Best of our wild blogs: 9 Feb 11


SINGAPORE’S FIRST NARCISSUS FLYCATCHER
from Bird Ecology Study Group

A male and a female albino Red Junglefowl?
from Bird Ecology Study Group


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Tougher car emission rules for Singapore in the pipeline

Move to Euro IV standard will help improve air quality
Christopher Tan Straits Times 9 Feb 11;

IT HAS been a long time coming, but Singapore is poised to raise emission standards for petrol vehicles here - something it has not done in 10 years.

The new standard, called Euro IV, will apply only to new vehicles. It will cut the amount of harmful pollutants in the air, including substances that can cause cancer and respiratory ailments.

But the improved air quality will mean incremental cost increases for motorists, who may have to pay more for some vehicle models and, almost certainly, for better quality fuels required by the new standard.

The Straits Times understands that the expected date for implementation is early 2014, but the National Environment Agency (NEA) did not want to comment on the timeline when approached.

It is understood that the agency has sounded out the motor and oil industries on the new emission standard.

'We confirm that the NEA has engaged us in these discussions,' an ExxonMobil spokesman said.

Motor Traders Association vice-president Michael Wong said the NEA had made some inquiries on how quickly the industry could meet a new standard.

'We told them we need ample lead time, at least 18 months' notice,' he said.

The last time Singapore raised the emission standard for petrol vehicles was in 2001, when it implemented Euro II.

Like many countries, Singapore uses European emission standards, which are graded Euro I to VI, with the higher grades being more stringent.

It is understood that Singapore will move from Euro II to Euro IV for petrol vehicles, bypassing Euro III, to be in step with attempts worldwide to lower pollution from vehicles.

Europe adopted the Euro IV standard for petrol vehicles in 2005, Hong Kong did so in 2006, and a number of Chinese cities have either followed suit or are planning to soon. In Japan and the United States, equivalent standards are in place.

Euro IV is significantly more stringent than Euro II. For instance, a car cannot emit more than 1g of carbon monoxide per kilometre - 70 per cent less than allowed in Euro II.

Hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions are slashed by a similar amount, to 0.1g/km and 0.08g/km respectively.

All these pollutants are harmful. Hydrocarbons, for instance, have been found to cause cancer, while nitrogen oxide harms the respiratory system. Carbon monoxide is highly toxic at certain levels.

Dr Winston Lee, a medical practitioner and veteran automotive writer, said the move was 'good but overdue'.

Singapore Environment Council executive director Howard Shaw agreed. 'It is a welcome move, but it could have been a bit faster,' he said.

The oil industry has long indicated that cost was a major hindrance to meeting new standards. Companies said hundreds of millions had to be spent on plants to reduce sulphur - a major determinant of tailpipe emissions - from fuel.

Currently, petrol sold here contains 500 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur. Euro IV stipulates 50ppm.

Consumers will ultimately bear the cost of lower sulphur fuels, industry watchers said.

Mr Ng Weng Hoong, editor of energy news portal EnergyAsia, said: 'If I had just spent $500 million to build a desulphurisation plant, you can be sure I will try to recover the cost. It is inevitable, driving will become more and more expensive.'

The oil companies refused to comment on the potential price impact.

Motor traders said some car prices will rise because of Euro IV. These would be non-European makes that do not have Euro IV models, which typically have more sophisticated engines and catalytic converters. Their sticker prices could rise by as much as 20 per cent.

Meanwhile, the NEA indicated that it is also looking to raise the standard for diesel vehicles from the current Euro IV - implemented here in 2006 - to Euro V.

Again, the agency would not commit to a date, merely saying it would 'implement the new standard when it is cost effective to do so'.

According to sources, implementation will also take place in 2014.

Meeting Euro V entails lowering the sulphur content of diesel fuel here from 50ppm to 10ppm.

ExxonMobil recently announced it will be building a plant in Jurong to produce such diesel. It will be ready by 2014.


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NTU scientists set up new lab to turn water into hydrogen fuel

Lynda Hong Ee Lyn Today Online 9 Feb 11;

SINGAPORE - Scientists from the Nanyang Technological University have set up a new laboratory - the first in Asia - that aims to turn water into hydrogen fuel.

According to the researchers, the development of this technology may help to bring down the cost of using solar energy here to nearly the same level as conventional energy sources.

The lab will use what is known as "artificial leaf" technology, inspired by the way leaves use sunlight to produce energy, NTU president-designate Bertil Andersson told reporters yesterday.

This will allow for the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen. The solar energy can then be converted into hydrogen in large quantities in a clean and sustainable manner.

Current technology requires huge amounts of energy to draw small amounts of hydrogen from water, making it not commercially viable.

The lab will be jointly managed by NTU's School of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Institute @ NTU.

Instead of conventional solar cells, the lab is also testing if cheap substances like rust and titanium dioxide can efficiently capture solar energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Such extraction technology is available now but the scientists want to go a step further - develop a cheaper method of extracting hydrogen from water.

Professor James Barber, visiting professor at NTU and a leading expert in this field, is working on the project together with about a dozen other researchers.

He said: "We can do this reaction right now. It's no problem. We can use platinum, or we can use very expensive semi-conductor materials. The challenge is to devise a technology which is cheap, and is robust."

