Category Archives: Resources

Miners rape Amazonia; climate drives more change


Two new studies from Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Science and Innovation based in Tambopata, Perú reveal profound changes in the lands along the shores of the world’s longest river and the mountains that feed it.

The first study examines the profound and expanding impacts of the quest for gold as forests are felled at an accelerating rate and the land left poisoned by mercury used to extract the precious metal.

From Wake Forest University:

Small-scale gold mining has destroyed more than 170,000 acres of primary rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon in the past five years, according to a new analysis by scientists at Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA).

That’s an area larger than San Francisco and 30 percent more than previously reported.

“The scale of the deforestation is really shocking,” said Luis Fernandez, executive director of CINCIA and research associate professor in the department of biology.

The scientists at CINCIA, based in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, have developed a new data fusion method to identify areas destroyed by this small- or artisanal-scale mining. Combining existing CLASlite forest monitoring technology and Global Forest Change data sets on forest loss, this new deforestation detection tool is 20-25 percent more accurate than those used previously.

Both CLASlite and the Global Forest map use different kinds of information from light waves to show changes in the landscape. “Combining the two methods gives us really good information about the specific kind of deforestation we’re looking for,” said Miles Silman, associate director of science for CINCIA and director of Wake Forest’s Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability (CEES). Silman has researched biodiversity and ecology in the Western Amazon and Andes for more than 25 years.

Artisanal-scale gold mining has been hard to detect because its aftereffects can masquerade as natural wetlands from a satellite view. But the damage is extensive. Small crews of artisanal miners don’t expect to hit the mother lode. Rather, miners set out to collect the flakes of gold in rainforest.

“We’re not talking about huge gold veins here,” Fernandez said. “But there’s enough gold in the landscape to make a great deal of money in a struggling economy. You just have to destroy an immense amount of land to get it.”

To get the gold, they strip the land of trees or suck up river sediment, and then use toxic mercury to tease the precious metal out of the dirt. The results are environmentally catastrophic.

Aerial view of the damage inflicted by miners along the upper reaches of the Amazon in Peru.

Artisanal-scale gold mining took root in the Peruvian Amazon in the early 2000s, coinciding with construction of a new modern highway connecting Peru and Brazil. The Interoceanic Highway made Peru’s once remote rainforest and protected lands accessible to anyone. Where it used to take two weeks by all-terrain vehicle to travel from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, during the rainy season, it now takes only six hours aboard an air-conditioned luxury bus.

Because artisanal-scale gold mining requires no heavy machinery and thus involves minimal outlay, it has provided a revolving-door opportunity for poor workers from the Andean highlands to seek their fortune in Madre de Dios. When they return home, they leave a patchwork of mercury-polluted ponds and sand dunes, the landscape denuded of trees and most other vegetation.

CINCIA has partnered with Peru’s Ministry of the Environment to try to understand how the new tool developed by its scientists can be used to identify deforestation caused by artisanal-scale gold mining and take effective action to curb the damage.

“We want to integrate high-quality scientific research into the processes the government is using for environmental conservation in Madre de Dios,” Fernandez said.

CINCIA scientists also are studying native species that can be used for post-mining reforestation. The 115-acre experiment at CINCIA’s headquarters is the largest in the Americas.

Wake Forest University established CINCIA in 2016 through CEES. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Wildlife Fund, IIAP, the Amazon Aid Foundation, Ecosphere Capital Partners/Althelia Climate Change Fund, ESRI Global Inc., UNAMAD, and Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, CINCIA has brought together scientists and conservationists to develop solutions for sustainable use of tropical landscapes, combat environmental destruction and improve health in Madre de Dios.

From Wake Forest News comes this animation showing rate rate of deforestion since 1985:

Deforestation Sequence in the Peruvian Amazon

Program note:

This animation shows the deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon from 1985 to 2017. Video courtesy Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation.

Rising temperatures drive Andean tropical trees upslope

As the planet heats up, temperatures in the Amazon’s headwater’s are rising as well, with the heat already showing impacts on the region’s tropical forestdriving them to new heights, mountainous heights.

And that’s bad new for the ecology of lower elevations left behind.

From Wake Forest:

Tropical and subtropical forests across South America’s Andes Mountains are responding to warming temperatures by “migrating” to higher elevations, but probably not quickly enough to avoid loss of biodiversity, functional collapse or even extinction, according to a new study published November 14 in the journal Nature. [$8.99 for short-term access].

The study, supervised by University of Miami researcher Kenneth J. Feeley, was co-authored by Wake Forest biologists Miles Silman and William Farfan-Rios, and used much of the field data they have collected in the Andean forests. Feeley began developing the techniques used in this research when he was a postdoctoral associate at Wake Forest. He also studied at Wake Forest as an undergraduate.

The study confirms for the first time that, like many other plant and animal species around the world, tree species from across the Andean and Amazon forests of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and northern Argentina have been moving to higher, cooler elevations. But unlike the world’s more temperate or boreal forests, which are far more accustomed to dramatic seasonal shifts in temperature, tropical trees are running into environmental roadblocks at higher elevations that are thwarting their upward migration and threatening their survival.

More after the jump. . .

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Sustainable farming curbs greenhouses gases


Our final climate offering of the day blends two of our favorite topics, climate change and sustainable agriculture,m with a special focus on biochar [also known as terra preta]

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Amazon Basin had a remarkable secret, lost after their advanced civilization was destroyed by the disease brought by European explorers.

Sailing up the previously unexplored rive, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, traveled down the Amazon in December 1541 on a journey that would last eight months before he sailed into Pacific Ocean, along the way discovering a rich, densely settled civilization producing high crop yields in the rain forest where, contrary to popular perceptions, soils are typically thin and poor.

Orellana’s stories helped fuel the myth of El Dorado, the famous lost City of Gold, but when later explorer’s sailed the Amazon, they found no flourishing cities, leaving Orellana in dispute for the next 500 years until archaeologists found proof of his claims in buried cities and soil rich in pot sherds and bit of partially combusted wood, or char.

The combination of charcoal and pottery turned thin, dreploeted soils in ricb black earth [in Spanish, terra preta], capable of yielding an agricultural bounty able to support a dense, prosperous population.

From David Bennett of the Delta Farm Press:

The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer. For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like potting soil.

Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited to agriculture.

And it was all created by a people the explorers called savages.

And if your interested in learning more the miraculous Native American discovery, here‘s a good place to start.

And now, on to to the latest development.

Study reveals natural solutions to combat climate change

From Cornell University:

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from all U.S. vehicles could be absorbed by forests, wetlands and agricultural lands – erasing a fifth of all greenhouse gas pollution, according to new research exploring natural climate solutions for the United States.

Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-author on research published Nov. 14 in Science Advances [open access].

The researchers analyzed 21 natural ways to mitigate climate change. They found that adjusting those natural management practices to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse emissions could equal 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual emissions. Increased reforestation could be equivalent to eliminating the emissions of 66 million passenger cars, according to the findings.

Improved management of existing croplands has an important role to play, according to the researchers. Woodbury, who led the cropland nutrient management portion of the study, and his colleagues found that many agricultural practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Widespread adoption of cover crops – plants grown on farm fields when they would normally be left bare – aids in carbon sequestration and improves soil health, crop yields and yield consistency. The researchers also pointed to improved nutrient management practices that apply fertilizer when and where the crop needs it, using precision agriculture techniques.

