Heat-tolerant beans could help keep millions fed

Heat-tolerant beans could help keep millions fed

Plant researchers say new varieties of a tropical crop essential to people’s survival in Africa and Latin America can withstand the effects of global warming.

LONDON, 26 March, 2015 − Scientists believe they may have found how to safeguard a staple tropical crop, on which hundreds of millions of people depend, from the depredations of climate change.

They have discovered − through conventional breeding rather than genetic modification − 30 new “lines” (varieties) of beans that will thrive in the higher temperatures expected later this century, and which will pose a particular threat to harvests in Africa and Latin America.

The new “heat-beater” beans, an important source of protein for around 400 million people, have been identified by plant breeders with the CGIAR global agriculture research partnership.

Steve Beebe, a senior CGIAR bean researcher, announced at a conference in Ethiopia: “This discovery could be a big boon for bean production because we are facing a dire situation where, by 2050, global warming could reduce areas suitable for growing beans by 50%.

Worst-case scenario

“Incredibly, the heat-tolerant beans we tested may be able to handle a worst-case scenario where the build-up of greenhouse gases causes the world to heat up by an average of 4°C.

“Even if they can only handle a 3°C rise, that would still limit the bean production area lost to climate change to about 5%. And farmers could potentially make up for that by using these beans to expand their production of the crop in countries such as Nicaragua and Malawi, where beans are essential to survival.”

Dr Beebe told the Climate News Network: “So far, so good. Some of the lines are also drought-tolerant, and some are resistant to Bean Golden Yellow Mosaic Virus.

“We are taking these beans into a new environment that we don’t know from the bean perspective. . . Will we find more surprises?

“There are two caveats. First, so far the best lines are small red types for Central America and parts of East Africa, so we have a long road to improve a range of grain types, colours, etc.

“The other issue is that we are taking these beans into a new environment that we dont know from the bean perspective. We have seen that a soil pathogen, pythium, is more severe. Will we find more surprises?”

Rising heat as climate change intensifies is expected to disrupt bean production in central and South American countries, including Nicaragua, Haiti, Brazil and Honduras. African countries thought to be at risk are principally Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

Many of the new heat-tolerant beans developed by the CGIAR scientists are “crosses” of the common bean − which includes pinto, white, black, and kidney beans − and the tepary bean, a hardy survivor cultivated since pre-Columbian times in what is now part of northern Mexico and the southwest US.

Highly nutritious

Beans are often called the “meat of the poor”. They are highly nutritious, providing not only protein but fibre, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and other micronutrients. In addition to heat tolerance, CGIAR researchers are also breeding lines with a higher iron content, in an effort to tackle malnutrition.

The new beans are the result of CGIAR’s work to develop new crop varieties that can thrive in drastic weather extremes, based on research in its “genebanks”, which preserve the world’s largest seed collections of the most important staple crops.

The heat-beaters emerged from the testing of more than 1,000 bean lines − work that began as an effort to develop beans that could tolerate poor soils and drought.

The focus turned to heat-tolerance following a 2012 report from CGIAR scientists warning that heat was a much bigger threat to bean production than previously believed. − Climate News Network

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Climate is now main worry for conservation group

Climate is now main worry for conservation group

The devastating effects of a changing climate have become the biggest challenge faced by a leading protector of the UK countryside.

LONDON, 24 March, 2015 − The head of one of the UK’s best-known conservation groups says the greatest threat to its work is now climate change.

Dame Helen Ghosh, director-general of the National Trust, told BBC Radio that there is devastation of wild Britain and the creatures that live there. “Who would have thought that the house sparrow and hedgehog were going to become rare?” she said.

“For the future and we see this on our coastline, in our countryside, even in our houses climate change, we think, is the big threat to us.”

The Trust is the charity responsible for the care of countryside and historic houses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland).

It is also one of Britain’s largest landowners, with 600,000 acres (250,000 hectares) and 700 miles (1,125 km) of coastline in its care, and more than 300 historic buildings − all held in trust for the future.

About 20 million people go to the Trust’s houses and gardens annually, but 200 million visit its upland, lowland and coastal sites.

Destruction of habitats

Dame Helen said: “The main challenge to our conservation purpose is the destruction of habitats, of wildlife − the fact that we see precious species 60% in decline.”

She suggested that, apart from climate, the other cause of that was intensive land management.

