February 24, 2008 Food shortages loom as wheat crop shrinks and prices rise Jonathan Leake
THE world is only ten weeks away from running out of wheat supplies after stocks fell to their lowest levels for 50 years.
The crisis has pushed prices to an all-time high and could lead to further hikes in the price of bread, beer, biscuits and other basic foods.
It could also exacerbate serious food shortages in developing countries especially in Africa.
The crisis comes after two successive years of disastrous wheat harvests, which saw production fall from 624m to 600m tonnes, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Experts blame climate change as heatwaves caused a slump in harvests last year in eastern Europe, Canada, Morocco and Australia, all big wheat producers.
Booming populations and a switch to a meat-rich diet in the developing world also mean that about 110m tons of the world’s annual wheat crop is being diverted to feed livestock.
Short term pressures have compounded the problem. Speculative buying by investors gambling on further price rises has further pushed up prices.
Though shortages are often blamed on the use of land for biofuel crops, the main biofuel cereal crop is maize, not wheat. Farmers have brought millions of acres of fallow land into production and the FAO predicts that the shortages could be eliminated within 12 months.
Feed the world? We are fighting a losing battle, UN admits
Huge budget deficit means millions more face starvation
* Julian Borger, diplomatic editor * The Guardian, * Tuesday February 26 2008
Ears of wheat growing in a field. Photograph: Steve Satushek/Getty images
The United Nations warned yesterday that it no longer has enough money to keep global malnutrition at bay this year in the face of a dramatic upward surge in world commodity prices, which have created a "new face of hunger".
"We will have a problem in coming months," said Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). "We will have a significant gap if commodity prices remain this high, and we will need an extra half billion dollars just to meet existing assessed needs."
With voluntary contributions from the world's wealthy nations, the WFP feeds 73 million people in 78 countries, less than a 10th of the total number of the world's undernourished. Its agreed budget for 2008 was $2.9bn (£1.5bn). But with annual food price increases around the world of up to 40% and dramatic hikes in fuel costs, that budget is no longer enough even to maintain current food deliveries.
The shortfall is all the more worrying as it comes at a time when populations, many in urban areas, who had thought themselves secure in their food supply are now unable to afford basic foodstuffs. Afghanistan has recently added an extra 2.5 million people to the number it says are at risk of malnutrition
"This is the new face of hunger," Sheeran said. "There is food on shelves but people are priced out of the market. There is vulnerability in urban areas we have not seen before. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before."
WFP officials say the extraordinary increases in the global price of basic foods were caused by a "perfect storm" of factors: a rise in demand for animal feed from increasingly prosperous populations in India and China, the use of more land and agricultural produce for biofuels, and climate change.
The impact has been felt around the world. Food riots have broken out in Morocco, Yemen, Mexico, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Uzbekistan. Pakistan has reintroduced rationing for the first time in two decades. Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil for six months. Thailand is also planning a freeze on food staples. After protests around Indonesia, Jakarta has increased public food subsidies. India has banned the export of rice except the high-quality basmati variety.
"For us, the main concern is for the poorest countries and the net food buyers," said Frederic Mousseau, a humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam. "For the poorest populations, 50%-80% of income goes on food purchases. We are concerned now about an immediate increase in malnutrition in these countries, and the landless, the farmworkers there, all those who are living on the edge."
Much of the blame has been put on the transfer of land and grains to the production of biofuel. But its impact has been outweighed by the sharp growth in demand from a new middle class in China and India for meat and other foods, which were previously viewed as luxuries.
"The fundamental cause is high income growth," said Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute. "I estimate this is half the story. The biofuels is another 30%. Then there are weather-induced erratic changes which caused irritation in world food markets. These things have eaten into world levels of grain storage.
"The lower the reserves, the more nervous the markets become, and the increased volatility is particularly detrimental to the poor who have small assets."
The impact of climate change will amplify that already dangerous volatility. Record flooding in west Africa, a prolonged drought in Australia and unusually severe snowstorms in China have all had an impact on food production.
"The climate change factor is so far small but it is bound to get bigger," Von Braun said. "That is the long-term worry and the markets are trying to internalise it."
The WFP is holding an emergency meeting in Rome on Friday, at which its senior managers will meet board members to brief them on the scale of the problem. There will then be a case-by-case assessment of the seriousness of the situation in the affected countries, before the WFP formally asks for an increased budget at its executive board meeting in June.
But the donor countries are also facing higher fuel and transport costs. For the biggest US food aid programme, non-food costs now account for 65% of total programme expenditure.
Global impact: Where inflation bites deepest
1 United States The last time America's grain silos were so empty was in the early seventies, when the Soviet Union bought much of the harvest. Washington is telling the World Food Programme it is facing a 40% increase in food commodity prices compared with last year, and higher fuel bills to transport it, so the US, the biggest single food aid contributor, will radically cut the amount it gives away.
2 Morocco 34 people jailed this month for taking part in riots over food prices.
3 Egypt The world's largest importer of wheat has been hard hit by the global price rises, and most of the increase will be absorbed in increased subsidies. The government has also had to relax the rules on who is eligible for food aid, adding an extra 10.5 million people.
4 Eritrea It could be one of the states hardest hit in Africa because of its reliance on imports. The price rises will hit urban populations not previously thought vulnerable to a lack of food.
5 Zimbabwe With annual inflation of 100,000% and unemployment at 80%, price increases on staples can only worsen the severe food shortages.
6 Yemen Prices of bread and other staples have nearly doubled in the past four months, sparking riots in which at least a dozen people were killed.
