Thursday, March 31, 2011

Old Soap Saves Lives

Toiletries at a Seattle hotel. Photo courtesy: Daniel Morrison / Creative Commons via TreeHugger

I have always been appalled at the wastefulness of the "have" countries when it comes to just about everything. People all over the world are dying for lack of sinmple resources that we routinely throw away, underutilize, or squander in some other fashion.

There will always be a small number of travellers who are suckers for those little hotel soaps and shampoos and lotions; and, who rarely go home from a hotel stay without a handful of them stuffed in their luggage. However; there is a growing number of consumers that are beginning to realize just how wasteful these items truly are; and, choose to stay in hotels that are trying to help the environment. I would be one of those people.

Hundreds of millions of soap bars are discarded each year in North American alone -- a surplus that a Ugandan refugee has turned into a life-saving solution to diseases caused by poor sanitation.

After fleeing Uganda with his family during the reign of Idi Amin, Derreck Kayongo lived as a refugee in Kenya and eventually came to the United States, where he was shocked to learn how much soap gets thrown away in hotels, CNN reported.

Drawing on the knowledge of his father, a former soap maker in Uganda, Kayongo founded the Atlanta-based Global Soap Project, which collects used hotel soap from across the country, cleans and reprocesses it, and sends it to impoverished nations in Africa and the Caribbean:
For Kayongo, collecting soap is "a first line of defense" mission to combat child mortality around the world. Each year, more than 2 million children die from diarrheal illness -- the approximate population of San Antonio, Texas. According to the World Health Organization, these deaths occur almost exclusively among toddlers living in low-income countries.

"When you fall sick because you didn't wash up your hands, it's more expensive to go to the hospital to get treated," [Kayongo said]. "And that's where the problem begins and people end up dying."

Some 300 hotels donate their soap to the project, which relies heavily on volunteers to recycle the bars. So far it has donated more than 100,000 bars of soap to communities in nine countries. There's still plenty of room for the project to expand, though: An estimated 2.6 million bars of soap are discarded in U.S. hotel rooms every day.

Via TreeHugger

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Australia's Ningaloo Coast Added to the UNESCO World Heritage List

Charles Knife gorge in the Cape Range national park, Ningaloo coast, Australia. Photograph courtesy: Unesco via guardian

The Ningaloo coast in Australia, a vast complex of reefs, caves, streams and shallow waters, and the Kenya lake system in the Great Rift valley in Africa, an area of outstanding beauty and home to 13 threatened bird species, are the latest sites to be added to the World Heritage List.

The Ningaloo coast in Western Australia covers 708,350 hectares of coastal waters and land, including one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world, and is home to rare wildlife including whale sharks and sea turtles, already attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.

The three shallow lakes in Kenya's Rift Valley form the most important site anywhere for lesser flamingo, as well as mammals including giraffe, black rhino, kudu, lion, cheetah and wild dogs.

More depressingly, the committee also added two sites to the Heritage in Danger list. Sumatra's tropical rainforest is now regarded as endangered by poaching, illegal logging, clearance for farming, and plans for more roads. The Rio Platano biosphere reserve, a rare remnant of tropical rainforest in central America, is also threatened by illegal logging and poaching, with the added complication that drug trafficking has made the area so dangerous its environment is almost impossible to police. Most of it is in Honduras, and the request to add it to the danger list came from the Honduran government, to highlight the problems it faces in protecting it.

In a rare piece of good news for endangered sites, India's protection for the Manas wildlife sanctuary in the foothills of the Himalayas, classified as under threat since 1992, is regarded as having improved enough for the site to go back onto the main world heritage list.

Via guardian

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Britain Suffers Huge Honeybee Loss Over Past Winter

The north-east of England has recorded a honeybee loss rate of 17.1%. Photograph courtesy: Saul Loeb/AFP via guardian

Winged pollinators, most especially bees, are still under attack on a myriad of fronts; and, are suffering staggering decreases in their numbers. The UK, in particular, has suffered a tremendous loss to their honeybee population this winter; and, are trying desperately to bolster the declining honeybee situation.

We, in Canada and the USA, are suffering the same sorts of declines - as are countries all over the world - but, the UK seems to take this crisis much more seriously than other countries. They appear to realize that if we lose our winged pollinators, eventually our entire food chain will collapse.

In 2008, the bee was named "The World's Most Invaluable Species" by Earthwatch during their annual event which is eagerly attended by scientists and non-scientists alike. With all our neighbours across the pond do for bees, it seems a shame that they should have suffered such a loss this winter.

Honeybee populations declined by 13.6% over the winter according to a survey of beekeepers across England. Losses were most severe in the north-east where the survey recorded a loss rate of 17.1%.

Experts worry that the declines will affect plant productivity. There are also concerns that the declines, along with drought conditions in some areas, will mean less English honey this year.

Martin Smith, president of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), which carried out the survey, said: "If this was measured against similar losses in livestock it would be seen as disastrous and there would be great concern on the knock-on impact of food prices."

Beekeepers are puzzled by the decline because the cold winter and early spring should have favoured bees. They stay "clustered" tightly in their hives when it is cold and dry, saving energy for spring foraging when the temperature rises about 12C.

However, there is good news that the rate of colony loss has slowed. Four years ago, one in three hives was wiped out.

Beekeepers suspect that poor nutrition is a likely cause of weakness in adult bees that makes them succumb to diseases spread by a parasitic mite.

"The varroa mite is the number one reason why people lose bees, so the government needs to increase research to cure diseases caused by varroa," said Smith. "But a colony that has a good source of pollen and nectar will go into winter stronger and better able to fend off disease."

The association is calling on everyone who has a garden, however small, to plant bee-friendly plants this summer. "It is really important that there are flowering nectar-rich plants around in August, September and October to provide the nutrition that's needed so the bees can top up their stores of honey in the hive to see them through winter," said Smith.

A campaign being launched next week to save all bees, spearheaded by Sam Roddick and Neal's Yard Remedies, pins the blame for the decline on pesticide. It will start a petition to hand to Downing Street in October to ban the use of a class of pesticides that has been implicated in bee deaths across the world.

Roddick said: "These neonicotinoid pesticides penetrate the plant and indiscriminately attack the nervous system of insects that feed off them, disorientating bees, impairing their foraging ability and weakening their immune system, causing bee Aids. On current evidence, Italy, Germany and Slovenia have banned some varieties. In the UK, it's up to the people to show the government that if there is any doubt that they are contributing to bee deaths, we need to ban them."

A spokesman for the government's National Bee Unit said: "The UK has a robust system for assessing risks from pesticides and all the evidence shows neonicotinoids do not pose an unacceptable risk when products are used correctly, but we will not hesitate to act if presented with any new evidence. "

He added: "Although we're pleased the BBKA's seen fewer overwintering losses, bees continue to be affected by pests, diseases, and the weather. Amid a range of initiatives, we're training beekeepers, researching varroa mite controls, and improving the availability of medicines."

On a personal level, I have divided my reasonably-sized balcony into edible and non-edible portions. I grow some edibles for my consumption and try to lay in few flowering veg such as tomatoes for the bees' sake. The other portion is my non-edible, bee-friendly garden which is a riot of winged pollinator-friendly flowers and shrubs. I put a small nest out for mason bees planted a dwarf cherry tree along with several medium-sized shrubs; then sat back and watched.