NTU plans to deliver the prototype in three to five years. It hopes that such technology could make it more commercially viable to run hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road. Lynda Hong

NTU opens Asia's first solar fuels lab
Lynda Hong Channel NewsAsia 8 Feb 11;

SINGAPORE: Scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) can now look forward to recreating an energy process that takes place in plants to produce hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight.

NTU's new Solar Fuels Lab, which is the first of its kind in Asia, was officially opened on Tuesday morning by NTU President Designate Professor Bertil Andersson, who is a pioneer in the "artificial leaf" technology.

Inspired by nature's ability to recreate an energy-producing process through photosynthesis, researchers at NTU will be working to find suitable combinations of chemical catalysts that can speed up the artificial photosynthesis process using minimal energy.

This will be used in a device which will be able to extract large amounts of hydrogen from water using sunlight.

Incoming NTU president Bertil Andersson said: "The leaf has chlorophyll that has a lot of protein molecules that may not be stable in an artificial system.

"So the [focus of the] research is [on finding] stable components in the technological system, in a technological machinery".

The new solar fuels laboratory at NTU aim to extract hydrogen fuel using solar energy.

And instead of conventional solar cell, the lab is testing if cheap substances like rust and titanium dioxide can efficiently capture solar energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

NTU visiting professor James Barber said: "We can do this reaction right now. It's no problem. We can use platinum, or we can use very expensive semi-conductor materials.

"The challenge is to devise technology which is cheap, and is robust, and made of cheap materials".

Professor Barber is one of the few world-class experts to work on the project, which comprises about a dozen researchers from NTU, including professor Michael Gratzal, Dr Heinz Frei and Dr John Turner .

NTU said it plans to deliver the prototype in three to five years.

Current technology requires huge amounts of energy to draw minute amounts of hydrogen from water which makes it commercially unviable.

When perfected, this "artificial leaf" technology can reduce dependence on crude oil and help to ease problems caused by global warming and climate change.

-CNA/fa/wk

NTU Solar Fuels Lab gets $10m research grants
It will develop tech that uses sunlight to turn water into hydrogen
Linette Lim Business Times 9 Feb 11;

A SOLAR fuels lab - the first of its kind in Asia - has been established at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Set up with seed funding of $2 million, the Lab has already secured some $10 million in research grants.

It will develop an 'artificial leaf' technology that mimics the photosynthesis process of plants, using sunlight to turn water into hydrogen.

'We expect our first prototype in 3-5 years,' said NTU's president-designate Bertil Andersson, himself a pioneer of the 'artificial leaf' technology.

Widespread adoption of hydrogen - the most abundant element on the planet - as an energy source could help ease climate change problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels and crude oil.

However, large-scale production of the carbon-free fuel remains commercially unviable with current technology. The costly process requires huge amounts of energy just to draw minute amounts of hydrogen from water.

NTU said it is confident of achieving efficient and cost-effective production of hydrogen in large quantities.

Researchers will do this by finding 'suitable combinations of chemical catalysts that can speed up the artificial photosynthesis process using minimal energy'.

Speaking at the Lab's opening ceremony yesterday, Professor James Barber of Imperial College London - a key scientific advisor to the Lab - noted that the exploration of alternative energy sources is so important that it was mentioned by US President Barack Obama in his latest State of the Union address.

In his speech, Mr Obama also announced a Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis.

NTU's Solar Fuels Lab will be jointly managed by the School of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Institute @ NTU.

Research in the Lab will be driven by a mixed team of international collaborators and NTU assistant professors Joachim Loo, Lydia Wong, Yang Zhao and Xue Can.

Other international collaborators include Professor Michael Gratzal of Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnic Federale de Lausanne, Dr Heinz Frei of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US and Dr John Turner from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


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Sabah finds 'extinct' otter civet

Joniston Bangkuai New Straits Times 9 Feb 11;

SANDAKAN: The Otter Civet, previously thought extinct, has been found in Sabah after a gap of more than 100 years.

The endangered Otter Civet Cynogalebennettii was photographed in the Deramakot Forest Reserve here with a remote camera trap set up by a biodiversity monitoring team of the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) and a German wildlife research institute.

The research collaboration between the SFD and the internationally-renowned Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) also led to the finding of a Sunda Clouded Leopard in the same area last year.


Encouraged by the success, SFD and IZW have agreed to expand the joint research and biodiversity monitoring effort to Forest Management Units (FMUs) throughout the state.

A memorandum of understanding was signed here yesterday by SFD director Datuk Sam Mannan and IZW director Prof Dr Heribert Hofer.

"We know that there are orang utan or elephants living in our forests but our knowledge about other highly threatened wildlife species such as the endangered Otter Civet was very limited," Mannan said.


He said considering more than half of Sabah was covered by forests, wildlife conservation beyond borders of parks or other fully protected areas was paramount for effective and comprehensive conservation of the state's rich biodiversity.

As most forests are commercially used for the production of timber, a sustainable management is of great importance to ensure the long-term conservation of some of the most threatened species.

Mannan is optimistic the collaboration with IZW will boost SFD's aim of getting all FMUs in the state certified as Sustainable Forest Management by 2014.


Prof Hofer said Sabah's rich biodiversity is a great treasure and a heritage of worldwide importance.

"Therefore, up-to-date scientific research and wildlife surveys are important to understand the needs of threatened species."

He observed that little was known about the ecology of wildlife species in Sabah's forests and how they responded to timber extraction.

"Such research is of a high practical value because the appropriate management and protection of wildlife species requires knowledge."