These improved practices could reduce nitrogen use 22 percent, leading to a 33 percent reduction in field emissions and 29 percent reduction in upstream emissions with additional benefits for soil, air and water quality. In many cases, these practices also improve profitability for farmers.

“We have demonstrated that agriculture and forestry have real potential to both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. At the same time, these practices have many other benefits such as improving soil health and water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of fresh water and the coastal zone,” said Woodbury, who develops models to quantify the sustainability of agricultural and forest ecosystems. Woodbury is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

The researchers pointed to biochar as one method with high potential, although further research is needed to overcome cultural, technological and cost barriers. In May, Cornell opened the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at a U.S. university to study the uses of biochar, a solid, charcoal-like material formed by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. Biochar can help soil retain water and nutrients, as well as promote drainage when conditions are wet.

The researchers say that, along with reducing the impact of global warming, natural climate solutions have the potential to improve air and water quality, flood control, soil health and wildlife habitats.

Other solutions include: allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage; increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of tree-killing fires; and reducing urban sprawl to preserve forests.

“These 21 natural climate solutions are really important because they can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world while also providing other benefits including clean water, clean air and biodiversity,” said Woodbury.

BBC documents Orellana’s Amazon discoveries

Here’s a remarkable BBC documentary reporting on what scientists are finding as they retrace Orellana’s footsteps, with a special emphasis on terra preta.

The Secret of El Dorado

From the program notes:

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level – in the soil itself. Along Brazil’s Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense – twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies. Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana’s account as highly plausible. But if the first Conquistadors told the truth, what became of the people they described?

Maps of the day: More climate change impacts


A new study from Cornell University casts new on thee life-threatening reality climate change:

Severe Caribbean droughts may magnify food insecurity

A comparison of drought conditions between 2015 and 2017 on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti (in the west) and the Dominican Republic. Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index, dark brown indicates severe to extreme drought, while blue colors indicate wetter than normal conditions. In the summer of 2015, when the Pan-Caribbean drought peaked, most of Hispaniola had severe drought conditions. In contrast, the western portion of the island – mostly Haiti – had wetter-than-normal conditions in January 2017 due to rain from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Even after the hurricane, drought conditions remained for the Dominican Republic.

More from Cornell:

Climate change is impacting the Caribbean, with millions facing increasing food insecurity and decreasing freshwater availability as droughts become more likely across the region, according to new Cornell research in Geophysical Research Letters [open access].

“Climate change – where mean temperatures rise – has already affected drought risk in the Caribbean. While our research focused on the role of human-causes for the strong 2013-16 drought there, our findings and climate-model projections show that drought in the region will likely to become more severe over time,” said lead author Dimitris Herrera, postdoctoral associate in earth and atmospheric sciences.

Since 1950, the Caribbean region has seen a drying trend and scattered multiyear droughts. But the recent Pan-Caribbean drought in 2013-16 was unusually severe and placed 2 million people in danger of food insecurity.

In Haiti, for example, over half the crops were lost in 2015 due to drought, which pushed about 1 million people into food insecurity, while an additional 1 million people suffered food shortages throughout the region, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

Examining climatological data from the 2013-16 Pan-Caribbean drought, anthropogenic warming accounted for a 15 to 17 percent boost of the drought’s severity, Herrera said.

Climate model simulations indicate the most significant decrease in precipitation in the Caribbean might occur May through August – the rainy season. A failed rainy season in spring and summer, added to a normal dry season in the late fall and winter, prolongs a drought.

Beyond growing crops, the Caribbean also faces dwindling freshwater resources, due to saltwater intrusion from rising seas and pressure from agricultural and municipal sectors.

“This paper documents that human activity is already affecting the drought statistics of the region,” said Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, and a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “Hot temperatures in the future will probably continue to play an increasingly important role in exacerbating droughts.”

Although the Caribbean has recently been affected by catastrophic hurricanes – such as Maria and Irma – that caused significant and rapid damage, persistent droughts can slowly bring havoc to vulnerable Caribbean countries, said Herrera: “This is especially true for the agriculture and tourism sectors of this region, which are the most important contributors to gross domestic product in most Caribbean nations.”

Other authors are of “Exacerbation of the 2013-2016 Pan Caribbean Drought by Anthropogenic Warming,” are John Fasullo, National Center for Atmospheric Research; Sloan Coats, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Carlos Carrillo, Cornell; Benjamin Cook, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and A. Park Williams, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University.

The research was supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

But there’s some potentially good news, too

Another new study, this one from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, study links over-consumption of alcohol with two curious factors, cold temperatures and alcohol.

While climate change won’t tilt the Earth’s axis further south, it’s already making northern latitudes warmer, so there’ll be less need for somatic antifreeze. . .

We begin with a map from the study comparing levels of booze-guzzling and binge behavior in the counties of the good ol’ U.S of .A. [click on it to embiggen]:

From the University:

Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their warm-weather counterparts.

The study, recently published online in Hepatology, [$6 for 48-hour access] found that as temperature and sunlight hours dropped, alcohol consumption increased. Climate factors also were tied to binge drinking and the prevalence of alcoholic liver disease, one of the main causes of mortality in patients with prolonged excessive alcohol use.

“It’s something that everyone has assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it. Why do people in Russia drink so much? Why in Wisconsin? Everybody assumes that’s because it’s cold,” said senior author Ramon Bataller, M.D., Ph.D., chief of hepatology at UPMC, professor of medicine at Pitt, and associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “But we couldn’t find a single paper linking climate to alcohol intake or alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the first study that systematically demonstrates that worldwide and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.”

Alcohol is a vasodilator – it increases the flow of warm blood to the skin, which is full of temperature sensors – so drinking can increase feelings of warmth. In Siberia that could be pleasant, but not so much in the Sahara.

Drinking also is linked to depression, which tends to be worse when sunlight is scarce and there’s a chill in the air.

Using data from the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and other large, public data sets, Bataller’s group found a clear negative correlation between climate factors – average temperature and sunlight hours – and alcohol consumption, measured as total alcohol intake per capita, percent of the population that drinks alcohol, and the incidence of binge drinking.

The researchers also found evidence that climate contributed to a higher burden of alcoholic liver disease. These trends were true both when comparing across countries around the world and also when comparing across counties within the United States.

“It’s important to highlight the many confounding factors,” said lead author Meritxell Ventura-Cots, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “We tried to control for as many as we could. For instance, we tried to control for religion and how that influences alcohol habits.”

With much of the desert-dwelling Arab world abstaining from alcohol, it was critical to verify that the results would hold up even when excluding these Muslim-majority countries. Likewise, within the U.S., Utah has regulations that limit alcohol intake, which have to be taken into account.

When looking for patterns of cirrhosis, the researchers had to control for health factors that might exacerbate the effects of alcohol on the liver—like viral hepatitis, obesity and smoking.

In addition to settling an age-old debate, this research suggests that policy initiatives aimed at reducing the burden of alcoholism and alcoholic liver disease should target geographic areas where alcohol is more likely to be problematic.

Additional authors on this study include Ariel Watts, B.S., Neil Shah, M.D., Peter McCann, M.D., and A. Sidney Barritt IV, M.D., all of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Monica Cruz-Lemini, M.D., Ph.D., of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México at Juriquilla; Jose Altamirano, M.D., of Hospital Quirónsalud in Barcelona; Juan Abraldes, M.D., from The University of Alberta; Nambi Ndugga, M.P.H., of Harvard; and Anant Jain, M.D., Samhita Ravi, and Carlos Fernández-Carrillo, M.D., Ph.D., all of Pitt.

