May 25, 2006

The air is warm and heavy with the morning humidity typical of the Borneo rain forest as our kelotok, a traditional boat, motors up a river so black in color it could be mistaken for ink. I scan the surrounding primeval swamp forest for signs of life. Suddenly Thomas cries, "There, in the Nipa palm. An adult male orangutan!" I look up to see a giant red ape casually picking fresh leaves near the top of a riverside palm tree. He watches us before quietly moving back into the forest. This is the first of many wild orangutans we will encounter over the next few days.

I'm in Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. At 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) Tanjung Puting is the largest protected expanse of coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest in southeast Asia. It's also one of the biggest remaining habitats for the critically endangered orangutan, the population of which has been great diminished in recent years due to habitat destruction and poaching. Orangutans have become the focus of a much wider effort to save Borneo's natural environment.

PLEASE NOTE: I will be in the Congo rainforest (Gabon and Uganda) until late June. I will not likely be updating the site until then, but in the meantime, you may be interested in the most popular news stories on the site for May. Thank you for your patience, understanding, and interest.

May 24, 2006

Scientists have developed the first comprehensive theory to explain Madagascar's rich biodiversity. The researchers say that ancient climate shifts likely contributed to the island's diversity of animal life. Similar theories have been put forth to account for the biological diversity of the Amazon rainforest and islands in southeast Asia.

A Bay Area venture capitalist with a storied past, has set his sights on "green technology" and ultimately China, after some compelling remarks from state representatives at a recent conference. Early this spring, Chinese officials named solar and clean coal technologies as two of their three pre-eminent priorities for investment and development in the near future. For a country with burgeoning energy needs surpassing what power is presently available, this is both realistic and positive news for environmentalists and economists alike. Hoping to capitalize, John Doerr and his associates are now funneling cash into the emergent green technology sector in China, which he, and an increasing number of other investors believe to be the next big thing.

May 23, 2006

Last week Ecuador seized Amazon oilfields controlled by Occidental, an American oil firm which produces about 20 percent of the country's oil output and has invested about $1 billion since 1999. The decision will bring a short-term boost in government revenue while appealing to street protestors who have caused havoc for the country's politicians over the past few years. However, looking the beyond the politics, the seizure could have surprising implications for Ecuador's environment.

The 2006 hurricane season in the north Atlantic region is likely to again be very active, although less so than 2005 when a record-setting 15 hurricanes occurred, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The warning from NOAA comes after a slew of studies have indicated that climate change could increase the frequency and intensity of powerful storms.

May 22, 2006

The Bush Administration is misleading the American public and the United Nations about its efforts to address tropical deforestation according to analysis by the Tropical Forest Group, an environmental advocacy group based in Santa Barbara, California. The Tropical Forest Group alleges that the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act, a key initiative to reduce carbon emissions and tropical deforestation, has been neglected for a year and a half despite recent claims by the Bush Administration that it was actively supporting the program.

Climate change estimates for the next century may have substantially underestimated the potential magnitude of global warming says a new study from a team of European scientists. The paper, published in the May 26 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, says that warming may be 15-to-78 percent higher than estimates that do not consider the feedback mechanism involving carbon dioxide and Earth's temperature.

May 21, 2006

According to a report from the International Tropical Timber Organization, shippers in Indonesia are threatening to stop transporting logs if the government insists on enforcing a new decree on the transportation of illegal timber.

Indonesia plans to complete its first biodiesel plant by 2008. The $25 million plant will have a capacity of 60,000 to 100,000 metric tons a year. The plant will use crude palm oil (CPO) and other feedstock.

China's timber imports surged during the first quarter of 2006. Log imports increased 18 percent to 8.1 million cubic meters. China customs valued these imports at $897.42 million.

May 20, 2006

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the world's largest scientific organization devoted to the study and wise use of tropical ecosystems, has formally endorsed a radical proposal to help save tropical forests through carbon trading. Under the initiative proposed by an alliance of fifteen developing countries led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, tropical nations that show permanent reductions in deforestation would be eligible to receive international carbon funds from industrial nations who could purchase carbon credits to help them meet their emissions targets international climate agreements like the Kyoto Protocol.

