Talking Points : Summer 2016

News in Brief


Smog-based Startup

Late last year, a Canadian company made headlines when it began selling air bottled in Alberta’s Banff National Park to pollution-choked Chinese city dwellers. Now, enterprising Chinese villagers have set up a competing venture in China’s own Guangdong province.

photo of an outdoor scene with many plastic bagsphoto Sina WeiboGrassroots entrepreneurs: Villagers in China’s Lianshan Mountains are selling bags of “fresh” air to smog-choked urbanites.

The venture works something like this: Cities in Guangdong are often blanketed in thick smog. Urbanites escape to Lianshan Mountain, the greenest area in the province, for a bit of relief. Lianshan Mountain residents are capitalizing on their coveted fresh air, selling it by the plastic bagful with signs that read: “Air without industrial pollution” and “Buying air equals buying health.”

The bags, which cost 10 to 30 yuan each, depending on size (about $1.50 to $4.50 US), provide visitors an opportunity to return to the city with the fresh air in tow. Online photos suggest, however, that many patrons breath the bagged air while still in the mountains.

Chenglin Zi, who lives in Lianshan Mountain and initiated the fresh air enterprise, told China Daily that he hopes the endeavor will remind urban tourists of the need for environmental protection.

Brief Respite for Grand Canyon

In an unexpected victory for environmental and indigenous activists, federal officials effectively rejected plans for a mega-resort about a mile from the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, saying it was not in the public interest.

In early March, Heather Provencio, the new supervisor of the nearby Kaibab National Forest, threw out an application to build a road across public land that would have paved the way for a massive resort with three million square feet of commercial facilities, including a tourist lodge, spa, upscale shops, hotels, and 2,200 homes in the tiny town of Tusayan in northern Arizona, just south of the main park entrance.

In a letter to the mayor of Tusayan, Provencio wrote that the project “did not meet minimum requirements for initial screening.” Provencio said the development “would stress local and park infrastructure, and have untold impacts to the surrounding tribal and national park lands.”

The proposal, by the Italian-owned Stilo Development Group, has been subject to bitter dispute between local leaders who support the developer and environmental and Native American groups opposed to the project. Many local and national environmental groups, including the Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club, had opposed the plan, as did the National Park Service.

Provencio’s decision, however, does not entirely rule out the mega-resort, since the Forest Service has left the door open to plans that can demonstrate minimal environmental harm.

Numerous other threats remain to the Grand Canyon, which the National Parks Conservation Association lists among the nine most at-risk parks.

Less than a decade ago, the Forest Service permitted exploratory drilling for uranium in the Kaibab National Forest without any evaluation of environmental impacts. Conservationists and Native Americans fought the drilling permit, and as a result, a 20-year moratorium on new mines was passed. But the mining industry and the state of Arizona have challenged the ban. The issue will be duked out in federal court in coming months, as will the fate of existing mining operations near the park, which too, environmentalists have sued to block.

Meanwhile, some conservation groups are urging the Obama administration to create a new national monument out of the federal lands not yet protected in the Grand Canyon.


Tweeting Pigeons

Pigeons to the rescue! That’s probably not something you hear often, but in London at least, these underappreciated birds are doing their part to raise awareness about air pollution.

In March, two tech companies launched Pigeon Air Patrol, an air pollution PR project involving a small flock of 10 pigeons. Fitted with mini-backpacks carrying air quality sensors, the birds were released to fly around London for three days, providing real-time air quality readings with every flap of their wings.

photo of a pigeon, wearing a tiny backpack, on an urban rooftopphoto Plume LabsThe Pigeon Air Patrol birds were fitted with mini-backpacks carrying air quality sensors.

In a twist of marketing genius, curious Londoners were able to tweet their location to the Pigeon Air Patrol Twitter account to check air quality in their area. The backpack sensors read ozone, volatile compounds, and nitrogen dioxide levels, and the patrolling pigeons tweeted back responses. The tweets included advice and well wishes, like “Stay safe,” and “Avoid dirty air.”

