Towering ambition to help protect Amazon rainforest

Towering ambition to help protect Amazon rainforest

A new 325-metre observatory soaring above the Amazonian tree canopy will capture vital data on how climate change is impacting on a delicate environment that is also under threat from encroachment by lawless urban settlements.

SÃO PAULO, 24 October, 2014 − In the Amazon, everything is big – the trees, the rivers, the snakes, and the statistics that measure everything in numbers of football fields or areas the size of entire countries.

Now one of the biggest towers in the world – taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Chrysler Building in Chicago − is about to rise above the rainforest.

The purpose of the 325-metre (1,066 feet) Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) is to gather vital information on how climate change is affecting the Amazon ecosystem and other humid tropical areas, using climate models.

The research project is being run by Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonia Research (INPA), and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany. As one of the project directors, Paulo Ataxo, of the University of São Paulo, explains: “The tower will help us answer innumerable questions related to global climate change.”

Jointly financed by the Brazilian and German governments, the ATTO – which has taken seven years to plan and build − is located 100 miles from the city of Manaus. The steel girders had to be transported 4,000 km by road and river from the factory in southern Brazil, and finally up a dirt track into the heart of the forest.

Monitoring network

The ATTO, adding to a network of smaller observation towers already in the area, will be able to monitor − without direct human influence − changes in air masses over an area of hundreds of miles.. It is expected to be in operation for at least 20 years, measuring the wind, humidity, carbon absorption, cloud formation and meteorological patterns in the soil, tree tops, and the air above, adding to the growing body of research showing how vital it is to stop deforestation.

Philip Fearnside, INPA research professor who has been studying the rainforest for over 40 years, says that the loss of natural tree cover is influencing the delicate environmental equilibrium of the region, and of the rest of the country. He says: “Among other services, the forest recycles water, which is critical for the rains in São Paulo , stores carbon, avoiding the worsening of global warming, and maintains biodiversity.”

A recent study by Brazilian, Canadian and German scientists from São Paulo Universities UNESP and USP, Toronto University, and the Hemholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany concluded that the deforestation of tropical forests emits at least 20% more CO2 than previously thought.

“Among other services, the forest recycles water,
which is critical for the rains in São Paulo”

The study, published in the Nature Communications magazine, used remote sensoring, the ecology of the countryside, and modelling of the forest dynamic to develop a new approach that included the previously uncalculated loss of biomass on the edges of forest fragments.

The Brazilian government claims it is reducing deforestation. But, according to Environment Ministry figures, the vast area known as Amazônia Legal, which covers the whole of the Amazon basin, has already lost almost a fifth (18.2%) of its total area of 5 million sq km  − that is, around 900,000 sq km.

Another recent study −  a three-year Amazalert research project begun in 2011 by 14 European and South American institutes, including the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh and the UK Met Office − has concluded that if present policies continue, the future will be chaotic

Amazalert project looked at the impacts of deforestation and climate change on the Amazon up to 2050.

Human impacts

While there is a constant stream of research on the climate and vegetation of the rainforest, to which ATTO will be contributing, there is much less research and information about the role of human beings and society in the Amazon.

Amazalert found that violence and unplanned growth in the towns on the edges of the Amazon region are also threatening its integrity.

Among Brazil’s 50 towns and cities with the highest murder rates per 100,000 inhabitants, 12 are located in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, which runs around the southern and eastern borders of the rainforest. The report says that violence in these towns has reached the “level of civil war”.

For Amazalert collaborator Andrea Coelho, researcher at the Institute for the Economic, Social and Environmental Development of Pará state (IDESP), the problem is that large-scale mining projects, the paving of roads, and the construction of hydroelectric dams attract lots of people, for whom there is no infrastructure.

When the projects are finished, the workers stay on and become goldminers, extractivists, or land-grabbers. Many are living in miserable conditions, and so criminality erupts.

The huge Belo Monte dam, being built on the Xingu river, is an example. In 2007, there were four cases of drug trafficking in surrounding areas. Last year, there were 238. – Climate News Network

Climate helps to halve world wildlife in 40 years

Climate helps to halve world wildlife in 40 years

Conservation campaigners say the plight of much of the world’s wildlife seems “worse than ever” – and climate change is a growing cause of the damage.

LONDON, 30 September 2014 – Human pressure has halved the numbers of many of the Earth’s wild creatures in just four decades, the Worldwide Fund for Nature says.

