Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Kenneth Weiss

Your place among 7 billion people


It's a numbers game, to be sure, as humanity reaches a milestone of 7 billion people living on Earth.

The United Nations Population Division, using its best estimates, has designated Oct. 31, 2011, as a symbolic date when a baby born somewhere will push humankind into new territory. That has rekindled a ferocious debate among anti-abortion activists who love to imply that choosing Halloween to mark the occasion is just another left-wing scare tactic and those concerned about women's rights, reproductive health and a burgeoning numbers of consumers living within their means on a finite planet.

Enter Population Action International, which has come up with a clever way to help you find your spot on the growth curve. Key in your birth date, and PAI's mathematical formula, using U.N. data, will estimate your number as a way to illustrate how much the global population has grown since you were born. Fair warning: PAI has struggled to keep up with demand on its website. That's not altogether surprising, given how many of us there are, with an estimated 227,252 added every day.


Humanity's expanding footprint

Tie your tubes and save the planet?

Al Gore: Stabilize population to combat warming

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Image: Population Action International's interactive website



Al Gore: Stabilize population to combat global warming

From the safety of the political sidelines, former Vice President Al Gore is venturing into a touchy topic, presenting his holistic view of how to curb the buildup of greenhouse gases warming the planet. Besides improving technology to reduce fossil fuel emissions, he is advocating "educating and empowering girls and women."

"That's the most powerful leveraging factor," Gore said in a speech Monday in New York. "When that happens, then the population begins to stabilize and societies begin to make better choices."

Although not entirely spelled out in the speech, Gore's thinking goes this way: If women are confident their children will survive, and if they have access to "fertility management," and if they have the power to decide how many children they want and when to have them, the result would be stabilization of the global population.

As it stands now, demographers at the United Nations forecast that the world's population will hit 7 billion later this year, march past 9 billion in 2045 and exceed 10 billion by the end of the century. Nearly all of the growth is expected to come in poor nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Gore made his remarks at the eighth annual Games for Change Festival, a conference organized by those who want to promote the use of video games for social change.

Here's a jerky cam capture of the relevant bits:



Slowing Population: Would it help fight global warming?

Obama speech to Parliament skirts climate change

Feds unveil new fuel economy labels

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Oil sands activity, not wolves, threatens Canadian caribou


Four years of research has found that exploration and mining of Canada's oil sands appear to pose a much greater threat to the remaining herds of Alberta's caribou than does being eaten by packs of wolves.

The findings, by a team of Canadian and U.S. researchers, caution Alberta authorities against pouncing on a proposed quick fix: killing off wolves to save the caribou from extinction.

"Wolves are eating primarily deer," said Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. He and other researchers from the University of Alberta and Montana State University made that discovery by analyzing wolf scat found by specially trained dogs.  ResearchDog

The dogs, using their keen sense of smell, helped researchers collect thousands of samples of frozen wolf, moose and caribou scat over an area of about 1,000 square miles in Alberta's oil sands just south of Fort McMurray. An analysis of the samples that scrutinized the animals' diets, stress hormones and other telltale clues offered  conclusions different from those of previous studies.

Among other things, the researchers found that caribou populations may not be crashing as fast as feared. Yet the fuzzy-antlered creatures are under serious nutritional and psychological stress -- though not from wolves.

The problem appears to arise in winter, Wasser said, when the sodden ground freezes solid and oil workers fan out with heavy equipment that would bog down in the warmer months. This happens to be when caribou have slim pickings in terms of food, relying on lichen to sustain themselves. They prefer open areas where they can see predators, and that's exactly where many of the oil-exploration roads are located. The resulting noise and bursts of human activity make the caribou particularly wary and cut into the time they need to paw through the snow to find enough to eat.

"We are recommending that high-use roads be moved out of the open-flat areas," Wasser said.

The study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, suggests that modifying driving patterns and other human activity would be much more effective at preserving the caribou than would killing the wolves.

Top photo: A hauler lumbers through an oil sands field north of Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo credit: Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press

Bottom photo: Marvin, using his superior sense of smell, leads handler Samantha Herzog in the hunt for wolf, caribou and moose scat in Alberta. Photo credit: Center for Conservation Biology.


A Nose for Wild Things

Oil Sands Production Could Carry Risks for investors

New concerns over pipeline from tar sands

-- Kenneth R. Weiss



Sustainable agriculture can help conquer hunger, UN says


Industrial-style farming, often known as the "green revolution," has been widely credited with saving perhaps 1 billion people from starvation by boosting the yield of grain crops in India, China, Pakistan, Mexico and other countries.

But the green revolution, which relies on intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy, has come at a cost, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says. The FAO tally of such costs include anemic soils, depleted water supplies, diminished biodiversity, resilient pests, super weeds and polluted air, water and soil.

Now the U.N. agency, tasked with solving world hunger, has thrown its support behind wider use of "sustainable agriculture" in the developing world. It has issued a new primer, "Save and Grow," specifically targeting the 2.5 billion people who scratch out a living on small farms throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The big idea? That humanity cannot just rely on intensified ag practices that require ever more powerful pesticides, fertilizers and genetically designed seeds to feed the world's burgeoning population. Experts predict farmers will need to double production to feed a global population that will add more than 2 billion more people by midcentury.

