Workers at a recycling plant in Newark, New Jersey. Photo: Mike Derer / AP Photo

By Bob Tita
13 May 2018

(The Wall Street Journal) – The U.S. recycling industry is breaking down.

Prices for scrap paper and plastic have collapsed, leading local officials across the country to charge residents more to collect recyclables and send some to landfills. Used newspapers, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles are piling up at plants that can’t make a profit processing them for export or domestic markets.

“Recycling as we know it isn’t working,” said James Warner, chief executive of the Solid Waste Management Authority in Lancaster County, Pa. “There’s always been ups and downs in the market, but this is biggest disruption that I can recall.”

U.S. recycling programs took off in the 1990s as calls to bury less trash in landfills coincided with China’s demand for materials like corrugated cardboard to feed its economic boom. Ship lines eagerly filled containers that had brought manufactured goods to the U.S. with paper, scrap metal and plastic bottles for the return trip to China.

As cities aggressively expanded recycling programs to keep more discarded household items out of landfills, the purity of U.S. scrap deteriorated as more trash infiltrated the recyclables. Discarded food, liquid-soaked paper and other contaminants recently accounted for as much as 20% of the material shipped to China, according to Waste Management Inc.’s estimates, double from five years ago.

The tedious and sometimes dangerous work of separating out that detritus at processing plants in China prompted officials there to slash the contaminants limit this year to 0.5%. China last week suspended all imports of U.S. recycled materials until June 4, regardless of the quality. The recycling industry interpreted the move as part of the growing rift between the U.S. and China over trade policies and tariffs.

The changes have effectively cut off exports from the U.S., the world’s largest generator of scrap paper and plastic. Collectors, processors and the municipal governments that hire them are reconsidering what they will accept to recycle and how much homeowners pay for that service. Many trash haulers and city agencies that paid for curbside collection by selling scrap said they are now losing money on almost every ton they handle.

The upended economics are likely to permanently change the U.S. recycling business, said William Moore, president of Moore & Associates, a recycled paper consultancy in Atlanta.

“It’s going to take domestic demand to replace what China was buying,” he said. “It’s not going to be a quick turnaround. It’s going to be a long-term issue.” [more]

Recycling, Once Embraced by Businesses and Environmentalists, Now Under Siege

In October 2017, about 50 people in bright orange shirts filed into New Orleans City Hall for a public hearing on Entergy’s request to build a $210 million power plant in eastern New Orleans. It was easy to tell who supported Entergy’s proposed power plant at a public hearing last fall; they were the ones wearing fluorescent orange shirts that read “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.” Some of those people were professional actors paid to show up and support the plant. Photo: Michael Stein / The Lens

By Michael Isaac Stein
4 May 2018

(The Lens) – Last October, about 50 people in bright orange shirts filed into City Hall for a public hearing on Entergy’s request to build a $210 million power plant in eastern New Orleans. Their shirts read, “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.”

The purpose of the hearing was to gauge community support for the power plant. But for some of those in the crowd, it was just another acting gig.

At least four of the people in orange shirts were professional actors. One actor said he recognized 10 to 15 others who work in the local film industry.

They were paid $60 each time they wore the orange shirts to meetings in October and February. Some got $200 for a “speaking role,” which required them to deliver a prewritten speech, according to interviews with the actors and screenshots of Facebook messages provided to The Lens.

“They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power,” said Keith Keough, who heard about the opportunity through a friend.

He said he thought he was going to shoot a commercial. “I’m not political,” he said. “I needed the money for a hotel room at that point.”

They were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and were instructed not to speak to the media or tell anyone they were being paid.

But three of them agreed to talk about their experience and provided evidence that they were paid to endorse the power plant. Two spoke on the condition that they not be identified, saying they didn’t want to jeopardize other work or get in trouble for violating the non-disclosure agreement.

Another attendee, an actor and musician who played a small role on HBO’s “Treme,” told WWL-TV he was paid to wear one of the orange shirts at a meeting of the council’s utility committee. […]

Soon after the meeting began, the city council chamber was full. Residents who arrived late were barred from entering. At one point, Guidry asked people who had already spoken to make room for others waiting to get in.

One of the people locked out was Danil Faust, who at the time was running for a seat in the state House of Representatives. Eventually, he got in. “I walk in and the first thing I see is a really close friend of mine in an orange shirt in the third row,” he said. “And he sees me and just puts a finger to his lips.”

That friend was Keough. After the meeting, Faust convinced Keough, who was about to move to North Carolina, to tell him what was going on.

