Why remote Antarctica is so important in a warming world

Chris Fogwill, Keele University; Chris Turney, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Keele University

Ever since the ancient Greeks speculated a continent must exist in the south polar regions to balance those in the north, Antarctica has been popularly described as remote and extreme. Over the past two centuries, these factors have combined to create, in the human psyche, an almost mythical land – an idea reinforced by tales of heroism and adventure from the Edwardian golden age of “heroic exploration” and pioneers such as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Recent research, however, is casting new light on the importance of the southernmost continent, overturning centuries of misunderstanding and highlighting the role of Antarctica in how our planet works and the role it may play in a future, warmer world.

Heroic exploration, 1913.

What was once thought to be a largely unchanging mass of snow and ice is anything but. Antarctica holds a staggering amount of water. The three ice sheets that cover the continent contain around 70% of our planet’s fresh water, all of which we now know to be vulnerable to warming air and oceans. If all the ice sheets were to melt, Antarctica would raise global sea levels by at least 56m.

Where, when, and how quickly they might melt is a major focus of research. No one is suggesting all the ice sheets will melt over the next century but, given their size, even small losses could have global repercussions. Possible scenarios are deeply concerning: in addition to rising sea levels, meltwater would slow down the world’s ocean circulation, while shifting wind belts may affect the climate in the southern hemisphere.

In 2014, NASA reported that several major Antarctic ice streams, which hold enough water to trigger the equivalent of a one-and-a-half metre sea level rise, are now irreversibly in retreat. With more than 150m people exposed to the threat of sea level rise and sea levels now rising at a faster rate globally than any time in the past 3,000 years, these are sobering statistics for island nations and coastal cities worldwide.

An immediate and acute threat

Recent storm surges following hurricanes have demonstrated that rising sea levels are a future threat for densely populated regions such as Florida and New York. Meanwhile the threat for low-lying islands in areas such as the Pacific is immediate and acute.

Much of the continent’s ice is slowly sliding towards the sea.
R Bindschadler / wiki

Multiple factors mean that the vulnerability to global sea level rise is geographically variable and unequal, while there are also regional differences in the extremity of sea level rise itself. At present, the consensus of the IPPC 2013 report suggests a rise of between 40 and 80cm over the next century, with Antarctica only contributing around 5cm of this. Recent projections, however, suggest that Antarctic contributions may be up to ten times higher.

Studies also suggest that in a world 1.5-2°C warmer than today we will be locked into millennia of irreversible sea level rise, due to the slow response time of the Antarctic ice sheets to atmospheric and ocean warming.

We may already be living in such a world. Recent evidence shows global temperatures are close to 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial times and, after the COP23 meeting in Bonn in November, it is apparent that keeping temperature rise within 2°C is unlikely.

So we now need to reconsider future sea level projections given the potential global impact from Antarctica. Given that 93% of the heat from anthropogenic global warming has gone into the ocean, and these warming ocean waters are now meeting the floating margins of the Antarctic ice sheet, the potential for rapid ice sheet melt in a 2°C world is high.

In polar regions, surface temperatures are projected to rise twice as fast as the global average, due to a phenomenon known as polar amplification. However, there is still hope to avoid this sword of Damocles, as studies suggest that a major reduction in greenhouse gases over the next decade would mean that irreversible sea level rise could be avoided. It is therefore crucial to reduce CO₂ levels now for the benefit of future generations, or adapt to a world in which more of our shorelines are significantly redrawn.

This is both a scientific and societal issue. We have choices: technological innovations are providing new ways to reduce CO₂ emissions, and offer the reality of a low-carbon future. This may help minimise sea level rise from Antarctica and make mitigation a viable possibility.

Given what rising sea levels could mean for human societies across the world, we must maintain our longstanding view of Antarctica as the most remote and isolated continent.The Conversation

Chris Fogwill, Professor of Glaciology and Palaeoclimatology, Keele University; Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Reader in Physical Geography and Sustainability/Director of Education for Sustainability, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


We must strengthen, not weaken, environmental protections during drought – or face irreversible loss

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The Flock Bronzewing is an inland species that is vulnerable to drought. Those vulnerabilities are heightened in an era of climate change and increased risks from feral predators.

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Richard Kingsford, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

Australian rural communities face hardships during extended drought, and it is generally appropriate that governments then provide special support for affected landholders and communities.

