The first comprehensive genetic study of humpback whale populations in the North Pacific Ocean has identified five distinct populations -- at the same time a proposal to designate North Pacific humpbacks as a single "distinct population segment" is being considered under the Endangered Species Act.
Researchers have identified regions beneath the oceans where the igneous rocks of the upper ocean crust could safely store very large volumes of carbon dioxide. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas has led to dramatically increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere causing climate change and ocean acidification. Although technologies are being developed to capture CO2 at major sources such as power stations, this will only avoid further warming if that CO2 is then safely locked away from the atmosphere for centuries.
Eschewing the race for the South Pole, geologist and explorer Douglas Mawson took his scientific expedition to the eastern Antarctic – a region totally unmapped and unexplored
Light aircraft to photograph virtually every elephant herd on the continent from February in a team of 46 scientists
A fleet of 18 light aircraft will notch up two years of flying time in 2014 to conduct the first aerial headcount of Africa's elephants. Trained counters will attempt to take photographs of virtually every herd on the continent, which will then be used to verify their count.
Dr Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders is leading what is called the great elephant census. He and a team of 46 scientists will conduct the ambitious research project due to commence in February.
It is currently estimated that there are between 410,000 and 650,000 elephants left in Africa, representing more than a 50% decline in the last 35 years. But some key populations have not been surveyed for 10 years, and in some places, numbers are completely unknown.
Chase's preliminary findings suggest the outlook could be more bleak. In October this year, he flew over a park where in 2003 he counted 2,000 elephants. A decade later, he counted just 33 live elephants and 55 carcasses. "That is why this research is so important."
Elephant numbers have plummeted in recent years. Africa is currently experiencing the highest rate of elephant mortality in history, driven largely by a multibillion-dollar illicit ivory trade. Experts have warned that African elephants could become extinct within 10 years. Several hundred are killed every week by well-armed poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts. Roughly 30,000 were killed last year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
For the first year of the two-year project, survey planes will cover land in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 90% of Africa's savannah elephants live. In the second year, researchers will prepare the data. By mid-2015, preliminary results should be available. In addition to distribution and range, the census hopes to identify where populations are increasing, fragmenting, or shrinking, and provide a better understanding of the threats elephants face.
"By generating accurate, foundational data about African elephants, I'm hopeful that this project will significantly advance the conservation efforts of this iconic species," says Microsoft founder Paul Allen, who is funding the £4.3m census.
Dickson Kaelo, CEO of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association says the census is long overdue. "It's unacceptable that we don't have accurate data showing how many elephants there are and where they are." Kenya recently estimated its elephant population at 38,000. "We don't feel comfortable that we have exact population numbers", he says.
"Elephants are a symbolic of our commitment to conservation in Africa. If we can't save the African elephant what is the hope of conserving the rest of Africa's wildlife?" Chase says.
The announcement of the survey also comes as countries at both ends of the international ivory market signed up to a package of urgent measures to halt the illegal trade.
key African "range states" including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, countries through which ivory is smuggled – including Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia – and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand, agreed to the measures at the African Elephant Summit in Botswana under the agreement. One of the 14 measures the delegates committed to involves classifying wildlife trafficking as a "serious crime". According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this will unlock international law enforcement co-operation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime.
Other measures agreed upon include engaging communities living with elephants in their conservation, strengthening national laws to secure maximum wildlife crime sentences, mobilising financial and technical resources to combat wildlife crime and reducing demand for illegal ivory.
A new study surveys 90 sea level rise experts, who say sea level rise this century will exceed IPCC projections
It looks like past IPCC predictions of sea level rise were too conservative; things are worse than we thought. That is the takeaway message from a new study out in Quaternary Science Reviews and from updates to the IPCC report itself. The new study, which is also discussed in depth on RealClimate, tries to determine what our sea levels will be in the future. What they found isn't pretty.
