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The combination of legal and illegal logging in southwest Ghana’s tropical forests is having a devastating impact on bird populations in the region, according to new research published recently in the journal Biological Conservation.

Between 1995 and 2010, logging in the Upper Guinea rain forest — one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots — increased by over 600 percent. Researchers sampling bird communities in the same forest region discovered that the number of understory birds counted in 2008–2010 was more than 50 percent less than in 1993–1995 .

Globally, 50-90 percent of the timber harvested in tropical countries can be attributed to illegal logging. In Ghana, where the study took place, illegal logging accounts for an estimated 80 percent of timber extraction. Overall, the researchers noted, the rate of deforestation in Ghana is six times the maximum sustainable rate.

The Guinean Forest (green) stretches across Africa from Guinea to Cameroon. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

The Guinean Forest (green) stretches across Africa from Guinea to Cameroon. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

Understory birds are being particularly hard hit. For instance, the yellow-whiskered greenbul declined by 73 percent between 1995 and 2010, while the icterine greenbul plummeted by 90 percent.

“Our most disturbing finding was that more than half of all understory birds had vanished in only 15 years,” said lead author Nicole Arcilla, a researcher with Drexel University and the Zoological Society of London, in a press release accompanying the study. “If things continue as they are, in a few decades, these incredibly beautiful forests and their unique wildlife will be largely depleted, which would be a huge loss to Ghana, Africa and the world.”

Arcilla spent two years in Ghana studying understory birds as part of her research. At first her focus was on legal logging activities, but she soon found it impossible to ignore illegal activities.

“No one has looked at this issue in the past, to my knowledge, because illegal logging is an underworld issue, so it’s hard to quantify,” Arcilla said. In Ghana, she said, “it’s like the Wild West.”

The solution lies in beefed up forest management by the Ghanaian government — a daunting challenge in the face of such widespread illegal activity. The researchers point to a suite of urgently needed measures such as “increasing forest ranger patrols, increasing forest law enforcement and increasing implementation of measures to prevent illegal logging.” View Ensia homepage

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With cities poised to add 2.5 billion more people by 2050, now is a perfect time to get strategic about urban design. One of the big questions planners face is the best way to accommodate both built environments and natural settings, which provide important services such as making oxygen, cleansing water, absorbing noise, moderating summer heat, adding beauty and providing habitat for animals and plants. Can we get the biggest overall benefit by interweaving buildings and roadways with small, dispersed patches of nature — “land sharing” — or by setting aside large expanses of green space surrounded by intensive development — “land sparing”?

To find an answer, researchers from the United Kingdom and Japan looked at how well cities with a range of development strategies were able to provide each of nine urban ecosystem services — carbon storage, water infiltration, human well-being, agricultural production, pollination, pest control, noise reduction, air purification and temperature regulation. They then categorized these ecosystem services as “winners” or “losers” under various points along the compact-development-to-suburban-sprawl continuum.

Their results, reported in the latest issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, indicate that large, contiguous stretches of natural land are critical for maintaining most of the ecosystem services. However, they also showed that interspersing nature with homes, businesses and roadways has some value, particularly for maintaining the sense of personal well-being associated with exposure to nature. The researchers observed in addition that the built environment can be modified in ways that make it function more like open space in its ability to provide ecosystem services — by incorporating green roofs and permeable pavement, for instance.

“Land sparing is clearly necessary if ecosystem services are to be adequately represented in urban landscapes,” they wrote. “That said, when considering the flow of ecosystem services, arguably some land sharing is required if people are to see the health and well-being benefits provided by urban green space.”

The researchers noted that more work is needed to identify optimal size for green spaces. They also recommended top-down, policy-led planning as the best way to maximize the benefits of green spaces as cities grow. View Ensia homepage

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Too often we humans consider things individually, as though anything in life happens in a vacuum, all alone, with no influence from its surroundings or something else happening at the same time. Take chemicals, for example: Some chemical or another is deemed to be safe because it was studied in isolation, ignoring the potential effects of that chemical when combined with the many others on the market and in various products we encounter each day. Only recently are we beginning to fully explore and understand these combinations. In many such cases, the horse has already left the stable.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempts to leave the silos behind when it comes to the consequences of a changing climate, starting with the premise that, “Climatic extremes cause significant damage to the environment and society, and can cause even more damage when multiple extremes occur simultaneously.” Focusing on data from 1960 to 2010, the authors looked at droughts and heat waves and found that concurrence of the two “shows statistically significant increases across the United States.”

