1-6-21 Climate change: Alaskan wilderness opens up for oil exploration
The Trump administration is pushing ahead with the first ever sale of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The giant Alaskan wilderness is home to many important species, including polar bears, caribou and wolves. But after decades of dispute, the rights to drill for oil on about 5% of the refuge will go ahead. Opponents have criticised the rushed nature of the sale, coming just days before President Trump's term ends. Covering some 19 million acres (78,000 sq km) the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is often described as America's last great wilderness. It is a critically important location for many species, including polar bears. In the winter months, pregnant bears build dens in which to give birth. As temperatures have risen and sea ice has become thinner, these bears have started building their dens on land. The coastal plain of the ANWR now has the highest concentration of these dens in the state. The refuge is also home to Porcupine caribou, one of the largest herds in the world, numbering around 200,000 animals. In the spring, the herd moves to the coastal plain region of the ANWR as it is their preferred calving ground. The same coastal plain is now the subject of the first ever oil lease sale in the refuge. The push for exploration in the park has been a decades long battle between oil companies supported by the state government and environmental and indigenous opponents. Many of Alaska's political representatives believe that drilling in the refuge could lead to another major oil find, like the one in Prudhoe Bay, just west of the ANWR. Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in North America and supporters believe the ANWR shares the same geology, and potential reserves of crude oil. Oil revenues are critical for Alaska, with every resident getting a cheque for around $1,600 every year from the state's permanent fund. In 2017, the Trump administration's tax cutting bill contained a provision to open up the ANWR coastal plain for drilling. It was seen as a way of offsetting the costs of the tax cuts. The US Bureau of Land Management is now selling the drilling rights to 22 tracts of land covering about one million acres. These oil and gas leases last for 10 years.
1-6-21 Air pollution from chemical plants made Hurricane Harvey worse
Air pollution can make the local effects of hurricanes worse, according to a study of 2017’s devastating Hurricane Harvey. Tiny particles of pollution can boost both heavy rainfall and lightning strikes. Harvey was “one of the biggest hurricanes in the history of the US”, says Renyi Zhang at Texas A&M University in College Station. It struck Texas and Louisiana in August 2017 and caused particularly severe flooding in the city of Houston, Texas. More than 100 people were killed and the storm also gave rise to major economic losses. Even at the time, many scientists argued that the severity of Harvey’s impact was a catastrophe partly of our own making. For example, Houston’s many tall buildings may have funnelled water vapour upwards, making the rainfall and therefore the flooding worse. Zhang and his colleagues now have evidence that another human-made factor was at work: aerosol pollution from the many petrochemical plants and factories surrounding Houston. For rain to fall, water vapour in the air must condense to form droplets of liquid water. “But to form droplets, you need cloud condensation nuclei,” says Zhang. These can be particles of dust or sand, but they can also be aerosol particles released from burning fossil fuels. The team found that the heaviest rainfall occurred in the regions around Houston’s petrochemical plants. Lightning also clustered there: 230,000 lightning strikes occurred over 3 days when the hurricane was stalled over the coastlines of Texas and Louisiana. Zhang and his colleagues used a computer model to simulate Hurricane Harvey’s effects in two scenarios: one with the air pollution, including the aerosols from petrochemical plants, and one without the aerosols. When the air pollution was removed from the simulation, both the flooding and the lightning strikes were reduced and no longer matched the observations. The team estimates that the aerosols doubled both rainfall and lightning in central Houston.
1-4-21 What the pandemic can teach us about ways to reduce air pollution
COVID-19 shutdowns didn’t fix air pollution, but create a natural experiment to study it. The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just a shock to the human immune system. It was also a shock to the Earth system, dramatically changing the air quality in cities around the globe. As countries around the globe struggled to contain the disease, they imposed temporary shutdowns. Scientists are now sifting through data collected by satellite and on the ground to understand what this hiatus in human activities can tell us about the atmospheric cocktail that generates city pollution. Much of this preliminary data was shared at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in December. It was already known that peoples’ activities were curtailed enough to result in a dramatic drop in emissions of greenhouse gases in April, as well as a dip in the seismic noises produced by humans (SN: 5/19/20; SN: 7/23/20). That quiet period didn’t last, though, and carbon dioxide emissions began to climb back upward by the summer. April 2020 saw a drop of about 17 percent in global monthly CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but by year’s end, annual CO2 emissions for the globe were only 7 percent lower than they were in 2019. That reduction was too brief, compared with the hundreds of years that the gas can linger in Earth’s atmosphere, to put a dent in the planet’s atmospheric CO2 level (SN: 8/7/20). But in addition to briefly reducing emissions of climate-warming gases, this abrupt halt in many human activities — particularly commuter traffic — also created an unprecedented experiment for scientists to examine the complicated chemistry of atmospheric pollutants in cities. By altering the usual mix of pollutants hovering over cities, the shutdowns may help scientists better understand another longstanding misery for human health: poor air quality in many cities.
1-4-21 Why I'm feeling hopeful about the environment in 2021
This year, 2021, a number of things are coming together to help achieve a low-carbon future. In 25 years of reporting the environment patch I've never been so convinced that the world has the potential to change. It's about politics: recent bolder climate commitments from the UK, the EU, incoming American President Joe Biden and even China. It's about business: for the first time ever renewable energy investment will exceed that in fossil fuels. And it's about timing: a post-Covid recovery year running up to the global COP26 climate summit in November. But mostly it's about ideas - an eruption of climate change solutions. Applied human intelligence is the vaccine against climate change. I've been exploring 39 inspiring ideas - some already happening, some in development - and meeting the people behind the projects, who each put a big grin on my face. Here are five of the most intriguing:
- Robots driving a new wave of wind power: BladeBUG is a rectangular robot which crawls over turbine blades. Imagine a suitcase that sprouted six legs with suction cup feet. Having humans on site to look after marine turbines is risky and expensive, making up 40% of their overall lifetime cost.
- Climate friendly rice: Growing rice has a similar climate impact to flying - about 2-3% of global warming. Paddy fields are like giant marshlands emitting huge quantities of methane.
- Wood for good: Every seven seconds the sustainable forests of Europe yield enough wood to build a four-person family home. Carbon is absorbed by the growing trunk, locked up in the house and then trees are replanted.
- Graze the Arctic: In deepest Siberia, Nikita Zimov runs Pleistocene Park. Populated by musk-ox, wild horses and bison, it's like Jurassic Park but with a friendlier crowd. He wants to protect the frozen ground from thawing and releasing carbon in rising temperatures, but to achieve that he says something that sounds like heresy: "Here trees worsen climate change".
- Super solar: The International Energy Agency says solar electricity is now being made more cheaply than any other method of production. But solar panels currently only convert around a fifth of the sun's energy that falls on them into electricity.
1-2-21 How to rebuild California forests, with climate in mind
California's 2020 fires were unprecedented — and not just because they covered more than 4 million acres. The Creek Fire, which burned east of Fresno in the western Sierra Nevada, flamed with such frenzy that it produced a cloud resembling an atomic bomb blast, with smoke reaching the stratosphere. That fire and others, like the huge, lightning-sparked North Complex fires in the Sierras north of Sacramento, didn't burn in the usual patchy fashion of wildfires, leaving lightly singed spots mixed with more intensely burned islands. They torched much of the acreage within their boundaries, killing even large trees that would have withstood smaller blazes. The resulting charred landscapes, a consequence of decades of fire suppression policies and a warming climate, may represent a funeral for some forests, which struggle to regenerate on their own after such severe conflagrations. This new regime of ferocious flames threatens to completely change familiar forest ecosystems, tipping towering pine stands into lands dominated by squat scrub species. Forest ecologists warn that this may harm biodiversity, lower the capacity of forests to store carbon, and even threaten water supplies. That's why researchers are working to refine how to restore areas that have been heavily burned. It's why many land managers are rethinking traditional restoration approaches with a view to future-proofing. As regions grow warmer and drier with the changing climate, trees that once thrived at a given site might not be suited for that site in future decades. So ecologists and foresters are turning to clues from the scars of earlier destructive fires to figure out what restoration approaches would work best, and exploring new methods of sourcing seeds. The results may hold broad lessons on how to rebuild forests across the western U.S. so they can withstand a hotter and drier future. Many ecosystems in California and the West are adapted to, and sometimes even require, frequent fires. This includes the conifers of the Sierras, the shrubby chaparral of coastal and inland climes, and the oak savannahs of foothill zones. Historically, both lightning and Native Americans sparked regular blazes. For Indigenous peoples, fire aided in the cultivation and management of the land. Those forest fires mostly burned through dry brush and lower vegetation, helping a diversity of plants to establish, returning nutrients to the soil, and maintaining mountain meadows by preventing pines from encroaching. But today's fires tend to include large patches of fierce crown fires, in which flames engulf the entire forest canopy. These intense fires kill trees across broad areas, and the scorched expanses are too large for nearby surviving trees to reseed. As with apples, the cone does not fall far from the pine: Among foresters, the general rule is that seeds can move a maximum distance that's twice the height of the mother tree. "The seeds of the conifer trees are too heavy to disperse out into that area," says Matthew Hurteau, a forest ecologist at the University of New Mexico. "And then the other thing is, when you burn off all the tree cover, it gets a hell of a lot hotter and drier in that environment." That means the seeds that do sprout may have trouble surviving.
1-2-21 Five ways to reduce your carbon footprint
We need to drastically cut our carbon emissions to reduce the harmful impacts of climate change. Global leaders have set targets to reach net zero emissions by the second half of this century. That means putting the same amount of greenhouse gases into the air as we take out.
1-1-21 Why 2021 could be turning point for tackling climate change
Countries only have only a limited time in which to act if the world is to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Here are five reasons why 2021 could be a crucial year in the fight against global warming. Covid-19 was the big issue of 2020, there is no question about that. But I'm hoping that, by the end of 2021, the vaccines will have kicked in and we'll be talking more about climate than the coronavirus. 2021 will certainly be a crunch year for tackling climate change. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, told me he thinks it is a "make or break" moment for the issue. So, in the spirit of New Year's optimism, here's why I believe 2021 could confound the doomsters and see a breakthrough in global ambition on climate.
- The crucial climate conference: In November 2021, world leaders will be gathering in Glasgow for the successor to the landmark Paris meeting of 2015. Paris was important because it was the first time virtually all the nations of the world came together to agree they all needed to help tackle the issue. The problem was the commitments countries made to cutting carbon emissions back then fell way short of the targets set by the conference.
- Countries are already signing up to deep carbon cuts: And there has already been progress. The most important announcement on climate change last year came completely out of the blue. At the UN General Assembly in September, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, announced that China aimed to go carbon neutral by 2060.
- Renewables are now the cheapest energy ever: There is a good reason why so many countries are now saying they plan to go net zero: the collapsing cost of renewables is completely changing the calculus of decarbonisation. In October 2020, the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation, concluded that the best solar power schemes now offer "the cheapest source of electricity in history". Renewables are already often cheaper than fossil fuel power in much of the world when it comes to building new power stations.
- Covid changes everything: The coronavirus pandemic has shaken our sense of invulnerability and reminded us that it is possible for our world to be upended in ways we cannot control. It has also delivered the most significant economic shock since the Great Depression. In response, governments are stepping forward with stimulus packages designed to reboot their economies.
- Business is going green too: The falling cost of renewable and the growing public pressure for action on climate is also transforming attitudes in business. There are sound financial reasons for this. Why invest in new oil wells or coal power stations that will become obsolete before they can repay themselves over their 20-30-year life? Indeed, why carry carbon risk in their portfolios at all?
12-31-20 Adult fish sizes have shrunk over 50 years of sea temperature rises
Fish are growing smaller as sea temperatures rise, with adults now reaching a smaller maximum size than in 1970. Idongesit Ikpewe at the University of Aberdeen in the UK and his colleagues have found that warmer seas are linked to changes in fish size. Their analysis looked at trends in four commercially fished species – of cod, haddock, whiting and saithe – in the North Sea and in waters west of Scotland. The researchers examined existing data for the fish between 1970 and 2017, looking specifically at the average length-at-age – a measure of the mean length of a species for each year between one and seven. The four species are demersal fish, meaning that they spend most of their time near the sea floor, so the team compared the length-at-age data with annual water temperatures at the seabed in the two areas over the four decades, and found that adult length was inversely correlated with temperature. Only adult cod off the west of Scotland didn’t reduce in size – all other species in both areas showed length-at-age declines. The team also found that the mean length-at-age of juvenile fish – those aged younger than four years – had increased and was correlated with rising temperature. Previous laboratory studies have found that ectotherms – animals, including fish, that rely on heat from their environments – develop faster at warmer temperatures and reach smaller maximum body sizes, a phenomenon known as the temperature-size rule, so the findings are in line with expectations. “When the temperature increases, the metabolic rates of the species seem to increase,” says Ikpewe. The increase in metabolic rate means younger fish grow faster and reach maturity earlier. Most of their energy is then channelled from growth into reproduction.
12-31-20 New Year Honours 2021: 'Green' economist recognised
The work of a number of the UK's leading scientists has been recognised in this year's New Year Honours. Prof Dieter Helm, chairman of the government's advisory Natural Capital Committee, has received a knighthood. Marcus Agius, former chairman of the board of trustees at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, becomes a CBE. Meanwhile, Dr Hermione Cockburn, scientific director of Dynamic Earth, is appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire). Prof Helm received his knighthood in recognition for his services to "the environment, to energy and utilities policy". "The recognition of a lifetime of work on public policy is a great honour," Sir Dieter told BBC News. "Over the last decade I have being working on the 25-year environment plan, which is now being integrated into the Environmental Bill going through Parliament. "I also wrote the Cost of Energy Review, which is now being reflected in the Energy White Paper. "These are examples of the intersection between academic research, government and business, which is not only the area that interests me most, but where there is a chance to make things happen." Prof Helm is a fellow at New College, University of Oxford, as well as being the chairman of the government's independent advisory body on natural capital, a term for natural assets such as forests and rivers, from 2012 to 2020. As the head of the Natural Capital Committee, he praised the government for establishing its 25-year environment plan and its aspiration of being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited. However, he was critical that the government's deeds did not match its words.
12-30-20 As the pandemic fades, the climate crisis must take centre stage again
We're all hoping 2021 will see the end of the pandemic. How we reboot the world after covid-19 will help shape our fate as an even bigger emergency looms – dangerous climate change. IT MAY be a new year, but the same old question lingers: when will life get back to normal? This dominates the opening pages of our preview of 2021 (see “2021 preview: How soon will a covid-19 vaccine return life to normal?”). A better question, though, is what kind of normal should we be striving for now? Because, as any climate scientist will tell you, the old one was doing us few favours in the long term. This is the focus of another part of our preview. It is understandable and right that governments are taking steps to get economies back on their feet, as mass vaccination programmes get going, hopefully marking the beginning of the end of the pandemic. What is key now is what kind of recovery politicians opt for, because this is what is going to decide our collective climate future. The UN estimates a truly green recovery worldwide – one in which renewable energy and electric cars are turbocharged – could shave 25 per cent off pre-covid expectations for global emissions in 2030. Researchers have estimated a green stimulus could avoid 0.3°C of warming by 2050, a huge number in climate change terms. The pandemic could, in its way, help here. The disaster has shown the importance of following the science. It has also spurred a public thirst for more scientific information. In July, a landmark report from the UN climate science panel, the IPCC, will set out the very latest understanding of climate change science. Let us hope that the world listens and follows that science. That means, collectively, countries halving emissions by 2030, and cutting them to net zero by mid-century. Failure to do this could lead to a new normal that none of us wants – a climate crisis that completely dwarfs covid-19.
12-30-20 2021 preview: We will find out if microplastics are harming our cells
DESPITE mounting evidence that we eat, drink and breathe microplastics, it still isn’t clear whether these tiny particles get absorbed into our organs, tissues and cells and affect our health. In 2021, we will finally discover whether microplastic particles make it into our blood – the gateway to our organs and tissues – and, crucially, if they can infiltrate our cells. “We’re very, very close,” says Juliette Legler at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Legler is involved in two of four new research projects being funded by the European Commission that are investigating the impact of microplastics on human health. “I expect breakthroughs in the coming year for sure,” she says. Before we can understand how microplastics might affect health, we have to detect them in the first place. Most studies of microplastics have focused on particles in the micrometre range because these are easiest to find in experiments, says Legler. “But it’s very clear that the smaller the plastic particle is, the easier it is to be taken into the cell and the greater the chance that there may be an adverse effect.” In particular, nano-sized particles may be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, one of the body’s key defences, says Dick Vethaak at Deltares, a research institute inDelft, the Netherlands. “We learned from decades of air pollution exposure that particle size can be one of the contributing factors to understanding the toxicity of air pollution, and I think – you know, this is my opinion and I don’t have any evidence backing this up – but I think size is also going to bean important consideration for the microplastic particles as well,” says DouglasWalker at the Icahn School ofMedicine at Mount Sinai, New York. Legler, Vethaak and Walker believe that advances in analytical chemistry and microscopy will give us the ability to detect these much tinier plastic particles in humans. In August last year, researchers at Arizona State University developed a method to detect and quantify both microplastic and nanoplastic fragments inhuman tissues and organs. With new techniques like this, we can expect to see a flurry of results in the coming months.