Predicting of sea level rise is a challenging business. While we have good information about what has happened in the past, we still have trouble looking into the future. So, what do we know? Well it is clear that sea levels began to rise about 100 years ago. This rise coincided with increasing global temperatures.
What causes sea level to rise? Really three things. First, water expands as it heats. Second, glaciers melt and water flows to the oceans. Third, the large ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica can melt and the liquid water enters the ocean; often the water transfer is added by calving at the ice fronts which result in icebergs that float into the ocean. In the past, much of the sea level rise was related to the first cause (thermal expansion). Now, however, more and more sea level rise is being caused by melting ice.
But this is all the past. What we really want to know is, how much will sea level rise in the future? There are a number of ways to predict the future. First, we can look at the deep past and see how sea level changed with Earth temperature long ago.
A second way to predict the future is through computational models. These models are computer programs which create a virtual-reality of the Earth. These virtual reality models are very useful because they allow scientists to play "what if" scenarios; but, they have their weaknesses as well. One of their weaknesses is that they don't necessarily capture all of the phenomena which cause sea level rise. It is believed by most scientists that the computer programs are too conservative.
How does this all relate to the current study? Well the authors took a different approach. They decided to ask the scientists themselves. What do they think sea level rise will be by 2100 and 2300 under different greenhouse gas scenarios? The authors found 360 sea-level experts through a literature survey. They then worked to find contact information for these scientists and finally, they sent a questionnaire. After receiving 90 expert judgments from 18 countries, the results were tallied. So, what do experts think?
According to the best case scenario (humans take very aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gases), the experts think sea level rise will likely be about 0.4–0.6 meters (1.3–2.0 feet) by 2100 and 0.6–1.0 meters (2.0–3.3 feet) by 2300. According to the more likely higher emission scenario, the results are 0.7–1.2 meters (2.3–3.9 feet) by 2100 and 2.0–3.0 meters (6.5–9.8 feet) by 2300. These are significantly larger than the predictions set forth in the recently published IPCC AR5 report. They reflect what my colleagues, particularly scientists at NOAA, have been telling me for about three years.
How should we plan for this rise? Some areas can be protected by expensive walling off of ocean water. Other locations simply cannot be saved. Particularly, in areas that have porous subsurfaces, it isn't possible to stop the rising waters. Dealing with the costs of relocation, storm surges, and rising waters will be expensive. This is just another reason why reducing emissions is the best, most cost effective way of adapting to climate change.
Geologist almost lost his life mapping unknown Antarctic regions in 'the Edwardian equivalent of space travel'
When Sir Douglas Mawson plodded into base camp at Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica in February 1913 his fellow explorers barely recognised him. The geologist was in appalling physical shape after a harrowing journey into the Antarctic interior during which two of his fellow explorers had died.
By the time his ship, the SY Aurora, arrived in December 1913 to take his team home, they had spent more than two years on the frozen continent – a whole year longer than planned.
Mawson's was one of the major expeditions during what has become known as the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration of a century ago. Unlike his better known contemporaries Sir Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, he had no interest in racing to the South Pole, preferring to focus on scientific research. Two-thirds of his crew were scientists engaged in geological, marine and wildlife research, and their measurements, carefully made in the face of tragic losses and horrendous conditions, are some of the most valuable scientific data in existence.
This Sunday, scientists will begin a month-long expedition to retrace Mawson's journey and examine how the eastern Antarctic, one of the most pristine, remote and untouched parts of the world's surface, has fared after a hundred years of climate changes. "They collected a wealth of scientific data on this entirely new continent," says Prof Chris Turney, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013. "As a result, it provides this incredibly good baseline – we're going to repeat the measurements and see how much has changed over the last century."
At the start of the 20th century, atlases printed large blank spaces in the bottom third of their southern hemispheres, stamped with the legend "unexplored regions". No one knew what was there, apart from some sections of coastline spotted from ships. Whether these were islands or parts of a bigger continent was unknown.
