Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thirteen corporations control up to 40 per cent of world’s most valuable fisheries

A press release from Stockholm University: Just thirteen corporations control 19-40% of the largest and most valuable stocks and 11-16 % of the global marine catch, according to new research. These “keystone” corporations of the global seafood industry critically shape the future of marine ecosystems, but have yet to assume this responsibility at the global scale.

The new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, makes an analogy between the largest companies in seafood industry and keystone species in ecological communities. Keystone species in nature have a profound effect on the structure and function of the ecosystem and disproportionately determine the prevalence and activities of other species. For example just a small number of sea otters can determine urchin numbers, or a few grey wolves determine the size of bison, deer or elk populations.

Likewise, the study found that the average annual revenues of the 160 largest companies in 2012 exhibit a distinct keystone pattern, where the top 10% account for 38 % of total revenues. The identified thirteen companies (box) shape very large marine ecosystems around the world and are involved in both wild capture fisheries and aquaculture, including whitefish, tuna, salmon, shellfish, fishmeal, fish oil, and aqua feeds. Their combined annual revenues correspond to 18% of the global value of seafood production in 2012 (US$ 252 billion).

This handful of corporations (representing 0.5% of 2250 registered fishing and aquaculture companies worldwide) dominate all parts of seafood
production, operate through an extensive global network of subsidiaries and are profoundly involved in fisheries and aquaculture decision-making. Such omnipotence represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the governance of global fisheries.

“The phenomenon of keystone actors is an increasingly important feature of our human-dominated world. Active leadership in sustainability initiatives by these corporations could result in a cascade through the entire seafood industry towards improved management of marine living resources and ecosystems,” says lead author Henrik Österblom, Deputy Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

“Increasing demand for seafood has contributed to a global fisheries crisis, with consequences for marine ecosystems around the world,” Österblom adds. Existing analyses of global fisheries operations have, however, so far largely focused on the role of countries, rather than industry corporations....

A fishing vessel off the coast of Scotland in 1963, shot by Phillip Capper, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Moscow airports delay or cancel more than 100 flights in storm

NDTV: Moscow international airports on Friday delayed or cancelled more than 100 flights due to stormy weather.

A weather warning issued by the emergencies ministry in Moscow predicted storms and strong winds of more than 50 miles per hour that could topple trees and bring down power lines.

At around 10 pm (1900 GMT), 73 flights were delayed and eight cancelled at Domodedovo airport to the south of the city, according to Yandex search engine's timetable service.

A further 40 flights were delayed and eight cancelled at the northern Sheremetyevo airport while eight were delayed at Vnukovo airport to the west, Yandex said.

Aeroflot carrier, based at Sheremetyevo, on Twitter warned passengers that "currently at Sheremetyevo due to complex weather conditions, flights are being delayed on arrival and departure."...

The control tower at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, shot by DME Airport, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

NOAA's GOES-R satellite begins environmental testing

NOAA: The GOES-R satellite, slated to launch in 2016, is ready for environmental testing. Environmental testing simulates the harsh conditions of launch and the space environment once the satellite is in orbit. The GOES-R satellite and its instruments will undergo a variety of rigorous tests which includes subjecting the satellite to vibration, acoustics and temperature testing as part of this process.

The environmental testing will take place at Lockheed Martin Corporation’s Littleton, Colorado, facility where the spacecraft is being built. The satellite will be placed inside a large (29’ x 65’) vacuum chamber, where it will remain through late summer. During the thermal vacuum test, the satellite is exposed to the extreme hot and cold temperatures it will experience in space as it orbits the Earth with temperatures ranging from -15 degrees Celsius to 50 degrees Celsius. The satellite will also undergo vibration testing to simulate the experience of launching into space aboard a rocket, and electromagnetic testing to ensure it is properly protected from electromagnetic phenomena in space, like solar flares.

“The start of the environmental testing period is a critically important time for the spacecraft,” said GOES-R Series Program Director, Greg Mandt. “This milestone marks the shift from the development and integration of the satellite to the final testing phases that will prepare the satellite for the rigors of space before its delivery to the launch location later this year.”

...GOES-R represents a significant improvement over current GOES satellite observations and will provide higher-resolution images of weather patterns and severe storms five times faster than today, which will contribute to more accurate and reliable weather forecasts and severe weather outlooks. GOES-R’s environmental data products will support short-term weather forecasts and severe storm watches and warnings, maritime forecasts, seasonal predictions, drought outlooks and space weather predictions. GOES-R products will improve hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, increase thunderstorm and tornado warning lead time, improve aviation flight route planning, provide data for long-term climate variability studies, improve solar flare warnings for communications and navigation disruptions and enhance space weather monitoring....

Image from NOAA

Heat wave continues along northern India as Delhi witnesses change in weather

ANI: No relief was in sight for people in northern India as they continued to reel under intense heat wave, with the death toll crossing 1,700 in the last 10 days.

In Amritsar, people on the streets had their faces covered to save themselves from the scorching sun. Free water was also being distributed to the travelers to keep them hydrated. With the threat of more frequent heat waves as a result of climate change, experts say India must recognise rising temperatures as a natural disaster, just like floods or earthquakes, and have a strategy to protect vulnerable people.