In November last year, the IZW signed an MoU with the Sabah Wildlife Department to collaborate on research and conservation of the state's wildlife, particularly the highly endangered Sabah Rhinoceros.

Germany institute and forestry dept join forces to explore Sabah forests
Ruben Sario The Star 9 Feb 11;

KOTA KINABALU: A joint research effort is under way to determine how activities such as logging impact wildlife in the state’s forests.

The study, focusing on sustainably-managed forests or forest management units (FMUs), is being jointly undertaken by the Sabah Forestry Department and the renowned Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) of Germany.

Department director Datuk Sam Mannan said the research was crucial in the sustainable management of the forests that were habitats to diverse wildlife, some of which are endangered.

“We know that there are orang utan or elephants living in our forests, but our knowledge about other highly-threatened wildlife species such as the endangered otter civet is very limited.

“With their research, the IZW showed us that these species are in our forests and how to find them,” he said at the signing of a memorandum of understanding for the continued joint research effort in Sandakan.

He said earlier IZW studies in the state’s forests had resulted in the Sunda clouded leopard to be captured on film for the first time last year and the rediscovery of the hairy-nosed otter, previously thought extinct, in Sabah.

IZW director Heribert Hofer said the biological richness of Sabah’s forests was a great treasure and a heritage of worldwide importance.

“It is therefore an important responsibility to manage these forests in a sustainable way.

“Therefore, up-to-date scientific research and wildlife surveys are important to understand the needs of threatened species.

“Knowing and appreciating the diversity of these forests will help protect their richness for the benefit of all,” he added.


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Indonesia: Sumatran tiger population in Jambi keeps declining

Antara 8 Feb 11;

Jambi (ANTARA News) - The population of critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris Sumatrae) in Jambi province keeps declining.

Jambi Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) spokesman Tri Siswo said here on Tuesday that as the result of poaching and destruction of wildlife habitats, the number of Sumatran tigers in the province was estimated at about 40 at present.

He said the remaining tigers were still threating the local people if being bothered.

According to Tri Siswo, poaching and deforestation activities were the biggest threat against the tigers which were increasingly pressed and eventually prey on humans.

Tri said the population of the tigers in Berbak National Park (TNB), Kerinci Seblat National Park (TNKS) and the southern area of the province continued to decline following human activities.

Meanwhile, the population of Sumatran tigers in Way Kambas National Park (TNWK), a large national park covering 1,300 square kilometers in Lampung province, also continued to decline.

According to the latest data issued by the TNWK recently showed that the number of the tigers in the park has dwindled to the brink of extinction.

Coordinator of the Sumatran Tiger Rescue and Conservation Foundation (PKHS) Sumianto said the current number of tigers found in Way Kambas National Park was estimated at less than 30, while in 2000 the population was about 40.

He added that if no serious efforts were made by the government to preserve the wildlife habitats, the Sumatran tigers will sooner or later become totally extinct.


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Why Leatherback Turtles Linger in South Pacific Gyre, and Why It Matters

ScienceDaily 8 Feb 11;

Leatherbacks. They are the Olympians of the turtle world -- swimming farther, diving deeper and venturing into colder waters than any other marine turtle species. But for all their toughness, they have still suffered a 90 percent drop in their population in the eastern Pacific Ocean over the last 20-plus years, largely at the hands of humanity.

Now, new data from a 5-year-long project tagging and tracking the turtles are providing insights into their behavior, explaining why they congregate for months in what appeared to be one of the most nutrient-poor regions in the oceans, the South Pacific Gyre, and also helping researchers predict their movements on the high seas.

This new view of the lives of leatherbacks could offer a way to keep the turtles out of harm's way and give their numbers a chance to rebound.

"By taking the data we've gathered on their movements and integrating it with data on the surrounding oceanographic conditions, we've been able to identify what kind of habitats the leatherbacks prefer. This information is helping us develop models to predict where they might go and when they might show up there," said Stanford biologist George Shillinger, lead author of a paper to be published in Marine Ecology Progress Series and available online.

Until now, researchers didn't know why the leatherbacks that nest at Playa Grande in Costa Rica headed for the gyre and lingered for months. Satellite surface data suggested that this area spanning the Pacific Ocean between South America and New Zealand, from the low to mid-latitudes, appeared to be a virtual desert in the ocean, largely devoid of nutrients.

However, the presence of substantial tuna and swordfish fisheries within the region suggested there must be ample forage of some sort available.

Because only limited data exist concerning the diversity, abundance and distribution of the leatherback's favorite prey -- gelatinous zooplankton, such as jellyfish -- within the South Pacific Gyre, no one knew whether the turtles had food down there or not.

"Nobody is really out chasing jellyfish down," Shillinger said. "They are poorly studied organisms and there is very little data on them in the region of the gyre."

Following the food supply

But the data that came back from the tagged turtles suggest there may be plenty of jellyfish on which to feast.

"We saw a distinct reduction in the swimming speed of the turtles as they entered the South Pacific Gyre," Shillinger said. "They were making more turns, diving more frequently and diving deeper. All those things suggest feeding behavior."

Another piece of evidence was the timing of the turtles' dives. Like many marine organisms, jellyfish appear to engage in daily vertical migrations, moving into shallower depths at night and returning to somewhat deeper depths during the day.

The turtles' dives mirrored those movements, with their nighttime dives averaging about 38 meters deep, while average daytime dives were around 65 meters.