This research was supported by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awards U01AA021908 and U01AA020821, the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology and the Spanish Association for the Study of the Liver.

Map of the day: EurAfroAsian heritage endangered


History is constructed.

Every history text, whether in books [popular, academic, and fictional], academic journals, the popular press, and on screens theatrical, computorial, and cellular].

The history we learned as a child born at the very inception of the Post World War II Baby boom we learned at the knees of mother born to a Danish Klansman and 32nd Degree Freemason and a spouse who belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a father sired by two Pennsylvania Dutch settlers invited to settle in a state tolerant of all religions by its founder, William Penn.

Three great-grandfathers fought for the Union in the Civil War, a conflict that loomed large in from our earliest forays into print, and avidly consumed whenever it appeared on movie screens, radio dramas, and then on the black-and-white, often fuzzy, and  oddly compelling screen of the bulky console television set dramatically introduced into our living room shortly before we turned six [we were one of the first homes in Abilene, Kansas,  making us very popular with neighbors, both young and old].

Unlike today, overtly fascist perspectives were then largely limited to utterances by bad guys in novels or in the World War II-based action flicks that dominated the screen or by subscribing to costly mimeographed “newsletters” mailed in plain brown wrappers or via envelopes with post office box numbers for the return address.

America was then dominated by systems of legally mandated racial and religious segregation, drawn up by and for the melanin deficient, a fact confronted at water fountains, soda fountains, restaurants, theaters, club rooms, classrooms [with the Three Rs of Race, Religion, and Region, where one state’s War Between the States was another’s War of Northern Aggression], church pews, courtrooms, and clubrooms. . . and, well, just about everywhere.

Our passion for history was learned first at the knees on our paternal grandmother, whose father commanded a Union cavalry forward scout company in a regiment at the very spearhead of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a campaign that left him with both a lifelong lung disease and insurmountable case of nostalgia, now better known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Through her stories, history became both intimate and vivid, most especially because she’d had direct contact with two of the most dominant figures in he media of the day: As a baby she’d perched on the knee of town Marshal, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock, a figure then-poplar in fiction, film, and [especially for us] television, while as a teenager armed with a high school diploma and a graduation certificate who taught a bright young kid from the wrong side of the tracks how to read and write, a kid who went of to West Point and to lead the Allied armies in Europe during World War II, then served at the helm of Columbia University before becoming President when we six year’s old, Dwight David Eisenhower. Grandma Brenneman rode in a float and we were in the crowd when Ike came to town to announce his run for the White House.

We’ve lived long enough to have seen radical changes in the construction of our remembrance of things past, acquiring along the way what a former editor called “a profound sense of history, especially for one as young as you” [we were then 37].

History constructed in pigment, stone, mud and landscape

Back in third grade we learned cursive, and the even before we were able to write our own name, we insisted our teacher instruct us in writing archaeology, the vocation which we were then certain would be out life.s work [a confrontation with the realities of academic departmental politics would later lead us to take dig in more contemporaneous dirt as a journalist].

We amassed a sizeable and still-growing library of books about the cultures of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece Rome, Mesoamerica, and Asia, allowing us to feast on images of ruined cities and splendid artifacts and stories people and civilizations long vanished. We dreamt of digging in ancient ruins [an aspiration realized on a collegiate dig of an ancient kiva outside Taos, New Mexico].

But now a menace we know all too well threatens to inundate many of world’s most memorable ancient sites, with some very famous names on a the endangered species list.

Flood risk index at each World Heritage site under current and future conditions. [a] In 2000 and [b] in 2100 under the high-end sea-level rise scenario. From Nature open access].

More from the University of Southampton:

UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean such as Venice, the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa and the Medieval City of Rhodes are under threat of coastal erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels, a study published in Nature magazine reports this week.

The study presents a risk index that ranks the sites according to the threat they face from today until the end of the century. The sites featuring highest on this index in current conditions include Venice and its Lagoon, Ferrara, City of the Renaissance and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia. All these sites are located along the northern Adriatic Sea where extreme sea levels are the highest because high storm surges coincide with high regional sea-level rises. The sites most at risk from coastal erosion include Tyre, Lebanon, the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco, Spain, and Ephesus, Turkey.

The study, led by Lena Reimann at Kiel University, Germany, working with University of Southampton coastal scientist, Dr Sally Brown and Professor Richard Tol from the University of Sussex combines model simulations with world heritage site data to assess the risk of both coastal flooding and erosion due to sea level rise at 49 UNESCO coastal Heritage sites by the end of the century. They find that of the sites, 37 are at risk from a 100-year flood event (a flooding event which has a 1% chance of happening in any given year) and 42 from coastal erosion today. By the next century flood risk may increase by 50 % and erosion risk by 13 % across the region, and all but two of the sites (Medina of Tunis and Xanthos-Letoon) will be at risk from either of these hazards.

The Mediterranean region has a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, many of which are in coastal locations as human activity has historically concentrated around these areas. Rising sea levels pose a threat to these sites as the steep landscape and small tidal range in the area has meant settlements are often located close to the waterfront. The report says that more information on the risk at a local level is needed and the approaches to adaption and protection varies across the region due to large social and economic differences between Mediterranean countries.

Dr Sally Brown from the University of Southampton said “Heritage sites face many challenges to adapt to the effects of sea-level rise as it changes the value and ‘spirit of place’ for each site. International organisations, such as UNESCO, are aware of the risks of climate change, and ongoing monitoring is required to better understand exactly what heritage could be adversely affected by climate change and other natural hazards, and when this could occur.”

The authors have identified areas with urgent need for adaptation planning  and suggest the iconic nature of such sites can be used to promote awareness of the need to take action to mitigate climate change. In some cases relocation of individual monuments, such as the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna or The Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik, may be technically possible though not for other sites which extend over large areas such as urban centres, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes.

We suspect the White House to take no action, unless Donald Trump finally realizes his own hotels and golf courses may soon become water hazards. After all, the only history that matters to him is sexual and financial.

Bad new for whoever wins: Financial crisis ahead


While Democrats are nursing hopes of control of one or both houses of Congress, victory might contain a poison pill that could redound to the Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans benefit two years down the road.

Make no mistakes. The warning signs are already quite clear, as embodied in this series of 10-year graphs we’ve assembled from the marvelous resources of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:

First up, housing prices are soaring again, already reaching well above the levels of the 2007-9 Great Recession [indicated by the shaded areas of the charts], a crash triggered by shady mortgage lending by the nation’s leading banks [click on the images to enlarge]:

And as housing prices rise, so does mortgage debt, which has also topped pre-Great Recession levels as the Trump Administration slashes protection passed under the Obama administration::

Credit card debt is also soaring:

Yet another form of debt is also rising as states and the federal government slash colleges and university  funding, sending tuition rates through the roof:

The next graphs is particularly ominous.

While Donald Trump claims that under his administration, unemployment levels have hit record lows.

