Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘environment

Discovery and spread of biodiversity studies

leave a comment »

FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and AgriculturePLoS (the Public Library of Science) has launched a Biodiversity Hub aiming to accelerate the discovery, dissemination and integration of biodiversity studies. The Biodiversity Hub provides three general services to users: it aggregates selected open-access biodiversity articles, adds value in the form of data/images etc and encourages community dialogue – you can find out more about these benefits in the official launch post.

Over the past decade, considerable progress in synthesizing and digitizing biodiversity related assets has been made. These resource assets include:  Specimen datasets: GBIF; Interoperability among datasets and databases: GEO BON; Taxonomic literature: BHL; Taxonomic names: Zoobank; IPNI; Catalogue of Life; Molecular sequence data: GenBank; Barcode of Life; Images: MorphBank; ARKive; Phylogenetic relationships: Tree of Life; Natural history: Encylopedia of Life; Conservation status of species: IUCN Red List; TreeBASE and WWF Wildfinder.

Scientists are amassing details about the scope and status of life’s variation at an accelerating rate. This aids our understanding of species distributions and their interactions over time. However, if we are to address the consequences of global environmental change for life’s future, biodiversity data must be integrated and synthesized to a much greater degree than they are at present, and this can be promoted by enhanced communication among the interested parties, and raising public awareness. Here, we call attention to a new community resource and tool which provides a step in the right direction.

World on the Edge, writes Lester Brown, Earth Policy

with 3 comments

In his introduction to the upcoming title, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that we are facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency. “Our challenge is to think globally and develop policies to counteract environmental decline and economic collapse. The question is: Can we change direction before we go over the edge?”

The edge is what Pakistan and Russia did go over in 2010. In the summer of 2010 record-high temperatures hit Moscow and torrential rains caused immense devastation in Pakistan.

NASA Earth Observatory, Russia fires

NASA Earth Observatory, Russia fires

At first it was just another heat wave, says the first chapter of the book, but the scorching heat that started in late June continued through mid-August. Western Russia was so hot and dry in early August that 300 or 400 new fires were starting every day. Millions of acres of forest burned. So did thousands of homes. Crops withered. Day after day, Moscow was bathed in seemingly endless smoke. The elderly and those with impaired respiratory systems struggled to breathe. The death rate climbed as heat stress and smoke took their toll.

The average July temperature in Moscow was a scarcely believable 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. Twice during the heat wave, the Moscow temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a level Muscovites had never before experienced. Watching the heat wave play out over a seven-week period on the TV evening news, with the thousands of fires and the smoke everywhere, was like watching a horror film that had no end. Russia’s 140 million people were in shock, traumatized by what was happening to them and their country.

Mohammad Rezwan, 24, swims one hour every other day to get food from at a World Food Programme distribution in Kashmore, Pakistan. Photo: IRIN News

Mohammad Rezwan, 24, swims one hour every other day to get food from at a World Food Programme distribution in Kashmore, Pakistan. Photo: IRIN News

Even before the Russian heat wave ended, there were reports in late July of torrential rains in the mountains of northern Pakistan. The Indus River, the lifeline of Pakistan, and its tributaries were overflowing. Levees that had confined the river to a narrow channel so the fertile floodplains could be farmed had failed. Eventually the raging waters covered one fifth of the country. The destruction was everywhere. Some 2 million homes were damaged or destroyed. More than 20 million people were affected by the flooding. Nearly 2,000 Pakistanis died. Some 6 million acres of crops were damaged or destroyed. Over a million livestock drowned. Roads and bridges were washed away.

Although the flooding was blamed on the heavy rainfall, there were actually several trends converging to produce what was described as the largest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history. On May 26, 2010, the official temperature in Mohenjodaro in south-central Pakistan reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit, a record for Asia. Snow and glaciers in the western Himalayas, where the tributaries of the Indus River originate, were melting fast. As Pakistani glaciologist M. Iqbal Khan noted, the glacial melt was already swelling the flow of the Indus even before the rains came.

Seasonal pollution changes over India

leave a comment »

Data from the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft have been used in a new study that examines the concentration, distribution and composition of aerosol pollution over the Indian subcontinent. The study documents the region’s very high levels of natural and human-produced pollutants, and uncovered surprising seasonal shifts in the source of the pollution.

Larry Di Girolamo and postdoctoral scientist Sagnik Dey of the University of Illinois, used a decade’s worth of MISR data to comprehensively analyse aerosol pollution over the Indian subcontinent. This densely populated region has poor air quality and lacks on-the-ground pollution monitoring sites. The study was published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The NASA report said that aerosols — tiny particles suspended in the air — are produced both by natural sources, such as dust and pollen carried on the wind, and by human activities, such as soot and other hydrocarbons released from the burning of fossil fuels. They can affect the environment and human health, causing a range of respiratory problems. Aerosol pollution levels can be measured on the ground, but only the most developed countries have widespread sensor data.

Since standard satellite imaging cannot measure aerosols over land, Di Girolamo and Dey used NASA’s MISR, developed and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. MISR’s unique multi-view design allows researchers to differentiate surface variability from the atmosphere so they can observe and quantitatively measure particles in the air. MISR not only measures the amount of aerosols, but can also distinguish between natural and human-produced particles.

The scientists found very high levels of both natural and human-produced aerosol pollutants. The level of atmospheric pollution across most of the country was two to five times higher than World Health Organization guidelines.

