137%. But crop diversity has increased only by 20%. And 16 of the 20 fastest-growing crops require pollination by insects or other animals.

Efficiency above all

The researchers paint a picture of a world in which vast tracts of landscape have been converted for maximum efficiency into plantations producing just one crop, while bees and other pollinators − already at hazard from climate change, pesticides and invasive infection – face a fall in the variety of their own potential food supply.

“This work should sound an alarm for policymakers who need to think about how they are going to protect and foster pollinator populations that can support the growing need for the services they provide to crops that require pollination,” said David Inouye of the University of Maryland in the US, one of the authors.

And a co-author, Robert Paxton of the Martin Luther University at Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, said: “Just a few months ago, the World Biodiversity Council (IPBES) revealed that up to one million plant and animal species are being threatened with extinction, including many pollinators.”

The researchers found that developing nations in South America, Africa and Asia had invested in vast monocultures grown for the global market: soy, for instance, exported to Europe as cattle feed, had risen by about 30% per decade globally, at great cost to natural and semi-natural tropical and subtropical forests and meadows that might otherwise have provided the blooms that pollinators could turn to once the cash crop seeds and nuts had set.

“Studying how this mismatch will affect the reproduction and survival of plants and insects could give us clues to how global warming is affecting the overall ecosystem”

“The bottom line is that if you’re increasing pollinator crops, you also need to diversify crops and implement pollinator-friendly management,” said Professor Inouye.

In a world of potentially catastrophic climate change, global food security is already a worry. Researchers have repeatedly warned that extremes of heat could slash yields and even precipitate global famine.

They have warned that rapid ecosystem change could affect global food supplies and that rapid warming will accelerate the spread of crop pests and diseases.

And even the shifts in the growing season – and in particular the earlier flowering each spring – may soon no longer be matched by the appearance of vital pollinators.

Bees avoid cold

Researchers in Japan report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that they monitored the emergence of the flower Corydalis ambigua and its pollinator bumblebee in the forests of northern Japan for 19 years.

The earlier the snowmelt, the earlier the flowering. And the earlier the snowmelt, the more likely it was that the flowers would emerge before the bumblebees, which hibernate underground until the soil temperatures reach 6°C, could begin looking for food and, in the course of doing so, pollinate the flower and set seed for the next generation.

“Our study suggests the early arrival of spring increases the risk of disruption to the mutualism between plants and pollinators,” said Gaku Kudo, who led the research.

“Studying how this phenological mismatch will affect the reproduction and survival of plants and insects could give us clues to the larger question of how global warming is affecting the overall ecosystem.” − Climate News Network

Big business agriculture could be bad for pollinators, which need crop diversity. And that could mean very bad news for an ever-hungrier world.

LONDON, 26 July, 2019 − Tomorrow’s world could be a hungrier world. That is because as large-scale agribusiness gets busier crop diversity diminishes, and the pool of potential pollinators will become increasingly at risk.

Those crops that rely on pollination by the animal world can only deliver the reward of nourishment to bees and other insects for a very short time. As developing nations switch increasingly to massive plantations of soy, canola and palm oil, the creatures farmers rely on to set seed and begin the process of setting fruit will have a problem finding a food supply for the rest of the year.

The message of the latest research is simple: a sustainable world must be a diverse one. And that means a diversity of crops and crop varieties as well as a diversity of forest, grasslands and wildflowers to keep the honeybees buzzing.

Scientists from Argentina, Chile, the US, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Korea report in the journal Global Change Biology that without an increase in crop diversity, agricultural productivity worldwide could be put at risk by its increasing dependence on pollinators – and insects of all kinds could be on the decline, even as crop-devouring predator insects could be on the increase.

The researchers looked at data from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization on the cultivation of field crops between 1961 and 2016. They found that more and more land is being colonised for agriculture, and the area cultivated for crops that rely on pollinators has increased by 137%. But crop diversity has increased only by 20%. And 16 of the 20 fastest-growing crops require pollination by insects or other animals.

Efficiency above all

The researchers paint a picture of a world in which vast tracts of landscape have been converted for maximum efficiency into plantations producing just one crop, while bees and other pollinators − already at hazard from climate change, pesticides and invasive infection – face a fall in the variety of their own potential food supply.

“This work should sound an alarm for policymakers who need to think about how they are going to protect and foster pollinator populations that can support the growing need for the services they provide to crops that require pollination,” said David Inouye of the University of Maryland in the US, one of the authors.

And a co-author, Robert Paxton of the Martin Luther University at Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, said: “Just a few months ago, the World Biodiversity Council (IPBES) revealed that up to one million plant and animal species are being threatened with extinction, including many pollinators.”

The researchers found that developing nations in South America, Africa and Asia had invested in vast monocultures grown for the global market: soy, for instance, exported to Europe as cattle feed, had risen by about 30% per decade globally, at great cost to natural and semi-natural tropical and subtropical forests and meadows that might otherwise have provided the blooms that pollinators could turn to once the cash crop seeds and nuts had set.

“Studying how this mismatch will affect the reproduction and survival of plants and insects could give us clues to how global warming is affecting the overall ecosystem”

“The bottom line is that if you’re increasing pollinator crops, you also need to diversify crops and implement pollinator-friendly management,” said Professor Inouye.

In a world of potentially catastrophic climate change, global food security is already a worry. Researchers have repeatedly warned that extremes of heat could slash yields and even precipitate global famine.

They have warned that rapid ecosystem change could affect global food supplies and that rapid warming will accelerate the spread of crop pests and diseases.

And even the shifts in the growing season – and in particular the earlier flowering each spring – may soon no longer be matched by the appearance of vital pollinators.

Bees avoid cold

Researchers in Japan report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that they monitored the emergence of the flower Corydalis ambigua and its pollinator bumblebee in the forests of northern Japan for 19 years.

The earlier the snowmelt, the earlier the flowering. And the earlier the snowmelt, the more likely it was that the flowers would emerge before the bumblebees, which hibernate underground until the soil temperatures reach 6°C, could begin looking for food and, in the course of doing so, pollinate the flower and set seed for the next generation.

