Author Archives: Stoa

Oceans Restored: the 2050 Deadline

A study published in Nature on April 2, 2020 claims that marine ecosystems could recover in just 30 years because of the growing success of conservation efforts and the ocean’s remarkable resilience. Some of these conservation efforts include the increase in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from less than 1 percent in 2000 to almost 8 percent today and the restoration of key habitats such as seagrass beds and mangroves

One great success is the restoration of humpback whales that migrate between Antarctica and eastern Australia. Their numbers have rebounded from a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today. Sea otters in Western Canada have also jumped from dozens in 1980 to thousands. Green turtles in Japan, grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic and elephant seals in the United States have all also made remarkable comebacks. However, “If we don’t tackle climate change and raise the ambition and immediacy of these efforts, we risk wasting our efforts,” Duarte, one of the authors of the study, told BBC News. The initial price tag on all this is hefty: $10 to $20 billion a year until the 2050 recovery date.

Excerpts from Oceans Can Recover by 2050, Study Shows, EcoWatch, Apr. 2, 2020

Better Alive than Dead: The Crocodile Trade

Around 6m tonnes of bush meat are thought to come out of the Congo Basin each year… The trade has emptied out parts of the forest; 39% of it is at severe risk of over-hunting, the study says. Everything from bonobos (an endangered species of ape) to cobras, antelopes and, occasionally, elephants, appear at market stalls in Mbandaka.

Over-hunting has made life more dangerous for crocodile hunters. The number of dwarf crocodiles, once common in the Congo river, is dwindling. So hunters have to chase the ferocious Nile crocodile instead. There are plenty of those. Their scaly bodies stretch to six metres and they often kill humans. Stalkers in canoes go after them at night, shining a torch while stirring the water. “The crocodile does not like that,” says Mr Nyalowala. “He begins to writhe and then comes to attack.” As the animal pounces so do its pursuers, spearing it.

A live crocodile fetches more than a dead one in the markets in Mbandaka, so hunters bind their jaws and transport them some 200km downstream in their canoes. They sell for around $150 each. A teacher at a state school, by comparison, earns around $170 a month, though many did not get paid at all last year.

Croc in the pot: The toils and spoils of Congo’s crocodile-killers, Economist, Mar. 19, 2020

Even the Oceans are not Free: Swarming the Seas

The Ocean of Things of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to  wire up the high seas with swarms of floating, connected sensors.  Such devices are not in themselves new. There are around 6,000 floating sensors deployed around the world’s oceans, run by navies and research institutes. What is unprecedented is the scale of  DARPA’s ambition. Over the next few years it hopes to deploy 50,000 sensors across 1m square kilometres of sea, an area considerably larger than Texas. The eventual goal—much more distant—is to enable the continuous monitoring and analysis of a significant fraction of the world’s oceans.

Existing “floating instrument packages”, known as floats or drifters, are often custom-built, and usually contain the highest-quality instruments available. They therefore tend to be expensive, and are bought only in small numbers. A typical existing float, designed for scientific research, is the Argo. It costs around $20,000, and can measure water temperature and salinity.  The Ocean of Things takes the opposite approach. The aim is to cram as many cheap, off-the-shelf components as possible into a single low-cost package. Current float prototypes cost around $750…That would allow tens of thousands to be deployed without breaking the bank. Large numbers are crucial for coverage. They also help compensate for inaccuracies in individual instruments.

The project’s researchers are evaluating three designs from different manufacturers, ranging in size from about six to 18 litres. One, proposed by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, is made of glass, like a traditional Japanese fishing float. A second, from a firm called Areté Associates, has an aluminium shell, and uses wood for buoyancy. Both models feature solar panels. The third, made by a company called Numurus, is made of lacquered cardboard, and relies entirely on its batteries. All three are designed to last for a year or so and are made to be as environmentally friendly as possible, with minimal use of plastics. That is important because, at the end of their mission, the floats are designed to scuttle themselves

With 361m square kilometres of ocean on the planet, a true Ocean of Things, monitoring everything on and under the water, would require about 18m floats.

Excerpts from Big Wet Data: The Ocean of Things, Economist, Mar. 14, 2020

The Nuclear Reactors Buried in the Deep Sea

The Soviet Union used the waters east of Novaya Zemlya to dump reactors, spent nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste from both the navy and the fleet of nuclear-powered civilian icebreakers. About 17,000 objects were dumped in the period from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Most of the objects are metal containers with low- and medium level radioactive waste. The challenge today, though, are the reactors with high-level waste and spent uranium fuel, objects that will pose a serious threat to the marine environment for tens of thousands of years if nothing is done to secure them.

The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 (in the Kara Sea) and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted and secured. Also, the submarine K-159 (in the Barents Sea) that sank north of Murmansk while being towed for decommissioning in 2003 have to be lifted from the seafloor, the experts conclude. A study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission has evaluated the costs of lifting all six objects, bringing them safely to a yard for decommissioning and securing the reactors for long-term storage. The estimated price-tag for all six will €278 millions, of which the K-159 is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 millions. Unlike the submarines and reactors that are dumped in relatively shallow waters in the Kara Sea, the K-159 is at about 200 meters depth, and thus will be more difficult to lift.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Lifting Russia’s accident reactors from the Arctic seafloor will cost nearly €300 million, Mar. 8, 2020

Survivable Nuclear Weapons: Count on Them

The U.S. Defense Department said on February 4, 2020 the Navy had fielded a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, something the Pentagon believes is needed to deter adversaries like Russia but which critics say lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons.  Low-yield nuclear weapons, while still devastating, have a strength of less than 20 kilotons. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, had about the same explosive power.