However, some politicians and commentators have recently claimed that such circumstances should be addressed by circumventing environmental laws or management – by, for example, reallocating environmental water to grow fodder or opening up conservation reserves for livestock grazing.

But subverting or weakening existing protective conservation management practices and policies will exacerbate the impacts of drought on natural environments and biodiversity.

Read more:
Giving environmental water to drought-stricken farmers sounds straightforward, but it’s a bad idea

Drought-related decline in wildlife

Impacts of severe weather on some natural systems are obvious and well-recognised. For example, during periods of elevated sea temperature, coral bleaching may conspicuously signal extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

On land, however, the impacts of comparable extreme climatic events on natural systems may be less obvious, even if of comparable magnitude.

Nonetheless, the record is clear: drought leads to extensive and severe declines in many wildlife species.

Early observers in Australia reported the collapse of bird communities (“the bush fell silent”) and other wildlife across vast areas during the Federation Drought.

There were comparable responses during the Millennium Drought.

Unsurprisingly, wetland environments, and species dependent on them, may bear the brunt of impacts. That said, impacts are pervasive across all landscapes exposed to drought.

Drought contributed to the extinction of one of Australia’s most beautiful birds, the Paradise Parrot. For example, the pastoralist and zoologist Charles Barnard noted:

Previous to the terrible drought of 1902 it was not uncommon to see a pair of these birds when out mustering … but since that year not a single specimen has been seen … For three years… there had been no wet season, and very little grass grew, consequently there was little seed; then the worst year came on, in which no grass grew, so that the birds could not find a living, and … perished … they have not found their way back.

Drought contributed to the extinction of one of Australia’s most beautiful birds, the Paradise Parrot.
Wikimedia, CC BY

After the long droughts break, native plant and animal species may take many years to recover, and some never recover or return to their former range.

Threatened plant and animal species – with an already tenuous toe-hold on existence – are often the most affected.

Days of extremely hot temperatures also exceed the thermoregulatory tolerance of some species. That means mass mortality for some animals; and large numbers of even hardy native trees may be killed by heat and lack of rain across extensive areas.

Furthermore, water sources can disappear from much of the landscape. Organisms dependent on floods are now more vulnerable, given that overallocation of water from rivers has increased drying of wetlands.

Drought is not new in Australia, but the stresses are greater now

Of course, drought has long been a recurrent characteristic of Australia. Indeed, many Australian plants and animals are among the most drought-adapted and resilient in the world. But drought impacts on wildlife are now likely to be of unprecedented severity and duration, for several reasons:

  1. with global climate change, droughts will be more severe and frequent. There will be less opportunity for wildlife to recover in the reduced interval between drought periods

  2. feral cats and introduced foxes now occur across most of Australia. In drought periods, these hunt more effectively because drought reduces the ground-layer vegetation that many native prey species rely upon for shelter. Cats and foxes also congregate and hunt more efficiently as wildlife cluster around the few water sources that are left

  3. prior to European settlement, the reduction in vegetation during drought would have been accompanied by natural feedback loops, notably reduction in the density of native herbivores. Now, livestock are often maintained in drought-affected areas, with supplementary food provided, but they also graze on what little native vegetation remains. Now, wildlife must compete with feral goats, camels and rabbits for the last vestiges of vegetation

  4. clearing of native vegetation across much of the eastern rangelands means it will now be much harder for species lost from some areas during drought to recolonise their former haunts after drought. The habitat connectivity has been lost

  5. many wildlife species could previously endure drought by maintaining a residue of their population in small refuge areas, where nutrients or moisture persisted in an otherwise hostile landscape. Now, livestock, feral herbivores and predators also congregate at these areas, making them less effective as native wildlife refuges

  6. in at least woodland and forest habitats, droughts may interact with other factors. Notably, drought increases the likelihood of high intensity and extensive bushfires that can cause long-lasting damage to wildlife and environments.

Read more:
Australia burns while politicians fiddle with the leadership

Our intention here is not to downplay the needs or plight of rural communities affected by drought.

Rather, we seek to bring attention to the other life struggling in that landscape. Australia should bolster, not diminish, conservation efforts during drought times. If we don’t, we will suffer irretrievable losses to our nature.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Richard Kingsford, Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What the world needs now to fight climate change: More swamps

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Freshwater cypress swamp, First Landing State Park, Va.
VA State Parks, CC BY

William Moomaw, Tufts University; Gillian Davies, Tufts University, and Max Finlayson, Charles Sturt University

“Drain the swamp” has long meant getting rid of something distasteful. Actually, the world needs more swamps – and bogs, fens, marshes and other types of wetlands.

