Company averts climate chocolate threat

Fears that the supply of cocoa beans would dry up have led a confectionery giant to help farmers avert a climate chocolate threat.

LONDON, 20 April, 2018 – If you have a sweet tooth, a liking not only for sugar-rich sweets but especially for chocolate, you’ve cause for celebration: the prospect of a climate chocolate threat is a little less likely.

Keeping the world supplied with chocolate is becoming more difficult as deforestation and climate change make it harder for farmers in the tropics to grow the trees that produce the cocoa beans.

Paying producers more for beans under the banner of Fairtrade certainly improved the lot of poor farmers, most of them small-scale cultivators, but that did not solve the long-term problem of providing enough cocoa to supply the huge world market.

The cocoa tree’s natural habitat is the lower storey of the evergreen rainforest, but cocoa farmers do not always grow their trees in the best conditions.
The trees only thrive 10 degrees either side of the Equator, where they need sufficient warmth, rainfall, soil fertility and drainage if they are to flourish.

Clearing rainforest to make space for cocoa tree plantations is some farmers’ preferred practice, but it is not a sustainable way to maintain production.

“We pioneered Cocoa Life to address cocoa farm productivity alongside community development. We strive to not only empower cocoa farmers but also to help their communities thrive”

But, fearing that the supply of cocoa beans was in jeopardy and the price of their raw material would affect production, one of the world’s largest manufacturers is now to invest US$400m by 2022 to help 200,000 cocoa farmers secure a long-term future.

The scheme, called Cocoa Life, is helping farmers in six key cocoa-growing countries: Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, India, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

The company responsible, Mondelēz International, which owns brands like Cadbury, Suchard and Milka, believes many cocoa-growing regions could be wiped out unless action is taken.

Cathy Pieters, director of the Cocoa Life programme at Mondelēz, told the Climate News Network: “The challenges in cocoa are becoming more diverse and complex. In fact, some reports show current cocoa-producing regions may no longer be suitable for cocoa production in the next 30 years if we don’t take action.

Expecting change

“Our approach to climate change is deliberate because we expect a change to happen – a transformation. As one of the largest chocolate makers in the world, we are mobilising farmers and their communities to prioritise forest protection.”

Key to the programme is educating farmers, helping women by providing finance and stopping child labour, and also improving the environment. The company is helping farmers prevent further destruction of rainforest and planting trees around cocoa farms to protect them and recreate the habitat in which trees are most productive.

In this way farmers are producing far more cocoa beans from the same area of land. This year the programme has planted more than a million trees to restore the forest canopy.

Cocoa Life was launched in 2012 and to the end of last year had trained more than 68,000 members of the cocoa-farming community in best practice to ensure a sustainable industry. Cocoa saplings and shade trees needed to replicate rainforest conditions had been distributed to 9,600 farmers.

Industry example

The company says that by the end of 2017 it had increased the amount of its cocoa from sustainable sources by 14 percentage points to 35% and reached 120,000 farmers, 31% more than in 2016.

The potential crisis in the cocoa-growing industry and the threat of climate change have led other manufacturers to embark on similar schemes, and 11 companies have now joined together in a World Cocoa Foundation alliance to protect rainforest from further destruction by cocoa farmers looking for new land.

Although Mondelēz is protecting its own interests by ensuring its cocoa supply chain, Cathy Pieters is clear that the programme is much more than that alone: “We pioneered Cocoa Life to address cocoa farm productivity alongside community development. We strive to not only empower cocoa farmers but also to help their communities thrive.

“We help them find real solutions like diversifying their income beyond the farm, which in turn develops their capacity to stand strongly on their own feet. I believe when we involve farmers as part of the solution, we see lasting, positive change happen.” – Climate News Network

Warming climate increases Sahara’s spread

Climate change means the Sahara’s spread is growing. And North Africa’s pattern of atmospheric change could affect other regions.

LONDON, 5 April, 2018 – The Sahara’s spread is now established. Its sands are on the march. The desert is growing, thanks to climate change.

In the last century the region of the Sahara technically defined as desert has increased by at least 10%. And the area that becomes technically desert – with less than 100mm of rain a year – has increased in summer, the wet season, over the same period by 16%.

And if climate change is at work in northern Africa, the same may hold true for some of the world’s other deserts as well, researchers warn.

US meteorologists report in the Journal of Climate that they looked at data from the years 1920 to 2013, to explore the annual trends.

Deserts are natural geographical features with no fixed boundaries: parts of them can bloom in rainier years, and support crops and even foraging animals, only to become extreme arid zones a year or two later.

