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The Forest and the Trees
Gold Costs Trees
Environmental advocates have long warned about the threats that logging and industrial agriculture pose to the Amazon rainforest. New research reveals another danger to the largest forest on the planet: illegal gold mines.
A study published earlier this year in the British journal Environmental Research Letters concluded that between 2001 and 2013 approximately 415,000 acres of tropical rainforest were cleared for potential gold-mining sites in the South American jungle. In the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon, for example, an estimated 150,000 acres of forest have been lost due to illegal mining. Peru leads South America in gold production (and ranks in the top five gold producers globally), and about 20 percent of its exported gold comes from clandestine mines.
The proliferation of tiny, unreported mines is slowly eating away the forest. To make matters worse, the mining often occurs in areas with the highest biodiversity. “Although gold mining deforestation is usually less extensive than deforestation for agriculture, it happens in some of the most biodiverse tropical regions,” Nora Alvarez-Berrios of the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, and a lead author of the study, told Agence France Presse. In some areas of the Madre de Dios region, up to 300 species of tree can be found in a single hectare.
Unlike deforestation that occurs to make way for agriculture – in which the impacts on the forest are impossible to miss – gold mining is often accompanied by the hidden danger of mercury pollution. To extract one gram of gold, miners have to use two to three grams of mercury, which then pollutes surrounding soils and streams and poses a health risk to humans living nearby.
The deforestation and pollution associated with mining also negatively impact Indigenous communities living in the forest. The influx of miners has forced some Indigenous tribes out of seclusion in search of new food sources, often resulting in conflict with other tribes.
“The problem is that when illegal miners leave an area, they just go, leaving behind huge losses,” said Alvaro Pardo, director of the Colombia Punto Medico Center for Mining Studies. “Mining activity, whether legal or not, impacts the environment.”
Ivory Queen Dethroned
Deep in the trenches of the war on ivory smuggling, the good guys have scored a victory. In October, a wildlife-trafficking task force in Tanzania arrested Yang Feng Glan, the so-called “ivory queen,” believed to be a leader in one of Africa’s largest ivory smuggling rings.
Feng Glan, a Chinese national, has been charged with smuggling 706 elephant tusks between 2000 and 2014, valued at roughly $2.5 million. According to the Elephant Action League, a US-based nonprofit that fights wildlife crime, she is the most important ivory trafficker arrested in Tanzania to date.
“It’s a very important arrest, important symbolically but also from a concrete point of view,” says Andrea Crosta, executive director of the Elephant Action League. “It’s the most important arrest in Africa so far, as they usually jail small fishes [who are] easily replaceable.”
Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit had reportedly been tracking Feng Glan for more than a year. She had recently moved to Uganda, but was arrested upon her return to Tanzania. If found guilty of the charges, Feng Glan could face 20 to 30 years in prison.
The arrest may change perceptions about trafficking kingpins, who are generally assumed to be male. Sixty-six-year-old Feng Glan is a well-known figure in the Tanzanian business community. The owner of a Chinese restaurant in Dar es Salaam, she has held key positions in the community including that of secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council. According to The Washington Post, investigators found that she was using her restaurant as a front for ivory smuggling.
photo Elephant Action League
“Big traffickers are often ‘normal’ people with legitimate businesses used to smuggle illicit goods like ivory,” Crosta says. “They belong to the upper layers of society, like [Feng Glan], and have connections at every level.”
Crosta hopes Feng Glan’s arrest will set off a chain reaction in Tanzania, which saw a 60 percent decline in elephant populations between 2009 and 2014. “The hope is that [Feng Glan] will now talk about her network and lead the task force not only to her Chinese business partners but also to local corrupted government officials,” she says. “She has been trafficking ivory for at least the past 10 years, and you don’t smuggle for so long, and such big quantities, without [the] knowledge and collaboration of some local officials and knowledge of critical exit points like the ports and the airport.”
The Rhone glacier in Switzerland is a major tourist attraction and an important source for the Rhone River and Lake Geneva. But like glaciers throughout the Alps, the Rhone is steadily melting due to the hotter temperatures associated with global warming. To counteract the ice-loss, glaciologists and the Swiss environment ministry have come up with a novel strategy: Cover the ice mass with white blankets that reflect heat and light.
“For the past eight years, they have had to cover the ice cave with these blankets to reduce the ice melt,” glaciologist David Volken told AFP, referring to a winding ice grotto on the side of the glacier. Volken says the white fleece covers that stretch over a huge area at the glacier’s edge reduce the ice melt by up to 70 percent. But while the blanket scheme is providing some temporary relief, Volken acknowledges that it is only postponing the inevitable disappearance of the ice formation.
