Best of our wild blogs: 7 Mar 12

First Marine Biodiversity Expedition (6 Mar 2012)
from Mega Marine Survey of Singapore

hunting waterhen @ pasir ris - Feb 2012
from sgbeachbum

from The annotated budak

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Plan to strengthen Singapore's flood resilience

Channel NewsAsia 6 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE: The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources has started implementing a comprehensive plan to strengthen Singapore's flood resilience.

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the plan covers the full spectrum of the drainage system and improves the accuracy of flood risk assessments.

For example, high resolution digital elevation maps for the Marina Catchment Area are being developed to produce more accurate flood risk mapping for the area.

For the Stamford Canal, the ministry is also evaluating long-term measures like the diversion canal and upstream stormwater detention ponds. Works are already underway to increase the canal's flow capacity.

The ministry will also invest in at least 20 new drainage infrastructural projects over the next five years.

"Another key element of this strategy is transparency. We will make all the data from our sensors available in real-time so that the public can be kept fully informed of the situation and take necessary precautions. It will also be an avenue for more stakeholders to generate innovative solutions. That's why you may have noticed a flood of SMS alerts, tweets from drain sensors, updates to social media platforms and eventually we'll put all the real-time CCTV images on websites and for the public to access," said Mr Balakrishnan.

- CNA/cc

Water charges to remain unchanged
Esther Ng Today Online 7 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE - The water fee structure and charges will not be changed this year, assured Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan during the Committee of Supply Debate yesterday.

He was responding to Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang, who charged that the Government had "overtaxed" Singapore households on water consumption and called for a review on taxes.

Holding up a copy of national water agency PUB's 2011 annual report, Dr Balakrishnan noted it costs S$1.3 billion annually to operate Singapore's water treatment and reclamation plants and sewerage system, and that PUB collected S$674 million in water tariffs and S$327 million in waterborne and sanitary appliance fees in the last financial year.

"That's nowhere near S$1.3 billion," said Dr Balakrishnan. "Even if you add the water conservation tax, you still would not reach the S$1.3 billion.

"So the point is, we are not overcharging for water as far as funding the system which you have."

In the 2010 Financial Year, S$175.6 million in water conservation taxes were collected.

While he did consider Mr Low's suggestion to consolidate the waterborne and sanitary appliance fees into a "volumetric charge", Dr Balakrishnan pointed out that this would mean charging smaller households more, as they have fewer sanitary appliances. "In a sense, the larger households with more toilets will get a bigger discount," he added. "I didn't think that was right for this year's climate, so I decided we will not change the two."

The sanitary appliance fee is a fixed component based on the number of sanitary fittings, whereas the waterborne fee is charged based on the volume of water used in each premises. Both fees offset the cost of treating used water and for the operation and maintenance of the public sewer system.

While he updated the House on flood management, Dr Balakrishnan felt ensuring the resilience and security of Singapore's water supply is a "greater concern". The water catchment will be extended to cover practically all meaningful land area in Singapore "in the long term", while NEWater and desalination capacities will be boosted to meet 50 per cent and 30 per cent of water demand, respectively, by 2060.

But Mr Low said the sanitary appliance and waterborne fees had "offset the cost of treating used water" and that NEWater has become a "source of income" for PUB, which "resells clean water" back to households.

In response, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated that the Government was not "profiteering" on water. Instead, the PUB is requesting S$225 million and S$409 million in operating and development expenditure, respectively.

While water will be priced correctly as a precious commodity, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government will ensure that water remains affordable for everyone.

Turning to waste management, Dr Balakrishnan said that the Environmental Public Health Act will be amended to make it mandatory for large hotels and shopping malls to submit waste management data and improvement plans in 2014. This is to get companies to minimise waste.

The National Environment Agency will also implement a Pneumatic Refuse Conveyance System in Marina Bay by 2015.

This automated centralised refuse system for a particular district increases the efficiency of waste collection and reduces vehicular traffic, smell and noise.

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Public housing to be built at Bukit Brown

Sumita Sreedharan Today Online 6 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE - The southern part of Bukit Brown, where the Old Police Academy stands, will be developed for public housing as an extension of Toa Payoh, revealed Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.

Mr Tan told the House "this is a difficult decision but it's a decision we need to make", as he addressed concerns raised by Members of Parliament (MPs) Charles Chong and Irene Ng as well as Nominated MPs Faizah Jamal and Janice Koh at the Ministry of National Development (MND) Committee of Supply debate.

The MPs were worried about losing a piece of heritage.

Mr Tan reiterated that the road across the cemetery will replace Lornie Road as one of the key links of the 21km Outer Ring Road System that will enable motorists to bypass the city.

The dual four-lane road will connect the existing Thomson Road near Caldecott Hill and will cut through parts of the existing Bukit Brown Cemetery before joining Adam Road near the slip roads leading onto the Pan-Island Expressway.

"There is already a traffic jam at Lornie Road during peak hours, and the new road is urgently needed as more housing is built in the north-east and northern part of Singapore," he said.