7 Russia The government struck a deal with producers last year to freeze the price of milk, eggs, vegetable oil, bread and kefir (a fermented milk drink). The freeze was due to last until the end of January but was extended for another three months. 8 Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has asked the WFP to feed an extra 2.5 million people, who are now in danger of malnutrition as a result of a harsh winter and the effect of high world prices in a country that is heavily dependent on imports.
9 Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf announced this month that Pakistan would be going back to ration cards for the first time since the 1980s, after the sharp increase in the price of staples. These will help the poor (nearly half the population) buy subsidised flour, wheat, sugar, pulses and cooking fat from state-owned outlets.
10 India The government will spend 250bn rupees on food security. India is the world's second biggest wheat producer but bought 5.5m tonnes in 2006, and 1.8m tonnes last year, driving up world prices. It has banned the export of all forms of rice other than luxury basmati.
11 China Unusually severe blizzards have dramatically cut agricultural production and sent prices for food staples soaring. The overall food inflation rate is 18.2%. The cost of pork has increased by more than half. The cost of food was rising fast even before the bad weather moved in, as an increasingly prosperous population began to demand as staples agricultural products previously seen as luxuries. The government has increased taxes and imposed quotas on food exports, while removing duties on food imports.
12 Thailand The government is planning to freeze prices of rice, cooking oil and noodles.
13 Malaysia and the Philippines Malaysia is planning strategic stockpiles of the country's staples. Meanwhile the Philippines has made an unusual plea to Vietnam to guarantee its rice supplies. Imports were previously left to the global market.
14 Indonesia Food price rises have triggered protests and the government has had to increase its food subsidies by over a third to contain public anger.
FAQ: Food prices
Few winners and many losers
What is the problem?
In the three decades to 2005, world food prices fell by about three-quarters in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Economist food prices index. Since then they have risen by 75%, with much of that coming in the past year. Wheat prices have doubled, while maize, soya and oilseeds are at record highs.
Why are food prices rising?
The booming world economy has driven up prices for all commodities. Changes in diets have also played a big part. Meat consumption in many countries has soared, pushing up demand for the grain needed by cattle. Demand for biofuels has also risen strongly. This year, for example, one third of the US maize crop will go to make biofuels. Moreover, the gradual reform and liberalisation of agricultural subsidy programmes in the US and Europe have reduced the butter and grain mountains of yesteryear by eliminating overproduction.
Who are the winners and losers?
Farmers are the obvious winners, as are poor countries that rely extensively on food exports. But consumers are having to pay more, and the urban poor in many developing states will be hardest hit, as they often spend more than a third of their income on food. How long are prices likely to be high?
The US department for agriculture says the country's wheat stocks are at their lowest for 50 years and demand will continue to exceed supply this year. There is potential to bring more land into production in countries such as Ukraine, but that could take time. And as all foodstuffs have risen sharply in price there is little incentive for farmers to switch from one crop to another.
What about the EU's common agricultural policy?
High food prices certainly remove the need to subsidise farmers and so there is a chance, say experts, that badly needed reductions in CAP subsidies, which cost European taxpayers dearly, could now be within reach. Are other commodity prices also rising?
Oil, metals and coal have seen their prices rise strongly as the global economy has expanded rapidly, driving up demand for almost everything, particularly from emerging economies such as China and India. Some economists think speculation may also play a part. Disappointed by the sub-prime collapse and falling property values in many countries, investors have piled money into commodities.
Industrious and affable, the humble bumblebee heralds the arrival of springtime and is a harbinger of long, hot summers. But they have been spotted earlier than ever before this year, prompting fears that climate change could be the last nail in the coffin for the endangered insect.
Intensive farming and habitat destruction have already caused populations to crash. Now experts fear that global warming could finish off the bumblebee.
Usually queens awake from hibernation in April, but an uncharacteristically mild February has encouraged them to emerge and start trying to build new colonies.
Without food, and facing the prospect of harsh frosts and bitter cold, many of them will not survive.
Dave Goulson, director of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, based at Stirling University, warned that the changing weather could be the "final straw" for endangered bees and predicted disastrous consequences for rural ecosystems and economies, as bees play a crucial role in pollinating flowers, crops and fruit.
He said: "Climate change will hit the bumblebee hard, with potentially devastating consequences. You could paint quite a bleak picture if you wanted to. If we were to lose a proportion of our bumblebees, a lot of wild flowers would simply not set seed - which means they would then disappear - and then all the herbivores that feed upon those plants would disappear, and so on up the food chain."
Britain has 10% of the world's 250 species of bumblebee, a massive proportion. But three of these species have become extinct over the past century and a further seven are now on the endangered list, including the Great Yellow Bee, which can only be found in Scotland. It is so adapted to the cold, wet weather of Scotland that even a tiny fluctuation in temperature could be catastrophic.
Honey bees have also been decimated, by a mysterious disease called Colony Collapse Disorder, but this does not affect bumblebees. Modern farming methods, which have covered the countryside in pesticides and destroyed wild flower beds, are almost entirely to blame for their plight.
Hugh Raven, director of Soil Association Scotland, claimed organic farming methods could be their saviour. He said: "Industrial farming has had a catastrophic effect on bumblebee populations. If more agricultural land were farmed organically, this could help their recovery. English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have reported that there are more birds, butterflies, beetles, bats and wild flowers on organic farms than on conventional ones. On average wildlife is 50% more abundant, and there are 30% more species on organic farms compared to non-organic."