People in Surat city were mostly seen near shops selling cold drinks. With summer vacations going on, families were shopping even in harsh weather conditions. However, many were spending their time in malls to beat the sizzling heat.

An indoor ice skating ring was also set-up for people to have fun during vacation time. Meanwhile residents of the national capital New Delhi witnessed a sudden change in weather with light showers of rainfall...

Malabar Hill in Mumbai, shot by Umesh Nair, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license 

Drought-hit North Korea seen able to avoid food crisis

Jack Kim and James Pearson in Reuters: North Korea has updated farming methods and switched crops that could help soften the blow of drought and avert a disastrous food shortage, an aid worker and an analyst said on Sunday, after a U.N. official warned of another "huge food deficit".

Impoverished North Korea, which suffered a deadly famine in the 1990s, has seen international food aid fall sharply because of its restrictions on humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow monitoring of food distribution.

Food supplies had since improved and production has been at the highest levels, resulting in the lowest shortfall last year since the mid-2000s, according to independent South Korean studies. "Supply this year will be even more stable and any shortfall is likely to be met sufficiently by imports," said Kwon Tae-jin of the GSnJ Institute in Seoul, an expert on North Korean agriculture.

"Improvement in the supply of food isn't likely by chance or a temporary situation," he said, crediting an increased allocation of resources in agriculture. Linda Lewis, of the American Friends Service Committee, an NGO running farm projects in North Korea, said she had heard the new farm management system was helping....

A farm in North Korea, shot by Nicor, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Monday, May 25, 2015

Texas governor declares states of emergency, more severe weather expected

Ellen Wulfhorst in Reuters: The governor of Texas on Monday declared states of disaster in 24 counties, citing the severe weather and flash flooding that have killed at least two people. The state has been pounded by tornadoes, heavy rainfall, thunderstorms and flooding that forced evacuations and rooftop rescues and left thousands of residents without electrical power.

In declaring the states of disaster in 24 counties, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said: “The State of Texas has taken brisk action in dispatching all available resources to aid those affected by this severe weather system.

“My thoughts and prayers are with all the communities that are suffering as a result of this weather disaster, and I am grateful for the first responders who have worked tirelessly to provide shelter, care and resources to all impacted areas," he said.

Widespread severe thunderstorms were forecast for Monday in north-central and northeast Texas and southern Oklahoma, likely bringing destructive winds, tornadoes and hail, the National Weather Service said.

The Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm and flash-flood warnings as well as tornado watches throughout the region....

A supercell thunderstorm near Teague, Texas, in 2011. Shot by Runningonbrains, public domain

Laser technology to level farm land saves water and energy

Dharini Parthasarathy at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Life in rural India evokes an image of a farmer levelling the land with an ox-drawn scraper. It’s one of the most basic preparations before sowing, as uneven land does not bode well for water absorption and farm productivity.

But for many farmers, animal power is being replaced by machines. A laser land leveller - a machine equipped with a laser-operated drag bucket - is much more effective and quicker at ensuring a flat, even surface. A flat surface means irrigation water reaches every part of the field with minimal waste from run-off or water-logging.

Mechanisation is good news for farmers, as climate change and variability pose unprecedented challenges to agriculture. The need of the hour is climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies that save on scarce resources like water and energy but increase yields and incomes.

A portfolio of climate-smart practices can equip farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns amid depleting natural resources. For instance, groundwater in north-western India has been declining at alarming rates due to the overuse of electric pumps, largely thanks to subsidised electricity, and inadequate recharge from erratic rainfall....

The Bhakra Main Channel in the Punjab, shot by Zerit, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Climate change blamed for severe drought hitting Vietnam's coffee crops

Mark Scialla in the Guardian (UK): The last time Nguyen Van Viet saw water in his well was almost four months ago. The 44-year-old has farmed coffee in central Vietnam for two decades and says that’s never happened before. “This is the worst drought I’ve seen in over a decade,” Viet, told the Guardian. “Some people don’t have enough water to drink.”

For Viet and millions of other coffee farmers, this season has been disastrous. A prolonged drought has affected all five provinces in Vietnam’s Central Highlands – a region that produces 60% of the country’s coffee. “Normally, in March or April, it should start rain, but this year it hasn’t rained until now,” Viet said. “Over the years I’ve realised it’s getting harder to grow coffee mostly because lack of water. The temperatures are getting higher and higher and the rainfall is less.”

Viet says he’s lost almost 4,000 sq meters of coffee crops on his five-acre farm in Dak Lak, a province responsible for 30% of total coffee harvests last year. At least 7,000 acres of coffee plants have died there since March, according to the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. And in neighbouring Lam Dong Province, the drought has stressed another 150,000 acres of coffee.

The result has been a five-year low in coffee exports, 40% down on the same period in 2014. The economic costs have yet to be tallied.

Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of Robusta, a tougher, more bitter bean often used in instant coffee and espresso. The French introduced the plant in the 19th century and in the post-war years it helped pull millions of Vietnamese from poverty. The industry grew rapidly in the 1990s, making Vietnam the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee and supplying around a quarter of the UK’s coffee. But success came at a cost. Deforestation, monocropping and intensive pesticide use that helped create the boom now leaves coffee farms more vulnerable to climate change....

Coffee fields in Vietnam, shot by kangotraveler, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dutch sea level rise expert: Miami will be "the new Atlantis," a city in the sea

Jessica Weiss in Miami New Times: A few months after Hurricane Sandy bared down on New York, killing over 150 people and wreaking $65 billion in damage, federal leaders cried for help to make the Northeast more flood-proof. Dutch expert Henk Ovink answered. Ovink had helped make his homeland, where 55 percent of the country is extremely flood-prone, a world pioneer in preparing for sea level rise. ... So there's good cause to be worried when the Dutch expert says there’s no place in worse shape today than Miami. He’s begun calling the city “the new Atlantis,” after the legendary and beautiful island subcontinent that was submerged by the sea in one night.

“If we look around the world and take into account sea level rise and the increase of water related disasters, among the places in the world that have the most assets and investments at risk, Miami is leading that list,” Ovink tells New Times. “Miami will no longer be a land city, but a city in the sea.”

In recent years, scientists have repeatedly warned that South Florida’s coastal communities and barrier islands could be completely underwater in 100 years. Earlier this year, National Geographic published research on the projected cost of an extreme weather event in 2050. With so many buildings, roads and other infrastructure so close to sea level, Miami was number one on the list, with a projected loss of $278 billion dollars, followed by Guangzhou, China ($268 billion), and New York-Newark ($209 billion).

A first step is for leaders to recognize and talk about climate change.  “It’s scary that the state of Florida briefed staff not to talk about climate change,” Ovink says. “When you think about future risks and how to deal with them, that is not right approach. You have to address those issues and come up with a strategy. It's an opportunity.”

The problem, Ovink says, is that dozens of individual cities, like Miami Beach, are pursuing their own balkanized strategies rather than making a unified effort to find creative solutions. Government, businesses, NGOs and residents should plan together, Ovink says, and do more than just stop-gap efforts. In the very short term, ideas might include raising buildings, preventing ocean water from flooding freshwater aquifers, and installing pumps to stop city flooding. But long term efforts need to be more comprehensive....

Medieval manuscript of Calcidius' Latin translation of Plato's Timaeus, one of the main sources for the Atlantis legend. In the late sixteenth century, this manuscript belonged to Leiden University professor Daniel Heinsius who gave it to his son Nicholas. Nicholas, whose signature appears on the manuscript, was the librarian of Queen Christina of Sweden, whose collection came to the Vatican Library after her death.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Expert warns fire season in northern British Columbia getting worse

Mike Hager in the Globe and Mail: A massive wildfire in northern B.C. shows that the province’s forests are increasingly primed for such blazes because of climate change and the El Nino weather pattern, an expert says. The 240-square-kilometre fire, first reported late Friday on May 8 near Little Bobtail Lake southwest of Prince George, is only 15-per-cent contained, according to a Monday update from the B.C. Wildfire Branch.

Since Saturday, heavy winds almost doubled the size of the blaze and halted the progress of 270 firefighters, according to the branch.

Lori Daniels, an associate professor in the University of B.C.’s forestry faculty, said Monday that the Little Bobtail Lake fire is symptomatic of more intense and longer fire seasons the province is now experiencing. Global warming has driven this change, Prof. Daniels said.

She added, however, that it has also been fuelled by debris that has built up after decades of firefighters stopping smaller, more frequent fires that once rejuvenated forests with low-intensity burns. “I hope this is a cautionary message to anybody working in, living in and using our forests, that we have to be careful,” Prof. Daniels said. “Even the forests in what we consider a wetter, cooler forest type within the province currently are burning at a higher intensity, which also shows other parts of the province are hot and dry.”

B.C. could continue to warm over the next 100 years, according to some global climate-change models, exacerbating the forest-fire threat....

A 2003 fire in British Columbia, via NASA 

Don’t put irrigation above drinking water

Joe Turner in Water policies and technologies aiming to help meet sustainable development goals (SDGs) must rebalance the attention given to agriculture over drinking water, a UN report issued last week (15 May) has found.

The Water for Food Security and Nutrition report comes from the Committee for World Food Security, a UN body based in Rome. It makes eight recommendations, saying that better access to technologies could make water use in farming more efficient, as well as improving access to drinking water for disadvantaged people.

The report warns that population growth and climate change will put more strain on freshwater supplies, particularly in low-rainfall areas like Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Much of the available groundwater in these regions has already been extracted, with 80–90 per cent being used for irrigation in agriculture, leaving lakes and groundwater at historically low levels.  Using techniques such as rain-fed agriculture, and introducing better technologies to harvest and store water, and reduce losses through evaporation, could go some way towards ensuring enough drinking water remains, the report says.

Toby Bruce, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research institute in the United Kingdom, says water-efficient crop varieties and agricultural systems will form part of the solution. “Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the world's freshwater extraction, which means improvements in efficiency could make a big difference,” Bruce says.

