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  1. Population at remote French island falls 90% in 3 decades The last time scientists visited the remote French island of Île aux Cochons in the Indian Ocean, they found more than 2 million king penguins, including 500,000 breeding pairs. That was 1982, and it gave the island the distinction of being the largest such colony in the world. But in the first comprehensive new count since then, researchers report in Antarctic Science that only about 200,000 king penguins now inhabit the island. Of those, about 60,000 were in pairs, reports the BBC. The new numbers are based on aerial photos taken in 2015 and 2017 of the island, which sits between Antarctica and the tip of Africa, per the Guardian. For now, researchers have no clear answer on what explains the population plunge, though followup field studies could shed light. “It is completely unexpected, and particularly significant since this colony represented nearly one third of the king penguins in the world,” says lead author Henri Weimerskirch of the Centre for Biological Studies in Chize, France. One theory revolves around the weather: A particularly strong El Niño in the late 1990s warmed regional waters and might have pushed penguin prey such as fish and squid out of foraging range long enough to have devastating consequences on such a dense population, according to a news release. Those effects could have been amplified against the larger backdrop of climate change in general, notes the Guardian. Other theories include diseases such as avian cholera, or the arrival of invasive species such as rats or mice. (On the flip side, researchers found a previously unknown colony of a different type of penguin.) < Here >
  2. Withered sunflowers, scorched wheat fields, stunted cornstalks—the farmlands of northern Germany have borne the brunt of this year's extreme heat and record-low rainfall, triggering an epochal drought. As the blazing sun beats down, combine harvesters working the normally fertile breadbasket of Saxony-Anhalt in former communist East Germany kick up giant clouds of dust as they roll over the cracked earth. "It hasn't really rained since April and that's the main growth period for our grains and the other crops—we've never seen anything like it," said Juliane Stein of Agro Boerdegruen, a farming conglomerate formed after German reunification in 1990. "We've reached the point here in Germany where we're talking about a natural disaster that's a threat to our livelihood." A natural disaster is declared by German authorities during a drought when at least 30 percent of the average annual harvest is destroyed. Given the massive losses feared by the sector this year, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) has called crisis talks on Tuesday to discuss urgent state aid. While southern Germany has seen largely normal rainfall this year, the north has been in the grip of an unrelenting high-pressure system creating weather conditions more familiar in southern France or Italy. "We expect billions in losses," DBV president Joachim Rukwied told German media last week. 'As flammable as straw' The grain crop alone has shrunk by up to eight million tonnes or around 18 percent this year, stripping 1.4 billion euros ($1.6 billion) from revenues so far. "The government needs to declare a state of emergency so that farmers in areas hit hardest by the drought can be helped directly with cash aid," Rukwied said. While the sunshine has fostered larger and sweeter fruit than usual, sugar beets, rapeseed, potato and corn crops have been decimated in the drought, prompting farmers to cut their losses and harvest two to three weeks earlier than usual. "The cornstalks are knee-high" and are sprouting smaller cobs or none at all, said Stein of Agro Boerdegruen, located about 150 kilometres (90 miles) west of Berlin. "Normally they should be over two metres by now." Stein said that to grow crops like potatoes—a staple of the German diet—her farms have long relied on watering systems because the region, in the rain shadow of the Harz Mountains, is generally too dry. However it is too late to expand such systems to other fields this year, and in the long run would be too expensive to justify with other crops. Meanwhile the knock-on effects of the grain shortage have already been dramatic, depriving farmers of animal feed and sending prices soaring. Many dairy farmers have responded by selling their livestock. The number of slaughtered cows and heifers surged 10 percent in the first two weeks of July, according to figures from the Federal Agriculture and Nutrition Agency. While Sweden and Greece have been ravaged by devastating forest fires, Germany has been less afflicted due to its less vulnerable types of vegetation and higher concentration of fire brigades. However grain fields mark an exception and Saxony-Anhalt has seen wide swathes of farmland go up in flames. "Wheat when it's dry is as flammable as straw," Stein said. A drive through the farmland east of the River Elbe shows crops covered with the black soot of recent fires, with 70 hectares (170 acres) near the village of Barleben bearing the apocalyptic remains of a spark that raged across the parched field this month. 