5-20-19 Climate change: Top 10 tips to reduce carbon footprint revealed
Climate change can still be tackled – but only if people are willing to embrace major shifts in the way we live, a report says. The authors have put together a list of the best ways for people to reduce their carbon footprints. The response to the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the public is willing to accept radical change if they consider it necessary, they explain. And the report adds that government priorities must be re-ordered. Protecting the planet must become the first duty of all decision-makers, the researchers argue. The authors urge the public to contribute by adopting the carbon-cutting measures in the report, which is based on an analysis of 7,000 other studies. Top of the list is living car-free, which saves an average of 2.04 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually. This is followed by driving a battery electric car - 1.95 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person annually - and taking one less long-haul flight each year - 1.68 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person. Switching to a vegan diet will help - but less than tackling transport, the research shows. It says popular activities such as recycling are worthwhile, but don’t cut emissions by as much. The lead author, Dr Diana Ivanova from Leeds University, told BBC News: “We need a complete change of mindset. “We have to agree how much carbon we can each emit within the limits of what the planet can bear – then make good lives within those boundaries. “The top 10 options are available to us now, without the need for controversial and expensive new technologies.” Dr Ivanova said the coronavirus lockdown has shown that many people could live without cars if public transport, walking and cycling were improved. Her research highlights rich people who typically take more flights, drive bigger cars and consume the most. She said: “All the world suffers from climate change, but it’s not the average person who flies regularly – it’s a small group, yet aviation is under-taxed. It’s a moral issue.”
5-20-19 Daily global CO2 emissions dropped dramatically as COVID-19 kept people home
Travel and other restrictions reduced daily carbon dioxide releases to 2006 levels by April. Stay-at-home orders haven’t just curbed the spread of COVID-19. They’ve briefly cleared the air. Daily global carbon dioxide emissions dropped 17 percent, from about 100 million metric tons to about 83 million metric tons, in early April compared with average daily emissions in 2019, researchers report May 19 in Nature Climate Change. Among other changes, the lock-downs grounded planes, reduced traffic and changed peoples’ patterns of energy consumption (SN: 5/14/20). Quantifying the impact of those changes on global CO2 emissions in real time is tricky; most emissions data are reported annually, not day by day or even month by month. So climate scientist Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and colleagues used daily data such as electricity demand, city congestion and readouts from smart meters in homes to estimate emissions for 69 countries. Then, the researchers created a “confinement index” based on the stringency of government-imposed policies in different locations and over time. During the most stringent confinement periods, when only essential workers were permitted to commute, daily aviation activity shrank by 75 percent, the team reports. Surface transportation was reduced by about 50 percent, while power use shrank by about 15 percent. If the world returns to a pre-pandemic level of activity by mid-June, the researchers say, 2020’s emissions will be about 4 percent lower than in 2019. If some restrictions remain through the end of the year, 2020 emissions could be as much as 7 percent lower. This COVID-19–related decline in emissions isn’t sustainable, and comes at a very high cost, says coauthor Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University. However, it highlights the depth of the cuts needed to reach emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement (SN: 11/26/19). To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, nations would need to reduce emissions by 7.6 percent each year over the next decade, scientists say.
5-20-19 Algae is now growing on melting Antarctic snow due to climate change
Part of Antarctica is already green due to blooms of algae living on the snow. As the continent warms, more of it may turn green, but it isn’t clear what this will mean for the climate. Patches of “snow algae” have been known about for decades in the Arctic. But we know much less about their distribution in Antarctica. “Our work was really the first large-scale survey of snow algae for Antarctica,” says Andrew Gray at the University of Cambridge. Gray and his colleagues used satellite images to identify patches of green on the snow-covered surface of the Antarctic Peninsula, the part of the continent that is warming the fastest, and the islands nearby. They also visited two islands to confirm the satellite data’s reliability. The researchers found that in total, there were 1679 blooms of snow algae that covered up to 1.9 square kilometres at the height of summer when the blooms are largest. Two factors seemed to determine where the blooms were: the temperature had to be warm enough for the snow to become slushy and there had to be a source of nutrients – mostly penguin guano. A warmer climate would melt more Antarctic snow and destroy some of the algae’s habitat. But it would also mean more areas of slushy snow further inland, so there could be a net increase. It isn’t clear what more algae would mean for the climate. The team estimates that the algal blooms absorb 479 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year. “The amount of carbon that’s in there is relatively small,” says co-author Matthew Davey, also at the University of Cambridge. However, this may increase if the blooms become more widespread. While the algae may remove some carbon dioxide from the air, they also darken the white snow causing more of the sun’s heat to be absorbed. Davey and Gray say it isn’t yet possible to estimate the net effects of these impacts.
5-20-19 Antarctic algal blooms: 'Green snow' mapped from space
UK scientists have created the first wide-area maps of microscopic algae growing in coastal Antarctica. Satellite observations were used to count nearly 1,700 patches where large blooms had turned snow cover green. The team says the photosynthesising organisms are an important "sink" for pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They are also key actors in the cycling of nutrients in what is one the most remote regions on Earth. "These are primary producers at the bottom of a food chain. If there are changes in the algae, it obviously has knock-on effects further up the food chain," explained study leader Dr Matt Davey from Cambridge University. "And even though the numbers we're talking about are small on a global scale, on an Antarctic scale they're substantially important," the ecologist, who has since joined the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, told BBC News. Detecting the green algae from space was a tricky task. While it's easy to spot the organisms' discolouration when walking in the snow on the ground, from orbit it becomes much harder to tease out the blooms' signal against what is a highly reflective surface. Fortunately for the team, the European Union's Sentinel-2 spacecraft have high-fidelity detectors that are sensitive in just the right part of the light spectrum to make the observation. The study mapped the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land which points up from the White Continent towards South America. The blooms are seen predominantly to be on the western side of this feature. Two-thirds were on the many islands that dot the coastline. Totalled, the microscopic algae covered an area of almost 2 sq km. It means they're tying up roughly 500 tonnes of carbon a year. This is equivalent to the amount of carbon that would be emitted by about 875,000 average petrol car journeys in the UK, the team calculates.
5-20-19 Cold war spy satellite images reveal long-term decline in biodiversity
Images taken by cold war spy satellites have revealed a long-term decline in biodiversity due to the expansion of farming in Kazakhstan over the past 50 years. Catalina Munteanu at Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany and her colleagues analysed satellite images of Kazakhstan taken between 1968 and 1969 by US satellites spying on the Soviet Union and declassified in 1996. Instead of looking for nuclear weapons, as the US government was doing at the time, the researchers searched the images for marmot burrows. By comparing the cold war images with satellite pictures taken between 1999 and 2017, Munteanu and her team discovered that the number of marmot burrows within the same 60,000 square kilometre area in northern Kazakhstan had fallen by 14 per cent between 1968 and 2017. A significant amount of the decline appears to be due to the expansion of farming, which began in Kazakhstan after the end of the second world war, says Munteanu. An estimated 60 per cent of the burrows were lost in areas that were transformed into farmland. These historical images are also helping to shed light on animal behaviour. “I was really surprised to find that the marmots were using the exact same burrows for half a century long,” says Munteanu. Given that this particular marmot species only live around 6 years on average, that means the same burrows were used over many generations. Spy satellite data could be used to study historical biodiversity more broadly, such as by looking at the prevalence of beaver dams, termite mounds or colonies of large birds like flamingos or pelicans, says Munteanu. These declassified images go back further than other satellites, because they were among the first in orbit. “It’s a little goldmine of data,” she says. “I never thought of using this as a source of data,” says Dan Blumstein at the University of California Los Angeles. Blumstein says this data provides a benchmark for understanding the effect of human development on current patterns of biodiversity.
5-19-19 Coronavirus set to cause biggest emissions fall since second world war
Global carbon emissions are likely to see their steepest fall this year since the second world war, according to researchers who say coronavirus lockdown measures have already cut them by nearly a fifth. But the team warns that the dramatic drop won’t slow climate change. The first peer-reviewed analysis of the pandemic’s impact on emissions predicts they will fall between 4.2 and 7.5 per cent on last year. A rise of around 1 per cent had been expected for 2020 before the crisis. “In terms of a relative drop, you’d have to go back to the first half of the last century, around WWII. Certainly, in modern times, this is an unprecedented drop,” says Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway. Analysing the data up to 7 April, the researchers found that restrictions imposed around the world had cut daily emissions by 17 per cent versus the daily average for 2019. This only takes the world back to 2006 levels, a sign of how much emissions have grown in recent years. The reductions have been fairly uniform globally, with a drop of 1048 million tonnes of CO2 in the first four months of the year. Peters and his colleagues expect an annual fall of 1524 MtCO2 if pre-pandemic conditions return by mid-June, or 2729 MtCO2 if some restrictions are in place until the year’s end. However, the team cautions that the precipitous drop will make little dent in future global warming. “If emissions go down 5 per cent this year overall, given that climate change is a cumulative problem, it basically makes no difference at all,” says Peters. He calculates that a 5 per cent drop would be equivalent to 0.001°C less warming, a minuscule amount with the world on course for at least 3°C of warming. The UK Met Office expects a tiny dip in atmospheric CO2 levels this year, but projects that they will still be the highest in at least 2 million years.
