Cotton and the Disappearance of the Aral Sea


Receding of the Aral Sea from 1960 to 2008 (Source: Wikipedia)

The fishing towns that lined the borders of the Aral Sea were once a showpiece of the Soviet Union’s industrial might. The sea was so teeming with life that sailors could pull ashore 50,000 tons of fish a year, bringing resources and economic opportunity to the communities that worked on its shores (Pearce 109). Located on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has transformed from one of the four largest lakes in the world to perhaps the world’s greatest environmental disaster. In under half a century, water diversion projects and mismanagement have reduced the Aral to less than 10% of its original surface area. Formerly productive fishing towns now sit in the middle of a salty desert. Populations are plagued with chronic anemia from salty tap water and a plethora of respiratory conditions brought on by the pesticides that once resided on the sea floor are now carried across the land by desert winds. To suggest that the disappearance of the Aral Sea was an unforeseen consequence of Soviet era engineering is an outright falsehood. Many scientific and political leaders in the former Soviet Union believed the Aral Sea to be a mistake of nature and a waste of water resources. This paper will explore the economic motivations and engineering decisions that lead to the shrinking of the Aral Sea and some of the environmental conditions that contributed to accelerating the sea’s decline. The loss of the Aral Sea is one of the world’s worst manmade environmental and public health catastrophes and understanding its causes and effects is important to responding to future crises brought on by climate change.


Ships in the Desert Near Moynaq, Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

The Aral Basin is fed by two tributaries, the Syr Darya which flows from the melting of the Tien Shan glaciers in Kyrgyzstan and the Amu Darya which springs from the Pamir mountains ranges of northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan. Despite being surrounded by desert, the boundaries of the Aral Sea remained unchanged for centuries. While the sea would have experienced significant losses to evaporation (estimated at 0.9 km3 per 1000 km2 of surface area) and very little rainfall (around 6 km3 annually), the sea’s surface and subsurface flows were in such stable equilibrium that the sea level is known to have fluctuated by no more than 3 meters between 1850 and 1965 (Precoda 110). Though the Aral Sea has no outlets through which surface flows can carry away salt, the waters were only moderately saline during this time: around 1.0% in the sea’s interior waters and up to 1.4% near the southeastern shores (Precoda 110).

Over the course of human history, many civilizations have called the Aral Sea Basin home. Once part of the main historical East-West trading passage, the Silk Road, the region has established a tradition of irrigation and drainage systems that sustained agricultural production since ancient times. This agricultural development is believed to have had little impact on the volume of water flowing into the Aral Sea because the areas most developed were located in valleys and river deltas. These areas would have naturally experienced higher moisture levels than the surrounding deserts. “After draining and clearing these areas of reed growths, they were transformed into granaries and often the water used was less than that utilized by the moisture-loving plants which grew in the area” (Precoda 110). Accordingly, the water balance of the Aral Sea was not affected and most of the river flows did not leave the Aral Sea Basin.


Central Asia Map (Source: MapCruzin)

By the 19th century, the fishing ports of Aralsk in the Syr Dary delta to the north and Moynaq in the Amu Darya delta to the south were the principal ports and economic centers for the region. The Moynaq fish cannery processed thousands of tons of fresh fish and distributed the protein across the expansive Soviet Union. Also known to be a popular spa town, Soviet tourists once flocked to Moynaq to swim in the sea and sunbathe on the pristine beaches (Kumar 3800). The reeds that grew along the seashore provided a seemingly endless source of raw materials and the moisture-loving trees that grew in the Amu Darya delta provided habitat to a diverse bird population as well as a barrier to erosion, the always looming threat of the surrounding deserts (Precoda 110).

Despite the diverse economic activity provided by the natural resources of the Aral Sea, many in Stalin’s USSR acted upon the desire to conquer nature in the name of social and economic progress. Zeev Wolfson, a senior Soviet official who smuggled a manuscript titled “The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union” to the West in the 1970s detailed the extent to which this attitude shaped the policies coming out of Moscow. Wolfson noted that “the more such projects contradicted the laws of nature, the more highly they were regarded, the more brilliantly the illusion of their success demonstrated the power and wisdom of the new leaders” (Pearce 120). In the years following the Second World War, Stalin began his Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature and Soviet engineers strived to prove that they were willing to go to any extreme to demonstrate USSR’s industrial might (Kumar 3797). In the United States, engineers were building dams in deep gorges so as to collect the most water and generate the most electricity with the least loss of land. “But Soviet engineers ignored such natural features. They worried little about drowning wide, fertile valleys with shallow reservoirs. And in all they eventually flooded an area roughly the size of France” (Pearce 121). Efficient hydroelectric generation requires the extreme pressure differentials that come about from deep reservoirs, but many of the dams built across the Soviet Union had such shallow reservoirs that up to a thousand square miles might be flooded for very little energy production.  In his manuscript, Wolfson calculated that in many of Stalin’s hydroelectric projects, if the fertile land had been planted with hay rather than inundated, the annual harvest could have been burned to produce more electricity than the hydroelectric plant was capable of outputting (Pearce 121).

By the early 1930s, large-scale irrigation systems championed by the Soviet Union had destroyed almost every remnant of the traditional water management practices that once supported human civilization in the region. Technological advances such as more powerful construction equipment allowed the Soviet Union to remake its own surface hydrology. By building huge canals, irrigation waters could be transported to higher elevations and hundreds of miles from rivers and deltas (Kumar 3798).   These projects were undertaken without consideration of their consequences. In fact, prominent Soviet leaders declared the sea’s uselessness and believed that the loss of the Aral would be compensated by the fertile land that was sure to be exposed and the increased agricultural production to follow. They forecast the expansive pasturelands that the receding waters would leave behind and the countless flocks and herds that would replace the fish catches (Precoda 111).  Agajan Babayev, former president of the Turkmen Academy of Sciences, went so far as to state publically, “I belong to those scientists who consider that the drying up of the Aral is far more advantageous than preserving it,” and that “many scientists are convinced, and I among them, that the disappearance of the sea will not affect the region’s landscapes” (Precoda 111). This view prevailed and with respect to the Aral Sea Basin, the postwar years can be characterized by plans to reallocate the entire flows of the Syr and Amu basins for irrigation.


