Best of our wid blogs: 21 Sep 12

Announcing “Birds of NUS”, a resource for LSM1103 and LSM2251 students by undergrad David Tan from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

Auntie Oscar’s Toolkit for Chek Jawa Coastal Cleanups – perfected over a decade of TLC from News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

Visiting the mud with the biodiversity class
from Otterman speaks

Flocking and roosting of Purple-backed Starlings
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Decomposed body found in Pulau Ubin

Straits Times 21 Sep 12;

A DECOMPOSING body of a man was found in Pulau Ubin, and was apparently being eaten by a lizard.

The unidentified man, believed to be in his 50s or 60s, was discovered at a deserted area of the island on Wednesday.

Odd-job worker Chua Tiam Seng, 49, was there that day with his friends to catch some crabs.

The area is known to have abandoned shrimp ponds.

Mr Chua told Lianhe Wanbao that he noticed the body of a large man facing upwards on a pile of rocks near a campsite.

The corpse was black and foul-smelling, he added.

Police said they received Mr Chua's call at about 1pm. Investigations are on-going.

The Chinese newspaper reported that when Mr Chua returned to the scene with policemen, he saw a monitor lizard, more than a metre long, gnawing at the man's chest.

The rotting body attracted swarms of flies and wild dogs that policemen had to fight off before they could retrieve the body.

They put the corpse on a stretcher and carried it to a police boat.

Money and two packets of cigarettes were found on the body.


Monitor lizard spotted gnawing decomposed body
AsiaOne 20 Sep 12;

A group of friends who were catching crabs at Pulau Ubin were shocked to see a decomposed body nearby.

Mr Cai Tian Cheng, 49, was with a group of friends at the island around 12 noon on Wednesday. They were about to release their cages into the water when they spotted a blackened corpse lying on the rocks near them.

They told Lianhe Wanbao that the dead body was facing upwards and looked like a man in his 50s or 60s. Mr Cai also said that the man seemed to be about 80kg heavy.

"The corpse was black and had a strong decomposing smell. It seemed like he had been dead for many days. I was so scared and I immediately called the police," he said.

When he took the police to the scene, Mr Cai said he saw a 4-foot long monitor lizard gnawing on the decomposed body.

"I saw it chewing the man's chest and when I saw this, I got really frightened!"

Police told Lianhe Wanbao they were informed of a dead body at Pulau Ubin at 12.53pm. The man has not been identified and the case is under investigation.

Mr Cai told reporters that the dead man was wearing a white shirt with shorts. From his attire, he did not look like he was there to catch crabs, said Mr Cai.

"We usually wear a t-shirt when we come here to fish but the deceased was wearing a shirt. He is most probably a visitor from the main island."

Missing person

Owner of bicycle rental stall, Mr Xie, 60, told the Chinese evening daily that a man in his 50s had approached him four days ago to ask if he had seen a missing man.

"He showed me a photo of a man in his 50s to 60s and said it was his family member. He also said he had been missing on the island since Saturday," said Mr Xie.

Mr Xie also said the dead body could be the man whom he was searching for, but he did not leave a name or contact number.

Another man whom reporters spoke to also said that he heard someone was looking for a missing person on Sunday and Monday.

The location where the body was found is deserted and is not usually frequented by visitors, reported Lianhe Wanbao.

Only people who are familiar with the area will visit this part of the island, said Mr Cai.

Ms Yang, owner of a bicycle rental stall, told the newspaper that people who are unfamiliar should not venture to the area as it cuts through a forest and can be dangerous.

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Bukit Timah diversion canal to be expanded

Feng Zengkun Straits Times 21 Sep 12;

EFFORTS to curb flash floods in upper Bukit Timah will be bolstered with the expansion of a canal in the area by 2016.

National water agency PUB said yesterday that it plans to widen and deepen the Bukit Timah first diversion canal which will allow the upper stretch of the catchment zone to take in 30 per cent more rainwater.

This should reduce the risk of flash floods in the area like those in recent years, said PUB's director of catchment and waterways Tan Nguan Sen in a briefing at the Environment Building in Newton.

The 3.2km diversion canal - completed in 1972 - runs from Bukit Timah Road near Sixth Avenue to Clementi Road.

Built to alleviate frequent floods in Bukit Timah in the 1960s, the $7 million diversion canal re-routes stormwater from the Bukit Timah Canal into Sungei Ulu Pandan near Clementi.

