Friday, 26 March 2010

Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010

The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, which surveyed 233 countries, stated yesterday (25th March)that the global rate of deforestation has slowed down over the past decade, from 16 million hectares per annum in the 1990s to 13 million hectares per annum in the 2000s. Natural forest progression and afforestation programmes (mostly in China, India, Vietnam, and the US) have resulted in an addition of more hectares of new forests per annum (Asia had a net gain of 2.2 million ha per annum in the 2000s). Two countries which had the highest deforestation rates in the 1990s, Brazil and Indonesia, have significantly reduced this in the 2000s: from 2.9 million ha p.a to 2.6 million ha p.a in Brazil and from 1.9 million ha to .5 million ha in Indonesia). North and Central America had stable rates, whilst Europe had a slower rate of forest expansion than before. Yet, forested areas around the size of Costa Rica is being destroyed each year, mainly due to clearing lands for agriculture and natural causes. The highest net annual forests loss were in South America (4 million ha) and Africa (3.4 million ha). Primary forests (36% of total forested area) have decreased by more than 40 million ha since 2000. I have referred to some aspects of deforestation in Our Gossamer Planet, but I would like to point out the one great benefit of the forests (currently over four billion hectares)- they act as carbon sinks- absorbing and storing greenhouse gases. There’s more in ‘Biodiversity in India’ in The Ship 09/10, published by St Anne's College, Oxford. The Assessment’s findings are seminal, with 2010 being the UN-designated International Year of Biodiversity. Yet, the aim should be to reduce global annual deforestation rates to the proportions of a school’s playground, or perhaps even less!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Paper of the week

Broadly, the conflict between politics and science is the running theme of the paper of the week. The subject of interest is the African elephant, an endangered species, the number of which is seriously dwindling due to poaching. By reviewing a large body of research from several groups including that from the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the paper by Wasser et al, Elephants, Ivory, and Trade, Science 12 March 2010
provides evidence of the prevalence of a large scale of illegal ivory trade in Africa confirming that most of this continent lacks adequate controls for the protection of elephants. Equally the inability of the largest consumer nations mainly China and Japan to curb illegally traded ivory complicates the issue further. The paper argues a case against the petition to CITES by Tanzania and Zambia the largest sources and transit regions of illegal ivory for down-listing the conservation status of elephants for the one-off sale of stock piled ivory. The international group of authors are emphatic about disallowing such a sale which in their opinion which would promote illegal trade, split the appendix listing of the species and also sow discord among conservation workers.

The role protection agencies play in conservation of flora and fauna is undisputable. Enforcement of sensible and judicial rules and regulations promote species conservation. And as the paper aptly points out, policy enforcing organisations such a CITES will only satisfy its role with criteria that it puts science ahead of politics. Whilst the paper does offer valuable insight into the loopholes in legalities and law enforcement, it falls short of addressing some important issues. Firstly, it fails to offer any insight into to whether and how CITES can effectively curb illegal trade which based on its current record of ambiguous and confusing policies is difficult to buy into. Secondly, how can the petitioners nor indeed other African nations be convinced that selling the stock piled ivory is not the way forward. Having a set of rules is one thing, enforcing it is another. Therefore, ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the policy enforcers in these nations is perhaps the biggest hurdle of all.

Friday, 12 March 2010

When frogs rule the world?

Here's some good news, although not that novel. But there has been so much of bad news relating to species decline globally that we need to remind ourselves that things might not be all that gloomy. Early last year, new species of amphibians were discovered in Ecuador & in Madagascar. In the case of the latter, many of these species were found outside of the conservation area. Discoveries such as these provides a glimmer of hope that somewhere in the deep depths of unspoilt or less spoilt rainforests are undiscovered species.This does not also exclude the possibility that a new species might be found in some nook and corner of the urban environment. Most importantly, such finding is a clarion call for us to raise environmental awareness and ensure that the habitat for these creatures are preserved. Also, next time you hear a croak, do give a second look, chances are highly unlikely that it might turn into a prince or princess as the case may; but if it does look unusual, photograph it and try to find out what species it is. Who knows you might be identifying a new species! For some reason that defies explanation, amphibians seem to be adapting or escaping from human onslaught on its environment.

