2012 July 04 Wednesday
Humans Causing US Southwest Forest Burn Out

Craig Allen of the US Geological Service thinks human-caused changes to the US southern Rockies forest ecosystem caused fire-burning patterns that are wiping out forests.

But beginning in 1900, when railroads enabled the spread of livestock, cattle devoured the grassy surface fuels and the fire cycle stopped. A decade later, a national policy of forest fire suppression formalized this new normal. Over the next century, forest density went from 80 trees per acre to more than 1,000.

80 trees to 1000 trees per acre is a huge increase in biomass density. The problem: Now when fire comes the heat is so intense that fires no longer stay on the ground. They burn up into the trees and wipe them out.

With so many trees crammed into the forest, fires climbed straight to the canopy instead of remaining on the ground.

Could partial removal of trees before a fire be done profitably to reduce the incidence of fires that totally destroy forests?

The Ponderosa forests have been mismanaged.

The emerging consensus is that the Ponderosa pine forests of northern Arizona and New Mexico have been mismanaged for more than a century. Small ground fires historically burned through these forests with some regularity, keeping the trees widely spaced. But decades of fire suppression have allowed trees to grow so thick that the forests are now referred to as “dog-hair thickets.”

Many trees evolved to do well with recurring low intensity fires. Some types of trees have serotinous cones (more on serotiny) that depend on low intensity fires to cause them to release their seeds. But a very intense fire in high density forests will burn the cones completely, leaving no seeds. Can seed planting help the recovery of forests in the US southwest? Or has the climate become too dry to enable replanting to work?

By Randall Parker    2012 July 04 03:58 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (59)
2010 May 04 Tuesday
50% Amazon Shrinkage By 2050?

Will the Amazon hit a tipping point and turn into a desert?

In what could easily be considered a worst-case scenario for the fate of the world's largest rainforest, a study led by Brazil's National Institute of Special Research found that the size of the Amazon could be reduced 50 percent by 2050, the 'tipping point' for when it will slowly wither away entirely. Considering forest-threatening factors such as fires, deforestation, and the emission of greenhouse gases, the research found if the regions of the Amazon most crucial to maintaining the biome's climate are lost, large sections of the once lush rainforest may be reduced to a virtual desert.

While the Amazon might be more immune to drought than previously believed rain forest trees are getting ripped out for lumber and and to create farm land. That trend looks set to continue due to growing human populations and Asian industrialization. The demand for the food and lumber will grow and that demand will drive more deforestation.

To humans the world used to seem so large that we had little impact on it. But our reach keeps getting larger and we've really begun to cut into the biosphere to an extent that is worrisome.

By Randall Parker    2010 May 04 11:17 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2010 March 11 Thursday
Humans Outcompeting Killer Whales For Food

morefish for dinner means fewer whales in the oceans.

A one-of-a-kind killer whale population appears to be threatened by human appetites for Antarctic toothfish, better known to restaurant-goers as Chilean Sea Bass.

As fishing fleets patrol their waters, catching what was their primary source of food, the whales are vanishing. It’s not certain whether they’ve only moved on, or are dying out, or both. But something is happening, with potentially dark implications for Earth’s last pristine ecosystem.

“There’s been a dramatic disappearance of the whales,” said biologist David Ainley of ecological consulting firm H.T. Harvey and Associates, and co-author of a March Aquatic Mammals article on the whales’ disappearance. “We think they’re having a harder time trying to find food. Whether that leads to population decrease, hopefully we won’t find out. But we will find out, if it continues.”

Humans are already overfishing the oceans. With rising populations and increased buying power due to industrialization in more corners of the globe the demand for fish will continue to rise and fisheries depletion will worsen.

Killer whales are also hit by overfishing of salmon.

Killer whales attack prey as large as gray whales and as small as herring. But the resident killer whales of the San Juan Islands prefer to eat chinook salmon -- and that could be their ruin.

Researchers tracking the whales found their numbers fell sharply during the chinook salmon decline in the 1990s. Even though seals, sea lions and even other kinds of salmon and fish remained relatively abundant, the San Juan killer whales died at unusually high rates, probably from malnutrition.

The world's governments should put more areas of the oceans off-limits for fishing to give fisheries a chance to recover.

By Randall Parker    2010 March 11 07:44 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2010 February 10 Wednesday
Habitat Loss And Poaching Work Against Tigers

Poaching and habitat loss continue to tilt the odds against survival for wild tigers.

WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2010 – As many Asian countries prepare to celebrate Year of the Tiger beginning February 14, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that tigers are in crisis around the world, including here in the United States, where more tigers are kept in captivity than are alive in the wild throughout Asia. As few as 3,200 tigers exist in the wild in Asia where they are threatened by poaching, habitat loss, illegal trafficking and the conversion of forests for infrastructure and plantations.

WWF is releasing a new interactive map of the world’s top 10 tiger trouble spots and the main threats against tigers. WWF is also launching a campaign: Tx2: Double or Nothing to support tiger range states in their goal of doubling wild tiger numbers by the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.

The issues highlighted in the trouble spots map (www.worldwildlife.org/troublespots) include:

  • Pulp, paper, palm oil and rubber companies are devastating the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, home to two endangered tiger sub-species;
  • Hundreds of new or proposed dams and roads in the Mekong region will fragment tiger habitat;
  • Illegal trafficking in tiger bones, skins and meat feeds a continued demand in East and Southeast Asia;
  • More tigers are kept in captivity in the U.S. than are left in the wild -- and there are few regulations to keep these tigers from ending up on the black market. The largest numbers of captive tigers are in Texas (an estimated 3,000+), but they are also kept in other states;
  • Poaching of tigers and their prey, along with a major increase in logging is taking a heavy toll on Amur, or Siberian, tigers;
  • Tigers and humans are increasingly coming into conflict in India as tiger habitats shrink;
  • Climate change could reduce tiger habitat in Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangroves by 96 percent.

I expect the habitat loss to continue due to growing human populations and industrialization. Biotechnological innovations that increase the uses of land to make agricultural products (most notably biofuels) might well accelerate this process.

Tigers have already lost 93% of their historic range.

Three tiger sub-species have gone extinct since the 1940s and a fourth one, the South China tiger, has not been seen in the wild in 25 years. Tigers occupy just seven percent of their historic range. But they can thrive if they have strong protection from poaching and habitat loss and enough prey to eat.

Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my, where did they all go?

By Randall Parker    2010 February 10 10:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2010 February 09 Tuesday
Subtropics In Danger Of Further Desertification

38 percent of world's surface in danger of desertification.

"Despite improvements in the LCA, it has a methodological weakness, which is a lack of environmental impact categories to measure the effect of human activities such as cultivation or grazing on the soil", Montserrat Núñez, lead author and a researcher at the Institute of Agro Food Research and Technology (IRTA), tells SINC.

The research, published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, is the first study in the world to include the impact of desertification in the LCA, based on classifying 15 natural areas or "eco-regions" according to their degree of aridity. By simultaneously using the LCA and a Geographic Information System (GIS), the researchers have shown that eight of these 15 areas can be classified as at risk of desertification, representing 38% of the land surface of the world.

Excessive pumping of aquifers (a huge problem btw), farming practices, and other factors contribute to the risk.

The subtropical regions are at most risk.

The eight natural areas at risk are coastal areas, the Prairies, the Mediterranean region, the savannah, the temperate Steppes, the temperate deserts, tropical and subtropical Steppes, and the tropical and subtropical deserts.

"The greatest risk of desertification (7.6 out of 10 on a scale produced using various desertification indicators) is in the subtropical desert regions – North Africa, the countries of the Middle East, Australia, South West China and the western edge of South America", the scientist explains.

Sounds like strange days have come.

By Randall Parker    2010 February 09 09:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
Urbanization And Exports Drive Deforestation

The hope in some circles was that urbanization would decrease pressures on forests. A new study finds that urbanization does not help prevent loss of forests.

The drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted in the early 21st century to hinge on growth of cities and the globalized agricultural trade, a new large-scale study concludes. The observations starkly reverse assumptions by some scientists that fast-growing urbanization and the efficiencies of global trade might eventually slow or reverse tropical deforestation. The study, which covers most of the world’s tropical land area, appears in this week’s early edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

I am not surprised that exports drive deforestation. Affluent countries and developing countries like China can afford to buy growing amounts of timber and crops. So, for example, parts of the Amazon get cut down to expand Brazilian agricultural output for international markets. But the result with urbanization is surprising to me.

Large industrial farms are replacing rural dwellers and driving into forests.

