Best of our wild blogs: 24 Aug 12

“Rescue, Rehabilitation and Responsible Animal Care” at the Animal Welfare Symposium this Sat 25 Aug 2012 from Otterman speaks

Angelfishes of Singapore
from Compressed air junkie

Read more!

Singapore to achieve cleaner air by 2020

Stringent steps to lower pollution; release of air quality info thrice a day
Grace Chua Straits Times 24 Aug 12

SINGAPORE is aiming for cleaner air and has set 2020 as the deadline to make this happen.

To work towards this, it has adopted World Health Organisation guidelines on air quality as a target.

Until now, Singapore had used these guidelines only as benchmarks.

To achieve cleaner air, more stringent anti-pollution measures for vehicles, refineries and power generation companies will have to be introduced.

In the next two years, for example, the sulphur content of fuels will be pared down.

And from April 1, 2014, new petrol vehicles here must meet cleaner Euro IV vehicle tailpipe emission standards, up from the current Euro II standard that has been in place since 2001.

The announcement came from Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

He was speaking at the Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards ceremony at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel.

He also said that instead of just aiming for annual targets for cleaner air, 24-hour targets will have to be met when it comes to some pollutants.

He also disclosed that, from today, information on air quality here will be pumped out thrice a day instead of just once, as it can fluctuate over the course of the day.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) will put this out on its website ( at 8am, noon and 4pm.

NEA will also report the level of PM2.5 - that is, the level of fine particles in the air - thrice a day. Up until now, only annual levels of this have been published.

PM2.5 encompasses airborne matter, such as soot particles, which are a fraction of the diameter of a human hair. These pollutants can get lodged deep in one's lungs and bloodstream, posing health risks.

Asked why it has taken so long to move to more stringent emission and fuel standards, Dr Balakrishnan said such steps take time to coordinate with refineries and car importers.

He added, however, that Singapore could adopt the even stricter Euro V emission standards for petrol vehicles "in the not so long term".

On whether achieving cleaner air would mean pricier cars, he said that the variation in certificate of entitlement (COE) prices "far exceeds any difference in prices due to improved technology in our vehicles".

He added: "Fumes from motor vehicles and industries affect every single Singaporean. I think this is a price worth paying."

Environmental activists and think-tanks like the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) have long pressed for more air quality data and higher air quality standards.

SIIA director Nicholas Fang welcomed the new information on PM2.5 as it would raise awareness of air pollution. But he said the "trickier part of the equation" was altering people's behaviour, such as leaving car engines idling.

Teacher Tang Beng Yong, 40, who has a keen interest in environmental issues, said the reporting of PM2.5 was "a step in the right direction" and suggested that a night reading also be published.

Dr Erik Velasco, who studies air pollution at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, said the move to limit the sulphur content of fuels comes late for a country like Singapore, which has a strong refinery industry.

"Low-sulphur fuels should not be a problem for a country with a strong refinery industry," he said.

He also suggested publishing the levels of other pollutants that make up the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), the location of air quality sensors, and how this reported data is calculated.

Singapore's drive for cleaner air
Government to raise emission standards while giving more frequent updates on air quality
Woo Sian Boon Today Online 24 Aug 12;

SINGAPORE - To ensure cleaner air in Singapore, the Government is raising emission standards for new petrol vehicles and improving petrol quality while increasing the frequency of updates on the Republic's air quality.

Starting today, the National Environment Agency (NEA) will be reporting the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) thrice daily at 8am, noon and 4pm, instead of once a day, to make air quality information more relevant.

The level of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 - a very fine pollutant which can cause respiratory problems - will also be reported alongside the PSI.

If the air quality deteriorates to the extent that it is likely to affect one's health, advisories will be issued separately for the central, northern, southern, eastern and western sectors of Singapore. Previously, only one advisory was issued for the whole country.

The announcements were made by Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan at the Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards yesterday, as he outlined measures to reduce the level of pollutants in the air to meet the World Health Organization's Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) by 2020.