In later meetings, Faust openly accused Entergy of paying people to be there. Wilkerson took notice and told his people to avoid Faust, according to Facebook messages and two of the actors.

They were directed to the nearby Dave & Busters to get paid. “It was very shady, very secretive, especially when we got paid,” said one of the actors. “They literally paid us under the table.” [more]

Actors were paid to support Entergy’s power plant at New Orleans City Council meetings

Since the 1970s, the aquatic fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has triggered die-offs in hundreds of amphibian species such as the common midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans). These frogs—arranged in rows by researchers documenting the fungus—died in the French Pyrenees. Photo: Matthew Fisher / National Geographic

By Michael Greshko
10 May 2018

(National Geographic) – Many of the world's amphibians are staring down an existential threat: an ancient skin-eating fungus that can wipe out entire forests' worth of frogs in a flash.

This ecological super-villain, the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has driven more than 200 amphibian species to extinction or near-extinction—radically rewiring ecosystems all over Earth.

“This is the worst pathogen in the history of the world, as far as we can tell, in terms of its impacts on biodiversity,” says Mat Fisher, an Imperial College London mycologist who studies the fungus.

Now, a global team of 58 researchers has uncovered the creature's origin story. A groundbreaking study published in Science on Thursday reveals where and when the fungus most likely emerged: the Korean peninsula, sometime during the 1950s.

From there, scientists theorize that human activities inadvertently spread it far and wide—leading to amphibian die-offs across the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

“[The pathogen's spread] could have happened from any one event, from the cumulative number of events, or maybe some big anthropogenic events like the Korean War,” says Imperial College London researcher Simon O'Hanlon, the study's lead author. [more]

Ground Zero of Amphibian 'Apocalypse' Finally Found

By Ryan O'Hare
10 May 2018

(Imperial College London) – A deadly fungus responsible for the devastation of amphibian populations around the world may have originated in East Asia, new research has found.

Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), known as chytrid fungus, has long been identified as a cause of the decline and extinction of species of frogs, toads, newts and other amphibians across several continents.

Chytrid is distributed around the world but to date it has remained unclear where killer strains of the pathogen first emerged.

Now, new research published in the journal Science and led by researchers at Imperial College London alongside partners including ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and UCL, suggests the killer fungus currently ravaging global amphibian populations originated in East Asia.

The researchers highlight the need to tighten biosecurity across borders, including a potential ban on trade in amphibians as pets to ensure the survival of vulnerable species.

Dr Simon O’Hanlon, from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial and first author of the paper, said: “Biologists have known since the 1990s that Bd was behind the decline of many amphibian species, but until now we haven’t been able to identify exactly where it came from.”

“In our paper, we solve this problem and show that the lineage which has caused such devastation can be traced back to East Asia.”

Chytrid is passed from animal to animal and spreads rapidly in the wild, causing catastrophic mortality and declines in some species, while others are less affected.

The fungus causes a disease called chytridiomycosis, which attacks the animal’s skin, affecting their ability to regulate water and electrolyte levels and leading to heart failure.

In this latest study, an international team involving 38 institutions gathered samples of the pathogen from around the world. They sequenced the genomes of these samples, combining the data with genomes from previous Bd studies to make a collection of 234 samples.

Researchers analysed the data, looking at differences between the genomes. From the samples, they identified four main genetic lineages of the fungus, three of which are distributed globally. A fourth lineage was found only in Korea, on frogs native to the region.

Korean connection

Cultures from this Korean lineage were found to contain much more genetic diversity than any other lineage.

Deeper analysis of the Korean Bd showed no history of global outbreaks within their genomes suggesting the Korean chytrid strains were native to the region, and most closely resemble the ancestor of all modern Bd.

Using the genetic data, the team estimated when the killer strain of Bd currently plaguing amphibians diverged from its most recent common ancestor.

Their findings support the idea that rather than dating back thousands of years, as previously thought, the range of the disease expanded greatly between 50 and 120 years ago, coinciding with the rapid global expansion of intercontinental trade.

The team’s finding Asian strains of Bd in pet Oriental fire-bellied toads strongly supported this idea.

According to the researchers, human movement of amphibians – such as through the pet trade – has directly contributed to spreading the pathogen around the world.

They add that the paper provides strong evidence for a ban on trade in amphibians from Asia, due to the high risk associated with exporting previously unknown strains of chytrid out of this region.

The group also highlights the threat of another amphibian pathogen which has also emerged from Asia (B. salamandrivorans or BSal) affecting salamanders in Europe and whose spread is also linked with the global trade in pet amphibians from Asia.

