Feds give polar bears new shelter in Alaska

The Associated Press
November 24th, 2010

WASHINGTON– The Obama administration is setting aside 187,000 square miles of Alaska as a “critical habitat” for polar bears, an action that could add restrictions to future offshore drilling for oil and gas.

The total, which includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaska coast, is about 13,000 square miles, or 8.3 million acres, less than in a preliminary plan released last year.

Tom Strickland, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the designation would help polar bears stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change.

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” Strickland said. “We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”

Designation of critical habitat does not in itself block economic activity or other development, but requires federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect the polar bear’s habitat and interfere with its recovery.

Nearly 95 percent of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast. Polar bears spend most of their lives on frozen ocean and use it to hunt seals, breed and travel.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state’s oil and gas industry had complained that the preliminary plan released last year was too large and dramatically underestimated the potential economic impact. The designation could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity and tax revenue, they said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said reductions included in the final rule were mostly due to corrections that more accurately reflect the U.S. border in the Arctic Ocean. Five U.S. Air Force radar sites were exempted from the final rule, as were Native Alaskan communities in Barrow and Kaktovik, Alaska.

The Interior Department has declared polar bears “threatened,” or likely to become endangered, citing a dramatic loss of sea ice. Officials face a Dec. 23 deadline to explain why the bears were listed as threatened instead of the more protective “endangered.”

Global Warming could cool down temperatures in winter

11/16/2010 – The overall warming of the earth’s northern half could result in cold winters. The shrinking of sea-ice in the eastern Arctic causes some regional heating of the lower levels of air – which may lead to strong anomalies in atmospheric airstreams, triggering an overall cooling of the northern continents, a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows. “These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia,” says Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Recent severe winters like last year’s or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it.” 

Location of the Barents Sea. Source: Norman Einstein

The researchers base their assumptions on simulations with an elaborate computer model of general circulation, ECHAM5, focusing on the Barents-Kara Sea north of Norway and Russia where a drastic reduction of ice was observed in the cold European winter of 2005-06. Those surfaces of the sea lacking the ice cover lose a lot of warmth to the normally cold and windy arctic atmosphere. What the researchers did was to feed the computer with data, gradually reducing the sea ice cover in the eastern Arctic from 100 percent to 1 percent in order to analyse the relative sensitivity of wintertime atmospheric circulation.

“Our simulations reveal a rather pronounced nonlinear response of air temperatures and winds to the changes of sea-ice cover,” Petoukhov, a physicist, says. “It ranges from warming to cooling to warming again, as sea ice decreases.” An abrupt transition between different regimes of the atmospheric circulation in the sub-polar and polar regions may be very likely. Warming of the air over the Barents-Kara Sea seems to bring cold winter winds to Europe. “This is not what one would expect,” Petoukhov says. “Whoever thinks that the shrinking of some far away sea-ice won’t bother him could be wrong. There are complex teleconnections in the climate system, and in the Barents-Kara Sea we might have discovered a powerful feedback mechanism.”

Other approaches to the issue of cold winters and global warming referring to reduced sun activity or most recently the gulf stream “tend to exaggerate the effects,” Petoukhov says. The correlation between these phenomena and cold winters is relatively weak, compared to the new findings referring to the processes in the Barents-Kara Sea. Petoukhov also points out that during the cold winter of 2005-06 with temperatures of ten degrees below the normal level in Siberia, no anomalies in the north Atlantic oscillation have been observed. These are fluctuations in the difference of atmospheric pressure between the Icelandic low and the Azores high which are commonly associated with temperature anomalies over Europe. But temperatures in the eastern arctic were up to 14 degrees above normal level. However, distinct anomalies in the north Atlantic oscillation could interact with sea-ice decrease, the study concludes. One could amplify the other and more anomalies would be the result.

Petoukhov’s study is not about tomorrow’s weather forecast but about longtime probabilities of climate change. “I suppose nobody knows,” he says, “how harsh this year’s winter will be.”

Article: Petoukhov, V., and V. A. Semenov (2010), A link between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents, J. Geophys. Res., 115, D21111 [doi:10.1029/2009JD013568] Link: http://www.agu.org/journals/jd/jd1021/2009JD013568/

Is climate change to blame for bigger ocean waves?