5-19-19 Climate change: Scientists fear car surge will see CO2 rebound
Daily global emissions of CO2 fell by 17% at the peak of the shutdown because of measures taken by governments in response to Covid-19, say scientists. The most comprehensive account yet published says that almost half the record decrease was due to fewer car journeys. But the authors are worried that, as people return to work, car use will soar again. They fear CO2 emissions could soon be higher than before the crisis. They are urging politicians to grasp the moment and make real, durable changes on transport and personal mobility. The lockdowns that most governments have implemented in response to Covid-19 have had a significant impact on the carbon-producing activities that are embedded in almost everything we do. Road transport has declined hugely, as has aviation. Industry has temporarily closed down and demand for energy all over the world has crashed. Now in detailed analysis, researchers have shown how those changes have impacted our emissions of CO2. They've calculated the fall off in carbon based on the lockdown policies implemented in 69 countries that between them account for 97% of global emissions. During the peak of the crisis in early April, daily emissions dropped by 17% compare The key to the fall has been cars. Surface transport emissions have declined by 43%, the same amount as the drop from industry and power generation combined. While the aviation slowdown has grabbed headlines for the economic impact, it only accounts for 10% of the decrease during the pandemic. China has been responsible for the biggest drop, followed by the US, Europe and India. If some restrictions on economic activity stay in place worldwide until the end of the year, then global emissions will likely drop by 7%. If pre-pandemic levels of transport and economic activity return by mid-June, the annual fall would be around 4%. But the research team that carried out this work is concerned that the rebound, especially on the roads, could see a carbon surge.
5-18-19 Electric bikes 'could help people return to work'
Electric bikes can slash transport emissions and offer workers a way to return to the workplace during coronavirus, a new study has found. If e-bikes took off in the same way in the UK, as in many European cities, it would reduce congestion, improve mobility, and save CO2, the study says. It said the UK government hadn’t yet realised the strategic importance of e-bikes, push-bikes with electric motors. The greatest impact would be in areas with poor public transport, it found. That's because a wider range of people would be able to use e-bikes, it said. The research comes from the publicly funded Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (Creds), based in Oxford. The researchers say that in Denmark, where cycling has been strongly encouraged for decades, e-bike routes are already linking cities to towns and villages. The research comes at a time when ministers are desperate for solutions which allow people to get to work without risking their health on public transport, but also without increasing carbon emissions. So far the main emphasis has been on bringing people into city centres, where popup cycle lanes are being introduced. But the Creds paper says e-bikes can be particularly effective in economically-deprived areas where people can’t afford cars, but bus services are poor. This could be in suburban or semi-rural areas. It says the UK government should find ways to incentivise the use of e-bikes. Professor Nick Eyre from Creds told BBC News: "E-bikes give us an exciting new opportunity to reduce energy use and carbon emissions. “They need to be part of the plan for the major investment we need in transport to get people moving safely again in ways that are economically and environmentally sustainable." Critics could say that creating a major network of e-bike lanes would be expensive and sometimes not feasible. There will also be problems with bike theft – and of culture in places where there is little history of cycling.
5-18-19 Tropical cyclones really are growing stronger as the world warms
Tropical cyclones around the world have grown stronger since the 1970s, just as theory and models predicted. “The signal has now risen above the noise,” says James Kossin of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is the first time we have been able to find a global trend in the existing data.” Hurricanes and typhoons, as tropical cyclones are called in different parts of the world, are fuelled by warm surface waters. There is more fuel in a warmer world, which led to the idea that storms would grow stronger. But the low and variable number of tropical cyclones each year has made it hard to tell if there is a statistically significant trend. What’s more, there have been dramatic improvements in observations, which makes it hard to tell if any trend is genuine. To compensate, Kossin’s team looked only at data from geostationary satellites, which began observing in 1979. The researchers then downgraded the quality of more recent satellite data to match the quality of early records. They found a clear trend, with the probability of a hurricane having wind speeds of at least 185 kilometres per hour increasing by 15 per cent. This study didn’t look at what caused this trend, but when put together with all the other evidence a clear picture emerges. “It’s highly likely that there’s a human fingerprint on this,” says Kossin. Other studies suggest that global warming is making tropical cyclones more dangerous in other ways, too. They may be intensifying faster, meaning there is less time to warn of impending danger. They may also be producing more rainfall and moving more slowly, meaning more rain falls in one place. Rising sea levels are also making storm surges higher. There also seems to be a poleward shift in the stronger storms, says Kossin. This would be good news for some countries such as the Philippines, but bad news for others such as Japan.
5-18-19 Beach water quality testing stops in England due to coronavirus crisis
People swimming at beaches and lakes across England this summer will probably never know if the water was dirty because officials have stopped routine testing. Bathing waters at coastal areas and lakes are currently the only places most people can swim since lockdown restrictions were relaxed in England last week, as outdoor and indoor swimming pools remain closed. However, the Environment Agency (EA) said in a note released last Friday that it had temporarily suspended sampling because of the coronavirus crisis. “We are following government guidelines to reduce the spread of coronavirus through social distancing and only travelling for essential purposes, this has meant a temporary pause of our water sampling work at bathing waters,” the EA said in a statement. The environmental regulator is required by European Union law to monitor bathing water quality, and usually collects data from May to September, the results of which are published the following year. Sampling measures levels of bacteria, principally E.coli, which can come from sewage discharges and animal faeces. Laura Foster at the Marine Conservation Society says: “This sampling is important to check on bathing water quality through the bathing season and to determine where management of pollution sources is needed. It is also a statutory requirement which informs the annual assessment of bathing water quality.” Most bathing waters in England meet the EU’s minimum standards, with just four rated as having “poor” water quality. However, only 71 per cent meet the highest standard of “excellent”. It isn’t clear when sampling will resume, though the EA said it was considering when it could do this. “Pausing sampling at bathing waters will not affect the water quality at bathing waters and our teams will continue to respond to serious pollution incidents,” the agency said.
5-18-19 Covid-19 pandemic risks worst global food crisis in decades
The covid-19 pandemic’s impact on hunger around the world could be worse than when food prices spiked calamitously in 2007 and 2008, a leading food security expert warns. Unlike the scarcity of food during the crisis 13 years ago, the big issue this time is economic downturns hitting the ability of millions of people to afford food, Martin Cole at the University of Adelaide in Australia tells New Scientist. “I think this has the potential to be more significant than the last time around. Not because of [food] availability, but because the big unknown is the extent and longevity of the global recession. That has the potential to push millions of people into extreme poverty and we know that has a big impact on food security,” he says. The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) last month cautioned that the coronavirus crisis could double the number of people in acute food insecurity this year, to around 265 million globally. Maximo Torero at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the current situation is substantially different to the 2007 to 2008 food security crisis, with a key issue being difficulties moving food around in the face of trade and travel restrictions in many countries. “Today, the problem is not a problem of food availability, the problem today is of food access,” he says. “We have food available and we have a very good harvest of cereals this year. The problems we are seeing are logistical problems, and especially high value commodities because they are perishable and any logistic delay will affect them.” Food stocks are around double the level they were during 2007 to 2008, says Cole. “We think it’s a very ironic situation. We see rising hunger in a world of plenty. Global crop markets are well supplied and relatively stable,” said Martien van Nieuwkoop at the World Bank, speaking at a virtual meeting last week held by the FAO.
5-15-19 We may have missed half the microplastics in the ocean
We have underestimated the amount of microplastic in the ocean, by a factor of 2.5 at least. Many of the smallest pieces are thin fibres, not hard chunks. Millions of tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, mostly as tiny fragments, known as microplastic, which are invisible to the naked eye. “When we started looking for microplastic in the sea, people used traditional plankton nets,” says Penelope Lindeque at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK. These have holes about 333 micrometres across, so fragments smaller than that can slip through. To find out how many smaller fragments were present, Lindeque and her colleagues trawled the ocean surface with three kinds of net. One had the standard 333-micrometre holes, while the others had holes 500 and 100 micrometres wide. They repeated the study in two widely separated regions: the Gulf of Maine and the English Channel. “The smaller the net you use, the more microplastic,” says Lindeque. The nets with 100-micrometre holes collected 2.5 times more microplastic than the standard plankton nets. Extrapolating from these findings, the team estimated how much microplastic would be caught by a net with 1-micrometre holes. The calculations suggested there are 3700 pieces in every cubic metre of seawater. That is far more than thought. For instance, an influential 2015 study estimated that there are 15 trillion to 51 trillion particles of microplastic in the ocean. “They always admitted that that budget is very conservative,” says Lindeque, because it was based on studies that used 333-micrometre nets. The real total could “easily” be 10 times more, she says. The smaller microplastics are a different kind to the larger ones previously found. Most of them are short, thin fibres, often blue or black.
5-15-19 'Zombie' fires are burning the Arctic after smouldering under snow
There is strong evidence that last summer’s unprecedented Arctic blazes appear to have smouldered through winter as “zombie fires” and reignited this month. Intense blazes across the frozen north last year led to record carbon emissions that were on a par with those from Belgium, exacerbating the global warming that made the conditions for the fires possible in the first place. Now as temperatures rise in the region and snow recedes, satellite analysis of last year’s burn sites and the fires erupting this month suggest many in Siberia may be zombie fires. “We know they are real and quite rare. That’s why seeing so many potential spots in Siberia is interesting. The satellite images are astonishing, particularly the snowmelt immediately followed by the fires appearing,” says Thomas Smith at the London School of Economics. In an analysis for New Scientist based on imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites, Smith identified 2019 burn scars and 2020 hotspots and found overlap of fires from last July and fires that appeared immediately after snowmelt this year. This includes known peatlands in tundra north of the boreal forest, where peat below ground could smoulder through winter. “I think there is some strong evidence for zombie fires,” he says. The tentative signs of this come as a report by the Alaska Fire Science Consortium last week said fire managers in Alaska have found such fires occurring more frequently in the past two decades. Significantly, given 2019’s record-breaking blazes, they found zombie fires are more likely to occur the year after a large fire year. The new blazes usually re-emerge within 50 days of snow melting, they added. If more fires are surviving winter, that is bad news for climate change, says Smith. “The implication is greater net carbon emissions, given that overwintering fires, by their nature, are smouldering soil and peat fires, burning through long-term carbon stores.”
5-15-19 These 6 books explore climate change science and solutions
Climate change is increasingly becoming part of everyday conversations. For those who want to join the discussions, there is no shortage of books that give detailed background and context on the subject. The question is, which to read? Science News staff members have reviewed several books published this year to guide you to which ones you might like. Many of these offerings address perhaps the most pressing question: With limited time to act, what’s the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avert the most dire impacts of climate change?