When it comes to recognising the risks of a warming world, Dame Helen is certainly well qualified. As a former leading civil servant, one of her last jobs before joining the Trust was to head the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which at that time had climate change as one of its responsibilities.

As part of its efforts to help address climate change, Dame Helen said the Trust would be getting 50% of the energy it uses in its houses and properties from renewable sources by 2020.

For example, she said, there would be “lots of hydro schemes across the country, lots of biomass boilers” as part of the renewable energy policy. The Trust aims to reduce its own energy consumption by about 20%.

It will also be working with its own tenant farmers, she said, “to try to make sure that land is farmed in environmentally-friendly ways that we get production, and also the bees and the butterflies”. Climate News Network

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Climate change can skew fish gender ratios

Climate change can skew fish gender ratios

Scientists find that zebrafish exposed to hormone-disrupting chemical pollution produce abnormal numbers of male offspring, especially in increasingly warmer water.

LONDON, 10 March, 2015 – Climate change seems to make everything worse – at least for some wild creatures. British scientists have just confirmed that higher temperatures could amplify the impact of hormone-disrupting chemicals that already pollute the environment.

The world’s waterways are full of industrial pollutants with potentially damaging effects. They include industrial agents, the waste products of birth-control pills, herbicides, pharmaceuticals and even the residues of illegal narcotics. Altogether, more than 800 chemicals have been identified as having some hormone-disrupting capacity.

Ross Brown, then with AstraZeneca Research and now at the University of Exeter, and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they decided to look at the long-term effects of clotrimazole, a chemical commonly used in antifungal treatments and believed to disrupt hormones and interfere with the sex ratios of fish and amphibians.

Conservationists – and others – have worried for decades about the build-up of such chemicals in the environment. They have cited them as possible threats to biodiversity, and have produced evidence that they could be implicated in sexual abnormalities in some species.

Extinction risk

But these have been regarded as a separate problem, and not part of the mix of stresses that could accompany climate change.

The British scientists tested a well-established laboratory and aquarium favourite,  the zebrafish (Danio rerio). This is the first fish to have its entire genome sequenced – which means researchers already know a great deal about its life cycle, physiology and development.

So the scientists observed normal spawning at the temperatures in which the fish evolved, and five degrees higher, at the 33°C projected for its home waters in 2100.

In the tests, the water level of endocrine-disrupting clotrimazole was also at levels found polluting the world’s waterways today.

Temperature plays a powerful role in determining the sex of some as yet unborn members of certain species. Warmer temperatures can make female status more likely for crocodilians, some lizards and turtles and tortoises. Higher temperatures, however, are likely to encourage higher ratios of male lizards, fish and amphibians.

Since, in normal conditions, temperatures vary around an average, the numbers of males and females in a population tend to even out. But in reproduction, it’s the females that matter more. So a sustained tilt towards maleness could threaten a population’s survival.

Double jeopardy

The researchers found that the zebrafish exposed to the chemical pollutant produced an abnormally high percentage of male offspring. This ratio got even higher when the fish were confronted with the double whammy of clotrimazole and warmer waters.

Fish that were inbred were the most likely to respond, while fish from a genetically-diverse heritage were somewhat less affected.

The implication is that endangered species living in small populations in isolated waters could be at greater risk of extinction.

This was a controlled laboratory experiment, conducted under very precisely-measured conditions, on one well-studied species.

The real world is a messier place, and outcomes 80 years on for other freshwater fish and amphibians exposed to an unpredictable suite of stresses are harder to predict.

But the zebrafish, a native of the Indian subcontinent and often a citizen of the flooded rice paddies, is also likely to experience a wide range of chemical pollutants. So conditions in the wild could be even worse.

“Chemicals in the environment are usually looked at in isolation, but in reality animals are exposed to multiple stressful events at the same time,” says the report’s senior author, bioscientist Charles Tyler, of the University of Exeter. “They include changes in temperature, food scarcity, or harmful chemicals.

“It is important that we understand how these pressures interact if we are to understand the real impact of rising global temperatures and increasing levels of pollution.” – Climate News Network

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Serious doubts over Europe’s GHG reduction target

Serious doubts over Europe’s GHG reduction target

Europe has made substantial progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but its long-term reduction aims look unachievable, says a new report.

