Friday, July 31, 2020

Canadian ice caps disappear, confirming 2017 scientific prediction

PHYS ORG
The white patch in the lower left and dark spot at right-centre were all that remained of two, once-mighty glaciers in the region in 2016. Now, they're gone. A NASA photo.

The St. Patrick Bay ice caps on the Hazen Plateau of northeastern Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada, have disappeared, according to NASA satellite imagery. Story here.

Thumbs-up for Alaskan mine draws fire

Science Magazine - Edited by Jeffrey Brainard
The area of the mine in question. Photo by Erin McKittrick
A company seeking to build a controversial gold and copper mine in Alaska won a major victory on 24 July when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an environmental analysis saying the mine wouldn’t endanger the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery. The decision clears the way for the Corps to issue permits needed by promoters of the Pebble Mine, located at the headwaters of two major watersheds that form part of the Bristol Bay salmon runs, just north of the Aleutian Islands.

Environmental and Native Alaskan groups and some salmon scientists blasted the new study, saying it understated risks by focusing on the mine’s small, initial footprint over 20 years of mining rather than its potential impacts if it expands to become one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines, as its promoters hope. Mine backers have said such an expansion would get a closer environmental review later if they pursue it. Scientists have raised concerns that even the smaller mine could have wide impacts, because the resilience of the salmon runs hinges on access to a wide variety of spawning habitats. Environmental groups have vowed to file lawsuits to block the project.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Livestock expansion is a factor in global pandemics

A new study looks at the growth of global livestock farming and the threat to biodiversity, and the health risks to both humans and domesticated animals.



















The growth of global livestock farming is a threat to our biodiversity and also increases the health risks to both humans and domesticated animals. The patterns that link them are at the heart of a study published in Biological Conservation by a scientist from the Institute of Evolution Sciences of Montpellier (ISEM -- CNRS/Université de Montpellier/IRD/EPHE) and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development's (CIRAD) ASTRE laboratory.

First active leak of sea-bed methane discovered in Antarctica

The Guardian
The Denman glacier in eastern Antarctica.
A public domain photo.

Researchers say potent climate-heating gas almost certainly escaping into atmosphere. Story here.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The lynx vs. the bobcat. Two species of wild cat in Ontario, Canada, may face dramatically different futures. Is this "survival of the fittest?"

by Larry Powell

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis).

Bobcat (Lynx rufus). Photos by US Fish & Wildlife Service.

To the untrained eye, the two species might pass as overgrown house cats. They're actually "felids" or mammals belonging to felidae, a family of wild cats. 


Both live side by side in the wilds of Ontario, north of Lake Huron (see map).

Researchers at the University of Trent (U of T) in Peterborough, Ontario, looked at bobcat and lynx numbers, movements and behaviour over three winters. 

Their findings seem to show the bobcat holding an edge over the lynx in the struggle to survive, if not thrive in their rapidly-changing world. 

The scientists are unable to give hard numbers. But, "harvest records" which document the numbers taken by trappers, offer an insight. 

The lead author, Robby Marrotte, tells PinP, "We've noticed that the number of lynx harvested on traplines has decreased compared to 1960-80, while bobcat harvest has increased."

 (Ironically, while trapping has been known to diminish populations of fur-bearing animals, harvest records can also act as a sort of census - the more of a given species trapped, the higher their populations are likely to be.)  

But there's more than just numbers at play here. Bobcats have also managed to expand their Ontario range northward, into territory previously occupied by the lynx. 

And, while no regional breakdown is given, an earlier, large study on ungulates and predators in 2004, found the range of the lynx, continent-wide, had shrunk by a staggering 40% from its historical range.

So why is this "world of the wildcat" unfolding as it is?

Well, the lynx is a "specialist," more dependent on the unbroken or homogenous cover of the boreal forest. It's therefore more vulnerable to human intrusion such as land clearing. 

The bobcat, on the other hand, is a "generalist" who can better cope with a more open habitat and young, deciduous forests which often evolve after activities such as logging and road-building. So it is the bobcat, not the lynx, which is likely to be found in areas affected most by a human footprint. 

And then, there's the matter of diet. The lynx feeds almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare and is vulnerable when hare populations crash. The bobcat on the other hand, preys on a variety of species, so has more to choose from. 

The lynx has much larger feet, giving it a distinct advantage over the bobcat while hunting in deep snow. But deep-snow terrains are shrinking as manmade "global heating" does its work. This could remove yet another advantage from the lynx as time goes on.

