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Environment

Wish we weren't here: postcards to Copenhagen

(Reuters) - As world leaders prepare to head to Copenhagen for talks aimed at reaching a deal to slow the pace of climate change, people around the world are experiencing environmental destruction in myriad ways, some subtle, others devastating.

Here are a few examples from recent months:

SISAK, Croatia - Milan Bogicevic says when his wife hangs out the laundry to dry, she carefully covers all the clothes.

“If you were to leave it out in the open overnight, you could see small black particles, like from barbecue charcoal, in the morning,” Bogicevic said.

Having lived in this heavily industrialized Croatian town all his life, he no longer notices the foul smell caused by emissions of hydrogen sulphide from the nearby oil refinery.

Geographically, Sisak is less than 50 km (31 miles) away from the tidy capital Zagreb, but environmentally it is a world away and even further when compared to Croatia’s sparkling Adriatic coast or the pristine wilderness of its mountains.

Sisak looks like a barren planet, filled with putrid dust and plumes of smoke.

It has had a long and turbulent history but is now mostly notorious in Croatia for its foul air.

“It is kind of okay during the week, but Saturdays and Sundays ... it is impossible, unbearable,” said Arid Medvedovic, a retired refinery worker.

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ON BOARD L’ASTROLABE, Southern Ocean - As Captain Benoit Hebert steers the icebreaker l’Astrolabe on Monday through a stormy Southern Ocean heading for Antarctica his thoughts will soon turn to the dangers of icebergs.

Large icebergs have recently been spotted floating hundreds of kilometers (miles) north of Antarctica -- a sign of the accelerating melt of East Antarctica due to climate change.

Hebert has been sailing the icy seas around Antarctica and the Arctic for more than 15 years and has seen first hand the effects of global warming.

“Climate change is a lot more visible in the north in the Arctic rather than in the Antarctic. The Arctic is made up of pack ice which is melting,” he said.

Total summer ice cover in the Arctic Ocean was only about half the level it was in 1950, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

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TUV AIMAK, Mongolia - Otgonsuren Perenlei, 27, and her husband moved back to the steppe from Mongolia’s capital city, Ulan Bator, a few years ago, attracted by cleaner air and a more eco-friendly nomadic lifestyle.

Solar panels pitched atop tents allow families to charge their phones, power energy-saving light bulbs and even watch a couple of hours of television in the evening. The panels are complemented by dried animal dung, courtesy of the cattle that are integral to nomads’ livelihood, to provide heat in winter.

Still, she says, climate change is making it more difficult for nomads like her to make a living.

“The global warming issue has made grazing very difficult these days. The grass hardly grows,” she told Reuters Television. “When I was a child I do not remember having to use fodder to feed the calves. Then, we had enough grass. Now, there is just not enough grass and there is less rain.”

Those who head to the city face air pollution levels reaching almost 10 times allowed rates during winter, according to Mongolia’s Air Quality Agency. The mountains surrounding the city trap the pollution, making it hard for everyone to breathe.

“There is thick smoke every evening. We burn coal too so it’s smoky outside. You can’t see your surroundings clearly,” she says nonchalantly.

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CHICAGO - Authorities scooped up poisoned fish floating to the surface of a Chicago-area waterway on Thursday in an operation designed to keep invasive Asian carp out of the Great Lakes and prevent an ecological disaster.

So far, none of the prolific two species of Asian carp, the Bighead carp and the Silver carp, have turned up in the huge fish kill that began overnight.

Some 200,000 pounds (90 metric tons) of dead fish are expected to be collected, weighed, inventoried, and dumped in a landfill. Most scooped up so far have been native carp and shad.

Silver carp and the Asian Bighead, which can grow to 5 feet, have come to dominate sections of the Mississippi and its tributaries.

Authorities fear that if the carp swim up to the Great Lakes, the largest fresh-water resource in the world, they could create an “ecological disaster” by consuming the bottom of the food chain and ruining the lakes’ $7 billion fishery.

Since 1990s floods allowed the carp to escape into rivers from research facilities and commercial fish ponds in the South, where they were introduced to clear weeds and other detritus, the carp have multiplied and become a “nuisance species,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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HONG KONG - One need look no further than the river that runs through Shangba to understand the extent of the heavy metals pollution that experts say has turned the hamlets in this region of southern China into cancer villages.

The river’s flow ranges from murky white to a bright shade of orange and the waters are so viscous that they barely ripple in the breeze. In Shangba, the river brings death, not sustenance.

“All the fish died, even chickens and ducks that drank from the river died. If you put your leg in the water, you’ll get rashes and a terrible itch,” said He Shuncai, a 34-year-old rice farmer who has lived in Shangba all his life.

“Last year alone, six people in our village died from cancer and they were in their 30s and 40s.”

The river’s waters are contaminated by cadmium, lead, indium and zinc and other metals.

Every year, an estimated 460,000 people die prematurely in China due to exposure to air and water pollution, according to a 2007 World Bank study.

Reporting by Sasa Kavic in Sisak, Croatia; Jargal Byambasuren in Tuv Aimak, Mongolia; Pauline Askin aboard l’Astrolabe, Southern Ocean; Andrew Stern in Chicago; Ee Lyn Tan in Hong Kong; compiled by Sara Ledwith

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