Archive | August, 2012

arctic sea ice

So Long Sea Ice

Arctic sea ice has hit a new low, not just beating the old record, but beating it three weeks earlier than the usual date for the minimum.

Arctic sea ice naturally goes through an annual cycle of expansion and contraction, with summer ice extent reaching its lowest point in September, then stabilizing and starting to expand again as the weather gets colder.  The previous record low of 1.61 million square miles occurred on September 18, 2007. The new low of 1.58 million square miles was set on August 26, 2012, with South-Carolina-sized areas of ice melting daily.  If this keeps up through mid-September, the minimum for 2012 will shatter all previous records.

The six lowest sea ice extents since satellite measurements began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years. While we don’t know for sure what the ice data looked like prior to that, the adventures of explorers searching for the fabled “Northwest Passage” remind us that heavy ice cover was once the norm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s even more alarming about the new record is that this wasn’t even a spectacularly warm summer in the Arctic. Rather, it seems that year after year of big summer ice melts have made the sea ice thinner and more fragile, thus more prone to melting each year. Cambridge University professor Peter Wadhams estimates that the ice pack “has lost at least 40% of its thickness since the 1980s, and if you consider the shrinkage as well it means that the summer ice volume is now only 30% of what it was in the 1980s.”

If all this ice loss strikes you as bad news for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife, you’re right. If you think that’s the only thing we have to worry about, think again. The difference with and without sea ice is like the difference between wearing a white shirt or a black shirt on a hot, sunny day. The white ice reflects the sun’s energy back out toward space, but the dark surface water exposed when the ice melts absorbs much more of the sun’s energy, leading to even faster heating.

And all that dark, heat-absorbing water where once there was ice leads to another problem: the icy sediments at the bottom of the sea may be starting starting to thaw as well. Professor Peter Wadhams points out, “we are also finding the open water causing seabed permafrost to melt, releasing large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.” 

This new low is another sign that climate change isn’t an issue we can just ignore now and worry about later. It’s real, it’s urgent, and it’s affecting our planet right now.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

LPC Habitat conversion map

Lesser prairie chicken habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

The lesser prairie chicken, one of our nation’s iconic grassland birds known for its unique breeding behavior, is also one of our most at-risk species. A new report released by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop insurance subsidies are threatening to convert even more of the grasslands that these birds need to survive.

To read more about lesser prairie chickens and farm subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Lesser prairie chickens rely on a diversity of grassland habitats, including short- and mid-height grasses and forbs together with shrubs to provide cover. Loss of this diverse habitat is one of the biggest threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s continued survival.  As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 1998 that the species warranted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Unless the situation improves for the prairie chicken, it may become federally protected by next fall as part of the Service’s six-year plan to issue final listing decisions for over 250 candidate species.

Based on our report, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses,” more than 1.5 million acres of habitat have been converted to cropland in counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found between 2008 and 2011. This is despite investments by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In FY11, NRCS spent $11 million on improving land management and increasing and enhancing lesser prairie chicken habitat on 458,000 acres. However successful these activities are, even these investments won’t be enough to stem the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat given the current rate of conversion.

Although the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is currently up in the air, one thing is certain: increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring basic environmental protections creates incentives for farmers to plow up more grassland and wetlands. The Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment to its Farm Bill that attaches basic environmental requirements to crop insurance subsidies. To protect the lesser prairie chicken and our nation’s other iconic wildlife, conservation compliance must be included in any Farm Bill Congress passes in 2012.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Crop Insurance and Wildlife: Swift Fox at Risk

Crop Insurance and Wildlife: Swift Fox at Risk

 

Map showing acres converted to cropland

Swift fox habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

Crop insurance subsidies are taking center stage during the 2012 Farm Bill debate, as drought hits farmers across the country and economists talk about $10-$15 billion in taxpayer insurance costs with some insurance recipients receiving more than $1 million in support. Direct payments are eliminated in both the Senate’s 2012 Farm Bill and the House Committee on Agriculture’s bill and both versions of the bill expand crop insurance subsidies – a change that encourages farmers to plow up habitat that is valuable for species such as the swift fox.