A Brazilian scientist claims to have discovered a previously unknown species of monkey, although other experts say the species may have been documented before. Earlier this month, Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes, a professor of Zoology at the Federal University in Pernambuco, published a scientific description of Cebus queirozi in the international scientific journal Zootaxa.

May 19, 2006

Researchers exploring a Colombian mountain range found surviving members of a species of Harlequin frog believed extinct due to a killer fungus wiping out amphibian populations in Central and South America. The discovery of what could be the last population of the painted frog indicates the species has survived the fungus, providing hope that other species also might avoid elimination from the epidemic caused by a pathogenic fungus of unknown origin.

May 18, 2006

A new report says Himalayan forests are disappearing at such a high rate that they could be gone by the end of the century. In the May 20 issue of New Scientist Magazine Maharaj Pandit of the University of Delhi and a team of researchers report that widespread deforestation in the Indian Himalaya region threatens the region's biodiversity which includes tigers, black bears, musk deer, leopards, golden eagles and bearded vultures.

Researchers at The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the International Institute for Environment and Development said that as much as 10 percent of the world's population is vulnerable to rising sea levels.

May 17, 2006

In a set back to the growing biofuels market and American energy consumers, House Majority Leader John Boehner said Monday he will not push legislation to reduce the U.S. tariff on ethanol imports. Thus, the United States will keep its 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol despite a warning from the Department of Energy that domestic ethanol supplies will fall short this summer and will need to reply on foreign fuel.

New evidence suggests that oil from the Exxon Valdez may still causing damage to Alaska's Prince William Sound, 17 years after the ship ran aground. The study, by chemist Jeffrey Short and colleagues at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, Alaska, appears today on the Web site of the American Chemical Society's journal.

May 16, 2006

Global warming has had a more devastating impact on coral reefs than previously believed says a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research, the first to show the long-term impact of rising sea temperatures on coral and fish communities, suggests that "large sections of coral reefs and much of the marine life they support may be wiped out for good," according to a news release from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, an institution involved in the project.

Equatorial icecaps in Africa will disappear within two decades, because of global warming, a study British and Ugandan scientists has found. In a paper to be published 17 May in Geophysical Research Letters, they report results from the first survey in a decade of glaciers in the Rwenzori Mountains of East Africa. An increase in air temperature over the last four decades has contributed to a substantial reduction in glacial cover, they say.

May 15, 2006

The discovery of an ancient astrological observatory in Brazil lends support to the theory that the Amazon rainforest was once home to advanced cultures and 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. Archaeologists with the Amapa Institute of Scientific and Technological Research said they uncovered the ruins near Calcoene, 390 kilometers (240 miles) from Macapa, the capital of Amapa state, near Brazil's border with French Guyana.

Last week a bikini-clad woman made international news wires when she disrupted a group photo shoot at a business summit in Vienna, Austria. The woman -- identified as Evangelina Carrozo, an Argentinian beauty queen -- was protesting the construction of two wood pulp plants under construction in Uruguay on the border with Argentina. The $1.8 billion project is the largest investment deal in the history of Uruguay, but has strained relations between Uruguay and Argentina, which says the plant may pollute downstream areas. The conflict highlights increasing concerns over practices in the pulpwood industry.

May 14, 2006

Surging oil prices have fueled calls for the United States to develop new sources of affordable and secure domestic energy. While renewable energy -- especially biofuels, wind power, and solar technologies -- is an area of particular interest, researchers from the Earth Institute at Columbia University say that the U.S. already has relatively low-cost alternatives to imported oil, including coal, tar sands, and oil shale. These resources can be extracted and used at a lower cost to the environment than some might expect. In a report published in the most recent issue of Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Klaus S. Lackner and Jeffrey D. Sachs argue that "coal alone could satisfy the country's energy needs of the twenty-first century." They say that "coal liquefaction, or the process of deriving liquid fuels from coal, is already being used in places and with expanded infrastructure could provide gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel at levels well below current prices." Further, Sachs and Lackner suggest that "environmental constraints such as increased carbon dioxide emissions arising from greater use of coal and other fossil fuels could be avoided for less than 1 percent of gross world product by 2050," a sum far less than others have estimated.