Other options such as tunnelling and the widening of Lornie Road were studied but such moves would cause more damage to the cemetery or would entail land acquisition, he said.

"The proposed road was hence decided upon because it had the least impact," he added.

Other than the MND, other government agencies have been involved in the planning process, said Mr Tan.

The PUB and the National Parks Board studied the drainage requirements and its impact on the environment before the plan was approved. The Land Transport Authority is also carrying out a biodiversity study to address specific concerns arising from the roadworks.

Efforts are also being made to preserve the history and tradition that the graves represent, with the Urban Redevelopment Authority funding the documentation of around 5,000 graves which may be potentially affected by the new road.

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Malaysia: Big plans for Johor Baru

Zazali Musa The Star 7 Mar 12;

Irda chief executive officer Ismail Ibrahim shares with ZAZALI MUSA on what Johoreans can look forward when the project is expected to be completed within the next five to seven years.

JOHOR BARU began as a small Malay fishing village, originally known as Tanjung Puteri, it was founded in 1855 by Temengung Daeng Ibrahim, the father of Sultan Abu Bakar.

This year, the Southernmost city in the peninsular will undergo a multi-billion ringgit transformation project to redevelop, rejuvenate and transform the city into a vibrant and thriving place.

It covers 485.62ha within the city central area including Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Bukit Timbalan, the former site of the Lumba Kuda low-cost flats, Tanjung Puteri Lorry Customs complex and areas within the Johor Zoo, Ayer Molek Prison and Hospital Sultanah Aminah.

Iskandar Regional Development Authority (Irda) is task to facilitate and monitor the project to be undertaken by a consortium made of public and private players.

Q: Why there is a need to transform Johor Baru city centre after 157 years?

A: If you look around, most major cities around the world have undergone transformation and redevelopment project for various socio-economic reasons.

One is to offer better and conducive living area for residents such as building better infrastructure, create more green lungs for them to engage in outdoor activities and improve connectivity and accessibility.

Certain areas especially the old parts of the city which is over a century would normally needed upgrading work as some of the buildings might be in deplorable conditions.

Redevelopment or rebuilding projects also involved cities which are destroyed in wars as well as natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and massive flooding.

Look at how Singapore has successfully conserved the old parts of the republic and turned them into viable places to live, work and play.

The conservation projects of old and heritage buildings by the private players under the watchful eyes of the Urban Renewal Authority had rejuvenated old parts of Singapore.

Boat Quay and Clarke Quay are the best examples where pre-war houses fronting the Singapore River were turned into specialty retail stores, food and beverage outlets and offices and they blend well with skyscrapers behind them.

We need to do the same to bring back people to the Johor Baru city central area not only during daytimes but also at night and this can be achieved by combining old and new elements in the transformation project.

Q: How significant is the project to Johor and Iskandar Malaysia?

A: Undoubtedly it is vital to rejuvenate Johor Baru city centre in line with its status as one of the five flaghship development zones in Iskandar Malaysia.

Under the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) from 2006 until 2025, Iskandar Malaysia will emerge as a strong metropolis of international standing.

For Iskandar Malaysia to achieve that status by 2025, we have to start transforming the city centre itself, moreover Johor Baru is so close to Singapore.

Historically, during Sultan Abu Bakar reign (1862-1895), Johor Baru was one of the ‘most modern and developed towns’ in the Malay states due to the large presence of British and Chinese businessmen.

The project is not only significant to Johor but also the country as it will be one of the major urban redevelopment projects in Malaysia.

It has a strong backing from the Federal and Johor governments and in order for it to succeed, this requires concerted efforts from other stakeholders too.

They include the State Economic Planning Unit, Johor Bari City Council, Johor Tourism, Iskandar Investment Bhd, private players and other relevant agencies.

We hope everybody will fully cooperate with us to ensure its success and welcome constructive view or opinions for all parties.

Q: What do you mean by a vibrant and thriving place and why the ‘History and Culture’ theme was chosen under the project?

A: Vibrant means there should be activities that will generate lot of inflows of people into the city not only during the day but at night.

We need to keep the population within the city central area to a certain level as they will compliment the types of activities taking place in the area, whether, business or personal.

This can be done by combining old and new elements – for instance, some of the heritage buildings or those with attractive architectural elements could be turned into offices, F&B outlets, boutique hotels and even residential properties.

At the same time, there could also be high density living just metres away from the old parts of the city made up of condominium or apartment towers, office blocks and retail centre.

Not all old buildings will be preserved or conserve of preserving them especially those that beyond repairs and involving high maintenance to keep.

From the economic perspective, it is better to pull them down and in place, build high-plot ratio buildings to give good returns to land owners – but the new buildings must blend with the History and Culture theme.

Only buildings with historical elements, architectural interest or depicting certain characteristics from different eras will be preserved.

History and Culture theme was chosen as it reflected the long history of Johor Baru and Irda has been looking at other cities outside the country which more a less have the same theme.