“The Chad Basin falls in the region where the Sahara has crept southward. And the lake is drying out. It’s a very visible footprint of reduced rainfall not just locally, but across the whole region”

Deserts exist because of the natural circulation of the atmosphere: air rises at the equator and descends in the subtropics to flow back to the equator nearer ground level to establish a pattern of low precipitation: weather experts call this phenomenon the Hadley circulation, after the 18th century British natural philosopher George Hadley.

“Climate change is likely to widen the Hadley circulation causing northward advance of the subtropical deserts,” said Sumant Nigam, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland, one of the authors of the study. “The southward creep of the Sahara however suggests that additional mechanisms are at work as well.”

The other factors probably linked to the shifts in the Sahara sands include a natural climate cycle known to oceanographers and meteorologists as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

Overlapping patterns

The headache for climate scientists is to distinguish one natural pattern of change from another, more alarming trend as a consequence of climate change, triggered by global warming as a consequence of the ever-increasing use of fossil fuels by human economies.

And such dissections are not simple: the Sahara expands in the arid winter and shrinks a little with the summer rains. Between the shifting dunes of the Sahara and the fertile savannas of tropical Africa lies the Sahel, a region that straddles 14 nations, from Senegal on the Atlantic coast, through Mali and Chad, to Ethiopia on the Red Sea.

Researchers have repeatedly warned that climate change could bring more famine to this precarious region. But other scientists have detected a trend towards increased rainfall that could make parts of the Sahel flourish again with climate change.

The latest study suggests that on the evidence of water levels in Lake Chad, overall conditions could become harsher for the meagre grasslands and impoverished communities of the Sahel.

Century-long trend

“The Chad Basin falls in the region where the Sahara has crept southward. And the lake is drying out. It’s a very visible footprint of reduced rainfall not just locally, but across the whole region,” said Professor Nigam. The scientists attribute about a third of the shift in the desert’s regime to human-induced climate change, the rest to other cyclic weather patterns.

Researchers have been examining desertification for decades, but this paper is claimed as the first to establish a trend over most of a century, according to Natalie Thomas of the University of Maryland, who led the study.

“Our priority was to document the long-term trends in rainfall and temperature in the Sahara. Our next step is to look at what is driving these trends, for the Sahara and elsewhere,” she said.

“We have already started looking at seasonal temperature trends over North America, for example. Here, winters are getting warmer but summers are about the same. In Africa, it’s the opposite – winters are holding steady but summers are getting warmer. So the stresses in Africa are already more severe.” – Climate News Network

Morocco heads for a thirsty future

Despite ambitious efforts to cope with the effects of water shortage and climate change, Morocco faces a dauntingly dry century.

RABAT, Morocco, 31 March, 2018 – Morocco, host of the 2016 United Nations conference on climate change and widely seen as one of the more enlightened among North African and Middle Eastern nations on environmental issues, is facing a number of problems associated with global warming, including ever-increasing water shortages.

In recent years drought in what is one of the most water-stressed regions of the world has caused severe damage to the economies of Morocco and neighbouring North African states.

In 2015/2016 a prolonged drought caused Morocco’s production of grain to plummet by more than 70%. In 2017 water shortages became acute and the King of Morocco, Muhammed VI, issued a decree calling on the faithful at mosques throughout the country to pray for rain.

The droughts have led to social unrest in what till now has been considered one of the more politically stable countries in the region.

“Higher temperatures, less rainfall and increased land salinity in a country that is already suffering from insufficient water resources do not augur well for the future of agriculture”

Protests over what has been seen as government inaction and incompetence have broken out in several areas; in November last year 15 people were crushed to death as hungry farming families queued for supplies of flour.

A bad situation looks likely to become worse. Latest research by the Brookings Institution in the US predicts that climate change is going to result in average temperatures rising across the North African region by 3°C by 2050.

Rainfall over much of Morocco is expected to decline by 10% at the same time as water usage rates rise substantially.

“Higher temperatures, less rainfall and increased land salinity in a country that is already suffering from insufficient water resources do not augur well for the future of agriculture, unless urgent action is taken now,” says the Brookings research.

Expanding Sahara

There is also concern that, along with warming, the Sahara desert could advance northwards, further threatening Morocco’s important agricultural sector, which accounts for 15% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 40% of the country’s workforce.

To meet the challenges of climate change and water shortages the government has brought in its Plan Maroc Vert.