My favourite chair faces the balcony which is where I spend most evenings sitting watching the wildlife. Now, as anyone who knows me realizes, I live on the 4th floor which may make you wonder "what wildlife?"

I have found, to my utter delight, that my "naturalized" balcony attracts not only the winged pollinators I was after; but, quite an array of bird life. Birds have always fascinated me; and, I can watch them for hours. Unbelievably, I even had a woodpecker visit my balcony the other day.

Bee friendly to our winged pollinators!

Via guardian

Monday, March 28, 2011

New Salmonellla Virus Can Spread From Hogs to Humans

Photo Nutloaf via TreeHugger

From e.coli in produce to serious contamination of our meat supply, there's little doubt that major outbreaks of food poisoning are a serious concern in our globalized, interconnected food system. Campaigners in the UK are now raising the alarm about a deadly new strain of salmonella that, they say, should cause a major rethink on intensive industrial agriculture.

Known as 'monophasic salmonella typhimurium', this new strain — which has been shown to transmit from pigs to humans both directly and along the food chain — is particularly likely to cause hospitalizations, is especially dangerous to the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and children, and is also exhibiting high levels of resistance to antibiotics.

The UK's premier organic organization, The Soil Association, has long been campaigning to stop American-style gigantic mega farms from being introduced in the UK. The emergence of this new strain of salmonella is, they say, one more reason to halt the move to ever more intensive farming, and to rethink the routine use of antibiotics:
Most monophasic salmonella from pigs are multiresistant to at least four families of antibiotics, but the long-feared development of resistance to modern cephalosporin antibiotics in salmonella has already been found as well on at least one British pig farm. The European Food Safety Authority has warned that resistance to these antibiotics could lead to treatment failures. They also warned that even the routine use of antibiotics such as tetracyclines, the most widely used antibiotics in pig feed, not only promotes resistance but also increases the spread and persistence in pigs of these resistant strains.

Via TreeHugger

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jumping Gulf Sturgeon Injure Florida Boaters

Photo courtesy: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission via TreeHugger

This is happening in Florida, and involves flying sturgeon, not Asian carp. As highlighted by the trustworthy news source The recent injury of two boaters by jumping gulf sturgeon brings the toll to 11 in the state this summer, according to more established news sources like The Gainesville Sun.

The jumping sturgeon in the Suwanee River sound like the Florida version of flying Asian carp on the Illinois River. The latest Florida incident resulted in two injuries, one serious, and two damaged boats. The serious injury involved a 31-year-old woman who may need oral surgery to correct "significant dental damage," The Sun reports.

You can see these fish, a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon, in the video below, posted by ABC Action News. Gulf sturgeon can grow up to 8 feet in length and tip the scales at 200 pounds.

Florida authorities have been tallying up injuries from human encounters with the leaping sturgeon. There are signs posted to report incidents --- and slow down your boat to avoid injury.

When fish attack, what's next? Besides slowing down, boaters are urged to wear a life jacket just in case.

The first sturgeon strike of 2011 was in May, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission. The 11 injuries this year compare to zero in 2010.

The Commission has been working for the last five years to warn boaters about the dangers of jumping sturgeon. Biologists aren't sure why the sturgeon jump. The fish are protected by state and federal laws.

Back in May, the Sun explained:
"State biologists have said the Suwannee River has the biggest population of the fish, which ... have several rows of scutes on their backs, sides and bellies.

An estimated 10,000 to 14,000 sturgeon spend eight or nine months spawning in the river each year before moving out into the Gulf of Mexico for three or four months during the winter."

Via TreeHugger

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Previously-Undiscovered Tribe Found in Brazilian Jungle

Photo courtesy: FUNAI via TreeHugger

In the dense rainforest of the western Amazon, researchers from Brazil's Indian protection agency have identified a new tribe of uncontacted indigenous people. Authorities say the remote group likely numbers around 200 members, living in traditionally built huts, called malocas, surrounded by small farms of nuts, banana, and corn. Although they are isolated from the outside world, therein lies many factors which threaten their mysterious way of life.

According to the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), a government organization aimed at preserving the rights of the indigenous, researchers first became aware of the possible existence of an uncontacted tribe after finding several small gaps in the forest while reviewing satellite imagery of the Javari Valley in the western Amazon, near Brazil's border with Peru. In April, an overflight examination of the region confirmed the presence a settlement composed of three cleared agricultural areas and four malocas.

The expedition coordinator Fabricio Amorim says that confirming such discoveries requires years of careful research, following guidelines geared towards protecting uncontacted tribes.

Photo courtesy: FUNAI via TreeHugger

From the flyover photographs, FUNAI has been able to make certain determinations about the mysterious and remote settlement.

"The crops as well as the malocas are new, dated within a year. The state of straw used in the construction, and size of the corn indicate [its age]. Besides corn, there was a banana and undergrowth that appeared to be peanuts, among other crops," says Amorim in a statement released by FUNAI.

To preserve the newly discovered tribe, FUNAI does not plan on releasing the specifics as to its location in a region home to approximately 14 other uncontacted tribes accounted for so far. But despite the settlement's geographic isolation, these indigenous peoples are not entirely protected from outside activities.

"The main threats to the integrity of these groups are illegal fishing, hunting, logging, mining, agro-pastoralists with large clearings, missionary activities and frontier situations, such as drug trafficking," says Amorim. "Another situation that requires care is the oil exploration in Peru, which could have an impact on Javari Valley."

Via TreeHugger

Friday, March 25, 2011

If This Doesn't Make You Vegetarian, Nothing Will

Photo courtesy: Dano via TreeHugger

I'm sure your gag reflexes are in full effect right now and they should be. This is a weird one. A Japanese researcher has come up with an artificial meat that's made from human feces. According to Inhabitat, Japanese scientist Mitsuyuki Ikeda has come up with a burger made from soya, steak sauce essence, and protein extracted from human feces.

Researcher Ikeda is using sewage mud or human feces as one of the main ingredients in his artificial meat. According to Inhabitat, "[t]he lipids are then combined with a reaction enhancer, then whipped into "meat" in an exploder. Ikeda then makes the poop more savory, by adding soya and steak sauce."

The following video gives the highlights.

"In the food safety world we say, 'don't eat poop,'" said Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University. "But if you're going to, make sure it's cooked."

The Japanese researchers isolated proteins from bacteria in sewage. The poop-meat concoction is prepared by extracting the basic elements of food — protein, carbohydrates and fats — and recombining them.

The meat is made from 63 percent proteins, 25 percent carbohydrates, 3 percent lipids and 9 percent minerals, according to Digital Trends. Soy protein is added to the mix to increase the flavor, and food coloring is used to make the product appear red.

The researchers came up with the idea after Tokyo Sewage asked them to figure out a use for the abundance of sewage in mud, Digital Trends says.

Powell is not familiar with the researchers' method, but said he guesses that they are first heat-treating the sewage before they reap its resources.

Powell said the idea is not all that different from eating plants that have been fertilized with manure or other excrement, because the nutrients in the poop become part of the plants.

"Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with this," Powell said. "It could be quite safe to eat, but I'm sure there's a yuck factor there," he said.

However, Powell said there is the potential for cross contamination in the laboratory where the poop meat is made. That's why it's a good thing the meat will eventually be cooked.

But what if the final product was not going to be cooked?

"I wouldn’t touch it, " Powell said.

Via TreeHugger and Live Science

Thursday, March 24, 2011

United Nations Predicts Up to 30% Increase in Food Prices

Boats stranded by drought in central China last month; experts say this year's global harvest is in a 'critical' condition. Photograph courtesy: David Gray/Reuters via

Food prices will soar by as much as 30% over the next 10 years, the United Nations and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have predicted.

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, said that any further increase in global food prices, which have risen by 40% over the past year, will have a "devastating" impact on the world's poor and is likely to lead to political unrest, famine and starvation. "People are going to be forced either to eat less or find other sources of income."

The joint UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and OECD report predicted that the cost of cereals is likely to increase by 20% and the price of meat, particularly chicken, may soar by up to 30%.

World food prices are already at a near-record high as droughts and floods threaten to seriously damage this year's harvest. The report said the global harvest is in a "critical" condition and warned that prices will continue to rise until depleted stocks are rebuilt.

Global food prices hit a record high in February, prompting demonstrations across the world. The last extreme food price rise in 2008 led to riots in 20 countries across three continents.

Gurría called on world leaders to ban speculators from pushing up food prices. The G20 will meet in Paris next week to thrash out a deal aimed at imposing strict rules on trading in food commodities and policies that distort global food market.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly attacked hedge funds and specialised financial institutions for pushing up food prices. "Speculation, panic and lack of transparency have seen prices soaring," he said. "Is that the world we want? France is saying quite clearly it is not."

He compared the lack of regulation on food price speculators to lax regulation that drove financial markets to the "edge of the abyss" during the 2008 financial crisis.

The report predicted global agricultural production would grow at an annual rate of 1.7% a year over the next decade, compared with 2.6% the past 10 years. "Slower growth is expected for most crops, especially oilseeds and coarse grains," it said. "The global slowdown in projected yield improvements of important crops will continue to exert pressure on international prices."

The slowdown in production comes as new forecasts predict the global population will climb to 9.2 billion by 2050, compared with the current level of 6.9 billion. The FAO said agricultural production would have to increase by 70% to match the expected increase.

Meat exports are expected to rise by only 1.7% by 2021, compared with a 4.4% increase over the previous decade. In contrast, fish production is expected to increase by 14.7% over the same period. Most of this will come from fish farms, which are due to overtake open sea fishing by 2015.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

German Mosque Will Be Partially Wind Powered

A mosque in Istanbul. Photo courtesy: Jennifer Hattam via TreeHugger

All too often groups, particularly religious groups, tend to stick to the same rigid ways of doing things just because it always been that way. Some have tunnel vision and/or cannot expand their horizons to include what is new or different. Fortunately, there is one Muslim community that is open-minded enough to incorporate eco-friendly features in the mosque they are planning to build.

The tall spire that is often the most distinctive architectural feature of a mosque, a minaret is important as the place from which the Islamic call to prayer is issued five times a day. In one small Muslim community in northern Germany, this religious symbol is set to become an environmental one as well: A mosque in the works will be partially powered by wind turbines in its minarets.

Local authorities last month approved a request from a Muslim community in Norderstedt, near Hamburg, to build a new mosque complex with the eco-friendly feature, The Guardian reported earlier this week. The community, part of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, is still working to raise money for the 2.5 million-euro project.

"I thought about how we could give sacral architecture an ecological focus," Hamburg architect Selcuk Ünyilmaz, who is of Turkish descent, told the British newspaper. "My design combines the modern with the traditional, so I wanted to give the minarets a contemporary function."

The turbines housed in the two 22-meter-high minarets will produce enough power in the windy coastal town to meet about a third of the mosque's energy needs. A similar project is planned in London by the Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

Via TreeHugger

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Quotable Quotes

"Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."

- Khalil Gibran

"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."

- George Washington Carver

"Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy soul."

- Mark Twain

Monday, March 21, 2011

Did You Know That...

- 11% of people are left handed; and, most parrots are left-footed
- August has the highest percentage of births
- unless food is mixed with saliva you can't taste it
- the average person falls asleep in 7 minutes unless you are an insomniac like me
- a bear has 42 teeth
- most lipsticks contain fish scales
- no two corn flakes look the same nor do two snowflakes look the same
- lemons contain more sugar than strawberries
- 8% of people have an extra rib
- 85% of plant life is found in the ocean
- no words in the English language rhyme with the words angel, angst, breadth, bulb, depth, eighth, month, ninth, orange, purple, scalp or twelfth
- Ralph Lauren's original name was Ralph Lifshitz. I guess it just wouldn't have the same panache to have an original Lifshitz on your bod.
- rabbits like licorice
- the Hawaiian alphabet has 12 letters
- 'Topolino' is the name for Mickey Mouse in Italy
- a lobsters blood is colorless; but, when exposed to oxygen it turns blue. A human's blood is blue; but, when it hits oxygen it turns red.
- armadillos have 4 babies at a time and are all the same sex
- reindeer like bananas
- the longest recorded flight of a chicken was 13 seconds

Sunday, March 20, 2011

US Environmental Protection Agency Releases the Names of 150 Secret Chemicals

Photo courtesy: John Bell via flickr via TreeHugger

Here's a little good news for people concerned about public health: the EPA released the names of 150 chemicals, the identities of which had been kept secret, to the public earlier this month. The New York Times describes the effort by the EPA as intended "to reform what it views as a flawed system for regulating toxic substances. It is the second disclosure of its kind this year, after the release of 40 chemicals' names in March." For those who aren't familiar with EPA regulations, chemicals are often allowed to remain secret because they're essentially assumed to be safe until proven otherwise, and because industry demands they be kept secret for proprietary reasons.

The identities of the chemicals have been withheld under the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that grandfathered most already-existing chemicals and authorized the EPA to set reporting and testing requirements for chemical substances.

The New York Times explains more:
At the time of the law's passing, industrial chemicals were deemed innocent until proven guilty, meaning that it was the E.P.A.'s responsibility to show that a chemical posed a potential risk, not the manufacturer's to demonstrate its safety. Since 1976, 22,000 new chemicals have been approved by the agency; 62,000 were already on the market when the law was passed.

Although the agency has the authority to review and challenge the confidentiality requests, it has lacked the capacity to cope with the tens of thousands filed each year. On average, only about 14 cases have been reviewed annually, although that pace is now accelerating.

When health and safety data have been submitted to the E.P.A. on a specific chemical, the bar in theory is supposed to be set higher, allowing the chemical's name to be withheld only if a study reveals sensitive details of the chemical's manufacturing process or a specific, proprietary formulation. Yet once a chemical's name had been protected as confidential during its early development, its identity tended to remain confidential indefinitely.
The 150 chemicals include several components of Corexit, a dispersant used after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. As if the oil spill wasn't tragedy enough?

