The Antarctic is feeling the heat

New research shows that for the last 50 years, much of Antarctica has been warming at a rate comparable to the rest of the world. In fact, the warming in West Antarctica is greater than the cooling in East Antarctica, meaning that on average the continent has gotten warmer.

The researchers devised a statistical technique that uses data from satellites and from Antarctic weather stations to make a new estimate of temperature trends.

“People were calculating with their heads instead of actually doing the math,” Steig said. “What we did is interpolate carefully instead of just using the back of an envelope. While other interpolations had been done previously, no one had really taken advantage of the satellite data, which provide crucial information about spatial patterns of temperature change.”

Satellites calculate the surface temperature by measuring the intensity of infrared light radiated by the snowpack, and they have the advantage of covering the entire continent. However, they have only been in operation for 25 years. On the other hand, a number of Antarctic weather stations have been in place since 1957, the International Geophysical Year, but virtually all of them are within a short distance of the coast and so provide no direct information about conditions in the continent’s interior.

The scientists found temperature measurements from weather stations corresponded closely with satellite data for overlapping time periods. That allowed them to use the satellite data as a guide to deduce temperatures in areas of the continent without weather stations.

“Simple explanations don’t capture the complexity of climate,” Steig said. “The thing you hear all the time is that Antarctica is cooling and that’s not the case. If anything it’s the reverse, but it’s more complex than that. Antarctica isn’t warming at the same rate everywhere, and while some areas have been cooling for a long time the evidence shows the continent as a whole is getting warmer.”

A major reason most of Antarctica was thought to be cooling is because of a hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer that appears during the spring months in the Southern Hemisphere’s polar region. Steig noted that it is well established that the ozone hole has contributed to cooling in East Antarctica.

“However, it seems to have been assumed that the ozone hole was affecting the entire continent when there wasn’t any evidence to support that idea, or even any theory to support it,” he said.

“In any case, efforts to repair the ozone layer eventually will begin taking effect and the hole could be eliminated by the middle of this century. If that happens, all of Antarctica could begin warming on a par with the rest of the world.”

More information here.

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Chemicals in UK drinking water causing declining male fertility

Pulled from sciencedaily.com:

The study identified a new group of chemicals that act as ‘anti-androgens’. This means that they inhibit the function of the male hormone, testosterone, reducing male fertility. Some of these are contained in medicines, including cancer treatments, pharmaceutical treatments, and pesticides used in agriculture. The research suggests that when they get into the water system, these chemicals may play a pivotal role in causing feminising effects in male fish.

Earlier research by Brunel University and the University of Exeter has shown how female sex hormones (estrogens), and chemicals that mimic estrogens, are leading to ‘feminisation’ of male fish. Found in some industrial chemicals and the contraceptive pill, they enter rivers via sewage treatment works. This causes reproductive problems by reducing fish breeding capability and in some cases can lead to male fish changing sex.

Other studies have also suggested that there may be a link between this phenomenon and the increase in human male fertility problems caused by testicular dysgenesis syndrome. Until now, this link lacked credence because the list of suspects causing effects in fish was limited to estrogenic chemicals whilst testicular dysgenesis is known to be caused by exposure to a range of anti-androgens.

Lead author on the research paper, Dr Susan Jobling at Brunel University’s Institute for the Environment, said: “We have been working intensively in this field for over ten years. The new research findings illustrate the complexities in unravelling chemical causation of adverse health effects in wildlife populations and re-open the possibility of a human – wildlife connection in which effects seen in wild fish and in humans are caused by similar combinations of chemicals. We have identified a new group of chemicals in our study on fish, but do not know where they are coming from. A principal aim of our work is now to identify the source of these pollutants and work with regulators and relevant industry to test the effects of a mixture of these chemicals and the already known environmental estrogens and help protect environmental health.”

Senior author Professor Charles Tyler of the University of Exeter said: “Our research shows that a much wider range of chemicals than we previously thought is leading to hormone disruption in fish. This means that the pollutants causing these problems are likely to be coming from a wide variety of sources. Our findings also strengthen the argument for the cocktail of chemicals in our water leading to hormone disruption in fish, and contributing to the rise in male reproductive problems. There are likely to be many reasons behind the rise in male fertility problems in humans, but these findings could reveal one, previously unknown, factor.”

