Scientists Freeze Coral Threatened By Extinction

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) are teaming up with other organizations to create a bank for storing reproductive coral cells. The bank will serve as a genetic safehold of coral species threatened by extinction. If ever faced with the loss of an important species, scientists could use the frozen embryonic and sperm cells to restore diversity to an ecosystem.

The collaboration is a sign of hope for ocean species conservation amidst mounting fears that the ocean’s genetic diversity could be lost to environmental degradation. By storing precious species, scientists have the option of injecting them back into the environment to boost the health and viability of ecosystems if such a need ever arises.

There’s no doubt that coral reefs are vital members of the ecosystem. They are considered irreplaceable for aquatic environments, serving a key role in biological and natural processes. They function as homes and nursery grounds for fish and invertebrates and countless species rely on them. During intense storms, coral protects coastlines from damage. They also serve a role beyond the ocean, filtering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Coral reefs are threatened for a number of reasons, but human pollution takes the blame for much of the destruction. Human threats include oil spills, sewage, fertilizers and runoff. Scientists believe that coral reefs could become extinct within the next 50 to 100 years, which would kill off many ocean species that rely on them.

“It is crucial that we begin ex situ conservation on coral reefs while their genetic diversity is still high. Although we hope we’ll never need to use these banks, the cost of not doing this work and subsequently losing valuable diversity and resources is too high,” said Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist from SCBI, in a press release.

Hagedorn is credited with creating for first frozen stores of endangered Elkhorn coral, Hawaiian mushroom coral (Fungia scutari) and Acropora palmate.

Much of the conservation work is focused on the Great Barrier Reef, a 1,800 mile-long stretch of coral and the largest collection of corals in the world.

 “The Great Barrier Reef is iconic and of vast importance in terms of biological diversity and species richness. A frozen repository will help ensure its incredible diversity and prevent future extinctions,” said Hagedorn.

So far, at least 19 percent of coral around the globe has been lost, and 15 percent more could be gone within the next two decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kent Carpenter, who directs the Global Marine Species Assessment, argues that coral extinction could affect the global ecosystem in unprecedented ways.

“You could argue that a complete collapse of the marine ecosystem would be one of the consequences of losing corals. You’re going to have a tremendous cascade effect for all life in the oceans,” he said, as quoted by Associate Press.

Conservationists suggest that cutting back on carbon emissions, limiting coastline development and otherwise protecting the ocean from pollution could slow the degradation.

But many scientists fear time is running out and it may be too late to turn the tides on coral loss. Freezing coral serves as the last resort for preserving species if their extinction becomes imminent.

The Smithsonian will be teaming up with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Taronga Zoo of Sydney and additional organizations to create the coral cell bank.

Photo Credit: epa.gov

The Leading Edge of “Green” Street Design

Innovative sustainability concepts are starting to head to city streets. Environmentally sound construction isn’t just about buildings anymore. Chicago’s new project on Cermak Road will set an example for other cities looking to “green” up their streets.

Cermak Road, an industrial street in Chicago near commercial and residential areas, is currently lined with warehouses and factories. It’s a bleak scene for the eyes now, but soon it will be turned into an inspiring model of a “green,” sustainable street.

Under an $18 million project called the Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape, the roadway will be redesigned using innovative, environmentally sound concepts that alleviate the usual environmental imbalances that urban environments often create. It will serve as a valuable model on which to base eco-friendly urban street designs nationwide.

The roads will be reset with permeable surfaces, allowing storm water drainage to occur. Storm water runoff is one of the biggest environmental problems in high precipitation areas of the United States like Chicago. Improving drainage prevents erosion and pollutant runoff into aquatic areas.

Sidewalks and asphalt will have reflective materials to reflect light and heat. This regulates the high heat that often festers in urban areas during the summer.

Streetlights will be refitted with energy efficient systems that emit less light pollution into the sky. Solar panels will power the streetlights.

A bike lane of 5.5 feet will be constructed of permeable paving blocks designed for biker’s tires. The concrete used is blended with TX Active, which absorbs the Nitrous Oxide created by passing cars, thereby reducing local pollution.

Alderman Danny Solis of the 25th Ward said that the green street would be an important connection between an industrial area and the surrounding commercial and residential parts of the community. “We need to have industry, and we need to have vital commercial and residential areas. With projects like this, it’s feasible that these two can be compatible,” he said, as quoted by Huffington Post Chicago.