The plan includes an ambitious renewable energy programme, with a target of producing more than 50% of electricity supply by 2030 through a combination of solar and wind power.

Near the town of Ouarzazate, on the edge of the Sahara desert, Morocco is building what’s billed as one of the world’s biggest solar installations.

Need for basics

To cope with water shortages the government is also constructing what is likely to be the world’s largest desalination plant – turning seawater into drinking water – near the tourist destination of Agadir on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.

Officials have also promised to spend millions promoting more efficient irrigation systems, and they are encouraging farmers to plant fruit trees rather than water-hungry cereal crops in an effort to promote water conservation and prevent further soil erosion.

Critics say the government’s approach is half-hearted: they say too much is being spent on mega-projects such as high-speed railways and constructing what will be Africa’s tallest building, rather than repairing and expanding basic infrastructure.

Social Watch, an international network of citizens’ organisations fighting poverty around the world, says 35% of Morocco’s water is lost through bad piping. Water is also polluted by industrial and urban waste. – Climate News Network

Ocean productivity at risk as climate warms

Runaway climate change will alter the pattern of ocean productivity and circulation and play perhaps irreversible havoc with fish catches.

LONDON, 21 March, 2018 – Global ocean productivity – the annual bloom of algae and the cornucopia of molluscs, shrimp, krill, squid, fish and marine mammals that depend on this flowering of the blue planet – could be in serious decline by 2300,  thanks to climate change.

The harvest from the North Atlantic could fall by almost two thirds. The decline in the Western Pacific could drop by 50%. The overall productivity of the oceans from pole to pole will be at least 20% less.

Global warming that is already melting the ice caps and increasingly making the seas more acidic has been blamed for changes in fishery hauls and damage to reef ecosystems.

But the latest study looks not at the immediate consequences of profligate human combustion of fossil fuels, but at the very long-term consequences of turning up the planetary thermometer.

Scientists report in the journal Science that three centuries of continuous rise in carbon dioxide levels in the planet’s atmosphere, as a consequence of fossil fuel combustion, could raise global average temperatures by 9.6°C.

“Marine ecosystems everywhere to the north will be increasingly starved for nutrients, leading to less primary production by phytoplankton”

This is ten times the warming already observed. It will change wind patterns, melt almost all the sea ice and increase ocean surface temperatures.

And with this increase in temperature comes change in the growth of phytoplankton, on which ultimately all marine life depends. There will be shifts in ocean circulation that will take nutrients from the surface and deposit them in the deepest waters.

Antarctic waters could become richer in nutrients. But the world’s human population is centred in the northern hemisphere. “Marine ecosystems everywhere to the north will be increasingly starved for nutrients, leading to less primary production by phytoplankton, which form the base of ocean food chains,” said Keith Moore, an earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who led the study.

“By looking at the decline in fish food over time, we can estimate how much our total potential fisheries could be reduced.”

Research of this kind is based on computer simulation of an entire planetary ocean system over the next 280 years. Leaders from almost all the world’s nations vowed in Paris in 2015 to contain global warming, and other studies have shown that world commercial fisheries would benefit from such action.

Delayed response

But time is running out: the oceans have yet to respond fully to the greenhouse gases that have already built up in the atmosphere in the last century or so.

“The climate is warming rapidly now, but in the ocean, most of that added heat is still right at the surface. It takes centuries for that heat to work its way into the deeper ocean, changing the circulation and removing the sea ice, which is a big part of this process,” Dr Moore said.

“This is what’s going to happen if we don’t put the brakes on global warming, and it’s pretty catastrophic for the oceans.

“There is still time to avoid most of this warming and get to a stable climate by the end of this century, but in order to do that, we have to aggressively reduce our fossil fuel use and emissions of greenhouse gas pollutants.” – Climate News Network

Climate refugees may reach many millions by 2050

Climate refugees, people fleeing climate change’s impacts by moving to new homes, may number over 140 million by 2050, the World Bank reports.

LONDON, 20 March, 2018 – The number of climate refugees – people migrating to escape the effects of the warming climate – could reach many millions in barely 30 years from now, the World Bank says.

The total is a conservative one: it is based on just three regions of the developing world, and considers only people migrating within their own countries, not those seeking a new life abroad.

A World Bank Group report says the worsening impacts of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could mean that by 2050 more than 140 million people had moved within their own countries’ borders, creating a human crisis and threatening development.

But concerted action – including global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and robust development planning at country level – could sharply reduce this worst-case scenario, the report says – by as much as 80%, or more than 100 million people.