If I have a favourite among the new species, it has got to be the 'glass frog'. Follow this link for a beautiful video from National Geographic

Time to save Nemo, his home & his friends

What links underwater volcanic springs,coral reefs & some researchers from Plymouth? Interestingly it is ocean acidification. There are an estimated 50,000 volcanic springs in the depths of the sea, which spew out carbon-di-oxide among other things into its surrounding. So what’s special about this you might ask. Well, the scientists from University of Plymouth have come up with an ingenious use for this naturally occurring phenomenon. They observed that water near the vents of these volcanoes is more acidic than the surrounding sea water, reaching to the predicted acidity level of oceans in three or four decades ,if ocean acidification due to anthropogenic activities is uncurtailed. This phenomenon therefore allows the use of these vents as labs on- the- sea for measuring the effect of ocean acidification on the growth of marine flora and fauna . As could be expected, the researchers found that the normally colourful sea bed often dotted with corals and sea urchins are replaced by sea grasses and invasive algae when waters become more acidic, an alarming reminder of what might happen if carbon-di-oxide emissions are left unchecked. The time is ripe for some action if we care about Nemo!

Relevant links

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Paper of the Week

Natalia Shakhova, Igor Semiletov, and collaborators (of University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Centre and Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok) published a paper last week in Science, titled Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf’. They declared that the methane-rich, shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), with a seafloor area of more than 772,200 square miles (three times the area of the Siberian wetlands, which are considered to be a chief source of atmospheric methane), is venting methane (the greenhouse gas) into the air and might trigger abrupt global warming.

After collecting over 5000 samples of seawater, the scientists measured the levels of dissolved methane at varying depths. High methane concentrations were observed in more than 80% of deep water and more than 50% of surface water samples, with most having concentrations more than eight times the normal amount in the Arctic Ocean. Analysing the air directly above the water surface and at higher elevations confirmed their findings. The team calculated that the region is releasing about 7 teragrams per annum (1 teragram is approximately 1.1 million tonnes), which is equal to the amount of methane emitted from the oceans (about 2% of the overall methane emissions to the atmosphere). As a result, more than 100 hotspots were located where methane is leaking from the sub-sea permafrost, which is believed to generally act as a lid to contain the methane reservoir.

When the earth becomes warm, warmer seawater enters the area. If and when the permafrost thaws, the stored frozen methane is released in two ways: Firstly, the stored organic material (ESAS, being shallow and averaging around 50 meters in depth, would have been submerged or terrestrial over the millennia) decomposes and gradually releases methane. Secondly, methane gas or methane hydrates could be released. Although methane usually oxidises into carbon dioxide before reaching the surface of deeper waters, it escapes to the atmosphere in the shallow ESAS.

The current average methane concentrations in the Arctic is around 1.85 ppm (which is the highest in 40,000 years), with much higher concentrations in ESAS- very alarming when considering that the
Earth’s geological record indicates that atmospheric methane concentrations are between 0.3 to 0.4 ppm (during cold periods) and 0.6 to 0.7 ppm (during warm periods). As pointed out by Martin Heimann in his perspective in Climate Change: How Stable Is the Methane Cycle? (in the same edition of Science), more warming in the Arctic, implies more destablisation of the permafrost, which implies more release of methane and the creation of ‘a positive feedback loop that amplifies global warming’.

Despite the current controversies in the field and the increased scepticisim about the effects of climate change, these findings might have heavy implications. A caveat is the vagueness over whether this is a new phenomenon or whether it is a constant natural phenomenon. What are the precise factors behind this? Will there be further larger release of methane? Will global warming accelerate this release? What would happen in such a scenario? Would it result in a rapid and devastating climate change, as predicted?

Additional reference:


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