26 Nov 2013:
Updated Conservation List
Finds Forest Giraffes on Brink of Extinction
In an updated list released today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted some significant successes and failures in global wildlife
Okapi, or forest giraffe
conservation efforts. A major success story is the leatherback sea turtle
, whose Atlantic population has recovered enough for the species to be considered only vulnerable, rather than critically endangered. The IUCN attributed the leatherback rebound to better protection of nesting beaches and reduced fisheries bycatch. The updated Red List contains more somber news, though, for the blue-tongued forest giraffe
, the national symbol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The striped-legged forest giraffe, a species of okapi, is on the brink of extinction due mainly to the long, ongoing civil war in that country, which has led to increased poaching and loss of habitat. The Red List's ranks of threatened species have grown by 352 species since this summer
, Mongabay reports, with roughly 21,000 species now listed as threatened.
15 Nov 2013:
Groundbreaking Mapping Project
Depicts Forest Change Around the Globe
Scientists from Google, U.S. universities, and federal agencies have for the first time produced a high-resolution global map showing in striking detail the extent of deforestation across the globe.
The project — which relied heavily on expertise from the computing
center Google Earth Engine — documents a loss of 888,000 square miles of forest between 2000 and 2012, along with a gain of 309,000 square miles of new forest. The rate of deforestation is equal to losing 68,000 soccer fields of forest every day for the past 13 years, or 50 soccer fields every minute, says the World Resources Institute
. Brazil, once responsible for a majority of the world's tropical forest loss, is now the global leader in scaling back forest destruction, cutting its deforestation rate in half over the past decade, researchers report in Science
. Over the same period, Indonesia has more than doubled its annual rate of forest loss, despite a supposed 2011 Indonesian government moratorium on new logging licenses.
06 Nov 2013:
Disturbed Tropical Forests
Are Slow to Regain Plant Biodiversity
In tropical forests that are regrowing after major disturbances, the ability to store carbon recovers more quickly than plant biodiversity, researchers from the U.K. have found
. However, even after 80 years, recovering forests store less carbon than old-growth
A regrowing tropical forest in Brazil
forests, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
This is likely because regenerating forests are often dominated by small, fast-growing trees and it may take centuries for larger trees, which hold more carbon, to become established, according to scientists from the Center for Ecology & Hydrology and Bournemouth University, who studied more than 600 recovering tropical forests. Tree species that are hallmarks of old-growth forests were rare or missing in the regrowing forests, the study showed. Since regenerating forests are often located far from old-growth forests and surrounded by farmland, it may be difficult for animals to move seeds between the forests, which may account for the lower plant biodiversity, researchers said.
22 Oct 2013:
Southern Amazon Rainforest
In Danger as Dry Season Expands, Study Says
The dry season in the southern part of the Amazon rainforest is lasting three weeks longer than it did 30 years ago, putting the forest at higher risk for fires and tree mortality, according to new research from the University of Texas
. The most likely culprit is global
warming, says lead researcher Rong Fu. Even if future wet seasons become wetter, rainforest soil can only hold so much water, Fu explained. That water must sustain the forest throughout the entire dry season, and as the dry season lengthens the rainforest becomes increasingly stressed, vegetation growth slows, and the risk of fire rises. During a severe drought in 2005, the Amazon actually released a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, rather than acting as a net carbon sink. Should dry seasons continue to expand, conditions like those in 2005 could become the norm, accelerating the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere, the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
11 Oct 2013:
Agricultural Ammonia Emissions
Threatening U.S. National Parks, Study Finds
Ammonia emissions from agricultural fertilizers are threatening sensitive ecosystems in U.S. national parks, a study led by Harvard researchers
has found. Thirty-eight national parks are seeing nitrogen deposition levels at or above the threshold for ecological damage,
Great Smoky Mountains N.P.
the study says. In natural ecosystems, excess nitrogen can disrupt nutrient cycling in soil
, cause algal overgrowth, and make aquatic environments acidic. While some of that nitrogen comes in the form of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from power plants and vehicle exhaust, existing air quality regulations and new clean energy technologies are helping reduce NOx emissions. Ammonia emissions from agricultural operations, however, are expected to climb as demand for food and biofuels surges. Daniel Jacob, who led the study, said that because ammonia is volatile, only 10 percent of the nitrogen makes it into the food, with much of it escaping through the atmosphere and being deposited across the landscape. According to the report, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics
, hardwood trees, such as those shown above, are most sensitive to excess nitrogen in eastern temperate forests, while in western national parks lichens appear to suffer first.
