5-29-20 How more powerful Pacific cyclones may be fueling global warming
Stronger storms seem to be speeding up the Kuroshio Current, which ferries warm water north. Increasingly powerful tropical cyclones in the North Pacific Ocean may be fueling a powerful north-flowing ocean current, helping to boost the amount of heat it ferries to northern latitudes. By enhancing the speed of some ocean whirlpools called eddies, and suppressing the spin of others, the passing storms may be accelerating the heat-carrying Kuroshio Current — and that could warm the planet further, researchers report in the May 29 Science. Researchers have long predicted that climate change would increase the intensity of tropical cyclones around the planet. Some observational data, including a recent study of tropical cyclone intensity over the last four decades, suggest that this supercharging of storms is already happening. Yet tropical cyclones’ own influence on the climate isn’t generally included in most climate simulations. The interaction of these relatively short-lived storms with a calm, quiescent ocean has been considered insignificant in the long-term climate picture, says Yu Zhang, a physical oceanographer at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao. But, in reality, the ocean is anything but quiescent, she says: It is full of energetic eddies, large swirls of water that spin off of large, fast-moving currents (SN: 6/9/03). These swirls, known as mesoscale eddies, tend to persist for perhaps a few months, span 10 to 100 kilometers across and can extend more than 1,000 meters deep. That makes the ephemeral eddies key players in mixing up and redistributing the ocean’s heat, salt and nutrient content (SN: 9/27/08). “The collision of these two giant monsters — tropical cyclones and mesoscale eddies — will probably lead to dramatic climatic impacts that are far beyond our imagination,” Zhang says.
5-29-20 Neon colors may help some corals stage a comeback from bleaching
Coral pigments act as a sunscreen and may make a more hospitable home for returning algae. For some corals, going bright may be part of their fight against bleaching. Higher-than-normal ocean temperatures can cause some corals to bleach and lose the beneficial algae that dwell within their cells. Those algae help feed the corals and give them their color, so bleached corals can become bone white, and may struggle to survive (SN: 4/7/20). But when some corals bleach, they turn neon hues from red to blue to purple. A new study finds that those flashy colors may be part of a response that can help the corals recover from bleaching and reunite with their algal partners. “It’s visually very striking, but … there was surprisingly little information” on how and why colorful bleaching happens, says Elena Bollati, a marine biologist at the National University of Singapore. Some researchers suspected that with the algae gone, the bleached corals’ vivid natural colors shone through. But the new work suggests a different dynamic. In the lab, certain wavelengths of light appear to trigger an uptick in a coral’s production of pigments, which act as a sunscreen to create a more hospitable home for the returning algae, Bollati and colleagues report May 21 in Current Biology. The research “shows that some of these corals are trying to protect themselves with really spectacular side effects,” says Daniel Wangpraseurt, a coral reef scientist at the University of Cambridge who was not involved with the study. A survey of bleaching events in the world’s oceans from 2010 to 2019 revealed that some corals’ neon colors corresponded with mild heat stress, caused by a long spell of warmer waters or a brief temperature spike. In most cases, the colors appeared two to three weeks after the heat stress events, says Bollati, who did the work while at the University of Southampton in England.
5-28-20 Biggest UK solar plant approved
The go-ahead has been given to the UK’s biggest solar farm, stretching 900 acres on the north Kent coast. The government has approved the controversial scheme, which will supply power to 91,000 homes. The project could include one of the world’s largest energy storage systems. But it has been fiercely opposed by many local people, and it’s divided green groups. Greenpeace, the RSPB and the countryside charity CPRE are against the plan. They say it’s industrialising the countryside - and may harm an adjacent wildlife site. But Friends of the Earth offered qualified support, on the grounds that the current intensively-farmed land was bad for wildlife anyway. Their spokesperson Mike Childs said: “No-one wants to see damage to local habitats, but this is not some lovely, untouched meadow. “Changing the use of the site from intensive agriculture will reduce the high level of chemicals currently harming insects and wildlife - but we have to hold the developers to account”. Environmentalists want the developers to offer free rooftop solar panels to local people who are protesting against the solar farm – and especially against the giant energy storage unit, which they fear may prove an explosion risk. The facility will use 25 acres of the total land and the countryside charity CPRE says the proposed battery storage system has caused fires and explosions around the world. The developers Wirsol Energy and Hive Energy say it’s safe. They maintain the subsidy-free project will be one of the lowest-cost power generators in the UK and will bring local councils £1m every year that it is running. In 2015, the government controversially announced it would phase out subsidies from solar power, to a howl of protest from the industry. But the cost of solar panels has tumbled by two thirds since 2010. The Energy Secretary Alok Sharma said the decision was taken after careful consideration – but said the project would be a world leader in solar and power storage.
