Tag Archives: Forests

Vegetation holds key to climate control

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing heating

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

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

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

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

Risk to trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drying wetlands

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

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

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

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

The Arctic greens

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

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

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

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

Climate feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing heating

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

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

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

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

Risk to trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drying wetlands

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

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

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

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

The Arctic greens

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

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

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

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

Climate feedback

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

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

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

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

Tropical forests may be heating Earth by 2035

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theory and practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catastrophic prospect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theory and practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catastrophic prospect

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

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

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

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

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

Rare trees saved from Australia’s wildfires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy to miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human rarities

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

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

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

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

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

Survivors for sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy to miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human rarities

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

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

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

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

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

Survivors for sale

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

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

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

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

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

Wildfire risk can be reduced with agroforestry

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

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

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

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

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

Work boost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work boost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New forests mean permanently lower river flows

Planting trees helps to combat the climate crisis by cutting greenhouse gases. But the price can be permanently lower river flows.

LONDON, 20 January, 2020 − New forests are an apparently promising way to tackle global heating: the trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from human activities. But there’s a snag, because permanently lower river flows can be an unintended consequence.

A study by scientists at the University of Cambridge, UK, has found that river flow is reduced in areas where forests have been planted − and, significantly, it does not recover over time. Rivers in some regions can disappear completely within 10 years.

This, the researchers say, highlights the need to consider the impact on regional water availability, as well as the wider climate benefit of tree-planting plans.

“Reforestation is an important part of tackling climate change, but we need to carefully consider the best places for it. In some places, changes to water availability will completely change the local cost-benefits of tree-planting programmes”, said Laura Bentley, a plant scientist in the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and first author of the report.

Age effect missed

Planting large areas of trees has been suggested as one of the best ways of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, because trees absorb and store the gas as they grow, although uncertainties about the strategy persist. Science has known for a long time that planting trees reduces the amount of water flowing into nearby rivers, but no-one had realised how this effect changes as forests age.

The Cambridge study looked at 43 sites across the world where forests have been established, and used river flow as a measure of water availability in the region. It found that within five years of planting trees, river flow had reduced by an average of 25%.

But 25 years after the trees were planted, rivers had gone down by an average of 40%, or in a few cases had dried up altogether. The biggest percentage reductions in water availability were in parts of Australia and South Africa.

“River flow does not recover after planting trees, even after many years, once disturbances in the catchment and the effects of climate are accounted for,” said Professor David Coomes, director of the Conservation Research Institute, who led the study.

“In some places, changes to water availability will completely change the local cost-benefits of tree-planting programmes”

Published in the journal Global Change Biology, the research showed that the type of land where trees are planted determines the impact they have on local water availability.

Trees planted on natural grassland where the soil is healthy decrease river flow significantly. But on land previously degraded by agriculture, establishing a forest helps to repair the soil so that it can hold more water, and therefore decreases nearby river flow by a smaller amount.

Strangely, the effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than in wetter ones. When trees are drought-stressed they close the pores on their leaves to conserve water, and as a result take up less water from the soil. In wet weather, though, they use more water from the soil, and also catch the rainwater in their leaves.

“Climate change will affect water availability around the world,” said Bentley. “By studying how forestation affects water availability, we can work to minimise any local consequences for people and the environment.” − Climate News Network

Planting trees helps to combat the climate crisis by cutting greenhouse gases. But the price can be permanently lower river flows.

LONDON, 20 January, 2020 − New forests are an apparently promising way to tackle global heating: the trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from human activities. But there’s a snag, because permanently lower river flows can be an unintended consequence.

A study by scientists at the University of Cambridge, UK, has found that river flow is reduced in areas where forests have been planted − and, significantly, it does not recover over time. Rivers in some regions can disappear completely within 10 years.

This, the researchers say, highlights the need to consider the impact on regional water availability, as well as the wider climate benefit of tree-planting plans.

“Reforestation is an important part of tackling climate change, but we need to carefully consider the best places for it. In some places, changes to water availability will completely change the local cost-benefits of tree-planting programmes”, said Laura Bentley, a plant scientist in the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and first author of the report.

Age effect missed

Planting large areas of trees has been suggested as one of the best ways of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, because trees absorb and store the gas as they grow, although uncertainties about the strategy persist. Science has known for a long time that planting trees reduces the amount of water flowing into nearby rivers, but no-one had realised how this effect changes as forests age.

The Cambridge study looked at 43 sites across the world where forests have been established, and used river flow as a measure of water availability in the region. It found that within five years of planting trees, river flow had reduced by an average of 25%.

But 25 years after the trees were planted, rivers had gone down by an average of 40%, or in a few cases had dried up altogether. The biggest percentage reductions in water availability were in parts of Australia and South Africa.

“River flow does not recover after planting trees, even after many years, once disturbances in the catchment and the effects of climate are accounted for,” said Professor David Coomes, director of the Conservation Research Institute, who led the study.

“In some places, changes to water availability will completely change the local cost-benefits of tree-planting programmes”

Published in the journal Global Change Biology, the research showed that the type of land where trees are planted determines the impact they have on local water availability.

Trees planted on natural grassland where the soil is healthy decrease river flow significantly. But on land previously degraded by agriculture, establishing a forest helps to repair the soil so that it can hold more water, and therefore decreases nearby river flow by a smaller amount.