Sailors and scientists are finding that waves, like this at Cape Disappointment in Washington state, are becoming bigger and stronger. | Brian Harrison/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT

WASHINGTON — It’s one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the world, where 1 million cubic feet of water a second collides with 20- or 30-foot ocean swells over a four-mile stretch of shifting sand.

A small band of pilots braves often-treacherous conditions to guide ships across the Columbia River Bar.

The pilots who work the “Graveyard of the Pacific” have a deep respect for the relentless forces they face daily as they ride out to tankers, bulk carriers, car carriers, and cargo and passenger ships standing offshore. They commute in 72-foot self-righting boats that can roll over 360 degrees as winter gales and sometimes hurricane-force storms blast out of the North Pacific.

The pilots also confirm what marine scientists have just started talking about: Ocean waves are becoming bigger and more powerful, and climate change could be the cause.

“We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now,” said Capt. Dan Jordan, who served in the merchant marine for 30 years before becoming a Columbia River Bar pilot. “Mother Nature has an easy way of telling us who is in charge.”

Using buoy data and models based on wind patterns, scientists say that the waves off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and along the Atlantic seaboard from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Cape Hatteras, N.C., are steadily increasing in size. And, at least in the Northwest, the larger waves are considered more of a threat to coastal communities and beaches than the rise in sea level accompanying global warming is.

Similar increases in wave height have been noticed in the North Atlantic off England.

Unclear is whether the number and height of “rogue” waves beyond the continental shelf have increased. The existence of such freak waves, which can reach 100 feet or more in height and can swamp a large ship in seconds, wasn’t proved until 2004, when European satellites equipped with radar detected 10 of them during a three-week period. According to some estimates, two merchant ships a month disappear without a trace, thought to be victims of rogue waves.

“Obviously, this is an issue we are interested in,” said Trevor Maynard of Lloyd’s of London’s emerging risk team, which tracks global climate-change developments. “We are seeing climate change fingerprints on a lot of events.”

Since the mid-1970s, buoy data shows the height of the biggest waves off the Northwest coast has increased an average of about four inches a year, or about 10 feet total, according to Peter Ruggiero, an assistant geosciences professor at Oregon State University and the lead author of a study published recently in the journal Coastal Engineering.

Ruggiero and his colleagues also estimated how high a 100-year wave might be. These would be the largest waves expected to come along every 100 years. The estimate has increased 40 percent since the 1970s, from 33 feet to 46 feet. Some calculations estimate a 100-year wave might be 55 feet high, taller than a five-story building.

“We are assuming the trends will increase in the future,” Ruggiero said.

The future already may be here, however.

Jordan, the Columbia River pilot, said a 44-foot wave was recorded off the river in October. In a major spring storm in 2007, a 54-foot wave was recorded.

“After that the buoy quit recording,” Jordan said.

On the East Coast, a yet-to-be-published study also has showed that average wave heights have been increasing, by a couple of centimeters or so a year.

“The averages aren’t very exciting,” said Peter Adams, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Geological Sciences who used wind data from the past 20 to 30 years to develop a wave height model. “Given that there are 3 million waves a year, one wave every 10 seconds, it’s not so alarming.”

Adams said he finds it startling that the height of the biggest waves has increased nearly a foot in 10 years.

“In a lifetime, that can be profound,” he said.

A scientific debate is raging over what’s causing the increase in wave size. Possible causes include changing storm tracks, higher winds and more intense winter storms — all signs of global climate change.

“While these increases are most likely due to Earth’s changing climate, uncertainty exists as to whether they are the product of human-induced greenhouse warming or represent variations related to natural multi-decadal climate cycles,” Ruggiero’s study said.

Among the weather phenomenon that could be affecting wave heights in the Pacific, Ruggiero said, are El Nino — warmer surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific — and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation — 20- to 30-year patterns of warmer or cooler surface temperatures in the Pacific.

“There is a lot of speculation, a lot of reading of tea leaves,” he said.

Others are skeptical about any link to climate change.

Richard Seymour, the head of the Ocean Engineering Research Group at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, said any connection between increased wave height and climate change is tenuous. In fact, Seymour said, there isn’t enough data on wave heights to provide the “statistical reliability” to predict any trends.

Seymour and others said too little is known about the oceans.