“Heat waves can kill people and crops while worsening air quality, and droughts exacerbate those serious impacts,” said senior author Amir AghaKouchak, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, in a press release related to the study. “With these two extremes happening at the same time, the threat is far more significant.” Such systems thinking is critical, as the authors state, in order to prepare for and assuage, as much as possible, the negative consequences of increasing climate extremes. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Al Jazeera English (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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If you have a houseplant in your kitchen, a rock on your desk or a fountain in your workplace, you know the basic principle of biophilic design: inviting nature into our everyday lives as a way to boost health, productivity and overall sense of well-being.

Now, planners, interior designers and others interested in making the most of the opportunities biophilia has to offer have a new resource for doing so. In collaboration with Terrapin Bright Green, the American Society of Interior Designers has released an on-demand online course titled “Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment.”

The hour-long course introduces the concept of biophilia and the 14 principles of biophilic design, then offers concrete suggestions on how designers can apply them to enrich interior environments as well as several case studies as examples. Participants may earn continuing education credits.

“ASID has a commitment to keeping designers up-to-date on new research that supports the impact of  design on human health and wellness,” said Karol Kaiser, ASID vice president for education and engagement. “We are enthusiastic for ASID members and industry professionals to take advantage of this extraordinary course.” View Ensia homepage

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Food waste carries massive environmental, social and economic costs — so much that you’d think one of the first lessons we’d want to pass along to our kids would be the old saw, “Take what you want, but eat what you take.”

A U.S. law intended to boost consumption of healthful foods by requiring school lunches eligible for federal funding to include a fruit or vegetable serving appears to be doing the exact opposite.

Observing elementary students’ lunchroom behavior in two elementary schools before and after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 took effect, researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of California, Davis, reported that not only was fruit and vegetable waste more than 50 percent higher after the requirement kicked in, but fruit and vegetable consumption was down.

The researchers noted that the law, which governs a program that feeds 31 million children each school day, is coming up for reauthorization this fall — potentially opening opportunities to modify it in a way that reduces these adverse unintended consequences. Meanwhile, they encourage lunch providers to boost the appeal of the fruits and vegetables they’re required to serve by cutting large items such as apples and oranges into pieces, enhancing lunch offerings with fresh produce from school gardens or other local sources, and, of course, using that age-old trick of disguising good-for-you food as something else. View Ensia homepage

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Excess phosphorus runoff and emissions from urban areas and croplands, animal feedlots, sewage treatment plants, and combustion of fossil fuels has been blamed for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie and problems in numerous other lakes and rivers around the world.

For years unwanted nutrients were also choking the Florida Everglades, but in a surprising reversal, phosphorus levels have been reduced 79 percent this year — more than three times the state requirement — compared to the annual average runoff in the 1980s, according to an announcement from University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences. The average decrease in recent years has been around 50 percent annually.

The reductions have been achieved through a combination of best management practices targeting agriculture, including soil testing before fertilizer is applied, regulation of when and how much water can be pumped off of farms and into local waterways, and clearing sediment from canals that lead to the Everglades. All told, farmers have spent nearly $US200 million on improvements, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

Some think the reductions haven’t gone far enough, though. As the South Florida newspaper the Sun Sentinel reported earlier this month, representatives of Audubon Florida and the Sierra Club say phosphorus runoff needs to be reduced even further to comply with federal water quality standards.

Still, phosphorus levels are heading in the right direction. This year they are down to 94 parts per billion, compared with 500 parts per billion in 1986. View Ensia homepage

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Plants are far better than humans at turning sunlight into food. But they’re not nearly as good as they could be: Thanks to quirks in the systems that have evolved to capture solar energy and use it to build sugars from carbon dioxide and water, the conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is but a few percent at best.

With the need to produce more crops growing even faster than human population, it’s no surprise that scientists have been brainstorming ways to help plants do a better job of using sunlight.

In a recent issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, more than two dozen researchers from the U.S., France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., Australia and China shared the results of a workshop in which they put their heads together and came up with a spectrum of suggestions for how genetic engineers might modify crop plants to boost their photosynthetic prowess. Among them: alter the apparatus that captures sunlight so it doesn’t take in more than it can use, borrow photosynthetic machinery from a purple microbe to expand the range of wavelengths plants can use, improve the ability of leaves to suck CO2 from the air, and create “smart canopies” in which plants fine-tune their photosynthetic capabilities to different lighting conditions at different distances from the ground.

