Best of our wild blogs: 21 Jul 15

Celebrate National Day with a Coastal Cleanup @ Lim Chu Kang beach and mangrove (Fri 07 Aug 2015)!
News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

TEDx Talk organised by ACS Independent – “The unsung heroes of coral reefs”
Neo Mei Lin

Plastics in the gut of the sperm whale carcass in Singapore – “a grim reminder to reduce plastic waste”
News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

Sisters' Islands Marine Park Public Gallery - Now Open! (15 July 2015)
Psychedelic Nature

Read more!

Telling stories, not science

Akshita Nanda THE STRAITS TIMES AsiaOne 21 Jul 15;

They are the marine biologists who made the impossible happen, raising $46 million in just six months in early 2010 to set up the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

When the museum finally opened in April this year with Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, 55, as head, and his mentor Leo Tan Wee Hin, 70, as a senior member of staff, it was the culmination of a long-held dream for both.

Visitors to the museum spend much of their time gazing raptly at the trio of dinosaur skeletons dominating the first floor, but equally important for the scientists in charge is the historic Raffles collection of plants and animals established in British colonial times. It was the pride of the Raffles Museum in 1878, but it languished in obscurity after Singapore became independent in 1965.

The collection moved from the newly renamed National Museum of Singapore to the then University of Singapore's department of zoology in 1972. Its name and home changed over the years, but the collection remained mainly the purview of scholars.

This was a pet peeve of those such as Prof Ng, an eminent crab researcher who encountered the collection while studying at the university under the mentorship of Professor Tan who, in turn, was the first to get a degree in marine biology from the University of Singapore.

Both believe anyone visiting a natural history museum will develop new appreciation for living things and the need to conserve the environment.

"The reason for doing such a museum is to help people appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature," says Prof Tan. "Trying to convince people of the value of these things is an uphill battle."

Prof Ng adds: "People think a museum is a place for the dead. It's not, it's a place for people to learn at."

From 1998, Prof Ng was put in charge of the renamed Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, an academic museum open only to those affiliated with the university. Prof Tan was director of the National Institute of Education from 1994 until 2008, when he returned to NUS as professor and director of special projects, Dean's Office in the Faculty of Science.

A year after Prof Tan "came home", as Prof Ng puts it, the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research was opened to the public for one day on May 24, 2009, International Museum Day.

To the surprise of both scientists, an estimated 3,000 visitors showed up to see what they had been missing. The Sunday Times ran a column titled Let's Have A Natural History Museum by Tan Dawn Wei and after that Prof Tan was approached by a mystery donor willing to offer $10 million to start such a museum here.

After consulting NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan, they were offered a piece of land at the new University Town area, but learnt that they would require about $30 million to build the museum. They had six months to raise the funds before the university reserved the space for other use.

"During that time, I was asked: 'What if you fail?" recalls Prof Leo Tan, who led the fund-raising efforts. "Failure was not an option. Until the deadline, I would not think of failure."

Amazingly, the scientists raised $46 million within the allotted time - $45 million from major donors including the Lee Foundation and Tote Board. Almost $1 million came from members of the public who responded to Straits Times' articles about the museum, a public endorsement that validated both scientists' push for this project.

"People from every section of society gave what they could," says Prof Tan, eyes moist at the memory. "Secretaries, technicians. It was amazing."

Both scientists also wanted the museum to be a centre of research into the plants and animals that populate and have populated the world. It is a belief that brought them the museum's headline exhibit of full-size dinosaur skeletons: the 24m-tall and 27m-tall adults nicknamed Apollonia and Prince, which come with a baby, Twinky, only 12m from head to tail.

The skeletons were about 80 per cent complete when excavated from Dana Quarry in Wyoming - paleontologists throw celebratory parties over a skeleton just 30 per cent whole - and offered first to the Singapore museum at a bargain price of $12 million because those in charge of the dig heard the centre would be open to scientists coming to study the specimens.