08 Oct 2013:
Eighty Percent of Ecosystems
Vulnerable to Climate Change, Study Finds
Climate change could significantly transform up to 86 percent of the planet's land ecosystems under worst-case global warming scenarios, according to researchers at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
. That estimate is based on a 4 to 5 degree C temperature increase by the year 2100 — a scenario that is plausible given many nations' reluctance to enact greenhouse gas emissions limits, the researchers say. Even if global temperatures are kept to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels, 20 percent of natural land ecosystems are at risk of moderate or major changes, especially high-altitude and high-latitude regions. Such changes could include boreal forests being transformed into temperate savannas, trees growing in thawed Arctic tundra, or even a dieback of some of the world's tropical forests. "Essentially, we would be leaving the world as we know it," says Sebastian Ostberg, who led the research. "The findings clearly demonstrate that there is a large difference in the risk of global ecosystem change under a scenario of no climate change mitigation compared to one of ambitious mitigation," he added.
12 Sep 2013:
Migration of Trees Is
Not Keeping Pace with Warming
Most tree species in the U.S. aren't migrating northward as rapidly as predicted in response to climate change, a new study says
. Looking at 65 species across
Kilmer Forest, North Carolina
31 eastern states, the team found no consistent, northward migration of tree species, as many other climate studies have predicted. Rather than shifting northward by dispersing seeds to cooler climates, the researchers found, tree species are responding by speeding up their life cycles. "Most trees are responding through faster turnover," says lead scientist James Clark
of Duke University, "meaning they are staying in place but speeding up their life cycles in response to longer growing seasons and higher temperatures." The results appear in Global Change Biology
Counterpoint: Two Scientists Offer
A Dissenting View on Ascension Island
Ecologists Daniel Simberloff, of the University of Tennessee, and Donald Strong, of the University of California, Davis, have written a critical appraisal of a recent Yale Environment 360
article by Fred Pearce about Ascension Island. In their critique, the two scientists contend that Pearce failed to accurately describe what has occurred on the island and misrepresented the science of restoration ecology. Read more
29 Aug 2013:
Future Wildfire Seasons to Be
Longer, Smokier, Cover More Area
Fire seasons will be three weeks longer, generate twice as much smoke, and cover a larger area of the western U.S. by 2050, a new study from Harvard researchers finds
. The risk of large fires could also increase by a
Petruncio Mike, USFWS
factor of two to three. In general, the biggest driver for future fires in Western states will be temperature, but driving factors can vary from region to region, the researchers say. In the Rockies, for example, moisture in the forest floor is the biggest predictor. Wildfires in the Great Basin region, however, will be more heavily influenced by relative humidity in the previous year. The results, published in Atmospheric Environment
, are based on records of past fire activity, decades of meteorological data, and a set of internationally recognized climate scenarios.
28 Aug 2013:
Illegal Slash-and-Burn Fires
Are Causing Smog Problem in Indonesia
Skies above Indonesia have been blanketed with smog
as wildfires burn throughout its forests. Ignoring
environmental laws, companies are using the practice of slash-and-burn to clear land for palm oil plantations. The illegal fires decimate rainforests and peatlands and fill the air with lethal levels of smoke, as seen in this NASA satellite image taken on August 27. Indonesia's pollution index hit a record-high 401 earlier this month; any reading above 400 is considered life-threatening to the elderly and sick. Palm oil is the world's largest vegetable oil commodity
and demand is rising rapidly, causing massive damage to tropical forests, especially in Southeast Asia.