Rise up! against corporate destruction of the biosphere

This documentary film depicts the ongoing threat of pollution from the pulp and paper manufacturing industry, and how over time the problem has moved from north to south. Today fishermen and surfers fight for clean water in Southern Chile, where the almighty company known as Celco spews toxic waste into the ocean environment. Featuring big wave surfing and interviews with both local and internationally recognized surfers, All Points South is a film you don’t want to miss. Due for release in the Fall of 2009. Directed by Sachi Cunningham. Produced by Will Henry. Written by Josh Berry and Will Henry. Edited by Gregory O’Toole, with camerawork by Angel Marin, Vince Deur, and Majo Calderon.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

More information here.

Avoiding chaotic ecosystem changes

The USGS has just published a report looking into the catastrophic effects that even small climatic changes could have on ecosystems. The report focuses around the idea of ecological thresholds, these are sudden changes that can have lasting negative consequences on ecosystems. The initial crossing of a threshold can create a domino-like effect, in which each state change subsequently alters the conditions causing further state changes:

A clear example comes from recent observations of the Arctic tundra, where the effects of warmer temperatures have included reduced snow cover duration, which leads to reduced reflectivity of the surface. Reduced reflectivity causes greater absorption of solar energy, resulting in local warming, which, in turn, further accelerates the loss of snow cover. This amplified, positive feedback effect quickly leads to warmer conditions that foster the invasion of shrubs into the tundra. The new shrubs themselves then further reduce albedo and add to the local warming. The net result is a relatively sudden, domino-like chain of events that result in conversion of the arctic tundra to shrubland, triggered by a relatively slight increase in temperature.

These kind of complex feedback reactions to external changes make conserving and managing ecosystems particularly difficult. This level of difficultly decreases as we develop more scientific understanding and certainty about the processes occurring in these systems. The report suggests some possible actions that could increase the likelihood of adapting to any lurking changes:

To better understand and prepare for ecological threshold crossings and their consequences, it is essential to increase the resilience of ecosystems and thus to slow or prevent the crossing of thresholds; to identify early warning signals of impending threshold changes; and to employ adaptive management strategies to deal with new conditions, new successional trajectories and new combinations of species. Better integration of existing monitoring information across a range of spatial scales will be needed to detect potential thresholds, and research will need to focus on ecosystems undergoing a threshold shift to better understand the underlying processes. In a world being altered by climate change, natural resource managers may also have to be increasingly nimble, and adjust their goals for desired states of resources away from static, historic benchmarks and focus on increased resilience, biodiversity, and adaptive capacity as measures of success.

A recently widely reported incidence of a human-induced ecosystem state shift was on sub-Antarctic island of Macquarie. This is an example in which interventions by conservationists have resulted in unforeseen and undesirable consequences. This demonstrates how careful natural resource managers have to be when attempting to control an invasive species in a complex ecosystem.  An excerpt from a Guardian article tells us that:

Things began to go wrong on Macquarie Island, halfway between Australia and Antarctica, soon after it was discovered in 1810. The island’s fur seals, elephant seals and penguins were killed for fur and blubber, but it was the rats and mice that jumped from the sealing ships that started the problem. Cats were quickly introduced to keep the rodents from precious food stores. Rabbits followed some 60 years later, as part of a tradition to leave the animals on islands to give shipwrecked sailors something to eat.

Given easy prey, cats feasted on the hapless rabbits and feline numbers quickly grew. The island then lost two endemic flightless birds, a rail and a parakeet. Meanwhile, the rabbits bred rapidly and nibbled the island’s precious vegetation.

By the 1970s, some 130,000 rabbits were causing so much damage that the notorious disease myxomatosis was the latest foreign body introduced to Macquarie, which took the rabbit population down to under 20,000 within a decade.

“The island’s vegetation then began to recover,” Bergstrom says.

But what was good for the vegetation proved bad for the island’s wildlife. With fewer rabbits around, the established cats turned instead to local burrowing birds. By 1985, conservationists deemed it necessary to shoot the cats.

The last cat was killed in 2000, but the conservationists were horrified to see rabbit populations soar. Myxomatosis failed to keep numbers down, and the newly strong rabbit population quickly reversed decades of vegetation recovery.

Writing in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Bergstrom’s team describes how the rabbits have now stripped some 40% of the island bare. “When rabbits first move into coastal areas, the lush slopes are often turned into bare earth,” she says. “Often a weed grass called Poa annua establishes, and the bare areas then turn into what looks like nicely mowed golf courses, mowed by rabbits.”