“Our study suggests the early arrival of spring increases the risk of disruption to the mutualism between plants and pollinators,” said Gaku Kudo, who led the research.

“Studying how this phenological mismatch will affect the reproduction and survival of plants and insects could give us clues to the larger question of how global warming is affecting the overall ecosystem.” − Climate News Network

Acid oceans may trigger mass extinction

A stable carbon cycle means life goes on. Too much carbon could wipe out many species. And acid oceans could hold the key.

LONDON, 23 July, 2019 − Catastrophically widespread die-offs of many creatures could be inevitable if human activities continue to lead to more acid oceans, a new study suggests.

Mass extinction may not be an enduring mystery. Instead, it may be an intrinsic property of the carbon cycle. Once levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans reach a certain threshold, life undergoes dramatic and catastrophic change.

If a US mathematician is right – and his argument is based on statistical reasoning and the evidence in the marine sediments – then once the seas become too acidic for marine organisms to form carbonate shells, a cascade of extinction begins.

And, he warns, the “unusually strong but geologically brief duration” of manmade carbon dioxide increase in the oceans can be matched with slow but devastating extinctions in the past.

In short, human combustion of fossil fuels, combined with the destruction of the forests, could be building up to extinctions on a scale so colossal that they will be visible in the fossil record hundreds of millions of years from now.

After a certain point, the carbon cycle will take over and decide life’s direction. It happened many times long before the emergence of the human species, and it could happen again, according to a new study in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s a positive feedback. More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. Is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

“Once we are over the threshold, how we got there may not matter,” said Daniel Rothman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Once you get over it, you’re dealing with how the Earth works, and it goes on its own ride.”

Professor Rothman developed his hypothesis in 2017, in the journal Science Advances, after he analysed 31 changes in the makeup of carbonate sediments laid down over the last 542 million years, and connected five great extinctions not just with carbon dioxide levels but with the rate at which these increased.

He may be for the moment a lone voice in linking four of the five major extinctions with critical levels of oceanic acidification as a consequence of a carbon dioxide threshold. But climate scientists and palaeontologists have been looking at possible links between carbon and extinction for decades.

They have also repeatedly warned that humans are about to precipitate a sixth mass extinction, chiefly on the basis that we are destroying natural habitat and erasing the conditions in which millions of species – many of them still not identified – were once able to flourish.

The carbon factor

But climate change driven by ever-increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – powered in turn by ever-increasing combustion of fossil fuels – has also been a factor.

Whatever the risk to species or ecosystems, biologists and conservationists have warned that climate change driven by global heating can only make things worse.

And the more carefully researchers have looked at evidence of earlier catastrophic extinctions, the more bygone climate change has revealed itself. What caused the most dramatic and unequivocal of these – the “great dying” at the close of the Permian – is still hotly debated, but atmospheric conditions in one form or another have been repeatedly invoked and researchers have repeatedly drawn lessons for today.

But arguments so far have settled on whether such extinctions are a consequence of slow but inexorable episodes of volcanic discharge or some other geological shift.

Forget the trigger

Professor Rothman’s point is that the trigger itself may not be the important thing: what decides the fate of life on Earth is the level of carbon in the oceans and the rate at which it increases.

Once levels of acidification in the upper ocean reach a certain critical threshold, life is in for major disruption. If marine creatures cannot form shells, they are at risk. But even more dangerously, shells sink to the ocean floor, effectively removing carbon from circulation.

If there are fewer calcifying organisms, then less carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and oceans become even more acidic. A vicious cycle has begun.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Professor Rothman said. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question, from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

Balance restored

In his mathematical model, once carbon levels reached a critical threshold, a cascade of positive feedbacks amplified the effect. Severe ocean acidification set in.

The effect was not permanent. After tens of thousands of years, the carbon cycle did slip back to equilibrium and life could evolve and adapt again.

Carbon is now entering the oceans at an unprecedented rate, over what – in geological terms – is a very brief timespan. If human-triggered greenhouse gas emissions cross a critical threshold, the consequences could be as severe as any of the previous mass extinctions.

“It’s difficult to know how things will end up, given what is happening today,” he said. “But we are probably close to a critical threshold. Any spike would reach its maximum after about 10,000 years. Hopefully, that would give us time to find a solution.” − Climate News Network

A stable carbon cycle means life goes on. Too much carbon could wipe out many species. And acid oceans could hold the key.

LONDON, 23 July, 2019 − Catastrophically widespread die-offs of many creatures could be inevitable if human activities continue to lead to more acid oceans, a new study suggests.

Mass extinction may not be an enduring mystery. Instead, it may be an intrinsic property of the carbon cycle. Once levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans reach a certain threshold, life undergoes dramatic and catastrophic change.

If a US mathematician is right – and his argument is based on statistical reasoning and the evidence in the marine sediments – then once the seas become too acidic for marine organisms to form carbonate shells, a cascade of extinction begins.

And, he warns, the “unusually strong but geologically brief duration” of manmade carbon dioxide increase in the oceans can be matched with slow but devastating extinctions in the past.

In short, human combustion of fossil fuels, combined with the destruction of the forests, could be building up to extinctions on a scale so colossal that they will be visible in the fossil record hundreds of millions of years from now.

After a certain point, the carbon cycle will take over and decide life’s direction. It happened many times long before the emergence of the human species, and it could happen again, according to a new study in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s a positive feedback. More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. Is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

“Once we are over the threshold, how we got there may not matter,” said Daniel Rothman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Once you get over it, you’re dealing with how the Earth works, and it goes on its own ride.”

Professor Rothman developed his hypothesis in 2017, in the journal Science Advances, after he analysed 31 changes in the makeup of carbonate sediments laid down over the last 542 million years, and connected five great extinctions not just with carbon dioxide levels but with the rate at which these increased.

He may be for the moment a lone voice in linking four of the five major extinctions with critical levels of oceanic acidification as a consequence of a carbon dioxide threshold. But climate scientists and palaeontologists have been looking at possible links between carbon and extinction for decades.