“It will slow things down for a year or two, but one day they will have to take away the blankets because the ice underneath will be gone,” says Jean-Pierre Giugnard, a tourist from the Swiss town of Lausanne. Giugnard first saw the glacier in 1955. At that time, the tongue of the glacier reached far down the mountainside; today, there is a waterfall at that same point. “It has been heartbreaking to see the glacier shrink, and today it is really painful to see it covered in blankets, to see this vain battle to save a dying mountain.”
Since 1856 the glacier has retreated 4,600 feet – or nearly a mile in length. During that same period, it has lost more than 1,000 feet in ice thickness, including about 120 feet in the last decade alone. According to Volken, on a hot day the glacier can shed up to 8 inches of thickness. And if global temperatures continue to rise (as expected), the situation will only worsen. Volken says that within the next decade the Rhone glacier is expected to lose half of its current volume. “By the end of the century, only about 10 percent of the current ice volume will remain,” he says.
Glaciers across the Alps are also in retreat. “The Rhone glacier is quite typical of what is happening in the Alps,” says Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at Fribourg University. “We are seeing less new ice created in the higher altitudes even as the lower parts of the glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate.”
If all of the mountain range’s glaciers were to disappear, it would have a negligible impact on sea level rise. But the local consequences would be severe, as glacier melt-water is essential for sustaining river flow during the summer. In the near term, precipitous glacier melt will contribute to flooding; by the middle of this century, the water level of glacier-fed rivers like the Rhone is expected to dramatically decline.
“It’s beautiful, but it is such a shame that it is melting away,” a tourist from Burkina Faso told AFP. “I don’t think those blankets will be enough.”
Fossil fuel divestment campaigns scored some big wins in California in September. First, state lawmakers passed a bill on September 2 requiring California’s two largest pension plans to divest their holdings in thermal coal. Then, a week later, the University of California announced that it had dumped $200 million worth of holdings in coal and tar sands from its massive investment fund.
The legislative measure, SB 185, forbids the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) from making new investments or renewing existing investments in coal companies, and mandates they sell their holdings in these companies by July 2017. Called “Investing with Values and Responsibility,” the bill passed the State Assembly by a vote of 43-27, mostly along party lines, with some Democrats abstaining.
“This is the beginning of an avalanche,” RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, who helped build support for fossil fuel divestment, told InsideClimate News.
CalPERS and CalSTRS are the largest public pension funds in the United States and manage a combined $483 billion in assets. Their holdings in coal amount to less than 1 percent of their entire investment portfolio.
The University of California’s coal and tar sands sell-off also represents a mere fraction of its overall portfolio, which is valued at more than $98 billion. With its 10 campuses and 238,000 students, UC is one of the largest university systems in the world. School officials said the decision to sell was based largely on economic considerations such as the decline in the coal industry and falling prices for oil. While all direct holdings in coal and oil sands have been sold from these funds, the school’s indirect holdings may still be tied up in such companies. According to a Los Angeles Times report, UC still has about $10 billion in energy industry investments, and has no plans to sell off any more.
But these details haven’t stopped environmentalists from celebrating. The California successes, they say, give a huge push to the national and global divestment movement.
“This is a huge, huge, huge win,” said Karthik Ganapathy, spokesperson for 350.org, the environmental group that has supported divestment efforts nationwide. This “adds a lot of momentum to the divestment campaign and right when we need it.”
Believers on the Rise
Good news on the climate change front: Climate skepticism among Americans may finally be thawing. According to a fall season poll by the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment (NSEE), 70 percent of US residents believe there is solid evidence of global warming, the highest percentage reported since 2008. Not only do more believe, but their ranks are rapidly expanding: The number is a 7 percent increase from the NSEE’s spring 2015 survey on the same issue.
“This is not a trivial jump,” Barry Rabe, a professor at the University of Michigan who authored a report on the findings, told TIME. “When you see a shift like this in a relatively short period of time, that’s significant.”
There’s more. According to the survey, the majority of Republicans now believe there is evidence of climate change. Only 16 percent of Americans still reject the reality of climate change, an all time low since the poll began in 2008.
Prolonged droughts across the country may be responsible for changing the tide of public opinion. Since the spring of 2013, the percentage of Americans pointing to severe drought as having a “very large” effect on their beliefs has more than doubled.