David Leopold, who led the Cermak/Blue Island project, tried to imagine a street that would be on the leading edge of eco street design, and worthy of winning the LEED platinum certification, if such an award existed for streets.  The Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Standard is normally applied to buildings that exhibit energy and eco- balanced aspects.

Steven Vance, an urban planning expert, said in an email to the Huffington Post that Leopold had imagined, “If we were to make a LEED platinum street, what would it be?”

The roadway project was coordinated alongside a project for green additions to the Benito Juarez community academy where Cermak and Blue Island roads intersect. Some of the new features include water runoff designs that allow for rainwater drainage.

Photo Credit: takomaparkmd.gov

Majority of World’s Energy Needs Could Be Met By Renewables

The majority of the world’s energy could be powered from renewable sources by mid-century if governments provide the necessary political and financial support, according to a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

The IPCC released their Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN) on May 9th, providing a comprehensive reference on clean and renewable energy options and related political and social considerations. The panel confirmed the undeniable potential of a renewable energy-based future, but only if policy-makers take certain considerable political steps.

The clean energy revolution proposed could only occur along with a revolution across society, technology, and legislation, the experts suggest.

Renewable energy such as wind and sun is so limitless, the IPCC reports, that it could provide 77 percent of the world’s energy needs by mid-century. Currently, renewable sources like bioenergy, solar, wind, and geothermal power supply only 13 percent of global energy demands.

But to achieve such a transition would necessitate as much as $5.1 trillion invested before 2020, and another $7.2 trillion between 2021 and 2030.

It’s up to policy-makers to decide whether pursuing the great transition is worth it. At stake, according to the panel, are human health and a warming planet. In a world of renewable energy infrastructure, the population would benefit from improved health and well-being, and the globe itself would benefit from decreased greenhouse gases.

It’s a relief to realize that the potential for clean energy options are out there, but the real battle is the logistics of changing existing energy policies.

Ramón Pichs Madruga, a member of the I.P.C.C., explains, “it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades,” as quoted by The New York Times.

The clean energy revolution would also pose a logistical challenge, as scientists would need to come up with a diversity of geographic sources for clean energy. They would also need to establish reliable technological systems to obtain the energy in efficient ways. Political difficulties would be significant. As Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC admits, a “substantial increase of renewables is technically and politically very challenging.”

But considering such policy changes is essential if we are to move into a greener future we utilize our environment sustainably. That is why the panel is urging policy-makers to review its information and consider the options and pathways seriously.

Edenhofer explained that the report is meant to provide a guide, rather than a mandate for governments. It will “provide policy-relevant information to the policy-makers without being policy-prescriptive,” he said. The report would reveal the “options they have- technologically, politically, and also socially.”

Over 120 experts examined existing science and policy information to produce the comprehensive 1,000-page publication. Within the document they examined 160 renewable energy scenarios.

Next they came up with an outline of the report entitled Summary for Policy makers. It will serve as a go-to guide for energy companies, international leaders, activists, and other government policy-makers and will shape the future of renewable energy policy and investment.

The IPCC first took center stage in the environmental world back in 2007, after reporting that human activity was partially responsible for warming the planet. It blamed habits such as burning fossil fuels and forest clearing for greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The panel then shared the Nobel Peace prize with Al Gore for its work.

The panel was rarely noticed prior to a few years ago. Now that it has come into the public eye, it has received varying feedback, from acclaim to criticism. Critics claimed its scientific work on climate change was slanted and sloppy, and was performed in favor of left-wing environmental policies. The scientists on the panel responded that such criticisms were unfounded and irrelevant. 

Nonetheless, the panel has received pressure to maintain a higher level of scientific standards. Its charter does not allow it to recommend how to cut climate risks, but it can lay out ideas for cutting emissions that governments may follow.

Currently the IPCC is working on its fifth assessment of climate trends, expectations, and policy considerations, to be released in 2014.

Photo Credit: state.gov

EPA Promotes Green Infrastructure to Battle Storm Water Runoff

The EPA is launching a “green infrastructure” campaign that focuses on storm water runoff, one of the most troublesome environmental problems in the United States.

The agency has officially recognized ten cities across the nation that exhibit ideal green infrastructure, effectively making them models for the rest of the country. It is touting efforts such as increased tree cover and permeable ground surfaces as vital systems to combat the environmental problem.

Storm water runoff is responsible for polluting streams, lakes, and other aquatic habitats that would otherwise be clean and healthy. The water carries with it chemicals, soil, and other substances that pollute environments to which they are carried, according to the agency. Storm water also overloads city water systems and creates erosion. Excessive runoff can take the blame for downstream flooding that overwhelms populated areas during heavy rains.

