The Environment Chronicle

Notable environmental events

  1. The number of wolves in Germany has grown, according to data released on 22 November 2017 by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and the Documentation and Counseling Center of the Federation of the Wolf (DBBW). The researchers found 60 packs are now living across the country, which is 13 more than a year ago.

  2. A new great ape species—the Tapanuli orangutan—was officially announced by an international team of scientists 0n 2 November 2017. With 800 or fewer individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan is the rarest of all great apes. Previously, two species of orangutans were known—the Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan. This new third species lives in North Sumatra, but is genetically and behaviorally distinct from the two other species. An international team of scientists described the new species in Current Biology. The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) is distinguished from other orangutan populations based on morphological and genomic evidence. The new species is endemic to 475 square miles of upland forest in the Batang Toru Ecosystem of Sumatra and is believed to have been isolated from other orangutan populations for 10,000-20,000 years. The Tapanuli orangutan was first discovered in 1997 during an orangutan survey in the region. Over the next decade, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), together with other non-governmental organizations, universities, and Indonesian authorities, focused on learning more about the population. By 2006, a research station was established to study the orangutans’ behavior and genetics. A breakthrough came in 2013 when researchers examined the skull of a male orangutan killed in human-wildlife conflict. When compared to orangutans from other populations, the skull from Batang Taru showed noticeably different characteristics. This discovery prompted the largest genomic study of wild orangutans to date. As a result, the data collected clearly identified three distinct evolutionary lineages among all orangutans. The discovery of a new species of great ape in the 21st century is a cause for celebration. But it is also a call to action. Like all orangutans, the Tapanuli is under serious threat. Human encroachment—in this case from mining and a plans for a hydroelectric dam—as well as hunting put these orangutans in immediate peril.

  3. A fifth of European fern and lycopod species, a group of vascular plants that underpins healthy ecosystems, are threatened with extinction and declining, as a result of urbanisation and expanding infrastructure, according to a new report published on 27 October 2017 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

  4. Rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions will fundamentally change electricity consumption patterns in Europe. A team of scientists from Germany and the United States now analyzed what unchecked future warming means for Europe’s electricity demand: daily peak loads in Southern Europe will likely increase and overall consumption will shift from Northern Europe to the South. Further, the majority of countries will see a shift of temperature-driven annual peak demand from winter to summer by the end of this century. This would put additional strain on European power grids, the study published online on 28 August 2017 in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests. The study is the first to use observed hourly electricity data across 35 European countries – which are connected by the world’s largest synchronous electrical grid – to estimate how climate change impacts the intensity of peak-load events and overall electricity consumption. While previous work on the relationship between temperature and electricity consumption primarily focused on the US or single European countries and the overall consumption impacts, recent research suggests that the effects of changes in peak load may be much larger and costlier, putting the focus on times when the power grid is already stressed. While the study indicates that the projected effect of climate change on European electricity consumption as a whole is nearly zero, the shift in spatial as well as seasonal electricity consumption will be a fundamental challenge for Europe.

  5. On 2 August 2017, humanity will have used nature’s budget for the entire year, according to Global Footprint Network, an international research organization that has pioneered the Ecological Footprint resource accounting metric. Carbon sequestration makes up 60 percent of human demand on nature. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Earth Overshoot Day has moved from late September in 1997 to August 2 this year, the earliest date since the world first went into overshoot in the early 1970s.

  6. Boreholes in the North Sea could constitute a significantly more important source of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, than previously thought. On 1 August 2017 scientists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the University of Basel published online new data in the international journal Environmental Science & Technology, indicating that gas migration along the outside of wells could be a much bigger problem than previously assumed. This type of leakage is currently neither considered by operators nor regulators, but could be just as important as fugitive emissions through damaged wells, which are usually recognized and quickly repaired. During expeditions to oil and gas fields in the central North Sea in 2012 and 2013, the scientists discovered a number of methane seeps around abandoned wells. Interestingly, the gas originates from shallow gas pockets buried less than 1,000 meters below the seabed. They are simply penetrated when drilling into the underlying, economically interesting hydrocarbon reservoirs. Seismic data from the subsurface of the North Sea further show that about one third of the boreholes perforated shallow gas pockets and may thus leak methane. According to the team’s calculations shallow gas migration along wells may release around 3,000 to 17,000 tonnes of methane from the North Sea seafloor per year. In the ocean, methane is usually degraded by microbes, thereby locally acidifying the seawater. In the North Sea, about half of the wells are located in such shallow water depths that the methane leaking from the seabed can reach the atmosphere, where it is acting as a potent greenhouse gas – much more efficient than carbon dioxide.