May 12, 2006

The Highland Mangabey, a species of monkey discovered in the remote mountains of Tanzania last year, is so unique that it has been assigned to its own genus. It marks the first new genus for a living monkey species since Allen's swamp monkey was so classified in 1923. Tim Davenport, the scientist who first spotted the primate, said "The discovery of a new primate species is an amazing event, but the discovery of a new genus makes this animal a true conservation celebrity... and now we must we move fast to protect it."

India could face worse droughts according to a new study by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. In a study published in the May 15 issue of Journal of Climate, researchers say that cooler-than-normal temperatures in the northern part of the Indian ocean have weakened the region's natural climate circulation and monsoon conditions, resulting in reduced rainfall over India and increased rainfall over the Sahel area south of the Sahara in Africa

May 11, 2006

New research calls into question the linkage between major Atlantic hurricanes and global warming. That is one of the conclusions from a University of Virginia study to appear in the May 10, 2006 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. In recent years, a large number of severe Atlantic hurricanes have fueled a debate as to whether global warming is responsible. Because high sea-surface temperatures fuel tropical cyclones, this linkage seems logical. In fact, within the past year, several hurricane researchers have correlated basin-wide warming trends with increasing hurricane severity and have implicated a greenhouse-warming cause.

Arctic climate already is known to be particularly prone to global warming caused by industrial and automotive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Now, a University of Utah study finds a surprising new way society's pollutants warm the far north: the Arctic's well-known haze -- made of particulate pollution from mid-latitude cities -- mixes with thin clouds, making them better able to trap heat.

May 10, 2006

High oil prices and growing concerns over climate change are driving investment and innovation in the biofuels sector as countries and industry increasingly look towards renewable bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has recently invested $84 million in an American ethanol company, while global energy gluttons ranging from the United States to China are setting long-term targets for the switch to such fuels potentially offering a secure domestic source of renewable energy and fewer environmental headaches. Nevertheless, bioenergy also presents concerns and faces significant challenges. Beyond supply logistics issues, including how to efficiently harvest, transport, store, and process biomass feedstock, there are potential environmental conflicts that arise with energy crop production.

May 9, 2006

A new study ties the presence of roads to bushmeat hunting in the Congo rainforest and also raises important questions on global conservation approaches. The study, published in the current edition of Conservation Biology, found roads and associated hunting pressure reduced the abundance of a number of mammal species and suggests that even moderate hunting pressure can significantly affect the structure of mammal communities in central Africa. Further, the researchers argue that multinational corporations can be particularly sensitive to criticism on their environmental policy and, as a result, can actually serve as competent stewards of the environment in some cases. Thus pressure exerted by green groups on large corporations may be an effective means for achieving conservation goals.

A study out of the University of Bath in the UK says that new technologies that mimic the way insects, plants and animals overcome engineering problems could help reduce our dependence on energy.

2006 is looking like it could be the worst year in memory for California's butterflies due to cold and wet conditions in late winter, says Art Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. His observations raise concerns that future climate change could lead to declines in the state's native butterfly populations.

May 8, 2006

Researchers at Syracuse University have determined that glaciers once covered a much larger area of Antarctica than originally thought, bolstering growing evidence that Earth's climate system is capable of rapid shifts.

May 6, 2006

Oceanographers at NASA say that the recent La Niña in the eastern Pacific Ocean will probably not affect the Atlantic hurricane season this year. La Niña generally increases Atlantic hurricane activity and decreases Pacific Ocean hurricanes.

The Wilderness Classroom team ended its expedition in the Peruvian rainforest. The final updates are available: April 30 | May 2

May 5, 2006

New research suggests that prehistoric horses in Alaska may have been hunted into extinction by man, rather than doomed by climate change as previously thought. Until now the leading theory said that the demise of wild horses occurred during a period of climate cooling long before the extinction of mammoths and the arrival of humans from Asia. But researchers -- including Andrew Solow of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, US, David Roberts of the Royal Botanic Garden, and Kew and Karen Robbirt of the University of East Anglia -- found that the incompleteness of the fossil record and uncertainties in dating fossil remains from the Pleistocene period means that horses may have survived until the arrival of humans.

