e360 digest


10 Jun 2016: Researchers Find a Way to Turn
CO2 Into Rock at Iceland Power Plant

Scientists have discovered a new way to successfully capture carbon dioxide and transform it into rock deep underground. The experiment, published in this week’s Science,

Section of rock made from mixing CO2 and water.
was conducted at the Hellisheidi power plant in Iceland, the world’s largest geothermal facility. When the plant — which helps power Iceland’s capital, Revkjavik — pumps up volcanically heated water to turbines, gases like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide often come up as well. A team of U.S. and European researchers, led by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, captured the CO2, mixed it with the used volcanic water, and re-injected it into basalt rocks up to a half-mile underground. More than 95 percent of the mixture naturally solidified into carbonate minerals in less than two years. Previous estimates predicted that the process could take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
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09 Jun 2016: Fish Can Recognize Human
Faces, According to One New Study

Fish now join humans, monkeys, primates, and birds as one of the few animals able to distinguish faces, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports this week.

James St. John/Wikimedia
The skill requires a sophisticated combination of perception and memory— and generally, a neocortex. But scientists at the University of Oxford in England and the University of Queensland in Australia were able to train archerfish to recognize human faces, despite the fact that these tropical fish don’t have complex brain structures. Archerfish typically feed by spitting water at prey, like insects. So the scientists taught the fish to spray water at images of particular human faces in exchange for food. Archerfish identified the correct person 81 percent of the time.
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08 Jun 2016: Sea Ice Hits New Spring Low
In the Arctic, Says Federal Agency

Sea ice extent in the Arctic hit a new record spring low last month, measuring 537,000 square miles below average — an area twice the size of Texas, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced this week.

NASA/GSFC
Sea ice breaking up in the Beaufort Sea in May.
Last month’s Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest May sea ice measurement since satellite monitoring began 38 years ago and follows a string of record low ice this winter. “We didn’t just break the old May record, we’re way below the previous one,” NSIDC Director Mark Serreze told Climate Central. The Arctic’s snow cover also hit record lows this year, with April having the lowest snow cover for that month on record and May the fourth lowest. The Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world in recent decades, but scientists say that this year’s strong El Niño in the Pacific Ocean could be ramping up temperatures even more. Temperatures at the pole have been 4 to 11 degrees F above average this winter. “Will we end up with very low sea ice extent this September?” Serreze said. “I think pretty much absolutely.”
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06 Jun 2016: Fish Choose Plastic Over
Zooplankton in Polluted Waters

Fish that grow up in waters full of plastic particles develop a taste for trash, choosing to eat plastic over zooplankton, their natural food source, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Oona Lönnstedt
The research, by ecologists at Uppsala University in Swedish, found larval perch from the Baltic Sea exposed to microplastic pollution (less than 5mm in size) had stunted growth, were less active, ignored the smell of predators, and experienced increased mortality rates. Plastic pollution has become a major problem in the world’s oceans, but scientists are just beginning to understand how these fragments can affect the health of marine species. “If early life-history stages of other species are similarly affected by microplastics, and this translates to increased mortality rates, the effects on aquatic ecosystems could be profound,” said ecologist Oona Lönnstedt, lead author of the study.
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03 Jun 2016: Increasing Hurricane Damage
Could Strain U.S. Emergency Relief Budget

As hurricane season in the U.S. officially got underway this week, federal financial experts warned that damage from tropical storms will “increase significantly in the coming decades” due to human-driven climate change, and that such a trend could threaten the national emergency relief budget.

New Jersey National Guard
“Over time, the costs associated with hurricane damage will increase more rapidly than the economy will grow,” the report from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office states. Right now, damage from hurricanes amounts to 0.16 percent of the U.S. GDP, or about $28 billion. As sea levels rise, intense storms become more frequent, and coastal development continues, the report estimates this share could reach .25 percent ($45 billion in today’s economy) by 2075. The federal agency suggested that one way to cut costs is “a coordinated effort to significantly reduce global emissions.”
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02 Jun 2016: U.S. Officials Issue a
Sweeping Ban On Elephant Ivory Trade

The Obama administration finalized a rule this week banning the sale of nearly all elephant ivory within the United States.