The scientists say the chain of events at Macquarie is a rare example of a “trophic cascade”, the knock-on effects of changes in one species abundance. The next stage could be an “ecosystem meltdown”.

The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service intends to fix the island once and for all, and has drawn up plans to eradicate all 130,000 rabbits, along with the estimated 36,000 rats and 103,000 mice that live there.

When summarising their findings the authors of the study have given us a poignet recommendation:

Our results highlight an important lesson for conservation agencies working to eradicate invasive species globally; that is, risk assessment of management interventions must explicitly consider and plan for their indirect effects, or face substantial subsequent costs. On Macquarie Island, the cost of further conservation action will exceed AU$24 million.

You can listen to an interview on the situation here.

Incinerating waste is no good

In the latest issue of Red Pepper Derek Wall looks at the many dangers of burning our waste:

Britain is facing a rubbish crisis. Behind the tabloid stories of ‘bin wars’ and fines for children dropping crisps lurks a more sinister reality. Unless local authorities meet strict European Union targets for reducing the amount of rubbish going into landfill, they face fines that could rival the Icelandic bank losses as a source of financial pain for council tax payers. Their answer, apparently, is to build incinerators: new euphemistically-named ‘energy from waste’ centres are marching across the UK. There are now 19 incinerators in the country, up from 12 a year ago. Twenty-two more are going through the planning process at the moment – but within a few years virtually every borough in Britain could have one.

Britain produces 29 million tonnes of municipal waste a year, and the Local Government Association says it costs between £80 and £100 to dispose of each tonne. This loss of resources means that more forests are cut down, more mines are driven into fragile habitats, more oil is used to make plastic that is thrown away. Pollutants from landfill, including dioxins, create toxic conditions in water courses, while the pollution from transporting the rubbish is another environmental ill. Methane emitted by decaying waste is a major greenhouse gas, and although it disappears more rapidly from the atmosphere, it is around 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Waste of money

The EU Landfill Directive means that each local authority must reduce the amount of biodegradable waste that is put in landfill by 75 per cent of the 1998 figure by 2010, then a further 50 per cent by 2013 and another 35 per cent by 2020. Authorities that miss the first target will be fined £7 million each, and a recent report by the Audit Commission has urged local councils to build incinerators to avoid the risk of such fines. But even without the prospect of fines, the practice of landfill is costly.

Landfill tax is £32 a tonne at present and due to increase to £48 by 2010. So incineration has been put forward to fill the gap, repackaged as a ‘green’ way of producing energy from burning waste and avoiding the pollution associated with landfill. However much we recycle, it is argued by the pro-burning lobby, some waste will always be left over. EU policy, to its credit, is firmly anti-dumping, but is burning the solution?

Incinerators take years to build and can cost hundreds of millions of pounds. They are generally funded by private finance initiative (PFI) schemes. Many such projects have risen sharply in cost with the ongoing financial crisis, and local authorities are finding it difficult to borrow the money from banks to complete them. A £4.4 billion PFI project in Manchester, for example, is currently in crisis because the private companies behind the scheme are short of a couple of hundred million.

Local authorities are signing long-term contracts – as long as 25 years – with the incinerator projects, with the paradoxical outcome that they have to keep on feeding them waste. If the amount of rubbish is reduced the incinerators will lack financial viability, so incinerator building locks us into a system that is based not on reducing waste but producing more. This is one reason why Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London and London’s Green Party MEP Jean Lambert campaigned so vigorously against the expansion of incinerator projects in the capital.

Health hazards

Health effects are also a very serious worry. While modern incinerators are less likely to produce dioxins if properly run, there is much evidence to suggest that they are not always run with enough care. The incinerator operators in Edmonton, north London, have been fined for breaching health and safety legislation. Without very careful monitoring, a new generation of incinerators is likely to commit similar breaches on a national scale. Dioxins have traditionally been a worry, but the major concern now is about mb-10 particles. Although these are unknown to most people – even those active in the Green Party or environmental movements – they have the potential to create a health crisis.

I first became seriously concerned about mb-10s after reading Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Sceptical Environmentalist. Lomborg is famously critical of claims made by environmentalists and views market-based economic growth as creating an ever-cleaner planet. Yet in his chapter on air pollution, he notes the ill effects of mb-10s. If even a sceptic like him is worried, the rest of us should be terrified.

