Best of our wild blogs: 7 Sep 11

FREE shore activities for kids in September!
from wild shores of singapore

Last morning trip of 2011: Cyrene Reef
from wonderful creation

Brown Shrike impaling centipede before eating it
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Paradise once lost, can't be regained

Paul Gilfeather Today Online 7 Sep 11;

While major cities around the world search for the money and means to establish quality green spaces for its population, Singapore appears to have hit the jackpot with the closure of the Malaysian railway line.

As the last train pulled out of Tanjong Pagar Station in July there was an outpouring of sadness as Singaporeans young and old turned out to mark the end of another chapter in the country's history.

Now, as the planners and politicians fix their sights on the future of the now-defunct track, the environmental lobby has stolen a march by unveiling their "green corridor" concept. The genius and beauty of the proposal is in its simplicity. The plan is to do absolutely nothing to the stretch of natural beauty and I can't help but feel excited at the prospect.

With four-fifths of Singapore being created within the last 25 years, campaigners say the Government has a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to maintain an existing site, as opposed to creating or developing a new one which would not function as it's supposed to. They point to the recently-developed public spaces around Marina Bay and argue that they do not serve their intended purpose of providing quality, open space for ordinary Singaporeans to relax, engage with nature or take part in leisurely activities.

Professor Steffen Lehmann is the current Chair in Sustainable Urban Development for Asia and the Pacific and he is lending his expert voice to keep the KTM tracks as Singapore's "green spine" for nature and leisure. As a consultant to Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, he is suggesting a passage which connects to the city while providing quality space for walking and cycling.

Prof Lehmann, a former visiting lecturer at NUS who has written a book called The Principles of Green Urbanism, said: "There is a moral obligation not to build on this land, but to preserve it in its full scale as public green space. The increase in liveability and positive impact will be immense but we now need to establish the principles of this green corridor, before designs are developed.

"In the last decade, Singapore has been too much focused on the design of individual buildings to make them 'landmarks'. But the space between these buildings is much more important. Unfortunately, very few of the many new public spaces, for instance around Marina Bay, are working at the level they should.

"Place-making is primarily not about design - it's about people and empowerment of communities."

There is an old railway line near my home town in Scotland and that was never developed. There probably wasn't the money or inclination. That inaction proved to be positive and now it is used daily by cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers and nature lovers.

It's hugely popular and provides the people of Aberdeen with a link to the countryside. The stretch of line running through central Singapore has the potential to provide the same service for its residents.

Very few cities around the world have a natural corridor of greenery and, as I mentioned earlier, many town halls are desperately looking at ways of developing stretches like the one we already have. The difference is they would have to draft their plans on a drawing board and then, in most cases, build it from scratch.

Of course, there will be a powerful lobby arguing the case for major restructuring of the site. They will say that with Singapore being so land-scarce, chunks of the corridor should be sold off for development and the money poured into the public purse.

However, at his National Day Rally address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke enthusiastically about the idea and his appeal for grassroots' campaigners to work closely with the Government on any future plan, was very encouraging. In particular, he highlighted proposals put forward by Ms Regina Koo, a graduate of the NUS Architecture Department. She suggests building a "Velo-Park" with bikeways, bike rental stalls, bike club and cafe.

This idea chimes with Prof Lehmann's push for the lane to be used for electric-aided bicycles, which would include measures to prevent the width of a new green corridor being reduced below 10 metres at any point. "We now need to establish the principles of this green corridor before designs are developed," he said. "Better connection of existing precincts can now be achieved, but if this connectivity is lost to private developers, it cannot be regained. It should be legally decided not to sell off this land but keep it in public ownership."

The green lobby insist Singapore's former railway could prove to be the most important urban development issue to face the country in years. And it's hard not to be tantalised by talk of an uninterrupted stretch of track with authentic former railway structures, urban jungle and unique wildlife. The only development should be, they say, state-of-the-art solar canopies, cafe pavilions and media points.

Last week it was announced that a 1.4 km stretch of railway track from Bukit Timah bridge would be opened for walking from Sept 16. This is a positive first step but campaigners are calling for the eventual corridor to stretch much further.

Prof Lehmann said: "We can't have anything less than excellence for this stripe of land. Leaving it as nature intended would be better than any building or development which could possibly be created."

Paul Gilfeather is the Principal Correspondent at Today.

Urban planning focused on creating vibrancy
Letter from Ho Moon Shin Deputy Director (Corporate Communications), Urban Redevelopment Authority
Today Online 12 Sep 11;

We refer to Mr Paul Gilfeather's commentary "Paradise once lost, can't be regained" (Sep 7).

It is heartening to see the keen public interest in the future plans of the former railway lands. The Urban Redevelopment Authority is currently conducting a comprehensive review to chart the development plans for the rail corridor and its surrounding areas.

This includes studying the possibility of marrying development and greenery, such as applying innovative strategies to maintain a continuous green link along the rail corridor without affecting the development potential of the lands.

Members of the public have been sharing their visions for the rail corridor with us, which we will study carefully and, where feasible, incorporate into the development plans. We welcome the community to continue to offer feedback and ideas at

Mr Gilfeather also quoted Professor Steffen Lehmann on his views on Singapore's place making efforts.

Notably, Prof Lehmann said that "Singapore has been too focused on the design of individual buildings" and that "very few of the many new public spaces, for instance around Marina Bay, are working at the level they should".

On the contrary, URA's urban planning is done holistically and considers the broader vision of each precinct.

In the planning for Marina Bay, which is envisioned as a precinct where people live, work and play, the Master Plan focuses on encouraging a mix of uses to ensure the area remains vibrant 24/7.