Of course, believing climate change exists is not the same as believing that humans are causing it. Future surveys will examine whether increasing climate acceptance is leading to increased support for climate action.
Exxon’s Extreme Deception
photo flickr user That Hartford Guy
“In its greed Exxon helped – more than any other institution – to kill our planet.” That’s how environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, writing in The Guardian, described ExxonMobil’s duplicity in casting doubt on the very existence of global warming even as the oil giant’s own research confirmed fossil fuels were accelerating climate change.
Environmentalists have been rightfully outraged since two separate investigations – by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News and a Los Angeles Times-Columbia Journalism School team – revealed that Exxon’s senior scientists knew that fossil fuels were accelerating global warming as far back as the 1970s. The first installments of multi-part exposés by each of the teams – based on internal company documents and interviews with retired employees and officials – show that the scientists repeatedly briefed Exxon executives on the need to cut back on fossil fuel combustion. But instead of sounding the alarm, the oil giant made plans to expand drilling in the Arctic seas – where they knew climate change would lead to reduced ice and longer drilling seasons – and simultaneously spearheaded efforts to cast doubt on the very existence of global warming.
It’s not clear how much more dirt the journalists will dig up, but some lawmakers are already demanding action. Comparing Exxon’s behavior to “cigarette companies that repeatedly denied harm from tobacco,” House Democrats Ted Lieu and Mark DeSaulnier have urged the Department of Justice to investigate whether the company violated the law by “failing to disclose truthful information” regarding climate change. “If these allegations against Exxon are true, then Exxon’s actions were immoral,” Lieu and DeSaulnier wrote in an October letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “We request the [Department of Justice] investigate whether ExxonMobil’s actions were also illegal.”
The company now officially acknowledges that the problem of climate change is real, but that’s not going to save people in the most vulnerable parts of the world from the serious, perhaps even catastrophic, impacts of global warming.
Call of the Wild
Beavers to the Rescue
Nature’s dam builders help clean up our waters too. Researchers at University of Rhode Island have found that as beaver populations rebound across North America, the ponds they create are helping remove nitrogen from water bodies. This is especially helpful for the numerous estuaries along the coastline in the Northeastern United States where nitrogen levels have been increasing in recent years because of runoff from farms and septic systems and resulting in toxic algal blooms.
Beaver ponds slow down the movement of rivers and streams, allowing the excess nitrogen to seep into river or stream beds where much of it is broken down by bacteria. The ponds can remove up to 45 percent of nitrogen in the water, the researchers say in a report published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. Nitrogen pollution, which causes algal blooms in rivers, estuaries, and oceans, is a major problem worldwide.
“What motivated us initially to study this process was that we were aware of the fact that beaver ponds were increasing across the Northeast,” Arthur Gold, one of the researchers, said in a press statement. “We observed in our other studies on nitrogen movement that when a beaver pond was upstream, it would confound our results.” Upon further study, the researchers realized that the ponds could make “a notable difference in the amount of nitrate that flows from our streams to our estuaries.”
The research underscores the need to preserve small streams and rivers where beavers build their dams. “These smaller streams are usually the first to be developed, causing a decrease in beaver populations. So, it may be important to keep these areas from being developed so they can have effects on nitrogen levels downstream,” said Julia Lazar, who conducted the work as part of her doctoral dissertation.
The semi-aquatic rodents, which were nearly hunted to extinction for their fur, received some negative publicity lately because of an earlier study that showed the ponds they create release methane into the atmosphere. But this new finding might help change the way people think about beavers and their ponds.
“We have a species whose population crashed from widespread trapping 150 years ago. With their return they help solve one of the major problems of the twenty-first century.” Gold said. “We have to remember that those ponds wouldn’t be there without the beavers.”
Pass the Bubbly
When it comes to climate change and agriculture, the news is usually depressing: Rising temperatures and extreme, unpredictable weather are expected to depress coffee harvests, reduce grain yields, shift around growing zones and, in general, make it harder for farmers to produce enough food for a growing human population. But even as some crops and regions will be losers, others will be winners. Here’s a silver lining: Some rare varieties of champagne grapes are expected to do better with higher temperatures.
For years, Michel Drappier, a winemaker in the Urville area of the Champagne province, has been devoting some of his best land to “lost” fruits whose lineage dates back to the Roman era. But grape varietals such as Arbane, Petie Meslier, Formenton, and Blanc Vrai simply couldn’t compete with more botanically robust fruits such as Meunier and Chardonnay. Drappier’s grapes were fragile, the harvests small and unpredictable. Until now. Drapier says his 2015 harvest was one of his best ever, thanks to a scorching summer in Europe.
