Last islanders on St John's to leave by new year

Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times AsiaOne 13 Dec 16;

The last four occupants on St John's Island will have to move to mainland Singapore by the new year.

Two of them, Madam Fauziyah Wakiman, 65, and Mr Supar Saman, 67, work for the island's managing agent, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), and have lived on the quiet island south of Singapore with their spouses for decades.

SDC's spokesman said the two senior support assistants will be retiring, and the corporation will "hand over the management of the Southern Islands to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) from March".

SDC is currently in charge of maintenance of the island and "onsite guest support".

SLA said it would reveal plans for the Southern Islands, when ready.

Mr Mohamed Sulih, 71, Madam Fauziyah's husband, will have to say goodbye to a place he has called home all his life.

Mr Sulih, who was born, grew up and got married on the island, told The Straits Times: "I will miss it. I feel sad because I was born here."

SDC's spokesman said staff living quarters had been provided for the two staff "for their convenience, in order to minimise travelling time between their homes on mainland Singapore and St John's Island".

Island life for Mr Sulih, who retired as one of its caretakers in 2010, revolves around mending nets in the day and catching squid along the jetty at night.

He is also surrounded by a clutch of free-roaming chickens and cares for about 10 cats.

Mr Sulih said he will live with one of his sons in Jurong, and look for homes for the cats. He will give away his boat to a friend. The couple have a flat in Pasir Ris which is being rented out.

Photographer Edwin Koo, 38, who did a project called Island Nation documenting life on Singapore's Southern Islands, said it was a pity the islanders had to go.

"Why are we booting out people and not attempting to preserve this thread of living heritage?

"I really hope that the authorities will re-think their decision and allow the last few islanders to retire there," he said.

Frequent island visitor Marcus Ng, 41, a heritage enthusiast and freelance writer, agreed. Mr Ng has been photographing and documenting the island over the past five years.

He said: "It's a bit of a shame that the couples will no longer be stationed there because it's nice to have familiar faces around and get a sense that the place is connected to them historically.

"They aren't just workers but have decades of close association with the place, are reservoirs of information, and provide an intangible connection."

The island has served as a quarantine station for cholera cases, a holding area for political prisoners and secret-society ringleaders, and as a drug rehabilitation centre.

Over the decades, staff working for these centres made the island their home although most villagers had left for the mainland by 1975, said Mr Sulih.

There was also a reclamation project, started in 2000, to build a causeway to neighbouring Lazarus Island.

The 39ha site continues to draw a steady stream of nature lovers.

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Cycling, walking trails on Sentosa revamped

Danson Cheong, The Straits Times AsiaOne 13 Dec 16;

Cycling network now about 12km long, while six routes for pedestrians cover about 7.5km

More than 8,000 cyclists have been tracked using Sentosa's on-road cycling lanes since April, the resort island told The Straits Times recently.

The Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) started building a network of on-road bicycle lanes - the first of its kind in Singapore - last year.

Yesterday, it announced the launch of its revamped walking and cycling trails.

The island's cycling network has been boosted by the 4.5km-long on-road stretch and now stretches about 12km.

The cycling trails start at the Sentosa Boardwalk beside VivoCity. To avoid road traffic before the island's entrance, cyclists use a dedicated track beside the boardwalk, and then ride through an underpass.

The underpass was closed in 2007 when construction for the Resorts World Sentosa integrated resort began, and re-opened in June this year to give cyclists access to the island.

Cyclists pay $2 to enter the island.

The island's six walking trails, which cover about 7.5km, also connect the island with the Southern Ridges on mainland Singapore, the SDC in its statement.

The island is waiving admission fees for pedestrians who access the island via the boardwalk until the end of next year.

The SDC said its walking and cycling network "strengthens connectivity" and complements existing on-island transportation such as the monorail, buses, beach trams and cable car.

"With the seamless link to the Singapore mainland via the Sentosa Gateway and enhanced connectivity on the island provided by our network of cycling tracks and walking trails, guests now enjoy easy access to the island's pristine and quiet natural environment," said SDC assistant chief executive Jacqueline Tan.