But more intense rainfall in recent years has sometimes overwhelmed the area's ability to cope with storms. In 2009 and 2010, heavy rain flooded the basements of buildings in the area.

The expansion project is part of PUB's five-year, $750 million plan to reduce flash floods across Singapore. Announced earlier this year, the plan includes enlarging five other major canals in neighbourhoods such as Geylang and Bedok.

Work to expand the Bukit Timah diversion canal will start next month and will be carried out in three phases.

The first phase will involve the expansion of an underground drain beneath Ulu Pandan Road. It will cost $33.7 million and be completed by 2015.

Contracts for the two other phases have not been awarded.

Mr Tan said measures will be taken to minimise disruption to the public, including setting up noise barriers and closed-circuit television cameras to track traffic conditions during construction.

Low-vibration machines will be used and nearby structures will be monitored.

While the anti-flooding initiative is welcomed, residents are also wary of the impact of the construction. For the first phase, roads will be diverted and two bus stops and an overhead bridge will be moved 80m farther away temporarily.

"Even without construction, there have been traffic jams on the road, especially when it rains," said student Chia Shuhui, 24, who lives in the Pine Grove condominium next to Ulu Pandan Road. "It will be annoying for a while but if it makes the area more flood-proof, then it will be worth it," she added.

PUB to enhance flood protection at Bukit Timah Canal
Olivia Siong Channel NewsAsia 20 Sep 12;

SINGAPORE: National water agency PUB has announced it will be enhancing flood protection for the upstream section of the Bukit Timah Canal.

To do that, the PUB plans to widen and deepen the Bukit Timah 1st Diversion Canal.

This will increase drainage capacity in the Upper Bukit Timah catchment by about 30 per cent.

It is hoped this will prevent a repeat of flashfloods in the area.

The expansion will be carried out in three phases.

Phase One - costing some S$33.7 million - will see a new box culvert or underground drain built across Ulu Pandan Road.

The second phase involves the expansion of 1.6 kilometres of existing drains between Maple Avenue and Holland Green.

This expansion is expected to commence in the second quarter of 2013 and is slated for completion by the last quarter of 2015.

Details for the third phase are still being worked out.

A wider and deeper canal will increase the capacity to hold more rainwater and therefore minimise the risk of flooding.

PUB's catchment & waterways director, Tan Nguan Sen, said: "It will definitely alleviate flooding in the flood-prone areas by increasing the capacity of the drainage system. The extent and the severity of the flood will be much reduced and of course if there is any flash floods that occur, it will minimise the impact."

During construction, six lanes of road leading towards Clementi and the city will be diverted. The road diversions will take place in the later stages of construction to minimise disruption to residents at Pine Grove condominium.

The two bus stops and overhead bridge outside Pine Grove condominium will also be temporarily relocated.

Many Pine Grove residents said they weren't aware of the construction work, which begins next month.

This is despite PUB saying it had briefed the condominium's Management Corporation Strata Title some months ago.

Chia Shu Hui, who has been a resident at Pine Grove condominium for 18 years, said: "It's going to be really annoying, frankly. I also think it's going to jam, really bad, because every time it rains, the road over there will jam. So it's going to be really annoying, inconvenient. But if it stops flooding further down or further up, it's going to be good in the long run. But in the short run, it's going to be inconvenient for everybody."

Another resident Lynn Liew said: "We haven't heard anything regarding the works but currently we have other entrances and exits, so it's not really much of a problem."

Retiree David Low, 65, said: "Yes it's a bit inconvenient, especially for those elderly people."

The entire upgrading project is expected to be completed by 2016.

- CNA/xq/ck

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Malaysia: Villagers living in fear of jumbos

New Straits Times 21 Sep 12;

BALING: Fear surrounds more than 60 families from Kampung Padang, Rambong, Batu 7, near here, after a group of wild elephants struck at their village for the past week.

The villagers claimed that although the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) had gone to the area to see the damage done by the animals, they failed to take any action to drive the elephants back into the jungle.

A survey by Bernama found that the villagers had reason to worry as the elephants destroyed banana trees located less than 50 metres behind a villager's house. More than 50 banana, coconut, rumbia and arecanut trees were destroyed.

A resident, Omar Mat Rejab, 60, said he and his family were worried about the elephants that frequently roamed behind his house and uprooted several banana trees.

Several days earlier, he had seen elephants within 200 metres of his house, but two nights ago the animals seemed more violent.

