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The destruction of ancient forests depletes habitat for wildlife

Wildlife protection under review Sunday, 7 April, 2002, 02:59 GMT 03:59 UK
Delegates from 182 countries are gathering in The Hague for a UN-sponsored conference on how to protect the world's plants and animals.

Among the issues being discussed during the two-week forum on biodiversity is how to encourage governments to halt the destruction of forests around the world.

Delegates are also expected to decide how the world should share in the profits offered by genes found in different plants which are used as the basis for new drugs and other products.

This is especially important for countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where there are thousands of species with the potential to yield new drugs or materials, but where the resources to exploit those species is lacking.

Genetic resources

The conference hopes to build on the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed 10 years ago at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil.

Under this agreement, which came into effect in 1993, signatories committed themselves to the "sustainable" use of the planet's wildlife.

But correspondents say that with billions of dollars at stake, defining sustainability and enforcing it has proved highly controversial.

At The Hague, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) hopes the first-ever guidelines on sharing the world's biological and genetic resources will be adopted.

The idea is that companies and organisations could gain worldwide access to genetic resources - such as plants for producing new drugs - in return for a share of the profits going to the country of origin.

Disappearing forests

Deforestation is another controversial issue that delegates are due to tackle at the conference.

Governments are expected to be encouraged to provide stronger economic incentives for companies to find more sustainable alternatives to logging old forests.

According to UN estimates, 1% of tropical forest disappeared each year throughout the 1980s - a 50% increase over the previous decade.

Correspondents say the conclusions reached at the conference will be an important part of the Earth Summit which is due to be held in September in Johannesburg.

Antarctic ice shelf breaks apart
An Antarctic ice shelf that was 200 metres thick and had a surface area of 3,250 square kilometres has broken apart in less than a month

Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 06:25 GMT.

UK scientists say the Larsen B shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula has fragmented into small icebergs.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (Bas) predicted in 1998 that several ice shelves around the peninsula were doomed because of rising temperatures in the region - but the speed with which the Larsen B has gone has shocked them.

"We knew what was left would collapse eventually, but the speed of it is staggering," said Dr David Vaughan, a glaciologist at the Bas in Cambridge.

"[It is hard] to believe that 500 billion tonnes of ice sheet has disintegrated in less than a month."

Faster flow

The climate on the peninsula has changed rapidly in the last 50 years. The region has experienced a 2.5-degree-Celsius rise in average temperatures - an increase greater than for any location in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, the picture generally in Antarctica is a complicated one with temperatures in the interior actually falling over the same period. There is also some evidence that the retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, on the other side of the peninsula to the Larsen B shelf, has halted.

The Larsen B was one of five ice shelves - huge masses of ice that are floating extensions of the ice sheets covering the land - that had been steadily shrinking because of climate change, Dr Vaughan said.

But the break up of the ice mass would not raise sea levels because the ice was already floating, he added. Sea levels would only be affected if the land ice behind it now began to flow more rapidly into the sea.

Gather data

The UK scientists were first alerted to the Larsen B collapse by US colleagues studying images from the American space agency's Modis satellite.

The British Antarctic Survey then dispatched its research ship RRS James Clark Ross to the area to obtain photographs and samples.

Scientists hope the data gathered on site will help them determine when such an event last happened and which ice shelves are threatened in future.

The US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said on Tuesday: "This is the largest single event in a series of retreats by ice shelves in the peninsula over the last 30 years.

"The retreats are attributed to a strong climate warming in the region."

Future predictions

"We know that the climate in this area has been relatively stable for at least 1,800 years, but now it is starting to change," Dr Vaughan told the BBC.

"Has it been kicked off by (human induced) global warming or is it something a bit more natural?

"For glaciologists this is fascinating because we can see the processes at work and we can predict with more certainty what is going to happen in the rest of Antarctica.

"As far as global implications are concerned, there are few as far as the present event is concerned."

Locally, however, Dr Vaughan said there would be ecological changes as organisms moved into the seabed area no longer covered by ice.

Big berg

US scientists also reported on Tuesday that an iceberg more than nine times larger than Singapore had broken off Antarctica.

The National Ice Center said the berg, named B-22, broke free from an ice tongue in the Amundsen Sea, an area of Antarctica south of the Pacific Ocean.