However, conflict between using water for agriculture or for drinking would remain, according to Raul Pacheco-Vega, a geographer at the Centre for Economic Research and Education in Mexico. He says that the concept of water for food security and nutrition needs to be extended beyond agriculture, as the existing focus on farming could leave urban communities without enough....

Clearly identify risks Africa faces

Rowena Hay in Business Day (South Africa): It is time for Africans to speak coherently about the environmental and social threats they face, building on and adapting established global risk models. Individual efforts in disaster risk reduction do make a difference and can eventually secure political will and public support.

It is about how we manage the risks to the environment, taking into account social and economic demands — if we don’t take them into account, they will trigger worse environmental risks.

There is a view of the world that risk can be quantified once-off, but this does not factor in compound disasters and cascading risks. We have been living in a world of uncertainty and constant change since the financial crisis of 2008. So we need to talk about adaptation. Coping capacity is based on the recognition that some communities cope better than others, and recognise the need to adapt to change. You look not only at vulnerability, but also people’s strengths.

...The 2014 World Economic Forum global risk report was released and the third UN World Conference on disaster risk reduction led to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-30. The Hyogo framework was developed by a small group of scientists, sociologists and disaster management practitioners and was a practical, useful document. It was far-sighted in its approach to civil society and using ordinary people as volunteers.

Preparation for the post-2015 process started in 2011, with conversations about setting new goals. However, African representatives argued that many priority areas were only starting to be addressed in certain parts of the continent and the agenda should not be changed.

This was a triumph for the African voice, showing that the regional nature of some environmental issues should be further addressed. The growing nexus of environment, government and instability is often glossed over and that is a factor in Africa we simply can’t afford to ignore....

Photo of a 2006 flood in Algeria, shot by Astonar, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Balkans still recovering one year after catastrophic floods

International Orthodox Christian Charities: It's been a difficult year since record rainfall drenched the Balkans last spring, unleashing the worst flooding in more than 100 years and leaving a trail of destruction across Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 70 people lost their lives, while hundreds of thousands of survivors had to evacuate as family homes and farms, roads and utilities were damaged or destroyed. Relentless summer and fall rains renewed flooding, which slowed recovery and threatened to keep many families from having warm and dry shelter in time for winter.

...From its offices in Serbia and Bosnia, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) responded on the heels of the disaster, ensuring the delivery of relief to vulnerable families in the region's hardest hit communities. Through the financial support of church and private donors in the US, Australia and New Zealand, and close cooperation with local partners, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Red Cross, IOCC's ongoing assistance has helped thousands of survivors like Ljubica and Mladen return to their homes and resume their lives. More than 800 families have received support from IOCC with cleanup, home repair kits filled with construction materials, or replacement stoves and refrigerators.

The raging waters not only damaged homes and businesses, but also swept away desks, books, computers and lab equipment from school classrooms. Schooling came to a standstill for the 950 students of Šamac. Through your support, IOCC has helped restore the learning environment for the community's schoolchildren.

...More than 1,400 schoolchildren from the Serbian towns of Kladovo and Obrenovac suffered similar losses in their communities. The only primary school in the village of Tekija near Kladovo was so badly damaged by waves of mud and debris that the entire student body has had to be bussed daily to a school in Kladovo. IOCC is taking action with the installation of a new roof and heating system to be completed in time for Tekija's children to return to their own school next fall...

NASA image of 2014 flooding in Bosnia and Serbia

Saturday, May 16, 2015

NASA study shows Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf nearing its final act

NASA: A new NASA study finds the last remaining section of Antarctica's Larsen B Ice Shelf, which partially collapsed in 2002, is quickly weakening and likely to disintegrate completely before the end of the decade.

A team led by Ala Khazendar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, found the remnant of the Larsen B Ice Shelf is flowing faster, becoming increasingly fragmented and developing large cracks. Two of its tributary glaciers also are flowing faster and thinning rapidly.

"These are warning signs that the remnant is disintegrating," Khazendar said. "Although it’s fascinating scientifically to have a front-row seat to watch the ice shelf becoming unstable and breaking up, it’s bad news for our planet. This ice shelf has existed for at least 10,000 years, and soon it will be gone."

Ice shelves are the gatekeepers for glaciers flowing from Antarctica toward the ocean. Without them, glacial ice enters the ocean faster and accelerates the pace of global sea level rise. This study, the first to look comprehensively at the health of the Larsen B remnant and the glaciers that flow into it, has been published online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

...NASA research has found that the last section of Antarctica's Larsen B Ice Shelf is likely to disintegrate before the end of the decade. Khazendar noted his estimate of the remnant's remaining life span was based on the likely scenario th
at a huge, widening rift that has formed near the ice shelf's grounding line will eventually crack all the way across. The free-floating remnant will shatter into hundreds of icebergs that will drift away, and the glaciers will rev up for their unhindered move to the sea.

Located on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Larsen B remnant is about 625 square miles (1,600 square kilometers) in area and about 1,640 feet (500 meters) thick at its thickest point. Its three major tributary glaciers are fed by their own tributaries farther inland. "What is really surprising about Larsen B is how quickly the changes are taking place," Khazendar said. "Change has been relentless." ...

