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The Hidden Magnolias

Deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental, two new magnolias were waiting for a conservationist turned photographer and a botanist to find them

In Mexico’s rugged Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, new species from a variety of plant families have recently been discovered. Located in the northern third of the state of Querétaro, this section of the Sierra Madre Oriental has been particularly blessed with biological diversity by evolution. Its high peaks cause rain shadows and its latitude allows it to host both neo-arctic and neo-tropical flora and fauna.

I had the privilege of growing up in this region and, perhaps not surprisingly, developed a strong affinity for nature from an early age.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Ridge after ridge, the Sierra Gorda always offer endless opportunities to explore and document endangered and unknown species to science. For me, it’s my backyard, where I can freely roam and document its landscapes and biodiversity.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Sweetgums dominate in some local cloud forests, giving a definite Appalachian taste in central Mexico.

Thus, in 1987 when my parents started a grassroots movement aimed at conserving the area’s incredible biodiversity which led to the founding of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), I enthusiastically became involved with the project. I can proudly claim to have been a conservationist since my childhood. So it was natural for me to pick up photography as a tool for shedding light on the Sierra Gorda’s biological wealth and documenting its diversity of ecosystems. In 1996, I was carrying out point counts for a bird monitoring project, which led me to revisit a very special cloud forest, one where grand old oaks and ancient cypresses reach heights of 40 meters with their limbs draped in dense mats of moss, ferns, orchids, and bromeliads, a place where I have managed to photograph jaguars, pumas, and margays.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz These old-growth oaks were going to be logged and turned into charcoal. We arrived just in time to protect them.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Tree frogs and salamanders are some of the amphibians that inhabit cloud forests. They are on the verge of extinction, and will disappear if we don’t properly protect them and the forests they depend on.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Also endangered, this fragile orchid calls home a few cloud forests in the Sierra Gorda.

To my dismay, I found this precious cloud forest in the …more

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Climate Action in the Post-Truth Era

A path forward under the incoming Trump administration

If President-elect Donald Trump actually believes all the warnings he issued during the election about the threats of immigration, he should be talking about ways to slow global warming as well. Rising sea level, caused by the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps, will probably displace tens of millions of people in the decades ahead, and many may come to North America as refugees.

artwork depicting the statue of liberty drowningCover Illustration by Serene Lusano

Climate change will cause a suite of other problems for future generations to tackle, and it’s arguably the most pressing issue of our time. A year ago December, world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss strategies for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists at every corner of the globe confirm that humans are facing a crisis. However, climate change is being nearly ignored by American politicians and lawmakers. It was not discussed in depth at all during this past election cycle’s televised presidential debates. And, when climate change does break the surface of public discussion, it polarizes Americans like almost no other political issue. Some conservatives, including Trump, still deny there’s even a problem.

“We are in this bizarre political state in which most of the Republican Party still thinks it has to pretend that climate change is not real,” said Jonathan F.P. Rose, a New York City developer and author of The Well-Tempered City, which explores in part how low-cost green development can mitigate the impacts of rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns.

Rose says progress cannot be made in drafting effective climate strategies until national leaders agree there’s an issue.

“We have such strong scientific evidence,” he said. “We can disagree on how we’re going to solve the problems, but I would hope we could move toward an agreement on the basic facts.”

That such a serious planetwide crisis has become a divide across the American political battlefield “is a tragedy” to Peter Kalmus, an earth scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena, who agreed to be interviewed for this story on his own behalf (not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech).

Kalmus warns that climate change is happening whether politicians want to talk about it or not.

“CO2 molecules and infrared photons don’t give a crap about politics, whether you’re liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat or anything else,” Kalmus said.

Slowing climate change will be essential, since adapting to all its impacts may be impossible. Governments …more

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California’s Disappearing Dream

How the drought, hotter temperatures, and a booming population continue to shape the Golden State’s environmental future

The highest mountains in the West run north-to-south through the Mediterranean latitudes and just 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean – a remarkable stroke of geologic luck that has made California one of the richest ecological and agricultural regions on the continent. These mountains accumulate deep snow in the winter, which in turn feeds cold rivers that flow through the hot, dry months.

photo of an arid landscapephoto by Gordon / FlickrCalifornia is entering its sixth year of drought. Research indicates that the drought has been made worse by climate change.

But the unique conditions that California’s native fish, its farms and its cities depend on are acutely threatened by climate change. In 2015, virtually no snow fell in the Sierra Nevada.