Emphasizing that the convergence of advances in computer modeling, computer power and our ability to reproduce genetic material are opening the door to new abilities to refine processes within living organisms, the researchers encouraged colleagues to take a closer look at the opportunities.

“If we can double or triple the efficiency of photosynthesis — and I think that’s feasible,” study coauthor and Washington University biologist Robert Blankenship noted in a related news release, “the impact on agricultural productivity could be huge.” View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/AlinaMD

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States hoping to increase their share of renewable energy to achieve the emissions reduction goals set forth in the President’s recently-announced Clean Power Plan may have just received an unexpected boost from wind energy.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s “2014 Wind Technologies Market Report” released earlier this week, the prices offered by wind projects to utility purchasers in the U.S. dropped below 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first time in history.

Costs are being driven down by technological advancements, including the production and installation of turbines with greater generating capacity, an increase in turbine hub height up to 272 feet (83 meters) and an increase in average rotor diameter. Taken together, these changes are not only driving down the cost of wind energy in blustery locations, but also making it more economical in low-wind areas.

Overall, US$8.3 billion was invested in 4.9 gigawatts of new wind power capacity in 2014. At present, wind power meets nearly 5 percent of the total U.S. electricity demand. Employment in the wind energy sector also saw a bump up in 2014 to 73,000 workers, compared to 50,500 in 2013.

Further bolstering wind energy’s prospects, an announcement from researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — the research center that prepared the report — noted that 2014 wind energy contracts “compare very favorably to a range of projections of the fuel costs of gas-fired generation extending out through 2040.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by Steve p2008 (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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In July 2014 we published a photo essay that highlighted the ecological and economic importance of the world’s deltas, pointing out that they are home to nearly half a billion people and provide critical habitat for innumerable plant and animal species. That photo essay also pointed out the danger deltas face: Sea-level rise and human alterations to river systems are threatening to turn the world’s deltas over to the sea.

One threat we didn’t explicitly address, though, was land subsidence. In a new study in the journal Science, researchers explore how sinking land — caused by less sediment reaching deltas along with human activities such as development and resource extraction — combined with sea-level rise will affect coastal delta communities. This combination of sinking land and rising sea, known as relative sea-level rise or RSLR, makes the challenges facing these communities even more daunting because increased RSLR means an increase risk of flooding.

The researchers found that some deltas, such as the Krishna and Brahmani in India and the Ganges-Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, are particularly vulnerable due to a combination of high RSLR, high chance of a hazardous event taking place and low capacity to respond to such an event. But even deltas in places that are less vulnerable, such as the Mississippi in the U.S. and the Rhine in the Netherlands, won’t have an easy path forward. The study points out that strategies to lower risk in these countries often come by way of expensive infrastructure, meaning that the people who call them home will have to make the ongoing decision of whether to spend more money keeping the deltas relatively safe from disaster or freeze spending, making the deltas less secure.

Writing in The Conversation, Zachary Tessler, one of the study’s authors, says that while stemming sea-level rise will require global action to combat climate change, land subsidence can be addressed in part through local and regional efforts. Tessler points to technologies that reduce buildup of sediment at dams, dike breaches, and coastal wetlands restoration as ways to deliver more sediment to deltas and increase retention. The authors also warn in the study, “The current emphasis on short-term solutions for the world’s deltas will greatly constrain options for designing sustainable solutions in the long term.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino

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The ability to anticipate floods and mobilize a timely response — increasingly a life-and-death matter as extreme weather events become more common — depends to a sobering extent on 10 satellites that measure precipitation and beam data to Earth, where governments and emergency response teams use them to guide efforts to protect people and property.

Even more sobering: Four of the 10 satellites have already exceeded their anticipated functional lifespan, with no plans in place to deploy replacements, according to a research article published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The article reports on research by Cornell University engineering professor Patrick Reed and colleagues from Princeton University and the Aerospace Corporation. The researchers used information on the distribution and movement of water around the planet along with modeling to calculate the extent to which the current satellites are able to provide data needed for flood forecasting. They also calculated the coverage that would remain should all four aging satellites stop functioning, and explored what arrangement of satellites would be needed to optimally do the job. They found that even the current set of 10 satellites fails to provide sufficient coverage — with the biggest gaps, ironically, in South America, central and eastern Africa, and Asia, where populations are particularly vulnerable to floods. Not surprisingly, loss of the four antiquated satellites would make things even worse, with far less of the globe covered adequately over space and time.

