Best of our wild blogs: 26 Feb 11

The Loke Cheng-Kim Foundation Scholarships for first degrees in Natural Sciences, Environment, et al. (closes 18 Mar 2011) from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

Two Demons @ Toa Payoh Town Park
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

Comb Jelly @ Lazarus Island
from sgbeachbum

Birds of a feather flock together
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Little Whippy's Still Home
from Creatures in the Wild and Spider Close-Ups

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Coral reefs in Philippines among world’s most endangered

Kristine L. Alave Philippine Daily Inquirer 26 Feb 11;

MANILA, Philippines—The coral reefs of the Philippines are some of the most endangered in the world from overfishing, pollution and climate change, according to an international report on the state of world reefs.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) and several international environmental groups recently released a study, Reefs at Risk Revisited, showing that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by local pressures such as unsustainable fishing, coastal pollution and development.

Ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures also contribute to coral bleaching and death, the study said.


If left unchecked, more than 90 percent of reefs will be threatened by 2030 and nearly all reefs will be at risk by 2050, the report said.

The loss of reefs could be devastating for many countries. Coral reefs provide food and livelihood to about 850 million people. They also give shoreline protection and support industries like fisheries and tourism.

If certain at-risk coral reefs are not protected, several countries will be economically threatened, it warned.

It identified nations as being the most socially and economically vulnerable to coral reef degradation and loss, noting that reefs provide food, tourism and coastal protection to these countries.

The nine are: Haiti, Grenada, the Philippines, Comoros, Vanuatu, Tanzania, Kiribati, Fiji and Indonesia.

The coral reefs in these countries face serious threats, but the governments do not have the adaptive capacity to protect them, the report said.

“These nations represent key priorities for concerted national and local efforts to reduce reef dependence and build adaptive capacity, alongside reducing immediate threats to reefs,” the report said.

In the Philippines—which is in the so-called Coral Triangle region with the highest diversity of corals, fish, and other reef species anywhere in the world—the reefs are being threatened by unsustainable fishing and population stress, the study said.

It also noted that deforestation and the loss of mangroves have contributed to the decline of reefs in the country.

Massive bleaching

Last year, a group of Filipino scientists reported massive coral bleaching in Philippine waters because of global warming. According to the marine scientists and divers, the massive bleaching of coral reefs all over the country was caused by warmer-than-normal ocean water temperatures.

The WRI study said that coral reefs in Southeast Asia, one of the most diverse in the world and which makes up 28 percent of the global reefs, “are the most threatened”.

Overfishing is the greatest threat to coral reefs in the Southeast Asian region, it said.

“Destructive fishing alone affects at least 60 percent of reefs in the region,” the report said.

Unmitigated human development in the coasts of the Southeast Asian countries also denigrates the reefs.

“Coastal development is variable, but dense populations around the mainland continental shores, the entire Philippine archipelago, and around Java and Sulawesi in Indonesia affect almost all reefs in those areas,” the report said.

The Coral Triangle, recognized as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity, refers to a roughly triangular area of the tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste that contain at least 500 species of reef-building corals.

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Indian Fishermen in Survival Battle With Sea Turtles

Manipadma Jena IPS News 25 Feb 11;

BHUBANESWAR, India, Feb 25, 2011 (IPS) - A growing number of endangered olive ridley sea turtles have been getting killed in Eastern India’s coastal state Orissa by mechanized vessels defying a fishing ban on one of the world’s largest turtle sanctuaries, Gahirmatha.

While the government said "no more than 800" were killed since November last year, environmentalists counter that the casualty count of these tiny turtles is actually 5,000.

The problem illustrates the situation that confronts Orissa and other coastal states in India. Environmental and wildlife protection is a major concern, but so is providing sustainable livelihood to the coastal poor. Add to the mix shore-based infrastructure and industrial development and the result is a three-cornered tussle that is worsening by the year.

"We are all for the safety of turtles but the interests of the fishermen must also be kept in mind," said Narayan Haldar, president of the Orissa Traditional Fish Workers’ Union, summing up the predicament the state faces.

At least 40 percent of Orissa’s 480-kilometre coastline is off limits to fishermen from November to June. There is the seven-month fishing ban that is a part of measures to conserve Orissa’s marine sanctuaries. And then there is an additional two months when fishermen are warned against venturing out to sea because of recurring low-pressure systems on the adjacent Bay of Bengal.

