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Arctic Retreat

As Big Oil abandons the Arctic, pressure mounts on Obama to do more on climate change in the region

Sometimes it is hard to find good news on the climate. Take a quick look at a couple of today’s stories:

According to Australian researchers, five tiny Pacific islands, which are part of the Solomon islands, have completely disappeared due to rising sea levels, in what is being described as the “first scientific confirmation of the impact of climate change on coastlines in the Pacific.” Another six islands have had large swathes of land washed into the sea too.

photo of Arctic OceanPhoto by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center The US Coast Guard Cutter Healey in the Beaufort Sea as part of NASA’s ICESCAPE mission to study how climate change is impacting ocean ecosystems in the Arctic.

Elsewhere, one in five of the world’s plant species is said to be threatened with extinction, with climate change one of the factors along with farming and construction.

There is also bad news for caffeine addicts, with the news that scientists are warning that coffee is “at risk of running out by the end of the century as a result of intensive farming and climate change.”

Sometimes all this bad news seems overwhelming.

But there is good news too, which gives immense hope to those fighting Big Oil, especially in the Arctic: Big Oil is in full retreat from the region.

Once the Arctic was the seen as the last big untapped frontier for the industry. But rather than being full of black gold, the Arctic has proven to be one of the most expensive black holes for the industry ever.

Bloomberg reported this morning that after spending a whopping $2.5 billion for drilling rights in US Arctic waters, oil companies such as Shell and ConocoPhillips have quietly relinquished their rights to some 2.2 million acres. This equates to nearly 80 per cent of the leases they bought nearly a decade ago.

This is truly significant: Peter Kiernan, the lead energy analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit told Bloomberg: “Arctic exploration has been put back several years, given the low oil price environment, the significant cost involved in exploration and the environmental risks that it entails.”

Oil giant Shell, which has already blown $8 billion on its misguided Arctic folly, relinquished 274 leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, although it is holding onto …more

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One in Five of World’s Plant Species at Risk of Extinction

But 2,000 new plant species are discovered every year, report reveals

One in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction, according to the first global assessment of flora, putting supplies of food and medicines at risk.

photo of DeforestationPhoto by CIFOR Agricultural land pushing up against the forest near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Habitat destruction is one of the biggest factors threatening plant species.

But the report also found that 2,000 new species of plant are discovered every year, raising hopes of new sources of food that are resilient to disease and climate change. New finds in 2015 included a giant insect-eating plant first spotted on Facebook and a 100-tonne tree hidden in an African forest.

The State of the World’s Plants report, by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, reveals that there are currently 390,000 species of known plants, with more than 30,000 used by people. However, more than 5,000 species have invaded foreign countries and are causing billions of dollars of damage every year.

“Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind,” said Professor Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew, who led the new report. “Plants provide us with everything — food, fuel, medicines, timber and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. Without plants we would not be here. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.”

The report is the first of what will be an annual benchmark analysis to set out what is known — and not known — about plants and highlight critical issues and how they can be tackled. “I am reasonably optimistic,” said Willis. “Once you know [about a problem], you can do something about it. The biggest problem is not knowing.”

The biggest factors threatening plant species with extinction are the destruction of habitats for farming (31 percent) — such as palm oil production and cattle ranching, deforestation for timber (21 percent) and construction of buildings and infrastructure (13 percent).

Climate change is currently a smaller factor — 4 percent — but is likely to grow. “I suspect we won’t actually see the full impact until 30 years down the line as it takes so long for plants, especially trees, to produce their offspring,” said Willis. One important by The Guardian – May 10, 2016

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The Fall and Resurrection of the Vosso Salmon

How biologists are racing to revive the ‘king of fish’ in Norway

High above the Bolstad Fjord, perched on a scaffold set into the cliff-top hut, Helge Furnes watched with the intensity of an osprey for a monstrous salmon to enter his trap of netting laid out on the river bottom. A pair of heavy stones, connected to the net by a system of ropes and pulleys, was hoisted up to the bottom of the hut. Once the fish entered the trap, Furnes yanked the end of the rope, setting off a chain reaction: The stones dropped towards the ground, their falling weight pulled up the lines tied to the corners of the net, and the trap closed, capturing the fish within.

Fishery BiologistsPhoto by Kevin Bailey Biologists Knut Vollset and Bjorn Barlaup ashore, and conservationist Helge Furnes in the skiff.