LONDON, 9 March, 2015 − The 28 countries of the European Union (EU) have set themselves a collective target of cutting emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs) by between 80% and 95% by 2050, but  a major report just released says there’s little hope of achieving that goal.

Every five years, the European Environment Agency (EEA) produces a comprehensive study, and the latest says projected declines in GHG emissions are not nearly enough to reach the long-term target of decarbonising most of Europe’s economy by mid-century.

The report says there has been considerable progress in recent years on reducing Europe’s GHG emissions to 19.2% below 1990 levels. while, at the same time, gross domestic product across the EU has increased by 45%. EU per capita emissions fell from 11.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 9 tonnes in 2012.

The trouble is that this progress is very unlikely to be maintained over the long term unless the entire EU economy is revamped and there are very substantial investments in renewables.

Hard part ahead

The cut in GHG emissions was largely achieved through economic restructuring in eastern Europe following the collapse of the old Soviet Union and associated states. Polluting energy and industrial plants were closed, and agricultural practices modernised.

The 2008 economic crisis also caused a dip in emissions, while EU policies aimed at achieving greater energy efficiency have also played an important role in reducing emissions.

That, in many ways, was the easy part. Now comes the big challenge: in order to achieve its long-term emissions reduction objective, Europe needs a wholesale reorganisation of its economy, says the EEA, and also needs to become less resource-hungry.

Fossil fuels still dominate energy production, accounting for 75% of energy supply in 2011 − the most recent year for which comprehensive statistics are available.

Progress achieved

“The EU will need to accelerate its implementation of new policies, while restructuring the ways that Europe meets its demand for energy, food, transport and housing,” the report says.

Short-term goals can be achieved, says the EEA, and the EU is on track to meet its target of producing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Renewables accounted for 11% of EU energy production in 2012 – up from 4% in 1990.

It is a similar story across much of the European environment. Progress has been made over recent years in improving water systems, waste collection and recycling, and in rehabilitating some ecosystems.

“In many parts of Europe, the local environment is arguably in as good a state today as it has been since the start of industrialisation,” the report says. “Reduced pollution, nature protection and better waste management have all contributed.”

Worsening air

At the same time, what the report refers to as Europe’s natural capital is being seriously degraded by the activities of agriculture, fisheries, industries and  tourism. Urban sprawl is also having a negative impact.

In some regions, ecosystems are in a dire state, and the EU is not on track to meet its 2020 target on halting biodiversity loss.

Air quality is a particular concern.  The EEA estimates that more than 400,000 people in Europe died prematurely in 2011 due to breathing in toxic fumes. In some areas, air quality is getting worse, not better. And land is under severe pressure.

The report says that “loss of soil functions, land degradation and climate change remain major concerns, threatening the flows of environmental goods and services that underpin Europe’s economic output and well-being”. −  Climate News Network

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CO2 fertiliser effect stimulates insect attacks on forests

CO2 fertiliser effect stimulates insect attacks on forests

Study in US forests shows that extra CO2 absorbed as the planet warms will encourage growth of leaves − but also the insects that eat them.

LONDON, 5 March, 2015 − Insects could be about to complicate things for climate scientists who want to model the carbon budget in a warming world.

As more carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere, the trees should respond, put on extra growth and soak up more carbon. But if herbivorous insects start to respond to a warmer world, this classic instance of what engineers call negative feedback could become a little more complicated.

Entomologists John Couture, and Richard Lindroth, and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, report in the journal Nature Plants on the results of a large-scale, extended outdoor experiment in which aspen and birch trees were subjected to heightened levels of carbon dioxide and ozone.

Although the trees had been planted in natural conditions, a network of pipes supplied the environment around them with levels of greenhouse gases predicted for 2060.

Extracted nutrition

The scientists collected leaf samples from the plantation canopy and detritus from the ground beneath the trees to begin a calculation of the production and loss of biomass every season. The cut leaves provided a clue to insect damage, and the insect excrement separately told a story of extracted nutrition.

They found that although the carbon dioxide did indeed fertilise the forests, the extra growth also stimulated insect attack. The levels of damage by very hungry caterpillars and other herbivores almost doubled. Every year, across ever square metre, insect pests and parasites consumed 70 grams of carbon-sequestering biomass.

“The big question is, will northern forests grow faster under elevated carbon dioxide?”

They found that if accompanying ozone levels were higher – and low-level ozone in some places could increase in a warmer world – then the losses were significantly less. Ozone is also toxic to plants, so this may not be of long-term comfort either.