When rushing rain water is slowed down and encouraged to soak into soil and other permeable materials, it can be naturally filtered and will drain in a balanced way.

The ten cities are Los Angeles, CA; Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Denver, CO; Jacksonville, FL; Kansas City, MO; Puyallup, WA; Washington D.C., Cleveland, OH, Syracuse, NY, as well as some nearby communities.

 “Through this agenda, we’ll help cities and towns across the nation clean up their waters and strengthen their communities by supporting and expanding green infrastructure. Green infrastructure changes improve the health of our waters while creating local jobs, saving communities money and making them healthier and more prosperous places to raise a family and start a business,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

In addition to the benefits to health and ecosystems, green infrastructure would have economic and energy savings by reducing runoff into collection and treatment systems.

The EPA hopes that placing a stamp of approval on the ten communities will result in increased tourism, jobs, revitalized neighborhoods, and expansion of recreational spaces there.

Green infrastructure also incorporates ideas such as green roofs made of plants and soil, expanded tree cover, rain harvesting systems, permeable materials for filtering rain, and other tools to help cities find a balance in times of heavy storms.

The revamp comes just in time as cities drag their feet from the burden of economic downturn. Green roofs made of soil and vegetation not only reduce runoff but save as much as 15 percent on heating and cooling costs for houses and businesses. Increased trees and vegetation can also help insulate buildings from temperature extremes.

Although the campaign does not entail grants or funding for the cities, it does serve to recognize their efforts and reveals the EPA’s increasing concern over localized infrastructure to combat environmental problems. The effort will encourage cities to consider the vitality of these aspects of infrastructure when they confront their own storm water problems.

Systems are best designed based on local problems. As an example, Onandaga County, home of Syracuse, has been battling storm water runoff with innovative, localized efforts, reports syracuse.com. In order to save Onondaga Lake, which was heavily polluted, a series of projects were implemented and suggested.

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney Mahoney recently proposed a 1.5 acre green roof on the Nicholas J. Pirro Convention center, which would be the largest green roof in the northeast. It would absorb 1 million gallons of rainwater each year. Other plans in the county include permeable sidewalks and rain gardens.

Photo Credit: green.maryland.gov

Japan Considers Solar Power In Light of Nuclear Crisis

Japan’s government indicated that it will be scratching an earlier plan to boost nuclear power, and replacing it with new renewable energy goals that perhaps focus on solar power, according to reports. Speculations abound over how Japan will manage to revamp its energy infrastructure after Fukushima, in light of the undeniable risks of nuclear power.

The nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima power plant, where an earthquake and tsunami led to catastrophic release of radioactive material, has raised questions around the globe about the safety of such power generation. All are facing the same question: How can we transition out of the nuclear age and towards an era of safe, renewable energy?

Goldman Sachs estimated that the solar panels Japan would need would cost at least $150 billion. It’s a difficult and expensive decision for the disaster-stricken country, but it is essential for a future free of nuclear energy risks.

Japan’s original plan was to build nine more nuclear plants by 2020, producing 108 gigawatts of electricity. Replacing all that power generation with solar panels would be a cost-heavy goal, but it would encourage solar technology development.

Meanwhile, Solar Frontier recently opened their Kunitomi factory in Miyazaki, Japan. It is claimed to be the largest thin-film solar cell plant in the world.

The factory will start with raw materials and fully produce finished modules on a grand scale. The factory is considered state-of-the-art because it combines high capacity with automated processes and is bolstered by continued developing research. Its level of efficiency and scale is unprecedented and it offers hope for Japan as the nation reels from the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl.

“The opening of our factory in the world’s largest class signals great promise for Solar Frontier and this confirms our next generation thin-film technology as globally competitive. I hope this can be one of the bright rays of hope as Japan recovers from the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake,” said Shigeya Kato, Chairman, at the opening ceremony of the new factory, according to the company’s website.

Japan’s government is strategically planning the logistics of their switch to renewable energy.

A group of Diet members (Japan’s Congress) calling itself Energy Shift Japan, had its first meeting on April 26 to discuss reinvention of the country’s energy policy. According to Hiroyuki Arai, a New Renaissance party member in the Upper House, the discussion should bring in drastic changes.

“We need a remake, including a switch in direction, rather than a ‘review’ of the country’s nuclear power policy and administration of energy measures,” he said, as reported by Japanese news source Asahi Shimbun.

