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Category Archives: Science & Environment

Environment Agency warns of serious water deficits for England

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire supplies water for drinking and hydro electricity

England is facing significant water supply shortages by 2050 unless rapid action is taken to reduce water use and wastage, the Environment Agency has warned.

Their new report says enough water to meet the needs of 20 million people is lost through leakage every day.

The abstraction of water from 28% of groundwater bodies in 2017 is unsustainable, the agency says.

They will work with others to set up personal water consumption targets.

The study, the first major report on water resources in England, says that population growth and climate change are the biggest pressures on a system that is already struggling.

In 2016, some 9,500 billion litres of freshwater were abstracted, with 55% of this used by public water companies, and 27% going to the electricity supply industry.

But in addition to the 3 billion litres a day that are wasted through leakage, there is a considerable price being paid in terms of the sustainability of these supplies.

According to the Environment Agency, extraction of groundwater was not at a sustainable level for 28% of groundwater bodies and up to 18% of surface waters.

A year earlier in 2016, unsustainable extraction prevented at least 6% and possibly up to 15% of river water bodies from achieving “a good ecological status or potential.”

Around 77% of chalk streams also failed this measure, with over extraction of water being responsible in a quarter of the streams that were tested.

“We need to change our attitudes to water use,” said Emma Howard Boyd, the Environment Agency chair.

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Getty Images

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Water leaks in England waste 3 billion litres per day

“It is the most fundamental thing needed to ensure a healthy environment, but we are taking too much of it and have to work together to manage this precious resource.”

Addressing the questions of how much freshwater was being extracted, a spokesman for Water UK said water companies were tackling the issue head-on.

“The water industry works hard to protect the environment, and companies will set out ambitious plans later this year which should mean less water is taken out of our rivers,” he said.

“We’ve also cut leakage a third since the 1990s, but we know there’s a lot more to do – which is why it’s one of our top priorities.”

The big questions going forward, according to the Environment Agency, are the impacts of climate change and population growth.

Rising temperatures will affect the timing and amount of rainfall that flows into rivers and replenishes ground water supplies.

Although average summer rainfall is not predicted to change, more rainfall is likely to occur in large downpours in the future, increasing the chances of droughts and floods happening at the same time.

The report warns that reduced summer rain and increased evaporation might damage wetland areas.

Increased areas of stagnant water during droughts coupled to increased temperatures could see the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and West Nile virus.

The population of England is predicted to increase to 58.5 million by 2026 – the report says that much of this increase is likely to take place in areas where water supplies are already stressed.

If no action is taken to reduce use and increase supply of water, “most areas will not meet demand by the 2050s” if both emissions and population growth are high.

Even low population growth and modest climate change “suggest significant water supply deficits by the 2050s, particularly in the South East.”

Image copyright
Environment Agency

The government has already suggested that an individual’s water use be reduced in their 25-year plan published earlier this year.

On average, people use 140 litres every day in England, and the Environment Agency says it will work with government and industry to establish a personal consumption target, and come up with cost-effective measures to meet it.

“Industry must innovate and change behaviours in order to reduce demand and cut down on wastage,” said Emma Howard Boyd.

“And we all have a duty to use water more wisely at home.”

The report also highlights the differences that changes to the way we produce energy in England will impact on water supplies.

Investment in nuclear power and renewable energy will likely lead to much lower rates of abstraction and consumption by 2050, the study says.

However, if future energy scenarios involve carbon capture and storage (CCS), this would require much higher freshwater abstraction and consumption levels, as the technology needs extra water to function, and would also increase the amount of cooling water needed at conventional power plants to which CCS equipment is attached.

How to speak volcano like a pro

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This is why those lynx are shrieking

Two lynx caught on camera howling at each other have the internet fixated. So what IS that noise?

Grace mission launches to weigh Earth’s water

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SpaceX

A joint US-German mission has gone into orbit to weigh the water on Earth.

The Grace satellites are replacing a pair of highly successful spacecraft that stopped working last year.

Like their predecessors, the new duo will circle the globe and sense tiny variations in the pull of gravity that result from movements in mass.

These could be a signal of the land swelling after prolonged rains, or of ice draining from the poles as they melt in a warming climate.