It is more than 64 kilometres (40 miles) wide and 85 kilometres (53 miles) long, and covers an area of about 5,500 square kilometres.

Icebergs are named for the section of Antarctica where they are first sighted. The B designation covers the Amundsen and eastern Ross seas and the 22 indicates it is the 22nd iceberg sighted there by the US National Ice Center.

Antarctic cores reveal ice history
Antarctica's history can be read in the sediment cores Image: Cape Roberts science team By BBC News Online's Kim Griggs

Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK

Sediment cores drilled at the edge of Antarctica show global sea levels rose and fell in a dramatic cycle 34 to 15 million years ago.

The research suggests the oceans went up and down by between 50 and 65 metres, as the main ice sheet on the eastern side of the White Continent advanced and retreated in a climate that was 3-4 degrees warmer than today.

"We are seeing the ice margin grounding itself, coming across the drill site, returning again to relatively ice-free, open marine conditions during warm periods, and then coming back again during glacial cold periods," said Dr Tim Naish, who led an international team of scientists working at Cape Roberts.

The study could help climatologists and modellers as they attempt explain future changes in the Earth's climate.

North and south

Scientists already believe that in the past two million years, changes in the Northern Hemisphere, which occurred in tune with small "wobbles" in the Earth's orbit, were likely to have been the main contributor to shifts in global sea level of up to 100 metres.

The changes, called Milankovitch cycles, are known to happen roughly every 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years.

"The question is what was Antarctica's role in driving global climate, prior to there being a Northern Hemisphere ice sheet - and during," Dr Naish, a scientist at New Zealand's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, said.

Now, his team have, in the sediment cores drilled at Cape Roberts, evidence to show that the East Antarctic ice sheet has been unstable in the same way as the northern ice sheet.

Fine detail

For three of the cycles of Antarctic ice sheet change, Naish's team has been able to pin down ages using fossil, chemical and magnetic evidence from the cores.

"Because we have good control over [the age], we can now see how long it takes for each cycle to occur and they are occurring at Milankovitch frequencies," said team member Dr Michael Hannah, from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ.

But there is more work to be done. "The key is being able to constrain the timing so you know when and how fast, and unfortunately only for certain parts of the core do we have good enough dating to be able to say 'yes, it was happening every 40,000 years' in certain parts, and that the deglaciations could have been as quick as 10,000 years or even quicker," Dr Naish said.

What appears to make the massive East Antarctic ice sheet more responsive to the orbital forcings is the higher temperatures those millions of years ago.

Future change

These would have been about three to four degrees higher than the mean global surface temperature today. Carbon dioxide concentrations would also have been double what they are now.

These are the sort of conditions scientists working for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest could be reached again in a hundred years - if their theories and models of global warming are correct.

The Cape Roberts study will therefore provide useful information on how ice coverage in Antarctica might respond in the years to come.

"What we are saying is that if we increase the mean temperature of the Earth by three degrees, we'll go back through a threshold that will take us to a point where the Antarctic ice sheet becomes very responsive to orbital forcings like it was. Currently, it's sort of buffered because the overall temperature is cold enough," Dr Naish said.

The Cape Roberts research is published in the journal Nature.

Ice 'thickens' in West Antarctica By BBC science correspondent Christine McGourty

Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 19:52 GMT

New research has found that parts of the ice sheet that covers West Antarctica may be getting thicker, not thinner, as scientists have feared.

The long-term future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WIAS) has been the focus of much concern. While the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered relatively safe, there have been fears that climate change could cause the WIAS to disintegrate, raising global sea levels by as much as five metres.

That could have a catastrophic effect on coastal communities.

Most researchers are agreed that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been retreating over the last 10,000 years, but the new findings, published in the journal Science, could be evidence that that this trend is about to be reversed.

Still some concern

Dr Ian Joughin, of the American space agency's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Slawed Tulaczyk, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, say they have found "strong evidence" that the ice sheet in the Ross Sea area is growing, by 26.8 gigatons per year.

Most of the growth is on an ice sheet called ice Stream C.

"The ice sheet has been retreating for the last few thousand years, but we think the end of this retreat has come," says Dr Joughin. But he said it would be a mistake to assume any threat of the ice sheet collapsing was completely removed.

