Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Climate change: Likelihood of UK temperatures exceeding 40°C increasing

Nature Communications
A public domain photo.
Temperatures exceeding 40°C may be reached somewhere in the UK every 3.5 to 15 years by 2100 under continued greenhouse gas emissions, suggests a modelling study in Nature Communications. The paper reports that anthropogenic emissions are increasing the likelihood of extremely warm days in the UK (particularly in the southeast), with temperatures becoming more likely to exceed 30, 35 and 40°C by the end of the century in different parts of the country.

Rapidly warming oceans have left many northern marine mammals swimming in troubled waters. But perhaps none more so than that strange and mysterious "unicorn of the sea," the narwhal.

by Larry Powell


Narwhals are cetaceans, a family of marine mammals which includes whales and dolphins. Most are found in Canada's Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, in the high Arctic and Atlantic Arctic. Others live off Greenland, Norway and Russia. Many spend several months over winter, beneath the ice-pack, feeding on fish, squid and shrimp and their summers in more open water. It's believed they're capable of diving as deep as 15 hundred meters and holding their breath for an astonishing 25 minutes! 
Narwhals breach through an opening in the ice-pack.                     Photo credit - US Fish & Wildlife.
A pod "breaches" through an opening in the sea-ice. 
A US Fish & Wildlife Service photo. 
They can weigh up to two thousand kilograms and reach a length of about five meters. They're much larger than some dolphin species, but tiny compared to the mighty blue whale. Many migrate along the ice's edge some 17 hundred kilometres from Canada to Russia.

The males grow long, spiral tusks - actually overgrown teeth - that can protrude up to three metres from their head. While they’re predators, narwhals are also preyed upon. Killer whales (orcas) are believed to be taking them increasingly as warming waters lure the orcas further north.

But man likely remains their prime enemy.

Indigenous hunters of Greenland and Canadian high Arctic - the Inuit - have, for centuries, depended on them as an important food source. Canada officially recognizes the right of the Inuit to hunt them. But they must adhere to a quota system. It's based on findings from periodic, scientific aerial surveys mandated by both Canada and Greenland, designed to protect narwhal populations from over-harvesting.

Recent numbers are hard to find. But one official survey in 2010 concluded that Inuit hunters took almost a thousand narwhals off Canada and Greenland that year.

So, just how intimately are narwhals tied to their world of ice and snow? 

"Narwhals are uniquely adapted to the extreme conditions of an Arctic existence," the study states, "and their evolution and ecology intrinsically tied to the past and present sea ice dynamics of the region." Narwhals are known to have lived through extreme climatic changes for thousands of years. Yet they're also thought to be among the most vulnerable to those changes of any of the northern marine mammals.

The researchers hoped, by studying their past, they could gain an insight into their future. What they found was concerning. Before and after the onset of the last ice age (LGM), more than 26 thousand years ago, both the number of narwhals and their genetic diversity were perilously low. But they "responded positively" to both the warming and expansion of habitat which occurred after it ended some 19 thousand years ago. Their numbers increased, and so did other marine predators like belugas and bowhead whales.

However, the benefits such animals enjoyed in that post-glacial period, may be coming to an end. "Many polar marine predators are being negatively affected by global warming, which is decreasing the availability of habitat and prey," the study finds. "Although the range and effective population size of narwhals increased post-LGM, their future in a rapidly changing Arctic is uncertain. Narwhal distribution will be further affected in the near future, as the species also faces increased human encroachment, changes in prey availability, new competitors and increased predation rate by killer whales."

Areas which were once inaccessible to people, due to ice and snow cover, are now receding. This is allowing more activities such as fishing, oil exploration and drilling. And narwhals are known to be easily disturbed, and to flee from areas they like to frequent in summer, like fiords, bays and inlets.

So, are their numbers crashing? 

The researchers admit, there's a good deal of uncertainty when it comes to population trends. World population estimates have ranged from 50 thousand to 170 thousand. As those estimates have wavered, so has their status on the endangered species list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature - from "nearly threatened" to "of least concern."

A veteran biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Dr. Steven Ferguson, has extensive experience observing marine mammals in the north. While he doesn't give hard numbers, he tells PinP, "Both the Baffin Bay and Northern Hudson Bay populations appear to be relatively constant and do not appear to be depleted."