They include cities in the United Kingdom such as Stratford-Upon-Avon, Cambridge, Oxford, Kent-At-Canterburry and Johor Baru’s sister city Istanbul in Turkey.

Q: How can you convince operators running businesses within the city area as well as land owners that the project will be successful?

A: We have to make comparison by showing successful projects around the world, a lot of cities in the UK and Germany have turned the inner parts of the areas into pedestrians walkways.

For instance, turning Jalan Wong Ah Fook in downtown Johor Baru into a partial-non-vehicle zone will bring business or vice versa to the area?

Doing away with vehicle traffic would give them high returns, this must be proven rather than just telling them stories.

Hopefully, one fine day businessmen in downtown Johor Baru will fully understand and accept the concept that pedestrians will help to rejuvenate economic activities in the area.

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Malaysia, Pulau Sembilan: Corals and critters

Tan Cheng Li The Star 6 Mar 12;

The murky waters off Pulau Sembilan hide a wondrous seascape.

OFF the coast of Lumut in Perak lies a cluster of nine islands. Pulau Sembilan, as they are called, are uninhabited as there is no fresh water supply, but fishermen have long stopped there for shelter when the sea gets rough. The site also draws many recreational fishermen but what is unknown to most is that lurking in the depths is a marine realm which cries for attention and care.

An underwater survey in January by the non-profit Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) found coral reefs off the islands to be fairly rich and diverse. There were even surprise finds of species not commonly sighted in West Coast reefs, such as the frogfish, seahorse and pipefish. The types of coral species even rival those found off the East Coast.

“The survey was to find what kind of biodiversity there is and whether the place is worth protecting, and it is,” says Aaron Tam, communications officer of RCM, which focuses on coral reef conservation and community education programmes, and is part of the worldwide Reef Check network. “Pulau Sembilan is the last bastion of coral reefs in the West Coast and its reefs are a lot better than those found in Pulau Pangkor. The reef condition is fair. One surprising thing is that we found organisms that are difficult to find in the West Coast.”

The team of six divers made 12 dives over four days in the rapid assessment of the nine islands (Agas, Payong, Nipis, Rumbia, Lalang, Saga, Buluh, Black Rock and White Rock) which are located some 20km from Lumut or 15km south of Pulau Pangkor.

The islands used to be visited by snorkellers and recreational divers but their appeal has waned in recent years as the reefs have lost their lustre, impacted by shipping in the Straits of Malacca, development of tourism facilities on Pangkor and industrial facilities on the mainland. The islands have no protected status; hence tourist and fishing pressure are not controlled or monitored.

Despite all the silt and pollutants pouring into the sea from Pangkor and the mainland, the Pulau Sembilan reefs remain in relatively good condition. The divers were astounded by what they saw underwater. The murky waters mask an interesting seascape of porites coral mounds, branching table corals and carpets of anemone.

“I’m amazed as the water visibility is low yet the coral cover is in the same state as in the East Coast where the water is a lot clearer,” says Kee Alfian Abdul Adzis, a reef ecologist at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

The reefs are generally in “fair” condition, with average live coral cover (of both hard and soft corals) of 29% (the average for Malaysia in 2010 is 44%). The corals appear to be growing and reproducing well despite the turbid waters. The incidence of recently killed corals is low (0.44%), indicating few recent disturbances and a low abundance of coral predators.

Sewage runoff from the mainland and Pulau Pangkor does not appear to significantly affect the reefs, as seen from the low levels of algae (the growth of which is fuelled by nutrients from sewage).

Another positive observation is the fairly large areas of rocky substrate – this means there are sturdy surfaces for coral recruits to settle on and grow.

But the years of extensive fishing has certainly taken a toll on the marine environment. The divers spotted fish species commonly associated with healthy reefs – groupers, sweetlips and batfish – but the numbers were low and consisted mainly of juveniles.

Highly prized food fish such as barramundi cod, humphead wrasse and bumphead parrotfish were not seen. Commercially collected marine invertebrates such as lobsters and sea cucumbers were also missing from the reefs. The area is still being fished extensively; the divers saw many fish trawlers in the area.

The reef has also ended up as a dumping ground for man’s refuse – debris such as metal frames, batteries, glass bottles and even a toilet bowl, littered the reef. But nothing harms the reef more than “ghost nets” – discarded or lost fishing nets that end up smothering or entangling corals and marine animals. There were plenty of those in the sea.

“It is a very sad scene. Some nets cover huge porites corals which may be a 100 years old,” says Kee Alfian. The divers removed whatever nets they could in order to protect the corals.

RCM reckons there is enough marine wealth in the Pulau Sembilan reefs to warrant their protection. There are relatively high numbers of coral groups (19) and invertebrates (28 species, including flatworms, nudibranchs, molluscs and bivalves), as well as rare animals. Frogfish are more commonly seen in Sabah and very rarely in Peninsular Malaysia. Likewise, seahorses are usually found in seagrass beds but were seen in the reef in Pulau Sembilan.