The members of the group all agree that Japan must turn to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, as well as assess lifestyle changes and risks of nuclear energy.

But a transition to solar energy is not just a necessary in Japan. The rest of the world is eager to jump onto the solar bandwagon as it becomes clear that a nuclear-powered world holds frightening risks.

On April 26, 2011, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, protestors took to the streets across Europe to denounce the nuclear age. They held banners and yelled statements like “Chernobyl, Fukushima, never again!”

Germany’s Biblis nuclear plant was temporarily shut down as part of the government’s temporary and partial halt of nuclear energy production since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But around 10,000 protestors showed up to demand the plant’s permanent shutdown.

There is hope in sight for this desired future, especially with signs that the solar industry is truly burgeoning. Solar companies are expanding their presence and developing their technology, no doubt assisted by changing global attitudes about the need for safe and clean energy.

Photo Credit: blogs.worldwatch.org

BP Oil Spill: Damage Assessment Funding Delayed At Vital Time

Negotiations and other hold-ups have delayed funding for essential research into the BP oil spill’s ecological damage and the snags are preventing necessary springtime ecosystem assessment.

With spring in full swing in the gulf, it’s the time for spawning and nesting, a revealing time for an ecological habitat in recovery. But scientists aren’t able to produce these assessments as funding has not yet been made available this year.

BP has promised a total of $500 million to fund research into the spill’s impact and extract insight into future spill prevention. $50 million was to be handed out every year for ten years. The first portion was given to the National Institute of Health and other research institutions in the Gulf area back in 2010.

The remaining money is still tied up while the overseeing board finalizes decisions about its use. After the announcement is made on Monday about how the remaining $450 million will be spent, it could take months for proposals to be accepted and research to be underway.

One of the scientists from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative indicated he did not believe the funding would be available for use until after June. That means that the vital time period for research will have come and gone.

“It’s like a murder scene. You have to pick up the evidence now,” said Dana Wetzel, an ecotoxicologist from Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory, as quoted by the Huffington Post.

Scientists instead must turn to federal grants and other sources of funding.

BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance recently finalized negotiations over fund management and BP’s role in how research is performed. BP agreed that research would be conducted independently from the company and scientists could publish freely without oversight. But the funds will be overseen by their own hired contractor and they will choose half the members of a board that makes decisions on the kind of research performed.

Scientists are lacking proper insight into how oil spills damage ecosystems and how to assess that damage. Many of them say that we cannot adequately measure the impact of the spill until we build this scientific basis.

BP and the government are already performing research called the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) but some suggest their approach is not be using the right tools or perspectives for environmental impact measurement.

The research under the NRDA is not well-developed and ignores many lower-level species, including birds, jellyfish, worms, crustaceans, and bait fish. It focuses on commercially important species and takes a legalistic approach.

“The science was abysmal to start with,” George Crozier, the head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said in reference to understanding of the spill’s ecological effects.

He went on to articulate the issues with the NRDA process. “NRDA is not designed to advance science, it is designed to establish the damage done. It is a legal-driven process,” he said.

Experts say that the true toll of the BP oil spill that spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 may never be fully measured. BP has promised responsibility for damage assessment, but unless  processes and paperwork run smoothly, the opportunity for adequate reporting will be lost.

Photo credit: lieffcabraserblogs.com

Billion Acts Of Green: A Theme Of Earth Day 2011

The “Billion Acts of Green” campaign marks its one year anniversary this Earth Day and has arguably emerged as a central theme of the holiday. The campaign was launched by the Earth Day Alliance last Earth Day and has proven to unite people around the world in a shared discussion about simple ways to make the world a greener place.

The Alliance launched a website for the campaign, www.billionactsofgreen.org, where they are asking people to pledge their green acts and review some of the millions of ideas that have been posted.

 The website and its associated application on Facebook allow participants to collaborate and learn from each other’s ideas.  The result has been an allied green initiative based on electronic communication.

“Millions of people doing small, individual acts can add up to real change,” said Chad Chitwood, a spokesman for the event’s organizers, as quoted by Reuters.

Many of the proposed ideas are original and thought-provoking. Some are simple, such as printing on both sides of paper, doing laundry in cold water, beach clean-ups, and using hand towels instead of paper ones. Other pledges indicate a lifestyle change, such as walking instead of driving, eating local and sustainable food, and installing solar panels.