But that’s only because soaring numbers of folks have simply given up and dropped out of the labor force:

For our final graph we look at the growing amount of U.S. debt held overseas, trillions of dollars that could explode in the face of Donald Trump’s self-declared trade wars:

And now, with this graphic introduction we turn to a very important documentary from VPRO Backlight, a creation of producer Marije Meerman for Dutch public television and a warning of dark times ahead:

Lessons from Lehman and the Coming Crash

Program notes:

Have we learned the Lessons from Lehman and could we have predicted the Coming Crash? Ten years ago, the crash on Wall Street took us by surprise when Lehman Brothers’ bank went bankrupt. The financial crisis that followed this crash on Wall Street was like a chain reaction; a pole dancer with her five mortgages turned out to be connected to the huge gap in the Greek national budget. Is it possible to predict the coming crash? What are the lessons learned from the collapse of Lehman Brothers? Can we predict the coming crash of Wall Street by looking back to the last 10 years and take a lesson from Lehman?

Sometimes, it is important to look back in order to predict what we might be heading for. Ten years ago, we were taken by surprise when Lehman Brothers’ investment bank went bankrupt. In the followinf months, banks needed saving. Millions of tax payers money was used. Worldwide, banks, villages, cities, and even countries went bankrupt or were hanging by a thread. Few, if any, bankers were convicted. Crypto currencies like bitcoins thrived on the growing suspicion towards banks and governments. Finally, central banks around the world set up buying asset purchasing programmes in order to create cash out of nothing. A strategy to pump money into the financial system, hoping to keep it afloat. What have we learned from this crash and its consequences? Over a period of ten years, VPRO Backlight reported on the snowballing financial crisis. It turned out that a journalist, a former banker and an economist had predicted the 2008 credit crash and are now warning against a new crash. We pay them another visit to find out what they had seen, where many others were blind.

If we look hard enough, can we see why we are now in the calm before the next crash?

With: Nomi Prins [author and former banker for Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers], Ann Petifor [economist] and Isabella Kaminska [journalist for the Financial Times] with cameos by Jim Rogers [super investor], Roger Ver [bitcoin-evangelist], Joris Luyendijk [journalist], and Yanis Varoufakis [former Greek Minister of Finance].

Charts of the day II: The dying American Dream


From “The American Economy Is Rigged,” a new analysis by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz in Scientific American:

Map of the day: Our planet’s vanishing forests


Here’s a sobering look at the state of the planet’s vanishing forests from the latest and just-released edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook from the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity [click on the image to enlarge]:

The extent of deforestation and forest degradation worldwide: Intact forests refers to unbroken expanses of natural ecosystems greater than 50,000 hectares. Managed forests refer to forest that is fragmented by roads and/or managed for wood production. Degraded or partially deforested refers to landscapes where there has been a significant decrease in tree canopy density. Deforested refers to previously forested landscapes which have been converted into non-forest.

And there’s even worse to come

The largest area of pristine forest revealed on the U.N. map is in Amazonia, and recent conservation efforts by Latin America’s largest nation had slowed the tide of degradation, at lead until recently.

But now the election of out outspoken neofascist in Brazil guarantees tht things are going to get much, much worse.

From Rachael Garrett, Assistant Professor of the Human Dimensions of Global Change at Boston University, writing in The Conversation, an admirably open source online academic journal written in conversational English:

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, will make many decisions during his four-year term, from combating violence to stimulating a stagnant economy.

Those decisions will have large impacts on Brazilians, who remain deeply divided over the controversial election of this far-right populist.

But some of Bolsonaro’s decisions will affect the entire world, namely his promises to cut environmental protections in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Amazon’s uncertain fate

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and a major global food exporter.

The Amazon Basin also provides the rains that nourish Brazil’s productive croplands to the south, a breadbasket for the world. The rainforest’s destruction could cause large-scale droughts in Brazil, leading to nationwide crop losses.

An estimated 9 percent of Amazonian forests disappeared between 1985 and 2017, reducing the rainforest’s ability to absorb the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Deforestation is largely due to land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly cattle ranching.

Cattle production has an extremely low profit margin in the Brazilian Amazon. It also requires a massive amount of land for grazing. Both factors drive Amazonian farmers to continuously clear forest – illegally – to expand pastureland.

Today, 12 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, or 93 million acres – an area roughly the size of Montana – is used for agriculture, primarily cattle ranching but also soybean production.

Deforestation decreased substantially from 2004 to 2014 thanks to strict environmental protections passed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2004. His Workers Party cracked down on illegal land clearing in the Amazon, making Brazil a world leader in rainforest protection.

But deforestation in the Amazon has begun to climb again recently.

Brazilian President Michel Temer, a conservative who entered office in 2016 during a deep recession, has loosened enforcement of federal anti-deforestation laws, slashed the environmental ministry’s budget and opened the Amazon to mining.

Satellite data reveal that between August 2017 to 2018, 1.1 million acres of Brazilian Amazonian forest were cleared – the highest deforestation rate since 2007.

President-elect Bolsonaro has promised to further slash environmental protections in Brazil, saying that federal conservation zones and hefty fines for cutting down trees hinder economic growth.

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The world’s last wilderness is rapidly disappearing


We’ve posted extensively about corporate agriculture’s major land granbs in Africa and Latin America’s Amazon Basin, but the sheer scale of land vanishing under the plow and the land developer’s bulldozer is simply astounding, as exemplified in this map just published by Nature:

More from the University of Queensland:

The world’s last wilderness areas are rapidly disappearing, with explicit international conservation targets critically needed, according to University of Queensland-led research.

The international team recently mapped intact ocean ecosystems, complementing a 2016 project [$2.99 for three-hour access] charting remaining terrestrial wilderness.

Professor James Watson, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said the two studies provided the first full global picture of how little wilderness remains, and he was alarmed at the results.

“A century ago, only 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface was used by humans to grow crops and raise livestock,” he said.

“Today, more than 77 per cent of land – excluding Antarctica – and 87 per cent of the ocean has been modified by the direct effects of human activities.

“It might be hard to believe, but between 1993 and 2009, an area of terrestrial wilderness larger than India — a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres — was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressures.

“And in the ocean, the only regions that are free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are almost completely confined to the polar regions.”

UQ Postdoctoral Research Fellow James R. Allan said the world’s remaining wilderness could only be protected if its importance was recognised in international policy.

“Some wilderness areas are protected under national legislation, but in most nations, these areas are not formally defined, mapped or protected,” he said.

“There is nothing to hold nations, industry, society or communities to account for long-term conservation.

“We need the immediate establishment of bold wilderness targets — specifically those aimed at conserving biodiversity, avoiding dangerous climate change and achieving sustainable development.”

The researchers insist that global policy needs to be translated into local action.

“One obvious intervention these nations can prioritise is establishing protected areas in ways that would slow the impacts of industrial activity on the larger landscape or seascape,” Professor Watson said.

“But we must also stop industrial development to protect indigenous livelihoods, create mechanisms that enable the private sector to protect wilderness, and push the expansion of regional fisheries management organisations.

“We have lost so much already, so we must grasp this opportunity to secure the last remaining wilderness before it disappears forever.”

The article has been published in Nature [open, read-only access].

What’s the best fertilizer? We’re calling bullshit!


And we mean that literally.

The Agronomy Society of America reports on new research certain to put the wind up Big Agra:

In a newly published study, researchers dug into how fertilizing with manure affects soil quality, compared with inorganic fertilizer.

Ekrem Ozlu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his team studied two fields in South Dakota. From 2003 to 2015, the research team applied either manure or inorganic fertilizer to field plots growing corn and soybeans. They used low, medium, and high manure levels, and medium and high inorganic fertilizer levels. They also had a control treatment of no soil additives to provide a comparison.

In the summer of 2015, they collected soil samples at a variety of depths using a push probe auger. Then they analyzed the samples.