- The Future We Choose: Four and a half years after 195 nations agreed to limit global warming by 2100 to 2 degrees Celsius, the world has fallen behind on its commitments (SN: 11/26/19).
- The Future Earth: In this imagined history of the next 30 years, meteorologist Eric Holthaus plots a path toward zero carbon emissions (SN: 1/31/20).
- The 100% Solution: After running a campaign focused on climate change, Solomon Goldstein-Rose was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 2016 at the age of 22. He served one term and then turned to climate activism full time. In this concise book, he draws on his experiences to draft a five-pillar framework for reaching negative carbon emissions by 2050.
- A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: If thinking about climate change makes you (a) depressed, (b) worried, (c) guilty or (d) all of the above, this book might be for you.
- The Story of More: Paleobiologist Hope Jahren’s succinct examination of “how we got to climate change” is both sweeping and straightforward.
- Beyond Global Warming: In 1894, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius made a startling announcement. His calculations suggested that a two- or threefold increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide could alter global temperatures on a scale comparable to the difference between cold glacial and warm interglacial periods.
5-15-19 From lockdown to gridlock: Asia’s traffic resumes after fall in pollution
As the coronavirus pandemic swept through Asia, many countries imposed strict lockdowns to stop the disease from spreading, especially in major cities. From Beijing in China to Hanoi in Vietnam, cities suspended transport and ordered millions of people to stay at home, leaving roads unusually empty. The reduction in traffic on the roads had an unintended consequence - scientists observed a drastic drop in air pollution levels in early 2020 over cities and industrial areas in Asia and elsewhere. Now, as countries in Asia cautiously ease their restrictions, traffic has returned to the roads and pollution is spiking. "There were really marked reductions in air pollution across Asia," Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, told the BBC. "What we're seeing now is a return to pre-Covid levels." Satellite data from Nasa and the European Space Agency showed that, in the first three months of 2020, levels of nitrogen dioxide were far lower than in the same period in 2019. Emitted by vehicles and during industrial processes, nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas that can aggravate respiratory diseases, such as asthma. A serious air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide is estimated to lead to the deaths of around three million people a year. It is not a greenhouse gas but comes from the same activities that emit carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming.In China, where the pandemic originated, nitrogen dioxide levels were 10% to 30% lower than normal between January and February this year, according to Nasa. The space agency said India, where smog-filled skies are common in the biggest cities, saw nitrogen dioxide levels decrease by about 55% in Delhi from March 25 through April 25. Two other studies, published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, found that nitrogen dioxide dropped up to 60% in northern China, western Europe and the US in early 2020.
5-15-19 Two tiny outcrops in Hawaii are the top of the world’s largest volcano
An extinct Hawaiian volcano called Puhahonu is the largest in the world, with a volume twice that of the next leading contender. What’s more, the lava that once erupted from Puhahonu is the hottest recorded in the past 66 million years. D“Puhahonu is the most massive volcano on Earth,” says Michael Garcia at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in Honolulu. At the surface, Puhahonu doesn’t look like much: just a pair of barren, rocky outcrops hundreds of kilometres north-west of the main Hawaiian islands. Its Hawaiian name means “turtle surfacing for breath”. Garcia and his colleagues surveyed Puhahonu in 2014 using sonar and gravity sensors, which can measure mass. They found it has a volume of 148,000 cubic kilometres. That dwarfs Mauna Loa, another Hawaiian volcano generally though to be the largest, which is only 74,000 km3 – although it is still taller than Puhahonu. The gravity data also revealed that there is one central mass, confirming that Puhahonu is one volcano rather than the result of lavas from several volcanoes together. The other serious contender for the title of world’s largest volcano was Tamu Massif, a submarine mountain off the coast of Japan that is the size of the British Isles. In 2013, a team of researchers claimed that it was a single, 4-kilometre tall volcano, but in 2019, the same group announced that this wasn’t the case. Tamu Massif is actually the product of magma rising up from seafloor and spreading, so it isn’t a single volcano at all. There are also supervolcanoes like Yellowstone in the US and Campi Flegrei in Italy, but Garcia says these aren’t directly comparable. “The eruptions [of supervolcanoes] are bigger in the total volume of material erupted”, he says, and the Yellowstone crater is “enormous”, but researchers aren’t sure of their total volume. “They’re known for their very large eruptions, but not necessarily for their total bulk. It’s kind of comparing apples and oranges.”
5-15-19 Long-dormant volcano Mauna Kea has been quietly grumbling for decades
Small, periodic earthquakes are no reason for alarm, scientists say. Hawaii’s long-dormant Mauna Kea volcano has been quietly and regularly rumbling for decades — but there’s no need for alarm. The tiny earthquakes aren’t signs of the volcano’s unrest, and are more likely linked to gases bubbling from a pool of slowly cooling magma deep underground, researchers report in the May 15 Science. Since at least 1999, the team reports, the ground deep beneath Mauna Kea has been shaking periodically, on timescales ranging from roughly every seven to 12 minutes. The source of the tiny quakes, each no more than about magnitude 1.5, is about 25 kilometers deep at the very base of Earth’s crust. It’s “one of the strangest seismic signals we’ve ever seen,” says Aaron Wech, a volcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage. The long-lasting, highly periodic rhythm of Mauna Kea’s quakes is unusual. But small, deep, slow quakes are a familiar type of seismicity associated with volcanoes, says John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study. “Many volcanoes have this kind of signal,” known as deep long-period earthquakes, he says, such as those in Alaska’s Aleutian Arc or the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains. What causes these deep long-period quakes, or DLPs, remains a mystery. They have been observed at depths as shallow as 10 kilometers and as deep as 60 kilometers. Scientists have generally thought that DLPs are related somehow to the movement of magma within a volcano’s complicated plumbing. Sometimes, that portends an eruption: The devastating eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991 was preceded by hundreds of pulses of DLPs during the preceding weeks (SN: 7/29/11).
5-14-19 Coronavirus puts spotlight on landmark year for nature
The pandemic has disrupted conservation work and funding, with potential repercussions for years to come, according to conservation groups. But we can seize the opportunity to push for stronger action to protect the natural world, say Dr Diogo Veríssimo and Dr Nisha Owen from campaign group On The Edge Conservation. The pandemic struck in what was meant to be a landmark year for biodiversity. New goals for protecting the natural world are due to be agreed in October. While lockdown has been linked to a number of positive environmental changes, including wildlife reclaiming urban spaces, we know very little about how large areas of the world that host vast quantities of biodiversity have been faring, said Dr Owen. "There's reports coming in of illegal activities happening on the ground that are not being patrolled for or monitored or counted because of the effects of coronavirus lockdown or reduced staff or reduced funds," she said. "We're not going to know the scale of what that impact may have been on wildlife and biodiversity until we're able to systematically assess that, and that's probably not going to be until we come out of lockdown." Loss of funding for conservation work is a growing concern, particularly for lesser-known endangered species, such as pangolins, which already receive a "smaller slice of the cake". "It is not just the case that organisations in far flung places are feeling difficulties," said Dr Veríssimo, who is also a scientist at the University of Oxford. "It is also right here in the UK where environmental charities are being gravely affected by all the changes that Covid-19 is producing." The Wildlife and Countryside Link, a coalition of more than 50 environment and wildlife groups in England, recently warned in a report that UK environment charities are facing a dramatic loss of income, which will have an impact on their ability to care for our land, protect wildlife and tackle climate change and nature's decline for years to come.
5-14-19 What lifestyle changes will shrink your carbon footprint the most?
How to take steps that will make a difference. Three years ago, Kim Cobb was feeling “completely overwhelmed” by the problem of climate change. Cobb spends her days studying climate change as director of the Global Change Program at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, but she felt paralyzed over how to be part of the solution in her personal life. The barriers felt immense. She decided to start small. On January 1, 2017, she made a personal climate resolution: She would walk her kids to school and bicycle to work two days a week. That change didn’t represent a lot in terms of carbon emissions, she says, “but it was a huge lesson in daily engagement.” In the beginning, her modest goal seemed daunting, but she quickly discovered that the two simple activities nourished her physical and mental well-being. She wanted to do them every day. “It’s no longer for the carbon — it’s for the fact that I genuinely love riding my bike and walking my kids to school,” she says. And that made her wonder: What other steps was she thinking of as sacrifices that might actually enrich her life? A November 2019 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication suggests that Cobb isn’t alone in her worries about climate change. Fifty-eight percent of the U.S. residents surveyed were “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming. Cobb has turned her concern into action. It’s not too late to reduce the damage caused by global warming, but it will take drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, says Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a San Francisco–based nonprofit research organization that identifies ways to reduce carbon emissions. To keep global temperatures from rising too quickly, we need to re-engineer our society away from fossil fuels. A 2015 study calculated that to rein in warming, about 80 percent of global reserves of coal, 50 percent of natural gas reserves and 33 percent of the world’s oil must be left unused.