"The deepest dives we had in the data set were in the daytime, including the longest one, which was over 900 meters," Shillinger said. "That dive was also one of the longest leatherback dives ever reported. It was about 84 minutes." The cause for these superlative dives remains a mystery, although seeking prey and avoiding predators are likely motivations.

"Understanding what sort of areas leatherbacks are likely to favor is a critical first step in protecting them in the open ocean," he said.

From 2004 to 2007, Shillinger and his colleagues tagged 46 female leatherbacks on the beach in Costa Rica with satellite tags that broadcast information on location, depth and water temperature for an average of 245 days, with one tag transmitting for 562 days. "Altogether, it added up to 13,038 days of turtle tracking," Shillinger said.

One of the biggest hazards leatherbacks face on the high seas is longline fishing, a widely used approach for capturing commercially valuable species such as tuna and swordfish. The turtles also face fishing pressure from gill nets and longlines as they swim through coastal waters on their way out to the open ocean.

The problem, Shillinger said, is that areas that attract commercially desirable species also tend to be attractive to leatherbacks and other non-targeted species, known as by-catch.

"We are really going to have to link our research on turtles with a better understanding of where and how fishing is being done, things like how many hooks and nets are in the water and for how long," he said. "We also need to know more about the by-catch -- which non-targeted species are being caught and in what numbers."

Having all that data would help Shillinger and his colleagues pinpoint the areas where fishing activity is most likely to coincide with turtle activity and determine what mitigation measures would be most effective.

Temporary closure of certain areas -- breeding zones, migration routes and rich foraging habitats -- when turtles are most likely to be concentrated there is one possible measure.

"We are not talking about closing the whole ocean. When the turtles have moved through, they can go back to fishing, in a lot of cases," Shillinger said.

Modification of fishing techniques, such as deploying hooks at the depths that are least likely to be occupied by turtles, could also help.

Shillinger emphasized that the timing of the turtles' presence, or the exact locations they inhabit, may well vary somewhat from year to year as ocean conditions vary, so mitigation measures will have to adapt to changing conditions.

'No one is out to kill turtles'

"No one is out to kill turtles," Shillinger said. "We are looking for solutions that are less adversarial with fishermen and more productive for turtle conservation."

The information collected from turtles in the South Pacific Gyre is already helping Shillinger and his colleagues refine their modeling of the turtles' movements.

Overall, Shillinger said, the leatherbacks showed an affinity for areas with cooler sea surface temperatures and stronger upwellings of deep, cool, nutrient-rich water, which drives in an increased abundance of life, including prey.

Another striking piece of data involved some synchronized swimming on the part of the turtles, Shillinger said. When the turtles hit about 35 to 37 degrees latitude south of the equator, they would stop swimming south and fan out along a belt to the east and west.

"They would be strung out hundreds of miles apart along this boundary and then, in concert, swing northward, all at about the same time," Shillinger said. "They might be responding to some sort of cue that we're not aware of, we just don't know. At this point, it is a mystery."

Although the temperature of the sea surface water decreases closer to the south pole, the leatherbacks can readily tolerate the colder water, so the researchers speculate that changes in the distribution of gelatinous zooplankton may have influenced the turtles not to go farther south. Or the turtles might just prefer to avoid the cooler waters, as it takes less energy to stay warm. The southern thermal bound occurred where the sea surface water temperature was about 14 to 15 degrees Celsius (57 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit).

"This information will help us refine our predictions regarding what sort of conditions attract leatherbacks, which is a challenge in the continually changing, highly dynamic conditions in the ocean," Shillinger said.

"Our hope is that these findings will further humanity's efforts to develop workable solutions for reducing our impacts and insuring the survival of this unique, enigmatic and critically endangered species."

Other Stanford-affiliated coauthors of the paper are Alan Swithenbank and Michael Castelton, both staff research technicians in the Block Lab at Hopkins Marine Station, and Barbara Block, professor of biology and a senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

Shillinger is director of Marine Spatial Planning at the Center for Ocean Solutions, a partnership of Stanford University (through its Woods Institute for the Environment and Hopkins Marine Station), the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). The Center for Ocean Solutions focuses on finding practical and enduring solutions to the greatest challenges facing the ocean.

At the time this research was conducted, Shillinger was a PhD candidate working at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Barbara Block's laboratory.

Funding for this research was provided by the Tagging of Pacific Predators program of the Census of Marine Life, the Office of Naval Research, the UNESCO World Heritage Program, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Cinco Hermanos Fund, Earthwatch Institute and NASA.


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Native Brazilians plea for dam project to be scrapped

Yahoo News 8 Feb 11;

BRASILIA (AFP) – Indigenous tribes, backed by environmentalists, on Tuesday delivered a petition demanding Brazil's government scrap a controversial 11-billion-dollar dam project in the Amazon jungle.

"This big construction will bring bad things on our villages and our forests," one indigenous leader, Raoni, told AFP as he delivered the document to officials in Brasilia alongside 200 other representatives.

Raoni, wearing a traditional feathered headdress, black and red paint on his face, and a big seed to make his lower lip protrude, was the most visible opponent to the project, having several times shared the stage with the British pop singer Sting.

The Belo Monte dam is portrayed by Brazil's government as a key piece of its plan to boost national energy production needed for one of the world's fastest-growing emerging economies.