22 Aug 2013:
Satellite Images of Fire
Help Guide Restoration Projects
The U.S. Forest Service is using NASA satellite images of fires in the American West to help rapidly restore burned areas
before the upcoming rainy season causes floods and washouts that could threaten lives and property.
This image of the Silver Hill fire in New Mexico, which burned 138,000 acres in June, was taken using infrared technology — mounted on NASA’s Landsat satellite — that distinguishes between vegetated and burned areas. The most severely burned areas are depicted in red, followed by areas of moderate-severity burn in yellow and low-severity burn in green. NASA began supplying the Forest Service with images as the fire raged, and in the wake of the fire the Forest Service has undertaken restoration efforts to stabilize the ground and prevent flooding during the rainy season in late summer.
21 Aug 2013:
Thai Monkeys May Abandon
Stone Tools Due to Human Disruptions
Human disturbances in Thailand’s Laem Son National Park may be causing Burmese long-tailed macaques to abandon their use of stone tools, say researchers studying the primates
. The only monkeys in Asia to use
stone tools — and one of only three non-human primates worldwide to do so — these Burmese macaques have learned to use coastal rocks to crack the hard-shelled crabs, snails, and oysters that make up their diet. Habitat loss to rubber and oil palm farming, competition with humans for food sources, and threats from domestic dogs are forcing the macaques to change their foraging habits, researchers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University report. The monkeys are also showing signs of acclimating to humans and becoming dependent on human food sources.
15 Aug 2013:
Plants in U.S. Southwest
Moving Higher as the Climate Warms
Numerous plant species on a mountain in the southwestern U.S. are migrating to higher elevations
as the climate gets warmer and drier, according to a new
University of Arizona
An alligator juniper on Mount Lemmon
study. After comparing the results of a recent survey of 27 plants found on Mount Lemmon, a 9,157-foot peak near Tucson, Ariz., with a similar survey conducted in 1963, researchers at the University of Arizona found that three-quarters of the plants have shifted their range “significantly” upslope in the last five decades. In some cases, researchers found that the plants had moved upward by as much as 1,000 feet, into a much narrower elevation range than where the plants existed in the early 1960s. Writing in the journal Ecology and Evolution
, the researchers note that the lowermost boundary for 15 of the species has shifted upslope.
02 Aug 2013:
Prolonged Heat Wave Leaves
Russian Arctic Vulnerable to Wildfires
An enduring high-pressure weather system over the Russian Arctic has led to a prolonged heat wave, creating conditions for another surge in wildfires
a year after a particularly extreme wildfire season. NASA
scientists say that a so-called “blocking high” system — in which rain-bearing systems are blocked from moving west to east — has caused temperatures to reach 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) in the northern city of Norlisk, where daily highs in July typically average 61 degrees F (16 degrees C). Using satellite data, NASA produced a map that vividly depicts the land surface temperature anomalies in the region during the week of July 20-27, with temperatures soaring as high as 37 degrees F above normal. A separate satellite image shows smoke billowing from several fires burning in one of the areas, in the Khanty-Mansiyskiy and Yamal-Nenetskiy districts. According to scientists, the Siberian fires are burning in areas far north of where summer wildfires typically occur.
30 Jul 2013:
Return of Yellowstone Wolves
Triggers Surge in Grizzly's Prized Berries
The reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone National Park has caused a cascade of ecological effects that has led to the regrowth of berries
, an important food source for the park’s grizzly bears, scientists say. Writing in the
Journal of Animal Ecology
Yellowstone National Park
Grizzly bear at Yellowstone Park
, scientists from Oregon State University and the University of Washington report that the percentage of fruit found in bear scat has nearly doubled during the month of August in recent years. According to researchers, this reflects a recovery of berry bushes triggered in large part by the wolves, which have reduced overbrowsing by the park’s elk herds. The removal of wolves for most of the 20th century triggered the demise of the park’s young aspen and willow trees, as well as berry-producing shrubs, scientists say. According to the report, berries may be so important to the health of bear populations that their recovery could mean a lifting of the species’ “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act
25 Jul 2013:
Mapping of Oil Palm Genome
Could Boost Productivity of Key Crop
Scientists say they have identified the gene responsible for the yield of oil palm crops, a discovery that could boost the productivity of the world’s top source of
vegetable oil and help reduce the size of oil palm plantations in the world’s tropical regions. Writing in the journal Nature
, Malaysian and U.S. researchers describe the mapping of the genome of the oil palm, whose products are used in everything from food to cosmetics to biofuels. According to the scientists, the so-called “shell gene” controls “how the thickness of its shell correlates to fruit size and oil yield
.” The fruit of the African palm oil tree comes in three varieties
: a thick-shelled dura, a shell-less pisifera, and a thin-shelled tenera, which produces a greater oil yield. According to scientists, the shell gene plays a key role in a mutation that produces the more commercially productive tenera variety.