These are some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. They also are underrated but irreplaceable tools for slowing the pace of climate change and protecting our communities from storms and flooding.

Scientists widely recognize that wetlands are extremely efficient at pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and converting it into living plants and carbon-rich soil. As part of a transdisciplinary team of nine wetland and climate scientists, we published a paper earlier this year that documents the multiple climate benefits provided by all types of wetlands, and their need for protection.

Saltwater wetland, Waquoit Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, Mass.
Ariana Sutton-Grier, CC BY-ND

A vanishing resource

For centuries human societies have viewed wetlands as wastelands to be “reclaimed” for higher uses. China began large-scale alteration of rivers and wetlands in 486 B.C. when it started constructing the Grand Canal, still the longest canal in the world. The Dutch drained wetlands on a large scale beginning about 1,000 years ago, but more recently have restored many of them. As a surveyor and land developer, George Washington led failed efforts to drain the Great Dismal Swamp on the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

Today many modern cities around the world are built on filled wetlands. Large-scale drainage continues, particularly in parts of Asia. Based on available data, total cumulative loss of natural wetlands is estimated to be 54 to 57 percent – an astounding transformation of our natural endowment.

Vast stores of carbon have accumulated in wetlands, in some cases over thousands of years. This has reduced atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane – two key greenhouse gases that are changing Earth’s climate. If ecosystems, particularly forests and wetlands, did not remove atmospheric carbon, concentrations of carbon dioxide from human activities would increase by 28 percent more each year.

Wetland soil core taken from Todd Gulch Fen at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The dark, carbon-rich core is about 3 feet long. Living plants at its top provide thermal insulation, keeping the soil cold enough that decomposition by microbes is very slow.
William Moomaw, Tufts University, CC BY-ND

From carbon sinks to carbon sources

Wetlands continuously remove and store atmospheric carbon. Plants take it out of the atmosphere and convert it into plant tissue, and ultimately into soil when they die and decompose. At the same time, microbes in wetland soils release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as they consume organic matter.

Natural wetlands typically absorb more carbon than they release. But as the climate warms wetland soils, microbial metabolism increases, releasing additional greenhouse gases. In addition, draining or disturbing wetlands can release soil carbon very rapidly.

For these reasons, it is essential to protect natural, undisturbed wetlands. Wetland soil carbon, accumulated over millennia and now being released to the atmosphere at an accelerating pace, cannot be regained within the next few decades, which are a critical window for addressing climate change. In some types of wetlands, it can take decades to millennia to develop soil conditions that support net carbon accumulation. Other types, such as new saltwater wetlands, can rapidly start accumulating carbon.

Arctic permafrost, which is wetland soil that remains frozen for two consecutive years, stores nearly twice as much carbon as the current amount in the atmosphere. Because it is frozen, microbes cannot consume it. But today, permafrost is thawing rapidly, and Arctic regions that removed large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere as recently as 40 years ago are now releasing significant quantities of greenhouse gases. If current trends continue, thawing permafrost will release as much carbon by 2100 as all U.S. sources, including power plants, industry and transportation.

Kuujjuarapik is a region underlain by permafrost in Northern Canada.
Nigel Roulet, McGill University., CC BY-ND

Climate services from wetlands

In addition to capturing greenhouse gases, wetlands make ecosystems and human communities more resilient in the face of climate change. For example, they store flood waters from increasingly intense rainstorms. Freshwater wetlands provide water during droughts and help cool surrounding areas when temperatures are elevated.

Salt marshes and mangrove forests protect coasts from hurricanes and storms. Coastal wetlands can even grow in height as sea level rises, protecting communities further inland.

Saltwater mangrove forest along the coast of the Biosphere Reserve in Sian Ka’an, Mexico.
Ariana Sutton-Grier, CC BY-ND

But wetlands have received little attention from climate scientists and policymakers. Moreover, climate considerations are often not integrated into wetland management. This is a critical omission, as we pointed out in a recent paper with 6 colleagues that places wetlands within the context of the Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity, a statement endorsed by an unprecedented 20,000 scientists.

The most important international treaty for the protection of wetlands is the Ramsar Convention, which does not include provisions to conserve wetlands as a climate change strategy. While some national and subnational governments effectively protect wetlands, few do this within the context of climate change.