'Nothing you can do' So will northern Germany become a region of olives, wine and citrus fruits? Stein said farmers here will likely find other ways to adapt. No-till farming, which allows seeds to be sown without disturbing the soil, and the use of mulch to improve germination rates are two techniques already in practice. Meanwhile seed breeding is developing crops that are more resistant to heat and dryness. However the process can take a decade or more and the European Court of Justice ruled last week it should be considered genetic manipulation and thus subject to stricter scrutiny by regulators. Thomas Endrulat of the German Weather Service said it had been at least 15 years since the country had experienced a similarly hot, dry summer. Such extremes matched forecasts seen in climate change models for Europe but he warned against drawing catastrophic conclusions from an "exceptional" year. "You are seeing a rising number of heatwaves, just like you have hard winters or heavy rainfall and floods," Endrulat told AFP. "That bandwidth is part of our weather in central Europe." But for farmers in the grip of this year's drought, that is cold comfort. "You plant the grain in the autumn, it germinates and then it needs water in the spring to grow," Stein said. "If that doesn't happen, there's nothing you can do." < Here >
  3. Coastal communities struggling to adapt to climate change are beginning to do what was once unthinkable: retreat MONIQUE COLEMAN’S BASEMENT was still wet with saltwater when the rallying began. Just days after Superstorm Sandy churned into the mid-Atlantic region, pushing a record-breaking surge into the country’s most densely populated corridor, the governor of New Jersey promised to put the sand back on the beaches. The “build it back stronger” sentiment never resonated with Coleman, who lived not on the state’s iconic barrier islands but in a suburban tidal floodplain bisected by 12 lanes of interstate highway. Sandy was being billed as an unusual “Frankenstorm,” a one-in-500-year hurricane that also dropped feet of snow. But for Coleman and many residents of the Watson-Crampton neighborhood in Woodbridge Township, the disaster marked the third time their houses had been inundated by floodwaters in just three years. Taxed by the repetitive assault of hydrodynamic pressure, some foundations had collapsed. As evacuees returned home for another round of sump pumps and mold, Coleman considered her options. Woodbridge sits in the pinched waist of New Jersey, where a network of rivers and creeks drain to the Raritan Bay and then to the Atlantic Ocean. She heard that the Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t be coming to build a berm or tide gate; the area had recently been evaluated, and such costly protections seemed unlikely. Spurred by previous storms, Coleman had already learned a bit about the ecological history of her nearly 350-year-old township. She discovered that parts of her neighborhood, like many chunks of this region, were developed atop low-lying wetlands, which had been elevated with poorly draining “fill” back around the early 20th century. As Coleman researched more deeply, a bigger picture emerged. “I started to realize that, in a sense, we were victims of a system because we were living in a neighborhood that should have never been built,” she says. Although she had flood insurance—her mortgage required it—Coleman knew that her premiums would soon go up, and she worried that her property value would go down. She and her husband liked their house, a prewar colonial. Best of all, it was affordable, a rare find in a town so close to New York City. Coleman had only discovered she would be living in a “special flood hazard area” once she was reading the closing paperwork in 2006. That made her nervous. She recalls her attorney waving it off by saying that at the rate we’re going, everyone in New Jersey will live in a floodplain. That might be true in spirit, as a future-looking thought experiment, but it was severely misleading given the circumstances. Desperate to move her family away from a block in Newark with increasing drug activity, Coleman signed away one type of risk for another. For four uneventful years, the marsh near the bottom of her street was an attractive amenity, a place where her three young sons could play freely. Then the drainages that wrapped around her neighborhood like a wishbone were overwhelmed by a nor’easter in 2010. And by Hurricane Irene in 2011. And again, by Sandy, in 2012.[...] If interested, please read the entire (long) article < here >.
