Best of our wild blogs: 6 Oct 11


Job: Senior Project Officer, Central Nature Reserve, NParks (Ecolink)
from ecotax at Yahoo! Groups

Volunteers needed for Mapping Vegetation of Mandai Mangroves
from Mangrove Action Squad

Fish Fatale!
from Pulau Hantu

Bugs with Transparent or Translucent Bodies
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Migration patterns of the Blue-throated Bee-eater
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Photos from the Biodiversity of Singapore Symposium III
from Habitatnews

Why I resist peeking into the gift horse’s mouth (Reflections from the NE Zone) from News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore


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Shell refinery fire: 'The fire looked like a tornado'

SCDF firefighters recount battle with 32-hour Shell blaze
Jennani Durai Straits Times 6 Oct 11;

HE WAS so close, he could feel the heat searing his skin through layers of protective gear.

One of the first firefighters on the ground at the blaze in Shell's refinery on Pulau Bukom recalled yesterday how his team fought the biggest fire of his career - a 'complex, multi-dimensional fire' that kept threatening to run out of control.

Twice, he was thrown metres backwards by the impact of the surging flames, said Colonel Anwar Abdullah, 46, the Singapore Civil Defence Force's (SCDF) director of operations.

The fire started at 1.15pm on Sept 28 and raged for 32 hours. It surged twice - once at 6.35pm that Wednesday, and again at 11.45am last Thursday.

'When the fire escalated the second time, it was sudden - it happened within 10 seconds, and it looked like a tornado,' recounted Col Anwar. 'That was the scariest moment for me.'

The colonel, who has been with the SCDF for 18 years, pointed at the scars on his face and hand: 'I got burned on my lip and finger.'

He was speaking at a press conference held in a mobile command centre at Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal yesterday with Lieutenant-Colonel Ling Young Ern, 35, who heads the operations branch in the 1st Civil Defence Division.

Pulau Bukom comes under the purview of the division, and Lt-Col Ling happened to be covering for the division commander, who was on an overseas assignment when the fire broke out last week.

Both men were among the team that rushed to Pulau Bukom within half an hour of being activated. When they arrived, 40 of Shell's own in-house firefighters had already begun foaming operations, said Lt-Col Ling. This involves applying a 'blanket' of foam over the fire to starve it of oxygen.

The fire started in an open area within the refinery comprising pumps, valves and pipelines for fuel distribution. The 176m by 65m area is known as Pump House 43. The first pipes on fire contained lighter fuels such as gasoline.

Right away, the SCDF was told by Shell to protect two nearby tanks in particular, at all costs. They were not told what these tanks contained. Responding to queries from The Straits Times, Shell would only say they contained 'hydrocarbons for use in a refinery', but declined to be more specific.

The firefighters started using water jets to create 'curtains' around the tanks, to cool them and to prevent pressure from building up. 'When we arrived, the surfaces of the tanks were already blackened,' recalled Col Anwar.

Lt-Col Ling added that the wind was blowing in their favour when they arrived on the scene. 'It was very fortunate that the wind was blowing away from the tanks, taking all the heat and smoke in the other direction,' he said.

The firefighting operations proceeded uneventfully at first, with Shell even announcing at 5.15pm that the fire had been contained - until a sudden surge just an hour later. They realised then that this was no ordinary fire, said Col Anwar.

Underneath the foam blanket, the fire had spread under the network of criss-crossing, interconnecting pipes, which were stacked as high as 1.5m above ground in some places.

'The unique characteristic of this instance was that the area on fire was a myriad of pipes of different sizes and complexity,' he said. As the fire spread further, more pipes became damaged and began leaking, feeding the fire further.

That was when Col Anwar decided to withdraw his men to a safer location.

'The fire was threatening to run out of control,' he said. 'We pulled people out in the nick of time before the fire really flared.'

The firefighters regrouped before going back cautiously with a new plan that involved repositioning certain water jets. Shell also began evacuating its non-essential employees.

More men and firefighting vehicles arrived throughout the day, and more than 100 firefighters with 13 vehicles were trying to quench the flames by nightfall.

They battled the fire throughout the night, and had whittled it down sizeably by morning - before the second surge that sent Col Anwar flying backwards.

'We heard a high-pitched, wheezing sound before the fire suddenly escalated,' he said. 'But the second time, we pulled people back even faster, because we knew not to take it lightly at the first signs of escalation.'