5-14-19 Methane observing firm eyes UK for key base
The Canadian-based space company GHGSat says it intends to set up a global centre in the UK to analyse the emissions of greenhouse gases. The firm currently flies the spacecraft making the highest resolution measurements of methane (CH4) in the atmosphere. This satellite is the first in a planned network of orbiting observers. The British centre's job will be to take their data and assess the sources of emissions worldwide. For methane - an extremely potent greenhouse gas - these sources could be oil and gas facilities, agriculture, hydro-electric dams, coal mines and landfills. Already, GHGSat is working with operators to identify and plug leaks. It is estimated that 10 million homes could be heated with the methane escaping - largely undetected - from US oil and gas production plants alone. In time, GHGSat wants to fly sensors to monitor carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide as well. The latter is a significant emission from international shipping. Adina Gillespie, a business development director with GHGSat, said the coronavirus pandemic had complicated the company's search for a European HQ, but wouldn't slow it. She hoped to have it set up by the end of the year, she told BBC News. "We're well anchored in North America with offices in Canada and in Houston, Texas. The UK would be our global analytics hub," she explained. The company launched its first satellite, called "Claire", in 2016. It delivers 12km by 12km spot measurements of methane in the air. Features larger than 50m across can be sensed. This is sufficient to identify point sources. The next generation of spacecraft will have sharper vision still, down to 25m per pixel. The first of these enhanced sensors, "Iris", is booked to go up in June, with a third, "Hugo", to follow later in 2020. Ten more satellites should fill out the network in 2021 and 2022. GHGSat has been working closely with the European Space Agency (Esa), using the data from its wide-swath Sentinel-5P/Tropomi mission to make the initial identification of methane "hotspots" in the atmosphere before then following up with high-resolution observations from the Claire platform to interrogate the sources further.
5-14-19 Ozone layer: Concern grows over threat from replacement chemicals
Substances used for air conditioning in almost all new cars are building up in the environment and may pose a threat to human health, researchers say. These "ozone friendly" chemicals have been introduced to replace products that were damaging the ozone layer. Now widely used across industry, these alternatives do not break down in the environment. Scientists have now found increasing levels of these chemicals in Arctic ice samples dating back to the 1990s. The Montreal Protocol is regarded as one of the most successful environmental treaties ever adopted. Signed back in 1987, it committed countries to regulate their use of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals (CFCs) that had recently been found to be depleting the ozone layer. A growing hole in the ozone over Antarctica had been detected in the mid-1980s and there was serious concern about the threat it posed to human health. CFCs were then widely used in refrigeration, in air conditioning, as solvents and in aerosol sprays. In the intervening decades, alternative products that are less harmful to the ozone layer were introduced. As a result, researchers have reported progress in reducing the size of the hole. However, there are now concerns that the solution may be inadvertently damaging the environment and threatening human health. Canadian researchers, studying ice samples from the Arctic dating back to the 1990s, have found "dramatically" increasing levels of ozone replacements called short chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (scPFCAs). "We're seeing much, much larger levels, on the order of 10 times higher now than we saw before the Montreal Protocol," said Prof Cora Young, from York University in Toronto, the study's corresponding author. "We don't know a lot about them and their potential toxicity, but we do know that we are committing the environment to a great deal of contamination."
5-14-19 Coral bleaching: Scientists 'find way to make coral more heat-resistant'
Scientists in Australia say they have found a way to help coral reefs fight the devastating effects of bleaching by making them more heat-resistant. Rising sea temperatures make corals expel tiny algae which live inside them. This turns the corals white and effectively starves them. In response, researchers have developed a lab-grown strain of microalgae which is more tolerant to heat. When injected back into the coral, the algae can handle warmer water better. The researchers believe their findings may help in the effort to restore coral reefs, which they say are "suffering mass mortalities from marine heatwaves". The team made the coral - which is a type of animal, a marine invertebrate - more tolerant to temperature-induced bleaching by bolstering the heat tolerance of its microalgal symbionts - tiny cells of algae that live inside the coral tissue. They then exposed the cultured microalgae to increasingly warmer temperatures over a period of four years. This assisted them to adapt and survive hotter conditions. "Once the microalgae were reintroduced into coral larvae, the newly established coral-algal symbiosis was more heat-tolerant compared to the original one," lead author Dr Patrick Buerger, of Csiro, Australia's national science agency, said in a statement. "We found that the heat-tolerant microalgae are better at photosynthesis and improve the heat response of the coral animal," Prof Madeleine van Oppen, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Melbourne, said. "These exciting findings show that the microalgae and the coral are in direct communication with each other." The next step is to further test the algal strains across a range of coral species. "Coral reefs are in decline worldwide," Dr Buerger says. "Climate change has reduced coral cover, and surviving corals are under increasing pressure as water temperatures rise and the frequency and severity of coral bleaching events increase."
5-13-19 Algae transplant could protect coral reefs threatened by warming seas
It may be possible to protect coral reefs from the warming oceans by colonising them with heat-resistant algae. Coral reefs around the world are under threat from climate change, which is driving up ocean temperatures. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for example, has just suffered its third mass bleaching event in five years after experiencing the hottest February sea temperatures on record. When seas become too warm, corals lose the colourful Symbiodiniaceae microalgae that live in their tissues and make food for them. This causes the corals to lose their colour, giving them a bleached appearance, and to gradually starve to death. Patrick Buerger at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and his colleagues wondered whether they could help corals survive warmer waters by increasing the heat tolerance of their resident algae. They heated Symbiodiniaceae algae to 31°C in a laboratory for four years to train it to tolerate more heat than it is used to. The algae eventually evolved genetic changes that hinted at greater heat resistance. The researchers then took coral larvae from the Great Barrier Reef, mixed it with either regular algae or the heat-resistant algae and then heated it to 31°C for one week, a temperature known to cause bleaching. The coral with the regular algae quickly bleached, but the coral with the heat-resistant algae remained healthy. The results are promising, but more research is needed to test whether the heat-resistant algae can also be used to prevent bleaching in adult coral, not just larvae, and to see whether it works for different coral species, says Buerger. “We’re putting all our efforts into this now in case we need it to have it ready as an intervention in the future,” says Buerger. Tackling climate change is still the most important way to save reefs, but scientists are increasingly looking at artificial ways to protect coral in case we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough, he says.
5-13-19 Kelp is coming: How seaweed could prevent catastrophic climate change
From providing a green alternative to plastics to reducing methane emissions and sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, seaweed could be the secret ingredient we need to clean up our planet. AS A CHILD in South Wales, I was dimly aware that laverbread was a treasured cultural asset. Nobody I knew ate any, though, and it never turned up on my plate. I would probably have turned my nose up at it if it had. Far from being bread as most of us know it, this traditional Welsh foodstuff consists of seaweed boiled into a mushy paste, often dipped in oatmeal and fried before serving. Not my childhood self’s ideal dish. For many people, seaweed is something we trip over on the beach, not take there in our lunch boxes. But for thousands of years, humans have harnessed seaweed in extraordinary ways. Our ancestors ate it, farmed it and used it as fertiliser. When humans first entered North America from Asia more than 13,000 years ago, their survival may have depended on fish that were plentiful thanks to coastal kelp. Today, we still rely on seaweed’s many benefits. We use it as a delicacy to wrap round sushi, extract its chemicals for use in industry and turn it into recyclable plastics. But its potential doesn’t end there. Large-scale seaweed farms could clean up Earth’s oceans, restoring biodiversity and increasing the productivity of aquaculture. They could suck carbon dioxide from the air, and help curb the emission of other greenhouse gases. According to some researchers, it could even be crucial to saving civilisation. Seaweed still has a long way to go to fulfil those lofty ambitions. Some wild populations have been overharvested, and the potential for farming has barely been tapped. But even if it fails to meet the enormous expectations put on it, its versatility still makes it an incredibly valuable material.
5-13-19 Can higher CO2 levels boost plant life enough to dent global warming?
Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere may be boosting vegetation for now, but climate change is set to more than wipe out any gains, says James Wong. IN A world of increasing uncertainty, good news has a particular allure. So it is unsurprising that studies finding that rising carbon dioxide emissions are boosting plant life have attracted a lot of attention in recent years. Some people even go as far as to use this so-called CO2 fertilisation effect as evidence that an uptick in plants could mitigate the effects of climate change. Is there any truth to it? Firstly, the studies these claims are based on are far from “fake news”. They are well-designed and often reflect a long-established scientific consensus. As CO2 is one of the essential inputs of photosynthesis, the process by which plants harness solar energy to grow, increasing its availability can indeed boost the process. We also know from satellite images that Earth’s surface is measurably greener than in decades gone by, and this is extremely likely to be due in significant part to increases in CO2 levels. In fact, some studies suggest that this increased growth can remove as much as 25 per cent of the emissions we generate, equivalent to the total carbon footprint of China, the planet’s largest emitter. But now here come the caveats, and there are many of them. Collating images of the extent of plants and trees on Earth’s surface is a beautifully simple way to estimate the level of carbon they suck out the atmosphere, but it isn’t necessarily a very accurate one. Much of this carbon is stored by plants underground, which is invisible to orbiting satellites. What such studies also can’t do is distinguish between different types of plant communities, which is a major issue. We know, for example, that old growth forests can store far more carbon than quick-growing commercial plantations. Not all green is created equal. The same studies that show an increased rate of photosynthesis with higher CO2 levels also tend to show that these benefits – although significant – are by and large short-lived. This is because once CO2 is no longer a limiting factor, plants eventually reach the next biggest limiting factor, such as the availability of nitrogen – a mineral essential for plant growth that they usually get from the soil. Ever-increasing CO2 simply doesn’t mean ever increasing vegetation, as there is an array of other factors that constrain plant growth.
5-13-19 The focus on coronavirus is essential, but we can’t forget the climate
The coronavirus pandemic may be the biggest crisis most of us have faced, but we can’t afford to tackle our crises one at a time and let politicians off the hook on climate change. THE coronavirus pandemic might feel like the biggest crisis most of us have ever faced, but you have already been living with a bigger one: climate change. There has been a lot of excitement about the falling levels of air pollution being seen in many countries because of lockdowns to tackle the virus. Already, people are talking about using the pandemic as an opportunity to redesign city streets, providing more space for cyclists and pedestrians while reducing the emphasis on cars. Could this be the start of a green revolution? Maybe. It would be fantastic to make climate lemonade from virus lemons, but we need to go much further than a few cycle lanes. An analysis published by the Carbon Brief website last week found that, while there has been a drop in carbon emissions as a result of the pandemic, annual average carbon dioxide concentrations will still increase this year, contributing to a rise in global temperatures. The increase will be smaller than it would have been without the pandemic, but only by 11 per cent. The problem is that by warming Earth, we have reduced the ability of tropical ecosystems to absorb carbon. So even when our emissions go down, more CO2 remains in the atmosphere than would have happened without that warming. It is now getting more serious. As we report on page 19, some parts of the planet are reaching temperatures that the human body can’t survive. These conditions occur for only a few hours at a time, but the longer we delay action, the longer that period will grow. Governments around the world are rightly focused on tackling the immediate threat of the coronavirus, but this will occupy them for months, if not years. We can’t afford to tackle our crises one at a time, and we can’t let politicians off the hook on climate change.