Professor Matthew Fisher, from the School of Public Health at Imperial, said: “Our research not only points to East Asia as ground zero for this deadly fungal pathogen, but suggests we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg of chytrid diversity in Asia. Therefore, until the ongoing trade in infected amphibians is halted, we will continue to put our irreplaceable global amphibian biodiversity recklessly at risk.”

The research was supported by funding from the National Environment Research Council.

Genetic clues reveal origins of killer fungus behind the ‘amphibian plague’

Genotypes of Bd isolated from infected amphibians in the international trade and phylogenetically linked genotypes from segregated geographic localities. The red diamonds on the phylogeny indicate isolates recovered from traded animals. Their geographic location is displayed by the red diamonds on the map. The red numbers link each trade isolate to the relevant picture of the donor host species atop the figure and their placement in the phylogeny. The arrows on the map link geographically separated isolates that form closely related phylogenetic clades with high bootstrap support (≥90%). Each clade is denoted by a different-shaped point on the map; names of isolates within each clade are displayed on the map. The dates displayed indicate the sampling time frame for each clade. Graphic: O'Hanlon, ewt al., 2018 / Science

ABSTRACT: Globalized infectious diseases are causing species declines worldwide, but their source often remains elusive. We used whole-genome sequencing to solve the spatiotemporal origins of the most devastating panzootic to date, caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a proximate driver of global amphibian declines. We traced the source of B. dendrobatidis to the Korean peninsula, where one lineage, BdASIA-1, exhibits the genetic hallmarks of an ancestral population that seeded the panzootic. We date the emergence of this pathogen to the early 20th century, coinciding with the global expansion of commercial trade in amphibians, and we show that intercontinental transmission is ongoing. Our findings point to East Asia as a geographic hotspot for B. dendrobatidis biodiversity and the original source of these lineages that now parasitize amphibians worldwide.

Panzootic chytrid fungus out of Asia

Species in the fungal genus Batrachochytrium are responsible for severe declines in the populations of amphibians globally. The sources of these pathogens have been uncertain. O'Hanlon et al. used genomics on a panel of more than 200 isolates to trace the source of the frog pathogen B. dendrobatidis to a hyperdiverse hotspot in the Korean peninsula (see the Perspective by Lips). Over the past century, the trade in amphibian species has accelerated, and now all lineages of B. dendrobatidis occur in traded amphibians; the fungus has become ubiquitous and is diversifying rapidly.

Recent Asian origin of chytrid fungi causing global amphibian declines

A plastic bag is wrapped around a deep-sea coral. A new study, 'Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris', reveals human activities are affecting the deepest part of the ocean, more than 1000km from the mainland. Photo: Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology / JAMSTEC E-library of Deep-Sea Images / UNEP

18 April 2018 (UNEP) – A new article, Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris, reveals human activities are affecting the deepest part of the ocean, more than 1000km from the mainland.

Plastic pollution is emerging as one of the most serious threats to ocean ecosystems. World leaders, scientists and communities recognise the urgent need for action, but the impacts of plastic pollution are not well understood.

To raise awareness of the far-reaching effects of plastic pollution, ocean scientists used information from the Deep-sea Debris Database. The Global Oceanographic Data Centre of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology launched this database for public use in 2017. It contains over 30 years of photos and videos of debris that have been collected by deep-sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles.

The data revealed that, from 5010 dives, more than 3000 pieces of man-made debris – including plastic, metal, rubber and fishing gear – were counted. Over a third of debris found was macro-plastic, 89% of which was single-use products. In areas deeper than 6000m, over half of debris was plastic, almost all of which was single-use.

The article also reveals that single-use plastic has reached the world’s deepest ocean trench - a plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench, 10,898m below the surface. The ubiquitous distribution of single-use plastic, even to the greatest depths of the ocean, reveal a clear link between daily human activities and the remotest of environments.

Once in the deep-sea, plastic can persist for thousands of years. Deep-sea ecosystems are highly endemic and have a very slow growth rate, so the potential threats from plastic pollution are concerning. There is growing concern that deep-sea ecosystems are already being damaged by direct exploitation of both biological and non-biological resources – through deep-sea trawling, mining and infrastructure development, for example. The results of this study show that deep-sea ecosystems are also being affected indirectly by human activities.

Reducing the production of plastic waste seems to be the only solution to the problem of deep-sea plastic pollution. A global monitoring network is needed to share the limited data on deep-sea plastic pollution, and impact assessment surveys should be prioritised for biologically and ecologically important areas with high concentrations of plastic debris, and to use ocean circulation models to identify how plastic is travelling from land to the deep-sea.