  4. While orbiting some 250 miles above Madagascar this week, International Space Station astronaut Ricky Arnold captured a grim picture of the island's decimated land. Madagascar's forests have been nearly logged to death, with nearly 90 percent of its original forests destroyed in the last century, according to NASA. A striking result of this loss, captured by Arnold, is an extreme erosion of the red-tinged land into Madagascar's rivers. Due to the decimation of the nation's forests, there are few trees left to stabilize the barren earth, especially during rains. "The heart of #Madagascar drains into the sea due to decimation of rainforests and coastal mangroves," Arnold tweeted. The specific waterways photographed by Arnold are located on the northwest coast of the island, which is about twice the size of Arizona. These waterways, collectively called the Betsiboka Estuary, have been filling up with dirt and mud from the island's now bare hillsides. At one time, notes NASA, ships could travel up these coastal rivers. Today, vessels must dock on the coast, as the channels are too shallow and clogged. NASA satellites have also recently captured the distinctive, deep-rust color of Madagascar's rivers snaking through the tropical landscape. The rivers are rich in sediment to begin with, but heavy rains make them all the more distinct. The Madagascar government is attempting to protect and recover its rainforests, but these efforts have proven less than effective. Just last month, irate farmers burned down government and conservation offices near protected zones because these conserved areas conflict with people's need to farm land and accrue income. If any recovery does occur, it's likely to take some time, perhaps longer than the century it took to raze the island's ancient forests. Astronauts, it seems, will be peering down onto red rivers for years to come. According to NASA, when meeting Madagascar's president, an unnamed astronaut noted, "oh, yes, I know your country. It is the one bleeding into the ocean." < Here >
  5. Acid rain, or acid deposition, is a broad term that includes any form of precipitation that contains acidic components, such as sulfuric acid or nitric acid, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The precipitation is not necessarily wet or liquid; the definition includes dust, gasses, rain, snow, fog and hail. The type of acid rain that contains water is called wet deposition. Acid rain formed with dust or gasses is called dry deposition. Causes The term acid rain was coined in 1852 by Scottish chemist Robert Angus Smith, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry, which calls him the "father of acid rain." Smith decided on the term while examining rainwater chemistry near industrial cities in England and Scotland. He wrote about his findings in 1872 in the book "Air and Rain: The Beginnings of a Chemical Climatology." In the 1950s, scientists in the United States started studying the phenomenon, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, acid rain became recognized as a regional environmental issue that affected Western Europe and eastern North America. Though manmade pollutants are currently affecting most acidic precipitation, natural disasters can be a factor as well. For example, volcanoes can cause acid rain by blasting pollutants into the air. These pollutants can be carried around the world in jet streams and turned into acid rain far from the volcano. After an asteroid supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago, sulfur trioxide was blasted into the air. When it hit the air, it turned into sulfuric acid, generating a downpour of acid rain, according to a paper published in 2014 in the journal Nature Geoscience. Even before that, over 4 billion years ago, it is suspected that the air may have had 10,000 times as much carbon dioxide as today. Geologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison backed up this theory be studying rocks and publishing the results in a 2008 issue of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. "At [those levels of carbon dioxide], you would have had vicious acid rain and intense greenhouse [effects]. That is a condition that will dissolve rocks," said study team member John Valley. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) released into the air by fossil-fuel power plants, vehicles and oil refineries are the biggest cause of acid rain today, according to the EPA. Two thirds of sulfur dioxide and one fourth of nitrogen oxide found in the atmosphere come from electric power generators. A chemical reaction happens when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides mix with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the air. They then become sulfuric and nitric acids that mix with precipitation and fall to the ground. Precipitation is considered acidic when its pH level is about 5.2 or below, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The normal pH of rain is around 5.6. Effects Acid rain affects nearly everything. Plants, soil, trees, buildings and even statues can be transformed by the precipitation. Acid rain has been found to be very hard on trees. It weakens them by washing away the protective film on leaves, and it stunts growth. A paper released in the online version of the journal of Environmental Science and Technology in 2005 showed evidence of acid rain stunting tree growth. "By providing the only preserved soil in the world collected before the acid rain era, the Russians helped our international team track tree growth for the first time with changes in soil from