"These areas are seeing a drastic reduction in income, large-scale out- migration, clashes over fishing zones, and even suicides," said Trilochan Das, another fisher group’s leader.

"As fishermen thus sit twiddling their thumbs nine months in every year, cheaper freshwater- cultured fish from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh has overtaken Orissa’s fish market," Haldar lamented. "The government must rationalize the annual seven-month fishing ban in a vast area of the sea and offer alternative livelihood options to the fishing community."

This knotted issue confronting fishers and the fisheries administration as well as environmentalists and developers is now being addressed.

The Federal Ministry of Forest and Environment recently initiated an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project (ICZMP) funded by the World Bank and being pilot-tested in four areas since June 2010.

These four pilots, one at the national level and one each for the three States of Orissa, Gujarat and West Bengal, are designed to address the intensifying three-cornered coastal tussle, a challenge further exacerbated by frequent natural disasters and climate-induced risks. The pilot lessons here would be used for future ICZMPs in other coastal states in India.

While environmental issues, improvement of livelihoods and protection of coastal communities are ICZMP’s priority, "de rigueur is community participation in all decision making processes; mainstreaming gender, poverty and equity, too, are top of the list," said Ajit Kumar Pattnaik, Project Director of Orissa’s ICZMP.

The total project cost is 286 million dollars or 1330 crore rupees. Of this amount, 49 million dollars are concentrated on two reaches of Paradip- Dhamra and Gopalpur-Chilka, which constitute 14 percent of Orissa’s coastline.

More than half of the State’s disadvantaged or ‘dalit’ caste population resides in the 641 marine fishing villages along Orissa’s coast. Sixty of these villages will benefit from the pilot project.

The selected coastal areas are richest in ecological and economic resources and have been the most vulnerable to exploitation. While Chilka Lake is one of the largest brackish water lakes in the world, Bhitarkanika, which houses the Gahirmatha wildlife sanctuary, is the second largest mangrove ecosystem in Asia.

Allied fish farming activities like crab fattening, sea bass or composite fish culture, scampi or fresh-water prawn culture are being promoted in the 60 villages as alternative livelihoods to make fishers less dependent on fishing. These activities are also aimed at reducing fishing pressure on the beleaguered ecosystems.

To replace the traditional making of salted and dried preserved fish that used to be the exclusive preserve of fishers’ womenfolk, the programme provides hygienic fish drying yards to women self-help groups. Diary and goat rearing are other alternate livelihoods.

Women self-help group leader Satyabhama Das, who is 60 years old, participated in an earlier regional stakeholders consultation and expressed reservations, saying, "Such fishers groups formed earlier were not supported properly. No real protection was provided against crocodiles, and the really needy people should be supported, not those with local clout." The Bhitarkanika mangrove area is a crocodile habitat.

Integrating heritage and eco-tourism with rural community livelihood is yet another option already taking shape.

Four of the 14 multi-purpose cyclone shelters that ICZMP will build will be located in Puri district. The shelters will provide safety to men, livestock and basic assets during disasters, and will be used as nodal points for coordinating rescue and relief operations post-disaster.

The ICZM addresses the key environment and social challenge that Orissa, Gujarat and West Bengal currently face - the loss of biodiversity and marine ecosystems as more coastal land is diverted for major industries and development infrastructure like ports, harbours and jetties. Lately, the shortsighted construction of upstream hydrological structures for irrigation and industrial water supply in Orissa has choked fresh water flow crucial to maintaining the required salinity for mangroves’ survival.

Coastal fragility is further exacerbated by increasingly destructive and exhaustive fishing practices. As coastal population and infrastructure grow, impacts of natural disasters such as cyclones, storms and floods take a costlier toll. The worst of these was the killer cyclone in 1999 that cost Orissa ten thousand lives.

Till now, governments have sought to deal with the situation through regulations, which clearly are inadequate and lack convergence between departments working towards similar goals. ICZM is structured to integrate various agencies, not just target communities, in its formulation and implementation.

