Best of our wild blogs: 19 Apr 11

Amazing fishes on oil-slicked Tanah Merah
from wild shores of singapore

Portia - The Intelligent Hunter
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Raising a fist at the 6th extinction – the NJC Green Symposium
from Otterman speaks

Some random thoughts on floods and water quality
from Water Quality in Singapore

Read more!

Wanted: green buildings for MNCs

Business Times 19 Apr 11;

Developers are coming up with integrated solutions and making sure all relevant parties are involved in the planning stages of a project, reports Uma Shankari

DEMAND for green buildings and green architecture is growing as businesses - especially multinational corporations (MNCs) - now have corporate requirements that restrict them to taking up new space only in sustainable projects.

But while developers recognise the benefits in going green, many are still concerned with the capital outlays that come with constructing environmentally-friendly and sustainable buildings.

The answer, market players say, is to come up with integrated solutions and make sure that all relevant parties are involved in the initial planning and design stages of a project.

'Many of our customers have expressed a need to be located in environmentally-friendly spaces, in particular, multinational and larger corporations which have established such corporate requirements as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement,' said Tan Yew Chin, executive vice- president for real estate services at business space provider Ascendas.

'Companies such as Standard Chartered Bank, DBS, Citi, Credit Suisse, DNV and many more have also included these requirements as part of their criteria in their location searches,' he added.

Added Esther An, head of corporate social responsibility at City Developments: 'In the leasing market, there is a growing demand especially from MNCs, whom we are starting to see include green buildings as a criteria when sourcing for office space.'

In addition to having a CSR agenda, companies also hope to enhance the productivity and well-being of their employees by taking up space in sustainable developments, said Keppel Land chief executive Kevin Wong.

Citigroup, for example, is committed to sustainable design and construction. The bank will always adhere to occupying buildings that qualify for top sustainable awards such as Singapore's Green Mark or the US LEED awards, said Michael Zink, Citi Singapore country officer and country head.

'Our global commitment to sustainable design and construction also means that we select office buildings with top-rated environmental credentials or work with developers who can custom-build such specs into the space,' Mr Zink said.

Citi's current buildings at Changi Business Park, which were built-to-suit, was awarded the Green Mark Platinum award by Singapore's Building and Construction Authority (BCA) as well as the Gold LEED Certification from the US Green Building Council.

However, there is still one major obstacle to buildings going green - the higher cost involved. Developers estimate that they need to spend up to 5 per cent more to build an eco-friendly development.

Keppel Land, for example, said it invests up to 4 per cent of the construction cost of a development on green design and features. City Developments has been investing 2 per cent to 5 per cent of the construction cost of a development on eco-friendly features from the stages of development design and construction to maintenance and use, it said.

And while businesses have said that they would be willing to pay more to occupy sustainable real estate, most developers are unwilling to put that to the test.

Findings from a global survey on corporate real estate and sustainability by CoreNet Global and Jones Lang LaSalle in late-2009 showed that occupiers are more willing to invest in sustainable space despite higher costs. Of those surveyed, 89 per cent also indicated that sustainability was an important consideration in their location decision.

But for now, developers are absorbing the extra cost involved when they build an eco-friendly project. In return, they hope to save on electricity costs and boost their brand.

Green buildings are up to 5 per cent more expensive to build, but are more efficient to operate, Siemens said. The German engineering conglomerate estimates that with innovative technology and intelligent usage, 'smart' buildings can save between 20 and 40 per cent energy usage.

On its part, City Developments estimates that some $8 million in electricity costs will be saved annually from its 20 buildings that have been awarded the Green Mark certification from the BCA in 2008 and 2009

Older buildings

In addition, branding is another key incentive; while the green economy is still at its infancy and demand for green buildings is only just starting to grow, City Developments hopes that its position as a pioneering green developer will give it a first-mover advantage when the age of socially responsible consumerism dawns.

Developers also hope that as the demand for sustainable development grows, and as more market players move towards building green buildings, the situation will improve.

'The industry is still at an early stage in sustainable development and the initial costs of utilising environmentally-friendly materials and solutions may be slightly higher compared to traditional solutions,' said Ascendas's Mr Tan. 'This could be due to a lack of economies of scale in terms of the demand and supply of these solutions.'

One way developers can develop environmentally-friendly real estate at a lower cost is by incorporating green design features through the strategic orientation of buildings, and featuring naturally ventilated spaces - initiatives which do not necessarily entail higher costs.