After picking up the Antarctic bug on Shackleton's Nimrod expedition in 1907, Mawson turned down an invitation from Scott to join the fateful 1910 Terra Nova expedition and decided to organise his own. By 1911, he had raised the necessary funds – tens of millions of dollars in today's money – chartered the Scottish-built SY Aurora, borrowed some dogs from Amundsen and set off from Hobart in Tasmania. "Mawson wanted to know what lay south of Australia," says Turney. "It was the Edwardian equivalent of space travel: they were off the map."
Mawson was an innovator – on board Aurora was the first aeroplane to be taken to the continent, which he hoped to use for reconnaissance, and he was the first to set up wireless relay stations on Macquarie Island in the south-west Pacific, about midway between New Zealand and Antarctica, to send back weather reports every day. "It immediately improved the forecast across that region– so much so that the Bureau of Meteorology maintained the station after the expedition had finally returned," says Turney. "These things had immediate impact for people living back home."
A century later, Turney's scientists will set off from Bluff, at the southernmost tip of New Zealand, but make for the same place as Mawson, Commonwealth Bay in eastern Antarctica. Geological features make this the windiest place on Earth, with wind speeds of 70mph on average in the summer, and more like 200mph in the dark winters.
The 21st century expedition will conduct environmental research, too. "We're heading towards east Antarctica in an area that's traditionally been thought of as very stable – you can do almost anything to it, environmentally and climatically, and it will just sit there. But in the last few years we're realising that that's clearly not the case. Parts of it are very vulnerable," says Turney. "The ice thickness there is about 3km, on average, and you don't need to do much to it to have a big effect globally, be it through sea level or climatic changes more generally."
The scientists will measure the temperature and saltiness of the Southern Ocean in their journey to and fro, count bird populations every day and explore under the surface of the water using remote-operated vehicles equipped with high-definition cameras.
On Antarctica itself, they will use drones to fly over and map the surface, drill cores into the ice and drop temperature probes deep under the surface. But their big challenge will be to reach Mawson's huts, built when the explorer first arrived in 1911 and which sheltered the team as they waited for their ship back home through 1913. Access to the huts will be difficult, because of a 78km-long iceberg, with a surface area of roughly 2,500 sq km, that has wedged itself on the coastline. "The result is that that's completely disrupted the local ocean circulation," says Turney. They will look at the impact on climate, oceanography and wildlife too. Turney's modern scientific equipment – everything from automated floats in the sea to underwater and aerial robots – will be able to collect more detailed measurements than anything Mawson could have managed. That the team will be able usefully to compare their high-tech data to the hand-collected measurements from a century ago is a testament to Mawson's sheer force of will in maintaining a continuous log of an enforced, extra year on the continent.
In 1912, Mawson led a sledge team into the Antarctic interior as part of his mapping project. With a British officer, Belgrave Ninnis, and a Swiss ski-champion, Xavier Mertz, he spent several weeks attempting to link up his mapping with the areas Scott had mapped during his expedition.
The team was travelling in single file across a field that they knew had a lot of crevasses. Mertz was at the front, followed by Mawson, then Ninnis. Most of their food supplies were on the final sledge, which was drawn by the best dogs. The thinking was that if a sledge fell down a crevasse at the front, their vital supplies would remain safe.
Unfortunately, the reverse happened. Ninnis's sledge disappeared into a crevasse the others had already walked over. The survivors were left with one and a half weeks' worth of food, but were 500km from the coast. "They were in a lot of trouble," says Turney. "They decided to return, with a real sense that they might not survive."
Running out of food, Mertz and Mawson began eating the dogs, unaware that they were poisoning themselves. "They didn't realise that dogs' livers contained toxic levels of vitamin A, so their hair started falling out. They complained of enormous exhaustion," says Turney.
"The soles of Mawson's feet fell off. He had to strap them on with lanolin every morning. Mertz suffered more than Mawson and, sadly, had a fit of insanity and bit off the tip of his finger and eventually died." But, says Turney, noting his predecessor's stoicism: "In spite of all these things, [Mawson] was still making weather observations."