Strangely, the effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than in wetter ones. When trees are drought-stressed they close the pores on their leaves to conserve water, and as a result take up less water from the soil. In wet weather, though, they use more water from the soil, and also catch the rainwater in their leaves.

“Climate change will affect water availability around the world,” said Bentley. “By studying how forestation affects water availability, we can work to minimise any local consequences for people and the environment.” − Climate News Network

Australia’s sunshine could spare its blazing forests

The hellish sight of Australia’s blazing forests threatens to become all too familiar. But the future doesn’t have to be like this.



LONDON, 16 January, 2020 − Australia burns, and recent studies show that the severity of the heat waves there has been exacerbated by climate change, fuelling this year’s extensive bush fires and torching the blazing forests. And yet Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, has not faltered in his support for the fossil fuel industry.

To be fair, he is in a difficult situation. A significant part of the Australian economy is dependent on coal, and the economy would take a real hit if coal mining was shut down. On the other hand, it is clear that the coal industry is a major driver of climate change, the consequences of which his voters are suffering from. There is no easy way out. Morrison’s approval ratings have fallen from +2 to -12 during the past month.

So what can Mr Morrison do if he wants to reduce the impact that climate change will have on Australia’s forests? In my opinion, the answer is obvious. He should make good use of the other natural resource that his country has in abundance: sunshine. Sunshine means energy. For a big country like Australia, it means lots of energy.

Exporting solar-powered electricity directly to neighbouring countries is impractical and not very cost-effective − not least because, for Australia, there are very few such neighbouring countries. However, solar energy could be used to produce synthetic hydrocarbons and be stored and transported that way.

“Mr Morrison, are you prepared to take the initiative in making use of your vast reserves of solar energy to help make the aviation industry significantly greener?”

To take a practical example, there is no prospect in the foreseeable future of airliners being able to run directly on electric batteries charged by renewable sources – to cross the Atlantic, say, the batteries would simply be too heavy. In this respect, kerosene is a remarkable chemical, storing so much energy per gram of fuel. We cannot simply stop aircraft flying – the world’s economy depends on aviation.

Kerosene, as burnt by today’s aircraft, derives from fossil carbon, and it is our emissions of fossil carbon that are causing the climate to change and the Australian bush to burn. But it doesn’t have to be made from fossil carbon.

It can be made by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and combining it with hydrogen, which has been made by separating it out from oxygen in common-or-garden water (a process known as hydrolysis).

Of course, this process requires energy, and it makes no sense to create synthetic kerosene using energy from fossil carbon. But it makes sense if the kerosene is made using solar energy.

Cost problem

Research has shown that producing synthetic kerosene in this way is possible. The problem of producing it at scale is one of cost. According to recent estimates, the cost of oil would have to exceed US$100 a barrel for synthetic kerosene to become viable.

This is the time for the countries of the world, especially those who have signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, to make commitments. A concrete proposal would be that past 2030, aircraft that land and take off at airports in these countries will, if the planes run on fossil kerosene, be taxed by an amount that would make it economically much more attractive for them to run on synthetic kerosene.

Of course, this won’t make sense unless synthetic kerosene is available in sufficient amounts. Herein lies Australia’s unique economic opportunity. As a politically stable country, we would not have to worry about supplies getting shut off by political instability, a concern for some other sunny parts of the world. Australia could easily become the go-to country for synthetic kerosene.

The developed countries of the world should take the lead in announcing a date when planes landing or taking off at their airports will be taxed extra if they burn fossil kerosene. Mr Morrison, if they do so, are you prepared to take the initiative in making use of your vast reserves of solar energy to help make the aviation industry significantly greener? Even if it is only to safeguard your own forests. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Tim Palmer is a Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at the University of Oxford, UK.

The hellish sight of Australia’s blazing forests threatens to become all too familiar. But the future doesn’t have to be like this.



LONDON, 16 January, 2020 − Australia burns, and recent studies show that the severity of the heat waves there has been exacerbated by climate change, fuelling this year’s extensive bush fires and torching the blazing forests. And yet Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, has not faltered in his support for the fossil fuel industry.

To be fair, he is in a difficult situation. A significant part of the Australian economy is dependent on coal, and the economy would take a real hit if coal mining was shut down. On the other hand, it is clear that the coal industry is a major driver of climate change, the consequences of which his voters are suffering from. There is no easy way out. Morrison’s approval ratings have fallen from +2 to -12 during the past month.

So what can Mr Morrison do if he wants to reduce the impact that climate change will have on Australia’s forests? In my opinion, the answer is obvious. He should make good use of the other natural resource that his country has in abundance: sunshine. Sunshine means energy. For a big country like Australia, it means lots of energy.

Exporting solar-powered electricity directly to neighbouring countries is impractical and not very cost-effective − not least because, for Australia, there are very few such neighbouring countries. However, solar energy could be used to produce synthetic hydrocarbons and be stored and transported that way.

“Mr Morrison, are you prepared to take the initiative in making use of your vast reserves of solar energy to help make the aviation industry significantly greener?”

To take a practical example, there is no prospect in the foreseeable future of airliners being able to run directly on electric batteries charged by renewable sources – to cross the Atlantic, say, the batteries would simply be too heavy. In this respect, kerosene is a remarkable chemical, storing so much energy per gram of fuel. We cannot simply stop aircraft flying – the world’s economy depends on aviation.