Lt-Col Ling recounted feeling the heat from the surge toasting his back even as he ran away from the fire.

'I could feel my back heating up even through my personal protective equipment, and the faster I ran, the hotter it felt,' he said. 'The radiant heat was catching up with me. It was that close.'

The firefighters were clad in protective equipment that can withstand heat of up to 400 deg C. While they regrouped at a safer distance, Lt-Col Ling became nervous as not everyone was accounted for at first.

'We had problems reaching some men,' he said. 'I got really worried when we were calling them over the radio and they didn't respond. We didn't know if they were okay or not after the surge.'

All the men emerged unscathed, but their vehicles were not as lucky. The heat from the fire damaged four vehicles and melted tires off their rims, said Lt-Col Ling. 'Thankfully, none of our men was in the vehicles. They were all manning the water jets around the pump house.'

It was after the second surge that the firefighters discovered that liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, was leaking from ruptured pipes - and was also on fire.

This changed the firefighting team's strategy completely.

'An LPG fire is a three-dimensional fire, and you cannot use foam,' said Col Anwar. 'We had to do cooling to prevent an explosion.'

While firefighters kept fighting the fire at its origin with foam as well as water, they switched to using only water where they suspected LPG was burning.

More firefighting vehicles were deployed, and 23 water jets were used to try to subdue the LPG fire. Seawater was continuously pumped into the jets.

The SCDF had pulled out all the stops, but the team was starting to wonder when the fire would end. 'What worried me the most was that it kept escalating,' said Col Anwar. 'I had never encountered fire of such a magnitude before.'

Two water jets were added to the firefighting efforts, just as SCDF held a joint press conference with Shell to tell the media that the fire was still raging, and its cause was still undiscovered.

Within two hours of that press conference, the fire had been put out.

The firefighters were slow to celebrate, however. 'When the fire died out, we were still very cautious,' said Lt-Col Ling. 'We had earlier brought it under control twice, and it had surged again. So we were not taking any chances.'

He went home at 2am, five hours after the flames had disappeared. 'It was looking promising, but I was still keeping my fingers crossed,' he said.

When he returned three hours later, the fire was still out, and the team started allowing itself to feel more hopeful. But it was not until late on Friday evening that the team began to feel relief set in at last.

'By then, we were certain that the supply lines had been cut off, and there was nothing feeding into the pump house anymore,' said Lt-Col Ling.

The SCDF kept about 100 firefighters on the island as a precaution until Sunday, when it began progressively withdrawing its resources and personnel. They had all left by last night.

Both Col Anwar and Lt-Col Ling were full of praise for the firefighters who had worked 24-hour shifts in their efforts to control the fire. They included several national servicemen on the front line.

Lt-Col Ling said: 'They were very brave, and they worked tirelessly.'

The mood among the firefighters after they were certain the fire was out was generally one of excitement, he added.

'For many of us, it was the biggest fire we had ever seen,' said Lt-Col Ling, who has been with the SCDF for 10 years. 'It was an eye-opener for many of the firemen, an exciting experience that they lived to tell the tale of.

'During the operation itself, you are only focusing on putting the fire out, and the adrenaline rush enables you to go on. It is only when it is all over that you feel tired, and you realise how dangerous it actually was.'

Background story: TIMELINE

SEPT 28

1.18pm: The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) heads to the Pulau Bukom refinery, where a fire had broken out minutes earlier.

1.27pm: SCDF officers arrive at the Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal and start loading their fire-fighting resources onto a barge bound for the island, located about 5km away from the mainland.

1.53pm: The SCDF arrives at Pulau Bukom, where fire fighters from Shell are using foam to combat the blaze at a pump house.

5.15pm: A Shell spokesman announces that the fire has been contained.

6.35pm: The fire suddenly surges and escalates into a larger inferno, forcing fire fighters out of the area.

6.50pm: The SCDF sets up a Forward Operations Centre at the Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal as it prepares to deploy more resources to Pulau Bukom.

8.30pm: Evacuation of all non-essential staff from Shell is completed.

SEPT 29

8am: Fresh fire fighters arrive to relieve those on the ground since the fire broke out.

11.45am: The fire surges again, this time engulfing an area of the pump house containing liquefied petroleum gas and forcing SCDF officers to regroup away from the area of operations.

A Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) signals vehicle arrives in the mid-afternoon at the Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal to support the police and SCDF. SAF troops are on stand-by.

