Baby tree saplings, cloned from giant redwoods in California, chill out in the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive's propagation area. Photo: Jake Milarch

By  Alison Gillespie
October 6, 2015

( – It isn’t hard to find the big tree they call Lady Liberty in Florida. It stands at the end of a boardwalk about 16 miles north of Orlando, along with many gums, oaks, and magnolias in the middle of a small public park.

What is hard is photographing the living landmark: At 89 feet tall, Lady Liberty is much smaller than some champion trees but still gigantic by most standards, making it a big draw for tourists who come to see what a 2,000-year-old tree looks like. It is impossible to capture the entire massive trunk and gnarled branches in a single frame, although many visitors try—lying on the ground below with cameras pointed skyward.

This December, the Archangel Tree Archive will pay a visit to Big Tree Park as well, hoping to gather some young shoots from Lady Liberty’s branches to clone the massive cypress. The non-profit specializes in collecting and storing the genetic material of iconic old trees and then seeking appropriate places to replant the resulting clones, in an effort to preserve them for future generations. Experts estimate that less than 10 percent of the old growth forest in the U.S. is still standing. Some stands of the oldest trees are now threatened by logging and development.

Or worse. For years the majestic Lady Liberty was overshadowed by the Senator, another bald cypress that used to grow in this same Seminole County park. The Senator had once reached a height of 165 feet. Postcards from the 1920s show groups of people trying, unsuccessfully, to hold hands and encircle the tree’s massive 12-foot-wide trunk. Experts estimated that the giant tree was more than 3,500 years old.

When the Senator burned to the ground three years ago, the managers of Big Tree Park received more than 1,000 emails and phone calls from people all over the world expressing sadness and outrage.

“I had parents who recalled going to see the Senator with their grandparents, and their grandparents had been there with their grandparents,” says Jim Duby, program manager for Seminole County. What had seemed indomitable was suddenly gone, and a personal connection people felt to the past was severed. The tragedy also inspired in some people a renewed appreciation for the trees that remained, including some volunteers at the park who asked about protecting and researching Lady Liberty.

Enter Archangel. Previous projects have taken Archangel scientists to the tops of California’s redwoods and the depths of old-growth forests in England. They are often called in to clone trees growing near historic homes, including places such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Archangel’s lead propagator, Jake Milarch, says his staff and a group of scientific advisors have identified a list of approximately 100 iconic trees around the world that should be cloned.

“We go for the biggest trees, because those are the ones that have survived,” he says, arguing that their genetics likely played a big part in that longevity.

Not everyone is convinced that cloning big old trees is always worthwhile. Some critics point out that conservation work should ideally seek to protect more than lone specimens, pushing instead to save valuable parcels of land and their embedded habitats to protect the health of the entire ecosystem. Others worry that cloning could potentially create a dangerously vulnerable monoculture if locations for the new trees are not selected carefully and tracked regularly.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea. I think to preserve those species that have stood the test of time is necessary. But it’s not sufficient,” says Charles Maynard, director of the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Center in New York. His own group has spent decades researching the genetics of chestnut trees and the possible ways blight-resistant strains of those trees could be realistically reintroduced into forests. [more]

The Race to Save the World's Great Trees By Cloning Them

Map showing the year-to-date maximum coral bleaching thermal stress alert area for 1 January 2015 - 6 OCtober 2015. Graphic: NOAA / Coral Reef Watch

By Chris Mooney
8 October 2015

(The Washington Post) – For just the third time on record, scientists say they are now watching the unfolding of a massive worldwide coral bleaching event, spanning the globe from Hawaii to the Indian Ocean. And they fear that thanks to warm sea temperatures, the ultimate result could be the loss of more than 12,000 square kilometers, or over 4,500 square miles, of coral this year — with particularly strong impacts in Hawaii and other U.S. tropical regions, and potentially continuing into 2016.

The event is being brought on by a combination of global warming, a very strong El Nino event, and the so-called warm “blob” in the Pacific Ocean, say the researchers, part of a consortium including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as XL Catlin Seaview Survey, The University of Queensland in Australia, and Reef Check.

“This is only the third time we’ve seen what we would refer to as a global bleaching event, an event that causes mass bleaching in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic-Caribbean basin,” said Mark Eakin, who heads NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch. The prior events, Eakin continues, “were in 1998 and 2010, and those were pretty much one year events. We’re looking at a similar spatial scale of bleaching across the globe, but spanning across at least 2 years. So that means a lot of these corals are being put under really prolonged stress, or are being hit 2 years in a row.”