12-30-20 The best science long reads of 2020
It was a year when scientists tried to solve the mystery of rogue orcas attacking boats and the pandemic shed light on our increasingly strained relationship with nature. If you want to delve deeper into some of the big science and environment stories of the year, here's a selection of this year's long reads. How Joe Biden plans to tackle climate change. By Matt McGrath: Joe Biden's plan to tackle climate change has been described as the most ambitious of any mainstream US presidential candidate yet. Matt McGrath considers what he wants to do, and how he might get it done. Why summers could become too hot for humans. By David Shukman: Global warming will increase the chances of summer conditions that may be "too hot for humans" to work in, experts say. These conditions could expose millions of people to dangerous levels of heat stress - a dangerous condition which can cause organs to shut down. Five charts about the biggest carbon crash. By Matt McGrath: No war, recession, or 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. Matt McGrath examined the massive impact on our environment caused by the Covid crisis, and explained why it's also likely to have little effect on long-term patterns. Could the coronavirus crisis spur a green recovery? By Roger Harrabin: 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? Has the world started to take climate change fight seriously? By Justin Rowlatt: A surprise announcement at this year's UN General Assembly had a transformative effect on the politics of cutting carbon, says Justin Rowlatt. He examined whether it might just signal the beginning of a global rush to decarbonise.
12-29-20 Green body gives verdict on Boris Johnson carbon-cutting policies
The prime minister's bold promises to protect the climate are not yet backed by policies and cash, says an end-of-year report by a think tank, Green Alliance. It says there's a "significant gap" between Boris Johnson's world-leading plans and what's needed to meet the UK's carbon-cutting targets. The government admits that low-carbon policies are a work in progress - but insists they will be published in coming months. Green Alliance says current government plans add up to less than a quarter of the emissions cuts needed to achieve its 2030 climate goal. Its report estimates that £22.7bn of additional spending will be needed to tackle the climate and nature challenge. This annual sum includes: £9bn on accelerating the transition to electric vehicles, and on walking, cycling, bus and rail infrastructure, £2.3bn on making buildings efficient and kickstarting the roll-out of electric heat pumps, £400m on establishing a resource efficiency programme for industry, £6.6bn on nature restoration and the food and farming sector. The authors say: "During 2020 there have been many signals of intention to act on climate and nature. "But policy and spending has fallen short of what's needed to achieve these aims. There's an immediate spending shortfall in meeting the UK's climate and nature goals to the end of this parliament in 2024." The authors note that the UK has the chance to lead the world on climate policies at the vital global climate conference hosted by Glasgow next year. But they say: "The UK can only lead if it has its own house in order." A government spokesperson didn't deny the gaps in policy and funding but insisted that forthcoming strategies would show how carbon emissions would be reduced in every economic sector. "Building on the prime minister's ambitious ten point plan, the recently published energy White Paper provides concrete measures to fully decarbonise our electricity system by 2050 and build back better, while ensuring reliable and affordable energy for consumers. "This is part of a suite of bold plans across key sectors of the economy which the government will be publishing in the run up to COP26 (the Glasgow conference), culminating with a comprehensive net zero strategy." Net zero means that any emissions not cut by 2050 will be offset by activities such as tree planting to soak up the remaining CO2.
12-28-20 Climate change: Extreme weather causes huge losses in 2020
The world continued to pay a very high price for extreme weather in 2020, according to a report from the charity Christian Aid. Against a backdrop of climate change, its study lists 10 events that saw thousands of lives lost and major insurance costs. Six of the events took place in Asia, with floods in China and India causing damages of more than $40bn. In the US, record hurricanes and wildfires caused some $60bn in losses. While the world has been struggling to get to grips with the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people have also had to cope with the impacts of extreme weather events. Christian Aid's list of ten storms, floods and fires all cost at least $1.5bn - with nine of the 10 costing at least $5bn. An unusually rainy monsoon season was associated with some of the most damaging storms in Asia, where some of the biggest losses were. Over a period of months, heavy flooding in India saw more than 2,000 deaths with millions of people displaced from their homes. The value of the insured losses is estimated at $10bn. China suffered even greater financial damage from flooding, running to around $32bn between June and October this year. The loss of life from these events was much smaller than in India. While these were slow-moving disasters, some events did enormous damage in a short period of time. Cyclone Amphan struck the Bay of Bengal in May and caused losses estimated at $13bn in just a few days. "We saw record temperatures in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, straddling between 30C-33C," said Dr Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. "These high temperatures had the characteristics of marine heat waves that might have led to the rapid intensification of the pre-monsoon cyclones Amphan and Nisarga," he said in a comment on the Christian Aid study. "Amphan was one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal during the pre-monsoon season." Africa was also on the receiving end of extreme events, with massive locust swarms ruining crops and vegetation to the tune of $8.5bn.
12-28-20 2021 preview: A crucial year for action on climate change
LAST year was meant to be a blockbuster for action on the climate crisis. But the unexpected covid-19 pandemic upended climate choreography, postponing the major UN summit COP26 and forcing striking students off the streets. There are good reasons to think 2021 will be different. Global carbon dioxide emissions fell an unprecedented 7 per cent in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions, making a rebound in 2021 very likely, says Corinne Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia in the UK. “What is more difficult to say is what the size of the rebound will be in 2021, whether it will come back to 2019 levels, or perhaps even higher,” says Le Quéré, who serves as an adviser to the UK andFrench governments. She expects the transport sector, which saw the steepest drops in emissions in 2020, will continue to be impacted this year as covid-19 restrictions remain for a time. “It’s a lot less certain what will happen to the rest of the economy,” she says. What happens to emissions hinges largely on the colour of governments’ stimulus packages as the pandemic recedes, be they green, with investments in renewable energy, or brown with money ploughed into fossil fuel projects. Le Quéré says green recovery plans could make a dentin 2021 emissions, such as policies encouraging more walking and cycling, but many environmental pay-offs from such plans will take longer to be noticeable, such as investments to support electric cars. However, just 1 per cent of the stimulus announced worldwide is green so far, according to an analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “What we’re actually seeing is largely brown recovery programmes. That needs to change,” says Peter Betts at UK think tank Chatham House and the UK’s top climate negotiator until 2018. If a recovery plan that prioritised lower carbon emissions did come to pass, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) recently estimated it could cut the emissions we would see in 2030 by a whopping 25 per cent, compared with what they would be if we continue on our current track.
12-28-20 Félix Vásquez: Honduran environmental activist killed
An environmental activist has been shot dead by masked gunmen in Honduras. Félix Vásquez, a member of the Lenca indigenous community and an advocate for rural workers' rights, was killed in front of his family. It is not yet clear why Vásquez was attacked. He had recently said he would run for the left-wing Libre party in next year's parliamentary election. The killing comes four years after an award-winning environmentalist from the same indigenous group was murdered. Honduran police said a number masked gunmen stormed into Mr Vásquez's home in Santiago de Puringla. Local media spoke of four assailants but there has been no official confirmation of that number. Police said they had made no arrests so far and were still investigating the possible motive behind the attack. Mr Vásquez was a leader in a group fighting for the rights of rural workers. He also campaigned to protect lands in natural reserves. According to a report by non-governmental organisation Global Witness, Honduras has the highest number of environmentalists killed per capita in the world. Global Witness says at least 14 environmental defenders were killed in the Central American country in 2019, up from four in 2018. The dangers environmentalists face in Honduras came to international attention when Berta Cáceres, the winner of the Goldman environmental prize, was killed in 2016. She was shot dead by gunmen who broke into her home, in an attack similar to that on Mr Vásquez. Seven men were sentenced over her murder last year but activists say those who ordered her killing are still at large. Ms Cáceres's daughter, Olivia Marcela Zúniga Cáceres, condemned the killing of Félix Vásquez, which she said was "undoubtedly linked to his activism".
12-27-20 The science stories that defined 2020: coronavirus, diversity movements and more
To say that 2020 was challenging is an understatement. A world laid low by a pandemic. Racial inequities laid bare through social protests. Regions laid waste in the wake of extreme natural disasters. Yet science often rose to tackle these challenges. We started the year knowing next to nothing about the novel coronavirus. Huge questions remain, but thanks in part to extraordinary efforts to develop vaccines that appear effective, we enter 2021 with glimmers of hope. Hope is also emerging from a gut-wrenching reckoning with racial inequities, sparked by police killings of unarmed Black men and women in the United States. Through #BlackInSTEM and similar social movements, scientists are using their voices to shine light on a lack of diversity in their fields and to drive change. It is harder to find any positive angles to 2020’s record-breaking fires, hurricanes and extreme Arctic heat. Yet science played a role here, too, helping us see the connections between our actions and our changing world. In this year-end issue, we at Science News also felt the need to spark some joy and spotlight the thrill of discovery, whether it’s finding the edge of the Milky Way or the fossil of the oldest known modern bird, delightfully dubbed “Wonderchicken”. — Macon Morehouse, News DirectorDescription
12-27-20 Coronavirus: What has Covid done for climate crisis?
When Covid-19 sparked lockdowns around the world, emissions of one of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, atmospheric carbon dioxide, plummeted. But is this record drop a short-term effect of the 2020 pandemic or a 'new normal'? BBC Weather's Ben Rich explores the impact of coronavirus on the global climate.
12-27-20 Is Singapore's approval of lab-grown meat a win for the climate?
The global market for meat alternatives, which includes cultured and imitation meats, is currently at about $14 billion. But environmentalists doubt some of the claimed benefits. Something new is on the menu at 1880, a members-only club in downtown Singapore. The restaurant is the first in the world to sell to the public cultured meat, also known as lab-grown meat — developed in a lab and grown in a facility without having to raise or slaughter a live animal. The cultured meat industry enjoyed a global first earlier this month when a San Francisco-based start-up won regulatory approval to sell its cultured chicken in Singapore, making the Southeast Asian city-state the first nation in the world to approve this meat alternative. "They had a really rigorous and thoughtful regulatory process," said Josh Tetrick, co-founder of Eat Just, the company that produced the meat. "Singapore decided to get way out in front of everyone." Cultured meat is made by taking stem cells from the muscle of a live animal and growing them in a nutrient-rich brew, which contains amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and salts — all from non-animal sources. Eat Just and other companies are working their way through regulatory processes around the world. In the last 10 years, dozens of start-ups have been working to bring a product to the public, marketing the idea that such meat alternatives are more ethical and environmentally friendly than regular meat products. "It's a way of eating meat without killing an animal, without tearing down a single tree, without using a single drop of antibiotics, without negatively impacting biodiversity, without accelerating zoonotic disease," said Tetrick. "So, you get the good stuff about meat, without the bad." But the question of whether cultured meat could move the dial on climate change is not settled science. Right now, about 15 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. More than half of those emissions come from cattle production, largely from widespread deforestation carried out to grow feed, as well as methane emissions from fermentation processes happening within cows themselves that are released as burps. Cultured meats have been framed as a green alternative, but experts wonder if they are truly going to help stem climate change. Recent research by Hanna Tuomisto, associate professor in sustainable food systems at the University of Helsinki, has shown that for some types of animal protein, cultured meat is significantly better for the climate. For beef, which has the highest carbon footprint, cultured meat per-unit of protein has the potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent compared to regular beef. Similarly, cultured lamb could have far fewer emissions than lamb from the farm. At the same time, Tuomisto found that cultured pork and poultry meat have nearly the same greenhouse gas emissions as eating their animal equivalents. While for some sources of protein, cultured meat has a significantly lower carbon footprint, it's important to note that the facilities that produce the stuff use a lot of energy, said Tuomisto. Where that energy comes from will impact their climate scorecard. "Electricity consumption required for producing the cultured meat itself, energy consumption is quite high," said Tuomisto, "So, if renewable energy or low emission energy sources are used, then the climate impact of cultured meat can be substantially lower compared to conventionally produced meat."
12-24-20 Plastic drinking water pipes exposed to high heat can leak hazardous chemicals
Lab tests may help explain high levels of benzene in water after recent California wildfires. In August, a massive wildfire tore through the San Lorenzo Valley north of Santa Cruz, Calif., destroying almost 1,500 structures and exposing many others to extreme heat. Before the fire was even out, lab tests revealed benzene levels as high as 9.1 parts per billion in residential water samples — nine times higher than the state’s maximum safety level. This isn’t the first time the carcinogen has followed wildfires: California water managers found unsafe levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in Santa Rosa after the Tubbs Fire in 2017, and in Paradise after the Camp Fire in 2018. Scientists suspected that, among other possibilities, plastic drinking water pipes exposed to extreme heat released the chemicals (SN: 11/13/20). Now, lab experiments show that’s possible. Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and colleagues subjected commonly available pipes to temperatures from 200° Celsius to 400° C. Those temperatures, hot enough to damage but not destroy pipes, can occur as heat radiates from nearby flames, Whelton says. When the researchers then submerged the pipes in water and cooled them, varying amounts of benzene and VOCs — more than 100 chemicals in some tests — leached from 10 of the 11 types of pipe into the water, the team reports December 14 in Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology. “Some contamination for the past fires likely originated from thermally damaged plastics,” says Whelton. It’s impossible to do experiments in the midst of a raging fire to pinpoint the exact source of the contamination, he says, but inspecting damaged pipes after the fact can suggest what temperatures they may have experienced.
12-23-20 Giant Antarctic iceberg A68a is not done yet
It might have suffered a big break-up this week, but the iceberg A68a is still carrying substantial bulk. The latest satellite analysis indicates this Antarctic colossus maintains a thickness that could yet see it catch in the waters surrounding the South Atlantic island of South Georgia. If that happens, then worries about the effects the berg could have on the territory's wildlife will resurface. Penguins and seals might be obstructed as they forage for fish and krill. And these predators need to feed not only themselves, but their young as well. South Georgia is entering peak breeding season. The Royal Air Force flew another sortie over A68a on Monday to assess the situation. This page features video and stills from this reconnaissance mission. The military flight occurred just after a new chunk, A68d, broke from the main block - but before the major fragmentation event on Tuesday. This saw A68a split into three substantial segments. What had looked like "a pointing hand" snapped its "index finger and knuckles". The breakages occurred along predictable lines of weakness that have been evident ever since the berg fist calved from Antarctica in 2017. Staff at the Nerc Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at the University of Leeds, UK, have examined A68a's changing shape over its three-and-a-half-year history. They've used four separate satellite systems to examine not just the evolving area of the frozen block but its thickness, too. The area was tracked using Europe's Sentinel-1 satellite and America's Modis imager. What started as a behemoth measuring 5,664 sq km (that's roughly a quarter of the area of Wales) is now down to just 2,606 sq km (about the size of the English county of Durham). Profiles of the iceberg's height above the surface of the ocean have also been recorded by Europe's CryoSat-2 and America's IceSat-2 spacecraft. Knowing a berg's freeboard enables scientists to calculate its draught - that hidden part below the waterline.
12-23-20 Giant iceberg A68a shatters into large fragments
The giant iceberg that's been drifting through the South Atlantic looks to have experienced a major break-up. Tuesday's latest satellite imagery reveals major fissures in the tabular berg known as A68a, with huge blocks of ice starting to separate and move away from each other. A68a, which calved from Antarctica in 2017, has been floating off the coast of South Georgia island. Experts have been watching to see if it might ground in shallow water. Were that to happen - and parts of the berg still could - it might cause problems for the British Overseas Territory's penguins and seals as they go about foraging for fish and krill. The image at the top of this page comes from the EU's Sentinel-1 radar spacecraft. It was acquired at 07:17 GMT on Tuesday. Although cracks were very pronounced on Monday, they hadn't by that stage cut right through A68a. "Nearly three-and-a-half years since it calved away from Larsen C Ice Shelf, Iceberg A68a - the fourth largest on record - is finally beginning to disintegrate," observed Adrian Luckman from Swansea University, UK. "As well as being one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, A68 must also be one of the most watched. "With such a massive recent growth in the volume of satellite data and a huge improvement in the speed at which it can be made available, this capability has been put to good use in monitoring this huge iceberg on its journey from birth to destruction," he told BBC News. The US National Ice Center operates the naming system for icebergs. The bergs get given a prefix letter depending on which quadrant of the Antarctic they calve from, plus a number to designate their position in the sequence of big breakaways. Fragmentations then earn a suffix letter. Just last week, a big piece broke from A68a and this was called A68d. You can see "d" trailing behind the main berg in another Sentinel-1 image from Monday processed by Pierre Markuse. Two of the largest fragments identified by Sentinel-1 on Tuesday have already been named A68e and A68f.
12-23-20 A new iron-based catalyst converts carbon dioxide into jet fuel
Such technology could one day cut greenhouse gas emissions from air travel. Today, airplanes pump a lot of climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But someday, carbon dioxide sucked from the atmosphere could be used to power airplanes. A new iron-based catalyst converts carbon dioxide into jet fuel, researchers report online December 22 in Nature Communications. Unlike cars, planes can’t carry batteries big enough to run on electricity from wind or solar power. But if CO2, rather than oil, were used to make jet fuel, that could reduce the air travel industry’s carbon footprint — which currently makes up 12 percent of all transportation-related CO2 emissions. Past attempts to convert carbon dioxide into fuel have relied on catalysts made of relatively expensive materials, like cobalt, and required multiple chemical processing steps. The new catalyst powder is made of inexpensive ingredients, including iron, and transforms CO2 in a single step. When placed in a reaction chamber with carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, the catalyst helps carbon from the CO2 molecules separate from oxygen and link up with hydrogen — forming the hydrocarbon molecules that make up jet fuel. The leftover oxygen atoms from the CO2 join up with other hydrogen atoms to form water. Tiancun Xiao, a chemist at the University of Oxford, and colleagues tested their new catalyst on carbon dioxide in a small reaction chamber set to 300° Celsius and pressurized to about 10 times the air pressure at sea level. Over 20 hours, the catalyst converted 38 percent of the carbon dioxide in the chamber into new chemical products. About 48 percent of those products were jet fuel hydrocarbons. Other by-products included similar petrochemicals, such as ethylene and propylene, which can be used to make plastics.
