Best of our wild blogs: 7 Apr 11

Fri 15 Apr 2011: 5pm – James Watson on “Impacts of climate change for biodiversity: Planning for adaptation” from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

Latest wetland craze - Lorong Halus Wetland
from Water Quality in Singapore

Early Easter Eggs
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Singapore programme: Get kids outside to save their eyesight!

New programme aims to study effect of the outdoors on myopia in children
Feng Zengkun Straits Times 7 Apr 11;

THE long and short of the programme is this: Does spending time outdoors reduce the likelihood of a child getting myopia or short-sightedness?

To zoom in on the answer, an outdoor activities programme was launched last week.

The one-year project is funded by the National Medical Research Council and costs $200,000.

Some 450 children aged six to 10 will be selected from applicants for the project run by the National University Health System (NUHS) and National Parks Board.

Half of these 450 children and their families will visit a different park each weekend for organised activities such as guided tours and games, starting from May 21.

The families can win prizes such as cash vouchers for regular attendance. They are encouraged to turn up every weekend but it is not compulsory.

The other half of the group will not take part in the park activities to allow researchers to compare the two groups and study the effects of spending time outdoors.

All the children and their siblings will be given free eye checks, referrals to doctors if necessary, as well as subsidies for such medical visits.

Studies in recent years in the United States and Australia have shown that children who spend time outdoors cut their risk of suffering from myopia by up to 20 per cent.

Scientists believe this is because the unobstructed view trains the eye to see better.

Myopia happens when the lens in the eye cannot focus images on the retina. Singapore has one of the highest rates of myopia in the world, with a quarter of children being short-sighted by age seven, and half by age 10.

NUHS professor Saw Seang Mei, who is the programme's principal investigator, said the reason for the high rate of myopia in Singapore is that children stay indoors and spend a considerable amount of time reading and writing.

'Children with myopia are also more likely to become blind later in life, due to diseases like macular degeneration, so we need to intervene early,' she added.

In 2004, the Health Promotion Board introduced the annual National Eye Care Week. Primary schools are encouraged to set aside time during the week to teach pupils about taking care of their eyes.

If the outdoor programme is successful, it will be expanded to a larger trial of 2,000 children early next year.

One eventual goal is to encourage schools to have more activities out in the open.

Prof Saw said: 'For example, seven- year-old Singaporean children spend only about five to six hours outdoors every week, including the physical education classes in school. This is not enough.'

Ideally, she added, children should spend a minimum of 10 hours outdoors weekly.

The Health Promotion Board advises parents to take their children to the playground a few times a week, and to make sure they take breaks from reading or using the computer every half-hour.

Dr Au Eong Kah Guan, an ophthalmologist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said the study could be important if it is carried out rigorously and with large enough numbers.

He added: 'Currently, nothing has been proven consistently by multiple studies to prevent myopia so no measure can be recommended routinely.

'If the programme is effective and can be done in different countries, it could be recommended more widely.'

Similar programmes are ongoing in Australia and China.

A trial run of the programme - with 40 children over the last three months - saw a good response, with 75 per cent of the families showing up every weekend.

Madam Seetha, one of the participants, said the experience was also a good time to bond with her two children - Chris, nine, and Harshini, seven.

The 42-year-old immigration officer added: 'We work as a team for some of the games and we get to learn about nature together.'

To apply to join the programme, call 6516-4985, 6516-6930 or 9050-3867. Only Singapore citizens and permanent residents without any severe chronic medical conditions are eligible.

Outdoor activities can help prevent myopia in children: study
Alvina Soh Channel NewsAsia 11 Apr 11;

SINGAPORE : The National University Health System (NUHS) is urging children in Singapore to get out and play, in its latest myopia prevention study.

The year-long study aims to find out if spending more time outdoors can help prevent myopia in children who are between six and 10 years old.

Singapore has one of the highest rates of myopia in the world.

NUHS said this is worrying, as half of the children are myopic by the time they turn 10.

About eight in 10 will have myopia when they reach 18.

It added that the average age of the onset of myopia is eight years old.

Professor Saw Seang Mei, vice-dean for research at the National University Health System, said: "We want to target a group which is susceptible to the environmental factors, so if we increase the outdoor time, it may be able to prevent the development and progression of myopia in this age range."

NUHS said there has been a recent rise in myopia trends in recent years.

In the study, children will take part in weekly activities in the parks - organised by the National Parks Board - such as guided walks and scavenger hunts.

Tay Boon Sin, assistant director at the National Parks Board, said: "Kids nowadays do not spend enough time outdoors, so we really hope that by spending more time outdoors, not only do they get in touch with our parks, nature, they can actually have a more healthy lifestyle."

The study is expected to be completed by April 2012.

