Category Archives: Nature

Climate change threatens the world’s primates


Many of the world’s primates, our closest genetic relatives on the planet, face a new man-made threat: Climate change.

The abstract from a sobering report  from scientists at Concordia and McGill universities in Canada concludes this way:

Although all primate species will experience substantial changes from current climatic conditions, our hotspot analysis suggests that species in Central America, the Amazon, and southeastern Brazil, as well as portions of East and Southeast Asia, may be the most vulnerable to the anticipated impacts of global warming. It is essential that impacts of human-induced climate change be a priority for research and conservation planning in primatology, particularly for species that are already threatened by other human pressures. The vulnerable species and regional hotspots that we identify here represent critical priorities for conservation efforts, as existing challenges are expected to become increasingly compounded by the impacts of global warming.

Though you’ll have to fork out $39.95 to Springer to read more than the abstract of the published report, a summary from Concordia University lays out the basics:

The consequences of climate change are an increasing concern for humans around the world. How will we cope with rising sea levels and climbing temperatures? But it’s not just humans who will be affected by these worldwide shifts — it’s our closest cousins, too: monkeys, apes and lemurs.

A new Concordia study published in the International Journal of Primatology [$39.95 to read it] shows that the world’s primate populations may be seriously impacted by climate change.

“Our research shows that climate change may be one of the biggest emerging threats to primates, compounding existing pressures from deforestation, hunting and the exotic pet trade,” says Tanya Graham, the article’s lead author and an MSc student in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.

She worked with environment professor Damon Matthews from Concordia and primatology post-doctoral researcher Sarah Turner from McGill to assess the exposure and potential vulnerability of all non-human primate species to projected future temperature and precipitation changes. They found that overall, 419 species of non-human primates — such as various species of lemurs, lorises, tarsiers, monkeys and apes — will experience 10 per cent more warming than the global average, with some primate species experiencing increases of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in annual average temperature for every degree of global warming.

The researchers also identified several hotspots of primate vulnerability to climate change, based on the combination of the number of species, their endangered status and the severity of climate changes at each location. Overall, the most extreme hotspots, which represent the upper 10 per cent of all hotspot scores, cover a total area of 3,622,012 square kilometres over the ranges of 67 primate species.

The highest hotspot scores occur in Central America, the Amazon and southeastern Brazil, as well as portions of East and Southeast Asia — prime territory for some of the globe’s best-known primates who call these areas home.

The ursine howler monkey, black howler monkey, and barbary macaque are expected to be exposed to the highest magnitude of climate change when both temperature and precipitation are considered. For example, the ursine howler monkey, found in Venezuela, will experience an increase of 1.2 degrees Celsius annually and a 5.3 per cent decline in annual rainfall for each degree of global temperature increase.

“This study highlights the vulnerability of individual species, as well as regions in which primates as a whole may be vulnerable to climate change,” says Matthews, who will present the findings of this study during the Joint Meeting of the International Primatological Society and the American Society of Primatologists in Chicago later this month.

“Our findings can be taken as priorities for ongoing conservation efforts, given that any success in decreasing other current human pressures on endangered species may also increase that species’ ability to withstand the growing pressures of climate changes,” says Graham.

“Primates are often seen as flagship species for entire ecosystems, so conservation can have important ramifications for many other species too. I hope our study will help direct conservation efforts for individual primate species in particular, but also for vulnerable ecosystems in general throughout the tropical regions inhabited by non-human primates,” adds Turner.

Maps of the day: Heat extremes high in June, July


New maps from NASA’s Earth Observatory show how far temperatures in June and July departed from previous norms. First up, Russia:

BLOG Heat Russia

From NASA:

Warm weather is to be expected in the summer, but the oppressive heat that affected several regions in the summer of 2016 went well beyond warm. In June and July, people in Siberia, the Middle East, and North America faced extreme heat waves.

Parts of Siberia, where cool weather usually lingers even during summer, saw temperatures that would have been more fitting for the tropics. In July, a rare outbreak of anthrax even occurred in the Yamal Peninsula after hot weather melted permafrost and exposed the carcass of a reindeer. Since the outbreak began, the bacteria has killed one child and more than 2,300 reindeer.

BLOG Heat Mideast

Meanwhile, on July 21, 2016, as an intense heat wave gripped the Middle East and Southwest Asia, a weather station in Mitrabah, Kuwait, recorded a temperature of 54.0 degrees Celsius (129.2 degrees Fahrenheit)—possibly the highest temperature on record for the Eastern Hemisphere and Asia. Before declaring the record officially broken, a committee of World Meteorological Organization experts will investigate whether the sensor used to make the measurement is reliable.

Parts of the Western Hemisphere saw streaks of hot weather as well. In June, record-breaking heat scorched the southwestern United States. In July, several cities in the Southwest and Southeast broke monthly temperature records. For two states—Florida and New Mexico—July 2016 proved to be the hottest July on record. During the peak of one heatwave, about 124 million people were under extreme heat warnings in the United States, according to the National Weather Service.

