Reporter’s Journal: Times are getting dark

July 29th, 2014

By Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Ruxandra Guidi. Photo by Roberto Guerra.

Photo copyright (c) 2014 SRI Fellow Roberto Guerra.

This is the season of hurricanes and heavy storms. But the archipelago of Kuna Yala, located south of the hurricane belt, is typically spared the damage and strong winds that hit islands further north in the Caribbean, year after year. In recent years, however, rains have forced the people living in these islands — an estimated 30,000 — to start making drastic changes to their way of life.

The first time we visited the island of Usdupu in October of 2009, the water came down daily, flooding the narrow dirt paths that connect all the thatched roof homes. Kids played in the brown water half-naked, without a worry in the world. But some of their parents spoke to us about being unable to cook with charcoal on the floor, as is their tradition, due to the persistent flooding. Others showed us how they were using cement debris and even trash to create landfill on the edges of the island, which is on sea level.

But then, we also noticed other, more profound ways, in which the flooding seemed to be affecting the Kuna.

One of the traditional songs performed by their wise elders, or sahilas, described their collection of islands as “coconuts resting firmly on the sand” that would never disappear, regardless of the weather. Yet starting in the Fall of 2008, after a series of giant waves flooded most of the islands, the sahilas had began singing a new song. “Why are our mothers crying?” the lyrics went. “It is because of the hurricanes and earthquakes. Times are getting dark. Who is causing this?”

Changing weather patterns, sea level rise, and man-made climate change are three new modern-day concerns that the Kuna have had to grapple with. Sahilas, men, women, and young people alike have attended information workshops focused on these issues, and the  Congreso General Kuna, the indigenous territory’s highest authority, tackles things like adaptation and mitigation on a regular basis.

This July, we’ll be returning to some of these islands to find out more about the challenges faced by the Kuna. As it turns out, the well-preserved mainland forest — that’s less than a mile away from these islands — may be an important part of the solution.

 

Bumble Bees of North America – book review

July 23rd, 2014

By Gabriel Thoumi

Cover art. Courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Bumble bees are remarkable. Domesticated bee colonies used for agriculture pollination is a global industry worth at least tens of billions annually. Roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of all food consumed in North America relies upon bumble bee pollination. About 80 percent of European crop species require insect pollination. In parts of China, because of the disappearance of bumble bees, pollination of apple and pear crops sometimes is done by hand using a paintbrush. In fact, the value of wild bee pollination in agricultural crops far exceeds their domesticated counterparts.

Bumble bees pollinate cotton, fruit and vegetables, and vegetable oils. Bumble bees do much of the heavy lifting to supply us with the agriculture crops we use each day to meet our clothing, food, and oil needs.

Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson, and Sheila R. Colla, is the first comprehensive guidebook to the bumble bees of North America written in over a hundred years. The book will help you identify all 46 bumble bee species found north of Mexico and to understand their ecology and changing geographic distributions.

Bumble Bees of North America includes a species-by-species forage guide, many pictures for easy identification of queen and worker bees, species specific maps, and descriptions of seasonal activity   along with colony life cycle.

Bumble bees are essentially hairy wasps, but diverged genetically over 100 million years ago. The main difference is that bees rely upon plant pollen for sustenance while wasps rely on animal tissue. Bumble bees are most diverse in temperate and montane regions globally.

Bumble Bees of North America is based on the latest molecular research. The book describes the rapid possible extinction of the Franklin’s bumble bee (Bombus franklini), whose decline was described in 1998, and who may have gone extinct by 2006. Currently it is IUCN Red-Listed. The book also describes how the once very common rusty-batched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) became the first federally listed endangered bee species in North America throughout its large U.S. and Canadian range. The rusty-batched bumble bee went from very common in the 1980s to now being locally extinct.

In addition, Bumble Bees of North America describes the threats to bumble bees and what you can do about these threats. Current threats include habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and the introduction of exotic or invasive species. The book recommends maintain bee-friendly gardens, using less pesticides, and mitigating global warming.

Given the size of bumble bees, their quick movements, and their short life spans Bumble Bees of North America will help you develop a greater understanding of bumble bee natural history, engage in bumble bee identification, and learn how to conserve their habitat all while not being stung.

