Best of our wild blogs: 26 Sep 17



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SCDF, NEA investigating 'strong burning smell' in many parts of Singapore

Jalelah Abu Baker Channel NewsAsia 25 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE: Residents in many parts of Singapore - from the north-eastern areas to the west - have complained of a strong burning smell that started on Monday afternoon (Sep 25), prompting an investigation by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and National Environment Agency (NEA).

As of 11pm, there is still no word on the source of the smell but the SCDF said in a tweet that no toxic industrial chemicals were detected in the air.

"SCDF (is) monitoring (the) situation closely," it tweeted. "There's been no confirmed incident," it said in an earlier Facebook post.

NEA said that air quality levels "were found to be well within safety limits" in the Sengkang and Punggol areas despite the strong smell.

Convergence of winds over the northern half of Singapore might have led to the "accumulation of smells" there, it said.

"Winds are expected to turn to blow from the south or south-east later tonight, which will help to disperse any smells in the area," NEA said, adding that it will continue to monitor the situation.

Residents in Sengkang, Hougang and Buangkok were among the first to report a strong smell from as early as 4.30pm, before similar complaints came in from people living in Bishan and Ang Mo Kio. They described it as a foul smell, "chemical-like" and choking. Some also reported hazy conditions in the area.

This later appeared to spread to areas in the west, including Holland and Commonwealth.

When Channel NewsAsia arrived at Commonwealth MRT station at about 9pm, the burning smell in the air was strong. Some residents said they could not breathe normally.

Ms Alicia Zee, 44, who was returning to her home in Commonwealth, said she noticed the smell at about 7pm while she was at Holland Village.

"People were talking about it. It's making it quite hard to breathe," she said.

Another resident thought that it was the haze, but according to the NEA website, air quality was normal as at 9pm.

Sengkang resident Muhammad Zulkefly, 29, said the smell in his area started around 5pm. "It smelt like petroleum, and that was disturbing. I had trouble breathing," he said.

Another resident in Sengkang West, Ms Linda Lian, said it smelled like "burnt rubber or some unknown chemical".

In Hougang, Facebook user Maria Sariff said the smell was "very strong" and was "like plastic burning".

"So there's this terrible smell in Buangkok area ... Fernvale also. Looks hazy and smells like oil or something, not the usual haze smell," Ms Angela Marie Oehlers told Channel NewsAsia.

In the evening, residents in Serangoon and Ang Mo Kio started complaining of a strong smell as well.

A resident in Serangoon who only wanted to be identified as Mrs Ho said: "We were having dinner when the smell came very quickly at about 7.40pm. It was very strong. We had to close all the windows immediately." She added that the smell was gone by about 8.20pm.

Ang Mo Kio resident Ms Chan Yoke Yee said she noticed the smell at about 7pm as she was coming out from the MRT station.

"It's giving me a headache," she told Channel NewsAsia. Like residents in Serangoon, she said that the smell was almost gone by about 8.20pm.

Residents in the west started noticing the smell later in the evening. Ms Michelle Tng Ying, who lives in the Holland area, said she noticed a strange smell at about 8pm.

"I thought it was something burning in my own house as I had my oven turned on, but then when I stepped onto the balcony, the smell got stronger - smelt like really strong paint," the 29-year-old said.


Caught a whiff of a 'gas-like' odour? Don't worry, say SCDF and NEA
Today Online 25 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE — The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) has assured citizens that there has been no presence of "Toxic Industrial Chemicals in the air" in the North-Eastern part of Singapore, following calls about the smell of gas or burning material there.

Complaints about the odour appeared on the online forums such as Reddit and Hardware Zone at about 5pm. Many netizens said that the smell appeared to be largely confined to the North-Eastern parts of Singapore in areas like Sengkang, Hougang, Buangkok and Ang Mo Kio.

SCDF said it has deployed its "resources to investigate" and found nothing amiss, and is closely monitoring the situation together with the National Environment Agency (NEA).

"Our monitoring teams have not detected the presence of Toxic Industrial Chemicals in the air," the SCDF said in a Facebook post at around 10pm.

In a seperate Facebook post at about 10.35pm, the NEA said it deployed its officers to the reported areas to investigate. Air quality levels during the period were found to be well within safety limits.

"Since about 3pm today, winds were light and there was some convergence of winds over the northern half of Singapore, which might have led to an accumulation of smells in the northern area of Singapore," the NEA wrote in its post.

"Winds are expected to turn to blow from the south or southeast later tonight, which will help to disperse any smells in the area. NEA will continue to closely monitor the situation."

Similar complaints have surfaced in the past.

In 2013, there were complaints of a "foul odour" in Punggol and Sengkang. An NEA spokesman then said that the smell could have possibly "emanated from palm oil industries".

NEA however ruled out industries near Punggol as the cause of the smell, after inspections of their equipment, processes, operations and records "did not reveal any abnormalities or issues in their operations" that could be behind the "chemical smell as mentioned in the feedback".


