Best of our wild blogs: 10 Mar 11

Metallic Caerulean - Dark Days Ahead?
from Butterflies of Singapore

Mother superior
from The annotated budak

A Fruitful Outing To Pulau Ubin Part 2
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

Long-tailed Parakeet and the Dendrophthoe pentandra mistletoe
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Malaysia: Taking a Risk for Rare Earths

Keith Bradsher New York Times 8 Mar 11;

KUANTAN, Malaysia — A colossal construction project here could help determine whether the world can break China’s chokehold on the strategic metals crucial to products as diverse as Apple’s iPhone, Toyota’s Prius and Boeing’s smart bombs.

As many as 2,500 construction workers will soon be racing to finish the world’s largest refinery for so-called rare earth metals — the first rare earth ore processing plant to be built outside China in nearly three decades.

For Malaysia and the world’s most advanced technology companies, the plant is a gamble that the processing can be done safely enough to make the local environmental risks worth the promised global rewards.

Once little known outside chemistry circles, rare earth metals have become increasingly vital to high-tech manufacturing. But as Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind.

So the world has largely left the dirty work to Chinese refineries — processing factories that are barely regulated and in some cases illegally operated, and have created vast toxic waste sites.

But other countries’ wariness has meant that China now mines and refines at least 95 percent of the global supply of rare earths. And Beijing has aroused international alarm by wielding that virtual monopoly as a global trade weapon.

Last September, for example, China imposed a two-month embargo on rare earth shipments to Japan during a territorial dispute, and for a short time even blocked some shipments to the United States and Europe. Beijing’s behavior, which has also included lowering the export limit on its rare earths, has helped propel world prices of the material to record highs — and sent industrial countries scrambling for alternatives.

Even now, though, countries with their own rare earth ore deposits are not always eager to play host to the refineries that process them. An American company, Molycorp, plans to reopen an abandoned mine near Death Valley in California; but Molycorp must completely rebuild the adjacent refinery to address environmental concerns.

All of this helps explain why a giant Australian mining company, Lynas, is hurrying to finish a $230 million rare earth refinery here, on the northern outskirts of Malaysia’s industrial port of Kuantan. The plant will refine slightly radioactive ore from the Mount Weld mine deep in the Australian desert, 2,500 miles away. The ore will be trucked to the Australian port of Fremantle and transported by container ship from there.

Within two years, Lynas says, the refinery will be able to meet nearly a third of the world’s demand for rare earth materials — not counting China, which has its own abundant supplies.

Nicholas Curtis, Lynas’s executive chairman, said it would cost four times as much to build and operate such a refinery in Australia, which has much higher labor and construction costs. Australia is also home to an environmentally minded and politically powerful Green party.

Despite the potential hazards, the Malaysian government was eager for investment by Lynas, even offering a 12-year tax holiday. If rare earth prices stay at current lofty levels, the refinery will generate $1.7 billion a year in exports starting late next year, equal to nearly 1 percent of the entire Malaysian economy.

Raja Dato Abdul Aziz bin Raja Adnan, the director general of the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, said his country approved the Lynas project only after an interagency review indicated the imported ore and subsequent waste would have low enough levels of radioactivity to be manageable and safe.

Malaysia had reason to be cautious: Its last rare earth refinery, operated by the Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemical, is now one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.

“We have learned we shouldn’t give anybody a free hand,” Raja Adnan said.

Despite such assurances, critics are not convinced that the low-level radioactive materials at the Lynas project will be safe.

“The word ‘low’ here is just a matter of perception — it’s a carcinogen,” said Dr. Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, a general practitioner physician and toxicologist. He has treated leukemia victims whose illnesses he and others have attributed to the old Mitsubishi Chemical refinery.

That plant, on the other side of the Malay peninsula, closed in 1992 after years of sometimes violent demonstrations by citizens protesting its polluting effects. Now, in an engineering effort that has largely escaped the outside world’s notice, Mitsubishi is engaged in a $100 million cleanup.

