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Malaysia Rapidly Destroying Ecologically Important Peatlands

Malaysia is destroying forests more than three times faster than all of Asia combined to make way for palm oil plantations, according to a study released Tuesday.

Analyzing data acquired from satellite images of the region, researchers  said the country obliterated an astonishing 872,263 acres, about one-third of its biodiversity-rich peatswamp forests, in the past five years.

The report, which was commissioned by the Netherlands-based Wetlands International, found that the swamps of stored carbon from decomposed plants could disappear from the state of Sarawak by the end of the decade if the clearing continues.

The country is deforesting an average two percent a year of the swamps on Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state on its half of the island of Borneo, which it shares with Indonesia and Brunei.

That’s nearly 10 percent in the last five years. Asia in its entirety deforested at a rate of just 2.8 percent in that period.

“We never knew exactly what was happening in Malaysia and Borneo,” said Wetlands spokesman Alex Kaat, according to AP. “Now we see there is a huge expansion (of deforestation) with annual rates that are beyond imagination.”

The Sarawak peatswamps, home to such animals as the Borneo pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino, were initially harvested for timber. Now companies are totally clearing the forests to make way for palm oil plantations.

“As the timber resource has been depleted the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak’s peat swamp forests,” Marcel Silvius from Wetlands said in a statement.

“Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests may be left at the end of this decade.”

Malaysia and Indonesia contribute about 85 percent of global production of palm oil, a cheap alternative to vegetable oil used in cooking oil, cosmetic products, soap, bread, margarine, and chocolate.

Kaat said the report proves that deforestation is occurring at a faster rate than the Malaysian government has admitted.

“The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peatlands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 percent,” researchers said.

In addition to the risk it poses to the forests’ many rare species, the draining of peatswamps causes massive carbon emissions.

“The production of palm oil is welcome only if expansion can be done in a sustainable way,” the environmental group said.

The study was conducted by satellite monitoring and mapping company SarVision.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecosystems, Trees & Forestry0 Comments

Cyclone Yasi Churns Toward Flood-Ravaged Queensland

A potentially deadly storm system, Cyclone Yasi, is swirling toward Australia’s northeastern state of Queensland, an area still recovering from last month’s massive flooding.

On Tuesday officials airlifted hospital patients out of the cyclone’s path and urged residents in low-lying areas to evacuate immediately due to risk of flash flooding. The evacuation warnings were not mandatory.

Queensland state Premier told reporters that the 400-mile front Yasi “is huge and life threatening.”

Experts said the Category 3 storm could be the worst cyclone in Queensland’s history after it hits the coast as a Category 4 storm Wednesday.

The storm was expected to unleash winds of 131 to 155 mph and dump up to 3 feet of rain on areas already ravaged by flooding, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Those floods left 35 people dead from December to Jan. 13, affecting 30,000 homes and businesses in the Brisbane area, UPI reports. The government expects damages from the tropical deluge to cost about $5.6 billion.

Yasi was expected to steer north of Brisbane, but Bligh urged all the flood-weary residents of Queenland’s coastal communities to prepare for the worst.

“It’s such a big storm – it’s a monster, killer storm – that it’s not just about where this crosses the coast that is at risk,” Bligh said, as quoted by The Associated Press.

“I know many of us will feel that Queensland has already borne about as much as we can bear when it comes to disasters and storms,” she said. “But more is being asked of us.”

The storm was expected to hit hardest in Cairns, a tourist gateway city of some 164,000 people. More than 9,000 people were ordered to evacuate from that region.

Posted in Climate Science & Weather, Natural Disasters0 Comments

Davos Conference Wraps Up

The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland drew to a close Sunday after a week’s worth of debate on global debt, climate change, food shortages, and a host of other international issues.

Prominent politicians spoke to the world’s most powerful business leaders at the upscale snowbound resort in the Swiss mountains during the annual event, aimed at strengthening a globalized economy.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pushed hard for the development of an energy-efficient economy, urging the United States and Europe to lead the rest of the world in combatting climate change.