Map showing the daily 5-km satellite coral bleaching thermal stress for 6 October 2015. Graphic: NOAA / Coral Reef Watch

The total loss could amount to 5 percent of the world’s corals in 2015, according to Eakin. That’s not as bad as the loss in 1998, but there’s a fear that if the event continues into 2016, the losses would grow.

“We’ve been hearing worrying reports of bleaching from various places, and now the bad news is officially here, with worse news likely yet to come with the strengthening El Niño,” says Nancy Knowlton, an expert on coral reefs with the Smithsonian Institution, of the news. “No reefs that experience unusually warm waters are likely to escape unscathed, but reefs already suffering from overfishing and pollution may have a particularly rough time recovering, based on what we have learned from past bleaching events.” […]

The current bleaching event began in 2014, where it was observed in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. These areas experienced “the highest thermal stress we’ve ever seen,” said Eakin. Then it spread across the Pacific to Hawaii, which is at particular risk right now, along with many areas in the Caribbean. Major bleaching has also been observed in the Indian Ocean.

According to NOAA, 95 percent of all U.S. coral reefs are expected to see ocean temperatures that can lead to bleaching sometime this year. Of those areas, says Eakin, 60 percent are expected to be “hit with severe thermal stress and we’re going to see a lot of corals dying.” [more]

Scientists say a dramatic worldwide coral bleaching event is now underway

Bellandur Lake, in India’s technology capital of Bangalore, carries huge volumes of toxic foam which blocks the adjacent canals. The snowy froth, a cocktail of chemicals and sewage, has a pungent odour and causes irritation on contact with the skin. Photo: Debasish Ghosh / The Guardian

By Debasish Ghosh
1 October 2015

(The Guardian) – IT professional Debasish Ghosh has been documenting toxic foam in the Indian city’s polluted lake system. The snowy froth, a cocktail of chemicals and sewage, has a pungent odour and causes irritation on contact with the skin.

Bangalore was once known for its interconnected lake systems which provided a reliable source of water.

As the city grew these lakes became polluted by chemicals and sewage, creating a harmful snowy froth, which floats up from the city’s largest lake and spills over into surrounding areas.

Bellandur Lake, in India’s technology capital of Bangalore, carries huge volumes of toxic foam which blocks the adjacent canals. The snowy froth, a cocktail of chemicals and sewage, has a pungent odour and causes irritation on contact with the skin. Photo: Debasish Ghosh / The Guardian

Bellandur Lake, in India’s technology capital, now carries huge volumes of snowy froth which blocks the adjacent canals. […]

Many such lakes in Bangalore becoming polluted with harmful chemicals like nitrates, potassium, and sulphates. […]

In May, the lake caught fire twice. [more]

Bangalore's lake of toxic foam – in pictures

Geographic distribution of threatened species. a–d, Number of threatened species (IUCN Red List Categories Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered) of cacti (a), amphibians (b), birds (c) and mammals (d) (see Methods). Graphic: Goettsch, et al., 2015 / Nature Plants

5 October 2015 (AFP) – Thirty-one percent of cacti, some 500 species, face extinction due to human encroachment, according to the first global assessment of the prickly plants, published Monday.

The finding places the cactus among the most threatened taxonomic groups on Earth, ahead of mammals and birds and just behind corals, according to the inter-government group International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"The results of this assessment come as a shock to us," lead researcher Barbara Goettsch, co-chair of the IUCN's Cactus and Succulent Plant Specialist Group, said in a statement.

"We did not expect cacti to be so highly threatened."

The IUCN Red List is widely recognized as the gold standard for measuring extinction risk for animals and plants.

Cacti — native to the Americas, but introduced over centuries to Africa, Australia and Europe — are crucial links in the food chains of many animals, including humans.

They are an essential sources of sustenance and water for deer, woodrats, rabbits, coyotes, lizards, and tortoises which, in return, help spread cacti seeds. […]

Depending on the species and the region, different forces have driven the decline in cacti, found the study, published in Nature Plants.

The top threat to cacti is expanding agriculture, especially in northern Mexico and the southern part of South America.