The exceptions to the new rule include professionally appraised antiques at least a century old and items with fewer than 200 grams (7 ounces) of ivory. The rule does not apply to ivory from other species, such as walrus, whale, and mammoth, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement. The new regulation is part of a recent global push to halt the trade of elephant ivory from Africa. Kenya burned 105 tons of confiscated ivory in April to raise awareness of the country’s growing poaching problem, and the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, will seek a total ban on elephant products during an international wildlife trade meeting this fall.
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01 Jun 2016: Climate Change Could Be Making
Food Crops More Toxic, UN Report Says

As extreme weather increases in frequency and intensity, food crops are producing more chemical compounds that can be toxic to humans in large doses, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Sam Fentress/Wikimedia
Crops such as wheat, maize, and soybeans generate these compounds as a natural response to environmental stressors, such as drought, floods or heat waves. But when consumed by humans for extended periods of time, they can cause illnesses like neurological diseases or cancer, according to the study. One example, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports, is nitrate. Drought slows down plants’ conversion of nitrates into amino acids and proteins, leading to a build up of the compound. When consumed in large quantities, nitrates stop red blood cells from transporting oxygen in the human body. "We are just beginning to recognize the magnitude of toxin- related issues confronting farmers in developing countries of the tropics and sub-tropics," the UNEP report noted.
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31 May 2016: Bees’ Fuzzy Bodies Help Them
Detect Electrical Charges From Flowers

Back in 2013, scientists discovered that bees can detect the electrical charges that flowers emit, helping them locate nearby food sources.

Mark Burnett/Wikimedia
Exactly how the bees were doing this, however, remained a mystery. Now, scientists have found that the hairs on bees’ fuzzy bodies move in response to the charges, which send nerve signals to bees’ brains that flowers are nearby. The finding is an important one: Scientists have long thought that only animals in marine or moist habitats could detect electric fields, since currents are carried through water. That bees can do this in dry air opens up the possibility that other insects might have the same ability. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Bristol in the U.K., was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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27 May 2016: Poland Begins Logging
Ancient Forest Despite Fierce Protests

Despite intense protests from environmentalists and scientists, Poland began logging the Bialowieza Forest this week, the last remaining fragment of Europe’s ancient woodlands and a World Heritage site.

Renata Krzysciak-Kosinska
The forest, covering more than 350,000 acres, is home to the continent’s largest population of European bison and 20,000 other wildlife species. Polish officials said the logging is to remove spruce trees dead or dying from a bark beetle infestation, but green groups argue that half the trees marked for removal aren’t spruce. Environmentalists have been patrolling the forest to keep track of logging activity, and they filed a formal complaint last month with the European Commission to intervene “before the Polish government allows for the irreversible destruction of the Bialowieza forest,” Greenpeace Poland activist Katarzyna Jagiełło recently told The Guardian.
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26 May 2016: More Solar Energy Jobs Exist
In U.S. Than in Oil and Gas Sector

Solar energy now supports more jobs in the U.S. than either the oil and gas industry or coal mining, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Alex Snyder
Solar jobs grew at a rate 12 times faster than general U.S. job market growth. Worldwide, employment in green energy grew 5 percent in 2015, to 8.1 million jobs, IRENA reported. The 58 percent drop in oil prices since 2014 caused many fossil fuel companies to lay off workers — more than 350,000 people worldwide since the slump began. The IRENA report says clean energy jobs could triple to 24 million by 2030 if nations follow through on the climate pledges they made in Paris last year. “This increase is being driven by declining renewable energy technology costs and enabling policy frameworks,” said Adnan Amin, director-general of IRENA.
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For the Endangered American Eel,
A Long, Slippery Road to Recovery

The American eel isn’t just a U.S. native. It’s also indigenous to Greenland, Iceland, eastern Canada, and parts of Central and South America. Despite this expansive range, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as “endangered.”

