1-21-21 Climate change: Trump's Paris withdrawal was 'reckless' - John Kerry
US Special Envoy on climate change John Kerry has said the country will now push for rapid action after four years of "reckless behaviour" under Donald Trump. Mr Kerry said that withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement had threatened people's futures all over the world. One of President Biden's first acts following his inauguration was to re-apply to join the climate pact. Mr Kerry said the US would now move forward with "humility and ambition". And this year's climate meeting in Glasgow would be the "last, most important opportunity" to make progress, he said. Former Secretary of State John Kerry is the most senior figure dealing with climate change in the new administration. His high-profile role gives him a position on the National Security Council, and he will report directly to President Biden. On the morning after the new President signed an executive order seeking urgent re-admission to the Paris agreement, Mr Kerry hit out at the wasted years under former President Trump. "We know with pain and some embarrassment that, for the last four years, the leader of our country chose to pull out of the agreement and, frankly, engage in reckless behaviour, with respect to the future of people all over the world," Mr Kerry said. He was speaking remotely to a meeting in Italy of the B20 - a forum for the global business community to make their views known to the G20 group of countries. A former presidential candidate, Mr Kerry has long been a powerful voice in climate politics. As President Obama's Secretary of State he played a key role in securing the Paris agreement in 2015. The US would now move forward with "humility and ambition" in the global negotiations. Time was very short, he argued, and the world was currently moving much too slowly to avoid dangerous warming.
1-21-21 What is the Paris climate agreement and why is the US rejoining?
One of US President Joe Biden's first acts in office was to start the process of rejoining the Paris climate deal - reversing Donald Trump's decision to withdraw. The historic agreement, which came into force in 2016, united nearly 200 countries in a global pact to tackle climate change. The Paris climate deal pledged to keep global temperatures "well below" 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and preferably to 1.5C. Under the agreement, each country sets its own emission-reduction targets, known as national determined contributions (NDCs), which are reviewed every five years to raise ambition. Rich countries are required to help poorer nations adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy. UN scientists say limiting the rise to 1.5C could prevent small island states from sinking beneath the waves, help millions of people avoid the impacts of extreme weather and limit the chances of an ice-free Arctic summer. President Trump announced his intention to leave the deal, in 2017, saying letting countries such as India and China use fossil fuels while the US had to curb its carbon was unfair. The withdrawal became official on 4 November 2020 - by chance, the day after he lost the presidential election. The US, which has historically released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, is the only one to have withdrawn. The new administration has signed a statement accepting the terms of the agreement. It was sent to the United Nations, and the US is now set to formally re-enter the agreement in 30 days. President Biden has pledged to make the fight against climate change a top priority of his administration and rejoin the agreement. His special envoy on climate change, John Kerry, tweeted that Biden was "restoring America's credibility and commitment" and that the world "must and will raise ambition" to tackle global warming.
1-21-21 People buying SUVs are cancelling out climate gains from electric cars
The good news is that more people bought electric cars in 2020. The bad news is that SUVs continued to grow in popularity, too. The fall in oil consumption due to the first trend was completely cancelled out by the second, say Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos at the International Energy Agency in France. The growing popularity of SUVs is making it even harder to cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet climate goals. “Policy-makers need to find ways to persuade consumers to choose smaller and more efficient cars,” says Petropoulos. Oil consumption by conventional cars – excluding SUVs – is estimated to have dropped 10 per cent in 2020, or by more than 1.8 million barrels a day, Cozzi and Petropoulos say in a commentary published on 15 January. Most of this fall was due to reduced travel because of the pandemic and is therefore likely to be temporary. However, a small part of the reduction – around 40,000 barrels a day – was due to the increased share of electric vehicles. “We have seen a skyrocketing of global electric car sales in 2020,” says Petropoulos. Unfortunately, the number of SUVs increased as well. While overall car sales fell in 2020, 42 per cent of buyers chose SUVs, up around three percentage points from 2019. The growing popularity of SUVs is making it even harder to cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet climate goals. “Policy-makers need to find ways to persuade consumers to choose smaller and more efficient cars,” says Petropoulos. Oil consumption by conventional cars – excluding SUVs – is estimated to have dropped 10 per cent in 2020, or by more than 1.8 million barrels a day, Cozzi and Petropoulos say in a commentary published on 15 January. Most of this fall was due to reduced travel because of the pandemic and is therefore likely to be temporary. However, a small part of the reduction – around 40,000 barrels a day – was due to the increased share of electric vehicles. “We have seen a skyrocketing of global electric car sales in 2020,” says Petropoulos. Unfortunately, the number of SUVs increased as well. While overall car sales fell in 2020, 42 per cent of buyers chose SUVs, up around three percentage points from 2019.
