Mapping can save African forests from logging

Mapping from satellite pictures can warn scientists and governments where illegal logging is taking place in Africa.


Imperial woodpeckers–extinct or hanging on?

Large, stuffed black and white woodpecker with red crest

Imperial Woodpecker (male) from

I had never even heard of an Imperial Woodpecker, and no wonder. They were last seen in 1956, after an eradication campaign by lumber companies in the pine forests of the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. The forest workers feared that the giant woodpeckers would damage lumber. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology recently acquired a copy of the only known film footage. There may still be a few in remote wooded pockets of the mountains, but even those are being damaged by illegal drug growers.

Penguin chicks are losing their feathers

Naked Magellanic penguin chick

…and we don’t know why. However, for some reason we’re not guessing organic toxins from oil spills and industry: “So far, the possible causes include pathogens, thyroid disorders, nutrient imbalances, or genetics.”
The loss of feathers means that chicks lose heat, grow more slowly, and are more likely to die. The disorder appeared in 2006 on both sides of the South Atlantic in different penguin species, Magellanic and African. To me, that suggests a wind-borne or water-borne problem, perhaps contaminating food, not “genetics.” I suspect organochlorines, CFCs, and the like. Has anyone done a biological assay of a dead chick?

The problem began in 2006, peaked in 2007 with 97% of the chicks suffering feather loss, and subsided in 2008 (for now).

Great Lakes feel like bath water

This summer has been so warm that the Great Lakes are as much as 8 degrees Centigrade above their normal temperatures. The Hamilton Spectator.

(Aug 13, 2010) The combination of an unseasonably mild winter and spring followed by a hot summer has led to record-breaking water temperatures in the Great Lakes. Lake Superior is a stunning 8° C above normal for this time of year—and the big lake they call Gitche Gumee will get warmer still for another few weeks.

“It’s really remarkable,” said Jay Austin, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory. “The surface waters on Superior at one site are over 70 degrees Fahrenheit right now (21° C),” Austin added. “Usually, Lake Superior doesn’t break 60 (16° C).”

Lake Michigan has also reached record temperatures, at about 4° C above normal. The other three Great Lakes haven’t set records, but they are all above normal. As recently as last weekend, Lake Ontario’s surface temperatures reached 24 C, and by early July, Lake Erie had reached 27 C. “That’s bath water,” said Austin.

The warm water is a result of an unusually warm winter, which drastically reduced the amount of ice that formed across the Great Lakes, but most particularly in Lake Superior. Austin said he preferred to hedge his bets when asked to explain why there was so little ice cover. Part of the reason, he said, was the natural cycle of an El Nino winter in 2009-10, which traditionally means milder weather in eastern Canada. “But at the same time, it’s on top of a general trend over the last 30 years towards less ice and warmer summers and that trend is consistent with the whole idea of climate change,” Austin added….

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have a mild winter.

“Work that we did a few years ago showed that winter conditions will play a very important role in determining what happens the following summer,” said Austin. “But it doesn’t appear that it works the other way around….

What we might enjoy, however, is a slower decline into winter, said Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips. “It may take a little longer for the ice to form and it may also mean huge amounts of lake-effect snow,” said Phillips. “It’s so Canadian to worry about winter when we’re still in the middle of summer,” he added with a chuckle.

What has surprised Phillips is the consistency of warmth that southern Ontario has enjoyed since last fall. Nine of the past 10 months have been warmer than normal, and we’re on track to set a record for the warmest first eight months of a year. And there’s no end in sight, Phillips noted happily. Environment Canada’s medium-range forecast predicts above-normal temperatures for southern Ontario for the rest of August, September, October and November.

Computing: “green” server farms in Iceland

The need is growing for data centres and server farms to feed data-intensive operations. For the last two years, Iceland has been planning to attract those installations, where electric generation is carbon-free and the climate offers energy-free cooling. They’ve been adding data communications capacity that let them reach England in 17 milliseconds.

Banks have hundreds of thousands of servers. Their requirements generate as much carbon dioxide as the airline industry. I had no idea! One major investment bank has signed an agreement to move their servers to Iceland.

Hat tip to “Spark” on the BBC World News.

Coyote Crossing: Obama and extinction


Chris Clarke, at his relatively new blog Coyote Crossing, has written about the U.S. election issues: what is and isn’t getting much mention. You can read it here: “Obama and extinction“.

McCain ridicules bear research–that he voted for

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

(Photo courtesy of

Senator John McCain likes to make fun of foolishly spent money, earmarked for particular states. One of his examples is research into the number and distribution of grizzly bears in Montana. An method of counting them is to check the DNA of hair samples found at bears’ favourite scratching trees, to see how many individuals there are. McCain ridicules this as crime investigation into food scavenging or bear paternity suits.

He implies that it’s a waste of money.

He neglects to mention that he voted for it–or that it is research that must be done before land uses such as mining or logging can go ahead. Salon has the story.

Its funding was originally championed by Republican lawmakers, and its goal is one that both conservationists and “Drill, baby drill” cheerleaders can get behind.

The Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project attempts to answer basic scientific questions about one of the largest populations of grizzly bears left in the lower 48 states. How many grizzly bears live in a 12,000-square-mile area in and around Glacier National Park? What is their distribution? What’s their gender breakdown? Are they breeding with bears from Canada?

The fact that the grizzly bears happen to be in Montana does not mean that that state is trying to pull a fast one on the feds for some pet project. The grizzly is currently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states. To aid its recovery, which the feds are obligated by law to do, the government must figure out how many bears are out there. Only once they have established a baseline can they then ascertain if that number is going up, down or is stable.

You could hardly call the original backers of the grizzly bear study, then-Montana Sen. Conrad Burns and then-Montana Gov. Judy Martz, “tree huggers.” “Those two couldn’t give a hoot about grizzlies,” says Brian Peck, a wildlife biologist, who works in grizzly conservation for the Great Bear Foundation. As Peck explains, anybody who wants to log, drill for natural gas or oil, graze cattle or build roads in grizzly habitat, as well as their friends in politics, has a vested interest in finding out how many bears live in the area. A healthy bear population could mean relaxing restrictions on development of federal lands the bears call home.

“Sen. Conrad Burns was a key player in getting federal money appropriated for this intensive bear count,” says David Gaillard, an advocate with Defenders of Wildlife. “His clear purpose was to show that there are lots of bears out there, and we’re ready to delist, and open up their habitat to a lot of friends in industry.”

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