The Scottish Farmers' Union admitted mistakes had been made in the past, but insisted that farmers were now committed to conservation efforts.
Farmers can claim cash for areas left to nature under the Scottish Rural Development Fund (SRDF), but the National Trust fears it may not be enough.
A spokeswoman said: "It is important the fund gets up and running as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, delays have meant that some farmers have abandoned schemes that had been running in the countryside. The trust wonders whether there will be sufficient money available under the SRDF to encourage bumblebees and other wildlife."
She also urged all the 300,000 members of the Scottish National Trust to join in with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's efforts to save remaining species. The trust has set up the only bumblebee conservation area on Vale Farm, Kinross, and is calling upon the public to grow wild flowers, even in window boxes, and send pictures of the bees that are attracted to them so that they can attempt to map populations.
Allison Kane, a 55-year-old nurse from Ardgour, near Fort William, has joined the programme.
She said: "I love seeing bumblebees buzzing around the garden, and I was very sad when I heard that some of the prettiest species might become extinct. I already loved gardening, but now I plant a lot more bumblebee-friendly wild flowers."
* John Sterlicchi, US correspondent * guardian.co.uk, * Monday February 25 2008
Cinema goers watching Bee move are being signed up to save the bee
The collapse of US honeybee colonies this year is set to devastate America's multibillion dollar agriculture and food industries.
Last year about 750,000 of the 2.5m hives in the US were wiped out in mysterious circumstances, and already this year the American Beekeeping Federation says there is evidence from its members that losses will be even greater this year.
For the first time individual businesses have stepped forward to give money to try to speed up the process of finding out, first of all, what causes colony collapse disease (CCD) and then eradicating it.
Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream making subsidiary of General Mills, gave a total of $250,000 (£127,000) to two university research teams and Burt's Bees, the personal care products maker, made a undisclosed grant to create the Honeybee Health Improvement Project, a research task force.
Burt's Bees also launched a public service announcement to run in cinemas showing Bee Movie. In the announcement co-founder Burt Shavitz talked about the important role bees play in agriculture.
He then urged audiences to visit the company's website (www.burtsbees.com ) to sign up to receive a free packet of wildflower seeds to help create a bee-friendly environment.
Honeybees are said to be critical to the production of $15bn worth of crops in the US and Häagen-Dazs says around 25 of its 60 flavours depend on fruits and nuts pollinated by bees.
The ice cream maker is also aiming to raise consumer awareness about CCD by launching a new flavour this spring called Vanilla Honey Bee.
Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University College of Agricultural Sciences, which received $150,000 from Häagen-Dazs, believes researchers have identified a major cause of CCD.
Her team has recently given the mite-transmitted Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) to healthy bee colonies and has seen rapid die-off??. As it is winter those tests took place in greenhouses so the researchers are waiting for the weather to improve to verify the results with bees in their normal environments.
The mysterious and unique aspect of CCD is that the bees are not being found dead near their colonies. They are flying off; just abandoning their life's work, leaving behind the queen and a few younger bees.
Professor Cox-Foster believes that there are other factors together with IAPV are the cause of CCD, such as other viruses, the use of chemicals near colonies and whether the bees are receiving enough nutrition.
To beekeepers pesticides are definitely part of the problem, says Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation. "A lot of beekeepers blame neonicotinoid insecticides. These are safer for humans and other mammals but they affect the neurological systems of bees. They don't kill the bees outright but they cause to act in ways different to the norm."
The beekeepers believe these insecticides, which in fact have been partially banned in France, weaken the immune system of the bees thereby allowing viruses such as IAPV to strike.
Beekeepers that have their hives in the forest or grasslands and not near cultivated crops are doing well, so there is anecdotal evidence that the pesticides and insecticides are part of the problem, said Fore.
Australia on the attack
But not everyone agrees that IAPV is a cause of CCD. Australian government scientists miffed that the Penn State team suggested in a paper published in Science that IAPV arrived in the US in imports of live bees from Australia pointed out in a follow-up letter that there were several CCD colonies free of IAPV and the "shivering phenotype", and the death of bees close to the hive associated with IAPV in Israel.
The assertion that IAPV came from Australian bees was also refuted by the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, which said that IAPV was found in the country back in 2002, two years before the importation of Australian bees was instituted to replenish colonies.
The Australians, which see their $5m a year live bee exporting industry endangered by such allegations, have demanded that Penn State withdraw its conclusions. They also point out that neither CCD nor large-scale, unexplained mortality events have occurred in the Australian bee industry.
The first description of IAPV came from Israel in 2002 and since then there have been die-outs of bees across the globe, some definitely attributable to the virus.
British beekeepers too are worried that CCD may come to these shores and they have called on the government to back a five-year, £8m research programme designed to save the insect.
Back in America all eyes are nowadays on California's almond trees, which represent a $2.5bn industry. The pink and white blossoms have started to appear and the concern is whether there are the tens of thousands bees needed to pollinate the crop.
"The almonds are in bloom right now in California and we are hearing there are some significant die-offs. It's worrisome," said professor Cox-Foster.
Polluted Prey Causes Wild Birds To Change Their Tune
European starling feeding a fledgling. Researchers found that those birds exposed to environmentally-relevant levels of synthetic and natural estrogen mimics developed longer and more complex songs compared to males in a control group. (Credit: iStockphoto/Andrew Howe)
ScienceDaily (Feb. 28, 2008) — Considerable attention has been paid to the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals in aquatic environments, but rather less attention has been given to routes of contamination on land. A new study by researchers at Cardiff University, reveals that wild birds foraging on invertebrates contaminated with environmental pollutants, show marked changes in both brain and behaviour: male birds exposed to this pollution develop more complex songs, which are actually preferred by the females, even though these same males usually show reduced immune function compared to controls.