Single-use plastic has reached the world's deepest ocean trench

Plastic on the ocean floor of the Mariana Trench. A new study, 'Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris', reveals human activities are affecting the deepest part of the ocean, more than 1000km from the mainland. Photo: Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology / JAMSTEC E-library of Deep-Sea Images / UNEP

ABSTRACT: This study reports plastic debris pollution in the deep-sea based on the information from a recently developed database. The Global Oceanographic Data Center (GODAC) of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) launched the Deep-sea Debris Database for public use in March 2017. The database archives photographs and videos of debris that have been collected since 1983 by deep-sea submersibles and remotely operated vehicles. From the 5010 dives in the database, 3425 man-made debris items were counted. More than 33% of the debris was macro-plastic, of which 89% was single-use products, and these ratios increased to 52% and 92%, respectively, in areas deeper than 6000 m. The deepest record was a plastic bag at 10898 m in the Mariana Trench. Deep-sea organisms were observed in the 17% of plastic debris images, which include entanglement of plastic bags on chemosynthetic cold seep communities. Quantitative density analysis for the subset data in the western North Pacific showed plastic density ranging from 17 to 335 items km−2 at depths of 1092–5977 m. The data show that, in addition to resource exploitation and industrial development, the influence of land-based human activities has reached the deepest parts of the ocean in areas more than 1000 km from the mainland. Establishment of international frameworks on monitoring of deep-sea plastic pollution as an Essential Ocean Variable and a data sharing protocol are the keys to delivering scientific outcomes that are useful for the effective management of plastic pollution and the conservation of deep-sea ecosystems.

Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris

This artist's rendering shows NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, created on 31 December 2013. With atmospheric carbon dioxide now at its highest concentration in recorded history, the need to make precise, global, space-based measurements of this key greenhouse gas has never been more urgent. As carbon dioxide levels have increased, so too have uncertainties about them -- we don't yet have a clear picture of how these emissions are partitioned between Earth's ocean, land and atmosphere, or how Earth's forests, plants and ocean will respond to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the future. OCO-2 addresses these critical questions to help us better assess the health of our warming planet. Graphic: NASA / JPL-Caltech

By Paul Voosen
9 May 2018

(Science) – You can't manage what you don't measure. The adage is especially relevant for climate-warming greenhouse gases, which are crucial to manage—and challenging to measure. In recent years, though, satellite and aircraft instruments have begun monitoring carbon dioxide and methane remotely, and NASA's Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10-million-a-year research line, has helped stitch together observations of sources and sinks into high-resolution models of the planet's flows of carbon. Now, President Donald Trump's administration has quietly killed the CMS, Science has learned.

The move jeopardizes plans to verify the national emission cuts agreed to in the Paris climate accords, says Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University's Center for International Environment and Resource Policy in Medford, Massachusetts. "If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement," she says. Canceling the CMS "is a grave mistake," she adds.

The White House has mounted a broad attack on climate science, repeatedly proposing cuts to NASA's earth science budget, including the CMS, and cancellations of climate missions such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3). Although Congress fended off the budget and mission cuts, a spending deal signed in March made no mention of the CMS. That allowed the administration's move to take effect, says Steve Cole, a NASA spokesperson in Washington, D.C. Cole says existing grants will be allowed to finish up, but no new research will be supported.

The agency declined to provide a reason for the cancellation beyond "budget constraints and higher priorities within the science budget." But the CMS is an obvious target for the Trump administration because of its association with climate treaties and its work to help foreign nations understand their emissions, says Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. And, unlike the satellites that provide the data, the research line had no private contractor to lobby for it. […]

The CMS improved other carbon monitoring as well. […] It has paid for researchers led by Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University, to refine their satellite-based observations of methane.

It's an ironic time to kill the program, Jacob says. NASA is planning several space-based carbon observatories, including the OCO-3, which is set to be mounted on the International Space Station later this year, and the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, due for launch early next decade. The CMS would help knit all these observations together. "It would be a total shame to wind [it] down," Jacob says.