While the main recorded threat to biodiversity comes from habitat loss and degradation, driven by unsustainable human consumption, it found, climate change is a growing concern.

It says in its Living Planet Report 2014 that vertebrate wildlife populations have declined by an average of just over half, with freshwater species suffering a 76% decline, almost double the average loss of land and ocean species.

In a foreword the director-general of WWF International, Marco Lambertini, writes: “This latest edition of the Living Planet Report is not for the faint-hearted.

“One key point that jumps out is that the Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52% since 1970.

“Put another way, in less than two human generations, population sizes of vertebrate species have dropped by half.”

The Report is based on the Index, a database maintained by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Industrial killing

WWF says the state of the world’s biodiversity “appears worse than ever.” But it is confident in the robustness of its findings: “This is a much bigger decrease than has been reported previously, as a result of a new methodology which aims to be more representative of global biodiversity.”

The authors calculated the decline by analysing 10,000 different populations of 3,000 vertebrates. This data was then, for the first time, used to create a representative Living Planet Index, reflecting the state of all 45,000 known vertebrates. The consequences, it shows, can be drastic.

Last week conservationists said that elephant poaching was now happening on an unprecedented and “industrialised” scale in Mozambique, after 22 of the animals were killed for their tusks in the first two weeks of September. Numbers of some marine turtles are estimated to have dropped by 80%.

Professor Ken Norris, director of science at the ZSL, said: “The scale of biodiversity loss and damage to the very ecosystems that are essential to our existence is alarming. This damage is not inevitable but a consequence of the way we choose to live.”

There is wide disagreement about the number of species on Earth. In 2007, when the total was estimated by many scientists at around 1.5 m (it is now thought to be 8.7 m) the number of vertebrate species was put at about 60,000 in the IUCN Red List.

WWF says too that humans are using more resources than the Earth can continue to provide, felling trees more quickly than they can regrow, for example, catching fish faster than they can reproduce, emptying rivers and aquifers –   and emitting too much carbon for natural systems to absorb.

Boundaries crossed

The Report devotes a section to the idea of the Ecological Footprint, the sum of the ecological services that people demand which compete for space. For more than 40 years, it says, humanity’s demand on nature has exceeded what the planet can replenish, principally through climate change.

“Carbon from burning fossil fuels has been the dominant component of humanity’s Ecological Footprint for more than half a century, and remains on an upward trend. In 1961, carbon was 36% of our total Footprint; by 2010, it comprised 53%”, the Report says.

WWF urges respect for “planetary boundaries” beyond which humanity will “enter a danger zone where abrupt negative changes are likely to occur.”

It says “three planetary boundaries appear to have already been transgressed: biodiversity loss, and changes to the climate and nitrogen cycle, with already visible impacts on the well-being of human health and our demands on food, water and energy.”

The Report argues for the diversion of investment away from the causes of environmental problems and towards solutions, and for “ecologically informed” choices about how we manage resources.

Next year world leaders are due to conclude two critical global agreements: the post-2015 development framework, which will include Sustainable Development Goals intended to be met by all countries by 2030; and a UN treaty leading to effective action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. – Climate News Network

Eat a plant and spare a tree

Eat a plant and spare a tree

A less meat-intensive diet is essential for the sake of wildlife and forests and to slow climate change, says a report by UK-based researchers.

LONDON, 31 August 2014 – Say goodbye to the steaks. Forget the foie gras. Put that pork chop away (assuming you can afford any of them). UK-based scientists say eating less meat is a vital part of tackling climate change.

A study published in Nature Climate Change says that on present trends food production on its own will reach – and perhaps exceed – the global targets for total greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

Healthier diets – defined as meaning lower meat and dairy consumption – and reduced food waste are among the solutions needed to ensure food security and avoid dangerous climate change, the study says.

More people, with more of us wanting meat-heavy Western diets, mean increasing farm yields will not meet the demands of an expected 9.6 billion humans. So we shall have to cultivate more land.

This, the authors say, will mean more deforestation, more carbon emissions and further biodiversity loss, while extra livestock will raise methane levels.

Inefficient converters

Without radical changes, they expect cropland to expand by 42% by 2050 and fertiliser use by 45% (over 2009 levels). A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear by mid-century.

All this would cause GHG emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050 – roughly equal to the target GHG emissions by then for the entire global economy.