acid rain," said Greg Lawrence, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who headed the effort. "We've known that acid rain acidifies surface waters, but this is the first time we've been able to compare and track tree growth in forests that include soil changes due to acid rain." Acid rain can also change the composition of soil and bodies of water, making them uninhabitable for local animals and plants. For example, healthy lakes have a pH of 6.5 or higher. As acid rain raises the level of acidity, fish tend to die off. Most fish species can't survive a water pH of below 5. When the pH becomes a 4, the lake is considered dead, according to National Atmospheric Deposition Program. It can additionally deteriorate limestone and marble buildings and monuments, like gravestones. Solutions There are several solutions to stopping manmade acid rain. Regulating the emissions coming from vehicles and buildings is an important step, according to the EPA. This can be done by restricting the use of fossil fuels and focusing on more sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind power. Also, each person can do their part by reducing their vehicle use. Using public transportation, walking, riding a bike or carpooling is a good start, according to the EPA. People can also reduce their use of electricity, which is widely created with fossil fuels, or switch to a solar plan. Many electricity companies offer solar packages to their customers that require no installation and low costs. < Here >
  6. Global fish production is at record levels thanks to fish farming, says the UN FAO, but much is wasted and many species are worryingly overfished One in three fish caught around the world never makes it to the plate, either being thrown back overboard or rotting before it can be eaten, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Its biannual report on the state of the world’s fisheries, released on Monday, also shows that total fish production has reached a record high thanks to more fish farming, particularly in China, with over half the fish eaten in the world now coming from aquaculture. In contrast, the amount of wild caught fish has barely changed since the late 1980s and a third of commercial fish species are overfished, the FAO says. Fish farms will continue to expand and the FAO projects that almost 20% more fish will be eaten by 2030, helping sustain the growing global population. However, farmed fish can harm wild populations because often their feed, made from wild fish such as sardines and anchovies, is caught at sea and they can cause pollution. Fish are a crucial source of nutrition for billions of people around the globe, but overfishing is rife in some regions, with two-thirds of species overexploited in the Mediterranean and Black Seas and the Southeast Pacific. Previous analyses that include estimates for illegal fishing indicate that wild fish stocks are declining faster than FAO data suggest and that half the world’s oceans are now industrially fished. “Since 1961 the annual global growth in fish consumption has been twice as high as population growth, demonstrating that the fisheries sector is crucial in meeting the FAO’s goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition,” said José Graziano da Silva, FAO director general. Many challenges remain, he said, but recent initiatives to crack down on illegal fishing will mark “a turning point” in favour of long-term conservation. The FAO reports that 35% of global catches are wasted. About a quarter of these losses are bycatch or discards, mostly from trawlers, where unwanted fish are thrown back dead because they are too small or an unwanted species. But most of the losses are due to a lack of knowledge or equipment, such as refrigeration or ice-makers, needed to keep fish fresh. The FAO has worked with developing nations to cut losses, including the use of raised racks for fish drying, which resulted in a 50% cut in losses of fish from Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Around the Indian Ocean, better facilities for handling the crab harvest cut losses by 40%. Aquaculture now dominates the fish people eat, providing 53% of the total recorded by the FAO in 2016, the latest data available (excluding fish not used as human food). Farming also dominates the fishing economy, providing two-thirds of the $362bn (£274bn) earned from sales at the dockside. The FAO report sets out the huge scale of global fishing: it employs 60 million people and there are 4.6m fishing vessels on the planet. This huge effort is worrying in many places, the FAO says, with too many boats chasing too few fish. As a result, the number of species being overfished has trebled in the last 40 years. The report also states that climate change will drive fish away from warm tropical waters, where nations are often especially reliant on seafood, towards more temperate regions. Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe, said huge improvements were needed across the fishing industry. “Food waste on a hungry planet is outrageous,” he said. “The fact that one-third of all fish caught goes to waste is a huge cause for concern for global food security.” On overfishing, particularly in the Mediterranean, he said: “We know the situation, we have the solutions: setting fish catch limits to scientific advice and stopping illegal and destructive fishing. All we’re missing is political action.” Gustavsson added: “Aquaculture is far from being the magic bullet, as it is often unsustainable. Using 20m tonnes of fish like mackerel, sardines and anchovies to feed farmed fish instead of people is a blatant waste of food.” Prof Daniel Pauly, at the Sea Around Us research initiative at the University of British Columbia, Canada, has been very critical of previous FAO reports, which he says significantly underestimated the total catch by failing to account for illegal fishing. But he welcomed the new report for considering a much wider range of information: “The crisis of [overfishing] will be hard to solve. However, collaborations between different stakeholders may help turn around some of the negative trends. This is the best issue of [the FAO fisheries report] that I have ever read.” < Here >
