New web series chronicles whale songs in the key of climate change

Humpback whale.

Humpback whale in Tahiti. (© Rodolphe Holler)

Off the coast of a remote island in the South Pacific, a team of scientists and volunteers recently gathered on a boat to hear this year’s hit song.

The singers, in this case, are endangered Oceania humpback whales near the island of Niue, where they are considered sacred — and are a key to understanding the status of migratory marine species amid a changing climate.

A new series of videos created by New Zealand filmmaker Richard Sidey follows the team as they collect data about migratory Oceania humpback whales in the waters of Niue, which became a national whale sanctuary in 2003 and recently declared 40 percent of its ocean territory a large-scale marine protected area. The male humpback’s song — an example of the largest-scale documented cultural learning experience outside of the human race — is recorded using a hydrophone, or underwater microphone.

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Research offers new insights into a critical conservation tool

Anzihe Protected Area

Patrolling the Anzihe Protected Area in Chongzhou, Sichuan. (© Kyle Obermann)

Protected areas — locations set aside to limit certain uses such as mining, fishing or agriculture — remain one of the most crucial tools for sustaining ecosystem health and curbing climate change.

Yet, balancing the needs of communities who live in or near these areas — and ensuring that protected areas are well-managed — is a challenge that varies from one country to the next.

Three recent studies by Conservation International are shedding new light on how protected areas work, and how to make them better.

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Protections for African wildlife face growing threat: a lack of money

Lions in Kenya.

Lions, such as the ones pictured here in Kenya, will experience severe population declines if protected areas in Africa continue to be underfunded. (© Art Wolfe)

Some 90 percent of the almost 300 protected areas in Africa are underfunded, according to a recent study, The New York Times reported this week. These combined deficits — totaling at least US$ 1 billion — mean that iconic fixtures of Africa’s permanent landscape, such as lions, could face severe population declines if no action is taken.

We spoke with Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Africa Field Division, and Rachel Golden Kroner, a social scientist at Conservation International and an expert on protected areas, about the study’s findings, and what can be done to better protect nature in Africa and beyond.

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In case you missed it: 3 big stories from our world

Ankar Umayyad World Heritage Site.

Anjar Umayyad World Heritage Site, Lebanon. (© O. Langrand)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

  1. UK scientists turn coffee industry waste into electricity

Microbes can turn waste from coffee production into usable energy for coffee farmers.

The story: The 9.5 million tons of coffee produced each year globally leaves behind large amounts of liquid waste, whether that’s from washing the beans or the water-intensive process of creating instant coffee, Adam Vaughan of The Guardian wrote last Sunday. To more efficiently deal with this waste, scientists have created a type of fuel cell that allows microbes to digest the waste and produce small amounts of energy.

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We’re in a global water crisis. It’s time to turn to nature

Milanovac Lake in Croatia's Plitvice National Park.

Photo of Milanovac Lake in Croatia’s Plitvice National Park. (© Maurizio Biancarelli/ Wild Wonders of Europe)

Earth has a water problem.

Water crises in Cape Town and Southern California have shined a light on the plight of the planet’s fresh water in the face of climate change — and the critical role that nature plays in addressing today’s most pressing water challenges.

A new paper published in the scientific journal Ecohydrology and Hydrobiology looks at the gravest threats to our water security — and explores how nature can help us protect and manage the global water supply, sustainably. It’s this focus on nature-based solutions that drives the study’s “21st century approach” to addressing the world’s water problems.

The paper makes the case that, while traditional engineering approaches have immediate benefits in addressing water problems, they can be costly to install and maintain, are often not designed well to respond to climate change and they impair the environment. These engineering and technology approaches are not enough to tackle water crises in the face of climate change, according to Ian Harrison, a freshwater specialist for Conservation International, and one of the paper’s co-authors. In a recent interview, Human Nature spoke with Harrison about the paper.

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In case you missed it: 3 big stories from our world

Yosemite, United States.

Yosemite, United States. (© Eric Li)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

  1. Conflicting data: How fast is the world losing its forests?

Two data sources used to determine rate of deforestation directly contradict each other.

The story: Of the two main databases used to track forest loss, one claims that we are losing forests while the other says that we are gaining them — and scientists disagree on which one is more accurate, Fred Pearce for Yale Environment 360 wrote last Tuesday. What’s behind the discrepancy? One source pulls satellite images of forest cover, painting a gloomy picture, and the other compiles government inventories on how land is being used, pointing to declining rates of deforestation. For example, in the latter database, even if an area was cleared for logging, it is still considered “productive forest” because it is expected to regrow.

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Sparking an ‘ECOrenaissance’: An insider’s guide to sustainability

The cover of “ECOrenaissance: A Lifestyle Guide for Cocreating a Stylish, Sexy, and Sustainable World.” (© Courtesy of Marci Zaroff)

You’ve read about plastic drinking straws choking the oceans. You’ve heard about the human cost of your affordable shrimp — not to mention the toll on the environment. Even your holiday shopping is a climate-change culprit.

While public awareness of critical environmental issues is at an all-time high — “green” is officially mainstream — the trickiest part can be deciding where you, the individual, should start.

A new book, “ECOrenaissance: A Lifestyle Guide for Cocreating a Stylish, Sexy, and Sustainable World” by environmental pioneer Marci Zaroff is here to help you with that. Zaroff, a 30-year veteran of the industry (and coiner of the now ubiquitous term, “ecofashion,” back in 1995), offers up her insider knowledge on who and what to watch, read, listen to, eat, make, buy and wear to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Human Nature sat down with Zaroff to learn more.

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A shortage of beer and fries? Climate change hits Europe where it hurts

Mug of beer and fries. (© Alex Kosev)

Climate change has fueled raging wildfires around the world, bleached coral reefs and intensified hurricanes — and now it’s coming for Europe’s fries.

A hot and dry summer has caused low potato yields in Belgium and across Europe, resulting in sad, stubby fries or “frites” — up to an entire inch shorter than the 3-inch norm. The news gets worse: If Europeans were planning to wash down those salty frites with a cold Belgian beer, then they need to think again. There might also be a shortage of the brew due to an expected decrease in barley yields.

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In case you missed it: 3 big stories from our world

A small beaver pond reflects clouds in the Hulahula River Valley, Alaska. (© Art Wolfe)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

  1. Commercial fishing banned across much of the Arctic

A portion of the Arctic recently melted due to global warming, opening up the area to ships. Despite the new access, the area will be off-limits to the fishing industry.

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We can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees — with nature’s help

Danxia landform, China.

Danxia landform in Zhangye, China. (© Heng Wang)

You would be forgiven for feeling blue about the state of the climate today.

A new report released today issues an ominous warning: The world is on track to blow past the limit at which runaway climate change will upend life as we know it. Even with commitments made to date under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the largest global accord on climate change, we will overshoot Earth’s “carbon budget” in a matter of a few years.

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