Archive for the ‘ Nature and Adventure ’ Category

Volcano quiet for 400 years erupts in Indonesia

(JAKARTA, Indonesia) — A volcano in western Indonesia spewed hot lava and sand high into the sky early Sunday in its first eruption in 400 years.

Government volcanologist Surono, who uses only one name, said Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra province started rumbling a few days ago and the minor morning eruption has mostly stopped.

It sent sand and ash up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) high but lava only moved near the crater. It caused no major damage “but only dust covered plants and trees,” he said.

He said Mount Sinabung last erupted in 1600, so observers don’t know the volcano’s eruption pattern and are monitoring it closely for more activity.

Evacuations on the volcano’s slopes started Friday at the first signs of activity. Up to 10,000 people who fled are staying in government buildings, houses of worship and other evacuation centers in two nearby towns.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, is on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanos and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.

The Mackerel Wars: Europe’s Fish Tiff With Iceland

The water separating Iceland from the rest of Europe has been choppy these past few years. After Iceland’s banks collapsed in 2008, the British government used anti-terrorism laws to force Reykjavik to agree to compensation for U.K. and Dutch account holders. When one of Iceland’s many volcanoes spewed an ash cloud westwards in April, it grounded European air traffic for a week. Now there is a new feud between the two and this time it is about the sea itself: Iceland — along with the tiny Faroe Islands nearby — has started trawling for mackerel, a stock that Norway and the E.U. insist is over-fished.

After Iceland unilaterally raised its mackerel quota from 2,000 to 130,000 tons for the year in early August, and the Faroes raised their 25,000-ton quota to 85,000 tons, the outraged Scottish Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead accused them of “hoovering up” stock, and warned that Iceland was jeopardizing its ambition to join the E.U. Last week, as the so-called mackerel war flared up again, a Faroes-registered trawler was blocked by local fishermen as it attempted to offload its $620,000 catch at the Scottish port of Peterhead. Scottish member of the European Parliament Struan Stevenson has called for an E.U.-wide blockade of Icelandic and Faroese ships. “This is wholly irresponsible and bizarre,” says Stevenson. “Iceland and the Faroes are plundering stocks just like their Viking ancestors.”

Environmental groups have also chimed in. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said Aug. 19 that Iceland and the Faroes’ combined quotas would result in the fish being exploited 35% above the recommendation set by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. WWF added that this would spell a “death sentence” for the region’s mackerel population. The Marine Stewardship Council, which issues fishery certification programs, said that if the fishing continued at this rate, mackerel would start to fall below sustainable levels by 2012.

But Iceland insists it’s justified in upping its quota. The Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners said that it “has every right to fish for mackerel within the Icelandic jurisdiction,” while Iceland’s fisheries minister Jon Bjarnason dismissed as “preposterous” allegations that it was over-fishing mackerel. Yet the furious reactions from the rest of Europe, and from conservationists, show that the hiked mackerel quotas have put Iceland and the Faroes in hot water.

Mackerel is by no means the only fish stock under pressure, and until recently, it was considered one of the better-managed North Sea stocks. But with fishermen feeling the squeeze across Europe, this row is being seen as a harbinger for bigger fish tiffs to come.

Part of the problem is climate change. The mackerel are seeking colder seas, and have migrated en masse to the more northerly waters around Iceland and the Faroes — whose catch quotas were originally based on the idea that their fishermen wouldn’t have access to, or go looking for, mackerel. But it is also due to the overall collapse in many fish stocks in European waters, as innovations such as sonar, driftnets and industrial freezer-trawlers have made fishing too easy, putting many stocks in a vulnerable position. At the same time, policy tools have yet to be applied to prevent over-fishing.

The E.U. has faced particular difficulties in devising policies to parcel up fisheries while keeping a lid on overall catches. In 1983, the E.U. set up its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which limits how long a boat can be at sea and sets quotas on how much it can catch. But last year, the European Commission itself admitted that the CFP had failed: In a sobering policy paper, it said too many boats were chasing too few fish, meaning that 88% of commercially caught species were being fished beyond their maximum sustainable yield, compared to 25% elsewhere in the world. The CFP also unintentionally encourages discards or “bycatch,” which sees fishermen throwing millions of tons of dead fish back into the sea because they are not a stock the fishermen are authorized to catch. The WWF estimates that while 40,000 tons of cod are landed by E.U. fishermen each year, up to 26,000 tons of cod is discarded. As a result, after years of chronic over-fishing, exacerbated by poor controls and feeble fines, many species — cod and hake, for example — are depleted in certain E.U. waters.

Nonetheless, there is still money in fishing. On Aug. 25, six Scottish trawler skippers admitted to taking part in a $22 million scam to beat quotas on how many fish they could land. “[Fishing] is a multi-million dollar business,” says Mike Walker, senior associate at the E.U. Marine Program of the Pew Environment Group. “As long as there is money in it, we can expect more disputes like [the one between Iceland and Europe] over the next few years.”

But North Sea and Atlantic fishermen simply don’t see their stocks as a finite resource that needs to be nurtured, says Isabella Loevin, a Swedish MEP and author of Silent Seas, a 2007 critique of the CFP. She says that as long as fish is seen as a common good — by the E.U.’s member states, Iceland, and the Faroes — no one has an incentive to restrict how much they take out of the sea. “There are no votes to be won in telling fishermen that they have to cut their catches,” she says. “Everyone points their fingers at everyone else and saying, ‘If they don’t stop fishing, why should we?'”

And unless there is a sea change in fishing — from the industry and governments — squalls like the one between Iceland and Europe are likely to become more frequent.

Scientists Crack Wheat’s Genetic Code

(LONDON) — British scientists have decoded the genetic sequence of wheat — one of the world’s oldest and most important crops — a development they hope could help the global staple meet the challenges of climate change, disease and population growth.

