Interview: How Climate Change
Helped Lead to Conflict in Syria
Before Syria devolved into civil war, that country experienced its worst drought on record. The consequences of this disaster
included massive crop failures, rising food prices, and a mass migration to urban areas. In a new study
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, researchers suggest the drought and its ensuing chaos helped spark the Syrian uprising. They make the case that climate change was responsible for the severity of the drought. Colin Kelley, a climatologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was the study’s lead author. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Kelley explains that long-term precipitation and soil temperature trends in Syria and the rest of the region correlate well with climate change models, demonstrating, he says, that the record-setting drought can’t be attributed to natural variability.
Read the interview.
04 Dec 2014:
Arabian Sea Whales Are Earth's
Most Isolated and Endangered Population
Humpback whales inhabiting the Arabian Sea are the most genetically distinct humpback whales and may be
the most isolated population on earth, researchers report
. With fewer than 100 estimated individuals, they are "definitely the most endangered" population of humpbacks, said Wildlife Conservation Society researcher Howard Rosenbaum. The Arabian humpbacks' known range is limited to waters near Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Pakistan, and India, and possibly the Maldives and Sri Lanka, researchers say. Genetic data suggest they have remained separate from other humpback whale populations for 70,000 years — extremely unusual in a species famed for annual migrations of 9,000 kilometers or more. The genetic separation is likely reinforced by their breeding schedule, researchers say. While Arabian humpbacks breed on a northern hemisphere schedule, their closest neighbors breed on a southern schedule.
23 Oct 2013:
Endangered Asiatic Cheetahs
Are Spotted by Iranian Conservationists
Iranian conservationists have spotted a rare Asiatic cheetah with four cubs, offering hope that the large cats can be pulled back from the brink of extinction. Only 40 to 70 Asiatic cheetahs exist today, all in Iran. Over the
weekend, conservationists with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) spotted the five cheetahs in Khar Turan national park in northern Iran. "In the past year or so that we closely monitored Turan, we never spotted a family, especially female cheetahs with cubs," Delaram Ashayeri, project manager at PWHF, told the Guardian
. "It shows Asiatic cheetahs are surviving, breeding cubs are managing to continue life. It's good news against a barrage of bad news about these animals." Iranian conservationists have been involved in a decade-long campaign to protect the cheetahs and educate indigenous people living near them. But sanctions imposed by Western nations over Iran's nuclear program have hampered these efforts, making it difficult to secure international funding and equipment, such as camera traps.
05 Jun 2013:
First Amphibian Declared Extinct
‘Rediscovered’ in Israel’s Hula Valley
A team of scientists says it has “rediscovered
” in northern Israel the first amphibian declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a species of frog that turns out to be the only
surviving member of an extinct genus of frogs. First discovered in Israel’s Hula Valley in the 1940s, the Hula painted frog was presumed gone when Hula Lake dried up in the late 1950s, and it was declared extinct in 1996. But since an individual frog was discovered during a patrol in Hula Nature Reserve in 2011, an additional 10 specimens have been found, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications
. And while the frog had originally been categorized as a member of the Discoglossus
group of painted frogs, which are found across northern and western Africa, genetic analysis has revealed that the Hula frog is more closely related to a genus of frogs, Latonia
, that were common across Europe during prehistoric periods but considered extinct for a million years. “In other words,” the study says, “the Hula painted frog is a living fossil.”
13 Feb 2013:
Middle East Water Loss
Is Starkly Documented by NASA Satellites
A pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites has documented a precipitous drop in freshwater supplies in the arid Middle East
over the past decade. NASA said that since 2003 parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran had lost 144 cubic kilometers of total stored freshwater, an amount roughly equivalent to the water in the Dead Sea. NASA researchers attributed 60 percent of the loss to increased pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs. An additional 20 percent of the loss came from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, while the remaining 20 percent came from loss of surface water in lakes and reservoirs, according to the NASA study, to be published Friday in the journal Water Resources Research.
A drought in 2007 exacerbated all of these trends, but even without the drought scientists said that the rapidly growing population in the heart of the Middle East was using too much water at a time of increasing concern over intensifying droughts caused by climate change. The GRACE satellites — short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment — measure changes in gravity
, in this case caused by the falling of water reserves, which alters the earth’s mass.
21 Jan 2013:
NASA Map Shows Air Pollution
Across Asia and the Middle East
New satellite data released by NASA provide dramatic visual evidence of the dangerous air quality reported from cities across Asia and the Middle East this month.