“This is the first time, at this scale, that insects have been shown to compromise the ability of forests to take up carbon dioxide,” Professor Lindroth says.

The key word here is scale. The study was conducted in the real world, rather than in a laboratory or a computer simulation.

But it was still limited to a selection of sample plots, so the question remains open as to whether, at the global level, plants will take up more carbon, or whether the insects eat up the difference and return it to the atmosphere?

Carbon cycle

Research such as this is a reminder that the world is a complicated place, and the details of the carbon cycle are likely to go on giving climate scientists a headache for years to come.

The extra fertilisation by carbon dioxide didn’t make the trees more nutritious, or more appetising: if anything, the reverse. Think of the difference between processed white bread and a high-density, nourishing loaf from a master baker.

“There’s a lot more protein in the bakery bread than in the white bread,” Dr Couture says. “Insects have a base level of nutrients they need in order to grow, and to reach that they can choose either to eat higher-nutrient food – unfortunately insects don’t always have that choice – or to eat more.”

And Professor Lindroth adds: “The big question is, will northern forests grow faster under elevated carbon dioxide? Carbon dioxide is a substrate for photosynthesis. It gets converted into sugars, which then become plant biomass. Will trees take up more carbon dioxide, and thus help reduce its increase in the atmosphere?” – Climate News Network

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Ancient shells offer evidence of how Ice Age ended

Ancient shells offer evidence of how Ice Age ended

Ocean sediment reveals that release of carbon stored deep in the sea is linked to the rise in atmospheric CO2 that caused the world to warm.

LONDON, 13 February, 2015 − Scientists believe they may have cracked the mystery of the end of the last ice age. The temperatures suddenly soared, and the glaciers went into retreat, because the deep southern ocean released huge quantities of carbon dioxide.

And the convincing answers have been delivered by analysis of the composition of calcium carbonate shells of ancient marine organisms.

The link between human burning of fossil fuels and the steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was proposed more than a century ago and firmly established in the last 30 years.

But the ups and downs of planetary temperatures before the emergence of human civilisation are harder to explain. Fossil evidence suggests a link with carbon dioxide levels, but not necessarily a cause.

Bygone climates

Now paleoceanographer Miguel Martínez-Botí, from the University of Southampton, UK, and ocean and climate change researcher Gianluca Marino, from the Australian National University, report in Nature that they found their evidence in sediment cores – in effect, annual records of bygone climates – rich in the shells of tiny foraminifera called Globigerina bulloides.

This is a species that flourishes in conditions of high nutrients, acting as a kind of biological pump, gulping carbon from the atmosphere.

They found that high concentrations of carbon dioxide dissolved in surface waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean and the eastern equatorial Pacific coincided with rises in atmospheric CO2 at the end of the last ice age.

The implication is that these regions were the source of the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

“Our findings support the theory that a series of processes in the Southern Ocean changed the amount of carbon in the deep sea”

At their coldest, during the ice ages, carbon dioxide levels fell to 185 parts per million. During the interglacials, when the world warmed and lions and hyenas roamed the plains of Europe, the carbon dioxide levels rose to 280 ppm.

Right now, thanks to human activity, CO2 levels are rising ominously towards 400 ppm.

The oceans are home to about 60 times more carbon than the atmosphere and can, it seems, surrender it rapidly.

“The magnitude and rapidity of the swings in atmospheric CO2 across the ice age cycles suggest that changes in ocean carbon storage are important drivers of natural atmospheric CO2 variations,” Dr Martínez-Botí says.

“Our findings support the theory that a series of processes operating in the southernmost sector of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, a region known as the Southern Ocean, changed the amount of carbon in the deep sea.

Into the abyss

“While a reduction in communication between the deep sea and the atmosphere in this region potentially locks carbon away from the atmosphere into the abyss during ice ages, the opposite occurs during warm interglacial periods.”

To arrive at their conclusion, the scientists had to analyse subtle evidence from the isotopic composition of the carbonate shells, and then use mathematical techniques to reconstruct a story of a great, faraway sigh of carbon dioxide from the ocean to the atmosphere.

The finding, based on calculated probabilities, is incomplete as there may have been other forces also at play.