Deforestation has been a rising concern in recent decades, especially with the recognition that it may exacerbate climate change. Studies in the late 20th century generally matched it with growing rural populations, as new roads were built into forests and land was cleared for subsistence agriculture. Since then, rural dwellers have been flooding into cities, seeking better living standards; 2009 was recorded as the first year in history when half of human lived in urban areas. Large industrial farms have, in turn, taken over rural areas and expanded further into remaining forests, in order to supply both domestic urban populations and growing international agricultural markets, the study suggests.

I read news reports of big investments in African farm operations by business interests in Saudi Arabia, China, and other countries. I expect this trend to continue. As people become more affluent they eat higher on the food chain. Instead of living directly on grains they get more of their calories from meat and milk. Of course this requires much more grain to feed livestock.

“The main drivers of tropical deforestation have shifted from small-scale landholders to domestic and international markets that are distant from the forests,” said lead author Ruth DeFries, a professor at the Earth Institute’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation. “One line of thinking was that concentrating people in cities would leave a lot more room for nature. But those people in cities and the rest of the world need to be fed. That creates a demand for industrial-scale clearing.”

DeFries and her colleagues analyzed remote-sensing images of forest cover across 41 nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia from 2000-2005, and combined these with population and economic trends. They showed that the highest forest losses were correlated with two factors: urban growth within countries; and, mainly in Asia, growth of agricultural exports to other countries. Rural population growth was not related.

Since the world's population is headed toward 9 billion and much of Asia is industrializing much more of the remaining rain forests will go under the plow.

By Randall Parker    2010 February 09 08:56 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 December 22 Tuesday
Housing Development Near US Protected Areas

People into the United States are moving into areas around protected areas.

MADISON — Conservationists have long known that lines on a map are not sufficient to protect nature because what happens outside those boundaries can affect what happens within. Now, a study by two University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists in the department of forest and wildlife ecology measures the threat of housing development around protected areas in the United States.

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Volker Radeloff, an associate professor, and Anna Pidgeon, an assistant professor, looked at housing around every national park, national forest and federal wilderness area in the 48 contiguous states. Using data from the U.S. Census and local sources, they counted housing units built within 1 to 50 kilometers of these reserves, and produced maps and statistics that document the change since 1940 and project forward to 2030.

In 2000, 38 million housing units were within 50 kilometers of these conserved lands, compared to 9.8 million in 1940, and housing was growing faster inside that 50-kilometer range than outside it.

A house's sphere of influence extends beyond its own lot, because housing can encourage the spread of invasive species, alter drainage patterns and foster increased recreational use of the conserved land, which can, ironically, harm wildlife.

Nature is shrinking. The human domain is expanding.

I know people who are intentionally building near national forests in order to be close to natural areas that will be preserved. Some of them are hunters. Some are boaters. All this is more strain on nature. At the same time, I'd like to live inside a national forest.

One category of development that jumped out of the data was the 940,000 housing units built between 1940 and 2000 in private land inside the boundaries of national forests. These so-called "in-holdings" are surrounded by conserved land and therefore pose a special challenge for wildlife.

The Wisconsin scientists project that housing within 50 kilometers of wilderness areas will have grown 45 percent (10 million units) by 2030 compared to 2000. During the same period, they project housing to grow 52 percent within 1 kilometer of national forests.

Population growth will accelerate the spread of humans into wilder areas. The telecommunications revolution helps people live away from cities and they are moving toward nature when they are able. Population growth of 50% (as will happen to the US by 2050 under high immigration scenarios) would boost land usage for housing, highways, farms, factories, commercial buildings, mines, and other ways humans use land. The land not used for farms isn't as productive the land used for farms. So we take more of the useful habitats than we do of land overall.

By Randall Parker    2009 December 22 10:02 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2009 October 04 Sunday
More Land Switching Into Human Food Production

Writing in Scientific American David Biello presents the case that Thomas Malthus might be right after all.

MALTHUSIAN DILEMMA: How to feed a human population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 while also grappling with poverty as well as climate change, dead zones, biodiversity loss and other environmental ills?

These problems won't all be solved. Technological advances will feed more humans while more species go extinct. Humans are not going to stop making babies so that orangutans or bonobo chimps can survive in the wild.

By 2050, the world will host nine billion people—and that's if population growth slows in much of the developing world. Today, at least one billion people are chronically malnourished or starving. Simply to maintain that sad state of affairs would require the clearing (read: deforestation) of 900 million additional hectares of land, according to Pedro Sanchez, director of the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

We are shifting more land into agricultural production and out-competing more species in the process. Land that used to support them now supports us.

"Agriculture is the main driver of most ecological problems on the planet," said economist Jeffrey Sachs, Scientific American columnist and Earth Institute director. "We are literally eating away the other species on the planet."

I think 6.6 billion people are enough. I do not see any personal benefit to myself from adding billions more humans to the planet. Rather, I see net costs. Look at pollution. The more people pollution the less pollution each can generate. But industrialization of previously undeveloped countries is increasing the amount of pollution per person while the total number of people keeps going up.

By Randall Parker    2009 October 04 11:41 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
2009 August 01 Saturday
Alan Weisman: The World Without Us

Alan Weisman's excellent book The World Without Us engages in the thought experiment of asking how the world would change if humans all suddenly died off or disappeared for some reason. If you think you know the answer from watching The History Channel's Life After People TV series, well, TV can't do the question justice. The amount of information in a good book is much greater and Weisman has definitely written a good book.

The book explores many more facets of the departure of humanity and does an especially excellent job of explaining the ecological effects of humanity's end. The most notable aspect of the book is its exploration of humanity's impacts of ecosystems. Our impacts are probably far greater than most of you imagine. I was surprised on some points and I read (and post) a lot on species extinction and habitat loss. Think you've seen natural reef life in underwater TV show documentaries? Unless you saw a show on Kingman Reef you've seen only very pale shadows of what a real natural reef looks like. The amount of biomass around reefs today is a small fraction of what they looked like a few hundred years ago. (and can anyone point to reefs as unsullied as Kingman?)

In order to explain to what the world will be like without humans Weisman has to explain what the world used to be like. The reefs are just one example of how different the world used to look before the human imprint grew so large. For political reasons a forest in Poland has been little disturbed for hundreds of years. Weisman starts the book with a description of how that forest differs from almost any other forest you may have visited. Also, the Korean DMZ provides a refuge for species that might by now otherwise be extinct. These accidental nature preserves give us an idea of just how much we humans have changed the world.

Weisman's book covers how long homes, skyscrapers, and assorted other products of civilization will last. Biological life forms do much (I get the impression most) of the damage. The sections of the book about decay of our creations are humbling about our accomplishments to date. While we like to think our decisions and our work matter for more than just the moment and that we create enduring legacies the book makes clear that almost everything we do is pretty ephemeral. devices built from noble metals (e.g. gold, silver, platinum, palladium) will last the longest. Copper-based sculptures and other copper-based structures will far outlast steel structures. Plastics will last because no organisms have evolved the ability to break them down - yet.

Many of our longer lasting creations were done by more primitive humans hundreds and thousands of years ago. Ancient underground cave modifications last longer than almost any above ground structure. One reason why: far less life can grow underground. Vines, weeds, and trees will rip apart what we do on the surface because the plants are powered by sunshine. But below the surface plants have far less energy to work with.

One of the thoughts I kept having while reading the book was whether we build using cost effective materials. Roofs can be (and have been) built to last centuries. Should we use more enduring materials and designs? I suspect greater attention to durability could boost return on investment in structures.

Another recurring thought: We really ought to build more resilience and fail safety into our infrastructure. We are all just one solar Carrington event away from massive starvation and collapse lasting months. While I'm generally a supporter of nuclear power (because it pollutes less and has a smaller footprint on ecosystems) I am disturbed to read in Weisman's book what happens to nuclear reactors after a few weeks of no humans to attend to them. These reactors ought to have better passive failure designs. What if a Carrington Event broke down delivery of fuel for powering water pumps? The picture painted is not pretty.

I recommend this book. I could not read it all the way through in a couple of days mostly because it tells a tragic tale. But I did keep going back to it because it tells a tale we should all hear.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 01 08:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2009 July 28 Tuesday
Humanity Causing 6th Great Extinction Event

Once we are gone and millions of years have elapsed to destroy all record of our existence will some future newly evolved intelligent species become puzzled over what caused the planet Earth's 6th major extinction event? Or will they decide the absence of evidence for an asteroid strike or volcano could only mean a smart super predator was at work? Habitat loss and species extinction characterize our era.

Governments must act urgently to halt loss of habitats and invading species that are posing major threats to biodiversity and causing species extinctions across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, according to a landmark new study.