How to order:
Bumble Bees of North America
Publisher:            Princeton University Press
ISBN:                        9780691152226
Authors:                Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson, and Sheila R. Colla

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Certified Ecologist, is a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com. 

Change on the roof of the world: new book explores climate change and the Tibetan Plateau

August 30th, 2013

Excerpt from the new book Meltdown: China’s Environmental Crisis by Sean Gallagher
Adapted By Caroline D’Angelo

With soaring mountains and vast grasslands, the Tibetan Plateau covers approximately one quarter of China. The plateau’s glaciers hold the largest store of freshwater on earth outside the North and South Poles.  Though remote and sparsely populated, the plateau is of crucial importance to China and its downstream neighbors: Three of Asia’s most important rivers—the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong—originate here.

Over the past 150 years, China’s average temperature has risen just 0.4 to 0.5 degrees centigrade. However, the high plateau has warmed much faster than the rest of China or anywhere else in the world – just like a roof on a hot summer day –

And the glaciers are melting fast. The Hailuogou glacier on the 23,000-foot high Mount Gongga retreated over two kilometers during the twentieth century alone.

An screen shot of the book. Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Glacial-fed flooding has become a major problem throughout the watersheds. The grasslands, degraded by climate change and development, are losing their ability to soak up the spring melt. And so moisture rushes downstream and ironically, the soil left behind on the plateau gets drier. Warmer weather has increased evaporation rates, and without the sponge effect of healthy grasslands and peatlands, patches of the once lush grasslands are becoming barren brown desert.

For 5,000 years nomads roamed the area with flocks of yaks, sheep and cattle.  In recent decades however, the government, citing the grasslands’ degradation, has forcibly settled nomads and enacted laws to restrict grazing. Thousands now live in half-built “relocation villages,” where bittersweet memories of the grasslands give way to mounting piles of refuse.

“Life is more convenient now, but I worry that Tibetan culture is disappearing,” said one former nomad as people in a mixture of modern and traditional clothing walked by on the dusty streets of the town of Zaduo. While some like the business opportunities available in town, others struggle to make ends meet.

Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Another young man told me “There is nothing to do here except sell caterpillar fungus.” The fungus is used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and the man worries that climate change will once again disrupt his livelihood. “The fact that the weather is getting warmer here each year isn’t good for harvesting caterpillar fungus. If we lose this, what will we do? How will we earn money?”

But other resources on the plateau are becoming more reachable with the warmer weather: minerals. Mining for gold, copper, lithium, lead, iron and coal has become a major industry – and it looks like the bounty could be huge.

This has increased tensions. A herder explains: “Tibetans believe that when the gold is mined, the grass is disturbed and it is very bad for the sacred mountains. The locals never try to get the gold from the mountains.”

There has also been an increased awareness about conservation. In late 2010, the Chinese government announced that it will “halt the loss of biodiversity in China by 2020.” It is a wildly ambitious target, but one that needs to be at least attempted before the traditions and landscapes of the plateau change forever.

Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

 


An interactive map of the route author, Sean Gallagher, took through the Tibetan Plateau

 

– Post adapted by Caroline D’Angelo from “Meltdown: China’s Environment Crisis,” a new interactive e-book by award-winning photojournalist Sean Gallagher.  Download a copy free from the iBookstore, Amazon, or Creatavist.

Does boreal deforestation help slow global warming?

November 23rd, 2011

Bamboo forest

A big fuss is being made about a new study published in Nature that suggests clearing of forests north of 45 degrees latitude cools climate — the opposite effect of deforestation in the tropics. But the findings aren’t much of a surprise — the same conclusions were reached in papers published in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In fact the same story seems to come out around this time — late November to early December — every year.

Connecting the climate dots (video)

June 13th, 2011

This video is based on an op-ed by Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, with narration and illustration by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia.com.

To see additional coverage of the connections between climate change and extreme weather:

Burning up: warmer world means the rise of megafires

(05/12/2011) Megafires are likely both worsened by and contributing to global climate change, according to a new United Nations report. In the tropic, deforestation is playing a major role in creating giant, unprecedented fires.