This type of research is likely to continue, Duffy adds, but leadership will pass to Europe, which already operates one carbon-monitoring satellite, with more on the way. "We really shoot ourselves in the foot if we let other people develop the technology," he says, given how important the techniques will be in managing low-carbon economies in the future. Hurtt, meanwhile, holds out hope that NASA will restore the program. After all, he says, the problem isn't going away. "The topic of climate mitigation and carbon monitoring is maybe not the highest priority now in the United States," he says. "But it is almost everywhere else." [more]

Trump White House quietly cancels NASA research verifying greenhouse gas cuts

An aerial view of rescue efforts near destroyed houses by flooding water after a dam burst, in Solio town near Nakuru, Kenya, 10 May 2018. Photo: Thomas Mukoya / REUTERS

By Thomas Mukoya, George Obulutsa, Duncan Miriri, Humphrey Malalo, and Maggie Fick; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens
10 May 2018

SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) – A dam on a commercial flower farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley burst after weeks of torrential rain, unleashing a “sea of water” that careened down a hillside and smashed into two villages, killing at least 47 people.

The walls of the reservoir, situated on top of a hill in Nakuru county, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, gave way late on Wednesday as nearby residents were sitting down to evening meals.

Kenya is one of the largest suppliers of cut flowers to Europe, and roses from the 3,500-acre Solai farm are exported to the Netherlands and Germany, according to Optimal Connection, its Netherlands-based handling agent.

The floodwaters carved out a dark brown chasm in the hillside and swept away everything in their path - powerlines, homes and buildings, including a primary school.

The bodies of two women were found several kilometers away as excavators and rescue workers armed with shovels picked through rubble and mud searching for survivors and victims.

Local police chief Japheth Kioko said the death toll could well climb. “So far it is 47 dead. We are still on the ground,” he told Reuters.

After a severe drought last year, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain, affecting nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud. […]

Vinoj Kumar, general manager of the Solai farm, blamed the disaster on massive rainfall in a forest above the dam.

“In the past two days the intensity of the rain was high and the water started coming down carrying boulders and roots which damaged the wall,” he told Reuters. “The dam wall cracked and the water escaped.” […]

Even before this week’s dam-burst, heavy rains had caused havoc in Kenya, killing 132 people and displacing 222,000, according to the government. Roads and bridges have been destroyed, causing millions of dollars of damage.

The United Nations UNOCHA disaster agency said 580,000 people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in neighboring Somalia, while the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia had also taken a hammering, with 160,000 people affected.

The flooding could yet get worse, with heavy rains forecast to continue in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria basin over the next few weeks. [more]

KenKenyan rose-farm dam bursts, 'sea of water' kills 47

'Stepping Out', by Bruce Hooke, The Art Farm, Marquette, Nebraska, USA. 'Striding along, expecting the road to stay solid below him, the man in the suit steps out, into the unknown. About to fall, he will crash to the hard, fertile earth. The eleborate plans in his briefcase scatter in the wind. By taking on the role of the man in the suit and photographing myself I seek to explore issues of power, authority and privilege.' Graphic: Bruce Hooke

By Michael Malay
9 May 2018

(Dark Mountain) – Today we bring you the last in our series of extracts from our thirteenth book, an anthology of new writing and art exploring what ‘being human’ means in an age of rapid ecological and social change. Dark Mountain: Issue 13 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

We finish the series with Michael Malay’s essay on poetry and extinction, accompanied by an image by Bruce Hooke.

In “Blacksmith Shop”, Czeslaw Milosz describes a childhood visit to the local smithy. He remembers the blacksmith standing above the anvil, hammering away at a piece of iron, and the incredible heat of the furnace. A group of horses stand outside, ready to be shod, while a collection of tools await repair: ‘plowshares’, ‘sledge runners’, ‘harrows’. ‘I liked the bellows operated by rope’, Milosz writes, and ‘that blowing and blazing of fire’. Transfixed, he watches as the iron is bent glowingly into a horseshoe.

Milosz’s catalogue of objects is mundane. The poem lists the normal accoutrements of a blacksmith shop: bellows, a pair of tongs, an anvil. Yet there is an intensity to the speaker’s gaze, and a tenderness to the poet’s voice, that transfigures what it names. Held lovingly in the space of the poem’s recollections, the scene is restored to the primacy of the present tense. “I stare and stare”, Milosz writes, recalling the gusts of heat at his chest. “It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.”

