Water wars are a myth, Britain's population bounces back, and genetically modified rice is on the loose.

Beware of Moisture, Dryness

Add another scary side effect to the list of global warming consequences: the bubonic plague. Rising temperatures could create an environment more favorable for Yersina pestis, the bacteria that cause plague, as well their gerbil hosts. Warmer and moister weather in Central Asia could increase cases of the now-marginalized illness, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. A temperature increase of as little as 1° C would be enough to cause a 50 percent increase in the bacteria’s prevalence, the University of Oslo team says. 

China, Mongolia, and other Asian countries must act fast to avoid losing land because of spreading deserts, say experts from the United Nations. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that desertification—which is caused by over-harvesting, overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change—costs about $42 billion dollars per year in crops. The U.N. urges countries to integrate desertification prevention measures into their economic policies to avoid suffering its effects on agriculture, the economy, health, and society.

A future in which nations wage war over the world’s dwindling water supplies is largely a myth, experts at last week’s conference on water management said. Although the media has given much coverage to such water wars, in reality, a number of bi- and multi-lateral agreements already exist for water sharing, said the academics gathered in Stockholm, Sweden. In total, one-third of the world’s river basins are shared—145 countries share at least one river basin. According to the United Nations, between 1948 and 1999, there have been 507 recorded international conflicts over water and 1,228 examples of cooperation.


Storm Watch for NASA

A study backed by NASA has placed radar devices at locations in Senegal, Niger, and the Cape Verde Islands to investigate the West African origins of hurricanes that end up striking the U.S. shoreline. More than 80 percent of storm systems that hit the U.S. originate as tropical disturbances near Africa. The scientists want to look into the possibility that Saharan dust might inhibit some disturbances from developing into major storms.
After a string of delays caused by tropical depression Ernesto, NASA announced that the shuttle Atlantis will launch Wednesday. Fearing damage to the orbiter, last week NASA had sent the shuttle crawling back toward its hangar, only to reverse its decision when the shuttle was halfway there. Atlantis will be carrying the largest piece of the International Space Station ever to go into orbit. The piece will be installed in an 11-day mission made possible by a last-minute deal in which Russia agreed to delay its own trip to the ISS.

Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency announced Tuesday that the International Space Station will be replaced in 2015. A new, improved orbiting station would allow 10 times more Russian land to be monitored from space, he said. (Currently, only 10 percent of Russia is visible from the station.) Additionally, the new space station could be used to produce materials that cannot be manufactured on Earth.


Fuel For All

Thursday’s deadline for Iran to halt its program of uranium enrichment came and went, with Iran giving no indication that it was prepared to give in to the United Nations Security Council’s demands. Instead, Iran took the opportunity to begin a new round of uranium enrichment, announce plans to build a new light water reactor and open a plant to produce heavy water. (One of the byproducts of a heavy water reactor is bomb-grade plutonium.) Meanwhile, inspectors uncovered evidence that Iran has already produced highly-enriched uranium.

The road seems to be clear for expanded oil drilling in Alaska. After taking a helicopter tour over the state’s North Slope region, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne declared that drilling in the region would be safe. The area has been the subject of controversy between oil companies and environmentalists. The Department of the Interior wants to sell oil leases for the almost 500,000 North Shore acres that are home to caribou, geese, and other animals. Kempthorne maintains that drilling and environmental protection can coexist in Alaska, but environmentalists remain skeptical.


Change is in the air
On Tuesday, the World Bank brokered the largest deal ever concerning greenhouse gas emissions. Under the terms of the agreement, companies in Europe and Asia will pay a combined $1.02 billion to two Chinese chemical companies to curb emissions of a gas called HFC23, which is nearly 12,000 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. The deal, involving companies obligated by the Kyoto Protocol, will keep the equivalent of 19 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Thanks to China’s tax structure, its government will receive 65 percent of the money in the transaction.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, is set to sign a landmark bill that will require the state to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2010. The bill requires companies to report their emissions to the state, but also allows companies that exceed their emission levels to buy credits from companies that are below their targets. “Reducing greenhouse gas is an issue we must show leadership on,” Schwarzenegger said of California, the world’s twelfth-largest polluter.

Last Tuesday, the European Union told car manufacturers that it would impose restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions if the industry fails to meet voluntary emissions reduction goals. While the European Commission acknowledged that European, Japanese, and Korean manufacturers had cut emissions by an average of 12.4 percent from 1995 to 2004, it said these countries were not on track to meet the goal of a 25 percent reduction by 2008 or 2009. If the industry does not reduce CO2 emissions by three percent each year, the Commission said it would “replace the carrot with the stick” by imposing mandatory cuts. The E.U. also said that while emissions per mile per car are down, total emissions are up because more cars are on the road and people are driving longer distances.

American rice farmers are suing Bayer CropScience, claiming that the company’s genetically modified rice has contaminated the U.S. commercial rice supply, causing rice prices to fall. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the GM rice carries no health or environmental risk, Japan now refuses to import U.S. long grain rice, and the E.U. has said it will allow only rice that is certified as free of impurities. Each of the 20 plaintiffs seeks $275,000 in damages. It is still unclear how the genetically modified strain got into the long grain rice supply.

Toxic waters?

Last week was the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and efforts to rebuild New Orleans and other hard-hit areas of the Gulf Coast continue. Progress has been slow. Federal and state authorities are trying to coax fearful tourists and businesses back to the area by highlighting state-funded studies that cast doubt on rumors that the city has become a “toxic soup.” President Bush visited the area on Monday and Tuesday to reaffirm his administration’s commitment to a reconstruction process that he, like many locals, believes will take “years, not months.”

In Washington State, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour struck down a rule allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the sale of pesticides without obtaining evidence of their safety for salmon. In 2001, Cougenhour ruled that the EPA must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Marine Fisheries Service before approving the pesticides for use. In 2004, the Bush administration created a rule allowing the EPA to circumvent such due diligence. Coughenour found the administration’s rule in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

China failed to meet its goals for reducing air and water pollution in the first half of this year, the State Environmental Protection Agency announced. The country had hoped to cut its output of pollutants 10 percent over the next five years, but key measures of pollution showed an increase during the first six months of 2006. The chemical oxygen demand of China’s water—a key measure of the level of water pollution—rose 3.6 percent during this time, and emissions of sulfur dioxide, which can cause acid rain, is 4.2 percent higher than it was during the same period of 2005.

Originally published September 5, 2006

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