Kerosene, as burnt by today’s aircraft, derives from fossil carbon, and it is our emissions of fossil carbon that are causing the climate to change and the Australian bush to burn. But it doesn’t have to be made from fossil carbon.

It can be made by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and combining it with hydrogen, which has been made by separating it out from oxygen in common-or-garden water (a process known as hydrolysis).

Of course, this process requires energy, and it makes no sense to create synthetic kerosene using energy from fossil carbon. But it makes sense if the kerosene is made using solar energy.

Cost problem

Research has shown that producing synthetic kerosene in this way is possible. The problem of producing it at scale is one of cost. According to recent estimates, the cost of oil would have to exceed US$100 a barrel for synthetic kerosene to become viable.

This is the time for the countries of the world, especially those who have signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, to make commitments. A concrete proposal would be that past 2030, aircraft that land and take off at airports in these countries will, if the planes run on fossil kerosene, be taxed by an amount that would make it economically much more attractive for them to run on synthetic kerosene.

Of course, this won’t make sense unless synthetic kerosene is available in sufficient amounts. Herein lies Australia’s unique economic opportunity. As a politically stable country, we would not have to worry about supplies getting shut off by political instability, a concern for some other sunny parts of the world. Australia could easily become the go-to country for synthetic kerosene.

The developed countries of the world should take the lead in announcing a date when planes landing or taking off at their airports will be taxed extra if they burn fossil kerosene. Mr Morrison, if they do so, are you prepared to take the initiative in making use of your vast reserves of solar energy to help make the aviation industry significantly greener? Even if it is only to safeguard your own forests. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

Tim Palmer is a Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at the University of Oxford, UK.

Conservation pays its way handsomely

Money does grow on trees. The conservation of a native forest is natural capital, its cash value often reaching trillions of dollars.

LONDON, 2 December, 2019 – More than 400 scientists in Brazil have once again established that conservation pays: landscapes and people are richer for the native vegetation preserved on rural properties.

They calculate that 270 million hectares (667m acres) of natural forest, scrub, marsh and grassland contained in Brazil’s legal reserves are worth US$1.5 trillion (£1.7tn) a year to the nation.

Natural wilderness pays its way by providing a steady supply of natural crop pollinators and pest controls, by seamlessly managing rainfall and water run-off, and by maintaining soil quality, the researchers argue in a new study in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation.

“The paper is meant to show that preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil and diverges from what was done in Europe 500 years ago, when the level of environmental awareness was different”, said Jean Paul Metzger, an ecologist at the University of São Paulo, who leads the signatories.

“Brazil conserves a great deal, protecting over 60% of its vegetation cover, and has strict legislation. It’s ranked 30th by the World Bank, behind Sweden and Finland, which protect approximately 70%. However, we must call attention to the fact that conservation isn’t bad,” said Professor Metzger.

Protection maintained

Brazilian law requires rural landowners to leave forest cover untouched on a percentage of their property: in the Amazon region as much as 80%; in other regions as little as 20%. But these protected areas shelter a third of the nation’s natural vegetation.

A bill that proposed to weaken or eliminate the Legal Reserve requirement went before the Brazilian Senate in 2019. Had it passed, it could have led to the loss altogether of 270 million hectares of native vegetation.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but a small army of scientists – including 371 researchers in 79 Brazilian laboratories, universities and institutions – have responded with a study that attempts to set a cash value to simply maintaining the natural capital of the wilderness.

Brazil is home to one of the world’s great tropical rainforests, and to one of the world’s richest centres of biodiversity. The global climate crisis is already taking its toll of the forest canopy in the form of drought and fire. But under new national leadership there have been fears that even more forest could be at risk.

“Preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil”

The cash-value case for conservation has been made, and made repeatedly. Studies have confirmed that agribusiness monocultures – vast tracts devoted entirely to one crop and only one crop – are not sustainable: animal pollinators can make the best of the flowering season but then have no alternative sources of food for the rest of the year.

Other researchers have separately established that the loss of natural forest can be far more costly and economically damaging than anybody had expected; and that, conversely, conserved and undisturbed wilderness actually delivers wealth on a sustained basis for national and regional economies. But farmers concerned with immediate profits might not be so conscious of the long-term rewards of conservation.

“It’s an important paper because it presents sound information that can be used to refute the arguments of those who want to change the Brazilian Forest Code and do away with the legal reserve requirement”, said Carlos Joly of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation, and one of the signatories.

And his colleague Paulo Artaxo said: “Farmers sometimes take a short-term view that focuses on three or four years of personal profit, but the nation is left with enormous losses. This mindset should go. The paper makes that very clear.” – Climate News Network

Money does grow on trees. The conservation of a native forest is natural capital, its cash value often reaching trillions of dollars.

LONDON, 2 December, 2019 – More than 400 scientists in Brazil have once again established that conservation pays: landscapes and people are richer for the native vegetation preserved on rural properties.

They calculate that 270 million hectares (667m acres) of natural forest, scrub, marsh and grassland contained in Brazil’s legal reserves are worth US$1.5 trillion (£1.7tn) a year to the nation.

Natural wilderness pays its way by providing a steady supply of natural crop pollinators and pest controls, by seamlessly managing rainfall and water run-off, and by maintaining soil quality, the researchers argue in a new study in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation.