The project – the brainchild of marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi and air quality technology company Plume Labs – offers a rather adorable way to attract attention to a very real problem.

“Millions of people die every year around the world from air pollution – it’s basically a pandemic, but we have a hard time realizing this because it’s largely invisible,” Romain Lacombe, CEO of Plume Labs, told CNN.

Plume Labs underscored that the pigeons were well cared for during the project. “Our backpacks are light as a feather, and a vet’s on hand to double check we’re safe and sound,” read the company website. “So don’t worry, we love flying, we’re pigeons after all.”

According to the Pigeon Air Patrol Twitter account, the pigeons returned to their “normal life” after the three-day project with roughly 7,000 Twitter followers.

Next up? People. Plume Labs is now turning to cyclists, runners, and pram pushers to test wearable versions of their new pollution sensor.

Call of the Wild

Fast Food Junkies

When junk food cravings strike, some of us go to great lengths to get our fix. Apparently so do white storks. According to new research from the University of East Anglia, these long-necked, migratory birds are making round-trips of almost 100 kilometers to get their fill of food dumped in landfills.

photo of a stork picking at garbage in a landfillphoto Boris Belchev, Alcedo WildlifeIncreasing numbers of white storks are nesting in Europe year round, feeding on “junk food”
from landfills.

White storks are among a growing number of migratory species that have changed their behavior due to human influences and global environmental change. Since the mid-1980s, increasing numbers of these wading birds have stopped migrating from Europe to Africa for the winter. Instead, many live in Spain and Portugal the whole year round – feeding on “junk food” from landfill sites, which provide an abundant and reliable food supply.

New research published in the journal Movement Ecology is the first to confirm that white storks are now living near landfill sites in Europe all year round. The research team tracked 48 birds using GPS devices.

“We found that the continuous availability of junk food from landfills has influenced nest use, daily travel distances, and foraging ranges,” lead researcher Dr. Aldina Franco, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said in a statement. “Having a nest close to a guaranteed food supply also means that the storks are less inclined to leave for the winter. They instead spend their non-breeding season defending their highly desirable nest locations.”

Beyond that, the researchers found that storks that weren’t living near landfills were willing to fly nearly 50 kilometers each way to visit dumps during non-breeding season and about 28 kilometers during the breeding season, way farther than previous estimates.

The scientists now fear that the replacement of open air landfills with covered facilities, as required by EU landfill directives, will have a dramatic impact on white stork populations. “This will cause a problem for the storks as they will have to find an alternative winter food supply,” Franco said. “It may well impact their distribution, breeding location, chick fledging success, and migratory decisions.”

No Comment

Idling No More

At the behest of local residents aiming to plug unused wells, oil and gas company Freeport-McMoRan was given a simple choice: Restart more than a dozen wells sitting idle adjacent to a Los Angeles elementary school, or abandon them permanently. In a twist that surprised many locals, the company decided to restart them.

The Los Angeles fire chief had made the demand under a little-used section of LA’s city code that says wells left idle for a year or longer must be either shut down or reactivated within roughly a month after the fire chief tells them to do so.

Worried that if the condition of the idle wells deteriorated, chemicals or gases might leak into the groundwater and air, the residents of Arlington Heights – a densely populated, diverse neighborhood in central LA – encouraged the local fire chief to cite the gas company. They were also concerned that the cost of plugging the wells might fall on them if Freeport-McMoRan filed for bankruptcy.

But the move backfired, leaving residents suspicious of corporate motives.

“We thought we had the upper hand,” Jeff Camp, president of the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council, told the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t believe it.”

“If Freeport is reactivating the wells, they’re doing it only as a temporary measure to try to avoid the expense of plugging the wells,” local resident Michael Salman speculated.

Oil production at these wells was stopped more than five years ago, around the time the Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Studies was opened across from the wells. Natural gas production ended a few years later.

Los Angeles is home to more than 1,100 idle wells, which are generally subject to less monitoring than active ones. The US Environment Protection Agency has warned that lax monitoring of California’s idle wells could put underground drinking water sources at risk.