In another perspective on climate migration, other analysts argue that it can be a valid way of adapting to a warmer future.

Wake-up call

The Bank’s researchers say their report is the first and most comprehensive study of its kind to focus on the link between slow-onset climate change impacts, internal migration patterns, and development in three developing regions.

It defines climate migrants as people forced to move from parts of their countries where life is increasingly unsustainable because of worsening problems like water scarcity, crop failure, sea-level rise and storm surges. They would be additional to the millions of people already moving within their countries for economic, social, political or other reasons.

The World Bank CEO, Kristalina Georgieva, says the report is a wake-up call to countries and development institutions. “We have a small window now, before the effects of climate change deepen, to prepare the ground for this new reality,” she said.

“Steps cities take to cope with the upward trend of arrivals from rural areas and to improve opportunities for education, training and jobs will pay long-term dividends.

“It’s also important to help people make good decisions about whether to stay where they are or move to new locations where they are less vulnerable.”

“As a means of survival for us and our animals, we are forced to continuously migrate despite all the risks involved”

The research team was headed by World Bank lead environmental specialist Kanta Kumari Rigaud and included colleagues from the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

They looked at three potential climate and development scenarios, comparing the most “pessimistic” (high greenhouse gas emissions and unequal development paths) with “climate-friendly” and “more inclusive development” scenarios in which climate and national development action increases in line with the challenge.

Across each scenario, they applied demographic, socio-economic and climate impact data at a 14-square kilometre grid-cell level to model probable shifts in population within countries.

This approach identified major “hotspots” of climate in- and out-migration – areas from which people are expected to move, and urban, peri-urban and rural areas to which they will try to move.

Crisis not inevitable

“Without the right planning and support, people migrating from rural areas into cities could be facing new and even more dangerous risks,” said Dr Rigaud. “We could see increased tensions and conflict as a result of pressure on scarce resources.

“But that doesn’t have to be the future. While internal climate migration is becoming a reality, it won’t be a crisis if we plan for it now.”

But there is an argument that migration is anyway a successful way of adapting to climate change, and that all governments should legalise and regulate temporary climate migration, both within and between countries

Alex Randall, co-ordinator of the UK-based Climate and Migration Coalition, writes in an opinion article on Al-Jazeera:  “Governments should be harnessing, rather than preventing, the use of migration as a climate adaptation strategy.

Prevention no answer

“Governments must begin to understand that allowing this to happen, making it legal and facilitating it, is their best option. The alternative is trying to prevent it and creating a crisis,” he argues.

Randall quotes Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an indigenous woman from the Mbororo pastoralist community of Chad, who says: “Migration has now become an inevitable method of adaptation for us … As a means of survival for us and our animals, we are forced to continuously migrate despite all the risks involved.”

Randall says: “Governments often fail to understand that people will migrate, even if a safe, legal option doesn’t exist. They have a stark choice ahead of them.

“They can either facilitate safe, legal migration. Or they can attempt to stop people moving and create crises like the one that is currently unfolding along Europe’s southern coastline.” – Climate News Network

Plastic particles threaten to swamp the planet

Plastic particles are now present in every litre of water in the oceans and could be a threat to life as great as climate change.

LONDON, 22 February, 2018 – A ubiquitous tide of plastic particles has now swept throughout the world’s oceans.

The human rights activist Bianca Jagger described to a conference here how a substance that was invented only in 1907 and seemed to have almost magical properties, because it was practically indestructible, is now threatening an environmental catastrophe.

The danger to marine life highlighted recently by David Attenborough in his Blue Planet TV series was only part of the problem, she said.

Because fish ingest the micro-plastics and we eat the fish, then the plastics are in our own bodies too, with as yet unknown health effects.

Plastics, derived from fossil fuels (8% of all oil production is used to make plastics), is with climate change a serious threat to the future of the planet, Jagger said.

Premature discard

The conference was organised by Artists Project Earth at the Royal Geographical Society. Artists contributing to an album to raise funds for the project included Bob Dylan, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran and Pharrell Williams.

A study by Professor Edward Kosior recommending actions necessary to prevent the situation getting worse said the problem was that a long-lived material was manufactured for short-term use and then discarded.

Professor Kosior said 72% of plastic packaging was not recovered, and at least eight million tons leaked into the oceans every year from coastal cities and down large rivers.

There are 150 million tons of plastic in the oceans already, and without significant human intervention to prevent it, the weight of plastic in the sea will be greater than the total weight of fish by 2050.