5-27-20 Psychedelic skies over Chile reveal the full extent of light pollution
An image taken by astronomer Juan Carlos Munoz of the night sky above Santiago, Chile, uses optical techniques to reveal the extent of light pollution in major cities even while under lockdown. THIS kaleidoscopic shot of the night sky above Santiago, Chile, was taken during the city’s lockdown and shows the extent of the capital’s light pollution. Astronomer Juan Carlos Munoz captured the view from his balcony. He tries to infuse every urban night photo he takes with a “gritty and other-worldly” feel, he says. For this picture, he covered a lens with a diffraction grating, an optical element that is engraved with grooves that split the light spilling from the buildings and streets into different wavelengths in vertical streaks. The result reveals the make-up of the city’s various sources of illumination as a pattern soaring into the night sky. Sodium lamps have an orange spectra, metal halide lamps predominantly emit green, blue and violet light, while white LEDs are the brightest and emit across the visible spectrum (a good example is clearly visible just right of the centre of the photo). Munoz says he takes such pictures to raise awareness of light pollution and hopes people can work together to illuminate cities in a more efficient way. “The night sky is a natural heritage that all citizens deserve to enjoy regardless of where they live, and therefore it must be protected from pollution, just like oceans or the atmosphere,” he says.
5-27-20 Coronavirus gives us a chance to transform our approach to the climate
ALMOST everyone has felt at least some yearning for a return to “normality”. The economic, social and mental costs of lockdown have been high, alongside the terrible toll of lives cut short. Around the world, countries are, quite naturally, assessing how they can allow their citizens to resume some of their former freedoms, and individuals are asking how they can best keep themselves and others safe as restrictions are eased (see “At work, school and seeing friends: How to lower your coronavirus risk”). What is clear, however, is that with no immediate prospect of an effective vaccine, the new “normal” won’t be the old one. An important question now is: is that entirely a bad thing, or can something positive be wrung from this grim situation? Over relatively few decades, a paradigm of unbridled consumption in richer economies, with little regard for longer-term consequences, has established itself as a global aspirational norm. That has taken a shocking toll on our planet, in terms of any environmental measure you choose to consider, be it pollution, biodiversity or, of course, climate change. Then came covid-19. Suddenly, once clogged motorways stood empty and the sight of a plane overhead became something worth remarking on. Pollution and carbon emissions, unsurprisingly, have for now gone down (see “Coronavirus set to cause biggest emissions fall since second world war”) – although we must be realistic that this will have little if any long-term effect on global warming. The situation hasn’t been universally good for nature: poaching, for example, has become easier (see “How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting wildlife and conservation”). But covid-19 has given us a glimpse of a world in which systems can be torn up, and ways of life radically altered, when the political will is there.