"Some of the concern about the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is lessened, but I hesitate to say we can stop worrying about it."

Difficult to predict

He said the research only covered a relatively small area, over a short period of time and it was possible that what they were detecting was a minor fluctuation.

He pointed out that there were other areas in West Antarctica where the ice was thinning significantly, such as the Pine Island Glacier and the Thwaites Glacier.

Dr Duncan Whingam, of University College London, UK, who is studying these glaciers, said the new research was "very interesting" and illustrated how the picture regarding the ice in West Antarctica was becoming "increasingly complex".

"The research summarises a picture that's been emerging for the last 10 years. West Antarctica, it's clear, is not behaving in a unitary way. It's harder than ever to predict how this area of Antarctica is going to evolve."

Greens want war on poverty 'apartheid'
Poverty is as great a threat to the world as terrorism, the report says

Friday, 11 January, 2002, 00:15 GMT

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

A US research group wants a war on poverty and pollution to match the war on terrorism.

The group, the Worldwatch Institute, says the division between rich and poor amounts to global apartheid.

Worldwatch says the failure of the 1992 Earth Summit may have made possible last September's terrorist attacks. But it believes a United Nations conference later this year offers a new opportunity.

The conference, due to meet in Johannesburg in August, is the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). It is being held to review progress a decade after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Worldwatch, based in Washington DC, has devoted the current issue of its annual report, State of the World 2002, to examining what has been achieved since 1992.

Funding imbalance

In a preface, the Worldwatch president, Christopher Flavin, writes: "If the lofty social and ecological goals of the Rio Earth Summit had been achieved, it is possible that the crises of the last year would not have occurred."

He says Johannesburg will have to find a way to unite "rich and poor countries - overcoming a sort of global apartheid that was reflected in the divisions that deeply marked the Rio negotiations and that have continued all too strongly since then".

Over the last decade, Worldwatch says, environmental policies have remained a low priority: the UN Environment Programme (Unep) struggles to keep its annual budget of $100m, while global military spending is more than $2bn a day.

Foreign aid fell from $69bn in 1992 to $53bn in 2000, and the developing world's debt has risen by 34% since Rio.

Deaths from Aids increased more than sixfold over the 1990s, the report says, and global carbon dioxide emissions - thought to exacerbating natural climate variability - rose by 9%.

The report's chapters detail the areas where Worldwatch believes the WSSD must make progress:

creating a more secure world, by protecting the environment and reducing poverty acting more resolutely to tackle climate change changing agriculture, partly by switching subsidies to support environmentally friendly farming reducing the impact of toxic chemicals and phasing out leaded petrol redirecting international tourism, to protect developing world destinations against ruinous exploitation and to reward them more fairly funding universal access to reproductive health care and ensuring women have better lives breaking the link between resources and repression, to reduce the conflicts over access to minerals, timber, drugs and gems strengthening international treaties and organisations like Unep.

On resource-driven wars, the report cites the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been fuelled in part by the struggle over coltan (columbite-tantalite, used in mobile phones).

Other conflicts it lists are for oil (Colombia, Sudan, Chad and Cameroon), timber (Cambodia), and emeralds, lapis lazuli, opium and heroin (Afghanistan).

Worldwatch says there is a need for stronger global certification systems to screen out illicitly traded products, and for better compliance with UN sanctions.

In a foreword, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, says: "The political and conceptual breakthrough achieved at Rio has not proved decisive enough to break with business as usual.

"The perilous state of our world is an object of genuine, urgent concern."

One of the report's authors, Gary Gardner of Worldwatch, told BBC News Online: "It's the job of organisations like ours to make our case in as dramatic a fashion as the terrorists did last September.

"Some issues are so pressing they can't be ignored for long. The US will find it hard to walk alone on climate policy, for instance.

"We could all be surprised. It was that staunch anti-communist President Nixon who recognised China, and it could be President Bush who leads the world away from fossil fuels."

The critics say climate predictions are "unknowable" (Noaa)

Sceptics denounce climate science 'lie'
Monday, 25 February, 2002, 00:09 GMT

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

A group of scientists in the US and the UK says the accepted wisdom on climate change remains unproved.

They say rising greenhouse gas emissions may not be the main factor in global warming. They argue that temperature rise projections this century are "unknown and unknowable".