Cyclist Dennis Cheong, 47, visited the island last week and said the new cycling trails are "a lot safer" than trying to enter Sentosa from the main road.

Mr Cheong, a researcher, said he is hoping the Sentosa Express monorail will allow foldable bikes on board.

"They should allow foldable bikes since they already allow strollers, if its raining, cyclists might have to take the monorail out," he said.

SDC said it does not encourage taking foldable bikes on the monorail trains for safety reasons, as the train carriages are smaller than those on the MRT.

Mr Francis Chu, co-founder of cycling group Love Cycling SG, said Sentosa could be a test-bed for whether on-road cycling lanes could be replicated elsewhere on the mainland.

"We should learn and observe how Sentosa is doing and maybe experiment in (cycling towns such as) Pasir Ris and Bedok," he said.

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Imports of live Christmas trees slow sharply

Dewi Fabbri Channel NewsAsia 12 Dec 16;

SINGAPORE: With Christmas just two weeks away, live pine tree imports appear to have dropped drastically. The United States - a major supplier of live Christmas trees to Singapore - has a reported shortage and, furnishing giant IKEA announced it would not be bringing in live Christmas trees from Sweden due to “logistical challenges”.

About 14,300 live pine trees have been imported into Singapore as of Dec 12, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said, down from 38,800 for the whole of 2015, and 28,400 the year before.

All of the live pine trees imported this year are from the USA and Denmark, and none are from Sweden. Last year, about 7 per cent of imported live pine trees were from Sweden, while the bulk of the trees were from the US and Denmark.

Explaining the decision to axe the sale of live Christmas trees, sales manager at IKEA Southeast Asia Malcom Pruys said it has become “increasingly challenging” to guarantee the freshness of live trees while achieving IKEA’s goal of offering it at low prices for customers. These trees need to be stored in air-conditioned environments and need additional lead time during transportation, he added.

IKEA is touting artificial trees and local potted Norfolk Island pine trees as alternatives to live trees. “At IKEA, we constantly seek to produce our products more sustainably and by August 2020, our ambition is to have 90 per cent of our home furnishing products developed this way with documented environmental improvements,” Mr Pruys said.

Far East Flora told Channel NewsAsia that it has been “more conservative” in estimating demand for live Christmas trees this year. “Over the years, definitely, there has been an increase in demand. There are more and more people looking for real live Christmas trees as opposed to artificial trees. That's undeniable,” said sales and marketing director for Far East Flora Peter Cheok. “It's just that for this year, because of the economic slowdown, we think that there may be a slowdown in the purchase of the trees.”

AVA said samples of trees brought in so far have been free of harmful pests and diseases. It has strict controls for the import of live trees requiring an import permit from AVA and plant health certification from the source country, as well as post-entry inspections by authorities.

“AVA will take enforcement against importers of plants and plant products that do not meet our requirements or fail our tests. For example, if pests are detected in live pine trees, importers are required to send the affected trees for treatment (e.g. fumigation). Such treatments will incur additional cost for importers and shorten the shelf life of the trees,” it said.

It also advises members of the public to make their Christmas tree last by placing it away from heat sources such as TVs and air ducts, and ensuring the water in the stand is not dried out.

- CNA/ly

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A forest in the museum

Olivia Ho, The Straits Times AsiaOne 13 Dec 16;

Walk through a lush, virtual rainforest from the past and learn stories behind Singapore's old trees at the new National Museum rotunda

For the revamp of its glass rotunda, the National Museum of Singapore looks to the natural world.

The rotunda, which reopened last Saturday after a two-year hiatus, now houses two new permanent works.

Digital art installation Story Of The Forest, by renowned Japanese digital art collective teamLab, creates a virtual rainforest thick with animals and flowers - based on paintings from the museum's William Farquhar Collection - for visitors to walk through.

At the base of the rotunda is Singapore, Very Old Tree by home-grown photographer and artist Robert Zhao, an exhibition of 17 photos that juxtaposes old trees around Singapore with the people who know their stories.