The satellites were launched on Tuesday aboard a SpaceX rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force base in California.

It will take a number of weeks to prepare and test the spacecraft before they can start gathering data.

Image copyright
AIRBUS

Image caption

The satellites were assembled in Europe by Airbus

The first Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace), which ran from 2002 to 2017, was widely regarded as transformative in the type of information it was able to gather, and maintaining the capability is now seen as a top priority for the American space agency (Nasa).

The follow-on mission again draws heavily on expertise from Europe, in particular from the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ). Europe’s biggest space company, Airbus, assembled the satellites at its factory in Friedrichshafen.

The new Grace duo will obtain their data by executing a carefully calibrated pursuit in orbit.

As the lead spacecraft lurches and drags through the Earth’s uneven gravity field, the second satellite will follow 220km behind, measuring changes in their separation to the nearest micron (a thousandth of a millimetre).

“That is about a tenth of a human hair over the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego,” Dr Frank Flechtner, the Grace-FO project manager at GFZ, told BBC News.

What the Grace concept is brilliant at sensing is the big changes that occur in the hydrological cycle.

Image copyright
Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA

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Grace data can show whether agriculture is using groundwater in a sustainable way

These could, for example, be major movements of water from the ocean to the land during precipitation events.

“There was a period in 2011 when sea-level rise slowed down and went in the other direction very briefly,” explained Nasa project project scientist Frank Webb.

“From the Grace data we could see there were heavy rain seasons in Australia and South America, and that equivalent of mass was going into storage on land. Eventually, it was released back to the oceans and sea-level rise continued.”

Image copyright
JOHN SONNTAG

Image caption

The ice sheets are losing about 400 gigatonnes to the oceans every year

One of the great contributions from the first Grace mission was to confirm the scale of change at the poles – to essentially weigh the ice sheets year on year.

Satellites carrying altimeters can do this by measuring the change in shape of Antarctica and Greenland – but Grace provided completely independent insight through its gravity assessments. Antarctica was seen to be losing some 120 billion tonnes of ice a year, for Greenland, the figure was 280 billion tonnes.

“Mass loss from the ice sheets is an increasing contribution to total sea-level rise and, even though the poles are remote, this mass loss will have large impacts all around the world,” said Prof Helen Fricker from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“With the launch of Grace-FO, we can now continue to detect changes in the ice mass, to determine the extent to which ice is being lost, and find out if there has been any acceleration,” she told BBC News.

The previous Grace pair used a microwave-ranging instrument to measure their separation.

The new satellites carry the same technology, but have now a laser system incorporated as well. It should give a roughly 10 times improvement in precision.

And although this is unlikely to deliver an equivalent jump in the resolution of the gravity field, scientists are still hopeful they can get significant gains in performance.

Image copyright
NASA

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The new pair will use both microwave and laser-ranging to measure their separation

The total cost for Grace-FO is on the order of $520m (€440m; £390m). The mission should work for at least five years.

As to what follows the follow-on, there is already talk about trying to widen involvement to include more EU member states.

This could see a future Grace-like gravity mission pulled into the European Commission’s Sentinel Earth-observation programme.

The same has already happened with the US-French Jason series, which has been measuring sea-surface height since 1992.

Future Jasons will be known as the Sentinel-6 mission – a status that has helped secure long-term funding.

“I think it’s important we get an operational mission,” commented Dr Flechtner.

“The ‘e’ in Grace stands for ‘experiment’, but the data is now being used for services, such as flood monitoring. My strong opinion is that it could be a Sentinel.”

To be clear, however, the EC does not have a gravity option among the possibilities it is currently scoping for Sentinel expansion.

and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

‘Rare’ birth of live reindeer twins in Cairngorms

Image copyright
The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

Image caption

Reindeer Lulu and her twins

Britain’s only free-roaming herd of reindeer has seen the birth of its first live twins.

Previously, twins in The Cairngorms Reindeer Herd have been stillborn or died shortly after birth.

The owners of the herd said live twins were “extremely rare” and they remained hopeful, but realistic, about the calves’ chances of survival.

They said there was only one other known case of live twins being born, which was in Finland in 2010.

The herd has been in the Cairngorms, near Aviemore, since 1952.

