Monday, 16 May 2011

Water : A Boon or Curse?

Life on earth depends primarily on water. May it be for human beings, or for ecosystems like forests and other organisms in all forms of life. The change in climate will dramatically affect the world’s fresh water supply which comes in form of rain and snow. Rainfall will increase in some places, bringing floods and will decrease in others, possibly bringing droughts. It could potentially affect to such an extent where conflicts between nations would be inevitable, over water resources. Some areas of the world would suffer from too much water, whereas others would face the scarcity. Thus change in world’s water balance would be a matter of universal concern.
Climate change will bring about imbalance in both, quality and quantity of water. The pace of water cycle will speed up, making evaporation more rapid, leading to intense storms and floods. It will also affect the timing of rainfall, the dry spells in between as well as quantity of down pour, thus profoundly affecting humans and other life forms. On one hand wildlife behaviour will change to adapt to the changing habitat and on the other, crop pattern and crop yield will be affected. Scarcity of water will lead to disputes among groups such as farmers, industries and household users. This secondary effect of climate change would as well have a great impact as much as its direct effect.
As it is a fundamental source to all economic activities, from agriculture to tourism, the pressure will be felt by people world over, which will be experienced in different ways depending upon regional situation. Scientists are working on different models to understand where changes are most likely to occur. According to the study, increased rainfall and flooding will be seen across northern Europe, Canada, Alaska and northern Asia. Whereas countries like Indonesia and others in southern parts will grow drier. With increasing drought situation the top soil, which nourishes the plants, would go drier and get blown away, permanently damaging the land. According to one report China has lost around 3.5 million acres of forest and cropland being turned into desert within last half century alone. Increase in infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever would be at rise in tropical regions with rise in temperature and increase in rainfall, both of them being a favourable condition for mosquitoes to thrive. It will not only affect human beings but the cattle population as well, which is a source of livelihood to many. Increased temperature in fresh as well as salt water stimulates growth of harmful algae where bacteria thrive which can cause health problems.
Ecosystems thus have been pushed out of balance. In the Himalayas snow melting fills dozens of lakes, which is a source of fresh water to villages in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. With average annual temperature gradually rising each year since last two decade, these lakes are getting increased amount of water with more and more glaciers melting. Adding to this the water is being tapped to get the supply of water to the hydroelectric plants which have been built over the rivers flowing from these glacial lakes. With snow melting fast, these lakes are getting overfilled, posing threat of bursting their banks. United Nations Environment Programme has identified over two dozen of such lakes in Nepal and an equal number in Bhutan that are in immediate danger of bursting. The other forces which may cause such damage is disasters like earthquakes, avalanches and landslides. Landslides are more destructive in mountainous regions and specially deforested areas, where the plants no longer hold the soil in place. Once a slope is weakened it becomes vulnerable to any natural calamites. The worst reported case of landslide disaster was in Venezuela, where within a span of five years since year 2000 with just two landslide incidences over 20000 people were killed and over 5 lakh people were left homeless.