I had reason to think of Milosz recently, when, early last summer, the Polish government defied an EU court order to halt logging in Białowieża, one of Europe’s last primeval forests and home to the rare European bison. And the thought emerged: if one task of the poet, as implicitly defined by Milosz, is to “glorify things just because they are”, what might it mean to write poetry today, in an era of climate change, environmental degradation and mass species extinction? How might one bear witness to a disappearing world? (‘Daffodils at the end of January!’ a friend remarked, uttering a sentence his grandparents would not have understood. Meanwhile, current rates of extinction are 1,000 times higher than normal background levels, with dozens of species dying off every day. In a few decades, whole forms of life – whole ways of understanding – have changed.) […]

Today, one might say that the criminals are the Murdochs, Kochs, and Tillersons of the world, as well as the multinational companies – the BPs, Monsantos, and Cargills – who continue to plunder earth’s resources at a time of swift ecological unravelling. All the same, the marvels of reality continue too, in the form of great fish and bird migrations, the standing miracles of ancient forests, or the simple but mysterious thereness of the earth’s elements: air, water, earth, fire. Were Milosz still writing today, his ledger would still contain two columns: one for beauty, one for justice.

For all his exemplariness as a poet of witness, however, Milosz did not and could not foresee the complications of the current moment. Witness poetry implies the hope of restitution and redress – a rebalancing of the scales, even if that rebalancing is enacted aesthetically, through poetry, rather than institutionally, in the political sphere. But what hope for those countless creatures who perish without word or witness? What representations – legal, poetic, or otherwise – do they receive? Equally, how might one identify the deed, let alone the date of the crime, when the drivers of extinction and climate change are so widely distributed and its effects so unimaginably large? ‘O my love, where are they, where are they going’, Milosz writes in one of his poems, recalling a night when his friend pointed to a hare running across a wintry road. ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder’, his poem concludes – but it’s an emphasis we might be tempted to reverse. In a landscape where brown hares are critically endangered – in the UK, their population has declined by 80% in the past 10 years – we do ask (appropriately, I think) out of sorrow. […]

It is easy to become despondent, indeed sorrowful, about these losses: each day we are confronted with appalling statistics about the loosening footholds (and wing-holds) of mammals and birds in the UK, not to mention thousands of insect species whose habitats are being fundamentally changed by human intervention. As Ursula Heise reminds us, however, narratives of ecological decline, which often borrow from genre conventions such as tragedy and elegy, can easily turn into narratives of human decline. Environmental ‘crisis typically becomes a proxy for cultural concerns,’ she writes in Imagining Extinction, a way of telling stories about the fallen experience of modernity. We therefore need to understand when sorrow is misplaced – when it is a projection of cultural anxieties onto nature – and when it stems from a genuine reckoning of what is being lost. The risk of not doing so is to tell a story that begins to tell us – a hopeless story about inevitable decline.

The other risk of declensionist narratives is that they ignore the capacity of certain creatures to adapt during times of change. As Chris Thomas argues in Inheritors of the Earth, some animals seem to be thriving in the present era. We have damaged the planet beyond any reasonable measure, he admits, altering its ‘great chemical cycles’ and acidifying its oceans, but ‘we are still surrounded by large numbers of species, many of which appear to be benefiting from our presence’ and adapting to ‘this human-altered world’. He also argues that we should situate today’s changes in their ‘appropriate historical context, which involves time spans much longer than we are used to thinking about in our everyday lives.’ This is ‘necessary because the story of life on Earth is one of never-ending change: be that the arrival and disappearance of species from a particular location (ecological change) or the longer-term formation of new species and extinction of others (evolutionary change).’

This is not to discount the losses of anthropogenic extinction, which are immense, nor the profligacy with which capitalism exploits human and non-human life. The long view that Thomas takes may also come with a subtle danger. Deep time consoles us by reminding us of earth’s endurance and continuity, but such a view may also desensitise us to the present, to the precious and fragile life being lost now. [more]

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 – Bearing Witness to a Disappearing World

Average species richness change (in species numbers) on mountain summits over time (lower part of panels) compared to mean annual temperature over time (upper part of panels). Nobs indicates the number of summits/surveys within the mountain region providing data for the respective panel. ΔTcor indicates the correlation between rate of change in species richness and rate of change in temperature. Graphic: Manuel Steinbauer, et al., 2018 / Nature

By Peter F. Gammelby
4 April 2018

(Aarhus University) – It is not as lonely at the top as it used to be.

At least not for plants which, due to global warming, are increasingly finding habitats on mountain tops that were formerly reserved for only the toughest and most hardy species.

A large international research team has not only ascertained a considerable increase in the number of plant species on 302 European mountain peaks over the past 150 years; they have also found that this increase is accelerating. Moreover, it is certain that this development is linked to rises in temperatures; changes in precipitation and nitrogen input could not explain the increase.

Therefore, the researchers have demonstrated that the flora is trying to keep pace with the consequences of accelerating anthropogenic impacts on all the Earth's system.