Heather Perry
It would be in even worse shape without the Delaware River, which flows unimpeded 330 miles through New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Few, if any, eel refuges are more important, and management on the Delaware provides a global blueprint for eel recovery. The upper watershed is protected as a Wild and Scenic River corridor and as the water supply for New York City, and last June, New York State banned fracking in its part of the basin. Compare the Delaware with the nearby Susquehanna River, where the Conowingo Dam has wiped out 400 miles of eel habitat on the main river. But here and elsewhere eel recovery is underway.
Read more.
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25 May 2016: Could This Straddling Bus Help
Solve China’s Air Pollution Problem?

With an estimated 20 million new drivers on the road each year, China has long struggled to control its CO2 emissions, air pollution, and traffic problems.

YouTube/Xinhua
But a Beijing-based transit company is planning to test a new straddling bus this summer that could provide some relief, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua. The bus, which can carry up to 1,400 passengers, hovers above the road, letting smaller vehicles pass underneath. Because it operates on existing roadways, the system is much cheaper to build than underground subways, while carrying the same number of people. The idea of a straddling bus has been around since 1969, but has remained a far-fetched concept until recent years. A model of the system, designed by Transit Explore Bus, was unveiled at the International High-Tech Expo in Beijing this month. The company plans to build and test an actual straddling bus in Changzhou this summer.
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24 May 2016: Peru Declares Emergency to
Fight Mercury Pollution from Gold Mines

Peru has declared a 60-day emergency in the Amazon due to widespread mercury pollution from the region’s booming gold mining industry, the country's environment minister announced this week.

Marcin Nowak/Wikimedia
Several studies have confirmed dangerously high levels of the neurotoxin in waterways, fish, and people living in the Madres de Dios region, near Peru’s southeast border. Members of the Harakmbut indigenous group, for example, have mercury levels in their bodies six times higher than what doctors deem safe. Mercury is used to separate gold from ore, but it can have serious health impacts, including damaging brain, kidney, and lung function. In illegal mining operations — which make up the majority of mines in the Peruvian Amazon — workers often handle the substance with bare hands, and dump excess mercury into nearby rivers. During the 60-day emergency period, the government will supply uncontaminated fish to local communities and set up mobile health clinics.
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23 May 2016: World Could Warm 8 Degrees
Celsius If All Fossil Fuel Reserves Burned

As nations meet in Bonn, Germany this week to hash out how to achieve the 2-degree Celsius goal they set in Paris, new research is providing policymakers a glimpse of what would happen if the world does nothing to curb climate change.

NASA
What if nations chose instead to burn through all of their remaining fossil fuel reserves, equal to 5 trillion tons of CO2 emissions? According to the new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the world would warm an average 8 degrees Celsius (14.4 degrees F), or up to 17 degrees Celsius (30 degrees F) in the Arctic. The research was conducted by a team of climate scientists at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who wanted to understand the worst-case scenario. “Such climate changes, if realized, would have extremely profound impacts on ecosystems, human health, agriculture, economies, and other sectors,” the researchers write.
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Interview: CO2 'Air Capture' Could
Be Key to Slowing Global Warming

For two decades, Klaus Lackner has pioneered efforts to combat climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Klaus Lackner

Klaus Lackner
Now, after years of watching the global community fail to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control, Lackner — director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University — is delivering a blunt message: The best hope to avoid major disruptions from global warming is to launch a massive program of CO2 "air capture" that will begin to reverse the buildup of billions of tons of carbon in our atmosphere. "We need to have the ability to walk this backwards," says Lackner. "I'm saying this is a war, and we need to use all the weapons at our disposal. You don't want to get into this fight with one hand tied behind your back."
Read the interview.
PERMALINK

 

20 May 2016: Obama Looking for Kids
As Science Advisors to the White House

White House advisors tend to be experts with decades of experience in specific fields, from foreign policy to education to energy.