Developers should also make sure that existing buildings are not neglected, academics have said. Older buildings generally have lower energy efficiency. They can be given a 'touch-up' - at a cost that is much lower than building a new project from scratch - to make sure they are energy-efficient.

In fact, the gap between the cost of building a green project and building one with a lower energy efficiency is already beginning to narrow, industry players said.

A significant proportion of green buildings are now built at no additional cost, said Nadarajah Bala, president for United Technologies International Operations.

And, in fact, in about five years' time, existing commercial assets with less than average energy rating could see a 10-20 per cent discount in valuations, he added. 'We are already seeing major occupiers setting LEED Gold as a minimum occupation standard. Future international legislation will force carbon reduction in all areas.'

Looking ahead, developers said that they will try to take an integrated approach when building, so that all stakeholders will do their parts to green their operations.

'For integrated solutions to work optimally, it is necessary for all relevant parties to be involved in the initial planning and design of the developments,' said Keppel Land's Mr Wong.

There is also a need to constantly engage and educate tenants on how they too can green their operations and adopt a change in mindset, he added.

Ascendas also consults with its customers and works to understand their needs before customising and aligning its business space solutions with tenants' commitment to improving the environmental impact of their operations, it said.

Around the world, buildings are the highest consumers of energy and one of the main causes of carbon emission. According to research reports, 40 per cent of global energy demand and carbon dioxide emissions and 16 per cent of water consumption are due to buildings.

Read more!

Singapore: Floating oil storage taking shape

Tenders for construction of 'megafloat' may be called by year-end, say sources
Ronnie Lim Business Times 19 Apr 11;

(SINGAPORE) Singapore is set to embark on the construction of another alternative oil storage facility on very large floating structures (VLFS) at Pulau Sebarok this year-end, sources have told The Business Times.

This comes as almost one-third of the $850 million first phase of the Jurong Rock Cavern (JRC) underground oil storage is completed to-date.

Tenders for construction of the new VLFS, dubbed 'megafloat', are expected to be called at the end of the year, with South Korean and Japanese engineering contractors said to be very keen on the project.

This will follow the expected completion of the VLFS' front-end design around September-October by the appointed consultants, the Jurong Consultants/British Maritime Technology Group consortium, sources said. The consultants are also expected to decide on whether steel or concrete, or a combination of both, will be used for the VLFS construction.

Potential users for the VLFS are in the meantime being sussed out, a JTC spokesperson told BT yesterday, without specifying who they are.

Giving an update of the first phase JRC - building of which started in end-2009 - JTC said that 30 per cent of the underground project has been completed so far, and it is 'currently studying the possibility' of embarking on a second phase of the project.

Having already secured Jurong Aromatics Corporation (JAC) as its first customer for the JRC, the JTC spokesperson said yesterday that it will call tenders by Q3 this year for an operator to run the underground oil storage complex.

The operatorship of the JRC had drawn earlier interest from parties like Vopak and Emirates National Oil Company which currently operate above-ground storage terminals here, with the tender for this expected to be awarded by mid-2012.

The JAC consortium will meanwhile start building its $2 billion aromatics complex next month, after having just closed its project financing last week. Its project on Jurong Island is scheduled to start up in 2014, shortly after completion of JRC's first caverns.

Phase 1 of JRC involves five caverns with a total storage capacity of 1.47 million cubic metres, with plans for phase 2 covering six caverns adding another 1.32 million cu m.

The 'megafloat' project, the first of which will be anchored at Pulau Sebarok, will have a minimum storage capacity of 300,000 cu m, or equal to that of a very large crude carrier. It would comprise two rectangular modules, each with 150,000 cu m of storage capacity.

Read more!

Smuggled Turtle Eggs Seized Near Malaysian Border

Jakarta Globe 19 Apr 11;

Pontianak. Authorities in West Kalimantan stopped more than 3,000 turtle eggs from being smuggled across the Malaysian border in a recent bust, an official said on Sunday.

Bambang Nugroho, head of Pontianak’s marine resources and fisheries surveillance office (P2SDKP), said the cargo was confiscated from a fruit truck at the Jagoi Babang border checkpoint in Bengkayang district at around 7 p.m. on Friday.

Soldiers and a P2SDKP team stationed at the checkpoint leading to Sarawak had found six boxes of turtle eggs hidden inside the vehicle, which was carrying mangoes, Bambang said.

“There were 3,405 turtle eggs. The eggs, seized as evidence, are now at the P2SDKP’s office in Pontianak,” he said.