Call of the Wild

National Mammal

Long seen as an icon of the American frontier, the bison has just been designated the first national mammal of the United States. The National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the bison as the official mammal of the United States, passed both houses of Congress in April. And in May, President Obama signed the legislation into law.

photo of bisonphoto Jim PeacoThe bison has been designated the official mammal of the United States.

The measure says the bison is considered a “historical symbol of the United States” and is “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies.”

Like the bald eagle, the country’s national bird, the bison represents the US’ successful foray into wildlife conservation.

Bison once roamed the Great Plains and much of North America in massive herds and were a key source of food for Native American tribes in the Plains. They became nearly extinct during the early nineteenth century after settlers killed about 50 million bison for sport, for food, and as a way to deprive tribes of their most important natural resource. The introduction of bovine diseases from domestic cattle virtually finished off the job, and the once-enormous herds were reduced to only a few hundred animals by the late 1800s.

As the bill mentions, efforts to save the bison in the early 1900s “resulted in the first successful reintroduction of a mammal species on the brink of extinction back into the natural habitat of the species.”

Today, resurgent bison populations are largely restricted to a few national parks and reserves. An estimated 20,000 bison live on public lands in North America. An additional 162,110 live on private farms and ranches, according to the 2012 US Department of Agriculture census. In Yellowstone National Park their numbers have swelled from just a handful to about 4,900. Federal officials are now required to control the bison population at the park and culling has become a routine – and controversial – method to keep this large mammal’s numbers in check, as rules prevent relocating the bison to private lands.

Despite this controversy, and at a time of federal political gridlock and partisan bickering, this iconic animal brought together a diverse coalition of backers. As The Washington Post reports: “Lobbying for the official mammal designation was a coalition of conservationists; ranchers, for whom bison are business; and tribal groups, such as the InterTribal Buffalo Council, which wants to ‘restore bison to Indian nations in a manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices.’”

Around the World

Going, Going, Gone

world map with numbered pointers corresponding to those in the text

Around the world, lakes are warming, decreasing in volume, and sometimes, completely disappearing. From South America to the Arctic, these water bodies are falling victim to over-extraction, and losses are being compounded by climate change, which can impact both precipitation and evaporation rates.

The disappearance of lakes can have profound implications for people, ecosystems, and wildlife – species can become locally extinct, for example, and community livelihoods can be compromised.

Of course, not all lakes are disappearing, and in some places at least, their numbers are actually booming. In Tibet, for instance, glacial melt contributed to the creation of more than 1,000 new lakes between 1990 and 2010, but that’s a mixed blessing at best.

Here’s a look at some of the places where lakes have not fared so well.

1 Bolivia

In late 2015, the last drops of water evaporated from Lake Poopó, which had previously been Bolivia’s second largest lake, leaving little but salt behind. Researchers attribute the disappearance to several factors, including silt deposits, water withdrawals from the Desaguadero River, which fed the lake, and climate change. Especially warm weather associated with El Niño may have been the final nail in Lake Poopó’s coffin. Scientists fear that Lake Titicaca, Bolivia’s largest lake, could follow suit if temperatures continue to warm as expected.

2 Turkey

In 1975, Turkey’s Lake Akşehir, located on the Central Anatolian Plateau, expanded across nearly 350 square kilometers. It dried up completely in 2008, due primarily to water extraction. With the lake’s disappearance, the Central Anatolian bleak, a fish endemic to the body of water, went extinct and two other endemic fish species became endangered. In total, lakes on Turkey’s Central Anatolian Plateau lost an estimated 50 percent of their surface area between 2005 and 2010. At current extraction rates, Lake Beyşehir, one of the region’s largest lakes, may dry up by 2040.

3 Mongolia

Mongolia has lost more than 25 percent of its lakes since the 1980s primarily due to changing rainfall patterns, a booming mining industry, and extraction for agricultural irrigation. Lake shrinkage is expected to continue in the coming decades due to climate change, as well as exploitation of resources in the region. This loss will impact both nomadic populations and ecosystems on the Mongolian Plateau.