During the decade from 1957-66, the number of species on each of the 302 mountain tops increased by 1.1 species on average. Since then, the trend has accelerated: From 2007-16, on average 5.5 new species moved up to the 302 summits.

The researchers have only been able to count the plant species that have already responded to the temperature rise and actually have moved upwards. They have not studied the number of species that might be on the way upwards.

Competitive immigrants

However, the results of the new study, which has recently been published in the journal Nature, has not prompted researchers to sound the alarm. Yet.

The study does not show how much the increase in new plant species on summits has displaced existing species that have been growing at these heights for centuries. However, the figures do indicate that this might be happening or will happen in the future.

"Some of the species which have adapted to the cold and rocky conditions on mountain summits will probably disappear in the long term. They have nowhere else to go, and they can’t develop rapidly enough to be able to compete with the new arrivals, which are taller and more competitive under warmer climates," explained the main author of the study, Manuel Steinbauer.

Even though it is likely that highly specialised species on mountain summits will be out-competed in the future, this is not absolutely certain. As Manuel Steinbauer puts it:

"The species that move upwards, often come from grassland above the tree line. But they can’t survive everywhere on the mountain top, so it’s not certain that they will be a threat to all the existing species up there. The local soil conditions and micro-climates also play a role."

Manuel Steinbauer analysed the huge volumes of data while he was working at the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. He is now a professor at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU).

"Even though the existing species on mountain tops are not acutely endangered, the strong acceleration in the effects of global warming on plant communities on the peaks does give cause for concern, as we expect far stronger climate change toward 2100," explained professor and VILLUM Investigator Jens-Christian Svenning from the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University, who has also been involved in the research project.

A unique study

The new study was conducted by researchers from 11 European countries, and it could not have been completed anywhere, other than in Europe.

Not because the plants were afraid of heights in the other parts of the world, but because only in Europe is there data on how plant species have moved since the 1870s.

Therefore, the researchers have not only climbed up the mountains many times to register flora meticulously: some of them have also delved into the 150 years of records fastidiously kept by hundreds of botanists around Europe, while they botanised on the same mountains.

"Mountain peaks have the great advantage that they don’t move. Therefore, we can be sure that we have investigated precisely in the same places as the botanists of the past. We wouldn't be able to compare the old records from mountainsides or valleys with our own investigations if we couldn't be sure that we had looked at the same places. Of course, at that time there was no GPS," said Dr. Sonja Wipf from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, WSL in Davos, Switzerland.

Future-proof data from the past

One of the many botanists was the Swiss professor, Josias Braun-Blanquet (1884-1980), who more than a century ago predicted that this type of study may be necessary:

"In order to create a solid foundation for the future, I investigated numerous mountain peaks in detail. […] On the basis of a comprehensive description of locations, it will not be difficult to verify my species lists, and an increase or decrease of species richness in the future will be possible to detect with high certainty,” he wrote (in German) in one of his major works, Die Vegetationsverhältnisse der Schneestufe in den Rätisch-Lepontischen Alpen. Ein Bild des Pflanzenlebens an seinen äußersten Grenzen in 1913.

"We’re confident that this old data is of high quality. And to make sure that our own new data is also good, on several of the summits we’ve had two people climb up to gather data independently of each other," said Sonja Wipf, who has been responsible for collecting much of the new data.

"Braun-Blanquet's foresight has given us food for thought. Without his fascination for understanding the distribution of plant species on mountain peaks, we wouldn’t have been able to ascertain that the effects of global warming are accelerating. This is a really good example of the importance of non-targeted research and fascination for understanding complexity in nature," said Associate Professor Signe Normand from the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University, who also participated in the research project.


Manuel Steinbauer
Professor, GeoZentrum Nordbayern,
Department of Geography and Geosciences,
Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU)
Phone +49 9131 85 22407

Sonja Wipf
PhD, scientific staff member
Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL)
Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF)
Phone +41 (0)81 417 0276

Jens-Christian Svenning
Professor, VILLUM Investigator, Department of Bioscience - Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity
Aarhus University
Mobile +45 2899 2304

Signe Normand
Associate professor, VILLUM Young Investigator, Department of Bioscience - Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity
Aarhus University
Phone +45 8715 4345