18 Jul 2013:
Malaysian Borneo Plundered
As 80 Percent of Rainforests Are Logged
The first comprehensive, satellite-based assessment of industrial logging practices in Malaysian Borneo has shown that more than 80 percent of the region’s forests have been heavily impacted by logging
. Reporting in the journal PLOS One
, researchers from Australia,
New Guinea, and the U.S. say that Malaysian Borneo — which just 30 years ago was considered one of the wildest places on Earth — now has been eaten away by 226,000 miles of roads that have enabled companies to legally and illegally log most of the territory, which consists of the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. At best, only 17,500 square miles of forest ecosystems remain intact, the study said. “The extent of logging in Sabah and Sarawak documented in our work is breathtaking,” said study co-author Phil Shearman of the University of Papua New Guinea.
15 Jul 2013:
Map Shows Possible Link
Between Warmer Springs and Large Fires
An interactive tool produced by the group Climate Central illustrates how rising temperatures and reduced snowpack in the western U.S. have corresponded with an increase in wildfires
in recent decades. Based on
federal wildfire data from 1970 to 2012, the graphic shows how large fires in some western states — including Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho — have doubled or even tripled in four decades, a period when the average spring and summer temperatures in 11 states increased by more than 1.5 degrees F. According to the Climate Central analysis, Arizona has experienced the highest average increase in spring temperatures, about 1 degree F, which has likely been a key factor in the steep increase in fires covering more than 1,000 acres. Another key factor has been the decrease in mountain snowpack. During several seasons, unusually low amounts of spring snow caused extended droughts that helped drive more big fires.
27 Jun 2013:
New Bird Species Identified
In Crowded Outskirts of Phnom Penh
A team of scientists in Cambodia has identified a new species of lowland tailorbird
recently captured in the densely populated outskirts of Phnom Penh. Originally
An adult male Cambodia tailorbird
caught and photographed in 2009 during a routine sampling for avian influenza, the small wren-sized bird was initially misidentified as a known type of tailorbird until the photographs caught the attention of scientist Simon Mahood of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Following genetic analysis of other individuals collected in the region, scientists confirmed that the bird — which has white cheeks, a rich cinnamon-colored crown, and distinct vocal characters — was indeed a new species. According to an article co-authored by Mahood in Forktail
, a journal of the Oriental Bird Club, the so-called Cambodia tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk
) is known to exist only in a dense, lowland scrub ecosystem that is declining in size and quality.
21 Jun 2013:
Illegal Fires in Sumatra
Send Dangerous Pollution to Singapore
Billowing smoke from illegal fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra has engulfed Singapore this week, pushing air pollution to record levels
consecutive days. The smoke, which is captured in a new NASA satellite image
, has created an acrid blanket of smog across the region and historic levels of air pollution. According to government officials, Singapore's air pollution index reached 401 on Friday, a level considered hazardous for breathing. Before this week, the previous high was 226. The smoke has been blowing east toward southern Malaysia and Singapore
from Sumatra, where farmers set illegal fires to clear land for new crops during the mid-year dry season. The fires are yet another sign of the large-scale deforestation taking place on Sumatra.