In Orissa, for example, government arms working on the common ICZM platform include fisheries, water resources, archaeology, culture and tourism, and the wild life wing. Also included are the State disaster management authority, coir co-operatives, State pollution control board and the municipality of Paradeep, Orissa’s coastal industry hub. (END)

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Indonesia, Bengkulu: Boar hunting to be included in national tourism agenda

Antara 24 Feb 11;

Bengkulu (ANTARA News) - Wild boar hunting in Bengkulu province will become an item on the national tourism agenda and promotion program, local culture and tourism office spokesman Agus Sutianto said here on Thursday.

Agus said the boar hunting activity in the province has so far been a regular agenda with the financial support from regional development budget (APBD).

He added pointed out that if the boar hunting tradition was turned into a national tourism agenda, the spread of the disturbing pest's population would end.

According to Agus, the wild boar hunting tradition in Bengkulu was very unique and distinctive and therefore it could be offered to tourists.

For the local farmers, wild boars are exotic pests that can never be destroyed because of their rapid proliferation.

Therefore the wild boar hunting in the province has been a long lasting activity, and periodically the local people conducted it in the fields, bushes, and forests to destroy the pest.

With their beagle dogs, the hunters usually hunt the wild boars in traditional way with traditional weapons such as barbed spears, javelins, long machetes, and bows instead of using fire guns, toxic pest, and anesthetics.

"Such an activity can be made an national agenda to promote natural tourism and traditional sports because it is usually participated in by the members of Indonesian Boar Hunting Sport Association (PORBI)," Agus said.

He said the local people hunted the wild boars as part of of adrenaline sports and competition, and also as a means of social interaction among the individual community.

Agus added that each time the boar hunting sport was conducted, it was participated in by at least 2,000 people from different areas, and if such an activity was managed properly, it would have a positive impact on tourism in Bengkulu province.

Meanwhile, Bengkulu branch of Indonesian Boar Hunting Sport Association spokesman Chandra said the wild hunting activity was routinely conducted in a bid to reduce the population of wild boar pest.

Chandra said that the boar hunting sports in Bengkulu could attract tourists and therefore the tradition could be turned into an interesting tour package in the province.(*)

Editor: Aditia Maruli

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More than 1 tonne of ivory and rhino horns seized in Thailand

TRAFFIC 25 Feb 11;

Thailand, 25th February 2011—Thai Customs at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok, on Wednesday seized over a tonne of ivory and close to three kilogrammes of Rhino horns in a shipment from Nigeria.

This brings the total ivory seized at this airport since the beginning of 2010 to more than five and a half tonnes.

The ivory and rhino horn passed through Doha, Qatar, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before reaching Bangkok.

The illegal cargo’s last leg of shipment was from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok and was meant to be picked up by a company located in Central Thailand. However, the shipment was left unclaimed.

The Suvarnabhumi Airport Cargo Clearance Customs Bureau with the help of officers from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation counted 118 elephant tusks and three rhino horns in the 11 cases that made up the shipment.

Customs said the shipment was declared as “craft work” in the airway bill.

This is not the first time a combination of ivory and rhino horns has been seized or transited in Thailand and Malaysia.

In July 2009, Kenyan authorities stopped a shipment of 16 elephant tusks and two Black Rhino horns which were scheduled to transit in Thailand before being flown to a destination in Lao PDR.

Last August, five rhino horns and two tonnes of elephant ivory bound for Malaysia was seized by authorities in Kenya raising concerns about the former’s role in the global ivory trade.

The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) lists Thailand as one of three countries most heavily implicated in the illegal global ivory trade and Malaysia as a country of concern because of its role as a significant transit point.

ETIS is the world’s largest database of elephant product seizure records, comprising more than 15,400 ivory seizure cases compiled over the last 21 years and is compiled by TRAFFIC on behalf of CITES.

In an effort to address the problem, Customs Authorities in Thailand teamed-up with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia to raise awareness among Customs Officers based at airports and other key checkpoints about ways to tackle the illegal ivory trade.

Thailand’s Customs Department has also seen a series of successful raids at Suvarnabhumi Airport since stepping up its efforts.

“The authorities involved are to be congratulated,” said TRAFFIC Southeast Asia Regional Director Dr William Schaedla.

"This successful seizure highlights, once again, a flow of illegal ivory through Thailand and Malaysia. Customs authorities from both these countries must work with their counterparts in Africa to stem the tide of elephant and rhino poaching.