Mb-10s are tiny microscopic particles produced by incinerators, difficult to monitor because they are so small, and many experts view them as deadly. Their size means they have the potential to get into the human body and do real damage, and we know that incinerators can spread these particles over a 15-mile radius. Several reports note increases in health problems, including genetic defects, among people who live close to incinerators. Incinerators have also been linked to increased infant mortality, heart disease and cancer. The ash left over from incineration is toxic and risks being blown around during disposal.

So incinerators are costly, damage the environment and health and produce far less energy than they promise. But there is a huge incinerator lobby in the UK that has the ear of government and major political parties. Waste has been big business in the UK ever since Thatcher launched her crusade to privatise local authority services in the 1980s. The name badges for delegates at the last Conservative Party conference were stamped with the logo of Sita, one of Britain’s biggest waste companies, which has an interest in incinerators.

In the Morning Star (26 October 2008), Solomon Hughes noted: ‘The company’s name runs all around the lanyards, so Tory delegates’ necks will be “branded” Sita. This is embarrassing for Conservative shadow Cornwall minister Mark Prisk and Conservative candidate for St Austell and Newquay Caroline Righton. Last month, they jointly presented a petition to Gordon Brown against a Cornish waste incinerator being built by Sita.’

And it’s not just the Tories. The t-shirts worn by the stewards at Labour’s Manchester conference were also marked with the Sita logo, and the company paid £30,000 for ‘advice’ to former Labour chief whip Hilary Armstrong. But Sita is not unique. Waste is big business – and there is no profit in no waste. Like virtually all other areas of British policy making, the agenda is shaped largely behind closed doors by corporate interests. Ultimately, capitalism thrives on waste: the more we throw away, and the faster we buy replacements, the better.

Zero waste

There is an alternative. Local campaigns can defeat incineration. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been fighting the incinerator menace for more than a decade. There is a national anti-incineration network that is bringing grassroots campaigners together. The Green Party, along with Ken Livingstone, has a proud history of fighting incinerators. The Socialist Party is currently running an impressive campaign against a new north London waste plan based on burning. Social movements can win if they make noise, start fighting early, use legal means and embarrass councillors who support the toxic incinerator alternative. There are a number of very useful research, campaigning and legal resources that activists can use.

The alternative to landfill and incineration is zero waste. Why recycle when goods can be made to last longer and be repaired more easily, and over-packaging can be outlawed? Zero waste is about producing less waste in the first place. In San Francisco the Green Party has managed to ban traditional plastic bags. EU directives are already making corporations deal with the consequences of waste, although the British government often opposes such progressive moves.

There are a number of clean technologies for dealing with the waste we throw away. A Greenpeace report on the subject, Zero Waste, argues that kerbside collection could be extended to the whole of Britain to make it easier to recycle where appropriate. Something like 45 per cent of the waste we produce domestically is from food, which is shocking in itself – and, given that decaying food produces methane, it is also a source of climate change. Food waste could be collected in sealed units and be put through anaerobic digesters to be used as a source of energy.

The right kind of waste policy could contribute massively to a low-carbon economy. It will require a political struggle, but without real pressure we could easily slip into a Britain where most of our waste is incinerated, with devastating financial, environmental and health consequences.

Recovering London’s lost landscapes

Freshwater is the bloodstream of life on earth and rivers are one of the fundamental forces that shape our landscapes. They provide habitat for many species and supply people with a vast array of ecosystem services. Despite their importance, most of London’s rivers are built over, unable to perform their functions. During Medieval times they were quite literally open sewers and dumping grounds. But now a new project is soon going to be underway to recover these rivers. Undoubtedly having immense impacts on biodiversity, air flow and aesthetics in the city. An article in The Guardian tells us that:

One of the biggest rescue projects of its kind is being launched today to reclaim many urban rivers, streams and brooks. Under the plan 92 projects will be announced covering 14 different waterways in London, at least seven of which have been buried by history, including the Effra, which rises in Crystal Palace and flows north to the Thames at Vauxhall, the Ravensbourne in south-east London, the Wandle in Croydon, and two tributaries of the Lee near the 2012 Olympic site in east London.

The Environment Agency, which will lead the work, hopes to uncover at least 15km (nine miles) of river in the next six years. The full list adds up to double that length, while other schemes are still being proposed. “It took 50 years to destroy a lot of the value of the rivers in London – it’s going to take another 50 years to get it back,” said Dave Webb, the agency’s project manager.