12-22-20 Clearing land to feed a growing human population will threaten thousands of species
The world’s farmland is projected to grow by 3.4 million square kilometers by 2050. Humankind’s growing need for food is running up against thousands of other species’ need for space. By 2050, humans may need to clear an additional 3.35 million square kilometers of land for agriculture. Converting these largely natural habitats, collectively about the size of India, would squeeze more than 17,000 vertebrate species from some of their lands, researchers report December 21 in Nature Sustainability. But changing how, where and what food is grown can minimize the impacts, says conservation scientist David Williams of the University of Leeds in England. “We can feed the planet without screwing it up too badly.” To figure out how, Williams and colleagues first identified habitats most likely to be cleared for cropland. The team then calculated the amount of food needed to sustain projected human population growth for 152 countries and mapped where crops would likely be grown in each, based in part on past land use changes. By 2050, the world’s 13 million square kilometers of cropland would need to increase by 26 percent, the team found. That growth is largely concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia. The researchers then overlaid these estimates on distribution maps of nearly 20,000 species of birds, amphibians and mammals. While almost all of these species would lose some habitat, the team estimates that 1,280 species would lose at least 25 percent of their ranges, and 96 species would lose at least 75 percent. Overhauling the global food system could nearly erase these biodiversity losses, the team says. Among the changes: improve crop yields, transition to more plant-based diets, halve food loss and waste and increase food imports for countries where agricultural expansion threatens the most species. Implementing all four tactics would actually shrink the world’s cropland area by 3.4 million square kilometers by midcentury and result in just 33 species losing more than a quarter of their natural range, the team found.
12-21-20 Wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes broke all kinds of records in 2020
2020 was a year of unremitting extreme climate events, from heat waves to wildfires to hurricanes, many of which scientists have directly linked to human-caused climate change (SN: 8/27/20). Each event has taken a huge toll in lives lost and damages incurred. As of early October, the United States alone had weathered at least 16 climate- or weather-related disasters each costing more than $1 billion. The price tags of the late-season hurricanes Delta, Zeta and Eta could push the final 2020 tally of such expensive disasters even higher, setting a new record. With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news, some of these events may have already faded into memory. Here, Science News takes a look at this year of climate extremes. Australia’s ‘black summer’. The bushfires that burned southeastern Australia between July 2019 and March 2020 scorched roughly 11 million hectares and killed dozens of people. Climate change made those devastating fires at least 30 percent more likely to occur, researchers reported (SN: 3/4/20). The primary reason: a prolonged and severe heat wave that baked the country in 2019 and 2020, which itself was exacerbated by climate change. The West on fire. Record-setting wildfires in the U.S. West also produced heartbreaking images: raging blazes, orange skies, destroyed homes, neighborhoods enveloped in acrid smoke (SN: 9/18/20). By mid-November, more than 9,200 fires in California had burned about 1.7 million hectares — more than double the acreage burned in 2018, the state’s previous record fire year. Meanwhile, Colorado battled three of the largest wildfires in the state’s history. Combined, those fires burned more than 219,000 hectares. Siberian meltdown. Such heat in Siberia — with temperatures as high as 38° Celsius (about 100° Fahrenheit) — would have been impossible without climate change (SN: 7/15/20). Human influence made the heat wave at least 600 times as likely — and possibly as much as 99,000 times as likely, scientists reported. Moreover, the carbon dioxide churned into the atmosphere by this year’s Arctic wildfires also smashed the previous record for the region, set in 2019 (SN: 8/2/19). That CO2 can beget further warming, and the fires can also speed up permafrost thaw, which could add more of another greenhouse gas, methane, to the atmosphere. Supercharged hurricanes. As early as April, scientists predicted that the Atlantic hurricane season, which lasts from June 1 through November 30, would be busy, with about 18 named storms, compared with an average of 12 (SN: 4/16/20). By August, scientists upped their predictions to as many as 25 (SN: 8/7/20). But 2020 surpassed those expectations too: By mid-November, there were 30 named storms, eclipsing a record set in 2005 (SN: 11/10/20).
12-20-20 Joe Biden says 'no time to waste' as climate team unveiled
US President-elect Joe Biden has introduced his climate and energy team, saying they will lead an "ambitious plan" to combat climate change. Mr Biden has vowed to make the issue a top priority in an agenda that reverses many Trump administration policies. He said there was "no time to waste". If confirmed by the Senate, the team will include the first black man to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the first Native American cabinet member. Mr Biden, who is set to be inaugurated on 20 January, has pledged to build a diverse administration that reflects the US. "We're in a crisis," he said. "Just like we need to be a unified nation to respond to Covid-19, we need a unified national response to climate change." Mr Biden has pledged to break away from climate policy under the Trump administration. He says he will re-join the Paris climate agreement immediately upon taking office and "put America back in the business of leading the world on climate change". Under President Donald Trump, the US this year became the first country to formally withdraw from the Paris agreement, which commits countries to working to limit the global temperature rise. Mr Biden described his picks for his new climate and energy team as "brilliant, qualified and tested, and barrier-busting". Nominees include North Carolina's top environmental regulator Michael Regan, who would be the first African-American man to head the EPA, and New Mexico representative Deb Haaland who would be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior. Ms Haaland hailed her nomination as a "profound" moment in the history of the country. Environmental lawyer and Obama administration official Brenda Mallory was nominated to run the Council on Environmental Quality. If confirmed, she would be the first African American to hold the position. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was nominated for the position of energy secretary. Last month Mr Biden named John Kerry, a former secretary of state and one of the leading architects of the Paris agreement, as his climate envoy.
12-20-20 Denmark will phase out oil and gas by 2050. Here's how.
The Danish parliament voted this month to stop issuing new leases for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and to end oil production by 2050, making Denmark the first major-oil producing country in the world to decide to phase out production. Denmark is the European Union's largest oil producer and has been extracting oil and gas from the North Sea since the early 1970s. Its fossil fuel industry has historically been a large part of the funding of the country's generous welfare state. Denmark's climate minister, Dan Jørgensen, told The World's host Carol Hills the country plans to invest heavily in wind energy to help make up for the lost revenue and jobs. Dan Jørgensen: Well, it's a very big decision for us in Denmark. For decades, we have made a lot of money on oil and gas, and it's been an important part of the funding of our welfare state. But we feel that we need to take this decision because climate change is here and we need to do whatever we can to fight it. And for us to argue with a credible voice that we are actually leaders in the fight against climate change, we needed to take this decision. Yeah, we need a new strategy now for how we will make a living in the future. Fortunately, we are already underway. We are in a situation now where renewables, especially wind and offshore wind, is already a much bigger sector than the oil sector. So we plan to keep expanding our renewables sector and we have plans to really ambitiously grow our offshore wind, for instance. So we hope to make up not only for the lost revenue, but also to create the jobs that will be lost in the oil sector. It's obvious that not all companies in the oil sector and gas sector were happy about this, obviously. There's also been political forces saying that as long as there's oil down there, we should pull it out of the ground and make money on it. But all in all, I'm happy to say that we have broad support for this. And I think one of the reasons for that is that we are doing this in a just way. We want this to be a just transition, meaning that we really focus on creating jobs for the people that will lose their jobs. We focus on having a plan for economic development that makes this also, economically, a viable solution. It's a great question, because very often in the debate about green transformation in general in Europe, people forget that, OK, yes, as a whole, the green transformation will give you more jobs than and you'll lose, but it's very important for us that we find the right jobs for the people that will lose their job. First of all, this is not something that we're going to do from one day to the next. Second important point is that we allocate funding to training a worker from somebody who works in offshore oil to offshore wind for instance. The investments that we talked about earlier that we've made and will be making in offshore wind are quite substantial. If we were to stop oil production tomorrow, for instance, as some activists have argued that we should, it would fundamentally change our entire society. We would no longer be able to fund our welfare state. Hospitals, schools, roads, education system, all of these things would have to go through severe savings. So that, in my opinion, wouldn't really make us a front runner. I don't think many countries would then look at us and say, "Listen, that's a very good example, let's follow that."
12-19-20 Sir David Attenborough on Joe Biden, Christmas wrapping... and flamingos
Like many of us, Sir David Attenborough has had to adapt to new ways of working since the coronavirus pandemic took hold this spring. For his latest series, the 93-year-old - who has been shielding - had to record some of his voiceovers from his home in south-west London. "I'm very lucky, I don't have a huge garden... I live in suburban Richmond-upon-Thames but I have a reasonable-sized garden and it has a pond. I've lived here about 60 years." But anyone tuning into BBC One's Perfect Planet will feel as far away from London as it is possible to be. The five-part series transports viewers to numerous parts of the world including the tidal islands of the Bahamas, Kamchatka in Russia and the Galapagos Islands. Not particularly unusual for a Sir David documentary, you might think. But this time, the focus is on how the forces of nature - weather, ocean currents, solar energy and volcanoes - drive and support life on earth, and how wildlife adapts to whatever the environment throws at it. The opener looks at the impact of volcanoes, featuring the inhospitable but vast breeding ground for the lesser flamingo at Lake Natron in Tanzania, in the shadow of the active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of God). Filmed by drone for the first time, the episode homes in on the intimate scene of these leggy birds laying their eggs on tiny nests built on the highly caustic soda flats of the lake. Later, the chicks tentatively emerge and begin to find their feet. "That flamingo sequence is one of the most incredible sequences I've seen on television. It's been filmed so beautifully, the use of drones - it's so skilful, the pictures are indelibly planted in the mind. It's extraordinary," says Sir David. Unsurprisingly, filming in such a harsh environment wasn't easy. The soda flats are pretty inaccessible, says Matt Aeberhard, one of Perfect Planet's camera operators. "More people had landed on the moon until fairly recently than had landed on the flats. It's a highly caustic environment. The pH there is about 12 - not far off household bleach. The only option to get there is a hovercraft, which was fun but the rubber skirt is shredded by the jagged soda crystals."
12-19-20 Climate change: Law used as stick to beat government
Environmentalists are using the law to hound the government to force infrastructure plans into line with its climate change commitments. Ministers are facing a fusillade of legal challenges on airports, energy and roads. And now they have been threatened with new legal action unless their airports strategy reflects the drive towards a zero-emissions economy. A separate legal challenge to the government's road building strategy from campaign group Transport Action Network is already under way. Earlier this week, campaigners won a battle to force ministers to review their energy policy statement so it reflects climate concerns. The new action against the airports strategy comes from a not-for-profit group, the Good Law Project. It is undaunted by this week's Supreme Court defeat, when judges said the 2018 document didn't break the law because at the time the UK was aiming for a 80% emissions cut by 2050. Good Law accepts the Supreme Court ruling - but insists that the UK airports strategy must now be aligned with the Climate Change Act, which is now in force and which demands almost zero emissions by 2050. The aviation strategy was agreed in the light of fears that airport capacity in south-east England was becoming over-loaded. Good Law says the strategy should be reviewed because of the likely long-term dampening effect on business travel from the Covid pandemic - that's as well as the carbon impacts of the runway. A government spokesperson said it had always been clear that Heathrow expansion is a private sector project which must meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change. "We take our commitments on the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions seriously," they added. "The government is planning to consult next year on an aviation decarbonisation strategy, which will set out proposals for how the aviation sector will play its part in delivering our net zero commitments."
12-19-20 Climate change: 2021 will be cooler but still in top six warmest
UK Met Office scientists are forecasting that 2021 will be a little cooler around the world, but will still be one of the top six warmest years. The La Niña weather phenomenon will see temperatures edge down but greenhouse gases will remain the biggest influence. Researchers say the world will likely be around 1C warmer than the pre-industrial era. It will be the seventh year in a row close to or above this mark. According to Met Office projections, the Earth's temperature for 2021 will likely be between 0.91C and 1.15C above what they were in the years from 1850-1900 with a central estimate of 1.03C. The 2021 forecast is slightly lower than in recent years, due to the onset of the La Niña event in the tropical Pacific. A La Niña develops when strong winds blow the warm surface waters of the Pacific away from South America and towards the Philippines. In their place, colder waters from deep in the ocean come up to the surface. It is expected to reduce sea-surface temperatures by 1-2C and will likely do enough to prevent 2021 from setting a new high mark. "The global temperature for 2021 is unlikely to be a record year due to the influence of the current La Niña, but it will be far warmer than other past La Niña years such as 2011 and 2000 due to global warming," said Prof Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office. Researchers say the impact of a natural cooling event like La Niña, while important, is hugely overshadowed by the warming driven by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There was a strong La Niña in the year 1999-2000, but global temperatures have gone up by 0.4C in the years since then. This is in line with the estimate of 0.2C warming per decade, attributed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to human activities. "The variability of the La Niña / El Niño cycle is the second most important factor in determining the Earth's temperature but it is simply dwarfed by the forcing effect of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," said Met Office scientist Dr Nick Dunstone. The Met Office says that its experience in forecasting previous annual temperatures gives it confidence in next year's projections.
12-18-20 Rosamund Kissi-Debrah: Clean air 'Ella's law' would honour her memory
A landmark inquest has finally put a name and face to the human cost of air pollution – an environmental crisis estimated to kill up to 36,000 people in the UK and 7 million globally each year. On 16 December, a UK coroner found that the death in 2013 of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah was caused by asthma that was contributed to by her exposure to “excessive air pollution” in London. The verdict marks the end of a seven-year journey for her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, and family. It is also the first time a person in the UK has had air pollution listed as a cause of death, with potential wide-ranging consequences for action to clean up air by local and national governments. The inquest heard from Rosamund that Ella played many musical instruments, was a great dancer and swimmer, and wanted to be a pilot. New Scientist spoke with Rosamund to hear what she thought of the verdict, Ella’s legacy and what should happen next. How are you feeling? It’s been a fortnight-long inquest, and six years since the original inquest, which listed acute respiratory failure as Ella’s cause of death. Shock, really. It’s so enormous, you can’t really take it in. It will take a while, because I’m like that, I just don’t rush these things. I feel relief that it’s finally happened but I didn’t wake up feeling like a different person. There was never going to be any big celebration. This was about getting justice and getting it on her death certificate. There was nothing to celebrate, but there was a sense of victory. We know thousands of people die in the UK every year because of air pollution. What is the significance of an individual having it listed as a cause of death? One of Ella’s doctors felt respiratory failure did not really do her justice. It does not say to us what she has been through. The filthy air she was breathing in was suffocating her, and ultimately she died, so that needs to be on her death certificate. I wasn’t really interested in people saying “oh no one’s done this before”. This is my daughter, this is what happened to her, and we have proved it, so this is what she should get. As a mother, you would want the real reason your child died on their death certificate.
12-18-20 US snowstorm: Record-breaking blizzard slams East Coast
A powerful snowstorm has swept through the north-eastern US, breaking records in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York and affecting 60 million people. Parts of northern New York received three feet (90cm) of snowfall, and New York City received all of last year's snow total in just this one storm. Weather officials warned of "dangerous, if not impossible travel conditions" as they struggled to plough icy roadways. Hundreds of car crashes were reported, with at least two fatalities. Warnings were in place on Thursday for 14 states, with officials begging residents not to leave home unless absolutely necessary. The city of Binghamton, New York, received 45 inches (114cm) of snowfall, breaking its all-time record for the month of December. Parts of Pennsylvania reached 40 inches (102cm), according to the weather officials. The Williamsport Regional Airport broke its previous snowfall record, reporting 24.7 inches of snow. "It's a historic storm for areas inland that got underneath the snow band," National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Oravec told Reuters. "If you get underneath one of those bands, the snow rate can be tremendous - four or five inches per hour - and that's what occurred today," he said. Police in Pennsylvania said a pile-up left two people dead on a major highway, the Interstate 80 in Clinton County. Multiple people were also injured in the crash which involved between 30-60 vehicles. Six people were also hurt in a separate multi-car collision in New York City involving 27 vehicles. Schools across the city moved to online learning on Thursday and outdoor dining was suspended. Boston also received more than nine inches of snow on Thursday, breaking the previous record for the date set in 2013. According to the FlightAware website, more than 1,800 flights were cancelled, and another 4,000 delayed. Some rail services have also been suspended across the north-east.
12-18-20 Japan: Snow traps 1,000 drivers in frozen traffic jam
Rescuers are trying to free more than 1,000 vehicles which have been stranded on a highway for two days after a heavy snow storm struck Japan. Authorities have distributed food, fuel and blankets to the drivers on the Kanetsu expressway, which connects the capital Tokyo to Niigata, in the north. The snow, which began on Wednesday evening, has caused multiple traffic jams along the road. It has also left more than 10,000 homes in the north and west without power. A Kyodo News report said that there were multiple reports of congestion at different points of the Kanetsu expressway. The gridlock began when a trailer got stuck in snow on Wednesday night. Another Kyodo report, quoting police and highway operator East Nippon Expressway Co, said the traffic jam had stretched up to 16.5km (10 miles) along the road at one point. Officials have been using a combination of heavy machinery and physical labour to dig out the vehicles one by one, but around 1,000 cars were still stranded on the road as of Friday noon. "We are trying our best to rescue drivers and passengers, we are ready to continue the operation through the night," a Niigata disaster management official told AFP on Thursday night. Another similar traffic jam also occurred in the nearby Joshinetsu Expressway which saw 300 vehicles stranded. That gridlock lasted from Wednesday to Thursday morning. According to the meteorological agency, the heavy snow - said to be this year's most intense cold spell - is expected to continue through the weekend. The country's prime minister Yoshihide Suga has called an emergency cabinet meeting and urged the public to be cautious. The snow storm comes as Japan is battling a third wave of coronavirus cases, which has put unprecedented pressure on the country's hospitals.