1-19-21 Keystone pipeline: Biden 'to cancel it on his first day'
US President-elect Joe Biden is to cancel the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline on his first day in office, North American media report. The pipeline is projected to carry oil nearly 1,200 miles (1,900km) from the Canadian province of Alberta down to Nebraska, to join an existing pipeline. Environmentalists and Native American groups have fought the project for more than a decade. Work had been halted but restarted in 2019 under President Donald Trump. Mr Trump overturned a decision by his predecessor, Barack Obama, who vetoed a bill approving construction in 2015. The privately financed pipeline is expected to cost about $8bn (£5.8bn; CAD $10bn). A briefing note seen by Canadian and US media says Mr Biden will sign an executive order revoking the permit for Keystone XL on Inauguration Day - 20 January. He will also return the US to the Paris climate agreement - a global pact on cutting carbon emissions - reversing another decision by Mr Trump, who took the US out of the accord on 4 November last year. Mr Biden has pledged to make the fight against climate change a top priority of his administration. Alberta's leader, Premier Jason Kenney, said he was "deeply concerned" by the reports of Mr Biden's plans and said if the pipeline was cancelled, his government would look at legal action. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry some 830,000 barrels of heavy crude a day from the fields in Alberta to Nebraska. From there, the oil would travel via existing pipelines to reach refineries around the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would transport oil extracted from Alberta's oil sands, a mixture of sand, water, clay and a thick substance called bitumen. The oil is more expensive and energy-intensive to extract than that from conventional sources. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace say the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per barrel of oil from the oil sands can be 30% higher throughout its life cycle than conventional oil. However, the Canadian government says technology has created more energy efficient practices, reducing climate-damaging emissions. Indigenous groups in northern Alberta have sued the provincial and federal governments for damages from 15 years of oil sands development they were not consulted on, saying it infringed on their guaranteed rights to hunt, trap and fish on traditional lands.
1-15-21 2020 and 2016 tie for the hottest years on record
Last year, record-breaking heat waves struck around the world. 2020 is in a “dead heat” with 2016 for the hottest year on record, scientists with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced January 14. Based on ocean temperature data from buoys, floats and ships, as well as temperatures measured over land at weather stations around the globe, the U.S. agencies conducted independent analyses and arrived at a similar conclusion. NASA’s analysis showed 2020 to be slightly hotter, while NOAA’s showed that 2016 was still slightly ahead. But the differences in those assessments are within margins of error, “so it’s effectively a statistical tie,” said NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City at a Jan. 14 news conference. NOAA climate scientist Russell Vose, who is also based in New York City, described in the news conference the extreme warmth that occurred over land last year, including a months-long heat wave in Siberia (SN: 12/21/20). Europe and Asia recorded their hottest average temperatures on record in 2020, with South America recording its second warmest. It’s possible that 2020’s temperatures in some areas might have been even higher if not for massive wildfires. Vose noted that smoke lofted high into the stratosphere as a result of Australia’s intense fires in early 2020 may have slightly decreased temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, though this is not yet known (SN: 12/15/20). The ocean-climate pattern known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation can boost or decrease global temperatures, depending on whether it’s in an El Niño or La Niña phase, respectively, Schmidt said (SN: 5/2/16). The El Niño phase was waning at the start of 2020, and a La Niña was starting, so the overall impact of this pattern was muted for the year. 2016, on the other hand, got a large temperature boost from El Niño. Without that, “2020 would have been by far the warmest year on record,” he said.