Rare earths, a group of 17 elements, are not radioactive themselves. But virtually every rare earth ore deposit around the world contains, in varying concentrations, a slightly radioactive element called thorium.

Radiation concerns — along with low-cost Chinese competition — eventually forced the closing of all rare earth refineries in Japan. It was during this phase-out that Mitsubishi moved its refining operation to Malaysia, where old tin mines had left behind thousands of tons of semiprocessed slag that was rich in rare earth ore. It also had extremely high levels of radioactive thorium.

The new Lynas refinery, with nearly two dozen interconnected buildings and 50 acres of floor space, will house the latest in pollution control equipment and radiation sensors. A signature feature will be 12 acres of interim storage pools that will be lined with dense plastic and sit atop nearly impermeable clay, to hold the slightly radioactive byproducts until they can be carted away.

But carted to where? That is still an open question.

Building the lined storage pools was one of the promises Lynas had made to win permission to put the refinery here, in an area already environmentally damaged by the chemical plants that line the narrow, muddy Balok River.

Mr. Curtis, the Lynas chairman, insists that the new factory will be much cleaner and far safer than the old Mitsubishi plant, which “never should have been built,” he said recently, as he led a tour of the sprawling Lynas refinery construction site here.

One big difference, he said, is that the ore being imported from Australia is much less radioactive. It will have only 3 to 5 percent of the thorium per ton found in the tin mine tailings that Mitsubishi had processed. And he said the Lynas factory would also process 10 times as much ore with only twice as many employees — about 450 in all — thanks to automation that will keep workers away from potentially harmful materials.

But the long-term storage of the Lynas plant’s radioactive thorium waste is still unresolved.

After using sulfuric acid to dissolve the rare earths out of the concentrated ore, Lynas plans to mix the radioactive part of the waste with lime. The aim is to dilute it to a thorium concentration of less than 0.05 percent — the maximum permitted under international standards to allow the material to be disposed with few restrictions.

Lynas wants to turn this mixture into large concrete shapes known as tetrapods that are used to build artificial reefs for fish and as sea walls to prevent beach erosion.

Local residents seem to be of two minds about the sprawling plant being built near the river. The river empties into the ocean several miles away, next to an impoverished fishing village, where on a recent evening a small group of fisherman sat at the end of a wooden dock.

Muhamad Ishmail, age 56, said pollution from the chemical factories that started opening upstream in the 1990s had forced local fishing — a river industry for generations — to move primarily out to sea. Although one of his five children works in the nearby industrial district, Mr. Ishmail said he did not want Lynas or anyone else to open any more factories.

“This river used to be clean, and you could catch fish right here,” he said.

But Muhamad Anuar, 30, said his community needed the reliable paychecks that Lynas might offer. “I have two kids, and I don’t want them to be fishermen,” he said. “It’s a hard job.”

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Indonesia: Leaders From Eastern Islands Take a Stand Against Mining

Fidelis E. Satriastanti Jakarta Globe 9 Mar 11;

Community leaders from eastern Indonesia called on the government on Tuesday to stop permitting mining on small islands and instead promote tourism and fisheries as more sustainable economic activities.

“We’re not poor, but our region has never been managed properly by the government,” said Yohanes Kristo Tara, a Catholic priest from East Nusa Tenggara.

“Our main possible sources of income are tourism, given the unbelievable natural beauty we possess that could even beat Bali if we were serious about developing it; livestock breeding, for which the province was once renowned; or fish farming, because of the abundance of fish here.”

Rather than develop those sectors, Yohanes said, the local authorities had instead been busy handing out mining concessions, with at least 307 issued this year alone, mostly for manganese and gold mining.

“President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to [the provincial capital] Kupang and talked about turning the province into a hub for food security or seaweed cultivation, yet why does the government continue to issue so many mining permits in coastal areas?” he said.

“Wouldn’t that threaten the fisheries sector? It just doesn’t make any sense to come up with one regulation and then issue policies that turn out to be the complete opposite.”

Yohanes said that overreliance on the destructive mining industry would not help the region develop sustainably.