It recently gave the go-ahead for work to begin on the facility, which would be the third biggest dam in the world, after China's Three Gorges construction and the Itaipu dam on the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

But tribes, local residents, environmentalists and a few foreign celebrities -- including Sting and "Avatar" director James Cameron -- are calling for the Belo Monte project to be cancelled, saying it would do harm to the world's biggest virgin forest region.

They are pressuring Brazil's new President Dilma Rousseff, who took power last month, to reverse the plans set in motion by her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"Dilma, respect the people of the Amazon," the demonstrators yelled during the petition handover.

"The government is not listening to the population and had dictatorially imposed a project that will force out 40,000 people living in the area," said one of them, Bishop Tomas Balduino of the Pastoral Land Commission.

The Brazilian government has vowed to minimize the environmental and social impact of the dam and asserted that no traditional indigenous land was to be affected.


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Spanish cities take action as pollution levels soar

Yahoo News 8 Feb 11;

MADRID (AFP) – The cities of Madrid and Barcelona have moved to curb dangerous levels of atmospheric pollution sparked by a high-pressure system lodged over the Iberian peninsula, but ecologists Tuesday condemned the measures as inadequate.

Municipal authorities in the Spanish capital on Monday used overhead panels on the city's ring road to advise drivers to take public transport "as a preventive measure" to avoid rising pollution levels, a spokeswoman said.

The government of the northeastern region of Catalonia, which had a long-standing plan to increase speed limits from 80 kph (50 mph) on some motorways entering Barcelona from Monday, postponed the measure to reduce the risk of pollution.

"There is a very strong anticyclone that moved in at the end of last week and the forecast is that will remain at least until the weekend," a spokesman for Barcelona's city hall said.

The high pressure system, which has brought sun and warm temperatures throughout almost all the country, "does not allow the pollutants to disperse" in the air, which means that pollution levels increase, he said.

The organisation Ecologists in Action accused Madrid authorities of "a grave dereliction of their duty to ensure that local people can breathe healthy air.

"Faced with this serious period of contamination, its actions are limited to recommending the use of public transport, something which is clearly ineffective as evidenced by the usual traffic jams that occurred today, and the continued high pollution levels at measuring stations."

The municipal authority in Madrid, which is controlled by Spain's conservative opposition Popular Party, came under fire last year for moving the measuring stations in a bid to post lower pollution levels.

Spanish prosecutors, ecologists urge action on pollution
Elisa Santafe Yahoo News 9 Feb 11;

MADRID (AFP) – Spain's public prosecutors joined environmental groups Wednesday in demanding emergency measures to clear a thick layer of smog lingering over Madrid that medics warned could have grave health effects.

Both Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's two largest cities, have seen their levels of atmospheric pollution rise due a high pressure system lodged over the Iberian peninsula that prevents the pollutants from clearing.

Meteorologists expects the weather pattern, which has also brought sun and warm weather since last week, to last until at least Friday.

Virtually all levels of air contamination in Madrid and the surrounding area, home to over five million people, are higher than those recommended by the World Health Organisation, said a spokesman for environmental group Ecologists in Action, Paco Segura.

"Madrid has very serious problems of air pollution. We broke the limits in 2010 and we are breaking them now," he told a news conference.

The European Union recommends that levels of tropospheric ozone, also called "low level ozone", not be allowed to surpass 120 micrograms per cubic metre.

In Madrid this level was surpassed at eight out of 23 measuring stations, according to the environmental group.

"We demand immediate measures be taken to promote the use of public transportation and discourage the use of private cars," said the president of the regional federation of residents' associations of Madrid, Ignacio Murgui.

The group called for the number of parking spaces to be reduced and their costs increased, the use of bicycles to be encouraged and for limits to be placed on the rise in the cost of public transportation.

Another environmental group, Equo, went even further, calling for cars to be banned "immediately" from the centre of Madrid and all public transportation be free of charge.

At the same time the public prosecutors' office has sent an official letter to the mayor's office urging the city take steps "to lower pollution levels because they have surpassed European limits", a spokesman for the office said.

Municipal authorities in the Spanish capital have since Monday used overhead panels on the city's ring road to advise drivers to take public transport "as a preventive measure" to avoid raising pollution levels.

The municipality, which is controlled by Spain's conservative opposition Popular Party, came under fire last year for moving the measuring stations to less polluted districts of the city in a bid to post lower levels.

Spain's Environment Minister Rosa Aguilar said Madrid, unlike Barcelona, had not adopted any measures to fight the smog.

"Surely we'll soon have some proposals," she told a news conference.

The government of the northeastern region of Catalonia, which had a long-standing plan to increase speed limits from 80 kph (50 mph) on some motorways entering Barcelona from Monday, postponed the measure to reduce the risk of pollution.

Air pollution is reponsible for 16,000 premature deaths each year in Spain, according the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.

"It can increase mortality by at least five percent," warned Doctor Javier Gonzalez Medel, the spokesman for the Association for the Defence of Public Health in Madrid.

When the International Olympic Committee was considering bids from host cities for the 2016 Games, Ecologists in Action presented it with a study that showed that Madrid suffered from higher air pollution levels than other major European cities like London and Paris.

The Games were awarded to Rio de Janeiro, which eliminated the Spanish capital in the final round of voting.


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Drought threatens China crops, UN Food agency warns

Yahoo News 8 Feb 11;

ROME (AFP) – A severe winter drought is threatening crop production in China, the world's biggest wheat provider, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in an alert issued on Tuesday.