Forests rate their own section (Article 5) in the Paris climate agreement that calls for protecting and restoring tropical forests in developing countries. A United Nations process called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degraded Forests, or REDD+ promises funding for developing countries to protect existing forests, avoid deforestation and restore degraded forests. While this covers forested wetlands and mangroves, it was not until 2016 that a voluntary provision for reporting emissions from wetlands was introduced into the U.N. climate accounting system, and only a small number of governments have taken advantage of it.

Models for wetland protection

Although global climate agreements have been slow to protect wetland carbon, promising steps are starting to occur at lower levels.

Ontario, Canada has passed legislation that is among the most protective of undeveloped lands by any government. Some of the province’s most northern peatlands, which contain minerals and potential hydroelectric resources, are underlain by permafrost that could release greenhouse gases if disturbed. The Ontario Far North Act specifically states that more than 50 percent of the land north of 51 degrees latitude is to be protected from development, and the remainder can only be developed if the cultural, ecological (diversity and carbon sequestration) and social values are not degraded.

Also in Canada, a recent study reports large increases in carbon storage from a project that restored tidal flooding to a saltmarsh near Aulac, New Brunswick, on Canada’s Bay of Fundy. The marsh had been drained by a dike for 300 years, causing loss of soil and carbon. But just six years after the dike was breached, rates of carbon accumulation in the restored marsh averaged more than five times the rate reported for a nearby mature marsh.

Ten feet (3 meters) of carbon-rich soil accumulation along Dipper Harbour, Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada, has been radiocarbon dated to have accumulated over 3,000 years.
Gail Chmura, McGill University, CC BY-ND

In our view, instead of draining swamps and weakening protections, governments at all levels should take action immediately to conserve and restore wetlands as a climate strategy. Protecting the climate and avoiding climate-associated damage from storms, flooding and drought is a much higher use for wetlands than altering them for short-term economic gains.

This article has been updated to add a link to the Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity.The Conversation

William Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy, Tufts University; Gillian Davies, Visiting Scholar, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, and Max Finlayson, Director, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How did the fish cross the road? Our invention helps them get to the other side of a culvert

File 20180924 129868 4v1wjx.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
When a stream enters a culvert, the flow can be concentrated so much that water flows incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, that small and juvenile fish are unable to swim against the flow and are prevented from reaching where they need to go to eat, reproduce or find safety.

Jabin Watson, The University of Queensland; Craig E. Franklin, The University of Queensland; Harriet Goodrich, University of Exeter; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland, and Rebecca L. Cramp, The University of Queensland

Fish need to move to find food, escape predators and reach suitable habitat for reproduction. Too often, however, human activities get in the way. Dams, weirs and culverts (the tunnels and drains often found under roads) can create barriers that fragment habitats, isolating fish populations.

An Australian innovation, however, promises to help dwindling fish populations in Australia and worldwide. Our solution, recently described in Ecological Engineering, tackles one of the greatest impediments to fish migration in Australia: culverts.

A culvert crisis in our waterways

Freshwater ecosystems are one of the most heavily impacted by human activities.

Many freshwater species, such as the iconic barramundi, start their life as larvae in estuaries, then as small juveniles they make mammoth upstream migrations to freshwater habitats. In fact, about half of the freshwater fish species in southeast Australia need to migrate as part of their life cycle.

When fish are unable to pass human-made barriers, the decline in populations can be huge. For example, in the Murray-Darling Basin where there are thousands of barriers and flows are highly regulated, fish numbers are estimated to be at only 10% of pre-European numbers.

In New South Wales alone, there are more than 4,000 human-made barriers to fish passage. Over half of these are culverts. Culverts are most often installed to allow roads to cross waterways. They are designed to move water under the road, which they do quite efficiently, but often with no consideration of the requirements of the animals that live there.

When a stream enters a culvert, the flow can be concentrated so much that water flows incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, that small and juvenile fish are unable to swim against the flow and are prevented from reaching where they need to go to eat, reproduce or find safety.

A map of human-made barriers to fish passage in NSW. Image: Fisheries NSW.

Many current design ‘fixes’ come with problems

The problem culverts pose for fish is now well acknowledged by fisheries managers, and as a result efforts to make culverts fish-friendly are now widespread.

Where space allows, these new fish passage solutions can resemble a natural stream, where rocks of various sizes are added to break up the flow. Alternatively, artificial baffles (barriers to break up and slow the flow) are also commonly attached to the walls of the tunnel.