“Almost all areas with mining concessions have a sad story to tell,” he said. “There’s no social welfare at all, the local residents don’t get anything.

“If we continue with this exploitation, then in maybe 20 or 30 years East Nusa Tenggara will be gone. Mining isn’t suitable for these islands because it threatens our water supply, causes erosion and destroys habitats.”

His call was echoed by Jefry Daeng, a resident of Obi Island in South Halmahera district, North Maluku, who said residents there wanted to return to their agrarian roots and did not want to live with the mining operations in the area.

“We live by the very simple philosophy that we’re already rich because we’ve been blessed with the spices grown on our lands,” he said.

He added opposition to the extractive industries began in the 1980s, when the island was already reeling from another destructive practice — logging.

“We were fooled [by the logging companies] with the promise of better lives,” Jefry said.

“Instead, we had to work long hours, with no job assurances or improved education,” he added. “So we paid for our education by growing spices.”

He said the bitter experience with the logging companies prompted the Obi Island residents to stage protests when mining companies began operating there in 2009.

“How long are they going to stay?” Jefry asked. “Thirty to 60 years, and after that they’ll leave, but what about those of us still living there?

“Ministers, district heads, governors — they’re all just public officials and they’re just going to be around for five years, but we’re the ones who will continue to live with the impact from the mining industry.”

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China legislator urges shark fin ban

Yahoo News 9 Mar 11;

BEIJING (AFP) – A member of China's parliament has proposed a ban on the trade in shark fins, state press said Wednesday -- a move that would likely face huge opposition from the nation's culinary traditionalists.

Shark fins are used to make a soup that is a staple at high-end restaurants throughout China, and is often served on special occasions.

But scientists blame the practice of shark-finning -- slicing off the fins of live animals and then throwing them back in the water to die -- for a worldwide collapse in shark populations.

"Only legislation can stop shark fin trading and reduce the killings of sharks," Xinhua news agency quoted Ding Liguo, a billionaire delegate to the National People's Congress (NPC), as saying.

Enormous profits generated by the shark fin trade have led to over-fishing and the brutal slaughter of sharks, with some 30 species near extinction, he said.

China should lead the world in banning the trade because 95 percent of the world's shark fins are consumed in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, he added.

It was not immediately clear if Ding, the executive chairman of Delong Holdings Limited, filed a formal written proposal to the NPC, China's rubber-stamp parliament now in session, or just lodged a verbal request.

In any event, any law banning shark fin trade would likely take years to review and come into force if adopted.

A ban would face strong opposition from Chinese fishermen and restaurant owners, especially as rising incomes have led more and more Chinese to seek the health benefits traditionally attributed to a diet of shark fin.

"People are mistaken by the supposed nutritional value of shark fin," Ding countered.

"Research shows the nutritional value of shark fin is similar to that of poultry, fish skin, meat and eggs. It is tasteless and its low level nutritional value is hard to absorb by the body."

According to Shark Savers, a global organisation seeking to ban the trade in shark fins, over 100 million sharks are killed a year, mostly for their fins.

In some parts of the world's oceans, shark populations have decreased by up to 90 percent over the last 20 years, the group said.

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Short Shark Supply: Great White Population Low, Census Finds Yahoo News 10 Mar 11;

Far fewer great white sharks are cruising the waters off of California than previously thought, according to researchers who conducted a unique shark census in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

"This low number was a real surprise," said Taylor Chapple, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis when he led the great white shark study.

"It's lower than we expected, and also substantially smaller than populations of other large marine predators, such as killer whales and polar bears," said Chapple, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Counting the great white sharks was a hands-on activity. The researchers went out into the Pacific Ocean in small boats to places where great white sharks congregate, and lured the massive predators into photo range using a seal-shaped decoy on a fishing line.

From 321 photographs of the uniquely jagged edges of the sharks' dorsal fins, they identified 131 individual sharks.

From these data, they used statistical methods to estimate that there are 219 great white sharks in the region.

"We've found that these white sharks return to the same regions of the coast year after year," said study co-author Barbara Block, a Stanford University marine biologist and a leading expert on sharks. "It is this fact that makes it possible to estimate their numbers. Our goal is to keep track of our ocean predators."

