Global bank urges cities to invest in new infrastructure to adapt to climate change



Our cities need to adapt to cope with more extreme weather events and other impacts from climate change.
Flickr/Shaun Johnston, CC BY-NC-ND

Elisa Palazzo, UNSW

The impacts of climate change on weather, sea levels, food and water supplies should be seen as an investment opportunity for our cities, says global investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

In a report out last month the bank says cities need to adapt to become more resilient to climate change and this could “drive one of the largest infrastructure build-outs in history”.

The bank says cities will be on the frontline of any need to adapt because they are home to more than half the world’s population and generate roughly 80% of global GDP.




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The state of the debate

The report comes at a time when scepticism and wait-and-see approaches are still permeating the debate on climate action globally. The discussion on reducing emissions is dogged by disagreement on targets and actions to be undertaken.

Report cover.
Goldman Sachs

On the contrary, less emphasis has been placed on adapting to global warming, the consequences of which will play out for decades to come even if we meet the goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Goldman Sachs has already said it acknowledges the scientific consensus that climate change is a reality and human activities are responsible for increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

Much global attention has focused so far on the need for climate change mitigation and the reduction of CO₂ emissions. But the bank’s latest report addresses the urban adaptation strategies that are urgently required:

Greater resilience will likely require extensive urban planning, with investments in coastal protections, climate-resilient construction, more robust infrastructure, upgraded water and waste-management systems, energy resilience and stronger communications and transportation systems.

It acknowledges mitigation measures are essential to reduce global temperature in the medium and long term. But it argues we need to act immediately to minimise the current and future effects of climate change in urban areas.

The question is, why would a bank endorse such a vision?

Banking on climate change

The bank’s report is a collection of data and analysis on climate change from well-known sources, such as the IPCC, and a detailed list of expected impacts on cities.

For example, higher temperatures, more frequent and intense storms, and rising sea levels could affect economic activity, damage infrastructure and harm vulnerable residents.

Does the report represent a last call to brace for impact? Or is a more nuanced and somehow optimistic view of the process emerging?

In reality, it’s not surprising this call is coming from an international financial institution such as Golden Sachs. This report needs be read in parallel with the environmental policy framework of the bank which is its “commitment to addressing critical environmental issues”.

The latest report identifies urban adaptation responses and initiatives as market solutions and financial opportunities. It clearly points out where investments should be addressed.

The directions outlined range over infrastructural initiatives to measures that require financial investment. Our cities need better coastal protection, more resilient buildings and open spaces, sustainable water and waste management, and upgraded transport systems.

A call for action

There is a positive takeaway emerging from the bank’s viewpoint which is a pragmatic call for action.

This could reinstate a more optimistic view of climate change. It could overcome the wait-and-see approach by moving the discussions beyond mitigation only.

And the report has the merit to outline some major challenges emerging from the need of financing a comprehensive urban adaptation.




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First, the need for innovative sources of financing and new ways to support climatic transition.

Secondly, the need to look at equity issues emerging from an adaptation process. For example, should a city strengthen flood defences in the CBD or should it upgrade public housing in flood-prone areas? Given the scale of the aims we need to evaluate carefully where best to invest the limited resources available.

But in this respect, no solutions are proposed.

This report is one of the many financial reports on climate change we have seen recently, about the risks and opportunities for the banking and insurance system. It’s probably the first to acknowledge clearly the need for comprehensive adaptation investments to make our cities more resilient.

But in concentrating on the infrastructure needs for cities, the report seems to miss the big picture.

There is still a need to understand how more integrated actions will include the social and environmental dimensions of adapting to climate change to create more sustainable and equitable cities.The Conversation

Elisa Palazzo, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW

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

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Australia is the runaway global leader in building new renewable energy


Matthew Stocks, Australian National University; Andrew Blakers, Australian National University, and Ken Baldwin, Australian National University

In Australia, renewable energy is growing at a per capita rate ten times faster than the world average. Between 2018 and 2020, Australia will install more than 16 gigawatts of wind and solar, an average rate of 220 watts per person per year.