Published in the international journal Conservation Biology, the report is the first comprehensive review of more than 24,000 scientific publications related to conservation in the Oceanic region. Compiled by a team of 14 scientists, it reveals a sorry and worsening picture of habitat destruction and species loss. It also describes the deficiencies of and opportunities for governmental action to lessen this mounting regional and global problem.

"Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction event and the new report reveals that this threat is advancing on six major fronts," says the report's lead author, Professor Richard Kingsford of the University of New South Wales.

Well, we are historical in our impact. Gotta give us that. Way to go us.

On oceanic islands the biggest extinction cause is invasive species brought (accidentally or intentionally) from other parts of the world.

  • Loss and degradation of habitat is the largest single threat to land species, including 80 percent of threatened species.
  • More than 1,200 bird species have become extinct in the Pacific islands and archipelagos.
  • In Australia agriculture has modified or destroyed about 50 percent of woodland and forest ecosystems, and about 70 percent of remaining forests are ecologically degraded from logging.
  • Invasive species, particularly vertebrates and vascular plants, have devastated terrestrial species of the Pacific Islands and caused 75 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate extinctions on oceanic islands.
  • More than 2,500 invasive plants have colonized New Zealand and Australia – representing about 11 percent of native plant species.
  • Many invasive weeds, vertebrate pests, and fishes were introduced by government, agriculturalists, horticulturalists and hunters.

I'm thinking we need to systematically collect DNA samples so that some of the species could be reintroduced once we die off and space aliens uncover a specially constructed highly durable DNA sample storage facility. Think we could design a DNA storage vault underground that could last 100,00 years? Otherwise the losses will be considerable.

  • Nearly 17,000 of the world's 45,000 assessed species are threatened with extinction (38 percent). Of these, 3,246 are in the highest category of threat, Critically Endangered, 4,770 are Endangered and 8,912 are Vulnerable to extinction.
  • Nearly 5,500 animal species are known to be threatened with extinction and at least 1,141 of the 5,487 known mammal species are threatened worldwide.
  • In 2008, nearly 450 mammals were listed as Endangered, including the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), after the global population declined by more than 60 percent in the last 10 years.
  • Scientists have catalogued relatively little about the rest of the world's fauna: only 5 percent of fish, 6 percent of reptiles, and 7 percent of amphibians have been evaluated. Of those studied, at least 750 fish species, 290 reptiles, and 150 amphibians are at risk.
  • The average extinction rate is now some 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the rate that prevailed over the past 60 million years.

Extinctions might end up being our most enduring legacy. Just about everything else we've created won't last very long.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 28 11:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2009 July 27 Monday
Gorilla Numbers Continue To Decline

Gorilla habitats continue to shrink and hunters kill them too.

Despite all the film footage, fieldwork and fund-raising, and the efforts of park rangers and conservation NGOs, the number of gorillas continues to plummet. Hunting, logging, mining and disease are taking a terrible toll on the greatest of the great apes, and if things continue as they are, they may be reduced to nothing more than a series of small, highly vulnerable populations within decades.

Aren't 6.6 billion people enough? We can't we leave room for other mammalian species to survive?

Peter Walsh thinks that organizations (e.g. the UN) who advocate for eco-tourism to save the gorillas are dreaming.

"If you try to make saving gorillas a development issue, then you will fail," says Peter Walsh, a leading authority on the abundance and distribution of gorillas. "Any action must focus on protecting the gorillas." Nor is tourism the panacea African governments and potential donors think. "The idea that tourism alone can pay for conservation is a pipe dream," Walsh says. With gorilla numbers falling so fast, it is time to take tough decisions, he argues.

Gorillas (and a number of other species) can't survive unless much larger areas are made into parks with well-enforced boundaries to preserve wild habitats.

A modest proposal to reduce the human population pressures in Africa: bring in free TV with soap operas to change female expectations about when to make babies. Worked (inadvertently) in Brazil.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 27 11:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 July 03 Friday
Seagrass Meadows Shrink 29% In 127 Years

The shrinkage of ocean floor seagrass meadows is accelerating and human activity is to blame.

While marine ecologists have been measuring localized seagrass loss for decades, they had never before pooled their information to get a global perspective. So a team led by Michelle Waycott of James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, Australia pooled data from 215 regional studies, from 1879 to 2006.

They found that the total area of known seagrass meadow had decreased by 29 per cent over the 127 years. They also found that the rate of loss had accelerated, from less than 1 per cent per year in the 1940s to 7 per cent per year since the 1990s.

Pollution, fertilizer run-off, and even sediment run-off caused by development projects are cited as causes.

Fertilizer nutrient run-off and soil run-off can be reduced with no-till farming techniques.

In the U.S., no-till agriculture fits under the broader U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of conservation tillage. Conservation tillage includes any method that retains enough of the previous crop residues such that at least 30 percent of the soil surface is covered after planting. The protective effects of such residues are considerable. According to the USDA’s National Resources Inventory data, soil erosion from water and wind on U.S. cropland decreased 43 percent between 1982 and 2003, with much of this decline coming from the adoption of conservation tillage.

Soil protection is not the only benefit of no-till. Leaving crop residues on the soil surface helps to increase water infiltration and limit runoff. Decreased runoff, in turn, can reduce pollution of nearby water sources with transported sediment, fertilizers and pesticides. The residues also promote water conservation by reducing evaporation. In instances where water availability limits crop production, greater water conservation can mean higher-yielding crops or new capabilities to grow alternative crops.

A world wide push for conservation tillage would reduce soil erosion, reduce energy used by agriculture (especially important with Peak Oil approaching), and cut down on algae blooms. Check out satellite pictures of algae blooms in hte Volga River Delta and Caspian Sea.

Update: K points out that the math above on the rate of loss doesn't make sense. How can 29% be lost if the yearly loss rate starting around year 2000 is 7%? 8 years of 7% yearly loss would leave us with 56% remaining just from those recent years. I suspect the reporter made a mistake.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 03 12:20 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2009 May 12 Tuesday
Islands Hold Evolutionary Relic Species

Some researchers from University of Bonn, UC San Diego and the University of Applied Sciences Eberswalde have published a research paper that finds islands contain a disproportionate fraction of all the unique and unusual species on the planet. Think of islands as evolutionary time capsules. Treasure and protect them.

The southwest Pacific island of New Caledonia stands out as the most unique with animals like the kagu, a bird with no close relatives found only in the forested highlands that is in danger of extinction, and plants like Amborella, a small understory shrub unlike any other flowering plant that is thought to be the lone survivor of an ancient lineage.

Fragments of continents that have broken free to become islands like Madagascar and New Caledonia often serve as a final refuge for evolutionary relicts like these. The source of diversity is different on younger archipelagos formed by volcanoes such as the Canary Islands, the Galápagos and Hawaii which offered pristine environments where early colonizers branched out into multiple related new species to fill empty environmental niches. The new measure doesn't distinguish between the two sources of uniqueness, which may merit different conservation strategies.

Although islands account for less than four percent of the Earth's land area, they harbor nearly a quarter of the world's plants, more than 70,000 species that don't occur on the mainlands. Vertebrate land animals – birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals – broadly follow this same pattern.

"Islands are important and should be part of any global conservation strategy," Kreft said. "Such a strategy wouldn't make any sense if you didn't include the islands."

This means we should not wipe out island rain forests in order to build palm oil plantations to create biodiesel fuel. Government-sponsored environmentalism enlisted in the cause of environmental destruction is a bad idea. Why is it even necessary to say this?

By Randall Parker    2009 May 12 07:30 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 April 19 Sunday
SUNY ESF Profs Rank Overpopulation Above Global Warming As Problem

Professors who work on environmental research place human overpopulation as the top environmental problem on planet Earth.

Overpopulation is the world’s top environmental issue, followed closely by climate change and the need to develop renewable energy resources to replace fossil fuels, according to a survey of the faculty at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).

Just in time for Earth Day (April 22) the faculty at the college, at which environmental issues are the sole focus, was asked to help prioritize the planet’s most pressing environmental problems.

Overpopulation came out on top, with several professors pointing out its ties to other problems that rank high on the list.

“Overpopulation is the only problem,” said Dr. Charles A. Hall, a systems ecologist. “If we had 100 million people on Earth — or better, 10 million — no others would be a problem.” (Current estimates put the planet’s population at more than six billion.)

Dr. Allan P. Drew, a forest ecologist, put it this way: “Overpopulation means that we are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, just because more people are doing it and this is related to overconsumption by people in general, especially in the ‘developed’ world.”