Substantially below-normal rainfall since October in Northern China has not only put the crop at risk but has also caused shortages in drinking water affecting over 2.57 million people and their livestock, FAO said.

"The ongoing drought is potentially a very serious problem," the Rome-based agency's alert said, adding that the main affected provinces -- around 5.16 million hectres -- represent two-thirds of national wheat production.

On Monday, the FAO warned that floods and heavy rain across southern Africa have damaged thousands of hectares (acres) of farmland, raising fears for food supplies.

World food prices reached their highest level ever recorded in January and are set to keep rising for months, the agency said last week, warning that the hardest-hit countries could face turmoil.

Rising food prices have been cited among the driving forces behind recent popular revolts in north Africa, including the uprising in Egypt and the ouster of Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after a 23-year rule.

And in its latest survey, FAO said its index which monitors monthly price changes for a variety of staples averaged 231 points in January -- the highest level since records began in 1990.


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Weather Extremes Are Growing Trend in Northern Australia, Corals Show

ScienceDaily 8 Feb 11;

The extreme rain events that have caused flooding across northern Australia may become an increasingly familiar occurrence, new research suggests. The study uses the growth patterns in near-shore corals to determine which summers brought more rain than others, creating a centuries-long rainfall record for northern Australia.

"This reconstruction provides a new insight into rainfall in northeast Queensland," says Janice Lough, climate scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville, Queensland, who authored the study. "These coral samples, which date from 1639 to 1981, suggest that the summer of 1973-1974 was the wettest in 300 years. This summer is now being compared with that record-setting one."

Eastern Australia is recovering from a fierce cyclone that struck last week, adding to damage from serious flooding. The flooding began in November following record rainfall, and has slowly spread to the south along the coast.

Lough's research indicates the country might be in for more weather extremes. Following a period of relatively low precipitation and rainfall variability from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, average rainfall for the region has significantly increased and become more variable since the late 19th century, with wet and dry extremes becoming more frequent, she says. Her new findings have been accepted for publication in Paleoceanography, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

To create the rainfall record, Lough selected cores from her institute's archive that had been taken from long-lived, massive Porites coral found along Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The 17 samples had been collected from reefs located up to 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) away from Queensland's northeastern shore.

Porites form large dome-shaped colonies that can be up to 8 meters (26 feet) in height and hundreds of years old. The coral colonies secrete underlying calcium-carbonate skeletons in annual bands of dense and less dense material. The coral bands can be counted like tree rings to calculate the colony's age. The oldest core Lough analyzed dates back to 1639; the other coral cores analyzed for the study date back to the 17th to 19th centuries.

Northern Australian rainfall is seasonal, occurring almost exclusively during the summer. It is also highly variable year-to-year. The rain flushes degraded plant matter and a mix of compounds called humic acids into the ocean, particularly near the coast. During wet summers, more humic acid gets absorbed by the coral and stored in its skeleton. When slices of the coral are analyzed under ultraviolet light, the growth bands with more humic acid luminesce more (giving off more light) than the bands of coral growth from drier years, which allows researchers to create a record of rainfall. (The corals stimulated by ultraviolet light emit light through both fluorescence and phosphorescence; the term luminescence includes both sources of light.)

Lough used a custom-built luminometer to measure the intensity of the luminescence, which she translated into relative rainfall for each yearly band preserved in the coral. The annual records from the multiple coral cores were then calibrated against the instrumental rainfall record of the 20th century and used to reconstruct summer rainfall records back to the start of the coral colonies' growth.

The records show that the frequency of extreme events has changed over the centuries, and is currently at a peak. During the earliest part of the reconstructed record, from about 1685 to 1784, wet years occurred on average every 12 years, and very dry years every nine. From 1785 to 1884, the frequency dropped: very wet years occurred about every 25 years, and very dry years every 14 years. However, between 1885 and 1981, the extremes increased dramatically in frequency, with very dry years taking place every 7.5 years on average, and very wet years about once every three years.

As a second part of the study, Lough compares the coral records with other proxy climate records from the paleoclimatology database of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. agency. The level of agreement between the different records was mixed, but the increase in rainfall variability since the late 19th century is evident in two independently-derived proxy records of a recurrent tropical climate pattern known as the El NiƱo-Southern Oscillation.

A record of Australia's past climate is particularly valuable, Lough says, as there is an overall lack of data on long-term climate variability in the tropics and the southern hemisphere. Such data is needed to place the current variability of the region's climate in an historical context. The records derived from the Great Barrier Reef corals support predictions that tropical rainfall variability will increase in a warming world. AIMS researchers are currently analyzing coral cores from other tropical coral reefs of Australia to further study long-term rainfall and climate patterns.


North Australia set to face more weather extremes, corals show
David Fogarty Reuters 10 Feb 11;

SINGAPORE Feb 10 (Reuters) - Flood and storm-battered northern Australia is likely to suffer more frequent weather extremes, according to a study of coral cores that reveal a centuries-old climate record for the region.

Like pages in a book, corals can help scientists go back in time by revealing years that were unusually wet or dry. The annual changes or variations in weather are recorded in growth rings that can be studied by drilling and extracting long cores.

"The corals are providing another piece of evidence that maybe suggests that we are seeing some consequences already of global warming," Janice Lough, a senior scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Queensland state, told Reuters from Townsville on Thursday.