The rotunda closed two years ago for its first revamp since its launch in 2006. Previously, a video of life in a day in Singapore was projected 360 degrees in the space.

The two new works are part of the museum's $11-million revamp of its permanent galleries.

Museum director Angelita Teo, 44, says the new installations are both a nod to the region's ecological heritage and a call for visitors to engage more with the natural world.

"We hope it inspires those who see it to contribute more to documenting their environment," she adds.

Digital marketing executive Josephine Tan, who visited the rotunda when it reopened last Saturday, finds the new additions "mesmerising".

"It was surprising to find out that Story Of The Forest featured flora and fauna from the past," says the 25-year-old, adding that the effect was hypnotic.


A slow loris peers curiously through a fringe of leaves. A tapir lumbers heavily past. A deer emerges from the undergrowth, is startled and gallops off into a burst of petals.

These are among the inhabitants of the digital rainforest through which visitors to the glass rotunda of the National Museum of Singapore can now wander.

Story Of The Forest, an interactive installation inside the revamped rotunda, opened to the public last Saturday.

Japanese digital art collective teamLab was commissioned to create the work, which brings to life 69 illustrations from the museum's William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings.

The collection comprises 477 watercolour drawings of regional flora and fauna in the 19th century commissioned by Farquhar, Singapore's first British Resident.

The museum's director, Ms Angelita Teo, hopes the installation will help more visitors, especially younger ones, connect with the Farquhar collection.

"To young people, these are just drawings. Using technology to bring them to life could excite them to look at them more closely."

On entering the rotunda from the second floor, visitors cross a bridge under a dark dome, from which constellations of digital flowers constantly tumble.

Visitors then walk down a spiral slope around the rotunda's cylindrical drum and pass through a virtual forest projected onto the walls, through which animals move.

A mobile app offers visitors the chance to "capture" the animals they spot, somewhat like in the smartphone game Pokemon Go, and find out facts about them.

At the bottom of the rotunda, luminous trees spring up as flowers cascade onto them. As more people move around the space, more trees and animals will emerge.

It took 30 artists from teamLab 21/2 years to complete the work, which is projected onto screens about 170m long.

When asked to rate how difficult it was on a scale of one to 10, the collective's founder Toshiyuki Inoko gives it a solid 10.

The greatest difficulty, the 39year-old says in Japanese through a translator, was to create a seamless illusion on the rotunda's curved interior, using close to 60 painstakingly positioned projectors.

TeamLab is known for cuttingedge installations that meld art and technology, such as Crystal Universe at ArtScience Museum, where 178,000 LED lights react to visitors' movement, giving the illusion of stars moving in space.

The National Museum project was, however, the first time teamLab had worked with so much curved surface.

It had to build a life-size replica of the dome in a warehouse in Tokyo, where it is based.

This was to make sure it got everything right for its set-up in Singapore, which took two months.

The heat created by the projections was another problem.

A second, smaller fireproof dome had to be built inside the 15m-high rotunda to house the installation, to mitigate fire risk and block out light and heat.

Ms Teo recalls the challenges of construction within the tight, round confines. "The scaffolding itself was a work of art," she quips.

She praises the dedication of the Japanese team towards perfecting the most minute details. "They would spend hours programming the fall of a single leaf."

Rather than a video that plays on a loop, the animation is a computer programme that reacts in real time to visitors. This means no scene will be repeated.

"We want to break boundaries between the artwork and the viewer," says Mr Inoko.

His favourite way to enjoy the installation is to lie on the floor at the bottom of the rotunda.

Whenever somebody crosses the bridge above, a tree will shoot up next to him.

He says dreamily: "All the flowers are falling and it's like I am floating, suspended, navigating the universe."


Twenty years ago, odd-job labourer Ramanathan, who goes by one name, saved a mangosteen sapling from bulldozers near Old Kallang Airport.

Mr Ramanathan, now 70, replanted it in the same area and has been spending time with it every day, sometimes sleeping in its shade overnight.