The good news? Addition of just two new satellites with sufficient international collaboration would boost flood forecasting capability even beyond that of the current fleet.

Noting that their results demonstrate that improvements in this rain-monitoring system could have huge benefits for humanity, the authors call for an international conversation aimed at resolving the current and anticipated satellite rainfall data deficit “to ensure that the global portfolio of space-based Earth rainfall observations are sufficient to manage the potential increased flood risks posed by climate change.” View Ensia homepage

Thanks to Science for Environment Policy for alerting us to this study. Photo © iStockphoto.com/kasto80

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More and more people are starting to get the message that the massive amount of food we waste in the U.S. is a social issue, not just an environmental one. Even HBO comedian John Oliver took nearly 20 minutes recently on his satire news show, “Last Week Tonight,” to tackle the issue.

It seems an easy fix: Instead of throwing food out, set up a new supply chain to move it from businesses that aren’t going to use it to people who need it. But that process involves additional costs businesses have little financial incentive to take on as well as fear of lawsuits over someone getting sick from spoiled food (something that the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act actually protects against).

This week, ClimateWire has a story about how Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut are trying to deal with these problems: by regulating the amount of food businesses can toss in the trash and encouraging them to donate it instead. The article examines progress to date (the regulations have been in place for some time) as well as the marketplace that is emerging as a result, such as the emergence of companies working to make sure more of the food goes to people in need and less to the compost heap. Composting is an easier option for compliance because not as much infrastructure such as cold storage is needed, but, as the article mentions, businesses such as Food for Free collect unwanted food and deliver it to more than 100 programs in and around Boston working to get food to hungry people.

There’s an interesting and important lesson here, as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy points out in the piece. Reducing food waste by using it to feed people who really need it is “a great reminder that solutions to environmental challenges can double as solutions to social challenges.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Think organic farming is climate friendly? You might want to think again. A study published recently in the journal Agriculture and Human Values suggests that as organic agriculture emulates conventional industrial agriculture, the environmental benefits may not be the slam-dunk that Earth-loving proponents might like them to be.

It’s well known that organic practices offer climate benefits in terms of management practices that help sequester carbon in soils and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizer production. What’s less clear is the extent to which other variables, such as lower per-acre productivity and more intensive use of machinery in fields, counteract these savings.

Analyzing preexisting data on agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and amount of certified organic farmland across 49 states and eight years, sociology doctoral student Julius McGee from the University of Oregon discovered that the amount of farmland in organic production and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture were positively correlated, even when adjusted for population, GDP and total amount of agricultural land.

“What these findings ultimately suggest is that organic farming is not working as a counterforce to greenhouse gas emissions stimulated by agricultural production, and is currently positively correlated with the problem,” he concluded.

Noting recent trends toward “conventionalization” of organic agriculture, McGee called for the organic food system to be more deliberate in its efforts to adopt sustainable practices and for additional oversight to make sure that production of certified organic foods is as environmentally friendly as consumers hope — and often assume — it is. View Ensia homepage


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In case you somehow missed it, Shark Week has once again descended upon us. The annual summer tradition created by the Discovery Channel in 1988 to raise awareness of sharks through its programming has in recent years seen its hashtag, #SharkWeek, explode across social media. Although some of the fictional content on Discovery has led to backlash from the scientific community, it’s hard to point to another publicity scheme that has garnered so much attention for one species and for conservation, with organizations like Oceana, WildAid and Conservation International deploying the hashtag on Twitter to shine a light on their causes and other media outlets coopting it to promote their own content.

Amid all the noise it’s important to remember why everyone’s looking at sharks anyway. Besides being magnificent physical specimens around for hundreds of millions of years, sharks are often the apex predators in oceans, and top predators maintain balance in their ecosystems. Despite their importance, sharks have moved from predator to prey as humans catch them for their fins and their numbers have decreased due to other factors, such as degrading habitat and falling victim to bycatch. They have also been vilified through media and, as a result, their attacks on humans send ripples of fear through us, especially those living in coastal areas, despite the relatively few attacks that actually take place.