Humans began interfering with Britain’s rivers over a millennium ago with watermills and fisheries. As cities became more crowded, waterways became little better than open drains and developers gratefully covered them over for roads and buildings, a practice that spread to the suburbs through much of the 1900s.

Today the Environment Agency estimates that 70% of London’s 600km river network is concreted, covered over, interrupted by weirs or otherwise modified. Some can only be glimpsed in odd places, such as a tunnel through Sloane Square tube station carrying the Westbourne, or guessed at from local road names such as Fleet Street or Spring Path.

During the 20th century huge improvements were made to water quality, but the lack of natural features to offer cover for wildlife means the rivers are often still “ecologically poor”, said Webb.

At the most extreme, up to half of some rivers are now entirely buried. Many others are often hidden by high fences or are so barren of natural life that they are effectively “lost to society”, said Webb. “Any connection or added value of a river has been lost … people see a concrete channel and don’t think of it as a river: they think of it as a drain, which is a way of getting rid of waste.”

Restoration of London’s rivers began in the mid-1980s; since then 15km have been completed. Full restoration – meaning restoration of “physical and biological processes” – of some stretches has included the recovery of the once-lost Quaggy river through Sutcliffe Park in south-east London. The park was also restored as a flood plain to protect local homes and businesses in the event of heavy rains. Other projects are defined as “rehabilitation”, usually adding natural features such as gravels or reed beds into the existing modified channel.

The next phase will speed up the rate of restoration, and target tougher schemes in built-up and often socially deprived areas. Many projects will also incorporate improved flood defences to cope with climate change, habitat schemes and urban regeneration along with features to encourage local people to use parks more, including dipping ponds and education areas…

Future success will be measured by the return of wildlife and visitors, said Webb, who trained as an ecologist. “With any part of a river you should have a reasonable chance of seeing a fish, maybe a kingfisher … you should want to stop and stand and look at a river for 10 minutes,” he said. “If the river is so boring that you wouldn’t want to do that, then [it’s] in a bad way, and unfortunately that’s where we are on some rivers.”

The nature of future urban structures and systems in a changing world

Everything we do as humans has an impact that extends from our immediate locality to the entire global system. Population growth, economic development and land-use change are some of the primary drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss. People and nature interact in a multitude of ways, but fundamentally human well-being is directly dependent on the functioning of ecosystems. Vital and valued, they provide benefits across society, including foods and fibres, assimilation of wastes and sequestration of carbon. The urban systems of the future are going to take these considerations into account; instead of degrading and destroying ecological functions and processes they will incorporate them into their design. By nature they will integrate an empathy for global consequences and successfully limit natural resource use and associated wastes.

An urban landscape that is highly connected to peripheral ecosystems using habitat corridors, both horizontally and vertically, will allow species to migrate in response to climate change. In addition to sequestering carbon, cooling/cleaning city air and storing water, corridors will provide psychological benefits for urban dwellers. In residential areas, gardens and technologically driven vertical farms will shift a proportion of food production closer to consumers; connecting people to place.

Guided by the planning system, new building structures will have minimum CO2 outputs during construction and subsequent use with the aim of becoming zero carbon in the medium term. Construction materials will partially shift away from concrete and rely more on renewable biomass using sustainably produced and recycled timber. The increased utilisation of aspect, air-flow, micro-generation and combined heat and power will remove the inefficiencies and impacts of the centralised energy system ensuring increased security as gas and oil become globally depleted.

As the human population grows, becoming more urban than rural, an emphasis on the reduced use of space will see taller, artistic and more compact apartment blocks. These will link with services in their immediate locality using pedestrian “sky-bridges”. And will be accompanied by a high level of street pedestrianisation and bicycle networks that will encourage people out of cars improving air-quality and reducing emissions. The creative use of open spaces will draw people together to carry out community activities and build social capital.

Driving these progressions will be an emerging consciousness that sees a prominence of quality of life over economic prosperity. The values that encircle mass consumption will become redundant as an elevated understanding of the sustainability issue stimulates an ethic of responsibility. Community participation will allow people to develop an attachment to, and awareness of, their surrounds. This local influence will maintain cultural input and prevent a homogenisation of urban space.

In an uncertain world characterised by surprise and change, widespread use of participatory scenario planning will inform decision-making by scanning the future for potential opportunities/threats (e.g. new technologies, degraded ecosystems) and effects of various behaviour and policy (e.g. responses to climate change). This will create prepared, resilient and adaptive urban systems.