  • Manure helped keep soil pH—a measure of acidity or alkalinity—in a healthy range for crops. Inorganic fertilizer made the soil more acidic.
  • Manure increased soil organic carbon for all the measured soil depths compared to inorganic fertilizer and control treatments. More carbon means better soil structure.
  • Manure significantly increased total nitrogen compared to fertilizer treatments. Nitrogen is key to plant growth.
  • Manure increased water-stable aggregates. These are groups of soil particles that stick to each other. Increased water-stable aggregates help soil resist water erosion. Inorganic fertilizer application decreased these aggregates.
  • Manure increased soil electrical conductivity at all soil depths in comparison to inorganic fertilizer and control treatments. Higher soil electrical conductivity means higher salt levels in the soil.

Ozlu and his team concluded that long-term annual application of manure improved most soil quality properties compared to inorganic fertilizer. “Increased electrical conductivity is one of the few negative impacts of manure,” Ozlu said.

The team also measured the effects of larger and smaller doses of each treatment at different soil depths. This will provide useful guidance to growers.

So, what could a backyard gardener learn from this study? Ozlu said, “I recommend gardeners use composted manure, especially in solid form, because manure is the fertilizer that supports better soil quality by improving almost all soil properties. Inorganic fertilizer is better in terms of electrical conductivity, but it does not improve other soil properties and crop yields better than manure.”

Ozlu concluded, “If you think of soil as a heart, manure is the lifeblood going through it.”

This is a poetic view of manure, to be sure. But perhaps this humble yet enormously useful substance deserves a little poetry.

The research is published in Soil Science Society of America Journal [$15 for non-subscribers to access]. This research work was partially supported by the Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) of South Dakota State University (SDSU), and the General Directorate of Agricultural Research and Policies, Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Livestock, Republic of Turkey.

No corporate research funds?

Gee, we wonder why?

Not really.

Climate change threatens oceans, food supplies


As the earth heats up, the oceans, the source of all life, are undergoing rapid, ominous changes capable of dramatically altering the context of human existence.

We begin with a briefing from the World Bank:

Billions of people worldwide —especially the world’s poorest— rely on healthy oceans to provide jobs and food, underscoring the urgent need to sustainably use and protect this natural resource.

According to the OECD, oceans contribute $1.5 trillion annually in value-added to the overall economy. The FAO estimates that around 60 million people are employed in fisheries and aquaculture, with the majority of those employed by capture fisheries working in small-scale operations in developing countries. In 2016, fisheries produced roughly 171 million tons of fish, with a “first sale” value estimated at US$362 billion,  generating over US$143 billion in exports. Moreover, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average intake of animal protein, even more in poor countries [emphases added].

Healthy oceans, coasts and freshwater ecosystems are crucial for economic growth and food production, but they are also fundamental to global efforts to mitigate climate change. “Blue carbon” sinks such as mangroves and other vegetated ocean habitats sequester 25 percent of the extra CO2 from fossil fuels and protect coastal communities from floods and storms. In turn, warming oceans and atmospheric carbon are causing ocean acidification that threatens the balance and productivity of the oceans.

While ocean resources have the potential to boost growth and wealth, human activity has taken a toll on ocean health. Fish stocks have deteriorated due to overfishing — the share of fish stocks outside biologically sustainable levels rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 32 percent in 2013, while in the same year approximately 57 percent of fish stocks were fully exploited. Fish stocks are affected by illicit fishing, which may account for up to 26 million tons of fish catches a year or more than 15 percent of total catches. . . Fish habitats are also under pressure from pollution, coastal development, and destructive fishing practices that undermine fish population rehabilitation efforts.

Oceans are also threatened by marine plastic pollution and each year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans, with microplastics becoming part of the food chain. Five countries produce the highest volumes of plastic waste and researchers estimate that a 75 percent reduction in plastics pollution in just China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam could reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean globally by almost 45 percent.

Threats from over-fishing

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2018 notes that “Zones of moderately heavy to heavy fishing intensity now wrap around every continent, affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas. This implies that fishing activities have exposed shallow coastal marine ecosystems to potential long-term damage, notably by trawling.” The report cites the particularly heavy intensification in the global South and East over the past six decades, with the greatest intensification in South East Asia.

This map from the report reflects the changes globally [click on the image to enlarge]:

AVERAGE ANNUAL CATCHES OF THE WORLD’S MARITIME FISHING COUNTRIES IN THE 1950s COMPARED TO THE 2000s.
Blue indicates zero or very minute catches, and yellow indicates light or no fishing. Zones of moderately heavy [ orange] to heavy fishing intensity [red] now wrap around every continent, affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas.
Almost 6 billion tons of fish and invertebrates [e.g. crustaceans and molluscs] have been extracted from the world’s oceans since 1950. Annual catch increased dramatically from 28 million tons in 1950 to more than 110 million tons in 2014. However, since peaking in 1996 at about 130 million tons, catch has been decreasing at an average rate of 1.2 million tons per year.

Coral reef bleaching levels hit new heights as seas warm

Marine coral reef bleaching may be the greatest immediate threat, as rising temperatures upset the balance of the delicate reefs which serve as breeding grounds for much of the fish so vital to the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest peoples. [Also see our previous posts on the subject]

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a look the recent escalation of the crisis and what it might mean:

Historically, global-scale coral bleaching has been associated with El Niño events, which generally raise global temperatures. The first mass coral bleaching was observed during the strong El Niño in 1983, and the first truly global event coincided with the strong El Niño of 1998. The world’s tropical reefs were stressed again during a moderate-strength 2010 El Niño.

The coral-bleaching event of 2014–2017 was unusual not just for its long duration, experts say, but also because it wasn’t entirely due to El Niño. Though an El Niño was anticipated in 2014, it didn’t really materialize until March 2015, yet bleaching-level heat stress was already well underway by that time. A strong El Niño arrived in 2016, and heat stress occurred at 51 percent of the world’s coral reefs into early 2017, when a La Niña was in place.

The 36-month heatwave and global bleaching event were exceptional in a variety of ways. For many reefs, this was the first time on record that they had experienced bleaching in two consecutive years. Many reefs—including those in Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii—experienced their worst bleaching ever documented. In the Northern Line Islands in the South Pacific, upwards of 98 percent of the coral at some reefs were killed. Reefs in the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that had never bleached before lost nearly 30 percent of their shallow water corals in 2016, while reefs a bit farther south lost another 22 percent in 2017.

All told, more than 75 percent of Earth’s tropical reefs experienced bleaching-level heat stress between 2014 and 2017, and at nearly 30 percent of reefs, it reached mortality level. The scientists summarized the event in stark terms:

More than half of affected reef areas were impacted at least twice. This global event has punctuated the recent acceleration of mass bleaching. Occurring at an average rate of once every 25–30 years in the 1980s, mass bleaching now returns about every six years and is expected to further accelerate…. Severe bleaching is now occurring more quickly than reefs can recover, with severe downstream consequences to ecosystems and people.

The accompanying map reveals the sheer extent of coral reef bleaching:

Many coral reefs experienced mass bleaching back-to-back in 2015 [top] and 2016 [bottom]. The likelihood of coral bleaching depends on how high the temperatures are above the annual monthly maximum and how long the unusual heat persists. Scientists track these conditions using satellite-based estimates of Degree Heating Weeks. Alert 1 means coral bleaching is likely. Alert 2 means widespread bleaching and significant mortality of corals are likely. Severe coral bleaching was reported in areas circled in white.