Satellite Image of Aral Sea comparing 1989 to 2008 (Source: Wikipedia)

Between 1930 and 1961, the annual volume of water diverted for irrigation increased from 35 to 56.6 km3 per year. This volume peeked around 1980 at 109.1 km3 per year.  Water use for industrial and municipal services also increased from 7.5 to 18 km3 per year during this period (Tstsenko 192). Flows from the Syr Darya have failed to reach the Aral Sea since the 1970s and in some years, no water passes through the river delta of the Amu Darya either (Kumar 3798). In 2010, the Aral Sea was estimated to have shrunk to less than 10% of its original surface area (Tstsenko 192). The key contributor to the collapse of the Aral Sea was most likely the construction of the Karakum Canal, the first irrigation project to take water from the Aral Sea Basin and dump it into the catchment of the Caspian Sea to the west (Pearce 113). At 800 miles, the Karakum Canal is the longest irrigation canal in the world. With an average flow of 13 million acre-feet of water a year taken from the Amu Darya, the canal is comparable in size to the Hudson River. Most of this water ends up to the south of the Aral Sea Basin in the now-independent Republic of Turkmenistan, which has the unfortunate claim of “using more water per citizen than any other nation on Earth” (Pearce 112).  This achievement can be credited to the country’s primary export, cotton.

Soviet planners undertook these large-scale irrigation projects with a single-minded devotion to cotton production. Cotton needs a warm climate to grow, which is why Moscow decided that Central Asia would be the hub of cotton production, but it is also a very thirsty crop and growing it in the arid fields of the semi-desert region requires reliable flows from waterworks (Kumar 3798). Projects to reroute the region’s water flows were undertaken without concern for the costs and irrigated agriculture increased from 2.9 million ha in 1950 to 7.2 million in 1990 (Precoda 111). Political slogans from the post-WWII era included “cotton independence,” ”produce millions of tons of cotton at any cost,” and “fulfill the plan, at any cost” (Precoda 111). Moscow even required that the Central Asia region of the USSR import grains like wheat and barley rather than grow the crops themselves.  Still today, decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, “cotton production transcends all other national goals. In Uzbekistan, the cotton business still amounts to 60 percent of exports and employs 40 percent of the workforce – as well as consuming 90 percent of its water” (Pearce 119).


Cotton Field in Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

While cotton is a thirsty crop, it is not that thirsty; staggeringly inefficient water use is rampant in the region’s cotton fields. In places, at least half the water being transported by irrigation canals simply seeps through the sand. Half of the water that remains is indiscriminately poured onto already waterlogged fields that either have insufficient drainage networks or lack them all together (Pearce 112). The excess water then evaporates from the land or seeps into low-lying regions. Large lakes of irrigation water have appeared along the border between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, filled by the runoff of decrepit irrigation projects and waterlogged fields. Smaller lakes can be found near the irrigated fields, many of them permanent enough to have been given names by the locals (Pearce 113). Most of the world’s irrigation networks include complex drainage systems to remove unwanted water and chemicals from fields, but the Soviet planners never got around to building these systems. This failure has resulted in the growth of heavily polluted brine lakes appearing in the desert landscape just as the waters of the Aral Sea receded miles from their former shores. In all, less than 10 percent of the water taken from the Aral Sea Basin is of direct benefit to cotton crops. The rest disappears through the sandy soil or evaporates (Kumar 3798).

Even in regions inundated with overflow irrigation water, unpolluted water resources can be difficult to find. This water pollution is not only the direct effect of fertilizers and pesticides used by agriculture, the primary water user, but also by the industrial and mining sectors which often work with dirty and outdated production processes, and by the lack of sewage systems in areas of high population pressure (Spoor 410). “The industrial sector, now largely privatized, still uses production techniques which are damaging to the environment, but there is neither incentive nor capital to invest in cleaner technology” (Spoor 412). This combination renders large quantities of diverted irrigation water unsafe for human use and destructive to local ecosystems.

The evaporation of water from waterlogged fields also poses a slow but permanent threat to the continued cultivation of the region’s farmland. All rivers carry salt, dissolved from rocks in the headwaters and picked up from deposits downstream. This salt once flowed into the Aral Sea, but now it is accumulating in irrigated fields. To prevent the salt from poisoning crops, farmers pour more water onto their fields with the intent of washing the salt away. This effort is of limited success as the new water begins to evaporate under the desert sun and the fields are left saltier and more waterlogged than before. Here is when the futility of this viscous cycle becomes clear; each year, farmers must add more water than the year before, resulting in ever increasing salt deposits left in the soil. Eventually the flushing fails and the fields are abandoned. In Uzbekistan, around 3 million acres of cotton fields have been lost to salt and waterlogging. In the autonomous region of northwestern Uzbekistan known as Karakalpakstan, one in five fields has been abandoned and the productivity of the remaining land has halved since the 1970s (Pearce 115). “Soviet planners inadvertently stumbled on a foolproof system for creating deserts,” a process that is continuing relatively unabated to this day (Pearce 115).


(Source: Flickr)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, very little progress has been made to correct the waste of water. “The political economy of the cotton sector is intimately connected with the vested interests at national and local levels,” preventing the hydrological inefficiencies of irrigation systems from being addressed (Spoor 411). There is little incentive to challenge the foundation of the region’s economic prosperity in the name of ecological restoration. The most direct path to restoring the natural hydrological cycle of the region would be to demolish the canal systems, but such a project is out of the question. International efforts to save the Aral Sea have been met with local governments insisting that the welfare of the cotton farmers must come first (Kumar 3801). Nothing less should be expected considering the regional dependence on cotton exports for annual income. The end of the USSR has also meant the regional transition from a powerful central government to several sovereign nations. “Where previously Moscow made all the decisions relating to the water allocation and use, disagreements about water supply and consumption must now be resolved by negotiations” (Spoor 411). In 1992, the United Nations organized an international conference to establish a regional water strategy, but to no avail (Kumar 3801). The Central Asian republics are unwilling to relocate their cotton monoculture and risk its economic bounty.

The vision of Soviet planners to build a cotton economy in Central Asia is now a reality. The continued economic growth of the region is thus tied to the destruction of the Aral Sea.  Although the introduction of world market prices for inputs is reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the transitional economies of Central Asia, the “dependency on cotton has actually increased, as it is the main hard currency earner. Furthermore, water remains either free or only symbolically priced” (Spoor 413). It is an undeniable truth that in the near future, the Aral Sea will not be returned to its 1960 level. Due to the regional dependence on the waters, long-term changes are also unlikely.