Gavin Foster, associate professor in isotope geochemistry at the University of Southampton, says: “While our results support a primary role for the Southern Ocean processes in these natural cycles, we don’t yet know the full story. Other processes operating in other parts of the ocean, such as the north Pacific, may have an additional role to play.” – Climate News Network

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Power brokers’ chains hold back forests protection

Power brokers’ chains hold back forests protection

UK thinktank says inaction by the ‘Forest 500’ means global efforts to end deforestation by 2030 are not keeping pace with the rate of destruction.

LONDON, 11 February, 2015 − The world will not, on present rates of progress, reach its goal of ending tropical deforestation within 15 years.

The Global Canopy Programme (GCP), a thinktank based in Oxford, UK, says many of those who could protect the forests by ensuring that deforestation does not contribute to commodity supply chains are failing to act.

The GCP, which draws together international experts on tropical forests, has compiled what it says is the first comprehensive ranking of the “Forest 500 − power brokers who control the global supply chains that drive over half of tropical deforestation.

Influential actors

It has identified, assessed and ranked 250 companies, with total annual revenues of more than US$4.5 trillion; 150 investors and lenders; 50 countries and regions; and 50 other influential actors, as it calls them – a wide-ranging group of banks, international agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Together, the 500 control the complex global supply chains of key “forest risk commodities” − such as soya, palm oil, beef, leather, timber, pulp and paper − that have an annual trade value of more than $100 billion and are found in over 50% of packaged products in supermarkets.

The GCP says only a small minority of the 500 have equipped themselves to tackle this problem, which makes a significant contribution to climate change and other environmental problems, as well as worsening poverty.

Deforestation and land use change cause more than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, undermine regional water security, and threaten the livelihoods of more than a billion people.

Assessed against dozens of policy indicators, only seven of the Forest 500 scored the maximum number of points − companies Groupe Danone (France), Kao Corp. (Japan), Nestlé S.A. (Switzerland), Procter & Gamble (US), Reckitt Benckiser Group (UK), Unilever (UK), and banking and financial services giant HSBC (UK).

“Deforestation is in our chocolate and our toothpaste, our animal feed and textbooks, buildings and furniture, investments and pensions”

At the other end of the scale, the GCP says, 30 companies − many based in Asia and the Middle East − and numerous investors scored zero points. Countries received varied scores, with Latin American nations scoring high in forested regions and the Netherlands and Germany coming top among countries that import forest risk commodities.

Of investors assessed, sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds scored very low for their sustainable investment policies, while banks achieved higher scores.

“We are currently all part of a global deforestation economy,” says Mario Rautner, a GCP programme manager.  “Deforestation is in our chocolate and our toothpaste, our animal feed and our textbooks, our buildings and our furniture, our investments and our pensions.”

“Our goal with the Forest 500 is to provide precise and actionable information to measure the progress of society to achieve zero deforestation.

Global supply chains

“Together, these 500 countries, companies and investors have the power to clean up global supply chains and virtually put an end to tropical deforestation.”

He adds: “Though the Forest 500 findings highlight that much work needs to be done, the good news is that a number of big players across sectors are demonstrating the leadership that is needed.

“Putting policies in place is just the necessary first step in addressing tropical deforestation, and their implementation will be critical in order to transition to deforestation-free supply chains by 2020.”

At the UN Climate Summit last year, prominent representatives from business, governments, indigenous communities and civil society signed the New York Declaration on Forests. It spells out ambitious commitments to halve deforestation by 2020 and to end it by 2030.

A similar pledge to achieve net zero deforestation by 2020 has been made by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global association of companies and service providers, including major manufacturers and retailers. − Climate News Network

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Climate change triggers threats to marine ecosystems

Climate change triggers threats to marine ecosystems

A two-way migration of fish species between the northern Pacific and Atlantic as oceans warm could have drastic ecological and commercial impacts.

LONDON, 7 February, 2015 − The Atlantic halibut is about to go where no Atlantic halibut has gone before – into the Pacific. And it could meet the Alaska pollock coming in the other direction.

Just as marine commerce could soon exploit the opening of the fabled north-west or north-east passages between the two great oceans, so could at least 80 species of fish.

Mary Wisz, an ecologist now with the Danish DHI group, but formerly at the Arctic Research Centre of Aarhus University in Denmark, reports with colleagues in Nature Climate Change that as sea temperatures increase, and food sources begin to flourish at the highest latitudes, shoals of fish from the Atlantic could reach the Pacific along once almost impassable seaways north of Arctic Canada and Siberia.