“Grapes are a Mediterranean plant; they need warmth, and the rise in temperatures due to climate change has had a good impact on the quality of our wines,” Drappier told AFP. “That includes our old, more capricious varietals which may now face a brighter future.”
The champagne industry is already starting to take notice. During the last two decades, growers of other champagne grapes have noticed that fruits are bigger, healthier, and with a higher alcohol content. “We are looking at future scenarios that take into account possible changes in climate,” Dominique Moncomble of the Interprofessional Champagne Wines Committee says.
The world may be burning. But at least we’ll have something to drink while it does.
Weeds Now Roundup Ready
Advocates of organic farming have long argued that one of the main problems with industrial, chemical-reliant agriculture is that it places farmers on a kind of “chemical treadmill.” Farmers become dependent on using a certain kind of pesticide, and eventually, through the immutable force of evolution, the pests will become resistant to that chemical treatment, rendering the once-powerful pesticide impotent.
photo United Soybean Board
Well, looks like the chemical treadmill has finally caught up to Monsanto’s (in)famous Roundup, the most widely used herbicide on the planet. For a few years now, US farmers have been complaining of “super weeds” that can withstand glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup (as well as some 700 other products). Now, a prominent weed scientist says that glyphosate resistance is increasing rapidly in the farming state of Kansas.
Dallas Peterson is a weed specialist at Kansas State University and also the president of the Weed Science Society of America. He says that soybean farmers are having problems with a Roundup-resistant weed called Palmer amaranth. “It’s really kind of exploded,” Peterson told Reuters.
Farmers in Missouri, Nebraska, and Illinois are also reporting increasing troubles with chemically resistant weeds. Weed resistance has become such a widespread problem that in December the Agriculture Committee of the House of Representatives will hold a briefing on the issue.
In a (no doubt short-sighted) effort to address the problem, Monsanto and Dow Chemical are bringing new herbicides to market. But Peterson warns that tests at his university showed the new combinations still have trouble controlling Palmer amaranth.
Evidently that’s life on the old chemical treadmill: walking in place and getting nowhere, at great risk to the environment and public health.
Around the World
Since 1972, UNESCO natural World Heritage sites have been the bold-faced names of global ecological treasures. Think: Patagonia’s Torres del Paine, the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, the Iguaçu Falls. To make the list, a place must exhibit “outstanding universal value” and its home country must make investments in preserving the location.
But global recognition doesn’t necessarily mean total protection. According to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund, nearly a third of the planet’s 229 natural World Heritage sites are in danger from mining or oil and gas exploration and drilling. The 70 sites that are in jeopardy are either experiencing mining or drilling already or (more often) the local government has sold concessions for future resource extraction.
The sites most threatened are in Africa – where 61 percent of natural World Heritage sites are overlapped by extractive concessions or existing extraction, and Asia – where 34 percent of sites are in danger. Here are a few of the sites at risk.
1. Mesoamerican Reef
Sprawling across the Caribbean Sea, the Mesoamerican reef is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and contains multiple natural world heritage sites. The reef is home to 500 species of fish and 65 kinds of coral as well as several endangered or threatened species, including loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, and manatees. At least 17 oil- and gas-exploration contracts (both onshore and offshore) have been awarded in or near the reef.
2. Doñana National Park
Spain’s Doñana National Park is a mosaic of marshlands, sand dunes, and shallow streams that forms one of the most important wetlands in Europe. In 1998, a dam failure at the Los Frailes mine spewed toxic mining waste into the nearby Guadiamar River. There is now a proposal to reopen the mine. An energy firm is looking to expand gas infrastructure upstream of the river.
3. Selous Game Reserve
Larger than the entire nation of Denmark, the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania is one of the few remaining examples of a large, intact ecosystem in the African savannah. But in 2009, the Tanzanian government changed its laws to allow for extractive concessions there. The result has been a mining boom within the reserve and along its edges. There are at least five active mines and another 55 mining concessions that could impact the reserve.
4. Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra
The exceptionally biodiverse Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra is one of the largest conservation areas in Southeast Asia. It is also home to several endangered mammals, including the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Sumatran elephant. UNESCO has placed the area on its “List of World Heritage sites in danger” due to threats from agriculture, logging, and poaching. There are 27 mining concessions and three oil and gas concessions overlapping the conservation area, as well as 24 inactive oil and gas wells.