5-27-20 Climate chief: How coronavirus shows us we can beat global warming
Forget the naysayers: what we must do to combat climate change is far less drastic than coronavirus measures, says World Meteorological Organization head Petteri Taalas. YOU might say the body Petteri Taalas heads determines the weather on world climate action. At the very least, it takes its temperature. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), based in Geneva, Switzerland, is the United Nations specialised agency on weather, climate and water resources. It co-founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the clearing house for scientific research on global warming, and runs observing systems that follow what is happening to temperature, precipitation, storms, sea level rise, glaciers, snow and ice cover and greenhouse gas emissions across the planet. The WMO has just produced its latest report, The Global Climate in 2015-2019. It comes a few short months after Taalas, the group’s secretary general, found himself in the news for purportedly questioning the focus on the need for robust international action on climate change. Petteri Taalas: So far, we have seen 1 degree [Celsius] of warming. During the past 20 years, we have seen the 19 warmest years on record. Last year was the second-warmest year since 1850 [when consistent records begin. We have, again, been breaking records in greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Of those, carbon dioxide is the most important. It has contributed two-thirds of the warming so far and its life in the atmosphere is several hundred years. Recently, we have been observing concentrations of the order of 415 parts per million; 400 ppm was once regarded as a critical level. We have areas of the world where drought has become more frequent, including the Amazonia region, which may be bad news for the rainforest, and some areas with increased amounts of rainfall and snowfall. We have also been monitoring what has happened to sea level. During the past century, sea level rise was typically 1 to 2 millimetres per year. During recent years, we have seen a rise of between 4 and 5 millimetres per year. We have also seen glacier melting continue. Melting of the Greenland glacier increased threefold during the past 20 years, and the Antarctic ice cap has also started melting, which wasn’t the case 20 years ago. Many of the impacts of climate change and disasters are through water: groundwater problems, flooding, sea level rise and so forth. Those are having impacts on global food production capacity and human well-being, especially in less developed countries.
5-27-20 How a victory for a small bog could herald a new era for conservation
Against the odds, a tiny wildlife retreat has won the day in a battle with developers. It is a sign that attitudes may finally be changing for the better, says Graham Lawton. AS LOCKDOWNS gradually ease across the world, I find myself in a growing state of anxiety. As you may have heard, this pandemic presents a historic opportunity to reinvent our world along more sustainable lines. I agree – but am gripped by fear that we will blow it. Happily, some positive action has been taken. For example, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to close much of the city centre to private vehicles, creating one of the world’s largest car-free urban areas. Other cities have made similar moves. But I can’t imagine this will go down without a fight, and elsewhere I read that the backlash against a green recovery is under way. US Republicans, for example, are reportedly developing lines of attack that paint the pandemic response – with its mass unemployment and vast rise in public expenditure – as a foretaste of the pain to be visited on people by pro-environmental policies. Call me a cynic, but if I had to put money on who will win, I’d bet on the right. I am soothing myself with a story that I think shows a better, greener world is possible. It is about a small nature reserve just outside York, the UK city where I grew up. Askham Bog is one of the last surviving scraps of fenland in a now intensively farmed landscape. Despite its small size – just 44 hectares – it is one of the most ecologically diverse habitats in northern England and is designated as a site of special scientific interest. It has also been under threat for years. York has an acute shortage of housing, and in the early 2010s, the city council identified land just north of the bog as being possibly suitable for development. In 2018, developer Barwood Land filed an application to build 516 houses on the site. But in 2019, the city council unanimously rejected the planning application on various grounds, including environmental ones.
5-27-20 Record drop in energy investment, warns International Energy Agency
The coronavirus crisis is causing the biggest fall in global energy investment in history. Before the pandemic, funding was set to rise 2%, but now it’s predicted to plunge 20%, says the International Energy Agency (IEA). Fossil fuels are hit hardest, with a 30% funding drop expected for oil and a 15% fall for coal. Renewables investment is down 10% - and it's only about half what’s needed to combat climate change. Due to coronavirus lockdown measures imposed by many countries, for the time being, the fall in investment is leading to a drop in planet-heating carbon emissions. But the IEA warns that that use of fossil fuels is likely to rebound when the crisis is over, leading to a spike in CO2. One reason is because China and other Asian nations are putting in orders now for a new generation of coal-fired power plants to supply energy in the future. “We see a historical decline in emissions, but unless we have the right economic recovery packages, we might see emissions again skyrocket and the decline of this year would be completely wasted," the IEA's executive director Fatih Birol told the BBC. “Remember the 2008-2009 crashes. We immediately saw a decline in emissions, but afterwards it rebounded. We must learn from history.” Approvals of new coal plants in the first quarter of 2020, mainly in China, were running at twice the rate observed over the whole of 2019, he added. Overall energy investment has fallen almost $400bn (£324.3bn) short of what was expected in 2020, and the IEA says there are now serious doubts about secure energy supplies when the global economy picks up, because energy projects take so long to deliver. The report says the decline in investment is “staggering” in its scale and swiftness, mostly due to low demand and low prices for energy, especially oil. Dr Birol said: “The historic plunge in investment is deeply troubling. It means lost jobs and economic opportunities today, as well as lost energy supply that we might well need tomorrow, once the economy recovers. “The slowdown in spending also risks undermining the much-needed transition to more sustainable energy systems.”