The policies and practices that conspired to remove the Aral Sea from the face of the Earth read like a catalogue of poor environmental policies and self-destructive agricultural projects. Maps still show the Aral Sea as a prominent feature of Central Asia, ignorant of how the waters have been imprudently redistributed across the arid landscape. “During the Soviet period in Central Asia, the destruction of the traditional water management and crop rotation systems in the early stage of the Soviet era, followed by the ‘cotton at all price’ policy from Moscow from the 1960s onwards, greatly endangered the environmental sustainability of the Aral Sea Basin” (Spoor 420).  The exclusive focus on cotton production, under a sociopolitical system that ignored the environmental impact of inadequate long-term resource management, has turned the Aral Sea Basin into a disastrous experiment. Rather than revealing fertile fields and pasture lands, the receding waters of the sea exposed a layer of salts and pesticides. The desert winds that blow over the Aral Sea Basin once carried moisture to the surrounding ecosystems, but now the winds are dry, salty, and contaminated by a centuries worth of industrial farming cast back into the world.


Old Fishing Ships in the Desert Near Moynaq, Uzbekistan (Source: Flickr)

The destruction of the Aral Sea will remain a textbook example of unsustainable development for generations to come. The uncompromising support of cotton production at any human and environmental cost is the greatest environmental injustice of the Aral Sea saga. Though it may be many decades before the Aral Sea is removed from our maps, the Aral Sea has almost entirely disappeared from the Earth, unlikely to return. The once proud fishing port of Moynaq is still one of the region’s most popular tourist stops, but now visitors go to see the rusting hulks of fishing vessels stranded in the desert, hundreds of miles from the water.



Kumar, Rama Sampath. “Aral Sea: Environmental Tragedy in Central Asia.” Economic and Political Weekly 37 (2002): 3797-802. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Pearce, Fred. Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization. Washington, D.C.: Island, 2004.

Precoda, Norman. “Requiem for the Aral Sea.” Ambio 20 (1991): 109-14. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Spoor, Max. “The Aral Sea Basin Crisis: Transition and Environment in Former Soviet Central Asia.” Development and Change 29 (1998): 409-35. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.

Tsytsenko, K. V., and V. V. Sumarokova. Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin. Ed. Michael H. Glantz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Notes on the History of Fracking

You can consider these the barebone notes on the history of hydraulic fracturing or fracking:

The process of hydraulic fracturing for the stimulation of oil and natural gas wells was first developed in the 1940s, with experimentation occurring as early as 1903. It was first used commercially by Halliburton in 1949, and because of its success in increasing production from oil wells, was quickly adopted. While hydraulic fracturing found success in the American oilfields of the mid-century, the process had not adapted to deal with the impermeability of shale formations (i.e. companies could not extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale using the technique).

In response to growing concerns from the gas industry that US domestic conventional gas deposits were losing their production potential, the industry funded Morgantown Energy Research Center (MERC) embarked on the Eastern Gas Shales Project in 1976. Led by MERC, a precursor to today’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, and with the help of the Department of Energy, several national labs, and other federal government agencies, research began to determine how natural gas could be extracted from impermeable shale formations.

Decades’ worth of R&D and technology demonstration projects led to the development of massive hydraulic fracturing (MHF), horizontal drilling, and microseismic imaging of gas deposits in shale. These advances in technologies and techniques enabled Mitchell Energy, a Texas gas company, to achieve the first economical extraction of shale gas in 1998 via an innovative drilling process called slick-water fracturing.

Despite a century’s worth of technological advancement, hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of natural gas trapped in shale was still not economically advantageous enough to entice gas companies to begin large-scale production. As late as the early 2000s, it appeared as if natural gas was destined to stay trapped beneath the earth until energy prices soared high enough to justify the effort. That was until an exemption from EPA regulations changed the course of natural gas extraction in the United States.

Nestled among the many questionable provisions in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was one particularly groundbreaking (pun intended) stipulation that exempted hydraulic fracturing from the regulations set forth by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Added by then-Vice President Dick Cheney and now termed the Halliburton Loophole in honor of the energy company’s former chief executive, the exemption strips the Environmental Protection Agency from all regulatory authority over the drilling process. Regardless of your political convictions, you should be questioning why it was necessary to exempt hydraulic fracturing from EPA regulations in order to make it economically viable.

Furthermore, you should realize that the Safe Drinking Water Act is the only regulator authority that the federal government has over natural gas extraction practices. With the federal government powerless to control the drilling, it is up to state and local authorities to decide whether or not to allow extraction. It should not surprise you that local governments, particularly in coal-rich Pennsylvania, have been less that proactive in controlling the negative environmental impacts of fracking efforts.

I would rather not harp on any more about this so here is a video produced by UK’s Ecologist Film Unit. While the title of the video shows a clear bias, the program is well done nonetheless.

Have you heard about all the people who can set their well water on fire?

Source: Wikipedia, NYTimes

Plastic Eating Fungi Discovered in Amazon

The Amazon river basin is without a doubt the most biodiverse region on the planet. Researchers are continuing to discover new species every year. Recently, a group from Yale University discovered a fungus that appears to be quite content eating plastic in airless landfills, an environment too harsh for even the world’s most industrious bacteria.

The group of students who carried home the fungi were part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel. The group was working in the jungles of Ecuador to search for plants and culture the microorganisms within the plant tissue.  One of these microorganism, a fungus previously unknown to science, could prove vital in the global fight against waste pollution due to its eager appetite for polyurethane, a widely used plastic product.

Polyurethane is a popular plastic due to its longevity and resistance to decomposition. Used in everything from garden hoses and Spandex to shoes and foam seating, polyurethane will persist in the environment for generations. While no one complains about how their garden hose can take a beating all summer without disintegrating, most polyurethane products will be discarded eventually. Once they enter the waste stream, they stay there indefinitely.

The newly discovered fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first known microorganisms to survive on a diet of polyurethane alone. And just as importantly, it is able to do so in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, similar to the rather extreme conditions inside of a landfill. Environmental engineers have long used veracious microorganisms to treat municipal waste-water, but this discover could mean a significant shift in the management of solid waste. I would not be upset if we stopped burning our trash or burying it, hoping that it will simply disappear. Landfills have always stuck me as a very stupid concept and a frustratingly low-tech solution for such an advanced country to endorse.