Droughts occur naturally, but research indicates the current drought in the American West has been made worse by climate change and that future droughts will be exacerbated by the warming planet. A 2015 paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters calculated that climate change has made California’s current drought as much as 27 percent worse than it would otherwise have been. In 2015, Stanford researchers, led by associate professor of earth sciences Noah Diffenbaugh, predicted that extremely hot years in California will increasingly overlap with dry spells in the future. Greenhouse gases, the scientists reported, are pushing this trend. Diffenbaugh explained to The New York Times that, even if precipitation remains ample, warmer winters in the future will mean less water stored away as snow – historically the most important reservoir in the state.

As water supplies shrink, the human population is booming. By 2050, the agencies that manage and distribute California’s water will be answering to the needs of roughly 50 million people as well as the state’s enormous agriculture industry. Current squabbles over California’s water will escalate into blistering fights, and native salmon – once the main protein source for the West Coast’s indigenous people – will probably vanish in the fray as the Sacramento and San Joaquin river system is tapped to the max for human needs. Other native fishes, too, like green sturgeon, will almost certainly dwindle or disappear. 

The atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases will manifest in other ways, too. Disruption of ocean currents could reduce the upwelling of cold bottom water so critical for California’s coastal ecosystem. California’s shoreline will erode as sea level rises, threatening coastal real estate, roads, and public space. In 2009, the Pacific Institute released a report predicting …more

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Local Laws Ban Front Yard Food Gardens in Cities Across the US

Restrictions require residents to rip up vegetables or face fines, jail time

If sustainability starts at home, then so too do rules that determine just how sustainable you can be in your home life. Farmers can rely on their own crops and livestock for food, compost, clothing, and a host of other solutions. Gardens can be a great place for homeowners to help feed a family and use composted waste. Even other less obvious homebased pursuits can feed into sustainability efforts.

photo of trawlersphoto by Carol NorquistGrowing food in home gardens has exploded in popularity in recent years, but gardeners around the US face a dizzying number of bewildering restrictions.

For example, brewing beer — whether from ingredients grown at home or obtained at a farm or store — can help reduce packaging and transport costs, help out local farmers keen to receive spent grains, and give homebrewers the ultimate control over what they’re drinking. The explosion of homebrewing in America in recent decades is a great example of how federal rules can affect your home. Before 1978, it was illegal for Americans to brew beer at home. That year, President Jimmy Carter signed into law a bill that allowed Americans to make beer (and wine) at home, so long as they didn’t sell it. In addition to letting Americans brew beer at home for the first time since Prohibition, the law is credited with helping to set in motion the explosion of craft brewing in this country, as many of yesterday’s homebrewers went on to become today’s commercial craft brewers. Although the ban on homebrewing is one of the best known examples of a prohibition on producing one’s own food at home, many arguably more sustainable food practices — ones far more mundane than brewing beer — are banned at home by a tangled web of local rules.

Growing food in home gardens is among the easiest, most popular, and most personal ways to promote and consume sustainable food. It’s also a practice that’s exploded in popularity in recent years. A 2009 report by the National Gardening Association found that nearly one third of American households raises some combination of fruits and vegetables at home. A 2014 report by the same group found that the number of edible gardens had grown since the earlier report by 17 percent.  A 2012 report by the New York Times noted that home food gardens are a byproduct of the “growing interest in sustainability.”

Despite the mushrooming popularity of raising food at home, gardeners around …more

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Thousands of Chinese Ships Trawl the World, So How Can We Stop Overfishing?

The UN has pledge to ensure healthy, productive oceans, but demand for fish has never been higher

When I was in Senegal in 2003, the few Chinese vessels fishing along the coast from Mauritania to Liberia were unseaworthy rust-buckets, existing off what licenses they could cadge.

Then in the past five years shining new trawlers appeared on the horizon, churned out by subsidized Chinese shipyards, earning their owners handsome subsidies if they travel outside China, where they run on subsidized fuel and exploit subsidized freight rates to get their frozen cargo back home. There seem to be unlimited funds available to buy licenses to fish in ways that are far from transparent — and which have long been exploited by other Far East fleets and resourceful members of the European Union.

photo of trawlersphoto by Rene LeubertTrawlers off the coast of Namibia. China has the largest distant water fleet in the world, with some 3,400 vessels fishing in the waters of nearly 100 countries.

China’s distant water fleet is now the largest in the world, with about 3,400 vessels fishing in the waters of nearly 100 countries. Researchers estimate that nearly 75 percent of all the fish it caught came from African waters with almost 3 million tons from West Africa.