The truck driver, who was brought in for questioning, told officials he was delivering mangoes from Pemangkat town in West Kalimantan to Serikin, Malaysia, just across the border.

Turtle egg smuggling is common in the region, according to Dwi Suprapti, a World Wildlife Fund coordinator based in Paloh, Sambas district.

The eggs fetch higher sums in Malaysia — one of the world’s biggest consumers, according to the WWF — where the product is considered a delicacy, Dwi said.

A box of 10 turtle eggs usually sell for Rp 1,200 (14 cents) in Indonesia, while wholesale buyers in Serikin pay 10 ringgit ($3.3) for the same package, she said.

“[The turtle eggs] are then sold by piece at markets, fetching up to 2 Malaysian ringgit each,” she added.

Dwi said one of the illegal trade’s harvesting hotspots was in West Kalimantan’s Paloh beach. The 63-kilometer stretch of coastline is a favorite nesting ground for green turtles and hawksbill turtles — both under threat of extinction.

Most of the turtles lay their eggs within a 19.3-kilometer strip between the Belacan River and Mutusan between June and October, according to Dwi.

The International Union for Conservation for Nature has listed the green turtle as endangered and hawksbills as critically endangered due to hunting and habitat loss.

The IUCN expects these turtles’ numbers to fall by as much as 80 percent within three generations if the animals continue to be poached for their meat, eggs and shells.


Read more!

Indonesia loses forests as politicians bicker

Moratorium on cutting down trees delayed by political tug of war
Zubaidah Nazeer, Straits Times 19 Apr 11;

JAKARTA: Indonesia is losing forest area about four times the size of Jakarta as politicians continue to bicker over a moratorium on cutting down trees.

Much of the delay, now into its fourth month, is also being pinned on bureaucratic inefficiencies, with two drafts of the moratorium being shoved around by different ministries.

The moratorium was part of a deal with Norway which pledged US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion) last year to help Indonesia reduce carbon emissions. In return for the funds, Jakarta agreed to stop issuing new concessions to forest areas for two years and cut carbon emissions by 26 per cent by 2020, or by 41 per cent with international support.

Indonesia is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases because of the widespread destruction of its forests.

In order to effect the moratorium, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has to sign a decree to back it up. He set up a nine-member task force comprising activists and politicians across various ministries to draft it.

But their efforts have become bogged down. Said Dr Dicky Simorangkir of The Nature Conservancy, who was consulted on the draft prepared by the task force: 'There is a lack of mechanism for clear communication and coordination among the ministries.'

To complicate matters, the task force members also sought input from civil society groups, researchers, scientists and private sector players such as investors. 'It is a case of having too many cooks spoiling the broth.'

Adding to the cacophony of different views is a political tug of war.

Added Dr Dicky: 'Now, we also have a political fight between the task force members and the other ministers. The question is - who do you accommodate?'

Much of the friction has been between the chief of the presidential task force, former minister Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, and a camp consisting of the Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hassan, Coordinating Minister for Economy Hatta Rajasa and Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad.

Mr Zulkifli was dissatisfied with the initial draft by Mr Kuntoro and came up with another one, after consulting Mr Hatta and Mr Gusti.

The parties remain deadlocked over several points in the moratorium, such as the definition of what constitutes forest area and peatlands, and whether the new task force would be given authority over forest management.

Vice-President Boediono has stepped in to mediate between the two camps but some analysts said this might not be enough to resolve matters.

Said Dr Herry Purnomo, a scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research: 'The President should be the one taking the lead, but he has been too careful, resulting in this stalemate.'

Some environmentalists however dismissed the current debate as meaningless as the moratorium may have little impact.

A Greenpeace report claimed both drafts still leave unprotected 45 million hectares of natural forest and peatland, an area almost twice the size of Britain.

Mr Yuyun Indradi, a campaigner for Greenpeace, said: 'Based on the two drafts, most of the areas where they plan to ban concessions are already designated as protected forests or conservation areas.'

Still, Mr Kuntoro expects the moratorium to be ready by next month.

He has been quoted as saying that major corporate players have thrown their support behind it.

Read more!

Lid lifted on Vietnamese rhino horn trade

Rhino horn openly on sale in Ha Noi markets
TRAFFIC 18 Apr 11;

April 2011—A hard-hitting documentary hosted by Dan Rather to be screened next Tuesday on HDNet television in the USA and Canada reveals the extent of the rhino horn trade to Viet Nam and how it is fuelling a rhino poaching crisis in southern Africa.