According to RCM, Pulau Sembilan has one of the last significant areas of coral reef on the West Coast, and plays a role in connectivity between the islands in the north (Langkawi, Payar, Bidan, Songsong and Teloh in Kedah) and those in the south (Pangkor, Pangkor Laut, Giam and Mentagor in Perak, as well as Besar and Upeh in Malacca). This connectivity allows the movement of coral larvae and reef organisms along the Straits of Malacca.

Currently in the West Coast, only four small islands (the Payar, Lembu, Kaca and Segantang islands) within the Pulau Payar Marine Park off Kedah, are protected.


For Kee Alfian, reefs in the Straits of Malacca are scientifically interesting as they are expected to host a genetically diverse mix of species, due to influences from the Indian Ocean. “Pulau Sembilan also provides an opportunity to study coral species which occur in two different ecosystems, the clear waters of the East Coast and the murky waters of the West Coast.”

He also points to the economic benefits: “If we protect the area, the reef will get better, and fish stocks can recover. The spill-over effects will benefit surrounding islands and reefs.

Now, locals say there is no more fish to catch. Without fisheries, the local economy will collapse. People must understand that protecting a part of the area will give benefits in the long run.”

With proper management, the aesthetic value of the reefs can be improved and the biodiversity, protected. This will ultimately draw snorkellers and divers there.

The RCM, however, does not advocate turning Pulau Sembilan into a marine park but into a “marine managed area”. Under current rules, marine parks are established in the area two nautical miles from shore, within which fishing, anchoring, collecting, extraction and construction are prohibited.

RCM finds this approach unsuitable for Pulau Sembilan as the proximity of the nine islands to each other will mean that the protected areas will overlap. This will make it impossible for fishing vessels to travel around the islands without violating park rules, and will close off substantial parts of existing fishing grounds. Also, the area has been a commercial fishing ground for many generations of fisherman and a sudden 100% restriction is likely to be ignored.

A marine managed area is a more flexible approach that takes into account the needs of local communities. It consists of a multi-use approach, with areas divided into zones of different uses: commercial fishing zones, sport fishing zones, recreational zones, and “no take” zones (for reef rehabilitation and conservation). Kee Alfian says establishing a marine managed area at Pulau Sembilan will also contribute to Malaysia’s commitment under the Convention on Biodiversity to protect 10% of its marine resources.

He adds that the importance of protection is further bolstered by proposed industrial developments in nearby Pangkor and the mainland, which if not well managed, can threaten the ecological value and economical potential of the Pulau Sembilan reefs.

Of concern are the proposed iron ore plant at Teluk Rubiah in Manjung, the LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal at Lumut and tourism development at Teluk Segadas in Pangkor.

Tam says RCM intends to raise awareness on the survey findings and will share it with relevant agencies, including the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and the Marine Parks Department.

“With protected status and given a few years, the reefs should return to a healthier state. They will be an asset to tourism, as the islands are not really that far away, only 30 to 45 minutes by speedboat from Pangkor or Lumut. And if the islands get protected status, any future development will have to be carried out carefully so as not to impact the reefs.”

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Indonesia: Endangered Turtle Egg Ban Finally Enforced

Tunggadewa Mattangkilang Jakarta Globe 7 Mar 12;

Samarinda, East Kalimantan. Police in Samarinda have announced a bizarre crackdown on the illegal trade in the eggs of the endangered green turtle, a move that wildlife activists have derided as coming far too late.

Sr. Comr. Arif Prapto Santoso, the Samarinda Police chief, said on Tuesday that the crackdown would not begin until March 18.

Until then, he said, the traders would be allowed to continue selling the eggs to clear their stocks “because we don’t want them to incur any financial losses.”

He added that in preparation for the raids, police had issued notices to all known turtle egg vendors warning them not to sell any eggs after March 18.

“Several of the traders have signed an agreement saying they would comply with the deadline,” he said.

Arif said the campaign was purely a police initiative and denied it was prompted by any outside pressure to get tough on the illegal but widespread trade.

“We just want to enforce the law, which is being flouted with impunity,” he said.

The announcement, though, comes just a week after the World Wildlife Fund blamed the selling of turtle eggs, among other factors, for a 70 percent decline in the green sea turtle population in the Berau marine conservation area off East Kalimantan during the past decade.

Wiwin Efendi, the East Kalimantan coordinator for WWF Indonesia, said the police’s campaign was too little, too late.

If they were so eager to enforce the ban on the turtle egg trade, she said, they should have done so when it was first introduced in 1990, under the Law on Natura l Resources Conservation.

The law states that anyone caught dealing in the eggs of protected species, including the green turtle, could face up to five years in prison and Rp 100 million ($11,000) in fines.

“The ban came out more than 20 years ago, so why are the police only acting now?” Wiwin said.

For their part, the egg traders, who operate largely in the open along Jalan R.E. Martadinata, said they objected to the crackdown because the eggs they sold came from outside East Kalimantan waters.