5. Lake Baikal
Sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of Russia” for its unique and rich biodiversity, Lake Baikal holds the distinction of being both the oldest, and the deepest, lake in the world. It is also home to three active mines – two for gold and one for zinc – that put the lake’s valuable natural heritage at risk. A fourth mine, for iron ore, is currently awaiting funding.
6. Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park in northwestern Canada contains North America’s largest wild bison population and a critical nesting habitat for whooping cranes. As luck would have it, it is also home to an exploratory diamond mine. Five other mining concessions overlap the park area and could impact the region if developed.
Geoengineering in the Sky with Diamonds
Here’s one for the sci-fi books. In the eternal search to combat climate change, scientists have come up with one of the most fantastical, and sparkly, geoengineering concepts yet: spraying billions of dollars worth of diamond dust into the air.
Though elegant, this isn’t an entirely new idea. For years, researchers have explored the controversial idea of spraying liquid sulfur into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and mitigate global warming. But since sulfur spraying would have serious environmental side effects – sulfates in the air lead to the production of sulfuric acid, which damages the ozone layer – a team of Harvard researchers went looking for better alternatives.
They found two. In an analysis published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the Harvard group explained that both diamond dust and alumina could achieve a cooling effect similar to, or greater than, that of sulfate sprays, and have less of an impact on the ozone layer. Nanoparticles of these materials would also cause less heating in the stratosphere (which can affect air circulation patterns) and would be less likely to interfere with solar panel output, two other side effects of sulfur sprays.
What is more, the scientists found that, at the same quantities, diamond dust would be at least 50 percent more effective than sulfur at reflecting solar energy.
The team acknowledges that (surprise!) spraying diamond particles into the atmosphere would carry as-of-yet unknown risks. Not to mention a high price tag: According to Scientific American, though diamond dust isn’t especially expensive, the sheer quantity required would cost billions of dollars a year.
Though a sky full of diamonds has a certain poetic allure, it is no substitute for meaningful climate action.
New Food for Polar Bears
For polar bears, variety is the key to survival. New research, based on observations of one polar bear population along the western Hudson Bay, shows that bears marooned on land might be able to stave off starvation by turning to terrestrial food sources like caribou, snow geese, and eggs.
Polar bears have become the wildlife icon for the impacts of climate change, with shrinking sea ice in the Arctic forcing them to range far and wide in a sometimes fruitless search for food. Previous studies have predicted mass polar bear starvation by 2068, when annual ice breakup is expected to separate the bears from their sea-ice hunting grounds and their key prey, seals, for a consecutive 180 days each year. But this new finding by the American Museum of Natural History offers hope that the animal will learn to adapt to its changing environment.
“Polar bears are opportunists and have been documented consuming various types and combinations of land-based food since the earliest natural history records,” says Robert Rockwell, a research associate in the museum’s Department of Ornithology and one of the coauthors of the study that was published in the journal PLOS ONE. “Analysis of polar bear scats and first-hand observations have shown us that subadult polar bears, family groups, and even some adult males are already eating plants and animals during the ice-free period.”
Rockwell and his research partner, Linda Gormezano, computed the energy required to offset any increased starvation and then determined the caloric value of snow geese, their eggs, and caribou that live near the coast of western Hudson Bay. They found that there likely are more than enough calories available on land to feed hungry polar bears during the lengthening ice-free seasons.
Although the exact energetic cost for a bear to hunt geese and caribou is uncertain, polar bears in Manitoba have been reported ambushing caribou with the same energetically low-cost techniques they typically use to hunt seals.
“If caribou herds continue to forage near the coast of western Hudson Bay when bears come to shore earlier each year, they are likely to become a crucial component of the bears’ summertime diet,” Rockwell says.
Obama Rejects Keystone XL
In one of the biggest victories for environmentalists in recent times, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline on November 6. “Shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security,” the president said in a statement announcing his decision. “Now, for years, the Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse,” he said, while also acknowledging that the United States needed to move away from fossil fuels if it wished to be a “global leader” on climate change and that approving “the project would have undercut that global leadership.”
The president’s decision comes after a seven-year campaign by environmentalists, which included protest marches, civil disobedience actions, and political lobbying. “This is a big win,” May Boeve, executive director of the climate action group 350.org, said in a statement. “[This] is nothing short of historic – and sets an important precedent that should send shockwaves through the fossil fuel industry.”