This is nearly three times faster than the next fastest country, Germany. Australia is demonstrating to the world how rapidly an industrialised country with a fossil-fuel-dominated electricity system can transition towards low-carbon, renewable power generation.

Renewable energy capacity installations per capita.
International capacity data for 2018 from the International Renewable Energy Agency. Australian data from the Clean Energy Regulator., Author provided

When the Clean Energy Regulator accredited Tasmania’s 148.5 megawatt (MW) Cattle Hill Wind Farm in August, Australia met its Renewable Energy Target well ahead of schedule.




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We have analysed data from the regulator which tracks large- and small-scale renewable energy generation (including credible future projects), and found the record-high installation rates of 2018 will continue through 2019 and 2020.

Record renewable energy installation rates

While other analyses have pointed out that investment dollars in renewable energy fell in 2019, actual generation capacity has risen. Reductions in building costs may be contributing, as less investment will buy you more capacity.

Last year was a record year for renewable energy installations, with 5.1 gigawatts (GW) accredited in 2018, far exceeding the previous record of 2.2GW in 2017.

The increase was driven by the dramatic rise of large-scale solar farms, which comprised half of the new-build capacity accredited in 2018. There was a tenfold increase in solar farm construction from 2017.

We have projected the remaining builds for 2019 and those for 2020, based on data from the Clean Energy Regulator for public firm announcements for projects.

A project is considered firm if it has a power purchase agreement (PPA, a contract to sell the energy generated), has reached financial close, or is under construction. We assume six months for financial close and start of construction after a long-term supply contract is signed, and 12 or 18 months for solar farm or wind farm construction, respectively.

This year is on track to be another record year, with 6.5GW projected to be complete by the end of 2019.

The increase is largely attributable to a significant increase in the number of wind farms approaching completion. Rooftop solar has also increased, with current installation rates putting Australia on track for 1.9GW in 2019, also a new record.

This is attributed to the continued cost reductions in rooftop solar, with less than A$1,000 per kilowatt now considered routine and payback periods of the order of two to seven years.

Current (solid) and forecast (hashed) installations of renewable electricity capacity in Australia.
Author provided

Looking ahead to 2020, almost 6GW of large-scale projects are expected to be completed, comprising 2.5GW of solar farms and 3.5GW of wind. Around the end of 2020, this additional generation would deliver the old Renewable Energy Target of 41,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) per annum. That target was legislated in 2009 by the Rudd Labor government but reduced to 33,000GWh by the Abbott Coalition government in 2015.

Maintaining the pipeline

There are strong prospects for continued high installation rates of renewables. Currently available renewable energy contracts are routinely offering less than A$50 per MWh. Long-term contracts for future energy supply have an average price of more than A$58 per MWh. This is a very reasonable profit margin, suggesting a strong economic case for continued installations. Wind and solar prices are likely to decline further throughout the 2020s.

State governments programs are also supporting renewable electricity growth. The ACT has completed contracts for 100% renewable electricity. Victoria and Queensland both have renewable energy targets of 50% renewable electricity by 2030. South Australia is expecting to reach 100% by 2025.

The main impediment to continued renewables growth is transmission. Transmission constraints have resulted in bottlenecks in moving electricity from some wind and solar farms to cities.

Tasmania’s strong wind resource requires a new connection to the mainland to unlock more projects. The limitations of current planning frameworks for this transition were recognised in Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s review of the National Electricity Market, with strong recommendations to overcome these problems and, in particular, to strengthen the role of the Australian Energy Market Operator.




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Now we need state and federal governments to unlock or directly support transmission expansion. For example, the Queensland government has committed to supporting new transmission to unlock solar and wind projects in the far north, including the Genex/Kidston 250MW pumped hydro storage system. The New South Wales government will expedite planning approval for an interconnector between that state and South Australia, defining it as “critical infrastructure”.

These investments are key to Australia maintaining its renewable energy leadership into the next decade.The Conversation

Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University; Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University, and Ken Baldwin, Director, Energy Change Institute, Australian National University

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

Heatwaves and flash floods: yes, this is Britain’s ‘new normal’


Hayley J. Fowler, Newcastle University

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we had a heatwave just last week?”

