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Environment - Apr 1

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Antarctic air is warming faster than rest of world

Mark Henderson, Times/UK
New finding could have implications for sea level rises
------------
AIR temperatures above the entire frozen continent of Antarctica have risen three times faster than the rest of the world during the past 30 years.

While it is well established that temperatures are increasing rapidly in the Antarctic Peninsula, the land tongue that protrudes towards South America, the trend has been harder to confirm over the continent as a whole.

Now analysis of weather balloon data by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has shown that not only are the lower reaches of the Antarctic atmosphere warming, but that they are doing so at the fastest rate observed anywhere on Earth.
(31 March 2006)
Also posted at Common Dreams.


China grapples with growing water shortages

Ben Blanchard, Reuters via PlanetArk
...The figures are stark.

Per capita water resources in the world's most populous country are less than a third of the global average, and falling.

More than 300 million people in rural areas lack clean drinking water, and many are being slowly poisoned by water that contains too much fluorine, salt and even arsenic.

Tackling these issues is a key part of Beijing's economic and social development plan for the next five years, but the problems are deep-rooted.

More than a decade of near double-digit economic growth coupled with a still expanding population has put an almost unbearable strain on water demand in China.
(31 March 2006)


Soil crisis is holding back African recovery

Steve Connor, UK Independent
The fertility of Africa's soil is being depleted at a rate that threatens to undermine the continent's attempts at eradicating hunger with sustainable agricultural development.

A study has found three-quarters of Africa's farmland is plagued by severe soil degradation caused by wind and soil erosion and the loss of vital mineral nutrients.

This degradation can partly explain why agricultural productivity in Africa has remained largely stagnant for 40 years while Asia's productivity has increased threefold, the authors claim. Julio Henao and Carlos Baanante of the non-profit International Centre for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, found bad farming practices have damaged soil health on the continent between 1980 and 2004.

Farmers in Africa have traditionally relied on clearing land to grow crops then leaving it fallow to regain some of its fertility. "But population pressure now forces farmers to grow crop after crop, 'mining' or depleting the soil of nutrients while giving nothing back," the report says.
(31 March 2006)


Fewer marshes + more man-made ponds = increased wetlands
(Interior Department spins wetlands data)

Felicity Barringer, NY Times
WASHINGTON — In the bog of the federal regulatory code, a wetland is defined as a marshy area of saturated soils and plants whose roots spend part of their lives immersed in water. In the Interior Department's periodic national surveys, a wetland is defined, more or less, as wet.

Traditional tidal, coastal and upland marshes count, but so do golf course water hazards and other man-made ponds whose surface is less than 20 acres.

And so, even at a time of continued marsh depletion, pond inflation permitted Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to announce proudly on Thursday the first net increase in wetlands since the Fish and Wildlife Service started measuring them in 1954. Wetlands acreage, measured largely by aerial surveys, totaled 107.7 million acres at the end of 2004, up by 191,800 acres from 1998.

The two cabinet secretaries hailed the apparent reversal in the long trend of wetland losses. "I'm pleased to complete my term as secretary of interior by announcing some good news, said Ms. Norton, who will step down from her job Friday.

...Almost two years ago, President Bush, under attack by environmental groups for loosening controls on development in wetlands, announced that one of his goals was to increase net wetland acreage.

For decades in the early and mid-20th century, draining and filling of wetlands by developers was widely accepted. But, as scientists and public officials recognized the importance of wetlands as nurseries for waterfowl, filters of pollution and barriers against storms, Congress passed protective laws.

One multimillion-dollar project redirected parts of the Kissimmee River in central Florida out of the narrow 30-foot-deep channel constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers and allowed it once again to dampen the surrounding landscape. Another successful wetlands-restoration project in southwestern Indiana is undoing the work farmers did decades ago to drain their land.

These projects helped hold down the net loss of marshland in Thursday's report. But the net gain noted in the report was fueled by an increase in pond acreage, which includes things like ornamental ponds in new developments and mine reclamation ponds.
(30 March 2006)
It doesn't matter whether the spin comes from the Republicans or Democrats, whether the subject is peak oil, global warming or wetlands -- the spin is counter-productive and threatens our survival. As the late physicist Richard Feynmann said:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, because nature cannot be fooled.


New NASA policy backs free discussion by scientists

Warren E. Leary, NY Times
WASHINGTON - Two months after NASA's top climate scientist complained that political operatives in the agency's press office were trying to censor his views on global warming, Administrator Michael D. Griffin issued a new communications policy on Thursday that he called a "commitment to openness."

The policy, which details the role of those who release information to the public directly or through the news media, ensures that NASA scientists and engineers are free to discuss their work in public and state their opinions, Dr. Griffin said. When stating a personal opinion, he continued, they should make clear that they are speaking for themselves and not for the agency.