American Society of Microbiology via Co.EXIST

Why Climate Scientists Could Be Rich But Are Not

The statistical analysis and computer modeling used by climate scientists could easily be applied to economics and business management. Instead of trying to calculate the role that clouds play in regulating global temperatures and instead of drilling ice cores in search of trapped pockets of prehistoric air, these individuals could be spending their time predicting market trends and making boatloads of money off of innovative financial products. Obviously, vast ideological and personal motivations separate business and science, but I would argue that the mathematics and statistics are comparable. In my own studies into computer modeling of environmental systems, we often jump back and forth between cost analysis and environmental system modeling. You would be surprised how similar a model predicting the rate of pollution diluting into a stream is to a model determining the cost of replacing high-sulfur coal with low-sulfur coal and solar panels as a city’s primary energy source. If climate scientists were motivated by money, they would have studied economics or law in college and gotten MBA’s instead of PhD’s in an area of study that would automatically make then the targets of ridicule. Before questioning the validity of global warming claims, think for a moment about the motivations that each group (the scientist and the denier) is acting upon.


The thought that scientists would collectively fake data in order to deceive the general public would never occur to me. I could accept that a handful of never-going-to-be-influential individuals would sell-out, lie about their results, and fabricate unjustifiable conclusions. I could accept that some more established minds, tired of the day to day grind of academic research, would accept a check, put their name on someone’s report, and retire comfortably. I could accept that corporations with a vested interest in the continued, un-penalized use of fossil fuels would support research contradicting the findings of climate scientists (additionally, if I did work for an energy company, I would certainly play up the limited availability of oil and coal so as to stimulate the price in a healthy direction without increasing my operating costs), but to suggest that the scientific community is somehow coercing the public into believing their false conclusions with regards to global warming trends shows a deep misunderstanding of academic research and of the nature of the individuals that dedicate their lives to climate science research. To put that another way, research is strenuous and academically rewarding, encouraging those interested in intellectual discovery to join and those interested in making money to stay far away. Poor methodologies and unsupported conclusions are not accepted by the scientific community and thus it is not plausible that the scientific community would maliciously affirm global warming findings. Finally, the populations of people that become climate scientists are nerds; late-night-working, excited-by-new-data-finding, for-the-love-of-learning nerds. The deceitful, manipulative, and self-serving people go into fields and careers where such characteristics might actually be useful.

Below is a video produced by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing all the known CO2 concentration records.

I think the graph speaks for itself.


Glaciers Melting Faster Than Expected

Environmental researchers around the globe are finding that glaciers are melting faster than previously expected. While this melting will have little impact on the global stage (Garry Clarke, professor emeritus of glaciology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, estimates, that if all of western Canada’s glaciers were to melt away, the oceans would rise by less than 6.6 millimeters (a quarter-inch)), glacial melting has long been recognized as a sign of warming global trends and has the potential to significantly alter local water supplies.

Glacier flowing into Lake Fryxell, Canada
Glacier flowing into Lake Fryxell, Canada

Glaciers act as nature’s reservoirs, collecting and storing freshwater during the winter months and slowly releasing it during the warm season. Many of the world’s great rivers are tied to the glaciers of their mountainous neighbors. The Rhine would not exist without the snowy Alps and the Ganges would dry without the glaciers of the Himalayas.  If mountain glaciers disappear, the streams and rivers that they feed will be forever altered; flows will decrease, peak seasons will change, and water temperatures will rise.

According to Michel Baraer, of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, even the total volume of runoff will change because glacial ice keeps the water locked away in a form in which it does not easily evaporate.

Thus, even if annual precipitation remains the same in mountain regions, less of the water will make it to the lowlands, evaporating back into the atmosphere instead. The building of dams, reservoirs, and other water control systems will only exacerbate the problem of evaporation by slowing the flows and increasing the exposure to sunlight. The efficiency of storing freshwater in glaciers cannot be matched by human engineering.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Increased glacial melting will mean the inevitable arrival of peak water followed by a steady progression towards regional water shortages. According to Rick Lovett of National Geographic News, much of South America, with its high mountains and tropical sunshine, appears to be particularly vulnerable to climate-induced glacial shrinking. We have yet to see how peoples and governments chose to respond to water shortages, but as glacial melting continues to accelerate around the world, the consequences will be unavoidable.

Source: National Geographic

Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina

The Great Decline: Global Fisheries

The world’s oceans, which encompass more than two-thirds of the global, are continuing a rapid decline that began just a few decades ago. Fisheries are dwindling and the world’s largest ecosystems are falling apart as global fish fleets remove far more oceanic wildlife that the seas can provide. Existing conservation laws and restrictions exists, but are too easily ignored or only selectively enforced. The cause of this destruction is as simple as it could possibly be: nearly one billion people rely on the ocean as their primary protein source and tens of millions more derive all their income from fishing. It is a futile struggle to tell these populations to look elsewhere for food when the resources of the oceans seem so plentiful, but overfishing will only end badly. Since the 1980s, global seafood catches have continually declined in the face of technological advancement and larger fishing fleets. Relentless overfishing will only aggravate the existing scarcity, preventing any chance the oceanic ecosystems have of recovering. Every year, these fisheries will provide fewer resources to the people that rely on them.

Foreign governments that ought to be seriously addressing the sustainability of their food sources are often prone to contribute to the problem. Enormous subsidies are given to fishing fleets with the intent of increasing their ability to fish despite declining returns. Agencies such as Oceana contend that the elimination of these subsidies would be the single greatest action in the effort to prevent overfishing and restore the world’s fisheries for future generations.

