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October 31, 2005

Controversial evidence uncovered over the past decade suggests that the Amazon rainforest was once home to large sedentary populations of people. Besides the well-known empires of the Inca and their predecessors, millions of people once lived in the forests and shaped the environment to suit their own needs without destroying biodiversity. Their techniques, if discovered, could prove useful and possibly essential in creating areas of high agricultural productivity without total destruction of the rainforest environment.


October 15, 2005

I will be out of contact for the next couple weeks. Updates will resume in early November. In the meantime, here are some popular articles from the past couple of months.

    Late last year an international team completed the first known transect of the island of Madagascar, the world's fourth largest island. The eight-month-long journey, dubbed "Hike Madagascar," took the group of intrepid hikers from the southern tip of Madagascar to the northernmost point of the island. The transect targeted rural communities along the eastern forest corridor, surveying villages and providing local farmers with techniques for improving rice yields and putting more food on the table for their families. The hike also provided a glimpse into some of the socioeconomic and environmental issues facing the island nation, which is one of the poorest in the world.

    In the dry deciduous forests of south western Madagascar there lives a lemur that loudly cusses but "dances" like a ballet performer. Verreaux's sifaka is among the most popular of lemur species, a group of primates endemic to islands off the southeastern coast of Africa. While threatened, Verreaux's sifaka is easily spotted is several of Madagascar's more accessible parks. Dancing lemur attracts tourists to island of Madagascar

    Dubai, a city-state in the United Arab Emirates, has lately embarked on an ambitious plan to boost its international standing by building a number of artificial islands. These islands, which will house luxury residences, villas, and hotels, are a growing concern for environmentalists due to their impact on the local marine ecology. Dubai should be concerned as well for the long-term viability of the plan -- rising sea levels from global climate change could spell trouble for its audacious and ostentatious investments. As Earth Island Journal puts it, "How ironic that the very people who drive rising sea levels through their businesses, which emit much of the world's greenhouse gases, will undoubtedly be some of the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change." At least Dubai will soon have the world's tallest building for its residents to escape the potential swamping.

    China's failed bid for American petroleum firm Unocal may prompt it to further focus on its development of alternative energy sources. The country has recently passed a renewable energy law that requires power operators to buy electricity from alternative energy producers and the government has increased spending for research on wind, solar, biofuel, and tidal technologies.

    Under the bright florescent lights of the reptile house in the Bronx Zoo of New York, a colorful exotic toad makes its final stand. Once gathering by the thousands in the waterfalls of the Kihansi Gorge of Tanzania, the population of the Kihansi Spray Toad now stands at less than 200 individuals. The hasty construction of a desperately needed dam has relegated this species to the fringe of existence. Since medically valuable compounds have been derived from amphibian secretions in the past, researchers at Cornell University are working to determine if any bioactive compounds are present in the skins of Kihansi spray toads before it is too late.

    Engineers, scientists, and business people are increasingly turning toward nature for design inspiration. The field of biomimetics, the application of methods and systems, found in nature, to engineering and technology, has spawned a number of innovations far superior to what the human mind alone could have devised. The reason is simple. Nature, through billions of years of trial and error, has produced effective solutions to innumerable complex real-world problems. The rigorous competition of natural selection means waste and efficiency are not tolerated in natural systems, unlike many of the technologies devised by humans.

October 14, 2005

New research published in Molecular Ecology suggests that climate change could trigger the expansion of invasive species into wider ranges. The study looked at the genetic history of a goby species in the Eastern Atlantic which appears to have expanded its range dramatically when the world warmed about 150,000 years ago. The finding has broader implications beyond aquatic reef fish. Invasive species cause billions of dollars in damage per year. In the United States alone, the economic cost of invasive species -- in terms of the damage they do and the expense of controlling them -- is estimated at $137 billion a year, according to a study by Cornell University in 1999. Should global warming fuel the arrival of more non-native species, the cost -- both economic and ecological -- will likely rise as well.

"King Midas," a 300-pound (136 kg) green sea turtle, was the first animal returned to the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans after the facility was evacuated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although the aquarium escaped the hurricane physically undamaged and had plenty of food and freshwater, virtually all of its 10,000 fish died when the facility's emergency generator failed and made conditions unlivable for most its animals.


October 13, 2005

Deforestation does not increase the risk of major floods according to a new report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The study, citing evidence showing that the frequency and extent of major floods has not changed over the last century despite significant reductions in forest cover, challenges the conventional belief that forest loss causes floods. Instead, FAO and CIFOR say that deforestation does have a role in small floods and topsoil erosion. Further, the report accuses Asian governments of using deforestation as an excuse to deflect criticism over their poor handling of human settlement in areas unsuitable for habitation.