The two species do interbreed, but rarely. (The researchers never observed their footprints coming anywhere close to one another along snowmobile trails they used in their studies.) But, if bobcat numbers do increase, along with interbreeding, it's speculated this, too could contribute to the lynx's undoing. It could lead to gene dominance by the bobcat and even extinction for the lynx. 

However, researcher Marrotte believes, talk of extinction is premature.

"I wouldn’t say extinction or extirpation just yet. Right now, all it takes is a few good winters and denser snowshoe hare populations and the bobcat will move out and the lynx will eventually move back in. In the next decade, there might be more snow on the northern shores of Lake Huron, because moisture level will increase. This could temporarily benefit the lynx, but eventually this snow will just start melting earlier and the bobcat will be able to move in again."

So, ultimately, it all comes down to this. 

"The story of the bobcat and the lynx is one of the loss of a unique, boreal specialist due to anthropogenic change," concludes the study, "and eventual replacement by an adaptable generalist."

Friday, July 17, 2020

A new study finds - wolf culls - aimed at protecting endangered caribou in western Canada - simply don't work.

by Larry Powell
Photo by Vicious Bits, Creative Commons.






















New research by a team of Canadian biologists, seems to support critics who've long argued that wolves are being sacrificed unnecessarily in efforts to save iconic mountain caribou in British Columbia and Alberta from possible extinction. Since the 80s, authorities in the two provinces have been conducting "culls" which have probably killed thousands of wolves since. Culls involve either shooting the animals from helicopters, poisoning them or, in at least one case - an eight-year campaign of sterilization.
The iconic caribou. A Wikimedia photo.

Yet caribou populations all over Canada, continue to plummet. Thanks to  declines in all sub-species, they're now classified, nationwide as either threatened or endangered. Some of the steepest reductions have occurred in mountainous regions in the two westernmost provinces. A few years ago, they were declared extinct south of the border, in the continental United States.

Now, a team of experts from western Canada, is taking aim at a study published last year. It supports culling and the penning of pregnant caribou as ways to slow or stop their slide toward extinction. Such findings have been used by governments to justify their "predator control" policies.

Yet the latest research states flatly, there's simply no "statistical support" for such a position.

While wolves may account for more than half of caribou predation in other places, "Deep-Snow Mountain caribou" are far less likely to be killed by wolves than by other predators. Yet their numbers have crashed an alarming 45% in recent decades, possibly the steepest decline of any caribou ecotype in the world. (These herds live in southeastern BC, where, as their name implies, winter snows can pile up to three meters deep.)

"Wolves do not comprise the primary source of mortality for Deep-Snow Mountain caribou," the report finds, "constituting only 5–10% of verified cases of mortality - in fourth place after cougars, bears and wolverines." The authors point out, therefore, that it is wrong to apply a "one-size fits all" approach when it comes to wolf culls.

Besides, cullings ignore a long-accepted reality. It is loss of habitat due to human activity such as logging, which is the main driver of population decline. "Despite warnings that industrial resource extraction, primarily forestry, was detrimental to maintaining viable caribou populations, habitat modification, fragmentation and associated road-building increased over subsequent decades."

Since the "Deep-Snow" herds depend on lichen that grows on old growth trees, above the snow-line for food, their world is therefore especially "incompatible with large-scale clearcut forestry."

"Logging," reads the study, also "leads to increased predator densities and greater access to caribou via clearcuts, roads, snow compacted by snowmobiles, and the loss of forested refuges. Snowmobile and heliskiing harassment are pervasive across the range of Deep-Snow Mountain caribou (ECCC 2018) and impose potential harm during winter and spring calving. Snowmobile harassment has been acknowledged as an increasingly important factor in Deep-Snow Mountain caribou winter ecology."

The study’s lead author, biologist Lee Harding, believes the importance of wooded habitat to caribou survival, cannot be overstated.

”Forests provide caribou with refuge from wolves and separation from other prey animals, including elk, moose, and deer. Without them, caribou must constantly be on the move to find food, exposing them on all sides. Predators are just one of the hazards."

The need for conserving caribou populations, warn the authors, "is now urgent and carries large economic, ecological, cultural and social implications."

RELATED:

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Assessing the dwindling wilderness of Antarctica

Nature
Antarctica. Aerial photo by Astro_Alex.


Less than 32% of Antarctica is made up of areas that are free from human interference, and these areas are declining as human activity increases, reports a paper published in Nature. The study finds that although 99.6% of the continent can be considered to be wilderness (a relatively undisturbed environment), this area does not include much of its biodiversity.