4 Australia

Recent droughts have taken a toll on southeast Australia’s lakes, including one of its largest, Lake Alexandrina. In 2009, the large, shallow lake lost nearly two-thirds of its volume, and experienced a five-fold increase in salinity. Agricultural irrigation and climate change appear to be the culprits. The rapid water loss event led to the local extinction of several native fish species.

5 The Arctic

The Arctic is covered with millions of ponds. At least for now, that is. As temperatures rise, these ponds are rapidly disappearing. One study found that ponds in northern Alaska lost almost a third of their total surface area during the past 60 years, and nearly a fifth disappeared completely. These losses are due in large part to thawing permafrost, which can cause rapid water drainage. In 2014, one Arctic lake with an estimated water volume of 872,000 cubic meters, roughly equivalent to 350 Olympic swimming pools worth of water, vanished in just 36 hours.

6 Iran

Iran’s Lake Urmia, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, used to be the second largest hypersaline lake in the world. However, due to a combination of extraction, decreased precipitation, and increasing temperatures, water levels in the lake have declined by 80 percent over the past two decades. This water loss, and resulting spike in salinity, has impacted local ecosystems, agriculture and livelihoods. So far, thousands of people have abandoned the region.


Monkey Hell

China, it seems, is turning into the new Mecca for primate biomedical research. Over the past decade, several high-tech primate facilities have sprung up across the Middle Kingdom, in and around cities like Kunming, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Guangzhou. Some of these centers promote themselves as primate-research hubs where scientists from across the world can fly in and use the latest tools of the trade.

“These centers can provide scientists with monkeys in large numbers, and offer high-quality animal care and cutting-edge equipment with little red tape,” says an April report in Nature, a science journal that has a decidedly pro-primate-research stance.

China has a large population of wild macaques – the main primate breed used in scientific research. It also has a large number of farmed macaques, including genetically manipulated ones. Now Chinese researchers like Weizhi Ji of Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research, which holds 1,500 monkeys bred specifically for research, are dreaming of using “an animal like a tool” for biomedical discovery.

China has long been a major supplier of the more than 100,000 monkeys experimented on in laboratories across the globe every year, so in some ways this outsourcing of animal-based research to the country isn’t an unexpected progression.

The Nature report points out that the “enthusiasm” for such facilities in China “stands in stark contrast to the climate in the West, where nonhuman-primate research is increasingly stymied by a tangle of regulatory hurdles, financial constraints and bioethical opposition.” Many Western scientists who have faced opposition at home are now working with Chinese collaborators or setting up their own laboratories there.

While researchers might view this as a positive development, the news is chilling for animal welfare activists who have been fighting to end invasive experiments on primates and have achieved quite a bit of success in the West.

The number of monkeys used in research in Europe, for instance, declined by 28 percent between 2008 and 2011. Though the European Union allows primate research, a patchwork of local regulations in member states, pushed for by activists, has proved an effective damper. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health called an end to invasive research on chimpanzees in 2013, and animal rights activists here have turned the pressure on to end invasive research on all primate species. (There are some 120,000 monkeys still being experimented on in US labs.)

“What it comes down to is the [Western] scientists are looking to do experiments on monkeys cheaply without interference from anybody,” says Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA and other animal rights groups are now working to figure out which European and North American research groups are using the Chinese facilities. They are also working with animal rights advocates in China to build opposition to primate-based research.

Guillermo, for one, believes that this move east by the biomedical research industry will soon fizzle out given the growing animal rights movement in China. “It may work in the short-term but in the long-term it won’t work,” she said. “Those days of no opposition to animal research are over, even in China.”

6277836523_e56ab1ec14_o.jpgphoto Flickr user Nomad YCForest cover increased in China during the first part of the twenty-first century but the country’s timber imports soared at the same time.

Flip Side

Tree Up, Tree Down

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, China made strides on at least one important environmental metric: forest cover. China’s good news, however, may be coming at a high cost to tree cover in other countries.