The American Chemistry Council, meanwhile, continues to argue that trade secrets have to be protected. 'It's important that the EPA continue to recognise legitimate claims to safeguard intellectual property from competitors,' said an ACC spokesman, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry.

RSC continues:
To date, the EPA has made public information about 22 of Proctor & Gamble's (P&G) chemical formulations, none of which have ever been on the market. 'We do have a problem with it because these are all R&D mixtures that remain within our R&D portfolio...that aren't typically disclosed for competitive reasons,' P&G's US regulatory affairs manager, Julie Froelicher says.

P&G is concerned that the EPA has set a precedent where chemical companies will be required to disclose more and more proprietary chemical information.
Medical professionals and ecologists, however, will be able to use the information to better understand the risks that exposure to the chemicals on the list pose to humans and wildlife.

Via TreeHugger

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is There Nothing Thieves Won't Steal

Shots of the front yard - before and after the theft. Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

Denise Thompson had a beautiful front lawn, thick and green. It was where her four children and two dogs played, and where she drank coffee on sunny mornings.

Then someone stole it. They didn’t even leave a note.

“Now my place looks like I’m a farmer who just plowed and is ready to put their seeds down,” she said Monday.

Thompson and her children went to visit her husband in Stettler, AB Friday morning. They returned to their Kilkenny neighbourhood home Sunday afternoon in the city of Edmonton, AB. The family entered through the back door and everything seemed fine.

Then Thompson opened the blinds on the large picture window in the front room.

“Oh my God,” she thought. “Where is my grass?”

She went outside to the swath of ugly, brown dirt that had replaced her lawn. She thought there might be a note to explain an accident, like when someone dings your car in the mall parking lot. There were no clues.

Thompson canvassed neighbours and several reported a white truck and trailer parked at her house. No one thought it was suspicious. Just another landscaping job.

Thompson believes that a landscaping company messed up the address on a job.

Though she laughed about the bizarre disappearance, the potential cost of replacing the greenery is on her mind. Her insurance company is baffled by her story and hasn’t decided if she will be compensated.

“My boys are excited they don’t have to mow the grass, but I really need the people who did this to come forward. I can’t afford this.”

Via Yahoo!News

Friday, March 18, 2011

Proposed Airport Threatens Wildlife on St. Helena

The sleepy island of St Helena fears its spectacular natural heritage and unique natural flora and fauna will be threatened by new airport and luxury tourist complex. Photograph: Kent Kobersteen/Corbis via

St Helena, a tiny volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean, is seeking a new director for its national trust. It must be among the best jobs going: a posting to one of the world's most spectacular locations, rich in historical buildings, wildlife and in sun, sea and fresh air, with a negligible crime rate, fine food, friendly people and no traffic.

But there is trouble in paradise. The island's splendid isolation – it is one of the most remote inhabited places in the world – looks set to change for ever with the construction of an airport and a 300-acre luxury hotel, villa and golf course complex. The scheme is dividing islanders and causing alarm among wildlife and heritage conservationists.

British taxpayers are set to spend up to £300m ($488,671,239 USD) on a new airport, to be sited amid one of the island's most sensitive ecological zones. The resort complex would straddle a large portion of a key environmental area.

A single bid to build the airport and runway – a cornerstone of the British government's strategy for ending its financial support of one of the last bastions of empire – has been submitted to the Department for International Development (DfID) by a South African construction firm, Basil Read.

But the prospect of the arrival of the jet age on the island horrifies some heritage experts. Martin Drury, former head of Britain's National Trust and a highly respected voice in international conservation, told the Observer that the airport and hotel scheme were likely to destroy much of St Helena's time-capsule character.

Only 10 miles by six, St Helena is 1,200 miles from Africa; 1,800 miles from South America; two days by boat from the nearest inhabited island, Ascension – a mere 700 miles away – and some 14 days by boat from the UK. In recent years its population has fallen from just under 6,000 to 4,900. In its heyday, more than 1,000 ships a year called at St Helena. The island's only regular visitor these days is the ageing Royal Mail Ship, RMS St Helena, which docks once a month.

As modernisation looms, dissent is in the air. This April, St Helenians, known as "Saints", protested against taxation reforms agreed between DfID and the St Helena government, aimed at paving the way for large-scale tourism. Some demonstrators called for the sacking of St Helena's governor, Andrew Gurr.

The St Helena airport scheme was given the green light last July by the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell. The bill for the airport – between £100m ($162890413 USD) and £300m ($488,671,239 USD) – will be footed by Britain. The leisure complex, to be built only if the airport scheme goes ahead, would be funded by a luxury holiday development consortium, the St Helena Leisure Corporation (Shelco).

The prospect of large-scale construction work, new roads, buildings and passenger jets does not bode well for St Helena's flora and fauna, whose diversity astonished even Charles Darwin. Despite the island's wealth of natural and historical treasures, it has no legally protected areas. And the population of the wirebird, the island's national bird, is down to its last 300.

"The [proposed] resort would be on one of the green bits of the island," Jamie Roberts, outgoing director of St Helena's national trust, told the Observer. "This also happens to be one of the best sites for wirebirds … It's a big area for St Helena, and especially important as it is productive agricultural land."

Nevertheless, DfID has trumpeted mass tourism. "The UK government believes a new airport is the best way to bring new financial opportunities to the island, not least a boom in tourism," it stated. "With an airport it is estimated that more than 29,000 tourists will visit each year." Industry insiders predict that will reach 50,000 visitors a year.

Tourist cash would be welcome. Wages on St Helena average less than £4,000 ($6515.62 USD) a year. Britain's annual support is expected to exceed £30m ($48867124 USD) this year.

Despite environmental concerns, the drive to build on the island appears unstoppable – and has high-profile supporters. Last month a co-founder of Shelco, civil engineer Sir Nigel Thompson, visited St Helena. His green credentials include a spell as chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Much of the momentum behind the airport plan derives from the long-standing interest in the island shown by billionaire businessman Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative donor and the party's former deputy chairman and treasurer. The Observer contacted Ashcroft's office last week, but received no reply.

Roberts said the problems facing St Helena were serious. "We've had a dialogue with the UK government in recent years to get them to see that they have a responsibility for looking after this British heritage, but we've only had limited progress," he said.

"The site of the proposed airport is incredibly important for native invertebrate animals … St Helena has about 400 species that occur nowhere else in the world. A lot of them live on that plain."

Martin Drury, who helped to set up the St Helena National Trust in 2002 and is now chairman of the Landmark Trust in Britain, said the model should be Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel – "adapted for tourism without new development". "People can play golf anywhere," he said. "The whole point of going to St Helena is to get away from all that."

DfID said: "An airport is the only way to save the island from permanent decline. The RSPB is helping the St Helena government to create a special habitat for local birds. National protected areas are also being established for wildlife."

"The development plans approach the matter from the wrong angle," said Drury. "They started with the idea for a big airport … that's led to all sorts of consequences which will, I think, eventually destroy the island."

Many islanders resent the pace of economic reforms. "Some families go back to the late 1600s on the island," said leading Saint Basil George, who believes the narrow time frame of the fiscal reforms has led to a rise in the cost of living. "If people think they don't have a stake in the place, that can upset the norms that hold our society together. That's something of concern," he said.

