26 January 2010

Waste of Fresh Water

The images of earthquake survivors fighting over scarce resources in Haiti is a grim reminder of what is to come in parts of our overpopulated planet. In addition to earthquakes, extreme weather brought on by global climate change, be it drought or floods from excessive rainfall, is causing misery and suffering to countless millions with increasing frequency. Water and food, in that order, are the most basic human needs following a natural disaster.

Yet, as thirsty, dehydrated Haitians strive to survive on the bald rock which is all that is left of their part of the once-lush, tropical island in the Caribbean, trillions of tons of fresh water from glaciers and icebergs at the polar extremities of the planet are slowly melting into the sea.

What a terrible waste!

Is there nothing that can be done to harness the water from tidewater glaciers and icebergs before they make life on our planet more precarious by expanding the size of our oceans? Are we set to passively let part of our species die of thirst or drown?

On a cruise to Antarctica earlier this month, I asked the ship’s glaciologist if that was any ongoing research on ways to harness water from icebergs in these times of mounting scarcity. He said hadn’t heard of any and could only point to the initiative of a Saudi prince, who in the mid-70s had the idea of towing a 100 million-ton iceberg wrapped in sailcloth and plastic from Antarctica to Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohamed al Faisal was convinced that despite the cost of towing the iceberg to Saudi Arabia and loosing up to 20% of the mass from melting en route, the fresh water that would be left would be much cheaper than producing it locally in a desalinization plant. Apparently, nothing came of the idea and some scientists argued that once in waters around the equator all that would be left of the berg would be the rope at the end of the tow.

I’m not convinced that we should give up on the idea. After just a few days of watching huge icebergs from the Larsen Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula like this one floating northward, I would hope that there is research going on somewhere to find ways of harnessing this immense resource. Reports this month that icebergs calved from the Mertz Glacier are drifting towards New Zealand would mean that there would be no need to tow them through equatorial waters to harvest the fresh water. Once harvested in New Zealand or at the tips of South America or South Africa, the water could be moved to drier parts of the planet using conventional methods.

If not for concern for humankind, there could be money to be made from icebergs.

14 January 2010

Walking with the Lions

By Gerard Hancock ©

It was one of those experiences you simply have to do to understand. “Walk with the Lions” said the bit of paper I was holding. Seems simple enough, I thought. We go for a walk........with some lions. What is there not to understand? Everything was clear to me, I had images in my mind of small, fluffy, cub-like creatures which would respond warmly to being stroked and bottle-fed. Easy. When we actually saw the lions and were told they had brought down a young giraffe the day before, we quickly realised that bottle-feeding was definitely out of the question and this was the real thing, or I suppose as near as you get to the real thing. As for easy, the unwitting tourist simply has no idea of the complexity, challenge and controversy behind what on the surface seem to be well-intentioned and fun experiences. ....

[Full feature available from Ecoscene http://www.ecoscene.com/?service=feature&action=show_content_page&language=en&feature=8 ]

2 January 2010

Act now for diversity

The UN has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. Hopefully this will mean that more attention is paid to the plight of the world's species.
Biodiversity is the variety of life that lives on Earth. Fewer than 2 million species have been named and biologists estimate that as many as 13 million more species may exist, many being micro-organisms such as bacteria and archaea that live in some of the world's most extreme places.

When people think of biodiversity, they may  think of rainforests and coral reefs, but there are biodiverse habitats all around us, such as meadows, ponds, and hedgerows. A veteran oak tree may be home to several hundred species of insect, while a wildlife-friendly garden with nectar-rich flowers, vegetable beds, overgrown lawns, ponds and compost bins may be visited by a wide range of animals.

New life can be found in the strangest places. Who would have thought that the hot, acidic waters of  Yellowstone would be inhabited by many species of bacteria and archaea new to science. The heat-resistant enzymes of some of these bacteria have proved to be  incredibly useful in biotechnology.

However  many species may disappear before they are even discovered, mostly as a consequence of habitat loss and degradation. Deforestation, the ploughing up of grassland, the drainage of wetlands and the polluting of the oceans are all causing a loss of biodiversity. And then there is global warming.  Extinction rates are already at record highs and now it is estimated that every 1 degree Centigrade rise in the average global temperature will increase the rate of  extinction by 10 per cent.

The loss of an unknown insect or bacterium may not seem very important, but every organism has a role to play in its community and there is a knock-on effect on other species.For example, the insect may be the pollinator of a particular flower, or the food source for another animal.  Biodiversity is important to our daily lives - oxygen,  food, oil, wood, paper, medicines and much more, so its in all our interests to protect it.

In the UK, the International Year of Biodiversity is being spearheaded by the Natural History Museum via this website: http://www.biodiversityislife.net/. More than 200 UK partners are working with the NHM to run events and promote biodiversity.

Do one thing for biodiversity in 2010
So start the year with a pledge to help biodiversity. There are lots of things you can do - plant a tree, plant butterfly friendly plants in your garden, donate money to a wildlife charity, support your local wildlife trust and much more. For ideas visit http://www.biodiversityislife.net/?q=do-one-thing.  What am I doing? The Ecoscene office looks out on a large field with 400 year old oak trees (below). We have visiting barn owls so I am putting up some barn owl nest boxes.