2.40pm: Fire fighters bring the blaze under control.

7pm: A press conference is held. Shell executives say the company has started a progressive shutdown of the whole refinery, a process that will take at least two days.

SEPT 30

The Ministry of Manpower steps in to investigate the cause of the fire.

OCT 1

The progressive shutdown of the refinery continues.

OCT 2

8am: The SCDF hands over the management of the site to Shell.

9am: The withdrawal of SCDF resources and personnel begins.

OCT 3

The Manpower Ministry says its preliminary investigations find that the fire was caused by preparation work for maintenance, part of which involved draining residual oil in a pipeline.

OCT 4

The withdrawal of SCDF resources and personnel continues as the situation at the refinery stabilises.

OCT 5

9.50pm: The SCDF withdraws all remaining resources and personnel from Pulau Bukom.


Bukom fire provides valuable learning points
Ronnie Lim Business Times 6 Oct 11;

(SINGAPORE) The chain effects of the Pulau Bukom fire - with the Shell refinery shutdown disrupting supplies of naphtha feedstock to its own ethylene cracker and to the Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore's (PCS) cracker on Jurong Island, and with this in turn impacting feedstock supplies to other downstream plants there - have raised some critical issues for Singapore's petrochemical industry.

While the integrated structure of plants on Jurong Island - with one facility feeding the next, and so forth down the line - has its advantages, including operating efficiencies and economies which have attracted many international investors here, the Bukom incident has also exposed inherent weaknesses in such a system.

More critically, it underlines the need for the industry to consider viable, alternative feedstocks for the petrochemical crackers that fuel entire chains of downstream customers. And here, LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas, is one of the more immediate possibilities.

In the last year and a half, the Economic Development Board together with industry players such as Shell, ExxonMobil, PCS and Singapore LNG (SLNG) have been mulling over building an LPG import terminal to do exactly that.

The plan was first mooted in late-2009, when Qatar Petroleum International bought a stake in PCS, with this raising the possibility of the gas-rich Gulf state supplying Singapore with LPG. The gas is an alternative feedstock which most petrochemical crackers can make use of to meet as much as one-fifth of their fuel requirements.

Given the limited land available on Jurong Island for an LPG terminal, this grew into an industry-wide plan, with SLNG, which is building a S$1.7 billion liquefied natural gas terminal there, also offering some space at its site for the LPG import facility.

Asked for a project update yesterday, EDB's director for energy and chemicals Liang Ting Wee told BT that discussions are still on-going regarding the LPG terminal project. 'We are still aiming for clarity on next steps by end of the year,' he said.

An industry source feels that the Bukom fire has definitely raised the issue of risks for an industry reliant on just a single feedstock, naphtha. On the other hand, when considering LPG as an additional, alternative feedstock, there is also the issue of cost and pricing.

It raises questions like 'how, and whether, the industry is prepared to pay for the LPG, which will be used more to meet intermittent demand, rather than current naphtha supplies which meets a constant demand', the source said.

The bottom line 'is going to be the economic model for the LPG terminal, including how, and who, is to implement the project, and also in ensuring enough (LPG) demand to enable the crackers to have the ability to switch feedstocks'.

'While until now, there has been insufficient demand to underwrite the LPG terminal, the Bukom fire may just provide the impetus for the project,' the source said.

Longer-term, EDB has also started studying using 'green' materials like palm oil, sugarcane and plant biomass as an additional strategic feedstock for the chemical plants on the island. Another possibility is coal-to-chemicals, with a coal gasification project on Jurong Island to provide syngas feedstocks to the chemical and utility plants there.

Already, Germany's Lanxess - whose synthetic rubber plant is sourcing feedstocks such as raffinate 1 and isobutene from Shell when it starts up in 2013 - is working with US biomass company Gevo on producing some alternative biomass-based isobutene feedstock as well.

The Bukom fire, if nothing else, will provide valuable learning points and inputs for the Jurong Island version 2.0 initiative - a soon-to-be-unveiled strategic plan to boost the petrochemical industry's competitiveness through the coming decade.

SCDF leaves Pulau Bukom
Joanne Chan Channel NewsAsia 5 Oct 11;

SINGAPORE: The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has withdrawn all its personnel and resources from Pulau Bukom.

In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, SCDF said its assistance-and-support operations are no longer required there.

SCDF personnel returned to the mainland at 9.50pm Wednesday.