“Let me highlight the one resource that is scarcest of all: time,” Ban said, according to AFP.

Other issues that took precedence at the gathering included the ongoing anti-government revolts in North Africa, Chinese asset-price inflation, rising food prices, and Europe’s debt crisis.

The first day of the conference was rocked by news of a Moscow airport bombing, which took place shortly before Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was due in Davos. The violence delayed his arrival, and the forum paused for a minute of silence prior to his opening day speech.

Posted in International Relations & Treaties, Laws & Regulations, Politics & Politicians0 Comments

Japan Volcano Forces over 1,000 Evacuations

A newly active Japan volcano has prompted officials to evacuate over 1,000 people living on the country’s southern island, news sources reported Monday.

Shinmoedake, a 4,662-foot peak in the Kirishima range on the southern Japan island of Kyushu, erupted last Thursday after 52 years of dormancy. Smoke plumes rose over 6,500 feet, and local residents were evacuated as a precaution. No injuries were reported.

On Monday, the volcano was still expelling a magnificent ash-cloud, coating local vegetable farms and disrupting airline flights, Reuters reports.

Authorities issued an evacuation advisory a 11:50 p.m. on Sunday (1450 GMT). About 1,100 residents in the town of Takaharu fled to evacuation centers, although many chose to remain in their homes.

According to The Associated Press, experts said a dome of lava was swelling inside the volcano. It is still unclear whether the dome will grow enough to spill over the crest and send searing lava down the mountainsides.

It has been nearly 300 years since Shinmoedake has been this active, Reuters reported Monday.

Posted in Environmental Disasters, Volcanoes0 Comments

Egypt Gov’t Gains Apparent Support of Israel

As violent street protests imperil President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, Israel is calling on Western countries to end criticism of the 30-year leader “in a bid to preserve stability in Egypt” and the Middle East at large, Al Jazeera reports.

The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported Monday that Israel’s foreign ministry urged the United States and Europe to “stress…the importance of Egypt’s stability” as widespread demonstrations wrack the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

Egypt has been a key ally to Israel since the two countries reached peace in 1979.

The anti-government protests present a significant threat to Israel, and although Israeli officials have remained largely silent about the unrest, they have reportedly held lengthy strategy sessions this week to address the possibility of Mubarak’s ouster.

“We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and in our region,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu before his cabinet’s weekly meeting on Sunday, according to Al Jazeera.

“Israel and Egypt have been at peace for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these ties be preserved. At this time, we must display responsibility, restraint and utmost prudence,” Netanyahu added.

If Mubarak’s autocratic regime is booted from power, the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s strongest opposition group – could assume control over the country. In all likelihood, that group and its allies would distance Egypt from its relationship with the West and possibly nullify the peace agreement with Israel.

Posted in International Relations & Treaties, Military, Politics & Politicians0 Comments

Kabul: 8 Die in Grocery Store Attack

A Kabul, Afghanistan explosion in a supermarket frequented by foreigners left at least eight people dead Friday.

Afghan authorities said three foreigners and a child were among the dead and that six others were injured.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident, saying the bombing was against U.S.-based security contractor, AP said Friday.

An eyewitness said that the blast leveled the first floor of the Finest Supermarket in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, the New York Times reports.

The grocery is just 100 yards from the British embassy, and is popular among diplomats and foreigners.

Posted in International Relations & Treaties, Military0 Comments

Egypt Prepares for “Angry Friday”

Egypt this morning was poised for massive protests calling for the ouster of the 30-year President Hosni Mubarak.

The anti-government demonstrations today, dubbed “Angry Friday,” were organized largely with the help of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter. They follow three days of bloody protests in the capital of Cairo and other Egyptian cities like Suez, where demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails and stones at police and set the town’s firehouse ablaze, according to UPI.

Bracing for more tumult, the Egyptian government blocked Internet and cellphone service early Friday to prevent anti-government activists from communicating with one another.