Plants : The Basic Life Support System

With the prolonged monsoon and the first month of the rainy season completely going dry, the need to understand the climate change is becoming more and more relevant. With not only the farming community but almost every individual eagerly waiting for the rain, let us take a break from the current series and take a look at the world of plants - the ultimate 'weapon' to fight the root cause of global warming. We will also understand the method of plantation as well as care to be taken when the plants are young.
The first step towards becoming a 'green soldier' can be taken by planting just one tree this rainy season and taking care of it to see that it sustains till it grows up well to take care of itself. The ultimate aim however should be to minimize, as far as possible, our materialistic needs, as most of them are fulfilled directly or indirectly through trees. It will automatically put less pressure on earth's invaluable resources if we adopt a nature friendly life style, thus helping to conserve nature.
Every year at the outset of monsoon we read news, along with photographs of cheerful faces of people, planting the trees. Unfortunately most of the time the enthusiasm recedes so sharply that the participants themselves hardly recollect the incidence, as no effort is taken to persuade the cause. Thus the saplings are left on their own to survive. The result being, inspite of the figure of tree plantation collectively crossing millions, there are only few hundreds which really see the light of the day after that particular rainy season. Thus the plantation ceremony and its rituals are performed at the same place year after year.
Plants as we all know grow everywhere. They grow on land, on mountain tops, in lakes and rivers, in oceans as well as deserts and even in cold climatic polar regions. Of all living things plants have a unique feature. They make their own food! They use energy from the sun to do so. Plants are important because they are the prime source of food to most living beings. Besides food they provide shelter, clothing, medicines and host of other raw material like fiber, latex, oils and resins.
There are about 2,50,000 species of plants which include trees, herbs, shrubs, bushes, grasses, creepers, ferns and mosses, algae and sea weeds, as well as microscopic plants. They can be further distinguished according to their habitat, use and peculiarity as; Aquatic plants, Desert plants, Edible plants, Medicinal plants, Alpine plants, Ornamental plants, Carnivorous plants, Parasitic plants and so on.
Early plants were small; their body composed of single cell and soft body tissues. The earliest plants or plant-like bacteria began the process of photosynthesis, which released oxygen as a waste product. Life began to evolve when oxygen became available in its independent form along with suitable atmospheric conditions. So all life forms on the earth today, are indebted to plants in one or the other way.

Let us briefly understand the broad variety of plants. Plants are divided into two groups, depending on whether they circulate water or not. The first grouping of plant kingdom is made up of plants that are Non-Vascular. This means they cannot circulate water through their stems and leaves, but absorb it from the atmosphere that surrounds them. The remaining variety is known as Vascular. They have a system for circulating fluids. This is a larger group. They are further divided into two. The first reproduces from spores, which are minute cells capable of producing a new organism. The second group reproduces from seeds.
A Swedish naturalist Carlos Linnaeus was the first person to systematically classify plants. He grouped them according to their flowers and the number and type of stamens and pistils. He gave each plant two Latin names. The first indicated the Family of the plant and the second represented the particular member of the family. Though the newer, more accurate systems of classification have been developed, Linnaeus' system is still used throughout the world.
Method of planting and care of the saplings*:

It is a good practice to choose a sapling of one to two years for planting rather than raising trees from seeds. Sites for pits should be planned and located well in advance. There is a tendency to plant saplings close to each other, without realizing their eventual growth and the space they will occupy. The distance should be at least 15 feet for small trees and 25 feet for larger ones. The pits should be at least two feet in diameter and equally deep. The pit and the soil should be exposed to sun a month prior, and in early June should be mixed thoroughly with manure or compost in suitable proportion, preferably in ratio of 5:1. The pit should be filled up with this mixture. Fresh or raw manure is not desirable, as it is a breeding ground for white ants. After a shower or two the pit gets subsided and is ready for plantation. The best time for planting is the start of monsoon, though some trees, particularly deciduous types have better period of plantation in winter season i.e. between December to February as they are in dormant state and hence less likely to suffer the transplantation. February is preferable as it gets benefited by spring season growth and gets securely established by the time rains arrive. The best time for planting is either evenings or in monsoon, on a cloudy day.

While removing the sapling from pot or polythene bag, the soil around the roots should not be removed or broken. The root collar should be just under ground level while planting. It is injurious to plant too deep by burying the stem underground. A hole should be made in the pit sufficiently deep to accommodate the roots of the sapling. By holding the sapling erect the soil should be packed tightly around the plant. It should be given thorough drenching immediately. If there are any casualties they should be replaced without much delay. Planting of more than one sapling in single hole anticipating that one of them will survive, should be avoided, as that is our convenience not of the plant.
Grass has a very harmful effect, particularly on young plants. For a healthy growth of plants, a thorough weeding and hoeing are of much greater importance than just watering, as the weeds robs the nutritive material much need for the plant and hoeing up occasionally allows aeration of roots which stimulates the plant growth will naturally be beneficial. Wet soil should not be dug. The entire diameter of pit should be free from weeds. Watering should be done at regular intervals in the dry spells of rains and at least five to six times in a month thereafter, increasing it to twice a week in summer. The watering should be done upto brim of the pit. It is also a good practice to insert an earthen pot with small openings, besides the plant and pouring water in these pots.
In the second year, if the plant develops two or more shoots, it is better to retain only one healthy shoot and remove the subsidiary ones. Pruning should be done with pruning knife. To prevent infection to open wounds it is advisable to cover/apply tar to the exposed surface. The sapling should be given proper support of stick or any other erect object so that the growth is straight. Strings and particularly wire should not be used as it can damage the bark, instead a piece of cloth is a better option.
If the plants are in house premises, protection is not a great problem. But if it is in open areas it has to be protected from stray cattles, goats and mischievous boys. Bricks could be used by placing it in layers to guard the trees.

