The Environment

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  Ice-Free Summer At The North Pole?June 27, 2008 20:52 The distinct possibility that the North Pole could be free of sea ice -- for the first time in recorded history -- may become a cold reality this summer.

The Arctic's thick, resilient multiyear sea ice (frozen sea surface), which usually accumulates and lasts through the annual melting season, has started to give way to thinner, vulnerable first-year ice.

Satellite data gathered by the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center showed that young sea ice, which is no more than about 60 inches deep and much more susceptible to melting away, now makes up only 72 percent of the Arctic ice sheet. Using that estimate, scientists at the center see a 50 percent chance that ice at the highest point in the Arctic will melt by the summer's end.

Andy Mahoney, a center researcher, has pinpointed this year in particular as having the "greatest chance" of being ice-free.

Such a scenario, however, will depend on the weather during the next couple of months. "It will probably come down to how cloudy it is this summer," Mahoney says. "If there's clear skies and if atmospheric patterns resemble last year's, you're going to see a lot more melt."

Increased rates of Arctic melt have altered the region in unprecedented ways. Arctic sea ice dwindled to a record low in September, clearing a route through the fabled Northwest Passage that runs from Greenland to Alaska. Opening of the path has provided ships a shorter, more direct route between Asia and Europe.

"It's got a shock level for people because there's always ice at the North Pole, but there are also real implications," Mahoney said. "If the North Pole melted out, the shipping industry would be paying very close attention to that."

Wieslaw Maslowski, who conducts Arctic ice research from his base at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., told ABC News last summer that there was a chance that the Arctic's entire ice sheet could vanish for the first time in just four or five years.

Such a statement was considered a daring projection at the time, given that climate prediction models estimated a few years before that it would take at least another 40 or 50 years before such a scenario is likely to occur.

But now, Maslowski says that "whether the Arctic sea ice disappears for the first time this summer or four or eight summers from now may be beside the point."

"The point," he noted, "is that we may well be passing through the sea-ice tipping point now. We'll just have to see what July and August weather have in store for the ice this summer."
  Army Pushes For Slowed Development Near RangeJune 19, 2008 20:30 Development of a site adjacent to a military range used to train Army combat medics could further push an endangered songbird onto the range and threaten plans for future training, a Fort Sam Houston spokesman warned Thursday.

"Camp Bullis cannot shoulder the burden of environmental compliance alone," said Phil Reidinger, a spokesman for the fort, which manages the range on the northwest side of the city.

Like many military installations in fast-growing communities, residential and commercial development threatens to surround the once-isolated 28,000-acre tract that makes up Camp Bullis. Development already exists on three sides of the range, and the sudden appearance of heavy machinery plowing a road near the Camp Bullis fenceline is cause for alarm, Reidinger said.

An endangered songbird, the golden-cheek warbler, along with one other songbird and several bugs are among the endangered species that live on the range and the adjacent hilly property that has proven popular with wealthy homebuyers in the past decade. One of the city's toniest neighborhoods, where mansions sprout from hillsides, is nearby.

As development has grown, more warblers have been pushed onto Camp Bullis, and their presence triggers restrictions on military activity.

Private landowners can face fines or legal action if they harm endangered species, but the military has actively sought to avoid running afoul of endangered species provisions, which can trigger environmental lawsuits and threaten installations when Congress seeks to consolidate Department of Defense operations.
  Mccain Wants To Lift Ban On Offshore DrillingJune 17, 2008 08:41 Sen. John McCain on Tuesday will propose lifting the ban on offshore drilling as part of his plan to reduce dependence on foreign oil and help combat rising gas prices.

"The stakes are high for our citizens and for our economy, and with gasoline running at more than four bucks a gallon, many do not have the luxury of waiting on the far-off plans of futurists and politicians," McCain will say Tuesday in Houston, Texas, according to excerpts of his speech released by his campaign.

"We have proven oil reserves of at least 21 billion barrels in the United States. But a broad federal moratorium stands in the way of energy exploration and production. And I believe it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and to put our own reserves to use."

McCain's plan would let individual states decide whether or not to explore drilling possibilities.

The proposal could put McCain at odds with environmentalists who say it's incongruous with his plans to combat global warning. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a McCain ally, is also opposed to offshore drilling.

  Protection Sought For 32 Endangered Species "At The Knife'S Edge Of Extinction"June 16, 2008 18:36 Conservation group WildEearth Guardians has filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect 32 rare plant and animal species "at the knife's edge of extinction."