“It always struck me as odd we know more about the surface of Mars than the floor of the Pacific Ocean,” he said.



Researchers finding higher occurrences of beak deformities


Chickadee afflicted with Avian Keratin Disorder

Chickadee afflicted with Avian Keratin Disorder

This time of year is a critical one for birds in Alaska that stick around through the winter. They need to be able to get into tight spaces where they’ve stored food and to preen themselves so they can stay warm.

But there’s a problem and it’s getting in the way – their own beaks.

Researchers first noticed deformities more than a decade ago, and since then, it’s only gotten worse.

“It’s a signal that something is wrong at the ecosystem level,” Caroline Van Hemert, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Scientists call it Avian Keratin Disorder, when a bird’s beak won’t stop growing.

“You can see that the bone ends about where you would expect it to, but this is the keratin part of the beak which is made up of the same material as our finger nails or our hair, and that’s actually what we think is being affected and growing too rapidly,” Van Hemert explained.

The grotesque structure they’re left with is nearly useless.

Some of them have learned to turn their head and eat out of the side of their mouth, which takes significant time and effort. With scarce food, this winter could be their last.

USGS researchers first identified the disorder in Alaska’s chickadees in 1998 and documented an exponential increase in following years.

“In Alaska we have seen numbers level off, but they’re still an extremely high level, so it’s a level to be of concern,” said Colleen Handel, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS Alaska Science Center.

Handel’s latest findings show the deformities have spread throughout the Pacific Northwest and are now affecting multiple species like crows, woodpeckers and even pelicans.

“That’s one in six crows that you’re looking at. That’s huge when you look at chickadees, 6 1/2 or 7 percent, that’s 1 in 14 individuals,” she said.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating is that no one knows what’s causing Avian Keratin Disorder. Biologists have looked at almost everything: contaminants, climate change, infections and nutritional deficiencies.

In an effort to learn more, the USGS team is setting traps in places like Seward. Some of the birds will end up in a laboratory. Others are tagged so researchers can track beak changes.

“We will not give up until we figure out what’s causing these deformities and we’ll do whatever we need to get the funding and support that we need to do that,” Handel said.

She says any concentration of abnormalities in wildlife is reason for concern because it often signals greater changes in the environment.

The USGS researchers here in Alaska say they need help locating birds with deformed beaks.

If you happen to see one, snap a photo and you can share it with the USGS through their website.

Contact Ted Land at tland@ktuu.com



Canada’s biodiversity under attack, federal-provincial report finds

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News October 18, 2010

The most comprehensive report ever on the state of Canada’s biodiversity calls for action to ”maintain functioning ecosystems” from B.C.’s forests to the Prairies grasslands to the St. Lawrence River.

The report, Canadian biodiversity: ecosystem status and trends 2010, was quietly posted on the web Friday by the federal, provincial and territorial governments for the Tenth Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-10) which began Monday in Japan.

Environment Canada, which routinely issues media releases about Minister Jim Prentice’s activities and announcements, did not alert the public to the report, which has been years in the making and is the most detailed assessment ever on the status of Canada’s landscape, wildlife and wild places.

Environment Canada media officer Mark Johnson says posting such reports on the web “is a normal process, which demonstrates that the Government of Canada is committed to transparency and keeping the public informed on important work being done on conservation.”

“A public announcement to highlight the availability of the report is expected within the next few days,” Johnson said by email late Monday afternoon.

The 102-page report highlights the need for action to ”maintain functioning ecosystems” in old forests, lakes and rivers, and agricultural areas.

In also points to huge swaths of Canada where “natural processes are compromised or increased stresses are reaching critical thresholds.” This list includes fisheries, like the once plentiful Atlantic cod, “that have not recovered despite the removal of fishing pressure; declines in the area and condition of grasslands, where grassland bird populations are dropping sharply; and fragmented forests that place forest-dwelling caribou at risk.”

It points to the changes underway in the North, saying, “the dramatic loss of sea ice in the Arctic has many current ecosystem impacts and is expected to trigger declines in ice-associated species such as polar bears.”

Nutrient loading is another big concern, and is “on the rise in over 20 per cent of the water bodies sampled, including some of the Great Lakes where, 20 years ago, regulations successfully reduced nutrient inputs. This time, causes are more complex and solutions will likely be more difficult.”

