Friday, January 18, 2013

IOC/UNESCO: Addressing Nutrient Over-Enrichment

I recently had the pleasure of spending the New Year in the Pacific Northwest.  During my time there, I traveled along the Pacific coast just south of the Canadian border.  In a region renowned for natural beauty, the rocky shores didn’t disappoint.  Mile after mile of conifers edged waters that looked cold, calm, and clear.

It’s hard to imagine that waters like these could be anything but healthy.  But marine ecologist Dr. Joan Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research notes that changing CO2 levels are already impacting the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest.  “This is not a problem in the far distant future,” Kleypas warns.  “This is a problem now.”

In addition to rising CO2 levels, marine environments at large have seen substantial increases in nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.  This uptick in nutrients can be traced in part to human activities such as food production, fossil fuel burning, and wastewater generation from people and industries alike.   In coastal waters, skyrocketing levels of nutrients are leading to ecosystem responses like eutrophication – think dense blooms of phytoplankton – and the ensuing chaos of depleted oxygen levels, i.e., hypoxia.  These changes in the tiny and unseen end in visible damage; the resulting low-oxygen “dead zones” cannot support most marine life.  Five hundred of these hypoxic dead zones have been identified globally already.  Although the world’s oceans are vast, the collective dead zones already cover a total global surface area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.  From sea-grasses to fish, marine ecosystems lose their overall resilience, and human activities that rely on coastal and marine health – fishing, tourism, etc. – suffer as well. 

In order to protect coastal areas, scientific partners have been working to address the root causes of this nutrient over-enrichment.  Earlier this month, an examination of nutrient/ecosystem dynamics was published in Biogeosciences, an interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union.  The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) was an executing partner for this project, coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  The paper may be found here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Two New Publications from the UIS

Source: "A Snapshot of R&D Expenditure", UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Source: "Regional density of researchers and their field of employment". UNESCO Institute for Statistics

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics is perhaps the lead organization in the United Nations system for statistics on education, science and culture. Its most important impact may have been helping UNESCO to improve data collection by governments around the world in these fields. As a result of UNESCO's work, these data provide a more accurate comparison of what is happening among countries.

UIS has produced two new fact sheets on science:

Friday, January 11, 2013

A World of Science shines spotlight on water politics

In the latest issue of A World of Science, a group of experts on water politics provide an overview of the issues likely to dominate the International Year of Water Cooperation beginning in January, of which UNESCO is lead UN agency. The authors explain that arid climates are no more conflict-prone than humid ones, and that conflicts over water erupt in equal measure in rich and poor countries, democracies and autocracies, fortunately on rare occasions: over the past 70 years, incidences of cooperation have actually outnumbered conflicts by two to one.

A second story highlights some of the marvels of human ingenuity inscribed in the Memory of the World Register, to.mark the 20th anniversary of  UNESCO’s eponymous program.

We learn from a third article that, in less than 50 years, countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have nearly tripled their demand for natural resources. Today, all 24 countries are ecological debtors. These findings were revealed on 1 October by Global Footprint Network, at a regional meeting in Venice (Italy) organized jointly with UNESCO. UNESCO’s Venice office plans to encourage Southeast European countries to introduce the ecological footprint concept into school curricula, in order to help prepare pupils for their future role as responsible, active citizens.

On 30 November, synthetic biology was one of the themes discussed at a forum organized jointly by UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector and the French NGO Vivagora at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Synthetic biologists, who borrow techniques from engineering to create entirely new life forms, are currently operating in a regulatory vacuum. In an interview, Eric Hoffman from the NGO Friends of the Earth confirms that products containing synthetic organisms are already on the market. He also highlights the risk of some engineered life forms – including viruses – ‘escaping’ from the lab to contaminate other species.

Among the news stories, the developed countries have agreed to double funding for biodiversity protection and Australia has just created the world’s largest marine protected area. Meanwhile, Nigeria is establishing an international biotech institute that will function under the auspices of UNESCO and Teri University in India is to host a UNESCO chair on climate science and policy.

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