If possible, a mud structure along with a ditch around can also keep the animals away. Fabricated tree guard is also one of the options where funds are available. They can be reused several times. Thorny branches of Babool or Cactus is also a cheap option. Exotic and ornamental trees should be given lower priority as endemic variety is always preferable for their usefulness to the local environment.

Apart from private nurseries forest department also have plant nurseries, which make available variety of plants at reasonable price. One should take adequate information and proper guidance while selecting the right species to suit the need and the purpose. If one wishes to sow the seeds and if they are hard coated, it should be softened by placing them in boiling water for few minutes and then allowing the water to cool. Thus as we can see, it is almost like taking care of child and raising and grooming it for its healthy future.
So...let's get ready and join hands to perform the holy act! ... Happy Monsoon!

Global Warming and Its Impact

Looking at the fact from the evidences available, we can certainly arrive at a conclusion of human impact on climate. From prehistoric times until relatively recent past, all people had at least one thing in common. Irrespective of which part of the world they lived, they could not affect the climate, on the contrary the climate was the prime force behind their lively hood. But today, something fundamental has changed. Through their actions, - particularly due to burning of fossil fuels - human beings are now influencing the world's climate.
The human induced climate change began in the late eighteenth century, around the time of James Watt's invention of steam engine and the beginning of industrial revolution. Over the period of last 200 to 225 years, with accelerating advances in technology and rapidly increasing population, people are now causing changes in regional climate with global consequences. The Earth has been growing warmer at an accelerating pace, yet the changes are complex and vary from place to place where some regions are growing warmer, others cooler, some direr and others wetter.
The global population around pre-industrial era was less than a billion, which increased to 2.5 billion in 1950 and today we are over 6 billion people on earth. It is projected that, by 2025 there would be around 8.5 billion of us and by 2050 it would cross 10 billion count. As compared to world, India's population was nearly 350 million in 1950, today we alone stand over a billion.
Cities are called 'heat islands' as their temperatures are a few degrees higher than the surrounding region. One of the easily understood examples apart from carbon emissions from vehicles and industries is the concentration of tar roads, which not only traps more heat than less 'developed' outlying areas but also reduces the amount of water that the ground absorbs. The best example is Mumbai, where there is no open land left, as it is either covered by roads, buildings, footpaths and the newer addition being pavers blocks which is covering whatever balance open land was visible. The result is even with a moderate rainfall the water logs in the low lying areas which barely have any place to penetrate land, on the other hand the temperature which used to be 35°Cto 36°C is exceeding 40°C today.
It is estimated that carbon dioxide in earth's atmosphere has increased by 31% since pre industrial period. Other green house gases like methane and nitrous oxide are also at their highest recorded levels. This is measured through air bubbles trapped in ice cores taken from glaciers, which provide a continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels stretching back to 1000 years. Fossil fuels viz.: coal, oil and natural gas which are formed from the fossilized remains of prehistoric plants and animals are the primary cause of the rise of these greenhouse gases (GHG). These fossil fuels provide 90% of the world's commercial energy.
Agriculture and urbanization are another major cause of rise in GHG. Forests are natural storage areas for carbon which they absorb to convert it with the help of sunlight into wood, leaves and other organic matter which is termed as biomass. Especially during last two centuries the forest cover has been cut mercilessly for timber and to make way for towns as well as for agriculture to cater increasing demand of food. Adding to this, nitrous oxide, a GHG which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is released through the nitrogen based chemical fertilizer which is used by farmers. Another GHG, Methane is released by rice fields and cattles which is a major food source to the world.