"Airport seizures are welcome, but there must also be a concerted long-term effort to investigate and shut down the criminal networks that enable the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade in the region.”

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Thailand: Facing down the dam in Laos

Thanhnien News 25 Feb 11;

Thailand appears to be the region’s last hope in opposing an environmentally disastrous hydropower dam in northern Laos.

Environmental activists are hoping that Thailand will put the breaks on Laos’ plans to begin construction of an enormous hydropower dam in its mountainous Xayaburi Province.

Others fear that no one in South-East Asia is prepared to oppose the project, which could cause irreversible damage to the river and the millions whose lives depend on it.

Last September, Laos announced that Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand had until April 22 to present official opinions on the construction of the Xayaburi dam to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an intergovernmental advisory body, to which they are all members.

Three weeks later, an independent scientific review commissioned by the MRC called for a decade-long moratorium of all dam construction on the lower reaches of the river.

The study underlined the grave environmental and economic impact that would result from the construction of 12 proposed dams on the Mekong River.

Despite the findings, Laos, an impoverished and fast-developing land-locked country, appears to be determined to go ahead with the construction of the Xayaburi dam—the largest and most advanced of the dozen.

Thai contractors and banks stand ready to supply the means to that end.

“There will be no need for any extension,” a Laotian delegate announced during a February 14 meeting of MRC delegates in Cambodia. “We hope and expect that the unanimous agreement will be reached.”

Laos was not clear on what would happen if any country opposed the project. But it does not appear that any minor objections would halt their determination to proceed.

“The final decision as to how to further proceed with the [Xayaburi] project development would of course be solely subject to the Lao government,” the delegate stated.

Heroes and villains

While some in the region have offered guarded criticism for Laos’ decision to ignore calls for a moratorium on construction, Thai opponents have presented the most ardent objections.

At the same time, Thailand has one of the largest financial stakes in the project.

Ninety-five percent of the electricity produced by the dam is slated to be purchased by the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand. Four Thai banks are financing the project – none of which responded to requests for comment as of press time.

“Given that both the builder and the [four] financers are from Thailand, we have become very ‘engaged’ with this project,” said Prasarn Marukpita, chair of the subcommittee on Mekong River development in the Thai Senate.

Marukpita has lambasted Laos for snubbing repeated warnings from environmental experts that the impact of the Xayaburi dam will be far-reaching and affect the livelihoods of more than 60 million people.

“... Laos could not wait, demonstrating that Laos sees the Mekong as [its] own river,” Marukpita said.

Located in a mountainous valley in northern Laos, the proposed Xayaburi dam is the most advanced of eleven large dams planned for the Lower Mekong River’s mainstream.

The proposed dams will cause irreversible and permanent ecological change to the Mekong River. The dams would disrupt the delicate balances and seasonal shifts that support fisheries and downstream agriculture, according to the MRC’s October study.

“We are very much concerned about the reaction of Laos in relation to their movement toward the Xayaburi dam,” said Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of the Foundation for Ecological

Recovery, a Bangkok-based nonprofit organization. “Xayaburi is by no means solely a ‘Laotian project.’”

The die is cast

In mid-2007, Thailand’s Ch. Karnchang Public Company, the dam builder, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Laos government to produce a feasibility study for the project.

Since Laos announced that it planned to proceed with the project, the Lao government and the MRC have drawn flak from groups who claim that very little information has been supplied regarding the environmental and ecological effects the dam might have.

Ame Trandem, a campaigner at the US-based environmental group International Rivers has charged that the MRC has dragged its feet on effectively disseminating its scientific findings by withholding certain important project documents and failing to translate others into local languages.

Trandem has also accused the body of being slow to organize public forums on the project and indicated that an environmental impact study specific to the Xayaburi dam has yet to be released.

“It was only in January 2011 that the MRC finally explained when the consultations would take place,” she said.

Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC, countered that all relevant information has been presented to participating stakeholders during the national consultations of each country.

“We have recently been informed by the Lao National Mekong Committee that the Xayaburi project feasibility study is available on the developer’s website,,” Bird said.

Trandem of International Rivers said that without translating these findings into the region’s various languages, the MRC is effectively stonewalling the people that will be most affected by the dam’s construction.