12-18-20 Wildfire smoke may spread infectious disease
Smoke from wildfires could be a surprising new route for the spread of infections, according to research. Scientist say that microbes and fungi can survive in large numbers in smoky plumes. The authors believe it's likely that organisms from the soil, known to cause infection, could be transferred in this way. They argue that greater monitoring of wildfire smoke by health authorities is urgently needed. For decades, it has been widely assumed that nothing much lives in a plume of wildfire smoke. It has also been assumed that if smoke poses a threat to human health, it's because it is full of particulate matter. These microscopic particles of soot are known to be a severe irritant, causing respiratory and cardiovascular issues. However, there has been growing concern that wildfire smoke could also carry infectious microbes or fungi. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC0 says that firefighters are at risk of coccidioidomycosis, a common infection caused by a fungus that becomes airborne when soils are disturbed. Scientists are now beginning to uncover the scale of the potential infectious threat posed by smoke from wildfires. Using new techniques to capture microbes in smoke, researchers say that they found over 900 different types of bacteria and around 100 unique fungi. "The diversity of microbes we have found so far in the very few studies that have been done is impressive," said Dr Leda Kobziar, from the University of Idaho, in Moscow, US, who led the review. "These taxa (groups of living organisms) were not found in non-smoky air in the same locations prior to the fire, proving that combustion and its associated winds aerosolise microbes into smoke columns." The researchers believe that the microbes hitch-hike on particulate matter in the smoke. Even in high-intensity fires, the scientists found bacteria in abundance 300 metres above a fire. Over 60% of these were viable. They suspect that the particulate matter on which they are travelling protects the microbes from ultraviolet radiation, which might kill them off.
12-18-20 Giant iceberg A68a prangs seabed and loses corner
The icy colossus that is A68a has knocked off a corner, seemingly as a result of striking the seafloor. The 3,800-sq-km iceberg, which has been bearing down on the island of South Georgia, looked in recent days to be turning with the prevailing current. But as it spun around, it appears part of the frozen block may have scraped the bed, inflicting damage on itself. Satellite images on Thursday revealed a roughly 150-sq-km chunk to be floating free of the main berg. The new piece of debris is so large that it's likely from now on to be called A68d, under the iceberg nomenclature operated by the US National Ice Center. Two other large lumps that broke away previously from the primary block were designated A68b and A68c. Originating in Antarctica in 2017, A68a is the world's largest iceberg "in the open ocean". There is another great tabular berg called A23a which is slightly bigger but this has hardly moved from its calving position at the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. A68a, on the other hand, has travelled more than 1,500km in the past 3.5 years to get up into the South Atlantic. It's running in a fast stream of water known as the Southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current Front, which is one of the White Continent's main export routes for ice. The SACCF is like a conveyor belt that routinely delivers icebergs to the vicinity of South Georgia. Indeed, it's often said the British Overseas Territory is "where icebergs go to die" because so many get caught on the island's shallow continental shelf and end their days melting to nothing. Scientists are watching A68a with greater than normal interest. Its great bulk means that if it anchors at South Georgia, it could pose feeding problems for the island's famous penguins and seals. Such a major obstacle sitting right offshore might restrict the animals' ability to forage for the fish and small crustaceans called krill on which they depend. Satellites are following the trajectory of the berg day by day. As predicted, it has turned with the SACCF at that point where the current gets deflected by continental shelf. If A68a continues to drift in SACCF, it should loop south around the island before turning north.
12-18-20 Air pollution death ruling: What comes next?
For the first time in the UK - and possibly the world - air pollution has been recognised as a cause of a person's death. But was the ruling just a one-off? And what does it mean for others? On 16 December, Southwark Coroner's Court in London found that air pollution "made a material contribution" to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She had lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham and died in 2013, following an asthma attack. Her case has been making headlines around the globe. Ella had a rare type of acute asthma; she was particularly susceptible to the toxic gases and particles in air pollution. In his verdict, the coroner Philip Barlow said the cause was "multi-factorial. It was down to both genes, and the environment". From a legal perspective, David Wolfe QC, a barrister specialising in public law, said: "Although this decision does not have any binding impact on other courts, it is still important as the first formal legal recognition of air pollution as contributing to the death of a particular individual. "That will help other individuals who want to press for greater action on air pollution. That could be action from public bodies which make decisions about polluting activities such as traffic and roads, or the public and private bodies which themselves cause major air pollution." At the conclusion of the two-week inquest, Mr Barlow said Ella had been exposed to "excessive" levels of pollution. The pollutants included nitrogen dioxide (NO2) - a gas emitted by combustion engines that can irritate the airways and aggravate respiratory diseases. Levels of NO2 near Ella's home exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) and European Union guidelines. The inquest heard that, in the three years before her death, she had had multiple seizures and was admitted to hospital 27 times.
12-17-20 Eastern Alps may have been ice-free in the time of Ötzi the Iceman
Glaciers in the Ötztal Alps in Austria are currently melting and may be lost within two decades, but this might not be the first time humans have seen this kind of change. A new analysis reveals that glaciers in this region formed just before or perhaps even within the lifetime of Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified body found just 12 kilometres away in 1991. Pascal Bohleber at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and his colleagues drilled 11 metres into the Weißseespitze summit glacier, down to the bedrock, at 3500 metres altitude and collected two ice cores. They then used radiocarbon dating to analyse microscopic bits of organic material extracted from the ice cores and found that the glacier is 5200 to 6600 years old. Ötzi is thought to have lived between 5100 and 5300 years ago, and his body was found preserved in ice. The glacier’s age means it formed during a time called the mid-Holocene warm period, when Earth’s climate was warmer than it is now. It is also dome-shaped, which Bohleber says is rare in the Alps and means that the ice has seen very little movement over time, meaning we can use it to study the climate when it formed. “More information on the mid-Holocene warm period, when the glaciers were smaller than today, is direly needed so that we can better predict how the glaciers will respond to the anticipated future climate over the next 50 years,” says Bethan Davies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Comparing ice cores from different sites tells us quite a bit about the past climate in that region, says Bohleber, but that gets harder as the glaciers thaw. Meltwater makes it more difficult to drill for ice cores and causes the glaciers to slide downhill, exposing the ancient ice to modern contaminants.
12-17-20 US snowstorm: Tens of millions on East Coast to be affected
A powerful snowstorm is sweeping through the north-eastern US, with warnings in place for 14 states affecting more than 60 million people. Some parts of Pennsylvania and New York are predicted to see as much as two feet (60cm) of snow. The National Weather Service (NWS) has warned of "dangerous, if not impossible travel conditions and isolated power surges" in the worst-affected areas. Two people died in a crash involving dozens of cars in central Pennsylvania. Officials say they do not expect the storm to disrupt Covid-19 vaccine distribution, which began in the US on Monday. However, there were reports of some coronavirus testing centres in several states being temporarily closed. Forecasters said the storm could dump up to two feet of snow in an area stretching from eastern Pennsylvania to New York's Catskill Mountains, with a foot or more in the rest of the north-east. Some areas will see more snow "in one event than they have seen all of last winter", the NWS warned. Parts of Centre County in Pennsylvania were hit with up to 33cm of snow by Wednesday night, according to the NWS. Police in Pennsylvania said a pile-up left two people dead on the Interstate 80 in Clinton County. Multiple people were also injured in the crash which involved between 30-60 vehicles. Six people were also hurt in a separate multi-car collision in New York City, involving 27 vehicles. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the storm could be the biggest the city has seen in years, warning residents to "take this seriously". Schools across the city have moved to online learning, outdoor dining has been suspended and ferry routes have stopped. According to the FlightAware website, more than 1,500 flights have already been cancelled. Some rail services have also been suspended across the north-east. US Secretary for Transportation Elaine Chao warned those in the path of the storm "to know what's expected for your area and don't drive in dangerous conditions".
12-17-20 China biodegradable plastics 'failing to solve pollution crisis'
A massive increase in biodegradable plastic production in China is outpacing the country's ability to degrade the materials, according to a new report published by the charity Greenpeace. China - the world's largest producer of plastic waste - introduced bans earlier this year on several types of non-degradable single-use plastics, prompting manufacturers to ramp up production of biodegradable versions. According to Greenpeace, 36 companies in China have planned or built new biodegradable plastic manufacturing facilities, adding production capacity of more than 4.4 million tonnes per year - a more than sevenfold increase in less than 12 months. China's e-commerce industry is on track to generate an estimated 5 million tonnes of biodegradable plastic waste per year by 2025, when the country's single-use plastic bans come into effect nationwide, the charity said. Biodegradable plastics can be broken down by living organisms, but most require specific industrial treatment at high temperatures to be degraded within six months. Left in landfills under normal circumstances, the materials can take much longer to begin to break down and will still release carbon into the atmosphere. "In the absence of controlled composting facilities, most biodegradable plastics end up in landfills, or worse, in rivers and the ocean," said Greenpeace's East Asia plastics researcher Dr Molly Zhongnan Jia. "Switching from one type of plastic to another cannot solve the plastics pollution crisis that we're facing," she said. Chinese president Xi Jinping has in recent speeches stressed the importance of reducing plastic waste, but many major Chinese cities have little or no infrastructure in place to cope with the expansion of biodegradable plastics production. One of the main challenges with biodegradable plastics is confusion about what biodegradable means. Most compostable plastics cannot be put into ordinary household recycling or degraded in home composting bins - meaning consumers often don't have any route to get biodegradable packaging to the kinds of industrial facilities capable of processing it.
12-16-20 2020 in review: What happened to all the tree-planting plans?
In January, the World Economic Forum, backed by US president Donald Trump, announced the One Trillion Trees initiative to plant or protect a trillion trees by 2030, bolstering the estimated 3 trillion that already exist. The scheme joins existing reforestation efforts such as the “Trillion Trees” project launched by conservation groups in 2017. One Trillion Trees didn’t respond to requests for comment on progress, but a US version of its website says that 855 million trees have been pledged by US-based authorities and other bodies. It is unclear how many of those have been planted. Separately, the National Forest Foundation, a US non-profit organisation, said it had planted 5 million of 7.8 million seedlings it hoped to put in the ground this year, hampered slightly by the pandemic. In the UK, Guy Shrubsole at Friends of the Earth says there has been little sign that mass tree-planting pledged during the 2019 general election campaign there has turned into action. Figures show that between March 2019 and March 2020, 134.6 square kilometres of new woodland were planted, down 1 per cent on the previous year. Most was in Scotland, with only 23.3 sq km in England, implying a government target for England of 300 sq km by 2025 will be missed without a major ramp-up.
12-16-20 2020 in review: Nuclear fusion power is slowly getting closer
Progress on nuclear fusion, which attempts to produce energy in the same way as the sun, made some important headway this year. The world’s biggest nuclear fusion power project, ITER in southern France, began its “assembly phase” on 28 July. The milestone was welcomed by world leaders, including the then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who said it will help bring about a “sustainable, carbon-free society”. But that green society is still a way off. Assembly is scheduled to take around four more years, followed by two decades of experiments. ITER’s commercial fusion power plant isn’t expected until 2054. Smaller fusion projects had mixed fortunes. There had been plans for the Joint European Torus, a European project at Culham in Oxfordshire, UK, to run the first fusion test of its kind since 1997, using the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The experiment was delayed from November 2020 until May to August next year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. However, a separate, newly built tokamak – the chamber where fusion reactions take place – tested its first plasma at Culham on 29 October, and on 2 December, the UK Atomic Energy Authority launched a search for a site to build the world’s first prototype nuclear fusion power station by 2040.
12-16-20 2020 in review: Extreme weather seen around the world as climate warms
THE year began with extreme weather in Australia. Bushfires in the nation, made possible by a severe drought, produced apocalyptic scenes of ships rescuing people from beaches, dry thunderstorm clouds and wildlife fleeing beneath orange skies. The fires pumped three times the amount of smoke into the stratosphere as anything seen before, and they burned an unprecedented 58,000 square kilometres of forest in New South Wales and Victoria. While partly due to natural cycles, the weather conditions that enabled the fires were found to be made more likely by human-made climate change. It wouldn’t be the last extreme weather event of 2020 linked to climate change. Though it didn’t affect heavily populated areas and so grabbed less attention, Siberia’s months-long heatwave was one of the most striking incidents. Temperatures were 10°C above average in some parts of the region in May, and one town in the Arctic circle hit 38°C. An analysis found the event would have been “effectively impossible” without the warming that humans have caused. That heat also contributed to the very low levels of Arctic sea ice on the Russian side of the region, resulting in total Arctic sea ice for the year falling to its second lowest extent on record. This year, October – when the region begins to freeze – saw the lowest extent ever recorded for the month. Heat in the region also fostered a second year of record CO2 emissions from Arctic fires. In August, wildfires along the US west coast saw hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. California was hit by five of the six largest fires in the state’s history, which were triggered early in the region’s fire season by lightning strikes. More than 16,000 square kilometres of land were burned across California, twice the previous record. Higher temperatures as a result of climate change are drying out the vegetation, making it easier to burn. This year, the US was hit by 16 disasters that each caused more than a billion dollars of damage, tying it with 2011 and 2017, according to Adam Smith at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season exceeded the record 28 storms seen in 2005, as Theta and Iota became its 29th and 30th storms in November.
12-16-20 Landmark ruling says air pollution contributed to death of 9-year-old
A court has ruled that dirty air made a material contribution to the death of an asthmatic 9-year-old girl in south London, in a significant decision marking the first time a person in the UK has had air pollution listed as part of the cause of death. An initial 2014 inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013 focused on her medical care and concluded that the cause of death was acute respiratory failure. Today, after a 10-day inquest that heard from health, transport and air quality experts along with representatives of her family, three government departments, the mayor of London and the borough of Lewisham where she lived, coroner Philip Barlow ruled that air pollution had also contributed to her death. “My conclusion is air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death,” Barlow said as he gave his verdict. Barlow said that Ella had been exposed to levels of two air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas largely emitted by diesel cars, and particulate matter, in excess of World Health Organization guidelines, which are stricter than the UK and EU’s limits. “The level of air pollution she was exposed to was therefore excessive,” he said. The coroner added that inaction by authorities to reduce levels of NO2, and a lack of information given to her mother, both “possibly contributed to her death”. The official cause of her death was listed as “died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the decision was a reminder of the need for more action to curb pollutants. “Toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children, and the inquest underlined yet again the importance of pushing ahead with bold policies such as expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone to inner London,” he said in a statement. Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted that it “must lead to a seismic shift in efforts to clean up the air”.
12-15-20 A68a iceberg: Science mission to investigate frozen giant
A team of scientists is being sent to the South Atlantic to study the giant iceberg A68a. The 3,900-sq-km behemoth is currently drifting offshore of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia where it threatens to run aground. If that happens it could make life extremely difficult for the wildlife haven's penguins and seals as they go about foraging for fish and krill. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will lead the expedition. The researchers will approach A68a in the Royal Research Ship James Cook. They'll use robotic underwater vehicles and sampling instruments to see how the frozen mass is influencing its environment. Big bergs change the temperature of the sea around them and introduce huge volumes of fresh water as they melt. This affects conditions for all marine life - from the simplest planktonic organisms all the way up to the biggest creatures in the ocean, the whales. A68 broke free from the Larsen C sector of Antarctica in 2017 and has been steadily moving north, away from the White Continent, ever since. Recent months and weeks have seen it lose a lot of its bulk, so much so that it's just surrendered the title of the "world's biggest iceberg". Nonetheless, its scale (roughly now the size of the English county of Suffolk) remains intimidating, especially when seen in satellite images moving only 90km from South Georgia's coast. The researchers hope to be on site at the end of January. They'll deploy two untethered submersible gliders that will spend almost four months in and around A68a. "We'll probably put one each end of the berg," said BAS oceanographer Dr Povl Abrahamsen. "They'll monitor seawater temperature and salinity, and collect measurements of chlorophyll concentration; and backscatter - essentially how clear the water is or isn't. "We'll be deploying the gliders but they'll actually be piloted from the UK, by teams at the National Oceanography Centre and at BAS," he told BBC News. The chlorophyll data will give an indication of how many phytoplankton are in the water. These organisms are right at the base of the food chain. They're eaten by the small crustaceans krill, which in turn are eaten by the territory's key predators.
12-15-20 Earth may be even closer to 1.5°C of global warming than we thought
Global carbon emissions may have warmed Earth by 18 per cent more than previously thought, raising the prospect of the world having less time to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change than expected. Global average temperatures have climbed about 1.07°C since the industrial revolution, up from a previous figure of 0.91°C. This update brings all three of the world’s three key temperature datasets in line, suggesting temperatures are at the upper end of previous ranges. Governments may have less time to curb carbon emissions to hold temperature rises to 1.5°C or 2°C under the Paris deal. Current estimates of future warming may rise too. “Climate change hasn’t suddenly got worse. It’s just our estimate of how much warming has taken place has improved,” says Tim Osborn at the University of East Anglia, who today published a paper with Met Office colleagues on the fifth update to the data, known as the Hadley Centre Climatic Research Unit Temperature (HadCRUT5). The 18 per cent increase is the biggest in years of HadCRUT revisions, but brings it roughly in line with the two other main datasets used to track global temperatures, run by US agencies NASA and NOAA. It is notable how closely these three independent datasets now resemble one another, says Kate Marvel at Columbia University, who was not involved in Osborn’s paper. The change was overdue, say climate scientists. Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University, says: “Honestly, many of us have long recognised that the HadCRUT dataset have underestimated the warming.” There are two main reasons for the 0.16°C upwards revision in past warming. The biggest was changes to how the HadCRUT team looked at sea surface temperatures, specifically how it was measured by ships taking the temperature of sea water in their engine rooms.