SCDF personnel were sent to the island following a fire at the Shell refinery a week ago.

Investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing.

Preliminary findings released on Monday showed the fire took place during preparation work for maintenance.

The Ministry of Manpower said in a statement that part of the preparation work involved the draining of residual oil in a pipeline and removing it by means of a suction truck.

-CNA/wk


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Malaysia: Johor waterfront project destroys mangroves, encroaches on orang asli village

Mohd Farhaan Shah The Star 6 Oct 11;

JOHOR BARU: A waterfront development project by the Straits of Johor in Senibong, near Permas Jaya, is encroaching into Kampung Teluk Jawa, which houses more than 100 orang asli families.

Most of them are traditional fishermen who depend on the sea and river.

But after the development started creeping into their area, the villagers can no longer go out to fish because the mangroves along the river banks have been destroyed.

Fisherman Del Jatun, 52, lamented that ketam bangkang (mud crabs), fish and prawns no longer breed in the mangrove area as their natural habitat had been destroyed.

“Ever since the developer began clearing up the area, the water has turned murky and the marine life has dwindled,” he said.

Their daily income has been reduced from RM100 before the project started to about RM50 now, he added.

Village head Rosti Bintik, 44, said the village elders were worried about the young people, who could no longer fish and had to do jobs like collecting cans and plastic bottles for recycling.

Permas public complaints centre supervisor Syed Othman Syed Abdullah said the developer and the relevant authorities must work out a solution for the orang asli.

“The developer had one meeting with them last year but there has been no follow-up action to solve the issue,” he said.

A spokesman for the company involved in the project, who declined to be named, said compensation amounting to RM200,000 was paid last year to the affected orang asli through the state Fisheries Department.

He said the company should not be solely blamed because pollution along the river banks was also caused by factories in the area.


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Restoring mangroves may give Suriname carbon credits

Marvin Hokstam Reuters AlertNet 5 Oct 11;

CORONIE DISTRICT, Suriname (Alertnet) -- The seawall that is supposed to protect the muddy coastline of coconut district Coronie, in the country's north, is almost complete.

Standing some 10 meters above sea level, the wide dam provides a scenic drive, with virginal land on both sides and fish-filled channels cutting through it - a dream habitat for wildlife.

But this idyllic situation may not last long. According to University of Suriname professor Sieuwnath Naipal, much of the land on the ocean side of the 15-km-long dam will disappear in 20 years, abandoned as unsalvageable as the country focuses on forming a barrier against the waves that are eroding Coronie District’s coastline.

The dam, which contractors started building two years ago, sits about 100 meters inland; everything between it and the sea is sacrificed to the waves. Already, about 50 meters of the road to the dyke has disappeared, chewed away by the constant barrage of salt water.

“That’s a part of our country we already lost,” Naipal says, shaking his head.

The solution to preventing similar losses, Naipal says, is his mangrove reintroduction project, which he believes will save the land that others have given up on.

As it does so, the project could also turn out to be a groundbreaking money-earner for Suriname, potentially making the country tens of millions of dollars from the carbon-compliance market.

RETREATING COASTLINE

A few kilometres beyond the end of the seawall, black mangrove seedlings Naipal planted on a mudbank a year ago are thriving. Where there was bare muck, mangrove plants now stand up to two meters tall. Red ibises and other birds frolic among the plants.

“This project has exceeded my expectations,” says Naipal, a Russian-trained hydrologist.

He started planting the cloned mangrove seedlings as part of a university project supported by the Suriname Conservation Foundation (SCF), a government-funded NGO. The project was supposed to prove that, under the right circumstances, mangroves could be introduced to protect the country's heavily eroding coastline from moving further inland.

That has proved the case. Naipal discovered that the mud banks that shift along Suriname’s coastline at a pace of 1-to-5 kilometres per year manage the flow of inland freshwater as it meets sea water, creating the perfect level of salinity for mangroves, which used to be plentiful along the coast.

For centuries, coastal mangrove forests worked as a natural protection against erosion, their stilt-like air roots locking in the shifting mud spit out by Brazil's Amazon River and causing Suriname’s coastline to expand.

Naipal believes the construction in the 1960s of the East-West link, the road from the capital Paramaribo to the western border district of Nickerie, disturbed the natural flow of freshwater out to sea, causing a slow but mass demise of the country's mangroves.