Despite Antarctica’s isolation, the continent is under increasing pressure from human activity, including scientific research, the development of infrastructure and tourism. However, the total area of wilderness on the continent is unknown, as is the extent to which Antarctica’s biodiversity is contained within this.
Four killer whales cooperatively hunting a crabeater 
seal off the coast of Antarctica. Photo by Callan Carpenter, 
taken from one of many research vessels in the area. 
Steven Chown and colleagues assembled a record of ground-based human activity across Antarctica from publications, tourism data and scientific databases from 1819 to 2018. This resulted in approximately 2.7 million records, which were used to calculate the total area of wilderness across Antarctica, and its representation of biodiversity. The authors found that wilderness encompasses nearly the entire continent, but excludes much of its important biodiversity. Less than 7% of more than 23,000 species records in the Antarctic Terrestrial Biodiversity database were found to occur in areas classified as wilderness. Of Antarctica’s terrestrially important bird areas and specially protected areas, only 16% and 25%, respectively, were within areas of wilderness that had experienced negligible human impact.

The authors argue that the expansion of specially protected areas could reverse the decline in pristine areas and secure the continent’s biodiversity.
 
RELATED: 

 

Monday, July 6, 2020

Beyond Covid 19. Are we risking yet another pandemic if we continue to embrace "assembly-line" livestock production into the future?

by Larry Powell

No one would argue that Covid 19 demands our undivided attention. Surely, defeating this "beast" has to be "Priority One." But, once it ends, and it will, here’s another key question that needs answering. Are we flirting with more such tragedies down the road if we do not soon end our love affair with an industrial, factory-style model of meat production? 
Six years ago, the Director-General of the World Health Organization,  Dr. Margaret Chan (above), delivered this positively prophetic message to an Asian investment conference. 

“The industrialization of food production is an especially worrisome trend. Confined animal feeding operations are not farms any more. They are protein factories with multiple hazards for health and the environment."
                                      Photo credit - Mercy for Animals, Manitoba

"These hazards come from the crowding of large numbers of animals in very small spaces, the stressful conditions that promote disease, the large quantities of dangerous waste, the need for frequent human contact with the animals.” 

The "farms" Dr. Chan was describing have been operating in North America  and Europe for decades and, more recently, in Asia, too. In much of the world, they're called "CAFOs," or Confined Animal Feeding Operations. In Canada, they're known as "ILOs," or Intensive Livestock Operations. 

China now produces more pork in this way than the rest of the world, combined!

Most scientists view wet food markets - where both wild and tame animals are sold, alive or dead - as hotspots for the emergence of new viruses that could spark the next influenza pandemic. (It is widely believed that the current Covid-19 pandemic originated at such a market in Wuhan, China.) Health authorities also say, as many as three out of every four new diseases emerging in the world today, result from close contact between humans and animals, either wild or domesticated.

The pandemic we are now struggling with, surely focuses (or should focus) renewed attention on this traditional livestock model, now being rapidly expanded right here in my home province, Manitoba. 

First, Covid 19 is a coronavirus, a family of infectious diseases. So, too is PEDv (or Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus).  PEDv killed countless piglets in the big hog barns of Manitoba in recent years. (I say countless because the industry won’t say how many and the Government - which sees its role as an enabler of the industry's business success - not as a regulator - claims it doesn’t know.) 

The epidemic cost provincial taxpayers at least $800 thousand dollars to combat. But this figure did not come freely. I had to launch an "access to information" request in order to pry it from the secretive fist of this Conservative government.

It’s believed Covid 19 originated with bats in China. So, it is thought, did PEDv. The difference is that Covid 19 “spilled over” into the human population, while PEDv has not. 

At least, not yet!

According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US, “Sometimes coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and make people sick and become a new human coronavirus. Three recent examples of this are Covid 19, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).”

No one knows for sure whether PEDv will “morph” into something that will attack people. And that is precisely why we need credible, comprehensive and, above-all, independent research to at least identify and quantify the risk, once and for all. 

And I don’t mean the kind that’s now taking place at the University of Manitoba, which appears to be anything but. There, researchers, with hefty financial input from the pork industry in no less than seven provinces, are studying “pig foot printing.” 

So, just what does that mean? Far from looking into the industry’s profound and often negative impacts on the environment, or on human and animal health and welfare, the project shamelessly flaunts itself as a way to “advance the profitability of the Canadian swine sector” and “promote competitiveness.”