Katherine Buchanan and her colleagues studied male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) foraging at a sewage treatment works in the south-west UK and analysed the earthworms that constitute their prey. The researchers found that those birds exposed to environmentally-relevant levels of synthetic and natural estrogen mimics developed longer and more complex songs compared to males in a control group.
Specifically, birds dosed with the complete spectrum of endocrine disrupting chemicals found in the invertebrates spent longer singing, sang more often and produced more complex songs, a sexually selected trait important in attracting females for reproduction even though birds dosed at these ecologically relevant levels also showed reduced immune function.
The study also addresses the mechanism for this effect, as the researchers found that the high vocal centre (HVC), the area of the brain that controls male song complexity, is significantly enlarged in the contaminated birds. Estrogen causes masculinisation of the songbird brain and the HVC is enriched with estrogen receptors. Neural development is thus susceptible to exposure to chemicals which mimic estrogen, or to enhanced estrogen levels. The results also confirm the plasticity of the adult songbird brain.
Finally, the scientists found that female starlings prefer the song of males exposed to the mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals, suggesting the potential for population level effects on reproductive success.
"This is the first evidence that environmental pollutants not only affect, but paradoxically enhance a signal of male quality such as song," said Katherine Buchanan, the corresponding author of the paper. "These results may have consequences of population dynamics of an already declining species."
Citation: Markman S, Leitner S, Catchpole C, Barnsley S, Müller CT, et al (2008) Pollutants Increase Song Complexity and the Volume of the Brain Area HVC in a Songbird. PLoS One 3(2): e1674. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001674 www.plosone.org/doi/pone.0001674
SOUTH Korea has closed schools, and factories producing memory chips stepped up safeguards, as a choking pall of sand and toxic dust covers most of the country.
The annual "yellow dust" spring storms, which originate in China's Gobi Desert before enveloping the Korean peninsula and parts of Japan, are blamed for scores of deaths and billions of dollars in damage every year in South Korea.
South Korea issued a yellow dust warning at the weekend and today major schools districts in southeastern regions urged parents to keep kindergarten and elementary school children at home.
"We advised the closure because kindergarten, primary school students have weaker immune systems," said Min Eyu-gi, an education official in Busan.
An official with the Meteorological Administration said the first major storm of the season, which has also hit parts of Japan, was dissipating.
The sand storms have been growing in frequency and toxicity over the years because of China's rapid economic growth and has added to increased tensions with neighbours South Korea and Japan over recent years.
The dust picks up heavy metals and carcinogens such as dioxin as it passes over Chinese industrial regions, before hitting North and South Korea and Japan, meteorologists say.
Dry weather and seasonal winds in China hurl millions of tonnes of sand at the Korean peninsula and Japan from late February until April or May, turning the skies to a jaundiced hue.
The state-sponsored Korea Environment Institute said the dust killed up to 165 South Koreans a year, mostly the elderly or those with respiratory ailments, and made as many as 1.8 million ill.
Annual economic damage to South Korea from the storms is estimated at up to 5.5 trillion won ($6.25 billion), according to the institute.
South Korean retailers, however, have spotted an opportunity, offering special scarves, hats and other accessories for the yellow dust season.
Valentia orange tree damaged by frost. Global warming may result in increased plant frost damage. (Credit: iStockphoto/Loretta Hostettler)
ScienceDaily (Mar. 4, 2008) — Widespread damage to plants from a sudden freeze that occurred across the Eastern United States from 5 April to 9 April 2007 was made worse because it had been preceded by two weeks of unusual warmth, according to an analysis published in the March 2008 issue of BioScience. The authors of the report, Lianhong Gu and his colleagues at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and collaborators at NASA, the University of Missouri, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the freeze killed new leaves, shoots, flowers, and fruit of natural vegetation, caused crown dieback of trees, and led to severe damage to crops in an area encompassing Nebraska, Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas. Subsequent drought limited regrowth.
Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are believed to reduce the ability of some plants to withstand freezing, and the authors of the BioScience study suggest that global warming could lead to more freeze and thaw fluctuations in future winters. This pattern is potentially dangerous for plants because many species must acclimate to cold over a sustained period. Acclimation enables them to better withstand freezes, but unusual warmth early in the year prevents the process. A cold spring in 1996, in contrast to the 2007 event, caused little enduring damage because it was not preceded by unusual warmth.
The 2007 freeze is likely to have lasting effects on carbon balance in the region. Plants cannot resorb nutrients from dead tissue that would normally be remobilized within the plants during autumnal senescence, so many nutrients became less available for plants in 2008. Wildlife is expected to have suffered harm from lack of food, and changes to plant architecture could have long-term implications.
Gu and his colleagues propose that the 2007 spring freeze should not be viewed as an isolated event, but as a realistic climate-change scenario. Further study of its long-term consequences could help refine scenarios for ecosystem changes as carbon dioxide levels increase and the climate warms.