The problem of plastic entering the oceans was worst in Asia and Africa, where there were few collection and recovery systems. The worst countries at present were China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

“We have already caused irreparable change to the planet but there is hope that there is still time to prevent the worst”

In some cases they just heaped up their garbage on river banks, waiting for the next flood to wash it away.

Although the problem of leakage into the seas was smaller in Europe and North America, because there were more sophisticated rubbish collection schemes, their contribution was still large.

Among the solutions was to stop the single use of plastics and find sustainable alternative materials like card, paper or vegetable products. It was important to make the companies who marketed their products in plastic responsible for the environmentally sound management of the packaging at the end of its life.

Incentives like charging a refundable deposit on coffee cups or water bottles had already been successfully adopted in some countries and should be universal.

Offering incentives

Professor Kosior also suggested increasing the value of plastic in order to give an incentive to people to collect and recycle it so that the waste could be reprocessed and reused.

Campaigning environment journalist Oliver Tickell told the conference that, unlike issues like climate change where it took years to get international legislation in place to reduce greenhouse gases, treaties were already agreed that should prevent plastic reaching the oceans.

The problem was that the countries that had signed up to international law were not abiding by it.

He gave as an example the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adding that there were several others. But Article 194 of UNCLOS requires states to “prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source.”

Action possible

“Measures shall include, inter alia, those designed to minimise to the fullest possible extent. . . the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources… [and] shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.”

Tickell said the fact that dumping plastics was already illegal under  international law meant that action could be taken against states that violated it. Small island states that were most affected by plastic waste piling up on their beaches could take on the large countries in the international courts and ask for compensation.

He realised they lacked the resources to do this but suggested that they could be helped to do so by grants from philanthropic organisations or public subscriptions.

Bianca Jagger said: “We have already caused irreparable change to the planet but there is hope that there is still time to prevent the worst and save the planet for our children and grandchildren.” – Climate News Network

Fairer world may mean more modest dreams

To achieve a fairer world, humans must think again about how they manage the only planet at their disposal.

LONDON, 16 February, 2018 – A sustainable planet may not be attainable, and a fairer world may require us to temper our dreams. Justice, equity, sanitation and even clean water may be within the reach of all, but only if many of the planet’s seven billion humans give up the dream of high life satisfaction as well.

To achieve that difficult-to-define state of mind would require the resources of between two and six planet Earths, according to a new study in a new journal that takes the concept of sustainability and applies some planetary arithmetic.

“We examined international relationships between the sustainability of resource use and the achievement of social goals, and found that basic needs, such as nutrition, sanitation, and the elimination of extreme poverty, could most likely be achieved in all countries without exceeding global environmental limits,” said Daniel O’Neill, who directs the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds in the UK.

“Unfortunately, the same is not true for other social goals that go beyond basic subsistence such as secondary education and high life satisfaction. Meeting these goals could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level.”

Sustainability missed

Dr O’Neill and his co-authors report in the journal Nature Sustainability that they matched measurable human needs, biophysical capacities of the planet, and the data made available by 151 nations to arrive at their calculations.

The biophysical or planetary boundaries – climate change, land-use change, freshwater consumption and so on – that have underwritten the last 11,000 years of human civilisation are increasingly well documented. There is widespread agreement on basic nutrition and sanitation and other social objectives that represent average human needs.

The next step was to compare all the available national data and see who was achieving what, and how sustainably.

No nation right now meets the basic needs of its citizens without over-using biophysical resources, they found. Only 40 nations out of 134 could deliver a healthy life expectancy of 65 years; only 37 out of 141 provided improved sanitation for 95% of their citizenry; and in only 68 out of 106 countries did 95% earn more than US$1.90 a day.

Left in the dark

Secondary school education was available to 95% of the population only in 37 out of 117 countries, and out of the 151 countries in the sample, there were only 59 where 95% of the people had access to electricity.

“Although wealthy nations like the US and the UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable,” said William Lamb, of the Mercator Research Institute on global commons and climate change in Berlin, and a co-author.

“In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people.”

The Nature Sustainability study quotes, as a basic need, a supply of 2700 kilocalories per person per day. The only way this could be provided for the nine billion people expected by 2050 would require radical change, according to a study in Nature Communications.

“Healthy soil is the foundation of agriculture and an essential resource to ensure human needs in the 21st century, such as food, feed, fibre, clean water and clean air”

Adrian Muller of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture at Frick in Switzerland and colleagues report that total conversion to organic agriculture would mean finding between 16% and 33% more land for farming needs.