But the study also revealed some surprising trends. For example, the researchers noticed consistent seasonal shifts in human-produced versus natural aerosols. Before monsoon season begins, the winds over the Indian subcontinent shift, blowing inland instead of out to sea. These winds carry immense amounts of dust from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to India, degrading air quality.

“Just before the rains come, the air gets really polluted, and for a long time everyone blamed the dust,” Di Girolamo said, “but MISR has shown that not only is there an influx of dust, there’s also a massive buildup of man-made pollutants that’s hidden within the dust.”

During monsoon season, rains wash some of the dust and soot from the air, but other human-produced pollutants continue to build up. After monsoon season, dust transport is reduced, but human-produced pollutant levels skyrocket, as biomass burning and the use of diesel-fueled transportation soar. During winter, seaward-blowing breezes disperse all the pollutants across the subcontinent and out to sea, where they remain until the pre-monsoon winds blow again.

“We desperately needed these observations to help validate our atmospheric models,” said Di Girolamo. “We’re finding that in a complex area like India, we have a long way to go. But these observations help give us some guidance.”

As MISR continues to collect worldwide aerosol data, Di Girolamo says atmospheric scientists will continue to refine models for India and other areas and begin to propose new regulatory measures. The MISR data may also reveal trends in aerosol concentration over time, which can be compared with climate and health data.

For further information, read the complete University of Illinois news release.

The images represent MISR data used to measure the concentration of aerosol pollutants over the Indian subcontinent and how it varies by season. The most polluted areas are depicted in red. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Illinois.

Images of Niyamgiri

with 4 comments

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

The news agency Reuters has posted a superb picture slideshow on Niyamgiri and the Dongria Kondh, with reference to their struggle against the mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources (please see my earlier post on the subject, ‘The last stand of the Dongria Kondh’). The pressure on the mining conglomerate is growing, for one of Britain’s biggest charitable trusts has dumped its holdings of Vedanta stock. Here is its statement:

“The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has sold its £1.9 million stake in UK-listed mining company, Vedanta, due to serious concerns about its approach to human rights and the environment, particularly in the Indian state of Orissa. Other investors which follow the Trust’s ethical policy, including the Marlborough Ethical Fund and Millfield House Foundation, have also sold their shares, taking the total divested to £2.2M. The 77,600 Rowntree shares were sold following nine months’ engagement over the company’s actions.”

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust“Vedanta plans to mine bauxite from a mountain in Lanjigarh and the Niyamgiri Hills, in the state of Orissa, which are sacred to the Kondh tribal people who live in the area. The company has already built a refinery at the foot of the mountain and the bauxite project is reported to be causing severe environmental damage at the expense of the local people.”

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Susan Seymour, Chair of the Investment Committee at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, said: “As a responsible shareholder we have serious concerns about Vedanta. We have heard first-hand about Vedanta’s environmental and human rights abuses in Orissa and believe Vedanta is pushing industrialisation to the detriment of the lives and lands of local people and at great risk to its own reputation. This behaviour may be legal but it is morally indefensible. We have therefore decided to sell our entire stock in Vedanta.”

“Although the company defends itself as an Indian company and talks of the importance of development in India, with which we would not disagree, it has chosen to raise capital in the UK and this implies being expected to meet the standards applied to all companies listed in the London market. We were not convinced Vedanta was addressing shareholder concerns quickly enough to avoid destroying people’s lives and creating irreversible damage to the environment. The company must realise that unless it makes significant changes soon, shareholders will continue to lose confidence in the company.”

Written by makanaka

February 23, 2010 at 11:55

The advance guard of climate change

leave a comment »

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.

India’s misplaced glacier row

with 2 comments

India’s central government is making triumphant noises about what it sees as a vindication of its stand concerning Himalayan glaciers. The central Ministry of Environment and Forests had refuted the widely held scientific view that the glaciers of the Himalaya were shrinking, posing a grave – if not catastrophic – threat to the water security of millions downstream.

The mainstream English press in India (a majority of whose readers are urban salaried, self-employed or professional) has been toeing the central government line on the matter and has placed on front pages the story: “IPCC admits ‘Himalayan’ blunder” said Business Standard; “IPCC expresses regret over glacier melting conclusion” said The Hindu; and “West uses ‘glacier theory’ to flog India on climate change” said The Times of India.

What has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually said?

Here is the full statement (dated 20 January 2010) made by the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, and the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups.

“The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: ‘Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.’ ”

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)“This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.”

“It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

“The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of ‘the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report’. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.”

The text in question is the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of the Working Group II contribution and a repeat of part of the paragraph in Box TS.6. of the Working Group II Technical Summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The quoted text in the fourth para is verbatim from Annex 2 of Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work.

What makes the episode ugly is that this is a central government, and a ministry, which has right through 2008 and 2009 worked extra hard to push all aspects of economic growth measured by GDP. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has steadily diluted legislation protecting environment and natural resources, given opportunities to industry to sidetrack checks and balances relating to clearances (especially in forest areas) and which has gone to great lengths to cobble together a scientific-cum-economic consensus to show that GDP growth at 9% a year for the next generation will not harm the global environment nor add very much to global emissions. The hypocrisies in pressurising the IPCC into this corner are staggering. The pity is that India’s scientific community – in which true independence is rare – will do little to help the citizen understand more.