Much effort has been put into the urban design of Marina Bay, such as incorporating green and open spaces like the Gardens by the Bay, to ensure it becomes a distinctive and delightful place to visitors and users.

Key streets and the waterfront promenade have been planned to be lined with activity-generating uses to ensure the public realm remains vibrant all the time.

Developments in Marina Bay will be seamlessly linked to Mass Rapid Transit stations via an extensive network of underground pedestrian links, covered walkways at street level and elevated walkways, to make walking from building to building convenient and comfortable.

It takes time to build up new places such as Marina Bay and for these places to find a place in the heart of the community. URA is currently partnering the community to bring more activities and vibrancy to the Bay.

The number of large-scale community events held there, including runs and family-oriented ones like the Singapore Kite Festival, has been growing.

We are optimistic that we will eventually bring to fruition our vision to make the area the people's bay.

Prof Lehmann claimed to be "a consultant" to URA. We would like to clarify that he is not as we have not engaged his services.

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The dinosaurs are coming!

Straits Times 7 Sep 11;

Singapore will be home to three dinosaur skeletons, thanks to an anonymous donor who stepped in with a multimillion-dollar donation over the weekend that helped secure the fossils from their American sellers. The trio, including 24m-long Apollo (photo), will get star billing at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum when it opens in 2014.


Mystery donor clinches dinosaur deal
Prominent Singaporean tops up donations to buy 3 skeletons from US
Tan Dawn Wei Straits Times 7 Sep 11;

THE dinosaurs are really coming, thanks to a last-minute multimillion-dollar donation from a mysterious donor.

After racing to raise $8 million to buy three near-complete dinosaur skeletons dug up from Wyoming in the United States, the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research sealed the deal on Monday.

It almost did not happen, after the museum missed the July 31 deadline set by the sellers, Wyoming-based fossil company Dinosauria International.

The museum had managed to raise close to only $2 million of the amount needed to secure the fossils.

It pleaded for an extension - something Dinosauria's owners, Mr Henry Galiano and Mr Raimund Albersdoerfer, acceded to despite having other offers.

They wanted to sell the bones to an academic institution or museum that would use them for education and research.

Last weekend, Mr Galiano and Mr Albersdoerfer flew into Singapore at the invitation of a prominent Singaporean.

For several hours, they met the Singaporean and at the end of it an agreement was reached: The Singaporean would donate an amount which, together with the earlier donations, was agreeable to the sellers.

An agreement was inked the next morning.

Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum, was coy about just how much the major donor gave, and would only say they managed to work out 'a financial structure' during the meeting.

'We have crossed the first hurdle. The dinosaurs are coming to Singapore,' he said, relieved.

The bones will be the star attraction at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, which will open in 2014.

The 7,500 sq m museum - the new name of the Raffles Museum - will be built at the National University of Singapore at a cost of $46 million. The family of the late banker and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian donated $25 million.

It will showcase the Raffles Museum's collection of 500,000 specimens of South-east Asian animals, which have been housed at the university's biological sciences department since 1988.

The three dinosaur skeletons were found between 2007 and last year in a quarry in the small town of Ten Sleep.

Discovered together, the two adults and one baby are diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, among the biggest animals to walk on this planet some 150 million years ago.

Two of them - nicknamed Apollo and Prince - measure 24m in length, while the baby dinosaur, Twinky, is 12m long.

Each is about 80 per cent complete, a rarity in sauropod dinosaur discoveries where finds do not come more than 30 per cent complete. They could be part of a herd or even a family.

Mr Albersdoerfer said he had turned down offers by auction house Sotheby's and another private buyer.

'We didn't want the dinosaurs to be sitting in a warehouse somewhere. And they were also interested before anyone else,' said Mr Albersdoerfer of Raffles Museum, which had heard about the archaeological finds earlier this year from a researcher.

The skeletons are the largest and most complete ones the company has sold, which have numbered about 10, including these three.

The museum has not decided when it will ship the fossils to Singapore. It needs to find a suitable space for it, but the public may get to see it even before the new museum opens, Prof Ng said.

The fund-raising work for the team is not over. They now have to raise at least another $2 million to mount the dinosaur exhibition.

Professor Leo Tan, chairman of the fund-raising committee, said he is grateful to the private and public donors, but put in a plea: 'Continue to give because our museum will grow stronger for your benefit.'

Generous mystery donor makes $8m dino deal possible
AsiaOne 7 Sep 11;

A very generous mystery donor has made it possible for the dinosaurs to come to Singapore.

A plan by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research to acquire three near-complete dinosaur skeletons found in Wyoming in the United States almost did not happen, because the museum only managed to raise close to $2 million by the July 31 deadline set by the sellers.

The three skeletons, two adults and a baby, belonged to the diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs. Two of them, measuring 24m long, have been nicknamed Prince and Apollo, while the baby, at 12m long, is christened Twinky.

But the sellers, Mr Henry Galiano and Mr Raimund Albersdoerfer of fossil-company Dinosauria International, agreed to extend the deadline even though they had other offers, including ones from a private buyer and auction house Sotheby's, reported The Straits Times.

They wanted to the bones to end up with an academic institution or musuem which would use the fossils for research.

The bones finally went to the musuem early this week after Mr Galiano and Mr Albersdoerfer flew into Singapore at the invitation of a prominent Singaporean for a discussion on their sale.

However, director of Raffles Museum did not reveal what was the agreed-on sale amount, or how much the mystery donor gave.

The skeletons will be on display at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, which will open in 2014. It is the new name of the Raffles Museum, and built at a cost of $46 million.

But the musuem continues to ask for donations, as another $2 million will be needed to mount the dinosaur exhibition.