Those words were spoken by a BBC news presenter, in front of graphic images of fire service rescues, as heavy rain caused floods and landslides which closed many roads and railway lines. In recent days there have dramatic floods across the north of England, particularly around Manchester, the Peak District and Yorkshire.

For me, this is personal, as I am from the worst affected area. I went to high school where people spent the night in their Civic Hall. Three miles away from where I grew up, a dam holding back Toddbrook Reservoir has been at risk of collapse and the town of Whaley Bridge was evacuated. But I’m not surprised that we are seeing flash flooding and I expect it to get worse in the future.

I am a professor at Newcastle University, where I lead a large research group focused on understanding changes to intense rainfall events and flash floods. Over the past eight years we’ve been working closely with colleagues at the UK Met Office to develop new very high-resolution climate models that can simulate these very intense summer storms and therefore predict what might happen in a warming climate.

Our models tell us that by 2080 summers in the UK will be much hotter and drier. Heatwaves will be more common. In fact a report released by the Met Office on the same day as the latest flash floods tells us that heatwaves are already happening more often. When Cambridge recently hit 38.7℃, the UK became one of 12 countries to break its national temperature record this year.

The world is warming. But although UK average summer rainfall is predicted to decrease, our models tell us that when it does rain it will be more intense than has been the case. Flash flooding in the UK is generally caused by intense rainstorms, where more than 30mm falls in an hour. Climate models predict these will happen five times more often by 2080.

Part of the reason for this is the simple fact that warmer air can hold more moisture. But that’s too simple: the availability of moisture also increases in areas close to warm oceans – warmer sea surface temperatures cause more moisture to be evaporated into the atmosphere, providing additional fuel for these intense storms. And here’s the scary bit: the Atlantic Ocean provides a vast source of moisture for storms in the UK.

But that’s not the whole story. Heavy, short rain storms are intensifying more rapidly than would be expected with global warming (what we call the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship). Research also suggests that more intense storms can themselves grow bigger, and with both the intensity of the rainfall and the spatial footprint of the storm increasing, the total rainfall in an “event” could double.

What’s more, the larger storms seem to have an ability to draw in more moisture from the surrounding area and become even more intense: the additional energy (heating) fuelling the uplift of air within the storm’s core draws in even more moisture from the surface, allowing them to grow even larger, with more potential for flooding. These also provide the perfect ingredients for large hail storms.

So, it is entirely consistent that we might expect both more heatwaves and more intense summer thunderstorms in a warmer climate. We also know which areas of the country are already susceptible to these flash floods from our analysis of historical records of flooding. Newspapers have reported on the dramatic impacts of these floods for centuries and this has allowed my team to reconstruct a flash-flooding history of the UK.

Certain parts of the country are highly vulnerable as their rivers respond quickly to rainstorms. These rivers tend to be found in steep, upland catchments underlain by non-permeable rocks, mainly in the north and west of the UK. High-risk catchments also include urban areas where the ground is also non-permeable, for entirely different reasons.

Many of the towns reported to have suffered “biblical” flooding recently have suffered repeated flooding through history, but perhaps not within living memory. For example, Whaley Bridge is mentioned twice in the flood chronologies for events in June 1872 and July 1881:

On 19th [June 1872] the Goyt was 12 to 14 feet above its normal level. At Whaley Bridge houses near the river were completely flooded and people were taken into the chapel and inns … in Macclesfield a woman and child were drowned when the river Bollin overflowed. Two reservoirs burst in the vicinity.

This rich archive of knowledge, including the prevalence of flooding in certain towns, even specific roads, is something we should draw upon in planning both the emergency response to these flash floods and for reducing their future impact. We can learn a lot from the past in how to manage the greater risks of flooding the future will bring.The Conversation

Hayley J. Fowler, Professor of Climate Change Impacts, Newcastle University

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

New research could lead to a pregnancy test for endangered marsupials



Knew you were coming: a koala cub on the back of the mother.
Shutterstock/PARFENOV

Oliver Griffith, University of Melbourne

Many women realise they are pregnant before they’ve even done the test – perhaps feeling a touch of nausea, or tender, larger-than-usual breasts.