5-13-19 How to protect your home from disasters amplified by climate change
Individuals and communities can prepare for flooding, fires and drought. A decade ago, climate change projections pointed to a distant future, 50 or 100 years down the road. But with each storm and fire season seemingly more ferocious than the last, it’s clear we’re already facing the impacts of climate change: Sea levels are rising, and storms, wildfires and droughts are intensifying, fueled by warmer oceans and a warmer atmosphere. In the coming decades, regions of the United States will be affected in different ways by flooding, severe storms, droughts and wildfires. Millions may be forced from their homes. But what about the people who choose to stay? What can they do to harden their homes, to improve the chance the structure will stand up against water and fire? How can people help their communities adapt to the everyday realities of climate change? Flooding is already the most common natural disaster in the United States, occurring in every state and killing more people each year than hurricanes, tornadoes or lightning. As warming drives sea levels higher, intensifies hurricanes and fuels more heavy rain events, more U.S. residents should expect to deal with flooding (SN: 8/17/19, p. 16), even at inland locations that have not flooded historically, says Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Toronto. Climate models predict more extreme rainfall events over the next 80 years, across both wet and dry regions, according to a 2016 report in Nature Climate Change. “There’s a perception that your house will only flood if you live on the coast or right next to a big river. But some of the most destructive flooding events have occurred from heavy rainfall, which can happen anywhere,” McGillivray says. “Pretty much everybody is at risk of overland flooding, but most people have no clue what their level of risk really is.”
5-12-19 India's carbon emissions fall for first time in four decades
India's CO2 emissions have fallen for the first time in four decades - and not just as a result of the country's coronavirus lockdown. Falling electricity use and competition from renewables had weakened the demand for fossil fuels even before the coronavirus hit, according to analysis by the environmental website, Carbon Brief. However, it was the sudden nationwide lockdown in March that finally tipped the country's 37-year emissions growth trend into reverse. The study finds that Indian carbon dioxide emissions fell 15% in March, and are likely to have fallen by 30% in April. Virtually all of the drop-off in power demand has been borne by coal-fired generators, which explains why the emissions reductions have been so dramatic. Coal-fired power generation was down 15% in March and 31% in the first three weeks of April, according to daily data from the Indian national grid. But even before India's sudden coronavirus lockdown, the demand for coal was weakening. The study finds that in the fiscal year ending March 2020, coal deliveries were down by around 2%, a small but significant reduction when set against the trend - an increase in thermal power generation of 7.5% a year set over the previous decade. Indian oil consumption shows a similar reduction in demand growth. It has been slowing since early 2019. And, once again, the trend has been compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown measures on the transport industry. Oil consumption was down 18% year-on-year in March 2020. Meanwhile, the supply of energy from renewables has increased over the year and has held up since the pandemic struck. This resilience the renewables energy sector shows in the face of the sudden reduction in demand caused by coronavirus is not confined to India. According to figures published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) at the end of April, the world's use of coal was down 8% in the first quarter of the year. By contrast, wind and solar power saw a slight uptick in demand internationally.
5-12-19 Climate change: Study pours cold water on oil company net zero claims
Claims by oil and gas companies that they are curbing their carbon emissions in line with net zero targets are overstated, according to a new review. The independent analysis of six large European corporations acknowledges they have taken big steps on CO2 recently. In April, Shell became the latest to announce ambitious plans to be at net zero for operational emissions by 2050. But the authors say none of the companies are yet aligned with the 1.5C temperature goal. Scientists argue that the global temperature must not rise by more than 1.5C by the end of the century if the world is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The research has been carried out by the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI), an investor-led group which investigates how companies are preparing for the move to a low-carbon economy. Going?net zero?means removing as many emissions as are produced. TPI found that the relationship between the oil and gas industry and climate change has evolved rapidly over the last three years. In Europe, in 2017, no European company had set targets to reduce the carbon intensity of the energy it supplied. Today, all six companies assessed by the analysis have targets and plans. Over the last six months, say the authors of the report, climate ambitions among these companies have risen markedly. In February, the new head of BP, Bernard Looney, committed to cutting net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 or sooner. Going further than his predecessor, Mr Looney said BP would cut the emissions intensity of its sold products by 50% by the middle of this century. But according to this new analysis, BP and Austrian company OMV are the only two oil and gas companies of the six assessed who have failed to align with the pledges made under the Paris climate agreement. "Is it sufficient? No, it's not," said Adam Matthews, co-chair of TPI
5-12-19 What data do cities like Orlando need to prepare for climate migrants?
The challenges of predicting where people will go to escape flooding, wildfires and drought. Hurricane Maria roared across Puerto Rico in late September 2017. The storm caused an estimated $90 billion in damage, demolished the power grid (SN: 2/15/20, p. 22) and left more than half of the island’s residents without safe drinking water. Dachiramarie Vila recalls the smell of gasoline from generators choking the air. “The smell was everywhere,” says Vila, a 33-year-old mother of two, through a translator. “We felt that we were breathing all those gases night and day.” The storm flattened Vila’s wooden home, forcing her family to move to her parents’ house, which was also damaged. Then Vila’s 13-year-old son began peeing blood, she says, probably from drinking contaminated water. There was little medical assistance available. Desperate for help, Vila’s mother, Maritza Garcia Vila, traveled high into the mountains in search of a working cell phone tower because the storm had knocked out 95 percent of the island’s towers. From there, she called Ana Cruz. Cruz is the coordinator of the Hispanic Office for Local Assistance, or HOLA, part of the city government of Orlando, Fla. HOLA has helped new arrivals to the city find jobs, housing and health care since 2004. But by the end of 2017, HOLA and Orlando faced a daunting task. Hurricane Irma had inundated many of Florida’s coastal cities in early September, and two weeks later, Maria hit Puerto Rico. Those two storms sent as many as 250,000 evacuees, including Vila and her family, into Florida’s narrow interior. “We were caught off guard,” says Chris Castro, a senior adviser to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. That 2017 wave of climate migrants gave city managers a glimpse into a future for which they need to prepare.
5-11-19 What Michael Moore’s new film gets wrong about renewable energy
Planet of the Humans relies too much on outdated information. In the film Planet of the Humans, producer and director Jeff Gibbs and executive producer Michael Moore take aim at renewable energy technologies and the environmental organizations such as 350.org and the Sierra Club that promote them. The film’s premise is that green tech is not so green and that turning to this technology as a cure for climate change would be worse than the disease. Scientists and environmental activists have already disputed many of the assertions in the movie, which was released on YouTube on April 21. One commonly cited problem is that the film’s renewable energy claims are often a decade out of date — ancient in green tech years — and misleading. Here’s a closer look at five of those claims.
- Making solar cells is not environmentally friendly: As the film notes, traditional photovoltaic solar cells are made with high-grade, extremely pure silicon, gleaned from quartz mined from mountains and then melted at very, very high temperatures. That takes a lot of energy, which may be generated from coal or other fossil fuels, therefore releasing climate-warming carbon emissions
- Solar cells are really inefficient: In one memorable scene, Gibbs visits the Cedar Street Solar Array in Lansing, Mich. A representative from the Lansing Board of Water and Light tells him that the array’s solar cells have less than 8 percent efficiency (the amount of generated energy relative to the incoming solar energy). The utility has roughly 800 solar panels in the array, which can power maybe 10 houses for a year, he says.
- Solar cells and wind turbines have such short life spans that manufacturing replacements uses up more fossil fuels than the renewable energies save: Planet of the Humans suggests that the carbon emissions released from the energy involved in manufacturing new parts and machinery for wind and solar power are greater than any saved emissions from the facilities. “You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it,” says Ozzie Zehner, one of the movie’s producers. “You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend.”
- Solar and wind power are too intermittent to ever fully replace fossil fuels: The question of storing energy generated by renewables so it’s available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing has dogged renewables for decades (SN: 1/9/17). But battery storage does exist: Some renewable companies use lithium-ion batteries, for example (SN: 5/7/19). And renewable energy utilities in the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan and elsewhere use battery storage systems, though so far they are primarily for short-term storage, amounting to a few hours.
- Replacing coal plants with natural gas plants isn’t an improvement: Across the United States, utilities have been moving away from coal — partly due to costly environmental regulations and partly due to increasing competition from other sources of electricity. As a result, many energy giants, such as Duke Energy, say they are replacing these coal plants with clean energy sources. As Planet of the Humans correctly notes, this very often means a replacement with another type of fossil fuel: natural gas.
5-11-19 UK plan for green heating will take 1500 years to hit 2050 target
The UK won’t be able to meet its 2050 climate change targets unless much more is done to cut emissions from heating buildings. The government’s latest proposals for doing so have been criticised as inadequate. “They are staggeringly unambitious,” says Jan Rosenow at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an organisation dedicated to speeding up the clean energy transition. Unless more is done, it will take about 1500 years to meet a heating target for 2050 recommended by the UK’s official advisers on cutting emissions, Rosenow calculates. “If this is all there is, then it would be disastrous,” says Richard Lowes at the University of Exeter, UK. Last year, the UK government set a legally binding target of meeting net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning that the country needs to drastically cut its emissions and offset any that remain, leaving a net total of zero emissions. Unlike some other countries such as Sweden, the UK still relies heavily on fossil fuels, mainly natural gas, for heating its poorly insulated homes. To meet its target, the UK needs to upgrade its buildings to make them more energy efficient and switch to renewable energy sources. Read more: The best way to do this is to electrify heating by installing heat pumps. “Everybody who looks at this comes to the same conclusion,” says Rosenow. Heat pumps transfer existing heat energy in the air or ground to water for heating radiators, or for baths and showers. Essentially, they work like a refrigerator in reverse. The UK’s official adviser on meeting its climate targets, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), has said the aim should be to install up to 19 million heat pumps by 2050. However, not nearly enough is being done to achieve this. So far, only around 60,000 heat pumps have been installed under the current government scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive, says Lowes. The total will probably be just 75,000 when the RHI ends in 2021.