However, the good news seems to end there.

"Populations off the eastern shores of Greenland," he goes on, "seem to be experiencing a decline. And two stocks off West Greenland, appear to be lower in abundance relative to the past."

So, will these wondrous "unicorns of the sea" continue to ply their ways through the world's northern oceans just as they have for so long in the past? Or are their numbers destined to dwindle to a dangerous few, like so many other of Earth's wild things?

Monday, June 29, 2020

The South Pole feels the heat

Nature Climate Change

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica. Photo by Andrew Mandemaker.
The South Pole has warmed at over three times the global rate since 1989, according to a paper just published in Nature Climate Change. This warming period was mainly driven by natural tropical climate variability and was likely intensified by increases in greenhouse gas, the study suggests.

The Antarctic climate exhibits some of the largest regional temperature trends on the planet. Most of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula experienced warming and ice-sheet thinning during the late twentieth century, and this has continued to the present day. By contrast, the South Pole — located in the remote and high-altitude continental interior — cooled until the 1980s and has since warmed substantially. These trends are affected by natural and anthropogenic climate change, but the individual contribution of each factor is not well understood.

Kyle Clem and colleagues analysed weather station data, gridded observations and climate models to examine warming trend at the South Pole, and found that it was chiefly driven by the tropics. Warm temperatures in the western tropical Pacific Ocean — associated with the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation —  increased the delivery of warm air to the South Pole. Stronger winds around Antarctica — caused by a shift to a positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode — further boosted this warming. The authors suggest these atmospheric changes along Antarctica’s coast are an important mechanism driving climate anomalies in its interior.   

The authors argue that these warming trends were unlikely the result of natural climate change alone, emphasizing the effects of anthropogenic warming and large tropical climate variability on Antarctic climate.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Of Pandemics and Climate Calamity. An Opinion Letter.

by Larry Powell


I guess you could call this a“what if” letter.

Wildfire smoke from hundreds of kilometres away, clouds
this Manitoba landscape. A PinP photo. 
What if we humans would listen as intently to our specialists in the earth and climate sciences as we now seem to be doing to those in infectious disease? Except for a fringe few (like the wing-nut "Frontier Centre," which likens Covid-19 to a hoax), many of us have accepted that this is serious and lives will be saved if we follow public health directives during this virus's heartless rampage. 

Compare this to the attention given to the decades of warnings of climate collapse and eco-system breakdown from experts in the atmospheric sciences. The differences could not be more stark. 

While our Medical Health Officers and other specialists in the field of infectious diseases are, rightly, being hailed as heroes, climatologists and others in similar fields, have been ignored, at best, or threatened with death, at worst. 

Meanwhile, sea levels have not stopped rising, global heating has not taken a pause and neither have violent, destructive and costly weather events like wildfires and flash floods, or mass species extinctions, just because of the deadly pandemic. 

While greenhouse gas levels did drop significantly due to Covid-imposed lockdowns of travel and industrial plants, much more will be needed to make a lasting difference. Besides, those levels are already on the way back up with such restrictions being lifted in many places.

While a lot of hard-nosed Albertans will never admit it, Fort Mac, hit by a disastrous flood recently (on top of the tragic wildfires that ravaged the Town some four years ago) is, yet again, another tragic example of the cost of climate denial.

In an article I read recently, writer John Gibbons, puts it in a different, perhaps more effective way. 

“Imagine, for a moment  that our government and others around the world had been given detailed information and warnings about the coronavirus years, even decades before it finally erupted. Imagine also that experts had shown the path to minimizing or even avoiding this global disaster, but our political and business leaders, uneasy about the costs of taking action and possible disruption to commerce, chose to ignore the expert warnings as alarmist and carried on regardless.” 

The scenario Gibbons describes is pretty much the way governments have treated long-standing warnings of climate calamity - with contempt, indifference, neglect  or downright hostility. 

So, what if we begin to bring the same, respectful approach to alleviating our climate crisis as, largely, we've already with Covid-19? 


The sky, I do believe, would be the limit!



