Best of our wild blogs: 6 Mar 13

Join us for “The Last Hurrah!”
from Raffles Museum News and Habitatnews

Ship collision off Sisters Island on 2 Mar 2013: no oil spilled from wild shores of singapore

NSS Kids’ Fun with Forest Butterflies
from Fun with Nature by Fun with Nature - NSS Kids Blog

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Warming seas’ effect on trade through Singapore

Gearing up for climate change
Straits Times 6 Mar 13;

Warming seas’ effect on trade

WASHINGTON - The quickest way to get goods from Asia to the United States' East Coast in 2050 might well be straight across the Arctic, where a warming climate is expected to open new sea routes through what is now impenetrable ice.

Most shipping traffic between these two centres now goes through the Suez or Panama canals, and that is likely to continue even as melting Arctic sea ice makes the far north more accessible, according to a new study out on Monday.

But increasingly warm temperatures also could make the North-west Passage, north of Canada, an economically viable shipping route.

Now, it is passable only at the end of most summers.

Warmer temperatures could also open up a highly seasonal route directly over the North Pole by mid-century, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.

The across-the-pole route, which had never before been considered, would be available only to light ice-breakers capable of ploughing through ice 1.2m thick.

The Northern Sea Route, which mostly hugs Russia's northern coastline and is now a primary Arctic shipping route, would continue to be viable, according to geography professor Laurence Smith at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Last September, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre said that Arctic sea ice had melted to its lowest recorded level.

The Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth because of the so-called albeido effect, where sun-reflecting light-coloured ice is frequently replaced by sun-absorbing dark-coloured water. The more ice melts, the warmer things get.

Melting ice could make these Arctic routes more viable, Dr Smith said.

Using projections of global warming and Arctic ice loss, he said that by 2050, the North-west Passage will be sufficiently navigable to make the trip from the North American east coast to the Bering Strait in 15 days, compared to 23 days for the Northern Sea Route - about a 30 per cent reduction in the time taken.

This is never likely to be a year-round proposition since winter sea ice will always recur, Dr Smith added.

A large Russian tanker, the Ob River, capable of carrying 150,000 cubic metres of gas, made a pioneering voyage in November and December last year across the Northern Sea Route, becoming the first ship of its kind to sail across the Arctic.

"The round trip of the vessel from Asia to Europe and back has confirmed the technical and commercial viability of the Northern Sea Route for the global liquefied natural gas business," the Russian energy giant Gazprom said in a press release.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, observed in a post on his Facebook page last November that it was hard to predict how the Ob River's voyage would affect ports like Singapore in the long term.

However, Singapore should not be too badly affected by the new Arctic shipping routes, said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide during a visit to the city-state last November.

Container ships carrying goods that need to arrive at a specific time will still take the traditional route through Egypt's Suez Canal, which is more reliable and brings trade closer to Singapore, said Mr Eide.

And he suggested that Singapore can benefit by using its shipping expertise to develop ports along the Northern Sea Route.


UK: Prepare for floods, drought

LONDON - Britain should do more to prepare for climate change after extreme weather last year brought both drought and floods, according to the Environment Agency.

The United Kingdom had floods in one out of every five days last year while one in four days was in drought, the agency said in an online report.

Some rivers went from their lowest levels to their highest on record within a four-month period. England had record rain last year and 7,950 properties flooded across the country. Yet the United Kingdom can expect "severe, short-term drought" every 10 years, the agency said.

Part of the flooding problem is due to previous policies, said the BBC. For decades, farmers were paid to drain boggy land to improve it for grazing. This caused water to rush off the fields into rivers, whereas previously it would have been held in the bogs, flowing into the rivers throughout the year. In addition, many flood plains have been built on.

Agency chairman Chris Smith said that England needs to learn how to save water when it is raining and disperse it from populated areas when it floods, according to London's Daily Telegraph.

This means cutting red tape to encourage landowners to build small-scale water storage reservoirs on farms, golf clubs, sports stadiums and racecourses to survive dry spells.

At the same time, water companies must be encouraged to take water from rivers only when levels are high and to store the reserves in reservoirs.

Planners must be nudged to build green spaces and ditches to store water in towns and cities and stop it from building up in roads. Homes can help by fitting water meters and saving water.


More extreme Aussie weather

SYDNEY - Climate change was a major driving force behind extreme weather events that alternately scorched and soaked large sections of Australia in recent months, according to a report just issued by the country's Climate Commission.

A four-month heatwave during the Australian summer culminated in January in bush fires that tore through the eastern and south-eastern coasts of the country.

Torrential rains and flooding followed in the more densely populated states of New South Wales and Queensland, leaving at least six people dead and causing roughly US$2.43 billion (S$3 billion) in damage.

Scientists have long been hesitant to link individual weather events directly to climate change. Australian scientists in particular have been cautious about linking the two, partly because of the country's naturally occurring cycles of drought and floods, which are already extreme compared with much of the rest of the world.