Chuck Kennedy/White House
But President Barack Obama announced this week he’s looking for a much younger batch of consultants to advise the White House on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Kid Science Advisors outreach program will ask children which issues are most important to them and how to better engage students studying science to help guide White House policy and priorities. "The real reason we do this, as I’ve said before, is to teach our young people that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament that deserves a celebration,” Obama said Thursday. “We want those who have invented the products and lifesaving medicines and are engineering our future to be celebrated as well."
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19 May 2016: Brewing Company Creates
Edible Six-Pack Rings to Save Wildlife

Plastic six-pack rings have long been a nuisance to wildlife and ecosystems, fouling oceans and shorelines, and entangling and choking wildlife.

Now, a brewery in Florida has developed an edible version from the byproducts of making beer, including wheat and barely. If not eaten by marine creatures, the six-pack ring biodegrades. Saltwater Brewery 3-D printed 500 of the holders in April and plans to scale up production to package all of its 400,000 cans of beer per month in the edible rings. The material is just as strong as traditional plastics, the brewery says, but is more expensive. The price would drop, however, as more companies use the edible rings, the brewery said. “We want to influence the big guys,” Chris Goves, president of Saltwater Brewery, said in a video about the new project. “And hopefully inspire them to get on board.”
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18 May 2016: Trees Sleep, With Branches And
Leaves Drooping at Night, New Study Says

Scientists have long known that plants have a day-to-night cycle. Some trees close their leaves in the evening. Most flowers open up their petals in the morning.

But these observations have largely been made only in experiments with potted plants. Now, a team of scientists has used a laser scanner to measure trees’ daily cycles in the wild, and they’ve discovered that trees sleep. “Our results show that the whole tree droops during night, which can be seen as position change in leaves and branches,” Eetu Puttonen, a scientist at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. Silver birch leaves drooped to their lowest point a couple of hours before sunrise and became upright again a few hours later. It isn’t yet clear whether the sun or the plants’ internal rhythm spurs the movement. The findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
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17 May 2016: Norwegian Company Building
The World’s Largest Floating Wind Farm

Scotland is about to get the world’s largest floating wind farm, with five 6-megawatt turbines bobbing 15 miles offshore in the North Sea.

The project—which is being developed by Statoil, a Norwegian energy company—marks a shift in offshore wind technology. Most ocean-based turbines to date have been rooted to the sea floor by concrete and steel foundations, similar to oil and gas rigs. But this design limits the projects to shallower waters. Statoil’s floating turbines, known at Hywind, consist of a steel cylinder filled with ballast water and stones, and are tethered to the sea floor by a series of cables. The company, which was granted a lease to build the wind farm this week, will install the Scotland project in water more than 300 feet deep. The plan is for the wind farm to start generating electricity by the end of 2017.
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16 May 2016: Fumes from Farms Are
Top Source of Fine-Particle Pollution

Farms are the number one source of fine-particulate air pollution in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China, according to new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Gases from fertilizers and livestock waste cling to emissions from cars, power plants, and factories to create solid particles less than 1/30th the width of human hair. Particles this size have been shown to penetrate deep into lungs, and cause an estimated 3.3 million deaths each year from illnesses like heart and pulmonary disease. Global climate action, however, could reduce this type of air pollution in the coming decades, says the new study, done by three Columbia University scientists. Cutbacks in energy consumption would mean that fumes from farms would have fewer emissions to which they could bond. This reduction in particulates would happen even if fertilizer use increases, the research says.
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12 May 2016: Despite Push for Renewables,
Fossil Fuels Likely to Dominate in 2040

World leaders pledged last year in Paris to cut CO2 emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Despite these promises, U.S. analysts said Wednesday that fossil fuels