They have also repeatedly warned that humans are about to precipitate a sixth mass extinction, chiefly on the basis that we are destroying natural habitat and erasing the conditions in which millions of species – many of them still not identified – were once able to flourish.

The carbon factor

But climate change driven by ever-increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – powered in turn by ever-increasing combustion of fossil fuels – has also been a factor.

Whatever the risk to species or ecosystems, biologists and conservationists have warned that climate change driven by global heating can only make things worse.

And the more carefully researchers have looked at evidence of earlier catastrophic extinctions, the more bygone climate change has revealed itself. What caused the most dramatic and unequivocal of these – the “great dying” at the close of the Permian – is still hotly debated, but atmospheric conditions in one form or another have been repeatedly invoked and researchers have repeatedly drawn lessons for today.

But arguments so far have settled on whether such extinctions are a consequence of slow but inexorable episodes of volcanic discharge or some other geological shift.

Forget the trigger

Professor Rothman’s point is that the trigger itself may not be the important thing: what decides the fate of life on Earth is the level of carbon in the oceans and the rate at which it increases.

Once levels of acidification in the upper ocean reach a certain critical threshold, life is in for major disruption. If marine creatures cannot form shells, they are at risk. But even more dangerously, shells sink to the ocean floor, effectively removing carbon from circulation.

If there are fewer calcifying organisms, then less carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and oceans become even more acidic. A vicious cycle has begun.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Professor Rothman said. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question, from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

Balance restored

In his mathematical model, once carbon levels reached a critical threshold, a cascade of positive feedbacks amplified the effect. Severe ocean acidification set in.

The effect was not permanent. After tens of thousands of years, the carbon cycle did slip back to equilibrium and life could evolve and adapt again.

Carbon is now entering the oceans at an unprecedented rate, over what – in geological terms – is a very brief timespan. If human-triggered greenhouse gas emissions cross a critical threshold, the consequences could be as severe as any of the previous mass extinctions.

“It’s difficult to know how things will end up, given what is happening today,” he said. “But we are probably close to a critical threshold. Any spike would reach its maximum after about 10,000 years. Hopefully, that would give us time to find a solution.” − Climate News Network

Planting more trees could cut carbon by 25%

Scientists now know where to start restoring the forests to soak up carbon and cool the planet, by planting more trees on unused land.

LONDON, 5 July, 2019 − Swiss scientists have identified an area roughly the size of the United States that could be newly shaded by planting more trees. If the world’s nations then protected these 9 million square kilometres  of canopy over unused land, the new global forest could in theory soak up enough carbon to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas by an estimated 25%.

That is, the extent of new tree canopy would be enough to take the main driver of global heating back to conditions on Earth a century ago.

And a second study, released in the same week, identifies 100 million hectares of degraded or destroyed tropical forest in 15 countries where restoration could start right now – and 87% of these hectares are in biodiversity hotspots that hold high concentrations of species found nowhere else.

The global study of the space available for tree canopy is published in the journal Science. Researchers looked for land not used for agriculture or developed for human settlement. They excluded wetlands and grasslands already fulfilling important ecological functions.

Huge canopy increase

They left existing forests out of their calculations. And they identified enough degraded, wasted, or simply unused land to provide another 0.9 billion hectares – that is, 9 million square kilometres – of tree canopy.

Such new or restored forest could store 205 billion tonnes of carbon. This is about two-thirds of the 300 billion tonnes of extra carbon humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.

“We all knew that restoring forests could play a part in tackling climate change, but we didn’t really know how big the impact would be. Our study shows clearly that forest restoration is the best climate change solution available today,” said Tom Crowther of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, now known as ETH Zurich.

“But we must act quickly, as new forests will take decades to mature and achieve their full potential as a source of natural carbon storage.”

“Restoring forests is a must-do – and it’s doable”

Forecasts for the future start with the data available now: the Swiss team worked from a dataset of observations of 80,000 forests, and used mapping software to predict possible tree cover worldwide under current conditions.

The big unknown is: what will global heating and climate change do for future forest growth? If nations go on burning fossil fuels at the present rates, then parts of the world could begin to experience harsher conditions and by 2050 the area available for tree cover could have dwindled by 223 million hectares, much of this in the tropics.

Forests are an integral part of the answer to the climate crisis. But forests worldwide, and particularly in the tropics, are also vulnerable to extremes of heat and drought and windstorm that are likely to come with ever higher average temperatures.

Where and when and how nations act to restore forests involves political decisions that must be based on evidence. So researchers have for years been trying to establish the extent of the global tree inventory, and its variety.

Unrecorded forest

They have confirmed the importance and value of urban forests. They have identified huge areas of woodland  hitherto not mapped or recorded. They have tried to make an estimate of the number of trees on the planet and the rate at which they are being felled, grazed, burned, or even extinguished.

They have identified threats to tropical forests, monitored the increasing damage to or degradation of what are  supposed to be protected areas, much of them forested, and they have measured changes in forests as the temperatures rise.

Right now, the world has 5.5 billion hectares of forest or woodland with at least 10% and up to 100% of tree cover: altogether this adds up to 2.8bn hectares of canopy. It also has a challenge to get on with: the Bonn Challenge to extend national forest areas by 350 million hectares by 2030 has been accepted by 48 countries so far.

The Swiss researchers calculated that there were up to 1.8 billion hectares of land of “low human activity” that could be reforested. If half of this was shaded by foliage, that would yield another 900 million hectares of canopy to soak up and store atmospheric carbon, and more than half of this potential tree space was in just six countries: Russia, the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Best restoration options

But a second study, led by Brazilian scientists and published in the journal Science Advances, used high-resolution satellite studies to find that the most compelling opportunities for forest restoration exist in the lowland tropical rainforests of Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Almost three-fourths of the restoration hotspots were in countries that had already made commitments under the Bonn Challenge. The five nations with the largest areas in need of restoration are Brazil, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and Colombia. Madagascar is also one of six African nations – the others are Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Togo and South Sudan – that, on average, offer the best immediate opportunities for forest restoration.