Increase of plant species on mountain tops is accelerating with global warming

ABSTRACT: Globally accelerating trends in societal development and human environmental impacts since the mid-twentieth century1,2,3,4,5,6,7 are known as the Great Acceleration and have been discussed as a key indicator of the onset of the Anthropocene epoch6. While reports on ecological responses (for example, changes in species range or local extinctions) to the Great Acceleration are multiplying8, 9, it is unknown whether such biotic responses are undergoing a similar acceleration over time. This knowledge gap stems from the limited availability of time series data on biodiversity changes across large temporal and geographical extents. Here we use a dataset of repeated plant surveys from 302 mountain summits across Europe, spanning 145 years of observation, to assess the temporal trajectory of mountain biodiversity changes as a globally coherent imprint of the Anthropocene. We find a continent-wide acceleration in the rate of increase in plant species richness, with five times as much species enrichment between 2007 and 2016 as fifty years ago, between 1957 and 1966. This acceleration is strikingly synchronized with accelerated global warming and is not linked to alternative global change drivers. The accelerating increases in species richness on mountain summits across this broad spatial extent demonstrate that acceleration in climate-induced biotic change is occurring even in remote places on Earth, with potentially far-ranging consequences not only for biodiversity, but also for ecosystem functioning and services.

Accelerated increase in plant species richness on mountain summits is linked to warming

Cover of the book, 'Humanity', by Ai Weiwei. Published by Princeton University Press. Graphic: Princeton University Press

By Robin Pogrebin
23 April 2018

(The New York Times) – The prominent Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has long used his fame and social media as a megaphone for his activism. It was because of his blogging and Twitter activity criticizing the government that he was detained by the Chinese police for nearly three months and had his passport taken away in 2011. And his Instagram posts of the last few years have brought increasing international attention to the refugee crisis, as has his documentary Human Flow, released last fall.

But now Mr. Ai has returned to a more traditional form of expression: Humanity, a little blue book published this week by Princeton University Press that collects excerpts from Mr. Ai’s thoughts and aphorisms — expressed in previously published interviews and other public appearances.

“The tragedy is not only that people have lost their lives,” Mr. Ai says in the book’s excerpt from a 2016 BBC interview. “The tragedy is the people who, in the very rich nations, have lost their humanity.”

Larry Warsh, a longtime collector and champion of Mr. Ai’s work, who edited the book and wrote its introduction, said he thought it was important to gather the artist’s most powerful statements all in one place.

“It’s a real snapshot of something that most people have a hard time grasping,” Mr. Warsh said. “It’s about putting it together in a way we all can see the significance of these issues.”

Mr. Warsh described “Humanity” as a continuation of the 6-inch-tall 2012 book Weiwei-isms — which he also edited — with Mr. Ai’s ruminations on individual rights and freedom of expression.

Mr. Ai sat down to discuss his new book and some of the issues he will address there. Following are edited excerpts. […]

What initially got you interested in the refugee crisis?

One lady from Iraq came to see me. She said, “I want you to help me to select drawings made in an Iraqi [refugee] camp. With your reputation, the wind is behind you, so we want to draw some attention.” I looked through their drawings — kind of naïve drawings, memories about how their houses had been bombed. They were like children’s drawings. I got very attracted to it. I said, “I can do that only with one condition: if I can send some of my team to that camp. I just want to interview those people.” [more]

Ai Weiwei’s Little Blue Book on the Refugee Crisis

Humanity: Writings on human life and the refugee crisis by the most important political artist of our time

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is widely known as an artist across media: sculpture, installation, photography, performance, and architecture. He is also one of the world's most important artist-activists and a powerful documentary filmmaker. His work and art call attention to attacks on democracy and free speech, abuses of human rights, and human displacement--often on an epic, international scale.

This collection of quotations demonstrates the range of Ai Weiwei's thinking on humanity and mass migration, issues that have occupied him for decades. Selected from articles, interviews, and conversations, Ai Weiwei's words speak to the profound urgency of the global refugee crisis, the resilience and vulnerability of the human condition, and the role of art in providing a voice for the voiceless.

Select quotations from the book:

"This problem has such a long history, a human history. We are all refugees somehow, somewhere, and at some moment."

"Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era."

"Art is about aesthetics, about morals, about our beliefs in humanity. Without that there is simply no art."

"I don't care what all people think. My work belongs to the people who have no voice."

Ai Weiwei is one of the world's most influential and inspiring figures. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Venice Biennale, the Guangzhou Triennial, Tate Modern, and the Smithsonian, among many other major international venues. Larry Warsh has been active in the art world for more than thirty years. He has collaborated with Ai Weiwei on several projects, including the public art installation Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads. He is the editor of Weiwei-isms and Jean-Michel Basquiat's Notebooks (both Princeton).



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