The Center for Tropical Forest Science at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which monitors millions of tropical trees across 15 countries, has announced a new director, Dr. Stuart Davies. Davies will spearhead the effort to continue research in topics relating to tropical forests including global carbon emissions, erosion and watershed management, biological interactions, biodiversity and biogeography, human resource use, and applied ecology.


October 12, 2005

A series of recent studies have revealed a sobering future for the majority of Africa, a future predicated by undeniable and significant climate change. The threat traverses all levels of the environmental, social, political and economic spheres, from heightened socio-economic disparity to dwindling fish populations, from civil strife to desperate hunger. The greatest and saddest irony of this dark fate projected for the continent is that while Africa has the world's lowest levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, contributing the least to global climate change, it has been forced to bear the brunt of the phenomenon.

A new report from United Nations University says that there could be 50 million environmental refugees within five years due to deteriorating conditions in poor countries. Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

Officials said the death toll from Pakistan's earthquake have surpassed 35,000, making the quake the eleventh deadliest since 1900. The Tangshan earthquake that shook China in 1976 may have killed some 650,000 people.


October 11, 2005

There's at least a 25% chance of a magnitude 7.0 or greater quake occurring during the next 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area according to a new computer simulation by researchers at the University of California, Davis. According to John Rundle, lead author of the study, the odds of an earthquake striking the Northern California region increase with time. "Virtual California," as the simulation is known, estimates that is a 50 percent chance of a magnitude 7.0 or greater on the San Francisco segment of the San Andreas fault in the next 45 years, and a 75 percent chance during the next 80 years. The US Geological Survey (USGS) projects 5,800 deaths from a magnitude seven in San Francisco.

The Amazon drought is worsening. Rivers in the region have fallen to the lowest levels on record, isolating communities and stalling commerce and transportation. At an ecological level, the drought has killed millions of fish, polluted drinking waters, and contributed to wildfires.


October 10, 2005

Scientists from New Mexico State University and Wake Forest University are working to develop organic solar cells. Unlike existing solar panels made of brittle silicon, organic solar cells are contructed of plastic that can be wrapped around structures or even applied like paint. This flexibility could revolutionize the solar market and help spur viability of alternative energy.


October 9, 2005

Engineers are working to use artificial tornados as a renewable energy source according to an article in last week's issue of The Economist. Storms release a tremendous amount of energy. Hurricane Katrina, a category 4 hurricane, released enough energy to supply the world's power needs for a year, while the typical tornado produces as much power as a large power station. Now engineers are attempting to harness some of this energy.

Scientists are using satellites to track salmon sharks that migrate from Alaska to Hawaii.


October 8, 2005

A female great white shark tagged in waters off South Africa has completed the first known transoceanic trip for an individual shark, traveling farther than any other shark known, more than 12,400 miles to the coast of Australia and back again, according to the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society and other organizations in the most recent edition of the journal Science.

Another eco-friendly product has gone mainstream. Nestle, the world's largest food company, will introduce "fairtrade" coffee in British supermarkets within two weeks. The move comes shortly after Kraft partnered with the Rainforest Alliance to introduce its own environmentally-sound coffee, "Kenco Sustainable Development."


October 7, 2005

Google, AMD, Brightstar, News Corporation, and Red Hat have signed on to MIT's low-cost laptop initiative which aims to deliver a fully functional $100 machine to the developing world. MIT Media Lab is developing a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power sources -- including batteries or hand crank -- and will be able to do most everything that a standard laptop can do except store large amounts of data. MIT believes that laptops "are a wonderful way for all children to 'learn learning' through independent interaction and exploration," while development experts believe the laptop program could generate long-term economic benefits for some of the world's poorest people.

A coalition of 20 environmental groups sued the Bush administration Thursday to block road construction, logging and industrial development on more than 90,000 square miles of the nation's last untouched forests.

A new report from the World Bank says millions of deaths can be attributed to environmental factors, including climate change, pollution, unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene. These environmental conditions are significantly affecting health -- responsible for about a fifth of all ill health in poor countries -- and impeding economic development and growth. The report also links cancer to the environment.


October 6, 2005

The National Park Service released photos that show the carcass of an American alligator that was almost swallowed by a Burmese python. It appears that the 13-foot long Burmese python attempted to swallow the six-foot alligator before its stomach ruptured, resulting in the deaths of both animals.

Scientists in Mexico are testing a new idea on how to regrow tropical forest on deforested lands. The plan would involve planting fast-growing, fruit-producing trees, like figs, in the formerly forested areas. These trees would attract birds and bats which would deposit seeds from nearby forests onto the ground below. The dropping of these seeds would, in effect, return native forest species to the deforested patch.