They think halving food waste and managing demand for particularly environmentally-damaging food products – mainly from animals –  “might mitigate some” GHG emissions.

“It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland,” said the lead researcher, Bojana Bajzelj, from the University of Cambridge’s department of engineering, who wrote the study with colleagues from Cambridge’s departments of geography and plant sciences and the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

“The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals… Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here – but our choice of food is.”

Squandered resources

This measure of efficiency is based on the units used in the study, which are grams of carbon in the biomass material, plant or meat.

The team created a model that compares different scenarios for 2050, including some based on maintaining current trends.

Another examines the closing of “yield gaps”. These gaps, between crop yields from best practice farming and actual average yields, exist everywhere but are widest in developing countries – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers advocate closing the gaps through sustainable intensification of farming.

But even then projected food demand will still demand additional land and more water and fertilisers – so the impact on emissions and biodiversity remains.

Food waste occurs at all stages in the food chain, caused in developing countries by poor storage and transport and in the north by wasteful consumption. This squanders resources, especially energy, the authors say.

“As well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat”

Yield gap closure alone still shows a GHG increase of just over 40% by 2050. Closing yield gaps and halving food waste shows emissions increasing by 2%. But with healthy diets added too, the model suggests that agricultural GHG levels could fall by 48% from their 2009 level.

The team says replacing diets containing too much food, especially emission-intensive meat and dairy products, with an average balanced diet avoiding excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products, significantly reduces pressures on the environment even further.

It says this “average” balanced diet is “a relatively achievable goal for most. For example, the figures included two 85g portions of red meat and five eggs per week, as well as a portion of poultry a day.”

Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen said: “Unless we make some serious changes in food consumption trends, we would have to completely decarbonise the energy and industry sectors to stay within emissions budgets that avoid dangerous climate change.

“That is practically impossible – so, as well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to re-think what we eat.” – Climate News Network

‘End high seas fishing for climate’s sake’

'End high seas fishing for climate's sake'

Two scientists say fish from the high seas are too valuable to be eaten, because they lessen climate change through the carbon they consume.

LONDON, 8 June – Marine biologists have delivered the most radical proposal yet to protect biodiversity and sequester carbon: stop all fishing, they say, on the high seas.

The high seas are the stretches of ocean that nobody owns and nobody claims: they are beyond the 200-mile economic zones patrolled and sometimes disputed by national governments. They are also what climate scientists call a carbon sink, a natural source of carbon removal.

Life in the deep seas absorbs 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries half a billion tonnes of carbon on the sea bed every year, according to Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia in Canada and Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford in the UK. The two researchers put the value to humanity of life in the high seas – in terms of its ability to sequester carbon – at $148 billion a year.

Only a hundredth of the fish landed in all the ports in all the world is found on the high seas alone. And around 10 million tonnes of fish are caught by high seas fishing fleets each year, and sold for $16bn.

“Countries around the world are struggling to find cost-effective ways to reduce their carbon emissions. We’ve found that the high seas are a natural system that is doing a good job of it for free,” said Professor Sumaila.

“Keeping fish in the high seas gives us more value than catching them. If we lose the life on the high seas, we’ll have to find another way to reduce emissions at a much higher cost.”

Staying in the depths

But it isn’t just the high seas that sequester carbon. In a second study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, British and Irish researchers argue that deep sea fish remove and stow away more than a million tonnes of carbon dioxide just from waters around the British coasts and the Irish Sea. If this volume were valued as “carbon credits” it would add up to £10mn a year ($16.8mn).

The reasoning goes like this. Deep water fishes don’t rise to the surface, they depend on food that filters down to them from above. At mid water level, there is a huge and diverse ecosystem involving many species that rise to the surface to feed during the night and then sink back down again, and some of this reaches the depths.

Clive Trueman of the University of Southampton and colleagues measured ratios of isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the tissues of fish caught at depths between 500 and 1800 metres to calculate the original sources of food: more than half of these fish got their energy – their food supply – from fishes that went to the surface. But deep water fish, when they die, stay at depth. Their carbon doesn’t get back into the atmospheric system.

Research like this is done to solve the puzzles of the planetary ecosystem, but also to explore the options open to politicians who will one day have to confront the mounting costs of climate change.

The declaration of the high seas as “off limits” to all fishing sounds utopian, but fisheries scientists have repeatedly argued that present fishing regimes are not sustainable, and that radical steps must be taken.