12-15-20 Plastic waste forms huge, deadly masses in camel guts
Clumps made up of plastic bags and other trash in the animals’ stomachs are called polybezoars. Marcus Eriksen was studying plastic pollution in the Arabian Gulf when he met camel expert Ulrich Wernery. “[Ulrich] said, ‘You want to see plastic? Come with me.’ So we went deep into the desert,” Eriksen recalls. Before long, they spotted a camel skeleton and began to dig through sand and bones. “We unearthed this mass of plastic, and I was just appalled. I couldn’t believe that — almost did not believe that — a mass as big as a medium-sized suitcase, all plastic bags, could be inside the rib cage of this [camel] carcass,” says Eriksen, an environmental scientist at the 5 Gyres Institute, a plastic pollution research and education organization in Santa Monica, Calif. “We hear about marine mammals, sea lions, whales, turtles and seabirds impacted” by plastic waste, Eriksen says (SN: 6/6/19). But “this is not just an ocean issue. It’s a land issue, too. It’s everywhere.” About 390,000 dromedary camels (Camelus dromedarius) live in the United Arab Emirates. Now in a study in the February 2021 Journal of Arid Environments, Eriksen, Wernery and colleagues estimate that plastic kills around 1 percent of these culturally important animals. Of 30,000 dead camels that Wernery, a veterinary microbiologist at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, and his team have examined since 2008, 300 had guts packed with plastic ranging from three to 64 kilograms. The researchers dubbed these plastic masses “polybezoars” to distinguish them from naturally occurring hair and plant fiber bezoars. As dromedaries roam the desert looking for food, they munch on plastic bags and other trash that drift into trees and pile up along roadsides. “From the camel’s perspective … if it’s not sand, it’s food,” Eriksen says.
12-15-20 Towering fire-fueled thunderclouds can spew as many aerosols as volcanic eruptions
As warming worsens wildfires, it may create conditions ripe for stronger pyrocumulonimbus clouds. A massive tower of smoke generated by Australian wildfires in late 2019 set a new record for the loftiest and largest fire-spawned thunderstorms ever measured. It also may represent a new class of volcanic-scale “pyrocumulonimbus” events, scientists said in an online news conference December 11 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. A particularly intense spate of fires in southeastern Australia during the country’s 2019–2020 “Black Summer” wildfire season led to a “super outbreak” of 32 separate pyrocumulonimbus, or pyroCB, events from December 29 to December 31 (SN: 3/4/20) . The resulting plume of smoke sent aloft was so massive that it rose up to 35 kilometers into the atmosphere, high into the stratosphere, well above the heights that jet planes fly (SN: 6/15/20). Combined with a second large plume on January 4, they injected three times more aerosol particles into the stratosphere than any previously recorded pyroCb event. Such a long-lasting, intense event “was like nothing we’ve seen before,” eclipsing the previous record-holder, a vast fire cloud that formed over the Pacific Northwest in 2017, said David Peterson, a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif. The Australian outbreak “exceeded this previously unprecedented event on almost every level.” In terms of sheer number of aerosols sent into the stratosphere, the Australian plumes were on par with the strongest volcanic eruptions in the last 25 years. What impact these particles have on atmosphere, weather patterns and the ozone layer is still unclear. Scientists detected traces of the 2017 plume for up to 10 months; particles from the Black Summer plumes are still lingering, Peterson said. His work will appear in an upcoming issue of npj Climate and Atmospheric Science.
12-14-20 Australia storms: Byron Bay's Main Beach 'all but disappeared'
Byron Bay's famous beach has all but disappeared, as extreme weather batters Australia's east coast, officials say. Main Beach - a popular tourist destination - had already been depleted due to previous erosions. But local mayor Simon Richardson said "severe weather" and "massive swells" were smashing what was left. "We're watching our beach disappear," he said. A 1,000km (620 mile) stretch of coast is being hit with torrential rain and "abnormally high" tides. More than 2,000 homes in cities, including Brisbane and the Gold Coast, lost electricity on Monday after strong winds struck power lines. Tides up to 8m (26ft) high were recorded, eroding the shoreline in some areas, including Byron Bay. Emergency services said they had received over 700 calls for help since Sunday. About half a dozen people stranded in floodwaters had been rescued, they added. Meteorologists have warned that this Australian summer will see the impacts of a La Niña weather pattern, which typically brings more rainfall and tropical cyclones. The current wild weather has hit popular holiday spots such as the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast in Queensland. In Byron Bay, in the state of New South Wales, pictures showed the beach covered with water and fallen trees. "We're seeing the largest coastal erosion we've seen in many years, particularly around the Byron Bay area, which is completely changing the entire landscape of the beaches," Surf Life Saving NSW CEO Steve Pearce told reporters. Many beaches were closed on Monday amid the dangerous conditions. Australia's Bureau of Meteorology issued severe weather warnings for a vast coastal area stretching from Hervey Bay in Queensland to Taree in New South Wales. Affected areas have been alerted to damaging winds, flash flooding and hazardous surf. Some places have already received more than 400mm (16 inches) of rain within 24 hours.
12-13-20 'Not enough' climate ambition shown by leaders
The UK minister tasked with leading UN climate talks says world leaders are failing to show the necessary level of ambition. Alok Sharma was speaking at the conclusion of a virtual climate summit organised by the UK, UN and France. He said "real progress" had been made and 45 countries had put forward new climate plans for 2030. But these were not enough to prevent dangerous warming this century, Mr Sharma explained. Taking place on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, the summit heard the UN Secretary General warn that every country needed to declare a climate emergency. Around 70 heads of state and government took part in the meeting, which was organised by the UK, UN and France. They outlined new pledges and commitments to curb carbon. China's contribution was eagerly awaited, not just because it is the world's biggest emitter, but because it has recently promised to reach net zero emissions by 2060. Achieving net zero means that emissions have been cut as much as possible and any remaining releases are balanced by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. But while President Xi Jinping outlined a range of new targets for 2030, many analysts felt these did not go far enough. India brought little in the way of new commitments but Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country was on track to achieve its goals under the Paris agreement and promised a major uptick in wind and solar energy. According to the UK, some 24 countries had outlined net zero commitments and 20 had now set out plans to adapt and become more resilient to rising temperatures and their impacts. But despite these commitments, Mr Sharma said not enough had been achieved. "Have we made any real progress at this summit? And the answer to that is: yes," he said. "But they will also ask, have we done enough to put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5C, and protect people and nature from the effects of climate change? To make the Paris Agreement a reality. "Friends, we must be honest with ourselves, the answer to that, is currently: no. As encouraging as all this ambition is. It is not enough."
12-13-20 Hurricane season 2020: Is global warming making hurricanes stronger?
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active on record, according to the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. It was the fifth consecutive year of above-normal Atlantic hurricane activity. But is this a result of global warming?
12-13-20 Rising to meet the tide
As the threat of coastal flooding grows, scientists are responding with an inundation of data. Faster and more accurate forecasts can save lives and property. Christina Laughlin usually does whatever she can to avoid the flooding that plagues her neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay. But on a blustery Sunday morning in October 2019, she donned a windbreaker and rain boots, grabbed her battered smartphone, and deliberately headed straight to the high-water line. Like her, hundreds of other locals were out and about that day, busy taking photos of the water and linking them to GPS markers during the year's highest astronomical tide, known as the "king tide." Norfolk is one of several eastern U.S. coastal cities with record rates of sea level rise, and scientists hope that the data collected by these citizen scientists can help hone the ability to forecast exactly when and where damaging floods will occur. Low-lying mid-latitude cities like Norfolk are especially vulnerable, says geographer James Voogt of the University of Western Ontario, one of the authors of a 2020 article in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources on climate events in urban areas. "You've got three things operating in the direction that increases the vulnerability of a city to flooding events," he says: sea level rise, increased chances of severe precipitation events, and an abundance of impervious surfaces that prevent water absorption and encourage runoff. As early as 2050, climate scientists predict, the average high tide in the Norfolk area will be equal to today's king tides. But it's not just the mid-Atlantic region: Many other parts of the world will be increasingly prone to floods that risk lives and property. So understanding and accurately forecasting flood risks tied to extreme weather and rising tides is a key challenge for vulnerable cities around the globe. If we don't get the forecast exactly right, we'll be preparing for a flood in all the wrong places, says forecast scientist David Lavers of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, an independent research and weather forecasting organization that provides weather data and predictions for 34 European countries. That's where Laughlin comes in — and hydrologist Derek Loftis of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, whom Laughlin and others are assisting. In 2017, Loftis and colleagues started a project called Catch the King that uses a smartphone app to collect the data of citizen scientists during king tides. He'll use those data to validate and improve his mathematical flooding model, called TideWatch, for Norfolk and the surrounding area. Loftis's mission is simple: "I want to know where the water goes before it goes there," he says. But as he and other scientists around the world know, collecting the data needed and then processing them quickly enough to make usable forecasts is anything but easy. The first step toward building a forecast is a detailed understanding of the current weather situation. "You base your model on how the atmosphere works, and you start with conditions as they are now," says hydrologist Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading in the U.K. If these data aren't accurate and detailed, she says, the model likely won't be very good. Accurate flood forecasts also require an understanding of the situation on the ground: physical factors such as the flow of river water, elevation, soil saturation, and land cover. By the early 2000s, supercomputing had advanced enough that hydrologists and geologists were able to integrate weather forecasting models with such measurements. But when Loftis began working on flood forecasting about a decade ago, scientists still didn't have the fine-grained measurements of water levels that an accurate forecast needs, nor the critically important ability to forecast fast-moving floods in real time.
12-13-20 The green hydrogen hype
Is hydrogen power the future of clean energy? Companies around the world are making a "trillion-dollar bet" on a hydrogen-fueled future, said David Fickling at Bloomberg. A series of planned investments in hydrogen power from Europe, Australia, and Chile — the latest coming this week from a consortium of seven energy companies — could eliminate "roughly a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions." The dramatic leap, though, depends on improvement in the technology for producing "green" hydrogen by splitting water molecules. Hydrogen has been advanced as a potential clean fuel source for decades, but currently "99 percent of the world's industrial hydrogen is not green but 'gray,' produced from gas or coal with the carbon emissions to match." Green hydrogen has often been dismissed as too expensive for practical uses. In the mid-2000s, however, most economists "didn't think wind and solar could compete economically with fossil fuels," either. There's "good reason to think" green hydrogen can follow the same path to explosive growth. Hydrogen is certainly "a buzzy topic in clean energy circles," said Chris Tomlinson at the Houston Chronicle. Outside of powering vehicles, hydrogen's more immediate use might be for storing wind and solar energy. "As everyone knows, the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine." But the excess renewable power that's created on those sunny and windy days could be used to make hydrogen for fueling turbines all days of the year. General Electric has been doing this on a small scale for decades, but researchers are inventing ways to make it more affordable. Texas has the infrastructure in place, because many of its petrochemical facilities already "use hydrogen to make ammonia" for fertilizer and rubber. In Michigan, General Motors is going all-in on commercializing its fuel cells, said Kalea Hall at The Detroit News. The 112-year-old automaker believes its Hydrotec cells can offer future vehicles "longer range than their battery-powered peers." Though it recently ended a partnership with the troubled clean-vehicle maker Nikola, it is still pushing to adapt power-train technology so any vehicle that now has a gas-powered engine could eventually have a "fuel-cell system powering it instead." Just be careful with the hype, said Rochelle Toplensky at The Wall Street Journal. "It will be years" before many of these projects "reach an industrial scale," and they "depend heavily on the evolving technology for hydrogen production." Making gray hydrogen "currently generates more carbon emissions globally than the airline industry." There are plans for many more green-hydrogen production facilities worldwide, "but fewer than half will be available by 2035." The promise of hydrogen "has been repeated so often it sometimes seems to have achieved silver-bullet status," said Katherine Dunn at Fortune. We wrote about hydrogen-powered hybrids way back in 1999, before President George W. Bush filled up a GM minivan at the nation's first hydrogen Shell station in Washington in 2005. Green hydrogen's prices "would need to fall by 85 percent" just to be competitive with regular hydrogen's. It could be 2050 before green hydrogen is a major energy source. Meanwhile, though, it's already "burnishing the climate-friendly reputations of plenty of politicians."
12-12-20 World needs to declare 'climate emergency' - UN
The UN secretary general has called on all countries to declare a climate emergencyAntónio Guterres was speaking at a virtual summit on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, He criticised rich countries for spending 50% more of their pandemic recovery cash on fossil fuels compared to low-carbon energy. Over 70 world leaders are due to speak at the meeting organised by the UK, UN and France. Mr Guterres said that 38 countries had already declared a climate emergency and he called on leaders worldwide to now do the same. He said the emergency would only end when carbon neutrality was reached. On the Covid recovery spending, he said that this is money being borrowed from future generations. "We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet," he said. The secretary general praised those countries who have come to today's meeting with new targets and plans. A number of big emitters, including Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Mexico, are not taking part, as their climate actions were not deemed ambitious enough. The UK has announced an end to support for overseas fossil fuel projects, and has today deposited a new climate plan with the UN. It's the first time that Britain has had to do this, as it was previously covered by the European Union's climate commitments. Today's virtual gathering is taking place after the pandemic caused the postponement of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting, which had been due to take place in Glasgow this year. "Climate change is one of the great global challenges of our age, and it is already costing lives and livelihoods the world over, our actions as leaders must be driven not by timidity or caution, but by ambition on a truly grand scale," Boris Johnson said. "That is why the UK recently led the way with a bold new commitment to reduce emissions by at least 68% by 2030, and why I'm pleased to say today that the UK will end taxpayer support for fossil fuel projects overseas as soon as possible."
12-11-20 Can dairy adapt to climate change?
Amid polarised debate, Emily Kasriel asks how dairy farmers see the role of their industry in climate change – and finds a mixture of doubt, denial and commitment to change. "Nothing beats the feeling when you see a cow take its first breath, after battling to get it to breathe. I milk each cow twice a day every single day of the year, so they know I want the best for them," says Hannah Edwards, standing proudly in the midst of the herd of Holstein cows she's tended for the last 11 years. They are grazing on her favourite hillside, high up on the farm with a commanding view of peaks and valleys. "I love coming up here. On a clear day, you can see for miles. That's Wales, Lake Bala is over there, and there you can see Snowdonia." With a growing public awareness of the importance of consuming less dairy to meet tough climate change targets, I've come to meet Hannah to try and understand how family dairy farmers see climate change. After climbing into her tall green wellies, I drive with her and her Labrador, Marley, to the farm where she works, spread across the border between Wales and Shropshire in the west of England. I want to test whether a communication approach called deep listening could help understand better the attitudes of dairy farmers to the environment and climate change. Media representations of the climate change narrative have become increasingly polarised, with each side of the discussion represented by partisan outlets as a caricature. But behind these stereotypes are the nuanced stories of how people's life experiences contribute to their worldview. By having these conversations, perhaps there is common ground that will get us closer to sustainable change. Where better to start than dairy: in 2015, the industry's emissions equivalent to more than 1,700 million tonnes of CO2 made up 3.4% of the world's total of almost 50,000 million tonnes that year. That makes dairy's contribution close to that from aviation and shipping combined (which are 1.9% and 1.7% respectively).
12-11-20 Climate change: Covid drives record emissions drop in 2020
The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic has driven the biggest annual fall in CO2 emissions since World War Two, say researchers. Their study indicates that emissions have declined by around 7% this year. France and the UK saw the greatest falls, mainly due to severe shutdowns in response to a second wave of infections. China, by contrast, has seen such a large rebound from coronavirus that overall emissions may grow this year. The decline in carbon in 2020 has dwarfed all the previous big falls. According to the Global Carbon Project team, this year saw carbon emissions decline by 2.4 billion tonnes. In contrast, the fall recorded in 2009 during the global economic recession was just half a billion tonnes, while the ending of World War Two saw emissions fall by under one billion tonnes. Across Europe and the US, the drop was around 12% over the year, but some individual countries declined by more. France saw a fall of 15% and the UK went down by 13%, according to one analysis. "The main reason is that these two countries had two waves of confinement that were really quite severe compared with other countries," said Prof Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia, UK, who contributed to the study. "The UK and France have a lot of their emissions come from the transport sector and generally have a bit less coming from industry and other sectors. "This is even more true in France, because so much of their electricity production is from nuclear energy, so 40% of their emissions are from the transport sector." Aviation around the world has been badly hit by restrictions and by the end of this year, it's expected that emissions from this sector will still be 40% below 2019 levels. One country that may have bucked the trend is China. Overall, the research team estimates that the country will experience a fall in emissions of 1.7% this year but some analysis suggests that the country has already rebounded enough from Covid-19 that the overall carbon output may have increased.