All 32 species -- some of which may already be extinct -- were originally part of larger petitions to protect 674 species filed with the FWS in 2006 and 2007. Those filings have not yet yielded a response.

Many of the species on the list exist in tiny habitats, often smaller than one acre, that could easily be wiped out by a single natural or man-made disaster.

The list of species includes:

Isoperla jewetti -- a stonefly last seen in 1980 and believed to be extinct

Brown's microcylloepus riffle beetle (Microcylloepus browni) -- the species exists in a single habitat just 35 square meters in size

Scott optioservus riffle beetle (Optioservus phaeus) -- the species lives in a single area less than 1 acre in size in Kansas

Drummond mountainsnail (Oreohelix sp. 4) -- this species' only known habitat is just 6 feet long

Cylindrical vertigo (Vertigo binneyana) -- this snail may already be extinct

Salina mucket (Potamilus metnecktayi) -- a freshwater mussel, just three individuals were found in 2003, and may have been the last of their species

Texas grease bush (Glossopetalon texense) and many-flowered unicorn-plant (Proboscidea spicata) -- these plants were last seen in 1967

Will FWS respond to this petition? To be honest, it seems unlikely. But hope springs eternal -- unlike most of these species.

  Urbanisation Threatens Many SpeciesJune 13, 2008 13:34 A new study has suggested that the growth of cities around the world could threaten many animal and bird species in the future.

Researchers from Harvard University looked at the effects of urban growth on nature and found that, unless urban planning improves, the world might lose many animals, plants and natural resources.

They published the report in the journal Biological Conservation.

Co-author Peter Kareiva explained: "As a species we have lived in wild nature for hundreds of thousands of years, and now suddenly most of us live in cities - the ultimate escape from nature.

"If we do not learn to build, expand and design our cities with a respect for nature, we will have no nature left anywhere."

The study revealed that the natural areas most affected by urban growth contain some of the highest concentrations of endemic species in the world. It added that eight per cent of the vertebrae species currently labelled as endangered have been threatened by the effects of rapid urban development.
  Noaa Confirms Caribbean Monk Seal ExtinctJune 07, 2008 20:51 After a five year review, NOAA’s Fisheries Service has determined that the Caribbean monk seal, which has not been seen for more than 50 years, has gone extinct—the first type of seal to go extinct from human causes.

Monk seals became easy targets for hunters while resting, birthing, or nursing their pups on the beach. Overhunting by humans led to these seals’ demise, according to NOAA biologists.

The last confirmed sighting of the seal was in 1952 in the Caribbean Sea at Seranilla Bank, between Jamaica and the Yucatán Peninsula. This was the only subtropical seal native to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

"Humans left the Caribbean monk seal population unsustainable after overhunting them in the wild," said Kyle Baker, biologist for NOAA’s Fisheries Service southeast region. "Unfortunately, this lead to their demise and labels the species as the only seal to go extinct from human causes."

Caribbean monk seals were listed as endangered on March 11, 1967, under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and relisted under the Endangered Species Act on April 10, 1979. Since then, several efforts have been made to investigate unconfirmed reports of the species in or near the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, southern Bahamas, and Greater Antilles. These expeditions only confirmed sightings of other seal types, such as stray arctic seals.

  Senate Climate Bill Dies Before Debate StartsJune 06, 2008 11:43 The Senate's bid to pass a far-reaching climate change bill ended in defeat today, with Democrats arguing that GOP leaders had sabotaged their effort to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The Senate vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to head off any possible filibuster, limit amendments and move the bill forward. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., immediately pulled the bill from the floor. The final tally was 48-36.

But the bill's sponsors proclaimed it a victory that 54 senators signaled their support for proceeding toward final passage of the bill. Six senators who missed the vote - including all three presidential candidates and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who is battling cancer - sent statements indicating support for debating the bill.

"A majority of the United States Senate voted for - or indicated their support because they weren't here - for an effort to move forward and legislate and complete the task," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "This is a very significant moment and I am very encouraged by it."

The tally was a big jump over the 38 votes a similar climate bill received in 2005 - although supporters acknowledged that not all of the 54 senators who voted yes Friday are ready to approve the climate bill without major changes.

Most Republicans opposed the measure because it would have limited their ability to offer amendments to the bill - some of which would have been intended to defeat the measure.

"This bill deserved a full and honest debate, with amendments offered and voted upon," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the bill's chief critics. "The American people did not deserve a political exercise geared toward election year politics."