Again, donors stepped in to help the museum acquire the dinosaurs.

On the days that Life visits the museum, gaggles of adults and pupils stand in awe before the dinosaurs, quietly observing them, but many also roam around interactive displays related to the Raffles collection, watching video clips and listening to bird calls.

"What's wrong with museums?" says Prof Ng, gesturing at the enthralled visitors. "It's time to correct the public perception of museums as dusty tombs."

He and Prof Tan often get feedback from visitors young and old thrilled by the museum, many of whom did not expect to be fascinated by the experience.

"You need to tell stories, rather than science," Prof Tan says.

"Some will see the science, but some will never come if you tell them this is about science. You're there to inspire those with an aptitude for science to stand there in awe and think: 'What if? What could I do as well?'"

I have immortality through him
Leo on Peter

In the late 1970s, Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin was a teenager who needed help with a school project on fiddler crabs and so he went to Professor Leo Tan Wee Hin, an eminent marine biologist at the then University of Singapore.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years and Prof Tan is still helping Prof Ng with crabby tasks. On a recent trip to Borneo, he spent three days combing the jungle for a rare purple crab Prof Ng believed could be found there. In the end, he found an even rarer specimen, which he "smuggled" back to Singapore between two ice-cold cans of CocaCola to preserve the tissues.

Asked why he goes to such lengths for his protege, Prof Tan only smiles. "I spotted Peter when he was in junior college. That kind of student, you don't let go," he says. "I took him under my wing when he was 18 years old. There was this outer insolence - but I like a challenge."

Words to be expected from a person who took up marine biology in part because he nearly drowned learning to swim off Changi Beach when he was a child.

"We had no swimming pools in those days," explains Prof Tan, who turns 71 this year. "I became a marine biologist to conquer my fear of water."

The son of a clerk and a housewife, science was not on the family radar, yet he became the first person to do a doctorate in marine biology from the University of Singapore.

His initial area of interest was molluscs, but he became fascinated with crabs while doing his postgraduate studies at Duke University in North Carolina, United States.

When Prof Ng, then a teenager, approached him for help, Prof Tan was a senior lecturer with many demands on his time, but he felt - and continues to feel - that his first duty as a teacher is "to inspire those with an aptitude for science".

He also saw a kindred spirit in the younger man who was fascinated by the natural world, especially the relatively little-documented aquatic fauna of South-east Asia. To this day, when Prof Tan travels, he has a litre of absolute alcohol in his luggage for preserving specimens and refuses maid service in hotel rooms because the sinks in his room are plugged up and made into makeshift preservation tanks.

So when the similarly collectingcrazy Prof Ng entered university as an undergraduate, Prof Tan offered him laboratory space to do research on lobsters, even though this was frowned upon in those days. Undergraduates were meant to absorb and study, while postgraduates did research.

"I told him there was a lot of money in aquaculture to interest him," he recalls, laughing. "He was very clumsy. He broke every piece of glassware in the lab."

Their connection remained even as Prof Tan was seconded to the Singapore Science Centre as its director in 1982, an appointment he took up full time four years later and held until 1991. After that, he became foundation dean of the School of Science at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and was NIE's director from 1994 until 2008. He was also chairman of the National Parks Board from 1998 to 2007.

In 2008, he returned to the National University of Singapore as professor and director of special projects at the Faculty of Science, and began working with Prof Ng at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

Married with two grown sons, he is looking forward to the time when he can take his two grandchildren, now under the age of three, to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and watch them learn about the natural world he loves so much.

But ask what his enduring legacy is and he does not mention the museum, but its head.

He says: "I've got immortality through Peter. You have to groom the next generation, that's your duty. You reach a certain stage in life when time is not on your side, but if you get successors, the legacy continues."

He's the real father of the museum
Peter on Leo

"The real father of the museum," is how Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin describes Professor Leo Tan Wee Hin.

"It was his energy that revitalised it, grew it, saw the potential, made it a top research outfit, then did the massive fund raising necessary and then oversaw everything to make it what it will be soon," says Prof Ng.