More about the dinosaur donation drive:

See also How I was smitten by dinosaurs

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Sharks saved from soupy fate set free at sea

Didier Lauras (AFP) Google News 6 Sep 11;

PATTAYA, Thailand — Saved from the soup bowl at a Thai restaurant, the baby shark wriggled out of the bag and into the open sea -- a rare survivor of a trade that kills millions of the predators each year.

On average an estimated 22,000 tonnes of sharks are caught annually off Thailand for their fins -- a delicacy in Chinese cuisine once enjoyed only by the rich, but now increasingly popular with the wealthier middle class.

Thanks to a group of environmental activists calling themselves the Dive Tribe, dozens of sharks were returned to the wild in the Gulf of Thailand recently, bought from animal markets or restaurants.

Among them were several young bamboo and black tip reef sharks which narrowly avoided ending up as shark fin soup -- prized in particular by the Chinese who believe it boosts sexual potency.

Gwyn Mills, founder of Dive Tribe, laments the fact that the plight of sharks is largely overlooked compared to animals such as elephants and tigers.

He fears it may be only five or 10 years before the damage is irreversible.

"We are losing too many sharks. We can't afford to take any more out of the ocean," Mills said.

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 populations of the predators, which have been swimming since the time of the dinosaurs.

The maritime conservation group Oceana estimates that up to 73 million sharks are finned each year around the world, depleting many populations by as much as 90 percent.

Although the shark is portrayed as an insatiable man-eater in Steven Spielberg's hit 1975 movie "Jaws", naturalists say most species pose no danger to humans.

"Actually attacks on people are rare," said Jean-Christophe Thomas, a scuba instructor involved in the shark release.

On Saturday, 60 sharks left their temporary home at the "Underwater World" aquarium in the Thai resort city of Pattaya in plastic bags filled with water. Loaded onto a boat, they were released one by one back into the wild.

"I was carrying the plastic bag and did not even notice when he left," said Wayne Phillips, a lecturer in marine ecology at Mahidol University.

"But I like that. He was not given freedom. He took it. He was living in a tank, then in a plastic bag. He's better here."

While the release was a largely symbolic event designed to raise awareness, the stakes are real.

Environmentalists say that sharks, particularly the apex predators, play a vital role in the marine ecosystem.

"So if we protect the sharks, the rest of the reef will be protected," said Phillips. "We need to make people realise how important sharks are."

Environmentalists argue that sharks are slow to reproduce, making them unsuitable for commercial fishing.

Some types of shark species, including the great white and the hammerhead, are endangered, threatened or vulnerable, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Some countries are taking action.

The tiny Pacific nation of Palau declared the world's first shark sanctuary in 2009, prompting similar moves by the Maldives and Honduras.

Taiwan, one of the world's major shark catchers, is moving to tighten measures against hunting the predator while the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island is also seeking to ban shark fishing.

The members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also adopted a resolution in 1994 on shark conservation and management.

And in 1999, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation adopted an International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks.

But a report by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic and the Pew Environmental Group released in January said not enough was being done to implement that plan.

"International concern about shark stocks continues to grow because of an increasing body of evidence that many shark species are threatened and are continuing to decline as a result of unregulated fishing", it said.

Activists believe the best hope of reversing the situation is to highlight the benefits of sharks to the tourism industry.

The animals are a major attraction for snorkelers and scuba divers, but it is increasingly rare to see the creatures in the seas off Thailand.

Mills argued that one reef shark is worth many times more to the tourist industry than it would fetch in a restaurant. He thinks fishermen should be compensated for releasing the sharks that get entangled in their nets.

While swimming with sharks is a joy for many scuba divers and naturalists, for some the shark remains a creature to be feared -- an image unlikely to be helped by the upcoming release of the Hollywood movie "Shark Night 3D".

The film tells the fictional story of a group of carefree teenagers killed off one by one by hungry sharks in a salt lake in Louisiana.

According to the International Shark Attack File, compiled at the University of Florida, 79 unprovoked shark attacks occurred around the world in 2010, six of which were fatal. This was the highest number in a decade and an increase of 25 percent on 2009.

For Dive Tribe and other shark lovers, the battle is only just beginning.

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Alien worm invasion 'threat to forests'

Mark Kinver BBC News 6 Sep 11;

Invasive earthworms can alter the carbon and nitrogen cycles in woodland, as well as undermining native plant species, a study has said.

US researchers found that the presence of non-native worms also accelerated the breakdown of forest litter, increasing the risk of soil erosion.

The worms are spread to new areas by horticulture and land disturbance, they add, as well as on vehicles' tyres.

The findings have been published in the journal Human Ecology.

"The presence of earthworms in temperate hardwood forests may accelerate decomposition of forest litter, which potentially reduces habitat for forest-floor animals, (increases) soil erosion... and affects carbon and nitrogen cycles," the researchers from Colgate University, New York, wrote.

Quoting a previous study, the scientists said that invasive earthworms could reduce the amount of carbon stored in soil by up to 28% as a result of the animals eating fallen leaves, which had a knock-on effect on the temperature of the forest floor.

Dark soil absorbed more solar energy than lighter leaf litter, causing the soil to dry out more quickly.

As well as altering the chemical composition of soil, the worms also had an biological impact because the thinner layer of litter reduced populations of a number of forest-dwelling flora and fauna, such as small mammals, ground-nesting birds and some threatened fern species.

The team, whose study focused on the forests of north America, suggested that there were a number of factors behind the dispersal of non-native worms across the landscape.

These were primarily the result of human activity, because after being wiped out in the region during the last period of glaciation, earthworms would have made a very, very slow advance northward, covering just a few hundred kilometres over the past 10,000 years.

The shipping and transplantation of soil in the horticulture industry is believed to be one factor.