While Singapore is on target to meet the standards for four of the six pollutants under the AQGs - namely ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, PM 10 - Dr Balakrishnan said there is "room for improvement" to reduce sulphur dioxide and PM 2.5 levels to meet interim standards by 2020 and the final guidelines in the longer term.

Highlighting the petrochemical industry and large motor vehicle population as major emitters of these two pollutants, he said the new, more stringent measures are targeted at these groups.

As such, new petrol vehicles will have to meet Euro IV emission standards - up from Euro II - by April 2014. To pave the way, petrol with 10 times less sulphur content than the current level will be mandated by October next year.

Dr Balakrishnan also told reporters the Government is "very clearly signalling to the industry to be prepared to move on to Euro V in time".

While Singapore has lagged behind other countries in adopting better vehicle emission standards, Dr Balakishnan said coordination with refineries was needed so that they could produce fuel suitable for Euro IV and ultimately Euro V-standard vehicles.

He also assured consumers that the change in emission standards is not likely to cause an increase in vehicle prices. He does not foresee a shortage in car models as Singapore's imported cars are mostly from Europe and Japan, two jurisdictions that have already implemented Euro IV emission standards.

Local-based energy company YTL PowerSeraya said it will be able to meet the new requirements, having switched its fuel mix from 100 per cent oil to 80 per cent natural gas as well as adopting technology and abatement equipment earlier on.

"With the further tightening, we will continue to do so with this three-pronged approach," said its Chief Executive Officer John Ng.

Mr Ron Lim, General Manager of Nissan agent Tan Chong Motor, said the industry will have no problems in meeting Euro IV emission standards as the NEA has worked with various stakeholders to set a feasible timeline for the change.

He added that "a lot of vehicles on the roads could already be in compliance with Euro IV or higher".

Emission standards for new petrol vehicles to be raised
Woo Sian Boon Today Online 23 Aug 12;

SINGAPORE - The Government is raising emission standards for new petrol vehicles and petrol quality to ensure cleaner air for all, and increasing the frequency of updates on Singapore's air quality.

The announcement was made by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan at the Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards 2012 today.

The measures are part of the National Environment Agency's (NEA) roadmap to reduce sulphur dioxide and particulate matter levels in the air in order to meet the World Health Organization's Air Quality Guidelines.

From tomorrow, the NEA will be updating the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) thrice daily instead of once a day, to make air quality information more relevant to Singaporeans. In addition, PM 2.5 levels - a pollutant emitted from the petrochemical industry and diesel vehicles - will also be made available with the PSI readings.

Frequency of reports on Singapore's air quality to be increased
Dylan Loh Channel NewsAsia 23 Aug 12;

SINGAPORE: The government is increasing the frequency of updates on Singapore's air quality.

It is among a host of measures taken as the country adopts higher environmental standards.

From Friday, reports will be posted on the National Environment Agency's (NEA) website three times a day.

People will be able to see the most current Pollutant Standards Index reading at 8am, noon and 4pm.

The previous practice was to update readings only at 4pm.

In a situation of trans-boundary smoke haze affecting Singapore, the usual practice of hourly air quality updates will continue.

Based on the readings, public health advisories will also be given for the central, northern, southern, eastern and western sectors of Singapore.

This changes the previous practice of giving advisories only for the country as a whole, instead of by region.

Fong Peng Keong, director, Pollution Control Department, National Environment Agency, said: "This actually allows the public at large to know more about (the current) air quality... so they can plan their activities more holistically."

Authorities also want cars to be more environmentally-friendly.

From April 2014, new petrol vehicles on the market have to be Euro IV-compliant.

This means they will produce less harmful emissions and will therefore be less pollutive.

Also, the plan is to eventually meet even higher, Euro V standards.

But with vehicle Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices high, will more stringent requirements mean more expensive cars?

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister, said: "It will be a very marginal impact and the variations in COE prices far exceed any difference in prices due to improved technology in our vehicles."