1-15-21 Climate change: 'Exceptionally hot' 2020 concludes warmest decade
Global meteorological agencies agree that 2020 was a scorching year but they are divided on just where it ranks in the temperature records. For Nasa, last year is in a statistical dead heat with 2016 as the warmest year. Others, including the UK Met Office, believe it is second in the rankings dating back to the 19th Century. But all the agencies reporting on Thursday agree that last 12 months are part of the warmest decade on record. Just last week, a report from the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service indicated that 2020 was tied with 2016 as the warmest year. Thursday's reports, from five key agencies around the world, show some dissent from this view, but all agree 2020 is in the top three. Nasa says 2020 is tied with 2016, while the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) and the UK Met Office have it second. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) has 2020 as the third warmest year. The differences between the datasets are all within the margin of error, says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) which has consolidated the information from the agencies. Some key facts about 2020 temperatures: 1. The average global temperature across the year was around 14.9C, putting it around 1.2C above the average between 1850-1900, 2. The 10 years from 2011-2020 were the warmest decade on record. 3. The warmest six years on record have all occurred since 2015. 4. The differences between the top three, 2020, 2019 and 2016 are "indistinguishably small". Taken together they show the global temperature is now around 1.2C above the 1850-1900 average, sometimes referred to as the "pre-industrial figure". Ongoing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from human activities are the key element in driving up temperatures, say researchers. While greenhouse gases declined by around 7% globally last year in response to the coronavirus shutdowns, this wasn't enough to affect temperatures. "Because we haven't stopped doing that and, in fact, we continue to do that even with the pandemic, we're still putting our foot on the accelerator of climate change," Dr Gavin Schmidt, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York, told BBC News. "We anticipate that the planet will continue to warm at the rate that it has and maybe even accelerate, unless we get those emissions down, and that's a big task."
1-15-21 ‘The New Climate War’ exposes tactics of climate change ‘inactivists’
Climate scientist Michael Mann argues outright denialism has morphed into inactivism. Sometime around the fifth century B.C., the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his highly quotable treatise The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” In The New Climate War, climate scientist Michael Mann channels Sun Tzu to demystify the myriad tactics of “the enemy” — in this case, “the fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats and oil-funded governments” and other forces standing in the way of large-scale action to combat climate change. “Any plan for victory requires recognizing and defeating the tactics now being used by inactivists as they continue to wage war,” he writes. Mann is a veteran of the climate wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the scientific evidence that the climate is changing due to human emissions of greenhouse gases was under attack. Now, with the effects of climate change all around us (SN: 12/21/20), we are in a new phase of those wars, he argues. Outright denial has morphed into “deception, distraction and delay.” Such tactics, he says, are direct descendants of earlier public relations battles over whether producers or consumers must bear ultimate responsibility for, say, smoking-related deaths. When it comes to the climate, Mann warns, an overemphasis on individual actions could eclipse efforts to achieve the real prize: industrial-scale emissions reductions. He pulls no punches, calling out sources of “friendly fire” from climate advocates who he says divide the climate community and play into the “enemy’s” hands. These advocates include climate purists who lambaste scientists for flying or eating meat; science communicators who push fatalistic visions of catastrophic futures; and idealistic technocrats who advocate for risky, pie-in-the-sky geoengineering ideas. All, Mann says, distract from what we can do in the here and now: regulate emissions and invest in renewable energy.
1-15-21 Government defends Cumbria coal mine green light
The government’s chief planning officer has defended its recent decision to allow a new coal mine in Cumbria. Joanna Averley told a conference the decision to approve the mine application was left to Cumbria Council, as it was only a local issue. Environmentalists have reacted with astonishment and disbelief, saying the carbon from burning coal is clearly a global concern. They warned the decision will diminish the UK’s credibility. This will be tested at the crucial climate summit being held in Glasgow later in the year. As it hosts the meeting, the UK will play a crucial role in persuading other countries to cut their emissions. Ms Averley’s comments came in a conference on planning policy arranged by the countryside charity CPRE. She was asked why, given the UK's policies on cutting carbon, the Planning Secretary Robert Jenrick had not exercised his powers to overrule Cumbria Council's approval of the mine. Ms Averley said: “The Secretary of State has to make a judgement based on whether the impacts of the scheme are more than local. “And in this case, the decision was that this was a decision for local determination, and the application was approved by the local authority… a decision for local democracy.” She said the planning department was playing its part in tackling climate change. John Sauven, from Greenpeace, told BBC News: “It’s extraordinary that anyone still believes burning coal is only a local issue and has no global impacts. “Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view or the world will be toast. It certainly isn’t setting the global leadership on climate that the prime minister says he's aspiring to.” Paul Miner, from CPRE, said: "All coal mines should be refused planning permission, according to current government policy. So, it beggars belief why ministers have not stepped in and refused the planning application for this coal mine in Cumbria. "Not only does coal mining scar the landscape and cause pollution for countryside communities, it further fuels climate and ecological breakdown. If the UK is to host COP26 while simultaneously approving the extraction of coal, we risk becoming an international laughing stock."