The twins’ mother is one of the older females, 12-year-old Lulu.

The calves are being “topped up” with bottled milk as Lulu does not have enough of her own for both of them.

UK’s clean car goal ‘not ambitious enough’

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Getty Images

The government’s ambition to clean up motor vehicles by 2040 is not ambitious enough, a leading energy expert says.

Professor Jim Watson, head of the prestigious UK Energy Research Centre, said the target should be at least five years earlier, as in Scotland.

The government is currently considering obliging new cars to run on electricity for at least 50 miles by 2040.

The government said it would not discuss the issue before it had published its policy which is due soon.

But ministers are facing competing pressures on the issue. Some UK car firms are telling ministers their proposed targets are unachievable, while others say the targets can easily be reached.

Push and go faster

Professor Watson, who started working life as a car engineer, says the motor industry has a history of saying targets are impossible, then suddenly finding new models to do the job.

“It’s great that they [the government] are having a target, but it could be much more ambitious,” he told BBC News.

“If you push industry further they could go faster.

“Sometimes the car industry has done itself a great disservice by lobbying against environmental standards and then finding itself in trouble when the oil price goes up and people want cleaner, more efficient cars.”

“They should embrace it [a strong target] and ask government to regulate them harder.”

Extinction

Professor Watson was referring to the long campaign by US car makers against tighter efficiency standards – a battle that ended when the manufacturers faced bankruptcy because in part their models were inefficient.

In effect, the US car firms were so successful with lobbying that they nearly lobbied themselves into extinction.

Image copyright
PA

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Air pollution over London

One UK car firm spokesman told me: “We don’t have a good record on this – the industry has cried ‘wolf’ too often in the past.”

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders told BBC News it rejected this suggestion.

There is certainly a range of views among UK car firms about the advisability of the 2040 target. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has said publicly that it expects to meet the government’s current proposed standards long before the set date.

A spokesman said: “From 2020, every new Jaguar and Land Rover will have the option of electrification.

“This (2040 target) is 22 years away – or seven new cars away for many new car buyers on a typical ownership cycle. We are confident that every new Jaguar or Land Rover will meet the proposed criteria long before 2040.”

Ill-considered

Nissan told BBC News it supported clean car targets. A spokesman said: “As the pioneer of electric vehicles, we welcome plans that encourage people to switch to low or zero emission vehicles.”

But other manufacturers discussing the issue on condition of anonymity told BBC News the proposed 2040 standards are ill-considered.

One criticised the idea currently under consideration by the Department for Transport to force hybrid cars, by 2040, to have the capacity to travel 50 miles without burning fossil fuels.

The car maker said this would require a much bigger battery entailing more weight and cost. That extra capacity would be redundant for most of the time for an average driver.

Barrage of criticism

The issue is causing headaches for many other governments needing to cut emissions that cause local air pollution and climate change.

India’s transport minister announced 2030 as a day beyond which only all-electric cars may be sold.

But after a barrage of criticism from car firms, he rescinded the order, and India’s policy is not yet clear. Tata Motors in Delhi did not want to comment on whether it could cope with a 2030 all-electric policy.

What is certain is that in Europe and Asia, car makers are being expected to move inexorably towards low or zero emissions vehicles.

Charging infrastructure

The car makers admit they face uncertainty over the future. After decades of homogenisation of world markets, they may find themselves manufacturing electric cars to access the Chinese economy on the one hand and petrol SUVs for Texas on the other.

Car makers think China will probably become a world leader in car standards – especially in cities.

The UK car firms are in concert on one issue: the need for the government to radically improve the supply of charging infrastructure, and to increase incentives to buy low-emissions cars.

They told BBC News ministers would need to move swiftly to accelerate demand for clean cars, or it would be impossible to step up production levels to the amount needed by 2040.

Electric and hybrid cars currently constitute 1.4% of the current UK fleet. Of new sales, 4.7% are clean fuel – that’s 119,786 out of 2.54 million cars sold last year.

Mike Hawes from the SMMT told BBC News: “Vehicle manufacturers will increasingly offer electrified versions of their vehicles giving consumers ever more choice but industry cannot dictate the pace of change nor levels of consumer demand.”

