Best of our wild blogs: 30 Apr 13

Undergrad part-time field/lab assistants wanted (Apr – Dec 2013)
from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

Pulau Ubin: "What more could you want?"
from wild shores of singapore

Site Allocation Exercise II – 2,955 volunteers from 52 organisations registered!
from News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

Jong Surprises
from wild shores of singapore

Bryozoans and Hydroids Workshop Day 1
from wild shores of singapore

Random Gallery - Grey Sailor

from Butterflies of Singapore

Bidadari: A challenge to Nature Society’s birdwatchers
from Bird Ecology Study Group

What if companies actually had to compensate society for environmental destruction? from news by Jeremy Hance

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'Relook' planting of big trees near roads

Brother of man killed by tree, experts suggest NParks look into size, species
Hoe Pei Shan Straits Times 30 Apr 13;

THE National Parks Board (NParks) could reassess the practice of planting huge trees close to roads.

That is one suggestion salesman Jacky Cheong, 31, gave when The Straits Times spoke to him at his younger brother Jason's wake yesterday. The driving instructor, 25, died last Saturday after a rain tree - 14m tall and 3.9m thick - in Admiralty Road West fell during a spell of rain, and crushed a car that he was in.

Mr Cheong's proposal was echoed by some experts The Straits Times spoke to. They suggested NParks look into the sizes of trees lining roads, and the species.

Madam Jacqueline Allan, assistant director of Nature Landscapes, said: "Today's urban developments have changed wind directions and wind forces in some areas. NParks could look at the history of fallen trees and reconsider the tree species in these areas as a preventive method."

Asked which species are suitable for roadside planting, as well as whether big trees should be near roads, NParks yesterday declined to comment.

Following the 2010 death of project manager Chua Loong Wai, whose car was crushed by a 15m-tall rain tree, then-NParks director of streetscapes Simon Longman said: "It is not so much about the size of the tree, but about the management - even smaller trees can cause extensive damage."

NParks said then that it stepped up its tree-management regime after a series of cases of fallen trees and branches. It said well-maintained trees could still be uprooted in severe weather.

A 2011 coroner's inquiry revealed that the tree that killed Mr Chua showed no signs of pest infestation or deterioration, and heavy rain had caused its fall.

Yesterday, NParks said the tree in last Saturday's accident was inspected last November, and assessed to be healthy.

Landscape architect Mason Tan said: "So why is NParks so fixated on intensifying its maintenance practices when even the best-maintained trees can still succumb to nature? There are many other complementary solutions they can look at."

For example, instead of having fixed distances between trees, he suggested planting them in clusters to simulate natural conditions, which could result in better support between trees. "We need to reinvent our greenery policies so that they're relevant to our rapid urbanisation, which is changing the encumbrances and root systems of our trees," he added.

Arborist Lucien Wijeadasa noted the quality of NParks' tree maintenance is "indisputable", but that "tall, upright trees, such as casuarinas, shouldn't be in areas with heavy traffic".

Still, he cautioned that replacing bigger trees with smaller ones might not completely remove the danger. "If a heavy wood tree falls on something hard like a car, the damage is much greater than that caused by a softer wood. But if both fell on a person, they may cause roughly the same damage."

Additional reporting by Lim Min Zhang

Trees can be felled by natural forces beyond NParks' control
Straits Times 6 May 13;

MR DANIEL Chia suggests that the National Parks Board (NParks) plant only deep-rooted trees along our roads ("Plant only deep-rooted trees along roads"; last Friday). However, even the strongest tree may fall if it rains continuously for two weeks and wind speeds reach hurricane levels.

Is it feasible for NParks to deploy a battalion of arborists and tree inspectors to inspect every tree once every six months, given that there may be more than a million trees in Singapore?

Our trees are exposed to inclement weather throughout the year. Trees can fall by acts of God - events caused by natural forces whose effects cannot possibly be prevented by the exercise of reasonable care and foresight.

An act of God may be a defence against liability for injuries or damages; insurance policies often exclude coverage for damage caused by acts of God.

Urban land owners are responsible for injuries caused by a falling tree only if they knew, or reasonably should have known, that the tree posed a danger. They are not expected to know that a tree is rotten, as an expert would, but rather as a reasonable person would.

In the vast majority of cases involving trees felled by strong winds, the car owner whose vehicle is damaged will have to make a claim against his motor insurance policy and not the tree owner.

