Mexico cancels mega-resort project near Baja California reef

Cabo pulmo greenpeace whale handout

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's government on Friday halted a controversial mega-resort development in Baja California Sur after environmentalists said it would have threatened a large coral reef in the Sea of Cortes that has rebounded dramatically from years of damage.

The government canceled the proposed Cabo Cortes project by withdrawing provisional permits first granted in 2008 to the Madrid-based company Hansa Baja Investments. President Felipe Calderon said at the presidential residence Los Pinos that the company failed to provide enough proof that the project would not harm the rich biodiversity of the nearby Cabo Pulmo National Park.

The protected marine reserve of more than 17,550 acres -- most of it at sea near Cabo San Lucas -- has become  a symbol of environmental renewal after years of overfishing in the area.

"Due to [the project's] magnitude, we needed absolute certainty that no irreversible damage would be generated, and that absolutely certainty, simply and plainly, was not generated," Calderon said.

The Spanish company did not immediately react to the cancellation of the project. Hansa Baja Investments reportedly has been hard-hit by the Eurozone financial crisis.

Nonprofit groups, environmental advocates and researchers in Mexico campaigned heavily to stop the Cancun-size Cabo Cortes development, arguing that the proposed marina and 30,000-room hotel would be built too close to the reserve, one of the largest and most important in the country.

Since the Cabo Pulmo reserve was established in 1995, the total amount of fish rose by more than 460%  over a 10-year period, according to a 2011 study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Greenpeace Mexico said in a statement that more than 220,000 citizen signatures opposing the project were delivered to the federal government last week. The group hailed Calderon's decision as a victory but said that it would still press for investigations of authorities in Mexico's environmental agency over the Cabo Cortes development's permit process.

"The Cabo Cortes project was not only unsustainable, it was also illegal," said Greenpeace Mexico Executive Director Patricia Arendar. "Mexico needs accountability, transparency in the authorization of projects of this kind, and guarantees that environmental rights will be respected."


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-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: An undated photograph of a humpback whale at the Cabo Pulmo National Park marine reserve. Credit: Prometeo Lucero / Greenpeace

Titanic Belfast exhibit opening where doomed ship was built

REPORTING FROM LONDON -- One hundred years after her doomed maiden voyage, RMS Titanic lives on in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the cruise ship was built and launched in 1912 and where a new building of exhibition galleries opens on Saturday.

The massive Titanic Belfast complex, owned and managed by the charitable trust Titanic Foundation in partnership with Belfast City Council, is designed to commemorate and celebrate Belfast’s life as a shipbuilding center as well as the ship that sank after being hailed as "practically unsinkable" by her builders Harland and Wolff. The Titanic went down on its first voyage, which began April 10, 1912, with more than 2,000 passengers and crew from the southern English port of Southampton, bound for New York.  

Five days later, she lay at the bottom of the North Atlantic with her hull ripped open by an iceberg.  More than 1,500 people drowned in the freezing Atlantic water, leaving little more than 700 survivors.

The new six-story building designed by Eric Kuhne is a shimmering complex of aluminum shards as high as the original Titanic hull, occupying the original shipbuilding dockside and slipway where hundreds of vessels were built in the early 20th century. The area is now known as the Titanic Quarter.

Titanic Belfast is a series of nine galleries which open with a three-week festival of events evoking early 20th century Belfast. 

Susie Millar is a great granddaughter of Thomas Millar, a deck engineer on the Titanic who drowned in the tragedy. Now on the board of Belfast’s Titanic Society, she says a visit to the new galleries “shows early 1900s Belfast and what was happening here at the time with all the sights and sounds of the shipyards and what it was like to work in them.”

She says visitors will see exhibits depicting the early days of Belfast’s docklands, with holograms and recordings bringing them to life.  Then they can step into projected images of the Titanic itself, experiencing life on board and the iceberg hitting the ship. 

“You hear the Morse code signal then the sounds and cries of the passengers in the darkness as testimonies are read out,” says Millar.

The aftermath and the inquiry into the tragedy follow and the visit comes to the present-day underwater pictures of the vessel since it was first discovered on the ocean bed by marine explorer Robert Ballard in 1985.   

Belfast, more recently known for sectarian violence than as a tourist destination, is seeking to become a leading cultural center.  The BBC reports advance sales of over 100,000 tickets for Titanic Belfast.


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 -- Janet Stobart

Photo: Titanic Belfast, a new tourist attraction opening Saturday. Credit: EPA

Japanese tsunami debris: Where is it headed?