The findings will be used to develop a programme to reduce myopia, obesity and other chronic illnesses in Singapore children.

- CNA/ms

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PUB, Hyflux unit seal $890m 25-year water deal

Maxie Aw Yeong Business Times 7 Apr 11;

PUB and Tuaspring, a Hyflux subsidiary, yesterday signed a 25-year water purchase agreement (WPA) for Singapore's second and largest desalination plant.

The plant will start its operations in 2013, adding 318,500 cubic metres of desalinated water to Singapore's daily water supply. This project will cost $890 million.

The desalination plant will be built beside the existing SingSpring plant in Tuas, which has a capacity of 136,000 cubic metres per day. It will be built under a design, build, own and operate model, and is expected to start in the fourth quarter.

The first-year price for the desalinated water is set at $0.45 per cubic metre, which works out to $52.3 million a year. Tuaspring will provide desalinated water to PUB until 2038.

PUB chief executive Khoo Teng Chye and Hyflux group president and chief executive officer Olivia Lum, who was representing Tuaspring, signed the WPA yesterday.

Mr Khoo reiterated PUB's plans to increase desalination and NEWater capacities to meet up to 30 per cent and 50 per cent of water demand respectively by 2060. He also said that desalinated water was 'set to play a bigger role in meeting Singapore's future water needs'.

Ms Lum said that Hyflux was pleased to collaborate with PUB again for the development of the second desalination plant to meet Singapore's rising demand for water.

Recently, Ms Lum told The Straits Times that Hyflux has shelved its plans for expansion in Libya, and may allow a US$100 million contract that it won in the country to lapse. It now plans to focus on growing its business in China and Singapore.

Hyflux shares closed down a cent to $2.15 yesterday.

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Biodiversity Vital To Streams As Extinctions Rise

Deborah Zabarenko PlanetArk 7 Apr 11;

As Earth enters a period of mass extinction, a study released on Wednesday offers a new reason to preserve biodiversity: it's an effective, natural pollution scrubber in streams.

Environmental activists have long warned that waning biodiversity means the loss of such ecological services as stream-cleaning, control of pests and diseases and increased productivity in fisheries.

The latest study, published in the journal Nature, shows how this works, demonstrating that streams that contain more species have better water quality than streams that have fewer.

The species being discussed are microorganisms such as algae that incorporate elements of pollution into their bodies. The more types of algae there are in a stream, each with a minutely different habitat, the better they are collectively at filtering pollution out of the water.

"If we were to maintain streams in their naturally diverse state, these streams that we love for their recreation, for their beauty, for fishing, etc. ... have the tangential benefit of cleaning up our water for us," said Bradley Cardinale, the study's author.

"One implication (of the study) is, if we let nature do its thing, we don't have to run around creating very expensive water treatment plants all over the planet," Cardinale, of the University of Michigan, said by telephone.


To reach his conclusions, Cardinale set up 150 miniature model streams that mimic the varied conditions of natural streams in the United States. He added from one to eight varieties of algae and measured how well the mini-streams got cleaned.

The pollutant they targeted was a nitrogen compound called nitrate, a common by-product of chemical fertilizers that Cardinale called "the world's single greatest water quality problem."

Nitrate is responsible for the hypoxic "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, outbreaks of toxic algae and red tides, he said.

The full eight-species mix of algae removed nitrate from streams 4.5 times faster, on average, than a single species alone, according to the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

One species known as filamentous snotty algae does a good job on its own of taking in nitrate and other excess nutrients from stream water. But it smells bad and most other species don't like to eat it, Cardinale said.

Knowing the benefits of biodiversity is important because scientists see Earth entering a period of mass extinction when as much as 75 percent or more of the life on the planet vanishes forever.

Cardinale said there is little doubt that this trend, largely due to the destruction of places where many different species live, has already begun.

"It's not necessarily how much we've lost already," he said. "It's that the rate of extinction is so outrageously high compared to what we know is normal."

The rates of extinction now are between 100 to 1,000 times faster than normal, and between 30 percent and 50 percent of species could be lost by 2100, Cardinale said.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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KFC to stop using palm oil

Martin Hickman, The Independent 7 Apr 11;

The company says it is removing the vegetable oil from deep fat friers to gain a "double benefit" by reducing climate change and heart disease.

Used widely as a cooking oil, palm oil employs hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries but has a poor health and environmental record. Forests in Indonesia and Malaysia have been cut down to make way for plantations and the oil is high in artery-clogging saturated fat.

From this month KFC will use high oleic rapeseed oil at its 800 outlets in UK and Ireland, at an estimated cost of £1m a year.

The move will cut levels of saturated fat in its chicken by 25 per cent, according to the company.

Mark Bristow, head of KFC food assurance said: "Switching to high oleic rapeseed oil means not only can we offer our customers the benefit of reduced saturated fats, but the assurance we're doing everything we can to lessen our impact on the environment."