His story is one of those told in the project, Singapore, Very Old Tree, by local artist and photographer Robert Zhao.

The collection of 30 photographs features old trees around Singapore, as well as the people whose lives they have taken root in.

Seventeen of the photos appear as lightboxes in an exhibition at the foot of the National Museum of Singapore's glass rotunda. The other 13 photos are not displayed.

Zhao, 33, had not worked with trees before this, but was inspired to branch out into this area by a 1904 postcard from the National Archive of a huge tree with a person, tiny in comparison, standing in its shade.

"It occurred to me that if that tree is still around today, it could be 100 or even 200 years old," he says.

"Our landscape changes so fast, but these trees remain. They are silent witnesses to the history of Singapore."

For about a year, he trekked all over Singapore with his wife, arts journalist Adeline Chia, also 33, looking not just for old trees, but also people who were able to tell their stories.

This was no easy task. They would sometimes have to stake out a tree of interest for two to three weeks before they could find somebody with knowledge of its history.

More often than not, they hit dead ends.

"I would see trees so old, so big and magnificent, that I knew they had some wonderful story to tell," he says.

But he would be unable to find any human connection.

Despite this, he persevered in gathering the stories of trees. Some notable trees he photographed include the "Seletar Wedding Tree", a casuarina in Seletar Reservoir.

Couples would queue on weekends to take bridal shots with it.

Another is the Monkey God Tree in Jurong West, an African mahogany that had part of its bark scraped off in a car accident, revealing what looks like the outlines of two monkeys on its trunk.

People would come from all over Singapore to pray at the tree for good luck and lottery wins.

Zhao himself was caught up in the story of one of these trees, when he watched the massive banyan tree behind The Substation get uprooted in 2014 to make way for the construction of a new Singapore Management University building.

"They thought it would take them one day, but it took them four," he recalls. "Bats were flying out of it when they were trimming it down."

When parts of the banyan had to be cut away, old bricks from the former National Library were found among its roots.

Zhao photographed the tree later in transition, as it sat in a nursery waiting to be transplanted to a location not yet known.

Were he a tree himself, he would be a banyan, he says.

"It is wild and uncontrollable, yet it has learnt to thrive well in the city."

Through his work, he hopes to explore the ways in which urban planting impacts individuals.

"How does being a green city really affect Singaporeans?

"We grow and we cut, we grow and we cut - it's part of the way our landscape is.

I want to find the trees - and the stories - that remain."

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Malaysia: Floodwaters subside in central-western Perak, most evacuees return home

NABILAH HAMUDIN New Straits Times 12 Dec 16;

MANJUNG: The number of flood evacuees at a relief centre in Sekolah Agama Rakyat (SAR) Padang Serai here fell to 61 as of this morning, compared to 73 yesterday.

A Perak Fire and Rescue Department spokesman said the remaining evacuees are from 15 families whose homes in Kampung Padang Serai are still partially inundated.

However, water levels elsewhere have largely receded, and another relief centre at Simpang 3 Community Hall, which had sheltered 76 evacuees, was closed at 2.30pm yesterday.

"The floodwaters are receding and the water level is currently 0.15m. Floodwaters have not fully subsided, so it is better for victims whose homes are affected to stay at the Padang Serai relief centre.

"Although water in other areas is subsiding, firemen are on standby should the situation worsen," he said when contacted.

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Malaysia: Drones, DNA tests to fight illegal logging in Terengganu

ROSLI ZAKARIA New Straits Times 12 Dec 16;

KUALA TERENGGANU: THERE are eyes from the sky panning down the vast expanse of forests to root out land encroachment and illegal logging in Terengganu.

The eyes — drones fitted with infrared camera — are the latest technology used by the state Forestry Department to protect logs from being stolen and forests from being destroyed by land encroachment.

With only 150 officers to cover 544,000ha of forest reserve, of which 128,000ha are permanently protected as water catchment areas, the use of high technology is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Department director Datuk Ahmad Fadzil Abdul Majid said illegal logging and encroachment could be addressed by catching the culprits red-handed.