"Who will actually lose and who will gain from Xayaburi dam? ... My question now would be, can we just state that we are going completely against the project?” said Lamlek Nilnuan, a Thai villager from Sakorn Nakorn Province during a public meeting held in Thailand on February 10. “We know nothing about this project ... Will the 'stakeholder' including the Thai company be able to tell us the truth about the project before it [starts]?”

At a public meeting held Tuesday (February 22) in the northern Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh, Vietnamese experts and officials also urged a halt to the Xayaburi dam, citing a lack of information.

Last chance

As the Thai people have become increasingly vocal in opposing the dam, experts believe that the nation is the region’s last hope for an effective opposition.

Senator Marukpita said he was convinced that the campaign against the dam building has gained momentum.

“NGOs in Thailand will demand that the Thai government... reconsider the purchase of electricity from the dam,” he said.

The Senator said that if the government failed to reconsider its deal with Laos, it will likely face opposition in the parliament.

“[The electricity purchase] may breach Article 190 of our Constitution, which requires approval from the Thai Parliament before signing any contract that may affect the Thai territory,” he said.

Marukpita acknowledged, on the one hand, that Thailand would play a crucial role in deciding the fate of the dam construction. But, on the other, he said the country should not be left alone in this battle.

“I’d expect Vietnam to get more vocal soon,” he said. “Cambodia will join force, but may not be as articulate as Vietnam and Thailand.”

Daoroung of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery said she hoped that the current movement on the Xayaburi project is a good lesson for all. “We still have another 11 projects, waiting to be built by Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and even French companies in this region,” Daoroung said. “If the ‘regional’ [consciousness] cannot emerge among us now, and the governments and people in the region cannot work together, I think the impact and change in everyone’s life will be really overwhelming in the coming decade.”

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Drought rattles farmers in eastern China

Boris Cambreleng Yahoo News 25 Feb 11;

BEISHANGPING, China (AFP) – Yu Ruicheng's weathered face creases with worry as she stands on her dry wheat field in eastern China, where a record drought is threatening to send soaring global food prices even higher.

"If it doesn't rain next month, we won't harvest anything," the 62-year-old farmer says, crouching down and sifting parched soil through her fingers, pointing to dried-up wheat shoots scattered across her plot of land.

China is the largest global producer and consumer of wheat. A bad harvest would not only devastate local farmers -- if China were to buy a large amount of wheat overseas due to a crop failure, world commodity prices would surge.

The government has allocated 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) to combat the drought, and the central bank announced this week it would provide 10 billion yuan in loans to farmers. But the aid injection cannot make the rains come.

"Even if it rains soon, the wheat harvest will be reduced by half compared to last year," Yu warns.

In Beishangping, a village nestled at the base of an arid hill in Shandong province, farmers will soon be unable to rely on the only water reservoir in the area to irrigate their crops -- it is now almost completely dry.

The area has not seen any significant rainfall since September, according to weather authorities in Linyi municipality where the village is located.

"Without a harvest, we will have no money and our life will become very difficult," said Yu, who like many other villagers is too old to move elsewhere to find work.

Families in Beishangping earn around 10,000 yuan ($1,520) a year from farming, which also provides sustenance for the 700 inhabitants. Villagers are now concerned drought will spell disaster for other crops when spring arrives.

"Without significant rain before Tomb Sweeping Day (on April 5), we will not be able to sow peanuts or cotton," Yu said.

Deeper into the valley, farmers irrigate their small plots with hosepipes linked to noisy machines that pump water from wells or rivers. Everywhere, people are concerned that the precious resource will soon run out.

The Yi river is almost dry because "the dam gates of Bashan lake, the source of the river, have been closed. No one will be able to live in this area when there is no more water in that lake," warns Guo Yubao, a young local.

Zhang Youtai, a farmer in the neighbouring Yinan district, explains that for his family of five, 50 percent of their income comes from wheat.

"The land plots are very small in our village, just around half a mu (0.3 hectares) per person. We use the wheat we grow for food. If we have a bad harvest, we will have to buy some," he says.

The central government is implementing a number of emergency measures such as diverting water to the worst-affected areas and building wells.

Near Haizi village, a team from the southwestern province of Sichuan -- around 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) away -- digs a well over 100 metres (330 feet) deep to help irrigate crops.

Members of the team say they are doing this to thank volunteers from Shandong who traveled to help victims of the massive 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which left nearly 87,000 dead or missing.