This method of fishing for salmon on the Bolstad Fjord, known as sitjenot, dated back at least 150 years. Furnes’s father also harvested the Vosso salmon. The fish are mostly gone now, and Furnes no longer fishes the sitjenot. The fishing huts sit, still perched on the cliffs or on poles above the fjord, like ghostly sentinels watching over the passage of the remaining salmon. 

The Vosso salmon is the stuff of legends. Once they were the largest Atlantic salmon in the world, based on average weight. Some behemoths tipped the scales at more than 36 kilograms. Catches of salmon in the Vosso River system were relatively stable for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, averaging about 12 tons per year. Then suddenly, in the late 1980s, the numbers began to nose-dive. The fishery collapsed in 1991 and was closed in 1992. For all practical purposes, the wild stock of Vosso River salmon went extinct. The “King of Fish,” as they had been called, were no more. 

The decline of Atlantic salmon was not unique to Vosso — similar decreases in other European salmon stocks occurred at about the same time. But what happened in Norway after the collapse probably couldn’t happen anywhere else.

When oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1960s, Norway struck it rich. Enormous wealth was generated by sovereign control of the oil fields, leading to a system of taxation on oil extraction and direct production by the state-owned oil company. The Norwegians invested generously in infrastructure, social welfare, …more

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Preserving Half the Earth

In Review: Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
By Edward O. Wilson
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 259 pages

Biologist and prolific writer Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus of Harvard University, has thrown down a challenge to humankind. In order to preserve the biological diversity of the Earth — all the plant and animal species that share our planet — we should set aside half the surface of the Earth in the form of biological preserves, with the remaining half devoted to human needs and resources.

Photo of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life Book Cover

A tall order!

In fact, several reviewers have objected to his new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, on the grounds that it is not specific about just how this immense shift in land use is to be accomplished. It’s true — Wilson argues for protection of large tracts of lands and waters to preserve our Earth’s biota, but does not present any pathway to get there.

But Dr. Wilson is not an activist or a planner; he is rather an advocate for the things he has studied and loved all his life, namely, the world’s diverse flora and fauna. Like many conservation biologists, he believes the measures we have taken so far to protect wildlife and wild lands simply aren’t enough. We have created preserves all around the Earth, but few are big enough or protective enough to ensure species’ survival. Furthermore, the long-term health of biological systems depends on the interchange of species and landscapes that are now chopped up and isolated from each other. As a result of this fragmentation, we continue to lose species around the world to extinction — species that can never be replaced.

Wilson’s concern also extends to the false thinking that humankind can now build its own artificial systems of crops and livestock for food, cities and towns for shelter, and reservoirs and other water projects to slake our civilized thirst. These human ecosystems are unlikely to be stable enough, Wilson argues, to survive very long. So even if our interest is purely selfish, we must preserve natural ecosystems to ensure humanity’s survival.

After all, humans are a part of the Earth’s living biosphere, and we cannot live for very long apart from it. Wilson explains: “We ourselves, our physical bodies, have stayed as vulnerable as when …more

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Learning from the Rainmakers

East African scientists court traditional knowledge for accurate weather predictions

As changes in weather continue to ravage farms and take a toll on food production across East Africa, scientists and meteorologists are turning to traditional rainmakers and weather forecasters to bolster the accuracy of weather predictions.

photo of Thomas Osore OmulakoPhoto by DFID – UK Department for International Development Thomas Osore Omulako, a rainmaker in Kenya's Nganyi community, on his maize farm.

The rainmakers have perfected the art of interpreting plant responses and animal behaviors to predict the weather. They observe when plant leaves curl, for example, or when flowers bloom. And they watch everything from the movements of certain birds, to bee migrations, to mating patterns of animals like antelopes, to the croaking of frogs, to predict the timing and intensity of rains and drought with high precision.

In Western Kenya, considered one of the country's breadbaskets, conventional forecasting using modern equipment has traditionally been frowned upon as too scholarly. Thousands of smallholder farmers have for years relied on the rainmakers from the Nganyi community, which is well-known for weather interpretation using Indigenous knowledge, to advise them about when and what to plant based on weather patterns. The weather predictions can be for a day, week, or even a month. In return for insight on the weather, farmers repay the rainmakers with the proceeds from their farms.

Traditionally, the rainmakers’ work has always been confined to the community level, receiving little or no recognition from scientists or the government. Rainmakers have at times even been ostracized as sorcerers.