To go organic without destroying forest or ploughing up wilderness would require a 50% drop in food wastage. It would also mean that land now used to grow fodder for animals would have to be turned to crops, which in turn means lower meat and dairy production. Animals now provide 38% of dietary protein. In the global organic garden, the supply would drop to 11%.

Dr Muller and his colleagues are not the first to argue that a change in planetary diet and more thoughtful use of land could mean fair shares for all in a much more crowded world.

But organic productivity depends very much on care for the planet’s topsoil, and another study by European scientists in Nature Communications suggests that soil is being washed away at an unprecedented rate.

Swept away

In this century alone – between 2001 and 2012 – an estimated 35.9bn metric tons of soil was displaced each year, mostly washed away by rainfall. Overall, 2.5% of this soil loss has happened as forests have been cleared for agriculture.

The greatest increases in soil loss have been in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. That is, the nations with the least developed economies have experienced the highest rates of soil erosion, according to a team from the University of Basel in Switzerland, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology.

“Healthy soil,” the authors point out, “is the foundation of agriculture and an essential resource to ensure human needs in the 21st century, such as food, feed, fibre, clean water and clean air.”

The good news within the research is that they provide the most detailed inventory yet of soil loss, and their estimate is below earlier projections – one UN calculation put it at 75 billion tons loss each year.

The more troubling news is that China, with the highest population, is also home to the largest and most intensively eroded region, followed by Brazil and the African Equatorial territories.

But, the researchers argue, while agriculture now is part of the problem, with changes in practice, it could also become part of the solution. – Climate News Network

Common insects face growing problems

The Earth’s largest animal group faces a new threat. Insects – not just rare species, but common insects too – may become less genetically diverse.

LONDON, 15 February, 2018 – Revelations that insect species are in trouble are not new. But now comes news that the problem may be much more widespread. Even common insects in Germany could be at risk.

Wildlife biologists are prepared for the disappearance of rare species – which may have adapted to exploit precarious environments – but the news that species always considered widespread if not ubiquitous are also in jeopardy is troubling.

The news follows a revelation from a German research team late last year that the sheer mass of flying insects had declined by as much as 75% in the last three decades, once again in Germany.

And although the researchers don’t blame global warming – habitat destruction and changes in land use are enough to explain much of the disappearance – the steady rise in temperatures is seen as the only explanation for a separate finding: beetles in British Columbia have dwindled in size as the thermometer has crept up.

Likely replication

Each study is concerned with one geographical region. Human pressure and changing agricultural practice is much the same across the entire developed world, and global warming is just that: global.

So there is a likelihood that other research teams will find much the same evidence in other places. Insects matter: they represent the largest animal group on Earth; they feed on insect pests, they are themselves food for birds; and they pollinate plants, both wild and farmed, and entomologists have been watching their response to change.

Two German scientists report in the journal Conservation Biology
that they believe the genetic diversity even of frequently-observed butterfly species could decline sharply in future. And because this diversity is the source of species’ resilience to change, their studied animals could then become even more sensitive to environmental shifts.

“Until now, we assumed that it is primarily the specialists among the insects, i.e., animals that depend on a specific habitat, that are threatened with extinction,” said Thomas Schmitt, director of the Senckenberg German Entomological Institute in Müncheberg.

Diversity loss

“In our recent study, we were able to show that even so-called ‘ubiquitous species’ will be facing massive threats in the future.”

And his co-author Jan Christan Habel of the Technical University of Munich said that widespread species carried a much more diverse “gene pool” than those adapted to one confined ecosystem.

“Once these animals – due to the fragmentation of their habitats – lose the opportunity to maintain this genetic diversity by means of exchange, they will no longer be able to adapt to the changing environmental conditions of the future.”

European scientists have been watching insect populations for decades: they have measured butterfly loss in response to the kind of weather extremes likely to accompany climate change; they have even observed a shift in insect colour patterns with the longer summers.

“We were able to show that even so-called ‘ubiquitous species’ will be facing massive threats in the future”

They expect some species to benefit from change while others may lose out, but they have also repeatedly warned that climate change puts entire ecosystems in peril.

Zoologists have known for a century of a link between temperature and body size: animals in colder climates gain an advantage from being big. Those that need to lose body heat gain from being smaller.

But students and museum curators in Canada may be among the first to identify a shift in body-size in insects as a response to recent climate change.

They report in the Journal of Animal Ecology that they selected eight species of beetle from two sites in British Columbia and photographed more than 6500 individual specimens caught over the last century and preserved in a natural history collection.