  7. A one trillion tonne iceberg has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. The calving occurred sometime between Monday 10th July and Wednesday 12th July 2017, when a 5,800 square km section of Larsen C finally broke away. The iceberg, which is likely to be named A68, weighs more than a trillion tonnes.

  8. After analyzing satellite and model data, NOAA’s experts say coral reefs around the world may finally catch a break from high ocean temperatures that have lingered for an unprecedented three years, the longest period since the 1980s. “This global coral bleaching event has been the most widespread, longest and perhaps the most damaging on record,” said C. Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Coordinator.

  9. A new study by an international team of researchers has determined that the pace of sea level rise is accelerating. In fact, their report says the world’s oceans are rising three times faster now than they did during the 20th century. The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 22 May 2017.

  10. By the second half of this century, rising air temperatures above the Weddell Sea could set off a self-amplifying meltwater feedback cycle under the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, ultimately causing the second-largest ice shelf in the Antarctic to shrink dramatically. Climate researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), recently made this prediction in a new study, which can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of Climate, released today. In the study, the researchers use an ice-ocean model created in Bremerhaven to decode the oceanographic and physical processes that could lead to an irreversible inflow of warm water under the ice shelf - a development that has already been observed in the Amundsen Sea.

  11. A team of European and Latin American scientists around has discovered five previously not listed subspecies of the marine iguanas. The researchers now have revised the taxonomy of this emblematic species on the Galapagos and distinguished 11 distinct taxa of marine iguanas, classified as subspecies. The new taxonomy permits a better protection of the marine iguanas. The research results were recently published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society on 10 May 2017. Five of these subspecies are newly discovered and described in their study. The most remarkable of the newly discovered taxa is the cryptic and highly threatened subspecies found only in the northeast of the oldest island of the archipelago, San Cristóbal. For this outstanding population, the scientists have dubbed this subspecies “the Godzilla marine iguana”(Amblyrhynchus cristatus godzilla), in honor of the fictional saurian monster Godzilla, which was in turn originally inspired by marine iguanas. As a species, marine iguanas are threatened. Many island populations are endangered by predation of feral animals, marine pollution and encroachment of urban developments, such as the building of new hotel complexes at the shore of the island of San Cristóbal.

  12. Vladimir Lukhtanov, entomologist and evolutionary biologist at the Zoological Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, made a startling discovery: what people had thought was a population of a common species, turned out to be a whole new organism and, moreover -- one with an interesting evolutionary history. This new species is named Acentria's fritillary (Melitaea acentria) and was found flying right over the slopes of the popular Mount Hermon ski resort in northern Israel. It is described in the open access journal Comparative Cytogenetics. In 2012, Vladimir Lukhtanov, together with his students, initiated an exhaustive study of Israeli butterflies using an array of modern and traditional research techniques. In 2013, Asya Novikova (until 2012, a master's student at St. Petersburg University and, from 2013, a PhD student at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem) sampled a few fritillaries from Mt. Hermon. The Acentria's fritillary seems to be endemic in northern Israel and the neighbouring territories of Syria and Lebanon. This is the first new butterfly species discovered and described from the territory of Israel in 109 years.

  13. In 2015, 788 000 km2 of land area was protected in the European Union (EU) for the preservation of biodiversity, as proposed under the Habitats Directive. This represents almost a fifth (18%) of the EU total land area. Since 2010, the share of the protected areas has increased by 4 percentage points in the EU. In 2015, the protected land areas represented 20% or more of the total land area in twelve EU Member States, reaching over 35% in Slovenia (38%, or 8 000 km2) and Croatia (37%, or 21 000 km2). At the opposite end of the scale, the lowest shares were observed in Denmark (8% of protected areas, or 3 600 km2) and the United Kingdom (9%, or 21 000 km2).

  14. On 18 April 2017, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million (410.28 ppm). Carbon dioxide hasn’t reached that height in millions of years.