Reference: The 2007 Eastern US Spring Freeze: Increased Cold Damage in a Warming World. Lianhong Gu, Paul J. Hanson, W. Mac Post, Dale P. Kaiser, Bai Yang, Ramakrishna Nemani, Stephen G. Pallardy, and Tilden Meyers
Tiny Polyps Need Two Kinds Of Carbon To Survive Coral Bleaching
Coral polyps ready to feed. (Credit: Image courtesy of Ohio State University)
ScienceDaily (Mar. 4, 2008) — How well ocean reefs recover from the growing damage caused by warming sea temperatures depends both on how much the tiny coral polyps can eat, and how healthy they can keep the microscopic algae that live inside their bodies.
New research intended to dissect one of the planet’s most fertile and endangered ecosystems may change the way scientists look at this symbiotic partnership, shifting it from a case where the polyps function only as landlords to one where the tiny creatures actually nurture their algae.
Preliminary findings were presented March 4 in two papers at the 2008 Ocean Sciences meeting in Orlando. The research focuses on the key role that carbon plays on the recovery of damaged coral reefs.
Andrea Grottoli, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University, has spent the last 14 years studying two common forms of coral that populate the reefs near the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Two years ago, she reported that one of the corals she tested, Montipora capitata, or “rice” coral, was able to recover rapidly from bleaching because it increased its rate of feeding five-fold compared to how fast another form, Porites compressa, or “finger” coral, fed.
This strategy of gluttony enabled Montipora to survive the long-term damage that corals suffer when sea temperature climbs beyond the narrow 4 – 6 degree C range, where Porites might not.
What wasn’t clear from the earlier experiments was how the corals actually made use of carbon for their survival. “Corals get carbon in two ways,” she said, “either through photosynthesis by the algae kept inside their bodies, or by feeding on the zooplankton that comprise their diets.”
While corals can get all the carbon they need from the algae’s photosynthesis, “they still get some of what they need through normal feeding.”
But when seawater temperatures climb, the coral will either jettison the algae altogether, or the algal cells will lose the pigments essential for photosynthesis to deliver the needed carbon. Without the algae, corals appear white, which is often referred to as “bleached.” Prolonged bleaching can lead to the coral dying. Either case presents a serious threat to the tiny creatures.
Grottoli wanted to determine exactly how the coral obtained its carbon and, in turn, how it used the material to survive. She placed samples of both healthy and bleached corals of both types in tanks mimicking actual ocean conditions. In one set of experiments, she pumped in seawater containing higher-than-normal levels of a carbon isotope, C-13. In another, she fed the corals zooplankton that were also heavily laced with the carbon isotope.
“We could track the carbon and determine if it was coming from either the photosynthetic process or from the animals’ feeding,” she said, “and then see how it was ultimately used by the animals. We could tell whether the process differed if the corals were healthy or bleached, or one species or the other.”
The experiments readily showed, as expected, that healthy corals had much more of the seawater-labeled carbon than did bleached corals, she said.
“But we could also see that in the healthy coral, the carbon was transferred into the algae where it is used for photosynthesis, and ultimately ends up in the animals’ skeleton,” Grottoli said. “So the corals are using photosynthetic carbon for calcification and to meet their daily metabolic demands.”
The carbon consumed while feeding, however, isn’t ending up in the skeleton, she said. Instead, it’s ending up both in the tissue of the coral polyp or inside the algae. With bleached samples, the coral is apparently feeding carbon to the algae.
“That’s what our work suggests and this is new. We’ve known that nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are exchanged in this way but nobody ever knew that this was happening with carbon,” she said.
“This suggests that there is a great deal more coupling between the coral and the algae than we had thought. Once the coral gets the carbon from feeding into its system, it locks it in, using it for energy storage and tissue growth, and when bleached, to feed the algae.”
The bottom line, Grottoli says, is that the photosynthetic carbon is used for metabolic demands and calcification, while the carbon gained from feeding is used for tissue growth.
“Without both forms, the coral simply cannot fully recover,” she said.
“All corals need both photosynthesis and feeding for recovery and the rate of those two processes is the key to whether the coral can actually meet all its metabolic demands and ultimately recover.”
Grottoli’s work is supported in part by the National Science Foundation. Along with Grottoli, Adam Hughes, a postdoctoral fellow in her lab, and Tamara Pease, an assistant professor of marine science at the University of Texas at Austin, worked on the project.
Dissolved Organic Matter In Water Column May Influence Coral Health
Healthy corals naturally exude a surrounding mucous layer in which a complex population of bacteria exists. Recent studies have indicated that some coral diseases may be linked to community shifts in this bacterial population. (Credit: iStockphoto/Kristian Sekulic)
ScienceDaily (Mar. 4, 2008) — Bacterial communities endemic to healthy corals could change depending on the amount and type of natural and man-made dissolved organic matter in seawater, report researchers from The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.
Healthy corals naturally exude a surrounding mucous layer in which a complex population of bacteria exists. Recent studies have indicated that some coral diseases may be linked to community shifts in this bacterial population.
In experiments with a common reef building coral in the Florida Keys, Chris Shank of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and Kim Ritchie of Mote Marine Laboratory found an obvious shift in the composition of the coral bacterial community resulting from changes in the pool of surrounding dissolved organic matter.
Dissolved organic matter in the water column near Florida Keys coral reefs comes from a variety of natural sources, including coastal mangroves, seagrasses, and plankton, as well as man-made sources, including sewage effluent. The composition of dissolved organic matter surrounding Florida Keys coral reefs has likely changed in recent decades due to growing coastal populations.
"When coastal ecosystems are physically altered, the natural flow of dissolved organic material to nearby coral ecosystems is disrupted with potentially harmful consequences for the corals," said Shank, assistant professor of marine science.