14 Jun 2013:
Nicaragua Approves New Canal
Linking Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
Nicaragua has approved plans to build a $40 billion cross-country canal
linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a project that would rival the Panama Canal but is raising major concerns about impacts on regional
water supplies and the environment. Lawmakers yesterday granted Hong-Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. a 50-year concession to study, and possibly construct, a 180-mile canal that advocates say would better accommodate the massive cargo ships and supertankers needed to handle the increased trade between Asia and the Americas. Major questions remain, however, about whether the canal will ever be built. Environmental advocates warn that water needed to operate the massive infrastructure project would deplete the region’s freshwater supplies.
06 Jun 2013:
Carbon Emissions in Brazil
Dropped 39% from 2005 to 2010, Report Says
Greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil fell by nearly 39 percent from 2005 to 2010
, largely because of reductions in the amount of forest loss, according to a new government report. Overall, Brazil emitted the equivalent of 1.25 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, which was more than 10 percent lower than 1990 levels. About 76 percent of the reductions were the product of a dramatic decline in deforestation across the Amazon and surrounding savannahs, according to the government inventory. That decline was driven by the country’s conservation policies, including stricter enforcement of land use laws, expansion of protected regions, and stronger local incentives to achieve environmental goals. For the first time, agriculture accounts for the largest share of emissions. In fact, rising emissions from agriculture and the energy sector threaten to offset improvements achieved through reduced forest loss, experts warn.
02 May 2013:
Five Southeast Asian Nations
Have Lost One-Third of Forests in 33 Years
Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have lost one-third of their forests since 1980
and could be left with only 10 to 20 percent of their original forest cover by 2030, according to a review of satellite data by WWF. The conservation group warned that if present trends continue only 14 percent of the greater Mekong region’s remaining forest cover will consist of contiguous habitat capable of sustaining viable populations of many wildlife species, such as tigers and Asian elephants. The WWF researchers calculated that since 1980, Thailand and Vietnam have lost 43 percent of their forests, Laos and Burma have lost 24 percent, and Cambodia has lost 22 percent. Since 1973, areas of core, undisturbed forest — defined as having at least 3.2 square kilometers of uninterrupted forest — have declined from 70 percent to 20 percent of the region. Peter Cutter, landscape conservation manager with WWF-Greater Mekong, said the region is at a crossroads and that to preserve its remaining forests and biodiversity it must expand protected areas and better safeguard those that already exist.
Interview: Telling the Life Story of
Ginkgo, the Oldest Tree on Earth
Botanist Peter Crane sees the ginkgo as more than just a distinctive tree with foul-smelling fruits and nuts prized
Ginkgo leaves in autumn
for reputed medicinal properties. To Crane, author of a new book, Ginkgo
, the tree is an oddity in nature because it is a single species with no known living relatives; a living fossil that has been essentially unchanged for more than 200 million years; and an inspiring example of how humans can help a species survive. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, talks about what makes the ginkgo unique and what makes it smell, how its toughness and resilience has enabled it to thrive as a street tree, and what the ginkgo’s long history says about human life on earth. The ginkgo, which co-existed with the dinosaurs, “really puts our own species — let alone our individual existence — into a broader context,” says Crane. Read the interview
23 Apr 2013:
Conservation of Forests
Can Prevent Malaria Spread, Study Says
The conservation of woodlands and biodiversity can actually help prevent the spread of malaria
in tropical forests, a new study says. Using a mathematical model of different conditions in a forest region of southeastern Brazil, scientists found that the circulation of the parasite Plasmodium vivax
— which is associated with 80 million to 300 million malaria cases worldwide — is likely to decrease in less developed forests where populations of non-malarial mosquitoes and warm-blooded animals are abundant. While no malaria cases have been reported in 30 years within the biodiverse study area, located in the Atlantic Forest, researchers say a primary malaria mosquito is found nearby. According to their study, published in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases
, the findings suggest that malarial and non-malarial mosquito populations are likely to compete for blood feeding, and that the animals act as “dead-end reservoirs” of the malaria parasite. “These aspects of biodiversity that can hinder malaria transmission are services provided by the forest ecosystem,” Gabriel Zorello, an epidemiologist at the University of Sao Paulo and lead researcher of the study, told ScieDev.Net.