The researchers also said that previous research had shown a strong correlation between the presence of roads and the number of worms found in the area, probably the result of the combination of soil disturbance and worms being dispersed by vehicles.

As well as the unintentional spread, the team indentified a number of "intentional" vectors. One was the use of Lumbricus rubellus (red earthworm) in community compost heaps.

But the biggest problem came from the disposal of fishing bait, which the researchers described as "the most important vector for widespread and scattered exotic earthworm introduction in remote areas".

Although Lumbricus terrestris (common earthworm) is native to temperate regions of Europe, it is considered to be an invasive species in North America as it thrives in agricultural marginal land and is deemed to inhibit the growth of native flora in these areas.

Yet within parts of Europe, the common earthworm itself is struggling to compete against flatworms that were introduced from Australasia.

Carbon casts

However, a study published earlier this year that examined the role of worms in the carbon cycle of tropical forests found the creatures had a net benefit in terms of locking carbon into the soil.

Within an area of rainforest in Vietnam, the researchers found that casts (excretions of digested organic matter) produced by a species of worm had higher concentrations of carbon, and were able to withstand about twice as much rainfall, than surrounding "control" soil samples.

As a result, the team concluded that the presence of worms enhanced the transition of organic material into soil aggregates.

Soils with many aggregates (clumps of soil particles and a mixture of organic and fungal matter) are considered to be more stable and less prone to erosion.

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Giant crabs make Antarctic leap

Richard Black BBC News 6 Sep 11;

King crabs have been found on the edge of Antarctica, probably as a result of warming in the region, scientists say.

Writing in the journal Proceedings B, scientists report a large, reproductive population of crabs in the Palmer Deep, a basin cut in the continental shelf.

They suggest the crabs were washed in during an upsurge of warmer water.

The crabs are voracious crushers of sea floor animals and will probably change the ecosystem profoundly if and when they spread further, researchers warn.

Related species have been found around islands off the Antarctic Peninsula and on the outer edge of the continental shelf.

But here the crabs (Neolithodes yaldwyn) are living and reproducing in abundance right on the edge of the continent itself.
Search for life

The researchers sent the Genesis, a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operated by the University of Ghent in Belgium, into the Palmer Deep in March last year.

The idea was to look at what life was down there, rather than specifically to look for crabs; and the team was somewhat surprised by how many they found.

Judging by the density of the crabs and their tracks, the scientists estimate there may be 1.5 million crabs in the basin.

A female crab retrieved from the area was found to be carrying mature eggs and larvae.

"Our best guess is there was an event, or maybe more than one, where warmer water flushed up across the shelf and carried some of the larvae into the basin," said project leader Craig Smith from the University of Hawaii.

It is believed that this species cannot tolerate water colder than 1.4C.

The seas here get warmer as you descend; and the crabs were only found below 850m.

The researchers calculate that they have probably been there only for 30-40 years; before that, the water would have been too cold even at the bottom of the Palmer Deep.

They cannot as yet survive on the continental shelf, which is at a depth of about 500m; but that could change.

"If you look at the rate at which the seas are warming, (the continental shelf) should be above 1.4C within a couple of decades, so the crabs are likely then to come into shallower waters," Professor Smith told BBC News.

The upper limit of the crab-dwelling zone - 850m - also marks the line between abundant seabed life above and depleted life below.

"Above the crab zone, the abundance and diversity of plants and animals was high, with echinoderms including brittlestars, sea lilies and sea cucumbers," said Professor Smith.

"We found none of them in the crab zone itself, and when we went 50-100m above we found very few - so we think the crabs are venturing up into shallow waters to feed.

"We would expect extinctions in some of these organisms."

These findings reinforce the belief of other scientists that king crabs will change the ecology of the Antarctic perimeter once they arrive - and that they would arrive at some point, washed from warmer waters along the South American coast, has long been expected.

With a legspan of up to a metre, the animals are generally top predators in the seafloor ecosystem.

The king (or stone) crabs are a group of about 120 species - and one member, the red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) is already having an ecological impact in Norwegian waters following its slow spread from Russia.

However, in Northern latitudes they are also now important commercially, with Norwegian fishermen alone allocated a quota of thousands each year.

Fishing crabs for profit in this part of the Antarctic would not be permitted. But fishing could in time be used as a means to control them, said Professor Smith, if their ecological impacts become too severe.

Global warming brings crab threat to Antarctica
AFP Yahoo News 7 Sep 11;

The sea floor around the West Antarctica peninsula could become invaded by a voracious king crab, which is on the march thanks to global warming, biologists reported on Wednesday.

The worrisome intruder is a bright-red deep-sea predator that previously had been spotted only in the Ross Sea, on the other side of West Antarctica.

Taxonomists identified the crustacean just five years ago, bestowing it with the lengthy monicker of Neolithodes yaldwyni Ahyong and Dawson and placing it among the 121 species of king crab.

It is known as an "ecosystem engineer" because it digs into the sea floor to feast on worms and other tiny animals, an activity that in large numbers can have repercussions across the marine food web.

A team led by Laura Grange of the University of Hawaii at Manoa lowered a remote-controlled scoutcraft as part of a long-term probe into biodiversity in the waters off the Antarctic peninsula.

They looked at Palmer Deep, a mud-floored basin in the Weddell Sea located 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the edge of the continental shelf.

The robot's camera, trailed over two kilometres (1.2 miles), spotted 42 crabs, all of them at depths lower than 850 metres (2,760 feet), where the water was a relatively balmy 1.4 degrees Celsius (34.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

By extrapolation, the crab population in Palmer's deep -- an area measuring 14 kms (nine miles) long by eight kms (five miles) wide -- could be more than 1.5 million, says Grange.

That density is the same as commercial crab fisheries in Alaska and the British South Atlantic island of South Georgia.