With the plants gone, the sea has free rein and Suriname's coastline has been retreating. Over the past ten years, coastal district Coronie has been getting smaller by about 100 meters per year, and residents now fear for their fields and livelihoods.

ADAPTING TO NATURE

Naipal agreed that a seawall was necessary to save Suriname's coast - but he also was convinced it wouldn't be enough and that mangrove reintroduction could play a key role.

With his tentative proof that reintroduction works, the professor now wants to convince MNO Vervat, the Dutch company building the dyke, to consider investing in freshwater channels to the sea and to allow him to plant alongside a longer stretch of coast.

“They are shipping thousands of kilograms of boulders down here, to reinforce the foot of the dam,” he said. But "if they would fix the (freshwater channels) and allow me to plant the mangroves, the waves would never reach the dam.

“I'm saying: let's see if I’m right. If I’m wrong they can always spend all that money on the boulders two years from now,” he said.

Along with the environmental benefits, Naipal sees in his project an opportunity to boost tourism and employment in Suriname's coastal areas – and make the sea wall sustainable.

“With mangroves alongside the coastline we will continue to have forests on both sides of the seawall, which can then serve as a boulevard with a tourism industry surrounded by wildlife," he says. "But without the mangroves, the sea will slowly eat away the dam [and] after this dam is gone, more money will have to be spent on building a new one."

"The erosion of the coastline will continue if we don’t do anything," he says. "Building a dam is us expecting that nature will adapt to us. But we need to adapt to nature and assist it where we can."

EMISSIONS TRADING

If successful, Naipal's project could not only stop Suriname from shrinking, but could boost the country's coffers. His efforts have caught the attention of the government's newly established Climate Compatible Development Agency (CCDA), which wants to use the mangrove project to trade in blue carbon credits - credits earned from carbon stored in wetlands like mangrove forests and which can be sold on a carbon market.

"Mangroves store up to 25 times more carbon than tropical forests," says CCDA director John Goedschalk, "So the professor may have unwittingly started a project that can be turned into millions of dollars of income for Suriname."

Low-lying and heavily forested, Suriname counts itself among the five nations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and aims to seek funding from international agencies to arm it against the effects of climate change.

Goedschalk, a U.S.-trained economist tasked with helping Suriname acquire the funding it's entitled to, says the country should focus on climate-change adaptation and mitigation measures that also have economic benefits.

“We should move toward climate resilience and low-carbon development, but at the same time take advantage of our access to international climate-change rewards,” he says.

Naipal’s plan to reintroduce Suriname's mangroves, especially since it has an emissions-trading element, “is definitely the kind of project that falls within our scope," says Goedschalk.

“The climate-change funding agencies look for projects that have poverty eradication, employment creation and sustainable tourism elements. Naipal has all of those covered in his."

Marvin Hokstam is a freelance writer based in Suriname.


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Cull 'cannot save' Tasmanian devil

Jennifer Carpenter BBC News 5 Oct 11;

Culling does not effectively control the contagious cancer threatening the Tasmanian devil, a new study suggests.

The researchers modelled the effect of removing sick animals on the disease's prevalence in a small population.

The study, in the Journal of Applied Ecology, seems to confirm findings in wild trials, that selective culling of sick animals is ineffectual at stopping the spread of the disease. All trial culls of the devils have now been stopped.

Culling has been used to control infectious diseases in a range of species from deer to badgers, wolves to domestic cattle.

Despite proving successful in controlling the diseases of livestock, such as foot and mouth, culling wild animals is controversial because of the lack of evidence that it works.

In fact, cases exists where culling wild animals has made the problem worse.

But, hoping to save the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, from the facial cancer that has wiped out more than 90% of individuals in some areas, conservation biologists have trialled a cull since 2004.
Costly cull

As part of the trial cull, researchers have trapped and euthanised sick animals two to five times a year from an isolated population in the south-east of Tasmania.

Each year, the project costs more than $200,000 (£122,000). Critics say this money could otherwise be spent on captive breeding programmes.

To assess the impact of the cull, Australian researchers Nick Beeton from University of Tasmania and Hamish McCallum from Griffith University created a computer model in which they simulated the effects of the cull.

"We found the removal rate required to suppress disease was higher than that which would be feasible in the field," explained Mr Beeton.

In the field, biologists find that 20% of the population is never captured and could be acting as a reservoir for the disease.

Unless all the devils are trapped and inspected, including the "trap-shy" ones, continuous culling is unlikely to be an effective disease control, the researchers write.