They claim it is "a media myth" to suppose that only a few scientists share their scepticism.

The scientists, a group convened by the American George C. Marshall Institute, first published their report in the US.

'Political conclusions'

It has been republished in the UK by the European Science and Environment Forum (Esef), entitled Climate Science and Policy: Making the Connection.

Esef says it is "the result of an extensive review by a distinguished group of scientists and public policy experts of the science behind recent findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)".

The US group included a former CIA director and defence secretary James Schlesinger, and Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The report says the IPCC's conclusions "have become politicised and fail to convey the underlying uncertainties that are important in policy considerations".

Its detailed criticisms of the IPCC include:

projections of climate change based on models and assumptions which "are not only unknown, but unknowable within ranges relevant for policy-making" models which "do not adequately characterise clouds, water vapour, aerosols, ocean currents and solar effects" a failure "to reproduce the difference in trends between the lower troposphere and surface temperatures over the past 20 years".

The authors conclude: "The IPCC simulation of surface temperature appears to be little more than a fortuitous bit of curve-fitting rather than any genuine demonstration of human influence on global climate."

Accused of lying

Philip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of London, is a prominent British climate sceptic.

He said: "The authors challenge the key contradiction at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate agreement - that climate is one of the most complex systems known, yet that we can manage it by trying to control a small set of factors, namely greenhouse gas emissions. Scientifically, this is not mere uncertainty: it is a lie."

Professor Stott told BBC News Online: "The problem with a chaotic coupled non-linear system as complex as climate is that you can no more predict successfully the outcome of doing something as of not doing something. Kyoto will not halt climate change. Full stop."

Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, used to work at the State Department and helped to shape US climate policy.

Heavyweight backing

She told BBC News Online: "This report dismisses the findings of the IPCC as alarmist, yet they are widely accepted as representative of the current state of scientific knowledge.

"A panel of the US's own National Academy of Sciences (which included Richard Lindzen) expressed general agreement with the IPCC's finding that warming is occurring, and that it is at least partly caused by humans.

"Uncertainty cuts both ways. Some of the IPCC's scenarios have been criticized as unduly pessimistic, others as unduly optimistic.

"What is important is that they reflect a balance of reasonable futures, and that the scientific findings should be based on the peer-reviewed literature. The IPCC has been able to accomplish exactly that.

"And Kyoto was only intended to be a first step in a long journey."

Bush offers plan to curb emissions Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 20:22 GMT

Critics say Bush is appeasing US big business US President George W Bush has outlined his own plan to combat global warming - instead of the Kyoto treaty which he rejected last year.

Mr Bush said his plan focused on giving companies tax incentives to reduce emissions of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases voluntarily and gradually without hindering US economic growth.

Addressing the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, Mr Bush announced measures to cap the amount of air pollution from power stations in the United States.

Mr Bush said they were the most significant steps Washington had ever taken to cut such emissions, but critics of the deal say it is ineffectual and panders to Mr Bush's business supporters.

Mr Bush said economic growth was the key to environmental protection - because it paid for the means to invest in cleaner industries.

Mr Bush said his plan would cut "greenhouse gas intensity", meaning the ratio of emissions to US gross domestic product (GDP) growth - by 18% over the next 10 years.

Mr Bush said the Kyoto treaty - approved by the Clinton administration but not ratified by the Senate - would have put millions of people out of work because of its mandatory reductions.

Environmental 'goals'

Mr Bush said he had rejected the treaty on the grounds that it would have damaged the US economy - and that it exempted many developing countries such as India and China.

His stand against the treaty was strongly criticised by newspapers and environmentalists in many countries with close ties to the United States - and also in the developing world.

Now, Mr Bush says he is offering "a new environmental approach that will clean our skies, bring greater health to our citizens and encourage environmentally responsible development in America and around the world."

The main difference between the Bush initiative and the Kyoto treaty is that it proposes goals rather than mandatory reductions.

Mr Bush said his approach to power plants was "market-based" and would "replace a confusing, ineffective maze of regulations for power plants that has created an endless cycle of litigation."

'Too little'

His new initiative, however, has failed to appease many environmentalists who say it does not go far enough.

But Peter Raven, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science welcomed the proposal:

"President Bush came in highly sceptical about the basis for global warming but has become convinced that it is a real problem for the world. The speech he is giving today is a very reasonable beginning."