For a long time, biologists had thought most marsupials lacked a way to recognise a pregnancy.

But new research published today shows a marsupial mum knows – in a biological sense – when she’s carrying a young one before they make their journey to the pouch.




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This knowledge changes how we think pregnancy evolved in mammals. It may also help in breeding programs for threatened or endangered marsupials by contributing to new technologies such as a marsupial pregnancy test.

Marsupials do things differently

When people think of marsupials – animals that mostly rear their young in a pouch (although not all marsupials have a pouch) – kangaroos and koalas tend to spring to mind. But marsupials come in a range of shapes and sizes.

A red-necked wallaby with a joey.
Pixabay/sandid

Australia has about 250 species of marsupials, including wombats, possums, sugar gliders, the extinct Tasmanian tiger, and several endangered species such as the Tasmanian devil.

In addition to Australia’s marsupial diversity, there are also 120 marsupial species in South America – most of which are opossums – and just one species in North America, the Virginia opossum.

One thing all marsupials have in common is they give birth to very small, almost embryonic, young.

An opossum with two day old young.
Oliver Griffith, Author provided

Because marsupial pregnancy passes so quickly (12-40 days, depending on the species), and marsupial young are so small and underdeveloped at birth, biologists had thought the biological changes required to support the fetus through a pregnancy happened as a follow on from releasing an egg (ovulation), rather than a response to the presence of a fetus.

Marsupial pregnancy is quick

One way to explore the question of whether it is an egg or a fetus that tells the marsupial female to be ready for pregnancy is to look at the uterus and the placenta.

In marsupials, just like in humans, embryos develop inside the uterus where they are nourished by a placenta.

Previously, biologists thought all of the physiological changes required for pregnancy in marsupials were regulated by hormones produced in the ovary after ovulation.

If this hypothesis is right, then the uterus of pregnant opossums should look the same as the uterus of opossums that ovulate but don’t have the opportunity to mate with a male.

To test this hypothesis, my colleagues at Yale’s Systems Biology Institute and I examined reproduction in the grey short-tailed opossum.

Grey short tailed opossum with young.
Oliver Griffith

Signs of pregnancy

We looked at two groups of opossums: females that were exposed to male pheromones to induce ovulation, and females that were put with males so they could mate and become pregnant.

We then used microscopy and molecular techniques to compare females from the two groups. Contrary to the current dogma, we found that the uterus in pregnancy looked very different to those females that did not mate.

In particular, we found the blood vessels that bring blood from the mother to the placenta interface were only present in pregnancy. We also noticed that the machinery responsible for nutrient transport (nutrient transporting molecules) from the mother to the fetus was only produced in pregnancy.

While hormones may be regulating some aspects of maternal physiology, the mother is certainly detecting the presence of embryos and responding in a way that shows she is recognising pregnancy.

How this knowledge can help others

Given that recognition of pregnancy has now been found in both eutherian (formerly known as placental) mammals like ourselves and marsupials with the more ancestral reproductive characters, it appears likely that recognition of pregnancy is a common feature of all live bearing mammals.




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But this knowledge does more than satisfy our curiosity. It could lead to new technologies to better manage marsupial conservation. Several marsupials face threats in the wild, and captive breeding programs are an important way to secure the future of several species.

Two Tasmanian devils.
Pixabay/pen_ash

One such species is the Tasmanian devil, which faces extinction from a dangerous contagious cancer. Captive breeding programs may be one of the only mechanisms to ensure the species survives.

But management can be made more difficult when we don’t know which animals are pregnant. Our research shows that maternal signals are produced in response to the presence of developing embryos. With a bit more research, it may be possible to test for these signals directly.