Smoky 'chemical' smell detected in various parts of Singapore
Lydia Lam and Tan Tam Mei Straits Times 25 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE - Some Sengkang residents have complained of a strong acrid smell and smoke that permeated several areas in Singapore on Monday (Sept 25).

Several readers wrote in to The Straits Times from as early as 4pm on Monday afternoon to say they smelled a "burning", "chemical", or "petrol" smell.

Readers from various areas including Sengkang, Seletar, Yishun, and in other areas like Ang Mo Kio and Bishan, also wrote in to ask about the smell, which one described as "choking".

The National Environment Agency said in a statement on its Facebook page at 10.34pm that they received feedback from the public about a gas smell in Sengkang and Punggol around 5pm.

"NEA officers were deployed to those areas immediately to investigate the smell feedback," it said. "Air quality levels during the period were found to be well within safety limits."

NEA added that winds converged over the northern half of Singapore from about 3pm, which may have led to smells accumulating in the northern area of Singapore.

"Winds are expected to turn to blow from the south or southeast later tonight, which will help to disperse any smells in the area," said NEA.

It added that it will continue to monitor the situation closely.

The Straits Times understands that the fumes are believed to be from Johor.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force said in a Facebook post at 7.42pm that it has been receiving calls on the smell of gas or burning in the north-eastern part of Singapore.

"SCDF deployed its resources to investigate. There has been no confirmed incident," it said, adding that it was closely monitoring the situation along with NEA.

It added at 9.55pm that its monitoring teams have not detected the presence of toxic industrial chemicals in the air.

About 20 calls had been made to the Singapore Civil Defence Force since late afternoon, ST understands.

Ms Tina Lim, 49, who works in a bank, said there was a "very strong burnt smell" in the air when she reached her home in Sengkang at about 5.30pm. "It didn't smell like haze. It's like something is burning."

The smell could be detected even in Ang Mo Kio. Ms Vivian Tan, a 35-year-old administration executive, told ST that she smelled a "weird smell" like diesel at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 since 6.40pm.

Ms Lelavathi Annamali, who lives in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8, told ST that she started smelling "a very strong kerosene smell" around 6pm.

She went out and returned home at about 7.10pm and the inside of her home was very smoky, she said.

The smoke stung her eyes and affected her throat.

"The smell is very bad inside the house and is affecting the clothes too," said the 68-year-old retiree.

Bishan resident Jacky Kung told ST that he started smelling a petrol-like smell around 4pm.

"The smell was like petrol-like, quite pungent. I could feel my throat drying out and it felt a bit uncomfortable and choking," he said.

He went outside to see what had happened when the smell got stronger, and it seemed "a bit hazy", he said.

"I was wondering if it's a local thing that affected only my neighbourhood, but I went up to the highest floor of my block and it looked like it expanded across the horizon," he said.

The 18-year-old student said the smell had died down somewhat at about 8pm and was most intense between 4pm and 5pm.

He closed all the windows and that helped, he said.

Mr Osman Ahmad, a 59-year-old security guard at Seletar Country Club, told ST he noticed the smell of burning chemicals when he left his home at Pasir Panjang around 2pm.

When he stopped to transfer buses at Seletar he noticed the stench was even stronger and that people at the bus stop were covering their mouths and noses with tissue and handkerchiefs.

"You could see a layer of smoke on the highway. It looked like a morning fog, which was beautiful but very smelly," he said.

He added that the smoke disappeared around 7.30pm and it was the first time in his three years at the job that the smell had been so bad.

"Usually it smells like the normal haze, but today you could tell that it was a chemical smell."

Others likened the smell to burning plastic bags.

The smell appeared to have spread to other parts of Singapore later on Monday night, with readers saying they picked it up in Toa Payoh and even Clementi.

NEA posted an update on the haze situation on its Facebook page at 6.38pm.

It said that the 1-hr PM2.5 concentration readings are expected to stay in Band I (Normal) for the next 24 hours, and the 24-hour PSI is forecast to be in the moderate range.

Several people left comments on the post asking about the burning smell, with some asking if it is toxic.

NEA later shared SCDF's post about monitoring the situation.


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Plastic bags: To pay or not to pay, Singapore can follow the example of these countries

CHEN JINGWEN AsiaOne 25 Sep 17;

W.T.M. Why This Matters
Plastics are now one of the most common and persistent pollutants in our oceans today. From plastic bags to micro plastics, plastic pollution in our oceans continues to worsen each year. Although the plastics industry seeks to minimise the dangers of these pollutants, studies show that they are a major cause of harm to marine animals and sea birds.

Plastic bags have been a bane for many an environmentalist, and there's no denying the issues we face with them floating around. But there's also no denying their usefulness in many industries.

Over the years, many countries have been trying to reduce the need for plastics especially in supermarket usage, and Singapore is no exception.

Just this weekend, it was reported that four main supermarket chains - FairPrice, Dairy Farm Group (whose supermarkets include Cold Storage and Giant), Prime Supermarket and Sheng Siong - are in talks to roll out an industry-wide surcharge on plastic bags.

In June last year, environmental group Zero Waste Singapore proposed that the Government and local businesses introduce a levy as a disincentive to shoppers to use them.