Bayu assemblyman Datuk Azmi Che Husain urged Perhilitan to drive the elephants back to the jungle.

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VietNam acknowledges severity of rhino trade

WWF 20 Sep 12;

Hanoi – WWF and TRAFFIC, in advance of World Rhino Day Saturday, are calling on Viet Nam to increase efforts to address the illegal trade of rhino horn, which is threatening rhino populations in both Africa and Asia. Already this year, 381 South African rhinos have been poached to meet demand in Asian consumer markets, particularly Viet Nam.

“Viet Nam used to be a range country of rhinos. The extinction of the presumably last Javan rhino in Cat Tien National Park in 2010 was a big lesson for protecting endangered wildlife,” said Dr. Nguyen Ba Ngai, Deputy Director General of Viet Nam’s Administration of Forestry, Agriculture and Rural Development.

“The demand for rhino horn is the main reason for the fact that rhinos are being poached all days and nights and illegally cross-border traded with the involvement of international crime organizations. To join hands with global efforts Viet Nam has been closely working with related agencies to strengthen the law enforcement and enhance awareness of the whole society to combat against illegal trade in wildlife,” he said.

WWF-Viet Nam and officials of Viet Nam’s CITES management authority today are bringing together government representatives from Viet Nam, South Africa and the United States, as well as traditional medicine experts, to examine global efforts to conserve rhinos.

“Rhino horns don’t belong in a wall or in a misguided pharmacy. They belong on a healthy rhino living in its natural habitat,” said Laura Stone, Economic Counsellor at the United States embassy in Hanoi. “World Rhino Day is a great opportunity to dispel the myths related to rhino horn.”

“We hope today’s meeting will explore effective ways to tackle the difficult issue of rising demand for rhino horn in Viet Nam,” said Sabri Zain, TRAFFIC’s Advocacy Director.

This August, WWF and TRAFFIC launched a global campaign calling governments worldwide to combat illegal wildlife trade and reduce demand for rhino horns, elephant ivory and tiger parts. In Viet Nam, WWF and TRAFFIC are working with government agencies on strategies to reduce rhino horn consumption and are calling for stronger law enforcement to tackle illegal horn trade.

“WWF urges Viet Nam and South Africa to formalize their joint commitment to stopping rhino horn trade by signing a memorandum of understanding at the highest political level,” said Elisabeth McLellan, Species Programme Manager for WWF. “Words are not enough to end the killing of rhinos and trafficking of their horns. Both countries need to do more by putting promises into action.”

South Africa is home to most of the world’s rhinos, and Thursday WWF-South Africa unveiled new plans for tackling the biggest challenges to their survival. The strategy will focus largely on supporting efforts to reduce demand for rhino horn in Asia, bolstering the ability of investigators to gather forensic evidence for trials, and encouraging community participation in conservation.

“The rhino is of tremendous value to South Africa because it is part of what we call the Big Five, which comprise the buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino,” Political Counsellor Nontatu Skolo of the South African embassy in Hanoi said at Thursday’s meeting. “Our tourism depends on our wildlife and in particular on the Big Five. Rhino poaching is therefore also doing great harm to our tourism.”

World Rhino Day was initiated by WWF-South Africa in 2010 with an aim to raise awareness of the plight of the animals. Some rhino species are facing the threat of extinction due to poaching of their horns to meet increasing demand in the Asian market.

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West Indian Ocean: Surprising Coral Diversity Rivals Great Barrier Reef

Megan Gannon Yahoo News 21 Sep 12;

The coral diversity in the West Indian Ocean, especially around Madagascar, is greater than previously believed and it may even rival parts of the Great Barrier Reef, new research shows.

The study, published Sept. 19 in the journal PLoS ONE, is based on surveys of reef-building corals conducted from 2002 to 2011 by scientists with the Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO).

The researchers identified 369 coral species in the West Indian Ocean, but estimated that further studies may show up to 450 species residing there, which would put it on par with India's Andaman Islands or the northern Great Barrier Reef.

The number of species is especially high in the northern Mozambique Channel, the waterway that separates Madagascar from Africa's west coast. The researchers said 250 to 300 species could be found at sites in this area. Meanwhile, there were 200 or fewer species in other parts of the West Indian Ocean, including waters off northern Kenya, the Gulf of Aden and the outer Seychelles islands.