Lough, in a study to be published in U.S. journal Paleoceanography, examined 17 coral cores taken from reefs off Queensland's northeast coast. The rings in the cores date from the 17th century until 1981 when they were collected, yielding a 300-year climate record.

Northern Queensland typically gets most of its rain during the summer monsoon and is at the mercy of the El Nino and La Nina weather patterns that normally bring drought or floods.

The current strong La Nina is blamed for record floods that have inundated large areas of Queensland in recent months, killing dozens of people, crippling coal mines, swamping thousands of homes and damaging crops.

Lough said her study found that the frequency of weather extremes seems to increase in recent centuries.

"It can be difficult to detect whether any changes are happening just because of that high natural variability," she said, but added that the long-term record suggested some sort of change had occurred. "That tropical rainfall variability will become more extreme."

The cores come from Porites coral domes that can grow up to 8 metres (26 feet) high and be centuries old, growing between 1 and 1.5 cms a year, she said

In her research, Lough looked into slices of the coral under ultraviolet light to study the growth bands.

During wet years, rivers flush a lot of plant matter and a mix of compounds called humic acids into the ocean and these acids are absorbed by the coral and stored in its skeleton. Under UV light, growth bands with more humic acid show up more brightly than bands from drier years.

Lough said the coral records were another piece of the climate jigsaw, given the lack of long-term historical weather data, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere and the tropics.

"Corals are natural history books," she added, revealing growth rates, changes through time and the amount of freshwater run-off from land. (Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)


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Wild Weather Could Push Miners To Reassess Contracts, Risks

James Regan and David Fogarty PlanetArk 9 Feb 11;

A surge in weather-related disasters in Australia could push global mining firms to overhaul supply contracts and rethink how bad weather will affect their operations and customers worldwide.

Climate scientists say a warmer world will cause greater extremes of weather and some scientists have pointed to climate change as factors in some of the weather disasters in Australia.

Miners needed to better assess the threats from floods, storms and droughts and include weather data and risks in mine management and commodity contracts, said Robert Milbourne, a mining and resources lawyer for global law firm Norton Rose.

"Contracts must now more accurately address the consequences of weather variability and non-delivery due to weather," Milbourne, a former senior counsel for Brazilian miner Vale, told Reuters.

"Traditionally, severe weather disruptions would be deemed beyond the reasonable expectation of either party. If severe weather events gradually become more foreseeable due to meteorological forecasting capacity, then that forecasting (and planning) capacity will need to be reflected in transactions," he said.

A series of floods, drought and cyclones has badly disrupted mining in Australia, particularly in Queensland state, where coking coal miners have been hit by severe floods twice in three years.

The latest floods along Australia's east coast, which began late last year, have led to 16 coal mines in Queensland covering total annual capacity of 94.3 million tonnes declaring full or partial force majeure.

FORCE MAJEURE

Force majeure is a legal let-out that enables miners to break or suspend sales contracts without penalty.

Australia is a leading coking coal producer and Queensland produces 90 percent of the nation's coking coal from miners including Anglo American, Rio Tinto and BHP.

Eastern Australia's devastating floods would hit production at BHP's coal mining operations for at least six more months, the world's biggest miner said after output in Queensland fell by nearly a third in the last quarter.

Flood damage to mines and transport infrastructure will cost the Queensland government A$2.9 million a day in lost coal royalties for the rest of the financial year, which runs until June 30, a study by the Queensland Resources Council showed.

Droughts and cyclones can also be extremely disruptive, with iron ore mines in the northwest of Western Australia state vulnerable to powerful cyclones.

"The sequence and intensity of flooding and cyclones (in Queensland) has actually been down since the 1980s, so historically speaking they have had a pretty good run," said Queensland Resources Council spokesman Jim Devine.

But mining firms would not want to elaborate on risk management. "That is something that would be very commercially sensitive and not something mining companies would contemplate discussing in earshot of each other," he said.

BHP Billiton declined to comment on the likelihood of changes to its risk assessment strategy. When asked about risks from more intense cyclones in Western Australia, iron ore major Fortescue Metals Group said:

"Risk mitigation is already included in the planning, design and construction of Fortescue's operations and infrastructure due to weather events commonly experienced in the Pilbara," in a reference to a major iron ore region in the state. But it had not quantified the costs of risk mitigation, it added.

PRICING IN RISK

Milbourne said weather risk needed to be a much more central component of contract negotiations and such risks could also begin to be priced into the value of mine assets, such as the cost of operating mines in disaster-prone areas.

"I think commodity contracts such as coking coal will now have to expressly look much more seriously at force majeure and delay as fundamental commercial terms," said Milbourne, who is based in Queensland's capital Brisbane.

Reinsurers Munich Re say weather related disasters have tripled in Australia over the past 30 years.

"We're at the mercy of the environment and many stakeholders haven't fully analyzed that variability before," Milbourne said, adding he believed there was going to be a premium on getting accurate meteorological data.

Martijn Wilder, head of Baker & McKenzie's global environmental markets practice, agreed.

"We haven't seen a dedicated focus on making sure that force majeure events in contracts reflect what are catastrophic climate events," he told Reuters from Sydney.

Predictions of what were seen as extreme one-in-100 year events were becoming more frequent, he said.

"Insurance companies like IAG and Swiss Re have continuously made this point and yet a lot of neither industry nor government have taken real steps to mitigate against such events."

But he thought the floods and last week's powerful Cyclone Yasi that struck northern Queensland might bring change.