The 55-year-old also considers the 70-year-old scientist a mentor. Without Prof Tan's encouragement, he might never have become what he is today: a renowned expert on the classification, conservation and ecology of freshwater crabs, as well as head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

They met when Prof Ng was a teenager in Raffles Institution (RI) doing an extra credit project on fiddler crabs for the school science fair. The expert he sought help from was Prof Tan, the first person to receive a marine biology degree from the University of Singapore (NUS) and who continued as a lecturer there.

Then in 1980, when Prof Ng was doing his first year of undergraduate studies at NUS, Prof Tan allowed him space in his laboratory to do research on lobsters. This was unheard of in those days: the custom was to let only graduate students use university resources for research. Asked why he made this exception, Prof Tan says he had spotted in the younger man a student he could not "let go", one with a love for natural history that deserved to be nurtured.

During this time, Prof Ng went on a research trip to Pulau Tioman, found a big crab and used Prof Tan's laboratory to study the animal's larvae.

"It was like falling off the edge of a cliff. I've never looked back," says Prof Ng, who is married to a teacher and has three sons aged 12 to 20.

He did his postgraduate studies at NUS while teaching in secondary schools to make a living. After completing his doctorate in 1990, he stayed on to teach at the university and, eight years later, was put in charge of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, the precursor of the Lee Kong Chian museum.

His love of animals dates back to his childhood growing up in East Coast. His father, who died when he was only seven, indulged the older of two sons and his habit of keeping fighting fish or eels. Later, Prof Ng's mother was busy running the family printing business and did not have time to stop her son from bringing home pets.

These included climbing perch and snakehead fish found in drains. A favourite hunting ground was also Chinatown, where snapping turtles were commonly sold and where Prof Ng bought a civet cat for $10. "When I brought it home, my mother screamed at first, but she was too busy so she didn't scream too much," he recalls. "I kept it for a year or more before it ran off."

Employees at the family business also started bringing home live animals from their hunting expeditions in Johor to curry favour with the boss' son. The specimen Prof Ng remembers most fondly is a giant cream-coloured squirrel with huge teeth that his mother insisted on returning. "It loved eggs and bananas. It was an absolute beauty. I wish I'd taken photos. It's probably extinct now," he says. "To think I used to play with it as a kid. It brings home the message that extinction is not too far away."

A passionate advocate for natural history, Prof Ng and his team did not let the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research collection stagnate. They expanded it and continued to classify the flora and fauna of Singapore. From 2004, he began holding informal talks with various parties, including the National Parks Board and Singapore Science Centre, on the possibility of establishing a natural history museum, which came to fruition this April with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

"Museums are stuffy old places about the dead - these are perceptions that are not right. It's time to correct these perceptions," he says.

And this museum would not have existed without Dr Tan's effort, he adds. "He is the visionary and the powerhouse. I am just a crab scientist and administrator-cumpaperpusher."

Read more!

Sustainable seafood catching on here

India's Ashtamudi Estuary short-neck clam fishery, one out of some 250 fisheries which have been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Photo: Marine Stewardship Council
Samantha Boh MyPaper AsiaOne 21 Jul 15;

More businesses here are switching to sustainable seafood, with the number of certified suppliers more than tripling over the past three years.

So far, 10 suppliers have been given the stamp of approval by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a global non-profit organisation that certifies responsibly caught seafood.

Worldwide, over 250 fisheries have pledged their support to MSC to target well-managed, sustainable species which are not considered to be over-fished, and to put in place safeguards to curb bycatch and other destructive fishing practices.

Two hotels - the Hilton and Grand Hyatt - also recently received certification by MSC for serving sustainable seafood at several of their restaurants.

Several other restaurants are expected to follow suit, with five now in discussions with MSC.

"Awareness is growing fast, but... there is no time to lose," said a spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which works with the council to spread the message that the world's oceans are depleting rapidly.