Species native to coastal areas are being decimated by residential and commercial development, while in southern Brazil conversion of land for eucalyptus plantations is harming at least 27 species, some of them already on the endangered list.

"Their loss could have far-reaching consequences for the biodiversity and ecology of arid lands and for local communities dependent on wild-harvested fruits and stems," Goettsch said.

Researchers were also surprised to find that illegal trade in highly-prized plants is also a key factor in their disappearance.

"The scale of the illegal wildlife trade — including trade in plants — is much greater than we previously thought," said Inger Andersen, IUCN director general. [more]

A third of cacti facing extinction due to human encroachment, study finds

ABSTRACT: A high proportion of plant species is predicted to be threatened with extinction in the near future. However, the threat status of only a small number has been evaluated compared with key animal groups, rendering the magnitude and nature of the risks plants face unclear. Here we report the results of a global species assessment for the largest plant taxon evaluated to date under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Categories and Criteria, the iconic Cactaceae (cacti). We show that cacti are among the most threatened taxonomic groups assessed to date, with 31% of the 1,478 evaluated species threatened, demonstrating the high anthropogenic pressures on biodiversity in arid lands. The distribution of threatened species and the predominant threatening processes and drivers are different to those described for other taxa. The most significant threat processes comprise land conversion to agriculture and aquaculture, collection as biological resources, and residential and commercial development. The dominant drivers of extinction risk are the unscrupulous collection of live plants and seeds for horticultural trade and private ornamental collections, smallholder livestock ranching and smallholder annual agriculture. Our findings demonstrate that global species assessments are readily achievable for major groups of plants with relatively moderate resources, and highlight different conservation priorities and actions to those derived from species assessments of key animal groups.

Plants are of fundamental importance to much of the rest of biodiversity and to many ecosystem functions, processes and services. However, the global status of plant species, that is their likelihood of extinction in the near future, remains poorly understood. Only 19,374 (6%) of an estimated ∼300,000 species1 have been evaluated against the current IUCN Red List Criteria2. Moreover, global species assessments, in which the extinction risk of every extant species in a taxonomic group is systematically assessed, have been conducted only for very few plant groups (such as cycads, conifers, mangroves, sea grasses3,​4,​5) of which most are not especially diverse.

This situation is troublesome because there is evidence suggesting that the conservation status of plant species is of particular concern. Despite the small proportion of plants whose threat status has been evaluated, they nonetheless constitute a high proportion (47%) of all threatened species (across all kingdoms) currently on the IUCN Red List5. In addition, plant species are known to have geographic range sizes, a key correlate of extinction risk, that are on average smaller than those of many other groups; the smallest ranges are typically also much smaller than their equivalents among vertebrate groups6. Estimates of likely levels of recent and future plant extinction also indicate that these may be high7,8.

Responding to this concern, determining the threat status of all known plant species, as far as is possible, has been identified as a key target for the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020 (ref. 9). This follows the global failure to meet the previous incarnation of this target as of 2010 (ref. 10). It is difficult to determine why, in contrast to vertebrates5,11,12, progress has been so slow, and comprehensive assessments of plant groups are so scarce. Likely reasons include the assumption that there is insufficient information available to assess most plant species against the IUCN Red List Criteria, including data on species' geographic distributions (although much valuable distributional data undoubtedly reside, unsynthesized, in herbaria and botanical collections). In addition, plants lack the popular appeal of some animal groups, making it difficult to attract the funding to support global species assessments. And the costs of such assessments are thought to be restrictively high13,​14,​15,​16,​17,​18.

Here we challenge these assumptions, presenting the results of the largest comprehensive assessment to date of an entire plant taxon, the cacti, against the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria (1,480 extant species of which 1,478 were evaluated, with two species for which no information could be obtained). We focus on the levels of threat to species, how species at different levels of threat are distributed, the nature of the threats and the practicality of such global species assessments for plants. The cacti are a culturally significant group, perceived as amongst the more charismatic of plant taxa. This has led to a long history of human use, including for private and public ornamental plant collections, leading to major conservation concerns. Surprisingly, only 11% of cactus species had been evaluated for the Red List before 2013. Cacti are distributed predominantly in, and are somewhat emblematic of, New World arid lands (only one species naturally occurs in Africa and Asia; Supplementary Table 1). Despite huge anthropogenic pressures, these regions have not attracted the conservation attention associated with other biomes, particularly tropical forests19,20.