It says lakes affected by acid rain have been slow to recover, even though acidifying air emissions have been reduced. And “invasive non-native species have reached critical levels in the Great Lakes and elsewhere.”

The report is billed as the first assessment of Canada’s biodiversity from an ecosystem perspective. It was prepared for the federal, provincial and territorial governments for the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity and is based on technical reports prepared by more than 500 experts across the country.

The news is not all bad. “Over half of Canada’s landscape remains intact and relatively free from human infrastructure,” says the executive summary.

“Although much is in the more remote North, this also includes large tracts of boreal forest and coastal temperate rainforest. Canada maintains commercial and recreational freshwater and marine fisheries of significant economic and cultural importance.”

It also notes that some marine mammal populations are recovering from past overharvesting and that contaminants, such as DDT and PCBs, are declining in wildlife.

But far more of the arrows in the report point to downward trends and ecosystems that are of “concern” or are “impaired.”

Among the 22 key findings of the biodiversity report:

– Human impact: Humans now dominate most ecosystems on Earth. In Canada, with more wilderness than most countries, this dominance is not always obvious — but even in remote areas, human influence is increasingly apparent.

– Invasive species: Non-native species are destroying valuable wetland and grassland habitat, invading marine intertidal areas, and dominate the Great Lakes. Economic and ecological losses caused have been estimated at $5.7 billion annually in the Great Lakes alone. Wildlife diseases caused by non-native pathogens, such as West Nile virus, have killed thousands of birds and potentially threaten many different wildlife species.

– Species at risk: Twenty per cent of frogs, toads and salamanders are considered at risk of extinction in Canada. Declines of several amphibian populations since the mid-1990s have been documented in the Great Lakes Basin and the St. Lawrence River corridor.

– In Canada 18 per cent of freshwater fish are listed as endangered or threatened. The number of endangered or threatened fish species has been increasing since the 1980s. The causes of declines vary across the country and include invasive non-native species; habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation; overharvesting; pollution; and climate change.

– Since the 1970s, birds of grassland and other open habitats lost over 40 per cent of their populations. Half of the 35 shorebird species assessed in 2000 showed decline. Trends for seabirds are mixed, but the number of populations in decline has increased since the 1980s. Waterfowl are generally healthy, although some species are in decline.

– Most northern caribou herds are declining, “some precipitously.” Causes are not well understood and might include natural population cycles, climate change, increased impacts from human activity, changes in predation, and over-harvesting. Forest-dwelling woodland caribou are considered threatened in the boreal forest, with many herds declining.

– Acid rain: Emissions linked with acid rain and snow have declined since 1980, but improvements in lake acidity have been slow to follow. Parts of the Boreal Shield have acid deposition levels beyond the ability of the ecosystem to cope. The Atlantic-Maritime region has some of the most acidic waters and heavily affected fish habitat in North America. Although acidification is often considered an eastern issue, it is an increasing concern in northwest Saskatchewan where many lakes downwind of oil and gas emissions are sensitive to acid deposition.

– Climate change: Canada’s climate has changed significantly since the 1950s. Temperatures have increased across the country, especially in winter and spring. Spring now arrives earlier, meaning snow melts earlier and growing seasons are longer. Precipitation has generally increased, especially in the North. The average annual temperature has increased by 1.4° C. Changes are likely to increase and become more widespread with continued warming. These include rising sea levels, higher sea water temperatures, and increases in wildfires.

– Contaminants: Levels of legacy contaminants — banned or restricted chemicals, such as PCBs — have declined but new threats such flame retardants (PBDEs) have emerged. PBDE levels have increased since the 1980s in fish, birds, whales and polar bears.

– Nutrient loading and algae: In recent years, algal blooms have been reported in lakes, reservoirs, ponds, rivers, swamps and estuaries across the southern half of the country. Although harmful marine algal blooms occur naturally, they appear to be increasing in the oceans off Canada’s coasts.

– Agricultural land less hospitable: The potential capacity of agricultural landscapes to support wildlife in Canada has declined over the past 20 years, largely due to the intensification of agriculture and the loss of natural and semi-natural land cover. Agricultural landscapes cover seven per cent of Canada’s land area and provide important habitat for over 550 species of terrestrial vertebrates, including about half of the species assessed as at risk nationally.