According to WWF, the world's oceans will no longer be able to provide people with seafood by 2048.

Ninety per cent of global fish stocks are over-fished and 61 per cent fully fished, meaning there is already no room for further fishing.
The variety of plant and animal life in the ocean has also dropped by 39 per cent since the 1970s, and fishermen have reached the point of fishing from juvenile fish stocks.

"If you've had bluefin tuna sushi lately, you've enjoyed a piece of the last 4 per cent - compared to unfished levels," WWF spokesman said.
It was precisely this bleak future that spurred some seafood suppliers, such as Global Oceanlink, to do their part despite having to shoulder higher costs.

The company started by converting 1 per cent of its seafood to sustainably caught ones in 2010 and this included snow crabs. Not only were the crabs up to 15 per cent more expensive than those from non-certified sources, but they were also harder to sell.

That cut the company's margins for snow crabs to the bare minimum, said operations director Dennis Ng, 39.

"But sometimes it is not just about dollars and cents; this is part of our corporate social responsibility to save the oceans," he said.

Over the past five years, Global Oceanlink has increased the amount of sustainable snow crabs it supplies to 10,000kg a month, despite taking three years to reap profits from selling sustainable snow crabs.

In total, the company supplies around 15,000kg of sustainable seafood per month to some 60 businesses.

Others have taken similar steps.

Lee Fish Asia's sales manager, Sam Buck, 38, noted that there could be a price difference of up to 50 per cent for certain fish such as cod. Despite this, the company has doubled its sustainable seafood range to 80 per cent since it opened here in 2008. It now supplies about 32,000kg of sustainable seafood to about 60 hotels and restaurants each month.

Another supplier, Far Ocean Sea Products, received its MSC certification in January. It has already been selling sustainable seafood for years.

It now supplies sustainable seafood to 15 businesses, accounting for about 20 per cent of its overall seafood supply.

Lee Fish and Far Ocean said that cost is still a stumbling block, as many food and beverage businesses are not willing to make the switch if it means paying more.

"It is difficult to initiate it as a supplier as the price is not the same, (so) you have to wait for your customer to be interested and he will be interested when the consumer is," said a spokesman for Far Ocean Sea Products.

Kelvin Ng, 43, commercial director of South-east Asia and Hong Kong at MSC, hopes that the commitment by big hotels such as Hilton and Grand Hyatt will get the ball rolling for more to commit to sustainable seafood, especially supermarkets.

He hopes that as MSC labels become more common, consumers will look out for them and choose labelled products over unlabelled ones.

"The problem now is that while consumers here are aware, they are not asking and retailers are under no pressure to differentiate themselves," he said.

Read more!

Singapore opts for cleaner energy sources

Mr Nur Azha Putra of NUS says the increasing use of natural gas bodes well for Singapore.
Audrey Tan THE STRAITS TIMES AsiaOne 21 Jul 15;

Singapore is weaning itself off petroleum products.

In the past decade, the Republic has adopted cleaner energy sources to fuel electricity demand, moving away from petroleum products such as diesel and fuel oil to the more environmentally-friendly fossil fuel alternative: natural gas.

Natural gas now makes up 95.5 per cent of Singapore's fuel mix, up from 74.4 per cent in 2005, according to the latest statistics from the Energy Market Authority (EMA).

Petroleum products' share this year has been whittled to 0.7 per cent, down from 23.1 per cent in 2005. This will put Singapore in a better position to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, experts say.

"The increasing use of natural gas bodes well for Singapore, given its United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commitment to reduce carbon emissions," said Mr Nur Azha Putra, research associate at National University of Singapore's Energy Studies Institute.

Natural gas emits about 35 per cent less carbon dioxide than the petroleum-based oil that Singapore was using, and it does not emit polluting particulates and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, said Mr Joe Eades, the deputy chairman of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore chemical and process engineering technical committee.

Singapore has pledged that its greenhouse gas emissions will peak around 2030 at the equivalent of about 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, even if the economy continues to grow.