"In order to grow, agriculture must learn to save," the FAO reports. That means preserving soil's natural fertility by minimizing ploughing, and recycling crop waste to enrich the earth. It means smarter, integrated way of managing pests, rotating crops, and greater precision in the use of fertilizer and drip irrigation, the book authors say.

Some studies show that farmers can get bumper crops if they follow these practices and, at the same time, save water, energy and other costs.

To be sure, the developing world's farmers get mixed messages about how to coax more from their small plots of land. It remains to be seen how far the FAO's new advice can reach into the most remote places.

Yet "Save and Grow," available in six languages, already has lined up the endorsement of a key agricultural scientist in India.

M.S. Swaminathan, who joined with American agronomist Norman Borlaug to bring the green revolution to India, offered this blurb on the FAO website:  "This book shows how we can launch an 'evergreen' revolution, leading to increases in productivity in perpetuity, without ecological harm."


Mississippi River floods may bring biggest dead zone

Conservation efforts in the Amazon threatened

California farmers, ecologists wrangle over polluted water

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Farmworkers harvest rice paddy in India. Credit: Bikas Das / Associated Press



Mississippi River floods may bring biggest dead zone

The flood waters racing down the Mississippi River are forecast to create the largest low-oxygen dead zone on record, according to government and university scientists.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the deadly low-oxygen waters to spread across an expanse of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor equivalent to the geographical size of New Hampshire. To date, the largest low-oxygen, or hypoxia, zone in the gulf came in 2002, sprawling across 8,400 square miles.

Such dead zones are a marine reaction to the nutrient-enriched runoff from fertilized farm fields, animal feed lots and even city sewage systems. These low-oxygen waters can kill fish, shrimp and other marine life that get trapped or fail to swim or scuttle away.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding wreaks havoc in the South

The culprit in many marine die-offs is usually decaying microorganisms. Although the oceans are awash in algae, riotous blooms occur in the spring when waters are supercharged by nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous. The algae die and sink to the bottom. Then bacteria take over, breaking down the plant matter and sucking the oxygen out of seawater. That leaves little or none for fish or other marine life.

Hundreds of dead zones have been identified all over the world. Robert Diaz, a professor at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has reported to Congress and the White House that nearly half of U.S. bays, estuaries and other waterways surveyed have suffered from life-choking, low-oxygen waters.

Scientists expect dead zones to expand with changing landscapes and surging flood waters, such as this spring's record-setting deluge in the Mississippi basin. Although scientists are careful not to link any specific flood to climate change, they agree that extreme weather events are likely to become more common as the planet warms.

Whether this spring's polluted runoff will create a dead zone for the record books will be confirmed when scientists, organized by Nancy Rabalais, director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, complete underwater surveys in late July and early August.


Opinion: Let the river run

Western snowpack holds water -- and potential peril

NASA readying ocean surveying satellite for launch from Vandenberg AFB

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Chart on top: The annual measurements of the size of the Gulf of Mexico's hypoxia zone and the 2011 forecast. The dark gray represents the range of forecasts.

Credit: Nancy Rabalais/Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Grizzly jokes aside, will John McCain stand up to dog lovers?


Sen. John McCain loved to crack jokes about DNA research on America's remaining grizzly bears. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue, or criminal, but it was a waste of money," McCain said, repeating the joke during his failed presidential campaign.

His campaign ads skewered such survey work:  "...Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable... Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man. John McCain."

Wildlife biologists were hardly amused to see their successful project scorched by super-heated campaign rhetoric. It turns out that advances in DNA research are helping them get a comprehensive evaluation of the bear population that the government declared threatened with extinction 35 years ago. The feds are under obligation to study the bears, understand how many there are and whether the population is recovering.

Such genetic work has outlasted the campaign. One technique relies on barbed wire to snag bits of hair and hair follicles to gather DNA evidence. Another uses scat-sniffing dogs to find grizzly bear droppings for genetic and hormonal analysis. A story in Saturday's Los Angeles Times follows one detection dog that helps with wildlife surveys.

Such work has already claimed some success in keeping wildlife corridors open to prevent the small population of grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park from becoming even more genetically isolated and vulnerable to in-breeding and disease.

McCain continued to rail against wasteful government spending in his Senate reelection campaign this year. But he had edged away from the grizzly jokes after recruiting his former presidential running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to help him fend off a challenge from the right. Instead of vilifying the big brown bear, Palin has made Mama Grizzlies attractive, even sexy, among American conservatives.

Now that McCain has won another Senate term, will he return to his maverick ways and resurrect the bear jokes?  The risks of political backlash may be even higher now that such genetic surveys are assisted by man's best friend.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Wildlife biologist Megan Parker collects grizzly bear scat found by Pepin, a Belgian Malinois and working detection dog. Pepin carries his reward -- a tug toy -- after using his superior sense of smell to locate the scat on a ranch in western Montana. Credit: Kenneth R. Weiss / Los Angeles Times


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