Now alone, Mawson pressed on towards the coast, where the Aurora was supposed to be waiting to take his team home. He got trapped in blizzards for days and, several times, fell down crevasses and hauled himself out. When he reached the coast, he saw smoke on the horizon, because the Aurora, had left that morning.
The result was that Mawson was forced to stay on the ice for another year with five others who had elected to wait for him, carrying on with his scientific research programme through the Antarctic winter. The data retrieved in those most extreme of circumstances will be crucial to the 2013 rerun of Mawson's epic expedition, because it provides a record of conditions at the start of the 20th century to make comparisons against. "We have continuous observations from satellites, from the late 1970s, and yet here, at Commonwealth Bay, we have two years' worth of continuous observations in a really important part of Antarctica as baseline data," says Turney. "It's so precious."
During the expedition, which runs until 4 January 2014, we will give Guardian readers several opportunities to talk live to people on board the ship as we sail through some of the roughest seas in the world, visit the windiest place on Earth and try (icebergs permitting) to reach Mawson's huts, the heroic explorer's base camp more than 100 years ago as he drew the first maps of this part of the world.
Twitter: Follow @alokjha @loztopham @GdnAntarctica and @guardianscience Facebook: facebook.com/guardianscience
The Guardian will be blogging, tweeting and sending pictures and video from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition
You can follow the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 on the Guardian's Antarctica Live blog. In the spirit of Douglas Mawson's original expedition of 1911, in which he was the first to send regular wireless messages from Antarctica, our website will publish daily updates from the expedition, sent direct from the field.
Our coverage will include articles, tweets, pictures and videos from Guardian journalists taking part in the expedition. We will feature the dozens of scientists on board the ship as they make their climate and wildlife measurements at sea, on the islands of the Southern Ocean and on Antarctica itself. We will also report everyday life (and Christmas) on board a working research vessel.
Through the expedition, which runs until 4 January, we will give Guardian readers several opportunities to talk live to people on board the ship as we sail through some of the roughest seas in the world, visit the windiest place on Earth and try (icebergs permitting) to reach Mawson's huts, the heroic explorer's base camp more than 100 years ago as he drew the first maps of this part of the world.
Twitter: Follow @alokjha @loztopham @GdnAntarctica and @guardianscience
French minister says UK and European commission are dragging their heels over proposals to improve food safety
France has accused the European commission and Britain of failing to protect consumers after the horsemeat scandal.
Paris says Brussels and London are dragging their heels over proposals to improve food safety by introducing the labelling of meat in ready-made meals.
The French economy minister, Benoît Hamon, said both were completely ignoring customers' concerns, and that the vast majority of Europeans wanted to know what was on their plate and where it had come from.
"If the European commission is unable to protect European customers on something like this, then it is failing in its basic duty," he said.
France, with the backing of four other EU countries, has proposed regulations that would require companies to state what meat was in industrially produced food and where it had come from. It also wants regulations concerning the provenance of beef extended to other meat and poultry. French ministers say this "transparency and traceability" is what customers seek after the row over horsemeat in lasagne dishes found on sale in several European countries, including Britain, in February this year.
France has been openly critical of what it has described as Britain's opposition to Europe-wide food labelling regulations, which it believes is giving in to the powerful "food industrials" lobby against tighter rules.
Hamon said: "The commission came up with a report saying there are three options: do nothing, perhaps do something, or really do something. A primary school child could have come up with that. And how much did we pay for this report?"
His colleague, the agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, accused the British of sitting on the fence and "being difficult, as always". He said the British were "very quick to call for sanctions" against the French company at the centre of the horsemeat row, whose bosses now face prosecution, but that London refused to support calls for label regulation.
Hamon said there were millions of ready-made meals produced in Europe, and the self-policing of the industry had been shown to be ineffective. France had submitted proposals to the commission and after urging Brussels to react speedily, had been promised a report "in the autumn".