Mr Beeton told BBC News: "The disease suppression trial was ended as this paper was being written."

"Our research demonstrates that we must be flexible and be prepared to change strategy as new information comes to light," he added.

"It's much better to do a study like this, than spend a lot of money on a huge culling programme and then find that it hasn't worked," said geneticist Elizabeth Murchison from the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, who studies the devil cancer.

She added that by confirming that culling does not work, conservationists can then focus their efforts on alternative strategies, such as the captive breeding programme and developing a vaccine against the cancer.


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Incredible Shrinking Animals: Surprising Effect of Climate Change

Wynne Parry, LiveScience 3 Oct 11;

Melting ice, outbreaks of disease, more intense storms and more forest fires are just some of the effects scientists say will accompany human-caused climate change. Scientists are now exploring another, perhaps more surprising, potential effect: Shrinking animals.

A new study has examined how warmer temperatures can result in smaller individuals within a species.

This relationship between size and temperature change only holds for cold-blooded animals, which rely on external sources, such as sunlight, to warm themselves. Scientists don't understand why this relationship exists. But it's important because size influences an individual's reproductive success, as smaller animals tend to have fewer offspring, and its role in a food chain, among other things. [Cold-Blooded Creatures: Album of Lizards & Frogs]

To warm-blooded creatures like humans, this might not sound like a big deal. But we make up only a tiny percentage of Earth's animals, and we rely upon cold-blooded creatures for food, to pollinate crops and for many other crucial, but perhaps not obvious, reasons. So, climate-influenced changes could have cascading effects.

Scientists have already established the "temperature size rule," which says that individual animals reared at colder temperatures will become larger adults. Likewise, animals reared in warmer temperatures produce smaller adults. However, it's unclear just how this happens, according to Jack Forster, a doctoral student at Queen Mary, University of London, and the lead researcher.

Forster and his colleagues looked at data on copepods — tiny, water-dwelling crustaceans — to study what was happening for a range of species. Using data already collected for 34 marine species of copepod, they looked at how non-extreme temperatures influenced growth rate (how quickly an animal puts on weight) and development (how quickly they passed through life stages). For copepods, there is plenty of development to track, since they go through 13 life stages, from egg to adult.

The researchers' analysis revealed that development rate is more sensitive to temperature than growth rate.

"If you warm up, you put on mass more quickly, but the rate at which you pass through life stages is even faster, and when you reach an adult size, you end up being smaller at warmer temperatures," Forster said.

It's not clear why this is the case, he said.

Their analysis also revealed that while the egg did not respond to warmth, the gap between development rate and growth rate tended to widen begining around the second life stage until adulthood. When the animal reached maturity, its final adult size was smaller as a result, they found.

As zooplankton, or tiny, floating animals, copepods are a key component of the ocean food web, so if warming in the oceans prompts these animals to shrink, it could have a direct effect on the things they eat and what eats them. The fish that eat them, for example, will have to spend more time searching for more of them to eat. As cold-blooded creatures themselves, the fish could also be affected by the warming waters, creating a compound effect, which could result in even smaller fish.

It's also possible that the fish could switch to other prey, a move that could have its own ripple effects. However, both of these scenarios are hypothetical, Forster said.

The researchers' previous work has shown that size decreases by an average of 2.5 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of warming for a range of cold-blooded creatures, including insects, crustaceans, fish, amphibians and reptiles. Some species of copepods have shown larger size changes with temperature.

Cold-blooded animals may not be the only ones affected by temperature changes: There is evidence that the temperature size rule also holds for single-celled protists and in plants, according to Forster.

The research was published online Sept. 29 in the journal The American Naturalist.


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Fluctuating Climate May Impede Fleeing Animals

Wynne Parry, LiveScience 29 Sep 11;

Climate change is expected to send many species on one-way migrations in search of new homes as their old ranges become inhospitable. Whether or not they can survive this century depends a great deal on what happens along the route, a new study has shown.

Scientists looked at 15 species of amphibians in the western United States, which they estimated travel about 15 miles (24 kilometers) per decade, following suitable habitat.

Using computer modeling, they found that the fickle nature of climate change, which can cause fluctuations in local conditions rather than steady change, could interfere.

None of the 15 species of frogs, salamanders and toads is currently endangered. However, when the year 2100 arrived under the simulation, eight species would be extinct or, at best, endangered. However, the outcome for the individual species wasn't the point of the study, according to Dov Sax, one of the researchers and an ecologist at Brown University.