The following figures are as presented by the Oceana report, Oceans in Trouble
Key Findings of Recent Fisheries Related Research:

  • Scientists project the collapse of all species of wild seafood that are currently fished by mid-century.  (B. Worm et al., 2006)
  • 90 percent of all the “big fish” – tuna, marlin, and sharks – are gone. (R. Myers et al., 2003)
  • It is estimated that 85 percent of the world commercial fish populations are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. (SOFIA 2010)
  • Of the top ten species that account for about 30 percent of the world capture fisheries production in terms of quantity, six correspond to stocks that are considered to be fully exploited or over-exploited (anchoveta, Chilean jack mackerel, Alaska pollock, Japanese anchovy, blue whiting and Atlantic
    herring). (SOFIA 2011)
  • Globally, fish provides more than 1.5 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein, and 3.0 billion people with at least 15 percent of such protein. (SOFIA 2010)
  • Fisheries subsidies also have been found to support illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. A recent study estimates the cost of illegal and unreported fishing alone at US$10–23.5 billion per year. (D. Agnew et al. 2009)

EU Specific Findings:

  • According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), European Union countries comprise the third largest global fishing “nation” behind China and Peru. In 2009, EU countries caught more than five million tons of fish and employed more than 140,000 people as fishers.
  • Spain accounts for 25 percent of fisheries employment in the EU. Spain, Greece and Italy combined account for 60 percent of fisheries employment. (European Commission 2010)
  • The EU is responsible for 4.6 percent of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture production, making it the fourth largest producer worldwide. The EU’s top three most fished species are Atlantic herring, sprat and blue whiting, which comprise 30 percent of all EU catch. (European Commission 2010)
  • In Europe, 63 percent of the fish stocks in the Atlantic and 82 percent in the Mediterranean are over-fished. A recent impact assessment by the European Commission concluded that if the status quo is maintained and fishing continues at the current rate, only nine percent of European fish stocks would be managed at sustainable levels by 2022, despite the commitment by countries to manage all fisheries sustainably by 2015. (European Commission 2011)

Source: Oceana

Progress and the Yangtze River

National Geographic’s Rivers and Life is a four part program focusing on the changing character of four of the world’s most important water ways; the Rhine, Amazon, Nile, and Yangtze Rivers. Each of these waters is being changed by human development and changing environmental conditions. They also provide a case study of the effects on local ecological systems as well as the populations that rely on them for food and water. Communities cannot survive long if the waters on which they rely fail them and environmental change may cause such failures to come faster than we can possibly prepare for.

(Source ChinaHighlights)

The Yangtze runs through the heart of China, 6000km from the plateaus of Tibet to the shores of Shanghai, and is the key to the country’s survival and prosperity. The powerful waterway has a love-hate relationship with the Chinese; the river is the most trafficked river in the world but its annual flood have killed over 300,000 people in the last century alone. Mega-engineering projects have been put underway to control the massive water flows and to protect the populations downstream. Projects like the Three Gorges Dam generate enormous quantities of hydroelectricity and control the river, but the impacts on river environments are catastrophic. Rising water levels upstream of the dam have forced more than 2 million Chinese citizens to flee their homes and the lives they have known. Downstream, the rivers banks are being eroded at alarming rates and the sediment that once restored then is trapped behind the still waters of the dam. In particular, the river delta in Shanghai is receding due to the millions of tons of silt that fails to pass through the Three Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam ( Source Fotopedia/Flickr )

The mentality of changing the land and controlling rivers through engineering projects owes its roots to Europe and much of its recent history to the United States, but the work of engineers in China is a revolution. Rapid economic growth and the focused resources created by the communist regime have allowed China to build at a rate that surpasses any in human history. To China’s government, progress knows no limit and will stop for nothing and no one, not even the Earth itself, but it would be foolish to believe the Yangtze is willing to cooperate.

The river provides the water and natural nutrients that sustain the world’s largest population. Like many rivers around the world, the Yangtze keeps its flood land fertile by depositing sediment, making for rich farmland and ideal for rice production. But just as the river gives, it takes away with a brutal vitality. The energy driving sudden floods is great enough to destroy one town after another. The damage of a 1997 flood left thousands homeless and cost an estimated $30 billion. In this light, it is not unreasonable for the government to respond by damming the river to control its flow to prevent such catastrophe from destroying so many lives again.

Headwaters (Source Imgur)

The damming of the Yangtze began in 1994 with the approval of the Three Gorges Dam. Few argue that the dam will fail to control the flow, but many opponents to the project have raised the alarm regarding the dam’s location along a seismic fault line. Dams on fault lines pose two major risks: firstly, that if the dams fails as a result of an earthquake, populations downstream will be simply wiped out without warning, and second, that the weight of water trapped behind the dam will exert such force on the earth that many geologists argue an earthquake is exponentially more likely to occur. Engineers assert that the dam will withstand a 7.0 earthquake, but we cannot fully understand how the soil will behave under these conditions. Also, it is already estimated that so much water is trapped behind the world’s dams that the earth is more asymmetrical (and thus changing its inertia), causing the rotation to slow (slightly) much like an ice-skater coming out of a tight spin. As the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam will certainly add to this effect.

Ultimatly, the dam has achieved its goal of taming the wild Yangtze River, preventing major flooding and providing a boom to commercial traffic. Also, small upstream towns have been turned into bustling metropolises; places that were once isolated are now connected to the modern world and powered by the dam’s generators. But to praise such progress as triumph is to ignore the loss. To date, 13 cities, 140 town, and 1,300 villages have been washed away by rising waters. The communist government has to do little more than reclaim the land from the Chinese citizens that are renting it; there is no private land ownership in China. Though the government has put millions of dollars into efforts so save important building, many historic, architectural, and cultural lands now reside on the river floor.

Dafosi Yangtze River Bridge in Chongqing City (Source Wikipedia)

The Chinese are quickly learning another lesson from their rapid progress; that industrialization is synonymous with pollution. Water and air pollution from transportation and factories is unprecedented in these newly formed cites. The populations producing the pollution are threatening themselves as well as smaller communities that still rely on the Yangtze’s waters to drink, cook, and fish. Most residential sewage, shipping waste, and manufacturing waste is dumped into the river untreated. More than 40% of all China’s waste ends up in the Yangtze. The presence of the Three Gorges Dams only exasperates the problem by preventing waste from readily flowing to the sea. The conditions look grim as polluted water accumulates with no hope of being washed away as it once was. In other words, the problem will continue to worsen as long as the dam exists.

The Yangtze is a dying river. Aggressive industrialization and the Three Gorges Dam have enabled unprecedented growth and unstoppable pollution. The fish are dying off; previously staple food sources are dwindling and many species are on the verge of extinction. The river’s future is in question and only time will tell its fate. Of course this isn’t an isolated incident. Rivers around the world are being dammed and the energy they produce is being praised as green and clean. In reality, this is an oversimplification. The only way large rivers have ever been able to cope with human pollution is by flushing themselves. Dams remove that one natural mechanism.

Daning River  (Source Heiberg)

Perhaps China has stumbled upon a new form of population control: destroying the homes, killing the food, and polluting the water supply of its central vein. The Yangtze River cannot take much more before it will cease to provide life to the Chinese altogether.

Respect the waters of life.