It will also be greener economically - reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to achieve each dollar of gross domestic product by more than a third.

The targets were submitted earlier this month to the UNFCCC, which sets a framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle climate change.

Internationally, countries are trying to diversify. China, for instance, is striving to cut the share of petroleum products and coal in its fuel mix, noted Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of Nanyang Technological University's Energy Research Institute.

Coal and petroleum products constituted 90 per cent of China's fuel mix in 2003, but this was reduced to 80 per cent in 2010 and is expected to drop to 72 per cent by 2020, he said.

Singapore opted early to switch and power the country with natural gas. Said Professor Subodh: "This way, Singaporeans can enjoy clean and healthy air even as the economy develops and meets the needs of a growing population."

Singapore's new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Jurong Island, which started operating in 2013, will ensure the Republic can import gas from more countries so that it remains energy secure.

Mr Nur Azha said: "With the completion of the liquefied natural gas terminal, Singapore will be able to diversify its energy supply portfolio and be less reliant on piped natural gas imports from Indonesia and Malaysia."

The latest EMA figures also show that other energy sources - such as solar power and converting waste into energy - are contributing more to Singapore's fuel mix, although they still make up only a small portion of the mix - 3.7 per cent this year, up from 2.4 per cent in 2005.

But experts and industry players are hopeful that this figure will increase, largely due to the SolarNova initiative that encourages government agencies to come together to use solar power.

Mr Eades said SolarNova could meet about 5 per cent of Singapore's energy demand by 2020.

This could complement other forms of renewable energy, such as generating electricity through waste incineration, said Mr Christophe Inglin, vice-chairman of the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore and managing director of solar firm Phoenix Solar.

Singapore has already harvested the low-hanging fruits - replacing almost all its oil-fired electricity generation with gas-fired generation, he pointed out.

"Nuclear plants are too controversial, so that leaves renewable energy sources like biogas, waste incineration and solar photovoltaic as main options for reducing our carbon footprint," he said.

Read more!

Natural disasters forced 20 million from their homes in 2014: report

Stephanie Nebehay PlanetArk 21 Jul 15;

Nearly 20 million people were forced to flee their homes due to floods, storms and earthquakes last year, a problem likely to worsen due to climate change, but which could be eased by better construction, a report said on Monday.

Asia is particularly prone to natural disasters, accounting for almost 90 percent of the 19.3 million displaced in 2014, led by typhoons in China and the Philippines, and floods in India, the Norwegian Refugee Council said.

"Disaster-related displacement is on the rise and threatens to get worse in coming decades," Alfredo Zamudio, director of the NRC's Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, told a news briefing.

Since 2008, an average of 26.5 million people have been displaced every year by disasters, the report said, and although 2014 figures were lower than that, the NRC said there was a rising long-term trend.

"Our historical analysis reveals you are 60 percent more likely to be displaced by disasters today than you were in the 1970s," Zamudio said, adding: "Climate change is expected to play a strong role in the future by increasing the frequency and intensity of such hazards."

U.N. scientific experts say greenhouse gas emissions are stoking extremes such as heat waves and heavy rains.

As well as extreme climate events, rapidly growing and poorly built settlements in areas vulnerable to natural disasters are putting more people at risk, Zamudio said, citing areas around cities such as Mexico City, Mumbai, Karachi and Port-au Prince.

Extreme weather has struck Haiti and Cuba with different results. More than 300,000 people died in the 2010 quake in Haiti, where 60,000 still live in tents, said William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which collected data for the report.

"Cuba is extremely well-prepared for disasters: hurricanes, typhoons, whatever happens. They have a shelter system, they have a public education system. Everyone knows what to do when disaster strikes," he said.

Being uprooted by disaster is not limited to poor countries.

"The largest case we found is in Japan, where some 230,000 people are still displaced today following the Tohoku earthquake and the tsunami disaster in 2011, including thousands displaced from the area around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant," Zamudio said.