  15. Dr Norman Duke, leader of James Cook University’s Mangrove Research hub, headed an investigation into the massive mangrove dieback. The findings were published in the Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research on 14 March 2017. The scientists used aerial observations and satellite mapping data of the area dating back to 1972, combined with weather and climate records. Dr Duke said they found three factors came together to produce the unprecedented dieback of 7400 hectares of mangroves, which stretched for 1000 kilometres along the Gulf coast. “From 2011 the coastline had experienced below-average rainfalls, and the 2015/16 drought was particularly severe. Secondly the temperatures in the area were at record levels and thirdly some mangroves were left high and dry as the sea level dropped about 20cm during a particularly strong El Nino.”

  16. On March 7, 2017, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles), the lowest in the 38-year satellite record. This year’s maximum extent is 1.22 million square kilometers (471,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 97,000 square kilometers (37,000 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred on February 25, 2015. This year’s maximum is 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) below the 2016 maximum, which is now third lowest.

  17. Researchers at the San Diego Natural History Museum, along with experts from Mexico and Brazil, have described a new species of large cave-dwelling spider, the Sierra Cacachilas wandering spider (Califorctenus cacachilensis). Related to the notoriously venomous Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera), the Sierra Cacachilas wandering spider was first discovered on a collaborative research expedition in 2013 into a small mountain range outside of La Paz in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Four years later, after careful documentation and peer-review, the species and genus was deemed new to science and the discovery was published in Zootaxa on March 2, 2017.

  18. On 1 March 2017, the World Meteorological Organization announced new records for the highest temperatures recorded in the Antarctic Region as part of continuing efforts to expand a database of extreme weather and climate conditions throughout the world. The highest temperature for the “Antarctica Region” (defined by the WMO and United Nations as all land and ice south of 60°S) of 19.8 degrees Celsius was observed on 30 January 1982 at Signy Research Station, Borge Bay on Signy Island. The lowest temperature yet recorded by ground measurements for the Antarctic Region, and for the whole world, was −89.2°C at Vostok station on 21 July 1983.

  19. The Arctic has a serious litter problem: in just ten years, the concentration of marine litter at a deep-sea station in the Arctic Ocean has risen 20-fold. This was recently reported in a study by researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). Since 2002, AWI researchers have been documenting the amount of litter at two stations of the AWI’s “Hausgarten”, a deep-sea observatory network, which comprises 21 stations in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Svalbard. The results of the long-term study have been published in the scientific journal Deep-Sea Research I. The scientists observed the ocean floor at a depth of 2,500 metres using the OFOS (Ocean Floor Observation System), a towed camera system. Since the start of their measurements, they have spotted 89 pieces of litter in a total of 7,058 photographs. To enable comparison with other studies, the researchers have extrapolated the litter density to a larger area. The result: an average of 3,485 pieces of litter per square kilometre in the monitoring period (2002 to 2014). Among the litter they photographed, the researchers observed plastic and glass most frequently. As a rule, glass does not drift; it sinks straight down to the ocean floor. This indicates local sources and concurs with increasing ship traffic in the region due to the receding ice. Still, it is extremely difficult to draw any firm conclusions on the origin of the plastic litter, since it often covers a considerable distance before reaching the seafloor.

  20. On 8 February 2017, the Belize Fisheries Department announced the discovery of a new shark species in Belize. The new shark species has not been officially named as yet but it closely resembles the Bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo ) and was discovered in samples taken from a landing site in Belize through an ongoing shark data collection, monitoring and research program and collaboration between the Fisheries Department and Dr. Demian Chapman, a shark’s specialist of Florida International University (FIU).

  21. Researchers from the Ocean Acoustics Working Group at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) spent nearly three years recording the unique underwater soundscape of the Antarctic. Their findings were published on 11 January 2017, in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The authors of the study identified sounds produced by various species in the Southern Ocean, including leopard seals, Antarctic blue whales, fin whales and Antarctic minke whales, which blend into a set of background “choruses” that contribute to the ambient sound. The intensity of these contributions varied with time and location, yielding new insights into the animals’ behaviour and distribution. Further, the researchers gathered data on the animals’ annual cycle. In addition, the marine biologists and physicists were able to determine the extent to which sea ice influences the soundscape of the Southern Ocean. During the winter months, it covers the ocean like a muffling blanket. The acoustic recordings show that not only the extent of the sea ice is important, but also its concentration and thickness. The researchers used two recorders, which they moored at depths of 217 and 260 metres in the Atlantic part of the Southern Ocean from March 2008 to December 2010. Their work represents the first long-term study on underwater ambient sound conducted in the higher latitudes of the Southern Ocean.