Charles Hall is correct that with a much smaller population our environmental problems would be far smaller. I think the optimal human population is well above 10 million though. We need more scientists and engineers to develop the technologies we need to live longer and healthier lives. 10 million people just could not accomplish that much scientifically and technologically. But 1 billion would probably be enough.

With only 1 billion people our rate of consumption of oil, coal, and other natural resources would be a smaller and tolerable rate. Our resources would last longer. Ocean overfishing wouldn't be a problem. Species extinctions would be a small fraction of the current rate. Much more of the world would be covered with forests. Particulate pollution would be much lower and greenhouse gases would be much lower as well.

What I would like to know: If environmental scientists and other types of scientists from many more universities were asked to rank human problems how would they rank them? In the mainstream press global warming (now rebranded as climate change) gets by far the most attention. Species extinctions, habitat loss, and resource depletion attract very little attention in comparison. But these environmental scientists at SUNY ESF rank human overpopulation as the top environmental problem on planet Earth.

I agree with these professors. The larger the human population gets the more it impinges on all the other species on the planet. But as long as human reproduction is seen as a basic right I expect the human population to continue to grow. Even the projected peaking of human population later in the 21st century is probably overoptimistic because selective pressures to raise fertility are bound to cause a rebound eventually. Humanity is under heavy selective pressure for genes that raise fertility. That selective pressure will eventually change the frequency of genes that govern reproductive behavior and humans will make more babies as a result.

By Randall Parker    2009 April 19 01:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2009 March 22 Sunday
Quarter Of World's Land Seen Degrading

A quarter of the world's population is degrading a quarter of the world's land.

March 2009 - A new study published in the journal Soil Use and Management attempts for the first time to measure the extent and severity of land degradation across the globe and concludes that 24% of the land area is degrading – often in very productive areas.

Land degradation - the decline in the quality of soil, water and vegetation – is of profound importance but until now there have been no consistent global data by which to assess its extent and severity. For nearly thirty years the world has depended on the Global Assessment of Soil Degradation (GLASOD) based on the subjective judgement of soil scientists who knew the conditions in their countries. GLASOD indicated that 15 per cent of the land area was degraded, but this was a map of perceptions, rather than measurement of land degradation.

The new study by Bai et al. measures global land degradation based on a clearly defined and consistent method using remotely sensed imagery. The results are startling. The new assessment indicates that 24 per cent of the land has been degraded over the period 1981-2003 - but there is hardly any overlap with the GLASOD area that recorded the cumulative effects of land degradation up to about 1990.

That quarter of the world's population just happens to be growing faster than the rest of the world's population. These degrading areas are therefore going to get worse and bigger.

Overall, a quarter of the world's population depends directly on these degrading areas.

Southern Africa, South East Asia and South China are worst hit.

The worst-hit areas are Africa south of the Equator, SE Asia and S China. The worst-affected countries, with more than 50 per cent of territory degrading are, in Africa, the Congo, Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Zambia and the most affected (95 per cent degrading) Swaziland; in Asia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Korea and Indonesia. In terms of the rural population affected, the greatest numbers are in China, with nearly half a billion, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Brazil. The usual suspects, such as the African Sahel and around the Mediterranean are much less affected."

Check out this distorted global map representation of where the human population will be concentrated in 2050. If you want to see wild animals in Africa better not wait till you are retired.

World Bank demographer John May says Africa's population will double in 28 years.

The sub-Saharan population is growing at the rate of 2.5 percent per year as compared to 1.2 percent in Latin America and Asia. At that rate, Africa's population would double in 28 years. The reason for the fast population increase in Africa is the rapid decline in infant and child mortality, whilst fertility levels have remained high and are decreasing only slowly.

Today, African women bear 5.5 children on average during their lifetime, except in Southern Africa. The key issue is the lag between the infant and child mortality decline, on the one hand, and the fertility decline, on the other. The AIDS epidemic, despite all the development problems it brings to Africa, will not fundamentally change the demographic equation.

By Randall Parker    2009 March 22 02:19 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 March 19 Thursday
Fish Numbers Down At Caribbean Coral Reefs

Pollution, overfishing and other factors are cutting down species in coral reefs in the Caribbean.

By combining data from 48 studies of coral reefs from around the Caribbean, researchers have found that fish densities that have been stable for decades have given way to significant declines since 1995. The study appears online on March 19th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

"We were most surprised to discover that this decrease is evident for both large-bodied species targeted by fisheries as well as small-bodied species that are not fished," said Michelle Paddack of Simon Fraser University in Canada. "This suggests that overfishing is probably not the only cause."

Rather, they suggest that the recent declines may be explained by drastic losses in coral cover and other changes in coral reef habitats that have occurred in the Caribbean over the past 30 years. Those changes are the result of many factors, including warming ocean temperatures, coral diseases, and a rise in sedimentation and pollution from coastal development. Overfishing has also led to declines of many fish species, and now seems to also be removing those that are important for keeping the reefs free of algae.

The planet has too many people and yet the human population is going to gain a few billion more in this century. So more habitats will be damaged and destroyed.

By Randall Parker    2009 March 19 11:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (24)
2009 February 19 Thursday
Tropical Forest Biomass Shrinking Or Growing?

A new paper in Nature argues that in intact African forests the total biomass is increasing. Note the important qualifier. This refers to biomass in those forests which still exist.

Tropical forests hold more living biomass than any other terrestrial ecosystem. A new report in the journal Nature by Lewis et al. shows that not only do trees in intact African tropical forests hold a lot of carbon, they hold more carbon now than they did 40 years ago--a hopeful sign that tropical forests could help to mitigate global warming. In a companion article, Helene Muller-Landau, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, says that understanding the causes of this African forest carbon sink and projecting its future is anything but straightforward.

The paper argues that per acre or hectare of mature forest the amount of carbon held is rising.

Growing trees absorb carbon. Dead, decomposing trees release carbon. Researchers expect growth and death to approximately balance each other out in mature, undisturbed forests, and thus for total tree carbon stocks, the carbon held by the trees, to remain approximately constant. Yet Lewis and colleagues discovered that on average each hectare (100 x 100 meters, or 2.2 acres) of apparently mature, undisturbed African forest was increasing in tree carbon stocks by an amount equal to the weight of a small car each year. Previous studies have shown that Amazonian forests also take up carbon, although at somewhat lower rates.

One possible cause: the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) could basically fertilize the plant life so that it grows more rapidly and densely.

"If you assume that these forests should be in equilibrium, then the best way to explain why trees are growing bigger is anthropogenic global change – the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could essentially be acting as fertilizer." says Muller-Landau, "But it's also possible that tropical forests are still growing back following past clearing or fire or other disturbance. Given increasing evidence that tropical forests have a long history of human occupation, recovery from past disturbance is almost certainly part of the reason these forests are taking up carbon today."

The boost due to higher CO2 won't continue indefinitely. Other nutrients become rate-limiting. Also, more biomass means more food for herbivores and so their numbers grow and they eat more green.

A big chunk of the CO2 from burning fossil fuels is getting absorbed by forests.

Globally, tropical trees in undisturbed forest are absorbing nearly a fifth of the CO2 released by burning fossil fuels.

The researchers show that remaining tropical forests remove a massive 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere each year. This includes a previously unknown carbon sink in Africa, mopping up 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 each year.

Published today in Nature, the 40 year study of African tropical forests–one third of the world's total tropical forest–shows that for at least the last few decades each hectare of intact African forest has trapped an extra 0.6 tonnes of carbon per year.

The scientists then analysed the new African data together with South American and Asian findings to assess the total sink in tropical forests. Analysis of these 250,000 tree records reveals that, on average, remaining undisturbed forests are trapping carbon, showing that they are a globally significant carbon sink.

I am expecting growing populations and industrializing populations to eventually tap a lot of this increased biomass. Cellulosic technologies for making ethanol will eventually decline in cost to the point that wood as a source of car fuel will become economically competitive. Then all that increased biomass will become valuable as an energy source. Also, the demand for land for cattle and other livestock will grow with rising living standards which allow people to eat more meat. Picture a billion Chinese people eating as much meat as Americans.

Some scientists believe migrations of rural populations to cities are returning lots of farm land back to nature.

These new “secondary” forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest — an iconic environmental cause — may be less urgent than once thought. By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster.

At least in some countries the amount of land returning to forest may be greater than the amount of forest getting cut down.

In Panama by the 1990s, the last decade for which data is available, the rain forest is being destroyed at a rate of 1.3 percent each year. The area of secondary forest is increasing by more than 4 percent yearly, Dr. Wright estimates.