Environmentalists say this is a red herring – car buyers, they say, will buy whatever vehicles are permitted to be sold in the country at that time.

The environment department Defra is concerned that their colleagues in transport at DfT have had their ambition dulled by car industry lobbying.

One Defra source told me: “They are chancing their arm. The targets for 2040 are not ambitious at all.”

The DfT didn’t want to address that comment.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

The 'day spa' for pregnant sharks

Visit the ‘day spa’ where pregnant dusky sharks treat themselves to a warm bath

Seeds of hope: The gardens springing up in refugee camps

Image copyright
Marvin J Willis Viola Vale Ltd

Image caption

Aveen Ismail in her garden

“Syria is green,” says Aveen Ismail. “But here it was like a desert until we started growing plants and trees.”

The 35-year-old fled Damascus with her family in 2012. She now lives in the Domiz Camp in Northern Iraq, where roses, lemon trees and marigolds have sprung up amid the concrete and dust.

“Creating a garden was a way for us to heal and remind us of home,” she says.

Alfonso Montiel of the Lemon Tree Trust has sat down in many of the tiny green spaces at the camp.

“You’ll see in some cases it’s full of roses,” he says. “The first question you ask yourself is, why not food?”

Flowers, says Montiel, give a sense of the passage of time. “It gives them a sense of hope. It gives a sense of control of their environment.”

The Lemon Tree Trust has been working in the refugee camps of Northern Iraq for the past three years, running garden competitions to encourage residents to create gardens, and providing seeds and plants.

Image copyright
Ruhleben Horticultural Society

Image caption

The residents of Ruhleben internment camp

Image copyright
Dirk-Jan Visser

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Residents at Domiz Camp

Domiz, one of the largest camps in Kurdistan, is home to 30,000 refugees, most of them from Syria.

“The Syrians – one of the things they pack when they leave is seeds,” says Montiel. “They want seeds from their own plants, from their own spaces, from their own families.”

Echoes of history

Gardeners in the camp grow seeds and plants brought to them from Syria by brothers, uncles and cousins. The community has come together to build raised beds, which are planted with vegetables and flowers.

More recently, residents of the camp have helped choose plants and flowers for the Lemon Tree Trust’s first refugee-inspired garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Sami, who has a PhD in botany, played a big role.

“He walked from Syria for ten days holding both of his boys, one on each hand, into the camp,” says Montiel. “He was a principal collaborator in choosing the plants with Tom [designer Tom Massey] and thinking about the design. This is truly a garden inspired and developed with the help of the refugees themselves.”

The garden has already proved an inspiration for Sue Biggs, the director general of the Royal Horticultural Society. When she heard about plans for the garden, she was reminded of a chapter in history 100 years ago when the RHS sent seeds to British citizens who were prisoners of war in the Ruheleben internment camp in Germany, to help them survive the hardships.

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Dirk-Jan Visser

“Just as we had done to Germany in 1918 so we did again in 2018 to Kurdistan, to the Domiz Camp in Iraq,” she says.

“It was uncanny really, two groups of people, 100 years apart, one in Germany, one in Iraq, and really the same basic human desire to nurture and to grow something, even in terrible circumstances.

The RHS sent 2,000 packets of seeds out to Domiz last month, including vegetables such as peppers and cucumbers, and flowers such as marigolds and sunflowers.

When the RHS searched their London Lindley Library for the original letters and photographs from the 1918 seed lift they found the refugees in Iraq had asked for a nearly identical selection.

Image copyright
Dirk-Jan Visser

“From one dry, dusty seed, there is a life that can flourish,” says Sue Biggs.

“At the end they can end up eating healthy food or just being able to brighten their surroundings and feel like human beings.”

The Lemon Tree Trust’s garden is on display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Follow Helen on Twitter.

Could illegal mines in Ghana lead to an increase in chocolate prices?

Experts are warning that cocoa shortages in Ghana could lead to an increase in chocolate prices.

The West African nation is the world’s second biggest producer of cocoa, but some plantations are being turned into illegal gold mines.

Video producers: Joe Inwood and Thomas Naadi

Kilauea: What happens when lava meets the sea

BBC correspondent Chris Buckler explains what happens when lava flow meets the sea.