In the above advance clip of the broadcast, Tom Milliken, Director of TRAFFIC’s East and Southern Africa programme explains how a widely circulating “urban myth” about a senior politician supposedly cured of cancer using rhino horn stands behind an escalating slaughter of the species in Africa.

“There is a story in Viet Nam—it’s widely told that a former prime minister was dying of liver cancer, he took rhino horn and was cured,” says Milliken.

“Now, we are trying to put a face and a name to the story, but no matter where we query—government, individuals—we're not able to get to the bottom of it.”

Despite the lack of substance to the story, untold numbers of Vietnamese have been misled into buying rhino horn, spending huge sums of money on the powdered horn in the mistaken belief it has the ability to cure cancer.

As Milliken points out: “in the traditional literature going back centuries in Asia, rhino horn was used to reduce fever. It’s not going to cure you of lung cancer.”

In one sequence, the film crew enters a traditional medicine shop in Viet Nam where they ask about the availability of rhino horn, whereupon the attendant produces a horn from under the counter and explains “that the people who buy it will grind it and drink it.”

“Rhinoceros horn is a type of medicine that is valuable. Sometimes I offer it but only wealthy can use it,” the vendor adds.

“To willingly show banned wildlife goods to a camera crew indicates a serious disregard for the law and a total lack of law enforcement pressure on Viet Nam’s retail markets,” says Milliken.

In another clip, Milliken explains how abuse of rhino trophy hunting quotas in South Africa by Vietnamese visitors led to strict revisions in the country’s law.

Between 2000 and 2007, South Africa averaged about 12 rhino poached each year. In 2008, the figure reached 78, and by 2010 it was an unprecedented 333. Already this year, more than 80 rhino have been poached.

In October 2010, TRAFFIC facilitated a mission of South African law enforcement officers to Viet Nam for high-level discussions on growing rhino crime issues.

“Collaborative law enforcement action is needed in both source and consumer countries,” says Milliken.

“The fact that rhino horn remains readily available in Ha Noi markets means that the Vietnamese authorities are not doing their part to stop the trafficking in endangered species products.”

TRAFFIC’s work on rhino poaching has been funded by the Mackenzie Foundation, the US Government and WWF.

Read more!

Active Efforts Required to Save 'Ordinary Species' That Form Basis of Marine Ecosystems

ScienceDaily 18 Apr 11;

Active efforts are required to preserve biodiversity in the seas -- that far most people are in agreement. But in our enthusiasm to save uncommon species, we sometimes miss the common species that form the basis of marine ecosystems. 'Change strategy' is the challenge to the authorities from researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

An inconceivably large proportion of the animals that live in the seas are so uncommon that it is difficult to find more than a few specimens. Committing most resources to saving individual species is not just an expensive business -- it would also risk destroying the foundation for ecosystems, the research of Professor Kerstin Johannesson shows.

Her research team is able to demonstrate that it is the common species that are of really great significance for ecosystems, by establishing habitats for other species. It is therefore in all probability the most common species that determine the future of all species. If the common species disappear, it will have great consequences.

An alarming example of what can happen is that the cod populations in the fjords of the Bohuslän coast have almost without exception disappeared. These fjords have consequently lost one of their most important species. It can have far-reaching consequences for several other species when the environments of the shallow bays change.

"Without the big predatory fish, the sea-grass meadows become clogged, with the result that the shallow bays no longer act as larders and nurseries for inshore fish. While life slowly dies out, the blame is put on eutrophication."

Kerstin Johannesson's research is concerned with how different populations within one species may be so genetically different that they actually do not have very much to do with each other, and that in particular they are not interchangeable. If a local population disappears, it will not automatically be replaced by individuals from another population migrating in. In the worst case, even individuals of the other population are unable to cope in the environment of the extinct population.

"That's how it is with the cod populations in Bohuslän. Despite tough restrictions on catches and despite North Sea cod visiting the Bohuslän fjords every year, we are not getting the cod populations back. A similar example is the cod off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada, which have not returned despite a complete halt to fishing for nearly 20 years."

Focusing on the species in order to preserve species diversity in the seas is therefore an incorrect approach that may instead lead to greater losses. Despite this, there is a lack of legislation and recommendations today on how genetic variation within species should to be managed.

Read more!

Plenty more fish in the sea? Not for much longer

IUCN 19 Apr 11;

More than 40 species of marine fish currently found in the Mediterranean could disappear in the next few years. According to a study for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ on the status of marine fish in the Mediterranean Sea, almost half of the species of sharks and rays (cartilaginous fish) and at least 12 species of bony fish are threatened with extinction due to overfishing, marine habitat degradation and pollution.