Source: National Geographic – Rivers and Life, Yangtze River

O’Hare Airport’s Honey Producing Apiary

It’s a plane!  No, it’s a bee!  O’Hare Airport in Chicago is now the first US airport to house a beekeeping operation on its vacant land.  The O’Hare apiary is 2,400 square feet with 23 beehives, expected to produce 1600 pounds of honey this year.

Starting in May, the Chicago Department of Aviation partnered with community group Sweet Beginnings to produce the apiary.  Sweet Beginnings, an offshoot of a local economic development agency, uses honey to create skin products sold under the brand name Beeline at Chicago area Whole Foods.

Common in Germany (since 1999), airport apiaries can be helpful in monitoring air quality.  Honeybees are particularly sensitive to air contamination.  Making 2 pounds of honey requires bees to visit 15 million flowers, traveling 150,000 trips between the hive and the field to gather roughly 6 pounds of nectar.  As the bees do their work they pick up air contaminants that have settled on the flowers they visit.  Their honey serves as a concentration of all these pollutants and is therefore a great sample of the pollution in the area.

But this project benefits more than just the bees and air.  It is also a site for employment of formerly incarcerated adults.  Sweet Beginnings offers full-time transitional jobs, training ex-inmates in caring for bees and hives, harvesting honey, and making honey, candles, and lotions for the Beeline brand.

The O’Hare apiary actually appears to serve four main purposes with great benefits for all involved.  It is: 1) growing quickly diminishing bee populations which pose a great threat to agricultural production, 2) finding a use for vacant airport land that cannot be developed due to crash-landings, 3) testing air quality with minimal strain on resources, and 4) employing ex-convicts who have difficulty finding full-time work in our current economy.

Let’s hope that the airport apiary movement keeps growing throughout the United States!

TreeHugger and Beeline via GOOD

The Asian Long-horned Beetle

States have stepped up enforcement on stopping the eastward march of a destructive species, the Asian Long-horned Beetle, also refereed to as the Chinese Beetle. The beetle, first found near Detroit in 2002, has been spreading eastward, laying waste to tens of millions of trees, and spurring nervous environmental officials to set traps, educate the public, and take strict measures to try and halt its march before the beetle reaches New England.

Asian Long-horned Beetle

In New York, state officials are handing out tickets to people violating the state’s ban on moving untreated camp wood more than 50 miles from its source. This regulation was imposed along with other limits on lumber companies to stem the spread of invasive pests such as the destructive emerald ash border.

Emerald Ash Border

With the step up of enforcement, New York is following the lead of states to the west, including Indiana, which has battled the pest now threatening New England. The imposed quarantine, also meant to thwart the Asian long-horned beetle, generally limits wood to be packaged and labeled logs that have been heated and dried to kill the bugs.

Kevin King, director of the Division of Plant Industry at the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, said that inspectors are doing spot checks of logging trucks, sometimes piggybacking on State Police truck safety enforcement.

Phosphorous Demand and the World Food Supply

Due to the ever increasing global population, the demands for food have greatly risen over the past few decades. Farmers around the world rely partially on phosphorous-based fertilizers in order to maintain and improve their crop yields. However, the overuse of phosphorous has led to freshwater pollution and a number of other problems, such as the growth of blue-green algae in lakes and the growing number of coastal ‘dead zones.’

Furthermore, the fact that phosphorus is a non-renewable resource comes into play. Phosphorus comes from phosphate rock of which there are limited supplies. For the first time ever, a detailed map has been produced showing the imbalances in how phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, is being distributed and used around the world.

Graham MacDonald, a PhD student in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University, who led the study, says that, “Typically, people either worry about what happens when an excess of phosphorus finds its way into the water, or they focus on what happens when we run out of phosphorus.” MacDonald remarks on how this study shows the issue on a global scale that these two are not separate problems. MacDonald believes the issue is how to distribute the phosphorus that we’ve got.

The study used detailed agronomic information on how much phosphorus is applied to soils in fertilizers and manures for more than 100 different food, feed, and fiber crops produced around the world in 2000. The results show a large imbalance in phosphorus use, with both the overuse of phosphorus in some parts of the world and high phosphorus deficits in others. While it is typically believed that phosphorus deficits exist in only the poorer countries, the results proved this to not be the case. The phosphorus levels vary widely within most nations-with surpluses and deficits commonly occurring side-by-side within a single region.

Long-known as the Russian empire’s ‘bread basket’, Ukraine is one area that suffers from phosphorus deficits. Eastern China and southern Brazil have become known as phosphorus ‘hotspots.’ Within these hotspots, the surplus of phosphorus from the intensive use of fertilizers pose a danger of being lost when runoff from farmlands pollute freshwater supplies.

The study will help policy-makers to go ahead and make informed decisions at a national or global scale about the use of phosphorus.

McGill University via ScienceDaily

2010 Ties Record for World’s Warmest Year

Together with 1998 and 2005, the year 2010 ranked as the warmest year on record, according to the world Meteorological Organization. Data received by the WMO show no statistically significant difference between the global temperatures in 2010, 2005, and 1998.

In 2010, the global average temperature was 0.53˚C (0.95˚F) above the 1961-1990 mean. This value is 0.01˚C (0.02˚F) above the nominal temperature in 2005, and 0.02˚C (0.05˚F) above the temperature in 1998. The difference between the three years is less than the margin of uncertainty (± 0.09°C or ± 0.16°F) when comparing the data.

The statistics are based upon data sets maintained by the UK Meterorological Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit (HadCRU), the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Arctic sea-ice cover in December 2010 was the lowest on record, with an average monthly extent of 12 million square kilometers, 1.35 million square kilometers below the 1979-2000 average for the month of December. This comes after the third-lowest minimum ice extent recorded in September 2010.

Between 2001 and 2010, global temperatures have averaged 0.46˚C (0.83˚F) above the 1961-1990 average. The temperatures are the highest ever recorded for a 10-year period since the beginning of instrumental climate records. Warming has been especially strong in Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the Arctic, with many subregions registering temperatures 1.2 to 1.4˚C (2.2 to 2.5˚F) above the long-term average.

The information for 2010 is based on climate data from networks of land-based weather and climate stations, ships and buoys, and satellites. Dada are continuously collected and disseminated by the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) of the 189 Members of the WMO and several other collaborating research institutions.