  22. The average Arctic sea ice extent was 8.6 percent below the 1981-2010 average for January 2017, and the average Antarctic sea ice extent was 22.8 percent below the 1981-2010 average. For both regions this was the smallest January sea ice extent since the satellite record began in 1979. 

  23. Air temperatures sampled by at least five different buoys near the North Pole between 86 and 89 degrees north latitude reached from 0 to 1.2 degrees Celsius on 15 November 2016, according to the data from the International Arctic Buoy Programme.

  24. For each ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) that any person on our planet emits, 3 m² of Arctic summer sea ice disappear. This is the finding of a study that was published in the journal Science on 3 November 2016 by Dr. Dirk Notz, leader of Max Planck research group "Sea Ice in the Earth System" at the Max Planck Institute for Metorology (MPI-M) and by Prof. Julienne Stroeve from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, and the University College London, UK. These numbers allow one for the first time to grasp the individual contribution to global climate change. The study also explains why climate models usually simulate a lower sensitivity - and concludes that the 2 °C global warming target will not allow Arctic summer sea ice to survive.

  25. Unusually high air temperatures and a warm ocean have led to a record low Arctic sea ice extent for November, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). In the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctic sea ice extent also hit a record low for the month, caused by moderately warm temperatures and a rapid shift in circumpolar winds. Arctic sea ice extent averaged 9.08 million square kilometers for November 2016, 1.95 million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average for the month.

  26. The population of critically endangered Mekong River Dolphins (Irrawaddy Dolphins) in the Cheuteal trans-boundary pool between southern Laos and northern Cambodia has shrunk by 50 per cent this year alone and the population is functionally extinct in Laos, according to WWF. WWF survey teams from Laos and Cambodia conducted a dolphin abundance survey and confirmed the current number and breeding status of the dolphins in the transboundary pool. Down to just three individuals – from six just earlier this year – there is now little hope for a reversal of the situation, as the small population is no longer viable.

  27. Grauer's gorilla, which is confined to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is now Critically Endangered, according to a study published October 19, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Andrew Plumptre from Wildlife Conservation Society, USA, and colleagues. This is the first analysis of the Grauer's gorilla population since civil war broke out in the region in 1996. Before the war, the population was estimated at 16,900 individuals. The researchers now estimate that there are only 3,800 Grauer's gorillas left in the wild, a 77% decline in a single generation. While this species was previously classified as Endangered, the gorillas are now listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species based on this new population estimate. The researchers believe that Grauer's gorilla could be lost from many parts of its range within five years, and call for greater conservation efforts.

  28. The mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet is bigger than previously estimated. This is the result of a study by international scientists to be published in Science Advances. The work shows that up to now the so-called glacial isostatic adjustment, i.e., the uplift of the bedrock, was not correctly taken into account when measuring the glaciers’ mass balance with data from GRACE satellite observations. The new calculations by the team yield 272 Giga tons (Gt) of mass loss per year from 2004 to 2015 compared to previously calculated 253 Gt per year. The uplift of the bedrock is due to thinning of the Greenland Ice Sheet since the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 years before present. The scientists measured this upward movement with a new GPS network that has its sensors placed directly on the bedrock surrounding the ice sheet. They showed that the uplift rate is bigger than previously estimated and modelled. The results also point to a much greater ice loss since the Last Glacial Maximum. Current estimates put the sea level rise when spread over the whole global ocean due to the reduction of the size of the Greenland Ice Sheet at 3.2 meters over the last 20,000 years. The new study, however, gives a value of 4.6 meters since that time.