That’s the point of a recent study from researchers at Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which shows that although the overall number of shark bites has increased in the last 60 years, individual risk of being bitten or attacked by a shark along the California coast has actually decreased significantly due to the fact that the population of coastal cities in California and the numbers of people partaking in ocean activities in the state has exploded over the same time. The authors of the study, which will be published later this month in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, conclude that conservation efforts for sharks and safety for humans don’t have to be at odds. By gaining more information about shark activity and behavior, the two can coexist. “Doing this kind of analyses can inform us on hot spots and cold spots for shark activity in time and space that we can use to make informed decisions and give people a way to stay safe while they are enjoying the ocean,” said Francesco Ferretti of Stanford, first author of the study, in a press release. Knowing that sharks migrate to Hawaii in the spring, for example, means that California waters will have fewer sharks and therefore may be more appealing to people for recreational activities. In fact, surfers who choose to surf the waters off Mendocino County in March are 24 times safer than surfing in October and November.

Although culling sharks is not a practice in California, it has taken place in other parts of the world and the study’s authors say that increased knowledge and data of both shark and human activity is a better way to minimize shark attacks on humans. “Our results indicate that the seemingly conflicting goals of protecting large predators and people can be reconciled,” study co-author Fiorenza Micheli told Stanford News. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Elias Levy (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You’ve probably noticed how being around trees, grass and flowers can make you feel better. Now, evidence is mounting that the presence of green and growing things is associated with being healthier, too.

Reporting at Journalist’s Resource, Justin Feldman summarized the findings of a number of recent scientific studies exploring the relationship between urban green space and human health. One study of schoolchildren in Barcelona, Spain, showed a positive association between cognitive development and “greenness index” (amount of vegetation the students encountered at home and school and over the course of  their commute). A survey of adult twins in a U.S. data base, adjusted for income, activity and neighborhood traits, revealed that individuals with more access to green space tended to exhibit less stress, depression and anxiety than other study participants. And an assessment of birth outcomes in Vancouver, Canada, found that the more green cover pregnant women had in the vicinity of their homes, the higher the birth weight of full-term babies and the lower the likelihood of preterm births, even after taking other environmental factors such as air pollution, noise and proximity to parks into account.

Read more results and check out links to the original reports here. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Antagain


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Think environmental protection hurts business? You just might want to think again. In a study published last week at PLOS ONE, University of North Carolina land use and environmental planning faculty member Todd BenDor and colleagues calculated the dollars-and-cents impact of environmental restoration projects initiated to comply with laws such as the U.S. Clean Water Act or to meet other public, corporate or nonprofit goals. Their take: What’s good for Mother Nature can also be good for the economy.

The researchers surveyed 250 businesses that provide services aimed at improving ecosystem health and functioning such as project planning, engineering, construction, landscaping and legal counsel. Using a computer model to extrapolate from responses related to employment and sales, they concluded that the U.S. environmental restoration industry can take credit for an estimated 126,111 jobs representing $6.27 billion in wages and benefits and US$9.47 billion in sales annually. If you count indirect effects such as business-to-business economic activity and increased household spending, you can add another 95,287 jobs and US$15.37 billion in economic impact to that tally.


Employment due to ecological restoration is comparable to that of other major U.S. industries. Credit: PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128339.g002

Although they acknowledged that the study does not provide a full cost-benefit analysis of restoration legislation, the researchers noted that ecological restoration has a far more positive impact on the nation’s economy than most people realize.

“A growing number of studies have identified ‘green’ growth and job creation in renewable energy production, energy efficient construction, and green goods and services industries,” they wrote. “This study represents a first step towards quantifying the restoration industry as a piece of the broader green economy.” View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/RiverNorthPhotography


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This morning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held an “ivory crush” event in Times Square in New York City, highlighting the huge problem that is elephant poaching and wildlife crime more generally. In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the point of pulverizing 1 ton of seized elephant tusks is to diminish demand and disrupt the marketplace for the product. Researchers from the University of Washington believe that slowing demand doesn’t move the needle on this crisis fast enough, though, so they want to use DNA from dead elephants to predict where other elephants may be hunted in the future — and beat the poachers to the spot. 

Writing in The Conversation, Samuel Wasser, a research professor of biology at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, describes a method his lab has developed to map where past hotspots of elephant poaching have occurred in order to guess where future crime might take place. In a somewhat encouraging conclusion, the researchers found that most of the poaching has come from just two areas in Africa. What this means, Wasser concludes, is that law enforcement efforts focused on just those two hotspots could go a long way in stopping the killing. And if poachers and traffickers just decide to switch their hunting area, Wasser believes his methods, which involve comparing DNA samples from elephant dung in various areas to that of seized ivory to create a reference map, can be applied quickly enough to track the new activity. “Unlike transit countries, source hotspots can’t change very quickly,” he writes. “They require large numbers of elephants and considerable infrastructure to move the ivory out of the country without detection. This infrastructure must also be developed in the next source country before it can become a major hotspot on the scale we have identified. Thus, our methods should be able to detect this.” 