“Restoring tropical forests is fundamental to the planet’s health, now and for generations to come,” said Pedro Brancalion, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, who led the study.

“For the first time, our study helps governments, investors and others seeking to restore global tropical moist forests to determine precise locations where restoring forests is most viable, enduring and beneficial. Restoring forests is a must-do – and it’s doable.” − Climate News Network

Scientists now know where to start restoring the forests to soak up carbon and cool the planet, by planting more trees on unused land.

LONDON, 5 July, 2019 − Swiss scientists have identified an area roughly the size of the United States that could be newly shaded by planting more trees. If the world’s nations then protected these 9 million square kilometres  of canopy over unused land, the new global forest could in theory soak up enough carbon to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas by an estimated 25%.

That is, the extent of new tree canopy would be enough to take the main driver of global heating back to conditions on Earth a century ago.

And a second study, released in the same week, identifies 100 million hectares of degraded or destroyed tropical forest in 15 countries where restoration could start right now – and 87% of these hectares are in biodiversity hotspots that hold high concentrations of species found nowhere else.

The global study of the space available for tree canopy is published in the journal Science. Researchers looked for land not used for agriculture or developed for human settlement. They excluded wetlands and grasslands already fulfilling important ecological functions.

Huge canopy increase

They left existing forests out of their calculations. And they identified enough degraded, wasted, or simply unused land to provide another 0.9 billion hectares – that is, 9 million square kilometres – of tree canopy.

Such new or restored forest could store 205 billion tonnes of carbon. This is about two-thirds of the 300 billion tonnes of extra carbon humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.

“We all knew that restoring forests could play a part in tackling climate change, but we didn’t really know how big the impact would be. Our study shows clearly that forest restoration is the best climate change solution available today,” said Tom Crowther of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, now known as ETH Zurich.

“But we must act quickly, as new forests will take decades to mature and achieve their full potential as a source of natural carbon storage.”

“Restoring forests is a must-do – and it’s doable”

Forecasts for the future start with the data available now: the Swiss team worked from a dataset of observations of 80,000 forests, and used mapping software to predict possible tree cover worldwide under current conditions.

The big unknown is: what will global heating and climate change do for future forest growth? If nations go on burning fossil fuels at the present rates, then parts of the world could begin to experience harsher conditions and by 2050 the area available for tree cover could have dwindled by 223 million hectares, much of this in the tropics.

Forests are an integral part of the answer to the climate crisis. But forests worldwide, and particularly in the tropics, are also vulnerable to extremes of heat and drought and windstorm that are likely to come with ever higher average temperatures.

Where and when and how nations act to restore forests involves political decisions that must be based on evidence. So researchers have for years been trying to establish the extent of the global tree inventory, and its variety.

Unrecorded forest

They have confirmed the importance and value of urban forests. They have identified huge areas of woodland  hitherto not mapped or recorded. They have tried to make an estimate of the number of trees on the planet and the rate at which they are being felled, grazed, burned, or even extinguished.

They have identified threats to tropical forests, monitored the increasing damage to or degradation of what are  supposed to be protected areas, much of them forested, and they have measured changes in forests as the temperatures rise.

Right now, the world has 5.5 billion hectares of forest or woodland with at least 10% and up to 100% of tree cover: altogether this adds up to 2.8bn hectares of canopy. It also has a challenge to get on with: the Bonn Challenge to extend national forest areas by 350 million hectares by 2030 has been accepted by 48 countries so far.

The Swiss researchers calculated that there were up to 1.8 billion hectares of land of “low human activity” that could be reforested. If half of this was shaded by foliage, that would yield another 900 million hectares of canopy to soak up and store atmospheric carbon, and more than half of this potential tree space was in just six countries: Russia, the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Best restoration options

But a second study, led by Brazilian scientists and published in the journal Science Advances, used high-resolution satellite studies to find that the most compelling opportunities for forest restoration exist in the lowland tropical rainforests of Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Almost three-fourths of the restoration hotspots were in countries that had already made commitments under the Bonn Challenge. The five nations with the largest areas in need of restoration are Brazil, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and Colombia. Madagascar is also one of six African nations – the others are Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Togo and South Sudan – that, on average, offer the best immediate opportunities for forest restoration.

“Restoring tropical forests is fundamental to the planet’s health, now and for generations to come,” said Pedro Brancalion, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, who led the study.

“For the first time, our study helps governments, investors and others seeking to restore global tropical moist forests to determine precise locations where restoring forests is most viable, enduring and beneficial. Restoring forests is a must-do – and it’s doable.” − Climate News Network

Microbes hold the balance in climate crisis

You need powerful microscopes to see microbes. Few microbiologists claim to know much about most of them. But they are vital in the climate crisis.

LONDON, 28 June, 2019 − Thirty scientists from nine nations have issued a challenge to the rest of climate science: don’t forget the microbes.

They argue that research is ignoring the silent, unseen majority that makes up the microbial world. Lifeforms that add up to a huge proportion of living matter on the planet are being largely left out of climate calculations.

Microbes have been around for 3.8 billion years, manipulating sunlight and turning carbon dioxide into carbon-based living tissue, and the mass of all the microbes on the planet probably contains 70 billion tonnes of carbon alone.

They are biodiversity’s bottom line. They are the arbiters of the planet’s resources. They were the first living things on the planet, and will almost certainly be the last survivors.

They are the only living things at vast depths and colossal pressures. Far below the planetary surface, many survive at temperatures beyond boiling point, in lakes composed of alkali, and some can even digest radioactive material.

“The impact of climate change will depend heavily on the responses of micro-organisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future”

They affect the chemistry of the atmosphere, they colonise the intestines of ruminant species to release enormous volumes of the potent greenhouse gas methane, they bury carbon at depth and they decompose vegetation to release new atmospheric carbon dioxide.

They support all life, and powerfully affect life’s health. They affect climate change, and in turn they are affected by climate change.