Historic rainfall in South Carolina, October 2015. In the first four days of October, rainfall in the Charleston area shattered the monthly record. Graphic: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable / National Weather Service

By Andrew Freedman
5 October 2015

(Mashable) – The epic amount of rain that led to deadly, catastrophic flooding across large parts of South Carolina and North Carolina is an example of exactly the type of supercharged storm system climate scientists have been warning about for years as a likely consequence of global warming.

This storm, like others that have come before it — from a massive deluge that flooded Oklahoma City to a flooding event in Houston, both of which occurred earlier this year — are examples of how the atmosphere is behaving in new ways now that there's more water vapor and heat for weather systems to work with.

It's not that heavy downpours and floods didn't occur before manmade global warming became evident (for the record, they did). The issue now is that these events are even more severe than they otherwise would have been. And they are becoming more frequent in many areas.

Though there are significant limits on what climate scientists can say at this point about an event like the South Carolina floods, it's well-established that global warming has already led to a measurable increase in global atmospheric water vapor levels, and this moisture can be wrung out as heavier bursts of rain or snow.

It is also well-established in scientific literature that precipitation is increasingly falling in short, intense bursts rather than long-lasting, generally lighter events.

The risk for extreme precipitation events is increasing in many parts of the world.

One study, for example, showed that a 1-in-100 year winter-rainfall event in parts of the United Kingdom is already occurring more frequently, becoming a 1-in-80 year event.

This means that an event with a 1% chance of occurring each year now has a 1.25% risk of occurring in any particular winter, which translates to a 25% increase in risk, according to Oxford University scientists. [more]

South Carolina flooding is the type of event climate scientists have warned about for years

The 2000-gallon water tank outside Myra Marquez's home in Okieville, Tulare County, California. She checks the gauge on her 2500 gallon water tank before she touches a faucet. The tank gets filled every Monday. Rationing 2000 gallons over five or six days is tough. Photo: CBS

TULARE COUNTY, 29 September 2015 (CBS) – California’s four year drought has the whole state in a water crisis, but no area has been harder hit than the state’s Central Valley, where the wells have run dry.

In the small town of Okieville, in Tulare County, residents are struggling to stay in their homes.

At Myra Marquez’s house, she checks the gauge on her 2500 gallon water tank before she touches a faucet. The tank gets filled every Monday.

Rationing 2000 gallons over five or six days is tough.

“It’s hard,” she said.

It’s become the way of life in Okieville, which has about 90 residents. The town was named after the people who migrated there in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl.

Homes like Marquez’s are stacked with boxes of drinking water, and trucks haul in more to fill tanks, funded by the state’s Emergency Drought Relief Program.

“So without this (tank), you know, we can’t take a shower. We can’t wash clothes. We can’t do anything without it,” says Marquez.

In Tulare County, nearly 1700 household wells are dry. That’s more than all other counties combined.

Gilbert Arrendondo ran a pipe three blocks to tap into a neighbor’s well when his dried up last year.

“I’ve never seen this happen before because they would drill down and find a way to help us out,” said Arrendondo.

He says drilling a new well would cost $30,000, so he may be forced to leave his home of 30 years.

“I’ve got no choice but move cause we need water,” he says. [more]

Drought: Rationing Is Rough In Central California Town Without Water

A plastic fragment, here seen under a microscope, extracted from a fish sold at market. UC Davis researchers found plastic and fibrous debris in 25 percent of fish sold to consumers in Indonesia and California. Photo: Rosalyn Lam

24 September 2015 (University of California, Davis) – Roughly a quarter of the fish sampled from fish markets in California and Indonesia contained human-made debris — plastic or fibrous material — in their guts, according to a study from the University of California, Davis, and Hasanuddin University in Indonesia.

The study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, is one of the first to directly link plastic and human-made debris to the fish on consumers’ dinner plates.

“It’s interesting that there isn’t a big difference in the amount of debris in the fish from each location, but in the type — plastic or fiber,” said lead author Chelsea Rochman, a David H. Smith postdoctoral fellow in the Aquatic Health Program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We think the type of debris in the fish is driven by differences in local waste management.”