And to make matters worse, yet another heat spike is expected in the coming year, one that might be even worse.

Reef bleaching dramatically impacts fish behavior

Way back in out college days, an anthropology prof described the Three Fs of behavior: Feeding, Fucking, and Fighting. The three were often related, he added, as humans often fought for food and sex.

Fish, it seems, are much the same.

Professor Stéphan G. Reebs of Canada’s University of Monckton specializes in animal behavior and has written extensively about fish, including their aggressiveness, the focus of a 2008 paper:

Competition is a fact of life. It can take many forms, but biologists usually recognize two broad categories. In the first one, called exploitative or scramble competition, the contests are like races. The most food goes to the animal that eats the fastest, the best shelter is occupied by whoever reaches it first, and the largest share of eggs are fertilized by those males which produce the most sperm. There is usually little aggression displayed in such cases. However, in the second category, which is called interference or defense competition, animals fight among themselves for the right to monopolize food, to occupy alone a shelter or a territory, or to secure exclusive access to a mate.

And now we learn that coral reef bleaching has marked effects of fishy behavior, effects we suspect could have long-term cascading impacts on the world’s food supply.

From the University of Vermont:

A research team, including University of Vermont scientist Nate Sanders, found that when water temperatures heat up for corals, fish “tempers” cool down, providing the first clear evidence of coral bleaching serving as a trigger for rapid change in the behavior of reef fish.

Publishing in Nature Climate Change [$8.99 to read for non-subscribers],the researchers show how the iconic butterflyfish, considered to be sensitive indicators of reef health, can offer an early warning sign that reef fish populations are in trouble.

The international team of scientists spent more than 600 hours underwater observing butterflyfish over a two-year period encompassing the unprecedented mass coral bleaching event of 2016. Led by marine ecologist Sally Keith of Lancaster University, the team examined 17 reefs across the central Indo-Pacific in Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

During the initial data collection, the researchers were unaware that the catastrophic bleaching event was on the horizon. Once underway, the researchers realized that this serendipitous “natural experiment” placed them in a unique position to see how fish changed their behavior in response to large-scale bleaching disturbance.

The team sprang into action to repeat their field observations, collecting a total of 5,259 encounters between individuals of 38 different butterflyfish species. Within a year after the bleaching event, it was clear that, although the same number of butterflyfish continued to reside on the reefs, they were behaving very differently.

“We observed that aggressive behavior had decreased in butterflyfish by an average of two thirds, with the biggest drops observed on reefs where bleaching had killed off the most coral,” said Keith. “We think this is because the most nutritious coral was also the most susceptible to bleaching, so the fish moved from a well-rounded diet to the equivalent of eating only lettuce leaves—it was only enough to survive rather than to thrive.”

Early warning

“This matters because butterflyfishes are often seen as the ‘canaries of the reef,'” said Nate Sanders, director of UVM’s Environmental Program and professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Due to their strong reliance on coral, they are often the first to suffer after a disturbance event.”

Such changes in behavior may well be the driver behind more obvious changes such as declining numbers of fish individuals and species. The finding has the potential to help explain the mechanism behind population declines in similarly disrupted ecosystems around the world.

By monitoring the fishes’ behavior, “we might get an early warning sign of bigger things to come,” said co-author Erika Woolsey of Stanford University. And the new work shows that  animals can adjust to catastrophic events in the short term through flexible behavior, “but these changes may not be sustainable in the longer-term,” said co-author Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

But it’s not a problem, right?

At least that’s what the White House would have us believe.

Is you pet Roundup Ready™? It better be. . .


Roundup™, Monsanto’s best-selling weed-killer has been the keystone of the agricultural giant’s genetically engineered crops,as well as the subject of endless controversies, ranging from the economic power GMO companies have amassed to contamination of other plants, the evolution of superweeds immune to the presticide [leading to an escalation to more dangerous herbicides], and the possible health impacts on animals, including the human kind. [See here for  our extensive collection of previous posts.]

A recent California verdict awarded $289 million to a groundskeeper dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma who charged that his ailment stemmed directly from exposure to the herbicide, though the judge reduced the total to $78 million.

The company was sold in June to Germany’s Bayer, the German chemical-gint, but the flow of Roundup™ continues

And now comes word that glyphosate, the weedkiller’s active ingredient, is in your pet food.

While the author of the Cornell University study says the amounts are well below  the government’s danger threshhold, he’s stopped feeding the stuff to his own pet.

From Cornell University:

Got glyphosate?

Your pet’s breakfast might.

A new Cornell study published this month in Environmental Pollution finds that glyphosate, the active herbicidal ingredient in widely used weed killers like Roundup, was present at low levels in a variety of dog and cat foods the researchers purchased at stores. Before you go switching Fido or Fluffy’s favorite brand, however, be aware that the amounts of the herbicide found correspond to levels currently considered safe for humans.

The study grew out of a larger interdisciplinary research project led by Brian Richards, senior research associate in biological and environmental engineering, and supported by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s Academic Venture Fund, which sought to reassess glyphosate mobility and impacts in several contexts: movement from crop fields in surface water, impacts on soils and on animals consuming it in their feed.

Richard’s co-investigators Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology, and Kenneth Simpson, professor of small-animal medicine, visited a pet store and a retail outlet, where they selected multiple bags of cat and dog foods from major brands. The 18 feeds were all mixtures of vegetable and meat ingredients, and one product was certified GMO-free. Analyses conducted by postdoctoral researcher and lead author Jiang Zhao in Hay’s lab, and research support specialist Steve Pacenka, found that all of the products contained glyphosate at concentrations ranging from approximately 80 to 2,000 micrograms of glyphosate per kilogram.

Since there is not enough data available to determine what effect – if any – low-dose glyphosate exposure has on domestic animals, the researchers used human acceptable daily intake guidelines to put these findings in context, according to Hay. The researchers estimated that the median dog exposure would amount to only 0.7 percent of the U.S. glyphosate limit set for humans.

“While the levels of glyphosate in pet foods surprised us, if a human ate it every day, their glyphosate exposure would still be well below the limits currently deemed safe,” Hay said.

“Even the most contaminated feed they studied had thousands of times less glyphosate than levels that were shown to have no adverse effects on dogs in the U.S. EPA’s Draft Risk Assessment for glyphosate” said Dan Wixted, a pesticide educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension who was not involved in the study.

While unable to pinpoint the exact product or crops that were the source of the glyphosate, Hay’s team did find a correlation with fiber, suggesting a plant-based origin.

“We know that glyphosate is only certified for spraying on crops, and it does not bio-accumulate in animals, so we would not expect it to come from feed animals that are the main protein sources in some of the products,” Hay said. “Our evidence suggests that it’s coming from plant material.”

One surprising finding of the study: Glyphosate was detected in the one GMO-free product the researchers analyzed at levels higher than those of several other processed feeds. This suggests that keeping feed stocks uncontaminated is a challenge even in the GMO-free market.

What is a pet owner to do with this information?

“Glyphosate is out there in our pets’ food, and while there doesn’t appear to be any immediate risk, there is still uncertainty about the chronic impact of low doses like these,” Hay said. “It’s hard to find a product that doesn’t have glyphosate in it, so we included the exposure assessment to provide some context. The old adage ‘dose determines the poison’ is good to keep in mind: While it’s possible that these animals might respond differently than humans, the numbers are still within a range that would be deemed safe for humans.”