Commercial species like Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus), Dusky Grouper (Epinephelus marginatus), Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) or Hake (Merluccius merluccius) are considered threatened or Near Threatened with extinction at the regional level mainly due to overfishing.

"The Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic population of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) is of particular concern. There has been an estimated 50% decline in this species’ reproduction potential over the past 40 years due to intensive overfishing,” says Kent Carpenter, IUCN Global Marine Species Assessment Coordinator. “The lack of compliance with current quotas combined with widespread underreporting of the catch may have undermined conservation efforts for this species in the Mediterranean."

The use of fishing gear, such as fishing lines, gill or trawling nets, and the illegal use of driftnets means that hundreds of marine animals with no commercial value are captured, threatening populations of many species of sharks, rays and other fish, as well as other marine animals including dolphins, whales, turtles and birds.

“The use of trawling nets is one of the main problems for conservation and sustainability of many marine species,” says Maria del Mar Otero, IUCN-Med Marine Programme Officer. “Because it is not a selective technique, it captures not only the target fish but also a high number of other species while also destroying the sea bottom, where many fish live, reproduce and feed.”

The study emphasizes the need to reinforce fishing regulations, create new marine reserves, reduce pollution and review fishing quotas, in particular the number of captures allowed for threatened species.

“Responsible consumption is one of the ways in which we can all contribute to the conservation of many marine species,” says Catherine Numa, IUCN-Med Species Programme Officer. “Based on the findings of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, we hope that politicians will make the appropriate decisions to secure this important food source for the future, whilst protecting and valuing the biological diversity of the planet at the same time.”

This is the first comprehensive regional IUCN Red List assessment of the native marine fish species for an entire sea. The report also highlights the substantial lack of information on the conservation status of nearly one third of these Mediterranean marine fish (which were assessed as Data Deficient), a significant proportion of which are considered endemic to the region. Further research may show that the Data Deficient group could in fact include a large proportion of threatened fish. Increased funding and research therefore need to be directed towards such Data Deficient species.

Fish on brink of extinction sparks calls to eat responsibly
The Independent 26 Apr 11;

A conservation group is urging people to consume responsibly after releasing a report that found that more than 40 species of fish found in the Mediterranean - including bluefin tuna and sea bass - could disappear in the next few years.

According to a study released this week for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, almost half of the species of sharks and rays and 12 species of bony fish in the Mediterranean Sea are threatened with extinction due to overfishing, marine habitat degradation and pollution.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, described as the first of its kind for an entire sea, singled out commercial species like bluefin tuna, dusky grouper, sea bass and hake as threatened or near threatened with extinction at the regional level due to overfishing.

Demand for bluefin tuna has skyrocketed along with the popularity of sushi around the world, as bluefin is considered the best tasting tuna. In Japanese restaurants, bluefin tuna is usually distinguished as maguro or toro.

Hake is a popular fish in Spanish cuisine.

"Responsible consumption is one of the ways in which we can all contribute to the conservation of many marine species," said Catherine Numa, program officer.

The IUCN report comes on the heels of Greenpeace USA's fifth annual seafood sustainability report, "Carting Away the Oceans" released earlier this month, which named major grocery chain Safeway as the top-rated retailer in the US on their sustainability scorecard.

On a 100-point scale, the "surprising" leader scored the highest at about 65, beating out organic health food store Whole Foods and snatching the title from last year's top-rated retailer Target. The report card evaluated everything from corporate policies, initiatives, transparency and red list sales.

Safeway was commended for adopting a no-take Marine Reserve policy that commits to buying seafood from the Ross Sea, a position first pioneered by American retailer Wegmans. Antarctica's Ross Sea, also known as the "Last Ocean," is described as the last remaining intact, pristine oceanic ecosystem in the world.

The chain has also discontinued the sale of orange roughy, a fish that bears few young and takes 20 years to mature sexually, making it a slow replenishing stock and particularly vulnerable to industrial fishing. Orange roughy fisheries also use destructive bottom trawling methods.

Safeway has 1,700 locations in Canada and the US.

Rounding out the top five top retailers in the US were Target, Wegmans, Whole Foods and Ahold.

"It's an amazing testament to the ongoing pressure from consumers, supporters and activists that in just three years, we've gone from a situation where all twenty major US retailers assessed failed to today, when fifteen retailers have now achieved a passing score," said Casson Trenor, senior markets campaigner.