Singapore reportedly used 2.5 billion bags each year, which generated 824,600 tonnes of plastic waste in 2015. But only 7 per cent of it was recycled.

If a possible charge of 10 or 20 cents for a plastic bag sits uncomfortable with some of us, perhaps we should look at what other countries have done to phase plastic bags out or reduce its usage dramatically.

1. BANGLADESH

It became the first country in the world to ban the thinner plastic bag in 2002.

Severe flooding from 1988 to 1998 that submerged two-thirds of the country was traced to littered plastic bags clogging drains.

2. INDIA

The country banned the production of the thin plastic bags in 2002 to prevent plastic bags from clogging drainage systems and prevent cows from ingesting the bags, confusing it for food. However, enforcement remains an issue.

The government banned all polythene bags of less than 50 microns in March 2016. But poor implementation has pushed the buck to regional authorities to enforce the ban.

2. CHINA

The country imposed a total ban in June 2008, prohibiting shops, supermarkets, and other sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimeters thick.

The authorities have had enough of rampant littering of plastic bags which were also commonly found in waterways and on beaches, and dumped illegally all over China.

Consumers, especially those in cities, are now used to bringing along their own shopping bags and reusing plastic bags. And there has been no negative impact on the sales at supermarkets.

3. HONG KONG

The Special Administrative Region of China forbids retailers from giving plastic bags under a certain thickness and for free.

After a HK50 cents (S$0.10) plastic bag levy was implemented in April 2015, its use reportedly plunged 90 per cent. There are signs showing Hong Kong is phasing out the use of plastic bags at a dramatic rate.

4. TAIWAN

In 2002, Taiwan (above) started restricting their distribution in private schools, government organisations, department stores, retail stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, and fastfood restaurants. This helped them cut back on 20 million bags each year.

And from Jan 1, 2018, beverage shops, bookstores, pharmacies, and other types of business will no longer hand out plastic bags with every purchase. Yes, no more plastic bag for your cup of bubble tea when in Taiwan.

5. IRELAND

Ireland introduced a €0.15 (S$0.25) tax in 2002. Levied on consumers at the point of sale, this led to 90 per cent of consumers using long-life bags within a year. The tax was increased to €0.22 in 2007.

The revenue goes to a government-managed environment fund.

6. ENGLAND

England was the last region in the United Kingdom to start charging 5 pence (S$0.10) for every plastic bag given out at supermarkets and large stores from October 2015.

The move is expected to save 7.6 billion bags given to shoppers at major supermarkets every year. Retailers are expected to use the money raised from the charge on meaningful causes. Activists have called for the law to include all retailers and all types of bags.

7. AFRICA

This might come as a surprise to many. Widespread bans and plastic bag charges are imposed across Africa, where many of the countries are much poorer than Western and Asian countries.

South Africa, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda Botswana, Kenya and Ethiopia all have total bans in place.

8. UNITED STATES

As of July 2014, 20 states and 132 cities had either bans in place or pending. Which means some 20 million US citizens are now living in an area where plastic bags are banned.

The country alone uses 12 million barrels of oil every year to meet plastic bag demand. Every year, one hundred billion plastic bags are discarded in America.

Retired scientist Glory Jasper is glad that recycling seems to be an in-thing especially with the young in America even though supermarkets in New York and New Jersey are still giving out free plastic bags.

Recalling an embarrassing incident: "Many people brought their own bags with them. But one day, I forgot to bring my cloth bags when I went to shop at Adam Farms in Kingston, New York. So I said "plastic". The cashier who was a young man put all of my stuff into one bag and he was glaring at me all the time. So I think there's pressure from the younger set to conserve on plastic."


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Network of cycling paths in Tampines to be tripled by 2022

ALFRED CHUA Today Online 26 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE — Tampines, the first town in Singapore to have dedicated cycling paths back in 2010, will triple its network of cycling paths by 2022.

It could also see a bridge built across the Tampines Expressway for cyclists to get to Pasir Ris. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced details yesterday of plans, first announced in March, to transform Tampines into a Walking and Cycling Town — the second here after Ang Mo Kio.

The authority will be calling a tender for design consultancy, and will work closely with the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Tampines community to draw up plans, it said in a media statement.

By 2022, the existing 6.9km cycling path network will triple to about 21km, one kilometre more than the 20km in Ang Mo Kio. The network will connect the town’s three MRT stations — Tampines on the East-West line and Tampines East and Tampines West on the Downtown Line 3, which opens on Oct 21 — and other key amenities such as community and food centres, homes and schools.

Existing cycling paths will be widened and improved bicycle crossings will feature additional signs and markings.

The LTA will build trunk cycling routes between Tampines and the neighbouring towns of Simei and Pasir Ris, as well to Changi Business Park and the Singapore Expo Convention and Exhibition Centre.

This will support Tampines’ growth as a regional employment centre in the east.

It is studying the feasibility of building a cycling bridge over the Tampines Expressway to connect Tampines and Pasir Ris, as well as a cycling underpass to link Tampines to Simei.