-30-

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Hog Watch Manitoba's Call to Action For A Just Green Recovery


Hog Watch Manitoba is a non-profit organization, a coalition of environmentalists, farmers, friends of animals, social justice advocates, trade unions and scientists. We are promoting a hog industry in Manitoba that is ethically, environmentally and economically sustainable.

There are many concerns about threats to the environment, inhumane conditions for the animals and unsustainable economics that have lead us to form Hog Watch Manitoba and to advocate for an alternative model for the hog industry.

The Covid19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of resiliency in Canada’s food system with the closure of several large scale slaughter plants due to outbreaks of Covid19 in the plants. The centralization of slaughter plants 3 decades ago has led to a loss of ability to ensure food sovereignty in each province as well as leaving farmers with no options where to take their animals for processing. The closure of most of the smaller plants and local abattoirs in the country in favour of the few large transnational corporate plants, took away the possibility of providing local markets with local products from local farms. The majority of family farms couldn’t survive as the move to produce more animals for less money took over. Producers are now paid significantly less per animal than they were paid 3 decades ago, when adjusted for inflation. The move to bigger farms with thousands of animals in each building has led to increased animal welfare concerns, greater environmental threats from amounts of manure produced, and unsafe working conditions for humans in the barns due to toxic air quality.

Hog Watch Manitoba is calling for the following in pursuit of a just, green recovery from the Covid19 crisis.

·    We support the establishment of several smaller slaughterhouses in each province that will allow the processing of local animals from local farms to meet local market demand. Regulations for these provincially inspected plants need to change to allow them to sell product to local stores. The workers in these plants must be paid a decent living wage and conditions in the plants need to be safe with slower line speeds.

·    We support alternative housing systems for pigs that includes family group housing for breeding sows and straw-based housing for all pigs.

·    We are calling for the phase-out, over the next decade, of all liquid manure systems. In the interim all liquid manure operations should immediately take the following steps:
1.have groundwater monitoring wells installed
2.treat the liquid waste through environmentally acceptable processes to kill off unwanted pathogens
3.phase out the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics

·    We support the family farm and feel that the true family farm is one in which the family are engaged in the day to day labour and management of the farm and reside on the property. As a necessary component of promoting the family farm, we are calling for the reinstatement of single desk selling of hogs which provides equity, economic bargaining power and price transparency.

·    We believe that all workers, including agricultural workers, should be protected by labour legislation such as the Employment Standards Code.

Friday, June 5, 2020

New research suggests, zoos and aquariums in Canada do little to protect endangered creatures in the wild.

by Larry Powell

A Bengal, the commonest tiger species (but still endangered)
paces in its cage at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park zoo. 

A PinP photo.
A study just published in the journal, Facets, begins positively enough. It acknowledges that members of Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA - the private, non-profit charity representing thirty such institutions), do try to be leaders in researching this field and, that they do take part in programs aimed at species survival by breeding animals in captivity, then re-introducing them into the wild.

And on its own website,  CAZA claims, "We are behind some of the most remarkable conservation success stories. This includes, bringing species such as the Black Footed Ferret and the Vancouver Island Marmot back from the brink of extinction,” for example. 

However, in some key areas, the researchers (a team of two biologists from Laurentian University in Sudbury) suggest, CAZA and its members are falling short. 
Zoos and aquariums could be "important resources in mitigating biodiversity loss. And the credibility of zoos as conservation organizations can only be enhanced by the production of peer-reviewed science in this field."
Yet, while CAZA members are turning out more such research (still significantly less than their US counterparts and most in "zoo-centric" journals), most are not on the topic of biodiversity conservation at all, but on veterinary science, instead. 
"Few studies have explored their contribution to biodiversity conservation efforts and research productivity in general." 
Increasing collaboration with academic institutions would be one way for CAZA to overcome that shortcoming. So, “It is puzzling that collaborations between these groups are rare. Academics can use the unique environment zoos and aquariums provide for studying species, whereas academic research based on field observations may increase the success of reintroduction efforts led by zoos and aquariums.”

This new research comes to light against the backdrop of extinctions hanging over tens of thousands of Earth's wild species, “ due to widespread degradation of global ecosystems caused by humans.”


 

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