The polar research ship Nathaniel B. Palmer in Barilari Bay, Antarctic Peninsula being a part of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). The icebreaker was on a two-month science expedition to the Larsen B. Embayment, which was occupied for 10,000 years until 2002 by an ice shelf, 23 January 2010.

Satellite mapping reveals agricultural slowdown in Latin America

University of British Columbia News: For the first time, satellite mapping of Latin America shows that the continent’s agricultural expansion has waned in the wake of the global economic downturn, according to UBC research.

“Nearly every agricultural region across Latin America slowed down in expansion from 2007 to 2013, compared to the previous six years,” says Jordan Graesser, the study’s lead author. Graesser is a visiting international student at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

The study, recently published in Environmental Research Letters, involved the first large-scale mapping of changes in cropland and pastureland over more than a decade at the continental scale, using satellite imagery.

The slowdown is notable, given that agriculture in Latin America expanded faster over the past few decades compared to any other region on earth. The growth was fuelled by the continent’s “Green Revolution” in the 1960s, where agricultural innovations, such as the development of new seeds, increased crop yields.

But the agricultural decline revealed by the study may not last. “Agriculture in Latin America is tied to global commodity prices,” says Graesser, also a PhD student at McGill University’s Department of Geography. “So if the global economy continues to recover, and if crop prices increase, there’s likely going to be more expansion – which could impact biodiversity and boost carbon emissions.”

Soy production is the key driver of cropland expansion in South America. Much of the soy grown there is used to feed poultry and pigs in China, where the consumption of meat has surged as the population gains affluence. Pasture expansion is driven by the growth of beef cattle production, fueled by exports to Europe and increasing domestic consumption. Biofuels are another driver of cropland expansion in some Latin American countries....

Image (by Jordan Graesser) from the UBC website

Focus on Poverty: Coffee farmers on climate front line

Roger Williamson in There is a coffee crisis brewing, SciDev.Net recently reported in a story about the effects of climate change on the crop, primarily the highly prized Arabica coffee beans. A major study modelled 21 scenarios of climate change up to 2050 on a band of 60 tropical countries either side of the equator where Arabica coffee is grown.

Although 2050 sounds far ahead, it takes three to five years to get a first crop. And coffee planted now should be productive for much of the 2020-50 period.

The common-sense view is to say: “Big food companies will be able to get coffee from somewhere — after all, Vietnam developed a coffee industry quickly.” Or: “Even if there is a couple of degrees of warming, farmers can just grow the coffee higher up the mountains.”

But it is not as easy as that. Peter Läderach of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and a coauthor of the study, points out that smallholders, or farmers in major coffee producing countries such as Brazil, cannot simply move production to higher altitudes for many reasons including land tenure, terrain and to avoid further deforestation.

Indeed, most of the possible solutions — such as irrigation, extensive pest control, new or alternative crop varieties, shade systems or cultivation of new areas — are either costly or have other negative consequences. One of the few promising approaches seems to be the intercropping of bananas and coffee — with the banana plants providing an additional cash crop and shade for the coffee plants.

The economic impact will be significant, both for exporters and smallholders. Coffee is an important export for tropical countries, even though Mark Pendergrast, author of an economic history of coffee Uncommon grounds, picks apart the ‘rural myth’ that it is second only to oil in value as a traded commodity....

Coffee beans shot by Sten Porse, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Bringing drones down to earth

Caterina Pino and Obinna Anyadike in IRIN: Disaster coverage now seems incomplete without amazing drone footage of the damage, accompanied by effusive media reports on the technological wizardry of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their humanitarian application. But is that really the story? Here’s a look at the evolution needed for them to better fulfill their potential.

The advantage of UAVs is that they are a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft and the smallest can fit into the hand luggage of a humanitarian response team. They provide very high resolution imagery and can carry an array of sensors. “They provide extra information in the phase where you need a quick overview,” explained Arjan Stam, overall leader of international Urban Search-and-Rescue units in Nepal.

...Commonly used micro-UAVs, like the quadcopter DJI Phantom, has a flight time of under 25 minutes and doesn’t fly in high winds and bad weather. There are larger, more capable UAVs, but drones are far from always the answer. In many circumstances old-fashioned helicopters, manned aircraft and people doing assessments on foot are better options.

“If we prioritise using the cool new toys instead of choosing the collection platform that meets needs and constraints, we risk being less useful than we could be and probably slower,” said John Crowley, an affiliated researcher at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “[UAVs] can be amazing assets when they fit into a larger system that makes it safe, secure and legal to use them – [that requires] trained people, clear policies, and established protocols.”...

A fan copter, shot by WilliWiki, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Kenyan floods cut off 300 people in Ongata Rongai

Judie Kaberia in via Capital FM (Kenya): More than three hundred people were Thursday morning stranded in Ongata Rongai in Lower Olootepesi, Kajiado East Constituency since 4.30am after a major connecting bridge was submerged in an overflowing river.