Greenpeace offers consumers the following tips on how to eat seafood responsibly:

Voice concerns of overfishing, bycatch and unsustainable seafood at the grocery store and fishmonger

Refrain from eating red list species

Support responsible seafood merchants by shopping with them

Eat less fish.

To learn more about sustainable seafood and retailers, visit

Read more!

Australia’s biodiversity under increasing threat from multiple fronts

University of Queensland 19 Apr 11;

New research on the extent of Australia's biodiversity's decline has found that threatened species are impacted by multiple stressors, especially too little — or too much fire, and introduced plants and animals.

Published in the international journal BioScience, the study examines the many causes of threat to Australian species, of which 1700 are considered to be threatened or extinct - and the numbers are rising each year.

Researchers from The University of Queensland found that the loss of habitat through clearing of land and urbanisation is the main threat to Australian species.

However, the majority of species are also affected by other pressures that cannot be eased through the protection of habitat alone.

“Changes to the natural fire patterns and introduced species threaten proportionally more species in Australia than in other countries such as The United States, Canada and China,” said lead author, University of Queensland researcher Megan Evans.

The study also reveals important connections between the distributions of species and threats.

For example, changed fire patterns are a threat to species across almost 90 percent of the Australian landscape, but affect less than half of the threatened species, said co-author Dr Richard Fuller from The University of Queensland and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.

“Even in less populated regions such as Northern Australia, threatened species are suffering from the impacts of too frequent and intense fires, as well as introduced plants and animals – which means that effective conservation management is critical even in areas considered to be untouched wilderness,” said co-author Dr James Watson from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The authors said it was important to know which species were impacted by certain threats, as well as the spatial distributions of threats, in order to more effectively prioritise investments into conservation management.

“Getting the best outcomes for biodiversity means we need to consider a range of biological and socio-economic factors to decide where to best direct conservation efforts: what threats exist, what are the potential benefits of conservation management, what are the most suitable management actions and how much will they cost?” said co-author and director of The University of Queensland's Ecology Centre Professor Hugh Possingham.

Ms Evans said that the prevalence and incidence of health conditions were commonly considered when prioritising investments into healthcare, and that improved outcomes for biodiversity could be achieved if a similar approach were taken in conservation.

The overwhelming finding of the study is that many of Australia's iconic species are at risk of extinction from multiple pressures, and that careful planning and effective allocation of resources will be required to overcome this extinction crisis.

Read more!

Bird feathers show pollution rise over 120 years: study

Yahoo News 19 Apr 11;

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Feathers collected from rare Pacific seabirds over the past 120 years have shown an increase in a type of toxic mercury that likely comes from human pollution, US researchers said on Monday.

Scientists at Harvard University took samples from feathers belonging to the endangered black-footed albatross from two US museum collections, said the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The feathers, which dated from 1880 to 2002, showed "increasing levels of methylmercury that were generally consistent with historical global and recent regional increases in anthropogenic mercury emissions," the study said.

Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that can cause central nervous system damage and comes from burning fossil fuels.

Rising levels of mercury in fish and seafood are believed to pose dangers to human health, and pregnant women and young children are particularly urged to limit the amount of some types of fish in their diets.

"Using these historic bird feathers, in a way, represents the memory of the ocean," said study co-author Michael Bank, a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health.

"Our findings serve as a window to the historic and current conditions of the Pacific, a critical fishery for human populations," Bank said.

The highest concentrations in feathers were linked to exposure by the birds in the post-1990 timeframe, which coincided with a recent spike in pollution from Asian carbon emissions in the Pacific region, the study said.

Mercury pollution from Asia went from about 700 tons annually in 1990 to 1,290 tons in 2005, the study said, noting that China became the largest emitter of such pollutants in 2005 with 635 tons.

Pre-1940 levels of mercury in bird feathers were the lowest in the study.

The black-footed albatross is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimates about 129,000 of them are living in the northern Pacific, mainly near Hawaii and Japan.

The birds feed primarily on fish, fish eggs, squid and crustaceans.

The high levels of mercury in their feathers could indicate a link between their high-mercury diets and their decreasing numbers, said the study.

"Given both the high levels of methylmercury that we measured in our most recent samples and regional levels of emissions, mercury bioaccumulation and toxicity may undermine reproductive effort in this species and other long-lived, endangered seabirds," said lead author Anh-Thu Vo, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Banks added that "mercury pollution and its subsequent chemical reactions in the environment may be important factors in species population declines."