These designs do have some drawbacks. They may suit some fish sizes and species, but not all. They can be expensive to install. They also tend to catch debris, which increases maintenance costs and the risk of flooding upstream during high flow events.

A box culvert running under a road.

Using physics to find a new solution

We took a new approach that harnesses a property of fluid mechanics that scientists call the “boundary layer”. When a fluid moves over a solid surface, friction causes the water to slow down next to the surface. This thin layer of slower-moving water is called the boundary layer.

Where two surfaces meet, such as in the corner of a square culvert, the boundary layers of the bed and wall merge. This creates a small area of slower-moving water – the “reduced velocity zone” – right in the corner. This is quite small, but little fish can still use it and are very good at finding it.

We wanted to expand this zone (to accommodate a wider range of fish sizes) and slow the water in it further.

So, we added a third surface, generating three boundary layers that then joined. This was done by adding a square beam running the length of the channel wall, close to the floor. The boundary layers of the floor, wall and bottom surface of the beam merged to create a reduced velocity channel along the side of the main flow.

In this GIF to the right hand side, the reduced velocity zone is revealed by adding a fluorescent dye, which lingers in the slower flowing water under the square beam we added to the channel.

Testing our design in a 12 metre channel (or flume) found that water velocity in the zone below the beam was slowed by up to 30%. For small fish, this is a huge reduction.

In tests, we focused on small-bodied species, or juveniles of larger growing species, because these are considered the weakest swimming size class and most vulnerable to high water velocities created within culverts. Every species tested saw significant improvements in their ability to swim and traverse up the channel.

All of the species benefited, regardless of their body shape or swimming style.

The GIF on the right hand side here shows a juvenile Murray cod swimming upstream using the reduced velocity zone we created by adding the beam.

Creating a slower-flowing zone

Our novel fish passage design is highly effective, yet very simple. It’s a square beam installed along the length of a culvert wall, so it’s easy to incorporate into new structures and cheap to retrofit into existing culverts.

It is also much less likely to trap debris than baffles or rocks embedded in the floor of a culvert.

This is a totally new approach that has the potential for widespread application, helping to restore the connectivity of freshwater fish populations here in Australia, and overseas.

A Crimson-spotted rainbowfish navigates the fast flow by swimming under the beam we added to channel.
Harriet Goodrich, Author provided
You can see the beam more clearly here. A Crimson-spotted rainbowfish swims under the beam we added to slow the water flow in that area.
Harriet Goodrich, Author provided

More research lies ahead. We’re hoping that by optimising the dimensions of the beam we can get even more fish through the channels, with even greater ease. We’re also planning field testing to check our laboratory findings work in the real world.

Freshwater biodiversity is greatest in the tropics. Here, developing countries are having drastic impacts on their freshwater ecosystems. The simplicity of this design may make it an affordable approach to help maintain and restore habitat connectivity in developing regions.

Matthew Gordos from NSW Fisheries contributed to this article.The Conversation

Jabin Watson, Postdoctoral researcher, The University of Queensland; Craig E. Franklin, Professor in Zoology, The University of Queensland; Harriet Goodrich, PhD student, University of Exeter; Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland, and Rebecca L. Cramp, Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Greenwashing: corporate tree planting generates goodwill but may sometimes harm the planet

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Missing the wood for the trees.

Benjamin Neimark, Lancaster University

Trees do a lot more for us than you probably think. Their roots prevent soil from eroding, their canopies provide shade and their leaves decompose into nutrients for crops, which feed livestock. Trees provide homes for a diverse range of wildlife and tree crops, such as coffee, rubber, and hardwoods, support countless livelihoods and entire economies. Trees also mark boundaries and hold immense spiritual, cultural and social value for smallholder communities around the world.

In the 1980s, charities proposed planting more trees to halt “desertification” in the Sahara Desert. This involved “afforestation” – planting trees where they had not grown for a while and “reforestation” – replacing recently lost tree cover.

Today the idea is growing strong, and an array of private companies from adult website Pornhub (yes, Pornhub) to clothing brand Ten Tree are using trees as a marketing tool.

Read more:
Pornhub has planted a few more trees, but don’t pretend it’s being responsible

Saving face or saving forests?

Businesses can offset their environmental impact by planting trees or supporting other forms of habitat restoration, so as to “pay off” the damage they cause locally. As climate change escalates, trees are in vogue for their potential to soak up the carbon dioxide we keep putting in the atmosphere.

