Central & South America
Interview: Why Brazil’s Pledges On
Carbon Emissions Are Not Enough
In recent years, Brazil has been widely praised for reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 75 percent from 2005 to 2014.
Maria Fernanda Gebara
But with United Nations climate talks set to begin next week in Paris, analysts are taking a closer look at Brazil’s pledges to cut deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, with some saying there is less there than meets the eye. One of the more outspoken critics of the country’s CO2-reduction policies is Brazilian political scientist Maria Fernanda Gebara. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Gebara, a research associate in the Department for International Development at the London School of Economics, says Brazil’s policies will do little more than stabilize emissions for the next 15 years, will fail to clamp down on illegal logging, and will continue the nation’s dismal record of developing solar and wind power.
Read the interview.
26 Oct 2015:
Major Clue Emerges in Mystery
Of Right Whale Deaths, Researchers Say
Endangered right whales
, especially young calves of the southern population, have been having a hard time
in recent years, and
Southern right whale and calf near Peninsula Valdes
scientists haven't been able to determine why. For example, the average number of right whale deaths per year at Peninsula Valdes, a breeding ground off central Argentina's Atlantic coast, jumped more than 10-fold from 2005 to 2014 — from fewer than six per year to 65 per year, researchers say. Roughly 90 percent of the deaths were calves fewer than three months old. Now researchers have closed in on a suspect: blooms of a type of algae known as Pseudonitschia
, which produce harmful neurotoxins, the researchers write in the journal Marine Mammal Science
. Scientists from the United States and Argentina found that the number of whale deaths at the peninsula closely tracked the concentrations of the toxic algae, offering strong circumstantial evidence that the algal blooms are likely behind the whale deaths.
In Brazil, A City’s Waste Pickers
Find Hope in a Pioneering Program
The millions of impoverished people who sift through trash and landfills for recyclable materials have been called the world’s “invisible environmentalists.” Yet many work in deplorable conditions and face exploitation from unscrupulous middlemen. In
A waste picker works at a warehouse in Curitiba.
Curitiba, Brazil, city officials and social activists have launched a rapidly growing program in which the waste pickers work out of city-sponsored warehouses and use their collective power to bargain for fair prices for their recycled goods. The Curitiba initiative is one of a growing number worldwide that seek to provide better working conditions and higher wages for waste pickers, while also aiding recycling and creating cleaner cities. Read more.
04 Sep 2015:
Maya Permanently Altered Land
To Respond to Climate Change, Study Says
Mayan activity more than 2,000 years ago contributed to the decline of Central America's tropical lowlands and continues to influence the land and environment today, say researchers at the University of Texas at Austin
. Evidence shows that during the "Mayacene" — a period from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago when humans began greatly affecting the environment — the Maya's advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered tropical forest ecosystems. Clay and soil sequences indicate erosion and land-use changes, and sediments near wetlands reveal chemical signatures of agriculture, says the study, which was published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews
. The researchers say features such as constructed wetlands, vast field systems, and terraces show that the Maya managed land and water to adapt to climate change and rising sea levels. "Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans' impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer," said lead researcher Tim Beach.
03 Sep 2015:
Tropical Tree Cover Loss
Accelerated in 2014, Satellite Analysis Finds
More than 45 million acres of trees were cut down last year — an area twice the size of Portugal — according to an analysis
by the University of Maryland and Google. Tropical nations lost more than half of that total — nearly 25 million acres of tree cover, an area roughly the size of South Korea. Brazil and Indonesia, the two countries most often associated with deforestation, had been making gains toward stemming the problem, but 2014 saw an uptick in tree cover loss in both countries. The situation is especially concerning in Cambodia, where deforestation is accelerating faster than anywhere else in the world due to the development of rubber plantations. Last year Cambodia lost three times more tree cover than in 2001, the analysis found.