To arrive at these conclusions scientists world over use sophisticated technology and gadgets, where they deploy specialized instruments on land, under the sea, suspended balloons in air and finally satellites in space. These instruments record the data about temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind speed, energy entering and leaving the atmosphere, changes in oceans, changing extent of polar ice caps and so on. For reliable evidence of past weather, scientists gather information from sea floor sediments, ice cores, tree rings, fossils etc. All these data is then complied, processed to arrive at the conclusion of climate fluctuations.
In year 2005 from the recorded data of past 150 years the World Meteorological Organization announced that 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004 were four hottest years during that period. The IPCC reported in 2001 that average global surface temperature has increased by 0.6°C during the last 100 years. Though it may seem to be very insignificant, some parts of the globe has recorded major shift in temperature. Even this marginal shift in average global surface temperature make a considerable rise (almost upto 8 inches) in the sea level, thereby endangering the costal areas. IPCC continues further and predicts that if the carbon dioxide concentration continues to increase, the average surface temperature will rise to the extent of 5.8°C by year 2100. Even the present rise in the temperature has warmed up the oceans by at least ten times than other parts of the earth within last fifty years. As we all know, that oceans constitutes more than 70% of our planet, it can be imagined the extent of impact it can cause to the climatic conditions around the globe.
The floating ice is diminishing faster, this includes perennial ice (ice that remains year-round) even after seasonal ice has melted in the summer. Studies show that the ice thickness has decreased by 40% over past 50 years. Ice at higher altitude from Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa to the Himalayas in Asia is also disappearing. Mountain glaciers world wide have melted significantly since 1960's. The estimated loss is 4 lakh cubic Km of water, more than the annual discharge of water from world's four major rivers combined. All this water ultimately ends up in the oceans making a dual loss - the loss in the fresh water stock as well as rise in ocean levels.
Changing climates have also caused numerous alterations in living things. Many birds are reproducing earlier and flowers are blooming earlier than they have in the past. In some cases, the changes can be deadly; Coral reefs have been destroyed as the water became too warm, polar bears are threatened by the loss of sea ice on which they hunt. Other elements have also changed significantly. Rainfall has increased by 5 to 10% over northern hemisphere.
Let us now understand other effects of changing climate. Rise in temperature is one of the prime effects of changing climate. It in turn also has a direct effect on many aspects of life on earth, from agriculture to forestry, from the health of human beings to the welfare of other living beings.
Rising temperatures have direct impact on living things of all kinds, from bacterias to plants to animals. It affects individual growth rates, availability of food and water, and another biological events such as flowering, spawning and birth. Even after an organism dies, heat is still important as the decomposition process is also temperature dependent.
Biologists have found that 84% of the 334 species they studied showed significant changes in their overall biological cycle. Increasing warmth can have positive as well as negative effects on human physiology. Where as the colder regions may some what benefit temporarily by rise in temperature, the hotter places can produce heat related injuries which can disturb body cycle and even could be fatal. Warmer weather may also lead to increase in occurrence of diseases. Allergies will probably increase and even simple act of breathing may become harder. The heat waves in our country are taking more death toll as the summer temperature is nearing to almost 50°C at some places. Europe experienced a series of extraordinary heat waves in the summer of 2003 killing thousands of people. The World Meteorological Organization has projected that heat related deaths will double in next twenty years. Forest fires are another consequence of extreme heat, which is already on a rise in Europe, Australia and North America, threatening various species. In a vicious circle, fires further contribute to climate change as burning releases more carbon dioxide and diminish the possibility of in taking the ever increasing carbon emissions. All this will carry large economic costs.
Coral reefs - a hard limestone structure built by tiny animals - is a habitat for about 25% of marine species, support more biodiversity than any other marine ecosystems. The rising ocean temperatures are destroying them across the globe. They also act as natural break waters that protect shorelines from storms and also benefit humanity through fisheries and tourism of scuba diving. It will affect the tourism industry in a significant way as the popular tourist destinations will loose their balance of nature for which they are better known for. Due to rise in temperature a phenomenon of coral bleaching occurs, thereby disrupting the habitat for marine life. It also affects it other way as the rise in temperature lowers the concentration of carbonate which is used by marine organisms to build their skeletons.