Fish sanctuaries

Callum Roberts, of the University of York, UK, has been making the case for “marine parks”, or undisturbed ocean and shallow water wildernesses, for more than a decade.

Like pristine tropical rainforests, or protected wetlands and prairies, these would be nurseries and safe zones for rare or otherwise threatened species of plants and animals. But they would also serve as valuable carbon sinks. Either way, humans would benefit because the marine parks would slow global warming and limit climate change.

“The more abundant life is, and the more the seabeds are rich, complex and dominated by filter feeders that extract organic matter from the water, and creatures that bury matter in the mud, the more effective the seas will be as a carbon sink. Overfishing has diminished that benefit wherever it has taken place just at the time when we need it most,” Professor Roberts  told Climate News Network.

“I think the carbon sequestration argument is a strong one. The deep sea is probably the biggest carbon sink on the planet by virtue of its enormous size.

“It is incredibly important as a sink, because once carbon is trapped there, it is much harder for it to get re-released into the atmosphere than is the case for carbon sinks on land, like forests or peat bogs.”

Planetary benefits

Protection of fish on the high seas would also be good for fish stocks in the exclusive economic zones nearer the shores, where the global catch is more carefully managed, and where some areas are already protected.

This would benefit all nations where people depend on fishing or fish farming. At the moment, only a small number of nations maintain high seas fleets.

The Global Ocean Commission, which commissioned the high seas study,  claims that such a decision would make economic, social and ecological sense: the oceans supply “vital services” to humanity. They provide half of the planet’s oxygen, deliver nourishment for billions of people, and regulate the climate.

To protect the high seas could help offshore fish stocks, but demand for fish is likely to grow in step with population increases, and fish produce at least one sixth of the animal protein that humans consume.

The supply of “wild” fish caught by net or line peaked nearly two decades ago. The World Resources Institute believes that production of farmed fish and shellfish will have to increase by 133% by 2050. – Climate News Network

Insects get light relief from warming

Insects get light relief from warming

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Research reveals that lighter-coloured insects are thriving as European summers get warmer – but milder winters in the southern hemisphere are restricting the growth of some shrubs and trees

LONDON, 31 May − Europe’s butterflies are fading in the sunlight as the summers warm − while some species of shrubs and trees in the southern hemisphere are growing less as winters become milder.

Lead author Dirk Zeuss, of Philipps-University Marburg in Germany, and fellow researchers report in Nature Communications that as the climate of Europe begins to warm, the lighter shades of butterfly and dragonfly species begin to outcompete the darker-coloured insects.

The researchers, who looked at 366 species of butterfly and 107 kinds of dragonfly, observed a clear pattern of change between 1988 and 2006. In warmer, sunnier southern Europe, the light-coloured varieties are doing well, and the darker kinds have migrated northwards.

The southern migrant hawker dragonfly (Aeshna affinis), the scarlet darter (Crocothemis erythraea) have moved to Germany, and in 2010 the dainty damselfly (Coenagrion scitulum) was seen in England for the first time in 50 years.

Direct link

“For two of the major groups of insects, we have now demonstrated a direct link between climate and insect colour,” said co-author Carsten Rahbek, of Imperial College London and the University of Copenhagen.

“We now know that lighter-coloured butterflies and dragonflies are doing better in a warmer world. And we have also demonstrated that the effects of climate change are not something of the future, but that nature and its ecosystems are changing as we speak.”

This research is part of a pan-European effort to understand what climate change is going to do to the animals and plants that evolved in regions where the climate once most suited them. Research in Switzerland, for instance, has shown butterflies heading for higher ground. In Britain, some species have responded to temperature rises and moved northwards.

Measures of what happens don’t always explain why things happen. A famous evolutionary study linked the changes in colour of the peppered moth to the rise and fall of soot and dust in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

But this latest study has nothing to do with air quality, and everything to do with energy supply and temperature regulation in insects.

Overheating

Dark-coloured insects can absorb more sunlight than pale varieties, and increase their body temperature, so they can cope with cooler climates. In hotter climates, other and lighter-coloured species protect themselves against overheating by reflecting more sunlight. As the temperatures inch up with the decades, the darker coloured creatures must move to cooler places or perish.

There are other factors that influence distribution: water supplies and the plants on which insects depend are also changing with average temperatures. But the simple concentration on shade and depth of colour in species clears up a little of the confusion. The ability to absorb and reflect sunlight makes a big difference.