24 Aug 2015:
Research Links Amazon
Fires and North American Hurricanes
After studying decades of data on hurricanes, sea surface temperatures, and Amazon fire frequency, researchers have concluded
North Atlantic surface temperatures
that years in which warm North Atlantic waters create powerful hurricanes are followed by periods of drought and fire in the Amazon
rainforest. University of California, Irvine scientists say their research has shown that frequent and powerful North Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes tend to pull a large belt of tropical rainfall to the north, drawing moisture away from the Amazon. The resulting dry spells lead to an increase in severity and duration of fires, which tend to be set in the Amazon by humans clearing land for agriculture. The research is expected to enable meteorologists to better understand seasonal outlooks for drought and fire risk in the Amazon, which could help reduce the extensive rainforest fires that emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
04 Jun 2015:
Seven Tiny Frog Species
Are Discovered in Brazilian Forest
Seven new species of a highly miniaturized, brightly colored frog genus known as Brachycephalus
One of the species of miniaturized frogs.
discovered in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, researchers report
today. The frog species are restricted to cloud forests in no more than a few adjacent mountaintops, making them highly vulnerable to extinction, the researchers say. The cloud forests they inhabit are particularly sensitive to climatic conditions, and small shifts can cause major changes in the distribution of the forests. The frogs' adaptation to these specific environments prevents them from migrating across valleys as the cloud forest shifts. The long-term preservation of these species might involve not only the protection of their habitats but also more direct management efforts, such as rearing in captivity, the researchers say. Brachycephalus
frogs are among the planet's smallest terrestrial vertebrates, with adult sizes often not exceeding 1 cm in length.
01 May 2015:
One in Six Species Facing
Extinction in Current Climate Trajectory
Future increases in global temperatures will threaten up to one in six species if current climate policies are not modified,
Nursery frogs are among the species most at risk.
according to new research
published in the journal Science
. Global extinction rates are currently at 2.8 percent, the study notes. If global average temperature rises by only 2 degrees C — a benchmark that many scientists think is no longer attainable — the extinction rate will rise to 5.2 percent, the study found. If the planet warms by 3 degrees C, the extinction risk rises to 8.5 percent. And if the current, business-as-usual trajectory continues, climate change will threaten one in six species, or 16 percent, the study says. The risk of species loss is most acute for areas that have unique climate ranges — particularly South America, Australia, and New Zealand — yet those regions are the least studied, the author notes.
30 Apr 2015:
Volcanic Eruption in Chile Could
Have an Effect on Climate, NASA Data Show
Calbuco volcano, which erupted in southern Chile last week for the first time since 1972, has been injecting climate-changing
Sulfur dioxide from Calbuco volcano
gases directly into an upper layer of the atmosphere, NASA satellite data
show. The particularly explosive eruption shot sulfur dioxide, an acrid-smelling gas that can cause respiratory problems at ground level, up into the stratosphere, where it reacts with water vapor to create sulfate aerosols that reflect sunlight and can sometimes have a slight cooling effect. So far, Calbuco has released an estimated 0.3 to 0.4 million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) as high as 13 miles, where it will last much longer and travel much farther than if released closer to the earth's surface. The SO2 will gradually convert to sulfate aerosol particles, but it is not clear yet whether there will be a cooling effect associated with Calbuco's eruption, researchers say.
Interview: What Lies Behind the
Surge of Deforestation in Amazon
Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on
deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Fearnside explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation and warns that the Amazon will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn’t change course.
Read the interview.
03 Mar 2015:
Photographs of Amazon Forest
Added to Google Street View Collection
Detailed views of the Amazon rainforest, its rivers, and indigenous communities are the latest additions to Google's
"Street View" collection, the company announced
this week. The imagery — captured while boating down 500 kilometers of rivers, walking along 20 kilometers of trails, and ziplining through dense forest — reveals stunning views
of the Amazon from the top of its canopy to the forest floor. The photos also capture daily life in 17 communities of local people who live deep within the rainforest and along the Rio Mariepauá, one of the Amazon River's largest tributaries. The images were collected in partnership with the conservation organization Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, which hopes that sharing in-depth photographs of the area will help promote conservation efforts.
Interview: Giving Local Women
A Voice in Grass-Roots Conservation
The roles of women in traditional societies can be quite different from men’s, and their knowledge of the
natural world and the way in which conservation projects affect them may also be different. But these variables aren’t necessarily taken into account when developing such projects. The results can range from missed opportunities to project failure. Earlier this year, Conservation International began piloting guidelines to help integrate gender considerations into its community projects — an initiative that Kame Westerman, the "gender advisor" for that organization, helped develop. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Westerman discusses these guidelines, as well as the perils of ignoring gender when planning conservation initiatives.