Based on data collected from its satellite-based Ozone Monitoring Instrument, a map released by NASA scientists
illustrates high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — shown in orange — over several major cities, including Istanbul, Tehran and New Delhi, during the first week of January. Satellite measurements of nitrogen dioxide concentrations are a good indicator of air quality since NO2 is produced by the same fossil fuel-burning processes that also send sulfur dioxide and aerosols into the atmosphere, such as from vehicles, industrial sites, and power plants. The high concentrations of NO2 shown in the NASA map, based on measurements from Jan. 1 to 8, coincided with reports
from several cities of hazy skies, unhealthy air quality, and elevated cases of lung ailments.
21 Dec 2012:
Changing Oceans May Be Adding
To U.S. Fisheries Decline, Scientists Say
As U.S. fishing regulators weigh stricter catch quotas to allow time for critical species to recover in the waters of New England, scientists say that changing ocean conditions may be a factor in historic fish declines, not just decades of overfishing. Warmer ocean temperatures and changing ecosystems are contributing to declining populations of cod and flounder
in the northeastern U.S., government officials say. In the Gulf of Maine this year, water temperatures were the highest ever recorded, according to the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists say that about half of 36 fish stocks — including cod and flounder — have been shifting northward into deeper, cooler waters for four decades. And while some regulators say the only chance of restoring populations is for tougher quotas on bottom-dwelling “groundfish” species, the New England Fishery Management Council this week delayed a vote on such cuts
after fishermen said the reductions would devastate their industry.
10 Dec 2012:
Doha Talks Preserve Kyoto,
But Achieve Few Meaningful Commitments
As the latest round of global climate talks ended over the weekend in Doha, Qatar, delegates approved a weakened extension of the Kyoto Protocol, as expected, but obtained no commitments from major emitting nations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While nearly 200 nations agreed to extend through 2020 the emissions-limiting Kyoto accord
, which would have expired at the end of this month, three previous signatory nations — Canada, Russia, and Japan — all abandoned the agreement. The U.S. had never ratified the accord. So while the continuation of Kyoto preserves a framework for emissions reductions, with the next critical round of negotiations scheduled for 2015, the Doha deal left many increasingly pessimistic
about whether the UN process can achieve meaningful results. “Much much more is needed if we are to save this process from being simply a process for the sake of process, a process that simply provides for talk and no action,” said Kieren Keke, foreign minister for the Pacific island state of Nauru. The Doha talks did yield, for the first time, assurances of financial aid for poor nations that incur “loss and damage
” — including from extreme weather events — as a result of climate change.
28 Nov 2012:
Scientists Develop Standardized
Analysis of City Pollution Emissions
A team of Israeli researchers has developed a method to track pollution over the world’s mega-cities
, a satellite-based process they say could help hold nations accountable for their pollution and promote cleaner
Smog over Beijing
industrial practices. Using data collected by three NASA satellite systems, the researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) collected pollution trends for 189 cities with populations exceeding 2 million. According to Pinhas Alpert, head of TAU’s Porter School of Environmental Study, the research represents the first standardized global analysis of the smog levels in the atmosphere over the world’s largest cities. Based on the data, collected from 2002 to 2010, cities in Northeast China, India, the Middle East, and Central Africa saw the steepest rise in aerosol concentrations, with an average increase of 34 percent. The greatest improvements occurred in Houston, with a 31 percent decrease in aerosol concentrations; Curitiba, Brazil, a 26 percent decrease; and Stockholm, a 23 percent decrease.
27 Aug 2012:
Desalination Sector Surges as
Technology Improves, Demand Grows
A new report predicts that global investment in water desalination projects will triple over a five-year period from 2011 to 2016
, driven by improvements in technology and a surge in companies entering the sector. According to Global Water Intelligence, investments in desalination plant installations will grow from $5 billion last year to $8.9 billion this year; by 2016, the report says, the sector could reach $17 billion. A critical factor has been the emergence of technologies that require less energy to make potable water from seawater, including a process called forward osmosis that uses less heat and power than existing reverse osmosis plants and could cut the cost of desalination by as much as 30 percent. Also driving this surge is growing demand in developing nations already facing water shortages, including China and India. “Those huge economies will not be able to step forward without a solution to water scarcity, and one of the solutions is going to be desalination,” Avshalom Felber, CEO of Israel-based IDE Technologies, told Bloomberg News.