“Now we have an idea of what could be a strong cause
of the changes [in the insect fauna]”

“Until now, we could only watch the massive changes in the insect fauna during the last 20 years,” Zeuss said. “Now we have an idea of what could be a strong cause of the changes.”

Paradoxically, warmer winters can have a limiting effect of on some plant species. Melanie Harsch, of the University of Washington in Seattle, US, and colleagues report in PLOS One, the Public Library of Science journal that on Campbell Island, 600 kilometres south of New Zealand, warm spells in winter are actually limiting the growth of trees and shrubs.

Researchers have been taking temperature measurements there for more than 70 years, so scientists know that, since then, the climate has on average warmed by 0.6°C. But two long-lived species of evergreen haven’t grown much in average height, and nor have the trees moved up hill − something ecologists might expect with a rise in average warming.

Warm summers

Overall, the climate is cool – winters are never very cold, nor summers very warm − and there isn’t much snow, and the US scientists examined growth records to work out what was happening.

The plants won’t grow below 5°C, and winter temperatures hover below that figure. The problem is that the winters are getting warmer – at least for long enough for the trees to wake up from semi-dormancy and start growing again.

“When winter temperatures fluctuate between being cold and warm enough for growth, plants deplete their resources trying to photosynthesise, and end the winter with fewer reserves than they initially had,” said Dr Harsch. “In the summer, they have to play catch up.”

The other problem of a warmer winter was that seedlings got established, and competed to affect the growth of the older plants.

Quite possibly, a new order will be established, in which the island is warm enough for plants can grow all year round. “It’s this transition part that the plants are not adapted for,” Harsch explained. − Climate News Network

Potatoes pioneer crops swap trail

Potatoes pioneer crops swap trail

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Small-scale farmers from as far apart as Peru, China and Bhutan have agreed to share indigenous crop varieties in a pioneering initiative to help adaptation to climate change.

LONDON, 21 May − A warming climate may confront any of us with unfamiliar problems. The upside, though, is that people half a world away from each other may already have some answers.

Small-scale farmers on two continents – from Yunnan in China and from Bhutan and Peru − are now working together to help their communities to adapt to the impacts of a hotter world.

They have agreed to share indigenous crop varieties, and the knowledge needed to grow them in different climates and landscapes, in a scheme that aims to maintain resilient food systems relying on a number of crops, not simply monocultures.

The aim is also to provide the farmers with secure access to seeds each season, and to protect “food sovereignty”, so that they retain control of their harvests without agribusiness intervening.

Food security

The agreement was reached in late April at a meeting in the Potato Park, near the high-altitude Peruvian city of Cusco. The Park conserves 1,460 different potato varieties to protect food security in the face of climate change.

For the moment, the agreement involves only potatoes, although other species may be included later. The tubers themselves will not be swapped, but only in vitro material   –  with scientists from Peru‘s International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima alert to preventing any unwitting transfer of parasites or diseases.

“This partnership represents a unique alliance forged by indigenous peoples to overcome the threats to agriculture and food security in a changing climate,” said Alejandro Argumedo, the director of not-for-profit Asociación ANDES, one of the scheme’s organisers.

He told the Climate News Network that there was no comparable scheme “with this particular focus on climate change adaptation and biocultural heritage innovation as key to resilience”.

“Although our communities are half a world apart,
they share similar concerns.”

Yiching Song, from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: “Although our communities are half a world apart, they share similar concerns. Communities are stronger working together than apart.”

The head of CIP’s Gene Bank, David Ellis, said: “Achieving sustainable food security in a world with a growing population, changing diets and a changing climate is a major challenge. Alliances among farming communities and scientists, such as this one, are a critical element in the response to these challenges.”

Planting line

Farming communities in all three countries are already being affected by climate change, the scheme’s organisers say. They are experiencing higher temperatures, leading to more pests and reduced water availability. For example, in the Potato Park, high in the Peruvian Andes, glaciers are melting, and the top of the planting line has been reached, so farmers are having to find new areas to plant the potatoes.

Krystyna Swiderska, an agro-ecologist at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which helped to fund the farmers’ meeting, told the Network that the agreement was concentrating on species that would grow well in mountain conditions.

She said: “The focus will be on crops that perform well in harsh environments prone to droughts, frost, flooding, pests and so on, and on increasing diversity. The greater the diversity of crops th at communities have, the greater the chances of growing food in the face of increasingly extreme weather.”