The images gave a glimpse of the kind of damage caused by the foraging crustaceans.

The crabs, their shells measuring roughly 10 centimetres (four inches) across, had dug gashes up to 20 cms (one foot) into the soft ocean floor and thrown up lumps of sediment. The robot also retrieved a pregnant female crab, as proof that the species was reproducing.

None of the crabs was found at shallower depths, where the seas are colder.

The implication is that as global warming heats the frigid coastal-shelf waters, which lie at depths of 400 and 600 metres (1,300 and 1,950 feet), the way will be open for the crustacean to continue its creeping advance.

The evidence from sea-floor sediment is that no so-called lithodid, or crushing, crabs have inhabited the cold shallow waters of the West Antarctic peninsula for 14 million years.

Previous research has already named the peninsula as one of the most vulnerable regions in the world for global warming. The waters of its continental shelf are warming at the rate of 0.1 C (0.14 F) per decade.

"If N. yaldwyni is currently limited by cold temperatures, it could spread up onto the shelf within one to two decades," warns the study, published in the British scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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Valuing Nature’s Services Today Is an Investment in the Future

New article identifies ways in which payments for ecosystem services (PES) help protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change
World Watch Institute 6 Sep 11;

Washington, D.C.—Countries around the world are embracing “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) as a verifiable approach to protecting biological diversity and mitigating climate change, according to research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute for the publication Vital Signs Online. PES are financial arrangements designed to protect the many benefits that are provided by the natural environment. They include payments for projects that invest in biodiversity and watershed protection, ecosystem restoration, and carbon capture in forests.

“Nearly 60 percent of all ecosystem services are being degraded or used in an unsustainable manner,” said Alexander Ochs, Director of Climate and Energy at Worldwatch. “With PES, we can put a monetary value on these important services, from water filtration to carbon sequestration, to ensure that they are being properly sustained for the benefit of both people and the planet.” PES schemes aim to encourage a net increase in benefits that would not otherwise have occurred without the financial incentive, a concept known as providing “additionality.”

At the international level, two initiatives—the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) Programme and the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility—were established in 2008 to assist in the development of a global PES scheme that would compensate developing countries for their efforts to conserve tropical forests, which act as important carbon “sinks.” The international community has discussed scaling up REDD finance to $30 billion per year. Several wealthier governments, including Norway and Germany, are providing funds to help developing countries build the capacity to handle a REDD market as well as to provide financial incentives to the best performers.

In the absence of a fully defined REDD marketplace, the primary markets for ecosystem services are currently in the areas of watershed and biodiversity protection, with a combined global value of at least $11 billion in 2008. The largest national markets for services to protect and enhance water quality are China and the United States, respectively.

Worldwide, payments for biodiversity totaled $2.4 billion to $4 billion in 2010. Although PES growth has slowed in countries that already have programs in place for biodiversity protection, other countries are adopting new programs and policy frameworks for biodiversity payment mechanisms. “In 2010, at least 45 payment programs for biodiversity were operational across the world and 27 programs were in development,” said Will Bierbower, the author of the article and a former Climate and Energy researcher at Worldwatch.

Factors driving the development of PES schemes include the scale of the ecosystem service being provided, the number of buyers and sellers involved, and the degree to which there is an immediate financial payoff. The design of a PES arrangement is shaped in part by the prevailing political, cultural, and institutional arrangements in a country or region; however, governments have typically been the key players in establishing most PES arrangements.

“China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program is a good example of a government-backed PES scheme that was enacted in tandem with regulations,” said Bierbower. “In 1999, the government started paying farmers to restore land to its original ecological state, following decades of mismanagement that had led to topsoil erosion and downstream flooding. In the first seven years, rural farmers received some $7.7 billion in payments and enrolled some 7.2 billion hectares of cropland in what has become one of the largest PES schemes in the world.”

Further highlights from the article:

=Globally, payments for watershed services that protect and enhance water quality were worth an estimated $9.25 billion in 2008.
=Payments for biodiversity protection, restoration, and management were worth an estimated $1.8 billion to $2.9 billion in 2008. By 2010, these payments had reached $2.4 to $4 billion worldwide.
=PES carbon sequestration projects in the world’s forests were worth an estimated $37 million in 2008, up from $7.6 million in 2006.
=The volume of transactions for carbon sequestration projects in forests increased from 5.1 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2007 to 5.3 megatons in 2008.
=In the United States, PES transactions total $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion annually.
=Deforestation, which occurs primarily in tropical forest regions, accounts for an estimated 12–20 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

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Banned livestock drug continues to threaten India's vultures, conservationists warn

Diclofenac is still being sold despite causing population crashes in species of vulture that fed on cattle treated with the medication
Press Association 6 Sep 11;

Conservationists have raised concerns that a livestock drug banned in India because it was pushing vultures to the brink of extinction is still being sold.

The drug diclofenac was banned because it led to population crashes in three species of vulture in south Asia with birds dying of kidney failure after feeding on carcasses of cattle treated with the medication.

A study led by the RSPB's principal conservation scientist, Richard Cuthbert, found more than one-third of Indian pharmacies are still selling diclofenac, a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug, which can be used in humans as well as by farmers treating cattle.

Some of the diclofenac on sale is formulated for veterinary use and has been manufactured illegally since the ban was brought in by India, Pakistan and Nepal, the research published in the journal Oryx found (PDF).

The RSPB said the research, conducted to examine the effectiveness of the banning of the drug in 2006 in India followed by further measures in August 2008, showed that oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures were still at risk.

The white-backed vulture has seen its numbers drop by 99.9% since 1992, from millions to 11,000, while populations of the other two species have fallen by 97%.