08 Dec 2014:
Latin American and Caribbean
Nations Pledge Major Forest Restorations
Latin American and Caribbean countries yesterday launched Initiative 20x20
, an effort to begin restoring
Forest restoration commitments
20 million hectares of degraded land — an area larger than Uruguay — by 2020. The initiative has secured $365 million in funds, its leaders announced, which will be used to restore forests, avoid deforestation, and improve the use of trees and livestock in agriculture — practices known as agroforestry and silvopasture. This restoration is expected to provide extensive economic, social, and environmental benefits through improved local livelihoods and ecosystem services such as erosion prevention, water purification, and carbon storage, organizers say. Restoration commitments totaling just over 20 million hectares were announced yesterday, with Mexico and Peru making the largest pledges. The initiative was launched in Lima, Peru, alongside international climate talks.
Interview: Saving World’s Oceans Begins With Coastal Communities
Aggressively curbing overfishing, pollution, and development is something coastal communities
can do immediately to protect their ocean resources — and with dramatic results — says marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. As the executive director of the Waitt Institute
, an ocean conservation organization, Johnson recently put that approach to the test on the Caribbean island of Barbuda. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, she discusses how she helped Barbuda craft rules to protect its ocean resources and why she favors community-driven conservation efforts over more top-down approaches.
Read the interview.
31 Oct 2014:
Giant Galapagos Tortoises Are Making a Strong Comeback, Researchers Say
Giant Galapagos tortoises have made a remarkable comeback over the last five decades, and their
Giant Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis)
population on the Galapagos island of Española is now secure, according to
researchers from the U.S. and Ecuador. Although their global population was down to 15 individuals in the 1960s, after 40 years of captive breeding and reintroduction efforts, the species now numbers roughly 1,000, the study
found. About half of the tortoises released on the island since 1975 were still alive in 2007, and they’re now reproducing on their own in the environment. Ecologically, though, the tortoises face some challenges, the study notes. A critical source of food is a native cactus species that was nearly wiped out by feral goats. This likely limits the tortoises' current range, but the reptiles are also aiding the return of the cactus, the scientists say, because they help to spread its seeds.
11 Sep 2014:
Brazilian Amazon Deforestation
Jumps by 29 Percent, Government Says
Brazilian government data show destruction of the Amazon rainforest increased 29 percent
over the past
year. Satellites documented the deforestation of over 2,300 square miles in the Brazilian Amazon, reversing highly praised gains
in forest conservation since 2004. The largest losses were in the states of Para and Mato Grosso, in central Brazil, which are experiencing widespread agricultural development. The building of new roads and dams, along with illegal logging, also contributed to the rise in deforestation. Brazilian police frequently target illegal logging operations, but environmental groups say more enforcement is needed. Deforestation in Brazil peaked in 2004, when over 11,580 square miles of forest were destroyed. Worldwide, deforestation is responsible for roughly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — more than all types of transportation systems combined.
30 Jul 2014:
New Maps of Peru Forests
Could Help Set Conservation Priorities
New, highly detailed maps of Peru's vegetation show that three-quarters of the country's forests — a biomass
stock that sequesters more carbon than the combined annual CO2 emissions of the U.S. and China — lie outside of protected areas and are vulnerable to deforestation, according to
an analysis by researchers in the U.S. and Peru. The maps, which should prove helpful to scientists, conservationists, and policymakers working to protect the forests, offer the most detailed view to date of the different types of vegetative cover and above-ground carbon stocks across Peru, with resolution at the one-hectare scale. The analysis found that the lowlands of southern Peru, which contain extensive bamboo cover, harbor significantly less carbon than other rainforest areas, and forests in active floodplains appear to store half as much carbon as other forests.
08 Jul 2014:
Protection of Parrotfish
Could Slow Decline of Caribbean Reefs
The steady loss of coral reefs in the Caribbean could be partially reversed by taking a number of relatively simple steps, including stronger measures to protect the region’s parrotfish
, according to a new study. In a review of trends in Caribbean coral reefs
from 1970 to 2012, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network said that live coral only makes up about 17 percent of the region’s reef surfaces today. If present trends continue, the study said, coral reefs in the Caribbean will “virtually disappear within a few decades” because of foreign pathogens, algae invasions, pollution from tourism development, over-fishing, and warming waters. A key step in halting the decline is protecting parrotfish, which eat the algae that have been smothering coral reefs. The study said conservation measures, such as banning fish traps, have helped parrotfish populations rebound in some parts of the Caribbean, including Belize and the Bahamas.