10 Apr 2013:
New Satellite-Based System Will
Track Illegal Deforestation in Real Time
A coalition of organizations has unveiled a digital tool its developers say will help governments, environmental groups, and local communities monitor illegal logging in the world’s forest regions in close to real time. Using satellite technology, data sharing, and a global network of local contributors, the so-called Global Forest Watch 2.0 system will enable users to track forest loss that has occurred within the last 30 days
and allow local forest managers to upload geo-referenced photographs to support data on deforestation. Developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and other contributors — including Google, the University of Maryland, and the United Nations Environment Program — the technology was unveiled this week at a UN forum on forests and will be available next month
. WRI hopes the system will allow government leaders and companies to make more timely forest management decisions
05 Mar 2013:
African Forest Elephant
Populations Fell 62 Percent in a Decade
Populations of forest elephants in central Africa plummeted by more than 60 percent from 2002 to 2011
, with dwindling habitat and an acceleration in poaching driving the elephants toward extinction, according to a
new study. An international team of 60 scientists found that while elephants historically ranged across a 772,000-square-mile region in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, they now exist in just 25 percent of that area, said John Hart, scientific director for the Lukuru Foundation and co-author of the study published in the journal PLoS ONE
. The decade-long survey, which involved the work of many local conservation staff members who walked more than 8,000 miles conducting censuses, is the largest ever conducted on forest elephants. According to the survey, the remaining 100,000 forest elephants are increasingly scarce in regions with high human populations, heavy poaching, and weak governance.
20 Feb 2013:
Camera Trap in Amazon
Gives Stunning Glimpse of Species Diversity
Using footage from a camera trap trained on a single “colpa” salt lick in the remote jungle of the western Amazon, a Peru-based conservationist has captured a rare glimpse into the region’s robust biodiversity,
documenting an array of species, some of which are threatened, in an area now targeted by loggers, miners, and other developers. During a four-week period, Paul Rosolie’s camera collected footage of dozens of species
, including a troop of howler monkeys, a giant anteater, and a host of big cats — including jaguars, pumas, and ocelots — constantly on the hunt for prey. In a short film, Rosolie, a field director at a research station for Tamandua Expeditions, documents a wide array of wildlife in a region of the lower Las Piedras River in Peru.
Interview: Perils and Rewards
Of Protecting Congo’s Gorillas
It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous place to be a conservationist than the Democratic Republic of Congo, which for decades has been ravaged by war and civil
Virunga National Park/gorillacd.org
Emmanuel de Merode
strife that has left several million people dead. But it is against this backdrop that Emmanuel de Merode has waged a five-year struggle to protect Congo’s Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa and home to one of the last sizeable populations of mountain gorillas. De Merode is the chief warden of Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses nearly 2 million acres of forests, mountains, savannahs, and iconic wildlife. Since 1996, more than 150 Virunga park rangers have been killed in the line of duty, with two murdered last October. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, de Merode discusses the challenges of protecting the mountain gorillas in a war-torn nation, the remarkable survival of the gorillas amid this strife, and how restoring order inside Virunga National Park could play a role in bringing peace to Congo.
Read the interview
11 Dec 2012:
NASA Visualization Captures
Record Year for Wildfires in the U.S.
This year has been an unusually severe one for wildfires in the U.S., with more than 9.1 million acres of land burned through the end of November, federal officials say. The total affected area, which is depicted in a new NASA map, is already the third-largest since records were first kept
in 1960, and will likely break previous
records by year’s end. The most intense fires occurred in the western U.S., where several major fires during the early summer — sparked by a combination of drought, light winter snow pack, and the long-term effects of climate change — forced evacuations in some areas. In the visualization, which shows all fires that occurred between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, areas of yellow and orange indicate larger and more intense fires, while many of the less intense fires, shown in red, represent prescribed burns started for brush clearing or agriculture and ecosystem management. The visualization was based on data collected by NASA satellites.