“Using the latest technology to outsmart spies and tontos gives officers an edge in operations,” he told the New Straits Times.

He said the department was also using satellite data and DNA-profiling of trees to curb illegal logging.

However, he said the success of operations depended on the integrity of officers.

“In every organisation, there are black sheep. Some officers have been working in the same post for more than 20 years, and there is a possibility that they have formed ties with illegal loggers.”

Fadzil said the DNA-profiling of trees was being developed with cooperation from the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM).

When the system was ready, he said, the department would call in experts from FRIM to match the DNA of tree stumps with logs seized ex-situ or in sawmills.

“This will help us strengthen our case when we charge illegal loggers.

“However, it is difficult to charge masterminds unless we catch them red-handed.

“Fingerprints do not stick on tree barks. Illegal logging is not like house break-ins, where fingerprints of suspects can be traced.

“But, we can identify culprits by following the log trail. Every tree has a specific DNA profile.”
Fadzil said illegal logging not only damaged the credibility of the department, but also ruined the ecosystem and incurred losses to the state government.

He said Terengganu had an annual coupe of 6,388ha until the end of the 11th Malaysia Plan in 2020, and the state had earned RM32 million from legal logging.

“Although illegal logging constitutes only about 0.2 per cent of losses, the damage is glaring.”

The forestry sector contributed RM22 million in premiums and RM12 million in taxes yearly to the state’s coffers.

“It (illegal logging) is not as bad as depicted in newspapers, but we need to highlight our operations to keep illegal loggers at bay.

“Our exposure of such activities invites negative perception, but if we do not act, the entire system will collapse and result in a massive loss of revenue in the long term.”

The department sets aside RM11 million annually, or RM1,800 per hectare, to rehabilitate forests that have been logged. However, it spent only about RM3 million to rehabilitate about 20 per cent of 6,388ha (annual coupe) of forests.

Fadzil said Terengganu had 416,000ha of productive forests, or 40 per cent of state land that could be logged over 30 years, but illegal logging could jeopardise efforts to ensure sustainability of forests.

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Whales in the wild: rare gem amid Thailand mass tourism

Delphine THOUVENOT, AFP Yahoo News 13 Dec 16;

Gulf of Thailand (Thailand) (AFP) - Piercing the water's surface with its almond-shaped mouth, a giant Bryde's whale opens wide for one, two, three seconds, gulping in anchovies as a boatload of awed tourist look on in the Gulf of Thailand.

It's a rare glimpse of marine life in its natural habitat, in a kingdom overrun with mass tourist attractions such as aquariums and dolphin shows.

Once a dream for scuba divers, many of Thailand's coral reefs have been dulled by pollution, over-fishing and increased boat traffic, as well as over-enthusiastic swimmers.

But going out to spot Bryde's whales is a relatively new concept.

The 15-metre (50-foot) long mammals flock to the northern Gulf waters to feed on an abundance of anchovies during the September to December rainy season.

Many tourists come out to catch a glimpse of their unique feeding habits -- observing the way they keep their mouths agape for seconds at a time.

"The way they eat is the greatest biomechanical event" in the world, said Jirayu Ekkul, who takes groups out on his converted fishing boat to spot the whales just a few hours from the bustling capital Bangkok.

The devoted diver and wildlife photographer's company Wild Encounter Thailand is among only a handful offering whale watching excursions in the Gulf of Thailand.

- No regulations -

Heading out on the waters in search of Bryde's whales is a ritual he relishes, and one he hopes won't be lost if whale-watching goes the way of so many other mass tourism attractions in Thailand.

"Commercial whale-watching is new in Thailand, there are no regulations yet," he tells AFP on his boat, which can carry about 40 people.

Ekkul insists he is careful: Last year he took out fewer than 1,000 tourists, he says, and his operation adheres to strict international guidelines for this kind of venture.

Boats are expected to slow down near the whales, keep a good distance, and to make sure they do not block their paths.

"This boat has the right way to approach them, by slowing down the engine, slowing down the boat speed," said Surasak Thongsukdee, a whale specialist at the Marine and Coastal Research Center (MCRC).