"What's very special about St Helena is that we came from a very divided society, different racial groups, but that we've come to be integrated, with a common identity. We've been through some tough times."


■ Discovered by Portuguese admiral João da Nova in 1502, St Helena was initially claimed by the Dutch.

■ Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled on the island from 1815 until his death in 1821.

■ It has a population of 4,900, mainly descendants of British settlers, East India Company employees and slaves.

■ St Helena public library claims to be the oldest in the southern hemisphere.

■ The British Nationality Act 1981 reclassified St Helena as a dependent territory, meaning islanders lost their right to live in Britain. After a long campaign, they regained British citizenship in 2002, on the 500th anniversary of St Helena's discovery.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Female Goats Trapped in Sterile Male Bodies: Goys

Photo courtesy: Cuvée Corner / CC via TreeHugger

As you probably already know, male goats are called bucks or billies and female goats are called does or nannies. Contrary to popular belief, goats are very clean animals with terrific personalities. However, the old cobbler about people who had an offensive body odour smelling like "an old billie goat" is still used today.

But, now, thanks to science we have another modified species with a new "scientific" name and purpose. The results of a strange genetic modification have given rise to a new term altogether, "goys" -- transgender goats which are essentially females in male bodies. Scientists working for a genetic research institute in New Zealand have begun breeding for these transgender goats, equipped with full male anatomy, in order to see if the milk they produce will bear similarities with the milk produced by human women.

Oh goy, this can't be good.

According to Steffan Browning, an official from New Zealand's Soil and Health Department who recently toured the facility, operated by AgResearch, around 75% of the goats bred there are females trapped in the bodies of sterile males. Browning raised concerns about the work being done there, which includes various bioengineering experiments and pharmacological studies -- namely that the transgender modifications could find their way into the broader goat gene pool or even on to other species.

He also had issues with the health and safety of the animals found there, “Although grateful to AgResearch for hosting GE Free NZ President Claire Bleakley and myself for a tour of the AgResearch Ruakura GE animal facility, we were concerned at the continued animal welfare issues and the level of contaminated surface water that was draining off the experimental property.”

In fact, he wants to see the facility closed immediately.

On the other hand, AgResearch general manager Dr. Jimmy Suttie apparently sees nothing wrong with the work he and his bio-engineering colleagues are up to. He says that transgender goats are born naturally from time to time -- it just so happens that they've decided to breed for this trait specifically in order to test out the milk they produce for traces of human protein. That's right, they're milking billy goats in hopes that human-like milk will come out them.

"We take animal ethics very, very seriously at AgResearch," says Dr. Suttie, in a report from The New Zealand Herald. All these experiments are supervised by vets and the animal ethics committee, and they have given us no concerns at all."

Oddly enough, this isn't the first time bioscience has attempted to get other animals to make milk with human-like proteins. Researchers working with cows in China recently modified bovine genes to produce substances which contain many nutrients found in breast-milk vital to the development of healthy immune systems.

While the mucking around with the genes of female animals to produce milk designed for humans is mad-science-y enough, creating a breed of female goats trapped in the bodies of males capable of lactating is all sorts of wrong.

Via TreeHugger

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Black-footed ferret emerging from its burrow in Coyote Basin; Utah County. Photo courtesy:

These nocturnal creatures spend about 90% of their time underground, making them difficult to observe and study. Researchers have used sniffer dogs to help detect them. Predators for this species include badgers, foxes and coyotes.

The black-footed ferret was designated as "extirpated", meaning it no longer existed in the wild in Canada; but, still existed in the wild in other countries in 1978.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kabul's Air Kills More Citizens Than Its War

A general view of Kabul city horizon shows the blanket of haze from air pollution. War may kill thousands of civilians a year in Afghanistan, but choking air pollution in the capital Kabul from old cars, poor quality fuel and people burning trash is even more fatal, experts say. Photo courtesy:

Signs of the silent killer -- pollutants emitted by old cars, poor quality fuel and people burning trash -- are everywhere on the city's chaotic streets.

Men walking or cycling usually cover their mouths with masks or scarves to keep out the dust. Women clasp blue burkhas to their faces.

"It's not possible to stay healthy without a mask," said Ahmad Wali, a pharmacist who wears his every day, even when working in his store.

"People are stuck with a very big problem. It's difficult to reduce pollution quickly. We have to breathe this air."

The city's primitive and over-stretched hospitals are forced to treat ever increasing numbers of people with respiratory problems.

"I've been sick for three years," said Malalai, an Afghan mother of nine being treated at the Jamhuriat hospital, one of the city's biggest.

"When I talk, I get breathless after two or three minutes. I have chest pains when I try to breathe. I can't walk or stand for a long time and I have no energy."

Kabul, as seen on a smog-free day. Photo courtesy: LaurasEye's/Creative Commons via TreeHugger

The figures are stark. Around 3,000 people per year die of air pollution in Kabul, the National Environment Protection Agency said last year.

By comparison, the United Nations says that 2,777 civilians were killed in the war across Afghanistan in 2010.

There are several main causes of air pollution, but underpinning them all is Kabul's rapid expansion as people fled to the capital in search of relative stability amid fighting in many rural areas.

The city was designed for about one million people but is now home to around five million, a figure which the Kabul municipality says has doubled in six years.

Many of the new arrivals live in illegally built slum homes and Kabul's infrastructure struggles to cope.

Kabul is now home to around five million people.

Another view of the usual smoggy haze that envelopes the city of Kabul. Breathing in a constant stream of this toxic air has sickened nearly 1/2 million people in the city. Photo courtesy:

The city's roads are usually jammed with old and poorly maintained cars imported illegally from countries like Canada, Germany and the United States, often spewing out fumes which are the by-product of poor quality fuel.

Many of the roads are unpaved, meaning that when the cars can move, they throw up dust which adds to the poor air quality.

Households often rely on diesel generators for electricity, while businesses like brick factories and public baths also use them.

During bitterly cold winters, local people often burn anything they can get hold of, including old tyres and plastic, as they struggle to keep warm.

The health ministry estimates that the number of Afghans suffering from respiratory problems has trebled over six years to around 480,000. That's nearly 1/2 million people suffering from respiratory problems in Kabul alone. This does not include the rest of the country.

Officials admit they are finding it hard to get on top of the problem given the magnitude of issues facing Afghanistan after three decades of war and nearly 10 years after the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban.

Last year, they made Thursdays official holidays in Kabul -- in addition to Fridays -- in a bid to reduce air pollution. A resolution has also been passed to ban businessmen importing old cars.

The mayor's office insists the move has had a "very good effect" in stopping pollution getting worse but could not provide any figures.

"Government vehicles are not allowed to (be used) on holidays and that prevents all the vehicles from moving and is a big help for decreasing the pollution," said spokesman Mohammad Ishaq Samadi.

But Ghulam Mohammad Malikyar, a senior advisor to the National Environment Protection Agency, said: "We're still struggling to put environmental issues and the environment as a priority in national and international strategies.

"The country was at war for the past 30 years and there was very little control over the environment, there was no environmental protection at all."

Doctors warn that unless action is taken, Kabul faces serious problems.