The study, published in the journal Biology Letters, is the first rigorous scientific estimate of white shark numbers in the northeast Pacific Ocean, and represents one of the best estimates among the world's three known white-shark populations.

Great white sharks also live in the waters around Australia and New Zealand, and off the coast of South Africa.

Shark species around the globe have suffered steep declines in recent years. As many as one-third of the world's sharks and other cartilaginous fishes are threatened, and shark numbers along the United States eastern seaboard have plummeted, some species by as much as 90 percent.

Great white sharks are classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but relatively little is known about the elusive species.

"This estimate only represents a single point in time," Chapple said. "Further research will tell us if this number represents a healthy, viable population, or one critically in danger of collapse, or something in-between."

Satellite tagging studies have demonstrated that great white sharks in the northeast Pacific make annual migrations from coastal areas in Central California and Guadalupe Island, Mexico, out to the Hawaiian Islands or to the "White Shark CafĂ©," a region of the open ocean between the Baja Peninsula and Hawaii where white sharks have been found to congregate – after which they then return to the coastal areas.

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Pace of polar ice melt 'accelerating rapidly': study

Yahoo News 9 Mar 11;

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The pace at which the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting is "accelerating rapidly" and raising the global sea level, according to findings of a study financed by NASA and published Tuesday.

The findings suggest that the ice sheets -- more so than ice loss from Earth's mountain glaciers and ice caps -- have become "the dominant contributor to global sea level rise, much sooner than model forecasts have predicted."

This study, the longest to date examining changes to polar ice sheet mass, combined two decades of monthly satellite measurements with regional atmospheric climate model data to study changes in mass.

"That ice sheets will dominate future sea level rise is not surprising -- they hold a lot more ice mass than mountain glaciers," said lead author Eric Rignot, jointly of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine.

"What is surprising is this increased contribution by the ice sheets is already happening," he said.

Under the current trends, he said, sea level is likely to be "significantly higher" than levels projected by the United Nations climate change panel in 2007.

Isabella Velicogna, co-author of the study, told AFP that the ice sheets lose mass by melting or by breaking apart in blocks of ice, which float into the ocean.

"It's related to the warming of the planet but that was not the point of the paper. We just observed the changes," said Velicogna, a professor at UC Irvine. "It's losing mass -- much more than was expected many years ago."

The study showed that in 2006, a year in which comparable results for loss from mountain glaciers and ice caps are available, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets lost enough mass to raise global sea level by an average of .05 inches (1.3 millimetres) per year.

The year-over-year acceleration rate of loss on mountain glaciers and ice caps was three times smaller than that of the ice sheets, the study said.

"The authors conclude that, if current ice sheet melting rates continue for the next four decades, their cumulative loss could raise sea level by 5.9 inches (15 centimeters) by 2050," the report said.

"When this is added to the predicted sea level contribution of 3.1 inches (8 centimeters) from glacial ice caps and 3.5 inches (9 centimeters) from ocean thermal expansion, total sea level rise could reach 12.6 inches (32 centimeters)," it said.

The findings were published the March edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Polar ice loss quickens, raising seas
Richard Black BBC News 9 Mar 11;

Ice loss from Antarctica and Greenland has accelerated over the last 20 years, research shows, and will soon become the biggest driver of sea level rise.

From satellite data and climate models, scientists calculate that the two polar ice sheets are losing enough ice to raise sea levels by 1.3mm each year.

Overall, sea levels are rising by about 3mm (0.12 inches) per year.

Writing in Geophysical Research Letters, the team says ice loss here is speeding up faster than models predict.

They add their voices to several other studies that have concluded sea levels will rise faster than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its landmark 2007 assessment.

By 2006, the Greenland and Antarctic sheets were losing a combined mass of 475Gt (gigatonnes - billion tonnes) of ice per year.

On average, loss from the Greenland sheet is increasing by nearly 22Gt per year, while the much larger and colder Antarctic sheet is shedding an additional 14.5Gt each year.