According to motorists who spoke to Capital FM News, a connecting bridge on Kiserian River was sub-merged making the road impassable at Ongata Rongau.

"We have been stuck here from 4.30am, even our kids could not go to school. I am with my daughter and I brought her to see why she is not going to school because she was asking me why the school bus had not come to pick her up," one of the drivers plying the route said.

"The road is passable the only problem is that the bridge is submerged, we cannot see it completely so we cannot risk crossing through what you cannot see," the motorist added....

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ten missing in possible Texas tornado

ABC News: At least 10 adults are unaccounted for after a possible tornado hit the East Texas town of Van, injuring more than two dozen people. Van Zandt County Fire Marshal Chuck Allen said Monday that 26 people were transported to hospitals by emergency personnel. Allen says an unknown number of others went by private vehicle for care after Sunday night's storm.

He had no further details on the 10 missing people in Van, a town of about 2,600 located 70 miles southeast of Dallas. Allen says 30 percent of Van has damage and about 50 people were in a shelter at a church.

The National Weather Service believes at least one tornado hit Van, with damage to be surveyed Monday.

Oncor (ON'-kor) reported nearly 11,000 customers without electricity Monday, including the Van area. Officials say two groups of people in North Texas had to be rescued by helicopters after rising floodwaters left them stranded.

Denton County Deputy Fire Marshal Marc Dodd says a Texas National Guard helicopter airlifted four adults and one infant on Sunday from the roof of their home near the city of Krum.

Dodd says another helicopter rescued two adults near the city of Sanger from the roof of their pickup truck, which video showed was surrounded by rushing water. He says 10 others in the county had to evacuate their homes....

A 2007 tornado in Texas, shot by Bruce Haynie of the National Weather Service

Pakistan improving sanitation way faster than India

The Economic Times: Pakistan has left India far behind in terms of improving water and sanitation access for their citizens, reveals a new performance index released on Friday.

While Pakistan was ranked five in the new index developed by The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health in the US, India occupied an unenviable 92nd position.

High-performing countries for 2015 are those that achieved significant improvement in recent years compared to their peers. Low-performing countries are those that showed stagnation or decline in recent years compared to their peers.

India's ranking as a bottom-performer predates the recent launch of the " Clean India Mission" by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sub-Saharan Africa countries including Mali, South Africa, and Ethiopia are also among the top performers world-wide in spite of modest resources, according to the WaSH Performance Index that evaluates country performance in improving access to water and sanitation and in eroding inequalities in access.

Other high performers include China, El Salvador, Niger, Egypt, and Maldives. Conversely, Russia, the Philippines and Brazil were bottom performers .

The index compares countries of all sizes and income levels. Using this method, the report revealed that a country's gross domestic product did not determine performance in improving water and sanitation for its citizens...

Providing clean water in Pakistan. Image by the UK Department for International Development, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Two dead as Typhoon Noul slams Philippines on way to Japan

M. Alex Johnson in NBC News: At least two people were killed and almost 4,000 others were forced to evacuate their homes as Typhoon Noul slammed into the northern Philippines, the national disaster agency said Monday.

Noul — called Typhoon Dodong locally — weakened slightly as it hovered about 137 miles northeast of the Batanes Islands at around 7:15 p.m. local time (7:15 a.m. ET) on Monday. The typhoon was packing winds of 87 mph and gusts of up to 106 mph.

Earlier, waves of 46 feet were recorded in the open ocean off the coast, according to the weather bureau. Noul was gathering speed and was expected to start heading for southern Japan by Tuesday.

NDRRMC, the national disaster agency, said Noul made a direct hit Sunday with buckets of rain and mammoth waves. Two men, ages 74 and 46, were electrocuted while trying to repair their damaged roof Sunday in Cagayan Province northeast of Luzon, the agency said. About 3,800 people remained in shelters Monday morning in Isabela and Cagayan provinces, where large areas were without power.

Despite the destruction wrought by Noul, it also brought much needed rains to rice and corn farms that had been hit by intense summer heat....

Typhoon Noul shot by NASA, May 8, 2015

Cash aid feeds business surge in northeast Kenya

Isaiah Esipisu in Thomson Reuters Foundation: When the government of Kenya began giving cash instead of food aid to poor people in Kenya's drought-stricken North Eastern region, the aim was to help them buy food more efficiently and conveniently.

But the cash-transfer programme has had an unexpected effect: Most of the recipients of the cash have used it to start small businesses, which they see as the best way of adapting to increasingly tough climatic conditions.

"We expected them to buy food, given the emergency situation. But investing the money into businesses shows how very little resources can be used to build resilience among very poor communities," said Evelyn Nadio, manager of the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP), which provides the cash aid under Kenya's National Drought Management Authority.

The parched, acacia scrub regions receiving the help - including Kenya's Mandera, Turkana, Marsabit and Wajir counties - had seen huge losses of livestock as a result of drought. Many herders had lost nearly all their animals, which had been their main source of income. Today, however, eight years after the programme began, other businesses have sprung up.