"Our paper is not trying to make predictions about the fate of individual species," Sax said, explaining that it was intended to examine how species' ranges shift in response to climate change.

"The dynamics we are examining are likely to lead many species to become endangered, even species that aren't currently of conservation concern," he said.

The researchers picked amphibians, because they have an average ability to pick up and leave when things get bad, falling somewhere between migrating birds' ability to fly between continents and plants, which can only hope their seeds wind up in a better place. In addition, there is substantial data available on where these species live and what conditions they can tolerate.

The researchers combined the amphibian data with projections from climate models using two emissions scenarios, one that projected more conservative increases in greenhouse gases and the other projecting more extreme increases. They looked at how the change would play out along paths the creatures could take — broken down into cells one-eighth of a degree latitude by one-eighth of a degree longitude, or roughly 54 square miles (140 square kilometers) — in decade-long increments from 1991 to 2100. [Earth in the Balance: 7 Crucial Tipping Points]

They found that gaps in the animals' treks to new homes were caused when local climate became too hot, too dry or otherwise inhospitable to a species for too long a period. These gaps formed barriers preventing species from continuing their northward shift.

For example, during the latter half of this century, the speckled black salamander could expand from its range in northern California, north into Oregon. However, in the simulation, climate fluctuations rendered areas along that path unsuitable — for example, between 2071 and 2080 — preventing the animal from spreading toward Washington.

For some species, this dynamic could mean losing territory as their current habitat shrinks and they are unable to expand into new areas. This puts them at a greater risk of extinction, according to Sax.

A species' ability to persist outside its optimal habitat can determine whether a climate fluctuation would block its journey. However, persistence is a characteristic that is poorly understood for most species on the planet, Sax said.

The findings mean that simply creating corridors through which species can travel as their habitat changes may not be enough to save them, since fluctuations (rather than physical barriers) can block their paths, according to the researchers. And so in order to preserve wild populations, conservationists may need to relocate populations to new, suitable habitat, which they could not reach on their own, according to Sax.

While conservationists have attempted this practice, called assisted migration, it's controversial, because it calls to mind the damage done by invasive species, which flourish outside their native ranges after humans relocate them.

While the findings focused on the more conservative greenhouse gas-emissions scenario, their analysis showed that the more extreme scenario could result in a larger area of suitable habitat opening up, but that these new areas were often more difficult to reach, according to Regan Early, also a study researcher and a postdoctoral fellow at the Universidade de √Čvora in Portugal.

Their work appeared online in the journal Ecology Letters on Wednesday (Sept. 28).


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Biofuels, Speculation Blamed for Global Food Market Weirdness

Brandon Keim Wired Science 5 Oct 11;

A new analysis of sudden rises in global food prices puts the blame on biofuel policy and mortgage-meltdown-style speculation, which may have fundamentally changed how food markets function.

Many other explanations have been proposed, and the latest analysis — a series of mathematical models and statistical evaluations that seem to match theory with real-world patterns — is not conclusive. But it does make a strong case.

“There’s a literature of a hundred-plus articles, saying this might be the cause, or that might be the cause,” said network theorist Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute. “We looked quantitatively, and found two important factors. Speculators cause the bubbles and crashes, and ethanol causes the background rise.”

Bar-Yam and the NECSI team, whose analysis was published Sept. 21 on arxiv, work at the intersection of social phenomena and network analysis. In earlier research, they’ve explored the global economy’s changing structure and early-warning signals signals that may precede crashes.

More recently, they’ve studied how social unrest may have been fueled by food price spikes in 2008 and again in 2011. It’s not only the rise in food prices that’s proved troubling, but the rapidity. Shifts have been big and sudden, in stark contrast to the generally slow fluctuation of food prices since the mid-20th century.

Among the possible causes put forward by economists are drought, meat-intensive dietary habits and market hypersensitivity to supply and demand. Another is corn-based biofuel: In less than a decade, some 15 percent of the world’s corn production has been converted from food to fuel. Perhaps most controversially, some economists have blamed a flood of speculators betting on the rise or fall of food prices.

Speculating on food isn’t new, but it was long restricted to farmers and companies involved in food production. For them, speculation was a classic form of hedging: A farmer could, for example, make a bet that crop prices would fall. If they didn’t, he’d benefit from his harvest’s high prices; but if they did fall, winning his bet would offset the losses. Speculation was, on the whole, a stabilizing force.