“The paper is meant to show that preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil and diverges from what was done in Europe 500 years ago, when the level of environmental awareness was different”, said Jean Paul Metzger, an ecologist at the University of São Paulo, who leads the signatories.

“Brazil conserves a great deal, protecting over 60% of its vegetation cover, and has strict legislation. It’s ranked 30th by the World Bank, behind Sweden and Finland, which protect approximately 70%. However, we must call attention to the fact that conservation isn’t bad,” said Professor Metzger.

Protection maintained

Brazilian law requires rural landowners to leave forest cover untouched on a percentage of their property: in the Amazon region as much as 80%; in other regions as little as 20%. But these protected areas shelter a third of the nation’s natural vegetation.

A bill that proposed to weaken or eliminate the Legal Reserve requirement went before the Brazilian Senate in 2019. Had it passed, it could have led to the loss altogether of 270 million hectares of native vegetation.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but a small army of scientists – including 371 researchers in 79 Brazilian laboratories, universities and institutions – have responded with a study that attempts to set a cash value to simply maintaining the natural capital of the wilderness.

Brazil is home to one of the world’s great tropical rainforests, and to one of the world’s richest centres of biodiversity. The global climate crisis is already taking its toll of the forest canopy in the form of drought and fire. But under new national leadership there have been fears that even more forest could be at risk.

“Preserving native vegetation isn’t an obstacle to social and economic development but part of the solution. It’s one of the drivers of sustainable development in Brazil”

The cash-value case for conservation has been made, and made repeatedly. Studies have confirmed that agribusiness monocultures – vast tracts devoted entirely to one crop and only one crop – are not sustainable: animal pollinators can make the best of the flowering season but then have no alternative sources of food for the rest of the year.

Other researchers have separately established that the loss of natural forest can be far more costly and economically damaging than anybody had expected; and that, conversely, conserved and undisturbed wilderness actually delivers wealth on a sustained basis for national and regional economies. But farmers concerned with immediate profits might not be so conscious of the long-term rewards of conservation.

“It’s an important paper because it presents sound information that can be used to refute the arguments of those who want to change the Brazilian Forest Code and do away with the legal reserve requirement”, said Carlos Joly of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation, and one of the signatories.

And his colleague Paulo Artaxo said: “Farmers sometimes take a short-term view that focuses on three or four years of personal profit, but the nation is left with enormous losses. This mindset should go. The paper makes that very clear.” – Climate News Network

Earth nears irreversible tipping points

Changes afoot now in at least nine areas could drastically alter the Earth’s climate. There’s no time left to act on these tipping points.

LONDON, 28 November, 2019 – On the eve of a global climate summit in Madrid, seven distinguished climate scientists have issued an urgent warning of approaching planetary tipping points: within a few years, they say, humankind could enter a state of potentially catastrophic climate change on a new “hothouse” Earth.

They warn that dramatic changes to planetary stability may already be happening in nine vulnerable ecosystems. As these changes happen, they could reinforce each other and at the same time amplify planetary temperature rise, commit the oceans to inexorable sea level rise of around 10 metres, and threaten the existence of human civilisations.

Their warning is issued in a commentary in the journal Nature. Their conclusions are not – and perhaps cannot be – confirmed by direct evidence or the consensus of other scientists. They present an opinion, not a set of facts that can be scrutinised and challenged or endorsed by their peers.

And the seven researchers recognise that although such changes are happening at speed, some of the consequences of those changes will follow more slowly. Their point is that the risks of irreversible change are too great not to act – and to act now.

Happening now

But the fact that they have chosen to issue such an alarm at all is a measure of the concern raised by the rapid retreat of the Arctic ice, the steady loss of the Greenland ice cap, the damage to the boreal forests, the thaw of the polar permafrost, the slowing of a great ocean current, the loss of tropical corals and the collapse of ice sheets in East and West Antarctica.

Each of these happenings – and many more – was identified more than a decade ago as a potential “tipping point”: an irreversible change that would amplify global heating and trigger a cascade of other climate changes.

“Now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated,” said Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter, UK. “The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see.”

“The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action – not just words – must reflect this”

The idea of a climate tipping point – a threshold beyond which dramatic climate change would be irreversible – is an old one. Two decades ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change examined the idea and proposed that, were the planet to warm by 5°C above the long-term average for most of human history, then it could tip into a new climate regime.

But in the last few decades, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have gone from around 280 parts per million to more than 400 ppm, and global average temperatures have risen by more than 1°C. And the rate of change, driven by profligate use of fossil fuels that deposit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, has been alarming.

“It is not only human pressures on Earth that continue rising to unprecedented levels. It is also that, as science advances, we must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming. This is what we are seeing already at 1°C global warming,” said Johan Rockström, who directs the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, and who is another signatory.

“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action that accelerates the path towards a world that can continue evolving on a stable planet.”

Inadequate pledges

In 2015, at a climate summit in Paris, 195 nations promised to contain planetary heating to “well below” 2°C, and ideally to 1.5°C, by 2100. But the Nature signatories point at that even if the pledges those nations made are implemented – a “big if”, they warn – then they will ensure only that the world is committed to at least 3°C warming.

The scientists believe there is still time to act – but their dangerous tipping points are now dangerously close.

The arguments go like this. In West Antarctica, ice may already be retreating beyond the “grounding line” where ice, ocean and bedrock meet. If so, then the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse, and sea levels could rise by three metres.