The data feed three main depository global climate data and analysis centers, which develop and maintain homogeneous global climate datasets based on peer-reviewed methodologies. Thus, the WMO global temperature analysis is based on three complementary datasets; first, the combined dataset maintained by both the Hadley Centre of the UK Met Office and the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom; second, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the United States Department of Commerce; and third, the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) operated by the national Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


Why There Is Gas In The Water

Americans should be able to drink what comes out of their taps without worrying that it will make them sick. So why would anyone insert a loophole into the Safe Drinking Water Act that subverts that basic right?

If you can’t guess the answer, a quick history refresher should tip you off.

In 2005, Congress passed an Energy Act that included (thanks to meddling by former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney) an exemption for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from the protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. It’s called the “Halliburton loophole” and it’s a whopper.

Fracking, which I wrote about in August, involves injecting a pressurized mix of water, sand, and highly toxic chemicals directly into gas-rich shale formations. If you combine fracking with horizontal drilling (something that Halliburton pioneered shortly before getting its loophole), you can get exponentially more gas from shale formations, which means exponentially more profit. The U.S. has some very, very big shale formations so, even by Halliburton standards, we’re talking about a lot of money.

Back in 2005, the industry argued that fracking was so safe and so harmless, that regulation simply wasn’t necessary. It’s hard to imagine they really believed it. Chemicals used in fracking fluid are known to cause everything from cancer to depression of the central nervous system. Moreover, the chemicals underneath the earth’s surface that may be released due to gas drilling are also known to be harmful to human health and the environment.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s take a leap of faith and assume that the industry is correct and that gas drilling and fracking really don’t pose a significant threat to anyone’s water supply. If that’s the case, then why doesn’t the industry want to operate under the same rules as everyone else? Why are most companies refusing to reveal what’s in the fluid, let alone agree to safeguards?

The Halliburton Loophole perfectly represents the outsized arrogance of the big energy companies during a time when oil men were running the country. For the natural gas industry, a gold-rush mentality without common-sense safeguards to protect water quality and human health, has produced a litany of horror stories and safety violations — not to mention a popular uprising of citizens whose water supplies have been poisoned.

Times truly have changed, however, since the days when Dick Cheney held his secret meetings with energy execs and a compliant Congress opened the Halliburton Loophole. A bill widely known as “the FRAC Act” has been introduced in both the House and Senate, and if Congress passes it, the Halliburton Loophole will close.  The fossil-fuel lobby, so far at least, is vehemently opposed.

I just don’t get that. Yes, we need to use natural gas as our country makes the transition from the dirtiest energy sources (coal and oil) to clean and renewable sources like wind and solar. And yes, if we want that gas, we will have to drill for it. But no, we can’t compromise when it comes to protecting our drinking water. People shouldn’t have to fear that their wells will be poisoned and communities will be destroyed. We need to close the Halliburton Loophole.

This post appears courtesy of the Sierra Club .

From Old Roads to Solar Parks

A lot of environmentally conscious architects and designers find inspiration in the pursuit to repurpose and recycle old ideas. The Colombian firm Jaramillo-Azuero Architects (J-A) has come up with a concept design that could repurpose a series of archaic Italian viaducts into a series of beautiful parks all linked together. The particular stretch of highway, known as the Autostrada del Sole, is set to be decommissioned once a new modern route has been built. The design and layout of these parks will allow them to serve as educational models of sustainable energy as well as a location for research into future sustainable systems.

The design was featured (and won 3rd place) in an international design competition known as “Solar Park South”, a completion which sought to find a new use for the obsolete viaducts. The cost to demolish and remove the viaduct system would be nearly 40 million euros and the competition’s organizers asked designs to rethink the aging structure. The rules of the competition emphasized “ the creation of a space for testing the production of energy using renewable sources, the search for and successive application of new sustainable technologies, and the implementation of measures focused on integrating the Park within the surrounding territory through the upgrading, fruition and valorization of landscape.”

J-A’s proposal includes a wave-powered rail line, sustainable energy research facilities, and beautifully landscaped parks. The driving principle behind J-A’s design is the importance of public education in the formation and implementation of sustainable energy systems. Technology can reach greater and greater heights, but it won’t matter if people do not understand the importance of changing their lifestyles so that they respect and maintain the natural environment around them.

The Autostrada del Sole (A3 Salerno – Reggio Calabria Highway) is a relatively remote section of highway between Scilla and Bagnara and skirts along Italy’s Sicilian coast. The stretch of road consists of several remarkable viaducts built during the 60s and 70s and has been slated for decommission for over a decade now (of course the roadway will continue to be used until the new highway, composed largely of tunnels and designed to improve the safety of travel, has been completed). Until that time, designers have the opportunity to explore ways to repurpose the viaducts. The amazing views of the countryside and the dramatic Sicilian coast should make the viaducts a perfect destination for travelers.

According to J-A, “Among all known renewable energies the most efficient and the only one of its kind capable of regenerating infinitely producing “zero environmental harm” is EDUCATION. This type of energy is an inexhaustible supply of knowledge that spreads from person to person covering vast extensions of area resulting in massive social, environmental and economical progress.”

Read the competition’s rules for yourself and you’ll get the gist pretty clearly; be bold and creative, be sustainable and energy conscious, and be beautiful. What truly sets the J-A proposal apart is the importance of education in the pursuit of sustainable living and energy generation. Only through widespread public education can we hope to decrease our impact on the environment. Of course it is science and human development that has so devastated the world’s ecosystems and it will take decade’s worth of re-educating the public before we can hope to start heading in a sustainable direction. With the right focus and support, these old viaducts could become an important location for environmental research and education. I’m sure I’m not alone in believing that would be a far better outcome than watching the structure turn into a giant pile of rubble.

World’s Rivers In A Crisis

International study finds serious threats to the world’s freshwater.

The report, published in the Sept. 30 issue of the journal Nature, is the first to assess threats to both human water security and freshwater biodiversity in river systems around the globe. It shows that nearly 80 percent of the planet’s population — 4.8 billion people in 2000 — lives in areas where either the water supply is vulnerable, or aquatic life is under threat.

The international research team behind the report examined the effects on water security and biodiversity of 23 different human influences – ranging from hydro schemes to pollution. According to the Guardian, previous studies have usually looked at just one influence at a time.

The study says that engineering projects, such as dams and reservoirs, can be effective at protecting water supplies for people but often cause harmful effects to the environment and do not solve the underlying causes of water scarcity.

It also suggests that the use of more natural options like safeguarding watersheds and floodplains can protect water supplies while preserving biological diversity.