“Micro-organisms, which include bacteria and viruses, are lifeforms that you don’t see on conservation websites”, said Ricardo Cavicchioli, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

“They support the existence of all higher lifeforms and are critically important in regulating climate change. However they are rarely the focus of climate change studies and policy developments.”

Professor Cavicchioli and colleagues from Germany, the US, Norway, the UK, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada issue what they call their “consensus statement” in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

Globally important

It is not as if climate researchers are unaware of the microbial connection: there is evidence of the powerful role microscopic life plays in ocean warming and on land.

But the consensus statement says it “documents the central role and global importance of micro-organisms in climate change biology. It also puts humanity on notice that the impact of climate change will depend heavily on the responses of micro-organisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future.”

The scientists want to see more research, closer attention to the microbial underpinning of climate change, and more education. They point out that 90% of the mass of living things in the ocean is microbial. Marine phytoplankton take light energy from the sun, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide the basis of the ocean’s life support system. A warming world could mean a diminished ocean food web.

On land, microbes are powerful agencies in both agriculture and disease. “Farming ruminant animals releases vast quantities of methane from the microbes living in their rumen – so decisions about global farming practices need to consider these consequences,” said Professor Cavicchioli.

“And lastly, climate change worsens the impact of pathogenic microbes on animals (including humans) − that’s because climate change is stressing native life, making it easier for pathogens to cause disease.” − Climate News Network

You need powerful microscopes to see microbes. Few microbiologists claim to know much about most of them. But they are vital in the climate crisis.

LONDON, 28 June, 2019 − Thirty scientists from nine nations have issued a challenge to the rest of climate science: don’t forget the microbes.

They argue that research is ignoring the silent, unseen majority that makes up the microbial world. Lifeforms that add up to a huge proportion of living matter on the planet are being largely left out of climate calculations.

Microbes have been around for 3.8 billion years, manipulating sunlight and turning carbon dioxide into carbon-based living tissue, and the mass of all the microbes on the planet probably contains 70 billion tonnes of carbon alone.

They are biodiversity’s bottom line. They are the arbiters of the planet’s resources. They were the first living things on the planet, and will almost certainly be the last survivors.

They are the only living things at vast depths and colossal pressures. Far below the planetary surface, many survive at temperatures beyond boiling point, in lakes composed of alkali, and some can even digest radioactive material.

“The impact of climate change will depend heavily on the responses of micro-organisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future”

They affect the chemistry of the atmosphere, they colonise the intestines of ruminant species to release enormous volumes of the potent greenhouse gas methane, they bury carbon at depth and they decompose vegetation to release new atmospheric carbon dioxide.

They support all life, and powerfully affect life’s health. They affect climate change, and in turn they are affected by climate change.

“Micro-organisms, which include bacteria and viruses, are lifeforms that you don’t see on conservation websites”, said Ricardo Cavicchioli, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

“They support the existence of all higher lifeforms and are critically important in regulating climate change. However they are rarely the focus of climate change studies and policy developments.”

Professor Cavicchioli and colleagues from Germany, the US, Norway, the UK, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada issue what they call their “consensus statement” in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

Globally important

It is not as if climate researchers are unaware of the microbial connection: there is evidence of the powerful role microscopic life plays in ocean warming and on land.

But the consensus statement says it “documents the central role and global importance of micro-organisms in climate change biology. It also puts humanity on notice that the impact of climate change will depend heavily on the responses of micro-organisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future.”

The scientists want to see more research, closer attention to the microbial underpinning of climate change, and more education. They point out that 90% of the mass of living things in the ocean is microbial. Marine phytoplankton take light energy from the sun, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide the basis of the ocean’s life support system. A warming world could mean a diminished ocean food web.

On land, microbes are powerful agencies in both agriculture and disease. “Farming ruminant animals releases vast quantities of methane from the microbes living in their rumen – so decisions about global farming practices need to consider these consequences,” said Professor Cavicchioli.

“And lastly, climate change worsens the impact of pathogenic microbes on animals (including humans) − that’s because climate change is stressing native life, making it easier for pathogens to cause disease.” − Climate News Network

Household tissue is a climate issue

Trees are the source of much of our household tissue. And trees and soil store huge quantities of carbon to add to greenhouse gas totals.

LONDON, 27 June, 2019 − The household tissue you use to blow your nose could be adding to the problems of climate change.

A substantial portion of the tissue products we buy – toilet paper, paper towels and facial tissues – comes from boreal forests, the dense ring of trees which encircles much of the globe just below the Arctic Circle.

These forests – and the soils they stand in – contain vast amounts of carbon; when trees are felled and the land they are growing in is disturbed, carbon is released into the atmosphere, adding to the already dangerously high levels of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

A new report looking at tissue use in the US says Americans are voracious consumers of tissue products; they make up only 4% of the world’s population yet account for more than 20% of global tissue consumption.

The report, by the US-based environmental organisation, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says much of the tissue in the US originates from trees in Canada’s boreal forests.

“The consequences for indigenous peoples, treasured wildlife and the global climate are devastating”

“This vast landscape of coniferous, birch and aspen trees contains some of the last of the world’s remaining intact forests, and is home to over 600 indigenous communities, as well as boreal caribou, pine marten and billions of songbirds”, says the NRDC.

It says that when boreal forests are degraded, their ability to absorb man-made greehouse gas emissions declines.

“In addition, the carbon that had been safely stored in the forests’ soil and vegetation is released into the atmosphere, dramatically undermining international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Temperature increases in the world’s northern regions are already having an adverse impact on boreal forests.
Scientists say earthworms which have recently been found burrowing into the boreal undergrowth are another problem threatening the forests’ survival.

The report says logging on an industrial scale destroys more than a million acres of boreal forest each year. It says what amounts to a “tree to toilet” pipeline has been established, with trees chopped down and converted into tissue pulp, then rolled into perforated sheets or stuffed into boxes and flushed or thrown away.

