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Receding Glacier Causes Massive Canadian River to Vanish in Four Days

First ever observed case of ‘river piracy’ saw the Slims river disappear as intense glacier melt suddenly diverted its flow into another watercourse

An immense river that flowed from one of Canada’s largest glaciers vanished over the course of four days last year, scientists have reported, in an unsettling illustration of how global warming dramatically changes the world’s geography.

The abrupt and unexpected disappearance of the Slims river, which spanned up to 150 metres at its widest points, is the first observed case of “river piracy,” in which the flow of one river is suddenly diverted into another.

photo of Kaskawulsh glacierPhoto by Calypso Orchid Intense melting of the Kaskawulsh glacier, seen here in the center, has redirected meltwater away from the Slims river, leading to the first observed case of "river piracy."

For hundreds of years, the Slims carried meltwater northwards from the vast Kaskawulsh glacier in Canada’s Yukon territory into the Kluane river, then into the Yukon river towards the Bering Sea. But in spring 2016, a period of intense melting of the glacier meant the drainage gradient was tipped in favor of a second river, redirecting the meltwater to the Gulf of Alaska, thousands of miles from its original destination.

The continental-scale rearrangement was documented by a team of scientists who had been monitoring the incremental retreat of the glacier for years. But on a 2016 fieldwork expedition they were confronted with a landscape that had been radically transformed.

“We went to the area intending to continue our measurements in the Slims river, but found the riverbed more or less dry,” said James Best, a geologist at the University of Illinois. “The delta top that we’d been sailing over in a small boat was now a dust storm. In terms of landscape change it was incredibly dramatic.”

Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Washington Tacoma and the paper’s lead author, added: “The water was somewhat treacherous to approach, because you’re walking on these old river sediments that were really goopy and would suck you in. And day by day we could see the water level dropping.”

The team flew a helicopter over the glacier and used drones to investigate what was happening in the other valley, which is less accessible.

“We found that all of the water that was coming out from the front of the glacier, rather than it being split between two rivers, it was going into just one,” said Best.

While the Slims had been reduced to a mere trickle, the reverse had happened to the south-flowing Alsek river, a popular whitewater rafting …more

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When Rivers Hold Legal Rights

New Zealand and India recognize personhood for ecosystems

Winding its way through dense forest laced with hidden waterfalls, the Whanganui River is the largest navigable river in Aotearoa, the Māori word for New Zealand. With the passage of the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill in March, the river became the first water system in the world to be recognized as a rights-bearing entity, holding legal “personhood” status. One implication of the agreement is that the Whanganui River is no longer property of New Zealand’s Crown government — the river now owns itself.

photo of Whanganui RiverPhoto by Kathrin & Stefan Marks In March, the Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first water body in the world to receive legal personhood status.

Five days after the Te Awa Tupua Bill, the High Court of Uttarakhand at Naintal, in northern India, issued a ruling declaring that both the Ganga and Yumana rivers are also “legal persons/living persons.” But what does it mean for a river, or an ecosystem to hold rights? The answer may vary from place to place. 

The growing global movement for Rights of Nature — or the Rights of Mother Earth as some cultures prefer — seeks to define legal rights for ecosystems to exist, flourish, and regenerate their natural capacities. These laws challenge the status of nature as mere property to be owned and dominated by humans, and provide a legal framework for an ethical and spiritual relationship to the Earth. While recognizing legal rights of nature doesn’t stop development wholesale, it can stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of ecosystems. In the last decade, four countries and dozens of US communities have passed laws recognizing “legal standing” for ecosystems.

In many cases, legal recognition for the rights of ecosystems reinforces long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs. For the Māori of Aotearoa, like many Indigenous cultures worldwide, there is no separation between humans and everything else. When the Europeans first arrived in the seventeenth century, there was no word for property in the Māori language. Their relationship with the Earth was one of care and responsibility. “Māori cosmology understands we are part of the universe,” said Gerrard Albert, lead negotiator for the Whanganui River iwi (tribe). “The mountains and rivers are our ancestors. Our cultural identity as a people is inseparable from the river — it is more than water and sand, it is a living spiritual being.”  

Indeed, the Whanganui iwi are known …more

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One Man’s Mission to Protect Greece’s Ancient Olive Trees

Greek expat hopes his photo archive will help raise awareness about the value of the centuries-old trees in Laconia region

In the region of Laconia, located at the southernmost tip of mainland Greece, ancient olive trees grow from sections of ancient buildings, seeming to fuse into a single tableau. Other trees grow in inhospitable, rugged and arid regions. These trees can reach up to seven meters high, and have trunks of intricate designs plus oblong silver-green leaves, which hide small, round fruits, and emit a distinctive scent with fruity and woody notes.

photo of ancient olive treephoto by Adoni DimakosGreece has a long track record of preserving its antiquities made of marble. But its ancient olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, have received far fewer protections.

