Environment News

Return of the Wooly Mammoth?

Wooly mammoths have recently made a few appearances in the global news.  A new analysis of a frozen mammoth carcass discovered in northern Siberia in 2010 indicates that the animal was mauled by large predators, perhaps lions, before it was finished off and then butchered by humans. Another report tells of a Siberian research institute teaming up with “the world’s most controversial geneticist” to clone the woolly mammoth. According to official statements, researchers at North-Eastern Federal University in Russia’s Sakha Republic and Hwang Woo-Suk of South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation hope to generate a living mammoth within six years. Hwang is said to have been the first person to first to clone a dog, but he was later convicted of embezzlement and of falsifying some of his stem-cell research—hence his controversial status. The mammoth-cloning project will not be easy; joint Russian-Japanese work on the topic has been on-going for more than a decade, with little progress. Optimism is generated, however, by the existence of frozen carcasses in fairly good condition and by the fact that mammoths were closely related to elephants, particularly Indian ones.

A third recent article on wooly mammoths is not credible. On February 8, 2012, The Sun reported the sighting of a live mammoth in Siberia’s Chukotka region, posting a fuzzy video of the beast. To my eyes, however, the footage seems to show a bear with a large fish in its mouth. Reports of wooly mammoth sightings periodically surface, but the possibility of their survival is nil. The indigenous peoples of the region are quite familiar with the natural history of Siberia, and they have long been aware of mammoth tusks— which they supposedly attributed to a giant mole-like animal.

The significance of the mammoth cloning project goes well beyond scientific curiosity. A group of scientists in Siberia wants to revive the creature to help transform the tundra landscape, turning it from a low-productivity, moss-dominated ecosystem to a much more productive grass-dominated one. That project, focused on the creation of a “Pleistocene Park,” will soon be the topic of a separate GeoCurrents post.


Hearings on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project

Federal Canadian hearings will begin on March 30 to consider the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project, which would transfer fossil fuels between the tar sands of Alberta and the Pacific port of Kitimat in British Columbia. The project is often viewed as an alternative to the equally controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would connect the tar sands with the oil refineries of the Gulf Coast in Texas. The Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal is particularly complex, as it would entail an eastbound pipeline sending natural gas condensate to Alberta, and a westbound pipeline sending crude oil to British Columbia. From British Columbia, oil would be exported to East Asia by tankers.  The plans also call for the construction of a major new shipping terminal at Kitimat. Protestors at the hearings “will be wearing blue scarves to symbolize their concern for coastal waters.”

The town of Kitimat (population 8,335) is situated in an interesting geographical position. Well inland, it is located on tidewater in one of coastal British Columbia’s few wide and flat valleys. Kitimat was designed and built as a company town by Alcan (the Aluminum Company of Canada) in the 1950s. The site was selected on the basis of its potential port facilities and possibilities for inexpensive hydroelectric power (aluminum smelting is a power-demanding industry). In recent years, Kitimat’s economy has not done well. From 2001 and 2006, its population dropped by over twelve percent, the largest proportional decline of any Canadian municipality, and it fell by another seven percent between 2006 and 2011.

Regardless of the fate of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, economic conditions in the Kitimat area, and more broadly across northern British Columbia, are improving rapidly.  Mining and hydroelectric development are beginning to drive local economic growth. According to a recent report:

 Some of the projects underway or moving ahead in the region, which is expected to see $8-to-$25-billion of resource investment over the next decade, include Rio Tinto Alcan’s $2.5-billion rebuild of its Kitimat aluminum smelter; the $4.5-billion KM LNG partnership …; and BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line worth $404 million. [T]he transmission line itself likely will generate at least half a dozen new mines in the area.

The region’s growth, however, is generating major environmental and indigenous rights controversies.


More Flooding in Australia

Interior Australia is noted for its extreme climatic oscillations, especially in regard to precipitation. If anything, the change from wet to dry periods seems to be getting more extreme. In the first decade of this century, much of Australia suffered its worst drought in a thousand years, which is saying a lot for such a drought-plagued region. But in 2010, a transition to a wet phase occurred. As one of the maps posted here shows, almost the entire continent has received much more rainfall than average over the past 18 months.

Since late February, much of central Australia has received drenching rain, leading to widespread flooding. In a five-day period before March 2, Alice Springs in the heart of the outback received more than its average annual precipitation. As result, the normally bone-dry Todd River has begun to flow. Rain continues to fall in the area, leading to concerns about further flooding. The rainfall is also turning Australia’s “red center” to a verdant shade of green, delighting those in the livestock industry.