In some good news for the species, the research found there was an increase in use of another drug, meloxicam, which was found in 70% of pharmacies and has similar treatment properties for cattle.

Captive breeding centres in India run by the Bombay Natural History Society, with support from the RSPB and the Save campaign, have had their most successful year so far, with 18 birds successfully reared in 2011, almost double the number last year.

But Cuthbert said: "The ban is still quite easy to avoid because human formulations are still freely for sale in large vials which are convenient for use on large animals like cattle and clearly not suitable for human use.

"Preventing the misuse of human diclofenac for veterinary use remains the main challenge in halting the decline of endangered vultures."

Chris Bowden, head of the RSPB's vulture programme, said: "Three species of south Asia's vultures are heading for extinction so we have to act now to save them.

"With the latest success of the breeding centres we're more confident than ever that there will be sufficient numbers for reintroduction to the wild as soon as it's safe for them, but until diclofenac stops being produced and sold for veterinary use we cannot guarantee these birds have any future in the wild."

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Bangkok at risk of sinking into the sea

Parts of Thailand's capital could be under water by 2030 unless the government takes steps to prevent disaster, say experts
Bruno Philip Guardian Weekly 6 Sep 11;

Among the pressing challenges facing the new government of Thailand, brought to power by the 3 July elections, is the inescapable fact that Bangkok is steadily sinking. The gloomiest forecasts suggest parts of the Thai capital may be underwater by 2030, but experts are also critical of the lack of any clear policy to prevent impending disaster.

Several factors – climate change, rising sea level, coastal erosion, shifting clay soil – are threatening the great city on the Chao Phraya delta, founded in April 1782 by the first monarch belonging to the Chakri dynasty, still ruling today.

The population has greatly increased, with about 10 million people now living in the city and its suburbs. Even the weight of the skyscrapers, constantly on the rise in a conurbation in the throes of perpetual change, is contributing to Bangkok's gradual immersion. Much of the metropolis is now below sea level and the ground is subsiding by 1.5 to 5cm a year.

In the medium to long term more than 1m buildings, 90% of which are residential, are under threat from the rising sea level. In due course the ground floors of buildings could be awash with 10cm of water for part of the year, according to the Asian Institute of Technology.

In the port of Samunt Prakan, about 15 km downstream from the capital, the residents of detached houses along the river already spend several months a year up to their ankles in water.

A joint report published in December by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Japan's International Co-operation Agency highlighted the threat from climate change to three Asian mega-cities: Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila.

Illegal tapping of groundwater is one of the causes of the capital's misfortunes, according to Jan Bojo, a World Bank expert based there. Not all the specialists endorse this view, but they do agree the situation is bound to deteriorate over the next few years. Smith Dharmasaroja, the head of the National Disaster Warning Centre, is predicting that by 2100 Bangkok will have become a new Atlantis. However gloomy this may seem, Dharmasaroja's forecasts are taken seriously. In the 1990s he predicted the fearful tsunami which devastated countries round the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Dharmasaroja maintains that "no decision has been taken" at government level "to stop the problem". And, he adds, if nothing is done Bangkok could be underwater by 2030.

One of the solutions he has suggested is to build a series of dykes along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, a scheme which would cost well over $2bn. He says work should start immediately, otherwise it will be too late to halt the chain of events leading to disaster.

Anond Snidvongs, an oceanographer and specialist on climate-change impacts in southeast Asia, takes a more cautious line. "No one can predict how long it will take for Bangkok to be flooded and how this process will unfold," he says. He sees no point in building huge dykes. "The rise in sea level is not that great and climate change only plays a fairly small part – about one-fifth – in the current scenario," he adds.

"It's pointless," he stresses, "to try to protect the coastline which is being eroded by three to four centimetres a year. But there are plenty of other ways of combating flooding, such as better management of building land in the city."

Niramon Kulsrisombat, a town planner and lecturer in urban and regional planning at Chulalongkorn University, confirms that "floods have always occurred, Bangkok having been built on sodden terrain 1.5 metres below sea level".

A network of khlongs (canals), fields and allotments used to soak up flooding, but with recent urbanisation many buildings have taken their place and the water is trapped.

"Government efforts have focused on raising barriers 2.8 metres high along various stretches of the Chao Phraya," Kulsrisombat explains, "but this has just done even more damage to the traditional appearance of a settlement where people lived on the water in houses on stilts."

Snidvongs thinks the key factor in saving the city is coordinating measures taken by the authorities. "We absolutely need to achieve a consensus so that the million or so people who will be directly affected by flooding in the medium or long term can agree on the principles underpinning any solutions," he says. "Basically it is not a technical or financial issue. The specialists also need to agree on accurate figures providing a consistent picture of what the future holds."

In short the scientists who spend their time scrutinising Bangkok must tighten up their diagnosis, the better to prepare for rescuing the Thai capital.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde

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In The World's Breadbasket, Climate Change Feeds Some Worry

Christine Stebbins PlanetArk 6 Sep 11;

The United States, the breadbasket and supplier of last resort for a hungry world, has been such an amazing food producer in the last half-century that most Americans take for granted annual bounteous harvests of grain, meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables and other crops.

When horrific images of drought or famine in Africa, Asia or other regions land in American media, America is usually first in line with food aid shipments, air drops, and other rescue efforts from its seemingly endless stores.

The U.S. alone accounts for half of all world corn exports, 40 percent of soybean exports and 30 percent of wheat exports. But climate change fears are sounding some warning bells.

Some scientists and agronomists are becoming increasingly concerned about the real effects they see now on growing conditions in the Midwest, the vast black-soiled region long the core region of the U.S. agricultural miracle.

They also say that not only skeptical farmers but also government authorities are trying to quietly adapt, from equipment to planting to research.