With the heat and rainfall in tropical Panama, new growth is remarkably fast. Within 15 years, abandoned land can contain trees more than 100 feet high. Within 20, a thick rain-forest canopy forms again. Here in the lush, misty hills, it is easy to see rain-forest destruction as part of a centuries-old cycle of human civilization and wilderness, in which each in turn is cleared and replaced by the other. The Mayans first cleared lands here that are now dense forest. The area around Gamboa, cleared when the Panama Canal was built, now looks to the untrained eye like the wildest of jungles.

The new-growth forests can not support as many species as the old growth forests. So this increase in biomass is not a solution to the habitat and species loss problem.

Dr. Wright, looking at a new forest, sees possibility. He says new research suggests that 40 to 90 percent of rain-forest species can survive in new forest.

Dr. Laurance focuses on what will be missing, ticking off species like jaguars, tapirs and a variety of birds and invertebrates.

By Randall Parker    2009 February 19 11:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2008 September 15 Monday
Palm Oil For Food And Energy Threatens More Rainforests

Biomass energy with conventional tropical crops is a bad idea because rainforests get destroyed to make room for more palm plantations resulting in habitat loss.

The continued expansion of oil palm plantations will worsen the dual environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, unless rainforests are better protected, warn scientists in the most comprehensive review of the subject to date.

Lead author, Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia said: "There has been much debate over the role of palm oil production in tropical deforestation and its impacts on biodiversity. We wanted to put the discussion on a firm scientific footing."

Palm oil, used in food, cosmetics, biofuels and other products, is now the world's leading vegetable oil. It is derived from the fruit of the oil palm, grown on more than 50,000-square miles of moist, tropical lowland areas, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia. These areas, once covered in tropical rainforest, the globe's richest wildlife habitat on land, are also home to some of the most threatened species on earth.

The review, published today in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, singles out deforestation associated with plantation development as by far the biggest ecological impact, but finds that the links between the two are often much more complex than portrayed in the popular press.

Growing palm oil demand threatens to wipe out yet more of the dwindling rainforests.

Within countries, oil palm is usually grown in a few productive areas, but it looks set to spread further. Demand is increasing rapidly and 'its potential as a future agent of deforestation is enormous', the study says.

Most of the suitable land left is within the last remaining large areas of tropical rainforest in Central Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Where oil palm has replaced tropical forest the impact on wildlife depends on what species survive in the new oil palm habitat.

The study confirmed that oil palm is a poor substitute habitat for the majority of tropical forest species, particularly forest specialists and those of conservation concern.

The coming of Peak Oil will boost the demand for biomass energy and speed the destruction of rainforests and other habitats. We need more environmentally friendly energy sources to replace dwindling fossil fuels.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 15 11:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2008 August 06 Wednesday
Animal Migrations An Endangered Phenomenon?

Animal migrations keep sinking.

Animal migration surely ranks as one of nature's most visible and widespread phenomena. Every minute of every day, somewhere, some place, animals are on the move. The migrants span the animal kingdom, from whales and warblers to dragonflies and salamanders. But is migration an endangered phenomenon? Around the world, many of the most spectacular migrations have either disappeared due to human activities or are in steep decline. Those of us living in eastern North America can no longer experience the flocks of millions of passenger pigeons that temporarily obscured the sun as they migrated to and from their breeding grounds. Nor can residents of the Great Plains climb to the top of a hill and gaze down up hundreds of thousands of bison trekking across the prairies, as was possible less than two centuries ago.

I view this as a loss. I realize some of my readers see the expansion of humanity as some sort of Manifest Destiny which is a value that trumps all other values (really). But I do not see why the expansion of the human race up to 7, 8, 9+ billion people enriches my life. Seems quite the opposite is the case.

I think migrating geese honking at high altitudes are really cool. If I could go back in a time machine I would go back and (among other things) watch the massive carrier pigeon migration before hunters wiped them out entirely Non-migratory species aren't shrinking as much as migratory species.

Even the less iconic migrations show signs of trouble. Birdwatchers in North America and Europe, for example, complain that fewer songbirds are returning each spring from their winter quarters in Latin America and Africa, respectively. Indeed, a recent continent-wide analysis of European breeding birds concluded that long-distance migrants (i.e., those species that breed in Europe but winter in sub-Saharan Africa) have suffered sustained and often severe population declines, more so than related nonmigratory species [1]. In central Asia, the number of saiga, a peculiar migratory antelope of the dry steppe grasslands and semi-desert, has dropped by over 95% in the past two decades, from over one million to fewer than 50,000 [2].

The causes of all these declines vary depending on the species and the locale, but in general, the threats to migrants fall into four nonexclusive categories: habitat destruction, the creation of obstacles and barriers such as dams and fences, overexploitation, and climate change. Most of the migrants are in little immediate danger of extinction; rather, they are becoming less and less common. Thus, birdwatchers can still see all of the species of migratory songbirds they seek each spring; they simply have to work harder to do so. Bison still roam national parks and private ranches in the American West, but today's herds number in the hundreds or low thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions. And there are still lots of salmon to catch off the coast of Norway or British Columbia—just not as many as there used to be.

Migrant species that are not in immediate danger of extinction will come under greater pressure as more billions of humans populate the Earth and each human uses a larger ecological footprint. Do you care?

Salmon are a dim shadow of their former numbers.

Prior to European settlement, 160–226 million kilograms of salmon migrated each year up the rivers of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and California. Today, after decades of dam construction, overfishing, water withdrawals for irrigation, logging, and streamside grazing by livestock, salmon populations have plummeted. The total biomass of spawning salmon in the Pacific Northwest is now estimated to be only 12–14 million kilograms. Gresh et al. [3] have calculated that the rivers of the Northwest receive just 6%–7% of the marine-derived nitrogen and phosphorus they once received from the abundant salmon population. How this shortfall may be affecting the ecology of the region's rivers or adjacent farmlands is largely unknown.

Migratory bird numbers might undergo a big shrinking. Wetlands destruction probably will contribute to that. Biomass energy crops will reduce available habitats as well.

We can imagine an analogous situation developing with respect to migratory birds. Each spring, more than 30,000 tons of migratory songbirds migrate from their wintering grounds in Latin America and the Caribbean to their breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. (This biomass value is derived by combining breeding population totals from the North American Landbird Conservation Plan with species-specific weights from various sources.) If we assume these birds consume 10%–35% of their body weight per day in insects (roughly matching the requirements of a 100-gram bird and a 10-gram bird, respectively), then they are eating anywhere from 3,000–10,500 tons of insects per day. (During the breeding season, when the birds are feeding offspring, these figures would be much higher.) Several studies have shown that birds reduce insect populations in temperate forests, thus raising the question of whether ongoing declines in migratory birds pose a threat to the health of our forests and farmlands.

Similarly, one wonders how the ecology of the Serengeti would change if its migratory population of wildebeest (exceeding 1 million individuals) were to collapse, given the major role these animals surely play in terms of consuming herbaceous vegetation and redistributing nutrients via their urine and dung (Figure 1).

By Randall Parker    2008 August 06 05:16 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 July 25 Friday
$1 Billion Per Year Could Stop Tenth Of Deforestation

$1 billion per year could prevent one tenth of tropical deforestation.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Wealthy nations willing to collectively spend about $1 billion annually could prevent the emission of roughly half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for the next 25 years, new research suggests.

It would take about that much money to put an end to a tenth of the tropical deforestation in the world, one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, researchers estimate.

Reduced carbon emissions aside, the reduction in habitat destruction would be great. Why not advocate this measure just to cut down on habitat loss? Whatever happened to the environmental movement that used to place so much emphasis on ecosystem preservation? Nowadays carbon dioxide emissions get all the attention. This does not seem sensible to me. If CO2 had no effects on temperatures the destruction of rain forests would still be wiping out species.

Though I wonder if this program would really have its desired effect. Or would the preservation of some rain forests just increase the rush to destroy the unprotected rain forests? My guess is these researchers aren't aiming high enough.

This sounds roughly analogous to existing practice of paying farmers not to till land that is considered valuable habitat.

If adopted, this type of program could have potential to reduce global carbon emissions by between 2 and 10 percent.

The calculation is one of several estimates described by a team of scientists and economists this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The calculations, based on three different forestry and land-use models, provide the best estimates so far of how much it would cost developed nations to participate in a program called “avoided deforestation” to reduce worldwide carbon emissions.

One fifth of CO2 emissions come from tropical deforestation.

Under such a program, wealthy nations would help achieve reduced emissions globally by paying landowners in developing nations not to cut down wide swaths of forested land to make way for agricultural uses. Tropical deforestation, the cutting and burning of trees to convert land to grow crops and raise livestock, accounts for about a fifth of all human-caused carbon emissions in the world.