New evidence suggests the East Antarctic ice sheet could be similarly unstable, and precipitate further sea level rise of up to four metres. Hundreds of millions are already at risk from coastal flooding.

Timescale controlled

The Greenland ice sheet is melting at an accelerating rate, and once past a critical threshold could lose enough water to raise sea levels by seven metres. Even a 1.5°C warming might condemn Greenland to irreversible melting – and on present form the world could warm by 1.5°C by 2030.

“Thus we might have already committed future generations to living with sea level rises of around 10m over thousands of years. But the timescale is still under our control,” the authors warn.

They also warn that a “staggering 99% of tropical corals” could be lost if the planet heats by even 2°C – at a profound cost to both marine sea life and human economies.

They say 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost since 1970: a loss of somewhere between 20% and 40% could tip the entire rainforest into a destabilised state, increasingly at risk from drought and fire.

Risks multiply

In the boreal forests of northern Asia, Europe and Canada, insect outbreaks, fire and dieback could turn some regions into sources of more carbon, rather than sinks that soak up the extra carbon dioxide.

Permafrost thaw could release ever-greater volumes of stored methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent, over a century, than carbon dioxide, and so on. The dangers multiply, and each one amplifies planetary heating.

“If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilisation,” the authors warn.

“The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action – not just words – must reflect this.” – Climate News Network

Changes afoot now in at least nine areas could drastically alter the Earth’s climate. There’s no time left to act on these tipping points.

LONDON, 28 November, 2019 – On the eve of a global climate summit in Madrid, seven distinguished climate scientists have issued an urgent warning of approaching planetary tipping points: within a few years, they say, humankind could enter a state of potentially catastrophic climate change on a new “hothouse” Earth.

They warn that dramatic changes to planetary stability may already be happening in nine vulnerable ecosystems. As these changes happen, they could reinforce each other and at the same time amplify planetary temperature rise, commit the oceans to inexorable sea level rise of around 10 metres, and threaten the existence of human civilisations.

Their warning is issued in a commentary in the journal Nature. Their conclusions are not – and perhaps cannot be – confirmed by direct evidence or the consensus of other scientists. They present an opinion, not a set of facts that can be scrutinised and challenged or endorsed by their peers.

And the seven researchers recognise that although such changes are happening at speed, some of the consequences of those changes will follow more slowly. Their point is that the risks of irreversible change are too great not to act – and to act now.

Happening now

But the fact that they have chosen to issue such an alarm at all is a measure of the concern raised by the rapid retreat of the Arctic ice, the steady loss of the Greenland ice cap, the damage to the boreal forests, the thaw of the polar permafrost, the slowing of a great ocean current, the loss of tropical corals and the collapse of ice sheets in East and West Antarctica.

Each of these happenings – and many more – was identified more than a decade ago as a potential “tipping point”: an irreversible change that would amplify global heating and trigger a cascade of other climate changes.

“Now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated,” said Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter, UK. “The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see.”

“The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action – not just words – must reflect this”

The idea of a climate tipping point – a threshold beyond which dramatic climate change would be irreversible – is an old one. Two decades ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change examined the idea and proposed that, were the planet to warm by 5°C above the long-term average for most of human history, then it could tip into a new climate regime.

But in the last few decades, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have gone from around 280 parts per million to more than 400 ppm, and global average temperatures have risen by more than 1°C. And the rate of change, driven by profligate use of fossil fuels that deposit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, has been alarming.

“It is not only human pressures on Earth that continue rising to unprecedented levels. It is also that, as science advances, we must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming. This is what we are seeing already at 1°C global warming,” said Johan Rockström, who directs the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, and who is another signatory.

“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action that accelerates the path towards a world that can continue evolving on a stable planet.”

Inadequate pledges

In 2015, at a climate summit in Paris, 195 nations promised to contain planetary heating to “well below” 2°C, and ideally to 1.5°C, by 2100. But the Nature signatories point at that even if the pledges those nations made are implemented – a “big if”, they warn – then they will ensure only that the world is committed to at least 3°C warming.

The scientists believe there is still time to act – but their dangerous tipping points are now dangerously close.

The arguments go like this. In West Antarctica, ice may already be retreating beyond the “grounding line” where ice, ocean and bedrock meet. If so, then the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse, and sea levels could rise by three metres.

New evidence suggests the East Antarctic ice sheet could be similarly unstable, and precipitate further sea level rise of up to four metres. Hundreds of millions are already at risk from coastal flooding.

Timescale controlled

The Greenland ice sheet is melting at an accelerating rate, and once past a critical threshold could lose enough water to raise sea levels by seven metres. Even a 1.5°C warming might condemn Greenland to irreversible melting – and on present form the world could warm by 1.5°C by 2030.

“Thus we might have already committed future generations to living with sea level rises of around 10m over thousands of years. But the timescale is still under our control,” the authors warn.

They also warn that a “staggering 99% of tropical corals” could be lost if the planet heats by even 2°C – at a profound cost to both marine sea life and human economies.

They say 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost since 1970: a loss of somewhere between 20% and 40% could tip the entire rainforest into a destabilised state, increasingly at risk from drought and fire.

Risks multiply

In the boreal forests of northern Asia, Europe and Canada, insect outbreaks, fire and dieback could turn some regions into sources of more carbon, rather than sinks that soak up the extra carbon dioxide.