5-26-20 'Billions of years of evolutionary history' under threat
Scientists say more than 50 billion years of cumulative evolutionary history could be lost as humans push wildlife to the brink. "Weird and wonderful" animals unlike anything else on Earth are sliding silently toward extinction, they say. And regions home to the greatest amounts of unique biodiversity are facing unprecedented human pressures. They include the Caribbean, Western Ghats of India and large parts of Southeast Asia. The study, published in Nature Communications, highlights priority species for conservation, based on their evolutionary distinctiveness. "These species are weird and wonderful and there is nothing like them on Earth," said Rikki Gumbs of ZSL's EDGE of Existence programme and Imperial College London. He said the analysis reveals "the incomprehensible scale of the losses we face if we don't work harder to save global biodiversity". The researchers calculated the amount of evolutionary history - branches on the tree of life - that are currently threatened with extinction, using extinction risk data for more than 25,000 species. They found a combined 50 billion years of evolutionary heritage, at least, were under threat from human impacts such as urban development, deforestation and road building. Rikki Gumbs said the numbers are very large because species are evolving in parallel; for reptiles alone you get a figure of 13 billion years (about the age of the Universe). He said: "The tree of life is so vast and extinction is so widely spread across the tree of life that when you begin to add up all these numbers you end up with these kinds of incomprehensible figures of more than 50 billion years." Animals at risk include tapirs and pangolins, which have ancient lineages and have changed little over time; and fascinating little-known reptiles, from legless lizards to tiny blind snakes. Many carry out vital functions in the habitats in which they live. For example, tapirs in the Amazon disperse seeds in their droppings that can help regenerate the rainforest. And pangolins, which are specialist eaters of ants and insects, play an essential role in balancing the food web.
5-25-20 Coronavirus: Drivers plan to walk more to keep cleaner air of lockdown - survey
British drivers are ready to change their behaviour to maintain the cleaner air of the lockdown and protect the environment, a survey suggests. Of the 20,000 motorists polled for the AA, half said they would walk more and 40% intended to drive less. Four in five would take some action to reduce their impact on air quality. It comes after researchers warned the dramatic improvements in air quality in recent weeks could be quickly reversed as the coronavirus restrictions ease. As well as walking more and driving less, a quarter of motorists said they planned to work from home more, another quarter said they would be flying less, while one in five plan to cycle more. "We have all enjoyed the benefits of cleaner air during lockdown and it is gratifying that the vast majority of drivers want to do their bit to maintain the cleaner air," said AA president Edmund King. "Walking and cycling more, coupled with less driving and more working from home, could have a significant effect on both reducing congestion and maintaining cleaner air." Meanwhile, the AA is warning drivers in England - now able to drive to destinations for exercise or open-air recreation - against travelling to tourist destinations this Bank Holiday Monday. "Drivers should think about how far they need to travel to enjoy the great outdoors," Mr King said. The UK government has pledged £250m for improvements in cycling and walking infrastructure and many British towns and cities are already making more road space available for pedestrians and those on bikes. It is the first part of a £5bn investment announced in February, the Department for Transport said. But the official advice from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as some people start to go back to work is that people should drive rather than use public transport, when walking or cycling is not a viable option.
5-25-20 Western Australia storm: Ex-cyclone brings widespread damage to coast
Heavy rainfall and destructive winds have caused widespread damage in Western Australia. Ex-Tropical Cyclone Mangga collided with a cold front, resulting in what was described as a "once-in-a-decade" storm.