BLOG Heat US

The three maps on this page show land surface temperature anomalies in Russia, the Middle East, and North America from July 20–27, 2016, compared to temperatures for the same dates from 2001 to 2010. The anomalies are based on land surface temperatures observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Red areas were hotter than the long-term average by as much as 12 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) in some places; blue areas were below average. White pixels had normal temperatures, and gray pixels did not have enough data, most likely due to excessive cloud cover. Oceans and lakes appear in gray.

Note that land surface temperatures are not the same as air temperatures. Instead, they reflect the heating of the land surface by sunlight, and they can sometimes be significantly hotter or cooler than air temperatures. (To learn more about land surface temperatures and air temperatures, read: Where is the Hottest Place on Earth?)

The bouts of heat come amidst an unusually hot year globally. The six-month period from January to June was the warmest half-year in NASA’s global temperature record, with an average temperature that was 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in the late 19th century. This follows 2015, which was the warmest year on record and part of the warmest decade on record. The ongoing warming trend—as well as the increasing frequency and severity of high-humidity heat waves—is ultimately driven by rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“While people are very interested in records—the warmest, the hottest, the driest, the wettest—what really matters for how people live and how ecosystems function are the long-term trends and the shift in the whole distribution toward warmer temperatures,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on To the Point. “The most important thing to remember is that this is part of a long-term trend. We’re not [just] talking about a one-off temperature record. We’re talking about whole stretches of time in India and Pakistan where it’s above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).”

Australia’s vital mangroves dying, climate blamed


From NASA’s Earth Observatory:

BLOG Mangroves

From NASA:

Satellite imagery reveals a severe die-off of mangroves along Australia’s northern coast. More than 7,000 hectares (27 square miles) of mangroves have dried up, research indicates. The tree deaths come amid high temperatures that have also been linked to massive coral bleaching and kelp forest deaths in the region.

These natural-color images were acquired on July 15, 2014, and July 20, 2016, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. They capture the extent of mangrove die-offs on a strip of beach along the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Notable tree loss occurred between November and December 2015, said Norman Duke, leader of the Mangrove Research Hub at Australia’s James Cook University. Between 5 and 25 percent of trees have died along more than 1000 kilometers (620 miles) of shoreline and fringing inlets.

There are few direct human pressures in this isolated region, said Duke. However, the die-off correlates with record-high daytime and nighttime temperatures in the region, according to the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology. From January through April, rainfall measured 41 percent less than average for that period—the lowest it’s been since 1961, the Bureau reported. The heat arrived on the heels of an unusually long dry season and a 20-centimeter drop in local sea levels that lasted for a month, said Duke.

“These factors coincided in the critical months…when habitat tolerances were at their limit,” Duke wrote in an email. He pointed to man-made climate change as a main cause.

Mangrove trees and shrubs grow at tropical and subtropical latitudes. A dense network of stilt-like roots allows them to thrive in shallow waters. It also provides shelter to many species of fish and turtles. And it helps shelter the dugong, a threatened species that is a relative of the manatee.

Mangrove forests fortify the coast, providing a buffer against storm surges by holding sand together with their roots and causing sediment to build up around them. Scientists like Duke worry that without the mangroves, Australia’s shores could become highly vulnerable to erosion, especially if tropical cyclones hit the region over the next decade.

Heavens above!: The Aurora Borealis from space


From NASA’s Earth Observatory, a stunning view of the Northern Lights from the International Space Station:

3 February 2012, Nikon D3S, ISO 320, 28 mm, f/1.4, 0.6 sec

3 February 2012, Nikon D3S, ISO 320, 28 mm, f/1.4, 0.6 sec

From NASA:

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station adjusted the camera for night imaging and captured the green veils and curtains of an aurora that spanned thousands of kilometers over Quebec, Canada.

Snow and ice in this winter image (February 2012) reflect enough light from stars, the Moon, and the aurora to reveal details of the landscape. On the lower right, we see a circle of ice on the frozen reservoir that now occupies Manicouagan impact crater (70 kilometers in diameter). City lights reveal small settlements, such as Labrador City (an iron-ore mining town) and the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Goose Bay on the Labrador Sea.

The aurora borealis (northern lights) is the light that glows when charged particles from the magnetosphere (the magnetic space around Earth) are accelerated by storms from the Sun. The particles collide with atoms in the atmosphere; the green and red colors, for instance, are caused by the release of photons by oxygen atoms.

The fainter arc of light that parallels the horizon is known as airglow. This is another manifestation of the interaction of the Earth’s atmosphere with radiation from the Sun.

The atmosphere shields life on Earth from the Sun’s harmful radiation. It also causes small asteroids to burn up or catastrophically explode before hitting the ground. Larger asteroids can occasionally penetrate the atmosphere and collide with our rocky planet—with dramatic effects.

Geologists know that a large asteroid slammed into Earth roughly 214 million years ago, creating a crater about 100 kilometers (60 miles) across on the landmass that is now part of Canada. The impact caused a shock wave to radiate across Earth’s surface, followed closely by high-velocity winds. Near the impact point, wind speeds would have exceeded 1000 kilometers (600 miles) per hour. The shock wave and air blast would have severely damaged and killed plants and animals out to distances of approximately 560 kilometers (350 miles)—as far as Goose Bay. After erosion by glaciers and other processes over millions of years, the Manicouagan crater is now about 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide.