"With this well, if we have enough water, we'll maybe be able to rescue 30 percent of the harvest," said Haizi resident Niu Shujie.

According to Ma Wenfeng, an analyst who specialises in cereal markets at Orient Agribusiness Consultant in Beijing, China's winter wheat harvest should only diminish by around two percent if the situation does not deteriorate.

But "anticipation of bad (wheat) harvests linked to droughts in China, India, East Africa, as well as a bad rice harvest in Southeast Asia" has put an upward pressure on prices on international markets, Ma adds.

Experts are calling on China to implement more long-term measures to fight drought, so that the dire situation in Shandong and other affected provinces does not recur.

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Indonesian mud volcano set to erupt for quarter-century - scientists

Winnie Andrews Yahoo News 24 Feb 11;

PARIS (AFP) – A mud volcano that has displaced more than 13,000 Indonesian families will erupt for at least a quarter of century, emitting belches of flammable gas through a deepening lake of sludge, scientists reported on Thursday.

Underground pressure means the volcano "Lusi," in Sidoarjo, East Java, is likely to gush grey mud until 2037, when volumes will become negligible, according to their computer model.

But gas will continue to percolate through it for decades and possibly centuries to come.

"Our estimate is that it will take 26 years for the eruption to drop to a manageable level and for Lusi to turn into a slow bubbling volcano," said team leader Richard Davies, a professor of Earth sciences at Durham University, in northeast England.

Thirteen people were killed after Lusi erupted on May 29 2006.

At its height, the volcano gushed 40 Olympic-sized pools of mud each day, a rate that has now slowed to four per day, Davies said by phone.

Its lake of mud has now smothered 12 villages to a depth of up to 15 metres (nearly 50 feet) and forced around 42,000 people from their homes.

The computer simulation is based on data from two existing commercial gas wells in the same region and on seismic reflection data that gives a picture of Lusi's geological structure.

"In the middle of the lake, or the volcano, is a vent that is 50 metres (164 feet) wide but there are 166 other vents that have popped up over the last four-plus years," said Davies.

"These have popped up in factories, in roads, in people's houses. Some of them have ignited, there have been examples of people being hurt by flames that have been formed due to the ignition."

Lusi's staying power means it will be a long-term but gradually less dramatic menace, he warned.

"You can't return to the area. In fact, ultimately, probably the impact of the volcano will increase," Davies declared.

"I think we've seen the most dramatic destruction. But it's not the end of the story. These vents are still forming."

The area is also slowly subsiding, and by 2037 could have formed a depression 95-475 metres (312-1558 feet) deep.

The Indonesian government blames the eruption on an earthquake that struck days before, about 280 kilometres (174 miles) away from Lusi.

But foreign experts accuse a gas drilling company, Lapindo Brantas, of failing to place a protective casing around a section of its well.

As a result, the well hole was exposed to a "kick" from pressurised water and gas that lie beneath the layer of mud, thus driving the grey, concrete-like fluid to the surface.

The study is released in the London-based Journal of the Geological Society.

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Can Geoengineering Save the World from Global Warming?

Is manipulating Earth's environment to combat climate change a good idea and where, exactly, did the idea come from?
David Biello Scientific American 25 Feb 11;

As efforts to combat climate change falter despite ever-rising concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, some scientists and other experts have begun to consider the possibility of using so-called geoengineering to fix the problem. Such "deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment" as the Royal Society of London puts it, is fraught with peril, of course.

For example, one of the first scientists to predict global warming as a result of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius—thought this might be a good way to ameliorate the winters of his native land and increase its growing season. Whereas that may come true for the human inhabitants of Scandinavia, polar plants and animals are suffering as sea ice dwindles and temperatures warm even faster than climatologists predicted.

Scientific American corresponded with science historian James Fleming of Colby College in Maine, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, about the history of geoengineering—ranging from filling the air with the artificial aftermath of a volcanic eruption to seeding the oceans with iron in order to promote plankton growth—and whether it might save humanity from the ill effects of climate change.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What is geoengineering in your view?
Geoengineering is planetary-scale intervention [in]—or tinkering with—planetary processes. Period.

As I write in my book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, "the term 'geoengineering' remains largely undefined," but is loosely, "the intentional large-scale manipulation of the global environment; planetary tinkering; a subset of terraforming or planetary engineering."