And there is, as far as we can see, a problem. Scientists working for the University of British Columbia, using a new way of estimating the size and value of catches, reported this year that just 9 percent of the millions of tons of fish caught by the Chinese in African waters is officially reported to the UN. All nations have to report annual catches to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Once, if you wanted to understand how global trends in food consumption were affecting the health of the ocean, you would travel to different countries, stand on the fish dock and watch the boats come and go. Now you get a far better grasp of what is going on from a computer program that tracks fishing vessels by satellite. Focus in on West Africa and you will notice the extraordinary upsurge in the number of Chinese trawlers fishing there in the past four years. The program displays the routes of more than 400 industrial vessels, 220 of them from China — more than any other nation.

Zoom in on the coast of mainland China itself and you will understand why the Chinese fleet ranges across the world from the south Pacific to the Caribbean to bring home the …more

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Rescued Animals Find Refuge in New Middle East Reserve

First lions, tigers, and bears transferred to region’s largest wildlife sanctuary in Jordan

The October opening of the largest-ever animal sanctuary of its kind in the Middle East offered a rare sign of hope amid the many ongoing conflicts in the region. Jordan’s Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve is now home to its first residents: seven lions, two tigers, and a Syrian brown bear. All ten animals were rescued from lives in captivity elsewhere in the Middle East — and transferred to the sanctuary by Four Paws, a Vienna-based animal welfare nonprofit.

photo of brown bearPhoto courtesy of Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife A Syrian brown bear was among the first animals transferred to Al Ma’wa, the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Middle East.

The plan was long in the making — animal welfare advocates have struggled for years to address inhumane treatment of captive animals in the region, as well as a strong illegal wildlife trade. “It was an idea for all these years,” said Amir Khalil, an Egyptian-born veterinarian and director of emergency response for Four Paws. “Now it is a reality. The animals are there. We’re happy and proud. We were able to move mountains.”

Subsequent construction will see the sanctuary expand from its current 70 hectares to 140 hectares, which is “far larger than any similar establishment in the region,” Four Paws said in a statement.

Working with Princess Alia of Jordan, the sister of King Abdullah II, and her namesake, the Princess Alia Foundation, Four Paws culminated a six-year planning process with a three-day animal transfer, moving the large mammals from a smaller sanctuary, the New Hope Centre near Jordan’s capital city, Amman, to the larger reserve sanctuary near Souf, 45 kilometers to the north. The first Al Ma’wa animals were darted and anesthetized before being placed in “very heavy” crates, Khalil said. The crates were, in turn, placed on trucks and escorted by police for the hour-and-a-half long drive between the two reserves.

A pride of five lions were the first animals to be moved. A day later, they were joined by two tigers and Balou, the Syrian brown bear. All of these animals had been rescued from captivity, Khalil said. Two more lions arrived on the third day; they had been rescued from the Al Bisan zoo in the northern Gaza Strip in late 2014. Al Bisan lost 80 percent of its animals during a war between Israel and Hamas earlier that year, as zoo staff struggled to keep the animals healthy.

Asked what would have happened …more

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In India’s Remote Delta Region, Women Document Their Daily Struggle with Climate Change

As rising seas swallow islands, turn farmlands fallow, everyday life becomes a challenge

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the low-lying Sunderbans delta region by the Bay of Bengal is one of the most visible victims of the ravages of climate change in India.

An archipelago of several hundred islands of varying size, the Sunderbans stretches nearly 186 miles across the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is part of the world’s largest delta (30,888. sq miles) system formed from sediments deposited by three rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna – as they empty into the Bay of Bengal. It is also home to one of the world’s largest mangrove forests.

photo of a woman standing in water, jug balanced on her headPhoto by Lakshana Debnath“This is a common sight in the smaller islands of the Sunderbans,” says photographer  Lakshana Debnath. “Portions are perennially waterlogged as some of the breaches still remain for the water to gush in during high tides. The women have to repeat this choice quite a few times. every day. The water level is considerably higher (sometimes chest high) during monsoons.”

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change had warned nearly a decade ago that areas like the Sunderbans would be among the first to bear the brunt of climate risks caused by sea level rise and salt-water intrusion into farmlands and underground aquifers.

Sea levels in this area are rising at twice the global average, submerging islands, destroying homes and livelihoods. Women and children are especially at risk. Loss of farmable land, rising salinity in soil and groundwater, has led to men migrating in search of work. As a result, the workload on women has increased – they have to tend the fields, run the household and care for family members. This often limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to factors like sudden weather-related natural disasters. 

A unique project has enabled the women in the Sunderbans to put together their stories about living with climate change in a vulnerable region. The women documented their lives as a part of a participatory research project that taught them how to wield cameras.

photo of a woman digging in sandPhoto by Parul Bhakta“Crab collection is the main livelihood of a substantial portion of women islanders living near the forest zones,” Parul Bhaktra, one of the women who participated in the project, says. “Sometimes they travel back and forth daily around 15 times a month. Most of them have …more

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