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October 24, 2006

Melting Before Their Eyes

 

An 1870 postcard view of the Rhone glacier in Gletsch, Switzerland, contrasted dramatically with the shrinking 21st-century version of it.

via NYTimes:

Frozen in Memories, but Melting Before Their Eyes

By JOHN TAGLIABUE
Published: October 24, 2006

GLETSCH, Switzerland — To hear the locals tell it, you would think they were referring to a loved family member declining in old age.

The New York Times

Experts say the Rhone glacier may melt completely in this century.

"It hurts, it hurts," Philipp Carlen said of his feeling toward the vast Rhone glacier, which once came to the edge of his hotel, but now has receded several hundred yards. The glacier, whose soft contours and dirty gray surface make it resemble some huge sea creature, a whale perhaps, is rapidly shrinking, in the mild autumn weather, by 12 to 15 feet a day.

Eight thousand years ago, Mr. Carlen said, the glacier was the largest in Europe, with arms that reached all the way to Lyon, in France. Indeed, it remains the source of the Rhone River, which flows westward into France and from there into the Mediterranean. Now, however, it is only the fifth largest glacier in Switzerland, and experts foresee the day, probably in this century, when the glacier, all six miles of it, will melt away to nothing.

The shrinkage has consequences for the little village that owes its name — Gletsch means glacier in Swiss German — and its very existence to the icy behemoth.


Continue reading "Melting Before Their Eyes" »

July 30, 2006

Disasters of War: Lebanon oil slick

 

via Breitbart News:
Lebanon oil slick 'worst environmental disaster' in Med
Jul 29 7:03 AM US/Eastern

The Mediterranean is threatened by its worst ever environmental disaster after Israel's bombing of a power plant in Lebanon sent thousands of tonnes of fuel gushing into the sea, the environment minister charged.

"Up until now 10,000-15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil have spilled out into the sea," after Israel's bombing of the power station in Jiyeh two weeks ago, Lebanese Environment Minister Yacub Sarraf told AFP Saturday.

"It's without doubt the biggest environmental catastrophe that the Mediterranean has known and it risks having terrible consequences not only for our country but for all the countries of the eastern Mediterranean."

Israeli forces bombed the tanks at the power station on July 14 and July 15, just days into their offensive on Lebanon which has seen blistering air strikes across the country and a bloody ground incursion in the south.

The leak from one of the tanks, which are located just 25 metres (80 feet) from the sea, has now stopped but another containing 25,000 tonnes of fuel oil is still on fire and is in danger of exploding. Between 8,000-10,000 tonnes of fuel are on the shore and 5,000 on the open water.

"Until now, the worst ecological disasters have taken place in the oceans and it's the first time that an oil spill has happened outside the open sea," said Sarraf. "We can have no illusions."

Sarraf said that the cost of cleaning up Lebanon's once golden beaches -- which until the bombardment were major attractions for locals and tourists -- will cost between 45-50 million dollars and would not be finished until next summer.

The spill is now affecting 70 kilometres (40 miles) of Lebanon's 220-kilometre-long (140 miles) coast, a third of its coastline. Beaches and rocks are covered in a black sludge which has reached the famous tourist town of Byblos, north of Beirut.

"If nothing is done, not only will currents flowing towards the north mean that one third of Lebanon's coastline be hit, but also Cyprus, Syria, Turkey, Greece and even Israel," Sarraf said.

"The fauna and the Mediterranean ecosystem risk suffering badly and certain species are threatened with extinction," he warned.

Sarraf said that owing to the Israeli blockade of Lebanon's waters, it was impossible to send ships to clear up the pollution.

"I have appealed to Britain, Italy, Spain, the United States, all the countries which have already suffered oil slicks to ask for technical assistance as we cannot act on our own," he said.

Kuwait has sent 40 tonnes of material that would allow the petrol to thicken and also special carpets which absorb petroleum products.

A resident of Byblos, known worldwide for its seafood restaurants and historic harbour, said "for the last four days, fish, crustaceans and crabs have been coming in black, and they are dying as victims of this oil slick."

Fuad Hamdan, director of Friends of the Earth, Europe, and founder of Greenpeace Lebanon, agreed that "it is certainly the worst environmental disaster ever on the eastern Mediterranean coast."

Hamdan said the eastern Mediterranean coast from the Israeli port of Haifa until Syria's Lattakiya was already heavily polluted from Israeli industry, Lebanese sewage and industry from east Beirut and from Syria.

He advised people against eating fish from coastal areas. "Anyway it will smell bad and put people off."

Besides the oil slick, the fire from the oil tanks has caused atmospheric pollution which has already reached Beirut. "Now the toxic cloud is stretching over a 30 kilometre distance," said Sarraf.
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via NYTimes, Environment:
Casualties of War: Lebanon's Trees, Air and Sea
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
Published: July 29, 2006

JIYEH, Lebanon, July 28 — As Israel continues the bombing campaign that has turned parts of Lebanon into rubble, environmentalists are warning of widespread and lasting damage.