As of June 2010 the term has a draft entry in the Oxford English Dictionary—the modification of the global environment or the climate in order to counter or ameliorate climate change. A 2009 report issued by the Royal Society of London defines geoengineering as "the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change."

But there are significant problems with both definitions. First of all, an engineering practice defined by its scale (geo) need not be constrained by its stated purpose (environmental improvement), by any of its currently proposed techniques (stratospheric aerosols, space mirrors, etcetera) or by one of perhaps many stated goals (to ameliorate or counteract climate change). Nuclear engineers, for example, are capable of building both power plants and bombs; mechanical engineers can design components for both ambulances and tanks. So to constrain the essence of something by its stated purpose, techniques or goals is misleading at best.

Geo-scale engineering projects were conducted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1962 that had nothing to do with countering or ameliorating climate change. Starting with the [U.S.'s] 1958 Argus A-bomb explosions in space and ending with the 1962 Starfish Prime H-bomb test, the militaries of both nations sought to modify the global environment for military purposes.

Project Argus was a top-secret military test aimed at detonating atomic bombs in space to generate an artificial radiation belt, disrupt the near-space environment, and possibly intercept enemy missiles. It, and the later tests conducted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, peaked with H-bomb detonations in space in 1962 that created an artificial [electro]magnetic [radiation] belt that persisted for 10 years. This is geoengineering.

This idea of detonating bombs in near-space was proposed in 1957 by Nicholas Christofilos, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His hypothesis, which was pursued by the [U.S.] Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency [subsequently known as DARPA] and tested in Project Argus and other nuclear shots, held that the debris from a nuclear explosion, mainly highly energetic electrons, would be contained within lines of force in Earth's magnetic field and would travel almost instantly as a giant current spanning up to half a hemisphere. Thus, if a detonation occurred above a point in the South Atlantic, immense currents would flow along the magnetic lines to a point far to the north, such as Greenland, where they would severely disrupt radio communications. A shot in the Indian Ocean might, then, generate a huge electromagnetic pulse over Moscow. In addition to providing a planetary "energy ray," Christofilos thought nuclear shots in space might also disrupt military communications, destroy satellites and the electronic guidance systems of enemy [intercontinental ballistic missiles], and possibly kill any military cosmonauts participating in an attack launched from space. He proposed thousands of them to make a space shield.

So nuclear explosions in space by the U.S. and the Soviet Union constituted some of the earliest attempts at geoengineering, or intentional human intervention in planetary-scale processes.

The neologism "geoengineer" refers to one who contrives, designs or invents at the largest planetary scale possible for either military or civilian purposes. Today, geoengineering, as an unpracticed art, may be considered "geoscientific speculation". Geoengineering is a subset of terraformation, which also does not exist outside of the fantasies of some engineers.

I have recently written to the Oxford English Dictionary asking them to correct their draft definition.

Can geoengineering save the world from climate change?
In short, I think it may be infinitely more dangerous than climate change, largely due to the suspicion and social disruption it would trigger by changing humanity's relationship to nature.

To take just one example from my book, on page 194: "Sarnoff Predicts Weather Control" read the headline on the front page of The New York Times on October 1, 1946. The previous evening, at his testimonial dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, RCA president Brig. Gen. David Sarnoff had speculated on worthy peaceful projects for the postwar era. Among them were "transformations of deserts into gardens through diversion of ocean currents," a technique that could also be reversed in time of war to turn fertile lands into deserts, and ordering "rain or sunshine by pressing radio buttons," an accomplishment that, Sarnoff declared, would require a "World Weather Bureau" in charge of global forecasting and control (much like the "Weather Distributing Administration" proposed in 1938). A commentator in The New Yorker intuited the problems with such control: "Who" in this civil service outfit, he asked, "would decide whether a day was to be sunny, rainy, overcast...or enriched by a stimulating blizzard?" It would be "some befuddled functionary," probably bedeviled by special interests such as the raincoat and galoshes manufacturers, the beachwear and sunburn lotion industries, and resort owners and farmers. Or if a storm was to be diverted—"Detour it where? Out to sea, to hit some ship with no influence in Washington?"