Bio-Tech Farming in Brazil and the Global Potash Boom

A recent article in Physorg.com claims that Brazil will soon surpass the United States to become the word’s leading producer of genetically modified crops. Currently, the author contends, the U.S. is the top location for bio-tech agriculture, with 69 million hectares under cultivation, as opposed to Brazil’s 30.3 million; Argentina (23.7 million hectares) and India (10.6 million hectares) occupy third and fourth place respectively. But as acreage under genetically modified crops is expanding more rapidly in Brazil than in the United States, the positions of the two countries are expected to reverse within a few years.

The Brazilian techno-farming boom is related to the recent agricultural colonization of the Cerrado, a vast savannah zone with a tropical wet and dry climate located to the south of the Amazonian rainforest. Until the late twentieth century, the Cerrado was a zone of low-intensity cattle ranching, as its soils were too impoverished to support widespread agriculture. Brazilian research programs, however, figured out how to transform the Cerrado into the country’s new bread-basket— although “soy basket” might be the better term. Farming in the Cerrado is highly mechanized and chemically intensive, and most local growers are enthusiastic proponents of the genetic manipulation of crops.

To make the potassium-poor Cerrado soils productive, vast quantities of potash are required. Canada is currently the “Saudi Arabia of potash,” with production concentrated in Saskatchewan. The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan Inc. (“PotashCorp”) is not only the world’s largest potash producer, but is also the third largest producer of nitrogen and phosphate, and thus occupies a pivotal role in the global fertilizer trade. PotashCorp is currently thriving. As Oakshire Financial recently reported, “Major potash stocks are beginning to raise eyebrows with impressive profit margins.” The same article goes on to warn, however, that, “industry giants will face competition from greenfield and brownfield projects in the works.” As it so happens, Brazil has recently discovered sizable potash deposits of its own in the Amazon and in the states of Bahia and Espirito Santo. Brazil now imports more than 90 percent of its potash needs, a figure that will probably decline in the coming years. As Bloomberg recently reported, “The issue of fertilizer is strategic for Brazil. …  The government is preparing a self-sufficiency plan.”

Brazil’s Cerrado is rich in wildlife and endemic species, yet has seen relatively few conservation initiatives. Only an estimated 1.5 percent of the Cerrado habitat has been protected in federal reserves. Run-off from farms in the region is also threatening the Pantanal, often regarded as the world’s largest wetland. Unlike the environmental degradation of the Amazon, that of the Cerrado and the Pantanal often escapes global notice.

The role of potash in world history is greater than is commonly realized. The potash market, for example, was crucial in the colonization of the eastern United States. As the farming frontier pushed west of the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1800s, settlers faced the twin challenges of clearing thick hardwood forests and obtaining enough cash to see them through the rough early years. By burning trees for potash, most of which was exported to Britain, both obstacles could be surmounted. The mining of subterranean potash salts began in Germany in the mid-1800s, vastly increasing the global supply.


Chile’s Assault on Sea Lions

Chilean mackerel stocks have dropped by some 90 percent in recent years, resulting in a crisis in the county’s fishing industry. Chile has been blaming the Peruvian fishing fleet for depleting the stock, but local officials are now pointing their fingers at sea lions as well. Although sea lions are protected in Chile, the government has agreed to a massive culling program. Sea lion meat will be sold for dog food, while their bones and reproductive  organs will be exported to China and other Asian countries for “medicinal purposes.”



South Georgia Rat Crisis

The world’s largest rat extermination program is currently underway in South Georgia Island, a British sub-Antarctic territory that is also claimed by Argentina. Helicopters are scattering several tons of rat poison across the large, remote island in a bid to save sea-bird populations. Rats were inadvertently introduced by whaling and sealing ships in the 1800s, and they have caused tremendous damage to birdlife.




La Niña Floods and Droughts

La Niña conditions have recently brought unusual weather conditions to much of the world. In the Southern Hemisphere, large areas of Australia have been hit by torrential rain. In the semi-arid outback of central and southwestern Queensland, the intermittent Warrego River and a number of ephemeral streams have turned into torrents, flooding several towns and inundating extensive areas of pasture. Cattle producers, who rely mostly on natural forage, are pleased, but cotton farmers fear that they will lose their crops.

In Paraguay and northern Argentina, meanwhile, drought conditions are threatening corn and soybean production, and have reduced the flow of the mighty Paraguay River to its lowest flow in twenty years. On February 2, however, meteorologists finally saw substantial rains on the horizon. Agricultural commodity traders are closely following such weather news.