Permafrost thaw could release ever-greater volumes of stored methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent, over a century, than carbon dioxide, and so on. The dangers multiply, and each one amplifies planetary heating.

“If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilisation,” the authors warn.

“The stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action – not just words – must reflect this.” – Climate News Network

Forest damage costs far more than thought

Tropical forest damage is bad enough. New thinking suggests it could prove far more ruinous in terms of the climate crisis.

LONDON, 19 November, 2019 – We know already that human activities are causing devastating forest damage. Now a new study shows the loss we face could be much worse than we think.

Here, it says, is how to multiply your country’s contribution to solving the carbon problem sixfold. It’s simple. Do not do anything to your intact tropical forest. Don’t put roads around it, hunt in it, or select prize lumps of timber from it; don’t quarry, mine or plant oil palms in it. Just protect it.

Researchers have calculated that – compared with clearing it – the benefits of benign neglect are 626% higher than all previous accounting. And that’s just the calculation for the first 13 years of this century. Instead of an estimated 340 million tonnes of carbon spilled into the atmosphere, the figure from clearing forests now becomes 2.12 billion tonnes.

And a second team of scientists has identified a way to keep those conservation promises and carefully protect those forests and other habitats already declared protected areas. That too is simple: be a rich country in the northern hemisphere. That way, you might be able to count on the resources to back up the good intentions.

The role of the world’s forests in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget – the annual traffic of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from all sources and back again into green plants, rocks and oceans – is a complicated one, and the play between human intrusion and the natural habitats makes it even more of a headache.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying”

Broadly, of the world’s tropical rainforests, only around 20% can be considered now intact. This by 2013 was an area of around 5.49 million square kilometres – an area much bigger than the European Union, yet smaller than Australia – but this green space concentrates 40% of all the carbon found in the trunks, branches and leaves of the world’s surviving natural tropical foliage, and gulps down carbon from the atmosphere at the rate of a billion tonnes a year.

So tropical forests play a vital role in worldwide national pledges, made in Paris in 2015, to contain global heating to “well below” a global average increase of 2°C by the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by 1°C in the last century, thanks to profligate human use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet’s natural forests.

And between 2000 and 2013, human growth and demand has reduced the area of intact forests by more than 7%. What the latest research has done is try to make a realistic estimate of the enduring cost to the planet.

“Usually, only ‘pulse’ emissions are considered – these are emissions released the instant intact forest is destroyed,” said Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Our analysis considers all impacts, such as the effects of selective logging, foregone carbon sequestration, expanding effects on the edges of forests, and species extinction.

Better funding needed

“We were shocked to see that when considering all of the available factors, the net carbon impact was more than six times worse for the climate.”

Forest destruction has accelerated this century. Dr Maxwell and his co-authors report in the journal Science Advances that they considered all the carbon that was not sequestered by forest degradation between 2000 and 2013, along with the impacts of road clearance, mining, selective logging and overhunting of the animals that naturally disperse forest seeds, to arrive at their new estimate of the price in carbon emissions to be paid for destruction.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland, and a co-author.

“Humanity needs to better fund the conservation of intact forests, especially now we’ve shown their larger than realised role in stabilising the climate.”

And in the same week, British scientists confirmed that – around the globe – protected areas are not reducing human pressure on the natural wilderness. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they looked at satellite evidence, together with census and crop data, to see what humans had so far done to 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

Threat of protection

In every global region, there had been evidence of human encroachment. Overall, northern hemisphere nations and Australia had been more effective at keeping down human pressure in the areas set aside for conservation, compared to advances into unprotected areas.

But in those parts of the world where biodiversity is richest – South America, Southeast Asia and Africa south of the Sahara – human damage was significantly higher in protected grasslands, forests, mangrove swamps and other habitats than it was in unprotected areas. In parts of South America, clearance for agriculture in protected regions was 10% higher than in unprotected zones.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularly in the tropics,” said Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

“Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed,” he said.

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed.” – Climate News Network

Tropical forest damage is bad enough. New thinking suggests it could prove far more ruinous in terms of the climate crisis.

LONDON, 19 November, 2019 – We know already that human activities are causing devastating forest damage. Now a new study shows the loss we face could be much worse than we think.

Here, it says, is how to multiply your country’s contribution to solving the carbon problem sixfold. It’s simple. Do not do anything to your intact tropical forest. Don’t put roads around it, hunt in it, or select prize lumps of timber from it; don’t quarry, mine or plant oil palms in it. Just protect it.

Researchers have calculated that – compared with clearing it – the benefits of benign neglect are 626% higher than all previous accounting. And that’s just the calculation for the first 13 years of this century. Instead of an estimated 340 million tonnes of carbon spilled into the atmosphere, the figure from clearing forests now becomes 2.12 billion tonnes.

And a second team of scientists has identified a way to keep those conservation promises and carefully protect those forests and other habitats already declared protected areas. That too is simple: be a rich country in the northern hemisphere. That way, you might be able to count on the resources to back up the good intentions.

The role of the world’s forests in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget – the annual traffic of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from all sources and back again into green plants, rocks and oceans – is a complicated one, and the play between human intrusion and the natural habitats makes it even more of a headache.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying”

Broadly, of the world’s tropical rainforests, only around 20% can be considered now intact. This by 2013 was an area of around 5.49 million square kilometres – an area much bigger than the European Union, yet smaller than Australia – but this green space concentrates 40% of all the carbon found in the trunks, branches and leaves of the world’s surviving natural tropical foliage, and gulps down carbon from the atmosphere at the rate of a billion tonnes a year.