5-24-20 Western Australia hit by 'once-in-a-decade' storm
Australia's western coast is being battered by a huge storm, which is heading for the main city of Perth. Torrential rains, strong winds and waves of up to eight metres (26ft) are forecast in some areas. The severe weather is the result of the remnants of tropical cyclone Mangga interacting with a cold front, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. A senior official in Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said it would be a "once-in-a-decade" storm. "Normally our storms come from the south west and this will come from the north west," DFES acting assistant commissioner Jon Broomhall told journalists. He added that authorities were "asking people to secure property and make sure everything loose is tied down". A severe weather warning is in place for much of Western Australia. More than 30,000 homes and businesses are without power across the state, ABC News reports. "This is a rare event for WA particularly due to the extent of the area affected and the possibility of multiple areas of dangerous weather," said the Bureau of Meteorology. Wind gusts of up to 130 km/h (75 mph) are expected along the coast, the Bureau of Meteorology said. Some areas could see up to 10cm of rain. The weather system will continue into Monday, according to forecasts.
5-22-20 All five of Earth's largest mass extinctions linked to global warming
The second-most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history may have been triggered by global warming. The discovery means that, for the first time, all of the largest known extinctions can be linked to a rapid rise in the planet’s temperature. “It completes the jigsaw puzzle in many ways,” says Andrew Kerr at Cardiff University, UK. Geologists recognise five points in time when huge numbers of species were wiped out, although recent research suggests at least one of these might have been too slow to be a mass extinction. But the second-most severe of these five extinctions, the late Ordovician event about 445 million years ago, has always seemed different. The others coincided with epic volcanic activity that smothered millions of square kilometres with lava to create what is called a large igneous province. In each case, the volcanic activity triggered global warming that is likely to have contributed to extinction. In contrast, the consensus had been that the late Ordovician extinction was prompted in part by global cooling. David Bond at the University of Hull, UK, thinks it wasn’t so different after all. With his colleague Stephen Grasby at the Geological Survey of Canada, Bond took samples from a site in Scotland where rocks that formed on the late Ordovician sea floor are well-preserved. They found a spike in the level of mercury in rocks that formed just before and during the extinction. “Large volcanic eruptions put anomalously high levels of mercury into the atmosphere,” says Bond. There seems to have been large-scale volcanic activity during this period after all. “It’s a great boon to the mass extinction story, which now links all past mass extinctions to large igneous province volcanism,” says Gerta Keller at Princeton University.
5-22-20 Up to 220 million people globally may be at risk of arsenic-contaminated water
A new map highlights possible hot spots of arsenic contamination in groundwater As many as 220 million people around the world may be at risk of drinking arsenic-contaminated groundwater, a new study finds. Combining climate, environmental and geologic data with machine learning, researchers made a global map, described in the May 22 Science, that predicts where groundwater arsenic concentrations are likeliest to exceed 10 micrograms per liter, a safe drinking water limit set by the World Health Organization. Arsenic is present in trace amounts in many different types of soil and rock. It becomes harmful to people when it leaches out of these soils and into groundwater, which can occur due to a variety of chemical processes. Long-term exposure can lead to skin lesions and cancer. Scientists have previously identified many hot spots of arsenic contamination in groundwater, including regions of Bangladesh, Argentina and Vietnam (SN: 11/20/02; SN: 3/5/15). But data on groundwater arsenic are lacking for many other regions. So environmental scientist Joel Podgorski and hydrologist Michael Berg, both of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dübendorf, set out to create a high-resolution global risk map based on dozens of different environmental factors, from temperature and precipitation to soil age and pH. “In the last 12 years, there’s a lot more data that has become available,” Podgorski says. He and Berg amassed data from almost 80 studies. They then used a machine learning technique called the “random forest” method, which created predictions of arsenic risk at a resolution of one square kilometer, based on different subsets of the data. The researchers then averaged the results of about 10,000 different predictions together to create the final map.