At Katiko Market in Turkana Central, Akuom Idieya Katurong'ot, a widowed mother of seven, runs a retail shop and a goat slaughterhouse. She also rents a set of small kiosks built from iron sheeting. Money from the cash-transfer programme helped pay for all the new infrastructure.

Nearly 90 percent of the recipients of cash from the safety net programme have similarly opened retail businesses or used the money to restock their herds with drought-hardy goats, said Nadio....

A roadside market in Kenya, shot by Angela Sevin, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Human security at risk as depletion of soil accelerates

Sarah Yang at the UC Berkeley News Center: Steadily and alarmingly, humans have been depleting Earth’s soil resources faster than the nutrients can be replenished. If this trajectory does not change, soil erosion, combined with the effects of climate change, will present a huge risk to global food security over the next century, warns a review paper authored by some of the top soil scientists in the country.

The paper singles out farming, which accelerates erosion and nutrient removal, as the primary game changer in soil health. “Ever since humans developed agriculture, we’ve been transforming the planet and throwing the soil’s nutrient cycle out of balance,” said the paper’s lead author, Ronald Amundson, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management. “Because the changes happen slowly, often taking two to three generations to be noticed, people are not cognizant of the geological transformation taking place.”

In the paper, published [May 7] in the journal Science, the authors say that soil erosion has accelerated since the industrial revolution, and we’re now entering a period when the ability of soil, “the living epidermis of the planet,” to support the growth of our food supply is plateauing. The publication comes nearly two weeks ahead of the Global Soil Security Symposium at Texas A&M University, a meeting held as part of the declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Soils by the United Nations.

The authors identify the supply of fertilizer as one of the key threats to future soil security. Farmers use three essential nutrients to fertilize their crops: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. The paper credits the discovery of synthetic nitrogen production in the early 1900s for significantly increasing crop yields, which in turn supported dramatic growths in global population. Because the process of synthesizing nitrogen is energy-intensive, its supply is dependent on fossil fuels.

...Another threat to soil security relates to its role as a mass reservoir for carbon. Left unperturbed, soil can hold onto its stores of carbon for hundreds to thousands of years. The most recent estimates suggest that up to 2,300 gigatons of carbon are stored in the top three meters of the Earth’s soil – more carbon than in all the world’s plants and atmosphere combined. One gigaton is equal to a billion tons.

...One proposal is to stop discarding nutrients captured in waste treatment facilities. Currently, phosphorous and potassium are concentrated into solid waste rather than cycled back into the soil. Additionally, more efficient management is needed to curtail losses from soil. Excess nitrogen, for example, is considered a pollutant, with the runoff sapping oxygen from the nation’s waterways, suffocating aquatic life and creating dead zones in coastal margins...

A South Korean combine in 1976

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Flood risk to nuclear reactors raises meltdown fears

Paul Brown in the Ecologist: ...All nuclear plants need large quantities of water for cooling so all must be built close to the sea, large rivers or lakes. This makes them vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges and to the possible collapse of large dams upstream from poor construction, floodwater or seismic activity.

Since nuclear plants are designed to operate for as long as 60 years and need around a further century to decommission, accelerating sea level rise and more intense rainfall may present serious problems. There are currently 435 operating nuclear reactors in the world, many of them potentially vulnerable to flooding because of natural disasters. Examples from the UK, Finland and the US show that the extent of the danger is not always being disclosed.

... The same fears [of flooding] were raised in the US by the Union of Concerned Scientists after a report was leaked about the danger to nuclear reactors from dams bursting. According to a report by the US Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRC), which had been withheld, more than 30 nuclear installations were in danger from flooding. The Commission was later accused of using security concerns to mask embarrassing information.

Among many revelations in the report was the fact that the authorities had known for a decade or more that the failure of a dam upstream from the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina would cause floodwater to overwhelm its three reactors, possibly causing a catastrophic meltdown The odds of the dam bursting were far higher than thechances of the accident that devastated Fukushima.

Oconee is one of the largest nuclear plants in America and has been operating since 1983. Its owner, Duke Energy, remains confident that it could shut the plant down safely in an hour, before floodwaters from upstream could reach the reactors. The NRC has decided that this is sufficient safeguard....

A 1974 image of the control room at the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina

Who owns the NIle?

Geeska Africa Online: After years of conflict about control over the Nile, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have now apparently chosen the path of co-operation over open dispute. Politicians are demonstrating unity, but observers warn that not all differences have been resolved. Many residents of the Ethiopian capital are well equipped with candles, generators and an ample supply of patience in order to cope with the regular power outages in Addis Ababa. During a recent state visit, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi experienced first hand a power blackout that lasted a number of hours. It was almost as if the Ethiopian capital wanted to demonstrate to him the urgent need for electricity from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).The gargantuan project, located on the upper course of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, has been a source of tension between the neighbouring states for years. The reason for this is that Egypt is also heavily dependent on the river. In 2013, Sisi’s predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, even indirectly threatened Ethiopia with war out of fear his country could suffer a water shortage.

For the past few years, the government in Addis Ababa has been ambitiously pursuing the construction of the largest hydroelectric project ever to be built in Africa, located in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia near the border with Sudan.