"We don't have a long-term reserve. We have a global food supply of about 2 or 3 weeks," said Eugene Takle, Professor of Agricultural Meteorology and Director of the Climate Science Program at Iowa State University.

"We've become insensitive to climate -- with air conditioning, irrigation and better practices," he said. "Well, I think we need to rethink that. Just how vulnerable are we?"

Takle and others say the future is now.

"It's not the long-term climate trends," Takle says, "It's the variability. It's the extreme events that have brought the vulnerability of agriculture to climate into the forefront. We think about, and wring our hands for awhile."

Jerry Hatfield, Laboratory Director at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, has worked with other scientists in research for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says climate change is occurring right now, as is adaptation to it, in the U.S. farm belt.

"We don't have to think about 2030 or 2050, in the recent memories we've had a lot more variability in our weather," Hatfield said. "This increasing variability of weather, which is associated with our changing climate scenarios, is going to continue to increase the variability in production.

"That's what concerns a lot of us," Hatfield said.


The IPCC, which has been attacked by climate change skeptics, concluded in 2007 that increased frequency of heat stress, droughts and floods are "creating the possibility for surprises, with impacts that are larger, and occurring earlier, than predicted using changes in mean variables alone."

"Climate variability and change also modify the risks of fires, pest and pathogen outbreak, negatively affecting food, fiber and forestry," the Panel said.

Despite the attacks by skeptics, IPCC's conclusions have been accepted as valid by institutions like the U.S. National Academies of Sciences.

In June 2009, the science academies of the G8 countries, plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa, demanded action to address global climate change that "is happening even faster than previously estimated."

Takle said Midwest farmers are already adapting.

"Farmers say they don't believe in climate change, but you look at how they spend money and are adapting," he said.

Takle pointed to bigger machinery to allow faster and denser seeding amid rainier springs in the Midwest. Frosts are trending later so crops are kept in fields longer to dry.

But many of the changes are more subtle and hidden than the weather events that grab the headlines, like the massive wildfires, flooding and tornadoes that have hit agricultural areas of the Midwest, Plains and Southwest this year.

Takle said measurable trends of more humidity, for example, has led to higher night-time summer temperatures in the Corn Belt and likely trimmed corn yields in recent years. Corn likes hot days but cool nights.

In Iowa, dew point temperatures have risen 3-1/2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 35-40 years, equating to 13 percent more moisture in the air during the summertime, he said.

"It's very important that we recognize the vulnerability," Takle said. "We have situations like in Texas. Huge reservoirs have just vanished. You can't do a work around."

The U.S. Agriculture Department this year issued its first grants to study crops and climate change.

"If you're interested in adapting to changes in climatic norms you need to have access to diversity," said Randy Wisser of the University of Delaware, who will study the genetics in exotic tropical maize to see how this might help farmers.

Other grants will address greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate, notably methane from livestock and carbon dioxide from growing crops.

"We are just trying to find a suitable way to keep these farmers in business. It took generations to create the problem it will take generations to fix the problem," said William Horwath of the University in California, who will develop strategy for rice growing in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"It's a pretty darn complex problem," Hatfield said. "We poke at it, but we need to get very serious about how do we think about adapting our crop production goals to the concepts of variability."

(Editing by Peter Bohan)

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US counts the cost of nine months of unprecedented weather extremes

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration, there have been 10 major disasters this year
John Vidal 5 Sep 11;

As deadly fires continue to burn across bone-dry Texas and eight inches of rain from tropical storm Lee falls on New Orleans, the US is beginning to count the cost of nine months of unprecedented weather extremes.

Ever since a massive blizzard causing $2bn of damage paralysed cities from Chicago to the north-east in January, nearly every month has been marked by a $1b+-weather catastrophe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration (Noaa), there have been 10 major disasters already this year, leaving more than 700 people dead and property damage of over $35bn (£22bn).

In the past 31 years the mainland states have suffered 99 weather-related disasters where overall damages and economic costs were over $1bn. This year has seen three times as many than as usual.

Noaa will release its August data next week but Summer 2011 is expected to be the warmest on record. Chris Burt, author and leading weather historian, has complied a list of more than 40 cities and towns that have experienced record temperatures this year.

"So many heat records of various types have been shattered this past summer that it is impossible to quantify them," he said. "Not since the great heat waves of 1934 and 1936 has the US seen so many heat-related records broken as occurred this summer. The back-to-back nature of the intensity of the past two summers should raise some interesting questions, questions I am not qualified to address."

This year, the UN World Meteorological Organisation said 2010 was the warmest year on record, confirming a "significant" long-term trend of global warming and producing exceptional weather variations.

The insurance company Munich Re said in the first six months of the year there were 98 natural disasters in the US, about double the average of the 1990s.

"The increasing impacts of natural disasters, as seen this year, are a stark reminder of the lives and livelihoods at risk. Severe weather represents a very real threat to public safety," said Jack Hayes, director of Noaa's National Weather Service.

But the US is not alone. 2011 has seen the deepest drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa which has contributed to a famine in Somalia and 10 million people affected in Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda. Southern Africa, however, experienced unusually heavy rainfall.

Latin America has suffered a series of disasters. More than 500 people died in some of Brazil's worst rainstorms and mudslides in January, and Columbia faced what it called its worst-ever natural disaster when months of rain and floods devastated the north of the country. Meanwhile Mexico and much of central America experienced one of their deepest droughts in many years.

Korea, the Philippines, parts of China have been racked with some of the worst storms in a century, with flash floods and landslides triggered by torrential rain .

