Archive for January, 2009

Kiss Proteas Goodbye?

Friday, January 30th, 2009

In all the coverage of the study published a few days ago suggesting that the effects of climate change will be “irreversible” for 1,000 years, and that several parts of the world will suffer “dust bowl-like” conditions due to decreasing rainfall, I haven’t seen anyone point out that the affected regions include some of the “hottest” of the Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, the so-called mediterranean-climate regions.

The regions mentioned in the paper include southern Europe, South Africa, southwestern North America, and western Australia,  meaning big trouble for at least four of the five mediterranean-climate regions, which cover just one to two percent of the land surface but harbor about 20 percent of the plant species on the planet. The most distinctive plant communities that have evolved in the cool, wet winters, warm to hot, dry summers, and poor soils of these areas are shrublands—the fynbos of South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, maquis and garrigue in the Mediterranean Basin, Australian mallee, and Californian chaparral, as well as Chilean matorral.

Among the unique plants found in these regions are proteas, the signature plants of the Cape Floral Kingdom, whose spectacular, often large blooms, with vase-shaped bracts surrounding cone-like clusters of slender, curving, tube-shaped flowers, are critical to the worldwide floral trade. Proteas are named for the Greek sea god Proteus, who could change his form at will. But many of the plants won’t be able to change fast enough to cope with anticipated climate change. More than half of all protea species are already threatened with extinction. Habitat loss alone is decimating protea populations, and when climate change is factored in, the situation is all the more dire.

“Irreversible catastrophe”

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Some perspective on the stunning new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science that concludes

“… the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop”

and that among these “irreversible impacts” are reductions in dry-season rainfall in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era, including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa. and western Australia:

Joseph Romm at “Bottom line: A few decades of prevention is worth 1,000 years of curemisery.”

James Hrynyshyn at “What this means to me is those who are pushing for strong climate change mitigation action are going to have to emphasize that what’s already in the pipeline will pale compared with what will come if we don’t get our act together.” In ”Can geoengineering reverse irreversible climate change?” he also comments on the following qualification in the paper—”we do not consider geo-engineering measures that might be able to remove gases already in the atmosphere or to introduce active cooling to counteract warming.”

Long Live the Green!

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Where else but England would a Museum of Garden History be located in a church?

That Anemic-Looking Tomato is Less Tasty and Less Nutritious

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Opponents of industrial food production have long maintained, almost as an act of faith, that the vegetables, fruits, and grains grown by Big Agriculture have become not just blander but also less healthy. In a paper in the February 2009 issue of HortScience, University of Texas researcher Donald R. Davis provides ample evidence to support such claims. According to Davis:

[T]hree recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results.

He also cites a study in which researchers compared high- and low-yielding varieties of broccoli and grain grown side-by-side and concluded that the high-yielding varieties contained less protein and minerals.

Moral of the story: When it comes to food, less is more, and funders and policy wonks should stop fetishizing maximum yield through excessive use of fertilizers and the breeding of high-yielding crops and start promoting agricultural systems based on building the healthy soils that support nutritious foods.

Grass-Lined Railways = What?

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

You know the term “green” has become almost meaningless when Inhabitat extolls Europe’s lawn-lined railways as paragons of green design. Have they gone bonkers, or has Scotts become a major advertiser? Granted, the color green is welcome relief from monotonous expanses of concrete and asphalt. And it’s true that vegetated railway lines can help keep cities cool and manage storm water runoff (although how well lawn does this is debatable). But what about the energy consumed by mowing? Are fertilizing and irrigation required? I’d be all for it if native short-grass ecosystems were being seeded in along railways, but Inhabitat is lauding countless acres of manicured turf.

Goodbye to an Economy Based on Buying Useless Crap?

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Recommended reading: Lance Mannion’s take on Obama’s inaugural speech and retooling our economy based on “the buying and selling of toys and gizmos and lots of other useless crap” and the building and selling of houses we can’t afford. An even more interesting question, though, is how we successfully make the transition from this to an economy in which we invest in solar power and wind farms and subway systems.

Biodegradable Cell Phones

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

In our relentless quest for the newest, geekiest iPhone or other gizmo, we don’t typically consider the mountains of electronic trash accumulating as a result of technological obsolescence and the constant cycling of two-year service contracts. Je-Hyun Kim’s Natural Year Phone, which looks like a slim, grassy green brick with a built-in keyboard, is biodegradable and comes apart for easy recycling of the hardware when the device’s functional life is over.

Global Warming: A Doubling of Tree Deaths

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

More bad news: According to a new study published in the current issue of Science, tree deaths in old-growth forests throughout the American West have more than doubled in recent decades. During the past decade, for example, mountain pine bark beetles have killed roughly 3.5 million acres of lodgepole pine forests in northwestern Colorado, and spruce bark beetles have also killed large areas of spruce forest in northern and southwestern areas of the state.

The study’s authors ruled out a number of possible reasons for the increasing die-offs, including air pollution, long-term effects of fire suppression, and normal forest dynamics, while concluding that regional warming and related droughts were the likely causes. Scarier still is their speculation that these deaths could lead to a series of harmful “cascading effects” on wildlife, and even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as there are fewer trees to absorb it and as the dead trees decaying on the forest floors become a significant source of the greenhouse gas.

Global Warming: The Blog Epic

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

What the heck does all the new data on global warming mean? For some perspective, take a look at one scientist’s very readable primer on climate change. Greg Laden, a biological anthropologist, provides not only good background but also cool facts. Here’s Laden on the major greenhouse gas:

Carbon Dioxide is a deadly poison. It is about 50% heavier than air, so where it occurs in density, in mines or certain natural vents associated with volcanics, it can accumulate in low spots. There are places in the Western Rift Valley where puddles of Carbon Dioxide form overnight while the air is still. These gas puddles can occur over puddles of water. When animals (such as antelopes) put their head down to the water to drink, they take a few whiffs of the gas and die. 

So far there are seven installments. You can find links to them here.

Global Warming: More Proof

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

We already have data showing that the average global temperature has increased in the past 50 years, and that spring is arriving earlier. Now a new study by researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard shows that all the seasons are arriving two days earlier. In non-tropical areas the hottest day of the year is coming nearly two days earlier, and the difference between summer and winter land temperatures has decreased. Winter temperatures have warmed more than those in summer—1.8 degrees Celsius (3.24 degrees Fahrenheit) and 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) , respectively.