All clones are not alike.
What’s the News: Foresters have long noticed that trees with the exact same genes, when raised in separate nurseries, have very different responses to drought. While one shoots up through lean times, the other droops. Why the divergence?
Scientists have now found that twin trees raised separately are, just like human twins, expressing different genes. In other words, nurture is affecting nature.
The National Palace in Port-au-Prince
after the 2010 Haiti earthquake
What’s the News: To dampen structural vibrations from earthquakes, engineers often place a flexible layer of rubber bearings in between buildings and the soil. Now, scientists are learning that Mother Nature uses a similar technique. A research team has found that a buried layer of mangrove in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe absorbs earthquake energy, shielding the above ground from soil liquefaction. This discovery could be exploited to help protect new buildings in the Caribbean islands.
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The state of our forests is troubled, but maybe on the mend.
The United Nations, as part of its effort to brand 2011 the International Year of Forests, released an assessment this week about forest extent, and quality, all around the world. First, the good news: Forest destruction is slowing down, according to assistant director general Eduardo Rojas-Briales of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The 4.032 billion hectares (9.9 billion acres) of forests in the world in 2010 is down from an estimated 4.085 billion in 2000, said the FAO. But the speed at which which trees are being cut down is slowing from 8.3 million hectares a year in 1990-2000 to 5.2 million in the past decade. “There are evident signs that we could arrive at a balance in a few years,” said Rojas-Briales, adding that the deforestation rate was 50 million hectares a year 30 years ago. [AFP]
Asian countries have achieved particularly impressive results, with many adding to their total of forested territory.
“China has increased its forest by three million hectares (30,000 sq km) per year – no country has ever done anything like this before, it’s an enormous contribution,” said … Rojas-Briales. “But we can also highlight the case of Vietnam, a small and densely populated country that’s implemented very smart and comprehensive forest reform – or India, which has not controlled its population as China has and where standards of living are even lower. Nevertheless India has achieved a modest growth of its forest area.” [BBC News]
But the world is not out of the woods, so to speak, in bringing back the forest health of old.
When the Cancun Climate Summit began, we mentioned the modest goals most nations set going in (especially in the wake of 2009’s messy Copenhagen meeting). Indeed, the United Nations climate meeting in Mexico didn’t shoot for the stars in terms of emissions reductions, but the nations assembled at least agreed to a few limited proposals and set the stage for next year.
The agreement is not a legally binding one, but it includes:
1. The package known as the Cancún Agreements gives the more than 190 countries participating in the conference another year to decide whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires most wealthy nations to trim their emissions while providing assistance to developing countries to pursue a cleaner energy future. [The New York Times]
Kyoto’s targets were for the year 2012. The question for the 2011 meeting in South Africa, then, will be whether it’s possible to get everyone on board with a Kyoto extension or some other emissions reduction agreement. (Cancun did bring one promising sign, as the nations agreed in principle to allow outside inspection to check the validity of their emissions cuts.)
2. It includes a scheme to provide financial support for countries to preserve their forests, in a bid to combat deforestation which accounts for almost a fifth of global annual emissions, and makes progress on how countries’ actions are going to be monitored and verified. [The Independent]
What does it take to make a wellspring of biodiversity like the Amazon rainforest? A huge mountain range, a blast of heat, and a little time.
A pair of studies in this week’s edition of Science attempt to sort through tropical natural history and reach the root causes of Amazonia’s embarrassment of biological riches. The first, led by palaeoecologist Carina Hoorn, points to the influence of the Andes Mountains, the spine of South America that runs up its western coast. Sometime between about 35 and 65 million years ago, colliding tectonic plates sent the Andes bulging up. According to the researchers, the birth of a mountain range set of an ecological chain reaction.
The rising mountains that resulted from the uplift blocked humid air from the Atlantic, eventually increasing rainfall along the eastern flank of what became the Andes that eroded nutrient-loaded soils off the mountains. The Andes also kept water from draining into the Pacific, helping form vast wetlands about 23 million years ago that were home to a wide range of mollusks and reptiles. [LiveScience]
It’s not just the sequoias—the towering firs, hemlocks, and other trees of the Pacific Northwest make its forests the tallest in the world, matched only by those in Southeast Asia. That’s according to a study by NASA, which has completed the first survey of the heights of forests throughout the world.