1-14-21 Lush meadows of underwater seagrass are removing plastic from the sea
Underwater seagrass may be naturally trapping millions of pieces of marine plastic and removing them from the sea. Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass endemic to the Mediterranean, forms lush meadows on the sea floor in coastal waters up to 40 metres deep. When P. oceanica sheds leaves, fibres in the leaf sheaths intertwine, forming tangles known as Neptune balls. Anna Sanchez-Vidal at the University of Barcelona in Spain and her colleagues have found that these balls trap plastic items. “When there’s a storm, and these balls are ejected from the sea to land, the plastic also is ejected back to shore,” says Sanchez-Vidal. Her team estimates that these Neptune balls may trap up to 867 million plastic items in the Mediterranean Sea every year. Between 2018 and 2019, the team measured the amount of plastic collected from seagrass litter from four beaches in Mallorca, Spain, which has high levels of plastic near the shore, as well as widespread seagrass meadows. The team found plastic debris in half of the 42 loose seagrass leaf samples they took, with up to 613 plastic items per kilogram of loose leaves. Of the 198 Neptune balls of P. oceanica fibres that the team collected, 17 per cent had intertwined plastic items. The finding points to the need for better conservation of seagrass meadows, says Sanchez-Vidal. “Strict measures should be taken to protect these systems,” she says. In addition to their newly discovered role in trapping and removing plastic, seagrass meadows are also an important reservoir of carbon dioxide and sediment, and a nursery area for many marine animals. P. oceanica is found only in the Mediterranean Sea, but other related seagrass species are found in shallow waters off the coast of Australia. It is unclear whether other species are able to form Neptune balls and function similarly in removing plastic.
1-14-21 How the Earth-shaking theory of plate tectonics was born
Pure insights plus a boom in data transformed our understanding of Earth. ome great ideas shake up the world. For centuries, the outermost layer of Earth was thought to be static, rigid, locked in place. But the theory of plate tectonics has rocked this picture of the planet to its core. Plate tectonics reveals how Earth’s surface is constantly in motion, and how its features — volcanoes, earthquakes, ocean basins and mountains — are intrinsically linked to its hot interior. The planet’s familiar landscapes, we now know, are products of an eons-long cycle in which the planet constantly remakes itself. When plate tectonics emerged in the 1960s it became a unifying theory, “the first global theory ever to be generally accepted in the entire history of earth science,” writes Harvard University science historian Naomi Oreskes, in the introduction to Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. In 1969, geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson compared the impact of this intellectual revolution in earth science to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which had produced a similar upending of thought about the nature of the universe. Plate tectonics describes how Earth’s entire, 100-kilometer-thick outermost layer, called the lithosphere, is broken into a jigsaw puzzle of plates — slabs of rock bearing both continents and seafloor — that slide atop a hot, slowly swirling inner layer. Moving at rates between 2 and 10 centimeters each year, some plates collide, some diverge and some grind past one another. New seafloor is created at the center of the oceans and lost as plates sink back into the planet’s interior. This cycle gives rise to many of Earth’s geologic wonders, as well as its natural hazards. “It’s amazing how it tied the pieces together: seafloor spreading, magnetic stripes on the seafloor … where earthquakes form, where mountain ranges form,” says Bradford Foley, a geodynamicist at Penn State. “Pretty much everything falls into place.” With so many lines of evidence now known, the theory feels obvious, almost inevitable. But the conceptual journey from fixed landmasses to a churning, restless Earth was long and circuitous, punctuated by moments of pure insight and guided by decades of dogged data collection.
