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Chinese and U.S. Demand Drives Commodities Surge

Clifford Krauss, New York Times
The price of copper has tripled in five years. Zinc has doubled. Wheat and soybeans rose 70 percent in 2007. Futures prices of crude oil, gold, silver, lead, uranium, cattle, cocoa and corn are all at or near records.

global boom in the cost of commodities, the staple ingredients of a modern economy, is entering its sixth year with no end in sight. Commodities have always been subject to boom-and-bust cycles, but many economists see a fundamental shift driving the markets these days.

As development rolls across once-destitute countries at a breakneck pace, lifting billions out of poverty, demand for food, metals and fuel is red-hot, and suppliers are struggling to meet it. Prices are spiraling, and Americans find themselves in what amounts to a bidding war with overseas buyers for products as diverse as milk and gasoline.
(15 January 2008)

Drain on the Mediterranean: rising water usage

Nicole Itano, The Christian Science Monitor
In a dramatic illustration of a broader regional crisis, a Turkish lake three times the size of Washington, D.C., has dried up in the past 15 years.

…Across the Mediterranean, water is being pumped out of the earth at an unsustainable pace. In Italy’s Milan region, groundwater levels have fallen by more than 80 feet over the past 80 years. So much water has been pumped from the Jeffara aquifer in Libya that even if all withdrawals stopped, it would take 75 years for the aquifer to return to its original level, estimates a 2005 report by the Blue Plan – a United Nations program on development and the environment in the Mediterranean.

As a result of this profligate water use, at least 50 percent of the region’s wetlands are at risk, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In addition, more than 100,000 square miles of coastal regions – roughly the same area as the United Kingdom – are under threat of desertification.

Near Konya, water pumped from underground to feed the thirsty crops above is part of the same closed system as the lakes. The cultivation of new land, along with a transition to more thirsty crops like sugar beet, has increased water use beyond what is naturally replaced, causing groundwater levels to fall and the lakes to dry up. More than a decade of drought and rising summer temperatures – which causes increased evaporation – have exacerbated the situation and laid bare the magnitude of the problem.
(15 January 2008)

Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade

Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times
…Europe’s dinner tables are increasingly supplied by global fishing fleets, which are depleting the world’s oceans to feed the ravenous consumers who have become the most effective predators of fish.

Fish is now the most traded animal commodity on the planet, with about 100 million tons of wild and farmed fish sold each year. Europe has suddenly become the world’s largest market for fish, worth more than 14 billion euros, or about $22 billion a year. Europe’s appetite has grown as its native fish stocks have shrunk so that Europe now needs to import 60 percent of fish sold in the region, according to the European Union.

In Europe, the imbalance between supply and demand has led to a thriving illegal trade. Some 50 percent of the fish sold in the European Union originates in developing nations, and much of it is laundered like contraband, caught and shipped illegally beyond the limits of government quotas or treaties. The smuggling operation is well financed and sophisticated, carried out by large-scale mechanized fishing fleets able to sweep up more fish than ever, chasing threatened stocks from ocean to ocean.
(15 January 2008)

Goodbye Helium, Goodbye Brainscans

Rembrandt, The Oil Drum: Helium
Some of the great things that make human live much easier are dependent on rare non-renewable resources. Helium is one of these, a noble gas with remarkable qualities due to its inert state. It is used for example to cool metals needed to create superconductivity. This process is applied in the medical industry to make Multi-Resonating-Image( MRI) scans, a technique to produce images of body tissue…

… Can Helium be substituted? The answer is no for applications which need cooling below a temperature of minus 210 degrees centigrade since that is the temperature at which the next best thing, liquid nitrogen, freezes. Helium on the other hand only liquifies at minus 260 degrees centigrade and stays in that state even down to absolute zero. Making it the most precious element for cooling at very low temperatures.

… The availability of Helium is thus quite important. So how long will this resource last?

… With this methodology a world consumption number of 202 million Sm3 can be derived as of the year 2004. A static approach in which the expected ultimate extractable amounts are divided over present consumption gives a lifetime expectancy of 200 years for Helium. Using a more dynamic approach, in which the average consumption growth from 1990 to 2004 namely 5 percent is continuously extrapolated, gives a resource lifetime of approximately 48 years.

…Interestingly, these shortages are already here to a certain extent. The price of Helium has already risen significantly in the past few years.

…While sufficient reserves exist to scale up production in other countries these have been slow in response to the decline in production in the United States. This is primarily due to the fact that Helium is a by-product of natural gas fields and operators make a decision not based on the availability of Helium but based on the need to develop Natural Gas Fields.

…. So we can expect the present constrained Helium supply to persist until at least 2015, by which the federal helium reserve in the United States will be nearly depleted. If the production of Kovykta is delayed much further beyond 2015 it could lead to severe worldwide Helium shortages.
(16 January 2008)