The Global Fool

our planet is our village

Climate Change: A Key Driver of the Syrian Conflict?
Mar11

Climate Change: A Key Driver of the Syrian Conflict?

By Roberta Attanasio Climate change is happening here and now, with significant damage to natural systems and society. The shrinking of the Arctic sea ice, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets, the acidification of the oceans, the sea level rise, the shifting patterns of precipitation, and the amplified threat of wildfires, are some of its well-recognized effects. There are also significant concerns related to the consequences that climate change could have on freshwater availability and agricultural productivity worldwide — resulting in increasing poverty and further weakening of fragile governments. Indeed, climate change has been identified as a “threat multiplier” — it can exacerbate political instability in the world’s most dangerous regions. “Droughts, floods, food and water shortages and extreme weather can uproot communities, cause humanitarian crises and increase the chances of armed conflict.”   Now, results from a study carried out by researchers at Columbia University and the University of California Santa Barbara (published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 2, 2015) show that the Syrian conflict has been caused, at least in part, by a record drought. The drought occurred approximately from 2007 to 2010, and was worsened by global warming. The researchers wrote: “For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.” The Syrian uprising began in the Spring of 2011 and then escalated into an ongoing civil war, leading to one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history — neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are struggling to accommodate the displaced populations. According to the BBC, “Almost 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the escalating conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule. Syria’s bloody internal conflict has destroyed entire neighborhoods and forced more than nine million people from their homes.” In addition, the war has now acquired sectarian overtones. In their published study, the researchers point out that the 2007−2010 record drought caused widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. In 8 years, the Syrian urban population rose by 50%. But what caused, precisely, the widespread crop failure? According to the researchers, unsustainable farming practices led to a massive depletion of groundwater while the region was experiencing a long-term decline in rainfall. At the same time, summer temperatures rose, drying out much of the remaining moisture in the soil. Colin Kelley, leading author of the study, wrote in The Conversation: “We found that there is very little evidence to suggest that long-term trends toward higher...

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Global Threats: Soil and Topsoil Erosion and Degradation
Aug09

Global Threats: Soil and Topsoil Erosion and Degradation

By Roberta Attanasio “Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger. (…) Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision.” M.S. Swaminathan — the “Indian Father of Green Revolution”. Soil, the earth’s skin, is one of our most valuable resources — it’s a dynamic and complex ecosystem that acts as a growing medium. Plant and animal life depend on the recycling of primary nutrients through soil processes. It plays a major role in determining the composition of the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor and, due to its water filtering function, is essential for the clean water supply of our planet.  Soil degradation is the decline in soil quality caused by its improper use.  Examples of soil degradation are loss of organic matter, decline in soil fertility, decline in structural condition, erosion (soil is naturally removed, for example by the action of water or wind), adverse changes in salinity, acidity or alkalinity, and the effects of toxic chemicals, pesticides, pollutants or excessive flooding. Back in 1984, a study by the Worldwatch Institute defined the erosion of agricultural topsoil a ”quiet crisis” that could lead to “pockets of famine” around the world. At the time, Lester R. Brown told the New York Times: ”Grave though the loss of topsoil may be, it is a quiet crisis, one that is not widely perceived. Unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, this disaster of human origin is unfolding gradually.” Then, in 1992, the World Resources Institute published the results of the first global assessment of land degradation. It reported that, since World War II, about 11 percent of the world’s vegetated surface area had become degraded, mostly due to farming, overgrazing and deforestation. It pointed out that the continuation of activities leading to soil degradation would seriously affect the ability of providing growing populations with food, fuel, and fiber. Now, more than twenty years later, The Global Soil Partnership — which brings together a broad range of government and non-government stakeholders — recognized that urgent action is required to improve the health of the world’s limited soil resources and stop land degradation, so as to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water, energy and raw materials. Thus, it has endorsed a series of action plans to safeguard soil resources which provide the basis for global agricultural production. Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), said: “Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production. Without soils we...

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The European Seafloor: More Litter Than We Thought
May01

The European Seafloor: More Litter Than We Thought

By Roberta Attanasio We’re all familiar with the global threat of ocean pollution — and the widespread presence of plastic on beaches and in the great garbage patches. However, until very recently, we did not know that marine litter is present in large amounts on the seafloor, in the deepest areas and at very remote locations. Marine litter is defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as ‘‘any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment”. Results of a survey published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE on April 30, 2014, reveal the magnitude of the problem. Researchers gathered data from surveys carried out during research cruises led by various European institutions between 1999 and 2011. A total of 32 sites were surveyed — in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea — at depths ranging from 35 meters to 4.5 kilometers. The sampling methods used for the survey included imaging technology (still photograph and video) as well as fishing trawls. The researchers found litter at each site surveyed, with plastic accounting for 41% and discarded fishing gear for 34% of it. In addition, they found glass, metal, wood, clothing, pottery, paper and cardboard, as well as unidentified materials. The most prevalent litter item found on the seafloor was plastic (bottles, bags, etc.), whereas discarded fishing lines and nets were particularly common on underwater mountains, banks, mounds and ocean ridges. It is commonly believed that most plastic items float at the sea surface — in reality, an estimated 70% of the plastic that reaches the ocean sinks to the seafloor. Indeed, results from the survey show that, for example, litter is present at larger density on the seafloor of the Mediterranean Sea as compared to the litter floating at the surface. Kerry Howell (Plymouth University’s Marine Institute), one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release “This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans. Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before...

