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The world lost an area of tropical forest the size of Bangladesh in 2017

Hans Nicholas Jong, Mongabay
Waking Times

OSLO, Norway — It has been a decade since the United Nations launched REDD+, an ambitious program to incentivize forest restoration and conservation in developing countries, as a part of a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The program has been heralded as an integral part of the solution to climate change as tropical forests and wetlands can deliver 23 percent of the total mitigation needed between now and 2030.

As a result, billions of dollars have been poured into this scheme, and countless projects have been initiated to enable tropical countries to receive money in exchange of them reducing their deforestation rates.

Norway, for instance, has invested about $2.8 billion into the program in the past decade, more than any other wealthy nation.

On the other side of the equation, Brazil in particular has been lauded as a champion in REDD+ as it managed to slow down its deforestation rate nearly 80 percent in 10 years between 2004 and 2014.

This week, representatives from these countries are gathering to celebrate the 10thanniversary of REDD+ at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum in Norway.

But instead of being celebrated for their achievement, these countries are in the hot seat as the conference came on the heel of new data from the University of Maryland (UMD) showing how tropical tree cover loss in many countries has been ramping up in recent years, including in Brazil.

Brazil’s Atlantic Forest is one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems – and one of its most threatened

According to the data, tropical countries lost 158,000 square kilometers (39 million acres) of tree cover in 2017 – an area about the size of Bangladesh. The 2017 number is the second highest since UMD stared collecting data in 2001, and only a bit lower than the record high in 2016.

Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI), who also serves as the program committee chair for the Forum, said that the conference provides a moment for reflection on what’s going wrong with REDD+ in these countries.

“It’s a really good opportunity to celebrate all of the many real achievements that have taken place, as well as take stock of where we are, and see the road ahead,” she said during the opening of the forum in Oslo on Wednesday. “But it’s also important that we pause and reflect for what we haven’t achieved.”

Seymour then proceeded to cite the new set of data, published on Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring site run by WRI.

“The 2017 tree cover loss numbers, which were released today by my colleagues at Global Forest Watch are not encouraging. 2017 is only slightly better than 2016, and that was a record bad year,” she said. “So you have to pause for a minute and think are we doing something wrong? I think we need to open to that possibility over the next two days.”

Commenting on the recent deforestation trend in the tropics, Norway minister of climate and environment Ola Elvestuen said during the opening of the Forum it is “a crisis of existential proportions,” and reminded participants that “We either deal with it or we leave future generations and planet in ecological collapse.”

Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment Ola Elvestuen at the opening of the 2018 Oslo Tropical Forest Forum. Photo by Mats Bakken

Seymour and Elvestuen’s opening speeches set the tone for the rest of the forum, where government officials, activists, researchers and indigenous communities will discuss why REDD+ doesn’t seem to be working as well as hoped after 10 years despite initial progress made in countries like Brazil.

What went wrong?

Seymour said just because tree cover loss rate is on the rise, it doesn’t mean that there’s no effort to save intact forests.

“In fact, we implement a number of strategies to address this problem, including offering climate finance, to the Paris Agreement to reward reduced forest emissions,” she said. “We’re getting companies to stop buying products grown on recently deforested lands. We’re cracking down on illegal logging and securing indigenous rights.”

But she said these efforts pale in comparison to pressure from the agriculture sector, which is often supported by mainstream policies and financing and which is considered the leading single cause of deforestation worldwide.

A breakdown of the new UMD data shows Brazil experienced by far the most tree cover loss in 2017. Indonesia, while currently in the top three, nearly halved its tree cover loss between 2016 and 2017.

According to Seymour, the amount of climate financing committed for forest conservation has averaged about a billion dollar a year over the last decade, while the amount of funding being poured into agriculture and other investments is 100 times greater.

“As long as mainstream policies and finance continue to support deforestation as usual, we’re trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon, even while more gas are being poured on the flames,” she said.

Seymour attributed the upward trend in tree cover loss primarily to continued land clearing for agricultural purposes.

“There’s really no mystery to the main reason why we’re seeing tropical forests disappear,” she said. “Vast areas continued to be cleared for soy, beef, palm oil and other globally traded commodities.  Much of this clearing is illegal and linked to corruption.”

Seymour also cited lack of protection for environmental activists and indigenous communities as one of the reasons why forest conservation seemed to be failing.