The full report is available at:




Like a broken record, global temperatures continue to go up By The Associated Press (CP) – 7 hours ago WASHINGTON — The government’s National Climate Data Center reported Monday that the January-September period is tied with 1998 for the warmest first nine months on record. The average temperature for the period was 1.17 degree Fahrenheit (0.65 Celsius) above normal for records going back 131 years, the agency said. For a full year the warmest on record was 2005. It has been the warmest January-September on record in the Northern Hemisphere and the second warmest in the Southern Hemisphere, the agency noted. Steadily rising temperatures in recent decades have spawned worries among environmentalists and atmospheric scientists that human-generated pollutants are contributing the a dangerous global warming. ___ Online: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov



Federal scientists watch closely as loss of sea ice forces walruses to shore
Published: Monday, September 20, 2010, 9:14 AM     Updated: Monday, September 20, 2010, 9:25 AM
Associated Press

Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON  — Tens of thousands of walruses have come ashore in northwest Alaska because the sea ice they normally rest on has melted.

Federal scientists say this massive move to shore by walruses is unusual in the United States. But it has happened at least twice before, in 2007 and 2009. In those years Arctic sea ice also was at or near record low levels.

The population of walruses stretches “for one mile or more. This is just packed shoulder-to-shoulder,” U.S. Geological Survey biologist Anthony Fischbach said in a telephone interview from Alaska. He estimated their number at tens of thousands.

Scientists with two federal agencies are most concerned about the one-ton female walruses stampeding and crushing each other and their smaller calves near Point Lay, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to change airplane flight patterns to avoid spooking the animals. Officials have also asked locals to be judicious about hunting, said agency spokesman Bruce Woods.

The federal government is in a yearlong process to determine if walruses should be put on the endangered species list.

Fischbach said scientists don’t know how long the walrus camp-out will last, but there should be enough food for all of them.

During normal summers, the males go off to play in the Bering Sea, while the females raise their young in the Chukchi. The females rest on sea ice and dive from it to the sea floor for clams and worms.

“When they no longer have a place to rest, they need to go some place and it’s a long commute,” Fischbach said. “This is directly related to the lack of sea ice.”

Loss of sea ice in the Chukchi this summer has surprised scientists because last winter lots of old established sea ice floated into the region, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. But that has disappeared.

Although last year was a slight improvement over previous years, Serreze says there’s been a long-term decline that he blames on global warming.

“We’ll likely see more summers like this,” he said. “There is no sign of Arctic recovery.”



Warming could turn Interior into prairie, UAF scientist says

CLIMATE CHANGE: Interior temperatures may rise 11 degrees.

The Associated Press

FAIRBANKS — The projected warming of the planet could give Fairbanks the same weather as midwest Canada, according to a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor.

Rich Boone, an ecosystem ecologist at the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, used the climate around Saskatoon, Canada, as an example of what might be in store for Alaska’s Interior, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Fairbanks faces a roughly 11-degree Fahrenheit temperature increase by 2100 if moderate climate-change models are used, Boone said during a talk Wednesday.

If that happens, the Interior no longer will be characterized by permafrost and boreal forests, he said.

“That’s very realistic,” Boone said. “We’d be in a zone that would potentially be prairie.”

Models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict worldwide temperatures will increase by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the next century. Arctic regions have been warming at roughly twice the rate of other parts of the globe, Boone said.

Based on indicators that include ice cores, tree rings and other data, Boone said the only other known period of such rapid change was the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.

Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable during the past 1,000 years, he said, allowing humans to develop reliable agriculture and the civilization that accompanies it.

Just after the ice age, “We were stone-age people, and there really wasn’t a lot to lose,” he said.

Boone said some climate change forecasts oversimplify the problem as a basic issue of growing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Methane, cloud cover and sunspots also appear to be contributing to warming or cooling, he said.

He believes the overall trend is toward a warming planet, and carbon dioxide appears to be the main culprit.

“The fact is, the stuff we’ve pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution is going to continue to have a warming effect for thousands of years,” Boone said.

Despite the change he anticipates, Boone remains optimistic about the future of the planet and humans. He believes technological advances eventually will ease the effects of climate change.

“We’re stupid, but when we have to, we solve problems,” he said.