According to a study published in March in Science Advances, Chinese forest cover increased by more than 46,000 square miles between 2000 and 2010 following the implementation of China’s Natural Forest Conservation Program. During that time, China spent $14 billion to protect forests, including to fund monitoring programs and to provide subsidies to forest-dependent communities to reduce logging.

“This is one of the most successful conservation programs in China,” study co-author Jianguo Liu, director of Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, told Inside Climate News. “There are a lot of devastating environmental problems in China like air pollution and water pollution. This is kind of the exception.”

Though China’s forest conservation program was initially launched to combat soil erosion, it has come to play an important role in carbon sequestration as well. And it’s set to continue: According to the study, China has committed to increasing forest cover by 154,440 square miles above its 2005 coverage level by 2020.

While this is all good news for China, it appears to be coming at a cost for other nations in Southeast Asia and Africa, where China is now importing more and more timber from. According to William Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at Australia’s James Cook University, China is “overwhelmingly the world’s largest and most aggressive consumer of timber.” The study author’s agree that some reforestation gains in China may be offset by losses elsewhere. Liu points out, however, that other countries are implicated in forest destruction as well – much of China’s lumber use goes toward satisfying demands for furniture in the US and Europe.

Temperature Gauge

Rapidly Rising Seas

It looks like scientists may have underestimated just how quickly sea levels are rising. According to a new study by climate scientists at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Massachusetts, researchers have been miscalculating how rapidly warming temperatures will melt major Antarctic ice shelves. New estimates, based on improved 3-D modeling and published in Nature in March, indicate that sea levels could rise nearly twice as much by 2100 than previously predicted. That is, by a total of six feet rather than three. The report estimates that by 2500, sea levels could rise by more than 49 feet, drowning coastal cities around the world.

Mercury High, Again

It seems we are bombarded with news of record-breaking temperatures just about every month. This makes sense, because globally, we are breaking records left and right. But it also makes us a little numb to the headlines.

In the early part of 2016, however, we utterly smashed previous temperature records. We destroyed them. We obliterated them.

According to NOAA, March was particularly crazy. Or in sciencespeak, it was the most anomalously warm month on record, period. As Climate Central reported, March was also the 11th month in a row to set a monthly temperature record – and yep, you guessed it, that is another record in and of itself. April 2016 “just” tied with April 2010 for the warmest April on record, but it was still the 350th month of above-average global temperatures in a row.

Underestimating Cloud Cover

The role of clouds, like that of many things, seems to have been lowballed when it comes to global warming. New research, led by Yale University and published in Science in April, has discovered that clouds have much less ice, and much more liquid, than previously understood. That’s bad news for the climate, because ice-rich clouds reflect more light than liquid-heavy ones, meaning upper estimates of human-caused warming will have to be revised even higher.

And that isn’t all. As is often the case, the devil is in the details, and the details of China’s reforestation efforts don’t quite add up. Most of the increased forest cover in China can be attributed to nonnative tree plantations, rather than diverse, native forests. “What they’ve been doing, ironically, is clearing a lot of native forest and planting rubber trees,” Laurance said. “If you go to southern China what you see is just huge areas of native forest being mowed down and planted with rubber.”

All said, it seems fair to applaud China for the 46,000 square mile increase in forest cover. It also seems more than fair to hope that as the country works to attain its additional forest goals, the government will consider not only the quantity of trees planted, but also the type of the trees it is nurturing.


What’s Wrong With Boaty McBoatface?

When the United Kingdom asked the public for input on what to name its newest, $300 million research ship, the British people didn’t hesitate to answer. In a poll launched by Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in March, the public voted resoundingly for the vessel to be christened “Boaty McBoatface.”

Unfortunately for the 124,000-plus people who voted for the tongue-in-cheek moniker before the poll closed, Science Minister Jo Johnson was quick to note that NERC has the final say over the ship name, and would likely veto the choice in favor of a more “suitable” alternative.