For pedestrians, the LTA said existing footpaths will be widened and barrier-free ramps will be added. To help elderly pedestrians cross the road safely, the LTA will introduce two-stage crossings.

Plans of the enhancements were met with cheer from Tampines residents TODAY spoke to.

While cycling paths around the main thoroughfares of Tampines are wide enough, there is “very poor provision (for cyclists) within the smaller estates”, said Mr Eric Wong, 26, a resident of 17 years, who cycles from the Tampines MRT Station to his home.

Ms Jane Toh, 34, welcomed improvements to the pedestrian footpaths. “By expanding the cycling path network, it will take some pressure off the existing pavements that pedestrians share with cyclists,” the sales manager added.

Mr Travis Lim, a resident of Pasir Ris who works in Tampines North, said a link for cyclists between Pasir Ris with Tampines would provide an incentive to cycle to work, especially if it results in a faster commute.

The 26-year-old tried cycling once to work, instead of taking the bus, but said the current route “involves a few detours due to schools or the expressway”.

Yesterday’s statement comes after the LTA said in September last year that cyclists in Tampines, Pasir Ris, Yishun, Sembawang and Taman Jurong would enjoy better facilities such as ramps, racks and bicycle crossings at junctions.

It said almost 30 bicycle crossings in Tampines, mostly in school zones, would be marked to distinguish lanes for cyclists and pedestrians.

A new cycling path is also slated to be installed along Tampines Concourse and Tampines Central 7 — linking up the existing cycling path with places such as the MRT station, Tampines Regional Centre and Sun Plaza Park.

The Government has said it will construct cycling path networks in all 26 Housing and Development Board towns by 2030. In March this year, a spiral bridge across the Pan-Island Expressway was also mooted for cyclists as part of plans to rejuvenate spots along the Kallang River.


Cycling paths in Tampines to be tripled to 21km by 2022: LTA
Channel NewsAsia 25 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE: The cycling path network in Tampines will be tripled from 6.9km to about 21km, as part of plans to transform the estate into a walking and cycling town by 2022.

The cycling network will connect three MRT stations - Tampines, Tampines East and Tampines West – to homes, schools, food centres and other amenities, said the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in a news release on Monday (Sep 25).

It added that existing cycling paths will be widened, while additional signs and markings will be put up at bicycle crossings to improve safety. Existing infrastructure such as bus stops will also be redesigned, to better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians.

The plans are similar to what has been done for Ang Mo Kio, Singapore’s first walking and cycling town.

LTA is also looking into whether it is feasible to build a cycling bridge over the Tampines Expressway to connect Tampines and Pasir Ris towns, as well as a cycling underpass to link Tampines with Simei.

This is to "support Tampines's growth as the regional employment centre in the east," said LTA. Trunk cycling routes may also be built linking Tampines to Changi Business Park and Singapore EXPO Convention & Exhibition Centre.

LTA said it will be calling for a tender for the projects.
Source: CNA/gs


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Malaysia: Wild boar carcasses, tusks and meat of Bornean bearded pigs seized

Ahmad Fairuz Othman New Straits Times 25 Sep 17;

KOTA TINGGI: The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) seized several carcasses of wild boars, Bornean bearded pigs as well as its meat and tusks during a raid at a secluded place in the outskirts of the town here.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said that an eight-member team from Perhilitan raided the premises in Kota Tinggi about 4.30am yesterday.

The team seized two wild boar carcasses, three Bornean bearded pig carcasses, 248kg of suspected wild boar meat, 107 tusks of wild boars and 14 wire snares used for hunting wildlife.

Four Malaysian men were also detained during the raid.

"All the items were checked and seized for investigations. Four local men were detained but were later released on bail. The items are valued at about RM10,000," said Wan Junaidi in a statement issued in Kuala Lumpur today .

The case was being investigated under Section 60(1)(a) of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 for hunting and keeping protected wildlife without licence.

It was also being investigated under Section 68(1)(a) of the same act for keeping and hunting a totally protected wildlife species, the Bornean bearded pig; and Section 29 of the same act for possession of snares.

He said the ministry was issuing a stern warning against any person involved in illegal hunting of wildlife as it wanted to immediately stop such activities.

"Perhilitan regards such cases as something very serious as it strives to put a stop to the illegal activity and bring the perpetrators to justice," said Wan Junaidi.


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Indonesia: Water supply in Wonogiri cut off due to drought

Ganug Nugroho Adi The Jakarta Post 25 Sep 17;

The prolonged dry season has caused the Gajah Mungkur reservoir in Wonogiri, Central Java, to dry up, halting supply to local water company PDAM Giri Tirta Sari. As a result, the company cut off residents' water supply on Monday.

According to data supplied by state-owned water supplier Jasa Tirta I Bengawan Solo region, water levels at the reservoir have dropped by an average of 10 centimeters a day.

“We have no option other but to cut off the water supply to residents in some areas in Wonogiri city,” PDAM Giri Tirta Sari Wonogiri head Sumarjo said on Monday.