Surasak and other researchers often join the tourist expeditions, a key opportunity to observe the 50 or so Bryde's whales in the Gulf -- all of which he knows by name.

Whale-watching has become a significant global industry. The number of people taking such trips grew from 4 million in the 1990s to 13 million by 2008, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

But there are concerns about the impact it has. In 2014 conservationists at the International Marine Conservation Congress warned tourist boats may be causing stress and driving whales from their natural feeding grounds. There is also the risk of death from collision with the vessels.

In the Gulf of Thailand, six whales were found dead this year, which is a sharp spike from the average one death per annum. Surasak blames this increase on the toxic waters, though local media also reported illegal fishing trawlers in the area.

"These whales might be affected by pollution flowing into the water" he said, adding that many different rivers flow into the Gulf of Thailand. In October, dozens of sting ray and razor clam beds died off due to pollution from one tributary.

- Need for green -

The junta-ruled kingdom, whose sputtering economy remains hugely reliant on tourists to keep afloat, has come under fire for letting visitors spoil its natural attractions.

Precious coral are routinely damaged by throngs of scuba-diving tourists, who scrape reefs with their fins or hands in their hunt to spot tropical fish. Some even pose on the coral to take underwater selfies.

"The government is struggling to enforce best practice in terms of tourism," said British marine biologist James Harvey.

He would like to see Thailand embrace green tourism, an increasingly attractive industry among eco-minded travellers.

In collaboration with the UN, he founded Green Fins, a programme that promotes sustainable diving and snorkelling in Asia to protect coral reefs, and would like to see a more eco-friendly ethos applied in Thailand.

"It makes economic sense to be green now," he said.

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Methane surge needs 'urgent attention'

Jonathan Amos BBC 12 Dec 16;

Scientists say they are concerned at the rate at which methane in the atmosphere is now rising.

After a period of relative stagnation in the 2000s, the concentration of the gas has surged.

Methane (CH4) is a smaller component than carbon dioxide (CO2) but drives a more potent greenhouse effect.

Researchers warn that efforts to tackle climate change will be undermined unless CH4 is also brought under tighter control.

"CO2 is still the dominant target for mitigation, for good reason. But we run the risk if we lose sight of methane of offsetting the gains we might make in bringing down levels of carbon dioxide," said Robert Jackson from Stanford University, US.

Prof Jackson was speaking ahead of this week's American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco where methane trends will be a major point of discussion.

With colleagues who are part of an initiative called the Global Carbon Project, he has also just authored an editorial in the journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

This paper makes a clarion call to the scientific community to address the knowledge deficit that surrounds CH4.

Quite why methane has suddenly spiked is not obvious. After barely moving between 2000 and 2006, the concentration in the atmosphere ticked upwards from 2007, and then jumped sharply in 2014 and 2015.

In those final two years, methane rose rapidly by 10 or more parts per billion (ppb) annually.

It is now just above 1,830ppb. By contrast, global CO2 emissions have flattened somewhat of late, giving hope that the rise in its atmospheric concentration (currently just above 400 parts per million) might also slow.

"Methane has many sources, but the culprit behind the steep rise is probably agriculture," Prof Jackson told BBC News.

"We do see some increased fossil fuel emissions over the last decade, but we think biological sources, and tropical sources, are the most likely."

Agricultural sources would include cattle and other ruminants, as well as rice paddies.

Emissions from wetlands are almost certainly a significant part of this story as well. But so too could be the role played by the chemical reactions that normally remove methane from the atmosphere.

One of the most important of these is the destruction process involving the so-called hydroxyl radical.

The concentration of this chemical species in the atmosphere might also be changing in some way.

According to the ERL editorial, there needs to be a particular push on understanding such methane "sinks".

CH4 is about 30 times better than CO2, over a century timescale, at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Scientists use computer models to try to project how Earth will warm given a certain mix of gases, and right now methane's growth rate is close to a path that would take the world into a very challenging future.

