Cook Islands to Allow Seabed Mining Licenses Despite Negative Environmental Impact
By Monica Evans
The Cook Islands government plans to license seabed mining operators to prospect its exclusive economic zone for manganese and cobalt nodules within the coming financial year, Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown told the Cook Islands News.
Brown's comments, reported in a May 23 article, came in response to a new report commissioned by environmental advocacy groups The Ocean Foundation and MiningWatch Canada. The report warns of serious environmental impacts if mining takes place in the Pacific Ocean's seabed, and says that even working out what those impacts might be will take a lot longer than the government's projected timescale of commencing mining in less than five years.
"We're talking about activities at depths of up to four kilometers," or about 2.5 miles, the report's lead researcher, Andrew Chin, a marine scientist at James Cook University in Australia, told Mongabay. "And trying to figure out how an ecosystem works takes a long time. I mean, people are still arguing about how mangroves work, and you can walk through them! So within five years, I just can't see us being in a position to really understand what the impacts are going to be."
Cook Islands seabed minerals commissioner Alex Herman said in an email to Mongabay that "commercial nodule recovery will have impacts on affected species and habitats in the deep sea," and added that baseline studies, mitigation strategies and monitoring would all be important if mining were to go ahead. "The Government has to look at issues from a broader perspective," she added. "This sometimes involves balancing conservation interests with sustainable development aspirations."
Herman said those aspirations include creating new income streams because the country now earns almost 70% of its revenue from tourism. It has suffered greatly from coronavirus-related travel restrictions, despite itself not recording a single case of COVID-19. "The seabed minerals sector will provide economic diversity that is critical for the Cook Islands' future as a nation and lessens its reliance on tourism," Herman said. "The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted our vulnerability, and the need to diversify."
Mining a Marine Protected Area?
The Cook Islands made international news in 2017 when it turned its entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which spans nearly 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles), into the largest mixed-use marine protected area in the world. Dubbed "Marae Moana," which means "sacred ocean" in Cook Islands Maori, the park was designed to ensure all activities within it complied with its overarching purpose: to protect and conserve the ecological, biodiversity, and heritage values of the country's marine environment.
A decision-making council and a technical advisory group, both comprising government officials, traditional leaders and civil society organizations (CSOs), were established to help develop a new marine spatial plan that fit the objectives of Marae Moana, and to ensure that any new ocean-related initiatives comply with the park's overarching purpose. The plan is still being developed.
But late last year, the government passed the Seabed Minerals Act 2019, which specifically allows the country's Seabed Minerals Authority to bypass the Marae Moana Council and technical advisory group when designating areas for seabed minerals activities, and for this to occur before the marine spatial plan is in place.
"So they're going to give out mining exploration permits for areas which may in fact be places that should be protected under Marae Moana," Kelvin Passfield, director of the local conservation group Te Ipukarea Society, told Mongabay. The organization sits on the technical advisory group, but Passfield said the government has ignored its advice and that of other CSOs with marine conservation expertise, and that the advisory group had only met once in the past 12 months.
"Civil society have a role to play in advocating and raising awareness on issues," Herman said when asked about the CSOs' concerns. "But at the end of the day, Government needs to make often-hard decisions based on the best interests of our country and people."
Te Ipukarea Society advocates that the Cook Islands endorse a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining that civil society leaders put forward at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu in August 2019 and that the governments of Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea support. The idea is to allow sufficient time to conduct in-depth research on the ecosystems in question and potential mining impacts.
But the Cook Islands government has vocally opposed the moratorium. Marine scientist Jacqueline Evans, who directed the Marae Moana coordination office from 2017 to 2019, was fired last year after expressing support for the freeze in an internal email.
In a letter to the Cook Islands News on June 4, Deputy PM Brown said the government simply wants to gain the knowledge to determine whether or not mining could be conducted sustainably, and issuing exploration licenses is the only way to fund such research. "Without exploration (which I stress, is not 'mining'), we have no realistic way of gaining a better understanding of the deep-sea environment, and indeed to know whether we may or may not be able to harness the resources which exist at these depths in the longer term," he wrote.
Passfield said while the government claims all parties want the same thing — more information — "they have not demonstrated this in their actions." Last year, it approved two short research cruises by different companies and "there was no requirement placed by Government on these cruises to collect any biological samples," he said. "Only nodule and sediment samples were taken, and this was just for analysis for mineral content, nothing biological."
Herman acknowledged the dearth of knowledge on the deep-sea environment, and said that should mining go ahead, the government would take a precautionary approach and adopt environmental management and mitigation strategies until further best practices can be determined. "The effectiveness of mitigation strategies to protect the environment will become known over time," she said.
But Chin said it's difficult to envisage how any mining could be carried out in Cook Islands' waters without irreversible ecosystem impacts. "These are quite diverse habitats, and so many new species are still being discovered," he said. "And we know that, generally speaking, because of the environment of high pressure, low light, low energy and low temperature, deep-sea animals grow slowly, and anything that grows slowly is quite vulnerable to an acute impact like mining."
As the report outlines, lots of species, including corals, sponges, sea urchins, sea stars and jellyfish, live on the manganese nodules themselves, and many others rely on them. Deep-sea octopuses, for example, lay their eggs on dead sponges attached there. "So if you're mining the nodules, you are removing everything that's associated with them," Chin said.
Beyond the seafloor, mining would likely also impact the whole water column right up to the surface, Chin added, both directly through plumes of sediment and tailings, and indirectly through ecological linkages. "So those impacts could be felt in things like tuna fisheries, which are extremely important for the Pacific," he said.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Tara Lohan
Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.
Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.
"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."
Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.
It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.
Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.
Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.
One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.
The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.
They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.
"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."
That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.
And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.
"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."
Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.
"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.
The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.
"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.
The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.
"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."
The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.
The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.
The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.
To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.
Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.
"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.
"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."
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For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.