Read also: Drought hits farmers, food supply

Erwando Rahmadi, the water service and resources division head at Jasa Tirta I Bengawan Solo region, said the situation also affected operations at the Wonogiri hydropower plant (PLTA).

As a result, electricity to residents in Wonogiri has been partly supplied from Surakarta.

Jasa Tirta sub-divison head Hendrawan Cahyo Nugroho said the remaining water at the reservoir could only be channeled to an irrigation facility to help provide water to agricultural areas in Sukoharjo, Klaten, Karanganyar, Sragen and Ngawi. (bbs)


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Indonesia: Two Rafflesia flowers bloom in Central Bengkulu

Antara 25 Sep 17;

Bengkulu (ANTARA News) - Two flowers of the protected rare Rafflesia Arnoldii species have bloomed at different locations of Central Bengkulus protected forest.

"One of them is already in bloom since four days, and the other has just reached its final form today," Ibnu Hajar of the rafflesia habitat management noted in Bengkulu on Monday.

The first flower has bloomed at a location that is 42 kilometers from Bengkulu City, some 50 meters from the road connecting Bengkulu and South Sumatra Province.

The other flower has blossomed at a location that is 47 kilometers from Bengkulu City, some 20 meters from the main road.

"We have already put up the sign on various banners informing people keen on witnessing the uniqueness of the floral species," he stated.

The Rafflesia flowers will be in full bloom for the next four days.

Hajar said the Rafflesia Arnoldii habitat around the Taba Penanjung forest can boost the local tourism.

Furthermore, the forest habitat at the side of the inter-province main road will make it easier for people to access the location.


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Indonesia: Meratus Mountains has smallest squirrel in the world

Antara 25 Sep 17;

Banjarmasin, S Kalimantan (ANTARA News) - The Meratus Mountains in South Kalimantan Province, which is a wet tropical forest, is home to one of the smallest squirrels in the world, a researcher from the Indonesian Biodiversity at Lambung Mangkurat University, Banjarmasin, Zainudin Basriansyah, said here on Monday.

He explained that the 2017 Barito River Expedition Team of the River Community (Melingai) and Rivers Center (BWS) II found one of the smallest squirrels in the world called Bornean pigmy squirrel or Exilisciurus exilis.

"This species is found throughout Kalimantan, especially in environments more than 1 thousand meters above sea level. Although the squirrel is widespread, ecologically this species remains a mystery to researchers," Zainudin stated.

According to him, there are six subspecies of small squirrels in Asia, of which three are found in Kalimantan. Of these three, two of them are endemic to Kalimantan. Thus, Kalimantan deserves to be the world's center of biological and ecological information of small squirrels.

"The biological and ecological data of the squirrel are still minimum," Zainudin noted.

He pointed out that the squirrel living in the lowland forest has a length of 73 mm and a weight of 17 grams. Although active during the day, this species is quite difficult to find in a disturbed habitat.

"This species can actually be tamed as they get closer to us," Zainudin remarked, adding that this squirrel feeds on moss crust and small insects.

Currently, 222 species of mammals are recorded to inhabit Kalimantan of which 44 species are endemic.(*)


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New model confirms endangered right whales are declining

PATRICK WHITTLE Associated Press Yahoo News 26 Sep 17;

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Researchers with the federal government and the New England Aquarium have developed a new model they said will provide better estimates about the North Atlantic right whale population, and the news isn't good.

The model could be critically important to efforts to save the endangered species, which is in the midst of a year of high mortality, said Peter Corkeron, who leads the large whale team for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

The agency said the analysis shows the probability the population has declined since 2010 is nearly 100 percent.

"One problem was, are they really going down or are we not seeing them?" Corkeron said. "They really have gone down, and that's the bottom line."

NOAA said in a statement about the new model that it's using a new statistical method to get a "clearer and timelier picture" that's less affected by changes in whale distribution, less reliant on frequency of whale sightings and better at accounting for animals that are still alive but are seen infrequently.

The agency said the number of whales declined from 482 in 2010 to 458 in 2015. That follows a period of slow recovery for the animals, which increased from about 270 in 1990, the agency said.

Right whales appear off the coasts of New England and Atlantic Canada every spring and summer to feed. They are also showing a worrisome, widening population gap between males and females, NOAA said. Females declined from an estimated 200 in 2010 to 186 in 2015, the agency said.

The new model is being unveiled during a disastrous year for the whales, which were hunted to the brink of extinction during the commercial whaling era. There were 14 known deaths of North Atlantic right whales so far in 2017, and reproduction has been poor, scientists say.


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David Attenborough on the scourge of the oceans: 'I remember being told plastic doesn't decay, it's wonderful'

His sequel to The Blue Planet will focus not only on the marvels of sea life but also the threats to it. The naturalist explains why plastic pollution, climate change and overpopulation are problems too urgent to be left to ecologists
Fiona Harvey The Guardian 25 Sep 17;

David Attenborough vividly remembers, nearly 80 years on, his first encounter with one of the worst scourges of the planet. He was a schoolboy. “I remember my headmaster, who was also my science master, saying: ‘Boys, we’ve entered a new era! We’ve entered, we’ll be proud to say, the plastic era. And what is so wonderful about this is we’ve used all our scientific ingenuity to make sure that it’s virtually indestructible. It doesn’t decay, you know, it’s wonderful.’”