Spilled and burning oil, along with forest fires, toxic waste flows and growing garbage heaps have gone from nuisances to threats to people and wildlife, they say, marring a country traditionally known for its clean air and scenic greenery. Many of Lebanon’s once pristine beaches and much of its coastline have been coated with a thick sludge that threatens marine life.

As smoke billowed overhead on Friday, turning day into dusk, Ali Saeed, a resident, recounted how war has changed this small industrial town about 15 miles south of Beirut.

Most people have left, he said. It is virtually impossible to drive on the roads, and almost everyone hides behind sealed windows.

"There's nowhere to run," Mr. Saeed said, showing off the black speckles on his skin that have turned everything white here into gray. "It's dripping fuel from the sky."

 

Continue reading "Disasters of War: Lebanon oil slick" »

May 13, 2006

Thousands Flee From Active Volcano in Indonesia

 

via NYTimes: 

Thousands Flee From Active Volcano in Indonesia
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: May 13, 2006
Filed at 7:43 a.m. ET

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Indonesia on Saturday ordered the immediate evacuation of thousands of people who for weeks have refused to heed the ominous rumblings of Mount Merapi and the burning lava oozing from its mouth.

Hundreds of people began fleeing the 9,700-foot peak after authorities put the region on highest alert, having observed two days of steady lava flow. Bambang Dwiyanto, head of the region's volcanology center, said an eruption may be imminent.

''Because there has been constant lava flows that cause hot gases, we have raised the status to the highest level,'' Dwiyanto said.

The crater had been relatively quiet for years until it began rumbling and spewing clouds of black ash a few weeks ago. On Saturday, experts recorded 27 volcanic tremors, said Ratdomo Purbo, who heads an observation post on Merapi.

He said the mountain belched hot ash at least 14 times over the course of the day and that lava flows reached nearly a mile down the slopes.

Officials were using buses and trucks to relocate women, children and elderly to shelter in schools and government buildings elsewhere in the densely populated province of Central Java. Merapi, about 250 miles southeast of the capital Jakarta, is about 20 miles from Yogyakarta, a city of 1 million.

Many people had been evacuated from homes closest to the crater prior to Saturday, but thousands who live further down the fertile slopes refused to leave. Officials have said as many as 7,000 people still needed to go.

Even after the latest warning, some farmers insisted on staying, reluctant to leave previous livestock and crops. ''We will not leave soon,'' vowed one cattle farmer who declined to give his name.

Merapi is one of at least 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, part of the Pacific ''Ring of Fire'' -- a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

Many people who live in the mountain's shadow believe that spirits watch over the peak and will warn them of an eruption.

Although most Indonesians are Muslim, many also follow animist beliefs and worship ancient spirits. Often at full moons, people trek to crater rims and throw in rice, jewelry and live animals to appease the volcanoes.

Merapi last erupted in 1994, sending out a searing cloud of gas that burned 60 people to death. About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.

 

March 13, 2006

Land Boom: Bad for Whales

 
Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
A gray whale pops up for air in Baja California, where advocates of tourism and the environment clash with those favoring heavier development.

Mexican Land Boom Creates Commotion in Whale Nursery
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
Published: March 12, 2006

LAGUNA SAN IGNACIO, Mexico, March 7 — This remote lagoon, surrounded by salt flats, mesas and desert, has been a sanctuary for gray whales for centuries.

Every year they return in January to these quiet, protected waters to give birth and nurse their calves through the first few months of life. Then they mate again in a swirl of water and fins, and frolic in the warm waters, breaching and flopping their gargantuan bodies.

Fishermen, who serve as guides during the whales' three-month stay, ferry tourists to the center of the lagoon, and the whales play with the boats. Sometimes, enthusiastic visitors can pet and scratch the leviathans' blubbery, sensitive skin.

But the lagoon has proved a powerful draw for more than just nature lovers. The area's salt and oil deposits have long drawn development interests, pitting environmentalists and local fishing and tourism concerns against big companies and land speculators in battles that have intensified in recent years.

In 2000, for instance, environmentalists won a long-fought victory over the Mitsubishi Corporation, which had sought to build a giant salt-mining complex on the lagoon, which would have devastated fishing and the whale-watching industry.

Another company, Exportadora de Sal, has received a 50-year concession from the government to mine salt, suggesting another looming battle. Environmentalists also say that plans to exploit oil deposits near the lagoon and build a big marina near its entrance threaten the whales.

From ecologists' standpoint, though, perhaps the greatest threat to the lagoon is the land boom that is sweeping the peninsula. All across the Baja California, land speculators are buying out members of ranching and fishing cooperatives, which own vast tracts including beaches on some of the most pristine and rich marine habitats in the world.

But here, environmental groups have reached an unusual agreement with a cooperative that will help protect the lagoon, the last undisturbed gray whale nursery, from industrial development or land speculation.

Under the accord, the cooperative, the Ejido Luis Echeverría, has agreed to protect 120,000 acres around the lagoon from development, in return for a $675,000 trust fund put together by several groups, among them the Natural Resources Defense Council and Wildcoast.

Trust earnings go to the cooperative to be invested in projects to create permanent jobs and give its 43 members a stake in protecting the whales and their habitat.