Singapore's push for better air will also impact industries.

Government agencies are working with refineries and power stations to decrease emissions by using cleaner fuels.

One aim is to reduce the amount of sulphur dioxide generated by industries in alignment with the World Health Organisation's air quality guidelines.

- CNA/wm/cc

Read more!

Peru seizes 16,000 dried seahorses headed to Asia

AFP Yahoo News 24 Aug 12;

More than 16,000 dried seahorses destined for illegal export to Asia, where the animal is sought for its supposed healing properties, were seized Thursday in Peru's capital Lima, authorities said.

"We managed to seize... 16,280 seahorses destined to be sold illegally on the Asian continent," Colonel Victor Fernandez, from the police unit tasked with confiscating such goods, told AFP.

Police uncovered the cargo, weighing around 160 kilograms (350 pounds), in three cases in a search operation near the airport in the Peruvian capital.

In Asia, particularly in China, South Korea and Japan, the seahorse -- protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) -- is coveted for its alleged medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.

Seahorse powder sells for about $6,000 per kilo, Fernandez said.

Seahorse fishing has been banned in Peru since 2004, and is punishable by two to five years in prison.

Peruvian authorities last year seized a total of two tonnes of seahorses destined for export.

Read more!

Wild rice gene gives yield boost

Richard Black BBC News 22 Aug 12;

A gene from wild Indian rice plants can significantly raise the yield of common varieties in nutrient-poor soils.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (Irri) identified a gene that helps uptake of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, and transferred it into commercial strains.

Their yield was about 60% above normal in phosphorus-poor soils, the team reports in the journal Nature.

Large swathes of Asia have soil that is phosporus-deficient.

The gene came from a variety called Kasalath, native to nutrient-poor soils of eastern India.

About 10 years ago, scientists deduced that Kalasath contained one or more genes that allowed it to grow successfully in low-phosphorus conditions.

It took the Irri team three years to identify the gene responsible, which they have named PSTOL1.

"We got the [DNA] sequence of this region, but the region is very complex and it was very difficult to identify what is an actual gene and what is not," lead researcher Sigrid Heuer told BBC News.

"There's so much work being done on phosphorus pathways and we could never find the genes and the mechanisms, and actually it's very simple - the gene promotes larger root growth, so the plant takes up nutrients more easily."

In phosporus-poor soils, PSTOL1 switches on during an early stage of root development.

This increases the area of root in contact with the soil, enabling the plant to scavenge more phosphorus.

Although the researchers focussed on this one key nutrient, they found the faster root growth also helped uptake of nitrogen and potassium, which are also vital for the plant's development.
Breeding success

The scientists then used genetic engineering to transfer PSTOL1 into plants from two main rice lineages - indica and japonica.

When they were raised in phosphorus-poor soils, their yields were about 60% higher than un-modified plants.

Subsequently, the team was able to cross-breed Kasalath with conventionally used strains, using molecular markers to guide the process.

These also produced high yields in poor soil.

Commenting on the research in Nature, Prof Leon Kochian from Cornell University, US, said phosphorus was "probably the most limiting mineral nutrient for plants".

About half of the world's agriculural land is deficient in the substance. This does not mean the element is absent, but that it is locked up in forms from which plant roots are poor at liberating it.

Usually, farmers combat the issue by deploying fertilisers containing phosphate compounds and other essential nutrients.

But there are concerns that the supply will be difficult to maintain in the long term, as it comes principally from rock types that are not very common.
Super ambition

The Irri team next plans to share the marker-assisted breeding process with other scientists in rice-growing areas of the world, so they can cross Kasalath with locally used varieties and see how they perform.

The package of science is all openly published and publicly accessible with no intellectual property rights involved, which was a condition of funding from the Generation Challenge Program.

The longer term ambition is to create "super-tolerant" strains that can grow successfully in a range of conditions.

Genes involved would confer tolerance to drought, salinity, and inundation - the last using the Sub1A gene, which was also discovered in a wild rice variety six years ago and allows plants to survive entirely underwater for at least two weeks.