So far more than 100 million acts of green have been logged. The goal is to reach 1 billion before the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development takes place in Rio next year.

Many sponsors have joined with the organization, including the United Nations, U.S. State Dept, Peace Corps, Boy and Girl Scouts, and more.

Earth Day celebrates its 41st anniversary on Friday and thousands of events and campaigns are taking place across the United States and in 192 other countries that now celebrate the holiday.

Photo Credit: globe-net.com

Soil Erosion A Heap Of A Problem in U.S. Farm States, Study Shows

Overfarming in Iowa and other farm states has led to greater soil erosion than previous estimates suggested, according to a new study called “Losing Ground,” presented by Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG is working to spread the word about unsustainable farming practices and to fight the federal policies that are destroying what was once precious, rich farmland.

Working alongside Iowa State University, EWG discovered that soil loss in Iowa was sometimes as much as 12 times that of the national average. Recent rains stripped the soil as much as 64 tons per acre and scientists are blaming overfarming for the problem. EWG used data from ISU scientists who tracked soil erosion after every storm. They corroborated the data with aerial surveys that reveal the destruction. 40 percent of Iowa fields lost more than the national average.

The findings disagree with federal findings from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which the EWG suggests were unreliable estimates. In April 2010, the NRCS estimated there were 5.2 tons lost per acre per year, which is just a touch above the sustainable rate. EWG’s data, on the other hand, shows a far more grim reality. They claim the difference comes because they’ve considered the gullies that act as “pipelines” during heavy rains, carrying tons of water and precious soil away from farmland in a flash.

The problem lies in the farmlands’ lack of balance and enormous magnitude. Fields are placed side by side, using up every bit of space to maximize output. Farmers are desperate to “get every bushel out of every acre” so they plant their fields “fence row to fence row,” snug up against what would otherwise be clean, fresh streams.

 In their video, EWG describes Iowa farmland as marked by gullies that wash away topsoil and create “a direct pipeline delivering mud, toxic farm chemicals, and bacteria to our streams, rivers, and eventually our drinking water supplies.” Incorporating areas of grass between crops and streams would prevent everything from running together in this way, but since farmers want to harvest every bit possible, they fail to leave space for these necessary barriers.

Environmentalists do not blame farmers for the problem, though; they blame federal government who pays enticing subsidies to overproducing corn and soybean farmers. $51 billion in federal funding has been spent on boosting all-out production in states like Iowa. Farmers are given subsidies to grow as much corn and soybeans as possible. Sustainable farmers who allow space between their farmland and nearby streams are underfunded and struggle to stay financially stable.

The pesticides, fertilizers, and harmful chemicals in soil run-off end up hitting our drinking water sources and have already turned an area of the Gulf into a notorious dead zone. Soil erosion is not just threatening our land; it is harming our health and happiness. It “renders our water undrinkable, our beaches unfit to swim in, and has created an area in the Gulf so contaminated that aquatic life has to flee or die.”

The EWG has presented a number of recommendations to Congress to fix the crisis, hoping to save the land before it is too late. They suggest that old conservation plans, which had been in place prior to 1996, be reopened and revised. The plans should require treatment and prevention of gullies and erosion. Farms should have buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between crops and water sources. Non-native crop subsidies should be eliminated, and funding for USDA technical staff should be boosted so conservation practices and inspections are enforced.

Mass-scale farming might bring in big bucks for a few corn and soy farmers, but it does not help the majority of Americans or our nation’s farmlands. Health and well-being are at stake, and we can’t even measure how they will be affected if the government does not invest in efforts to curb soil erosion. A policy change is necessary, otherwise the fruitful land that once characterized the farm states of our country will become a myth.

Photo credit: ars.usda.gov

Jatropha Takes Off As A Sustainable Jet Fuel Alternative

Jatropha-curcas, a non-edible weed with oil-rich seeds, is gaining reputation as a source of environmentally and economically sustainable aircraft fuel, according to a study released by Boeing.

The oil-producing seeds of the Jatropha holds great promise as biofuel source because the plant is poisonous and nonedible. It grows best on non-agricultural land, so it avoids the food versus fuel debate. Growing edible fuel is known to introduce complex problems for farmers and the agricultural market, but jatropha is free of these issues.

The researchers discovered that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 60 percent with the jatropha oil fuel versus petroleum-based fuel.

Jatropha seeds are made of 27-40 percent oil. The plant itself is a semi-evergreen small tree or shrub that can survive in arid conditions.