Erfanullah Shifa, a doctor at the Jamhuriat hospital, said up to 20 people a day were registering with respiratory problems.

"If air pollution keeps rising the way it is now, Afghan people will face a health disaster in the near future," Shifa said.

Via and TreeHugger

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bubbles Found at Edge of Solar System

This NASA illustration image shows a surprise from the edge of the solar system. Using a computer model based on Voyager data, scientists have shown that the sun's magnetic field becomes bubbly in the heliosheath due to reconnection. Photo courtesy: Yahoo!News

A pair of NASA probes wandering in deep space discovered that the outer edge of the solar system contains curious magnetic bubbles and is not smooth as previously thought, astronomers said Thursday.

The NASA Voyager twin spacecraft, which launched in 1977, are currently exploring the furthest outlays of the heliosphere, where solar wind is slowed and warped by pressure from other forces in the galaxy, the US space agency said.

"Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina's skirt," said astronomer Merav Opher of Boston University.

"Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are, the folds of the skirt bunch up."

The Voyagers are almost 10 billion miles (16 billion kilometers) from Earth in a little known boundary region where solar wind and magnetic field are influenced by "material expelled from other stars in our corner of the Milky Way galaxy," NASA said.

This "turbulent sea of magnetic bubbles" occurs when parts of the Sun's distant magnetic field break up and reorganize under pressure.

The bubbles are giant -- about 100 million miles wide (160 million kilometers) -- meaning the Voyager probes could take multiple weeks to cross a single one of them.

Scientists have previously theorized that the sun's distant magnetic field curved in "relatively graceful arc, eventually folding back to rejoin the sun," NASA said.

But images of a smooth outer heliosheath have now been discarded as scientists begin to realize that the region is actually bubbly and "frothy."

"The actual bubbles appear to be self-contained and substantially disconnected from the broader solar magnetic field."

The findings were made using a new computer model to analyze data from the Voyager craft, and are published in the June 9 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

"The magnetic bubbles appear to be our first line of defense against cosmic rays," said Opher. "We haven't figured out yet if this is a good thing or not."

Via Yahoo!News

Sunday, March 13, 2011

US Government Fights to Keep Plastic Additive That Can Deform Male Genitalia

Photo courtesy: olga.palma via Flickr/CC BY

The US Chamber of Commerce is using its vast lobbying muscle to try to block the regulation of some toxic chemicals that are routinely being used in consumer plastics. And yes, scientists have discovered that some of those chemicals have been found to mutate male genitalia. In other words, the Chamber of Commerce is fighting to keep chemicals believed to deform the human penis widely available to the American public.

ThinkProgress has the story:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- one of the largest and most influential big business lobbying groups in the world -- fired a letter off to Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, telling him to block the regulation of extremely toxic chemicals in consumer plastics. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of such chemicals, the chamber letter declares that that EPA "lacks the sound regulatory science needed to meet the statutory threshold for a restriction or ban of the targeted chemicals."

A wide body of scientific research has linked these chemicals, including phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA), to declining birth rates, stillbirths, and an increasing number of birth defects. Many of the chemicals under review for increased regulation have already been banned in Europe and Canada. In fact, studies have shown that these plastic chemicals are directly linked to an alarming rate of male genital birth defects such as hypospadias, a condition in which the opening of the urethra is on the underside, rather than at the end, of the penis.
So why is the US Chamber of Commerce trying to protect a chemical that studies have shown to deform penises? It's not rocket science -- the plastics industry is hugely influential, and are major donors and backers of the USCC. Potentially penis-deforming chemicals are clearly cheaper than assuredly non-penis-deforming chemicals, and those plastics companies would just as soon have us peeing out of the undersides of our penises than opting for a costlier replacement.

Note: Take a look at the Wikipedia page for this medical condition. Warning: contains graphic photos.

And this is yet another example of how the Chamber wields its massive influence -- its role in shutting down clean energy and climate efforts are well known -- and is pushing corporate-friendly policies at the expense of the American people.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Elephants Kill Man in Indian Village of Mysore

Photo courtesy: YouTube video screengrab via TreeHugger

Once again, man's encroachment on a wild animal's habitat has had disastrous results. Four hungry male elephants entered the town of Mysore looking for food; and, found harassment and stones instead. The elephants attacked their tormentors and, unfortunately, killed one townsperson. While the death is horrendous, the elephants were only doing what every other living thing on the planet is doing - trying to eat and survive. Mankind has diminished their wild range so severely that sometimes the only food available are the town's crops.

Four young male elephants went on a rampage in the Indian city of Mysore earlier this week resulting in the death of one man. The tragedy has sparked discussion on the cause of the elephants entering the city at all and human encroachment on their habitat is a significant reason.

Live Science reports that after villagers threw rocks at a herd of elephants, four were separated and went tearing through the streets of Mysore. Mike Keele, director of elephant habitats at the Oregon Zoo, watched the video and believes the four animals are young males, separated from their herd and feeling quite threatened. Elephants that feel threatened become dangerous, going on the attack; much like humans when they feel threatened or are the victim of an attack.

The incident ended in tragedy for the family of the man who was killed. However, humans are partly to blame for the overlap of wild and urban.

"Keele adds that humans can share the blame with the pachyderms: As elephants get squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces by humans, they will often wander into human places just for survival - looking for food and water. If the villagers tried to chase them from their fields, elephants easily could end up scared and desperate in the streets of a city... When the elephants rampaged in Mysore, Keele says, they were probably just lashing out and trying to get away from perceived attacks, a sort of aggressive defensive tactic," reports Live Science.

Warning -- this video is graphic, and might be hard to watch:

We are constantly learning more about how intelligent elephants are, about their incredible memory, their tight family structure, and their intricate language. In fact, just a couple days ago we learned about a study showing how very alike humans and elephants are. Considering that this species is always surprising us with their smarts, the conflict between elephants and humans may go even deeper than habitat loss. Gay Bradshaw, an elephant behavior expert, tells Live Science that with humans killing elephants, the aggression could be stemming from this violent interaction.
Bradshaw says elephants are simply reacting as people would when under siege. People are shooting, spearing, poisoning the big animals: "From a psychologist's perspective, that's trauma. If you look at elephants and people, that's the same thing we see with people under siege and genocide."

Bradshaw likens the conflict between humans and elephants to colonialism, with the people taking over the elephants' indigenous culture, and with "elephants fighting to keep their culture and their society as they are pushed into smaller places and killed outright."
It's easy to brush this theory off, saying that Bradshaw is anthropomorphizing elephants and that attacks such as what occurred in Mysore is the result of four males getting separated from the herd and lost in the scary streets of a strange city. However, if we pause for a moment and consider the amazing things we know about elephants, the idea that wild elephants view humans as a direct threat more than ever isn't such a stretch.

Human-elephant conflict is a major topic in both India and Africa, with farmers and ranchers constantly at odds with wild elephant herds that destroy crops or compete for grazing space.

Back in March, animals rights supporters were up in arms over a video showing the CEO of GoDaddy joyfully killing a "problem" elephant. The response was so strong that Namecheap, a competitor of GoDaddy, raised $20,000 for Save the Elephants in just under a week. Meanwhile, we pointed out that "problem" elephants are a human creation, and there are non-violent solutions for solving human-elephant conflicts.