Protecting elephants from slaughter would obviously be good news for the species, but, as Wasser explains in the video above, the benefits go beyond, having an impact on everything from the elephants’ ecosystems to international terrorism.  View Ensia homepage

Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Climate science tells us future weather is going to be dramatically different than it is today. Exactly how different, and in what ways, is unknown, however, particularly at regional and local scales. What’s an engineer who’s designing power plants, bridges and other infrastructure meant to last for a half-century or more to do?

Adopt a whole new way of working, suggests the American Society of Civil Engineers.

When designing infrastructure, engineers currently take extreme weather into consideration — but also assume that tomorrow’s extremes will look like those of today, a premise that is becoming increasingly untenable as we learn more about climate change. Unfortunately, the actual size and rate of change likely to take place over the lifespans of things we’re building now is unsettlingly uncertain. Not only that, but preparing for extremes can be expensive, so overpreparation carries costs that must be balanced against the risk of being underprepared.

In response, the society last week released a 103-page report calling for engineers, policy makers and others involved in making decisions about infrastructure investments to change the way they envision, design and build bridges, water systems and other such structures. After providing engineering-oriented background on climate science, the report, Adapting Infrastructure and Civil Engineering Practice to a Changing Climate, offers four key recommendations:

  • Work more closely with scientists to generate and apply knowledge aimed at predicting future conditions.
  • Seek to better understand uncertainty in predicting future climate, and use that understanding to improve decisions about how to weigh the cost of preparing for bigger extremes with the cost of failure if infrastructure can’t meet them.
  • Develop a new framework for making decisions in a climate-uncertain world — specifically, adopt “low-regret” strategies that are amenable to mid-course correction as conditions change and trajectories become more clear.
  • Identify and alert the public to existing infrastructure that’s most at threat from climate change, and provide cost-benefit information needed to make good decisions regarding what to do about them.

Photo by Vtrans (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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In 2007, the investigative news site POLITICO launched and quickly became a go-to source for news about policy decisions coming from the nation’s capital. Now, the folks behind POLITICO are turning their lens to the U.S. energy sector with Future of Power, the inaugural special report of the Agenda, an online magazine launched this week that will be looking to “connect the dots between the robust debates in the war of ideas — and the policy proposals actually on the table here in Washington.” 

Future of Power looks at the Sierra Club’s “incredible under-the-radar campaign” that has pushed almost 200 coal plants offline in recent years, how Republicans and Democrats talk about energy, the future of coal in its supporters’ own words, what really worries energy experts and more. 

Future of Power offers a comprehensive picture of where energy policy in Washington stands now and where the various players want to take it — and us. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Walter (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Think environmental change happens too slowly to matter to your lifetime? “Your Life on Earth,” an intriguing  interactive developed by the BBC, just might get you thinking otherwise. Enter your birth date, gender and height, and up pops a personalized infographic showing how much you and the world around you have changed and are expected to continue to change in your lifetime, from how much sea level has risen since you were born to how old you’ll be when oil, coal and natural gas supplies are projected to dry up. Give it a try and gain a whole new respect for how quickly conditions can become worse — or, if we so choose, improve. View Ensia homepage

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And now for some good news: It looks like some market-driven agreements around beef production in Brazil may be slowing deforestation in the country’s rainforests. That’s the finding reported by Holly Gibbs, an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a team of researchers in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters. 

The researchers focused on the world’s biggest meatpacking company, JBS, which is located in the region. In 2009, under pressure from Greenpeace and the country’s government, JBS and other large meatpacking companies committed to “zero-deforestation agreements,” meaning they wouldn’t buy cattle raised on recently deforested land. This study shows that these agreements led ranchers that supply to JBS to register their land in an environmental registry and deforest less because JBS became more likely to refuse to purchase cattle from ranches with recent deforestation. In 2013, the study found, only 4 of 100 direct suppliers to JBS had recent deforestation on their land, whereas before 2009 that number was 4 in 10. 

That “direct suppliers” is important, though. Slaughterhouses only keep track of suppliers selling directly to them, which means that cattle can be raised and fattened on other ranches only to be transferred to a zero-deforestation ranch as their penultimate stop. The ranches in the earlier stages could still be cutting down trees for cattle pastures. 