If these increases persist, water from the two polar ice sheets could have added 15cm (5.9 inches) to the average global sea level by 2050.

A rise of similar size is projected to come from a combination of melt water from mountain glaciers and thermal expansion of seawater.

"That ice sheets will dominate future sea level rise is not surprising - they hold a lot more ice mass than mountain glaciers," said lead author Eric Rignot from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

"What is surprising is this increased contribution by the ice sheets is already happening."
Grace on fire

Extending this rate of ice loss forward to 2100, the sea level rise contribution from the two ice sheets alone is calculated at 56cm (22 inches).

By contrast, the IPCC in 2007 projected a maximum rise of 59cm, while acknowledging this was likely to be an under-estimate because understanding of processes happening on ice sheets was insufficient to enable reliable estimates to be made.

Since 2007, several other research groups using different methods have concluded that a figure between one and two metres is likely - which would have profound consequences for island nations and countries with long, low coastlines such as Bangladesh.

"If present trends continue, sea level is likely to be significantly higher than levels projected by the IPCC," said Dr Rignot.

"Our study helps reduce uncertainties in near-term projections of sea level rise."

The new research combined two different methodologies.

One calculates ice gain and loss through combining various types of satellite reading and data taken on the ground, for example the thickness of the ice sheet and the speed at which glaciers are moving.

The second dataset comes from Nasa's Grace mission, which uses twin satellites to measure variations in the Earth's gravitational pull.

Ice loss causes a fractional reduction in gravity at that point on the Earth's surface.

Two years ago, this mission surprised some in the research community by showing that even the vast and frigid East Antarctic ice sheet was losing some of its mass to the oceans.

The journal is due to publish the paper within a few days.

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Climate researchers: Russian heat wave was natural

Randolph E. Schmid Associated Press Yahoo News 9 Mar 11;

WASHINGTON – Global warming isn't directly to blame for last summer's deadly — and extraordinary — heat wave in Russia, researchers said in a report Wednesday that came with a climate warning.

"We may be on the cusp of a period in which the probability of such events increases rapidly, due primarily to the influence of projected increases in greenhouse gas concentrations," said the team led by Randall Dole and Martin Hoerling of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was the warmest July since at least 1880 in western Russia. The heat wave led to an increase in deaths in the region, as well as drought, widespread fires, increased air pollution and severe crop damage. Also affected by the warming were Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic nations.

The extreme heat raised questions about links to global warming — the rising temperatures worldwide that most atmospheric scientists attribute to greenhouse gases being pumped into the air by industrial and other processes over the last century or so.

The intense heat wave in Russia "was mainly due to natural internal atmospheric variability," the scientists reported in a paper to be published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The cause in this case, they said, was a strong and long-lived blocking pattern that prevented movement of weather systems. Blocking patterns occur when the high-level jet stream directing the movement of weather develops a sharp wave pattern. This forces storms to move around an area while conditions there stagnate.

"Similar atmospheric patterns have occurred with prior heat waves in this region," although those have been less severe, Dole and Hoerling said.

There are indications the blocking pattern forcing storms to move also affected subsequent flooding in Pakistan, they said.

"To be sure, it was a rare event. But rare events happen and rarity alone doesn't imply cause," Dole said at a briefing.

It's important to study the causes of events such as this heat wave because they have global economic impacts, Hoerling said. The heat wave reduced Russian grain yields about 40 percent, resulting in a decline in the world's grain supply.

Hoerling said researchers were surprised to find that the region hadn't experienced the rising temperatures that have impacted much of the planet.

"While the globe as a whole, on an annual basis, is warming, there can be important regional differences," Hoerling said. The 1930s remain the warmest decade on record for western Russia, unlike the planet as a whole, for which the past 10 years have been the warmest on record, he said.

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found evidence that global warming contributed to heat waves in other areas and probably is to cause stronger and more frequent heat waves in future.

Hoerling heads the climate attribution team at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory and Dole is deputy director of the physical sciences division of the lab.

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