Steve Katona, managing director of the Ocean Health Index for Conservation International, explained in a statement that healthy coral reefs can provide benefits like costal protection against storms, tourist attractions and food production.

"At the same time," Katona said, "corals worldwide are threatened by warming sea-surface temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution by chemicals, nutrients and sediment, ultraviolet light, invasion by alien species and direct habitat destruction from unsustainable fishing techniques, divers, boat anchors, coral collection or mining and dredging."

The researchers said Mozambique Channel in particular, is facing pressures from population growth, overfishing, urbanization and energy exploration.

"Coral reefs of the Western Indian Ocean need careful management and protection if they are to realize their full potential for improving human well-being in this critical developing region," Katona said.

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Invisible Plastic Particles in Seawater Damaging to Sea Animals

ScienceDaily 20 Sep 12;

Plastic nanoparticles in seawater can have an adverse effect on sea organisms. Particles measuring about a thirty millionth of a millimetre, and therefore invisible to the naked eye, are responsible. Mussels that have been exposed to such particles eat less, and thus grow less well, according to research carried out by scientists and students at Wageningen University and IMARES, both part of Wageningen UR. They wrote about their research in the most recent issue of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The presence of 'plastic soup' in the oceans is regarded as a big problem. Tiny plastic particles enter the sea when plastic debris decomposes. Such particles are probably also released from cosmetics and from clothes in the wash, subsequently entering the sewage system and surface waters and eventually reaching the sea.

The EU and the Dutch government recognise the problem and the need to monitor the existence of plastics in the seas in order to learn more about present and future concentrations of plastic micro- and nanoparticles in marine environments. Very little is known about the effects plastic nanoparticles have on sea life. The effects now discovered do not yet prove that plastic in the North Sea is a big problem, but they do suggest that further research is extremely important, the researchers remark.

Professor Bart Koelmans' research team, from Wageningen University and IMARES, exposed mussels to various concentrations of nanoplastic in order to discover the concentration at which an effect was noticeable. The team also varied the quantity of algae -- the normal food source for mussels. By giving the plastic nanoparticles colour, and by measuring them using dynamic light scattering, it was possible to determine the particle concentration that exerted an effect. The researchers described in their publication that the extent to which the tiny plastic particles clump together is also extremely important for understanding particle uptake and the resulting effects in marine organisms. "It means that those effects are not easy to predict because the biological availability of the particles can differ enormously from one organism to another, and because variation in water quality also plays a role," says Prof. Koelmans.

Four research studies

This publication is the first of four by Wageningen University and IMARES into the effects of plastic in the North Sea. The other studies will be published in the near future. The first of these is research into the effect of plastic on lugworms, which lose weight due to uptake of plastic particles. The worms, as a result, take in more toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which bind to plastics.

The researchers believe this indicates the need for good research into other toxic substances that bind to plastic -- an additional consequence of the presence of microplastics. In order to analyse the interaction of plastic and other toxic substances in the food web, Koelmans' group has made a detailed computer model. This type of model is crucial for estimating the risks plastics impose in the sea. The last piece of research is into plastic debris in the stomachs of fish. An analysis of hundreds of fish has shown that 12% of them have debris in their stomachs. Around half of that debris is plastic.

Journal Reference:

A. Wegner, E. Besseling, E.M. Foekema, P. Kamermans, A.A. Koelmans. Effects of nanopolystyrene on the feeding behavior of the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis L.). Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/etc.1984

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Will Earth Run Out of Plants?

Stephanie Pappas Yahoo News 21 Sep 12;

Humans may be very close to extracting all of the Earth's available plant resources, says a University of Montana researcher.

In fact, said Steven Running, a professor in the university's College of Forestry and Conservation, humanity may realistically have only 10 percent or so of our planet's annual plant resources in reserve, with little ability to boost yearly growth. The calculations don't suggest that humanity is on the verge of starvation, Running said, but they do indicate there are limits to our species' growth.

"Economic logic just seems to be about endless growth with no limits," Running told LiveScience. "And this is my attempt to say that on the planet we at least have some biophysical limits, and here's one."

Boundaries to growth

The concept of resource-imposed limits to growth, or "planetary boundaries" first came up in the 1970s with the book "Limits to Growth" (Club of Rome, 1972). The authors of that book modeled the planet's productivity and predicted that population and economic growth would run up against basic resource scarcity sometime around 2030. The calculations were somewhat primitive, Running said. The methodology and findings of the modeling were criticized, though researchers have recently revisited the predictions and found them to be relatively accurate. One 2011 analysis, published in book form by SpringerBriefs in Energy found that "reality seems to be closely following the curves that the [Limits to Growth] scenarios had generated."