With a population of around 90 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country on the continent after Nigeria. This aspiring economic power aims to satisfy its energy requirements through the construction of a series of dams along the Blue Nile. The centrepiece of this policy is the over 3-billion-euro GERD project, which upon completion should produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity – as much as five nuclear power plants. Ethiopia thereby aims to achieve greater independence from crude oil imports and simultaneously provide a stimulus for its emerging industrial sector. In addition, the government in Addis Ababa plans to alleviate its chronic shortage of foreign currency by selling up to 2,000 megawatts of energy to its African neighbours, including Egypt. Although the first supply agreements have already been signed, many conflicts remain unresolved.

Some 160 million people live in the Nile Basin. The desert nation of Egypt fears that upon completion, GERD will quite literally leave Egyptian farmers high and dry with nothing to irrigate their fields, claiming that once the 1,680-square-kilometre reservoir has been flooded, water will evaporate in the heat. Egypt already experienced something similar with the opening of the Aswan Dam in 1971. Egypt and Sudan have even invoked colonial treaties dating back to 1929 and 1959, which guarantee both countries an almost 90 per cent share of the water flow from the Blue Nile and the White Nile as well as ensuring the right of veto over any construction plans....

The falls of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, shot by A. Davey, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Call for climate sensors to gauge mountain warming risk

Dalmeet Singh Chawla in Developing countries with mountainous areas need to improve their monitoring of local climate change and its impact on drinking water sources, a report warns.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change last month (23 April), examined research on global warming in high altitude areas and concluded that there is growing evidence that mountains are warming faster than the global average. The danger is that the effects of such warming are inadequately monitored, leading to uncertainty around future drinking water supply and biodiversity protection, the paper says.

 “Where we do have good data, such as on the Tibetan Plateau, there is strong evidence that [mountains] are warming more rapidly,” says Nicholas Pepin, one of the study authors.

The paper says this could affect large populations at lower altitudes for whom mountains act as ‘water towers’ as they receive large amounts of precipitation and are the source of many rivers and glaciers.

Pepin, a climate scientist at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, says there are few climate monitoring stations at high altitudes because they are expensive to install and maintain in such areas. Therefore climate data is mostly obtained from low altitude locations, potentially skewing the picture of what is really happening on mountains, he says....

Qingzang highway—China National Highway 109, on the Tibetan Plateau. Shot by Katorisi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Australia is losing millions of dollars in terms of economic productivity because of heat and climate change

Guneet Bhatia in the International Business Times: A recent study has revealed that the global heat and increase in temperature has led to a loss of almost US$6.2 billion or A$7.92 billion in terms of productivity of the workers during the financial year 2013-14. In addition, the scientists have warned that the loss could even become worse as Earth continues to further become warm.

A team of international researchers conducted the study on a group of working Australian, aged between 18 and 65. Out of the 1,726 respondents, nearly two-third admitted that the heat has made them less productive in the previous year, while seven percent confessed that they had been absent from work at least for one day during the period. According to the calculation performed by the researchers to study the economic impact of heat, the absenteeism from work and decline in performance or low productivity costs around US$655 per person.

"This represents an annual economic burden of around US$6.2 billion for the Australian workforce. This amounts to 0.33 to 0.47% of Australia's GDP," said the research team.

According to the authors, the study findings "suggest that adaptation measures to reduce heat effects should be adopted widely if severe economic impacts from labour productivity loss are to be avoided if heat waves become as frequent as predicted." The study was particularly conducted during the warmest and the third warmest years in the Australian history—2013 and 2014, respectively...

Cockatoo Island in Sydney, shot by Greg O'Beirne, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

A disaster-resilient Sindh

Islamic Relief: New Islamic Relief research and a roadmap to resilience have added momentum to disaster risk reduction in Sindh, Pakistan.

The research into disaster vulnerabilities and capacity in Sindh – a province that is particularly prone to both flooding and drought – was launched at Islamic Relief Pakistan consultation held last month. The workshop included the director general of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, UN agencies, as well as national and international NGOs and members of civil society. It aimed to bring decision-makers together to minimise the risk disasters pose to the people of Sindh.

Islamic Relief’s interim head of programme Summaya Sajjad explained how the study assessed community and institutional engagement and what they do when disasters strike. “We also want to identify the challenges and issues faced by the government and communities at the time of disaster,” she said. “As well as the steps communities take to overcome the losses sustained in three districts: Sanghar, Dadu and Thatta.”

Sharing the key findings of the study, our area programme manager, Sajjad Khan, pointed out the far-reaching impact of disasters. Livelihoods, health and living conditions are badly affected, and people may be traumatised by the experience, he said. In the drought-hit areas covered by the study, essential groundwater has been depleted by 30-40 feet. With no easy way to access water sources, malnutrition and disease outbreaks were rife among poor communities.

Whilst most community efforts focused on disaster-response, the research revealed, these were not informed by knowledge of community-level initiatives or emerging practices to prepare for disasters and reduce their impact when they occur....

Clearing rubble from a flood-damaged home in Sindh, shot by Russell Watkins, UK Department for International Development, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license