Solutions available

“The consequences for indigenous peoples, treasured wildlife and the global climate are devastating”, says the NRDC. It insists there are solutions to the problem; sustainably sourced, alternative fibres such as wheat straw and bamboo are available which would greatly reduce the amount of trees being felled.

The report says some US manufacturers have made efforts to use more sustainable materials in their products, but the biggest in the sector – Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific − still rely on virgin pulp from boreal forests for almost all their tissue brands.

“The companies with the largest market shares have the power to make a significant difference for the future of our world’s forests”, says the NRDC.

“Instead, they largely adhere to decades-old tissue formulae that have taken a devastating toll on forests.”

The report calls on consumers to change their buying habits and purchase only brands derived from sustainable products.“Forests are too vital to flush away”, says the NRDC. − Climate News Network

Trees are the source of much of our household tissue. And trees and soil store huge quantities of carbon to add to greenhouse gas totals.

LONDON, 27 June, 2019 − The household tissue you use to blow your nose could be adding to the problems of climate change.

A substantial portion of the tissue products we buy – toilet paper, paper towels and facial tissues – comes from boreal forests, the dense ring of trees which encircles much of the globe just below the Arctic Circle.

These forests – and the soils they stand in – contain vast amounts of carbon; when trees are felled and the land they are growing in is disturbed, carbon is released into the atmosphere, adding to the already dangerously high levels of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

A new report looking at tissue use in the US says Americans are voracious consumers of tissue products; they make up only 4% of the world’s population yet account for more than 20% of global tissue consumption.

The report, by the US-based environmental organisation, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says much of the tissue in the US originates from trees in Canada’s boreal forests.

“The consequences for indigenous peoples, treasured wildlife and the global climate are devastating”

“This vast landscape of coniferous, birch and aspen trees contains some of the last of the world’s remaining intact forests, and is home to over 600 indigenous communities, as well as boreal caribou, pine marten and billions of songbirds”, says the NRDC.

It says that when boreal forests are degraded, their ability to absorb man-made greehouse gas emissions declines.

“In addition, the carbon that had been safely stored in the forests’ soil and vegetation is released into the atmosphere, dramatically undermining international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Temperature increases in the world’s northern regions are already having an adverse impact on boreal forests.
Scientists say earthworms which have recently been found burrowing into the boreal undergrowth are another problem threatening the forests’ survival.

The report says logging on an industrial scale destroys more than a million acres of boreal forest each year. It says what amounts to a “tree to toilet” pipeline has been established, with trees chopped down and converted into tissue pulp, then rolled into perforated sheets or stuffed into boxes and flushed or thrown away.

Solutions available

“The consequences for indigenous peoples, treasured wildlife and the global climate are devastating”, says the NRDC. It insists there are solutions to the problem; sustainably sourced, alternative fibres such as wheat straw and bamboo are available which would greatly reduce the amount of trees being felled.

The report says some US manufacturers have made efforts to use more sustainable materials in their products, but the biggest in the sector – Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific − still rely on virgin pulp from boreal forests for almost all their tissue brands.

“The companies with the largest market shares have the power to make a significant difference for the future of our world’s forests”, says the NRDC.

“Instead, they largely adhere to decades-old tissue formulae that have taken a devastating toll on forests.”

The report calls on consumers to change their buying habits and purchase only brands derived from sustainable products.“Forests are too vital to flush away”, says the NRDC. − Climate News Network

Pursuit of profit won’t solve climate crisis

Every answer has a cost. Every choice exacts a penalty. A new book reminds readers there are no easy answers to the climate crisis.

LONDON, 24 June, 2019 − Resolving the climate crisis demands radical political change, a British author argues: the end of free market capitalism.

You could turn the entire United Kingdom into a giant wind farm and it still wouldn’t generate all of the UK’s current energy demand. That is because only 2% of the solar energy that slams into and powers the whole planet on a daily basis is converted into wind, and most of that is either high in the jet stream or far out to sea.

Hydropower could in theory supply most of or perhaps even all the energy needs of 7 billion humans, but only if every drop that falls as rain was saved to power the most perfectly efficient turbines.

And that too is wildly unrealistic, says Mike Berners-Lee in his thoughtful and stimulating new paperback There Is No Planet B. He adds: “Thank goodness, as it would mean totally doing away with mountain streams and even, if you really think about it, hillsides.”

This is a book for people who really want to think about the state of the world, and how to get to zero-carbon emissions as swiftly as possible, and in a way that preserves a decent life for the 11 billion or so who will people the planet by 2050. And, of course, everything boils down to energy

Enough for everyone.

The sun delivers around 16,300 kilowatts to the Earth’s surface for every person on the planet: enough, he says, to boil an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water for each and every one.

Solar panels that covered just 0.1% of the total land surface (think of a small country just 366 kilometres square) could meet all of today’s human energy needs. But human demand for energy is growing at 2.4% a year. If this goes on, then in 300 years, human demand would need solar panels over every square metre of land surface.

The message from every page of this book is that we need to think, and think again. We could of course think about using the energy we have more efficiently, but history suggests there might be a catch.

The catch is now called the Jevons Paradox, after William Stanley Jevons who in 1863 (he was thinking at the time about the exploitation of coal) pointed out that energy efficiency tends to lead to increases in demand, because that’s how humans respond to plenty: they want even more of it.

“Fit for purpose democracy entails not just voting but accurate information, and a widespread sense of responsibility for the common good”

So we don’t just have to think again, we have to rethink the whole basis of human behaviour. This means switching to vegetarian or vegan diets, abandoning plastic packaging, and cutting down on air travel (powered by biofuels, if we must, but the biofuel business is lunacy – he uses the word “bonkers” – in energy terms).

But these are small things. The big and not necessarily entirely popular message of the book is that we must change politically. Free market capitalism or neoliberalism or any pursuit entirely and only for profit cannot deliver answers to the coming climate crisis.

Professor Berners-Lee takes a lesson from simple physics: wealth is, or ought to be, shared the way kinetic energy is shared around the planet.