27 Jun 2012:
Foreign ‘Land Grabs’
Scooping up Key Agricultural Lands
From 2000 to 2010, foreign investors bought or leased roughly 270,000 square miles of prime agricultural land
, most of it in the developing world, according to a report by the Worldwatch Institute. Half of the land was
in Africa, acquired by investors from China, the Middle East, and other countries and regions, Worldwatch said. Although the pace of what Worldwatch called “land grabs” has slowed somewhat in the last several years, private investors and state-owned companies are still buying and leasing land in the developing world to ensure ample food supplies for citizens of land-poor countries.
Worldwatch said the land deals generally took two forms: “South-South regionalism,” in which emerging economies invest in nearby countries, and North-South deals in which wealthy countries with little arable land buy up land in low-income nations. The report said the land deals usually resulted in the displacement of small-scale agriculture for industrial agriculture operations that have more serious environmental impacts.
02 Nov 2011:
European Coalition Selects
Morocco for Massive Solar Plant
A German-led initiative to tap solar energy in the deserts of Northern Africa and the Middle East to meet Europe’s long-term energy needs has targeted a site in Morocco for its first large-scale solar farm
. The Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii)
— whose members include
E.ON, Siemens, Munich Re and Deutsche Bank — announced during its annual conference that it will begin construction next year on a 500 megawatt solar farm. While the specific location was not disclosed, reports say it will likely be built near Ouarzazate, a city in southern Morocco known as “the door of the desert.” The €2 billion plant represents just the first step in a proposed €400 billion network of solar plants and wind farms the coalition hopes will provide 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050. Negotiations are already underway with Tunisia for the next plant, with Algeria the next possible country. Coalition leaders say the project will represent a “win-win” for Europe and the nations of North Africa and the Middle East, since it will provide jobs and economic opportunity.
17 Aug 2011:
Nations Set Heat Records
As Summer Temperatures Scorched Asia
Six nations across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa experienced record high temperatures this summer
, as for the second consecutive summer meteorologists reported some of the highest temperatures in
recorded history. According to the Weather Underground blog, the hottest undisputed temperatures ever recorded in Asia have occurred during the last two summers, including temperatures of 127.9 degrees F (53.3 degrees C) in Mitrabah, Kuwait on Aug. 3; 127.4 F in Tallil, Iraq, on Aug. 3; and 127.4 F in Dehloran, Iran on July 28. The hottest undisputed temperature ever recorded in Asia occurred on May 26, 2010, when the mercury hit 128.3 F in Moenjodaro, Pakistan. According to weather data, six nations have set temperature records this summer, including Armenia and the Republic of Congo. Twenty nations set records last summer. In Russia, scientists recorded the highest temperature at a manned reporting station — 111.7 F in the Kalmykia Republic on July 30. Three higher temperatures have been recorded at automated stations. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this July was the seventh-warmest in recorded history; NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies called it the third-warmest July on record.
09 Aug 2011:
Israel Expands Desalination;
Study Touts New Salt-Removing Technology
Israel has announced plans to build a $423 million (1.5 billion shekel) desalination plant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashdod that officials say will provide 100 million cubic meters of water annually
, or about 15 percent of the nation’s drinking water needs. When completed in 2013, the reverse osmosis plant will join four other Israel plants that combined will meet three-quarters of the nation’s household water needs. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said expansion of desalination operations is critical as Israel looks to prevent depletion of its main freshwater source, the Sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, a recent Yale University study
found that desalination technology could provide the best hope for meeting the world’s growing water needs. But rather than using reverse osmosis technology, which researchers say is nearing its potential for maximum energy efficiency, researchers suggest that the greatest efficiency gains could occur in pre- and post-treatment stages of desalination. “All of this will require new materials and a new chemistry, but we believe this is where we should focus our efforts going forward,” said Menachem Elimelech, a Yale professor of chemical and environmental engineering.
06 Jul 2011:
New Electric Car in Israel
Includes Battery Swap Subscriptions
A California-based start-up will begin selling electric cars in Israel next month that include a subscription package for a leased battery
and the costs of recharging the vehicle. Instead of owning the batteries, consumers will be able to purchase a subscription for a certain
A Better Place battery swap station
number of kilometers per year, much like cellphone owners purchase their minutes. The company, Better Place
, hopes the strategy will help the industry overcome one of the major challenges facing widespread adoption of electric cars: the limited range of existing battery technology. Better Place will sell an electric sedan, made by Renault, that will have a range of about 100 miles per charge; for longer trips, car owners will be able to exchange batteries at swap stations located across Israel. One package includes the cost of the vehicle and 25,000 miles per year for three years for $46,000. According to Better Place, that subscription would end up costing consumers 35 percent less than purchasing and fueling a gas-powered vehicle over three years.