“If you analyze water-security issues from both a human and biodiversity perspective, you find that the threats are shared and pandemic,” University of New York civil engineer Charles Vörösmarty told Nature. Vörösmarty, an expert on global water resources, was a lead investigator on the study.

“Even rich countries, which you would expect to be good stewards of water, have some of the most stressed and threatened areas,” he added.

Both human water security and biodiversity are at high risk in developed countries in North America and Europe, particularly in regions with heavy agriculture and high population densities. Local problems are often carried downstream, with more than 30 of the world’s 47 largest rivers recording moderate threat levels or worse at the river mouth.

“Reliance of wealthy nations on costly technological remedies to overcome their water problems and deliver water services does little to abate the underlying threats, producing a false sense of security in industrialized nations and perilous water insecurity in the developing world,” the study says. “In addition, lack of comparable investments to conserve biodiversity, regardless of national wealth, help to explain accelerating declines in freshwater species.”

Even in different parts of the world, rivers face similar threats from stressors like agricultural and industrial development, which often have indirect effects. According to U.S. News & World Report, for example, mercury pollution — which results from electricity generation at coal-fired power plants – tends to pollute surface water via the atmosphere.

“We find a real stew of chemicals flowing through our waterways,” Vörösmarty told the news magazine.

He added that the study did not account for threats from factors such as mining operations and increasing numbers of pharmaceuticals that make their way into surface water.

Sources: BBC, Nature, U.S. News & World Report, the Guardian

This story was originally posted on the Circle of Blue website.

Making Forests Pay in a Warming World

Rainforests cover 60 percent of Indonesia, and yet the country is one of the world’s leading emitters of the greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. The reason is that Indonesia also has one of the planet’s fastest rates of deforestation.

SEMPIT, Indonesia (Reuters) – Deep in the flooded jungles of southern Borneo, muddy peat oozes underfoot like jello, threatening to consume anyone who tries to walk even a few yards into the thick, steaming forest

Hard to imagine this brown, gooey stuff could become a new global currency worth billions a year, much less an important tool in the fight against climate change.  Yet this is a new frontier for business, says Bali-based consultant Rezal Kusumaatmadja, and a new way to pay for conservation efforts in a world facing ever more pressure on the land to grow food and extract timber, coal and other resources.

He and his fellow Indonesian business partner Dharsono Hartono are trying to preserve and replant a peat swamp forest three times the size of Singapore in Central Kalimantan province in Indonesia’s part of Borneo. And in the process, draw in local communities by boosting livelihoods and curb encroachment

They are at the vanguard of a global effort to slow climate change by trying to create a new market that puts a value on preserving forests, or avoiding deforestation.

The effort brings together a diverse cast of characters: environmental entrepreneurs such as Kusumaatmadja and Hartono; investment bankers trying to create a carbon market; companies seeking to buy carbon credits in that market; activists trying to ensure some of that money flows to rainforest communities; and bureaucrats whose task will be to somehow monitor and enforce the ambitious scheme, and not divert the proceeds into their pockets.

Rainforest preservation has become central to U.N. talks on a tougher climate pact and is a focus of a major climate conference in Cancun, Mexico  , that began on
November 29.

The key is carbon. Forests, and particularly deep peat forests in the tropics, soak up and lock away lots of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, acting like giant filters for the atmosphere. Cut down the forests and drain the peat, and they can release even more. Deforestation and burning account for more than half Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it a leading carbon polluter.

How, then, to put a price on that carbon and trade it?
That’s the puzzle and the lure for many investors who want to capture the benefits forests bring, from locking away carbon, to being watersheds for rivers and storehouses of countless species.

“You can’t solve the climate change issue unless you simultaneously tackle deforestation,” said Abyd Karmali, global head of carbon markets for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That means preserving what’s left and driving investment in rainforests in Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, which have the three largest areas of remaining tropical forests.

But the plan pits powerful business interests in the palm oil, logging and mining sectors against public and private sector efforts to support greater forest protection and potential carbon credit payment systems. It also means reforming powerful bureaucracies and weeding out entrenched corruption, strengthening land ownership and land use rules, improving monitoring and law enforcement and enshrining the rights of local forest communities.

The rest of this article can be read on Reuters.

This article was originally posted on the Reuters Website.

Offshore Oil Plan Sacrifices Polar Bear Habitat

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a revised offshore oil plan on Thursday, December 23, 2010. This plan will allow drilling in the center of polar bear habitat in Alaska. Salazar’s plan finalized a revised 2007-2012 nationwide offshore oil leasing plan. The previous plan, which was issued under the Bush administration, had previously been overturned by a federal appeals court for failing to properly analyze impacts of drilling off of the Arctic coast of Alaska.

Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Once again Secretary Salazar has placed political expediency over sound science and the rule of law, and polar bears and other arctic species will suffer for it.”

Salazar’s new plan reaffirms a 2008 lease in the critical habitat of polar bears in the Chukchi Sea. Oil development in the Chukchi Sea is dangerous because no technologies exist to clean up oil spills in icy waters.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental organizations have filed a court challenge to the 2007-2012 offshore oil leasing plan issued by the Bush administration. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set aside that plan for its failure to assess thoroughly the environmental impacts of opening up areas off of Alaska’s coast for drilling. Thursday’s announcement comes in response to that ruling. In a separate ruling this year, a court in Alaska stated that the environmental analysis underlying the lease sale in the Chukchi Sea was unlawful.

Cummings said, “Secretary Salazar has apparently learned nothing from either the Gulf spill or the courts. No matter how many times the courts overturn his decisions to open the arctic to oil, he comes back to the exact same decision.” Cummings cited the damage the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused this past year. With the lack of clean-up technology for an oil spill in the Arctic, Cummings believes that Salazar’s decision to move forward with the Chukchi leases shows that all the promised reforms following the Gulf spill mean nothing for the Arctic.

Furthermore, Salazar has announced that he would uphold a Bush-era decision to list polar bears as merely “threatened,” rather than listing them under the more protective status of “endangered.” By doing this, Salazar will be able to exempt greenhouse gas polluters nationwide, as well as oil companies operating in polar bear habitats from some of the Endangered Species Act’s most protective provisions.

“This week Secretary Salazar has delivered a double-barreled blast to the future of the polar bear,” said Cummings. “At this rate Secretary Salazar will be writing the polar bear’s obituary rather than its recovery plan.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 315,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Source: ENN