The United Nations (UN) has even adopted a scheme for offering local communities and governments some sort of financial payout for saving trees from deforestation. This “economy of repair” has been adopted by some of the largest companies in their commitments to corporate social responsibility. One such programme is the Green Belt Movement – a Kenyan conservation NGO started by the late professor and Nobel Prize recipient Wangari Maathai.

Tree planting around the Sahara Desert has overwhelmingly relied on local efforts rather than businesses.
Niels Polderman/Shutterstock

Maathai’s original mission was to empower local people, particularly women, to overcome inequality through leading forest restoration and resisting the expanding Sahara Desert. Despite the involvement of charities and businesses, research has suggested that in programmes like these, it is farmers and local people, not companies, which make the biggest contributions to planting new trees. Since local people also inherit responsibility for them, it’s important that projects devised by outside parties are planned and executed wisely, and in the community’s interest.

Read more:
Africa’s got plans for a Great Green Wall: why the idea needs a rethink

While some may argue that tree planting is a win-win for the environment whoever does it, offsetting is just another way of corporate greenwashing. Environmental damage in one place cannot somehow be fixed by repairing habitats elsewhere, sometimes on the other side of the world.

Here are some of the ways in which indiscriminate tree planting can cause more harm than good.

Plantations are not forests

Diverse forests are often cleared for agricultural production or industrial use, and replaced by uniform stands of the same species selected because of their ability to grow fast.

Tropical forests in some cases take up to 65 years to regrow and their diversity cannot be replicated by a monoculture of reforested plots.

Ecologically illiterate

Reforestation and afforestation schemes must decide which species are appropriate to plant – native or exotic, multi-purpose or fast growing, naturally regenerating forests or managed plantations. Sometimes the wrong species are selected and Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) is one such poor choice.

Eucalyptus is usually chosen because it is fast growing and economically valuable. Yet, it is exotic to many places it is now planted and requires lots of water, which drains the water table and competes with native crops.

In Europe, replacing broad-leafed native oak trees with faster growing conifers has meant that forest cover on the continent is 10% greater than it was before the industrial revolution. However, the new trees are not as good at trapping carbon but do trap heat more efficiently, contributing to global warming. Clearly, tree planting without due caution can do more harm than good.

Trees need care – lots of it

Tree species take a long time to grow and need continual care. However, tree planting schemes usually “plant and go” –- meaning they do not put resources into managing the trees after they are placed into the ground. Young trees are particularly vulnerable to disease and competition for light and nutrients and if not cared for, will eventually die.

Newly planted tree saplings may need three to five years of frequent watering to survive.

Trees are political

Trees planted by states or private donors may choose sites without consulting local communities, ignoring any of their customary land rights and management regimes. This locally-owned land may be in fallow or have different economic, cultural or spiritual uses.

Blundering into planting in these places may exacerbate tensions over land tenure, spreading disinterest in tree care and stewardship. Dispossessed locals may move to existing forests and clear land for food production. Tenure rights over trees are also not always owned by whole households either, but divided between gender. Planting trees and asking questions later may sow tensions over land ownership for long after the project departs.

It’s no surprise that trees are on the green economy agenda, but this does not necessarily mean that planting them is “green” or helpful for social harmony. Allowing trees to regrow naturally is not always effective either, as trees are unlikely to survive on their own. Community involvement is therefore crucial.

This means real consultation over site and species selection, property rights over the trees, their products, and the land they grow in and who takes on the labour to keep the trees alive after they are planted. If companies are serious about planting trees then they need to care about the communities that live with them and not just their own reputations.The Conversation

Benjamin Neimark, Senior Lecturer, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Antarctica’s ‘moss forests’ are drying and dying

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Lush moss beds in East Antarctica’s Windmill Islands.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Melinda Waterman, University of Wollongong; Johanna Turnbull, University of Wollongong, and Sharon Robinson, University of Wollongong

The lush moss beds that grow near East Antarctica’s coast are among the only plants that can withstand life on the frozen continent. But our new research shows that these slow-growing plants are changing at a far faster rate than anticipated.

We began monitoring plant ecosystems 18 years ago, near Australia’s Casey Station in the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica.

Casey Station is on East Antarctica’s coast. Click map to zoom.
Australian Antarctic Data Centre

As we report in Nature Climate Change today, within just 13 years we observed significant changes in the composition and health of these moss beds, due to the drying effects of weather changes prompted by damage to the ozone layer.