20 Jun 2011:
Pakistan Air Sensor Network
Provides Rare Access to Pollution Data
A Pakistan university has installed a network of inexpensive air sensors across the city of Lahore that measure air quality and automatically upload the information onto an online database, a pilot project officials hope will widen access to air quality data in the
developing nation. The project, known as the Volunteer Internet-based Environment Watch (VIEW), currently utilizes solar-powered sensors in seven locations citywide to provide real-time data on levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone, along with temperature, humidity, and dew point. The data is accessible online at www.view.lums.edu.pk
. In the next five years, project head Jahangir Ikram hopes to expand the number of sensors in Lahore to more than 50 and also install sensors in some other Pakistani cities. The project was launched by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). “Data on air pollution in developing countries hardly exists and this is a way to get at that data,” said Agha Akram, who helped launch the program while a student at LUMS. “It’s not like you have to set up a big government bureaucracy.”
29 Apr 2011:
Gulf Nations’ Social Policies
Playing Role in Oil Price Rises, Report Says
The generous social benefits being doled out by Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Persian Gulf nations are contributing to high oil prices
, according to a report by the energy advisory firm, PFC Energy. The report said that populist spending programs, which have recently become even more generous in an effort to ward off the social unrest that has swept much of the Middle East, are forcing some Arab OPEC countries to keep oil prices high to pay for generous social policies. Such policies include high government salaries, direct payments to citizens, “payoffs” to the religious establishment, housing allowances, and large subsidies to keep gasoline prices low. “Today’s high oil prices facilitate the financing of the expansive spending packages that [Saudi] King Abdullah has recently announced to prevent outbreaks of popular unrest within the country,” said the report, prepared for the firm’s private clients. PFC Energy also citied the countries of the United Arab Emirates as funding growing social largesse with oil revenues. The report said increases in government spending among OPEC countries makes it unlikely that the oil cartel will allow oil prices to dip below $90 per barrel in the future.
10 Mar 2011:
Decline of Honeybee Populations
Now a Global Phenomenon, Report Says
The mysterious decline of honeybee populations observed in the U.S. and Europe is now a global phenomenon
, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Scientists say significant die-offs are now occurring in managed bee colonies in China and Japan, and there are indications of similar population collapses in Egypt. While honeybee numbers have been declining for decades, the rate has accelerated in recent years, with so-called “colony collapse disorder” destroying 35 percent of the U.S. honeybee population between 2006 and 2009. Several causes have been cited, including a decline in flowering plants, increased use of insecticides
, honeybee-killing mites
, and air pollution. The report warns that a honeybee decline poses a significant threat to humankind since bees play such an important role as crop pollinators worldwide. The report suggests that incentives be offered to farmers and landowners to restore habitat conducive to honeybees, including adding critical flowering plants near crop fields and more careful management of insecticide use.
07 Feb 2011:
Rising Food Costs Exacerbating
Public Unrest Globally, Experts Warn
Rising food prices and a shortage of critical crops is fueling political instability in numerous regions worldwide
and might have contributed to uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, according to international food experts. While food costs were not the primary reason for the unrest in those nations, recent public uprisings do illustrate the risk when such stresses are added to existing political problems, Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, told the Guardian
. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, food prices reached a record high in January for the seventh consecutive month. Its food price index jumped 3.4 percent from December to the highest level since 1990, when the UN started measuring food prices. “It’s easy to see how the food supply can translate directly into political unrest,” Brown said. In South Korea, which imports about 70 percent of its food, President Lee Myung-bak has urged the formation of a task force
to procure food supplies in the face of these rising costs.
20 Dec 2010:
Market for Desalination Plants
Expected to Grow by $87 Billion by 2016
More than $88 billion will be invested in desalination technologies worldwide from 2010 to 2016
as regions face dwindling supplies of freshwater and steep population growth, according to a new report. Declining costs associated with several key desalination technologies — including reverse osmosis — will make saltwater-to-freshwater treatment a more affordable option, according to the report by Pike Research. “Desalination is becoming more affordable; thus, an increased number of people can benefit from an almost unlimited resource — seawater,” the report says. The global installed capacity is expected to grow by about 55 million cubic meters per day during that period, representing a 9-percent annual growth rate. About 54 percent of that growth will occur in the Middle East and North Africa.