NParks has a duty to take only reasonable steps to prevent trees from falling, but it does not owe a duty to motorists and persons if trees are felled by unprecedented natural forces beyond its control.

Heng Cho Choon

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Scientists divided on pesticides and bee health

Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent PlanetArk 30 Apr 13;

Bee populations have been declining steadily in recent decades but there is scientific disagreement over the contribution of pesticides called neonicotinoids to falling bee numbers.

Europe is expected to impose a temporary ban on the pesticides after EU governments failed on Monday to agree whether or not their use should be halted.

Some recent studies have shown neonicotinoids can have damaging effects on bee health by interfering with their homing abilities and making them lose their way.

Other scientific studies point to a virus spread by a parasitic mite called the Varroa as a prime suspect in fuelling so-called "colony collapse disorder" which has seen bee numbers drop rapidly in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East.

Bees are important pollinators of flowering plants, including many fruit and vegetable crops. A 2011 United Nations report estimated that bees and other pollinators such as butterflies, beetles or birds do work worth 153 billion euros ($203 billion) a year to the human economy.

Neonicotinoid pesticides are new nicotine-like chemicals and act on the nervous systems of insects. They pose a lower threat to mammals and the environment than many older pesticide sprays.

Because they are water soluble, they can be applied to the soil and taken up by the whole plant, making them "systemic" - meaning they render the whole plant toxic to insects. Neonicotinoids are often applied as "seed treatments", which means coating the seeds before planting.

A report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in January said three widely-used neonicotinoids, made mainly by Switzerland's Syngenta and Germany's Bayer, posed an acute risk to honeybees.

But Britain, whose department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) recommended abstaining in a previous EU vote in March, argues the science is inconclusive and advises caution in extrapolating results from lab studies to real-life field conditions.

Lynn Dicks, a bee expert at Cambridge University said it should come as little surprise that insecticides kill insects.

"They are designed to," she said, adding it is the extent to which they can be blamed for bee decline that is in doubt.

"They are unlikely to be the sole cause of falling insect numbers and diversity, but they represent one of a set of multiple interacting threats that seems to be driving declines."

Experts note that one of the key difficulties in establishing the potential danger lies in how to find out how much of the pesticides the bees come into contact with as they forage, and the degree to which this might lead to fewer bees.

Britain's DEFRA published a report in January in which it said its research "did not show conclusively that exposure to neonicotinoids used within a normal agricultural setting had major effects on bumble bee colonies".

James Cresswell, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter, says the science has yet to produce unequivocal answers.

"While recent research based on artificial dosing shows that neonicotinoids can harm bees, uncertainty remains over the severity of environmentally realistic conditions," he said.

Lin Field, Head of Biological Chemistry and Crop Protection at Rothamsted Research, says there is not enough evidence to support a total ban on neonicotinoids and questions whether the "precautionary principle" should apply and a ban should be imposed just in case the threat turns out to be real.

"On the face of it that might be the best solution but it takes no account of the risk of the ban on our ability to control insect pests and secure crop yields," she said.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Metals recycling needs bigger role in product design: U.N

Alister Doyle and Nina Chestney PlanetArk 26 Apr 13;

Designers of everything from mobile phones to electric car batteries should make their products far easier to recycle to offset soaring demand for metals, two United Nations reports recommended on Wednesday.

Products should be made to become "designer minerals" at the end of their lifetimes so they can more simply be broken up and stripped of metals ranging from copper to gold, according to the twin studies.

"Global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world" if demand in emerging economies rises to levels of rich nations, said Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme.

The total amount of steel in use in the United States, for instance, was an estimated 11 to 12 metric tonnes per person in 2010, compared with 1.5 tonnes in China.

"Product designers need to ensure that materials such as rare earth metals in products ranging from solar panels and wind turbine magnets to mobile phones can still be recovered easily when they reach the end of their life," he said in a statement.

Recycling rates are low in most nations and electronic waste alone is estimated at between 20 to 50 million tonnes a year, or between three and seven kilos (7-15 pounds) per person. Most ends up dumped or burned, contaminating air, water and soil.

A third report by a non-governmental organisation quoted estimates that about 130 million mobile phones are thrown away annually in the United States. Collectively, they weigh about 14,000 tonnes and include almost 2,100 tonnes of copper, 46 tonnes of silver and 3.9 tonnes of gold.