“Forest defenders continued to be murdered when they work to protect forests,” she said. “Most indigenous people still don’t have secured land rights, even though their territories have the lowest rate of deforestation.”

Lastly, she said that other factors such as natural disasters like fires are also playing an increasing role in tree cover loss as climate change makes such events more frequent and severe. Adding to this is political and economic instability that could shift government focus away from conservation, like what’s happening in Brazil.

The case of Brazil

In the early 2000s, Brazil’s deforestation rates started to decline. However, its tree cover loss began to spike upward in recent years, and in 2017 Brazil experienced its second-highest rate of tree cover loss, losing 45,000 square kilometers of tree cover.

According to Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst at WRI, much of Brazil’s tree cover loss can be attributed to a strong fire season in the Amazon, with the region having more fires in 2017 than any year since recording began in 1999.

The UMD data indicate fires caused 31 percent of the South American country’s tree cover loss. The university was able to come up with the figure as it recently added a new function that enables researchers to distinguish tree cover loss due to fires.

Weisse said that the fires in the Amazon are mostly caused by humans who clear land using fires as they take advantage of the lack of enforcement on prohibitions of fires and deforestation, political and economic uncertainty, and the current administration’s roll-back of environmental protections.

“As climate change and human land use interact to make forests more vulnerable to fire, many are concerned that extensive fires will become the new normal in the Brazilian Amazon,” Weisse said during a teleconference last week.

She also pointed out that the blazes are likely to cancel out the climate impact of reduced deforestation in Brazil.

Therefore, analysts believe that tackling forest fires not only in the Amazon, but also in other parts of the world, is crucial.

Carlos Nobre, Brazil’s leading climatologist, said during the forum that if no action is taken to address this issue, then Brazil is at risk of going over the tipping point where so many of its forests have been burned and turned into savannas.

And since savannas are much more tolerant to fire, he worries they will remain in that state indefinitely and forests will not return, even if deforestation is reduced to zero.

“If the system tips into this other side of equilibrium, we will have savanna there, with much less biodiversity and carbon,” Nobre said during the opening of the forum.

To avoid that from happening, Nobre recommends Brazil’s deforested area not exceed 25 percent of the country’s total land mass. Currently, Brazil has lost 18 percent of its total area.

“We are very close to the limit because global warming is still operating and deforestation is still going on and forest fires are becoming more serious,” Nobre said. “So basically, urgent action is needed to stop Amazon deforestation completely.”

Deforestation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

New deforestation hotspots and a few bright spots

Besides Brazil, which has historically suffered from high rate of tree cover loss, the data set also shows Colombia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as emerging hotspots of tree cover loss.

Colombia faced one of the most dramatic increases in tree cover loss of any country, with nearly 4,250 square kilometers (around 1.1 million acres) of tree cover loss in 2017. That number represents a 46 percent jump above to 2016, and more than double the average rate of loss between 2001 and 2015.

Almost half of the increase happened in just three regions on the border of the Amazon biome (Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá), with new hotspots of loss advancing into previously untouched areas.

This sudden spike in tree cover loss coincided with the peace process that happened in the country last year, when the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group.

FARC used to keep tight control over land use and allowed little commercial use of resources. But with the peace deal, FARC was pushed out of large amounts of remote forest they previously controlled.

“The increase seems to be related to the peace process,” Weisse said. “The demobilization of the FARC left behind a power vacuum, which has led to illegal clearing for pasture and cocoa, mining and logging by other armed groups, as well as rampant land speculation.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also had record high tree cover loss in 2017, with the UMD data indicating 14,680 square kilometers (more than 3.6 million acres) lost, surpassing Indonesia for the first time.

“DRC has had an increasing trend over the past 17 years, which is a cause for concern,” Weisse said.

According to Weisse, the main drivers of tree cover loss in DRC include shifting agriculture, artisanal logging that is often illegal, and charcoal production.

“Given the trend in 2017, it’s critical that DRC improves land use planning and critical law enforcement moving forward,” Weisse said.

The DRC’s rainforests are home to many species such as the okapi (Okapii johnstoni), which is listed as Endangered by the IUCN and found nowhere else in the world.