EveryCarListed/Flickr
— including coal — will still likely be the world’s primary source of energy in 2040. The findings are part of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual World Energy Outlook report. Electricity from wind, solar, and hydropower will grow 2.9 percent annually, the report concluded, and by 2040, renewables, coal, and natural gas will each generate one-third of the world’s electricity. But diesel and gasoline will still power the majority of vehicles, with electric cars making up only 1 percent of the market, the report said. The report also found that carbon emissions from energy consumption in the developing world could grow 51 percent from 2012 to 2040 as countries like India and China modernize their economies, particularly by using coal.
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Bringing Energy Upgrades
To the Nation’s Inner Cities

America’s low-income urban areas are filled with aging buildings that are notoriously energy-inefficient. It’s a problem that Donnel Baird sees as an opportunity. Baird is CEO and cofounder of BlocPower,
Donnel Baird

Donnel Baird
a startup that markets and finances energy-upgrade projects in financially underserved areas. Founded in 2013 with venture capital seed money, BlocPower bundles small energy-improvement projects together — from barber shops to churches —and sells them to potential investors. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Baird describes how BlocPower’s projects not only create jobs and reduce carbon emissions, but also raise awareness of global warming in inner-city communities. “It is not possible for the climate change movement to win anything significant without the participation of people of color,” says Baird.
Read the interview.
PERMALINK

 

10 May 2016: More than 2,000 New
Plant Species Are Found Every Year

There are currently 391,000 plant species known to science—and another 2,000 are being discovered every year, according to a new report from the U.K.’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Paulo Gonella
Last year’s new discoveries included a nearly five-foot tall carnivorous plant first identified on Facebook, a 105-ton tree in West Africa, and 90 new species of Begonia flowers. Brazil, Australia, and China were hotspots for species discovery. The State of the World’s Plants report did find, however, that one-fifth of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction from habitat loss, disease, invasive species, and climate change. “Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind,” Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew, told The Guardian. “Plants provide us with everything — food, fuel, medicines, timber, and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.”
PERMALINK

 

09 May 2016: Pacific Northwest Starfish Seem
Set for Comeback After Deadly Disease

Two years after a virus devastated colonies of starfish along the U.S. west coast, the population is showing early signs of a comeback, at least in some areas.

Canopic/Flickr
The number of juveniles in the Pacific Northwest is “off the charts,” said Bruce Menge, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. “Higher than we’d ever seen — as much as 300 times normal,” Menge said. Young starfish usually have to compete with adults for food. But with up to 84 percent of the adult population wiped out from an outbreak of “sea star wasting disease” two years ago, juveniles have had abundant resources to thrive, Menge and his colleagues reported in a recent PLOS ONE journal. However, the researchers warn starfish populations aren’t entirely in the clear. “Whether they can make it into adulthood and replenish the population without succumbing to sea star wasting disease is the big question,” Menge said in a statement.
PERMALINK

 

06 May 2016: Alberta Wildfire Could Unlock
Vast Reserves of CO2 from Permafrost

A massive wildfire raging in the heart of Canada’s tar sands region has forced 88,000 people from their homes, scorched more than 1,600 buildings,

Reuters
and caused several fossil fuel companies to reduce operations and shut down pipelines. The fire — fueled by above-average temperatures and dry conditions linked to climate change — burned through more than 330 square miles of land in Alberta in just a few days. Now, scientists are warning the fire, and the many others like it that Canada has experienced in recent years, could unlock vast reserves of CO2 stored in the region’s underlying permafrost. Fire destroys the protective layer of vegetation that keeps permafrost frozen, and warm conditions spur microbial activity, generating CO2 and methane emissions. “This is carbon that the ecosystem has not seen for thousands of years and now it’s being released into the atmosphere,” Merritt Turetsky, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, told the New Scientist.
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05 May 2016: With Climate Change, It Is
Survival of the Oldest, Not the Fittest