But the Climate Commission report argues that the frequency and ferocity of recent extreme weather events indicate an acceleration that is unlikely to abate unless serious steps are taken to prevent further changes to the planet's environment.

"I think one of the best ways of thinking about it is imagining the baseline has shifted," commission leader Tim Flannery told Australian Broadcasting Corp. At least 123 weather records fell during the 90-day period examined, including milestones such as the hottest summer on record.


Obama picks EPA, energy chiefs

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama has named Ms Gina McCarthy, an experienced clean air regulator, to take charge at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Professor Ernest Moniz, a physicist and strong advocate for natural gas and nuclear power as cleaner alternatives to coal, to run the Department of Energy.

But Mr Obama still must confront refashioning the American way of producing and consuming energy, hurdles that stymied climate and energy policy in his first term.

Mr Obama has embraced unconventional natural gas production, which has brought lower energy prices and reduced emissions as utilities switch from coal to natural gas to produce electricity.

But hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, presents difficult environmental issues, including the possibility of groundwater contamination and the unregulated release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Mr Obama has also pursued offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean, despite environmental risks.

And the administration appears inclined to approve a pipeline to carry heavy crude oil from tar sand formations in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. But a State Department environmental impact report notes that extracting, shipping and refining the Canadian oil would produce more greenhouse gas emissions than other types of oil.


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Two-thirds of forest elephants killed by ivory poachers in past decade

The threat of extinction is growing for African forest elephants, according to a study released at the Cites summit in Bangkok
Damian Carrington 5 Mar 13;

The forest elephants of Africa have lost almost two-thirds of their number in the past decade due to poaching for ivory, a landmark new study revealed on Tuesday. The research was released at an international wildlife summit in Bangkok where the eight key ivory-trading nations, including the host nation Thailand and biggest market China, have been put on notice of sweeping trade sanctions if they fail to crack down on the trade.

"The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend towards extinction – potentially within the next decade – of the forest elephant," said Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of 60 scientists on the research team.

There are about 100,000 forest elephants remaining in the forests of central Africa, compared with about 400,000 of the slightly larger savannah elephants. The total elephant population was over 1 million 30 years ago, but has been devastated by poaching driven by the rising demand for ivory ornaments in Asia.

Prof Lee White, head of the National Parks Service in Gabon, once home to the largest forest elephant population, said: "A rainforest without elephants is a barren place. They bring it to life, they create the trails and keep open the forest clearings other animals use; they disperse the seeds of many of the rainforest trees – elephants are forest gardeners at a vast scale."

Forest elephants have suffered particularly badly because they range across central Africa, which has been left lawless in large areas by war, and where poachers have ready access to guns. Furthermore, the tusks of forest elephants are longer, straighter and harder than savannah elephants, making them particularly sought after. "A lot of carvers prefer forest elephant tusks," said WCS's vice president, Elizabeth Bennett.

Although deforestation is taking place, loss of habitat is not the principal problem for the elephants, according to another of the scientific team, John Hart of the Lukuru Foundation. "Historically, elephants ranged right across the forests of this vast region of over 2m sq km, but they now cower in just a quarter of that area. Although the forest cover remains, it is empty of elephants, demonstrating that this is not a habitat degradation issue. This is almost entirely due to poaching."

The new study, published in the journal Plos One, took nine years to complete and the team spent over 90,000 person-days in the field, walking over 13,000 km and taking 11,000 samples. They found the population fell by 62% between 2002 and 2011 and was now less than 10% of its potential size.

Last month, Gabon announced the death of about 11,000 forest elephants in the Minkébé national park between 2004 and 2012. Gabon's president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, says: "Our elephants are under siege because of an illegal international market that has driven ivory prices in the region up significantly. I call upon the international community to join us in this fight. If we do not reverse the tide fast the African elephant will be exterminated."

The 178-nation summit of the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) began in Bangkok on Monday and has already seen the eight countries identified as key to the ivory trade threatened with trade sanctions if they do not tackle failures in protection against poaching in Africa and failures in seizing illegal ivory along trade routes to China. The nations, including the states which most ivory passes through – Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam – and where most ivory is bought – China and Thailand - must come up with concrete action plans or face a ban on millions of dollars of trade in animals and plants, including crocodile skins and orchids.

The Thai prime minister opened the Cites summit by pledging to outlaw Thailand's domestic ivory trade which is currently legal. But she was criticised for failing to set a deadline.

Proposals to the Cites summit supporting and opposing more "one-off" sales of ivory will not succeed, the Guardian has been told. A previous "one-off" sale in 2008 was criticised by some as driving up demand, but defended by others as providing funds for elephant protection.

Cutting the demand for ivory, as well as fighting poaching, is seen as crucial, with African elephant deaths running at 25,000 a year. Bennett said better education programmes in China would be a vital part of the action plans: "A lot of people don't actually know that you have to kill elephants to get ivory."

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