Considering how common conflicts -- and deaths -- among humans and elephant is in India, the country is already quite tolerant. However, Mysore is discussing ways to minimize unwanted interactions between the species, including digging ditches around the area.

Via TreeHugger

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lions and Tigers and Invasive Wasps from China - Oh My!

Photo courtesy: David Cappaert - Michigan State University, guano / cc

To the untrained eye, all may appear tranquil and calm in Wisconsin's forests, but the truth is that a war of sorts is underway -- between two foreign species on U.S. soil. For the last several years, a particularly nasty invasive beetle has been ravaging ash trees, and in the latest bid to combat the destructive pests, entomologists have enlisted the beetle-killing prowess of other non-native insects -- tiny parasitic wasps recruited from China. Experts are hoping the wasps will fight the good fight to save the ash trees without causing any problems of their own.

The antagonistic insects in this battle royal are emerald ash borers. They were first discovered in the United States back in 2002, likely arriving in shipping containers from their native China. Since then, they've devastated ash forests in states across the country by burrowing beneath the bark of trees where they feast and hatch their larvae -- which ultimately kills the tree after around two years.

So far, some tens of millions of trees have been killed in the onslaught; they're just not adapted to defend against the invasive pests.

Chemical treatments have proven to be effective in staving off the emerald ash borers, but they are used primarily in residential settings. To tackle a forest full of the foreign invaders would require a living, breathing solution -- something that could hunt down the beetles and end the tree-eating party. And to find it, entomologists looked to the very place from whence their problem emerged.

Researchers from the US visited China in search of a species to combat borers, and they returned with three types of parasitic wasps known to prey on the problem pests. The wasps have then been released into the some isolated places where the invasive insects have been most devastating. Recently, in the diminishing ash forests of Wisconsin, entomologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have begun setting loose hundreds of the beetle-hungry wasps.

The only problem is, no one is entirely sure that they aren't creating a whole new invasive species dilemma. In a report from The Northwestern, UWM professor Ken Raffa discusses the future of the regions unwelcome inhabitants:
Scientists know from researching the wasps that they kill the ash borer. What they don't know is whether the wasps will take hold in the wild, reproduce on their own and help keep the emerald ash borer in check.

That, they say, could take years to determine.

"There's no way it will completely solve the emerald ash borer problem," Raffa said. "That insect is here to stay. What we are hoping is it could slow down the spread of the insect, maybe reduce its impact or maybe even assist with the recovery of ash once the outbreak has passed through."

This summer, the university team plans on releasing even more tiny wasps into the forests, that according to a report from Milwaukee's Journal-Sentinel. But while questions still remain about the long-term effect of the purposefully released foreign insects -- just what sort of impact they'll have on staving off the emerald ash borers is still up in the air as well.

"How much bang are we going to get for these little guys?" asks Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources scientist Andrea Diss-Torrance. "We don't know right now."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jellyfish Blooms Upend Marine Food Webs

Photo courtesy: Jaymi Heimbuch/Creative Commons

Jellyfish are taking over the world's oceans. Warming waters and the elimination of key predators like sharks and tuna, have made conditions ideal for the soft, brainless, organisms and their numbers have increased steadily for years—with populations occasionally exploding in "blooms."

Now, new research shows that jellyfish are upending marine food webs—and disrupting ocean ecosystems' ability to sync carbon in the process.

The problem is that jellyfish are voracious predators that consume plankton rapidly and in huge quantities. This effectively prevents small fish from finding the food the need to thrive, collapsing an important low-ring of the chain. "This restricts the transfer of energy up the food chain," explained Rob Condon, who led the study, "because jellyfish are not readily consumed by other predators."

Photo courtesy: Jaymi Heimbuch/Creative Commons

Moreover, jellyfish have a significant impact on marine bacteria, which play an important role by recycling key elements and nutrients created by decaying organisms back into the food web. When fish die and are broken down, the bacteria absorb carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other byproducts. When jellyfish die, a different process takes place.

Condon's research found that decaying jellyfish produce organic matter that is intensely rich in carbon—too rich, he believes, for bacteria to use it for growth. Instead, he discovered, bacteria in jellyfish-infested waters dispose of carbon through respiration—a process that returns much of the element to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

The presence of this carbon-rich food source did not only increase carbon dioxide emissions, however, it also led to an increase in the population of microbes that were once rare in the areas researched. This finding, Condon says, shows that jellyfish blooms are not only changing the function of food webs but their form—at a fundamental level—as well.

"If these swarms continue to emerge," he explained, "we could see a substantial biogeochemical impact on our ecosystems."

Via TreeHugger

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Vertical Wall Becomes Van Gogh Painting

As I have said many times before, I just adore creativity especially when it is used to open peoples' eyes to new possibilities and new adventures. That is exactly what is happening in London's Trafalgar Square and they are using one of my favourite green innovations - living vertical walls.

Photo courtesy: TreeHugger

It's the first living painting in London's Trafalgar Square, and maybe the first anywhere. A Van Gogh picture has been turned into a green living vertical wall.

Depicting Van Gogh's painting, A Wheatfield with Cypresses, it's a new way to draw people into the National Gallery to see the real thing.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses 1889. Photo courtesy: TreeHugger

The living painting has been constructed by a horticulture and design company, ANS, which specialises in green walls and roofs. They also did the recently installed living wall in the hotel which bills itself as the "largest vertical wall in Europe."

They used over 8,000 plants of 25 different varieties. In order to recreate the strong bands of colour in the painting, plants were selected to match the tones. They were then hand-planted into a modular system according to a numbered drawing. The 640 modules were grown vertically at a nursery, ready for installation.

Photo courtesy: TreeHugger

It took 3 days to install the wall which forms part of a hoarding outside the gallery. It will remain there throughout the summer and autumn, until the end of October, 2011. Given the range of plants; some flowering now, some later, it will be interesting to watch how it grows and changes over the coming seasons.

Photo courtesy: TreeHugger

'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' was painted in September 1889, when Van Gogh was in the St-Rémy mental asylum, near Arles, where he was a patient from May 1889 until May 1890. Van Gogh promised to send his brother 'twelve size 30 canvases' and it seems likely that 'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' was one of them.

The painting has been brought to life with the sponsorship of GE (General Electric) as part of the Gallery's long-term plan to reduce its carbon footprint. It's all part of the National Gallery's plan to go green. It is already the first gallery to have switched to LED lighting in all of its galleries.

Via TreeHugger

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

High-Speed European Train Goes Green

The tunnel on the Paris-Amsterdam high-speed rail line is topped with 16,000 solar panels. Photo courtesy: SPS2900 via TreeHugger

The 2 gigantic solar farms just launched in France are part of a much wider push for large-scale solar and renewables going on in Europe right now. In fact, the same company responsible for these farms has today unveiled a huge 1MW solar tunnel that will protect trains from falling trees (reducing the need for tree felling), and provide power to one of Belgium's most important railway stations in the process.