So tropical forests play a vital role in worldwide national pledges, made in Paris in 2015, to contain global heating to “well below” a global average increase of 2°C by the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by 1°C in the last century, thanks to profligate human use of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet’s natural forests.

And between 2000 and 2013, human growth and demand has reduced the area of intact forests by more than 7%. What the latest research has done is try to make a realistic estimate of the enduring cost to the planet.

“Usually, only ‘pulse’ emissions are considered – these are emissions released the instant intact forest is destroyed,” said Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Our analysis considers all impacts, such as the effects of selective logging, foregone carbon sequestration, expanding effects on the edges of forests, and species extinction.

Better funding needed

“We were shocked to see that when considering all of the available factors, the net carbon impact was more than six times worse for the climate.”

Forest destruction has accelerated this century. Dr Maxwell and his co-authors report in the journal Science Advances that they considered all the carbon that was not sequestered by forest degradation between 2000 and 2013, along with the impacts of road clearance, mining, selective logging and overhunting of the animals that naturally disperse forest seeds, to arrive at their new estimate of the price in carbon emissions to be paid for destruction.

“Losing Earth’s remaining wilderness is devastating by itself, but climate impacts 626% greater than expected is terrifying,” said James Watson, of the University of Queensland, and a co-author.

“Humanity needs to better fund the conservation of intact forests, especially now we’ve shown their larger than realised role in stabilising the climate.”

And in the same week, British scientists confirmed that – around the globe – protected areas are not reducing human pressure on the natural wilderness. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they looked at satellite evidence, together with census and crop data, to see what humans had so far done to 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

Threat of protection

In every global region, there had been evidence of human encroachment. Overall, northern hemisphere nations and Australia had been more effective at keeping down human pressure in the areas set aside for conservation, compared to advances into unprotected areas.

But in those parts of the world where biodiversity is richest – South America, Southeast Asia and Africa south of the Sahara – human damage was significantly higher in protected grasslands, forests, mangrove swamps and other habitats than it was in unprotected areas. In parts of South America, clearance for agriculture in protected regions was 10% higher than in unprotected zones.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularly in the tropics,” said Jonas Geldmann of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

“Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed,” he said.

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed.” – Climate News Network

Indigenous firefighters tackle Brazil’s blazes

If the fires raging across the Amazon are controlled, much of the credit should go to the indigenous firefighters with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

SÃO PAULO, 8 November, 2019 − As global concern increases over the burning of the Amazon forest, the Brazilian government is keeping very quiet over one telling point: in many cases the people it is using to combat the flames are indigenous firefighters.

In August, the fires raging in the rainforest alarmed the world. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, variously blamed NGOs, the press and indigenous people for them, although there was plenty of evidence that many were deliberately caused by farmers and land grabbers wanting to clear the forest for cattle, crops and profit.

Bolsonaro eventually sent troops to try to extinguish the blazes. What he never acknowledged was that, far from starting the fires, hundreds of indigenous men are actually employed by a government agency to fight them, because of their first-hand forest knowledge.

Writing on the website Manchetes Socioambientais, Clara Roman, a journalist with Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), one of Brazil’s largest environmental NGOs, described the work of these firefighters. They are recruited by the Centre for the Prevention and Combat of Forest Fires, Prevfogo, a department of IBAMA, the official environment agency.

They number 700 and come from many different ethnic groups: the Tenharim, Paresí, Gavião, Xerente, Guajajara, Krikati, Terena, Kadiwéu, Xakriabá, Javaé, Karajás, Pataxó and Kayapó, including several tribes in the Xingu area.

Survival knowledge

Rodrigo Faleiros, of PrevFogo, who hires them, says indigenous people make better firefighters than local people, because “they know the territory well, they know how to survive in the forest and they understand the effects of fire”.

Their equipment is a backpack pump with 20 litres of water. They carry flails to beat the flames and wear protective goggles, fire-resistant shoes to tread on burning embers, leg protectors against snakes and thorns, and uniforms that are fire-resistant for up to two minutes.

They usually set out at night or in the early hours when the temperature in the burning forest is more tolerable and the humidity a little higher.

The work of the firefighters mixes modern technology with ancient knowledge. Prevfogo receives real time information on where the fires are from a satellite controlled by INPE, Brazil’s national space research agency. This is transmitted to the nearest firefighters’ unit.

“Far from starting the fires, hundreds of indigenous men are actually employed by a government agency to fight them”

Since it began hiring indigenous firefighters Prevfogo has gradually incorporated into its practices traditional wisdom on the dynamics and management of fires. These include the use of preventive controlled fires at the beginning of the dry season, when humidity is still high and the chances of the fire spreading are fewer.

These controlled fires burn up dry organic material, reducing the amount available which could fuel fires that get out of control when the dry season is at its height. Another practice is the use of firebreaks or clearings in the forest where the fire finds no organic material and so dies out.

But the number of fires this year is a record, and the effects of climate change are not helping, as the rains that traditionally start in September have been delayed and average temperatures all over Brazil are higher than usual.