Muhlis, a trader, said he got his eggs from turtle nesting grounds in South Kalimantan and Bali. The ban, though, makes no distinction regarding the origin of the stolen eggs.

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Small dams, big impact on Mekong River fish: study

Kerry Sheridan (AFP)Google 6 Mar 12;

WASHINGTON — Plans to build hydropower dams along small branches of southeast Asia's longest river could have a devastating impact on millions of people who rely on the world's largest inland fishery, scientists said Monday.

Plenty of attention has focused on plans to develop 11 big dams along the main stem of the 4,600 kilometer (2,850 mile) Mekong River which passes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In December, ministers from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos postponed a decision on the first of those efforts -- the $3.8 billion Xayaburi dam -- saying more research was needed to assuage concerns from conservationists.

But the international study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the impact of building dams on dozens of the smaller branches, known as tributaries, and warned of a "catastrophic" future.

"We find that the completion of 78 dams on tributaries, which have not previously been subject to strategic analysis, would have catastrophic impacts on fish productivity and biodiversity," said the study.

Since the area is home to many species of migratory fish, the analysis found that several dam projects could block more than 100 kinds of fish from swimming upstream, causing massive losses to diversity and fish supply.

Tens of millions of rural, poor residents in the region depend on subsistence fishing for their main source of protein, said scientists from Cambodia's Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute and Stanford and Princeton University.

"We found there is going to be a very sharp tradeoff between producing energy and the impact on food and biodiversity," lead author Guy Ziv of Stanford University told AFP.

Ziv said researchers focused on 27 of the 78 planned tributary dams, because those 27 are scheduled for construction from 2015 to 2030 and their future remains up in the air.

Also, they require no international accord to be built, even though they will undoubtedly affect fishing populations in neighboring countries.

"The overall impact of those is greater than some of the mainstream dams which got all of the international attention so far," Ziv said.

"The beneficiary of the production would be Laos, producing energy mostly for export into Thailand and Vietnam, while the impact would be felt by Cambodia and partly by Vietnam, losing a big percentage of their fish catch."

More than one million tons of freshwater fish are caught each year in the Cambodian and Vietnamese floodplains alone, and the entire Mekong River Basin is home to 65 million people, about two-thirds of whom rely on fishing to survive, the authors said.

In all, the researchers identified 877 fish species in the Mekong River Basin, 103 of which would be potentially blocked from making their upstream migrations by hydropower development.

Specifically, four planned dams were found to create the largest fish biomass losses, including the Lower Se San 2 in Cambodia, causing a 9.3 percent drop in fish biomass basin-wide, which Ziv said "really looks like a very bad option."

Three others in Laos also posed particular concerns for the amount of biomass they were projected to cut: Se Kong 3d (2.3 percent), Se Kong 3u (0.9 percent), and Se Kong 4 (0.75 percent).

Although those percentages may seem small, Ziv said they would add up fast in communities that depend on fish for survival, noting that the disappearance of one percent of fish in the basin would be equal to losing 10,000 tons of food.

Tributary dams fall under national laws and do not require international agreement, even though building these dams could have "potentially significant transboundary impacts" on fish in other countries' waters, said the study.

"Most of the catch is in subsistence fisheries," added Ziv.

"These are poor men who rely on these fish for their livelihood, so you are really impacting the poorest people when you are reducing the catch."

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Australia's mining boom placing Great Barrier Reef at risk, UN warns

Environmental team is assessing the reef amid concerns over rapid escalation in coal exports and gas exploration
Oliver Milman 6 Mar 12;

A UN environmental team has arrived in Australia for a crunch 10-day assessment of the Great Barrier Reef, warning that the coral ecosystem is at a "crossroads" due to the soaring activity of the mining industry in the World Heritage Area.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) visit comes amid fears that the reef's world heritage listing, which it has held since 1981, could be placed in jeopardy after rapid escalation in coal exports and gas exploration.

"The Great Barrier Reef is definitely at a crossroad and decisions that will be taken over the next one, two, three years might potentially be crucial for the long-term conservation [of the reef]," said Fanny Douvere, from Unesco's World Heritage marine programme.

Australia's coal boom is set to open up the previously undeveloped Galilee Basin in central Queensland, greatly increasing the number of developments along the state's coast, where the 1,800-mile reef stretches.

The proposed infrastructure includes Abbott Point, which would become the largest coal export port in the world.

At full capacity, the expansion would see more than 10,000 coal-laden ships a year cross the Great Barrier Reef by the end of the decade – a sizeable increase on the 1,722 vessels that entered the World Heritage Area in 2011.

Environmentalists are concerned that ships navigating reef passageways – many of which are narrower than the English Channel – will run aground, as a Chinese vessel did in 2010, tearing a two-mile gash into the coral and spilling several tonnes of oil.

There are also warnings that the reef's six species of turtle, including the endangered loggerhead and Olive Ridley turtles, and the snubfin dolphin, Australia's only endemic dolphin, would be affected by any mass industrialisation of the Queensland coast.

Any reduction in visitor numbers to a region that generates AUS$6bn a year from tourists would also be keenly felt by local businesses and the Australian economy at large.