It is believed by most scholars across the globe that an average rise of 2° to 3°C will cause severe problems in terms of many species becoming extinct. Rise in sea level to the extent of around 20 to 23 feet within this century will affect the sea ports, 100's of billion dollars will be required to maintain current functioning and stability of sea ports across the world, impact of loosing land to sea would be unparalleled. Insurance and risk management companies will have to spend double to pay for the risks covered against natural calamities and so on.
Around the world, a major ecological change is underway, the animals and other living species are shifting towards the poles or to higher altitudes. The study reveals that many animals, butterflies, birds, fishes and even plant species are moving to higher altitudes, varying from 6 km up to 97 km, either northward or southward, per decade. All of these animals and plants are reacting in their own ways to the steady temperature increase. The ecological effect of this migration depends on the ability to adapt to new environment of these species. Some may adapt quickly others may vanish completely. The species which better adapt to new climate might make it harder for existing species persisting in a region.
The known example is Red fox which migrated north wards, now competes with the Arctic Fox, which now may not survive. Human civilization often becomes barriers to migration with cities, roads and farms, the best known example is of the Leopards which are seen in vicinities of towns and cities. Even the plant species such as mosses and planktons which were alien to some habitats are now colonizing at newer places. Such transitions can seriously disrupt a region's native species on which the food chain depends.
There is also other school of thought which does not agree the human factor behind global warming. Some critics disagree the basis on which the climate models are derived, though all of them agree that the temperature is indeed on rise. Whatever way the scholars interpret the change, it is for sure the global warming will affect socio-economic development, technological change and the population as a whole. Therefore even though it is sometimes said that population is our asset, it is a partial truth, looking only from an angle of becoming super power. But what super power it would be, if by the time we achieve that status, there would hardly be any resources left on earth to really celebrate and show our supremacy.

Ironically it is up to us to decide how much and how fast we would like to make the earth warmer and thus make it inhabitable. To sum up in words of St. Lucia's Ambassador, Charles Fleming "If we wait for the proof, the proof will kill us."

Climate: The fundamental force that shapes the life on Earth

News of extreme weather from all parts of the world like floods, famines, hurricanes are becoming a common factor today. Apart from sporadic climate fluctuations unprecedented long term changes like ice melting, rising temperature, desertification are bringing far-reaching economic, social and ecological consequences.
In our maiden article we will try to understand whether we - the human race - is responsible for this and if so, what can we do to avoid this disaster.
As we know now, Global Warming is the greatest threat to life on earth today. Climatic conditions around the world are being transformed by rising temperatures. Every place on earth is undergoing alarming changes, which is causing huge loss of habitat for plants, animals and human beings as well. Green house gases are heating up the atmosphere, affecting crops and exposing it to new deadly diseases. As the polar ice is melting at alarming rate there is a rise in sea levels due to which coastal areas and islands are getting flooded or submerged. It is now a question to understand how much high will sea levels rise? How much carbon dioxide can the atmosphere safely hold? It is therefore important to see that how will the civilization cope with increasingly dangerous weather conditions. In the following series we will try to understand the reasons of climatic changes its effect and what must be done today for the sake of our planet and thereby securing it for the future generations to follow.

Let us see some of the recent incidences and try to evaluate if the climate is really changing.