12-11-20 Record CO2 emissions drop in 2020 won't do much to halt climate change
A record 7 per cent drop in global carbon emissions this year will make no difference to long-term climate change, say researchers. The annual Global Carbon Budget report found covid-19 lockdowns reversed years of emissions rising worldwide, with France and the UK experiencing the steepest drops due to their long-lasting restrictions, at 15 and 13 per cent respectively. Globally, the burning of fossil fuels released 34.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020, down 2.3 billion tonnes on last year, the Global Carbon Budget team found. The biggest fall was the 0.84 billion tonnes of CO2 drop from transport, especially road traffic, with a steep dive in April when many countries had imposed limits on travel. After April, global emissions began recovering towards pre-pandemic heights. Team member Pierre Friedlingstein at the University of Exeter, UK, says we risk a repeat of the rebound in emissions after the 2009 financial crash. “The drop in 2020 alone, compared to what is accumulating in the atmosphere to now and what will continue to accumulate in the future, it would make no difference in the long run. To make a difference, this trend needs to be continued.” Not all sectors were down: emissions from industry were slightly up on 2019, possibly because of China, where industrial activity recovered quickly after restrictions early in the year. The geography of the reductions was uneven too, with much of the fall driven by the US and Europe. China’s emissions were down just 0.15 billion tonnes of CO2. Team member Corinne Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia, UK, says a rebound is very likely in 2021 because the drop this year was so big. “What is more difficult to say is what the size of the rebound will be in 2021, whether it will come back to 2019 level, or perhaps even higher,” she says.
12-11-20 Climate change: EU leaders set 55% target for CO2 emissions cut
EU leaders have agreed on a more ambitious goal for cutting greenhouse gases - reducing them by 55% by 2030, rather than 40%. The new target was reached after difficult all-night talks in Brussels. Poland, heavily reliant on coal, won a pledge of EU funding to help it transition to clean energy. The EU Commission will draw up detailed plans for all 27 member states to contribute to the 55% target, measured against 1990 CO2 emission levels. EU Council President Charles Michel hailed the agreement, tweeting "Europe is the leader in the fight against climate change". It is part of a global effort to tackle climate change by cutting atmospheric pollution, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The Paris climate deal, signed in 2016, aims to keep global temperature rise well under 2C, preferably within a maximum rise of 1.5C. Environmental campaign groups say the 55% target does not go far enough. And the European Parliament, yet to debate the new target, has called for a 60% cut. Sebastian Mang of Greenpeace said "the evidence shows that this deal is only a small improvement on the emission cuts the EU is already expected to achieve". Greenpeace is urging a minimum cut of 65% in EU carbon emissions. That figure was also advocated by Johannes Wahlmüller of Austrian green group Global 2000. The UK government plans to slash UK emissions by 68% over the next decade. Meanwhile, Australia has said it will achieve its 2030 emissions pledge, made under the Paris deal, without resorting to using old carbon credits. Australia overachieved on previous climate targets, meaning it built up credits to offset against carbon emissions. But there was international opposition to the idea of using those credits instead of adopting more ambitious clean energy measures. In September the EU Commission set out its blueprint for reaching the 55% target by 2030, and said at least 30% of the EU's €1.8tn (£1.64tn; $2.2tn) long-term budget would be spent on climate-related measures.
12-11-20 Climate change: 700-year history of wind recorded in island mud
Scientists have reconstructed a 700-year history of how westerly winds have blown around the Southern Hemisphere. It's a remarkable record that's written in the muds at the bottom of a small lake on the remote Marion Island in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean. What this history reveals is that the strength and latitude of the westerlies is tied closely to temperature. And the implication is that the winds will likely intensify and move poleward as the climate warms. "What we're seeing in this lake record is that these westerly winds are highly mobile and sensitive to really quite small changes in temperature, and this has some big implications for what the future of our planet looks like," Dr Bianca Perren from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) told BBC News. The westerly winds - known by latitude as the roaring forties, furious fifties, and screaming sixties - are hugely influential. The position of their core belt is linked to drought and wildfire potential on southern landmasses; they also regulate the Southern Ocean's uptake of carbon dioxide and heat by churning its waters; and in recent decades the winds have reshaped the distribution of sea-ice around Antarctica, and have become implicated in the melting of the west of the White Continent by driving warm water under floating glacier fronts. But, you might ask: how does a lake on Marion Island retain a record of these westerly winds? The answer is in the chemistry of its sediments. As the wind blows across the surface of the ocean, it kicks up a salty spray. When this lands on the island lake, it makes the lake water more saline. This, in turn, alters the biology in the lake, favouring only those tiny algal species, or diatoms, that can tolerate the new salty environment. The stronger the winds, the more salt spray and the more challenging are the conditions in the lake.
12-10-20 Plants are soaking up far less extra CO2 than we thought they would
Rising carbon dioxide levels have been boosting plant growth, but this “fertilisation effect” has been declining faster than predicted by computer models, according to an analysis of satellite records. This means plants will soak up less CO2 than forecast and we will need to make bigger cuts in carbon dioxide emissions than we thought to limit global warming. Living organisms are made of chains of carbon, and plants get this carbon from the CO2 in the air. When plants have enough water and other nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere can be the factor that limits their growth. The rising levels of CO2 since the start of the industrial age have boosted plant growth and led to a global greening effect. This fertilisation effect is why the land and seas have continued to soak up half of all the CO2 we emit even though we are emitting more than ever. Studies involving raising CO2 levels at small test sites suggest that the fertilisation effect fades rapidly as other limits kick in. For instance, in eucalyptus forests in Australia low phosphorus levels limit the effect. The models that inform projections of future warming predict a slow decline in the fertilisation effect. Now Yongguang Zhang at Nanjing University in China and his colleagues around the world have analysed three different satellite records of global plant growth. They conclude that the fertilisation effect has been declining faster than models predict since at least 1982. “This study shows a declining fertilisation effect from multiple lines of evidence in the real world due to nutrient limitations,” says Ranga Myneni at Boston University. This means larger reductions in emissions will be needed to meet climate targets, but the team hasn’t quantified this.
12-10-20 Climate change: Have countries kept their promises?
Agreed by 196 parties in the French capital in December 2015, the Paris climate deal aims to keep the rise in global temperatures this century "well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C." We look at five key countries and how well they have kept their promises. Every one of the signatories to the Paris climate agreement has had to lodge a climate action plan with the UN to spell out what steps they are taking to curb carbon. Overall, according to a new assessment from global consultancy Systemiq, low-carbon solutions have been more successful in this period than many people realise. The growth in coal for energy outside of China has declined significantly. "We have to translate what we can do into what we will do," said Lord Nicholas Stern, from the London School of Economics (LSE). "But a big part of that is understanding what is happening and that's why I think this report is important. It will change people's perspectives of what is possible and translate that into action." So the big picture might be improving, but what about individual nations? Just ahead of the five year anniversary of the deal, we look at how five key countries have lived up to their promises under the pact. As well as being the world's fifth largest economy, the UK is the incoming president of the Conference of the Parties or COP, the main UN climate negotiating forum, which will take place in Glasgow in November 2021. Australia matters because not only is it one of the biggest sources of fossil fuels, it is also a country highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The EU represents about a fifth of the world's economy - and was responsible for around 9% of the global share of CO2 emissions in 2019, the third largest emitter. China is key to solving the global problem with climate change, because it is the world's biggest contributor to the root cause, CO2 emissions. The Philippines is one of the countries suffering the most from the impacts of climate change.
12-10-20 COP26: Ellie Goulding and Emma Watson join call for climate talks change
Four hundred women - including a host of female stars - have signed an open letter to the UK government calling for more women in "decision-making roles" at a global climate summit next year. One woman has so far been appointed to the UK's four-person leadership team for the UN's COP26 summit, in Glasgow. A letter, signed by actress Emma Watson and singer Ellie Goulding, says the gender balance was "incomprehensible". The government says it is committed to diversity. The UK is hosting COP26, a UN climate change summit, in November 2021. It was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic but is seen as a crucial moment for global leaders to agree on further action to tackle climate change. Conservative MP Marie Treveylan has been appointed as the COP26 adaptation and resilience champion. She will work alongside her all-male colleagues, COP26 president Alok Sharma, businessman Nigel Topping and former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney. But the letter, addressed to Mr Johnson and Mr Sharma, calls for the UK government to guarantee 50:50 gender balance at the leadership level. It has also been signed by Hollywood actress Emma Thompson, MP Caroline Lucas, and Google's Kate Brandt. A government spokesperson told the BBC that 45% of the senior management in the COP26 team is female, including the chief operating officer. But campaigners, including those who signed the letter, say these roles are mainly operational and there are not enough women in "influencing" leadership positions. At last year's COP25 climate change conference, 21% of the 196 heads of delegation were women, according to the UN. The youth climate movement has been led by prominent young women, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. But for Mexican indigenous activist, Xiye Bastida, the lack of representation at high level talks is disheartening. "When you attend conferences, events, and panels, most of the people talking about climate are older white men," she says.
12-10-20 Crabs with an appetite for seaweed could save Caribbean coral reefs
Caribbean coral reefs that are being taken over by seaweed could be saved by giant herbivorous crabs. While climate change threatens many coral reefs around the world, algal overgrowth, including seaweed, is also an issue. “In the Caribbean it’s a well-known problem,” says Mark J. Butler IV at Florida International University. Butler says the seaweed covers up corals, shading them from light and preventing young corals from growing. The seaweed also creates harmful chemicals that repel larval reef fish and may cause disease and shut down reproduction in corals. “The main way that people are trying to restore coral reefs is to transplant corals onto reefs but that doesn’t get rid of the seaweed problem,” says Butler. Historically, herbivores such as sea urchins would keep the seaweed in check, but in the early 1980s almost the entire Caribbean population died suddenly – exactly why is unknown – and the seaweed took over the reefs. As an alternative, Caribbean king crabs (Maguimithrax spinosissimus) aren’t picky eaters and will finish off seaweed that other animals avoid, which could help restore the reefs. Butler and co-author Angelo Jason Spadaro, also at Florida International University, collected hundreds of the crabs from nearby habitats. They added the crabs to 24 reefs in the Florida Keys, then monitored their effects on the corals and fish after two years. “We were really astounded by the first year’s results where we saw on average about an 80 per cent reduction in the seaweeds on those reefs where we put the crabs,” says Butler. The pair also saw more new corals and a greater number of fish on the reefs. While the crabs are native to the region, they are not naturally abundant on reefs as few survive to adulthood. “Coral reefs are tough neighbourhoods,” says Butler. “There are a lot of hungry mouths to feed on a coral reef and the tiny crabs are eaten by quite a few different species.” To get around this, the pair suggest the crabs could be reared in captivity until they are large enough to escape predators.
12-10-20 Extinction: Conservation success set against 31 lost species
The European bison has moved a step back from the brink of extinction, according to an update of the official extinction list. Europe's largest land mammal was almost wiped out by hunting and deforestation a century ago, but numbers have now risen to over 6,000 in wild herds across the continent. The recovery is regarded as a "conservation success" story. But 31 species of plants and animals have gone extinct in the latest tally. They include frogs, fish, several plants and a bat. The extinction list by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation for Nature) assesses the survival prospects of plants, animals and fungi. In the third and final update for this year, Dr Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN, said the recovery of the European bison and 25 other species demonstrated "the power of conservation". But the growing list of extinct species "is a stark reminder that conservation efforts must urgently expand", he added. The IUCN has now assessed almost 130,000 species of plants and animals, of which more than a quarter are threatened with extinction. In the latest update of the "RedList", there is good news and bad news for a range of mammals, birds and amphibians. Despite good news for animals such as the European bison, a total of 31 species have been declared extinct, including three frogs of Central America, 17 freshwater fish of the Philippines, the Lord Howe long-eared bat and 11 plant species. The frogs have been hit by a deadly fungal disease, while the fish have disappeared due to predation by introduced species and over-fishing. A dolphin found in the Amazon river, the tucuxi, has been classed as endangered. All the world's freshwater dolphins are now threatened. The small grey dolphin is in trouble due to accidental capture in fishing gear, pollution and the damming of rivers. The IUCN says its survival rests on eliminating the use of gillnets - curtains of fishing net that hang in the water - and reducing the number of dams in the waters where they live. In the bird kingdom, the Andean condor, secretary bird, bateleur and martial eagle are now at high risk of extinction.
12-9-20 In the past 15 years, climate change has transformed the Arctic
The pace of change has surprised researchers who launched the annual report card in 2006. Fifteen years of grading warming’s impact on the Arctic has made one thing abundantly clear: Climate change has drastically altered the Arctic in that short time period. Breaking unfortunate records is “like whack-a-mole,” says Jackie Richter-Menge, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and an editor of the 2020 Arctic Report Card, released December 8 at the virtual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. From sea ice lows to temperature highs, records keep popping up all over the place. For instance, in June, a record-high 38° Celsius (100.4° Fahrenheit) temperature was recorded in the Arctic Circle (SN:6/23/20). And in 2018, winter ice on the Bering Sea shrank to a 5,500 year low (SN:9/3/20). “But quite honestly, the biggest headline is the persistence and robustness of the warming,” Richter-Menge says. In 2007, only a year after the first Arctic Report Card, summer sea ice reached a record low, shrinking to an area 1.6 million square kilometers smaller than the previous year. Then, only five years later, the report card noted a new low, 18 percent below 2007. In 2020, sea ice didn’t set a record but not for lack of trying: It still was the second lowest on record in the last 42 years. “The transformation of the Arctic to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed region is well under way,” the report concludes. And it’s changing faster than expected when researchers launched the report card in 2006. The annual average air temperature in the Arctic is rising two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, Richter-Menge says. Over the last 20 years, it’s warmed at a rate of 0.77 degrees C per decade, compared with the global average of 0.29 degrees C per decade.
12-9-20 Why geology must abandon fossil fuels and embrace sustainability
Geologist have often served fossil fuel exploration – now is the time for them to focus on climate change and other sustainable development goals instead, says Christopher Jackson. THIS year has brought into sharp focus the importance of scientists in our everyday lives. Vaccinologists have sought to create inoculations to help tackle the covid-19 pandemic, and have succeeded. Virologists, epidemiologists and behavioural scientists have directly informed government policies that control our movements to keep us safer. Pandemics come and (we hope) go. But what of global warming? Overshadowed in 2020, this threat to the environment, global health and our economic well-being will persist for generations after covid-19. Scientists clearly have a pivotal role in understanding and, ultimately, informing policies that aim to mitigate its impacts – none more so than geologists. It is a common misconception that geology is “just” about rocks. True, geologists are trained to read what rocks tell us about Earth’s past, present and possible future structure and evolution. But, as I will explain as part of this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, geological processes and climate are inextricably linked. Numerous complex physical and chemical links and feedbacks exist between Earth’s surface and subsurface rocks, its atmosphere, oceans and ice caps and life in all these places. Volcanic eruptions bring carbon from deep within the planet to the surface and the air, enhancing the greenhouse effect. Conversely, weathering of exposed rocks at the surface and the action of shell-forming animals in the oceans remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing global warming. The rocks and fossils in the geological record bear witness to these processes, showing us that Earth’s climate has changed continually since the planet formed around 4.6 billion years ago. This same record also shows that atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in at least the past 3 million years, and that the current pace of planetary warming is unprecedented in Earth’s history.
12-9-20 Microplastics left in water are more easily absorbed by mouse cells
Microplastic particles that are exposed to fresh water or saltwater for several weeks are more likely to be absorbed by mouse cells growing in the laboratory, suggesting that environmental microplastics may be able to enter cells more easily than we thought. Studies investigating the potential effects of ingested microplastics in animals often use clean – or “pristine” – microplastic particles. Yet these don’t fully resemble the particles found in nature, which can become coated with debris from the environment. Anja Ramsperger at the University of Bayreuth in Germany and her colleagues took pristine microplastic particles and incubated them for two to four weeks in either fresh water from an artificial pond or in saltwater from a marine aquarium. Both of these environments were inhabited by diverse animal, plant and microbial communities. By incubating the particles, the researchers were trying to more closely imitate the real-world environmental conditions that they are normally exposed to before animals or humans encounter them. They then exposed the microplastic particles to mouse cells growing in a dish in the laboratory and watched what happened under a microscope. The researchers discovered that particles incubated in freshwater or saltwater environments were 10 times more likely to be absorbed by the cells than pristine particles that were kept in purified water. “We were very surprised by the large effect that we observed,” says Ramsperger. The team suspects that this may be due to a layer of biological molecules, including proteins, carbohydrates and fats, that accumulated on the surface of these microplastic particles. “We are currently investigating this,” says Ramsperger. “But likely some molecules attached to the surface of the particles enhance internalisation.”
12-9-20 Climate change: Low-carbon revolution 'cheaper than thought'
A landmark report says the UK can make major cuts to carbon emissions more cheaply than previously thought. The Climate Change Committee says that, for less than 1% of national wealth, the UK can reduce 78% of emissions by 2035, based on 1990 levels. This brings forward the UK’s clean energy timetable by 15 years - a previously unimaginable leap. The report says the low costs for the transformation are due to new clean technologies also being more efficient. The authors say people can play their part by eating less red meat, curbing flying, driving less and installing low-carbon heating. They estimate the costs of the low-carbon revolution will scale up to an annual £50bn by 2030 from around $10bn today, with most being private investment. By 2030, they estimate that some of these costs will be offset by fuel savings of £18bn. Prof Euan Nisbet from Royal Holloway, University of London, who was not involved with the report, said: "This is a massively important report that maps out a whole new economy for Britain to create a better country. “This shows it can be done. It can be afforded. This is world-leading, and it’ll persuade other countries also to follow the path.“ But sceptics say that the committee, which advises the government on climate matters, has underestimated the eventual bill and overestimated the government’s ability to deliver change on the scale projected. But the committee, also known as the CCC, says: “The message to the government is clear: the 2020s must be the decisive decade of progress and action on climate change”. If its recommendations are carried out, the CCC says the UK will achieve its share of the UN target agreed under the Paris agreement drafted five years ago. This international deal aims to keep the global temperature rise well below 2C and “pursue efforts“ to keep it under 1.5C. So far, temperatures have increased around 1.1C and are contributing to devastating forest fires and ice loss at the poles. As a result, some scientists believe dangerous climate change may have already begun.