Just hearing humans makes predators fearful


If you’re afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, you can at least take comfort in knowing that’s he probably ever more afraid of you.

In fact, just hearing the sound of your voice induces fear in bears, wolves, and other four-footed predators.

The verdict isn’t in yet on lions and tigers.

From Western University in London, Ontario, Canada:

Bears, wolves and other large carnivores are frightening beasts but the fear they inspire in their prey pales in comparison to that caused by the human ‘super predator.’

A new study by Western demonstrates that smaller carnivores, like European badgers, that may be prey to large carnivores, actually perceive humans as far more frightening. Globally, humans now kill smaller carnivores at much higher rates than large carnivores do, and these results indicate that smaller carnivores have learned to fear the human ‘super predator’ far more than they fear their traditional enemies.

These findings by Liana Zanette and Michael Clinchy from Western’s Faculty of Science, in collaboration with celebrated British biologist David Macdonald from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and others, were published [19 July] in Behavioral Ecology [open access].

Zanette, a professor in Western’s Department of Biology, and her colleagues experimentally demonstrated that smaller carnivores, like badgers, foxes and raccoons, that may appear to be habituated to humans because they live among us, are actually experiencing elevated levels of fear – living in fear of the human ‘super predator’ in human-dominated landscapes.

“Our previous research has shown that the fear large carnivores inspire can itself shape ecosystems. These new results indicate that the fear of humans, being greater, likely has even greater impacts on the environment, meaning humans may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined,” explained Zanette, a renowned wildlife ecologist. “These results have important implications for conservation, wildlife management and public policy.”

By frightening their prey, large carnivores help maintain healthy ecosystems by preventing smaller carnivores from eating everything in sight, and the loss of this ‘landscape of fear’ adds to conservation concerns regarding the worldwide loss of large carnivores. Fear of humans has been proposed to act as a substitute, but these new results demonstrate that the fear of humans is qualitatively different and cannot be expected to fulfill the same ecosystem function.

The team conducted the study on Europeans badgers in Wytham Woods, just outside of Oxford (UK). To experimentally compare their relative fearfulness, the team played badgers the sounds of bears, wolves, dogs and humans in their natural habitat and filmed their responses, using hidden automated speakers and cameras. Whereas hearing bears and dogs had some effect, simply hearing the sound of people speaking, in conversation, or reading passages from books, prevented most badgers from feeding entirely, and dramatically reduced the time spent feeding by those few badgers that were brave enough to venture forth – while hearing the sound of the human ‘super predator.’

World’s protected areas support biodiversity


A map of the world's environmentally protected areas, from the study.

A map of the world’s environmentally protected areas, from the study, published in Nature Communications [open access].

From the University of Sussex:

The world’s protected areas do benefit a broad range of species – scientists from a collaborative research project led by the University of Sussex have discovered for the first-time.

The study, carried out by Sussex’s Sustainability Research Programme working together with the Natural History Museum and the UN Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, is the largest ever analysis of globally protected areas.

By analysing biodiversity samples taken from 1,939 sites inside and 4,592 sites outside 359 protected areas, scientists have discovered the protected area samples contain 15 percent more individuals and 11 percent more species compared to samples from unprotected sites.

The research was carried out by using a new global biodiversity database (the PREDICTS database) which contains data for approximately over one percent of all known species and spans 48 countries and 101 ecoregions – the most comprehensive biodiversity sample of terrestrial protected areas to ever be examined.

Co-lead author of the study, Dr Claudia Gray, from the University of Sussex, said: “Previously, regional or global studies of protected areas have mostly used information from satellite photos, to look at changes in forest cover. Instead, we used a particularly exciting new dataset, which brings together information collected on the ground by hundreds of scientists all over the world.

“We have been able to show for the first-time how protection effects thousands of species, including plants, mammals, birds and insects. This has provided us with important insights into these areas – which previous studies were not able to do.”

From the study, scientists also discovered protection is most effective when human use of land for crops, pasture and plantations is minimised. The results suggest that better management across the existing protected area network could more than double its effectiveness.

More after the jump. . . Continue reading

Map of the day II: The happiest places on earth


BLOG Happy 2

From the New Economics Foundation comes the latest edition of the Happy Planet Index, a rating of the earth’s nation’s based on four criteria:

  • Wellbeing: How satisfied the residents of each country feel with life overall, on a scale from zero to ten, based on data collected as part of the Gallup World Poll.
  • Life expectancy:  The average number of years a person is expected to live in each country based on data collected by the United Nations.
  • Inequality of outcomes: The inequalities between people within a country in terms of how long they live, and how happy they feel, based on the distribution in each country’s life expectancy and wellbeing data.
  • Ecological Footprint: The average impact that each resident of a country places on the environment, based on data prepared by the Global Footprint Network.

Under those criteria, happiness scores reflect far more than self-perceived satisfaction, so a country like the U.S. which has relatively high scores on three measures comes in at 108th place because of the country’s devastating ecological impacts.

Of the world’s happiest countries, the top three are in Latin America: Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia. The bottom place belongs to Chad.