5-22-20 Pollution: Birds 'ingesting hundreds of bits of plastic a day'
Birds living on river banks are ingesting plastic at the rate of hundreds of tiny fragments a day, according to a new study. Scientists say this is the first clear evidence that plastic pollutants in rivers are finding their way into wildlife and moving up the food chain. Pieces of plastic 5mm or smaller (microplastics), including polyester, polypropylene and nylon, are known to pollute rivers. The impacts on wildlife are unclear. Researchers at Cardiff University looked at plastic pollutants found in a bird known as a dipper, which wades or dives into rivers in search of underwater insects. "These iconic birds, the dippers, are ingesting hundreds of pieces of plastic every day," said Prof Steve Ormerod of Cardiff University's Water Research Institute. "They're also feeding this material to their chicks." Previous research has shown that half of the insects in the rivers of south Wales contain microplastic fragments. "The fact that so many river insects are contaminated makes it inevitable that fish, birds and other predators will pick up these polluted prey - but this is the first time that this type of transfer through food webs has been shown clearly in free-living river animals," said co-researcher Dr Joseph D'Souza. The research team examined droppings and regurgitated pellets from dippers living near rivers running from the Brecon Beacons down to the Severn Estuary. They found microplastic fragments in roughly half of 166 samples taken from adults and nestlings, at 14 of 15 sites studied, with the greatest concentrations in urban locations. Most were fibres from textiles or building materials. Calculations suggest dippers are ingesting around 200 tiny fragments of plastic a day from the insects they consume. Previous studies have shown that microplastics are present even in the depths of the ocean and are ending up in the bodies of living organisms, from seals to crabs to seabirds.
5-21-20 Amazon under threat: fires, loggers and now virus
The Amazon rainforest - which plays a vital role in balancing the world's climate and helping fight global warming - is also suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Deforestation jumped 55% in the first four months of 2020 compared with the same period last year, as people have taken advantage of the crisis to carry out illegal clearances. Deforestation, illegal mining, land clearances and wildfires were already at an 11-year high and scientists say we're fast approaching a point of no return - after which the Amazon will no longer function as it should. Here, we look at the pressures pushing the Amazon to the brink and ask what the nine countries that share this unique natural resource are doing to protect it. The largest and most diverse tropical rainforest in the world is home to 33 million people and thousands of species of plants and animals. Since coronavirus spread to Brazil, in March, Amazonas has been the state to register Brazil's highest infection rates - it also has one of the most underfunded health systems in the country. As elsewhere, social distancing and travel restrictions have been imposed to limit the spread of the virus. But many of the field agents working to protect reserves have pulled out, Jonathan Mazower, of Survival International, says, allowing loggers and miners to target these areas. In April, as the number of cases rose and states started adopting isolation measures, deforestation actually increased 64% compared with the same month in 2019, according to preliminary satellite data from space research agency INPE. Last year, an unprecedented number of fires devastated huge swathes of forest in the Amazon. Peak fire season is from July which some experts worry could coincide with the peak of the coronavirus crisis. The Brazilian authorities are deploying troops in the Amazon region to help protect the rainforest, tackle illegal deforestation and forest fires. But critics say that the government’s rhetoric and policies could actually be encouraging loggers and illegal miners.
5-21-20 Population of world’s strangest plant threatened by climate change
Welwitschia is one of the world’s strangest and most resilient plants, living in the exceptionally dry Namib desert, which stretches along the coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. But climate change may push these hardy plants past their limits, suggesting that they should be placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Vaguely reminiscent of a pile of kelp nowhere near the ocean, welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) is unlike anything else on Earth. The plant consists of just two ever-growing leaves. These can grow to more than 4 metres long erupting out of a subterranean stem. These tough leaves split and coil, turning into a dishevelled, sun-baked heap over the plant’s roughly 1000-year-long lifespan. Welwitschia’s botanical weirdness, iconic status in the Namib, and dearth of conservation evaluation caught the attention of Pierluigi Bombi at the Institute of Research on Terrestrial Ecosystems in Italy. Using modelling and plant distribution data, Bombi had previously calculated that climate change could have a serious effect on one of the four remaining subpopulations of welwitschia. This group of plants, located in northern Namibia, is the furthest north – the others are found over larger ranges in western Namibia and southwestern Angola. To help verify this prediction, Bombi and his colleagues conducted a field expedition last year in Namibia. They recorded the location of 1330 plants and gauged their health using a scale based on leaf colour – greener leaves were considered healthy, while reddish or brown leaves were a sign of stress. “Unfortunately, the field evidence confirmed completely our negative expectations,” says Bombi. Based on climate modelling, the team also predicted that the northern Namib desert of 2050 will be as much as 2.5°C hotter than it is today, but with no appreciable change in precipitation, dramatically reducing habitat quality. Given the poor health of the plants growing there today, and the deterioration of their habitat expected in the decades ahead, Bombi and his colleagues argue that welwitschia should be placed on the IUCN Red List.