12-9-20 Climate change: Global 'elite' will need to slash high-carbon lifestyles
The world's wealthiest 1% account for more than twice the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%, according to the UN. Their emissions gap report finds that the richest will need to rapidly cut their CO2 footprints to avoid dangerous warming this century. The study finds that the global Covid-19 shutdown will have little long term impact on the climate. But a strong, green recovery could limit the rise in temperatures to 2C. The study, compiled by the UN Environment Programme (Unep), underlines the chasm between the level of emissions consistent with keeping temperatures down and what's happening in the real world. It predicts that while carbon production will have tumbled by around 7% this year because of the pandemic, this would only reduce warming by 0.01C by 2050. While the report looks at the plans that governments have submitted to curb their CO2, it also examines the roles of lifestyles and consumption patterns of individuals. The global top 10% of income earners use around 45% of all the energy consumed for land transport and around 75% of all the energy for aviation, compared with just 10% and 5% respectively for the poorest 50% of households, the report says. If the world wants to keep on track to restrict the rise in temperatures this century to 1.5C, then these high carbon footprints will need to be significantly curbed to around 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita by 2030. For the poorest 50% of the world, that would actually mean an increase in their footprint by a factor of three. And for the top 10% of earners, this would mean cuts to around one tenth of their current level. But for the richest 1%, it would mean a dramatic reduction. "The wealthy bear the greatest responsibility in this area," Unep executive director Inger Anderson wrote in a foreword to the report.
12-9-20 RAF plane flies low over world's biggest iceberg
The RAF has now released footage from its low-level reconnaissance flight over the giant iceberg, A68a. An A400m transporter was recently sent on reconnaissance missions to assess the state of the 4,200 sq km behemoth. As the previously published stills have shown, A68a is crumbling – but the video footage also underscores the berg's great size.
12-8-20 Certain corals can recover from bleaching during prolonged heatwaves
Climate change is making marine heatwaves longer and more frequent, which has resulted in several mass coral bleaching events in recent years. Now it seems that certain corals are able to recover from bleaching even while marine heatwaves are ongoing. During a tropical marine heatwave between 2015 and 2016, Julia Baum at the University of Victoria in Canada and her colleagues analysed corals around Kiritimati in the central Pacific Ocean, the largest coral atoll in the world. The marine heatwave was the longest ever recorded. “Scientists had predicted that no coral reef would experience that much heat stress until mid-century,” says Baum. Baum’s team tagged more than 100 corals of two species – Platygyra ryukyuensis and Favites pentagona – at different sites around the island. Some were in places close to inhabited villages, meaning they had already been disturbed, and others were in areas that were pristine before the heatwave began. The group photographed and tracked individual corals over the course of the heatwave. The team was surprised to discover that some corals survived bleaching, recovering even though the water temperature was still elevated. These corals initially coexisted with heat-sensitive symbiotic algae, endured the bleaching event, and then recovered by teaming up with heat-tolerant symbionts. In ordinary marine temperatures, heat-sensitive algae are generous partners to their coral hosts, photosynthesising and providing the corals with energy. Corals in partnerships with heat-sensitive algae appear fatter, because they are able to build up lipid reserves, says Baum. “Corals only exhibited this capacity to recover from bleaching while still in hot water if they weren’t also exposed to strong local stressors,” says Baum. The team found that corals in highly disturbed areas contained mainly heat-tolerant symbionts before the heatwave. Although they initially resisted bleaching, F. pentagona corals that began with heat-tolerant algae had no survival advantage, and P. ryukyuensis corals with the symbionts were actually 3.3 times less likely to survive. The findings provide evidence that local protection of corals is helpful in the face of climate change, says Baum.
12-8-20 Hydrogen power: Firms join forces in bid to lower costs
The possibility of a future powered significantly by clean hydrogen has taken a small step closer. The world’s biggest “green” hydrogen developers have joined forces in what they call the Green Hydrogen Catapult. Their ambition is to expand production 50-fold in less than six years to radically drive down the cost. The companies involved include ACWA Power, CWP Renewables, Envision, Iberdrola, Ørsted, Snam, and Yara. Green hydrogen produced by renewable energy using electrolysis is currently much more expensive than obtaining hydrogen from natural gas. The firms hope that their economies of scale can drive the cost down to $2 a kg, which recent analysis suggests could make it cost-competitive. Some energy experts doubt whether the objective is achievable, especially as green hydrogen currently costs between 3.5 and 8/kg. The new initiative will see industry leaders deploy 25 gigawatts of renewables-based production through 2026. If the target is reached it would make a substantial contribution to world attempts to decarbonise society by helping transform carbon-intensive industries, including power generation, chemicals, steelmaking and shipping, by supplanting use of gas or coal. Hydrogen could also be used for heavy transport such as buses, trucks and construction vehicles – like the prototype JCB digger. One potential location for production is the vast, relentlessly sunny Sahara, where solar power is already established. One member of the consortium, Paddy Padmanathan, from Saudi-backed ACWA said: "Having led the race to deliver photovoltaic energy at well-below $2 cents per kilowatt-hour, we believe collective ingenuity and entrepreneurship can deliver green hydrogen at less than US$2 per kilogram". "From an industry perspective, we see no technical barriers to achieving this, so it's time to get on with the virtuous cycle of cost reduction through scale up.”
12-8-20 An enormous supervolcano may be hiding under Alaskan islands
A geologic game of connect the dots reveals hints of a giant undersea crater. A mysterious, previously undiscovered supervolcano may be lurking beneath Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. A new study suggests a wide crater, created when the supervolcano exploded, connects at least four existing volcanoes. It’s so big that if the supervolcano erupted during the last few thousand years, it could have disrupted civilizations around the world, says John Power, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory. Power presents the findings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on December 7. The discovery, not yet confirmed, emerged from several pieces of evidence that at first glance seem unrelated, says Diana Roman, a volcanologist at Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “There’s no one smoking gun,” she says. And in fact, the mythical-sounding Islands of the Four Mountains, actually six volcanoes located near the center of the island chain, look like an ordinary volcanic cluster. But taken together, the data point convincingly to the existence of a caldera about 20 kilometers across. The volcanoes’ peaks are arranged in a ring and bathymetric seafloor mapping, mostly from the 1950s, shows arc-shaped ridges and a 130-meter-deep depression in the center of the ring. Both are clues that the volcanoes are connected by one big caldera, a massive crater that forms when a very large magma chamber in a volcano explodes and empties. Gravity data from satellites echo the look of other calderas. And analysis of such volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide, as well as patterns of microearthquakes also suggest the presence of a caldera. “We weren’t surprised there were microearthquakes,” says Roman, considering one of the volcanoes, Mount Cleveland, is one of the most active volcanoes in the Aleutians. But, she says, those microearthquakes extended farther east and north than they would expect just based on the volcanoes seen at the surface. “That makes more sense in the context of the caldera.
12-7-20 Climate change threatens 'most Alps glaciers'
Up to 92% of glaciers in the Alps could be lost by the end of the century due to climate change, say researchers. The mountain range's 4,000 glaciers include popular skiing resorts such as Zermatt in Switzerland and Tignes in France. The findings by Aberystwyth University suggest those ski resorts' glaciers would be all but gone. Water run-off, storage and Alpine eco-systems would also be affected. The university's research covers the entire European Alps region and is based on 200 years of climate records and forecasts covering 1901 to 2100. They modelled what is called the environmental "equilibrium line altitude" (ELA) of valley glaciers across the Alps. This is the altitude where the amount of snow and ice that accumulates is the same as the amount that melts or evaporates over a one-year period. This measure helped the researchers make predictions of the glaciers' likely response to climate change, which they expect will be "rapid and highly variable". Prof Neil Glasser, who is coordinator of the European Union-funded "Change" project, said: "Glaciers are the 'canary in the mine' for climate change - their retreat is so fast. "If, as we expect, we see these patterns replicated on a global basis, the retreat of mountain glaciers will have significant implications for sea level rise. "There will be bigger changes to come from climate change, but this dramatic disappearance of glaciers from the Alps is one of the most immediate and visible effects. "One of the biggest impacts on the local population in the Alps is on water resources and the change in melt and run-off. "That will have implications for drinking water, crops, irrigation, sanitation and hydro power." The research found popular skiing destinations that could be lost include the famous Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland, the Hintertux Glacier in Austria and La Grand Motte Glacier in Tignes, France. They also found by 2050 almost all the glaciers below 3,500 metres in the Alps are likely to have melted.
12-7-20 Climate change: Snowy UK winters could become thing of the past
Snowy winters could become a thing of the past as climate change affects the UK, Met Office analysis suggests. It is one of a series of projections about how UK's climate could change, shared with BBC Panorama. It suggests by the 2040s most of southern England could no longer see sub-zero days. By the 2060s only high ground and northern Scotland are still likely to experience such cold days. The projections are based on global emissions accelerating. It could mean the end of sledging, snowmen and snowball fights, says Dr Lizzie Kendon, a senior Met Office scientist who worked on the climate projections. "We're saying by the end of the century much of the lying snow will have disappeared entirely except over the highest ground," she told Panorama. If the world reduces emissions significantly the changes will be less dramatic, the Met Office says. The average coldest day in the UK over the past three decades was -4.3 Celsius. If emissions continue to accelerate, leading to a global temperature rise of 4C, then the average coldest day in the UK would remain above 0 Celsius across most of the country throughout winter. Even if global emissions are reduced dramatically and world temperatures rise by 2C, the average coldest day in the UK is likely be 0 Celsius. The Met Office says these temperatures are subject to variation and some years may see days colder than the average. Its projections explore how the UK's climate might change. "The overarching picture is warmer, wetter winters; hotter, drier summers," Dr Kendon says. "But within that, we get this shift towards more extreme events, so more frequent and intense extremes, so heavier rainfall when it occurs." The Met Office says we are already seeing dramatic changes in the UK climate. "The rate and nature of the climate change that we're seeing is unprecedented," says Dr Mark McCarthy of the Met Office's National Climate Information Centre. Most of the country has already seen average temperatures rise by 1C since the Industrial Revolution and we should expect more of the same, he warns. That may not sound like much, but even these small changes in our climate can have a huge impact on the weather and on many plants and animals.
12-6-20 Should scientists artificially cool the planet to stave off climate catastrophe?
Why some think climate engineering is Earth's only option. Should scientists artificially cool the planet to stave off climate catastrophe? Here's everything you need to know: (Webmaster's comment: A really bad idea! These ideas will have huge unintended impacts on our environment and wildlife as such ideas have in the past!)
- What is geoengineering? Some climate scientists are coming to believe it's humanity's only hope for slowing or stopping disastrous changes in the climate. As runaway carbon dioxide emissions contribute to melting ice caps, widespread flooding, prolonged heat waves and droughts, apocalyptic wildfires, and devastating hurricanes, researchers are exploring planetary-scale interventions in Earth's natural systems as a way of counteracting climate change.
- What are the most plausible proposals? SilverLining's grant recipients are researching whether humans can blast sunlight-reflecting aerosol particles into the stratosphere, mimicking the cooling effect of volcanic ash clouds. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, spewing sulphate particles into the atmosphere that caused global temperatures to drop 0.6 degrees Celsius over the next two years.
- What else is being explored? Another idea is to pump salt water from oceans into the air, forming water droplets that would make marine clouds brighter and thus more reflective. Australia is funding research, hoping enhanced clouds could cool water temperatures enough to save the already damaged Great Barrier Reef. Cambridge University researchers are studying whether ships can pump salt particles into low-lying polar clouds to help refreeze polar ice caps.
- So why not do it now? Meddling with Mother Nature is risky. Earth's weather systems are interconnected in extremely complex ways, which is why climate change is believed to impact everything from how long hurricanes linger over coastlines to how fast wildfires accelerate. Tinkering with one aspect of weather could have dangerous, unforeseen ripple effects: Two years ago, Nature called geoengineering "outlandish and unsettling."
- Is safety the only concern? No. Some climate activists argue that geoengineering serves as a get-out-of-jail-free panacea that would allow carbon-emitting corporations to conduct business as usual. They argue that no technological breakthrough would eliminate the long-term need to abandon fossil fuels.
- Where do most scientists stand? The global failure to make major emissions cuts is causing many experts to reconsider geoengineering. Compared with the massive financial consequences of global warming, the estimated $2 billion annual price tag to develop solar engineering over 15 years is quite inexpensive.
- Sucking carbon out of the air: The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world must remove 1 trillion tons of carbon by 2100 to have any hope of avoiding more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. A proposed solution, carbon capture, takes two forms: removing CO2 directly from the emissions of power plants and other industrial facilities or scrubbing it from the atmosphere.
12-5-20 World's biggest iceberg captured by RAF cameras
An RAF aircraft has obtained images of the world's biggest iceberg as it drifts through the South Atlantic. The A400m transporter flew low over the 4,200-sq-km block, known as A68a, to observe its increasingly ragged state. The pictures reveal multiple cracks and fissures, innumerable icy chunks that have fallen off, and what appear to be tunnels extending under the waterline. The Antarctic berg is currently bearing down on the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia. A68a is now just 200km from the island and there is a real possibility it could become stuck in shallow coastal waters. The British Forces South Atlantic Island (BFSAI) reconnaissance flight was sent out to assess the situation. "Guided by satellite tracking, the A400M can get under the weather and closer to the iceberg, enabling more detailed observations," Squadron Leader Michael Wilkinson, Officer Commanding 1312 Flt, said in a BFSAI Facebook posting. "I know I speak on behalf of all of the crew involved when I say this is certainly a unique and unforgettable task to be involved in." Satellite images acquired in recent weeks have also suggested that A68a's edges are crumbling rapidly. Relentless wave action is breaking off countless small fragments, so-called "bergy bits" and "growlers". But some of the pieces being calved are significant objects in their own right and will need tracking because of the additional hazard they will now pose to shipping. The A400m's new imagery - stills and video - will be analysed to try to understand how the berg might behave in the coming weeks and months. Although currently heading straight at South Georgia, A68a is being carried in fast-moving waters that should divert the bloc in a loop around the southern part of the island. There is considerable interest in whether the berg might then ground on the territory's continental shelf. Should that happen, it could cause considerable difficulties for the island's seals and penguins as they try to get out to sea to forage for fish and krill. When A68a broke away from an ice shelf in Antarctica in July 2017, it measured nearly 6,000 sq km - about a quarter of the size of Wales. At 4,200 sq km, it now has an area closer to that of an English county like Somerset. Experts are surprised the iceberg hasn't lost more of its bulk. Many thought it would have shattered into several large pieces long before now.
12-4-20 Climate change: UK aim of 68% emissions cut a 'colossal challenge'
Meeting the UK's world-leading climate change target will be a "colossal challenge", a government spending watchdog has warned. The National Audit Office says it will affect the way we work, travel, heat our homes - even how much meat we eat. In a report it says the cost of cutting CO2 is highly uncertain, but the cost of allowing temperatures to rise would probably be greater. The PM has vowed to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 based on 1990 levels. Making the new pledge, Boris Johnson urged other world leaders to follow with ambitious targets at the virtual climate summit he is hosting on 12 December. The announcement has been broadly welcomed, although scientists say it does not guarantee dangerous climate change will be avoided. They urged Mr Johnson to impose policies to back up his ambitions - currently the UK is slipping behind its existing targets. The PM said: “We have proven we can reduce our emissions and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process – uniting businesses, academics, NGOs and local communities in a common goal to go further and faster to tackle climate change. “Today, we are taking the lead with an ambitious new target to reduce our emissions by 2030 faster than any major economy. “But this is a global effort, which is why the UK is urging world leaders to bring forward their own ambitious plans to cut emissions and set net zero targets.” One of the UK’s leading climate scientists, Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, told BBC News: “Mr Johnson’s target is ambitious – but we need action to back it up, right now. He noted that Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently committed £127bn to the HS2 rail link and new roads - which will both increase emissions - while offering just £1bn to home insulation, which would reduce emissions. Prof Hoskins remarked: “The actions of the chancellor don't measure up. Every single department has to wear climate change glasses when they think of new policies, and the Treasury clearly hasn’t got that message.”
12-4-20 Denmark set to end all new oil and gas exploration
Denmark will end all new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, as part of a wider plan to stop extracting fossil fuels by 2050. Its government also agreed to cancel its latest licensing round on Thursday, which gives firms permission to search for and produce oil and gas. "We are now putting a final end to the fossil era," said Denmark's climate minister. Greenpeace Denmark described the announcement as a "watershed moment". However, the country's latest licensing round was facing uncertainty, after Total of France pulled out in October, leaving only one other applicant. Denmark is currently the largest oil producer in the European Union, although it produces much less than non-EU members Norway or the UK. It pumped 103,000 barrels a day in 2019, according to analysis by UK oil giant BP. There are 55 drilling platforms on its territory, across 20 oil and gas fields. "We're the European Union's biggest oil producer and this decision will therefore resonate around the world," Danish climate minister Dan Jorgensen said on Thursday. The decision will cost Denmark about 13 billion kroner (£1.1bn), according estimates by the energy ministry, though it said this amount was subject to substantial uncertainty. This move marks a historic milestone. No other sizeable oil producer has taken such a step, Dan Jorgensen tells the BBC. Denmark has been positioning itself as a frontrunner fighting climate change, but its oil production had presented a dilemma. Since the 1970s, Denmark has earned billions of dollars from its North Sea oil. That's also helped finance the country's generous welfare state. "We want to be climate neutral in 2050. And if we are to have any credibility in that, then this is a necessary decision," says Mr Jorgensen. When the current government came to power, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called it "the first climate election". But recently it has faced criticism for not taking more ambitious steps to reach its climate goal. This latest decision now sends a stronger message.