When it comes to climate change, the world’s oldest species are more likely to survive than newly evolved ones, says a new study published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Brian Gratwicke/Flickr
The logic is relatively simple: The reason they’re so old is that they’ve been tested by abrupt environmental shifts before and have come out on top. This group includes species like the cane toad and California sea lion. More specifically, the study found the planet’s oldest animals all share at least one of the following characteristics: They come in various colors, give birth to live young (as opposed to eggs), and live at low latitudes. The research could help “predict which [species] could be better able to deal with current climate change and to better predict the threat status of species on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” said Sylvain Dubey, an ecologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and co-author of the new study.
PERMALINK

 

04 May 2016: Extreme Heat Could Make Parts of
Middle East Uninhabitable by Mid-Century

Climate change could make parts of the Middle East and North Africa uninhabitable by mid-century, driving average daytime summer temperatures as high as 114 degrees F, according to new research published in the journal Climatic Change.

Molly John/Flickr
(For comparison, that is equal to the average maximum temperature in California’s Death Valley.) Heat waves in the region will occur 10 times more often and last longer, the study found. The number of extremely hot days per year could jump from 16 today, to 80 in 2050, to 118 in 2100, possibly leading to mass emigration from the region, said Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and lead author of the new study. “In future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy," Lelieveld said.
PERMALINK

 

03 May 2016: A Sea Urchin's Mouth Could
Make it Easier to Study Distant Planets

Sea urchins have long inspired awe among scientists for their ability to chew through almost anything, from entire kelp forests to rocks. Their mouths — comprised of a ring of intricate muscles and five curved, pointed teeth —

UC San Diego
operate like a giant claw in an arcade game. Now scientists have designed a new space-exploration device based on the urchins’ teeth that will make it easier to collect sediment samples on other planets, like Mars. “Our goal was a bio-inspired device that's more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples, and won't disturb the surrounding area like a shovel" — the tool space vehicles like the Mars rovers currently use, said Michael Frank, an engineer at the University of California, San Diego. The technology, based on 3D scans of pink sea urchins, has five claws with beveled edges that gather and trap material in a smooth, quick motion.
PERMALINK

 

02 May 2016: After a Decade of Decline,
Brazil's Deforestation Again on the Rise

Brazil is losing two soccer field-sized parcels of rainforest every minute, equal to 1,930 square miles annually, according to new reporting from the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Matt Zimmerman/Flickr
The trend represents a significant blow to Brazil’s decades-long fight against illegal logging activity, which achieved an 80 percent decline in deforestation from 2003 to 2013 due to aggressive government and civil monitoring of the forests. But these efforts have slackened in recent years, and loggers have changed their tactics to better hide their activities, said Tasso Azevedo, a conservationist and former director of the Brazilian Forest Service. "In some cases, we are walking backwards," he told Thompson Reuters. The uptick could pose a challenge to pledges Brazil made during international climate talks in Paris last December. The country promised to eliminate illegal deforestation and restore nearly 30 million acres of forest by 2030 to combat global warming.
PERMALINK

 

29 Apr 2016: Kenya to Burn Ivory to Raise
Awareness of Growing Poaching Problem

Kenyan authorities are set to burn 105 tons of ivory confiscated from illegally killed elephants this weekend to bring attention to the country’s growing poaching problem.

Kenya Wildlife Service
Kenya conducted its first ivory burn in 1989 after elephant populations in the country dropped 90 percent in 15 years, and it has continued to do such burns periodically since. But the systematic cutting back of an international ban on the sale of ivory over the last 15 years has led to the reemergence of large-scale poaching in Africa. Approximately 30,000 to 50,000 elephants were killed on the continent between 2008 and 2013. Soon after announcing the ivory burn, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, announced his nation would seek a total ban on elephant ivory during a wildlife trade meeting later this year. “We will not be the Africans who stood by as we lost our elephants,” he said.
PERMALINK

 

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