To fund his initiatives, Mr Bush plans to increase the 2003 budget by $700 million to $4.5 billion.

Under his plan, companies will be assigned permits for each tonne of pollution and will be permitted to trade them so that the US government's targets will be met.

Critics of Mr Bush's proposals say the plans are kind to big business in the United States but do little to curb fossil fuel emissions such as oil and coal, which environmentalists say cause more problems and contribute to global warming and acid rain.

"Unfortunately, the Bush administration is using Valentine's Day to give a sweetheart deal to the corporate polluters that funded his campaign," Carl Pope, executive director of the environmental agency, the Sierra Club, told Reuters news agency.

US 'has nuclear hit list' Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 17:01 GMT

"First use" has been unthinkable for years The Bush administration has reportedly ordered the Pentagon to prepare contingency plans for attacking seven countries with nuclear weapons.

Quoting a secret Pentagon report, the Los Angeles Times newspaper names China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria as potential targets.

Furthermore, the military have apparently been directed to build smaller nuclear weapons for battlefield use.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on the report which analysts have described as "dynamite".

According to the paper, the report lists three situations in which the weapons could be used.

These include "retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons" and "against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack".

The third category - "in the event of surprising military developments" - is described by the BBC's Washington correspondent, Paul Reynolds, as a "catch-all" clause.

The paper says the report was presented by the Pentagon to members of Congress on Friday.

It is quoted as saying the Pentagon should be ready to use nuclear weapons in an Arab-Israeli conflict, a war between China and Taiwan and an attack by North Korea on the South.

As for Russia, the report says that it is only listed in view of its own large nuclear arsenal and it is not viewed as an enemy.

'Taboo lifted'

Defence analysts told the Los Angeles Times that the secret report appeared to mark the first time an official list of target countries had come to light.

"I can imagine what these countries are going to be saying at the UN," said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The report clearly referred to nuclear arms as a "tool for fighting a war, rather than deterring them", he added.

Anti-nuclear campaigners pointed out that the reported instruction to build new tactical nuclear weapons indicated that the administration of George W Bush was more willing to lift the old taboo on using nuclear weapons except as a last resort.

"This is very, very dangerous talk," said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World.

"Dr Strangelove is clearly still alive in the Pentagon," he commented, referring to a 1964 feature film about a nightmare nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.

Our correspondent recalls that the US made a veiled threat to Iraq during the Gulf War that it could respond with nuclear weapons to an attack by Baghdad using chemical or biological weapons.

US defends nuclear option Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 19:52 GMT

The use of nuclear weapons is being considered once more

By Paul Reynolds BBC World Affairs correspondent in Washington

Senior American officials have been defending a document which reviews nuclear weapons options for the United States.

The document outlines scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be used against a number of countries.

Parts of the document - called the Nuclear Posture Review - were published in the Los Angeles Times. Secreatary of State Colin Powell portrayed it as "sound.. conceptual planning" only, not a blueprint for any attack.

The seven nations mentioned - China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria - had or were developing weapons of mass destruction, he said.

Not a single nation, he went on, was being targeted by the United States on a day-to-day basis and the report was the kind of planning that the American people would expect.

Right to react

The same line was taken by the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. She said that no one should be surprised that the United States was worried about the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

It had been long-standing American policy to reserve the right as to how to respond should some states use them.

Behind the arguments is a further move into the post-cold war world. During the confrontation with the Soviet Union, the use of nuclear weapons was really only contemplated in a conflict with Moscow.

That prospect has gone, though Moscow's possession of large numbers of nuclear warheads still has to be considered by American planners.

Growing threat

But, now and increasingly in the future, the threat exists of not just nuclear weapons but biological and chemical ones from a variety of sources around the world and the US military wants to position itself so that it can face these.

It is ready to contemplate going nuclear even in smaller scale conflicts than the one envisaged with the Soviet Union.

And it is also looking at the kind of nuclear weapons it might need. One example the report touches on is whether a nuclear bomb might be needed to destroy an underground stockpile of chemical weapons.

Russia urges US to explain nuclear plan Monday, 11 March, 2002, 22:11 GMT

The latest spat comes after a split over nuclear arms reduction The Russian foreign minister has called for Washington to clarify reports that the Pentagon is preparing a contingency plan for nuclear strikes against Russia.

Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria all feature in a classified Pentagon nuclear report, according to the Los Angeles Times newspaper which claimed to have obtained a copy of the document.

The report, presented to Congress in early January, allegedly revealed that the military had been asked to draft plans to use nuclear weapons against these seven countries.

"We hope there will be a statement at a higher level offering clarification and reassuring the international community," said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, cited by the Interfax news agency.

He added that such reports "can only cause regret and concern" if they transpired to be true.

US Vice President Dick Cheney played down the report at a news conference in London after a meeting with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Right now, the United States on a day-to-day basis does not target nuclear weapons on any nation," he said.

Arms row

The latest spat between Moscow and Washington comes as both sides gear up for a summit in May between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart George W Bush.

Both men are hoping to sign a deal on nuclear arms reduction, but Mr Ivanov said that work on an agreement was going very slowly and that negotiators might fail to meet the May deadline.

President Bush has promised to cut the US nuclear arsenal to 1,700-2,200 warheads from the 6,000 both countries are currently permitted, while President Putin has said Russia could go even lower, possibly to 1,500.

But the US has since made clear that it will place some of the weapons in storage, rather than destroy them.

The Pentagon said it needed to keep weapons in reserve in case of "unforeseen international events", but Mr Ivanov said this would mean the promised cuts would only exist on paper.

Atomic tests 'caused genetic damage' By the BBC's Richard Black

Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 23:05 GMT

Radioactive fallout from Soviet atomic bomb tests caused genetic mutations in people living near the test site, according to a new scientific report.

Writing in the journal "Science", the researchers say that fallout almost doubled the normal rate of genetic mutation in families living around Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union.

The USSR conducted atmospheric tests at Semipalatinsk in the 1940s and 50s.

The finding provides striking new evidence of the damage which radioactive substances can do to the human genome.

Chernobyl link

The researchers examined 40 families living downwind of the Semipalatinsk site, and found a mutation rate in their DNA substantially above normal.

In older people the mutation rate was nearly doubled, but younger people were affected less.

The researchers say this variation can be put down to the period when atmospheric tests were conducted.

Four tests between 1949 and 1956, they believe, did most of the damage, so people born later were exposed to lower levels of radioactivity.

It is not known whether the mutations led to any health problems, and the researchers say we are unlikely to find out.

The Soviet Union, along with the rest of the world, banned atmospheric tests in 1963, and the scientists say there are so few people still alive who are old enough to have lived through the tests that accurate research will be impossible.

The scientist who led the project, Yuri Dubrova, from Leicester University in Britain, has previously published studies showing the same kind of mutation rate increase in people affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986.

But that research proved somewhat controversial, with other scientists disputing the findings.

Now that he's found the same phenomenon around Semipalatinsk, Dr Dubrova plans to go back to Chernobyl for further investigations.

South-East Asia's reefs are among the world's richest

Asia's coral reefs under threat Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 16:38 GMT
By Richard Black BBC science correspondent

Almost 90% of South-East Asia's coral reefs are slowly being destroyed by human activity, according to a report just released by an environmental research group, the World Resources Institute.

It says over-fishing and pollution are putting unsustainable pressure on these ecosystems and that losing reefs would have significant economic consequences for the region.

The coral reefs of South-East Asia are said by conservationists to be the most important in the world.

Of the 800 different species of coral known to science, three-quarters are found in South-East Asian waters.

According to the World Resources Institute, they are also the most threatened reefs in the world.

Among the report's conclusions are that Singapore has lost nearly two-thirds of its coral - mainly due to land reclamation and intensive coastal development.

Economic damage

Around Malaysia, some reefs have lost 85% of their coral and over the last 50 years, half of all reefs in Indonesian waters have been degraded.

The picture is broadly similar for other countries in the region.

When coral dies, so do fish and other creatures which live on the reef.

The World Resources Institute says that in the Philippines, for example, what used to be some of the richest fishing grounds in the world now yield a third as many fish as they used to, as coral is killed off by blast fishing and sediment flowing on to the reefs from eroded coastal land.

The report estimates that from fishing alone, reefs contribute $2.5bn annually to South-East Asian economies and says that unless the governments of the region protect coral properly, this income will dry up in the coming decades.