12-3-20 UK sets ambitious climate goal of 68 per cent emissions cut by 2030
The UK government has pledged to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, marking a significant bump in ambition from existing plans for a 53 to 57 per cent reduction. The new goal comes nine days ahead of the UK hosting a “climate action summit” to encourage other countries to declare tougher climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), under the Paris Agreement. Stronger plans are needed to close the gap between the catastrophic 3°C-plus temperature rises that current NDCs have us on track for, and the Paris deal’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. “This is the most significant NDC announcement so far from any major economy,” said Richard Black at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK-based think tank, in a statement. The new target is exactly in line with what the government’s official climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), called for in a letter published earlier today. The group said 68 per cent would be “world-leading” compared with existing plans of governments. The UK had previously promised a 53 per cent cut in emissions as part of a joint effort with the rest of the European Union, but Brexit has required the UK to produce a new NDC. Separately, in domestic legislation, the UK had also pledged a 57 per cent cut by 2032. Today’s bolder target was welcomed by environmental groups and businesses, including Greenpeace, WWF, Tesco, BT and energy firms. Nonetheless, it is clear far more action will be needed if the UK is to meet the new ambition. The government’s own analysis last week showed that recent major policies, such as banning new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030, had failed to do enough to put the UK on track even for the old goal of 57 per cent by 2032. The new target widens that gap further.
12-3-20 'Ditch high definition and new tech to fight climate change'
Streaming a television show in standard definition can shave a little off your carbon emissions, a report from scientists at the UK's Royal Society says. HD video streaming on a phone generates about eight times more in emissions than standard definition (SD), it says. And, on a small screen, the viewer might not even notice the difference. Platforms and regulators should limit streaming resolution and default to SD, the authors urged. The report says digital technology’s estimated contribution to global emissions ranges from 1.4% to 5.9% of the global total. Another simple way to save energy is for people streaming music to turn off any accompanying video if they’re just listening, not watching, the authors say. They estimate such small moves could save up to 5% of the emissions from a streaming service – a reduction comparable to what’s achieved by running YouTube’s servers on renewable energy. The report also suggests owning and using devices for longer before trading them in, because the emissions created in making a new device are significant. Some of the numbers in the report are contested. But it says that if you change your mobile phone every two years, the manufacturing represents about half of all the emissions it will generate through its lifetime. But if individuals keep their phones for four years instead of two, that contribution is significantly reduced. For the same reason, the report says buying a device second-hand - or sharing equipment - also reduce the share of so-called "embodied emissions". Moving computing from home or business desktops and on to the cloud can also help, because the cloud allows more efficient patterns of server use - so they don’t consume energy while idle. Tech firms must also play a part, by providing transparent information about the energy consumption of their digital products and services, the report recommends. “There are many routes to net zero [carbon emissions], but digital technology has a central role to play,” said lead author Prof Andy Hopper from Cambridge University. “We must stay alert to digital demand outpacing the carbon emission reductions this transition promises.”
12-3-20 Plastic bottles dumped in rivers can travel thousands of kilometres
Plastic bottles dumped in rivers can travel up to 3000 kilometres in just a few months. Following where bottles end up could help determine how best to tackle plastic pollution. Emily Duncan at the University of Exeter, UK, and her colleagues used GPS and satellite technology, similar to those used for tracking animal movements, to follow the path of 25 plastic bottles. “We thought if we can track a turtle, why can’t we track a plastic bottle?” says Duncan. The team released the bottles along the Ganges river in India and Bangladesh, which is the second largest contributing river to ocean plastic pollution. They found that the average bottle travelled at speeds of about 1 kilometre a day. Some ended up in the Bay of Bengal and travelled an average of 6 kilometres a day at sea. One bottle travelled roughly 3000 kilometres from the Bay of Bengal and circled around the east Indian coastline in 94 days. The fastest bottle travelled about 21 kilometres a day, but Duncan says they have the potential to travel much further and faster depending on ocean currents and wind speed. The team found the bottles travelled in stepwise movements along the Ganges, with some 40 per cent becoming stranded on river banks. That waste could then get flushed out to sea during monsoon season. “This can tell us how much effort we should put to inland waste management,” says Marcus Eriksen at the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organisation in Santa Monica, California. “The most value is in what these bottles can tell us about where and when to remove trash from the world’s rivers,” he says. Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth, UK, says this data shows that rivers are important pathways for ocean plastic pollution. “Rivers are a one-way conveyor belt of material,” he says. “They connect the sea to people that could be living thousands of miles inland. And their actions can have an influence on the accumulations of plastic in the oceans.” In 2010, an estimated 5 million to 13 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the world’s oceans.
12-3-20 Sir David Attenborough: 'Our lives depend' on climate change fight
Sir David Attenborough speaks to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, as he issues a stark warning on the climate crisis and puts the issue at the heart of the UN's global mission.
12-2-20 Climate change: 2020 set to be one of the three warmest years on record
The Earth continued to endure a period of significant heating in 2020 according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its provisional assessment suggests this year will be one of the three hottest, just behind 2016 and 2019. The warmest six years in global records dating back to 1850 have now all occurred since 2015. The most notable warmth was in the Siberian Arctic, where temperatures were 5C above average. To work out the annual rise in temperatures for their State of the Climate report, the WMO uses information from five different global datasets. They then compare modern readings to temperatures taken between 1850-1900. This baseline figure is sometimes referred to as pre-industrial levels. With data available from January to October this year, the WMO says 2020 is set to be around 1.2C above the baseline, but with a margin of error of 0.1C. All five datasets currently have 2020 as the second warmest, behind 2016 and ahead of 2019, based on comparisons with similar periods in previous years. However the expectation from scientists is that the temperature data from November and December will likely see enough cooling to push 2020 into third spot. That's because a La Niña weather event has developed in the Pacific Ocean and this normally depresses temperatures. Despite this, the WMO is certain that 2020 will remain one of the warmest three. "Record warm years have usually coincided with a strong El Niño event, as was the case in 2016," said Prof Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary General. "We are now experiencing a La Niña, which has a cooling effect on global temperatures, but has not been sufficient to put a brake on this year's heat." These relatively similar global temperature figure recorded over the past few years hide considerable differences at local level. In 2020, Siberia saw temperatures around 5C above average, which culminated in a reading of 38C at Verkhoyansk on the 20th June, which is provisionally the highest known temperature recorded anywhere north of the Arctic Circle.
12-2-20 A68a: World's biggest iceberg is fraying at the edges
Iceberg A68a has been imaged at high resolution for the first time in months - and it's in a ragged condition. The world's biggest berg is riven with cracks. Battered by waves and under constant attack from warm waters, it's now shedding countless small blocks. A68a, which broke away from Antarctica in 2017, is on a direct heading for the South Atlantic island of South Georgia. If it grounds there in the shallows, it could cause immense problems for the British Overseas Territory's wildlife. The detailed new picture comes from the San Francisco-based company Planet. It has a fleet of orbiting spacecraft called SkySats that can resolve details at the Earth's surface as small as 50cm across. It's been a challenge getting a clear view of the 150km-long iceberg because so often it is covered by cloud. But on Sunday, Planet finally got a beautiful acquisition right over the tip of A68a's "ice finger" (the berg has the shape of a hand with its index finger outstretched, as if pointing). "The detail of some of the cracks running across the berg are really clear and will be the main controls of the larger bits that break off," explained the British Antarctic Survey's Dr Andrew Fleming, who's examined the new picture. "The edges look really dynamic - including several places where the image seems to have caught the wash as bits have fallen off and collapsed into the sea. It looks more than just waves breaking against the base of the cliffs." The BAS remote sensing manager continued: "There is an obvious 'ice foot' - essentially an underwater protrusion of the ice that can be seen as lighter-coloured water at the base of the ice cliff in a lot of places. It is very apparent on the main berg at the right side of the image. It is caused by increased melting at the waterline due to wave erosion and warmer surface waters. "Unsurprisingly, there are huge numbers of smaller bergs. Some bigger fragments have rolled over to expose a cross section of the berg - I can almost make out layers in the ice. But it's not full thickness - they only measure about 60m."
12-2-20 Humans waging 'suicidal war' on nature - UN chief Antonio Guterres
"Our planet is broken," the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, will warn on Wednesday. Humanity is waging what he will describe as a "suicidal" war on the natural world. "Nature always strikes back, and is doing so with gathering force and fury," he will tell a BBC special event on the environment. Mr Guterres wants to put tackling climate change at the heart of the UN's global mission. In a speech entitled State of the Planet, he will announce that its "central objective" next year will be to build a global coalition around the need to reduce emissions to net zero. Net zero refers to cutting greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible and balancing any further releases by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. Mr Guterres will say that every country, city, financial institution and company "should adopt plans for a transition to net zero emissions by 2050". In his view, they will also need to take decisive action now to put themselves on the path towards achieving this vision. The objective, says the UN secretary general, will be to cut global emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. Here's what Mr Guterres will demand the nations of the world do: 1. Put a price on carbon. 2. Phase out fossil fuel finance and end fossil fuel subsidies. 3. Shift the tax burden from income to carbon, and from tax payers to polluters. 4. Integrate the goal of carbon neutrality (a similar concept to net zero) into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions. 5. Help those around the world who are already facing the dire impacts of climate change. It is an ambitious agenda, as Mr Guterres will acknowledge, but he will say radical action is needed now. "The science is clear," Mr Guterres will tell the BBC, "unless the world cuts fossil fuel production by 6% every year between now and 2030, things will get worse. Much worse."
12-2-20 UK takes step towards world's first nuclear fusion power station
The UK today embarked on a step toward building the world’s first nuclear fusion power station, by launching a search for a 100-plus hectare site where it can be plugged into the electricity grid. However, there are still major hurdles to overcome before it could start generating power. Prime minister Boris Johnson last year committed an extra £200 million to flesh out the possibility of building the project, known as the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), the government body overseeing STEP, hopes construction could begin around 2030, with the plant operating as soon as 2040. Ian Chapman at the UKAEA says STEP may cost around £2 billion, the equivalent cost in today’s money of building the Joint European Torus (JET), an existing fusion reactor in the UK that was constructed in the 1980s. Francis Livens at the University of Manchester, UK, says the cost and timeline are “ambitious but not implausible”. However, as the name suggests, JET was an internationally funded endeavour, while the UK government hopes to pursue STEP alone. Moreover, it has a different, pioneering design, with accompanying engineering challenges. “STEP is a hugely ambitious programme: to be at the forefront, to be the first in the world to produce a prototype fusion power plant, and then export that round the world,” says Chapman. The plant is pitched as an important plank in efforts to hit the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. But fusion faces big challenges to play that role. Reproducing the way the sun makes energy, by fusing hydrogen together to make helium, requires significant energy on Earth to heat and control the hydrogen with huge magnets. No fusion reactor has yet produced more power than it consumed. That might change in 2025, when the world’s biggest fusion project, ITER in France, is due to switch on. The hope is it will turn 50 megawatts of power into 500MW, proving a net gain is possible.
12-1-20 Saving forests to fight climate change will cost $393 billion annually
Limiting global warming to 1.5 °C over pre-industrial levels is only possible if we make better use of the world’s forests, which collectively act as a huge carbon sink. But maximising the strength of this carbon sink won’t be cheap: it might cost in the region of $393 billion per year. Kemen Austin at RTI International, a nonprofit research firm in the US, and her colleagues have examined the financial costs of mitigating the impacts of greenhouse gases through forests. They estimate that as much as 6 gigatonnes of CO2 per year could be sequestered by forests by 2055, but only if forestry managers are incentivised to keep carbon in their forests. To encourage the change would require a global carbon price of $281 per tonne of CO2. The researchers used an economic model known as the Global Timber Model, which looks at the global forestry sector and predicts how forest management practises -and greenhouse gas emissions – would be affected by carbon pricing models. “For example, a forest manager might decide to lengthen harvest rotations and thus store additional carbon, if compensated for foregone revenue from shorter harvest cycles,” says Austin. Managers may also be encouraged to devote more efforts to afforestation – planting trees in areas that had not previously been forests. The researchers found that financially discouraging tropical deforestation would have the largest impact, responsible for at least 30 per cent of the total mitigation. How the incentives would be financed is an open question. Given the uneven distribution of forests worldwide, Austin acknowledges that there may be an undue financial burden on governments in tropical regions. “Solving global climate change is going to require mitigation across all sectors of the economy: industry, transportation, electricity, and of course, forests,” says Austin.
12-1-20 Brazil's Amazon: Deforestation 'surges to 12-year high'
Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil has surged to its highest level since 2008, the country's space agency (Inpe) reports. A total of 11,088 sq km (4,281 sq miles) of rainforest were destroyed from August 2019 to July 2020. This is a 9.5% increase from the previous year. The Amazon is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming. Scientists say it has suffered losses at an accelerated rate since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. The Brazilian president has encouraged agriculture and mining activities in the world's largest rainforest. The Amazon is home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people. The latest data marked a major increase from the 7,536 sq km announced by Inpe in 2018 - the year before Mr Bolsonaro took office. The new figures are preliminary, with the official statistics set to be released early next year. Brazil had set a goal of slowing the pace of deforestation to 3,900 sq km annually by 2020. In addition to encouraging development in the rainforest, President Bolsonaro has also cut funding to federal agencies that have the power to fine and arrest farmers and loggers breaking environmental law. Mr Bolsonaro has previously clashed with Inpe over its deforestation data. Last year, he accused the agency of smearing Brazil's reputation. In a statement, Brazilian non-governmental organisation Climate Observatory said the figures "reflect the result of a successful initiative to annihilate the capacity of the Brazilian State and the inspection bodies to take care of our forests and fight crime in the Amazon". But some officials said the fact that the rate of increase was lower than that recorded last year was a sign of progress. "While we are not here to celebrate this, it does signify that the efforts we are making are beginning to bear fruit," Vice-President Hamilton Mourão told reporters.
12-1-20 Climate change: Temperature analysis shows UN goals 'within reach'
A new analysis, seen by the BBC, suggests the goals of the UN Paris climate agreement are getting "within reach." The Climate Action Tracker group looked at new climate promises from China and other nations, along with the carbon plans of US President-elect Joe Biden. These commitments would mean the rise in world temperatures could be held to 2.1C by the end of this century. Previous estimates indicated up to 3C of heating, with disastrous impacts. But the experts are worried the long-term optimism is not matched by short-term plans to cut CO2. For more than a decade, researchers from the Climate Action Tracker have kept a close eye on what countries' collective carbon-cutting pledges mean for our warming world. After the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, the group estimated that global temperatures would rise by 3.5C by the end of this century. But the creation in 2015 of the Paris climate agreement, which was designed to avoid dangerous warming of the Earth, made a considerable impact. As a result of the international deal, countries slowly started to switch away from fossil fuels. In September this year, the group concluded that the world was heading for warming of around 2.7C by 2100. This figure was still far above the 2C goal contained in the wording of the Paris pact, and nowhere near the more challenging 1.5C target that scientists endorsed as the threshold to destructive warming in 2018. Their new "optimistic analysis" now suggests a rise of 2.1C by 2100. The past three months have seen some key developments. In September, China's President Xi Jinping told the UN that his country will reach net zero emissions by 2060, and that its emissions will peak before 2030. According to the CAT researchers, this could reduce warming by 0.2 to 0.3C by the end of the century. Japan and South Korea have both followed suit, pledging to reach net zero by 2050. South Africa and Canada have also announced their own net zero targets. The other significant change is the election of Joe Biden in the US.
12-1-20 Tiny island survived tsunami that helped separate Britain and Europe
The Atlantis of northern Europe sank under the seas slowly, rather than being obliterated by a tsunami. A little over 8000 years ago, a devastating tsunami swept across the North Sea, striking a small island that existed there at the time. But new evidence suggests the wave didn’t permanently swamp Dogger Island and its surrounding archipelago. People may have lived on the remaining land for centuries afterwards. Between 110,000 and 12,000 years ago, Earth was in the grip of a glacial period – sometimes rather misleadingly called the last ice age. Because so much water was locked up in ice at the poles, sea levels were many metres lower. This means land that is now underwater was exposed. This includes much of what is now the southern North Sea, between Britain and mainland Europe. As a result, Britain was connected to Europe by a fertile plain called Doggerland. What happened to it? We know much of the polar ice melted, causing sea levels to rise around the world. By about 8200 years ago, Doggerland had gradually shrunk in size, leaving Dogger Island surrounded by a small archipelago (see image, above left). There is some evidence that this final piece of Doggerland had a dramatic end. About 8150 years ago, a submarine landslide occurred off the coast of Norway, dubbed the Storegga Slide. This created a tsunami in the North Sea that hit the surrounding coastlines – in many areas, the wave was many metres deep. Many researchers have argued that the Storegga tsunami helped cut Britain off from Europe. The issue is that so far, we have had no archaeological records of the tsunami’s impact on Doggerland. “We know essentially nothing about the actual impact on the areas which were patently most susceptible to be hit,” says Vince Gaffney at the University of Bradford in the UK.