Read more!

Asia nuclear reactors face tsunami risk

Robin McDowell and Margie Mason, Associated Press Yahoo News 19 Apr 11;

JAKARTA, Indonesia – The skeleton of what will soon be one of the world's biggest nuclear plants is slowly taking shape along China's southeastern coast — right on the doorstep of Hong Kong's bustling metropolis. Three other facilities nearby are up and running or under construction.

Like Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant they lie within a few hundred miles of the type of fault known to unleash the largest tsunami-spawning earthquakes.

Called subduction zones, these happen when one tectonic plate is lodged beneath another. And because the so-called Manila Trench hasn't been the source of a huge quake in at least 440 years, some experts say tremendous stresses are building, increasing the chances of a major rupture.

Should that happen, the four plants in southern China, and a fifth perched on Taiwan's southern tip, could be in the path of a towering wave like the one that struck Fukushima.

"We have to assume they'll be hit," said David Yuen, a University of Minnesota professor who has modeled seismic probabilities for the fault. "Maybe not in the next 10 years, but in 50 or 100 years."

Asia, the world's most seismically charged region, is undergoing a nuclear renaissance as it struggles to harness enough power for its huge populations and booming economies.

But China, Taiwan, India and several other countries frantically building coastal facilities have made little use of new science to determine whether these areas are safe. At least 32 plants in operation or under construction in Asia are at risk of one day being hit by a tsunami, nuclear experts and geologists warn.

And even when nations have conducted appropriate seismic hazard assessments, in many cases they have not shared the findings with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, leaving experts frustrated and in the dark.

"It's pretty astonishing to a lot of us that so little priority is placed on the work we do," said Kerry Sieh of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, who has studied and written about the Manila Trench, where pressure has been building for millions of years.

He is among those who say it is only a matter of time before it snaps.


In assessing the tsunami risks to nuclear power stations, scientists focus on their proximity to subduction faults, volcanoes and areas frequently hit by underwater landslides — all of which can trigger seismic waves. Because giant tsunamis recur, they also look at historic and scientific records, going back up to 4,000 years if possible.

The greatest threat comes from the subduction faults crisscrossing the globe, some far from the minds of policymakers, nuclear industry officials and the public because it has been so long since they exploded.

In places where tectonic plates that form these faults are "coupled," or stuck together, the stresses are the biggest, especially if centuries have passed without a major energy-releasing earthquake.

When the strain eventually forces one plate to pop up or dive under the other, the resulting temblor can spawn mammoth waves like the one that struck off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, triggering the nuclear crisis that has carried on for more than a month.

While there is some "coupling" at the Manila Trench, there is debate about just how much. Scientists say more research needs to be done to determine if pressure is building and along which segments.

A computerized simulation by Yuen's students shows a magnitude-9.0 quake along the Manila Trench sending waves racing along the South China Sea, before slamming Taiwan's southern shore 15 minutes later. The tsunami reaches China's southeast coast in around two hours. It also strikes Hong Kong, which sits just 30 miles from the nearest nuclear plant — close enough to see increased radiation levels if a plant were to be damaged by a Fukushima-like event.

Scientists paint a worst-case scenario in which waves 15 to 24 feet high (5 to 8 meters) could strike the plants in China and Taiwan.


Science has come a long way since the first nuclear plant was built in the 1950s.

By carbon dating the ash, pollen or other organic material attached to tsunami sand deposits swept inland with the giant walls of water, geologists can determine to the decade, and sometimes even the year, when the wave hit and how big it was when it roared ashore.

That's important because some tsunamis only strike once a millennium.

"This is the smoking gun, the calling card of the tsunami, and when you find it, especially far inland, you know that this is an area that has been hit with a large tsunami in the past," said Bruce Jaffe, an oceanographer and tsunami expert at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Such research is considered essential in deciding where to locate nuclear power stations because most are built along seashores, rivers and lakes to supply the massive amounts of water needed to keep their reactors cool.

Japan, which sits atop three highly active tectonic plates with 54 reactors dotting its coastlines, has probably done the most when it comes to looking back in history.

Even so, Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the hobbled Fukushima plant, did not factor geologic evidence of the giant Jogan tsunami of 869 A.D. into its preparedness. When the tsunami hit last month, it unleashed waves up to 42 feet (14 meters) high, swamping the backup generators needed for cooling.

The same region was also walloped twice before, once around 140 B.C. and again sometime between 600 B.C. and 900 B.C., scientific studies revealed.