Douvere and Tim Badman from the International Union for Conservation of Nature are set to meet with government ministers and NGOs, as well as visit the reef to assess the impact of new developments.

The specially arranged trip follows a minor diplomatic incident last year when Unesco's World Heritage Committee said it was "extremely concerned" that the Australian government had not informed it of the approval of a major liquefied natural gas hub on Curtis Island, off the Queensland coast.

The expansion of the hub at Gladstone has been blamed for a sharp drop in water quality and widespread disease of marine creatures.

More than 45m cubic metres of sea floor is to be dredged in the World Heritage Area to accommodate the boom in shipping, with the government warning that it will penalise mining companies that dump accumulated waste on the corals.

Douvere said: "When it comes to dredging issues I think that a big part of our discussions need to focus on what the alternatives are."

Speaking to the Guardian from Paris, prior to her departure to Australia, Douvere said that there were multiple threats to the reef's wellbeing.

"We won't just be looking at the increase in shipping, but also issues such as how climate change and the recent cyclone and extreme weather has affected the reef," she said.

"We will look at the overall impact of these things. We don't regularly make these kind of trips but it was asked for by the World Heritage Committee after issues were raised last year."

Environmental groups have claimed that Unesco's visit is an embarrassment for the Australian government.

Greenpeace Australia spokesman James Lorenz said: "We are looking at an enormous, unprecedented increase in coal, oil and gas exploitation here."

"Unesco is clearly very worried about this and if they decide the reef is in danger, that places it at the same level as sites in places such as Afghanistan, which is deeply embarrassing for Australia."

"The Great Barrier Reef is priceless but it is being treated like it's a worthless. It has been mismanaged for years and we are now at a tipping point."

Both the federal Australian and state Queensland governments have launched their own 18-month assessments of the reef, although ministers have come under fire for considering several large developments, including Abbott Point, during the review.

Tony Burke, Australia's environment minister, has defended his handling of the issue, telling ABC Radio: "Let's not forget, with Abbot Point, there is already a significant level of industry that occurs there."

"One of the largest levels of concern here is shipping, as the vessels move through the reef area. So those shipping movement issues are issues that really have to be front of mind throughout all of this."

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Underwater Nursery Tends Endangered Corals

Andrea Mustain,OurAmazingPlanet 6 Mar 12;

The marine residents of hard-hit coral reefs near Puerto Rico may have noticed a sudden influx of strangers, thanks to a coral relocation and repopulation project that recently completed its most ambitious transplant to date.

Over two weeks in January, teams of divers installed more than 1,200 adult staghorn corals at various reef sites off Tallaboa, along Puerto Rico's southern coastline, in an effort to revive crucial ecosystems that suffered steep declines in recent decades.

The transplanted staghorn came from a local coral nursery that rose out of ecological disaster.

Salty silver lining

In April 2006, a 750-foot-long (228 meters) tanker ran aground on the Tallaboa reef, smashing about 2 acres of coral.

Such collisions wreak havoc on reefs' delicate topography. "After it's run over by a tanker, it [a coral reef] looks like a parking lot," said Sean Griffin, a habitat restoration specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and I.M. Systems Group, an environmental consulting firm.

Immediately after the tanker accident, divers salvaged pieces of the smashed coral and started up the nursery with just 100 small fragments of coral. Griffin, head of the coral nursery, said the team discovered through experimentation that line nurseries — which vaguely resemble coral vineyards — were the most successful. The nursery now keeps a population of 1,500 individual corals. [See images of the thriving coral nursery.]

Rows of staghorn corals hang on the line, ready to be planted in new reef homes. In just a year, the corals have grown from just over an inch long to about 20 inches (50 cm) across.
Credit: NOAA.

Staghorn coral, a key reef-building species with unruly branches that can reach 6.5 feet (2 m) long, once ruled the balmy, subtropical waters around North, Central and South America. Over the last three decades, ship strikes have taken a toll, but less obvious killers such as disease and catastrophic bleaching events triggered by extreme temperaturesreally devastated the species.

In some places, staghorn coral populations have declined by 98 percent, and in 2006, staghorn and its cousin, elkhorn coral, were listed as "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act.

Coral keepers

To raise the endangered coral, researchers tether small pieces of coral to rubber-coated wires that run above the seafloor. "They grow really quickly," Griffin said. To increase the nursery's population, researchers will simply "frag," or break off, pieces of the growing coral.

Suspended in the open water, the coral are lifted beyond the reach of hungry snails and predatory fireworms, and, in contrast to their anchored brethren, "you have three-dimensional growth, so it's almost doubling production," Griffin told OurAmazingPlanet.

Over two weeks in January, Griffin and a crew of divers moved 100 nursery-raised corals per day to sites as close as just 100 feet (30 m) from the nursery and, in other cases, transported the coral by boat to sites several miles away.