  7. The tree was planted in 1901 and puts on growth of about 1cm per year It’s been dubbed "the loneliest tree on the planet" because of its remote location, but the Sitka spruce might represent something quite profound about the age in which we live. The tree, sited on Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean, records in its wood a clear radioactive trace from the A-bomb tests of the 1950s and 60s. As such, it could be the "golden spike" scientists are seeking to define the start of the Anthropocene Epoch - a new time segment in our geological history of Earth. The suggestion is that whatever is taken as the golden spike, it should reflect the so-called "Great Acceleration" when human impacts on the planet suddenly intensified and became global in extent. This occurs after WWII and is seen for example in the explosion in plastics production. Chris Turney, from the University of New South Wales, Australia, and colleagues, say the Sitka spruce captures this change exquisitely in the chemistry of its growth rings. "We're putting this forward as a serious contender to mark the start of the Anthropocene. It's got to be something that reflects a global signal," Prof Turney told BBC News. "The problem with any Northern Hemisphere records is that they largely reflect where most major human activity has happened. But this Christmas tree records the far-reaching nature of that activity and we can't think of anywhere more remote than the Southern Ocean." The spruce shouldn't really be on Campbell Island, which is some 600km from the southern tip of New Zealand. Its natural habitat is found at northern Pacific latitudes, but a single tree was placed on the subantarctic island around 1905, possibly as the start of an intended plantation. The next nearest tree is on the Auckland Islands about 200km to the northwest. Prof Turney and colleagues drilled a fine core into the spruce, which has wide, sharply delineated growth rings, and examined the wood's chemistry. They found a big leap in the amount of carbon-14 in a part of a ring representing the latter half of 1965. This peak in the radioactive form of the element is an unambiguous signature of the atmospheric nuclear tests that occurred post-war. The radioisotope would have been incorporated into the tree as carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Co-author Mark Maslin, from University College London, UK, says the date comes just after the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing (1963), but describes that moment when the fallout from previous detonations had truly gone worldwide and even inveigled itself into the biosphere of the planet. "If you want to represent the Anthropocene with the start of The Great Acceleration then this is the perfect record to define it. And what's really nice is that we planted a tree where it shouldn't be which has then given us this beautiful record of what we've done to the planet." The international geological community is currently assessing how to update the "official" timeline of Earth history - the famous Chronostratigraphic Chart featured in all science textbooks. The working group charged with leading the discussion recently concluded that the current epoch - the so-called Holocene, which has pertained for the last 11,700 years - could no longer constrain the immense changes taking place on Earth as a result of human activity. The panel said the search should now be stepped up to find a suitable marker to define the onset of the proposed Anthropocene Epoch. Technically referred to as a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), the marker is more commonly called a golden spike. For the start of the Holocene, the GSSP is a section ice drilled from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Its hydrogen chemistry records an uptick in warming as we emerged from the last ice age. For the famous Cretaceous–Palaeogene (K–Pg) boundary 66 million years when the asteroid struck, wiping out the dinosaurs - the spike is an outcrop of rock in Tunisia that contains a strong trace of the element iridium that was delivered by the impacting space object. What will be key for any golden spike chosen to represent the Holocene-Anthropocene boundary is that it is long-lasting; that geologists a million years from now will be able to point at something and say, "There! That's the start of the Anthropocene Epoch." "Radiocarbon persists in measurable amounts on the order of 50,000 to 60,000 years. After that, other radioisotopes associated with the bomb tests such as plutonium would still be there in the natural environment, preserving the signal," explained Prof Turney. "We have archives of the spruce wood collected at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and at Invercargill in New Zealand at the museum and art gallery, so people can go and visit and put their finger on the actual moment we're suggesting the Anthropocene began." < Here >
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