When forests get destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations for biomass energy the result is loss of species diversity.

Rising demand for palm oil will decimate biodiversity unless producers and politicians can work together to preserve as much remaining natural forest as possible, ecologists have warned. A new study of the potential ecological impact of various management strategies published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology found that very little can be done to make palm oil plantations more hospitable for local birds and butterflies. The findings have major implications for the booming market in biofuels and its impact on biodiversity.

Dr Lian Pin Koh of ETH Zürich looked at the number of birds and butterflies in 15 palm oil plantations in East Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. He found that palm oil plantations supported between one and 13 butterfly species, and between seven and 14 species of bird. Previous research by other ecologists found at least 85 butterfly and 103 bird species in neighbouring undisturbed rain forest.

Management techniques – such as encouraging epiphytes, beneficial plants or weed cover in palm oil plantations – increased species richness by only 0.4 species for butterflies and 2.2 species for birds. Preserving remaining natural forests – for example by creating forest buffer zones between plantations – made a little more impact, increasing species richness by 3.7 in the case of butterflies and 2.5 for birds.

Previously untouched regions are going to get ripped apart in the quest for "clean" biodiesel from palm oil.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The global resource boom is threatening one of the world's last tropical-forest frontiers: the Merauke region of Indonesia's remote Papua province.

Indonesian companies are lining up to develop pulp-and-paper mills in Merauke; investors from South Korea want to expand palm-oil plantations; and Indonesian officials have tried to persuade International Paper Co to invest in the region.

The demand for wood and palm oil might drive orangutans into extinction. The demand for supposedly carbon-neutral energy sources (except that wiping out forests releases large amounts of CO2) is contributing to the extinction of orangutans.

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Orangutan numbers have declined sharply on the only two islands where they still live in the wild and they could become the first great ape species to go extinct if urgent action isn't taken, a new study says.

The declines in Indonesia and Malaysia since 2004 are mostly because of illegal logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations, Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, said on Saturday.

This problem is going to get worse as more people in China, India, and southeast Asia start working in industrial jobs and their growing buying power lets them buy furniture, housing, and energy. The higher oil prices will boost European demand for biomass energy. Down will go the forests.

Update: In addition to rain forests, wetlands are getting destroyed too.

Covering just 6% of Earth's land surface, wetlands (including marshes, peat bogs, swamps, river deltas, mangroves, tundra, lagoons and river floodplains) store 10-20% of its terrestrial carbon. Wetlands slow the decay of organic material trapped and locked away over the ages in low oxygen conditions.

These waterlogged (either seasonally or year-round) areas contain an estimated 771 gigatonnes (771 billion tonnes) of greenhouse gases – both CO2 and more potent methane – an amount in CO2 equivalent comparable to the carbon content of today's atmosphere.


Some 60% of wetlands worldwide – and up to 90% in Europe – have been destroyed in the past 100 years, principally due to drainage for agriculture but also through pollution, dams, canals, groundwater pumping, urban development and peat extraction.

Notwithstanding recent efforts in such countries as Australia and the U.S. (which has lost 50 million of an estimated 90 million hectares of wetlands 500 years ago) to protect wetlands and reverse past damage, at a world scale they continue to shrink.

"Wetlands act as sponges and their role as sources, reservoirs and regulators of water is largely underappreciated by many farmers and others who rely on steady water supplies," says Prof. Junk. "They also cleanse water of organic pollutants, prevent downstream flood inundations, protect riverbanks and seashores from erosion, recycle nutrients and capture sediment."

Population growth, industrialization, and depletion of available fossil fuels all create pressures that result in more destruction of rain forests and wetlands. So the problem is going to get worse.

Click thru on that link and read lots of facts about the value of wetlands.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 25 01:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 July 14 Monday
Report Sees Big Losses In Forest Land

Add billions more people to the planet. Plus, let economic growth increase the buying power of those already here. What you get? Massive forest destruction.

LONDON (14 July 2008) -- Escalating global demand for fuel, food and wood fibre will destroy the world's forests, if efforts to address climate change and poverty fail to empower the billion-plus forest-dependent poor, according to two reports released today by the U.S.-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), an international coalition comprising the world's foremost organisations on forest governance and conservation.

The studies were delivered today at an event in the House of Commons hosted by Martin Horwood, MP for Cheltenham. Sponsored by RRI and the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme, speakers included Gareth Thomas, the UK Minister for Trade and Development; authors of the two reports; as well as advocates for forest communities in Africa and Asia.

According to the findings released today in RRI's comprehensive study, Seeing People through the Trees: Scaling Up Efforts to Advance Rights and Address Poverty, Conflict and Climate Change, the world will need a minimum of 515 million more hectares by 2030, in order to grow food, bioenergy, and wood products. This is almost twice the amount of land that will be available, equal to a land mass 12 times the size of Germany.

At the same time, a second RRI study, From Exclusion to Ownership? Challenges and Opportunities in Advancing Forest Tenure Reform, finds that developing country governments still claim an overwhelming majority of forests and have made limited progress in recognizing local land rights, leaving open the potential for great violence, as some of the world's poorest peoples struggle to hold on to their only asset—millions of hectares of the world's most valuable and vulnerable forestlands.

The studies also report a sharp increase in government allocations of forests to industrial plantations, and suggest that the booming growth in demand for food and fuel is rapidly eating up vast forestlands in the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

They foresee big increases in the amount of land under cultivation. More land for humans means less land for wild critters. How about humans make fewer babies and leave more room for the critters?

  • In Brazil, 28 Mha are currently under cultivation for soy and sugarcane. By 2020, soy and sugarcane plantations are expected to cover 88 to 128 Mha of Brazilian land.
  • In Indonesia, 6.5 Mha of land are dedicated to oil palm plantations. By 2025, oil palm plantations are projected to require 16.5 to 26 Mha of land.
  • In China, biofuel cultivation alone is expected to require an additional 13.3 Mha of land by 2020.

Peak Oil is going to make this problem worse as the demand for biomass energy soars. Also, high fertilizer costs will limit yield per area of land and therefore lead to more land getting put under cultivation.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 14 10:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2008 June 02 Monday
Rapid Destruction Of Papua New Guinea Rainforests

A new study finds that the rain forests of Papua New Guinea are getting destroyed much faster than the Amazon.

Their study found that PNG's forests were being cleared or degraded at a rate of 1.4% per year in 2002, increasing to 1.7% per year in 2007. If clearing and degradation continues unchecked, over half of the forest that existed when PNG became independent from Australia in 1975 will have been destroyed by 2021, according to the report. The Brazilian Amazon is losing forest at the rate of 0.9% per year.

Asian industrialization is raising the demand for timber. So the rate of destruction will probably accelerate.

PNG has a lot of unique species.

Logging and road building are already leading to erosion and fragmentation of ecosystems harboring some of the world’s most varied, and least-studied, wildlife, said Phil Shearman, the lead author and director of the Remote Sensing Center of the University of Papua New Guinea. The study is available online at gis.mortonblacketer.com.au/upngis/.

PNG has a disproportionate fraction of all the planet's species.

Although it only accounts for less than 0.5% of the Earth's land cover, the heavily forested island nation is home to an estimated 6-7% of the planet's species.

Birth control would help.

Papua New Guinea's tropical rainforest - the world's third largest - is not only being logged by timber firms but also cleared for subsistence farming, in a country of 6m people with one of the highest population growth rates in the world.

So far I do not see technological advances slowing the rate of habitat destruction. The opposite seems to be the case.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 02 11:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2008 February 03 Sunday
50,000 Square Miles Of Tropical Forest Cleared Per Year

The rate of rain forest destruction has accelerated.

From Brazil to central Africa to once-lush islands in Asia's archipelagos, human encroachment is shrinking the world's rain forests.

The alarm was sounded decades ago by environmentalists _ and was little heeded. The picture, meanwhile, has changed: Africa is now a leader in destructiveness. The numbers have changed: U.N. specialists estimate 60 acres of tropical forest are felled worldwide every minute, up from 50 a generation back. And the fears have changed.

The best solution to this problem? Free contraceptives and other forms of birth control to everyone in the world. We have too many people. We aren't going to persuade them all to consume less. They will gobble up more and more habitat.

Since large chunks of our elites have decided (in a sort of madness of the intellectual crowds) that anthropogenic global warming (now renamed as Climate Change as part of that madness) is the biggest problem facing the planet they have decided that habitat loss must be seen through the lens of global warming (er, climate change).

"If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change," declared more than 300 scientists, conservation groups, religious leaders and others in an appeal for action at December's climate conference in Bali, Indonesia.