The saga has captured headlines, and chuckles, around the world. It has sparked discussions on British democracy, musings on British humor, and comic outrage by British commentators. “Present the people with an idol, then smash it before their eyes,” Stuart Heritage wrote for The Guardian in a piece titled “Boaty McBoatface: tyrants have crushed the people’s will.” In it, he opines, “Soon they will learn that resistance is futile, and the state’s power is absolute.”

NERC made a few suggestions when announcing the poll, names like “Shackleton,” “Endeavor,” and “Falcon.” But the public went in another direction. According to the Chicago Tribune, in addition to Boaty McBoatface, the Brits voted for “Ice, Ice Baby,” “Clifford the Big Red Boat” (the boat is painted red, after all), and “It’s Bloody Cold Out Here.”

The voting process was meant to spark public participation and excitement about science. “The polar research ship represents a leap forward in securing Britain’s place as a world leader in marine and climate change science – and illustrates this government’s commitment to invest in research facilities on a record scale,” Johnson had said in a press release announcing the poll.

James Hand, a former BBC radio host who proposed Boaty McBoatface as something of a joke, told BBC that he has “apologized profusely” to NERC. “I made the suggestion but the storm that’s been created, it’s got legs of its own,” he added.

In May, Johnson announced a compromise to the naming standoff. The ship will be named RSS Sir David Attenborough after the renowned British broadcaster and naturalist, but a remotely operated submarine onboard the vessel will be bestowed with the more entertaining, and popular, Boaty McBoatface.

Call of the Wild

Bats Resist

It might not yet be all over for bats in North America. Scientists have discovered that some bats in China are resistant to white-nose syndrome (WNS), the fungal infection that has been decimating bat populations in the US and Canada – a finding that suggests that at least some declining North American bat species could eventually evolve resistance to the devastating disease.

Led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an international team sampled hibernating bats at five sites in China and five sites in the US and found evidence that Asian bat species have much lower levels of infection than North American species. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in March.

The fungus that causes WNS, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is endemic in Asia and Europe, so bats there have coexisted with it for a long time, whereas the disease only recently invaded North America, where it was first discovered in 2006.

photo of a gloved hand, holding a bat in some distressphoto USFWS/Ann FroschauerSome little brown bats seem to be better able to resist the fungal infection that’s killing them in large
numbers in North America.

“Uniformly, across all the species we sampled in China, we found much lower levels of infection – both the fraction of bats infected and the amount of fungus on infected bats were lower than in North America,” says Joseph Hoyt, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the study.

The study also suggests that some declining North American bat species may be able to evolve enough resistance to the disease to persist, while other species appear less likely to do so. Overall, little brown bats, one of the most common bats in North America, had much higher levels of infection than Asian bats. But some individual little brown bats had relatively low fungal loads. The researchers say that if the variation is a result of genetic differences, it could lead to the evolution of resistance in that species.

This bit of good news couldn’t have come too soon for these flying mammals. Bats have been dying in unprecedented numbers from WNS in the eastern and midwestern United States and Canada, with no sure cure in sight. Nearly 6 million of our key pollinators have died in the past decade, including more than 90 percent of the populations of some species like the northern long-eared bat. And now it appears that the disease is spreading to the West Coast. In March, biologists detected the first known case of WNS in a bat in Washington State – the first time this deadly disease has been confirmed west of the Rockies.

No Comment

Weatherman Trump

In May, Donald Trump – AKA The Donald – became the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Now that the once underestimated candidate could very well become the 45th President of the United States, his climate change stance is all the more worrying.

In March, he told The Washington Post that he’s “not a great believer in man-made climate change,” and if his tweets are any indication, he has been rejecting climate science for a while now. Here are a few choice tweets:

realDonaldTrump 15586.jpg
4:39 PM - 1 Jan 2014

15592.jpgThis very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice

realDonaldTrump 15629.jpg
7:13 AM - 6 Dec 2013

15599.jpgIce storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee – I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!

realDonaldTrump 15862.jpg
11:15 AM - 6 Nov 2012

15867.jpgThe concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

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