How old is the idea of geoengineering? What other names has it had?
I can trace geoengineering's direct modern legacy to 1945, and have prepared a table of such proposals and efforts for the [Government Accountability Office]. Nuclear weapons, digital computers and satellites seem to be the modern technologies of choice. Geoengineering has also been called terraformation and, more restrictively, climate engineering, climate intervention or climate modification. Many have proposed abandoning the term geoengineering in favor of solar radiation management and carbon (or carbon dioxide) capture and storage. Of course, the idea of control of nature is ancient—for example, Phaeton or Archimedes.

Phaeton, the son of Helios, received permission from his father [the Greek sun god] to drive the sun chariot, but failed to control it, putting the Earth in danger of burning up. He was killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent further disaster. Recently, a prominent meteorologist has written about climate control and urged us to "take up Phaeton's reins," which is not a good idea.

Archimedes is known as an engineer who said: "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the Earth." Some geoengineers think that this is now possible and that science and technology have given us an Archimedean set of levers with which to move the planet. But I ask: "Where will it roll if you tip it?"

How are weather control and climate control related?
Weather and climate are intimately related: Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a given place and time, while climate is the aggregate of weather conditions over time. A vast body of scientific literature addresses these interactions. In addition, historians are revisiting the ancient but elusive term klima, seeking to recover its multiple social connotations. Weather, climate and the climate of opinion matter in complex ways that invite—some might say require or demand—the attention of both scientists and historians. Yet some may wonder how weather and climate are interrelated rather than distinct. Both, for example, are at the center of the debate over greenhouse warming and hurricane intensity. A few may claim that rainmaking, for example, has nothing to do with climate engineering, but any intervention in the Earth's radiation or heat budget (such as managing solar radiation) would affect the general circulation and thus the location of upper-level patterns, including the jet stream and storm tracks. Thus, the weather itself would be changed by such manipulation. Conversely, intervening in severe storms by changing their intensity or their tracks or modifying weather on a scale as large as a region, a continent or the Pacific Basin would obviously affect cloudiness, temperature and precipitation patterns with major consequences for monsoonal flows, and ultimately the general circulation. If repeated systematically, such interventions would influence the overall heat budget and the climate.

Both weather and climate control have long and checkered histories: My book explains [meteorologist] James Espy's proposal in the 1830s to set fire to the crest of the Appalachian Mountains every Sunday evening to generate heated updrafts that would stimulate rain and clear the air for cities of the east coast. It also examines efforts to fire cannons at the clouds in the arid Southwest in the hope of generating rain by concussion.

In the 1920s airplanes loaded with electrified sand were piloted by military aviators who "attacked" the clouds in futile attempts to both make rain and clear fog. Many others have proposed either a world weather control agency or creating a global thermostat, either by burning vast quantities of fossil fuels if an ice age threatened or sucking the CO2 out of the air if the world overheated.

After 1945 three technologies—nuclear weapons, digital computers and satellites—dominated discussions about ultimate weather and climate control, but with very little acknowledgement that unintended consequences and social disruption may be more damaging than any presumed benefit.

What would be the ideal role for geoengineering in addressing climate change?
That it generates interest in and awareness of the impossibility of heavy-handed intervention in the climate system, since there could be no predictable outcome of such intervention, physically, politically or socially.

Why do scientists continue to pursue this then, after 200 or so years of failure?
Science fantasy is informed by science fiction and driven by hubris. One of the dictionary definitions of hubris cites Edward Teller (the godfather of modern geoengineering).

Teller's hubris knew no bounds. He was the [self-proclaimed] father of the H-bomb and promoted all things atomic, even talking about using nuclear weapons to create canals and harbors. He was also an advocate of urban sprawl to survive nuclear attack, the Star Wars [missile] defense system, and a planetary sunscreen to reduce global warming. He wanted to control nature and improve it using technology.

Throughout history rainmakers and climate engineers have typically fallen into two categories: commercial charlatans using technical language and proprietary techniques to cash in on a gullible public, and sincere but deluded scientific practitioners exhibiting a modicum of chemical and physical knowledge, a bare minimum of atmospheric insight, and an abundance of hubris. We should base our decision-making not on what we think we can do "now" and in the near future. Rather, our knowledge is shaped by what we have and have not done in the past. Such are the grounds for making informed decisions and avoiding the pitfalls of rushing forward, claiming we know how to "fix the sky."

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