2011 has also seen a series of major non-weather-related natural disasters. The worst, by some way, was the Japanese tsunami which killed at least 12,000 people and devastated the country. However, 6.2 or above earthquakes have hit New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, the Fox Islands, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Indonesia, Fiji, Thailand, Burma, Vanuatu, Argentina, Chile and Iran in the first six months of 2011. Smaller ones have hit Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands.

In addition the Arctic ice melt this year hit a record in July and is expected to the second or third greatest ever recorded, says the US national snow and ice data centre.

• This article was amended on 05 September 2011. The original stated the death toll for the Japanese tsunami was 1,200,000 instead of 12,000. This has been corrected

A year of US disasters – 2011 so far

• Hurricane Irene, August 20-29. Over $7bn and around 50 deaths.

• Upper Midwest flooding. The Missouri and Souris rivers overflowed in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Damages: $2bn.

• Mississippi river flooding, spring and summer. Damages neared $4bn.

• Drought and heatwave in Texas, Oklahoma. Over $5bn.

• Tornadoes in midwest and south-east in May kill 177 and cost more than $7bn in losses.

• Tornadoes in the Ohio Valley, south-east and midwest on April devastate the city of Tuscaloosa, kill 32 and cause more than $9bn in damages.

• Tornadoes hit from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania 14–16 April. Toll: $2bn in damages.

• 59 tornadoes in midwest and north-east April 8-11. Damages: $2.2bn.

• 46 tornadoes in central and southern states 4 and 5 April. Toll: $2.3bn in damages.

• Blizzard late January paralyse cities from Chicago to the north-east. Toll: 36 deaths and more than $2bn in damages.

Weather Disasters Keep Costing U.S. Billions This Year
Mary Wisniewski PlanetArk 9 Sep 11;

Blizzards. Tornadoes. Floods. Record heat and drought, followed by wildfires.

The first eight months of 2011 have brought strange and destructive weather to the United States.

From the blizzard that dumped almost two feet of snow on Chicago, to killer tornadoes and heat waves in the south, to record flooding, to wildfires that have burned more than 1,000 homes in Texas in the last few days, Mother Nature has been in a vile and costly mood.

Climate experts point to global warming, meteorologists cite the influence of the La Nina weather phenomenon or natural variability and, in the case of tornadoes hitting populated areas, many simply call the death and destruction bad luck.

But given the variety and violence of both short-term weather events and longer-term effects like a Southwestern drought that has lasted years, more scientists say climate itself seems to be shifting and weather extremes will become more common.

"A warmer atmosphere has more energy to power storms. We've loaded the dice," said Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology for Weather Underground, Inc, speaking on Wednesday at a news conference on climate. "Years like 2011 may become the new normal in the United States in coming decades."

The year has been expensive, in terms of crops, property and lives lost. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has kept track of the cost of weather disasters since 1980, and 2011 has seen 10 separate natural disasters with economic losses of $1 billion or more, according to Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Weather Service.

The previous record was nine, set in 2008. The costs go ever higher, with the nine 2011 disasters even before Hurricane Irene two weeks ago costing $35 billion, Vaccaro said.

Other years have been more expensive overall due to single events, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But 2011 has already moved into the top 25 percent of the costliest years, and the hurricane season isn't half over, Vaccaro said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it will need $5.2 billion in known disaster relief for the year that starts October 1. But that doesn't include Hurricane Irene, which caused devastating flooding in Vermont and New Jersey, and is expected to cost at least $1.5 billion in relief, FEMA says.


The year began with what was called "Snowmageddon" -- heavy snows in multiple states, including the south.

Kansas got up to 40 inches in some areas in a month -- the same as a typical total for the whole winter. New York had its snowiest January on record.

Snow melt, combined with a wet spring, caused flooding on the Mississippi, Ohio, Souris and Missouri Rivers.

On the Mississippi, records set in the historic floods of 1927 and 1937 were challenged and exceeded along the nation's largest main river artery, resulting in evacuations and millions of acres of flooded farmland.

In the Missouri River valley, flow rates broke previous records, damaging levees and highways.

The year has also been the 4th deadliest tornado year in U.S. history with 546 deaths, according to the NWS.

The May 22 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, took 160 lives, making it the deadliest single tornado since 1947.

This summer, the country also baked under days of 100-plus degree heat, with records smashed in northern locations like Newark, New Jersey, which saw a high of 108 degrees.

Texas saw what looks to be its hottest summer, making that vast state into a tinderbox. Wildfires have scorched more than 3.6 million acres since November, fed by a drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's farm industry.

In Oklahoma, the average statewide temperature of 86.8 degrees from June to August 31 broke the 85.2 degree mark set in 1934, according to Gary McManus, associate state climatologist. The heat killed 21 people in Oklahoma alone.

Finally, the beginning of hurricane season caused flooding in the aftermaths of Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

The country is already on pace to break the all-time record for the number of tropical storms strong enough to merit names, Masters said.


Many years have extreme weather events. Older Americans may recall the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s, or the bitter Midwest winters of the late 1970s.

Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, noted in a blog post this week that active hurricane seasons, heavy snowfalls, and floods and severe drought in Texas are reminiscent of the 1950s.

"Natural variability is a plausible explanation for variations in extreme frequency and also clustering of events," Curry said.

While most climate scientists agree that human actions are causing global warming and climate change, not everyone does.

Republican presidential front-runner Rick Perry said last month he does not believe in man-made global warming, calling it a scientific theory that had not been proven. Other political conservatives have questioned evidence of man-made climate change and government plans that could slow it.

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, said policy is not black and white, and there has to be debate over policies to address climate change.

But policy opinions are one thing and scientific facts another, she said, adding that she is troubled to see more of the general public doubting climate change even as more scientific evidence piles up to support it.

"The evidence is what the planet is telling us," Hayhoe said. "These are not political opinions."

(Editing by Peter Bohan)

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