A bright spot in the new set of data is Indonesia, which managed to reduce its tree cover loss by a considerable amount, including a 60 percent decline in primary forest loss, bucking the trend in other tropical countries. The University of Maryland registered 13,000 square kilometers of tree cover loss in 2017 compared to more than 24,000 square kilometers of loss in 2016. (It should be noted that the UMD dataset lumps in tree plantations with natural forest cover, so some of this loss may be attributed to plantation clearing.)

While some provinces in Sumatra still saw increased primary forest loss—including 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) in Kerinci Sebat National Park— provinces in Kalimantan and Papua experienced a reduction.

Weisse said the fact that there was no El Nino in Indonesia last year helped the Southeast Asian country significantly in reducing its tree cover loss rate.

“The decrease can also be related to a national peat drainage moratorium, which has been in effect since 2016,” she said. “This year’s data shows an 88 percent decrease in tree cover loss on protected peatland, which suggests that the policy may be working.”

The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry said the declining rate of tree cover loss in Indonesia is a proof that the government’s set of policies is working.

The ministry’s acting director-general for climate change, Ida Bagus Putera Parthama, said that the UMD data is in-line with the deforestation data published by the government, which reported a second straight annual decline in the country’s deforestation rate.

The ministry recorded 4,790 square kilometers (1,850 square miles) of deforestation in 2017. That’s down 24 percent from the 2016 figure, which in turn represented a 42 percent reduction from 2015.

“It’s not surprising because we have data indicating the same figure,” Ida said. “It means our efforts are successful. We will maintain the effort and this positive trend, including moratorium of the peat licensing and virgin forest licensing, improvement in peat management and more effective law enforcement and REDD+ implementation.”

**This article was originally posted at Mongabay.com and is re-posted here with permission.**

Image Credits – Mongabay.com

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Planet Earth

Geologists have confirmed a strange unprecedented “boomerang” earthquake deep under the Atlantic Ocean

Earthquakes come and go, often leaving destruction behind. What they luckily don’t usually do is turn around immediately and come back for another push. Except … it looks like they can do it on very rare occasions.

In a new study, scientists have uncovered evidence of an unusual and almost unprecedented boomerang earthquake that shook the deep seafloor under the Atlantic Ocean in 2016.

This earthquake, dubbed “reverse super-shear rupture”, occurred along the Romansh fracture. It is an area that lies near the equator, about halfway between the east coast of Brazil and the west coast of Africa.

The rift, which stretches about 900 kilometers between the South American and African tectonic plates, adjacent to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, caused a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in August 2016, which was detected by underwater seismometers in the region, as well as by remote monitoring stations.

Analysis of the signals reveals that this was not an ordinary earthquake, but a strange earthquake that went one way before turning around and returning and with a significant increase in speed.

“While scientists have found that this reverse rupture mechanism is possible on the basis of theoretical models, our new study provides some of the clearest evidence that this mysterious mechanism actually occurs,” Stephen Hicks said, lead researcher and seismologist of Imperial College London.

According to the analysis of seismic data, the 2016 earthquake had two separate phases.

First, the rip extended upward and eastward towards the weak point where the rip zone meets the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Then, in a sudden U-turn, an “unusual westward propagation” occurred, with the tremors returning to the center of the fault and at significantly accelerated “super-shear” velocities of up to 6 kilometers per second.

“Even though the structure of the fault appears to be simple, the quake grew differently, and it was completely the opposite of how we expected the quake to look before we started analyzing the data.”

While the team’s explanation for how this boomerang unfolded remains speculative so far, the researchers speculate that the first, deep phase of the quake released enough fracture energy to initiate a reversal of the rift in the shallower, western underwater terrain.

“Either both sections of the fault were preseismically loaded enough to promote seismogenic failure, or the deeper SE1 fracture instantly increased static stress, immediately causing the shallower portion of SE2 to collapse,” the authors explain in their paper.

Although earthquakes propagating in the opposite direction have been studied by seismologists before, so far there has been little evidence of their existence, and this phenomenon is mainly observed in theoretical modeling.

Finding this type in the real world – in the middle of the ocean – is the first of its kind, not to mention the boomerang that returned at super shear speed.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time this has been reported,” geophysicist Yoshihiro Kaneko of GNS Science in New Zealand, who was not part of the research team, told National Geographic.

The results are reported to Nature Geoscience.

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Planet Earth

What is the real cause of explosions and fires around the world in the past few days?

What has caused all these giant explosions and apocalyptic fires in China, North Korea, Lebanon, India, USA, Iraq, Iran over the past few days?