Protesters were told that the government was dispatching “thugs” calling themselves “Ikhwan al-Haq,” or “Brotherhood of Truth,” to patrol the streets of Cairo with knives and swords and attack or kill demonstrators if necessary, UPI reports.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry arrested hundreds of demonstrators, including a number of prominent opposition figures. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is backing the protests, told The Associated Press that at least five of its leaders and five former members of parliament had been detained.

Mubarak’s regime posted a special operations counterterrorism force in strategic positions around Cairo, including Tahrir Square.

Posted in International Relations & Treaties, Military, Politics & Politicians0 Comments

Ethanol: EPA Approves More Corn-Based Fuel for Cars

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday approved a blend containing higher amounts of corn-based ethanol for fuel in cars.

The decision green-lights a blend of up to 15 percent ethanol for cars and light-duty trucks manufactured between 2001 and 2006 – about 62 percent of vehicles. EPA regulations previously restricted ethanol content in gasoline to 10 percent.

“Recently completed testing and data analysis show that E15 does not harm emissions control equipment in newer cars and light trucks,” EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement Friday. “Wherever sound science and the law support steps to allow more home-grown fuels in America’s vehicles, this administration takes those steps.”

While the ethanol industry vaunted the decision, critics argued that the new regulations could be confusing for drivers of older cars. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group against ethonol, claims many service stations will choose not to offer the higher blend to avoid the expenses of new pumps and signs.

“It seems like corn growers and the ethanol industry are the only real winners here,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, according to The Associated Press.

Ron Skjonberg, a senior vice president of ethonol manufacterer Poet, suggests some of the problems can be solved by the introduction of “blender pumps” that allow customers to turn a dial to select the level of ethonol. Such a system would also allow drivers of the rare cars that run on 85 percent ethanol to have easy access to that blend, the New York Times reports. Few gas retailers outside the Midwest offer E85 fuel.

Posted in Biofuels & Biomass0 Comments

Rhinos Face Higher Poaching Threat in South Africa, Kenya

South Africa and Kenya have seen a dramatic rise in rhino poaching in the last year, national parks officials said.

Reuters reports that 333 rhinos were killed for their tusks in South Africa in 2010. 10 of those were black rhinos, which are critically endangered.

That figure is the highest on record, nearly three times the number of rhinos killed the previous year.

Six more rhinos have already been illegally killed in 2011, Reuters said.

International wildlife monitoring group TRAFFIC said rhino horns are highly valuable for their perceived role in traditional Asian medicine. They are thought to possess cancer-curing properties, although their is no scientific evidence to support that notion.

According to AFP, poachers can sell rhino horns to the first intermediary for about $8,000 per kilo; an adult rhino’s two horns weigh about 10 kilos.

“The current wave of poaching is being committed by sophisticated criminal networks using helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilizers and silencers to kill rhinos at night while attempting to avoid law enforcement patrols,” TRAFFIC said in a statement.

South Africa is home to 21,000 rhinos, more than any other country in the world.

Kenya officials said at least 20 rhinos were killed in the country since early last year.

Posted in Conservation, Mammals0 Comments

Suicide Attack in Iraq Leaves 65 Dead

A suicide attack in northern Iraq has killed 65 people, officials say.

A suicide bomber detonated a vest full of explosives Tuesday in a crowd outside a police station in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

Hospital director Dr. Raied al-Ani raised the death toll from 50 to 65 Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. He said 150 people were wounded in the bombing.

The crowd of police recruits was gathered to submit applications for 2,000 newly created jobs.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but authorities suspect it may have been the work of a Sunni group with ties to al-Qaida.

On Wednesday, the violence was followed by a pair of additional suicide blasts in Diyala province, north of Baghdad.

A suicide bomber crashed an explosives-laden ambulance into an Iraqi security headquarters in the provincial capital of Baquba, killing 13.

Two more were killed in a nearby town when a person wearing an explosives-packed vest blew himself up near a convoy that included local authority Sadiq al-Husseini, AFP reports. Al-Husseini and 15 others were wounded.

Posted in International Relations & Treaties, Policy, Law, & Government0 Comments

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