They can't imagine really mobilizing to stop the problem of habitat destruction unless they can shout "Climate Change!" It is not enough for them to say "Oh wait, it sure is nice to see elephants, lions, tigers, orangutans, bonobos, and lots of other species living in their native habitats and we should prevent the destruction of those habitats at the hands of human population expansion and economic growth." Nope, they need a core source of motivation that points its way back to industrial activity rather than destruction of habitats as the core evil. I think they aren't making sense.

Isn't this pretty bad even if it does not change average global temperature? Do we really need to be able to forecast a change in average global temperature in order to decide this trend is really bad? I mean, I don't need to consider the temperature effects of so much deforestation in order to decide this is bad.

"Deforestation continues at an alarming rate of about 13 million hectares (32 million acres) a year," the U.N. body said in its latest "State of the World's Forests" report.

Because northern forests remain essentially stable, that means 50,000 square miles of tropical forest are being cleared every 12 months _ equivalent to one Mississippi or more than half a Britain.

The extensive deforestation in Brazil is running at about 5 to 6 percent of the world total per year.

The Brazilian government has announced a huge rise in the rate of Amazon deforestation, months after celebrating its success in achieving a reduction.

In the last five months of 2007, 3,235 sq km (1,250 sq miles) were lost.

Gilberto Camara, of INPE, an institute that provides satellite imaging of the area, said the rate of loss was unprecedented for the time of year.

Growing demand for cattle and soy beans is driving the Amazon destruction.

In the past 40 years, close to 20% of the Amazon has been cut down.

Land cleared for cattle is the leading cause of deforestation, while the growth in soya bean production is becoming increasingly significant. Illegal logging is also a factor.

Deforestation and forest fires are now responsible for nearly 75% of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

While the Amazon seems to get the most press attention the deforestation rate in Indonesia is a few times the rate in Brazil.

Whether it was arming forest police or backing schemes to certify legal logs, no tactic could silence the chain saws or douse the intentional fires that each day destroy 20 more square miles (50 more square kilometers) of Indonesia's rain forests, and an estimated 110 square miles (285 square kilometers) elsewhere in the world's tropics.

By Randall Parker    2008 February 03 09:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2007 December 16 Sunday
Carbon Dioxide In Oceans Threatens To Kill Coral Reefs

I do not see global warming as an unsolvable problem or as a reason to stop using oil (especially since I think we are running out of oil anyway). We can use one cheap way to do climate engineering or yet another to keep down world temperatures. But as I've stated on previous occasions, CO2 build-up in the oceans seems like it might be the reason to worry about atmospheric CO2 build-up.

Since I think we are running out of oil and natural gas the question I most want answered with regard to the environment is how much coal does the world really have left that is accessible to extract and burn? American coal reserves and world coal reserves might be smaller than commonly thought. However, if the amount of accessible coal is large then CO2 emitted by burning coal for electricity and other purposes could acidify the oceans and kill all the coral reefs.

Stanford, CA — Carbon emissions from human activities are not just heating up the globe, they are changing the ocean’s chemistry. This could soon be fatal to coral reefs, which are havens for marine biodiversity and underpin the economies of many coastal communities. Scientists from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology have calculated that if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, by mid-century 98% of present-day reef habitats will be bathed in water too acidic for reef growth. Among the first victims will be Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest organic structure.

Chemical oceanographers Ken Caldeira and Long Cao are presenting their results in a multi-author paper in the December 14 issue of Science* and at the annual meeting of American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on the same date. The work is based on computer simulations of ocean chemistry under levels of atmospheric CO2 ranging from 280 parts per million (pre-industrial levels) to 5000 ppm. Present levels are 380 ppm and rapidly rising due to accelerating emissions from human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.

By the time we reach 550 ppm all the coral reefs are dead. Likely other ocean species will bite the dust as well. Time to switch to nuclear power. But in case we don't make that move, well, I've always wanted to see Australia's Coral Reefs. So I guess I need to fly down there on a fossil fuel burning CO2 emitting jumbo jet to see the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory before everyone else uses so much fossil that the reefs are dead. Some of you are thinking "what a twisted guy that FuturePundit is to think that". Yes, I'm pretty twisted in my thinking. But in this case that idea did not come from my imagination. Nope, I read it in the New York Times There's a growing travel industry in taking people to see what humanity is ruining and wrecking.

From the tropics to the ice fields, doom is big business. Quark Expeditions, a leader in arctic travel, doubled capacity for its 2008 season of trips to the northern and southernmost reaches of the planet. Travel agents report clients are increasingly requesting trips to see the melting glaciers of Patagonia, the threatened coral of the Great Barrier Reef, and the eroding atolls of the Maldives, Mr. Shapiro said.

Meet humanity. Why do some people say how wonderful it is?

So what should we do? Even if industrialized countries kick the carbon habit Asia and other places are on course to boost atmospheric CO2 levels.

Richard Richels, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, helped produce an ominous forecast: even if the established industrial powers turned off every power plant and car right now, unless there are changes in policy in poorer countries the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could still reach 450 parts per million — a level deemed unacceptably dangerous by many scientists — by 2070. (If no one does anything, that threshold is reached in 2040.)

In my view this tells us that we need to develop cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels. We need to develop clean energy sources cheap enough that the developing countries will be lured away from coal to these alternatives.

Energy usage to manufacture goods for export is a major source of CO2 emissions in China.

Yet one of the biggest is the enormous increase in China’s production of manufactured goods for export. Indeed, a study by the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Britain estimated that in 2004, net exports accounted for 23 percent of Chinese greenhouse gas emissions.

Think George W. Bush is an enemy of the environment? He's an environmentalist compared to the Chinese. China is bypassing the US as biggest CO2 emitter and probably is already the biggest emitter of conventional pollutants. Yet China is just getting started. Their emissions are going to get far worse (and not just on CO2) before they get better. More mercury. More particulates. More pollutants in rivers and the oceans. China's industrialization is a disaster for the world's environment.

A team of economists led by Dieter Helm at Oxford University claims that Britain's decrease in CO2 emissions is an illusion caused in part by importing products whose domestic manufacture used to cause domestic CO2 emissions.

The analysis says pollution from aviation, shipping, overseas trade and tourism, which are not measured in the official figures, means that UK carbon consumption has risen significantly over the past decade, and that the government's claims to have tackled global warming are an "illusion".


Under Kyoto, Britain must reduce its greenhouse gas output to 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2012. According to official figures filed with the UN, Britain's emissions are currently down 15% compared with 1990.

But the new report says UK carbon output has actually risen by 19% over that period, once the missing emissions are included in the figures.

Britain has basically exported some of its fossil fuels using industries (as have the United States and other Western countries) to countries like China whose leaders think nothing about setting new records in rates of pollution emissions. Again, doesn't this argue for a much more rapid development of technologies for cleaner energy to make those cleaner sources cheaper? We can't appeal to altruism or enlightened self interest about long term costs. Such arguments aren't going to work with China or India. They haven't even worked with Canada which signed Kyoto and then, under a left-of-center government, went on to greatly increase CO2 emissions since signing the treaty. Japan and other Kyoto signatories didn't meet their treaty obligations either.

Governments around the world aren't willing to impose much hardship on their populaces to reduce fossil fuels use. Some talk a good game. But coal mines are getting reopened in Germany and Britain.

A group of prominent scientists agree that a big increase in research funding is needed to solve our energy and environment problems.

The letter, sent Sunday, calls for at least $30 billion a year in spending to promote sustained research akin to the Apollo space program or the Manhattan Project.

It was drafted by Martin I. Hoffert, an emeritus physics professor at New York University; Kenneth Caldeira, a Carnegie Institution scientist based at Stanford University; and John Katzenberger, director of the Aspen Global Change Institute, a private research group. Other signers include Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, economics, and medicine.

Gregory Benford, Lowell Wood, and Nobelist Paul Crutzen are among the signers. You can read the full letter (PDF format). Note the graph showing types and levels of research funding from 1955 till today.

Update: Also see Andrew Revkin's article from a year ago: Budgets Falling in Race to Fight Global Warming.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 16 09:16 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2007 August 26 Sunday
Bird Species In America In Sharp Decline

The National Audobon Society of the United States says bird species are in decline.

Audubon's unprecedented analysis of forty years of citizen-science bird population data from our own Christmas Bird Count plus the Breeding Bird Survey reveals the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds.

Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on the national Common Birds in Decline list lost at least half their populations in just four decades.

The findings point to serious problems with both local habitats and national environmental trends. Only citizen action can make a difference for the birds and the state of our future.