China

It all began on August 3, 2020 in the Chinese province of Hubei, where an instant explosion at a chemical plant killed at least six people and injured four. The reason is under investigation.

North Korea

This first explosion was followed a few hours later by a giant explosion following a possible “gas leak” in Hyesan, Yangan Province, North Korea, killing 9 people and injuring at least 30 residents. The reason is being investigated.

Lebanon

The next day, the port area of ​​Beirut, Lebanon, was destroyed by a giant explosion, killing more than 140 people and injuring thousands.

India

Also on the afternoon of August 4, 2020, an explosion caused panic among residents living around the Vijayshree Pharma Company plant in the Rambilli Zone FEZ in Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, India. The reason is being investigated.

Great Britain

On 4 August, an explosion occurred again in the middle of a residential street in Birmingham, UK, causing smoke and fireballs to rise into the air and residents fleeing to seek refuge. The explosion was so strong that fire alarms went off in the houses.

United States of America

Finally, on Tuesday, firefighters put out a massive fire in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, that engulfed a building under construction. When the firefighters arrived at about 4:20 am, the flames were flying high into the air, and the glow was visible for miles.

Iran

A fire broke out on Tuesday inside three industrial warehouses east of Tehran. The fire destroyed production materials, including lumber and leather.

Then, on August 5, at least seven ships burst into flames at a shipyard in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr. According to reports, the reason remains unclear, no casualties.

United Arab Emirates

On 5 August 2020, on Wednesday evening at 18:30, a fire broke out in a market in the emirate of Ajman, 50 km from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The reason is being investigated.

China

A gas pipeline exploded and several roads collapsed after torrential rains flooded parts of Yulin, a city in China’s northwestern Shaanxi province. Local authorities evacuated about 600 people from the area. The reason is being investigated.

United States of America

On the same day in Midland, Texas, an investigation is under way of an explosion and subsequent fire in an oil storage facility. The reason is also unknown.

Iraq

Again, on August 6, 2020, a major fire broke out in over 20 wholesale market warehouses in Najaf, Iraq. The reasons are being investigated.

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Planet Earth

Geneticists have clarified the origin of American slaves

Frame from the movie "Django Unchained" - imdb.com

It is the largest study of DNA from people living in the Americas. It shows where the slaves came from in the United States and reveals the details of their abuse.

The work includes information on 50 thousand people, of which 30 thousand are of African origin. The article, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics , serves as “evidence that genetics can shed light on history,” said Alondra Nelson, professor of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

The study began with the work of Joanna Mountain, senior director of research at the company 23andMe. Together with the team, she created a genetic database, which included mainly information about the company’s clients, whose grandparents were born in regions where slavery flourished. Dr. Stephen Micheletti, the geneticist at 23andMe who led the study, compared it to data from the Slave Travels digital project, which contains information about the people brought in: information on ports of embarkation and disembarkation, the number of enslaved men, women and children. He also collaborated with historians to learn more about the plight of African regions, such as contemporary Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the 17th and 19th centuries.

Scientists have found out: the DNA of the study participants from the United States showed their Nigerian origin. This means that there are far more ships that transported enslaved people directly to America from Nigeria than would be expected based on historical records. 

At first, historians “could not believe how many Nigerian ancestors were there in the United States,” Micheletti said. 

Later, after consulting with experts, the study authors learned that slaves were first sent to the British Caribbean Islands, and only then sold to the Americans.

Percentage of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Red denotes the descendants of slaves from Senegal and Gambia, blue - from the west coast of Africa, green - from Nigeria, orange - from Congo / © Stephen Micheletti
Percentage of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Red denotes the descendants of slaves from Senegal and Gambia, blue – from the west coast of Africa, green – from Nigeria, orange – from Congo / © Stephen Micheletti

Experts estimate that more than half of the people were brought into the United States and Latin America from West Africa. The study found that the modern black population is genetically related to six regions, among them Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and Benin. Moreover, according to historical sources, there were more regions from which slaves were exported.

The work also showed that the brought women made a much greater contribution to the modern gene pool than men, although there were much fewer of them. Scientists have calculated that in the United States there are 1.5 times more descendants of slaves, and in Latin America and the Caribbean – 13-17 times. Moreover, in the United States, European men have influenced the modern gene pool of people of African descent three times more than European women, and 25 times more in the Caribbean.

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