Northerly species

The last such large-scale transfer was nearly three million years ago, with the opening of the Bering Strait. But climate conditions that were once harsh have begun to open migration opportunities for the northerly species in both oceans, the researchers say.

Such changes have happened before. Since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Mediterranean has been invaded by 55 Red Sea species, with a “drastic impact” on commercial fisheries.

Fish are already moving north in response to climate change, and Dr Wisz and her colleagues modelled what would happen to 515 species of fish under predicted conditions of global warming later this century.

By 2050, the scientists believe, trans-Arctic traffic will accelerate, and by 2100, 41 Atlantic species − among them cod and herring − could reach the Pacific, while 44 species could get into the Atlantic.

They warn: “This exchange of fish species may trigger changes in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, with ecological and economic consequences to ecosystems that at present contribute 39% to global marine fish landings.”

Changes to marine chemistry also threaten the balance of power in the oceans

The Danish-led team was essentially modelling temperature, currents and spawning strategies to see which species were most likely to find new grounds. But changes to marine chemistry also threaten the balance of power in the oceans.

The seas are predicted to become more acidic as more carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere, and this change in water chemistry is likely to affect not just fish and shellfish but also entire communities of creatures.

Scientists have tested the fauna that foul ships’ hulls. These are the tiny barnacles and squirts that attach themselves to hard surfaces wherever they can in the oceans.

Lloyd Peck, a biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, and colleagues report in Global Change Biology that they tested creatures from a lagoon off the Algarve in Portugal, in aquarium tanks.

One set of tanks was filled with normal sea water; in the other set, the sea water was set at levels of acidity predicted to be normal within the next 50 years. Within 100 days, in the more acid tanks, the make-up of the community that colonised the hard surfaces had begun to change.

Worms with hard shells in the more acidic tanks were reduced to a fifth of their normal levels, but sponges and sea squirts multiplied twofold and even fourfold.

“Our experiment shows the response of one biofouling community to a very rapid change in acidity,” said Professor Peck. “What’s interesting is that the increased acidity at the levels we studied destroys not only the building blocks in the outer shell of the worms itself, but the binding that holds it together.

“Many individuals perish, but we also showed their larvae and juveniles are also unable to establish and create their hard exoskeletons.”

Altered behaviour

Climate change could also alter the behaviour of the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, according to an international team led by Professor Kyle Van Houtan, of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, US.

The researchers studied six years of turtle observations off Oahu, Hawaii, and 24 years of satellite data for sea surface temperatures in regions that are home to 11 populations of the turtle.

They report in Biology Letters that they know why the turtles crawl up onto the beach to bask. Not all populations bask, but the ones that do tend to sprawl in the sand do so to regulate body temperatures, and were least likely to bask when local winter sea temperatures stayed above 23°C. When the seas stayed warm, the turtles stayed in the water.

Given the predicted ocean temperature rises over the next century, the scientists calculate that green turtles may stop basking altogether by 2100. – Climate News Network

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EU aids shoppers to steer clear of harmful palm oil

EU aids shoppers to steer clear of harmful palm oil

New food labelling rules on giving consumers in Europe more information should help to protect the world’s tropical forests and the climate.

LONDON, 6 February, 2015 A European Union decision to give consumers more information about the food they buy could mean good news for tropical countries whose forests are threatened by the expanding trade in palm oil.

Palm oil is found in 50% of supermarket products, such as soaps and shampoos, and in many sorts of food. But the EU requirement that food products containing the oil must now be labelled clearly should help to dispel doubts about the damage it can cause.

Producing the oil often involves felling virgin rainforest, reducing biodiversity and destroying the habitat of endangered species such as orangutans, elephants and tigers, and ruining the livelihoods of local people.

It also involves the release of large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when carbon-rich tropical forests are cleared for plantations.

Short-term impact

The EU move is not expected to change things overnight. Simon Counsell, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said: “We imagine that the impact in the short term will be fairly limited, as it’s hard to see busy people scanning through a long list of ingredients on manufactured foods to see if the product contains palm oil.

“So we believe there is still very much a need for a clear and simple product guide such as ours, so that people can know to avoid altogether products that contain palm oil.”

Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85% of the global palm oil supply, and wholesale logging there is a direct threat to some of the last remaining habitats of orangutans. There are thought to be around only 60,000 surviving in the wild.

Elizabeth Clarke, business and biodiversity programme manager at the Zoological Society of London, said: “Palm oil production is vital to the economies of countries where it is grown, but it also has serious negative environmental impacts, particularly if grown unsustainably.

“We don’t have any space left to farm − we don’t benefit from anything”

“We are working with the industry to promote sustainable practices and responsible investment through our new Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit, SPOTT.

“More is needed to reduce pressures on wildlife, ensuring a future for the remaining 300 Sumatran tigers whose habitat is at severe risk of being lost from deforestation as a result of irresponsible practices.”

New areas face threats in Africa and Latin America. In the Congo, for example, a million acres are already being cultivated for palm oil, with a further 284 million acres of pristine rainforest currently at risk. The Congo contains the world’s second largest tropical rainforest − after the Amazon − and is one of the most important wilderness areas left on Earth.

Many people living in the forests feel powerless. Chief André Sayom, head of the village of Nkollo, in Cameroon, told the Rainforest Foundation: “We don’t have any space left to farm. We don’t benefit from anything. We’ve been displaced more than once already.

Explicit statement

Life becomes very difficult when these multinationals set foot somewhere. These projects need to be looked at in the long term, and populations need to be informed and consulted”.

The new EU rules, introduced last December, require companies that use palm oil in their food products to label them with an explicit statement, rather than simply relying on vague, catch-all references to “vegetable oil”. They can also now highlight their use of certified sustainable palm oil

Unilever is one of the world’s major buyers of palm oil, purchasing around 1.5 million tonnes annually about 3% of global production. It promised that all the oil directly sourced for its European foods business would be 100% traceable and certified sustainable from the end of 2014.

Palm oil production is big business. The industry is worth $44 billion, with the world consuming 55 million tonnes in 2013 − nearly four times the 1990 total. And the World Bank expects today’s global demand to have doubled by 2020. Climate News Network

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Climate cranks up extinction threat to Borneo mammals

Climate cranks up extinction threat to Borneo mammals

Endangered species in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots face even greater danger as climate change adds to loss of habitat caused by deforestation.

LONDON, 3 February, 2015 − One in three of the mammal species of Borneo could see their habitat reduced by a third by 2080 − just because of climate change alone.

Given that the rainforests of Borneo are right now also being felled, burned and converted to commercial plantation, nearly half of all mammal species will lose more than a third of their remaining home range within the next 65 years.

Among the first to feel the heat will be those species that are already endangered – creatures such as the greater nectar bat, the otter civet, and the flat-headed cat.

Conservation challenge

Matthew Struebig, a tropical ecologist at the University of Kent, in the UK, and colleagues report in the journal Current Biology that they considered the challenge of conservation in one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots − but which is also under pressure from population growth, economic expansion and continued pressure on the last stands of one of the world’s great forests.

The researchers assembled a comprehensive map and inventory of data for 13 species of primate, 23 carnivores and 45 kinds of bat. Altogether, they examined 6,921 records and observations.

“Only a modest amount of additional land . . . would be needed outside of existing reserves to safeguard many mammal species”

They developed a framework to model the amount of suitable habitat that each of their 81 species needed, and tried to identify the forest land that – if saved from the woodsman’s axe – would be best suited as a natural reserve for that species.

Then they set about incorporating future conditions, dependent on different climate data. They ended up with eight versions for each species: a total of 4,698 maps describing the habitats of the large and small animals that swing through the tree canopy, nest in tree trunks, or hunt among the roots and underbrush.

It was calculated that somewhere between 11% and 36% of the island’s mammal species would lose 30% of their habitat by 2080, and the ecological conditions that suited them best would move uphill by between 23% and 46%, as global climate warmed because of greenhouse gas emissions.

Commercial pressures

Deforestation – which happens because of economic and commercial pressures, and is independent of climate change – would make things worse, so that 30% to 49% would lose a significant slice of living space.

Warnings like these are intended to prevent extinction − to preserve some of the remarkable fruits of millions of years of evolution − and the researchers will be presenting their findings to the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

“Only a modest amount of additional land on Borneo – about 28,000 square kilometres, or 4% of the island – would be needed outside of existing reserves to safeguard many mammal species against threats from deforestation and climate change,” Dr Struebig says. – Climate News Network

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