Climate change and other environmental concerns have prompted scientists to revisit the idea of planetary boundaries, Running said. Likewise, he said, environmental policy-makers have become more interested in whether those boundaries can be defined. Researchers have suggested that important boundaries might include climate change, ocean acidification, land-use change and loss of species. [Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth]

A new line

In an editorial in the journal Science to be published Friday (Sept. 21), Running suggests a new measure: terrestrial net primary plant production. This mouthful merely refers to the globe's land plant growth in a year. Humans depend on plant life for food, building materials, firewood and bioenergy and grazing land for livestock.

Thanks to satellite measurements, researchers can now calculate how much vegetation the Earth produces each year. Over 30 years of observation, Running said, the number has stayed remarkably stable at 53.6 petagrams (one petagram is one trillion kilograms, or about 2.2 trillion pounds).

That's a lot of greenery. But humans use about 40 percent of it annually, Running said. The number would seem to offer plenty of wiggle room for humanity, but in fact, only about 10 percent of the remaining vegetation is up for grabs, he said.

"What we've found is that the vast majority of that other 60 percent isn't available at all," he said. It's either locked up in root systems and unharvestable, conserved in national parks or wilderness areas crucial for biodiversity, or simply in far Siberia or the middle of the Amazon, where there are no roads and no way to harvest it.

"If humans are appropriating about 40 percent of annual production, if another 50 percent we can't harvest and appropriate, then that only leaves about 10 percent," Running said. "Well, that starts to sound a lot closer to a planetary boundary."

The boundary debate

There are arguments against this imminent vegetal limit, Running said: It's arguably possible that humanity could increase plant production with fertilizer or irrigation (though both of those are also in limited supply and have downsides such as pollution), or that we could construct more roads into the Amazon to avail ourselves of more natural resources. But a large enough boost to make a significant difference would have to number in the tens of percentage points, Running said, which seems unlikely. [10 Most Pristine Places on Earth]

"And again, you would question how far that would go and whether that's a planet we want, where every single acre from wall to wall has been completely harvested and is in some sort of controlled annual plant production cycle," he said.

The findings are also an argument against hoping the biofuels will solve the planet's energy woes. Running calculated that if humans turned every bit of the last 10 percent of available plant production to bioenergy, it would only cover 40 percent of current energy needs.

"Endless economic growth and endless consumptive growth of the planet just can't happen," Running said. "And that the sooner we start getting realistic expectations for the future, the better we can manage ourselves to effectively use the planetary resources in a sustainable way."

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When Will Arctic Ice Completely Disappear?

Stephanie Pappas Yahoo News 21 Sep 12;

The Arctic sea ice just hit its lowest extent since measurements began in the 1970s, raising the question of when Arctic summer sea ice will disappear for good.

The answer is not yet clear, thanks to the complex variability of the sea ice from year to year. But scientists say that Arctic ice is one area where their computer models seem to underestimate the rate of melt.

"Sea-ice decline is a good example of one of those areas where the projections are too conservative, i.e. where the observed decline is decades ahead of schedule relative to the model projections," Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climate scientist, told LiveScience in an email.

Sea ice reached its lowest recorded extent on Sunday, Sept. 16, covering only 1.32 million square miles (3.41 million square kilometers) of ocean and blowing past the previous 2007 record of 1.61 square miles (4.17 million square kilometers), according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Ice extent is measured by the area of ocean that has at least 15 percent ice cover.

Unlike icebergs, which break off from glaciers, sea ice forms when ocean water freezes. The loss of the ice will likely exacerbate global warming, as ice cover reflects sunlight away from the Earth, while open ocean absorbs the sun's heat. [10 Crucial Facts About Arctic Sea Ice]

Sea ice varies quite a bit each year, said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the NSIDC. Thus, researchers expect to see an overall downward trend in ice cover, but it could bounce back somewhat next year.

"We wouldn't expect it to keep going down straight off the map, so to speak," Meier said during a press conference Thursday (Sept. 20). "We expect there to be more ups and downs."

