EarthTalk: Some say that polar bears are going to
disappear in 50 years, but Alaskan officials insist their
populations are recovering. Whats the real story?
-- Harper Howe,
San Francisco, CA
Center for Biological Diversity predicts that two-thirds
of all polar bears - including all of Alaskas
polar bears - will be extinct by 2050 if current
warming trends continue. The bears also face threats
from oil and gas exploration, the shipping industry,
both legal and illegal hunting, recreational polar-bear
watching, and toxic contaminants in their environment
and in the fatty tissue of their prey.
© Getty Images
is no doubt that polar bears are in serious trouble. Already
on the ropes due to other human threats, their numbers are
falling faster than ever as a result of retreating ice due
to global warming. The nonprofit International Union for
the Conservation of Nature, which added the polar bear to
its Red List of the worlds most imperiled
wildlife back in 2006, predicts a 30 percent decline in
population for the great white rulers of the Arctic within
three generations (about 45 years).
Center for Biological Diversity presents an even more pessimistic
forecast. If current warming trends continue, they say,
two-thirds of all polar bearsincluding all of Alaskas
polar bearswill be extinct by 2050. Both organizations
agree that the species as a whole will likely be wiped out
completely within 100 years unless humans can get global
warming in check.
notion that Alaska wildlife officials dont believe
the polar bear is in trouble was put forth by Alaska governor
Sarah Palin when she initiated a suit against the federal
government in hopes of overturning its decision to include
the polar bear under the umbrella of endangered species
protection. I strongly believe that adding them to
the list is the wrong move at this time, Palin wrote
in a January 2008 New York Times Op Ed piece. My decision
is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials
of scientific information from a broad range of climate,
ice and polar bear experts.
The real story
is that affording the polar bear endangered species protection
would bring further regulations capping greenhouse gas emissions,
a threat to Alaskas main economic driver: oil revenues.
Alaska professor Rick Steiner uncovered the misinformation
in Palins claims when he found evidence that the states
top wildlife officials agreed with federal findings that
polar bears are headed toward extinction: So, here
you have the states marine mammal experts, three or
four of them, very reputable scientists, agreeing with the
federal proposed rule to list polar bears and with the USGS
[United States Geological Survey] studies showing that polar
bears are in serious trouble, said Steiner.
A solid link
between global warming and polar bear mortality emerged
in 2004 when researchers were surprised to find four drowned
bears in the Beaufort Sea off Alaskas North Slope.
The meltdown of sea icethe polar ice cap had retreated
a record 160 miles to the northforced the bears to
swim unusually long distances to find solid ice, which they
depend on as hunting and fishing platforms and for rest
and recuperation. And more recently, USGS researcher Steven
Amstrup published findings that polar bears are stalking,
killing and eating other polar bears as competition
for scarcer food heats up.
warming, other risks to polar bear populations include toxic
contaminants in the surrounding environment as well as in
the fatty tissue of the prey they rely on, conflicts with
shipping, stresses from recreational polar-bear watching,
oil and gas exploration and development, and overharvesting
through legal and illegal hunting.
Union for the Conservation of Nature; Center
for Biological Diversity.
Theres a lot of talk today about solar and
wind power, but what about biomass? How big a role might
this renewable energy source play in our future? Couldnt
everyday people burn their own lawn and leaf clippings to
-- Deborah Welch,
Niagara Falls, NY
which is essentially trees, grasses, and forestry
and agricultural waste, is burned as a source of both
heat and electricity all over the world, including
in the U.S. where it accounts for up to one percent
of the nations electricity supply. It is also
a "feedstock" for ethanol and biodiesel.
South Bay, Floridas New Hope Power Partnership,
a 140 megawatt facility that powers some 60,000 homes,
generates electricity by burning "bagasse,"
fiber left over after the processing of sugar cane,
such as that shown in this photo.
© Rufino Uribe, courtesy Wikipedia
The oldest and
most prevalent source of renewable energy known to man,
biomass is already a mainstay of energy production in the
United States and elsewhere. Since such a wide variety of
biomass resources is availablefrom trees and grasses
to forestry, agricultural and urban wastesbiomass
promises to play a continuing role in providing power and
heat for millions of people around the world.
the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), biomass
is not only a renewable energy source but a carbon neutral
one as well, because the energy it contains comes from the
sun. When plant matter is burned, it releases the suns
energy originally captured through photosynthesis. In
this way, biomass functions as a sort of natural battery
for storing solar energy, reports UCS. As long as
biomass is produced sustainablywith only as much grown
as is usedthe battery lasts indefinitely.
is most commonly used, especially in developing countries,
as a source of heat so families can stay warm and cook meals,
it can also be utilized as a source of electricity. Steam
captured from huge biomass processing facilities is used
to turn turbines to generate electricity. Of course, biomass
is also a feedstock for several increasingly
popular carbon-neutral fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel.
the federal Energy Information Administration, biomass has
been the leading U.S. non-hydroelectric renewable energy
source for several years running through 2007, accounting
for between 0.5 and 0.9 percent of the nations total
electricity supply. In 2008although the numbers arent
all in yetwind power likely took over first place
due to extensive development of wind farms across the country.
the USA Biomass Power Producers Alliance, generating power
from biomass helps Americans avoid some 11 million tons
of carbon dioxide emissions that burning the equivalent
amount of fossil fuels would create each year. It also helps
avoid annual emissions of some two million tons of methanewhich
is 20-plus times stronger a greenhouse gas than
carbon dioxideper year.
The largest biomass
power plant in the country is South Bay, Floridas
New Hope Power Partnership. The 140 megawatt facility generates
electricity by burning sugar cane fiber (bagasse) and recycled
urban wood, powering some 60,000 homes as well as the companys
own extensive milling and refining operations. Besides preserving
precious landfill space by recycling sugar cane and wood
waste, the facilitys electricity output obviates the
need for about a million barrels of oil per year.
are making their own heat via biomass-fed backyard boiler
systems, which burn yard waste and other debris, or sometimes
prefabricated pellets, channeling the heat indoors to keep
occupants warm. Such systems may save homeowners money,
but they also generate a lot of local pollution. So, really,
the way to get the most out of biomass is to encourage local
utilities to use itperhaps even from yard waste put
out on the curb every week for pick-upand sell it
back to us as electricity.
USA Biomass Power Producers
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