Wheat is grown across more of the world’s farmland than any other cereal, and researchers said Friday they’re posting its genetic code to the Internet in the hope that scientists can use it as a tool to improve farmers’ harvests. One academic in the field called the discovery “a landmark.”

“The wheat genome is the holy grail of plant genomes,” said Nick Talbot, a professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s going to really revolutionize how we breed it.”

University of Liverpool scientist Neil Hall, whose team cracked the code, said the information could eventually help breeders of varieties of wheat better identify genetic variations responsible for disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield. Although the genetic sequence remains a rough draft, and additional strains of wheat need to be analyzed for the work to be useful, Hall predicted it wouldn’t take long for his work to make an impact in the field.

“Hopefully the benefit of this work will come through in the next five years,” he said.

A genome is the full complement of an organism’s DNA, complex molecules which direct the formation and function of all living organisms. Sequencing an organism’s genome, gives unparalleled insight into how it is formed, develops and dies.

Wheat is a relative latecomer to the world of genetic sequencing. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the date the human genome was laid bare. Other crops have had their genetic codes unscrambled within the past few years — rice in 2005, corn in 2009, and soybeans earlier this year.

The reason for the delay in analyzing wheat’s genetic code, Hall said, was that the code is massive — far larger than corn or rice and five times the length of the one carried by humans.

One reason for the outsize genome is that strains such as the Chinese spring wheat analyzed by Hall’s team carry six copies of the same gene (most creatures carry two.) Another is that wheat has a tangled ancestry, tracing its descent from three different species of wild grass.

But sequencing techniques have improved dramatically over the past decade. The process used in this case is called pyrosequencing, a technique which involves extracting DNA, suspending it in fluid, breaking it apart with bursts of gas and using chemical reactions and a high-resolution camera to infer its makeup.

Hall said the machine used enabled his team to analyze a million strands of DNA at a time. The whole process took about a year to complete.

Although the code may yet see use by genetic engineers hoping to craft artificial strains of wheat, Hall was at pains to stress the conventional applications of his work. Until now, breeders seeking to combine the best traits of two strains of wheat would cross the pair, grow the hybrid crop and hope for the best.

Although the process has been used by farmers since wheat was first cultivated 10,000 years ago, Talbot described it as laborious and inefficient.

“Very often we were talking about 10-15 years of intensive breeding programs,” he said. “We’re talking now about doing things in less than five.”

Talbot noted that rice cultivation had already benefited from the publication of its genetic code — and led to the development of vitamin-enriched and drought-resistant strains. He said that his own field of specialty, the study of the destructive rice blast fungus, had been revolutionized as a result of having the genome sequence.

The cracking of wheat’s code comes at a time when prices have shot up in the wake of crop failures in Russia, highlighting how the vagaries of world food production can hit import-dependent countries such as Egypt.

Concerns over climate change, water shortages and population growth have loomed in the background for years. New risks include a mutant form of stem rust. The reddish, wind-borne fungus — known to scientists as Ug99 — has devastated wheat crops in places such as Kenya, where up to 80 percent of the wheat in afflicted farmers’ fields have been ruined.

Alexander Evans, an expert in resource scarcity issues at New York University, welcomed the announcement as something that would “very helpful” in getting farmers to grow food that will meet those challenges.

But as one British paper hailed the announcement as the most significant breakthrough in wheat farming for 10 millenia, Evans warned against putting too much faith in genetics, saying that reforming the politics and economics of food distribution was easily as important.

“We have to be very careful about saying that science will feed the world,” he said.

Close to Nature – Washington Sycip

In the years I’ve been in Makati, I never bothered to check out this park in the heart of Legazpi Village. The Legazpi Mini-Park was overgrown, had a reputation as a make-out place at night, and, even during the day, it didn’t look safe. When the parking lot across it was turned into a nice park and children’s playground (actually, to camouflage a Meralco substation that a power-hungry Makati needed), I felt even more sorry for it. It looked like it was going to stay forever as MAPSA’s neglected backyard, Makati’s forgotten little patch of green.

Then I noticed some construction and earthmoving in the area. I couldn’t see what was being done inside the park as the trees that surrounded it obstructed my view from the car. All I knew was that it was being spruced up as the new Washington Sycip Park.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The park, I was told, was a gift from SGV to its founder who just celebrated his 85th birthday and, coincidentally, to mark the company’s 60th anniversary. I thought what a great gift to the city, too!

One Saturday, feeling I needed a walk after a particularly heavy lunch, I finally decided to check it out. I swear it was like walking into a secret garden. The old gazebo was still there, but now there was a pond (was it there before?) with ducks! The old, tangly trees were pruned and the area was planted with flora. It was cool, shaded, definitely more lush and natural than the manicured park across the street. The ground was covered with carabao grass instead of bermuda, the landscape enhanced with some stone sculpture. A couple of modern, colorful installations by Impy Pilapil provided contrast.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I also learned that soon there would be a butterfly farm, trellis areas, and the gazebo could be used for small functions. I thought it’s just what this busy, congested, polluted part of Makati needed. In fact, after a stressful day at work, it would be great to walk to this park on my way home, slow down, breathe some fresh air and, why not, indulge in some wistful thinking or daydreaming. Like…

I doubt if can ever equal Mr. Sycip’s stature and achievement, much less his energy, to take our company to its 60th year. But if and when – like this venerable old man – I am able to make a difference in our industry and this country, I too would love to be gifted with a park. For me, there can be no greater honor… and it sure beats just having some street named after me.

(The Washington Sycip Park is bordered by Legazpi, Rada and Gamboa Streets in Legazpi Village. It’s open until 10pm.)

Closer to Nature – Calaruega