Experts hope Japan has taught the world an important lesson: When it comes to nuclear safety, it's essential to imagine the unimaginable. Looking back 50 years, or even 500, is not enough.

"When you're talking about radioactivity and possibilities of explosions ... you have to look at what is within the realm of possibility," said Jody Bourgeois, a tsunami expert at the University of Washington who was doing research in Japan when the disaster struck. "You should be building it with factors of safety for the maximum possible events."

It's not the first time a tsunami has threatened nuclear reactors.

The 2004 earthquake off Indonesia's subduction fault spawned the monster tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

It also sent waves slamming into a nuclear plant in the southern Indian township of Kalpakkam, the country's center of atomic research, nearly a thousand miles from the quake's epicenter.

Though the reactors automatically shut down and no radioactive material was released, it showed that even facilities far from dangerous faults need to prepare for the worst.

While the near miss in India raised awareness, it did not prompt major changes to the safety design at the Madras Atomic Power Station, said its director, K. Ramamurthy. Last week, however, a top government official said India would revamp the safety features at all its nuclear plants to try to prevent a Japan-style crisis.

The Madras plant is among the scores that have yet to ask the IAEA for an independent review to determine if their tsunami preparedness assessments meet international standards.

The same holds for Pakistan, which built a plant along a coastline near Karachi that was hit by a tsunami in 1945, as well as for China, Taiwan and the U.S.

Though the reports aren't mandatory, Antonio Godoy, the IAEA's recently retired top seismic safety expert, said many countries have held up efforts to build a comprehensive database identifying the plants vulnerable to tsunamis based on such reviews.

The Fukushima crisis does seem to have jolted some governments into action.

Tsunami expert Tso-Ren Wu of Taiwan's National Central University, warns that "we are long overdue" for a similar quake on the Manila Trench. He was recently commissioned by Taiwan to model worst-case scenarios for all three of the island's nuclear plants and a fourth under construction. His findings will be used to help redesign the facilities or raise their seawalls, if necessary.

His studies indicate two plates that form the subduction zone are pushing against each other at a relatively fast 8.7 centimeters (3.4 inches) per year, forcing extreme amounts of energy to build up. A fault slip from the two plates would be up to 38 meters, comparable to what occurred during the 1960 magnitude-9.5 Chile earthquake, the largest on record. By comparison, the slips in Indonesia and Japan were estimated at around 20 meters. The greater the slip, the more water is heaved up to create bigger tsunami waves.

It's not yet clear, however, if the Japan disaster was a wake-up call for energy-starved China, which has the world's most ambitious nuclear power expansion.

China's nuclear regulators declined to answer questions submitted by The Associated Press, but have said in the past that plants along their southeastern coast have been fitted with the most modern technology and are able to withstand huge storm surges from typhoons, which hit with far less force than tsunamis.

As for the likelihood of a mammoth tsunami, Li Zhong-Cheng of the National Energy Center told the state-run China Daily newspaper after last month's disaster that coastal areas are protected by a wide, shallow continental shelf that is not conducive to the formation of big seismically triggered waves.

Other scientists say there isn't enough research to make such a declaration.

Some historical records, though inconsistent, indicate a 30-foot (10-meter) tsunami in 1782 from the South China Sea killed as many as 40,000 people after hitting southern Taiwan. Records also point to a 27-foot wave in 1765 that swept as many as 10,000 people out to sea in the same province where the Chinese plants are located.

But experts say China needs to look much further back in time.

Unlike Japan, sand deposit studies have just begun there and have not yet yielded evidence of ancient tsunamis. More research is needed along the coast and in the Philippines — which would have been within reach of the same waves.

If that data, along with predictions about future earthquake-spawned tsunamis are not taken into account, some fear disaster could strike again some day.

Plants in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic and Persian Gulf also need to be prepared.

The only candidate for a large tsunami in the continental U.S. is the Cascadian subduction zone, more than 200 miles off the West coast. Experts say neither the Diablo Canyon nor San Onofre stations in California are considered in the path of destruction, though they may still be vulnerable to local tsunamis generated by other faults or submarine landslides. Both have recently promised to carry out more advanced seismic testing to guarantee safety.

"What happened in Japan was not a surprise," said Godoy, who remains an IAEA consultant and has spent much of the past 20 years warning governments to prepare for worst-case scenarios. "Maybe now they'll wake up, listen and act."


Mason reported from Hanoi, Vietnam. Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler in Beijing, Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.

Read more!