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Minute 319: The Delta of the Colorado River Gets a New Life
Mar19

Minute 319: The Delta of the Colorado River Gets a New Life

By Roberta Attanasio For six million years, the Colorado River ran from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California—through 1,450 miles of mountains, deserts, canyons, and the lush delta in Mexico. Now, it no longer reaches the sea. The once vast and fertile delta of the river is dry—a parched wasteland. In 1931, the United States Bureau of Reclamation built the first of a series of large dams along the lower Colorado River, which now provides water to two states in Mexico and 30 million people in seven U.S. states. Until the 1950s, the delta was still a network of freshwater and marine wetlands with meandering river channels—an opulent habitat for a very diverse and thriving wildlife. Then, things changed fast—the water slowed to a trickle. Peter McBride, author of The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict, said in 2010 “I spent two weeks walking the most parched, barren earth you can imagine. It’s sad to see the mighty Colorado River come to a dribble and end some 50 miles north of the sea.” There are good news, though—we may be getting back some of the lost opulence. Minute 319—an amendment to the 1944 Water Treaty between Mexico and the United States—calls for a pulse flow (a large one-time release of water) that will improve surface water and groundwater conditions as well as natural vegetation and wildlife. On March 23, the pulse flow will be released from Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, and will continue for nearly 2 months, sending water down the lowermost Colorado River. Although the pulse represents just 0.7% of the 18.5 billion cubic meters that once reached the gulf each year, research teams from United States and Mexico universities, agencies and environmental groups expect a quick response, as the newly released water creates new habitats for seedlings, while flushing salts from the soil.  After the pulse ends on May 18, researchers will measure seed germination and seedling survival at different time points. Later, they will rely on aerial photographs or satellite images to monitor tree growth. However, Minute 319 is expected to accomplish much more, as “It establishes new rules in sharing Colorado River water while providing immediate plans to address current challenges along the river during the next five years. Equally important, the pact sets the stage for how the two nations might work in the future to establish a long-term management policy for the Colorado River.” The amendment comes after years of negotiations and meetings. Now, the United States and Mexico, for the first time, have set criteria to share both water surpluses and water shortages. For example, Mexico has limited water storage capacity—thus, it will store...

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Wasting Syndrome and Starfish Die-Off
Feb09

Wasting Syndrome and Starfish Die-Off

By Roberta Attanasio Up and down the U.S. and Canada Pacific coastlines, starfish are disappearing, dying by the millions of a mysterious disease that makes them “turn into goo.” The disease — starfish wasting syndrome — initially causes white lesions that lead to death of body tissue. Eventually, the arms twist and tear off — and they do not regenerate (healthy starfish may shed their arms, but then new ones are formed in a relatively short time). At the end, the entire body of the wasting starfish disintegrates. The wasting syndrome affects about a dozen starfish species, but has been noticed mostly in sunflower starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides) and ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus). Starfish die-offs have been observed along the California coast in 1983 and 1997 — however, this year, the die-off is occurring at an unprecedented rate. No cause has been identified, but speculations abound. Claims that Fukushima radiation could be implicated in the die-off have been disproved by Chris Mah (a researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and one of the world’s leading experts on starfish), on the basis of three major considerations — the syndrome pre-dates Fukushima by 3 to 15 years, it occurs on both East and West coasts, and it does not seem to affect any other marine life in these regions. Gary Wessel, a professor at Brown University, told NBC News that a combination of stressors, both pathogenic (a new bacterium or virus) and environmental (a change in ocean temperature) may be responsible for the syndrome. He also thinks that the disease is unlikely to affect humans or other larger marine life. An accepted explanation is that an infectious microbe (a virus, bacterium, fungus or other) could impair the starfish immune system, making them susceptible to secondary bacterial infections that ultimately cause wasting. Back in November, Pete Raimondi, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told the Los Angeles Times “Imagine a wound on your finger that you never treated. The bacteria would continue to build up and just eat away the flesh until it fell off. That’s how this disease goes.” Global warming is an important factor in the occurrence of disease outbreaks of infectious microbes that affect marine life. Increasing temperatures favor the growth of these microbes and allow their spread across an extended geographical range. In addition, increasing temperatures induce heat stress, which adversely affects the defense/immune mechanisms. Indeed, the spread and progression of the wasting syndrome — in starfish and other species — are temperature-sensitive and increase at warmer temperatures. The starfish is a voracious predator and a keystone species — a species that plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community. Starfish eat snails, sea urchins,...

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