The map, created by NASA’s ICESat, Terra, and Aqua satellites, does more than give bragging rights to West Coast residents. For one thing, it could help scientists who are trying to predict while wildfires might strike, as well as those who want to determine what kind of forests make the best carbon sinks.
The map could also provide a means of monitoring the effects of climate change and deforestation on the world’s forests. Deforestation and land change use is responsible for 20 percent of the world’s emissions, and 48 percent of the world’s deforestation occurs in Brazil, according to a 2008 report by the World Resources Institute [The Independent].
Michael Lefsky and colleagues spent years compiling the data, which they describe in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Imagine enough forest to cover the state of Florida. According to a recent report (pdf), a downturn in illegal logging has protected that amount of forest land–some 42 million acres–over the past decade.
The decrease is a good start, London think tank Chatam House authors say, but there is still more work to do.
“We’re a quarter of the way there,” said Sam Lawson, one of the report’s authors. He expressed the hope that newer regulations–such as a European law passed last week that will ban the import of illegal timber by 2012–would cut the amount of illegal logging even further. [AP]
During the last decade, the report says, Cameroon, the Brazilian Amazon, and Indonesia have decreased logging between 50 and 75 percent. Meanwhile, the seven studied consumer and processing countries have decreased illegally harvested wood imports by 30 percent.
Among those importing countries is the United States, which in 2008 became the first country to ban all imports of illegally logged plants and plant products, including furniture and paper. Europe’s ban, passed earlier this month, will go into effect in 2012.
North Americans may remember 2005 as the year of Hurricane Katrina, but below the equator another fearsome tempest wrought its own devastation that year. From January 16th to 18th a line of thunderstorms tore through the Amazon basin, and researchers who conducted a botanical “body count” after the storm estimate that it laid low between 441 and 663 million trees.
Over the course of two days, a squall line measuring 620 miles (1,000 km) long and 124 miles (200 km) wide raged across the region from southwest to northeast, with buzzsaw-like winds of 90 mph (146 km/hr) causing widespread damage to property and a handful of deaths [Time].
Jeffrey Chambers, a forest ecologist at Tulane University, wanted to assess the damage caused throughout the massive Amazon basin, so he turned to satellites.
The Sahara is the world largest desert, and getting larger. It threatens to creep ever further to the south and turn arable land in desert wasteland. The nations in its path have an idea, though: We’ll build a fence. Of trees.
The “Great Green Wall” would be a tree band that spans the breadth of northern Africa, 9 miles wide and nearly 5,000 miles long, from Senegal at the western edge near the Atlantic to Djibouti on the eastern edge near the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden. It may sound too dreamy or crazy to ever go forward, but this week at a meeting in Chad about desertification, the Global Environment Facility backed the belt idea with $119 million. Chad’s minister of environment, Hassan Térap, says it can be achieved:
When asked if the long-discussed but yet-to-be funded Green Wall initiative was too ambitious, Térap told IRIN: “We have to attack the problem, long ignored, through vision, ambition – and trees. What is wrong with ambition?” [IRIN Africa].
Intense fertilizer use. Gas-guzzling farm equipment. Plowing up land. At first glance, industrial-scale agriculture doesn’t necessarily seem like an environmental positive. But, Stanford scientists say, looks can be deceiving.
Jennifer Burney and colleagues calculated the net effect of agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions from 1961 to 2005, a period when crop yields shot up dramatically. And while agriculture does produce plenty of emissions, those totals were overwhelmed by the emissions savings achieved by greater agricultural productivity. In short, higher yields mean plowing up less land, and plowing up less land means more carbon sequestered in undisturbed forests and soils. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
All other things being equal, the researchers found that agricultural advances between 1961 and 2005 spared a portion of land larger than Russia from development and reduced emissions by the equivalent of 590 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide — roughly a third of the total emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution [Nature].