Living on the edge

Visitors to Antarctica expect to see a stark landscape of white and blue: ice, water, and sky. But in some places summer brings a surprisingly verdant green, as lush mosses emerge from under their winter snow blanket.

Because it contains the best moss beds on continental Antarctica, Casey Station is dubbed the Daintree of the Antarctic. Individual plants have been growing here for at least 100 years; fertilised by ancient penguin poo.

Read more:
Drones help scientists check the health of Antarctic mosses, revealing climate change clues

Antarctic mosses are extremophiles, the only plants that can survive the continent’s frigid winters. They live in a frozen desert where life-sustaining water is mostly locked up as ice, and they grow at a glacial pace – typically just 1 mm a year.

These mosses are home to tardigrades and other organisms, all of which survive harsh conditions by drying out and becoming dormant. When meltwater is available, mosses soak it up like a sponge and spring back to life.

The short summer growing season runs from December to March. Day temperatures finally rise above freezing, providing water from melting snow. Overnight temperatures drop below zero and mosses refreeze. Harsh, drying winds reach speeds of 200 km per hour. This is life on the edge.

Tough turf

When we first began monitoring the moss beds, they were dominated by Schistidium antarctici, a species found only in Antarctica. These areas were typically submerged through most of the summer, favouring the water-loving Schistidium. But as the area dries, two hardy, global species have encroached on Schistidium’s turf.

Like tree rings, mosses preserve a record of past climate in their shoots. From this we found nearly half of the mosses showed evidence of drying.

Healthy green moss has turned red or grey, indicating that plants are under stress and dying. This is due to the area drying because of colder summers and stronger winds. This increased desertification of East Antarctica is caused by both climate change and ozone depletion.

Moss beds, with moss in the foreground showing signs of stress.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Since the 1970s, man-made substances have thinned Earth’s protective sunscreen, the ozone layer, creating a hole that appears directly over Antarctica during the southern spring (September–November). This has dramatically affected the southern hemisphere’s climate. Westerly winds have moved closer to Antarctica and strengthened, shielding much of continental East Antarctica from global warming.

Our study shows that these effects are contributing to drying of East Antarctica, which is in turn altering plant communities and affecting the health of some native plant species. East Antarctica’s mosses can be viewed as sentinels for a rapidly drying coastal climate.

But there is good news. The ozone layer is slowly recovering as pollutants are phased out thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. What is likely to happen to Antarctic coastal climates when ozone levels recover fully by the middle of this century?

Read more:
The ozone hole leaves a lasting impression on southern climate

Unlike other polar regions, East Antarctica has so far experienced little or no warming.

Antarctic ice-free areas are currently less than 1% of the continent but are predicted to expand over the coming century. Our research suggests that this may isolate moss beds from snow banks, which are their water reservoirs. Ironically, increased ice melt may be bad news for some Antarctic mosses.

East Antarctica is drying – first at the hands of ozone depletion, and then by climate change. How its native mosses fare in the future depends on how we control greenhouse gas emissions. But with decisive action and continued monitoring, we can hopefully preserve these fascinating ecosystems for the future.The Conversation

Melinda Waterman, Associate lecturer, University of Wollongong; Johanna Turnbull, Associate Lecturer in Biology, University of Wollongong, and Sharon Robinson, Professor, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Caught on camera: The fossa, Madagascar’s elusive top predator

File 20180918 158237 1o9612m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) at the Houston Zoo.
Josh Henderson, CC BY-SA

Asia Murphy, Pennsylvania State University

Mention wildlife on Madagascar and the first thing listeners probably picture is the island’s famed lemurs. As many people know, these unique primates are found nowhere else, and are the most endangered group of mammals in the world. But few people realize that lemurs’ fate is directly bound up with that of Madagascar’s largest predator, the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), which is threatened by some of the same pressures.

Fossa are terrier-sized, cat-like relatives of mongoose with tails as long as their bodies. Like other top predators such as lions and wolves, they play a critical ecological role regulating the populations of their prey.

Like much of Madagascar’s wildlife, fossa are found nowhere else in the world. But scientists know little else about them, including how many fossa there are. They are rare, difficult to see in the wild, and lack unique coat patterns that would make it easy to distinguish individual animals.