And yet, the trees face an uncertain future. Locals clear them to make room for new crops or use the wood for burning. The problem is compounded by agricultural mismanagement — the government gives subsidies to farmers to rip out ancient olive trees and plant orange trees in their place.

Such ancient Greek olive trees, but also Italian, Spanish, and Moroccan trees are disappearing from the landscape for multifold reasons. Climate change in the Mediterranean has triggered a shift in precipitation patterns as well as extended droughts, floods, and immense heat waves that occur with greater frequency and increased intensity, and, which, in turn, adversely affect the production of crops and the whole olive orchard agroecosystem. Bactrocera Oleae scourges, on the other hand, make table olives unmarketable and negatively impact the acidity and quality of the produced olive oil. Modern agricultural practices such as re-landscaping for tractors to get nearer to the crop add to the problem. Enter using the olive tree wood for heating in a country that has been eight years in recession and has lost around one gross domestic product from the value of each of its citizens’ private wealth, and you understand the threats currently posed to Greece’s olives.

Greece has a long track record of preserving its antiquities made of marble. But its ancient olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, have received far fewer protections, says Adoni Dimakos, a Greek-Canadian entrepreneur. He is currently spearheading an ambitious project, known as, to catalog and preserve these rare and endangered ancient olive breeds in his native province of Laconia.

Dimakos is an unlikely defender of Greece’s olives. Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1968, he lived in Greece during his formative teen years and started falling in love with the olive …more

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Trump’s Border Wall Plan Hits Snag with Environmental Suit

US Congressman joins Center for Biological Diversity in call for environmental analysis that could delay construction for years

A US congressman and environmental group have filed the first lawsuit targeting Donald Trump’s plan to build a 30-foot wall on the US-Mexico border.

photo of border fencePhoto by Gary Goodenough, Flickr A section of the existing border fence between Arizona and Mexico. A US congressman is calling for an environmental impact assessment before a border wall is built.

The suit, brought by Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and the Center for Biological Diversity in the US district court for Arizona, seeks to require the government to undertake a comprehensive environmental impact analysis before beginning construction.

Such a review would probably take several years to complete, delaying indefinitely the fulfillment of one of Trump’s signature campaign promises.

“It will take a significant amount of time to thoroughly analyze [the impacts of the wall], and that’s the point,” said Randy Serraglio, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“What we learned about the border wall in the past 10 years is that it’s hugely expensive, it doesn’t work, and it does a tremendous amount of damage,” Serraglio said. “The people in the United States have the right to know what the damage is going to be, what it’s going to cost, and whether it’s going to be effective. Those are questions the Trump administration is not interested in answering.”

The lawsuit invokes the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental review of major federal programs.

The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, which are named as defendants, declined to comment on pending litigation.

Trump began his presidential campaign in June 2015 with the promise of a border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, whom he characterized as “criminals” and “rapists.” In the first week of his administration, he signed an executive order calling for homeland security to “begin immediate construction” of the wall.

Homeland Security has since begun a bidding process for contractors to build prototypes for the multibillion-dollar project. Still, a lack of interest from major construction firms and a lack of funding from Congress may mean that the proposal never moves beyond a border wall beauty pageant expected to take place in San Diego this summer.

“American environmental laws are some of the oldest and strongest in the world, and they should apply to the borderlands just as they do everywhere else,” Grijalva, a Democrat, said in a statement. “These laws exist to …more

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Is Mexico’s Underwater Museum Diverting Attention from Bigger Environmental Issues?

Sculptures off coast of Cancún are meant to protect coral reefs from intensive diving, but some conservationists say they’re a distraction

More than 20 feet below the surface of the water, on the sandy sea floor between Cancún and Isla Mujeres in Mexico, a lobster takes refuge beneath a miniature concrete house. Scuba divers watch as the lobster slinks underneath the foundation. Farther on, hundreds of statues stand in tight circles. A little girl holds a purse close to her chest. A man looks straight ahead with a broom in hand. A thin layer of algae, sponges, and coral cover the statues from head to toe.

photo of underwater museumPhoto by Ratha Grimes The Underwater Museum of Art is meant to protect nearby reefs from intensive diving by diverting scuba divers. But some conservationists say it's more of a buisness venture than a conservation measure.

The statues, the house, and the lobster are all part of the Underwater Museum of Art, a project intended to divert scuba divers from the overused reefs in the national park Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún y Punta Nizúc. The park is near Cancún and Isla Mujeres, an island 13 kilometers off the Cancún coast. Inexperienced divers can harm the reef by accidentally breaking corals. But some scientists are skeptical of the museum’s conservation value. And though it’s not hurting the reef, they fear the museum may distract from more important threats to reef health such as coastal development and inadequate water treatment.

“It’s a good business,” Roberto Iglesias Prieto, a reef researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology just outside of Cancún, said. “The problem is that it’s sold as a conservation measure.”