"This is a long term project, a project for perpetuity," said the president of the cooperative, Raúl López. "We have to be an example for the other cooperatives."

Still, the Echeverría cooperative is only one of six that own land around the lagoon, and the environmentalists have their work cut out for them persuading the rest to commit themselves to protecting the whales.

Serge Dedina, the executive director of Wildcoast, has tried to convince the cooperative members that they have more to gain in the long run from developing tourism around the whales, as well as sustainable fisheries, than from a one-time windfall of cash for their land.

The gray whales migrate every year from the seas off Alaska to Mexico's waters. They begin arriving in January and stay until early April. The lagoon, along with two other less pristine bays, are vitally important to their survival, since it is here the mothers give birth and here the calves gain enough strength to handle the perils of the open ocean.

The lagoon is also home to 221 bird species. Ospreys, cormorants and pelicans fish the waters, while falcons, gold and bald eagles sweep the skies. Rare species like endangered peninsular pronghorns and green sea turtles can be spotted here, too.

The whales are the big draw, however. Eight camps are scattered along the southeastern shore of the bay and 16 boats have permits to take tourists out.

Mr. López said that the idea of the local cooperative, or ejido, was that the trust fund's support of small projects would bring in jobs and erase the temptation for people to sell out to mining or other development concerns.

But leaders of other cooperatives around the bay are not convinced. To the north, the San Ignacio Ejido is controlled by ranchers and businessmen who have little or no stake in the whale-watching business.

Their president, Rodrigo Martínez Zapien, a grocer, said most of the 81 members were ranchers or small-business men and would support selling their beaches to a salt-mining company or anyone else who would produce jobs. Already, they have been approached by land speculators, he said. "The truth is there is not much interest in going to exploit this business of the whales," he said.

Others say they see the whales as a resource. The whale tours are a lot less work than hauling in fishing nets. And the money from the trust will help small businesses that provide jobs. The only other option, they say, is to sell, move to the city and run through the profit.

"Sure there have been people who have come around wanting to buy, but for us it doesn't interest us to sell the land, because almost all of us work in tourism now," said one local fisherman, Alejandro Ramírez, 35, who works at a whale-watching camp. "If I sell out, sure, I'll have more money, but money in your hands goes quickly, and with this natural area my family has a way to make a living for a long time."

March 07, 2006

Rain Forest Gets Too Much Rain...

 

Courtesy of Grace Wong

From left, Grace Wong, Dr. María Fernanda Mejía and Gustavo Gutiérrez-Espeleta working on a squirrel monkey in December in the Corcovado National Park near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

via NYTimes:

Rain Forest Gets Too Much Rain, and Animals Pay the Price
By HILLARY ROSNER
Published: March 7, 2006

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — Eduardo Carrillo was on a field trip to Corcovado National Park with a group of his biology students last November when he realized that something was wrong. In just over a mile, the group found five dead monkeys.

Three more were in agony, he said later — emaciated, near death, sitting on the forest floor unable to climb a tree.

"I had never seen something like this," said Dr. Carrillo, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Costa Rica. At first he suspected yellow fever, which swept through monkey populations in the 1950's. So he hurried back to San José, the capital, and convened a team of scientists, which included wildlife biologists, a microbiologist, a geneticist and a veterinarian.

Tourists in the park, a relatively remote 212-square-mile tropical rain forest preserve that stretches along the Pacific coast and inland, reported sightings of other dead animals, including deer, toucans, macaws and sloths.

In mid-November, park officials closed Corcovado to visitors after tourists, despite warnings not to handle wildlife, began bringing sick animals to ranger stations in the hope of saving them.

Dr. Carrillo and his colleagues, as well as government officials, worried they might have a mini-epidemic on their hands. But tissue samples from Corcovado spider monkeys — Costa Rica's most endangered species of monkey — sent to a laboratory at the University of Texas for analysis showed no evidence of a virus or other pathogen.

The story of what really happened in Corcovado, or at least the prevailing theory, is less worrisome in the short term than a disease outbreak, but it has the potential to be deadly serious.

Costa Rican researchers think the affected animals starved to death because of a lack of available food sources and an inability to forage for food during several months of extreme rain and cold.

September, October and November brought excessive rainfall, nearly twice the monthly averages, and unusually low temperatures to many parts of Costa Rica, especially the Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific in the south.

Corcovado averages about 24 inches of rain in September, 31 inches in October and 20 inches in November. In 2005, more than 39 inches fell in the park in September, 59 inches in October, and 41 inches in November.

While it is impossible to know if the weather in late 2005 is related to climate change, the Costa Rican team studying Corcovado worries that if the climate changes and produces more extreme weather events like this, animal populations may not bounce back easily, said Gustavo Gutiérrez-Espeleta, a wildlife population geneticist at the University of Costa Rica.

The weather caused several problems for the monkeys. Some fruit trees did not bear fruit during the rainy months. Others produced fruit but it fell to the ground early, leaving nothing on the trees for long periods of time.

Compounding the problem, researchers say, was that monkeys were unable to look for food because of the incessant rain. [read on...]