"The rawness of the cost of such events and the ever-growing loss of infrastructure, livelihood and life, means there is a greater chance than ever that companies will really start to look at this," he said.

Superannuation funds also needed to take climate catastrophes into greater account when investing, he added.

"It's also an issue for those who invest in companies. If you're an investor in a mining company in an area that is susceptible to cyclones, should you start thinking about how this affects that company?"

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)


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January Arctic Sea Ice Hits Record Low

LiveScience.com Yahoo News 8 Feb 11;

Arctic sea ice was at its lowest extent ever recorded in January this year, according to a new report by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

This winter has been cold and snowy in North America, but farther north, temperatures have been unusually warm. Data collected by NASA's Aqua satellite shows that ice was low in Canada's Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland. Normally these areas are frozen over by late November, the NSIDC reported. This winter, they didn't free until mid-January 2011. The Labrador Sea was similarly ice-free.

Arctic ice in January covered 5.23 million square miles (13.55 million square kilometers), 19,300 square miles (50,000 square km) less than the previous record in 2006. Arctic ice monitoring began in 1979. This January's ice cover was also 490,000 square miles (1.27 million square km) below the 1979 to 2000 average.

In October, NSIDC reported an unusual late-season decline in Arctic sea ice.

There are two possible explanations for the extended thaw, NSIDC reported. The Arctic Oscillation, a seesaw pattern of atmospheric pressure differences, was in negative mode in December 2010 and January 2011. When the Arctic Oscillation is negative, it brings cold and snow to Europe and North America but allows warmer air to creep into the Arctic. (A positive oscillation traps cold air up north.)

Another factor, NSIDC explained, could be that areas of open ocean were still releasing heat into the atmosphere. Bright white ice reflects solar heat back into space, but dark ocean waters (or those without ice cover) absorb the energy, warming and reinforcing the ice-melting process.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has forecast that the Arctic Oscillation should return to positive mode in February 2011. According to NSIDC, Arctic winter sea ice has declined by approximately 3.3 percent per decade since 1979.

Loss of Arctic Ice Imperils Polar Bear Births
LiveScience.com Yahoo News 8 Feb 11;

Loss of Arctic sea ice is linked to a decrease in polar bear birth rates in Canada's Hudson Bay, according to new research. If the trend continues, the polar bears in the region could be facing a population crisis.

In fact, if climate change continues unabated, the researchers say, polar bear populations across the entire Arctic will be in serious trouble.

Polar bears rely on sea ice during their hunting season, using the solid floes to reach waters rich with seals - polar bears' main food source.

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada examined sea ice data from the 1990s on, and found that as temperatures increased and sea ice levels dropped, so did the number of newborn polar bear cubs.

Polar bear mothers retreat to a maternity den during pregnancy, never once emerging for food. An early spring ice breakup reduces the hunting season, and pregnant females aren't able to amass enough body fat to support them through their 8-month fast, when they must stay hidden in their dens to gestate their young and give birth.

Using mathematical modeling to estimate the impact of a shortened hunting season, the research team found that if ice in the Hudson Bay disappears one month earlier than in the 1990s, between 40 and 73 percent of pregnant female polar bears will not give birth to a surviving cub.

If the ice is gone a full two months earlier, between 55 and 100 percent of pregnant bears will not reproduce.

According to the most recent estimates, Hudson Bay is home to about 900 polar bears, down from 1,200 bears in the past decade.

Since the region's bear population is the world's most southerly, they are the first to be affected by global warming trends.

However, the researchers say that if temperatures across the Arctic continue to rise, much of the global population of polar bears will be at risk.

The research is detailed today (Feb. 8) in the journal Nature Communications.

World's Cutest Baby Wild Animals Top 10 Species You Can Kiss Goodbye Image Gallery: Endangered and Threatened Wildlife

This article was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience.


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UN praises Pakistan for climate change efforts

Yahoo News 8 Feb 11;

ISLAMABAD (AFP) – A UN official on Tuesday praised Pakistan, which is still reeling from catastrophic floods, for its voluntary efforts towards reducing the emissions responsible for climate change.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of UN framework convention on climatic change, told a press conference in Islamabad that Pakistan was voluntarily participating in global efforts to reduce emissions.

"Pakistan currently does not have any legally binding obligation under the (framework) convention or under the Kyoto Protocol. Pakistan has participated on voluntary basis," Figueres said.

She said Pakistan was implementing 10 projects under a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which the Kyoto Protocol laid out for developing countries, with another 145 in the pipeline.

"The intellectual contribution that Pakistan has had to the development of the regime has certainly gone with praise internationally," Figueres said.

Environmental experts say Pakistan, an essentially agrarian country, is vulnerable to climate change.

"Our emissions are just 0.38 percent (of global greenhouse gas emissions), but these would rise as the economy grows and population increases," local environmental analyst Shafqat Kakakhel told AFP.

"Our vulnerability to climate change is the most important thing because we are an agricultural country," he said, warning that crops are at risk from poor rainfall and that flood water could be stored for use in the dry season.

"We need more research to produce seeds which require less water," he added.

According to research carried out for the United Nations, 2010 was one of the worst years on record for natural disasters.

Asians accounted for 89 percent of the 207 million people affected by disasters last year, according to the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

Summer floods and landslides in China caused an estimated $18 billion damage while the floods in Pakistan cost $9.5 billion, CRED's annual study showed.


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