Are US floods, fires linked to climate change?

(04/28/2011) The short answer to the question of whether or not on-going floods in the US Midwest and fires in Texas are linked to a warming Earth is: maybe. The long answer, however, is that while it is difficult—some argue impossible—for scientists to link a single extreme weather event to climate change, climate models have long shown that extreme weather events will both intensify and become more frequent as the world continues to heat up. In other words, the probability of such extreme events increases along with global average temperature.

Numerous causes, including climate change, behind record food prices

(02/07/2011) Food prices hit a record high in January according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), threatening the world’s poor. Rising 3.4% since December, the FAO stated that prices reached the highest point since the agency began tracking food prices in 1990. Given the complexity of world markets and agriculture, experts have pointed to a number of reasons behind the rise including rising meat and dairy consumption, the commodity boom, fresh water scarcity, soil erosion, biofuels, growing human population, and a warming world that has exacerbated extreme weather events like last year’s heatwave in Russia.

Two massive droughts evidence that climate change is ‘playing Russian roulette’ with Amazon

(02/03/2011) In 2005 the Amazon rainforest underwent a massive drought that was labeled a one-in-100 year event. The subsequent die-off of trees from the drought released 5 billion tons of CO2. Just five years later another major drought struck. The 2010 drought, which desiccated entire rivers, may have been even worse according to a new study in Science, adding on-the-ground evidence to fears that climate change may inevitably transform the world’s greatest rainforest.

Cincinnati zoo turns on the solar (video)

May 22nd, 2011

With 6,400 solar cells producing 1.56 megawatts, the Cincinnati Zoo says its new solar parking lot the largest publicly accessible urban solar array in the US. The zoo says that on average the solar array with cover 1/5 of its total energy use and on some days will actually send clean energy back to the grid.

“Innovative projects like this solar canopy showcase the benefits of public and private investment working together to provide a powerful economic boost to communities that need it,” said Assistant Treasury Secretary for Management Dan Tangherlini in a press release. “New Market Tax Credits and a Treasury Recovery Act program that funds renewable energy development helped make this project possible, resulting in new jobs, reduced energy costs and less carbon dioxide being released into the air.”

For more recent news on solar energy:

Clean energy investments rise 630% in 7 years

(03/29/2011) According to a report by the US Pew Environment Group global clean energy investments, which do not include nuclear power, jumped 630% since 2004. The report detailing 2010 clean energy investments found that China remains the global leader in clean energy, while the US fell from 2nd to 3rd. This is the second year in a row that the US fell: in 2009 it lost first place to China. In all $243 billion were invested in clean energy in 2010.

Is Obama’s clean energy revolution possible?

(01/26/2011) Last night US President Barack Obama called for a massive green energy make-over of the world’s largest economy. Describing the challenge as ‘this generation’s Sputnik moment’ the US president set a goal of producing 80 percent of America’s energy by clean sources by 2035. While this may sound improbable, two recent analyses back the president up, arguing that a global clean energy revolution is entirely possible within a few decades using contemporary technology and without breaking the bank. “Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources,” Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford said in a press release. “It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will.”

U.S. Congress passes legislation to boost solar, wind, and geothermal energy

(09/24/2008) Tuesday the U.S. Senate passed a bill that will extend tax credits on solar power installations through 2016. The House approved the measure Wednesday.

Will food dominate 21 century geopolitics? (radio)

May 22nd, 2011

One billion people in the world are going hungry–more than any other time in history. Yet food security remains a pretty low concern in most industrialized countries. That may not last long according to renowned environmentalist, Lestor Brown, who says that climate change, population growth, rising consumption of meat and dairy, and water issues could soon make food a flashpoint worldwide. Already, high food prices this year played a role in the Arab Spring revolutions and has pushed a number of countries, such as China and South Korea, to begin buying up land in Africa under century-long leases that could create further crises.

Lester Brown is the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.

For more information:

Rising food prices threaten to push over 60 million Asians back into poverty

(04/27/2011) The Asian Development Bank has warned that high food prices on the continent could push 64 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty, reports the AFP.