...The agency came under fire when James E. Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a NASA office, told The New York Times in late January that the Bush administration had tried to stop him from speaking out after he gave a lecture in December calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

Dr. Hansen and several other employees of the agency said administration appointees in the public affairs office had demanded to review his lectures and publications in advance. In addition, he said, senior agency officials sought the right to stand in for him in interviews with reporters.

Other scientists also expressed concern when political appointees altered news releases and Internet presentations against their wishes.

After a barrage of complaints from lawmakers and scientific organizations, Dr. Griffin appointed a 12-member group of senior NASA scientists and public affairs officials to draft a new public communications policy.

In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Hansen said that the revised policy was "definitely better" than before and that his latest dealings with NASA public affairs had been much improved.
(30 March 2006)


Research in Pacific shows ocean trouble
Acidity rises, oxygen drops, scientists find

Lisa Stiffler, Seatlle Post-Intelligencer
Research fresh off a boat that docked Thursday in Alaska reveals some frightening changes taking place in the Pacific Ocean.

As humans are pumping out more carbon dioxide that is helping to warm the planet, the ocean has been doing yeoman's work to lessen the effects -- but it's taking a toll.

Over time, the changes could have an impact that ripples through the food chain, from microscopic plants that can't grow right to salmon and whales unable to find enough to eat.

The Pacific is getting warmer and more acidic, while the amount of oxygen and the building blocks for coral and some kinds of plankton are decreasing, according to initial results from scientists with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, the University of Washington and elsewhere.

"There are big changes," said Christopher Sabine, chief scientist for one leg of the research trip, which ultimately traveled from Antarctica to Alaska.

Many of the most interesting results are tied to the ocean becoming increasingly acidic because of its absorption of carbon dioxide.

"You don't have to believe in climate change to believe that this is happening," said Joanie Kleypas, an oceanographer with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a non-profit organization based in Boulder, Colo. "It's pretty much simple thermodynamics."

And it's alarming.

"Acidification is more frightening than a lot of the climate change issues," Kleypas said. That's in part because the process is hard to alter.

"It's a slow-moving ship, and we're all trying to row with toothpicks," she said.
(3X March 2006)
Related, nervous-making stories:
Bleaching, disease killing coral (Seattle Times)
Decline of coastal beds of seagrass worries scientists (Vancouver Sun)
Coral colonies in hot water (AP)


Conference Board report warns of global warming's cost to Canada
Billions of dollars in losses seen unless action is taken

Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail
The Conference Board of Canada, has issued a report suggesting that global warming could have a major impact on the economy, with the potential to cause billions of dollars in losses from such problems as coastal flooding and crop losses on the Prairies.

The report, published Thursday, is one of the first by a major business organization in Canada accepting the basic premise of many recent scientific studies on global warming, and it warned that Canadian policy makers need to do more to get the country prepared for the climate changes, which it said were now "inevitable."

"If the models are correct, Canada could, within the next couple of decades, have to deal with the inundation of low-lying lands on its seacoasts, a shrinking Arctic ice cap, reductions in Great Lakes water levels, permafrost thawing and reduced river flow on the Prairies," it said.

The board wrote the report because it is worried that Canada is completely unprepared for coping with any adverse effects of global warming, according to a senior official.
(31 March 2006)


Environmental restoration in the age of climate change

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
Puget Sound is hurting. Almost embarrassingly bountiful until just a few decades ago, it now seems to be sliding towards an ecological tipping point: salmon and orca are on the endangered species list, estuaries and wetlands and near-shore habitat have been destroyed, and on a whole, it is teetering on the brink of collapse.

It's not too late to save it. While a variety of factors have played into the decline -- past overfishing, invasive species, and especially the growing population around Puget Sound and the large amounts of toxic chemicals we slough off as part of our daily lives (oil and other chemicals from our cars, lawn fertilizer and pesticides, even sewage) -- the real key to saving the sound is shorelines

...From the Southeast Asian tsunami to Katrina, we've seen that places where estuaries, wetlands, tidal flats, mangrove forests (places where land and ocean interpenetrate) have been destroyed get hit harder when the ocean turns angry. Thinking seriously about ecological health and public safety in an age of sea level rise and weird weather may well mean not just seawalls and dikes, but intelligent use of saltwater wetlands which can act as buffers and sponges, as well as keep ecological balance.

But here's the thing: we're still learning what to do and how to do it. We don't know as much as we should about the world in which we live. We don't know how, for example, to do shoreline restoration in a way which will give benefit now and be adaptive as the seas rise farther. We don't know how to integrate living systems -- like tidal marshes, mudflats and kelp beds -- into a system of hardening protections like bulkheads and seawalls. We're navigating blind.

This is a local story, but the moral is global. No matter where we live, climate change is upon us, and its impacts are growing quickly. Tackling emissions is important, but we have to face as well the fact that climate commitment is a reality, that we live in a rapidly-changing world and that every decision we make about our interactions with the natural world, for the foreseeable future, must be made not looking back, but looking forward.
(31 March 2006)

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