At the repopulation sites, crews used a variety of methods to replant the corals, attaching them to their new homes with cement, epoxy, carpentry nails or tie line, and sometimes simply wedging the corals into cracks in a reef.

"As long as they're stable and don't get loosened up and moved by the waves, they do fine," Griffin said.

The January coral "out-plant" was the largest yet in the region, and Griffin said he aims to repeat the process with staghorn coral every year. The next challenge, he said, is to increase the diversity at the nursery.

"We're trying to branch out into more corals," he said.

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Alien Species Invading Antarctica via Tourists, Scientists

Seeds hitchhiking on cold-weather clothing, gear.
Charles Q. Choi for National Geographic News 5 Mar 12;

Antarctic tourists and scientists may be inadvertently seeding the icy continent with invasive species, a new study says.

Foreign plants such as annual bluegrass are establishing themselves on Antarctica, whose status as the coldest and driest continent had long made it one of the most pristine environments on Earth.

But a boom in tourism and research activities to the Antarctic Peninsula may be threatening the continent's unique ecosystems, scientists say.

For the study, ecologist Steven Chown at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and colleagues vacuumed the clothes, footwear, bags, and gear of approximately 2 percent of people who visited during the Antarctic summer from late 2007 to early 2008. That amounted to 853 scientists, tourists, and accompanying support workers and ships' crew members.

"Endless hours were spent vacuum-cleaning clothes and gear. ... If one is doing so on a ship underway on a rough ocean, it can take a strong stomach," Chown recalled.

The results revealed more than 2,600 seeds and other detachable plant structures, or propagules, had hitched a ride to Antarctica on these visitors.

On average, tourists each carried two to three seeds, while scientists each carried six. However, the annual number of tourists now far outnumbers that of scientists—about 33,000 tourists to about 7,000 scientists in the 2007-2008 Antarctic summer. As a result, tourists and scientists likely pose similar risks overall to Antarctica, Chown said.

Antarctic Invaders Used to the Cold

Disturbingly, the scientists said, 49 to 61 percent of the foreign plant material that reaches Antarctica are cold-adapted species that can withstand and colonize in extreme conditions.

The plants likely get stuck to cold-weather gear that travelers had used in other frigid climes prior to arriving to Antarctica.

For instance, Arctic species such as chickweed and yellow bog sedge have been found in Antarctica, according to the study, published March 5 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Based on the nature of these foreign species and the present climate of Antarctica, the areas at highest risk are the Antarctic Peninsula coast and surrounding islands, the study said.

According to climate projections for 2100 from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), invaders may also take root in the coastal, ice-free areas to the west of the Amery Ice Shelf and, to a lesser extent, in the Ross Sea region.

What's more, rising temperatures along the Antarctic coast will likely aid these intruders' survival.

Even so, "it should not be imagined that Antarctica will suddenly be covered in flowering plants and weeds," Chown said.

"Much of it is still a very harsh place, and plants do not grow on ice, which still dominates the continent."

Cleaning Gear May Reduce Risks

Polar ecologist Peter Convey said the study "provided objective assessment that both governmental and tourism operations in the region pose significant risks."

But knowing the risks also means knowing how to manage them, said Convey, of the British Antarctic Survey, who was not part of the study.

For instance, cleaning outer gear and bags is very effective at reducing the number of seeds that can reach Antarctica. "In essence, take it new or take it clean," study leader Chown said.

Chown and team also plan to present their work to the Committee for Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty.

"We hope they will use the information further" to develop ways to lessen the impact, Chown said.

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Scientists See Rise In Tornado-Creating Conditions

Sharon Begley PlanetArk 7 Mar 12;

When at least 80 tornadoes rampaged across the United States, from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, last Friday, it was more than is typically observed during the entire month of March, tracking firm reported on Monday.

According to some climate scientists, such earlier-than-normal outbreaks of tornadoes, which typically peak in the spring, will become the norm as the planet warms.

"As spring moves up a week or two, tornado season will start in February instead of waiting for April," said climatologist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Whether climate change will also affect the frequency or severity of tornadoes, however, remains very much an open question, and one that has received surprisingly little study.

"There are only a handful of papers, even to this day," said atmospheric scientist Robert Trapp of Purdue University, who led a pioneering 2007 study of tornadoes and climate change.

"Some of us think we should be paying more attention to it," said atmospheric physicist Anthony Del Genio of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, part of NASA.

The scientific challenge is this: the two conditions necessary to spawn a twister are expected to be affected in opposite ways. A warmer climate will likely boost the intensity of thunderstorms but could dampen wind shear, the increase of wind speed at higher altitudes, researchers say.

Tomorrow's thunderstorms will pack a bigger wallop, but may strike less frequently than they have historically, explained Del Genio.

"As we go to a warmer atmosphere, storms - which transfer energy from one region to another - somehow figure out how to do that more efficiently," he said. As a result, thunderstorms transfer more energy per outbreak, and so have to make such transfers less often.

In a 2011 paper, Del Genio calculated that, "especially in the central and eastern United States, we can expect a few more days per month with conditions favorable to severe thunderstorm occurrence" by the latter part of this century if the global climate grows warmer.