Hay, for his part, has stopped feeding chow found to be high in glyphosate to his own dog, a pug beagle mix, but he hasn’t seen any changes in her health.

“She’s more cat than dog to be honest,” he said. “She sits on the bed and won’t go outside when it rains. But I can now confirm that her laziness has nothing to do with her feed.”

Maps of the day: Climate change 1885-2014


A series 0f dramatic maps from NASA shows the decade-by-decade rapid rise in global temperatures over the past 129 years, with shaded areas representing temperature changes in degrees Celsius as compared to a 1950-1981 baseline [click on the images to enlarge]:

More from NASA:

The global temperature record represents an average over the entire surface of the planet. The temperatures we experience locally and in short periods can fluctuate significantly due to predictable cyclical events (night and day, summer and winter) and hard-to-predict wind and precipitation patterns. But the global temperature mainly depends on how much energy the planet receives from the Sun and how much it radiates back into space—quantities that change very little. The amount of energy radiated by the Earth depends significantly on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, particularly the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.

The maps above show temperature anomalies, or changes, not absolute temperature. They depict how much various regions of the world have warmed or cooled when compared with a base period of 1951-1980. (The global mean surface air temperature for that period was estimated to be 14°C (57°F), with an uncertainty of several tenths of a degree.) In other words, the maps show how much warmer or colder a region is compared to the norm for that region from 1951-1980.

Global temperature records start around 1880 because observations did not sufficiently cover enough of the planet prior to that time. The period of 1951-1980 was chosen largely because the U.S. National Weather Service uses a three-decade period to define “normal” or average temperature. The GISS temperature analysis effort began around 1980, so the most recent 30 years was 1951-1980. It is also a period when many of today’s adults grew up, so it is a common reference that many people can remember.

Here’s a NASA animation of temperature anomalies for the same period:

And our final NASA graphic reveals the dramatic spike in global carbon dioxide levels, one of the principal culprits:

And for our final graphic, the folks at Worldmapper have created a graphic depiction of the sources of the carbon dioxide omissions, shaded according to the millions of tons each country pours into the atmosphere:

Maps of the day: Climate change and refugees


Nothing has contributed more to the rise of 21st Century global fascist populism than the surge of refugees from the war zones of Middle East and North Africa [MENA], and Latin America as darker-skinned folks fleeing from crises zones flood the paler-skinned nations of North America and Europe..

And the situation can only get worse and climate change fuels an intensification of the refugee streams, with higher temperatures and lower precipitation strike the same regions already generating the refugee flood,

Consider the following maps from the just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]:

Projected mean temperature [top] and mean precipitation changes [bottom] at 1.5°C global warming [left] and 2°C global warming [right] compared to pre-industrial time period [1861-1880].

As both Mexico and the MENA region fall victim to a drastic reduction in precipitation and higher temperatures in areas already marked by soaring violence, life will grow harder and the temptation to flee grows ever stronger, tensions in the the developed world can only grow stronger as violent and virulent populism soars.

In all the regions affected, U.S. foreign policy has favored oppressive tyrants, installed with the backing of military forces from the developed North, backed by banksters and corporateers eager to “develop” the resources of the afflicted regions, including oil, agriculture and water.

For those nostalgic for the Obama years, consider the military campaigns that the “liberal” administration sponsored, actions which only stoked the flames.

The Trump administration has only added more fuel to the flames by pulling the U.S. out of the climate accord, setting the stage for more refugees and the accelerated rise of fascist parties in the North.

In the rods of the immortal Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Mapping America, the very rich, unhappy bully


We love Worldmapper, a website run by some British cartographers who look at the world in very interesting ways.

Whilst exploring their extensive collection of maps, we came across three that reveal some very interesting connections, revealing a deeply troublesome portrait of the country Donald Trump wants to “make great again.”

In fact, the nation is already great, in a deeply and very troubling way.

First, it’s the world leader, as revealed in this graphic, in which the nations of the globe are resized according to they number of their billionaire inhabitants, with America leading the way:

Billionaires 2018

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”

— Donald Trump in ABC TV’s ‘Good Morning America’ [2011]

 In 2018, “Forbes found a record 2,208 billionaires, collectively worth $9.1 trillion. Among them are 259 newcomers who made their fortunes in everything from wedding dresses to children’s toys to electric cars.” [Quoted from the Forbes World’s Billionaires 2018 Ranking]

Another graphic shows another field another field of American greatness, with each nation resized according spending on another field dominated by Old Gory:

Military Spending 2017

The biggest spender – by far- are the United States, followed by China, Saudi Arabia, India, France and Russia. The United States spent more than double than China on military expenses. The United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and South Korea complete the top 10 spenders. Six of the top spending countries are also nuclear powers.

Some countries have no military, thus no military spending, like Iceland or Costa Rica. Iceland is a member of NATO nonetheless and contributes to NATO operations with both financial contributions and civil personnel. How much of their GDP NATO members are spending on military has always caused discussions within the alliance.

Finally, another map resizes nations according to population,shaded according to their relative happiness as reported in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index [HPI]:

The Happy Planet Index

This map shows the results of the most recent Happy Planet Index 2016 report from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram, showing world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score.

The indicators that are used for calculating the HPI score cover life-satisfaction, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and the ecological footprint. As argued in the report, “GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country.” This explains, why consumption patterns are seen as more important for well-being than production. It also acknowledges that inequalities in well-being and life expectancy are important factors in the overall happiness of the population in a country.

When taking these notions into account, the rich industrialised countries score much worse in achieving sustainable well-being for all. Of the 140 countries included in the HPI, Luxembourg is the most extreme example for a wealthy nation scoring very badly: The country does well on life expectancy and well-being, and also has low inequality, but sustains this lifestyle with the largest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. It would require more than nine planets to sustain this way of life if every person on Earth would live the same way, showing that the standard of living comes at a high cost to the environment.

Chart of the day: How Americans use the land


From Bloomberg, a look at how the nation uses it’s land, with each color representing the total of land occupied by the accompany usage [click on the image to enlarge]:

Map of the day: Western Hemisphere happiness


From Views of the World, the always informative blog of British geographer Benjamin Henning, a look at how the nations of the Western Hemisphere fare on the Happy Planet Index [click on the image to enlarge]:

From the blog post, where you can find the full map, which is based on a remapping of the world to show the nations resized to match their relative populations:

March, 20th is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, recognising ‘the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world’. Bhutan is credited as the first country to have implemented the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an official measure for the state of a nation, introduced in 1972. After the global financial crash in 2008, ideas about giving the ‘spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of [people] and natural environment’ more prominence over mere economic development are reflected more and more in international efforts towards a sustainable future.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation, takes a rather radical approach on this issue. It aims to measure well-being and happiness by taking a universal and long-term approach to understanding, how efficiently people in a country are using their environmental resources to live long and happy lives.

This cartogram maps the results of the 2016 Happy Planet Index from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram shows the world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score:

The indicators that are used for calculating the HPI score cover life-satisfaction, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and the ecological footprint. As argued in the report, ‘GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country.’ This explains why consumption patterns are seen as more important for well-being than production. It also acknowledges that inequalities in well-being and life expectancy are important factors in the overall happiness of the population in a country.