KFC added: "The global expansion of the palm oil industry has been a contributor to the destruction of tropical rainforests and peat lands to make way for palm oil plantations, which has inadvertently caused large amounts of greenhouse gases being pushed into the atmosphere."

KFC will still use palm oil in fries, buns, tortillas and hash browns, but said it had begun talks with suppliers aimed at getting them to switch to alternatives or source only sustainably-certified palm oil.

Since the The Independent disclosed palm oil's role in deforestation two years ago, many retailers and manufacturers have agreed to buy supplies certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Campaigners want the European Union to force food firms to list palm oil as an ingredient because it is often listed as ‘vegetable oil' on packs.

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Climate 'technical fix' may yield warming, not cooling

Richard Black BBC News 6 Apr 11;

Whitening clouds by spraying them with seawater, proposed as a "technical fix" for climate change, could do more harm than good, according to research.

Whiter clouds reflect more solar energy back into space, cooling the Earth.

But a study presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting found that using water droplets of the wrong size would lead to warming, not cooling.

One of the theory's scientific fathers said it should be possible to make sure droplets were the correct size.

Cloud whitening was originally proposed back in 1990 by John Latham, now of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, US.

It has since been developed by a number of other researchers including University of Edinburgh wave energy pioneer Stephen Salter, joining a number of other "geoengineering" techniques that would attempt either to reduce solar radiation reaching earth or absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

One version envisages specially designed ships, powered by wind, operating in areas of the ocean where reflective stratocumulus clouds are scarce.

The ships would continually spray fine jets of seawater droplets into the sky, where tiny salt crystals would act as nuclei around which water vapour would condense, producing clouds or thickening them where they already exist.

It has not yet been trialled in practice, although proponents say it ought to be.
Drop kick

But Kari Alterskjaer from the University of Oslo in Norway came to the European Geosciences Union (EGU) meeting in Vienna with a cautionary tale.

Her study, using observations of clouds and a computer model of the global climate, confirmed earlier findings that if cloud whitening were to be done, the best areas would be just to the west of North and South America, and to the west of Africa.

But it concluded that about 70 times more salt would have to be carried aloft than proponents have calculated.

And using droplets of the wrong size, she found, could reduce cloud cover rather than enhancing it - leading to a net warming, not the desired cooling.

"If the particles are too small, they will not brighten the clouds - instead they will influence particles that are already there, and there will be competition between them," she told BBC News.

"Obviously the particle size is of crucial importance, not only for whether you get a positive or negative effect, but also whether particles can actually reach the clouds - if they're too large, they just fall to the sea."

The possibility of this technique having a warming impact has been foreseen by cloud-whitening's developers.

In a 2002 scientific paper, Dr Latham wrote: "... the overall result could be a reduction in cloud droplet concentration, with concomitant reductions in albedo and cloud longevity, ie a warming effect".

But, he argued, this possibility could be eliminated by careful design of the spray system.

Contacted after the presentation in Vienna, Professor Salter took the same line.

"I agree that the drop size has to be correct and that the correct value may vary according to local conditions," he said.

"However, I am confident that we can control drop size by adjusting the frequency of an ultrasonic pressure wave which ejects drop from micro-nozzles etched in silicon.

"We can test this at very small scale in the lab."

Professor Salter is working with engineers in Edinburgh to produce extremely fine yet robust nozzles from semiconductor sheets.
Small cuts

In an era when many climate scientists are frustrated by slow progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cloud whitening has sometimes been held up as an example of a technology that could make a real difference, at least to "buy time".

It has been calculated that a fairly modest increase in the reflectivity of these marine clouds could balance the warming from a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - although even proponents admit it would do nothing to combat the other major consequence of carbon emissions, ocean acidification.

One scientist at Ms Alterskjaer's presentation, having heard her outline why it might not work, commented that it was the most depressing thing he had heard in a long time.

And Piers Forster from the UK's University of Leeds, who is leading a major UK project on geoengineering techniques, suggested more research would be needed before cloud whitening could be considered for "prime time" use.

"The trouble is that clouds are very complicated; as soon as you start manipulating them in one way, there are a lot of different interactions," he said.

"We need real-world data and we need modelling that tries to simulate clouds on more appropriate scales, and that means less than 100m or so, because if you look at a deck of stratocumulus it's not one big thing, it has pockets and cells and other features.

"Far more uncertain is the idea that you'd inject a particular drop size, because it won't stay that size for long - it will spread out, and that would be uncertain."

Professor Salter, too, believes more research needs to be done, including building a prototype injector ship and studying how it works in practice.

Interviewed by the BBC late last year, he said that such research was urgently needed because there was little sign of real cuts being made in the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

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