The team believes that these useful genes are likely to exist in wild varieties such as Kalasath.

"This group [of varieties] is a real treasure chest - there are lots of stress genes preserved in it," said Dr Heuer.

"The aim is super-tolerance - we're working on this, and within the next five to 10 years this will be a reality."

The research illustrates the usefulness of studying a variety of crop strains. PSTOL1 and Sub1A are completely absent from the varieties that have had their entire genomes sequenced.

The Irri team is also working with other scientists to target phosphorus-tolerance genes in other important food crops such as sorghum.

Read more!

Australia's marine life hit by climate change

Tropical fish head for cooler seas, underwater forests wiped out, says report by 80 scientists
Jonathan Pearlman Straits Times 24 Aug 12;

SYDNEY - Marine life is under a growing threat from climate change in the waters around Australia. Tropical fish have been heading south for the cooler seas around Tasmania and the ocean's tall underwater forests have been virtually wiped out.

The details come in a new report by 80 Australian scientists that says south-east Australia has become "a global warming hot spot" and the threat to coral reefs is growing.

Climate change has made the ocean more acidic and bleached corals, it says, and seaweeds, phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish have moved south. The migration has also been caused by warming waters and a strengthening of the currents off the east coast of Australia since the 1950s.

"There is now striking evidence of extensive southward movements of tropical species in south-east Australia, declines in abundance of many temperate species, and the first signs of the effect of ocean acidification on marine species with shells," said the report released last week.

The report, by a group of scientists led by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, provides a snapshot based on the leading scientific papers from the past three years.

It found sea surface temperatures had increased by 1 deg C over the last century. The east coast of Tasmania and parts of Western Australia had the highest rises.

"The rate of temperature rise in Australian waters has accelerated since the mid-20th century," the report said. "Sea levels are rising around Australia, with fastest rates currently in northern Australia."

Professor David Booth, a marine ecologist at the University of Technology, Sydney, said tropical fish have been moving towards Tasmania for 30 or 40 years but sped up in the past 10 years.

"In this case, the rapidity of the change is probably fairly unprecedented," he said, noting that it is putting fisheries at risk.

In a further worrying sign, sea forests around Tasmania, made up of giant kelp, have shrunk by 95 per cent and were officially listed as endangered by the federal government last week. The forests, which rise as high as 25m off the ocean seabed, provide a crucial habitat for a range of species, including the black lip abalone and southern rock lobster.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said: "Giant kelp forests are being progressively lost due to a warming of the sea surface temperature caused by climate change, invasive species and changing land use and coastal activities that contribute to increased sedimentation and run-off and biodiversity loss."

Along the Great Barrier Reef, damage has become so severe that scientists have proposed "last resort" measures such as protecting it with shade cloths.

A paper published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change said the pace of global warming is unparalleled in 300 million years. One of its authors, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland, said the shade cloths anchored with ropes float on the water surface to protect the corals from sunlight.

"We are recommending looking at these technologies because at the current rate of warming, we may need to use them in 20 or 30 years," he told The Straits Times.

"We should test them now and see which ones work. Shading is not a strategy that can be used across hundreds of kilometres of the reef. But it might - at a local level - be able to influence how many corals die."

Scientists have been increasingly worried about the long-term threat of climate change and rising water temperatures to the Great Barrier Reef - an iconic stretch of about 2,600km of coral formations and marine life off Australia's east coast that attracts about two million visitors each year.

Prof Hoegh-Guldberg warned that the shade cloths may be useful for protecting small patches of coral but it will not "save the Great Barrier Reef" as a whole.

Background story

Climate change is...

Worsening ocean acidification
Increasing the thermal bleaching of coral reefs
Driving seaweeds, phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish southwards
Harming the sea forests around Tasmania
Reducing the population of sea snakes
Changing turtle breeding habits

Read more!