5-21-20 Covid recovery could 'tip the balance' for nature
Environmental scientists have called for the conservation of nature to be at the centre of the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. With countries still ensnared by the crisis, scientists have urged governments to make plans that "safeguard biodiversity and human health" as they rebuild. The researchers published an open letter in the journal Science. "How we emerge from lockdowns," they say, "will drive a new world economy." This is likely to have lasting effects on global biodiversity, the Australian authors argue. The right long-term plans, from governments and international organisations, could "tip the balance" in favour of nature. There are some striking examples of upheavals that have had unintended benefits for nature. The catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine, and the resulting exclusion zone around the plant, created an unplanned wilderness that has since been designated an ecological reserve. "The Colombia Conflict, for example, created unofficial protected areas," explained Dr Ryan Pearson from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. "This slowed environmental degradation because people were fearful of entering remote areas occupied by rebels." The more recent "post-conflict" increase in deforestation there shows the need for longer-term strategies that can maintain the positive side effects of crises. "There have been many reports of wild animals increasing in numbers and turning up in places they haven't been seen i a long time," Dr Pearson told BBC News. " This carries implications that certain species may be benefiting from the absence of human influence during lockdowns or possibly because of reduced pollution, especially in waterways. "We can't be sure how long such effects will last unless long-term strategies are implemented to encourage them." There is, the scientists say, a concern that the rush to re-stabilise and grow economies may come "at the expense of the environment".
5-20-20 Social distancing: When extreme weather and coronavirus collide
People being displaced by extreme weather events around the world are being forced to break Covid-19 social distancing safety guidelines, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies. “Social distancing is no longer possible when displaced people are in evacuation centres,” Marshal Makavure, emergency operations co-ordinator of IFRC in Eastern Africa told the BBC. “People have been forced to break the Covid-19 protocol and guidelines under such circumstances.” The BBC has spoken with people living in areas affected by extreme weather events. India “My fear is that we will be taken to nearby schools that have already been turned into Covid-19 quarantine shelters. “There are not many centres in our village, and that means we will have to share the space with people [who may have Covid-19] which will be full of risks.” “West Bengal state has been struggling with Covid-19 cases and that is a cause of concern when it comes to cyclone preparedness,” according to Siddarth Srinivas, food and climate policy lead for Oxfam in Asia. “In the past, some states in India have rescued people by sheltering them in schools and public buildings, but this time doing that is not ideal because of the pandemic.” Uganda Relief workers with the Red Cross say thousands of people are now sheltering in churches and schools in flood-hit East Africa with limited access to water and soap. Hundreds have died and tens of thousands have been displaced because of the floods in more than a half a dozen countries. More than 2,700 Covid-19 deaths and nearly 82,000 confirmed cases have been recorded in Africa, according to John Hopkins University. Among the flood affected countries in East Africa, Somalia has the highest death figure of 55, followed by 50 in Kenya and 21 in Tanzania. Pacific islands The worst-hit country, Vanuatu, has extended the state of emergency as more than 92,000 people have been affected, according to Unicef. In Fiji, about 10 evacuation centres are operating because recovery has been very slow and many houses are yet to be rebuilt. “Access to water is still a big challenge as the cyclone has destroyed water supply infrastructures,” said Vani Catanasiga, director of Fiji Council of Social Services. “Without adequate water supply, following Covid-19 hygiene guidelines is very difficult, although the Fijian government has been successful in flattening the Covid-19 infection curve.”