When molecules of a gas collide, they redistribute energy, just as when people catch a bus or buy a sandwich, they redistribute wealth. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution law says that you rarely get one atom or molecule with more than 10 times the average energy, and almost never with more than 20 times the average energy.

And if human wealth was distributed according to the same law the total wealth would not change, and some people would still be richer than others, but the median wealth – the income of the person right in the middle – would be a massive 79% of the mean or average. That’s better than the share of wealth in the fair nation of Iceland. So it would be a manifestly fairer world.

Fairer resource-sharing

If the world shared its wealth (and wealth is a proxy for energy resources) more fairly, then it might be a great deal easier to be sure of democratic assent and international co-operation for radical shifts in the way we manage our food, water, transport and our precarious natural wealth in the form of biodiversity: all the wild birds, mammals, fish amphibians, reptiles, plants, fungi and microbes on which humankind ultimately depends.

The above is just a small sample of a rich, thought-provoking and easy-to-enjoy text. Berners-Lee doesn’t have all the answers, and admits as much, but he does know how to frame a lot of questions in illuminating ways.

He has packed his book with explanatory notes, supporting evidence and definitions, one of them being the case for democracy in the world of the Anthropocene.

“Fit for purpose democracy”, he warns, “entails not just voting but accurate information, and a widespread sense of responsibility for the common good.” A book like this could help us get there. − Climate News Network

* * * * *

There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years (Cambridge University Press £9.99)

Every answer has a cost. Every choice exacts a penalty. A new book reminds readers there are no easy answers to the climate crisis.

LONDON, 24 June, 2019 − Resolving the climate crisis demands radical political change, a British author argues: the end of free market capitalism.

You could turn the entire United Kingdom into a giant wind farm and it still wouldn’t generate all of the UK’s current energy demand. That is because only 2% of the solar energy that slams into and powers the whole planet on a daily basis is converted into wind, and most of that is either high in the jet stream or far out to sea.

Hydropower could in theory supply most of or perhaps even all the energy needs of 7 billion humans, but only if every drop that falls as rain was saved to power the most perfectly efficient turbines.

And that too is wildly unrealistic, says Mike Berners-Lee in his thoughtful and stimulating new paperback There Is No Planet B. He adds: “Thank goodness, as it would mean totally doing away with mountain streams and even, if you really think about it, hillsides.”

This is a book for people who really want to think about the state of the world, and how to get to zero-carbon emissions as swiftly as possible, and in a way that preserves a decent life for the 11 billion or so who will people the planet by 2050. And, of course, everything boils down to energy

Enough for everyone.

The sun delivers around 16,300 kilowatts to the Earth’s surface for every person on the planet: enough, he says, to boil an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water for each and every one.

Solar panels that covered just 0.1% of the total land surface (think of a small country just 366 kilometres square) could meet all of today’s human energy needs. But human demand for energy is growing at 2.4% a year. If this goes on, then in 300 years, human demand would need solar panels over every square metre of land surface.

The message from every page of this book is that we need to think, and think again. We could of course think about using the energy we have more efficiently, but history suggests there might be a catch.

The catch is now called the Jevons Paradox, after William Stanley Jevons who in 1863 (he was thinking at the time about the exploitation of coal) pointed out that energy efficiency tends to lead to increases in demand, because that’s how humans respond to plenty: they want even more of it.

“Fit for purpose democracy entails not just voting but accurate information, and a widespread sense of responsibility for the common good”

So we don’t just have to think again, we have to rethink the whole basis of human behaviour. This means switching to vegetarian or vegan diets, abandoning plastic packaging, and cutting down on air travel (powered by biofuels, if we must, but the biofuel business is lunacy – he uses the word “bonkers” – in energy terms).

But these are small things. The big and not necessarily entirely popular message of the book is that we must change politically. Free market capitalism or neoliberalism or any pursuit entirely and only for profit cannot deliver answers to the coming climate crisis.

Professor Berners-Lee takes a lesson from simple physics: wealth is, or ought to be, shared the way kinetic energy is shared around the planet.

When molecules of a gas collide, they redistribute energy, just as when people catch a bus or buy a sandwich, they redistribute wealth. The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution law says that you rarely get one atom or molecule with more than 10 times the average energy, and almost never with more than 20 times the average energy.

And if human wealth was distributed according to the same law the total wealth would not change, and some people would still be richer than others, but the median wealth – the income of the person right in the middle – would be a massive 79% of the mean or average. That’s better than the share of wealth in the fair nation of Iceland. So it would be a manifestly fairer world.

Fairer resource-sharing

If the world shared its wealth (and wealth is a proxy for energy resources) more fairly, then it might be a great deal easier to be sure of democratic assent and international co-operation for radical shifts in the way we manage our food, water, transport and our precarious natural wealth in the form of biodiversity: all the wild birds, mammals, fish amphibians, reptiles, plants, fungi and microbes on which humankind ultimately depends.

The above is just a small sample of a rich, thought-provoking and easy-to-enjoy text. Berners-Lee doesn’t have all the answers, and admits as much, but he does know how to frame a lot of questions in illuminating ways.

He has packed his book with explanatory notes, supporting evidence and definitions, one of them being the case for democracy in the world of the Anthropocene.

“Fit for purpose democracy”, he warns, “entails not just voting but accurate information, and a widespread sense of responsibility for the common good.” A book like this could help us get there. − Climate News Network

* * * * *

There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years (Cambridge University Press £9.99)

Most protected areas lack proper policing

On paper, nations are protecting their wilderness areas. In practice, most protected areas lack effective policing. Nature is not safe, even in reserves.

LONDON, 13 June, 2019 − Three-quarters of all the world’s protected areas – bits of ocean and wilderness nominally made safe for animals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants and fungi produced by 500 million years of evolution – may not be sufficiently staffed or funded.

And of 12,000 species of amphibians, birds and mammals whose ranges include protected areas, fewer than one in 10 are safely within properly policed and cared-for parks and reserves.

Researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that they looked at a sample of more than 2,100 protected areas in Africa, South America and Asia to see which could be classed as sufficiently funded and staffed.