Foreign big agriculture threatens world’s second largest wildlife migration

(03/07/2011) As the world’s largest migration in the Serengeti plains—including two million wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelles—has come under unprecedented threat due to plans for a road that would sever the migration route, a far lesser famous, but nearly as large migration, is being silently eroded just 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) north in Ethiopia’s Gambela National Park. The migration of over one million white-eared kob, tiang, and Mongalla gazelle starts in the southern Sudan but crosses the border into Ethiopia and Gambela where Fred Pearce at Yale360 reports it is running into the rapid expansion of big agribusiness. While providing habitat for the millions of migrants, Gambela National Park’s land is also incredibly fertile enticing foreign investment.

Food prices hit new record high—again

(03/03/2011) Food prices in February hit a new record, breaking the previous one set in January and continuing an eight-month streak of rising prices, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Experts fear that rising food prices could lead to another food crisis similar to that of 2007-2008.

Carl Safina on the gulf spill (video)

May 16th, 2011

Last month on the one year anniversary of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (dubbed the US’s worst environmental disaster), author Carl Safina spoke about the impacts of the spill and the even bigger disaster that the media has overlooked. Safina has recently come out with a book called: A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout.

For a recent interview with Carl Safina:

The ocean crisis: hope in troubled waters, an interview with Carl Safina

(02/07/2011) Being compared—by more than one reviewer—to Henry Thoreau and Rachel Carson would make any nature writer’s day. But add in effusive reviews that compare one to a jazz musician, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Darwin, and you have a sense of the praise heaped on Carl Safina for his newest work, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. Like Safina’s other books, The View from Lazy Point focuses on the beauty, poetry, and crisis of the world’s oceans and its hundreds-of-thousands of unique inhabitants. Taking the reader on a journey around the world—the Arctic, Antarctic, and the tropics—Safina always returns home to take in the view, and write about the wildlife of his home, i.e. Lazy Point, on Long Island. While Safina’s newest book addresses the many ways in which the ocean is being degraded, depleted, and ultimately imperiled as a living ecosystem (such as overfishing and climate change) it also tweezes out stories of hope by focusing on how single animals survive, and in turn how nature survives in an increasingly human world. However, what makes Safina’s work different than most nature writing is his ability to move seamlessly from contemporary practical problems to the age-old philosophical underpinnings that got us here. By doing so, he points a way forward.

Bill McKibben at Powershift: “there is no one else: it’s you”

April 21st, 2011

Bill McKibben speaking at Powershift.

Selection from the speech:

“Twenty-two years ago, I wrote the first book about climate change and I’ve gotten to watch it all, and I know that simply persuasion will not do. We need to fight. Now, we need to fight non-violently and with civil disobedience. [...] One thing you need to make sure that you manage to get across in your witness is that you are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done. We need to fight with art and with music, too. Not just the side with our brain that likes bar graphs and pie graphs, but with all our heart and all our soul. [...]
We need to fight with unity. We need to have a coherent voice. [...] We need to speak with one loud voice, because we are fighting for your future.”

[...]

“We fight not just for ourselves, we fight for the beauty of this place. For cool trout streams and deep spruce woods. For chilly fog rising off the Pacific and deep snow blanketing the mountains. We fight for all the creation that shares this planet with us. We don’t know half the species on Earth we’re wiping out. And of course, we fight alongside our brothers and sisters around the world. You’ve seen the pictures as I talk: these are our comrades. Most of these people, as you see, come from places that have not caused this problem, and yet they’re willing to be in deep solidarity with us. That’s truly admirable and it puts a real moral burden on us. Never let anyone tell you, that environmentalism is something that rich, white people do. Most of the people that we work with around the world are poor and black and brown and Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is made up of, and they care about the future as anyone else.

“We have to fight, finally, without any guarantee that we are going to win. We have waited late to get started and our adversaries are strong and we do not know how this is going to come out. If you were a betting person, you might bet we were going to lose because so far that’s what happened, but that’s not a bet you’re allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person to do when the worst thing that’s ever happened is happening is try to change those odds.”

Coral reefs in 55 years (video)

April 12th, 2011

It’s 2065, and something has happened to the world’s coral reefs…

A video produced by Earth-Touch in association with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), EDGE, and Global International.