New reproductive technologies are likely crucial for improving outcomes of conservation programs, and this work shows, that to do this we first need a better understanding of the biology of the animals we are trying to save.The Conversation

Oliver Griffith, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

Cannibalism helps fire ants invade new territory



File 20190321 93060 ig0v8t.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fire ant stings can be deadly to people who have an allergic reaction to their venom.
Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Pauline Lenancker, James Cook University and Lori Lach, James Cook University

Tropical fire ants (Solenopsis geminata), originally from central and South America, are a highly aggressive, invasive ecological pest. Our new research has shed light on how they successfully establish new colonies.

An allergic reaction to painful tropical fire ant bites.
Pauline Lenancker, Author provided

While we don’t know exactly how widespread tropical fire ants are in Australia, they are well established around Darwin and Katherine, as well as on Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. Disturbing one of their nests will result in many workers inflicting painful stings on the intruder, and can trigger an allergic reaction in some people.

When invasive ants move to a new region, the pioneers may be one or a few colonies. Because these pioneers are isolated, they often inbreed, which causes genetic problems in their offspring. But our new research, published in Scientific Reports, reveals how tropical fire ants use cannibalism to survive and spread, despite their low genetic diversity.




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Sons and daughters

Founding new colonies is how fire ants spread. Queens fly off to start their own colonies just after they have mated. It is a perilous journey – they need to avoid predators and find a good spot to start laying eggs. If queens do not quickly rear daughters that can forage, called workers, they will starve to death.

Queens can lay two different types of eggs: fertilised eggs, which will develop into workers, and unfertilised eggs, which will develop into males. Therefore, female workers have two copies of each gene (diploid), while males have a single copy of each gene (haploid). However, when an ant queen and her mate are closely related, a flaw in the sex determination system of ants causes half of the fertilised eggs to develop into diploid males instead of workers.

The role of males is only to mate with queens – they do not forage, and they die after they have mated. Queens founding a colony have no interest in producing males, because males will not feed them. What’s more, diploid males are often sterile, and their larvae are larger than worker larvae. Therefore, queens can waste precious resources feeding fat useless sons instead of workers.

We wanted to find out how common diploid males are in field colonies, and how queens could successfully start colonies despite them. Understanding how tropical fire ants spread, we hope, can help us stop them expanding their range.

Abandoned and eaten

Our field sampling of tropical fire ant colonies around Darwin revealed eight out of ten colonies produced diploid males.

We collected 1,187 queens that had just mated, and assigned them to start colonies on their own or with other queens.

We observed that in 34% of colonies producing diploid males, diploid male larvae were placed in the colony trash pile by the queens instead of being kept with the worker larvae. It is usual for ants to keep dead individuals away from the rest of the colony, but when we looked at some of these abandoned larvae under a microscope, we realised they were still alive.




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Queens not only abandoned their sterile sons, they ate them. Three-quarters of the 109 sterile male larvae disappeared from the colonies within 12 days of when we first observed them. Because the queens were the only adult ants present in the colony, this means the queens were eating their diploid males or feeding them to their worker larvae.

This cannibalistic behaviour allowed the queens to redirect nutrients towards themselves or productive members of their colony. Diploid male larvae require more food than worker larvae to develop, so we expected queens from diploid male producing colonies to lose more weight than queens from colonies that only produced workers, but we found that was not the case. Queens with diploid males lost less weight or as much weight as queens from regular colonies, probably because they ate their sterile sons.

We also found queens who worked together in groups to start a colony reared more workers. Therefore, queens in groups would likely have a better chance of survival even if they produced sterile males. But in 6% of colonies, queens did not tolerate having housemates and dismembered other queens.

A queen dismembered by a tetchy rival.
Pauline Lenancker, Author provided

For tropical fire ants, cannibalising sterile sons and cooperative brood rearing among queens are two behavioural mechanisms for avoiding inbreeding costs. A third possible mechanism for the queens is to “sleep around”.

Promiscuity would increase the chance of mating with a genetically different male, and reduce the likelihood of producing diploid sons.

Queens only mate right before starting their colony and store the sperm in an organ called the spermatheca. We genetically analysed sperm from the spermatheca of 40 queens, but found no evidence queens had mated with more than one male.