When taking these notions into account, the rich industrialised countries score much worse in achieving sustainable well-being for all. Of the 140 countries included in the HPI, Luxembourg is the most extreme example for a wealthy nation scoring very badly – it does well on life expectancy and well-being, and also has low inequality, but sustains this lifestyle with the largest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. It would require more than nine planets to sustain this way of life if every person on Earth lived the same way, showing that the standard of living comes at a high cost to the environment.

Among the positive stories is Costa Rica, which is also highlighted on the map. The country has persistently scored highest in all HPI releases (the 2016 edition is the third, after 2009 and 2012). More of a surprise might be the high score for Mexico (second), which is credited to massive efforts at improving health and environmental sustainability. Despite challenges with tackling inequality, well-being is perceived higher than in the wealthier northern neighbour, the United States. Quite a few Central and South American nations, as well as some Asian and Pacific countries do better than many wealthy nations. However, the African continent shows that at the bottom end extreme poverty can be a limiting factor in achieving sustainable well-being.

Suit: ‘Ghosts’ wrote Monsanto Roundup™ research


Explosive allegations rising from a California lawsuit charge that Big Agra corporate giant Monsanto used ghost writers to created research the company used to win federal approval of  glyphosate, the weed-killer in Monsanto’s market-leading Roundup™ herbicide.

With the EPA poised for massive cuts under the new administration, the litigation reveals problems calling for stronger, rather than weaker, enforcement powers for the agency created by Republican Richard M. Nixon.

The disclosure comes just as a federal court upheld a law mandating their product carry a cancer warning.

From teleSUR English:

Agrochemical giant Monsanto used ghostwriters on scientific reports to cover up the risk of cancer from its flagship weedkiller, plaintiffs in a case in a U.S. Federal Court in San Francisco have claimed in a lawsuit.

Lawyers suing Monsanto on behalf of farmers and others in the mass litigation presented documents to the court claiming that the company had failed to warn the public that exposure to its most popular weedkiller, Roundup, was known to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. Roundup is the most-used weed killer in history.

Employes at the company were accused of writing reports that were used to determine if one of the key ingredients in Roundup, glyphosate, was not carcinogenic. The company’s toxicology manager is accused of ghostwriting sections of a scientific report in 2013 under the names of other scientists and another manager was seen to ghostwrite sections of another report from 2000.

On the back of the false reports, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed that Roundup posed no cancer risk. The company has denied that it carried out such activities and says that the claims the allegations are based on “cherry-pick” from one email.

In the email in question, an executive from the company said that ghostwriters could help cut down on costs and researchers “would just edit & sign their names so to speak.”

While court filings said that the EPA “may be unaware of Monsanto’s deceptive authorship practice,” former deputy director of the EPA, Jess Rowland, was accused of colluding with Monsanto to bury the real scientific research on glyphosate and its links to cancer.

Citing an email from a Monsanto employee, Roland reportedly said, “If I can kill this (the study) I should get a medal.”  Rowland has been the central figure in more than 20 lawsuits in the U.S.

In a separate lawsuit, a district court ruled that California could classify glyphosate as a cancer risk. The World Health Organization had previously upgraded glyphosate as a carcinogen.

Global warming linked to massive coral reef dieoffs


Donald Trump and his crew of wreckers may believe climate change is a hoax, but nearly all of country’s scientists disagree huuugely.

So, too, does the American public, which is growing increasingly worried about what lies ahead, as new polling from Gallup reveals:

Yet mroof of the power of global warming to devastate vast ecosystems comes from new research from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies:

Coral researchers are remobilising to conduct aerial and underwater surveys along the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere in Australia as coral bleaching reappears for the second year in a row. The decision coincides with the release today of a study [$32 to read] in the prestigious journal Nature warning the Reef’s resilience is rapidly waning.

Scientists and Reef managers from ten research institutions across Australia, representing the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, have returned to the Reef only one year after scorching temperatures caused the worst coral bleaching event on record in 2016. Teams will spend the next few weeks in the air and underwater measuring the extent of the damage from this summer compared to last.

“We’re hoping that the next 2-3 weeks will cool off quickly, and this year’s bleaching won’t be anything like last year. The severity of the 2016 bleaching was off the chart,” explains lead author and Taskforce convener, Prof. Terry Hughes (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies). “It was the third major bleaching to affect the Great Barrier Reef, following earlier heatwaves in 1998 and 2002. Now we’re gearing up to study a potential number four.”

Dead staghorn coral killed by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Greg Torda, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

“We have now assessed whether past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 made reefs any more tolerant in 2016. Sadly, we found no evidence that past bleaching makes the corals any tougher.”

While protecting reefs from fishing, and improving water quality is likely to help bleached reefs recover in the longer term, the study also revealed that it made no difference to the amount of bleaching during the extreme heatwave of 2016.

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Charts of the day: Latin American land inequality


Two significant graphics from Unearthed: land, power and inequality in Latin America, a major study of land distribution in Latin America, reveal the gross inequalities of land distribution in the Americas.

First, a look at agricultural land tenure rates, featuring the percentage of farms in each country owned by the top one percent of landowners:

More from the report:

Latin America is the world’s most unequal region in terms of land distribution. The Gini coefficient for land—an indicator of between 0 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum inequality—is 0.79 for the region as a whole, 0.85 in South America and 0.75 in Central America. These figures indicate much higher levels of land concentration than in Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) or Asia (0.55).

According to this indicator, Paraguay (with a Gini coefficient of 0.93) is the country where land is most unequally distributed, followed by Chile (0.91) and Venezuela (0.88). At the other end of
the spectrum is Costa Rica (0.67), which has the most equitable land distribution in the region. Most Latin American countries have extremely high levels of concentration with Gini coeffi-
cients above 0.80, while the ratio is over 0.90 in Chile and Paraguay.

Compared with the distribution of income—for which Latin America is also the most unequal region in the world—land distribution is even more inequitable. The regional Gini coefficient for income is 0.48 compared with 0.79 for land, and is higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa (0.43), North America (0.37) or the East Asia-Pacific region (0.37).

And, next, a look at what crops are planted on those vast latifundias:

Note particularly the vast acreage devoted to soybeans.

The great majority of those acres are planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans, according to this September report from Reuters:

South American farmers are expected to sow 57 percent more area with Monsanto Co’s second-generation, genetically modified soybean seed Intacta RR2 Pro in the new planting season, a company executive said.

Intacta, which tolerates the herbicide glyphosate and resists caterpillars, was planted on 14 million hectares in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay in 2015/2016.

Farmers are expected to plant 18 million to 22 million hectares this season, Maria Luiza Nachreiner, head of South American soy operations, said in an interview before Monsanto announced it would accept a $66 billion takeover bid from rival Bayer.

“We have a positive outlook this crop,” Nachreiner said.

Intacta will account for 31 percent to 38 percent of the planted area in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, up from 24 percent this season, she noted.

Monsanto does not release specific numbers about the area planted with its seeds in Brazil, the world’s largest soybean exporter. For years, its Roundup Ready Soybeans dominated the regional GMO seed market, peaking in 2013/14 with 84 percent of Brazil’s soybean area, according to data from local consultant Celeres.

To maintain those crops, farmers are also basically forced to use Monsanto weed-killers, most notably glyphosate, the main chemical ingredient in the company’s Roundup,.

Roundup has been linked with a growing number of human health problems, but weeds have been growing tolerant, forcing the company to create new blends featuring even more toxic chemicals, including 2,4-D, one of two chemicals used in the toxic Agent Orange blend sprayed over much of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, resulting in a growing number of severe infant deformities.