Still, Gibbs sees these developments as a sign that the market can play a much-needed role in reducing deforestation across supply chains. “Public enforcement of environmental laws is a formidable task in the Brazilian Amazon, which covers an area six times the size of Texas,” Gibbs says in a press release about the study. “But these market-based interventions are leading to rapid changes in the beef industry within a period of months, even in very remote areas.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by Public.Resource.Org (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Is it possible to reduce pesticide use without compromising crop yields? Yes — and then some, according to a new study published in the journal Insects.

Researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom measured pesticide use and crop yield at 85 project sites in 24 Asian and African countries practicing integrated pest management — an agronomic approach that taps nature’s strategies, such as competition, diversification and predation, to reduce the toll of insects, weeds and other yield-reducing pests on crops, supplementing with conventional pesticides as needed. They found that crop yield on the study sites increased an average of 41 percent while pesticide use dropped more than two-thirds after IPM was adopted. Crops involved in the study included rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, soybean and potato.

“Through these farming strategies crop yields can be increased while reducing pesticide application and costs,” the researchers wrote in a related article at The Conversation. “Farmers get more, and the environment wins, too.”

The researchers noted that even though we use 7.7 billion pounds (3.5 billion kg) of pesticides worldwide each year, pests still destroy enough food to feed 1 billion people. IPM, they suggest, can play a key role in sustainable intensification of agriculture — efforts to increase productivity while reducing negative environmental impacts and supporting ecosystem services — as we work to feed an increasing (and increasingly affluent) global population. Reviewing four kinds of IPM projects, the researchers estimated that adoption of IPM has the potential cut pesticide use in half in Asia and Africa.

The researchers also underscored the importance of the human dimension in advancing the adoption of IPM, since it involves making customized, strategic decisions about the proper mix of a number of strategies, each with its own costs and benefits. They noted the importance of educational systems such as farmer field schools if initiatives to advance IPM are to succeed. View Ensia homepage

Photo by IFPRI -IMAGES (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You might not think of eastern Australia as one of the hot spots of global deforestation. But it ranks right up there with the Amazon and Sumatra in a new report by WWF highlighting key areas of focus for efforts to protect forestlands around the world.

Forests are of particular importance to global efforts to maintain a healthy environment because they contain much of the world’s plant and animal diversity, and trees are particularly adept at sucking carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, from the air. The analysis, Saving Forests at Risk (Chapter 5 in WWF’s ongoing Living Forests Report), delineates 11 sites on four continents totaling some 420 million acres (170 million hectares) that together comprise more than 80 percent of the forest area most at risk of destruction or severe degradation in the next 15 years. Threats range from increased demand for agricultural land to unsustainable logging and mining to use of trees for charcoal and firewood.

Noting that identifying such hot spots is an important first step in protecting them, the report suggests five strategies for stopping “the march of deforestation”:

  • expand and strengthen protected areas
  • recognize the value of ecosystem services
  • expand REDD+
  • encourage corporations to eliminate deforestation from supply chains
  • incorporate forest protection into infrastructure development plans.

“It’s possible to meet human demands for food, energy and raw materials in the coming decades without sacrificing precious forests,” the report concludes. “With better planning, management and collaboration at a landscape scale, we can sustainably increase production and meet local development needs while conserving critical ecosystems.”

Read more and view a map of the threatened forests here. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Jeannie Fletcher (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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There may be no more important documents being produced today for governments, policy makers and the general public to understand than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. Yet these reports have to go through a series of filters — government aides, the media, non-governmental organizations, etc. — before their messages reach the final audience. While the IPCC assessments have sections called “Summary for Policymakers” to address this, Richard Black, a former science and environment correspondent for the BBC, argues in the April issue of Nature Climate Change that these SPMs don’t effectively reach the audience their title implies because they are actually nothing more than “Summaries for Wonks.” 

Black contends there’s no reason the SPMs can’t and shouldn’t be two-page briefs summarizing the findings that resemble more closely the documents busy leaders are used to seeing come across their desks. Creating documents that are actually digestible for the nonexpert is hugely important, according to Black, because “[i]f the SPMs are to allow science to speak directly to power, they must be appropriately constructed for time-poor generalists who spend virtually all of their working lives outside the climate ‘bubble.’” 