In 2002-03 Australia experienced its worst drought in a century. The lack of rain has devastated Australian farmers. Farm income has dropped drastically. The population of sheep, a backbone of Australian economy, has gone down to its lowest level ever. Grain production has plunged down by more than half. With temperatures rising and water becoming scarce the problems are becoming worse. Added to it forest fires have become rampant. Drought continues in many parts of South Australia. In many areas of the country, rainfall is decreasing. It is feared by many that drought has become a permanent condition.
Portugal witnessed the most devastating forest fires in year 2003. The fire damaged some 2,500 houses and other buildings and destroyed around ten lakh acres of forest land. Similarly throughout the region from Spain to Greece wildfires are on increase. Apart from trees and human properties, habitats of wild animals, birds and other living organism are being destroyed, putting further stress on already threatened species.
United States is witnessing more hurricanes than ever. One of their states, Florida seemed helpless when four hurricanes hit it in year 2004 within a span of just two months, with wind velocity as high as 233 km/hr, in all killing hundreds of people, thousands homeless and damaging property worth billions of dollars.
In Fiji a South Pacific nation, made up of hundreds of islands the residents have noticed that coastal flooding have increased and the coastlines are getting eroded faster. Tides come in farther than they used to, whereas fresh water is becoming scarce and the soil less stable. The villagers depend on sea food, but the local marine life has been far disturbed. Coral reefs are bleached white having lost the microscopic algae that live inside their cells. Villagers across other islands have similar stories to tell. With sea level rising, some low lying islanders are considering moving their entire population to mainland.
In the Arctic, Polar bears are going hungry and their young ones are starving to death for lack of food or because their nursing mothers lack body fat which they need to nourish their offspring. The scarcity of their food is due to melting of ice. As their main food are seals. And their hunting pattern and arrival of seals is getting disturbed their by making the conditions poorer for them.

We ourselves have also witnessed the unprecedented July 2005 disaster in Mumbai, floods in Rajasthan and the recent havoc of Bihar.
What is the causing all these dramatic events? Is it really due to climate change or are they merely a coincidence? Is the human activity accelerating the changes?
Climate varies from region to region, but its long term stability is part of what gives every region its special character. Human beings around the world, like all other organisms depend on climate remaining about the same. We rely on steadiness of climate to travel, work, plant crops, build houses which suit the local climate and so on. Though climate has changed to extremes in earth history, the question is whether it is changing now? are we responsible and how we are going to cope-up with it.
As climate can be measured only over the long term period no single weather event attribute to climate change. On the broader scale climate is influenced by five different factors. The atmosphere (air), the lithosphere (earth), the hydrosphere (water), the cryosphere (ice and snow) and the biosphere (the total life on earth). The sun being the power source that drives most of the above elements.
For many years now, evidence from around the world has been mounting that the global climate is indeed changing. Conditions and events that have been documented by climate researchers indicate that temperatures are rising around the globe. Glaciers are melting faster and the danger to low lying coastal areas is evident. The answer to whether human activity is contributing to this change is becoming increasingly clear as evidence continues to mount. Scientist world over have observed that human activity is indeed contributing to climate change and that natural processes alone cannot account for the massive change.
After the formation of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the United Nations in 1988 over 3000 scientists world over are examining the factors contributing to the climate change, The 2001 report of IPCC clearly states that "Earth's climate system has demonstrably changed on both global as well as regional scales since the pre-industrial era with some of these changes attributable of human activity." The level of carbon dioxide - a gas normally present in marginal quantity in atmosphere - is higher now than pre-industrial period due to excessive burning of fossil fuel, which emits carbon dioxide. Scientists have little doubt that this and other gases like CFC, Methane and so on released by human activity is preventing heat from escaping from the planet, causing global temperatures to rise faster than ever before as compared to past hundreds of decades.
Earths climate has undergone through many radical changes since time immemorial from ice ages to hot house periods, long before humans appeared on earth. The present crises makes some sense in the context of that history which shows that the forces that shape climate are complex and that climate's effect on people and other living things are far ranging and profound. If nothing is done to arrest the current global warming, the pace of change in the natural world will quicken dramatically and the price we would pay would be far more than our society is willing or rather able to pay. The cost of change will not only be economical but through agricultural losses, extended droughts, productive and habitable land being permanently lost to oceans making lakhs and lakhs of people becoming homeless as well as increased deaths from sun strokes and heat waves, unprecedented epidemics in our society and extinction of species that are invaluable to humans for what they provide; directly or indirectly, making our living comfortable.
The impact of our actions today and our willingness to anticipate and work for a sustainable future will show whether we really care for our only place to reside- The Earth- in order to avert the worst, while the time is ticking away.