  29. Tropical coral reefs lose up to two thirds of their zooplankton through ocean acidification. This is the conclusion reached by a German-Australian research team that examined two reefs with so-called carbon dioxide seeps off the coast of Papua New Guinea. At these locations volcanic carbon dioxide escapes from the seabed, lowering the water's acidity to a level, which scientists predict for the future of the oceans. The researchers believe that the decline in zooplankton is due to the loss of suitable hiding places. It results from the changes in the coral reef community due to increasing acidification. Instead of densely branched branching corals, robust mounding species of hard coral grow, offering the zooplankton little shelter. In a study published on 19 September 2016 at the online portal of the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers report that the impact on the food web of the coral reefs is far-reaching, since these micro-organisms are an important food source for fish and coral.

  30. In September 2016, the Arctic sea ice extent has shrunk to 4.1 million square kilometres - the second lowest in the history of satellite measurements. It is exceeded only by the all-time record low of 3.4 million sq km in 2012. The Northeast and Northwest Passages have been ice-free again since the end of August 2016. For the past few weeks, Yachts and a cruise ship have been using the southern route of the Northwest Passage.

  31. Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. The researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with “wilderness” being defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990s. This comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km2 (around 20 percent of the world’s land area) now remains as wilderness, with the majority being located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and the Australian continent. However, comparisons between the two maps show that an estimated 3.3 million km2 (almost 10 percent) of wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. Those losses have occurred primarily in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and Africa, which has experienced a 14 percent loss.

  32. Endangered humpback whales in nine of 14 newly identified distinct population segments have recovered enough that they don’t warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries said on 6 September 2016. International conservation efforts to protect and conserve whales over the past 40 years proved successful for most populations. Four of the distinct population segments are still protected as endangered, and one is now listed as threatened.

  33. More than 300 million people in Asia, Africa and Latin America are at risk of life-threatening diseases like cholera and typhoid due to the increasing pollution of water in rivers and lakes, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said. Between 1990 and 2010, pollution caused by viruses, bacteria and other micro-organisms, and long-lasting toxic pollutants like fertilizer or petrol, increased in more than half of rivers across the three continents, while salinity levels rose in nearly a third, UNEP said in a report on 30 August 2016.

  34. On 8 August 2016, humanity used up nature’s budget for the year 2016, according to data from Global Footprint Network, an international research organization that is changing how the world manages its natural resources and responds to climate change. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.

  35. The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for August 2016 was the highest for August in the 137-year period of record, marking the 16th consecutive month of record warmth for the globe. The August 2016 temperature departure of 0.92°C above the 20th century average of 15.6°C (60.1°F) surpassed the previous record set in 2015 by 0.05°C. Fourteen of the 15 highest monthly land and ocean temperature departures in the record have occurred since February 2015, with January 2007 among the 15 highest monthly temperature departures.

  36. Mitrabah, Kuwait, set a new highest temperature record for the Eastern hemisphere and Asia, with a reported temperature of 54.0°C (129.2°F) on 21 July 2016.

  37. Sixty percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local activities; 50% of all fish stock in large marine ecosystems (LMEs) are overexploited; 64 of the world’s 66 LMEs have experienced ocean warming in the last decades, according to new alarming figures from global assessments on the state of the world’s high seas and large marine ecosystems presented by Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO on 14 July 2016.

  38. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has estimated the degree of self- sufficiency in fish consumption achieved by the EU as a whole and for each of its EU27 member states; self-sufficiency is defined as the capacity of EU member states to meet demand for fish from their own waters. For the EU as a whole, fish dependence day is 13 July 2016, indicating that almost one-half of fish consumed in the EU is sourced from non-EU waters.

  39. On 11 July 2016 Norman Duke, spokesman for the Australian Mangrove and Saltmarsh Network, said an ‘unprecedented’ event has now been confirmed to have occurred, with surveys showing thousands of hectares of mangroves on the Gulf of Carpentaria suffering a severe dieback. Dr Duke of James Cook University said scientists first heard anecdotal evidence about the scale of the dieback in early 2016, and this has now been confirmed by aerial and satellite surveys. Dr Duke said around 7000 hectares of mangroves, or more than nine percent of the mangroves in the area stretching 700km west from Normanton, have been affected. He said it is the first recorded instance of its kind attributed to drying conditions and high temperatures and is likely associated with global climate change. He said current evidence favours the proposal that the mangrove dieback is most likely caused by the extended dry season rather than high temperatures alone.