5-9-19 Deadly temperatures expected to arrive later this century are already here
Global weather station data show dangerously hot and humid days are becoming much more common. Human beings have a superpower — sweating. When temperatures rise, beads of sweat exude from our pores and evaporate, releasing energy that cools the skin and keeps our bodies from overheating. This self-cooling mechanism has helped humans spread to every hot and humid corner of the globe. But that sweating superpower has a theoretical upper limit: When it gets too hot and humid, the laws of physics inhibit sweat from cooling skin. That limit is hit when a bulb thermometer wrapped in a wet towel (a measure of heat and humidity known as “wet-bulb” temperature) reads 35° Celsius, or 95° Fahrenheit. Even the fittest human supplied with unlimited water would probably die after a few hours in these conditions. Scientists have thought that this temperature extreme occurs rarely, if ever, on Earth. But as the globe warms, wet-bulb temperatures around 35° C could become more common toward the end of the century in certain regions, endangering hundreds of millions of people, recent climate simulations suggest (SN: 8/2/17). It turns out we won’t have to wait that long. An analysis of global weather station data shows that this human survivability limit has been briefly surpassed at least a dozen times in the last four decades at sites along the Persian Gulf and Indus River Valley in India and Pakistan, researchers report May 8 in Science Advances. Slightly lower, but still dangerous, wet-bulb temperatures are increasingly familiar features of summer across larger swaths of the Middle East, South Asia and the U.S. Gulf Coast, the study shows. “We expect these extreme wet-bulb values to be rare, but to become more common as the world warms,” says Matthew Huber, a climate scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s disturbing to see it happening in real time.”
5-8-19 Climate change has already made parts of the world too hot for humans
Global warming has already made parts of the world hotter than the human body can withstand, decades earlier than climate models expected this to happen. Jacobabad in Pakistan and Ras al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates have both repeatedly crossed a deadly threshold for one or two hours at a time, an analysis of weather station data found. Wet bulb temperature (TW) is a measure of heat and humidity, taken from a thermometer covered in a water-soaked cloth. Beyond a threshold of 35°C TW the body is unable to cool itself by sweating, but lower levels can still be deadly, as was seen in the 2003 European heatwave that killed thousands without passing 28°C TW. A US-UK team analysed weather station data across the world, and found that the frequency of wet bulb temperatures exceeding temperatures between 27°C TW and 35°C TW had all doubled since 1979. Though 35°C TW is thought of as a key threshold, harm and even death is possible at lower temperatures, so the team included these in their analysis. Most of the frequency increases were in the Persian gulf, India, Pakistan and south-west North America. But at Jacobabad and Ras al Khaimah, 35°C TW appears to have been passed, the first time the breach has been reported in scientific literature. “The crossings of all of these thresholds imply greater risk to human health – we can say we are universally creeping close to this magic threshold of 35°C. The tantalising conclusion is it looks like, in some cases for a brief period of the day, we have exceeded this value,” says Tom Matthews at Loughborough University in the UK. His team corroborated the threshold being breached by looking at another weather dataset, based on temperature and humidity observations and modelling. That analysis suggested several areas of the Persian Gulf will see the possibility of 35?°C TW happening once every 30 years at around 2.3°C of global warming. The world has already warmed about 1°C due to human activities.
5-8-19 Brazil's Amazon: Surge in deforestation as military prepares to deploy
Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest rose sharply last month as the country prepared to send troops to try to curb illegal logging and mining. Brazil's space research agency said the area destroyed in April was 64% bigger than in the same period last year. In the first four months of 2020, destruction of the forest by illegal loggers and ranchers rose 55%, it said. Environmentalists say President Jair Bolsonaro's policies and rhetoric encourage illegal activity. Mr Bolsonaro denies this. Earlier this week he authorised the deployment of armed forces to the region. The Amazon rainforest is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming. Brazil's National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) said that more than 405 sq km (156 sq miles) of the Amazon had been deforested last month compared with 248 sq km in April last year. Between January and April, a total of 1,202 sq km was wiped out, it said. Conservation groups said that, since the coronavirus outbreak began, fewer government enforcement agents had been deployed. Brazil has been one of the worst-affected countries in South America, with 141,000 cases and nearly 10,000 deaths. "The pandemic has not helped because there are apparently less agents out there and illegal loggers obviously don't care about the virus in remote areas of the Amazon," said Paulo Barreto, senior researcher for the non-profit conservation group Imazon. Environmental enforcement agency Ibama said it was scaling back field agents in other at-risk areas but not in the Amazon. Deforestation in the region has soared since President Bolsonaro took office last year. He has argued that more farming and mining in protected areas of the forest are the only way to lift the region out of poverty. (Webmaster's comment: Baloney! It's the only so the rich can get richer!) Mr Bolsonaro's environmental policies have been widely condemned but he has rejected the criticism, saying Brazil remains an example for conservation. He has criticised Ibama for what he described as excessive fines. His first year in office saw a sharp drop in financial penalties being imposed for environmental violations. At the same time, the agency remains underfunded and understaffed.
5-7-19 Mark Carney: 'We can't self-isolate from climate change'
The former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has added his voice to calls for industrialised nations to invest in a greener economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. He shared his comments in an online discussion about climate change with the former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Both called on nations to accelerate a transition to cleaner energy. The event was organised by the Policy Exchange think tank. Mr Carney said that the pandemic was "a terrible situation, but there was also a big opportunity" at the end of it. "We have a situation with climate change which will involve every country in the world and from which we can't self-isolate," he added. As has rapidly become the socially distant norm, both participants joined the discussion via video conference from their respective homes - setting out how they saw ways in which countries could emerge from the crisis with cleaner, more sustainable economies. Mr Turnbull, who was Australia's prime minister from 2015-2018, issued blunt, broad criticisms of many governments for failing to take the science of climate change seriously. Drawing bleak parallels with the pandemic, Mr Turnbull said Covid-19 was a case of "biology confronting and shaking the complacency of day-to-day politics with a physical reality of sickness and death". "The question is, when will the physics of climate change mug the complacency and denialism - just as biology has with respect to the virus." Mr Carney, who stepped down as Bank of England governor in March, just before the UK lockdown began, explained that, at a time when many industries would have to restructure, this would be a chance "to try not go back to the status quo". As countries re-launched and rebuilt their economies, they "should try to leapfrog ahead", he said. He recommended regulatory policies that would push economies more quickly towards greener growth - and a more sustainable future - citing the UK's plan to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2035. Governments, he added, should also take the opportunity to invest in wind and solar power to accelerate the transition to greener energy. Many countries would have the opportunity to invest in sustainable infrastructure, Mr Carney said, pointing out that that opportunity was missed after the 2008 financial crisis. "You can't wish away the systemic risk," he said. "In the end, a small investment up front can save a tremendous cost down the road."
5-7-19 Coronavirus: Boom time for bikes as virus changes lifestyles
Fear of catching coronavirus on public transport has helped lead to a boom in cycle-to-work schemes. The schemes saw a 200% increase in bicycle orders from people working for emergency services. Demand for more mobility and exercise amid lifestyle changes imposed by the lockdown has also boosted bike sales across the UK. "Very strong" bicycle sales at bike and car parts chain Halfords this week saw its shares soar by 23%. Some bike stores are battling to meet demand. Broadribb Cycles in Bicester normally despatches 20-30 bikes a week, but manager Stuart Taylor says the shop is currently selling 50 bikes every day - and seeing a commensurate rise in demand for servicing. "It's just gone crazy," he told the BBC. "People are dragging bikes out of sheds and garages and finding they need new tyres and cables. "We normally take in bikes for repair and servicing and deal with them for next day [pick-up]. Now we're booking services for two weeks [ahead]." At Lunar Cycles repair shop in north London, the mechanic says trade was booming, then ended the call to avoid upsetting the socially-distanced queue outside. Andrew Hassard from Mango Bikes in Ballyclare, Northern Ireland, said: "The bicycle industry is having a boom. People are saying 'I'm getting back on a bike after 15-20 years - I'm going to use it during lockdown - then commute on it as well,' to avoid public transport." A recent poll for the consultants SYSTRA suggested 61% of Britons are nervous of taking public transport post-lockdown. Adrian Warren who runs an alliance of cycle schemes, told the BBC: "This past six weeks, we have seen the biggest experiment in transport policy this country has even known. It's clear the default option is cycling." Cycle schemes allow employees to claim a tax credit on bikes they buy at work.