‘Waiter, there’s some plastic in my fish’

The researchers sampled 76 fish from markets in Makassar, Indonesia, and 64 from Half Moon Bay and Princeton in California. All of the fragments recovered from fish in Indonesia were plastic. In contrast, 80 percent of the debris found in California fish was fibers, whereas not a single strand of fiber was found in Indonesian fish.

Indonesia has little in the way of landfills, waste collection or recycling, and large amounts of plastic are tossed onto the beaches and into the ocean. The problem is made worse by a lack of purified drinking water that forces its residents to drink bottled water.

Students help pick up plastic from a beach in Indonesia, 8 August 2015. UC Davis researchers found plastic fragments and textile fibers in 25 percent of fish sold in Indonesian and California markets. Photo: Susan Williams / UC Davis

“Indonesia has some of the highest marine life richness and biodiversity on Earth, and its coastal regions — mangroves, coral reefs, and their beaches — are just awash in debris,” said co-author Susan Williams, a professor with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory who has worked on projects in Indonesia for the past several years. “You have the best and the worst situation right in front of you in Indonesia.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has highly advanced systems for collecting and recycling plastics. However, most Californians wash their clothing in washing machines, the water from which empties into more than 200 wastewater treatment plants offshore California. The authors theorize that fibers remaining in sewage effluent from washing machines were ingested by fish sampled in the state.

“To mitigate the issue in each location, it helps to think about local sources and differences in waste management strategies,” Rochman said.

It takes guts

The scientists emphasize that the plastic and fibers are found in the fishes’ guts. That means humans are likely to ingest the debris only if the fish is eaten whole, as it is in Indonesia, or such as with sardines and anchovies, rather than filleted. However, researchers are still studying whether chemicals in plastic can transfer into the meat.

The study was funded by a UC Davis Global Affairs Seed Grant, the National Science Foundation’s Graduate K-12 and IGERT programs, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program.

Additional information:

Media contacts

  • Chelsea Rochman, School of Veterinary Medicine, Aquatic Health Program, (647) 770-8135, (Rochman is currently based in Toronto, Canada.)
  • Susan Williams, Bodega Marine Laboratory, 707-875-1950, (Williams is based in Bodega Bay, California.)
  • Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-7704,

Plastic for dinner: A quarter of fish sold at markets contain human-made debris

The main migrant route to Germany, 25 September 2015. Graphic: UNHCR / BBC News

5 October 2015 (BBC News) – The number of people seeking asylum in Germany this year will be as high as 1.5 million - almost double the previous estimate, German media report.

The German government has not confirmed the new estimate, which comes from an internal official report cited by popular daily Bild.

The report warns that services helping refugees will not be able to cope.

Separately, a centre-right regional minister put the expected total at 1.2-1.5 million for this year.

The German government previously estimated the number of asylum claims this year to reach 800,000 to one million in total.

Many are refugees fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but there are also many economic migrants from the Balkans, Asia, and Africa.

Distribution of asylum seekers in Germany. Graphic: Bamf / BBC News

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has warned that Europe, in dealing with the migration crisis, is engaged in a "battle of compassion versus fear, and of tolerance versus xenophobia".

Speaking in Geneva, he said the world was facing the highest levels of forced displacement in recorded history and the principle of asylum must remain sacrosanct.

He urged Europe to defend "its founding values of tolerance and openness by welcoming refugees of all religions".

The leaders of Hungary and Slovakia have said the influx of Muslims is a challenge to Europe's "Christian" identity. [more]

Germany 'facing 1.5 million migrants'

School shootings in the U.S., 1990-Oct 2015. Graphic: James P. Galasyn

2 October 2015 (Desdemona Despair) – In early 21st-century America, death by random gun violence has become a background dread, a bit like fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. U.S. schools have modern “duck-and-cover” training for kids in the form of active shooter drills.

A duck and cover drill in a U.S. school. Photo: Perth Amboy Free Pubic Library

Most Americans probably think that school shootings are getting worse, but are they really?

Fortunately, there’s a Wikipedia page that tracks school shootings, so it’s a pretty easy matter to convert the Wikipedia tables into spreadsheets and graphs.

Deaths in school shootings in the U.S., 1990-Oct 2015. Graphic: James P. Galasyn

It’s pretty clear that school shootings really have been getting worse in recent years. The number of incidents took off in 2012 and (hopefully) peaked in 2014 – but there are still three months left in 2015.

You can get the data and related graphs here: School shootings in the US.xlsx.


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