After a devastating tsunami hit Japan last year, where did all the things that were carried out to sea go?

Scientists Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the International Pacific Research Center created this mesmerizing computer model to show where ocean currents and winds were likely to carry the debris.

The swirling purple cloud in the model shows where the objects swept into the ocean could end up. It shows tsunami debris just barely reaching the Midway Islands in the Pacific this month, if the model proves correct. As of January, the tsunami debris was still short of the islands because of a current pushing northeast.

Tsunami debris has already been popping up in other places that the scientists predicted. In October, a Russian ship heading from Honolulu to Vladivostok spotted a television set, a refrigerator and even a 20-foot-long Japanese fishing boat from the Fukushima prefecture, the area hit hardest by the tsunami.

The scientists have stressed that there isn't a mass of trash headed for Hawaii: Though the Japanese government estimated that the enormous earthquake and ensuing tsunami created 25 million tons of rubble, some of the debris never got into the ocean in the first place, much of it is likely to sink, and much will join the North Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where trash loosely collects in the ocean.

Though the media have widely reported that "25 million tons" of tsunami debris are drifting across the Pacific, Maximenko and Hafner said there is no scientific way to know how much is actually out there.Tsunamidebris

Map: Where all the junk in the ocean ends up

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Kesennuma harbor was destroyed, the town burned and a large ship was deposited on the dock. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The sea is rising? Island nations will see you in court


This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

If the globe keeps warming and the seas keep rising, the country of Palau could be wiped off the map. So the Pacific island is teaming up with other small island nations to fight the threat of climate change -- in court.

The countries want the International Court of Justice to offer an opinion on whether countries that pollute have a responsibility to other countries that get hurt by that pollution. Ecological damage that crosses borders could be seen as a violation of international law, a legal cudgel against climate change.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that climate change is, for us, a matter of life and death," Sprent Dabwido, president of the Pacific state of Nauru, said at a climate change conference in December.

Some island nations have already begun planning to go underwater: Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed recently told the Sydney Morning Herald that his countrymen might need to relocate to Australia as climate refugees. The president of Kiribati, another Pacific island nation, has mused that they might need to build artificial floating islands to cope. Several South Pacific islands have already disappeared.

The same fears have hit closer to home here in California, where Balboa Island, a mere four to eight feet above sea level, is faced with replacing its aging seawalls at a cost of roughly $60 million, The Times reported in December. "We don't want to wait until we have a problem," a city engineer said.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, has been advising island nations on their legal quest: Can one country take another country to court over polluting it out of existence? He answered our questions about rising seas, shrinking islands and the law.

What would happen to these countries, legally, if they no longer had dry land?

Having inhabited land and a permanent population are usually seen as prerequisites to statehood.  There have sometimes been governments in exile, but due to political and military events, not natural causes.  There is already talk of creating a new kind of legal entity -- the “nation ex situ,” that is, a state that still has its political identity but no surviving homeland. 

Has a country ever ceased to exist because of natural causes?

No. Some islands have been rendered uninhabitable because of volcanic activity, but the complete submersion of a country would be an unprecedented event in human history.  The only precedent is the mythical Atlantis.

Lay out the basic argument for us: Who is responsible and what do they owe these island nations?

The basic argument is that under international law, no nation may cause pollution that causes damage in other nations. Thus the major emitting countries should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions so as to reduce the damage that sea level rise and other climate impacts cause to the island nations.

If everything went perfectly, what would you want to see happen as a result of this case?

The International Court of Justice would issue an opinion that the major emitting nations have an obligation to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This would not directly compel the nations to reduce their emissions, but it would be relevant in the future international negotiations on climate change.

Even if the case succeeds, can carbon emissions be stopped fast enough to save these islands?

If current emission trends continue, the small island nations are likely to be submerged eventually; it will take a major international effort to prevent that from happening, though the time may be extended.

So if sea levels do continue to rise, what might these countries do?

It may be possible to build houses on stilts and take other adaptation measures that will allow populations to stay for longer periods of time. But eventually, migration to other countries may be needed.

(For more on rising sea levels, you can explore the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map of sea level trends or watch this video from the Manus Tumbuna Save Assn., which interviews people in Papua New Guinea about how rising seas are affecting their lives.)

[For the record, 10:04 a.m. Feb. 7: A previous version of this post used an incorrect spelling of Columbia University.]


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: The Republic of Nauru. Credit: Torsten Blackwood / Agence France-Presse





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