Shrinking beetles

They also reared 22 species of beetles in laboratory conditions over a range of autumn temperatures that matched the changes recorded in those sites. One of them, Okanagan, has seen a 2.25°C increase in the last 45 years. And in those 45 years, the four largest beetles had dwindled by 20% in average size.

“This research provides evidence that climate change is affecting even the smallest organisms out there,” said Michelle Tseng, a botanist and zoologist at the University of British Columbia.

“When these organisms were collected, I don’t think anyone ever thought that they were collecting them so we could monitor how they are changing. Museum collections contain more biodiversity now than will ever be collected again.

“It’s incredible that the diversity of collections in museums can help us understand and predict how organisms might change in the future.” – Climate News Network

Aquatic life is at risk as carbon levels rise

Marine and freshwater fish could one day be in trouble as ever-rising levels of carbon dioxide affect aquatic life.

LONDON, 18 January, 2018 – New studies warn that global warming is not good news for aquatic life, putting at risk the creatures both of the seas and of inland waterways.

Experiments in Australia confirm that increased temperatures driven by ever-rising atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide reduce the flow of energy up the marine food web, which would be bad news for the ocean’s top predators – and some prized fish catches.

Another study finds that ever-greater levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in rivers and lakes could disrupt the dietary supply for creatures higher in the food chain.

Scientists have been warning for years that global warming and ever-increasing levels of acidification could harm ocean productivity. Researchers from the University of Adelaide report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Biology that they put the proposition directly to the test.

“Healthy food webs are important for the maintenance of species diversity and provide a source of income and food for millions of people worldwide”

They built 12 huge laboratory aquaria with water temperatures and acidity levels that matched predictions of climate change, and then introduced a range of sea creatures: algae, shrimp, sponges, snails, fishes and so on.

They found that the plants flourished, largely in the form of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. “This increased primary productivity does not support food webs, however, because these cyanobacteria are largely unpalatable, and they are not consumed by herbivores,” said Hadayet Ullah, who led the study.

“Healthy food webs are important for the maintenance of species diversity and provide a source of income and food for millions of people worldwide. Therefore, it is important to understand how climate change is altering marine food webs in the near future.”

Alarm, too, about the impact on freshwater species is not new. German biologists had access to data collected every month at four river dams from 1981 to 2015. They report in the journal Current Biology that acidification levels in the reservoirs had steadily increased in that time.

Fleas vulnerable

So they tested the response of species of daphnia, the water flea – and a source of food for other freshwater creatures – to changing water chemistry. The higher the acidity, the weaker the response of the water fleas to the scent of nearby predators.

“Many freshwater organisms rely on their sense of smell. If that sense is compromised in other species due to rising CO2 levels this development might have far-reaching consequences for the entire ecosystem,” said Linda Weiss of the Ruhr University of Bochum, who led the study.

“Follow-up studies must now be carried out, in order to determine if the acidification of freshwater systems is a global phenomenon and in what way other species react to rising CO2 levels.” – Climate News Network

Human limits to growth may be here

Can we run any faster? How tall can we get? Humans who accelerated into climate change may now have to accept our limits to growth.

LONDON, 15 December, 2017 – Humankind may have gone about as far as it can go. Our own limits to growth suggest Homo sapiens may have reached some kind of plateau.

A single species that has changed the climate, become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and ushered in a new geological era, may also be about to become more aware of its physiological limitations.

French researchers think that although more people are living longer than ever, the record age for any single human may have been set two decades ago by a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calment, who died in Arles aged 122 years and 164 days.

Tomorrow’s humans may not be able to run much faster than Usain Bolt, the 100 metres Olympic champion and world title holder. Nor are humans – who on average gained 8.3 cms in the last 100 years – likely to go on growing taller. At some point humankind may have exhausted its physical potential.

“These traits no longer increase, despite further continuous nutritional, medical and scientific progress. This suggests that modern societies have allowed our species to reach its limits,” said Jean-Francois Toussaint of the Paris Descartes University, who led the study. “We are the first generation to become aware of this.”

“Now that we know the limits of the human species, this can act as a clear goal for nations to ensure that human capacities reach their highest possible values for most of the population”

And although such constraints are not directly connected to climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, what humans achieve is a combination of genetic and environmental limitations.

“This will be one of the biggest challenges of this century, as the added pressure from anthropogenic activities will be responsible for damaging effects on human health and the environment,” he said.

“The current declines in human capacities we can see today are a sign that environmental changes, including climate, are already contributing to the constraints we have to consider.”