5-6-19 Climate change and coronavirus: Five charts about the biggest carbon crash
We're living through the biggest carbon crash ever recorded. No war, no recession, no previous pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on emissions of CO2 over the past century as Covid-19 has in a few short months. Multiple sources indicate we are now living through an unrivalled drop in carbon output. But even though we will see a massive fall this year, the concentrations of CO2 that are in the atmosphere and warming our planet won't stabilise until the world reaches net-zero. As our chart shows, since the Spanish flu killed millions over 100 years ago, the global expansion of emissions of CO2, from the use of oil, gas and coal has risen massively. While these energy sources have transformed the world, the carbon seeping into our atmosphere has driven up global temperatures by just over 1C since the mid-1850s. They could rise by 3-4C by the end of this century if CO2 levels aren't savagely reduced. Over the past 100 years, as indicated on the graphic, a number of events have shown that dramatic falls in carbon are possible. Much is made of the financial crash in 2008-2009, but in reality, carbon emissions only fell by around 450 million tonnes between 2008 and 2009. This is much smaller than the fall in CO2 in the aftermath of World War II, which saw a drop of around 800 million tonnes. It is also smaller than the global recession in the early 1980s that followed the oil crisis of the late 1970s. During this period, CO2 went down by around one billion tonnes. But the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 dwarves all of these previous shocks by some distance. In a few months, demand for energy globally has fallen off a cliff. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the world will use 6% less this year - equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India. This will feed through to large falls in CO2. A number of different analyses, including this one from Carbon Brief, show that emissions this year will fall by 4-8%, somewhere between 2 and 3 billion tonnes of the warming gas. That's between six and ten times larger than during the last global recession.
5-6-19 Climate change: Could the coronavirus crisis spur a green recovery?
The Covid-19 lockdown has cut climate change emissions - for now. But some governments want to go further by harnessing their economic recovery plans to boost low-carbon industries. Their slogan is "Build Back Better", but can they succeed?. I've just had a light bulb moment. The feisty little wren chirping loudly in the matted ivy outside my back door is telling us something important about global climate change. That's because, intertwined with the melodious notes of a robin, I can actually hear its song clearly. Normally, both birds are muffled by the insistent rumble of traffic, but the din has been all but extinguished in the peace of lockdown. The drop in traffic is a major contributor to the fall in planet-warming CO2 emissions we've witnessed globally. Before the Covid-19 crisis, we accepted the dominance of traffic noise as an inevitable consequence of city living. Now, we have sampled an alternative urban ambience. Governments currently face a stark choice: bail out polluting businesses, using that as leverage to impose environmentally-minded reforms, or let them return to their carbon-intensive activities as an economic quick fix. But many members of the public have little desire to return to the state of affairs before lockdown. In a poll, a fifth of members of the motoring group the AA, said they would work more from home in future. This has implications for the UK government's £28bn road-building programme which assumes that traffic will rise by 1% per year - a conjecture that now looks unlikely. The stay-at-home trend will be offset somewhat by nervous public transport users shunning trains for fear of infection, and by long-distance commuters who might decide that if they only need to visit the office three days a week, they'll buy a home even further away.
5-6-19 Coronavirus: UK warned to avoid climate change crisis
The UK must avoid lurching from the coronavirus crisis into a deeper climate crisis, the government’s advisers have warned. They recommend that ministers ensure funds earmarked for a post-Covid-19 economic recovery go to firms that will reduce carbon emissions. They say the public should work from home if possible; and to walk or cycle. And investment should prioritise broadband over road-building, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says. People should also be encouraged to save emissions by continuing to consult GPs online. The government will reply later, although the Energy Secretary Alok Sharma has already spoken in favour of a green recovery to the recession. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the committee says jobless people should be re-trained for work in geographically-spread labour-intensive “green” industries such as home insulation; tree-planting; and peatland restoration. It makes a veiled reference to the current discussions over a potential government bailout to save jobs in aviation, which is struggling in the crisis. The letter says: “Many sectors of the UK economy do not currently bear the full costs of emitting greenhouse gases. Revenue could be raised by setting or raising carbon prices for these sectors.” Green groups say any bailout should include a condition that the industry shrinks until it finds a technological solution to its carbon emissions. The letter also tackles broader social themes of fairness and risk. It says the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted inequalities, with poorer people more in danger. The committee notes: “The response to the pandemic has disproportionately affected the same lower-income groups and younger people - who face the largest long-term impacts of climate change. “The benefits of acting on climate change must be shared widely, and the costs must not burden those who are least able to pay or whose livelihoods are most at risk as the economy changes. “It is important that the lost or threatened jobs of today should be replaced by those created by the new, resilient economy.”
5-5-19 Climate change: More than 3bn could live in extreme heat by 2070
More than three billion people will be living in places with "near un-liveable" temperatures by 2070, according to a new study. Unless greenhouse gas emissions fall, large numbers of people will experience average temperatures hotter than 29C. This is considered outside the climate "niche" in which humans have thrived for the past 6,000 years. Co-author of the study Tim Lenton told the BBC: "The study hopefully puts climate change in a more human terms". Researchers used data from United Nations population projections and a 3C warming scenario based on the expected global rise in temperature. A UN report found that even with countries keeping to the Paris climate agreement, the world was on course for a 3C rise. According to the study, human populations are concentrated into narrow climate bands with most people residing in places where the average temperature is about 11-15C. A smaller number of people live in areas with an average temperature of 20-25C. People have mostly lived in these climate conditions for thousands of years. However should, global warming cause temperatures to rise by three degrees, a vast number of people are going to be living in temperatures considered outside the "climate niche". Mr Lenton, climate specialist and director of the global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, conducted the study with scientists from China, the US and Europe. He told the BBC: "The land warms up faster than the ocean so the land is warming more than three degrees. Population growth is projected to be in already hot places, mostly sub-Saharan Africa, so that shifts the average person to a hotter temperature. "It's shifting the whole distribution of people to hotter places which themselves are getting hotter and that's why we find the average person on the planet is living in about 7C warmer conditions in the 3C warmer world." Areas projected to be affected include northern Australia, India, Africa, South America and parts of the Middle East.
5-4-19 Deep-sea mining may damage underwater ecosystems for decades
Microbes disturbed by a seafloor experiment 26 years ago still haven’t recovered. Microbe communities living in the seafloor off Peru haven’t bounced back from a deep-sea mining experiment 26 years ago. The populations are still reduced by 30 percent in this part of the South Pacific Ocean, researchers report April 29 in Science Advances. From 1989 to 1994, the DISturbance and reCOLonization, or DISCOL, experiment plowed grooves into the seafloor to mimic deep-sea mining for valuable metal-bearing rocks. The lumps of rock, known as polymetallic or manganese nodules, contain economically important metals such as copper, nickel and cobalt. To recover the nodules, miners dredge the seafloor, scraping off much of the top layer of sediment along with the rocks. Researchers have long expressed concern about how this might affect deep-sea ecosystems (SN: 2/19/14). But there is little data about the effects of deep-sea mining on the ocean environment — and particularly on the microbes at the base of the food web, which cycle the nutrient nitrogen between seafloor and bottom waters (SN: 10/10/17). Scientists last assessed DISCOL’s effects in 1996. So in 2015, microbial ecologist Tobias Vonnahme, now of The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, and colleagues devised a new test, comparing the 26-year-old plough tracks with five-week-old tracks they dug into the seafloor. Cell counts of microbes in the younger tracks were reduced by about 50 percent compared with undisturbed areas; in older tracks, cell numbers were reduced by about 30 percent. Due to slow accumulation of sediment in the deep sea, regions disturbed by mining could take more than 50 years to fully recover, the team says.
5-4-19 Coronavirus: Disease meets deforestation at heart of Brazil's Amazon
In the middle of the rainforest, the virus has taken hold. Manaus, the Amazon's biggest city, is at breaking point. They are digging mass graves, or trenches. It is the only way overwhelmed authorities can cope with the deaths from Covid-19. People are asking whether this city, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, will become the next Guayaquil. It is hard not to compare the two, as the images of unburied bodies in Ecuador are still etched on many peoples' minds here. Amazonas has one of Brazil's highest infection rates and also one of the most underfunded health systems, a combination that has brought chaos to the heart of the jungle. In April, Manaus saw a rise of 578% in the number of people who died from respiratory problems. They are not officially noted as victims of Covid-19 but experts believe there can only be one explanation. With testing still low, there is a massive underreporting of the real numbers. But even the official figures - about 92,000 confirmed cases and more than 6,500 deaths - saw Brazil reach a grim milestone as it passed China where the outbreak started. "We don't want miracles," said the mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virgilio Neto. It was a dig at President Jair Bolsonaro, who mocked the rising numbers of deaths by joking that his middle name was Messiah but he did not work miracles. "What we need is a plane full of scanners, ventilators, medicines and PPE," he said, referring to protective equipment for health workers. But help has been slow, while Mr Bolsonaro continues to downplay the severity of the virus. Home to nearly two million people, Manaus is the seventh-biggest city in Brazil and its most isolated urban centre. Amazonas also has the largest number of indigenous in the country, many of whom now live in the city. Poverty, malnutrition and displacement make tackling the virus an even bigger challenge for these communities, some of Brazil's most vulnerable. In Parque das Tribos, on the outskirts of Manaus, several women are busy at sewing machines. History has taught people that viruses from outside bring devastation. Their only defence now are home-made masks, but much more is needed to protect them.
5-2-19 Shutdowns have led to cleaner air quality. Is it sustainable?