What citizen action could work? I see a problem here which will prevent action on a scale needed to preserve large habitats: The human instinct to reproduce combined with our ability to generate more technology. We now out-compete a growing portion of all the species on the planet and our ability to harness a growing and very substantial portion of the world's land and biomass to our own purposes. If more environmentally minded people have fewer babies it won't matter because those with stronger genetic instincts to reproduce will make up a larger fraction of the next generation and fertility will eventually recover.

On your computer you can see or hear the 20 top decliners. So these birds will live on in cyberspace. Here is the full report.

Nathaniel T. Wheelwright says it feels as if the lights are dimming.

In his later years, my grandfather used to grumble that birds were becoming scarcer and scarcer. It was tempting to write off his gloom as the natural tendency of the elderly to romanticize the past, or maybe just an old man's deteriorating hearing and eyesight. But it was true that the whippoorwill that had kept me awake nights when I visited him as a boy had gone quiet, and the woods and fields of the Northeast felt emptier to me.

Earlier this summer, the National Audubon Society released a definitive study of population trends of North American birds, a monumental effort based on decades of Christmas bird counts and breeding bird surveys. The study confirms what my grandfather feared and what most of us now know. Birds that I used to see routinely growing up in New England – evening grosbeaks, eastern meadowlarks, northern bobwhites – are in free fall. The losses are mind-boggling. Since my grandfather introduced me to birds just half a lifetime ago, once-common species have declined by as much as 80 percent due to the usual suspects: habitat loss, pesticides, introduced species, and climate change. The songs of tens of millions of birds have been silenced. It feels as if the lights are dimming.

When some people read about cellulosic technology they think "environmentally friendly green energy". By contrast I think "yet another way to convert land from habitat for other species into biofactories to power cars and SUVs". The birdies are going bye bye because of human population expansion and economic growth. We need policies that decrease the human footprint. Or we have to accept the decline of most other species. My guess is we will continue to opt for the latter.

By Randall Parker    2007 August 26 09:00 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2007 July 07 Saturday
Humans Use Nearly A Quarter Of World Biomass?

A recent research report published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA by a group of German and Austrian researchers find that humans are already using a quarter of the world's biomass.

Human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP), the aggregate impact of land use on biomass available each year in ecosystems, is a prominent measure of the human domination of the biosphere. We present a comprehensive assessment of global HANPP based on vegetation modeling, agricultural and forestry statistics, and geographical information systems data on land use, land cover, and soil degradation that localizes human impact on ecosystems. We found an aggregate global HANPP value of 15.6 Pg C/yr or 23.8% of potential net primary productivity, of which 53% was contributed by harvest, 40% by land-use-induced productivity changes, and 7% by human-induced fires. This is a remarkable impact on the biosphere caused by just one species. We present maps quantifying human-induced changes in trophic energy flows in ecosystems that illustrate spatial patterns in the human domination of ecosystems, thus emphasizing land use as a pervasive factor of global importance. Land use transforms earth's terrestrial surface, resulting in changes in biogeochemical cycles and in the ability of ecosystems to deliver services critical to human well being. The results suggest that large-scale schemes to substitute biomass for fossil fuels should be viewed cautiously because massive additional pressures on ecosystems might result from increased biomass harvest.

One could dispute this result. How one measures biomass usage will affect how high a figure will be assigned to human usage. But consider for example the world's fisheries. We are cutting back on the sizes of the world's fisheries. One could argue that since we are using such a large fraction of all the fish we are effectively using all the algae and other microorganisms in the food chains of those fish which we eat.

If we plant lawns and fruit trees in our yards then are we appropriating that biomass for our use? Seems like it. If we didn't plant those lawns other plants would grow there and other species would make use of those plants in ways that we currently prevent (e.g. we battle to keep out gophers).

This result illustrates why I think biomass energy is a bad idea. We do not have large amounts of land as yet unused. We should avoid development of yet more ways to make land useful. Even without the development of biomass energy I expect both human population growth and human industrialization to increase human land use to an extent that wipes out lots of species. Human continue to greatly shrink the wilds with no end to that shrinkage in sight.

Industrialization will continue to raise the demand for timber. That will shift more lands from their natural state into forest monocultures. Industrialization will continue to increase the size of dwellings and of lawn areas around houses. This will decrease the amount of land available for nature. Rising living standards will increase the buying power of people who like meat. This will cause a shift of more lands toward agriculture to raise grain crops and for grazing.

The human population is about 6.6 billion people and the US Census Bureau projects it might reach 9.4 billion by 2050. If the Chinese government loses the ability to enforce its "One Child" policy then the world's population could go much higher. Also, the development of cures for major diseaes and rejuvenation therapies will drastically cut the death rate in industrialized countries.

Nanotech replications will make solar power and goods production extremely cheap. Therefore hundreds of millions or even billions of humans will gain the ability to use huge amounts of land just for massive mansions.

The full paper (PDF) is available with open access.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 07 09:17 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2007 June 17 Sunday
Habitat Loss Reduces US Bird Populations

More people and more land development means fewer birds.

From the heartland's whippoorwills and meadowlarks to the Northern bobwhite and common terns of the nation's coasts, 20 common bird species tracked by the National Audubon Society have seen their numbers fall 54 percent overall since 1967, with some down about 80 percent, the group reported Thursday.

Most of the trouble lies with loss of bird habitat, and has for decades, due to expanding agriculture and suburban development. The Rufous hummingbird's population has fallen 58 percent due to logging and development in its Pacific Northwest breeding range – and in its winter range in Mexico. The same thing has happened to whipporwills, whose numbers are down 57 percent due to loss of their forest habitat. At the same time, scientists say changes in migration patterns due to global warming are emerging, too.

"Habitat loss is still the major concern," says Greg Butcher, Audubon's bird conservation director in an interview. "But we're also seeing increasing impact from large-scale problems like global warming."

Losses due to global warming are speculative at this point. But loss of land to human use is not speculative. Destruction of rain forests in the tropics will drive many species to extinction. Both industrialization and population growth are driving the loss of land.

This trend could get much worse. My fear with biotechnology for biomass energy is that biotechnology will make more land useful for human purposes. If genetic engineers create plants that make land more usable for energy production then use of land for energy production will cause orders of magnitude greater loss of habitats than is caused by drilling for oil and construction of oil pipelines. Shifting of land into production for biomass energy will get added to expansion of land use for food crops, logging, and human settlements.

The habitat loss problem is going to get much worse even without a massive shift to biomass energy. The population of the United States will hit about 400 million by 2050. Most of that population growth will come from immigrants and from children of immigrants.

That population growth rate is probably going to go up if the S.1348 immigration amnesty bill passes Congress. Why? Immigration amnesties cause fertility spikes.

According to a 2002 study by demographers Laura E. Hill and Hans P. Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California, due to the 1986 amnesty (another "comprehensive" compromise, combining legalization with enforcement provisions that were never enforced), "Between 1987 and 1991, total fertility rates for foreign-born Hispanics [in California] increased from 3.2 to 4.4" expected babies per woman over her lifetime.

I believe we already have too many people on planet Earth and that we are going to lose a large number of species due to population growth and industrialization. Eventually we are going to develop rejuvenation therapies and current projections of future population growth will turn out to be very low. Seems to me we have about 4 choices with population growth:

  • Keep having babies and continue to die from old age. The human population continues to increase and we lose an expanding list of species. Maybe declining fertility rates flatten out the world population but eventually natural selection reverses the fertility decline.
  • When rejuvenation therapies become available and humans effectively cease to grow old then governments could enact laws restricting reproduction (e.g. China's One Child policy). The population stops growing and then slowly decreases due to accidents, suicide, murder, and natural disasters.
  • Keep having babies but bottle up people in cities with huge high rises. Basically, make much of the world a natural park which people can visit but not live in for extended periods of time. This option won't work if human populations continue to grow indefinitely.
  • Keep having babies and also start using rejuvenation therapies. Populations will explode and species extinctions will explode along with the human population growth.. The fraction of the population that is fertile will go up due to rejuvenation therapies. Women over the age 100 will make babies.

My guess is that the fourth option is the most likely. The instinct to reproduce is incredibly strong (even as many intellectuals erroneously claim we've somehow escaped our instincts). Also, the development of rejuvenation therapies seems inevitable barring a catastrophe that wipes out the human race.How can the fourth option be prevented? Maybe people will migrate to online virtual reality living and raise AI children. I doubt it. Maybe a Borg consciousness AI will take over a world government and control human behavior. For example, a massive AI (or a secret cabal of scientists and industrialists) could design viruses that infect the entire human race and reprogram their brains to dampen down desires to reproduce.

By Randall Parker    2007 June 17 08:56 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
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