Attenborough lets the last word hang in the air, eyebrows and hands raised. Then the hands fall. “Now we dump thousands of tonnes of it, every year, into the sea, and it has catastrophic effects.”

Pieces of plastic in the ocean will soon outnumber fish. They have, in the past few years, been recognised as one of the most pressing problems we face. Fish eat the plastic debris, mistaking it for food, and can choke or starve to death. The long-term effects are not yet understood, but we do know that plastic microparticles are now found in drinking water across the world, as well as throughout our oceans.

Plastics are the latest in a long line of concerns for the 91-year-old naturalist. They are a key theme of his latest work for television, the new series of The Blue Planet, which he will return to writing after our interview. Premiering at the BFI Imax in London this Wednesday – with Prince William as a special guest – the series will focus not only on the marvels of ocean life, but the threats to it, of which plastic is one of the worst. It will also deal with what people can do to help.

The arc by which plastics started off as a wonder of technology and ended up as a calamity is familiar to the veteran conservationist. It seems to be repeated endlessly: CFC aerosols and refrigerants destroying the ozone layer; pesticides killing wildlife; the fossil energies that fuelled a career based around television and exotic international travel resulting in climate change; the advances in medicine prolonging life and bringing good health, but giving us a population explosion that Attenborough fears will endanger further species, including our own.

For Attenborough, however, there must always be a message of optimism running above and beyond any warnings of doom. While he admits to sadness at the disappearances he has witnessed – “Overall, without any question, the world is not going to be as varied and as rich as it was a hundred years ago” – he insists on practical solutions. “It’s within our power, because most of the problems are created by us, and we can solve them or should be able to solve them,” he says, slapping his knee emphatically. “There are solutions, and there is cause for hope, and there’s cause for encouragement, and it isn’t all disasters.”

Take plastics. That problem could be solved “if we got together, within a decade, if not less”. It could be dealt with technically, through potential breakthroughs such as degradable plastic. “And disposing of it could be dealt with technically,” he adds. This could involve ways to collect and filter plastics from the sea, and to absorb or break down the plastics that are already there. And “stop putting plastic in the sea”.

A career spanning seven decades has earned him a loyal following of tens if not hundreds of millions of viewers, who are entranced by his delight in the beauties and savageries he witnesses. It has also given him a unique authority. When Attenborough speaks, viewers tend to trust him.

For years, he kept this trust to himself. He was associated with several conservation groups, from Flora and Fauna International to the Dragonfly Society, but did not use his public platform to make prescriptions for the planet’s future. For this, he was sometimes criticised by green activists, who wanted him to take a public lead on issues such as climate change.

It is evidently a criticism he feels a need to address, and, without prompting, he offers that in his earlier career he felt inhibited by his association with the BBC, where he was a channel controller as well as presenter, and the need to be strictly impartial. “I joined the BBC after [national service in] the navy, and there was a monopoly and it was like a civil service. So you had to be guarding against propaganda or guarding against grinding axes. And so the moment had to be judged as to when it was you suddenly started talking about conservation and when it was that you were behind the Greenpeaces of this world. They were the cutting edge and you, as a broadcaster, had to make sure that both sides of the argument were ventilated until such time as you, in your professional capacity, thought it was absolutely justified to say: ‘This is incontrovertible, this is what we’re doing to the natural world.’”

As he has felt more free to speak out, one of the more controversial areas Attenborough has addressed is population growth. Of all the world’s problems, this is the one he sees as central and most difficult to solve, although it is a tricky and unpopular cause to take up. Many high-profile environmentalists will privately agree that the rapid growth in the world’s population – now at more than 7 billion, a tripling since Attenborough was born – creates further problems, because feeding 9 billion by 2050 will be hard, and raising people out of poverty even harder, and it makes a real conundrum of giving people decent lives, opportunities and governance, while protecting dwindling natural resources and halting climate change. For a start, it sounds offensive, even patronising – particularly coming from anyone who lives a relatively privileged life in a developed country. For another, it crosses religious and other taboos. And – for many the clincher – it can look like blaming the more numerous poor of the developing world for problems emphatically not of their making.

Attenborough chooses his words slowly. “I sometimes question whether I should be more positive or more outgoing on the question. The trouble is that we don’t know the answer. What we all say is that if women are given political freedom and education and medical facilities and all the rest of it, the birth rate falls. That’s actually not the whole question. It’s more complicated than that. But it’s all I can say in response. One should be very cautious about imposing, from where I sit, regulations where other people have got the problems.”

But he will draw the links between population growth and ecological destruction. “The whole question of migration out of Africa across the Mediterranean has multiple causes and part of it is the political systems, but part of it is undoubtedly ecological systems and sociological problems. I mean the changing of the climate in Africa, the spread of the desert in Africa, the rise of political systems which oppress – all those things mount up. That’s why conservation is not any more just the affair of ecologists.”