"We still don't have that report and it appears things are not moving forward. What worries us is that the commission is not doing anything concrete about something of fundamental concern to consumers as what is on their plate," Hamon said.
"Britain wants sanctions against offenders, but we need to change the law to avoid the same thing happening again. Britain is sitting on the gate and not accompanying us on this."
He added that Europe's – and Britain's – inaction risked "feeding Euroscepticism" in the months before European elections next year.
"The citizens of Europe just want to know what they are eating and we think it's important that this information is available to consumers. We don't know what the British [government] want[s], because they are no longer saying," he said.
He added: "Of course we can never guarantee 100% that the consumer will know what is in their food because there are always cheats and thieves, but labelling regulations will make things more difficult for them."
Le Foll said France also wanted regulations that enable beef to be traced, introduced after the outbreak of mad cow disease, extended to other fresh meat, poultry and fish.
"We realise that none of this is going to happen in five minutes, but we haven't even started discussions," Le Foll said.
"But Britain's Conservative government has made it clear that they consider it all too complicated."
A Defra spokeswoman said: "We fully support action to give consumers more information on the origin of their food. We have pressed the EU commission to produce the findings of their report into origin labelling of meat but additional labelling must be meaningful and avoid placing unnecessary cost burdens on food businesses."
In September, eight managers from the French company Spanghero were arrested as part of the investigation into the horsemeat scandal and allegations of violations of public health and environmental regulations.
The company is under investigation for alleged fraud an the mislabelling of products. It is accused of knowingly selling horsemeat as beef.
- Horsemeat scandal
- Food & drink
- Food & drink industry
- The meat industry
- European commission
- European Union
UN's atomic watchdog says lorry was taking cobalt-60 from a hospital to a radioactive waste storage centre when it was stolen
Mexican police have found a lorry containing radioactive material that was stolen as it was being transported from a hospital near Mexico City.
Thieves who removed the cobalt-60, which is used in hospitals to treat some cancer, from its protective container have been exposed to potentially life-threatening levels of radiation, a Mexican nuclear safety official told a local TV station.
The area around the stolen truck has been cordoned off and an operation to return the radioactive material to a sealed case was under way, the official added.
The theft of the lorry – which was seized when its driver stopped at a petrol station in the town of Temascalapa, 20 miles north-east of Mexico City – sparked fears that the material could be used to make a "dirty bomb". But Mexican officials said the criminals were probably unaware of the lorry's radioactive cargo. Truck hijacking is common in Mexico and the theft did not occur in a drug cartel stronghold.
"Our suspicion is that they had no idea what they had stolen. This is an area where robberies are common," said a spokesman for prosecutors.
Mexico's national nuclear safety commission published photographs of the cargo as it was being prepared for shipment, showing a reinforced case containing the medical device, which holds the radioactive material and which looks like part of a car axle. The box was marked with the hospital's name and "radioactive materials".
As well as its medical and industrial applications, experts say cobalt-60 can also be used in weaponry. The IAEA, which has stepped up calls on member states to tighten security to prevent nuclear and radioactive materials from falling into the wrong hands, did not say how much cobalt-60 was in the lorry.Cobalt-60 is used inside a teletherapy device to treat cancer.
The most common radioactive isotope of the metal cobalt, it has many applications in industry and in radiotherapy. It is also used for industrial radiography to detect structural flaws in metal parts. Exposure to gamma radiation from cobalt-60 results in an increased risk of cancer.
"At the time the truck was stolen, the (radioactive) source was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged," the IAEA said in a statement.
In 2000, three people died in Thailand after a cobalt-60 teletherapy unit was sold as scrap metal and ended up atn a junkyard. About 1,870 people living nearby were exposed to "some elevated level of radiation", according to the IAEA.
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Water pollution harms human health, livelihoods, recreation, and the health of marine life and habitats.