In the years leading up to the creation of the museum, several powerful hurricanes damaged the reefs in the national park. The Mexican protected areas commission (CONANP) considered closing the reefs to tourism to allow them to recover. That sounded like bad news to the dive operators in the area. Closing the reefs would hurt business, so divers and park managers worked together to find a compromise.

In 2009, the diving community and the protected areas commission decided to create an underwater museum. It seemed like the perfect solution: Divers would find the site interesting, it would take pressure off the nearby coral reefs, and it would provide habitat for sea life.

There’s just one issue: Igelsias Prieto doesn’t believe tourists are to blame for the deterioration of the reef. “They invented a problem …more

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In Photos: Blue Carbon Around the World

From Senegal to Indonesia, conservation groups are linking coastal restoration to the climate change movement

Back in 2009, a new term entered the conservation lexicon: “blue carbon.” The phrase was coined by a handful of United Nations agencies to describe the carbon stored in coastal ecosystems. Mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes, they were discovering, are incredible sponges for the greenhouse gas, storing up to five times more per acre than rainforests do. They are also disappearing much faster than rainforests, mainly due to coastal development, conversion into shrimp ponds, and timber harvesting. Those changes not only release what one blue carbon enthusiast dubs “nuclear bombs of carbon,” they also strip coastal communities of their buffer against sea and storms, destroy vital fish nurseries, and harm essential habitat for species ranging from marsh mongooses to monkeys. Since the 1960s, scientists say the world has lost around half of its mangroves and tidal marshes.  

photo of a mangrove stand, viewed from above and below water© Burt Jones and Maurine ShimlockA mangrove forest on Indonesia’s Bird’s Head peninsula nurtures a stunning array of marine species. Environmental groups around the world are using payments they receive for the “blue carbon” that these coastal ecosystems capture to fund conservation projects. Conservation International, which has worked to protect Bird’s Head, is a leader in this push.

Conservation groups quickly realized that by linking coastal restoration to the climate change movement, and especially to carbon credit funding schemes, they could turbo-charge efforts to protect these ecosystems. A handful of local and international organizations have already put the idea into action. In at least five countries, corporate investors like Danone and Michelin are funding mangrove restoration to offset their carbon emissions.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about these projects. Critics like the 10-million-strong World Forum of Fisher Peoples worry that communities will lose access to food and fuel if coastal areas are cordoned off for the climate’s sake – as has happened with some terrestrial carbon forestry projects in the past, sparking a heated debate over the legitimacy of the carbon credit concept. But Emily Pidgeon, a senior scientist at Conservation International and a strong proponent of blue carbon, is confident these problems can be overcome. “The lessons are out there in the carbon community,” she says. “We in the marine community need to be actively working out how to apply them when they’re wet.”

For more on blue carbon pilot projects around the world, scroll through the images below.

© Blue Ventures | Garth CrippsOn …more

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Protests Increase in Italy Against “Europe’s DAPL”

Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline will stretch from the oilfileds of Azerbaijan through six countries to Italy

There is increasing outrage in Italy against what campaigners are calling “Europe’s DAPL,” with thousands of people taking to the streets to campaign against the 3,500 kilometer, $45 billion, Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline (ECMP).

photo of Trans Adriatic Pipeline projectphoto by Giovani Comunisti/e, FacebookThe Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline stretches from Azerbaijan to Italy. Local communities in Italy are outraged by the environmental damage caused by the pipeline.

The vast ECMP will stretch all the way from the polluted oilfields of Azerbaijan through six countries to Italy. In so doing it will transport gas to Europe, locking the continent into decades of fossil fuel use.

But local communities in Italy are outraged at the damage being done to their local environment and are now fighting back. Footage on Facebook shows the blue helmeted Italian Police lining the pipeline route as ancient olive trees are transported off site. There is visible anger in the air as the trees, wrapped in white body bags, are driven away.

The issue is now making front page news in the country.

One of the groups campaigning against the pipeline is the London-based oil watchdog Platform. The oil watchdog has long highlighted the endemic corruption in Azerbaijan as well as the appalling human rights abuses in the country and how the two are linked to oil.

There are dozens of political prisoners — comprising journalists, bloggers, peace activists, and human rights lawyers — who have all been incarcerated for challenging the corrupt regime run by President Aliyev. The dictator has been propped up by British oil giant BP for two decades, ever since BP and the government signed what was deemed “the Contract of the Century” back in September 1994.

As well as BP’s involvement, this is also a pipeline being propped up by public money. The western part of the pipeline route, known as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, is due to receive €2 billion from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which according to Platform is the “largest loan by the EU bank in its 57-year history.”

Indeed, the pipeline is a key element of the Energy Union, a flagship initiative of the European Commission in Brussels. And despite concerns about climate change and the corruption of the Aliyev regime, in February this year, at a meeting in Baku in Azerbaijan the Commission’s vice president for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefcovic, encouraged international financial institutions to “bankroll” the pipeline.

The World Bank is also helping …more

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