In the late 1990s, however, a financial industry-led push for deregulation — which would later result in the Enron debacle and the California energy crisis, and the 2008 mortgage meltdown — changed how food speculation worked. Anyone could participate. Bets on food were suddenly made by investment companies who could package and repackage their bets into the sorts of derivatives made famous by the mortgage crisis.

According to some economists, this disconnected food prices from basic laws of supply and demand, and made them prone to wild swings. But others disagreed, saying the mathematical signs of cause-and-effect were hazy or absent.

“In the last three to four years, many things have happened in the economy that weren’t anticipated by most folks, and are not explained even today. I don’t know if that means the basic laws of supply and demand aren’t operating, but the way supply and demand is manifested is not understood,” said Jeffrey Fuhr, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “We don’t have an understanding of the role of speculative markets.”

Bar-Yam’s and colleagues approached this morass with a series of mathematical models designed to simulate the trend-following investment behavior of speculators and food producers. Key to their models was a link between food prices among speculators and the so-called spot price of food at markets where actual commodities, not their hypothetical future values, are traded.

Some critics of the proposed speculation-food bubble link say spot prices are established independently, from moment to moment, in isolation from any speculative influence. But when Bar-Yam’s team phoned people in the business, at granaries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they were told that spot prices are set in reference to the futures market at the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

With the link to speculation established, the researchers let their model run. What resulted was a pattern of month-to-month prices similar to the peaks and valleys seen in real-world food price fluctuations since 2007. However, speculation didn’t replicate observed long-term, year-to-year rise in food prices.

Those only appeared when Bar-Yam’s team added the shift of corn from use as food to use in ethanol biofuels. With both speculation and biofuels included, the model produced a series of food prices uncannily similar to recent history (see graphic above.)

Overlay their model’s simulated market graph on a graph of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Price Index between 2004 and 2011, and “it fits amazingly well,” said Bar-Yam. “It reproduces the peaks. It reproduces the intermediate blip. The quality of the fit is astoundingly good.”

Models are necessarily pale, oversimplified representations of complex reality, of course, and retrospectively replicating a dataset doesn’t prove the researchers’ model right. But it seems to fit better than other proposed explanations for rising, volatile food prices.

When Bar-Yam’s group looked for a statistical connection between the 2008 spike and drought in Australia, none could be found. Neither could a link be found to rising grain demand, which has come primarily from China and India, both of which met their needs by increasing grain production internally rather than buying abroad. Another plausible explanation, rising oil and energy prices, didn’t hold up to rigorous statistical analysis.

Finally, the researchers found no evidence that global food markets have simply become extra-sensitive to tiny changes in supply and demand. If anything, the basic laws of supply and demand appear temporarily suspended: Supplies increase but prices don’t fall, and demand goes unmet.

While slowly rising prices are a problem, however, the rapid short-term bursts are more troubling. In the last decade, those bursts occurred only after 2007, a time when investors moved money en masse into commodities. That timing fits with another finding of Bar-Yam’s model: Some speculation is fine, even beneficial, but too much makes a market prone to instability.

“Under circumstances where speculators are fairly limited in their engagement, there’s nothing wrong. But when they’re a large fraction of the market, you’re in trouble,” said Bar-Yam. “You had trillions of dollars go into commodities from the housing and stock markets, and it blew away the pricing mechanisms.”

Brookings Institution economist Homi Kharas called Bar-Yam’s model “carefully done,” and said it “provided solid empirical analysis” that diagnoses of speculative influence are correct. However, he warned against attaching too much weight to a model. Food price bubbles also aren’t new, Kharas said.

“Prices today are roughly at what they were in the mid-1970s,” Kharas said. “At that time, nobody had heard of these futures, these index-traded funds. How do we know are new changes, and not a return to things in the past?” But Richard Cooper, a Harvard University economist who in the mid-1970s studied that bubble, said speculation by Russian grain buyers probably did fuel that bubble.

Bar-Yam’s new analysis will surely be challenged, Cooper said. “Somebody will come along and say the fundamentals weren’t characterized properly. There will be technical arguments. But it’s up to the challengers to show where their analysis has gone wrong.”

Citation: “The Food Crises: A quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion.” By Marco Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, Karla Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam. arXiv, Sept. 21, 2011


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