October 5, 2005

Heavy rains and mudslides from Tropical Storm Stan have killed at least 30 people in El Salvador. Widespread deforestation has worsened the impact of the storm by leaving barren hillsides vulnerable to mudslides and rivers susceptible to flooding. Tony Saca, El Salvador's president, estimates that "sixty-five per cent of the country is in danger of landslides."

I am moving Mongabay.com to a new set of servers so please excuse any access issues you may encounter over the next 3-4 days. Once the transition is made, the site will have about 20 times the current capacity. Last month's traffic pushed the limits of the existing system.


October 4, 2005

High gas prices caused American consumers to spurn sport-utility vehicles in September. Further, resale values for SUVs are falling as demand for the gas-guzzling vehicles softens while interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient models soars. According to The Wall Street Journal and Autodata Corp., U.S. car and light-truck sales fell 7.6% in September. The September sales figures are the best evidence to date that consumers are looking for more fuel-efficient vehicles as gasoline prices have climbed past $3 per gallon.

A new study conducted by researchers at Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland is the first to discover that a chemical in cocoa beans can limit the development of fluids that cause diarrhea. Cocoa beans contain a large amount of chemicals called flavonoids which can be used to create natural supplements to ease diarrhea symptoms. Flavonoids can also provide cardiovascular benefits according to a study released this week.


October 3, 2005

Yesterday The Independent carried a travel journal of Richard Reed, owner of Innocent smoothies, that detailed Greenpeace operations in the Brazilian Amazon. Greenpeace has become a favorite target of local land developers and today activists travel in bullet-proof cars and wear protective vests after several assassination attempts.

Sea turtles have temporarily lost protection in wake of Hurricane Katrina. The National Marine Fisheries Service has granted shrimp trawlers a temporary 30-day exemption from federal Turtle Excluder Device (TED) requirements in certain state and federal waters off Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Turtle Excluder Devices protect sea turtles and other large marine animals from being captured in trawl nets. The exemption from federal TED requirements is currently set to expire at 11:59 pm on October 22, 2005.

To meet Kyoto protocol commitments, European governments are encouraging the use of biofuels in transport and electricity. While biofuels are often lauded as green sources of energy, problems arise when wildlands are cleared for the specific purpose of growing biomass as is the case with oil palm in southeast Asia and soybeans in Amazon region of South America. Glenn Barry of Forests.org has asked for support in delivering a message to the European Commission on the use of such biofuels at the expense of wildlands.


October 2, 2005

Two Duke University physicists report that at least 10 to 30 percent of global warming measured during the past two decades may be due to increased solar output rather than factors such as increased greenhouse gas emissions. The physicists said that their findings indicate that climate models of global warming need to be corrected for the effects of changes in solar activity. However, they emphasized that their findings do not argue against the basic theory that significant global warming is occurring because of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases.

A new weapon in the battle against HIV may come from an unusual source -- a small tropical frog. Investigators at Vanderbilt University Medical Center reported this month in the Journal of Virology that compounds secreted by frog skin are potent blockers of HIV infection.


October 1, 2005

The Amazon River in Peru is at its lowest level in 30 years of record keeping according to a report in Peruvian daily newspaper El Comercio. Local officials say deforestation is the likely culprit of the low water levels. While variable water levels are characteristic of the Amazon river ecosystem, the increasingly extreme fluctuations are of great concern.

For the first time ever, scientists have observed and photographed wild gorillas using tools, in one instance employing a stick to test the depth of a pool before wading into it, according to a study by the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other organizations. Up to this point, all other species of great apes, including chimpanzees and orangutans, have been observed using tools in the wild, but never gorillas.


September 30, 2005

The likely source of SARS -- which killed 770 people in 2003 -- is the horseshoe bat, a new study in the journal Science suggests. Now that a bat has been identified as the origin for the respiratory disease, there is concern that all bats will be persecuted. This would be a shame. Not only do bats play a crucial role in the health of ecosystems but they are also helpful in controlling insects, including malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Over the past few days a series of Arctic-related studies have been released. A report in Nature says rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could make oceans too acidic for marine organisms producing protective shells. Such a development could be catastrophic for the ocean's food chain and devastating for world fisheries. Another study, published in the August 2005 issue of the NRC Research Press' Canadian Journal of Forest Research, reports that climate change causing ancient lakes and wetlands in Alaska to be replaced by forest. Finally, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that summer Arctic sea ice coverage has fallen far below average for fourth straight year.





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