More than 50,000 people in the United States still need housing assistance following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he said.

The vast majority of people fleeing disasters remain within their own country, but may still face "an emerging anti-migrant sentiment, particularly in the developed world", Swing said.

"This simply adds to the number of people who will be, in many cases, moving without proper papers and therefore subject to being criminalized, or sent home forcefully, deported or otherwise.

"This is simply a further complication and exacerbation of this global phenomenon of migration in our time."

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Read more!

Another month, another global heat record broken -- by far

SETH BORENSTEIN Associated Press Yahoo News 21 Jul 15;

WASHINGTON (AP) — Earth dialed the heat up in June, smashing warm temperature records for both the month and the first half of the year.

Off-the-charts heat is "getting to be a monthly thing," said Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. June was the fourth month of 2015 that set a record, she said.

"There is almost no way that 2015 isn't going to be the warmest on record," she added.

NOAA calculated that the world's average temperature in June hit 61.48 degrees Fahrenheit (16.33 Celsius), breaking the old record set last year by 0.22 degrees (.12 degrees Celsius). Usually temperature records are broken by one or two one-hundredths of a degree, not nearly a quarter of a degree, Blunden said.

And the picture is even more dramatic when the half-year is considered.

The first six months of 2015 were one-sixth of a degree warmer than the old record, set in 2010, averaging 57.83 degrees (14.35 Celsius).

The old record for the first half of the year was set in 2010, the last time there was an El Nino — a warming of the central Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide. But in 2010, the El Nino petered out. This year, forecasters are predicting this El Nino will get stronger, not weaker.

View galleryFILE - In this June 29, 2015, file photo, children …
In this June 29, 2015 photo, children play as they cool down in a fountain beside the Manzanares riv …
"If that happens, it's just going to go off the charts," Blunden said.

June was warm nearly all over the world, with exceptional heat in Spain, Austria, parts of Asia, Australia and South America. Southern Pakistan had a June heat wave that killed more than 1,200 people — which, according to an international database, would be the eighth deadliest in the world since 1900. In May, a heat wave in India claimed more than 2,000 lives and ranked as the fifth deadliest on record.

May and March also broke monthly heat records, which go back 136 years. Initially NOAA figured February 2015 was only the second hottest February on record, but new data came in that made it too the hottest, Blunden said. Earth has broken monthly heat records 25 times since the year 2000, but hasn't broken a monthly cold record since 1916.

"This is what anthropogenic global warming looks like, just hotter and hotter," said Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona.

Online: NOAA June global analysis:

Read more!

New York politicians seek ban on microbeads in cosmetics, cite water pollution

Katie Reilly PlanetArk 21 Jul 15;

New York political leaders on Monday renewed their push to outlaw microbeads, the personal care plastic additives blamed for polluting waterways, and urged a statewide ban even as Congress considers prohibiting them across the nation.

At least seven states, including Illinois, New Jersey and Wisconsin, have banned the beads, found in toothpaste and facial scrubs. Several others, including New York, are considering legislation that would have the same effect.

In a press conference on Monday, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, both Democrats, declared their support for a microbead ban.

"These tiny pieces of plastic have already caused significant ecological damage to New York's waterways, and they will continue to do so until they are removed from the marketplace," Gillibrand said.

In May, Gillibrand introduced a bill for a nationwide ban of products with synthetic plastic microbeads, which are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants. Included in the gel or liquid of some personal care products and touted as exfoliant agents, they have been found in large bodies of water, where fish can confuse them for food, the attorney general's office said.

Microbeads were present in 74 percent of water samples taken from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across New York State, according to a report released by Schneiderman in April.

"New Yorkers wash more than 19 tons of microbeads down the drain every year," he said on Monday.

The Personal Care Products Council, the trade association representing the cosmetic and personal care products industry, has previously supported ban initiatives. It did not respond on Monday to requests for comment.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Dan Grebler)

Read more!