Shank and Ritchie, manager of the Marine Microbiology Program at Mote, placed Montastraea faveolata coral fragments in aquaria filled with water collected from either Florida Bay or from an offshore bluewater site.
Dissolved organic matter concentrations are much greater in Florida Bay than in offshore waters and typically have different chemical characteristics. Water collected from these distinct locations used for the coral incubation experiments represented the variable nature of dissolved organic matter experienced by corals in the middle and lower Florida Keys.
They found that the microbial community of healthy corals shifts measurably when exposed to water from Florida Bay, suggesting the microbes that normally play a role in coral immunity may be out-competed by potentially problematic bacteria. In combination with increased water temperatures, this is an example of the type of compounded stressors known to cause health problems in corals, or "reef deterioration."
The scientists' research is part of their larger effort to investigate the link between alterations to the south Florida ecosystem and Florida Keys coral ecosystems. Coral reefs there, as with coral reefs around the world, are increasingly threatened by rising water temperatures, advancing ocean acidification and rapidly rising coastal populations.
Corals are especially susceptible to coastal alterations because they commonly exist in shallow waters at the interface of land and sea.
Shank and Ritchie are planning a series of experiments to more closely evaluate the chemical nature of the water column dissolved organic matter surrounding the corals in the Florida Keys and identify shifts in potentially harmful bacterial populations.
The scientists reported their results March 4 at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Orlando, Florida.
ScienceDaily (Mar. 4, 2008) — Rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels from burning fossil fuels have been linked to sea level changes, snowmelt, disease, heat stress, severe weather, and ocean acidification.
Yet because it does not affect respiration directly, CO2 is not considered a classic air pollutant. Noting that increasing levels of CO2 cause temperature and water vapor content to rise, Jacobson uses photochemistry to determine that these factors independently feed back to increase ground-level ozone concentrations.
This can harm lung function and irritate the respiratory system. Using a high-resolution model that correlates pollution levels to human health, the author finds that each one degree Celsius rise in temperature may increase U.S. annual air pollution deaths by about 1000.
About 40 percent of these deaths may result from elevated ground-level ozone concentrations. The rest are likely from particles, which would increase due to CO2-enhanced stability, humidity, and biogenic feedbacks.
The author notes that many of these deaths would occur in urban populations subject to smog, as are residents of some areas of California. Extrapolating U.S. deaths to global population yields about 22,000 excess deaths expected worldwide each year.
Journal reference: Mark Z. Jacobson (Stanford University). On the causal link between carbon dioxide and air pollution mortality. Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) paper doi. 10.1029/2007GL031101, 2008
One of Britain's rarest birds whose numbers climbed back from near extinction a decade ago faces a new threat from the sea.
Habitat creation helped the bittern grow from a low of 11 males in 1997 to at least 51 recorded by the RSPB and Natural England last year.
The bird, known for its booming call, is commonly found in the freshwater reed beds of Suffolk and Lancashire.
But the RSPB warned these coastal sites could be lost to rising sea levels.
Speaking at a conference at the Potteric Carr Nature Reserve in South Yorkshire, Dr Mark Avery, RSPB conservation director, said the Bittern population relied on breeding grounds such as the Minsmere Reserve along the Suffolk coast. Foghorn-like cry
"A substantial area of new reed bed will urgently need to be created away from the coast, and the threat of climate change-driven, sea level rise," Dr Avery said.
"We know it takes at least 10 years for a newly created reed bed to support nesting bitterns but don't know how long existing sites will be able to survive against the ravages of climate change."
A type of heron, the bittern is more often heard than seen with males emitting a foghorn-like cry which can be heard up to two miles away.
Natural England has also said alternative reed beds need to be created inland to support the bird, such as the Great Fen Project, which aims to restore 7,000 acres of fenland habitat in Cambridgeshire.
Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, said: "Natural England supports a more sustainable approach to managing the coastline, not only for bittern but also for the entire range of wildlife on the coast.
21 dead dolphins wash ashore Officials worried about a repeat of last year's large die-off in the Gulf
By HARVEY RICE
GALVESTON — An aircraft might be flying over the Gulf of Mexico as early as today in an effort to discover why 21 decaying dolphin carcasses were found over two days in Brazoria, Galveston and Jefferson counties, officials said Tuesday.
The effort comes after the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration failed to discover the cause of an unusually large dolphin die-off last year on the northern Gulf Coast.
The deaths of 76 bottlenose dolphins in March last year led NOAA to declare an "unusual mortality event."
Officials are not calling the dolphin deaths this year unusual yet, but there are similarities with the recent deaths and last year's, said Heidi Watts, operations coordinator for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Six dead dolphins were discovered on Galveston Island, one on Surfside Beach and 14 from the Bolivar Peninsula to the Louisiana border, she said.
Like the dolphins last year, the 20 found Monday and the one found Tuesday were all partially decomposed, indicating they had been floating for some time before washing ashore, Watts said.
The dead dolphins this year and last were mostly 3 months old or younger, said Blair Mase, NOAA marine mammal stranding coordinator. As in the previous year, their bodies began arriving on shore early in March, and all were coastal bottlenose.
Mase called the number of strandings unusual and said NOAA would consider declaring another "unusual mortality event" if the numbers continued to be high. 12 carcasses examined NOAA asked the nonprofit stranding network to borrow an aircraft for at least a day in an effort to find dead dolphins before they are too decomposed for analysis, Watts said.
Two paid staffers and a half-dozen volunteers were searching the coast from Brazoria County to the Louisiana border.