Swiderska said Peru, Bhutan and China shared similar basic cultural values and traditional farming systems. The three countries also had been involved because they are participating in the Mountain Communities Initiative (MCI) meeting in Bhutan on climate change impacts, in the last week of May.

She believes that the Cusco agreement could work elsewhere. “The transfer of knowledge will be replicated at the MCI, which will involve 14 communities from 10 countries,” she said. “The transfer of seeds has not happened yet, but could potentially be replicated in other communities participating in the MCI and beyond.” − Climate News Network

Lapland’s mystery moths puzzle science

Lapland's mystery moths puzzle science

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LONDON, 22 April – Finnish and US scientists have an unsolved puzzle: good news when they expected bad news. They have invested 32 years studying the forest moths of Finnish Lapland to measure the effect of climate change – and there doesn’t seem on the face of it to have been a change. Yet between 1978 and 2009, average annual temperatures in the region rose by 2°C and precipitation was higher.

“You see it getting warmer, you see it getting wetter and you see that the moth populations are either staying the same or going up,” said Mark Hunter of the University of Michigan. “So you might think ‘Great. The moths like this warmer, wetter climate.’ But that is not what is happening.”

The study looked at population records for 80 species of moth, and found that 90% of them were stable or increasing through the three decades. But warmer temperatures and wetter seasons are more likely to reduce the rate of population growth: species tend to do best under the conditions to which they have adapted over thousands of years.

“So the only possibility is that something else other than climate change – some other factor that we did not measure – is buffering the moths from substantial population reductions and masking the negative effects of climate change,” Professor Hunter said.

He and his colleagues report in Global Change Biology that they used nocturnal light traps to catch 388,779 moths from 456 species at the Värriö Strict Nature Reserve inside the Arctic Circle, 100 kilometres from a road and about 6 km from the Russian frontier. They selected the data for the 80 most common species for statistical analysis.

Winners and losers

At such high latitudes, any change in climate means a change in vegetation and an altered ecosystem, which should affect insect numbers. So the logic suggests that some unknown forces are at work, to protect the moth numbers just when they should be going down.

Ecologists don’t like unexplained outcomes. Because insects are the most numerous animals on earth, because they are pests, pollinators, food sources and disease bearers, and because their numbers ought to be indicators of both annual and long-term climate change, ecologists like to know what happens to them, and when, and why.

Researchers in Europe and the US have repeatedly tested animal population responses to climate change to identify winners and losers and understand what makes one species a loser, another a winner.

A 20-year study by Ben Hatchwell and colleagues at the University of Sheffield in the UK has found that warm dry spring weather makes all the difference to long-tailed tits: these short-lived passerines stand a much better chance of rearing chicks and then surviving to the next year, and the next chance to breed. A cold wet autumn normally increases mortality, but a preceding warm dry spring can offset this effect, they report in the journal Oikos.

Wide implications

So the British ornithologists have an explanation for one bird’s good performance. The Finnish entomologists would like to know what helps keep the larvae alive and the moths aflutter in the warming, changing Arctic Circle. The question is important not just for one group of high-latitude moths: scientists could be misreading the effects of climate change across a whole suite of species because these effects might be masked by other, unidentified factors.

And it becomes increasingly important with a prediction, from the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Norway, that northern Europe could warm by 3°C in the winter by mid-century, with increasing rainfall.

Stefan Sobolowski and Robert Vaulard of the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute in France report in Environmental Research Letters that even if global average warming is kept to 2°C there will be “substantial and robust changes” across Europe. Against such a backdrop, it becomes important to know why one group of animals is doing better than expected – for the moment.

“The big unknown is how long this buffering will last,” said Professor Hunter. “Will it keep going indefinitely, or will the negative effects of climate change eventually just override these buffers, causing the moth populations to collapse?” – Climate News Network

UK seabirds sound climate warning

UK seabirds sound climate warning

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Once-familiar Scottish seabirds are among species whose numbers in the UK are falling sharply, scientists say – and the suspicion is that climate change is to blame.

LONDON, 28 March – Several familiar British birds are now showing drastic declines in numbers as the reality of climate change strikes home even at these temperate latitudes.