Does this sound like an initiative that will get to the bottom of any future health risks which it may pose to you and me?

Attempts by the citizen’s group, HogWatch Manitoba (HWM), to get more details about the research (i.e. whether it will find out how much industry pollution is leaking into waterways, for example), have fallen on deaf ears. So too, has the group's offer to provide input into the research. 

That a place of higher learning like the UofM should sign off on such a questionable project is surely nothing less than a grotesque conflict-of-interest.

For Manitoba, sadly, this looks like just another bit of "the old normal."

RELATED:

"In Hogs We Trust." Part 111

Friday, July 3, 2020

Does your place of residence make you immune from climate calamity? I think not! (Opinion)

by Larry Powell

UPDATE...The Rivers dam mentioned in this story has now been declared by government engineers to be safe.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard one of my fellow "prairie dogs" remark, how "lucky" or how "blessed" we are to be spared the kind of brutal weather that may be pummelling another part of the country or the world at the time.

Occasionally, I'll try to remind them, we've already experienced disastrous conditions in our own "neck of the woods" (the eastern prairies) in recent years. They seem either unaware of what I say, or believe they're nothing worse than we've ever had. 

So are they or aren't they? 

The examples I list below (starting last fall up to the present) are extreme weather events which have broken records or are unprecedented in the human record.  They'e not born of this writer's imagination, but from Environment Canada, the body of record on such matters. (Emphases mine.)

Disastrous conditions in recent years have left about a million tonnes of prairie crops
like this one in the fields, unharvested over winter. A PinP photo.


"Last Thanksgiving Day weekend (2019), Manitobans were still drying out from record September rains, nearly three times the norm. Farmers were especially concerned but, after a relatively dry first week of October, they once again started up their combines and resumed round-the-clock harvesting. They were keeping an eye on a pending well-announced weather system. The storm sat over the region for days. Heavy, sticky snows draped Manitoba from Brandon to Winnipeg from October 10 to 12 and through the Thanksgiving weekend. 

"Historic snowfall totals included 34 cm at Winnipeg over two days, making it the biggest October snowstorm in the city since records began in 1872. States of emergency were declared across the province and in eleven communities, including Winnipeg. More than 6,000 people had to evacuate from a dozen or more First Nations communities. Lengthy and widespread power outages created hardship. Powerful winds exceeding 80 km/h drove the wet snow, creating blinding blizzards and two-metre drifts. In some cases, transmission towers toppled, downing total electrical grids. 

"According to Manitoba Hydro, at the peak of the storm, a quarter of a million people were without power, making it the largest outage in the utility’s history. Ten days later, about 5,000 were still without power. By the end of November, there were still some citizens who could not yet return to their homes." 

(Hydro has estimated damage at some $100 million.)

"The storm’s early arrival in October meant tree branches, still loaded with leaves, were bending. Many of Winnipeg’s trees saw damage and loss under the weight of the snow. Over 30,000 trees on public land were affected, with estimates of thousands more on private land. The Manitoba escarpment in Morden, Winkler, and Carberry also saw between 50 and 75 cm of snow."

Fast forward to this week. 

The spillway at the Rivers dam in SW MB. A Govt. of MB photo.

Severe thunderstorms, torrential rain, winds of over 100kmh and at least one tornado, tore through wide areas of the province, including the City of Brandon. Torrents of water cascaded over the dam on the Little Saskatchewan River near the southwestern Town of Rivers. 

Fearing structural failure, the provincial government called for the evacuation of livestock and several residents below it. "The Manitoba government does not have confidence in the Rivers Dam," it declared in its official news release.

Here are more direct quotes from the government news release, issued just two days ago.

"The recommended evacuation comes as a weather system has brought significant precipitation in the past 72 hours in southwest and western Manitoba. Some areas have received record-high precipitation of more than 200 millimetres during this period. It has caused water levels to rise in rivers and creeks in these areas."

I can only long for the day when I hear my friends and neighbours - while talking about the weather - begin saying things like this:

"You know, it looks like those climate scientists were right! If we don't do something about the greenhouse gas emissions we are producing in our everyday lives - and find different ways of doing things - things will only get worse. Matter of fact - it looks like they already are!"

I'm still waiting.

The Arctic may be sea-ice-free in summer by the 2030s

  Nature Communications                                                 Photo by Patrick Kelley   The Arctic could be sea-ice-free during th...