The high-speed line running from Paris to Amsterdam passes Antwerp and a nearby ancient forest. To avoid the need to fell protected trees, a long tunnel was built over the line which has now been topped with 16,000 solar panels. The electricity produced is equivalent to that needed to power all the trains in Belgium for one day per year, and will also help power Antwerp station.

"For train operators, it is the perfect way to cut their carbon footprints because you can use spaces that have no other economic value and the projects can be delivered within a year because they don't attract the protests that wind power does," said Bart Van Renterghem, UK head of Belgian renewable energy company Enfinity, which installed the panels.

"We had a couple of projects lined up around London with train operators and water utilities, but they have been put on hold."

Van Renterghem said this was due to the UK government's controversial review of subsidies for large-scale solar power projects, which will lower the returns available.

The video above gives a sense of scale of the tunnel. Enfinity, the renewable energy company behind the project, was also due to build similar projects along train lines around London. But Bart Van Renterghem, UK head of the company, told the Guardian that these plans are currently on hold pending the Government's review of feed-in solar tariffs for large scale energy production.

The UK government argues that solar technology is too expensive, but Van Renterghem said he had seen the cost of cells halve in the last two to three years thanks to economies of scale in Germany, France and Belgium.

The new Blackfriars station in London, which will span the River Thames, will host the largest single collection of solar panels in the UK when it opens in spring 2012.

The roof of the new station will have 4,400 panels and a capacity of 1MW, enough to provide 50% of the station's electricity. However, the development is not dependent on the level of government subsidy for solar power as the £7.3m ($12m USD) bill was paid by the transport department's environment fund.

Via TreeHugger and guardian

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mushrooms Are a Natural Weed Killer

Photo courtesy:

Researchers in Saskatchewan are developing a new all-natural herbicide which could solve many weedy problems.

"Things like dandelion, Canada thistle, chickweed, plantain, clovers — lot weeds that are in our lawn areas," Karen Bailey, one of a team of researchers with Agri-Food Canada, told CBC News in a recent interview about their work.

Bailey said the weed killer is derived from a fungus found in the Melfort area of Saskatchewan, about 160 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

"The seedlings come up white and they die very quickly," Bailey added, describing the effect of the fungus on a dandelion. "It's taken up by the plant roots and as the fungus grows inside of the root itself it's releasing the toxin into the plant."

In two weeks, the dandelion is dead.

She said the best part about their discovery it that it does not harm grass or grain crops.

She added it take about two to three years before the product can be produced for commercial sales.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Drought Hits 10 Million People in China

A Chinese farmer on dry farmland on the outskirts of Rizhao, Shandong Province, in January. Photo courtesy: nytimes

The United Nations’ food agency issued an alert on Tuesday warning that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.

China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades, for national security reasons. Any move by China to import large quantities of food in response to the drought could drive international prices even higher than the record levels recently reached.

“China’s grain situation is critical to the rest of the world — if they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shock waves through the world’s grain markets,” said Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, in the Philippines.

The state-run news media in China warned Monday that the country’s major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years. On Tuesday the state news agency Xinhua said that Shandong Province, a cornerstone of Chinese grain production, was bracing for its worst drought in 200 years unless substantial precipitation came by the end of this month.

The World's Largest Crops. Photo courtesy: nytimes

World wheat prices are already surging, and they have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. A separate United Nations report last week said global food export prices had reached record levels in January. The impact of China’s drought on global food prices and supplies could create serious problems for less affluent countries that rely on imported food.

With $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, nearly three times that of Japan, the country with the second-largest reserves, China has ample buying power to prevent any serious food shortages.

“They can buy whatever they need to buy, and they can outbid anyone,” Mr. Zeigler said. China’s self-sufficiency in grain prevented world food prices from moving even higher when they spiked three years ago, he said.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said Tuesday that 12.75 million acres of China’s 35 million acres of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million head of livestock faced shortages of drinking water.

Chinese state news media are describing the drought in increasingly dire terms. “Minimal rainfall or snow this winter has crippled China’s major agricultural regions, leaving many of them parched,” Xinhua reported. “Crop production has fallen sharply, as the worst drought in six decades shows no sign of letting up.”

Xinhua said that Shandong Province, in the heart of the Chinese wheat belt, had received only 1.2 centimeters, or about half an inch, of rain since September. The report did not provide a comparison for normal rainfall for the period.

The Food and Agriculture Organization, in its “special alert” on Tuesday, said the drought’s effects had been somewhat tempered by relatively few days of subzero temperatures and government irrigation projects. The agency went on to caution that extreme cold, with temperatures of minus 18 degrees Celsius (just below zero Fahrenheit), could have “devastating” effects.

Kisan Gunjal, the F.A.O. food emergency officer in Rome who handles Asia alerts, said by telephone that if rain came soon and temperatures warmed up, then the wheat crop could still be saved and a bumper crop might even be possible.

On Tuesday, Chinese meteorological agencies were warning of frost for the next nine nights in the heart of Shandong Province, with temperatures falling as low as 21 degrees Fahrenheit. They forecast little chance of precipitation in the next 10 days except for the possibility of a light rain or a dusting of snow on Wednesday or Thursday.

Mr. Gunjal said the special alert on China was the first that the F.A.O. had issued anywhere in the world this year. There was only one last year, expressing “grave concern” about food supplies in the Sahel region of Africa, notably Niger.

President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, China’s top two officials, made separate visits to drought-stricken areas last week, and each called for “all-out efforts” to cope with the water shortage.

Typically, world food reports barely mention China, partly because many details of the country’s agriculture production and reserves are state secrets. But China, in fact, is enormously important to the world’s food supply, especially if something goes wrong.

Farmers drew water to irrigate their arid wheat fields in China’s Shandong province on Tuesday. Photo courtesy: nytimes

The heat wave in Russia last summer, combined with floods in Australia in recent months, has drawn worldwide attention to the international wheat market, because Russia and Australia have historically been big exporters. But China’s wheat industry has existed in almost total isolation from the rest of the world, with virtually no exports or imports, until last year, when modest imports began. Yet it is enormous, accounting for one-sixth of global wheat output. The statistical database of the United Nations’ food agency shows that in 2009, the last year available, China produced almost twice as much wheat as the United States or Russia and more than five times as much as Australia.

Currently, the ground in the country is so dry from Beijing south through the provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong to Jiangsu Province, just north of Shanghai, that trees and houses are coated with topsoil that has blown off parched fields.

China’s national obsession with self-sufficiency in food includes corn, another crop that is grown and consumed entirely in China with minimal imports or exports. Little known outside of China, the country’s corn industry actually grows one-fifth of the world’s corn, according to F.A.O. statistics. China’s corn crop is mostly in the country’s northern provinces, where the drought is worst now.

Mr. Gunjal said the success or failure of the corn crop, as well as the rice crop, would depend mostly on rainfall this spring and summer, not the shortage of rain this winter.

Winters tend to be dry in southern China, the world’s largest rice-producing region. But this winter is drier than most.

China had about 55 million tons of wheat in stockpiles as of last summer, Mr. Gunjal said. That was equal to about half the annual harvest.

China is already the world’s largest importer of soybeans, which are oilseeds, not a grain. China buys soybeans mainly for use as animal feed, because the Chinese diet is shifting toward more meat.

Via nytimes