Of 12 dolphin carcasses examined Monday, nine were neonates, or younger than 3 months, and three were older. "It shows that whatever is going on is affecting the most vulnerable of the population — the young and the old," Mase said.
Watts said investigators found domoic acid, a toxin produced by blooming plankton, in three of 76 dolphins last year. "It's hard to say whether it affected them or even if the level was high enough to effect the death of a dolphin," she said.
Watts urged anyone finding a dolphin to phone the stranding network at 409-942-7034 so a necropsy, or animal autopsy, can be done quickly to preserve organs for further examination.
Midges hovering over a lake. The midges that periodically swarm by the billions from Iceland's Lake Myvatn are a force of nature. (Credit: iStockphoto/Hazel Proudlove)
ScienceDaily (Mar. 6, 2008) — The midges that periodically swarm by the billions from Iceland's Lake Myvatn are a force of nature. At their peak, it is difficult to breathe without inhaling the bugs, which hatch and emerge from the lake in blizzard-like proportions. After their short adult life, their carcasses blanket the lake, and the dead flies confer so much nutrient on the surrounding landscape that the enhanced productivity can be measured by Earth-observing satellites.
Now, however, the midge Tanytarsus gracilentus and its periodic, sky-darkening hatches are giving scientists an opportunity to assess how the slightest environmental perturbation can tip the precarious balance of an ecosystem and push it into altered states with unknown consequences. Writing this week in the journal Nature, a team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison zoologist Anthony Ives describes an ecosystem population dynamics model built on the flies of Lake Myvatn, showing how even slight human-induced changes can irreversibly alter the balance of nature.
"If our model is correct, the magnitude of these cycles should be sensitive to even the smallest changes in the hydrology of the lake," explains Ives, who conducted the research in collaboration with Árni Einarsson and Arnthor Gardarsson of the University of Iceland, and Vincent A. A. Jansen of Royal Holloway, University of London.
The new study is important because it suggests the possibility of constructing powerful models that scientists can use to assess what may occur as a result of both natural changes and human-induced changes such as those linked to global warming.
"It doesn't take much noise to cause big changes in the pattern," says Ives of phenomena, natural or human-induced, that can tip the balance of an ecosystem. "Even small amounts of environmental noise cause very different biological processes to dominate. And even if you understand the causes, you can't predict the effects."
In short, the study implies that humans are very likely and unknowingly imposing profound, unpredictable and irreversible changes on ecosystems of all kinds with very little effort.
Lake Myvatn, which means "midge lake" in Icelandic, makes a perfect laboratory for studying such environmental change. The algae-munching midge Tanytarsus gracilentus alone makes up two-thirds of the herbivores in the lake's biomass and is an important food source for birds and fish. But the populations of the midge fluctuate dramatically: "They fluctuate in abundance by six orders of magnitude; in some years you hardly see any, while in others you have to fight not to inhale them," according to Árni Einarsson who directs the Myvatn Research Station.
"The odd thing about the Myvatn midges," Ives adds, "is that the fluctuations are not random, but neither are they regular."
The model developed by Ives and his colleagues reveals an exotic mathematical property known as "alternative dynamical states." In short, the midges of Myvatn can appear in cycles of great and regular abundance, or at stable high abundances, and natural variables or "noise" such as temperature or wind can unpredictably push the dynamics between these alternative patterns.
"A practical, and serious, implication of these dynamics is that they make midges potentially susceptible to even minor disturbances," says Ives. "The magnitude of the fluctuations could be highly sensitive to disturbances that affect how low the populations crash during the cycling phase. In the last 40 years, the fluctuations in midge populations seem to have become more extreme. "
So extreme, Einarsson notes, that the Lake Myvatn fishery, a resource used by local farmers for 1,000 years has collapsed. "The fluctuations in midge populations became so extreme that the fish populations couldn't cope during midge crashes. Basically, the fish ran out of food."
The model developed by Ives' team implicates dredging in the lake, an operation initiated in the 1960s and now abandoned that was coincident with changes in the fluctuation of midge populations.
"Our model suggests that this dredging could, in principle, have caused greater fluctuations in midge populations," according to the Wisconsin biologist.
Although there are only a few species in the case of Lake Myvatn, the fragility of their dynamics makes the lake's ecosystem and the forces at play a valuable model for understanding discrete ecosystems of all kinds.
"These forces involve few species," notes Ives, "yet they have huge ramifications. They become an important test bed for looking at ecosystems in general."
Warmer Springs Mean Less Snow, Fewer Flowers In The Rockies
Wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains at Glacier National Park. (Credit: iStockphoto/Aimin Tang)
ScienceDaily (Mar. 6, 2008) — Spring in the Rockies begins when the snowpack melts. But with the advent of global climate change, the snow is gone sooner. Research conducted on the region's wildflowers shows some plants are blooming less because of it.
David Inouye (University of Maryland) used data gathered in the Rockies from 1973 to the present to uncover the problem. Writing in the journal Ecology, he demonstrates that three flowers found in the Rockies are far more susceptible to late frost damage when the snow melts more quickly.
Inouye looked at three blossoms that are common to the famous mountain range. Larkspur (Delphinium barbeyi), holds its intense blue star-shaped, hooded blooms on thin-stemmed plants that can be anywhere from 3-6 feet tall. Aspen fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) is one of the most common asters to the region, and its small, purple daisy-like flowers have yellow centers. And aspen sunflowers (Helianthella quinquenervis) are well known for their startlingly bright yellow flowers which are often found in open, grassy areas.