"If we want to stay below two degrees temperature increase, we should not follow this track and need to make a rapid turn-around," said Dr Marielle Saunois from the University of Versailles Saint Quentin, France. She is the lead author on the ERL paper.

One development that should help scientists as they grapple with the methane issue is the launch of new satellites.

A number sensors are planned that will specifically target carbon molecules.

"I'm optimistic that the scientific community and the policymakers will be able to have better information. I'm optimistic because there are new satellites coming along that will give us the power to see methane concentrations all over the world on a regular basis," explained Prof Jackson.

"Methane is more difficult to study than CO2 because it's more diffuse, but I think we’re poised to make really good progress over the next few years."

Rapid rise in methane emissions in 10 years surprises scientists
Methane warms planet 20 times as much as similar CO2 volumes but lack of monitoring means scientists can’t be sure of sources
Fiona Harvey The Guardian 12 Dec 16;

Emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane have surged in the past decade, threatening to thwart global attempts to combat climate change.

Scientists have been surprised by the surge, which began just over 10 years ago in 2007 and then was boosted even further in 2014 and 2015. Concentrations of methane in the atmosphere over those two years alone rose by more than 20 parts per billion, bringing the total to 1,830ppb.

This is a cause for alarm among global warming scientists because emissions of the gas warm the planet by more than 20 times as much as similar volumes of carbon dioxide.

In the meantime, emissions of carbon dioxide – the main component of manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – have been levelling off. The new research, published in the peer-review journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that the world’s attempts to control greenhouse gases have failed to take account of the startling rises in methane.

The authors of the 2016 Global Methane Budget report found that in the early years of this century, concentrations of methane rose by only about 0.5ppb each year, compared with 10ppb in 2014 and 2015.

The scientists speculate that agriculture may be the main source of the additional methane that has been recorded. However, they cannot be sure of all the sources, owing to a lack of monitoring.

At least a third of methane comes from the exploitation of fossil fuels, including fracking and oil drilling and some coal mining, where methane is viewed as a waste gas and is frequently allowed to escape or, in some cases, flared off, which is less harmful.

Unlike carbon dioxide emissions, however, which have been tracked in various ways since the 1950s, emissions of methane are poorly understood and could represent a threat that scientists have still not accounted for.

For instance, the melting of the Arctic tundra releases methane as the vegetation underneath is gradually and sometimes suddenly exposed. This has been regarded by scientists as a potential “tipping point” whereby warming of the Arctic leads to greater releases of methane, therefore greater warming, in a runaway and uncontrollable cycle.

Comparison of methane over Alison Canyon, California, acquired 11 days apart in January 2016 by (left) Nasa’s Aviris instrument on an ER-2 aircraft at 4.1 miles altitude and (right) by the Hyperion instrument on Nasa’s Earth Observing-1 satellite in low-Earth orbit.

Although the world’s governments pledged at Paris last year to hold global warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, few have yet explained in detail how their intentions will be worked out. The president-elect of the US, Donald Trump, has also cast doubt on the US’s future participation in the emissions cuts required.

Robert Jackson, professor of earth system science at Stanford University, and a co-author of the paper, warned that methane should also be a key focus of attempts to control climate change.

“The levelling off we’ve seen in the last three years for carbon dioxide emissions is strikingly different from the recent rapid increase in methane. Unlike CO2, where we have well-described power plants, almost everything in the global methane budget is diffuse. From cows to wetlands to rice paddies [as well as other sources], the methane cycle is harder.”

“Why this change has happened is still not well understood,” added Marielle Saunois, assistant professor at the University of Versailles Saint Quentin, and a lead author of the paper. “For the last two years especially, the growth rate has been faster for the years before. It’s really intriguing.”

As well as measures that can be quickly implemented to prevent methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry, ways to cut emissions from agriculture are also being developed and implemented. New breeds of rice require less flooding in paddy fields, new feeds can cut down on emissions from cows, and there are methods of capturing methane from large agricultural barns where livestock are intensively reared. However, few of these are yet widely in operation.

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