A mobile phone alone can contain more than 40 elements including copper, tin, cobalt, indium, antimony, silver, gold, palladium, tungsten and yttrium. Most are in tiny amounts but recycling would take pressure off mining.


The two reports by the United Nations' International Resource Panel urged governments to agree on best available recycling technologies. So far, recycling laws are limited mostly to developed nations.

Manufacturers also should start with ease of recycling in mind, the reports said, for instance avoiding mixes of metals that are hard to separate. Platinum group metals, for instance, can effectively dissolve when mixed into steel.

"Some combinations are harder and uneconomic to separate," Markus Reuter, lead author of the report on metals recycling, told Reuters. He likened some mixes to trying to separate a cup of coffee into water, milk, sugar and coffee.

Rising demand for metals will also have to be curbed with lighter-weight designs. In the European Union, for instance, the average weight of cars rose to 1.2 tonnes in 2001 from 0.85 tonnes in 1981.

Recycling could also cut energy demand and greenhouse gases compared to mining, which often uses 10 to 100 times more energy than recycling for the same amount of metal.

"Metals use seven to eight percent of the world's total energy in their primary production. That's larger than anyone had thought," Ester van der Voet, lead author of the other report on metals and environmental challenges, told Reuters.

The third study, by the Gaia Foundation, said the world's growing addiction to throwaway consumer electronics was putting enormous pressure on resources such as metals, minerals, water and ecosystems.

In the United States, it said, 80 percent of electronic waste was shipped to developing countries in Asia or Africa where it was handled in bad social and environmental conditions.

"In failing to create effective recycling systems, we are thus outsourcing our toxic waste and turning parts of the world into digital dumps."

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Plants slow climate change by forming cloud sunshade: study

Alister Doyle PlanetArk 29 Apr 13;

Plants help to slow climate change by emitting gases as temperatures rise that lead to the formation of a sunshade of clouds over the planet, scientists said on Sunday.

The tiny sun-dimming effect could offset about one percent of warming worldwide and up to 30 percent locally such as over vast northern forests in Siberia, Canada or the Nordic nations, they wrote in the journal Nature Geoscience.

While proportionally small, some scientists said the study provided further evidence of the importance of protecting forests, which help to slow climate change by absorbing greenhouse gases as they grow and to preserve wildlife.

Observations of forests from 11 sites around the world showed that plants emitted tiny particles that float on the wind as temperatures warm and act as seeds for water droplets that create clouds, they wrote.

Clouds' white tops in turn reflect sunlight back into space and offset warming, they wrote.

The study focused on forests in Europe, North America, Russia and southern Africa. The effect is believed to be smaller over far hotter tropical forests such as in the Amazon or the Congo basin.

"It's a small effect - one percent is not much," said lead author Pauli Paasonen of the University of Helsinki and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

"If temperatures were to increase by 1 degree without this effect, they'd rise 0.99 degrees with it," he told Reuters of a study that included researchers in the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Hungary and Sweden.


Many other tiny aerosols, such as human pollution from factories, cars and power plants, also have a sun-dimming effect that may be slowing the pace of climate change, blamed mainly on emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

But there has been uncertainty about the role of nature, and of plants' emissions of gases such as monoterpenes.

"Everyone knows the scent of the forest," Ari Asmi, a University of Helsinki researcher who also worked on the study, said in a statement. "That scent is made up of these gases."

It is unclear why plants emit more monoterpenes at higher temperatures - it may be a side-effect of trees' natural air conditioning to reduce heat.

"Forests are providing an additional cooling. This is another reason why we should conserve and protect forests," said Dominick Spracklen, an expert on plants and climate change at the University of Leeds who was not involved in the study.

But the damaging effects of warming on forests, such as more wildfires or insect pests, may exceed tiny benefits of more clouds that would only come from healthy forests, he said.

Spracklen said plants' cooling effect was tantalizing evidence for people who believe the planet somehow acts as a self-regulating organism for life, sometimes known as the Gaia hypothesis.

One idea launched in 1987 was that warmer temperatures spur the growth of more algae in the upper oceans. These tiny plants would in turn release more of the chemical dimethyl sulphide that seeds clouds to reflect sunlight.

"No one has yet proved that this effect exists," he said.

The U.N. panel of leading climate scientists says that human emissions of greenhouse gases are driving up world temperatures and will lead to ever more floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels.

It says that it is at least 90 percent certain that human activities, rather than natural variations in the climate, are to blame for most of the warming in the past half-century.

(Reporting By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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