That seems to be changing. Recent research has examined the important role of Indigenous knowledge in weather prediction, and how it can be applied to climate adaptations. And with unprecedented weather phenomena impacting Kenya, including El Niño and hailstorms, researchers there have sought the help of the Indigenous forecasters to create a hybrid weather intelligence system for the country.

Scientists from the Kenya Meteorological Department, the University of Nairobi, and Maseno University have now partnered with Nganyi rainmakers to blend Indigenous and conventional weather predicting models in a project dubbed "Climate Change Adaptation in Africa" and funded by Britain and Canada. The scientists conduct consultations with the rainmakers at a shrine forest, which the rainmakers have relied on for weather prediction for decades. It is a treasure trove of biodiversity, with 67 …more

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Celebrity Selfies with Apes Damaging Efforts to Curb Wildlife Trafficking, Warns UN body

Instagram snaps of celebs like Khloe Kardashian posing with orangutans and chimpanzees put survival of these endangered species at risk

Instagram snaps of celebrities including Paris Hilton and James Rodriguez posing with apes in the Gulf are damaging efforts to clamp down on wildlife trafficking and endangering the survival of some species, a UN body has warned.

Khloe Kardashian InstagramPhoto by Khloe Kardashian InstagramKhloe Kardashian posing with an orangutan in Dubai. She posted the photo with the following caption: “My new
best friend, Dior!!!! I had the most incredible day!! Thank you for such a blessed experience! #MyDubai”

New research by the UN’s great apes survival partnership (GRASP) points to an alarming rise in trafficking of orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos stolen from the wild, mostly to feed demand from a boom in macabre Chinese circuses.

But an increasing number are also finding their way to the private gardens and restaurants of the Gulf elite, and GRASP fears that the trade is being accelerated by celebrity endorsements.

Doug Cress, the program’s coordinator, told The Guardian: “The paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and football star James Rodriguez and others cuddling baby orangutans at private zoos in Dubai are incredibly damaging to conservation efforts, and GRASP calls on celebrities to avoid such photo opportunities.”

Photos of Paris Hilton with a dressed-up baby orangutan at the Saif Belhasas private zoo in Dubai began circulating in 2014. “She’s the cutest little girl in the world,” Hilton reportedly said of the ape.

James Rodriguez Photo by James Rodriguez Instagram Last December, Real Madrid soccer star James Rodriguez posted a photo of himself
with an orangutan in Dubai to his Instagram account.

Last December, the Real Madrid star James Rodriguez uploaded a photo of himself with an orangutan in Dubai to his Instagram account, despite strong condemnation by GRASP.

The rapper Kid Ink also posted an Instagram shot of himself with an orangutan dressed in baby clothes in Dubai two months ago, as did Khloe Kardashian.

None of the celebrities’ agents responded to emailed requests for comment.

Cress said: “These pictures are seen by hundreds of millions of fans, and it sends the message that posing with great apes — all of which are obtained through illegal means, and face miserable lives once they grow too …more

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Conversation: Frans de Waal

One of the ‘great minds of science’ discusses how research continues to disprove preconceived notions of animal intelligence

Dr. Frans de Waal is a biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social intelligence of primates. His research has been published in hundreds of peer reviewed scientific journals, and his best-selling books — including Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Our Inner Ape (2005),  The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013) — which draw parallels between primate and human behavior — have popularized him as one of the world’s foremost experts on animal intelligence. In 2007, Time magazine listed him as one of the worlds’ most influential people today, and in 2011, Discover magazine listed him among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science.

Frans de Waal Photo by Peter on Flickr

De Wall is the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia and a professor at Emory University’s psychology department. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? discusses the history of animal behavior and cognition studies at a time when scientists are beginning to study animal cognition in tandem with human cognition rather than in comparison to one another.

In the book, De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the view of animals as machines and shows us how animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. He challenges our anthropocentric view of humans being at the top of the cognitive and sentience ladder. What if there is no such ladder? he asks. What if instead, this whole business is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours?

I spoke with De Waal recently about his new book and the recent research involving various animals, from crows to dolphins, which continue to disprove our preconceived notions of animal intelligence. 

In your latest book, how do you resolve the question, “are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”

The book is about animal intelligence and how we have, for a long time, underestimated animal intelligence, sort of systematically because a large number of scientists wanted to reduce everything that animals do to either instinct or to very simple learning processes that are found in rats and pigeons and many animals, but we never considered animals with large brains …more

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