ISA researcher Antonio Oviedo says that because of the increase in deforestation, plus climate change and the present political context, the number of fires that turn into forest fires has increased. Even when it is not clearcut, humidity has fallen as the forest gets degraded by illegal logging.

An increasing number of fires are inside indigenous areas, traditionally the most intensively preserved areas, whether in the rainforest or in other areas of Brazil. In August this increase amounted to 182% more fires than in 2018. Bolsonaro’s (literally) inflammatory rhetoric, which has encouraged the invasion of indigenous reserves, has contributed.

Farming tool

Most of the fires occur in areas that have been invaded by illegal loggers and miners. Indigenous people use fire as a tool for their agriculture. They burn at the right time, in the right place, to guarantee flowering, fruiting and also refuge for the wild animals they need to hunt.

The fires that raged through the Amazon between July and September and are now devastating a large area of Brazil’s wetlands, known as the Pantanal, are destructive, harming habitats, killing wildlife and drying out the forest.

In September deforestation alerts were almost 100% higher than in the same month of the previous year. INPE data revealed that almost 1500 sq. kms of forest were cleared, compared to just over 700 sq. kms in 2018.

Deforestation already accounted for 44% of Brazil’s carbon emissions in 2018, according to SEEG, the System of Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the Climate Observatory. This year they will almost certainly be higher. − Climate News Network

If the fires raging across the Amazon are controlled, much of the credit should go to the indigenous firefighters with intimate knowledge of the terrain.

SÃO PAULO, 8 November, 2019 − As global concern increases over the burning of the Amazon forest, the Brazilian government is keeping very quiet over one telling point: in many cases the people it is using to combat the flames are indigenous firefighters.

In August, the fires raging in the rainforest alarmed the world. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, variously blamed NGOs, the press and indigenous people for them, although there was plenty of evidence that many were deliberately caused by farmers and land grabbers wanting to clear the forest for cattle, crops and profit.

Bolsonaro eventually sent troops to try to extinguish the blazes. What he never acknowledged was that, far from starting the fires, hundreds of indigenous men are actually employed by a government agency to fight them, because of their first-hand forest knowledge.

Writing on the website Manchetes Socioambientais, Clara Roman, a journalist with Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), one of Brazil’s largest environmental NGOs, described the work of these firefighters. They are recruited by the Centre for the Prevention and Combat of Forest Fires, Prevfogo, a department of IBAMA, the official environment agency.

They number 700 and come from many different ethnic groups: the Tenharim, Paresí, Gavião, Xerente, Guajajara, Krikati, Terena, Kadiwéu, Xakriabá, Javaé, Karajás, Pataxó and Kayapó, including several tribes in the Xingu area.

Survival knowledge

Rodrigo Faleiros, of PrevFogo, who hires them, says indigenous people make better firefighters than local people, because “they know the territory well, they know how to survive in the forest and they understand the effects of fire”.

Their equipment is a backpack pump with 20 litres of water. They carry flails to beat the flames and wear protective goggles, fire-resistant shoes to tread on burning embers, leg protectors against snakes and thorns, and uniforms that are fire-resistant for up to two minutes.

They usually set out at night or in the early hours when the temperature in the burning forest is more tolerable and the humidity a little higher.

The work of the firefighters mixes modern technology with ancient knowledge. Prevfogo receives real time information on where the fires are from a satellite controlled by INPE, Brazil’s national space research agency. This is transmitted to the nearest firefighters’ unit.

“Far from starting the fires, hundreds of indigenous men are actually employed by a government agency to fight them”

Since it began hiring indigenous firefighters Prevfogo has gradually incorporated into its practices traditional wisdom on the dynamics and management of fires. These include the use of preventive controlled fires at the beginning of the dry season, when humidity is still high and the chances of the fire spreading are fewer.

These controlled fires burn up dry organic material, reducing the amount available which could fuel fires that get out of control when the dry season is at its height. Another practice is the use of firebreaks or clearings in the forest where the fire finds no organic material and so dies out.

But the number of fires this year is a record, and the effects of climate change are not helping, as the rains that traditionally start in September have been delayed and average temperatures all over Brazil are higher than usual.

ISA researcher Antonio Oviedo says that because of the increase in deforestation, plus climate change and the present political context, the number of fires that turn into forest fires has increased. Even when it is not clearcut, humidity has fallen as the forest gets degraded by illegal logging.

An increasing number of fires are inside indigenous areas, traditionally the most intensively preserved areas, whether in the rainforest or in other areas of Brazil. In August this increase amounted to 182% more fires than in 2018. Bolsonaro’s (literally) inflammatory rhetoric, which has encouraged the invasion of indigenous reserves, has contributed.

Farming tool

Most of the fires occur in areas that have been invaded by illegal loggers and miners. Indigenous people use fire as a tool for their agriculture. They burn at the right time, in the right place, to guarantee flowering, fruiting and also refuge for the wild animals they need to hunt.

The fires that raged through the Amazon between July and September and are now devastating a large area of Brazil’s wetlands, known as the Pantanal, are destructive, harming habitats, killing wildlife and drying out the forest.

In September deforestation alerts were almost 100% higher than in the same month of the previous year. INPE data revealed that almost 1500 sq. kms of forest were cleared, compared to just over 700 sq. kms in 2018.

Deforestation already accounted for 44% of Brazil’s carbon emissions in 2018, according to SEEG, the System of Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the Climate Observatory. This year they will almost certainly be higher. − Climate News Network