Scientists believe climate change is the driving force behind a crash in the numbers of kittiwakes, a seabird species which used to thrive in northern Scotland. The birds are doing so badly that there are fears some colonies could disappear entirely.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity. In a report to mark the publication on 31 March by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of its latest findings, the RSPB says that on current trends kittiwakes face extinction from areas that were once core strongholds.

It says that since 2000 kittiwake numbers have declined by 87% on Orkney and Shetland, two island groups north of the Scottish mainland. The islands were once home to thriving cliff colonies of thousands of birds, but today, the RSPB says, many cliffs are virtually empty in the breeding season.

It says research shows that sea temperature changes are affecting the availability of the birds’ preferred prey, small fish called sandeels.

Leadership challenge

Paul Walton, head of habitats and species for RSPB Scotland, says: “Ten years ago Marwick Head on Orkney was a thriving seabird city – but now it looks like a ghost town. Evidence points to rising sea surface temperatures driving huge declines and species shifts in plankton populations. This is the food of sandeels, and the sandeels are food for the birds.”

Two other seabirds are declining sharply. Razorbills are down 57% from a total of 2,228 in 2000 to just 966 in 2013, and guillemots have fallen by 46% during the same period.

The RSPB wants the Scottish Government to designate key seabird feeding sites as marine protected areas. But it says a much bigger challenge is to persuade world leaders to heed the warnings in the IPCC report and do more to tackle climate change.

Other UK wildlife and habitats are also threatened by climate change. Machair is a rare, wildlife-rich coastal grassland, mostly found on Scottish islands,  and home to a traditional agricultural system that works in close harmony with nature. Working the machair is a big part of Gaelic culture, supporting corncrakes, ringed plovers, dunlins and great yellow bumblebees.

The machair is singled out in the IPCC report as one of the habitats most threatened by climate change. The IPCC says rising sea-levels, and the increased risk of storms and flooding, will mean the land becomes increasingly eroded.

Compounding the pressure

Another British bird of concern to the RSPB is the Dartford warbler, found on the heathlands of southern England and very sensitive to the cold. The species has been steadily moving northwards, apparently because of climate change. It is declining on the southern edge of its range in Spain, and in the UK conservationists are working hard to create new heathland habitat for the birds to move into.

Dotterels are birds which breed only on the highest mountain tops of Scotland. Their numbers have fallen from 630 breeding males in 1999 to 423 in 2011. Again, the RSPB believes, climate change is the culprit.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, says: “Kittiwakes, dotterels and Dartford warblers are three examples of wildlife being affected on our doorstep, but further afield the picture is stark for a whole range of species.

“Climate change will compound the many existing pressures on wildlife including habitat destruction, the introduction of non-native invasive species, over-exploitation and pollution.

“The overwhelming scientific consensus suggests that unless we take urgent action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will commit many species to extinction this century. The silent kittiwake colonies on Orkney should be a warning.” – Climate News Network

Rockies flora show climate impact

Rockies flora show climate impact

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
An intensive study of the flora of one meadow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado over nearly 40 years reveals a widespread and consistent pattern of climate-induced change.

LONDON, 19 March – Two thirds of alpine flowers have changed their pattern of bloom in response to climate change. Half of them have begun to bloom weeks earlier than normal, one third are reaching their peak bloom well ahead of the traditional almanac date, and others are producing their last blooms later in the year.

The season of flowers – that feast for bees and butterflies, and a signal for insectivorous birds to make the most of their moment in the sun – is a month longer than it was four decades ago.

This conclusion comes with two qualifications. The first is that it is limited to one meadow in one location in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the US. But the other is that it is the product of a meticulous, painstaking 39-year-long study by one researcher. So it follows that since there is not much room for mistake or argument about the pattern in one well-studied location, then a similar pattern probably does apply in many upland temperate zone sites.

When David Inouye of the University of Maryland began his research, he was a graduate student who just wanted to know what sources of nectar were available for hummingbirds and bumble bees. So he started counting flowers about 3,000 metres above sea level in Crested Butte, Colorado, at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. And he carried on.

Big picture

He and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they chose 60 common wildflower species – most of them perennial herbs – and they specifically excluded the rarer species because there was not enough data. So they made their judgement on the basis of two million flower counts, during the 39-year interval in which summer air temperatures increased by about 0.4°C per decade and in which the spring snow melt advanced by about 3.5 days per decade.

And they also specifically looked at the entire pattern of spring and summer bloom: the big picture of what biologists call phenology, the timing of biological events, in one place.