06 Jun 2014:
Brazil Leads the World
In Cutting Deforestation, Analysis Finds
Brazil has become the world leader in reducing deforestation and, at the same time, has increased its soy and beef production, researchers report
Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil
. The country has cut its forest loss by 70 percent since 2004, sparing more than 86,000 square kilometers of rainforests and keeping more than 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Brazil's decline in deforestation in 2013 alone represented a 1.5 percent reduction in global emissions that year, the report says; globally, tropical forest loss
accounts for 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The analysis credits the success to bold government policies, pressure from environmental groups, and market fluctuations in the price of soy and beef, but the authors warn that these wins may be short-lived without more positive incentives for farmers. “These gains are globally significant, but fragile,” one researcher explained. “We’re bumping up against the limits of what can be achieved through punitive measures.”
23 May 2014:
Oil Drilling Permits
Issued for Key Area of Yasuni Park
The Ecuadorean government has issued permits to begin oil drilling
in a key area of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve and National Park
, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Environment Minister Lorena
Tapia said the government had signed permits to begin preparations for drilling in the so-called ITT section of the park, which contains two uncontacted indigenous tribes; drilling itself could begin as early as 2016, the government said. Ecuador’s President, Rafeal Correa, had offered to ban drilling in large sections of the park if the international community raised $3.6 billion to compensate the country for leaving the oil in the ground. But after only $13 million was raised, Correa gave the green light to drilling, saying “the world has failed us.” Oil drilling has already taken place in some areas of the 6,500-square-mile park. As this Yale Environment 360 video
shows, Yasuni is home to a remarkable array of species, including roughly 400 species of fish, 600 species of birds, and thousands of species of vascular plants and trees.
22 May 2014:
Donors Commit $220 Million
To Protect and Expand Huge Amazon Reserve
A coalition of private donors and government funders has pledged $220 million
over the next 25 years to better protect the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA), the world’s largest protected area network. WWF, the World Bank, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank, and more than a dozen other donors are contributing funds to the initiative, which also will add another 8.9 million hectares of Amazon rainforest to the ARPA program
, driving the total to more than 60 million hectares. That’s 232,000 square miles, an area larger than France. Most of the funds will be used to better police and enforce environmental laws on ARPA territory, which includes 90 parks and comprises 15 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. "The explosion in demand for natural resources has made our parks and world heritage sites vulnerable," said WWF president Carter Roberts. The initiative is also upgrading long-neglected parks and creating sustainable-use reserves for local communities and indigenous people.
06 May 2014:
Darwin's Finches Fight Off
Parasitic Maggots with Treated Nest Fibers
Researchers apparently have discovered a unique way to help Darwin's finches on the Galápagos Islands fight off the parasitic maggots
threatening their survival, according to a new report
in the journal Current Biology
. While working in the Galápagos, scientists
A Darwin's finch collects treated cotton for its nest
from the University of Utah noticed that the finches often collected cotton and other fibers to weave into their nests. The researchers decided to provide the birds with cotton treated with permethrin — a mild pesticide, commonly used to treat head lice in children, that is safe for birds — hoping the finches would incorporate the fibers in their nests. Finches near the test sites did just that, and their "self-fumigated" nests contained about half as many parasitic maggots — which infest and can kill newly-hatched chicks — compared to nests with untreated cotton. Darwin's finches and other bird species in the Galápagos have suffered steep population declines since the flies showed up in large numbers in the 1990s.