Carbon prices tumbled 65 percent as a number of European countries announced lower than expected carbon emissions in 2005, suggesting there will be a surplus of pollution-permitting carbon credits. While drop in prices is good news from an emissions standpoint -- Europe is polluting less -- it provides a stark reminder that short-term fluctuations can cause jitters in the emerging market. The UN acted to soothe concerns by assuring that investments in solar, wind and other green energy projects in developing countries will go ahead as planned.

Last week Wal-Mart announced a $1 million grant to the Pacific Forest Trust to protect 9,200 acres for forest in Northern California near the towns of McCloud and Pondosa. The grant -- supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation -- will be used in conjunction with funds from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund to connect 2.1 million acres of protected forestlands in the Klamath-Cascade region.

The Wall Street Journal ran an account of how the Chilean Sea Bass was first brought to market in 1977.

May 4, 2006

New research out of Yale University argues that monkeys and humans exhibit similar economic biases, suggesting that economic decision-making have deeper roots that many economists suspect. The Yale researchers found that monkeys conducting business-like activities - including trading and gambling - behave in ways that closely mirror human behavioral inclinations.

Global warming has caused a key wind circulation pattern over the Pacific Ocean to weakened by 3.5 percent since the mid-1800s and scientists warn that it be further diminished by another 10% by 2100. The study, published in the May 4 issue of Nature, says that the weakening of the Walker circulation could could alter climate -- including el Nino and La Nina events -- and the marine food chain across the entire Pacific region.

The region of the tropical Atlantic where many hurricanes originate has warmed by several tenths of a degree Celsius over the 20th century, and new climate model simulations suggest that human activity, such as increasing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, may contribute significantly to this warming.

May 3, 2006

The total number of known threatened species stands at 16,119 according to the World Conservation Union's latest Red List, a tally of threatened and endangered species. The Geneva-based conservation group, known by its acronym IUCN, says that 784 species are officially extinction and that a further 65 are only found in captivity or cultivation. More than 40 percent of the 40,177 species assessed using the IUCN Red List criteria are considered at risk of going extinct, including one third the planet's amphibians, one in four mammals, and about one in eight birds.

The glaciers of China's Qinghai-Tibet plateau are shrinking by 7 percent a year due to global warming according to a report from Xinhua, the state news agency of China. In an interview with the agency, Professor Dong Guangrong with the Chinese Academy of Sciences warned that melting glaciers could turn parts of Tibet into desert, worsening droughts and increasing the incidence of sandstorms that regularly blast Chinese cities. He based his conclusions based on analysis of 40 years' worth of data from China's weather stations.

Five new updates from the Wilderness Classroom's expedition to the Peruvian rainforest are now available:
April 14 | April 18 | April 21
April 23 | April 25 | April 27

May 2, 2006

Tropical species evolve twice as fast as temperate species according to research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which compared the genetics of 45 common tropical plants with similar species from cooler geographical areas, suggests that evolution takes place at a faster rate in warmer climates due either to higher rates of metabolism, which leads to more genetic mutation, or shorter generations, so genetic changes are rapidly passed on to offspring. The researchers found that tropical plant species -- including species from Borneo, New Guinea, northeast Australia and South America -- had more than twice the rate of molecular evolution as closely related species in temperate parts of North America, southern Australia, Eurasia and New Zealand.

Levels of gases believed to be fueling global warming continued to climb in 2005 according to analysis released by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency said its index of greenhouse gases -- the Annual Greenhouse Gas Index or AGGI -- showed an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide but a leveling off of methane, and a decline in two chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), gases that contribute to the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. NOAA reports that overall, the AGGI "shows a continuing, steady rise in the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere."

Traveler Taj Terpening is a photographer and adventurer who splits his time between Homer, Alaska and Berlin. Take a look at his pictures.

May 1, 2006

Construction for the 2008 Olympics in China may fuel deforestation in New Guinea according to an article published last week in the Jakarta Post. The article reports that a Chinese company has asked the Indonesian government for permission to establish a timber processing factory in Indonesia's Papua province to produce 800,000 cubic meters of merbau timber in time for the Olympic games to be held in Bejing. Environmental groups are concerned that a new timber processing factory would hasten the destruction of the island's highly biodiverse ecosystems.