“Most studies rely on first dates like flowering or migration, because they use historical data sets that were not intended as scientific studies”, said Professor Inouye. “First flowering is easy to observe. You don’t have to take the time to count the flowers. So that’s often the only information available. It has taken a lot of effort to get the comprehensive insights needed for this analysis which helps us understand how ecological communities are going to change in the future.”

Biologists around the world have begun to use phenological shifts as indicators of climate, and as a basis for future conservation plans, and all of them have observed a pattern of change.

Consistent findings

European researchers confirmed that plants were either moving to higher latitudes, or blooming earlier in response to global warming, and that birds, butterflies and blossoms were actually heading to higher altitudes. Some have used historic observations by one of America’s literary giants as the basis for their research into climate change, and others have looked at the consequences of changes in the plant timetable for the grazers and predators that depend on specific plant communities.

But Inouye and colleagues now think that much of the phenological evidence so far has underestimated the numbers of species that have altered their flowering times, and probably overestimated the magnitude of change: what matters in the field or the meadow is the sum of all the changes, and not just the first dates of flowering.

Inouye and students divided the meadow into 30 plots, and counted flowers every other day for 39 years, for five months every year. So because of the initial basis of the research, continued for so many years, the scientists had sure data on changes for individual species, including the first flowering, the peak flowering and the last blooms, along with a measure of changes in abundance.

The date of first flowering has advanced by six days per decade, the spring peak is on average five days earlier per decade, and the last flower of autumn has been three days later every decade. – Climate News Network

Climate science ‘is beyond argument’

Climate science 'is beyond argument'

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The Global Ocean Commission says climate change is one of the key threats to the health of the world’s marine life, which it says faces multiple pressures in a warming world.

HONG KONG, 17 March - South Africa’s former Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, has derided those who deny the scientific argument that climate change is an urgent problem caused largely by human activity.

He told journalists here: “The science is now incontrovertible. There are a few people in the world who deny it, but they are mainly in lunatic asylums.”

Mr Manuel is one of three co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of global leaders who have just ended a meeting here to finalise the proposals they will present to the United Nations in June.

The meeting agreed that another key threat to the world’s oceans is overfishing and the subsidies which help to make it possible. It says this, and the other factors causing ocean degradation, threaten the food security of as many as 500 million people.

It is deeply worried about pollution. With plastic remains now so pervasive that they are found even in deep seafloor sediments, Mr Manuel said, it sometimes seemed that “you might as well not bother to buy seafood at all – just buy the plastic bag it comes in and eat that.”

Shells corroded

The Commission says climate change threatens the oceans in three main ways: by raising the temperature of the water; by reducing its oxygen content; and by increasing its acidity. Antarctic pteropods, small sea snails also known as sea butterflies, are already being found with severely corroded shells because of acidification, and larger creatures, including bigger shellfish and corals, are likely to be seriously affected.

Another of the co-chairs, José María Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica, told the Climate News Network the Commission was concerned at the prospect of exploitation of the high seas in the Arctic as the region’s sea ice continues to melt.

He said: “Beyond Arctic countries’ EEZs (exclusive economic zones stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast), the melting will leave us with a doughnut-shaped hole in the Arctic high seas, which are not under international control.

“Some nations are now looking to explore there for fish, minerals, valuable biodiversity and other resources. I believe we should not go down that route.

We should listen to the science and follow the precautionary principle, keeping this pristine area off-limits for exploitation until we understand the consequences.

Coalition builders

“We’re already pushing the high seas to the limit. We don’t need to push them over the edge by a lack of proper precaution in the Arctic.”

He said: “The jury is still out on whether we have 20 or 30 years ahead as a window of opportunity to act. But why wait? Listen to the science, which is overwhelming, and to the economics, which are sound.”

Describing the Commission as “not just a bunch of treehuggers, but a group that’s grounded itself in good sound economics”, Mr Figueres said the recommendations it planned to present to the UN on 24 June would represent about 20% of its work. The other 80% would involve building coalitions around each recommendation: there are expected to be no more than 10 in total.

The Commission’s third co-chair is the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He told the Network: “Answers that sit on a shelf are a waste of time, and people who are positively inclined to protect the oceans are held back by institutional inertia.

“But the interplay between climate change and ocean damage is rising, and it very much needs to. The science of most of the last half-century shows us how we’ve been playing tricks with nature.” – Climate News Network