The study assessed farming conditions in Latin America and used sustainability criteria from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels. Interviews with farmers as well as field instruments made it a truly comprehensive analysis.

Researchers specifically determined that greenhouse gas benefits depended greatly on prior land use. If native trees and grasses are cut down to make way for growing the crop, then those environmental benefits would not be seen.

If the crop is grown on land that was already degraded or cleared, it would exceed the 60 percent baseline due to increased carbon storage.

Researchers also noted that early farming attempts were marked by poor yields, but that seed strain development would solve that problem.

Boeing has strong motivation behind funding the study and publishing successful results. Climate change is fueling discussions about the need to reduce air travel and the impacts of jet fuel on the atmosphere. Boeing, as a major aircraft producer, would prefer to ease this tension.

“The invaluable insights provided by this study will help our airline customers to better understand the sustainability of this potential jet fuel source, while also providing solid scientific data to governments and environmental organizations throughout the region,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes Director of Environmental Strategy Michael Hurd, as quoted by Commodity Online.

The biofuel has so far been tested on numerous airlines including Japan, Continental, Brazil’s TAM, Air New Zealand, and Interjet, all with success. Thousands of jobs have opened up as a result of the new agricultural sector.

Meanwhile in the world of innovative Boeing projects, the company is developing a super quiet, super light Supersonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research “SUGAR” project, according to Aerospace Defense Media Group. Costing $8.8 million, it is part of a NASA program aiming to develop aircraft with reduced emissions, fuel consumption, and noise. The models were meant to be tested in wind tunnels and computer simulations.

Boeing is continuing its work on SUGAR and is developing even more super lightweight planes with advanced engines that would be up in the air in thirty years.

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Mangrove Forests Among The Most Carbon-Rich In Tropics

Mangrove forests are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics, according to new research published in Nature Geoscience. The findings raise concerns about the magnitude of loss that the forests have endured and how this impacts the preservation of carbon resources, as well as carbon emissions.

Earlier research revealed that 30-50 percent of mangrove forests have been cleared in the last 50 years, and as much as 16 percent of the remaining mangroves are currently threatened. Now, new research reveals that mangroves are especially rich sources of carbon. Their deforestation could be responsible for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, even though they make up just .7 percent of tropical forest area.

Scientists were already aware of the ecological importance of mangrove swamps, which support numerous ecosystems, encourage nutrient cycling, and offer fisheries. Many human communities subsist on the mangrove swamp ecosystem, and the trees serve to guard against the impact of tsunamis and typhoons.

Overharvesting, rising sea levels, and coastal overdevelopment have led to the mangrove forest decline, sparking concerns about the level of carbon emissions that may have resulted from their removal.

The research was a joint effort between the USDA Forest Service as well as the Center for International Forestry Research. The scientists were seeking to understand the impact of mangrove deforestation on the environment by measuring the amount of carbon stored in the forests. They measured the biomass within living and dead tree wood as well as soil carbon across 25 different mangrove forests in the Indo-Pacific region. The region encompasses the greatest variety and area of mangrove forests available for study.

Mangrove forests studied contained an average of 1,023 Mg of carbon per hectare, as much as four times as much carbon as other types of tropical forest, making them some of the richest-carbon forests in the tropics.

The mangrove trees are adept in their ability to store carbon because they use their roots to slow down tidal water and store sediment within a swampy ecosystem. A very carbon-rich environment results from low oxygen levels and slow decomposition.

Scientists are only beginning to understand the true extent of mangrove decline. In early 2010, the first global assessment of mangroves was conducted, which concluded that 11 of its 70 species face the threat of extinction, with declines greatest along the Central American coasts.

“The potential loss of these species is a symptom of widespread destruction and exploitation of mangrove forests,” said Beth Polidoro, principal author of the 2010 study. “Mangroves form one of the most important tropical habitats that support many species, and their loss can affect marine and terrestrial biodiversity much more widely.”

Late last year, satellite imagery released by the USGS and NASA revealed that there were 12.3 percent less mangroves than previously estimated. The research determined that there remains about 53,190 square miles of the forest.

The impact on humans can be extremely heavy as well, since the forests server as protection from natural disasters. Back in 2008, a cyclone hit Burma, killing vastly more people than was expected and causing many leaders to blame the tragedy’s impact on mangrove deforestation.  

“Encroachment into mangrove forests, which used to serve as a buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and residential areas; all those lands have been destroyed,” said  Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan  of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). “Human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces,” he continued, as quoted by the BBC.

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