Winter snow can be as deep as eight feet in the area where all three of these flowers grow, at 9,500 feet altitude, but the snow has been melting increasing early over the past decade because of a combination of lower snowfall and warmer springs. For the wildflower, earlier snowmelt results in an earlier growing season.
Once the snow is gone in the spring, the flowers begin to form buds and prepare to flower. But masses of cold air can still move through the region at night, causing frost as late as the month of June. The numbers indicate that frost events have increased in the past decade. From 1992 to 1998, on average 36.1 percent of the aspen sunflower buds were frosted. But for 1999-2000 the mean is 73.9 percent, and in only one year since 1998 have plants escaped all frost damage.
When those frost events occur, the long-lived plants do not die but are unable to produce flowers for that entire year. Without flowers, they cannot set seed and reproduce.
Inouye says the change happening here may be undetected by humans casually observing the area because these are all long-lived perennial plants. An individual sunflower, for instance, can live to be 50 or 75 years old.
"But we find that these perennials are not producing enough seeds to make the next generation of plants," he says, and without new plants the transformations within plant and animal communities of this ecosystem could be quite intense.
Many insects such as the fruit flies known as tephritid flies, which eat the flowers' seeds, seem to be plant specific, he points out, and so they may disappear, too if there are no flowers to produce seeds. Parasitoid wasps that feed on those flies will then feel the loss, as well. Grasshoppers also feast upon the flower petals. And, these plants are eaten by many kinds of large herbivores, including deer, elk, cows and sheep.
"What will replace these colorful flowers? We don't know," says Inouye. "But we know that many animals depend upon them, and so the outcome could be quite dramatic."
Inouye and his colleagues say that there is much work to be done on the topic of phenology, which is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events. These events are heavily influenced by environmental changes, especially seasonal variations in temperature and precipitation driven by weather and climate. There is even an important role to be played by citizen scientists, who can gather information for the National Phenology Network's new endeavor called Project Budburst.
"In the future, we anticipate climate change will affect plants and animals in many ways, but information is needed on how those changes will play out for specific plants," says Inouye. Some, he says, may bloom sooner and others may not bloom at all. Some may become more prolific and others may die out completely. Citizen scientists who volunteer to help record phenological events can make an important contribution to such studies.
Inouye's work is one of many focusing upon timing in the Phenology Special Feature published in the February issue of Ecology.
3-D Imaging of invasive tree species (reds-pinks) and native Hawaiian lowland rainforest (greens). (Credit: Gregory Asner)
ScienceDaily (Mar. 6, 2008) — To the list of threats to tropical rainforests you can add a new one -- trees. It might seem that for a rainforest the more trees the merrier, but a new study by scientists at the Carnegie Institution warns that non-native trees invading a rainforest can change its basic ecological structure -- rendering it less hospitable to the myriad plant and animal species that depend on its resources. Results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.*
The research team, led by Gregory Asner of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, used innovative remote sensing technology on aircraft to survey the impact of invasives on more than 220,000 hectares (850 square miles) of rainforest on the island of Hawaii. Previous studies of the impact of invasive plants on forests were limited to small areas. Instruments aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) penetrate the forest canopy to create a regional "CAT scan" of the ecosystem, identifying key plant species and mapping the forest's three-dimensional structure.
"Invasive tree species often show biochemical, physiological, and structural properties that are different from native species," says Asner. "We can use these 'fingerprints' combined with the 3-D images to see how the invasives are changing the forest."
This is the first use of this approach to track invasives in Hawaii, where roughly half of all organisms are non-native, and approximately 120 plant species are considered highly invasive. Undisturbed Hawaiian rainforests are often dominated by the ohia tree (Metrosideros polymorpha), but these slow-growing native trees are losing ground to newcomers, such as the tropical ash (Fraxinus uhdei) and the Canary Island fire tree (Morella faya).
CAO surveys of rainforest tracts on the Mauna Kea and Kilauea Volcanoes found that stands of these two invasive tree species form significantly denser canopies than the native ohia trees. Less light reaches lower forest levels, and as a result native understory plants such as tree ferns are suppressed.
Introduced trees can also pave the way for more invaders by altering soil fertility. The Moluccan albizia (Falcataria moluccana) "fixes" atmospheric nitrogen, concentrating it in the soil, which speeds the growth of a smaller invasive tree, the Strawberry Guava (Psidium cattleianum). The guava trees form a dense, mid-level thicket that blocks most light from reaching the ground and stifles young native plants.
"All of our invasive species detections were made in protected state and federal rainforest reserves," says Asner. "These species can spread across protected areas without the help of land use changes or other human activities, suggesting that traditional conservation approaches on the ground aren't enough for the long-term survival of Hawaii's rainforests."
"These new airborne technologies, which are sensitive enough to discern saplings and young trees, may make the problem more tractable,"comments study co-author Flint Hughes of the US Forest Service. "They allow scientists to probe the make-up of forests over large areas and detect invasions at earlier stages."
Based on the success of this study, Asner and colleagues plan to expand CAO surveys of the ecological impacts of invaders in other forests on Hawaii and Kauai Islands, where premier, remote rainforest reserves remain virtually unmapped.
The Carnegie Airborne Observatory is made possible by the support of the W.M. Keck Foundation and William Hearst III.
* Authors: Gregory P. Asner, R. Flint Hughes, Peter M. Vitousek, David E. Knapp, Ty Kennedy-Bowdoin, Joseph Boardman, Roberta E. Martin, Michael Eastwood, and Robert O. Green