Viewing conservation as part of the whole future of humanity, rather than a thing apart, is one of Attenborough’s great legacies. He is spearheading an effort at Cambridge University to bring all academic disciplines – “not just other botanists, not just ecologists, but law, international lawyers, psychologists, geographers, political scientists and so on” – to bear on the pressing problems of the planet. “Break down those walls and get people talking about it who wouldn’t otherwise meet,” he says.

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a collaboration among 10 institutions, housed in the new Sir David Attenborough building in Cambridge. Its future has just been assured by a $10m (£7.4m) endowment from Arcadia, the charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing, one of the heirs to the Tetra Pak fortune, and her husband, Peter Baldwin. It will work across all conservation and environmental issues, and its ethos mirrors Attenborough’s own polymathic approach: the idea is that people will congregate in the building, from all over the world as well as across disciplines, for the cross-fertilisation of knowledge.

Attenborough spent two years at Clare College, Cambridge, from 1945, taking a degree truncated by the war. “It was two years of unalloyed bliss,” he says. “It’s a sudden great opening of windows, if you’re a provincial grammar school boy like me. And you were with these people who had been fighter pilots and so on and you realised that the sun had come out over Europe and over you. You were just looking through intellectual windows and singing, yes, madrigals – never heard of madrigals before. Gosh, how marvellous.”

It was here, while ostensibly studying X-ray crystallography (“it was ghastly – I couldn’t understand a bar of it”) that he embarked on turning his interest in nature into the beginnings of a career. “A guest lecturer came in and talked for an hour about frogs. And all the extraordinary varieties, the beauties of frogs, how the frog’s life was dominated by how on earth they were going to rear their young, who needed water. Some did it by spinning foam and hanging it above a pond. Some by taking their eggs into their mouths. Some even did it by putting eggs in their stomachs – extraordinary. And so you sat there with your jaw slacking, just the amazement and splendours and wonders of the world.”

Keeping that sense of wonder will be what keeps us alive, he believes, if we do choose to save the planet. “If you want a comfortable life, what you do is you turn your mind, your face away from problems, of course.” He sees his responsibility as reminding people that they can and must turn towards the problems, and find solutions – in day-to-day life and in collective efforts. To do that, he believes, the most important thing is to remind people of what they have forgotten, and what is sometimes hard to remember – why we are in love with the world we live in.

“People say to me, ‘How did you first become interested in animals?’, and I look at them and I say: ‘Was there a time when you were not interested in animals?’ It’s the first sort of pleasure, delight and joy you get as a child. As a child grows, he becomes aware of all sorts of things, sex or computers and the internet and so on. But if he loses the first treasure, he’s lost something that will give him joy and delight for the rest of his life.”


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With Irma - and a power failure - Miami gets a taste of deadly heat

Adriana Brasileiro Reuters 26 Sep 17;

MIAMI, Sept 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Miami is a city that lives on air conditioning. When it fails, people can die.

After Hurricane Irma knocked down power lines and disconnected the cooling system at a nursing home north of Miami this month, 11 residents perished when temperatures inside soared.

Florida Governor Rick Scott blamed management at the facility for allowing patients to endure sweltering conditions as the heat index - a measure of combined heat and humidity - passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

But public outrage has also targeted the local utility company for not restoring electricity fast enough, and the city for not ordering and assisting with an evacuation.

In this often sweltering southern city, widespread use of air conditioning makes it easy to overlook the growing risks of extreme heat. But the risks are there - and they can be just one power failure away.

Around the world, a surge in extreme weather events, including storms, floods and droughts, has focused attention on the risks associated with global warming.

But one of the biggest threats - and a particularly serious one for already hot countries and cities - is worsening heatwaves, which remain an under-estimated risk, experts say.

In the United States, Florida is predicted to experience the greatest increase in the deadly combination of heat and humidity over the next decades.

The number of extreme heat days, when the heat index is above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 degrees Celsius), is expected to jump to 126 a year by 2030 and 151 by 2050 in Miami, according to a study by Climate Central, a U.S. non-profit science and media organisation.

In 2000, Miami saw just 24 such extreme heat days, the study noted.

Miami’s sweating residents - particularly those who spend a lot of time outside - say they’re noticing the difference already.

“I’ve been here all my life and working in construction, and I can tell you: it’s getting hotter every year,” said Rai Finalet, as he moved barriers along Little Havana’s Flagler Street, which is being repaved.

On a summer day in early September, there was not even a hint of fall in the air. Instead it was 93 degrees, with a heat index of 107 degrees.

Finalet’s long-sleeve shirt, which he needed to protect his skin from the scorching sun, had been soaked since he started his shift at 8 a.m., he said.

Taking frequent breaks and drinking “gallons” of water is his secret to surviving an outdoor job, even as most Miami residents try to avoid stepping out of air-conditioned spaces.

TOURISTS WILT

With only a thin canopy of trees and a location far from Miami’s breezy shores, densely populated Little Havana often registers the city’s hottest temperatures.

In the summer, which effectively lasts from April through October, the average temperature is often above 86 degrees and very few locals venture out on the streets around midday.