Why Forest-Killing Megafires Are The New Normal in the US

Christopher Joyce NPR 24 Aug 12;

Fire scientists are calling it "the new normal": a time of fires so big and hot that no one can remember anything like it.

One of the scientists who coined that term is Craig Allen. I drive with him to New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, where he works for the U.S. Geological Survey. We take a dirt road up into the Jemez Mountains, into a landscape of black poles as far as you can see.

Except they aren't poles. Every single tree is dead. For miles.

"You can tell me the next time you see a green tree," Allen says. "I'd like to know the next time you see a live tree."

This is the Santa Fe National Forest. It's been hammered by fire numerous times since 1996. Last year's Las Conchas fire outdid them all, though. It was the biggest fire ever in New Mexico since records have been kept.

We stop at a high, rocky ridge. Allen jumps out of the car. He's an edgy, active guy with a bowl of brown hair, and he can talk for hours about trees. We walk to the edge.

"We're looking here at an 800-foot-deep canyon with steep canyon walls," he says. For thousands of years, these mountains have been open forest: grass and Ponderosa pines, a distinctive giant with bark the color of whole wheat toast and a spray of needles at the top.

"What kept those forests open before was the natural process of fire," Allen says. Natural fires from lightning burn along the ground, taking out only the shrubs and small trees. But for the last century, the U.S. Forest Service has suppressed almost all fires. They thought fire did more harm than good.

The result is the blackened mange below us and more black poles out to the horizon. The Las Conchas fire burned more than 150,000 acres of forest — about twice the area of Manhattan. It was so intense, it reached up into the crowns of these trees and wiped them out.

"The heat of the fire creates a convection column," Allen says. "They look like an atom bomb going off, actually. They go up until they hit the stratosphere layer, often, and flatten out anvil-shaped like that. That convection, as hot air rises — it's pulling in at the surface more oxygen, which is feeding the fire."

Allen takes me to a meadow to show me what's grown since the last three big fires.

"This has gone from being a forest for, we think, probably many thousands of years, a Ponderosa pine forest," he says, "to shrubs. Indefinitely."

And those shrubs just make the next fire burn even faster and hotter. Over the past two decades, fires have been setting new records for size and intensity.

First Fire, Then Flooding

These fires affect people as well, and not just homes and vacation cabins in the woods. At the visitor center at the Bandelier National Monument, the staff is busy trying to stave off flooding.

Last year's fire stripped the vegetation from steep hillsides, then the summer monsoon rolled in. Flash floods cascade down the slopes.

Bandelier Chief Ranger Tom Betts says a swollen stream almost flooded the park headquarters.

"It was only about a half an inch of rain, and on a nonfire landscape we probably wouldn't even have seen much of a rise," Betts says. "But as you can see, it came up in this area about 3-and-a-half feet."

Today, Allen and Betts are figuring out how to do deal with the next one.

"High water and flood — what does that trigger in terms of management response?" Allen asks Betts.

"Flood triggers shutting down any more visitor access," Betts says. "And we need to shut down utilities — we need to have people get stuff out of their offices."

Floods also threaten to wash away the artifacts left here by the Pueblo Indians, who lived in caves in the canyon walls.

The Forest Service has changed its longstanding policy of "no fires." It realized that the fuel buildup was dangerous. Now it lets some burn and starts "controlled" fires to clear out that fuel. It also cuts and removes smaller trees.

But Allen says the Forest Service is way, way behind. There will be more big, unstoppable fires.

"Nobody is suppressing an active, running crown fire, OK. It's almost political theater, you know, with air tankers at that point," he says. "Air tankers can help, [as can] fire retardant at the margins." But burning embers from big fires leap across those margins and travel for miles.

Allen has been studying the Santa Fe forest for 30 years. He feels personally responsible. "This is a part of the world I know best," he says, admitting the land has changed forever.

"Even without climate change in the mix," he says, "this is not coming back as the forests and woodlands that they were before. It's hard to argue that we didn't fail."

And climate change is likely to make success even more difficult to achieve.

Read more!