10 Feb 2014:
New Plant Found in Andes
Supports up to 50 Species, Researchers Say
Researchers working in the Ecuadorian Andes have discovered a new species of black pepper plant
that is a nexus of biodiversity. The plant, named Piper kelleyi
, supports roughly 40 to 50 insect species, the scientists estimate, many of which are entirely dependent on the
Specialist herbivore Eios feeds on P. kelleyi
plant for survival. P. kelleyi
produces chemical compounds that are known to deter most herbivores, but a single type of caterpillar has adapted to overcome the toxicity of the plant's defenses. That caterpillar, in turn, is preyed upon by species of wasps and flies dependent on that specific caterpillar species — and ultimately the plant — for survival. Altogether, an assemblage of up to 50 species of herbivorous and predatory insects are dependent on P. kelleyi
, the researchers report in the journal PhytoKeys
06 Feb 2014:
Maps Show Tropical Corridors
Important to Wildlife As Climate Changes
A new set of maps
highlights the importance of habitat corridors in helping wildlife deal with the effects of climate change and deforestation. The series of maps shows more than 16,000 habitat corridors
— swaths of
land that connect forests or protected areas and allow animals to move between them — in tropical regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. High-resolution data on biodiversity, endemism, and vegetation density allowed the researchers, led by Patrick Jantz of the Woods Hole Research Center, to determine which corridors are most important for maintaining biodiversity under changing climate conditions. The maps also highlight which corridors are most important for sequestering carbon and averting carbon emissions associated with deforestation. Researchers hope the findings will help guide wildlife protection plans and serve as a framework prioritizing the conservation of habitat corridors.
28 Jan 2014:
Peru Park Holds Record
Reptile and Amphibian Diversity, Study Finds
A new study crowns Peru's Manu National Park
as the place with the world's most diverse collection of reptiles and amphibians — 287 species in all. The park's 155 amphibian and 132 reptile species outnumber those in Ecuador's Yasuní National Park
, which, with 271 reptile
A glass frog from Manu's cloud forests
and amphibian species, was previously believed to contain the world's most diverse collection of reptiles and amphibians. Although Manu National Park represents only 0.01 percent of the world's land area, it houses 2.2 percent of all amphibian species and 1.5 percent of all reptile species, the researchers note. They attribute the rich diversity to the park's elevation gradient, which spans the Western Amazon's tropical rainforest up through high Andean cloud forests, providing a wide range of habitats. Manu also has record bird diversity — with 1,000 species, or 10 percent of the world's total species — and tremendous butterfly diversity, with 1,200 species. Scientists say the inventory of the national park's richness is far from complete. DNA analyses, frog call studies, and other techniques will likely reveal even more diversity, the authors note in the journal Biota Neotropica
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.
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
07 Oct 2013:
Nutrient Recycling by Sponges
Is Vital in Sustaining Reefs, Study Says
Sponges are the unsung heroes of coral reefs, helping the vibrant ecosystems thrive in the marine equivalent of a desert, a Dutch team working in the Caribbean has found
. Scientists had long questioned how reefs, some
of the most productive communities on earth, were able to survive in low-nutrient tropical seas. Bacteria help recycle some nutrients, but the so-called "microbial loop" can't account for the high rates of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous recycling needed to maintain a coral reef, researchers say. Sponges fill that void by drawing in plankton and organic matter expelled by the corals and shedding cells that other reef organisms ingest as food, the researchers report in Science
. The "sponge loop," as the Dutch team calls the process, recycles 10 times more organic material than bacteria do and produces as many nutrients as all other primary producers in a coral reef combined, they say.
Yale Environment 360 Articles Are
Yale Environment 360
Now Available in Spanish and Portuguese
has increased its international reach with a new partnership launched this month with Universia, a Spanish online education network. As part of this joint effort, Universia will translate selected Yale Environment 360
articles into Spanish and Portuguese
and feature them on its website, which has more than 10 million unique viewers each month. The articles will be featured on a special e360
page on the Universia site at e360yale.universia.net
. Universia is an institutional network of 1,242 universities in Spain, Portugal, and 21 countries throughout Latin America, and through this partnership, Yale Environment 360
will significantly expand its international audience and influence. You can find the new e360/Universia page at e360yale.universia.net
20 Aug 2013:
Google ‘Street View’ Will
Document Changes to World's Coral Reefs
Marine biologists are teaming up with Google to photograph detailed 360-degree panoramas of coral reefs around the globe. Using technology similar to
Google’s Street View feature, users will be able to survey coral reefs much like they might scope out a city block. The project, Google Street View Oceans
, has already surveyed a 150-kilometer stretch of the Great Barrier Reef and is now working on reefs in the Caribbean
. "Only 1 percent of humanity has ever dived on a coral reef, and by making the experience easily accessible the survey will help alert millions of people around the world to the plight of coral reefs," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia who is leading the survey. Image recognition software will log the distribution and abundance of marine organisms, and the researchers hope "citizen scientists" viewing the reefs will help assess other key measures of reef health.