I worked on a team of researchers from the United States and Madagascar that spent seven years surveying Madagascar’s largest protected area – a zone the size of Connecticut – with trail cameras to see if we could determine how many fossa were there. We found that this area holds a significant portion of the global fossa population, and is likely the last stronghold for this unique species. Our research provides key information that can help correctly assess fossas’ threatened status and lay the basis for appropriate conservation action.

An alert fossa looks out over the rainforest.

Madagascar’s top carnivore

Fossa weigh about 20 pounds and can prey on most of Madagascar’s other species. They are capable hunters on land and in the trees, using their tails for balance and killing by biting through their prey’s skulls. One study found that fossa were largely responsible for two lemur family groups disappearing from forests over a two-year period. Fossa, like other top predators, help keep prey populations at a level that their habitat can support, and rid the population of diseased and weak individuals.

Fossa also exhibit some very interesting behaviors. They are one of nine mammalian species whose sexually immature females go through a period of transient masculinization. During this phase, their clitorises enlarge and grow spines to look like an adult male fossa’s penis. Researchers think this helps sexually immature females avoid the aggressive attentions of males looking for females with which to mate.

In the deciduous forests of western Madagascar, scientists have discovered that male and female fossa will gather together at the same spot year after year to mate. Otherwise, however, fossa were thought to be solitary until 2010, when researchers observed three male fossa working together to kill a lemur. Since then, some male fossa have been seen to team up with another male or two to hunt prey and protect a larger territory than solitary males. And in 2015, our study captured photos suggesting that male fossa in the eastern rainforests will also associate.

Two male fossa captured on camera in northeastern Madagascar.
Asia Murphy

Lack of funding and political instability has made it hard for Madagascar’s government and conservation organizations to study the fossa. Because of their elusive nature, it is particularly hard to figure out basic things, such as how many fossa there are in an area. And without good numbers, scientists can’t assess whether a species is threatened or develop plans for protecting it.

Tracking fossa with cameras

Automatic cameras, known as camera traps, are a standard tool for collecting information on elusive wildlife in remote areas. The only thing “trapped” is the animal’s digital image.

Our images showed what type of habitat fossa used, when they were active, and how they co-existed with other carnivores such as dogs. Variations among individual animals, such as scars, tail width and kinkiness, and the presence and number of ear nicks, made it possible to start picking out certain fossa from the population and “follow” them from one camera to another.

One of our top goals was assessing how many fossa were present in the reserve and how close together they were. Determining density is key for conserving species. Once we knew know how many fossa there were, on average, in a unit of area such as square kilometer, we could estimate how many there were in the entire region and compare between different protected areas.

Flat Tail, seen in 2008 as a young pup (left) and 2013 as a mature male (right). We were able to follow this fossa as he grew up thanks to his strange and unique tail tip.
Asia Murphy & Zach Farris

The value of a number

Over a seven-year period we ran 15 surveys across seven study sites in the reserve. For months on end, we set up cameras, checked them, downloaded data and then moved cameras to survey as much area as possible. In all of this time, I never personally saw a fossa, but two local field assistants saw fossa in the trees once or twice.

Next came three years of analyzing photos, recording which animals had identifying marks and how far those marked fossa moved during their daily activities. Finally, nearly a decade after the very first survey in Masoala-Makira, we had a population estimate.

We calculated the fossa population in Masoala-Makira at 1,061, give or take around 500 animals. This worked out to about 20 fossa per 100 square kilometers. In other words, we had a small town of lemur-eating carnivores living in an area the size of Connecticut.

Why is this important? Because our colleague Brian Gerber did a similar study in southeastern Madagascar, with one important difference: He applied his estimate to the area of all of Madagascar’s protected forests. He estimated there to be 8,626 fossa in the entire world.

Only two protected areas were large enough to hold enough fossa that the population could stay stable, at the very least, despite individuals dying or being killed. We showed that Masoala-Makira is one of them. And as the largest protected area in Madagascar, it will be home to fossa long after they disappear elsewhere due to hunting and habitat loss.

The next priority is to survey Madagascar’s other protected area large enough to hold a self-sustaining population, the Zahamena-Mantadia-Vohidrazana complex, to better estimate the global fossa population. And local governments need to attempt to curb hunting within protected areas and control feral dogs and cats, which can kill native species and spread diseases.

Rare and charismatic species typically get the most conservation attention, especially through events like National Geographic’s Big Cat Week. In fact, however, there are four times more lions than fossa in the entire world. Maybe it’s time for Fossa Friday.The Conversation

Asia Murphy, PhD candidate, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.