Tropical fire ants are currently established on Ashmore Reef, a protected Australian Marine Park which is an important breeding site for seabirds and turtles. The invasive ant threatens this sanctuary by attacking seabird and turtle hatchlings. Accidental spreading of tropical fire ants to suitable habitats in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia would threaten invaluable ecosystems as well as our health and lifestyles.




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The current eradication program for the closely related red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) in Queensland has been granted A$411 million over ten years, and failure to eradicate red imported fire ants could cost Australia A$1.65 billion per year in damaged crops, livestock harmed and people treated. The more we learn about invasive ant biology, the closer we are to new methods of preventing their spread.The Conversation

Pauline Lenancker, PhD student in biology and ecology, James Cook University and Lori Lach, Associate Professor, James Cook University

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

Guns, snares and bulldozers: new map reveals hotspots for harm to wildlife


File 20190312 86699 k7wj98.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Human activity threatens many species across Africa’s savannahs.
Paul Mulondo/WCS, Author provided

James Allan, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The biggest killers of wildlife globally are unsustainable hunting and harvesting, and the conversion of huge swathes of natural habitat into farms, housing estates, roads and other industrial activities. There is little doubt that these threats are driving the current mass extinction crisis.

Yet our understanding of where these threats overlap with the locations of sensitive species has been poor. This limits our ability to target conservation efforts to the most important places.




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In our new study, published today in Plos Biology, we mapped 15 of the most harmful human threats – including hunting and land clearing – within the locations of 5,457 threatened mammals, birds and amphibians globally.

We found that 1,237 species – a quarter of those assessed – are impacted by threats that cover more than 90% of their distributions. These species include many large, charismatic mammals such as lions and elephants. Most concerningly of all, we identified 395 species that are impacted by threats across 100% of their range.

Mapping the risks

We only mapped threats within a species location if those threats are known to specifically endanger that species. For example, the African lion is threatened by urbanisation, hunting and trapping, so we only quantified the overlap of those specific hazards for this species.

This allowed us to determine the parts of a species’ home range that are impacted by threats and, conversely, the parts that are free of threats and therefore serve as refuges.

We could then identify global hotspots of human impacts on threatened species, as well as “coolspots” where species are largely threat-free.

The fact that so many species face threats across almost all of their range has grave consequences. These species are likely to continue to decline and possibly die out in the impacted parts of their ranges. Completely impacted species certainly face extinction without targeted conservation action.

Conversely, we found more than 1,000 species that were not impacted by human threats at all. Although this is positive news, it is important to note that we have not mapped every possible threat, so our results likely underestimate the true impact. For example, we didn’t account for diseases, which are a major threat to amphibians, or climate change, which is a major threat to virtually all species.

Hotspots and coolspots

We produced the first global map of human impacts on threatened species by combining the parts of each species range that are exposed to threats.
The overwhelmingly dominant global hotspot for human impacts on threatened species is Southeast Asia.

This region contains the top five countries with the most threats to species.
These include Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar.

The most impacted ecosystems include mangroves and tropical forests, which concerningly are home to the greatest diversity of life on Earth.

Hotspots of threats and threatened species richness.
Allan et al. Plos Biol., Author provided

We also created a global map of coolspots by combining the parts of species ranges that are free from human threats. This map identifies the last vestiges of wild places where threatened species have shelter from the ravages of guns, snares and bulldozers. As such, these are crucial conservation strongholds.

Coolspots include parts of the Amazon rainforest, the Andes, the eastern Himalayas, and the forests of Liberia in West Africa.

In many places, coolspots are located near hotspots. This makes sense because in species-rich areas it is likely that many animals are impacted whereas many others are not, due to their varying sensitivity to different threats.

Coolspots of unimpacted species richness.
Allan et al. Plos Biol., Author provided

What next?

There is room for optimism because all the threats we map can be stopped by conservation action. But we need to make sure this action is directed to priority areas, and that it has enough financial and political support.

An obvious first step is to secure threat-free refuges for particular species, via actions such as protected areas, which are paramount for their survival.