“If the IPCC does not provide summaries of this simplicity and clarity, others will,” Black continues. “Many government delegations produce their own two-page briefings for ministers and senior bureaucrats. NGOs and think tanks produce summaries for the public and for reporters. Some are well written; but all contain a degree of adjustment, depending on the priorities of the particular organization, and none carries the gold standard imprimatur of the IPCC itself. By this early stage in the chain of communication, the IPCC has already lost control of its conclusions.” 

If the IPCC wants to retain control of its findings, it needs to rethink its mode of communication, Black contends, and take a page from journalism, in particular radio broadcasts where the reporter only has one shot at getting the information across to the listener — once the words are spoken, there’s no going back or rereading for clarity. 

Black gives a number of specific ways the IPCC and each Working Group can retool their methods and procedures to produce documents that actually live up to the name Summary for Policymakers.

Beyond the IPCC, this is an important piece for anyone thinking about better ways to communicate science.  View Ensia homepage

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When we think of e-waste, we tend to think of phones, computers, printers and the like. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to a first-ever global look at the production, impacts and management of electrical and electronic waste released this week by the United Nations University, of the 46.1 million tons (41.8 million metric tons) of e-waste produced in 2014, nearly two-thirds was made up of far more mundane objects such as vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, toasters, washing machines and other home and business equipment.

According to the report, “Global E-Waste Monitor 2014,” the e-waste problem is growing fast, thanks to increasing demand for, and shortening useful lives of, electrical and electronic products. At the same time, relatively little is recycled or reused, so huge amounts of valuable materials end up landfilled or in developing countries, where lax standards create huge environmental and health hazards. By illustrating how much e-waste is produced worldwide, where it’s generated and its fate, the report seeks to showcase the tremendous opportunities for recyclers, reusers and take-back programs to turn trash to treasure.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Just two countries — the U.S. and China — produced nearly one-third of all e-waste in 2014.
  • Per capita leaders were Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
  • Less than one-sixth of end-of-life electrical and electronic products are estimated to have been recycled or reused in 2014.
  • The 2014 e-waste burden included an estimated 18.2 million tons (16.5 million metric tons) of iron, 2.1 million tons (1.9 million metric tons) of copper and 330 tons (300 metric tons) of gold, as well as silver, aluminum and other valuable materials.
  • The “intrinsic material value” of global e-waste in 2014 was an estimated US$52 billion.
  • The amount of e-waste is predicted to increase to 54.9 million tons (49.8 million metric tons) by 2018.

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care,” U.N. under-secretary-general David Malone said in a news release announcing the report’s release. “[This] provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry to plan take-back systems. It can also facilitate cooperation around controlling illegal trade, supporting necessary technology development and transfer, and assisting international organizations, governments and research institutes in their efforts as they develop appropriate countermeasures.”

Download the 80-page report here. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Remko Tanis (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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There’s no question that plants are better than most other life forms at converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into the sugars that form the basis of our global food web — and eventually, humans’ entire food supply. But fact of the matter is, with conversion rates hovering around 2 percent for our best crop fields, they’re by no means great. Even a slight increase in the efficiency with which they turn solar energy to biomass could dramatically boost crop productivity and so reduce the need to clear more land as demand for food skyrockets and the yield gains garnered by the Green Revolution level out in the years ahead.

As reported at SciDevNet, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published a paper in the journal Cell that proposes using supercomputing and genetic engineering to do nature one better.

The paper, “Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential,” calls for exploring and, if possible, exploiting, a number of modifications to photosynthesis that could improve its efficiency, from better balancing the light-capturing and sugar-making parts of the process to making the most of the sun energy captured and optimizing the system for current atmospheric CO2 levels. One approach, for example, would be to take genes from plants such as maize and sorghum that use the efficient “C4” photosynthesis process and insert them into wheat, rice and others that use the less efficient but more common “C3” process. Another would be to use genetic modification to expand the spectrum of light waves crop plants can use to photosynthesize.

The authors assert that the time is right to take on the task of improving photosynthesis, thanks to recent advances in knowledge of how photosynthesis works at the molecular level, high-performance computing that lets us model and optimize biochemical processes, and genome editing and synthetic biology capabilities. What’s needed yet: an even better understanding of photosynthesis, enhanced capability to strategically modify plant genomes, and greater societal acceptance of the concept of using genetic engineering to improve agriculture.

“Photosynthesis, which has been improved little in crops and falls far short of its biological limit, emerges as the key remaining route to increase the genetic yield potential of our major crops,” they conclude. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Elenathewise

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