“This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement.  “(It) supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” Rood added….

“The administration’s decision to deploy the W76-2 warhead remains a misguided and dangerous one. The deployment of this warhead does nothing to make Americans safer,” Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.  The United States already has air-launched, low-yield nuclear weapons and critics say that should be sufficient….

Excerpts from Idrees Ali U.S. deploys ‘more survivable’ submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapon, Reuters, Feb. 4, 2020

How to Create a National Park? Beat Up and Intimidate Indigenous Peoples

Armed ecoguards partly funded by the conservation group WWF to protect wildlife in the Republic of the Congo beat up and intimidated hundreds of Baka pygmies living deep in the rainforests, according to a UNDP investigation. A team of investigators sent to northern Congo by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to assess allegations of human rights abuses gathered “credible” evidence from different sources that hunter-gatherer Baka tribespeople living close to a proposed national park had been subjected to violence and physical abuse from the guards over years, according to a leaked draft of the report obtain by the Guardian in February 2020.

The allegations, reported to the UN in 2019, included Baka tribespeople being beaten by the ecoguards, the criminalisation and illegal imprisonment of Baka men, summary evictions from the forest, the burning and destruction of property, and the confiscation of food.  In addition, the UNDP’s social and environmental compliance unit heard how the ecoguards allegedly treated the Baka men as “sub-human” and humiliated some Baka women by forcing them to take off their clothes and “be like naked children”.

The report says: “These beatings occur when the Baka are in their camps along the road as well as when they are in the forest. They affect men, women and children. Other reports refer to ecoguards pointing a gun at one Baka to force him to beat another and guards taking away the machetes of the Baka, then beating them with those machetes.

“There are reports of Baka men having been taken to prison and of torture and rape inside prison. The widow of one Baka man spoke about her husband being so ill-treated in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been transported to the prison in a WWF-marked vehicle.”

The draft report, dated 6 January 2020, adds: “The violence and threats are leading to trauma and suffering in the Baka communities. It is also preventing the Baka from pursuing their customary livelihoods, which in turn is contributing to their further marginalisation and impoverishment.”

The $21.4m (£16.6m) flagship Tridom 11 project in northern Congo set up in 2017 with money from the WWF, UNDP, the European commission, US and Congolese governments and the Global Environment Facility, as well as logging and palm oil conglomerates, includes as its centrepiece a 1,456 sq km area of forest known as Messok Dja.

This global biodiversity hotspot is rich in wildlife, including elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, and has been lived in and used for the hunting of small game by the semi-nomadic Baka tribes for millennia. The WWF has pressed for it to be designated a protected area, or national park, for 10 years, on the grounds that it will reduce wildlife crime and act as an ecological corridor linking national parks in neighbouring Cameroon.

The WWF says the ecoguards were employed by the Congolese government, but admits contributing to their training and wages along with other funders through the Tridom interzone project (ETIC), a Congo government collaboration with WWF. It adds that there are no legal restrictions preventing Baka using the forests….The investigators also identified multiple failures of the UNDP to adhere to human rights policies and standards, and said little consideration had been given to the impact of the project on the Baka peoples….Investigators also said they found no evidence that the UNDP had taken into account the risk of co-financing the project with palm oil and logging companies whose work by its nature threatens large-scale biodiversity loss.

The report strongly criticises the way conservation is practised in central Africa. “The goal of establishing Messok Dja as a protected area was pursued by following the established patterns of conservation projects in the Congo Basin, which largely exclude indigenous peoples and treat them as threats rather than partners,” it says.

Excerpts from John Vidal, Armed ecoguards funded by WWF ‘beat up Congo tribespeople’, Guardian, Feb, 3, 2020

Hunting Down Polluters from Space

When scanning for emissions from a mud volcano in western Turkmenistan in January 2019, a satellite called Claire came across a large plume of methane drifting across the landscape. … The company operating the satellite, GHGSAT passed details via diplomats to officials in Turkmenistan, and after a few months the leaks stopped. This largely unknown incident illustrates two things: that satellites can play an important role in spotting leaks of greenhouse gases and, rather worryingly, that the extent of such leaks is often greatly underestimated. The data from Claire suggested the leak in Turkmenistan had been a big one…142,000 tonnes of methane. This made the Turkmenistani leak far bigger than the 97,000 tonnes of methane discharged over four months by a notorious blowout at a natural-gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, California, in 2015, which is reckoned to have been the worst natural-gas leak yet recorded in America. There have been other big leaks, too…

The reason for concern is that although methane, the main constituent of natural gas, does not linger in the atmosphere for anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide does, it is a far more potent heat-trapping agent. About a quarter of man-made global warming is thought to be caused by methane. And between a fifth and a third of the methane involved is contributed by the oil and gas industry. Methane can be detected spectroscopically. Like other gases, it absorbs light at characteristic frequencies. With a spectrometer mounted on a satellite it is possible to analyse light reflected from Earth for signs of the gas. As with the satellites that carry them, spectrometers come in many shapes and sizes. Tropomi can also detect the spectral signs of other polluting gases, such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Other methane-hunting satellites are coming. These include one due for launch in 2022 by Methanesat, an affiliate of the Environmental Defence Fund, an American non-profit organisation. The 350kg satellite will cost $88m to build and put into orbit. It will scan an area of land 200km wide with a resolution of 1km by 1km. According to Methanesat, it will be the most sensitive to emission levels yet, being able to detect methane concentrations as low as two parts-per-billion. Data collected by the satellite will be publicly available.

Excerpts from The Methane Hunters, Economist, Feb. 1 2020