The most extreme estimates of when Arctic summer ice could vanish peg the time in four or five years, but Meier said those predictions are "very unlikely." Much of the northernmost ice in the Arctic is old and thick, he said, and might be more resistant to melt. If so, summer ice extent could hit a plateau and not disappear for many years.

"A lot of people talk potentially in the next 20 to 30 years we may become ice-free," Meier said. "That's certainly quite plausible."

The loss of ice so far has been dramatic. In 1980, Arctic sea ice covered approximately the same area as the lower 48 U.S. states, minus Oregon and Washington. In 2012, it would barely cover half the country, with everything east of the Mississippi melted off as well as Oregon, Washington, Kansas, Nebraska and North and South Dakota.

What Sea-Ice Loss Means for Development in the Arctic
Wynne Parry Yahoo News 21 Sep 12;

NEW YORK — Arctic sea-ice extent shrank to an unprecedented low this summer, part of a long-term decline in the icy white cap over the far northern ocean.

Researchers predict that nearly ice-free summers are on the way, although it’s not yet clear when this will happen. This shift has implications for climate — in particular, it is expected to aggravate global warming — and for the animals, such as polar bears and walruses, which depend on the ice for habitat.

But the loss of ice over the Arctic Ocean also opens up the possibility for increased shipping, tourism, oil and gas exploration, and fishing. But this potential development raises challenges with which nations will have to grapple, said Anne Siders, a postdoctoral researcher with the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law, to an audience at Columbia University Wednesday (Sept. 19).

Siders was among a panel of researchers who discussed the science behind the declining sea ice, the suite of changes occurring in the Arctic and public perception of it. [10 Things You Need to Know About Arctic Sea Ice]

A predictably open Arctic Ocean creates opportunities and challenges for nations that ring the Arctic. Here are some of them.

The opportunities:

Fishing: Warming ocean temperatures, migrating fish and changes in sea ice may create conditions favorable to the development of new commercial fisheries within the Arctic, according to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A U.S. plan, approved in 2009, temporarily prohibits commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters until more information is available.

More ship traffic: A journey through the Northwest Passage north of Canada or along the Northern sea route over Russia can cut thousands of miles off a trip that could otherwise require a ship to travel through the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal. Between 1906 and 2006, only 69 ships traveled through the Northwest Passage, said Michael Byers, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, in a recent article in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. In 2010, 18 traveled through, and in 2011, 22 made the trip. As ice in the passage has dwindled, tourist trips on cruise ships and private yachts has increased, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

Gas and oil: The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated in 2008 that the Arctic holds a wealth of undiscovered energy reserves: 90 billion of barrels of oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet (47.3 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids —most of it offshore. The quest for these resources is underway, in spite of setbacks. The oil company Shell announced on Monday(Sept. 17) it was delaying until next year plans to drill off the Alaskan Arctic coast. The loss of ice would make this prospecting easier.

The problems:

Inadequate maps: The increase in traffic brings up a navigation problem. NOAA's maps and other navigational information are unavailable or outdated in parts of the Arctic Ocean, because thick, impenetrable sea ice kept ships out. In addition, most Arctic waters that are charted were surveyed using obsolete technology dating back to the 1800s, according to NOAA.

Little infrastructure or support: Alaska has twice the length of coastline as the lower 48 states, but the U.S. Coast Guard has extremely limited resources to devote to search-and-rescue operations or to oil spill cleanup, Siders said. Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, has been quoted in the media as saying, "The Coast Guard has zero capability in the Arctic. … If we are going to have a permanent presence there, it's going to require some investment. We don't have the infrastructure in place right now." As an example of when things go wrong: In 2010, a cruise ship called the MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground in the Northwest Passage, and its passengers had to be rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard. [Disasters at Sea: 6 Deadliest Shipwrecks]

Territorial disagreements: The Arctic coastal nations, the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland is a Danish territory) are seeking to lay claim to territory far out over the continental shelves, but the United States can't lay its own claim and has little say in others’ because the U.S. is not a party to the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, CNN Money reports. There are other territorial issues as well, for instance, Canada maintains that the Northwest Passage is sovereign Canadian territory, while other nations, including the U.S., maintain that it is an international strait.

The loss of summer ice will not, however, transform the Arctic into the Caribbean.

“Some of the challenges to operating in the Arctic are and have been the same for a very long time,” Siders said, adding these will remain at least to some degree, requiring people to work “in the dark, in the cold, in the middle of a storm,” as earlier arrivals have done before.

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