Professor Toussaint and his colleagues report in the Journal of Physiology that they worked through an enormous number of studies to track the unprecedented improvements in human capabilities during the 20th century, all of which show signs of a major slowdown in the most recent years.

Soils over-used

They calculated that temperature changes in the last decades may affect human physical limits. They also took into account apparent stagnation in crop yield, the over-exploitation of soils, and human disturbance to the rest of the planet’s biodiversity.

Many of these factors have already been explored. Researchers have established planetary pollution with seemingly indestructible plastic waste on such a scale that it may define a new geological marker for a new era that could be called the Anthropocene.

Human populations are expected to exceed UN forecasts in the coming century and the weight of construction by humankind – the technosphere – has been estimated at 30 trillion metric tons.

These, and the impact on the climate as ever more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere from power stations, factory chimneys and exhaust pipes, will leave an indelible mark in the geological record.

Negative change

Humans evolved in an environment that is now being dramatically altered by human action. But even if records for age, height and athletic performance may endure, many people could hope to go on living healthier lives, and for longer – in a stable climate with reliable food supplies.

But climate is changing, and food yields are threatened. Professor Toussaint thinks that “something has changed, but not for the better. Human height has decreased in the last decade in some African countries; this suggests some societies are no longer able to provide sufficient nutrition for each of their children and maintain the health of their younger inhabitants,” he said.

“Now that we know the limits of the human species, this can act as a clear goal for nations to ensure that human capacities reach their highest possible values for most of the population. With escalating environmental constraints, this may cost increasingly more energy and investment in order to balance the rising ecosystem pressures.

“However, if successful, we then should observe an incremental rise in mean values of height, lifespan and most human biomarkers. The utmost challenge is now to maintain these indices at high levels.” – Climate News Network

Climate migrants may face multiple drivers

There are many reasons why people should migrate in huge numbers. But new research pinpoints what may drive climate migrants.

LONDON, 26 November, 2017 – German scientists say climate migrants may be responding to a range of pressures, and not just to climate change alone.

They have established a clear link between climate change and migration: it happened during the 19th century, when temperatures fell and harvests failed. And then it happened again, when temperatures rose and drought scorched the cereal crops. And in both cases, many of the migrants moved to America.

Researchers report in the journal Climate of the Past that after the notorious “year without a summer” in 1816, a year in which a volcanic eruption in Indonesia darkened the skies worldwide, statistics from what is now Baden-Württemberg in Germany reveal a wave of migration to the US. It happened again in 1846, after a prolonged hot and dry summer.

But although weather affected harvests between 1850 and 1855 the evidence was less clear that climate drove migration: during those years the French banned food exports – because of the Crimean War – forcing up the price of grain in Germany.

Partial explanation

“Overall, we found that climate indirectly explains up to 20-30% of migration from southwest Germany to North America in the 19th century,” said Rüdiger Glaserof the University of Freiburg, who led the research.

“The chain of effects is clearly visible; poor climate conditions lead to low crop yields, rising cereal prices and finally emigration. But it is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Climate scientists have been warning for years that climate change could drive mass migration and may already be doing so

Researchers have warned that by 2100, up to 2bn people could become climate refugees, and at around the same time conditions in some parts of North Africa and the Middle East may become intolerable, creating pressure for a mass exodus.

And even within the United States, researchers have warned of huge numbers of internal migrants, forced to flee the flooded coastal cities. 

“The chain of effects is clearly visible; poor climate conditions lead to low crop yields, rising cereal prices and finally emigration. But it is only one piece of the puzzle”

But it is one thing to forecast the consequences of climate change, another to demonstrate that the climate itself will be the driving force. Many refugees trying to reach Europe from Iraq, Libya and Syria have been forced from their homes by conflictwhich itself might be linked to climate change.

And people abandon their homes for a mix of reasons. What Professor Glaser and his colleagues have done is spell out a clear link between climate and successive waves of migration from a region that had yet to become Germany. 

And they have been able to do so because, at least for what were once the Grand Duchy of Baden, the Kingdom of Württemberg and the principality of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, they had data: both about harvests of rye, oats, barley, spelt and wheat, and about the movement of population. The climate connection was clear enough for the years around 1816 and 1846.

“Migration in the 19th century was a complex process influenced by multiple factors. Lack of economic perspectives, social pressure, population development, religious and political disputes, warfare, family ties and the promotion of emigration from different sides influenced people’s decision to leave their home country,” said Professor Glaser. “Nevertheless we see clearly that climate was a major factor.” – Climate News Network