Indeed, the world has been experiencing more violent storms since 1970, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in its most recent assessment.


Purdue's Trapp and colleagues got a similar result in their 2007 study, which they confirmed in research published in 2009 and 2011. "The number of days when conditions exist to form tornadoes is expected to increase" as the world warms, he said.

In addition, they found, regions near the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts not normally associated with tornadoes will experience tornado-making weather more frequently. They projected a doubling in the number of days with such conditions in Atlanta and New York City, for instance.

More powerful thunderstorms would be expected to produce more tornadoes, but wind shear could prove a mitigating factor.

Because climate change is not uniform, Del Genio wrote in the 2011 paper, "in the lower troposphere, the temperature difference between low and high latitudes decreases as the planet warms, creating less wind shear."

Other scientists are not so sure, and they see a surge in tornadoes last year as ominous. April 2011 was the most active tornado month on record, with 753, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), compared to the previous record of 267 in April 1974.

"I have no doubt that there will be many times when wind shear is plenty strong to create a tornado," said Trenberth.

That is what Trapp's team concluded in their 2007 study. "Over most of the United States," they wrote, the increase in the power of thunderstorms will "more than compensate for the relative decreases in shear."

As a result, "the environment would still be considered favorable for severe convection" of the kind that creates tornadoes.

From March to May the projected increase in severe storms is "largest over a 'tornado-alley'-like region extending northward from Texas," Trapp found. From June through August, the eastern half of the country is projected to experience such an increase.

If there are more days in the future when wind shear is too weak to produce a tornado from a thunderstorm, said Trenberth, then "the frequency of tornadoes may decrease but the average intensity might increase. You could have a doozy of an outbreak, and then they could go away for a while."

On average, about 800 tornados are reported annually in the United States. About 70 percent are "weak," finds NOAA, with winds less than 110 mph. Just under 29 percent are "strong," with winds between 110 and 205 mph. Only 2 percent of all tornadoes are what NOAA characterizes as "violent," with winds in excess of 205 mph, but they account for 70 percent of all twister deaths.

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Reflecting on Rio: looking back to 1992

In the second of our Rio+20 video series, the pioneers of the past reflect on the last 20 years of sustainable development. Watch the video and tell us your thoughts
Jenny Purt 6 Mar 12;

The first Rio conference, the Earth Summit in 1992, was unprecedented for a United Nations (UN) conference both in terms of size and scope. The conference brought together over a hundred world leaders and took place under intense media scrutiny as a host of future markers were set.

"People were excited, we had more NGOs there in Rio than had ever assembled before. We had more heads of government, presidents, prime ministers and a couple of Kings," says Maurice Strong, secretary general at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, in the above video.

Addressing the need to tackle the complex environmental and social issues that now, 20 years on, are more pressing than ever. Rio Mark 1 produced a host of promises in the form of Agenda 21 and three conventions, on climate biodiversity and deserts.

"I think it's important to think about how much the Rio conference itself, 20 years ago, in fact achieved" says Gro Harlem Brundtland, chair of the Brundtland Commission.

"It is exceptional in international relations that a summit like that decides both on a climate convention and a biodiversity convention and an Agenda 21."

"The important thing is that we got an agreement beyond what anybody thought was possible," Strong says before making a point that rings throughout the video.

"The problem has been what happened afterwards which is not enough."

The theme that is apparent throughout the video is that efforts made since 1992 are nowhere near enough as the original Rio architects reflect on the outcomes of the last 20 years. How far has sustainable development really come?

"We've made some progress on awareness - 20 years ago no one was talking about the need to make development more sustainable, now just about everybody is," says Jim MacNeill, secretary general of the Brundtland Commission.

"But as far as action is concerned, the sad fact is that the unsustainable trends that prompted the United Nations to call for the establishment of a special commission in 1983 have grown steadily worse and they've now reached dangerous levels."

Yolanda Kakabadse, president at WWF International says: "I don't think we have made the necessary progress. In 20 years, I would have loved to see much more being done, more results, more concrete products of what we proposed in Rio 20 years ago.

"We wanted to have much more response from governments at a national level, at a local level and also at the international level and we haven't had enough of that.

"I think we have moved ahead with more vision maybe and commitment on the part of the civil society groups and the business sectors but definitely not enough."

Whilst the original summit achieved a lot what is clear from the video is that delivery has not been sufficient. Describing innovation in technology and advances in policy-making in both business and government as "remarkable", Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, makes the observation that whilst small advances are encouraging, no real changes will be enacted without responses being scaled-up.

We'd like to know what you think

• What are your views on how far sustainable development has come since 1992?
• What progress has been made and where have we failed?
• What does Rio+20 need to achieve to ensure a renewed commitment to sustainable development?
• How will the two climate summits differ and what challenges have emerged since 1992?

Please leave comments in the thread below or tweet your questions or answers using #regenrio.

For more background on sustainable development milestones over the last 25 years, click here.

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