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To ensure the survival of highly impacted species with little or no access to refuges, “active threat management” is needed to open enough viable habitat for them to survive. For example, tiger numbers in Nepal have doubled since 2009, mainly as a result of targeted anti-poaching efforts.

Tackling threats and protecting refuges are complementary approaches that will be most effective if carried out simultaneously. Our study provides information that can help guide these efforts and help to make national and global conservation plans as successful as possible.


The authors acknowledge the contributions of Hugh Possingham, Oscar Venter, Moreno Di Marco and Scott Consaul Atkinson to the research on which this article is based.The Conversation

James Allan, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

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

Microplastics are getting into mosquitoes and contaminating new food chains



File 20180918 158240 1dtiepp.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

khlungcenter/Shutterstock

Amanda Callaghan, University of Reading and Rana Al-jaibachi, University of Reading

There is no doubt that plastic pollution in oceans is a growing worldwide problem. The internet is full of images of seabirds and other marine animals entangled in plastic waste, and animals starve because their guts are blocked with plastic bags.

But the problem goes much deeper than this. Much plastic pollution is in the form of microplastics, tiny fragments less than five micrometres in size and invisible to the naked eye. Our new research shows that these microplastics are even getting into tiny flying insects such as mosquitoes. And this means the plastic can eventually contaminate animals in a more unlikely environment: the air.

Microplastics can come from larger plastic items as they break down, but are also released directly into waste water in their millions in the form of tiny beads found in many cosmetic products including face wash and toothpaste (though these are now banned in many countries). Many tiny animals can’t tell the difference between their food and microplastics so end up eating them. Once inside an animal, the plastic can transfer via the food chain into fish and other creatures and eventually become a potential health problem for humans.

Mosquitoes leave the water and take microplastics with them.
Shaun Wilkinson/Shutterstock

By studying mosquitoes, we have found a previously unknown way for plastic to pollute the environment and contaminate the food chain. Our new paper, published in Biology Letters, shows for the first time that microplastics can be kept inside a water-dwelling animal as they grow from one life stage to another.

Although most microplastic research has focused on the sea, plastic pollution is also a serious problem in freshwater, including rivers and lakes. Much of the freshwater research has concentrated on animals that live in the water throughout their life. But freshwater insects such as mosquitoes start their lives (as eggs) in water and, after several stages, eventually fly away when they grow up.

Testing the mosquitoes

It occurred to us that aquatic insects might carry plastics out of the water if they were able to keep the plastics in their body through their development. We tested this possibility by feeding microplastics to mosquito larvae in a laboratory setting. We fed the aquatic young in their third larvae stage food with or without microplastic beads.

We then took samples of the animals when the larvae shed their skin to become larger fourth-stage larvae, when they transformed into a non-feeding stage called a pupa, and when they emerged from the water as a flying adult. We found the beads in all the life stages, although the numbers went down as the animals developed.

Plastics were retained as the mosquitoes went through different life stages.
Blue Ring Media/Shutterstock

We were able to locate and count the microplastic beads because they were fluorescent. We found beads in the gut and in the mosquito version of the kidney, an organ that we know survives the development process intact. This shows that not only do aquatic insects such as mosquitoes eat both sizes of microplastics, they can keep them in their gut and kidney as they develop from a feeding juvenile larva up to a flying adult.

In this way, any flying insect that spends part of its life in water can become a carrier of plastic pollution. And flying insects are eaten in their thousands by predatory insects in the air such as dragonflies as well as by birds and bats.

Our results have important implications since any aquatic insect that can eat microplastics in the water could potentially carry them in their body to their flying stage where they can move the plastics into new food chains. As a result, freshwater plastic pollution is a problem that has implications far beyond those of water quality and eventual marine pollution.

Clearly these results raise a number of questions, including what effect microplastics have on the survival and development of mosquitoes through their life stages. And we still need to examine the effect of different types and sizes of plastics on more species to see how widespread an issue this could become.The Conversation

Amanda Callaghan, Associate Professor of Zoology, University of Reading and Rana Al-jaibachi, PhD researcher, University of Reading

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