But Nolvia Hernandez, parasol in hand, had rushed out to pick up her son from school.

“I avoid going out during the hottest times of the day, and when I do, I take my umbrella,” she said. Asked why she was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, she said the air conditioning is kept very cold at her workplace.

Tourists regularly brave the heat to experience iconic Little Havana, where hundreds of thousands of Cuban immigrants settled over the decades, opening quaint cigar shops, lively restaurants and salsa clubs.

At the Ball and Chain, a traditional bar with a live salsa band playing most days and evenings, a powerful misting system along the facade offers visitors an inviting respite from the heat.

Next door, the Azucar ice cream shop, with its powerful air conditioning, is another spot where tourists can take a break from suffocating temperatures outside.

Veronica Agudo, Lucia Beth Marcoleta and Tatiana Harder walk in and breathe a big sigh of relief as the cold air sweeps over them. The friends from Chile sit on a bench and slouch against the wall, sweat trickling down their faces.

“This humidity is killing us,” said Marcoleta. “We want to walk around and see all the sights, but it’s just so hot.”

“It’s better to stay on Miami Beach, in the water, for our entire vacation,” Agudo joked.

One outdoors spot in the heart of Little Havana where temperatures are cooler is Maximo Gomez park, also known as Domino Park. It’s a small green oasis with lush trees where residents play dominoes and chess on tables under gazebos fitted with ceiling fans.

Leo Diaz, one of the players, lives in a building with a new central air system, but prefers to spend time outdoors. He worries about Miami’s future as climate change boosts temperatures.

“This city is building more, paving more areas, and we can all feel that the climate is changing. Soon we won’t even be able to stand being here. I hope I don’t see that in my lifetime,” said the former radio announcer who arrived in Miami from Cuba almost 30 years ago.

‘IMMUNE’ TO HEAT

Already heat is the top weather-related killer in the United States - but it is a silent one, with heat-linked illnesses often diagnosed as other disorders, said Laurence Kalkstein, a climatology professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

In places like Florida, there is low awareness of heat risks because people expect days to be hot, and the state is relatively well-equipped to deal with high temperatures, he said.

“Heat-related mortality isn’t very common here, so most people believe they are immune to it,” he noted. “But we have a growing vulnerable population - of aging people who don’t sweat as efficiently, and others like the homeless, obese people, or those on certain medications.”

In steamy Florida, high humidity makes it harder for sweat to evaporate, preventing the body from cooling off. That’s what can cause heat exhaustion and potentially deadly heat stroke - and what may have contributed to the deaths at the nursing home.

Climate change has already given Florida a lot to worry about, with many officials so far more focused on dealing with rising sea level and worsening flooding than heat threats.

But cities in Florida also have created “resilience” offices to try to adapt to and plan for coming changes, including worsening monster storms - and rising heat.

“Heat is an issue for low-income communities and more vulnerable individuals, (such as) the elderly population,” Jane Gilbert, the chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, said in an interview before Hurricane Irma.

“We want to understand better if there are places where people can’t afford to have air conditioning, and to have an efficient plan for the more vulnerable groups to evacuate to shelters in case of power outages,” she said.

Miami is also working to increase the number of trees in neighborhoods such as Little Havana, and to guarantee that key facilities, such as hospitals, gas stations and supermarkets, have alternative power sources when electricity fails, she said.

After Irma, more than 12 million people lost power. Many had already evacuated to other areas, fearing the aftermath of being stuck at home for days without air conditioning or working refrigerators.

AIR CONDITIONING BOOM

The invention of air conditioning has in many ways made modern Florida possible, fueling a population boom after World War Two, according to a history book by the University of South Florida.

The state’s famed tourism industry, its top revenue generator, for instance, only took off after most hotels invested hefty sums in efficient cooling systems by the 1960s.

Now nearly everyone relies on air conditioning - and plenty of it.

Silvana Giuffrida, an architect in Miami, has three units in her townhouse-style condo in the luxury Brickell neighborhood, one on each floor.

She keeps her home’s remote-controlled shades down as much as possible to reduce the heat that floods into her sun-bathed home facing spectacular Biscayne Bay.

“I try to keep the temperature around 78 degrees, which is also the best level for energy efficiency,” she said.

Drinking a lot of water, wearing light-colored clothes and avoiding going outside in peak temperature hours are also part of her routine to beat the heat, she said.

For the most vulnerable, however, state authorities have decided to step up protections after the nursing home tragedy exposed the dangers of extreme heat.

Governor Scott issued an emergency order requiring nursing homes to have generators that can keep air conditioners running for up to four days.

Kalkstein, of the University of Miami, said the deaths highlight the risk that heat poses for Miami - and for many more cities.

“What we all need to realize is that these excessive heat events will happen more and more often, all over the world, and we all need to be more aware of the potential health impacts,” he said.

Reporting by Adriana Brasileiro @AdriBras; editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate


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Best of our wild blogs: 25 Sep 17



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World Economic Forum – Young Scientists Science Communication Workshop
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