To read more about swift fox and crop insurance, read our fact sheet.

Once abundant, swift fox now only inhabit about 60% of their former range. They rely on shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the Great Plains for prey and shelter. A majority of this habitat overlaps with and has been greatly impacted by cropland and other habitat conversions. Subsidies are a driving force behind this habitat loss – a report by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that crop insurance subsidies contributed to the loss of more than 900,000 acres of grassland, shrubland and wetland in parts of Colorado where the swift fox is found between 2008 and 2011.

In the past, farmers plowing up native grassland or draining wetlands would be denied certain subsidy payments, including direct payments, crop insurance, disaster payments and some farm loans. These programs, “sodsaver” and “swampbuster” respectively, became important tools in the fight to stem the loss of grasslands and wetlands and are part of “conservation compliance” requirements. The idea behind conservation compliance is that farmers receiving taxpayer support must take measures to protect environmental resources that provide valuable public benefits.

The 1996 Farm Bill removed crop insurance from the list of farm payment programs that are subject to compliance provisions. Conservation compliance has been proven to protect clean water, prevent soil erosion and preserve wildlife on millions of acres of America’s farmland. As a result of a bipartisan floor amendment, the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill reestablishes the link between conservation compliance provisions and crop insurance subsidies. Unfortunately the House Agriculture Committee bill fails to do so, compounding the threats that species like the swift fox and sage grouse are already facing from habitat loss.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled Wildlife1 Comment

“Carrying capacity”: What Can Managed Relocation Do For Climate Adaptation?

A recent paper co-authored by Defenders President and CEO Jamie Clark highlights the conflicting and complex aspects of managed relocation, a conservation measure where species, populations, or genotypes are intentionally introduced outside of their historical range for the purpose of maintaining biological diversity or ecosystem functioning.  In the context of the paper, it is considered as an adaptation strategy to climate change, but it could also be a strategy for other types of conservation planning.

This is a valuable paper, especially because it summarizes very well the many potential problems and the conflicting issues with managed relocation, and how they relate to a possible and much needed future policy to guide such process. The authors state that, while managed relocation has been happening intentionally and non-intentionally around the world, many issues exist that would need to be addressed once this strategy starts being considered more often.  Problems and conflicts span the ethical, scientific, and cultural fields, and the authors stress the point that evidence to support managed relocation decisions is essential.  They mention the need of using decision theory to weigh such scientific, ethical, and cultural, as well as cost considerations, and call for collaborative efforts involving specialists that can effectively address the full range of said considerations.  They also bring up the issue of the accuracy of species distribution models under climate change, and their usefulness (or lack thereof) in predicting future ranges and habitats. Climate change is expected to affect the future range of many species due to its effects not only on the species themselves, but also on their habitats and essential interactions.  However, species distribution models do not account for the complexity of species interactions and needs, or for the maintenance of essential ecosystem services and processes in which each species is involved.  Caution is needed when using that type of data to inform managed relocation.

The question remains of what “appropriate managed relocation actions” (and/or “efforts”) are, but the paper cites some general criteria to help determine the appropriateness of a managed relocation action (e.g., when data suggest that the extinction risk of a species without relocation is high, relocation is feasible, and the relocation is unlikely to cause substantial harm to the proposed site).  The paper includes a list of key ethical, ecological, legal and policy, and integrated questions to base a decision framework on managed relocation.  Questions such as “which conservation goals take ethical precedence over others and why?”, “what are the limits of less dramatic alternatives to managed relocation, such as increasing habitat connectivity?”, and “what constitutes an acceptable risk of harm and what are adequate measures for the protection of recipient ecosystems?” can effectively help guide the decision making process.  Together with their recommendations, these questions provide very good guidance for a future policy regulating managed relocation.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments


dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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