5-20-20 EU plans to plant 3 billion trees and massively expand organic farming
To reverse the loss of wildlife and habitats, a bold new plan by the European Commission (EC) includes planting 3 billion extra trees, dramatically expanding organic farming and fines for missing targets to restore nature. The biodiversity strategy published today calls for 30 per cent of Europe’s land and seas to become a protected area by 2030, up from 26 per cent of land and 11 per cent of seas today, with strict protections for ancient forests in particular. The amount of agricultural land farmed organically must grow from 8 per cent today to a quarter in a decade’s time. Pesticide use should halve by 2030, by which point nearly a third of species must return to a favourable conservation status or be improving. Frans Timmermans, the EC’s vice-president for the European Green Deal, explicitly tied the plan to avoiding future pandemics like the covid-19 crisis – a potential benefit of protecting habitats and limiting human interaction with certain species. “The biodiversity strategy is essential for boosting our resilience and preventing the emergence and spread of future diseases such as zoonoses. Because by destroying nature at an unprecedented rate, and now with around 1 million species at risk of extinction within only decades, we literally threaten our own life, our health and our well-being,” he told a press conference. Conservationists welcomed the plan as positive and strong, with Sabien Leemans at WWF Europe saying the ambition was unlike anything seen under the commission in the past five years. Some of the goals are even more ambitious than before, such as the number of trees being upgraded from talk last year of 2 billion, to 3 billion by 2030. The question is: will the strategy work? Europe has failed in the past on biodiversity plans, such as falling short of a voluntary target to restore at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems by this year.
5-20-20 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.”
5-20-20 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.
5-20-20 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.
5-20-20 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.
5-20-20 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.
5-19-20 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.
5-19-20 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. In the UK, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has pledged £250m for improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure. Other countries are also looking at similar plans. 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. However, now that the UK is beginning to return to work, Mr Shapps said people should drive to work rather than use public transport, should walking or cycling not be an option. "If you can't walk or cycle but you do have access to a car, please use it rather than travelling by bus, train or tram," he said. 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% compared to the previous year, meaning around 17 million tonnes less CO2 were emitted every day. he 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.
5-19-20 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.
5-18-20 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.
5-18-20 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.
5-18-20 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.
5-18-20 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.
5-17-20 Meet the baby orangutans learning to climb trees
While much of the world is in lockdown, youngsters in one very unusual classroom are still having lessons. At a forest school in Borneo, baby orangutans learn tree-climbing skills from their human surrogate parents. The orphans spend 12 hours a day in the forest, preparing for a new life in the wild. The orangutans were filmed and photographed before coronavirus struck, for the TV series Primates, on BBC One. With human contact routinely kept to a minimum, life goes on much as before for the animals, says Dr Signe Preuschoft, leader of ape programmes for the charity Four Paws, which runs the rehabilitation centre in East Kalimantan. As a precaution, the staff now have temperature checks, wear facemasks and change into uniforms on site. The pandemic has disrupted many conservation programmes around the world but Dr Preuschoft says it also offers an opportunity to bring positive change. "There are great opportunities here to protect wildlife better from illegal wildlife trade and from (consumption of) bushmeat," she says. "It's very much about education." The young orphaned apes climb high into the treetops with their caregivers to help them acquire the skills they would have learned from their mothers in the wild. They would otherwise spend more time on the ground than is natural for a species that feeds, lives and sleeps in the canopies of trees. Baby orangutans have a huge advantage when it comes to climbing, as they can hold on "like an octopus", says Dr Preuschoft. "I think the orangutans were really completely thrilled when they realised that they could actually be in a canopy together with one of their moms," she adds. As soon as the rescued orangutans have moved out of quarantine, they spend long hours in the forest in as natural an environment as possible. They are taught essential forest survival skills in a large forested area between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. (Webmaster's comment: All mammal children have to be taught survival skills by their parents. Survival skills are not build in.)
5-15-20 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.
5-15-20 '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.”
5-15-20 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.
5-15-20 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.
5-15-20 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.”
5-15-20 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).
5-14-20 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.
5-14-20 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.
5-14-20 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.
5-14-20 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."
5-14-20 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."
5-13-20 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.
5-13-20 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.
5-13-20 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.
5-13-20 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.
5-13-20 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.”
5-12-20 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.
5-12-20 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
5-12-20 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.
5-11-20 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.
5-11-20 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.
5-9-20 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.”
5-8-20 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.
5-8-20 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.
5-7-20 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.
5-6-20 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.
5-6-20 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.
5-6-20 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.”
5-4-20 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.
5-4-20 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.
5-2-20 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."