Only 22.4% of these – covering a total area of about 25% of the total areas assessed – could claim to be sufficiently or well resourced.

The news comes only weeks after UN chiefs warned that up to a million species around the globe could be at risk of imminent extinction, and researchers found that many areas declared protection zones for the wilderness were being reclassified, degraded or exploited by industry and agribusiness.

Protection fails

“This analysis shows that most protected areas are poorly funded and therefore failing to protect wildlife on a scale sufficient to stave off the global decline in biodiversity,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Nations need to do much more to ensure that protected areas fulfil their role as a major tool to mitigate the growing biodiversity crisis.”

The researchers also identified 11,919 species of bird, amphibian and mammal that might have natural ranges that included protected areas, and made estimates of those that could be sure of properly protected areas within their range.

They found that this represented 4% of amphibians, 8% of birds and 9% of mammal species in the sample. This is at least five times lower than the targets protected areas were supposed to meet.

Humans usurp nature

That there is a biodiversity crisis has been established and confirmed, again and again. It has been driven by the fourfold explosion both in human population and in the advancement of global economies just in the 20th century, as humans have colonised savannah, forest and wetland to build cities, establish farms and exploit minerals.

The climate crisis, driven by a remorseless rise in global average temperatures in turn driven by profligate use of fossil fuels, can only intensify the hazard to the other species which share the planet, recycle the air and water, scavenge detritus and provide the primary foodstuffs and fibres on which humans depend.

Researchers have also repeatedly established that properly protected wilderness areas offer a way of slowing climate change. And almost on a daily basis, fresh studies identify the cascade towards extinction.

Research in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that since 1900, at least 571 species of seed plant have been extinguished. The researchers also say that “almost as many may have been erroneously declared extinct and then been rediscovered”, but even that caveat simply highlights the numbers that might be nearing oblivion, and reinforces the call for effective protection of natural habitat.

“Most protected areas are poorly funded and therefore failing to protect wildlife on a scale sufficient to stave off the global decline in biodiversity”

On paper, around 15% of the global terrestrial surface and about 12% of marine areas are under national protection, and nations are on track to match a global commitment to protect 17% of land surface and 10% of the seas by 2020, under an internationally agreed strategic plan for biodiversity.

The implication of the latest studies is that “on paper” isn’t good enough. Even if nations can claim to be on target, that doesn’t mean the wild things the protected areas are intended to protect are very much safer.

“While continued expansion of the world’s protected areas is necessary, a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality is critical to effectively respond to the current biodiversity crisis,” said the researchers.

And Professor Watson warned that without such a shift, conservationists could risk “sending a false message that sufficient resources are being committed to biodiversity protection.” − Climate News Network

On paper, nations are protecting their wilderness areas. In practice, most protected areas lack effective policing. Nature is not safe, even in reserves.

LONDON, 13 June, 2019 − Three-quarters of all the world’s protected areas – bits of ocean and wilderness nominally made safe for animals, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, plants and fungi produced by 500 million years of evolution – may not be sufficiently staffed or funded.

And of 12,000 species of amphibians, birds and mammals whose ranges include protected areas, fewer than one in 10 are safely within properly policed and cared-for parks and reserves.

Researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that they looked at a sample of more than 2,100 protected areas in Africa, South America and Asia to see which could be classed as sufficiently funded and staffed.

Only 22.4% of these – covering a total area of about 25% of the total areas assessed – could claim to be sufficiently or well resourced.

The news comes only weeks after UN chiefs warned that up to a million species around the globe could be at risk of imminent extinction, and researchers found that many areas declared protection zones for the wilderness were being reclassified, degraded or exploited by industry and agribusiness.

Protection fails

“This analysis shows that most protected areas are poorly funded and therefore failing to protect wildlife on a scale sufficient to stave off the global decline in biodiversity,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“Nations need to do much more to ensure that protected areas fulfil their role as a major tool to mitigate the growing biodiversity crisis.”

The researchers also identified 11,919 species of bird, amphibian and mammal that might have natural ranges that included protected areas, and made estimates of those that could be sure of properly protected areas within their range.

They found that this represented 4% of amphibians, 8% of birds and 9% of mammal species in the sample. This is at least five times lower than the targets protected areas were supposed to meet.

Humans usurp nature

That there is a biodiversity crisis has been established and confirmed, again and again. It has been driven by the fourfold explosion both in human population and in the advancement of global economies just in the 20th century, as humans have colonised savannah, forest and wetland to build cities, establish farms and exploit minerals.

The climate crisis, driven by a remorseless rise in global average temperatures in turn driven by profligate use of fossil fuels, can only intensify the hazard to the other species which share the planet, recycle the air and water, scavenge detritus and provide the primary foodstuffs and fibres on which humans depend.

Researchers have also repeatedly established that properly protected wilderness areas offer a way of slowing climate change. And almost on a daily basis, fresh studies identify the cascade towards extinction.

Research in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that since 1900, at least 571 species of seed plant have been extinguished. The researchers also say that “almost as many may have been erroneously declared extinct and then been rediscovered”, but even that caveat simply highlights the numbers that might be nearing oblivion, and reinforces the call for effective protection of natural habitat.

“Most protected areas are poorly funded and therefore failing to protect wildlife on a scale sufficient to stave off the global decline in biodiversity”

On paper, around 15% of the global terrestrial surface and about 12% of marine areas are under national protection, and nations are on track to match a global commitment to protect 17% of land surface and 10% of the seas by 2020, under an internationally agreed strategic plan for biodiversity.

The implication of the latest studies is that “on paper” isn’t good enough. Even if nations can claim to be on target, that doesn’t mean the wild things the protected areas are intended to protect are very much safer.

“While continued expansion of the world’s protected areas is necessary, a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality is critical to effectively respond to the current biodiversity crisis,” said the researchers.

And Professor Watson warned that without such a shift, conservationists could risk “sending a false message that sufficient resources are being committed to biodiversity protection.” − Climate News Network