Residents of Nairobi can again see the mountains in the distance. People in Los Angeles are looking up and seeing stars at night. In a quieter, calmer Wuhan, China, you can hear the birds chirping again. Shutting down economies is giving us a glimpse of what the world could look like if less fuel is burned. One clear, immediate benefit? Less air pollution. Last year, the United Nations noted that "polluted air kills some 7 million people each year, causes long-term health problems, such as asthma, and reduces children's cognitive development." Air pollution is also expensive: According to the World Bank, it costs societies more than $5 trillion annually. Stanford University earth systems science professor Marshall Burke looked at China, where he estimates that a drop in deadly air pollution from coronavirus shutdowns may have saved thousands of lives. He cautioned that air quality improvements during the pandemic should not be seen as a cost-benefit calculation. Still, the current situation gives insight into the costs of polluting economies and how they might be changed to improve health outcomes, Burke told The World's Marco Werman. When you compare air pollution in China before the pandemic to what it was like during the shutdowns, how dramatic of a difference have you seen? So in the places most affected by the shutdown, by the coronavirus in China, we saw improvements in air quality of about 20-30 percent, which is quite large. So this drop in air pollution — are we looking at something that could save lives? How are mortality and air pollution connected? That's right. So now there's decades of research suggesting that improvements in air quality are really good for health. Leading estimates suggest that poor air quality results in millions of premature deaths around the world. And so improvements in air quality is going to reduce mortality and improve health outcomes. And that's exactly what we would expect in China with these recent air quality improvements. So let's be clear, no one is arguing — you're not arguing — that this pandemic is a good thing. But what are the lessons that we can learn from this temporary pause in normal economic activity? Are there parts of just the way we usually do things in "normal" times that maybe should be reexamined? Yeah, that's right. A pandemic is a terrible way to improve air quality or improve environmental outcomes. This is absolutely not the way you want to go about that. That said, I think what a lot of people have noticed in recent weeks is the dramatic improvement in many environmental outcomes, air quality being the most obvious one. And perhaps it helps us understand how polluting our economies are in normal times, and helps us imagine sort of a cleaner future and what this would actually look like. So as the months have gone by, the math has changed a little bit. When you started this project, the number of lives that you estimated would be saved through the drop in air pollution was larger than the number of deaths from coronavirus. But that's shifted, right? I mean, as the pandemic has spread, that's no longer the case. Yeah. So the early calculation I did was in China specifically, where we saw really dramatic improvements in air quality. The calculation I did suggested maybe 50,000 lives would be saved just from the air quality improvements alone. Now, again, this is not a cost-benefit calculation of an epidemic. That is just trying to isolate that component of the mortality that's going to change because of the air quality changes. But we know the pandemic is causing all sorts of other havoc. It's directly affecting people who get the virus. It's indirectly harming the broader medical system, which gets congested, and people are unable to get treatment for non-COVID-related ailments. So this is not suggesting that the pandemic is good for health overall. It's just saying this air quality part of it definitely had some benefits.
5-2-19 Coronavirus lockdown reduces UK ground motions
The UK hasn't been shaking as much since it went into Covid lockdown. Seismometer stations, which are normally used to record earthquakes, have detected a big fall in the ground vibrations linked to human activity. Scientists from Imperial College London say this background hum is now half what it would usually be. The unprecedented seismic quiet - a phenomenon mirrored in other countries - could offer a unique opportunity to study the Earth's interior. "You'd have to go back decades to see noise levels like this," commented Imperial's Dr Stephen Hicks. "You'd often get quiet times in the evenings or at weekends but not continuously, for weeks," he told BBC News. Human activity - cars, lorries, trains, industry, and footfall, etc - turn up in seismometers in a band of frequencies from 5 to 15 Hertz. Dr Hicks used the data from 127 instruments spread across Britain to map the signal's evolution from mid-January to the present. He relied in part on the high-fidelity scientific stations operated by the British Geological Survey (BGS) but also on a distributed network of citizen science seismometers that incorporate Raspberry-Pi mini-computers. The vibrations sensed in both sets of instruments are seen to drop off dramatically after Prime Minister Boris Johnson orders Britain into lockdown on 23 March. "The reduction in seismic noise should help us to see signals from earthquakes that are normally buried in the noise," said Dr Brian Baptie, the head of seismology at the BGS. "This might allow us to detect more small earthquakes or see the low-amplitude parts of the ground motions caused by larger earthquakes further away."
5-1-19 Do we need to blow up the economy to stop climate change?
Something interesting is happening to greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the coronavirus pandemic: They are plummeting. The world is seeing the lowest oil demand relative to supply perhaps ever, leading to oil futures contracts selling for negative values at several points. The International Energy Agency estimates that this year world carbon dioxide output will fall by a whopping 8 percent. If that pans out, it would be the largest drop ever recorded — some six times larger than the fall during the 2008 global financial crisis. That rate of decline is also approximately what would be necessary to achieve the goal of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, if maintained for the rest of the decade. Thus the coronavirus lockdown is showing us roughly the scale of what is needed to avoid extreme climate change effects — but an extremely clumsy way of achieving it. The world could have a full employment economy and attack climate change at the same time, if humanity really put its mind to it. For many years now, one school of thought among environmentalists has advocated "degrowth" as a strategy for dealing with climate change. By this view, green austerity policies would slow the economy, reduce carbon emissions, and cut the global burden of humanity on the biosphere. We see today that such a strategy could indeed work, if carried out on a grand enough scale. It could be done more or less sensibly, as lockdown policies have been better planned in Europe and a haphazard disaster in the United States, but basically we would have to strangle the world economy to death — after all, this 8 percent decline is only the start of something that would have to deepen steadily for the next 20 or 30 years. But the coronavirus shutdown also demonstrates how incredibly devastating and unpopular such a policy would surely be. Despite protests otherwise, it would almost certainly mean mass unemployment on a Great Depression scale for decades, because the whole world economic system is geared around mass production and employment. It would also very possibly create global famine that would wipe out a significant fraction of the world population. The world today depends on industrial agriculture to feed itself, and high levels of production to provide the income to buy that food. Moreover, without alternative sources of energy, even cutting economic output by half would only buy time. Yet many "degrowth advocates … oppose even 'green' megastructures like high-speed trains or industrial-scale wind farms," writes economist Giorgos Kallis. The overall objective appears to be a vague, romanticized picture of a future society based largely around pre-modern technology, but without much serious thought about how 7.8 billion people could be supported without large-scale production or farming. It simply beggars belief to think that green austerity could be politically supportable for any length of time.
5-1-19 Greenland and Antarctica are gaining ice inland, but still losing it overall
The accumulation of ice inland is not happening fast enough to counteract coastal melting. In the tug-of-war between coastal melting and inland ice buildup, the meltdown is winning in both Greenland and Antarctica. Initial observations from NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite in 2018 and 2019 reveal how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have changed since the original ICESat mission collected data from 2003 to 2008. Both missions measured the height of ice near Earth’s poles by bouncing laser light off the surface. Since each satellite’s position in space was known, clocking how long it took reflected light to return to the satellite revealed the ice’s height, allowing researchers to discern changes in ice thickness between measurements. These data indicate that ice in eastern Antarctica and central Greenland thickened slightly from 2003 to 2019. The researchers suspect this is the result of increased snowfall, because in a warmer climate, more ocean water evaporates and the air holds more moisture. But a minor thickening of inland ice was no match for the massive ice losses along Greenland and Antarctica’s coastlines, researchers report online April 30 in Science. Greenland and Antarctica lost an average 200 billion and 118 billion metric tons of land ice per year, respectively, over this 16-year period. In terms of where and how each ice sheet lost mass, “the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are two very different beasts,” says study coauthor Alex Gardner, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Ice all around the coast of Greenland thinned drastically, due to warmer summer temperatures (SN: 9/18/19). But the most severe thinning happened on Greenland’s outlet glaciers, which are like “a whole bunch of little fingers that spread out into the ocean,” Gardner says. Where the tips of these glacial fingers poke out from between cold fjords and meet warmer ocean water, that water erodes the ice, causing the glaciers to flow out faster and thin inland. Greenland’s southern Kangerdlugssuaq and Jakobshavn glaciers have thinned most rapidly — by 4 to 6 meters of ice thickness per year. In Antarctica, warmer seawater not only melts glaciers, but it also melts the extensions of the ice sheet that float on the ocean, called ice shelves, which surround the continent. Melting ice shelves do not directly contribute to sea level rise, for the same reason a melting ice cube doesn’t overflow a glass of water. But ice shelves resist the natural flow of Antarctica’s inland ice from the heart of the continent toward the coasts (SN: 8/5/19). As ice shelves thin and weaken, they let ice flow into the ocean faster than snowfall keeps up, raising sea levels. Antarctic ice has especially thinned in the western Amundsen and Bellingshausen regions.
5-1-19 High microplastic concentration found on ocean floor
Scientists have identified the highest levels of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor. The contamination was found in sediments pulled from the bottom of the Mediterranean, near Italy. The analysis, led by the University of Manchester, found up to 1.9 million plastic pieces per square metre. These items likely included fibres from clothing and other synthetic textiles, and tiny fragments from larger objects that had broken down over time. The researchers' investigations lead them to believe that microplastics (smaller than 1mm) are being concentrated in specific locations on the ocean floor by powerful bottom currents. "These currents build what are called drift deposits; think of underwater sand dunes," explained Dr Ian Kane, who fronted the international team. "They can be tens of kilometres long and hundreds of metres high. They are among the largest sediment accumulations on Earth. They're made predominantly of very fine silt, so it's intuitive to expect microplastics will be found within them," he told BBC News. It's been calculated that something in the order of four to 12 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, mostly through rivers. Media headlines have focussed on the great aggregations of debris that float in gyres or wash up with the tides on coastlines. But this visible trash is thought to represent just 1% of the marine plastic budget. The exact whereabouts of the other 99% is unknown. Some of it has almost certainly been consumed by sea creatures, but perhaps the much larger proportion has fragmented and simply sunk. Dr Kane's team has already shown that deep-sea trenches and ocean canyons can have high concentrations of microplastics in their sediments. Indeed, water tank simulations run by the group have demonstrated just how efficiently flows of mud, sand and silt of the type occurring in canyons will entrain and move fibres to even greater depths. "A single one of these underwater avalanches ('turbidity currents') can transport tremendous volumes of sediment for 100s of kilometres across the ocean floor," said Dr Florian Pohl from Durham University. "We're just starting to understand from recent laboratory experiments how these flows transport and bury microplastics."
5-1-19 What happens to microplastics in the ocean?
UK scientists have identified the highest levels of microplastics ever recorded on the seafloor. The contamination was found in sediments pulled up from the bottom of the Mediterranean, off Italy. The analysis, led from the University of Manchester, counted up to 1.9 million plastic pieces per square metre. It is some of the first insight into the fate of the 10 million tonnes of plastic waste estimated to enter the ocean every year.