1-14-21 Marie Tharp’s groundbreaking maps brought the seafloor to the world
Her deep understanding of geology made for gorgeous and insightful views. alk the halls of an academic earth sciences department, and you’ll likely find displayed on a wall somewhere a strikingly beautiful map of the world’s ocean floors. Completed in 1977, the map represents the culmination of the unlikely, and underappreciated, career of Marie Tharp. Her three decades of work as a geologist and cartographer at Columbia University gave scientists and the public alike their first glimpse of what the seafloor looks like. In the middle of the 20th century, when many American scientists were in revolt against continental drift — the controversial idea that the continents are not fixed in place — Tharp’s groundbreaking maps helped tilt the scientific view toward acceptance and clear a path for the emerging theory of plate tectonics. Tharp was the right person in the right place at the right time to make the first detailed maps of the seafloor. Specifically, she was the right woman. Her gender meant certain professional avenues were essentially off-limits. But she was able to take advantage of doors cracked open by historical circumstances, becoming uniquely qualified to make significant contributions to both science and cartography. Without her, the maps may never have come to be. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime — a once-in-the-history-of-the-world — opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s,” Tharp recalled in a 1999 perspective. “The nature of the times, the state of the science, and events large and small, logical and illogical, combined to make it all happen.” Tharp’s cartographic roots ran deep. She was born in Michigan in 1920 and as a young girl would accompany her father on field trips to survey land and make maps for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Soils, a job that kept the family on the move. “By the time I finished high school I had attended nearly two dozen schools and I had seen a lot of different landscapes,” Tharp recalled. “I guess I had map-making in my blood, though I hadn’t planned to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
1-14-21 Flint water crisis: Michigan charges ex-governor Rick Snyder
Michigan's former governor has been charged over the deadly contamination of water in the city of Flint. Officials charged Rick Snyder with misdemeanour wilful neglect of duty, punishable by up to a year in jail. Nine manslaughter charges have also been levelled against the state's former health director. Both men appeared in court on Thursday. Twelve people died after the city switched its water supply to the Flint River in 2014 in a bid to save money. An outbreak of Legionnaires' disease followed, and residents were found to have drunk water poisoned with lead. The criminal charges on Wednesday followed a new investigation into the case. Prosecutors dropped previous charges in 2019, pledging a more thorough probe. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she will give more details at a news conference on Thursday. Ahead of the event, Mrs Nessel's office announced that the state's former health director, Nick Lyon, would face nine charges of involuntary manslaughter. If found guilty, each charge carries a sentence of 15 years in jail. He had originally been charged with two manslaughter counts, but those charges were dropped in 2019. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday. A lawyer for Mr Snyder, a Republican, said before Thursday's hearing at the Genesee County jail: "We believe there is no evidence to support any criminal charges against Governor Snyder." During his court appearance on Thursday, Mr Snyder only spoke three words - "yes, your honour" - confirming that he still lived in Michigan. He was told he could not leave the state without the court's permission. He is accused of two counts of wilful neglect of duty and was freed after paying a $10,000 (£7,300) bond. The environmental disaster attracted global attention as activists accused officials of racism. Flint is a majority-African American city, where over 40% of the residents live in poverty, and some suggested that authorities' indifference to the community led to the crisis.
1-13-21 The superconductor breakthrough that could mean an energy revolution
We’ve finally made a room-temperature superconductor, so materials that transport electricity without wasting any of it are within our grasp. THEY called it the “Woodstock of physics”. The hastily convened evening session of the American Physical Society meeting in the New York Hilton hotel on 18 March 1987 was supposed to last for just a few hours. In the event, some 1800 physicists crammed into a space made for 1100, with thousands more watching on TV screens outside. The session eventually broke up at 3.15 am, with many people lingering until beyond dawn. The news made front pages around the world. In New York, meeting participants were feted on the street. The reason for the unlikely euphoria was a sudden slew of breakthroughs in superconductivity. Superconductors are materials that can transport electrons, and therefore electrical power, entirely without resistance – unlike the lossy conducting metals that wire up our electrified society, or the semiconductors within our computers. Making a practical superconductor would presage a revolution in how we make, store and transport energy – just what we need in today’s era of accelerating climate change. More than 33 years on, that revolution is still pending. Just lately, though, there have been rumblings of renewed optimism. Theory and experiment are coming together to provide new avenues towards superconductors. Not only that, it seems that we might already have made a superconductor that works at close to room temperature – the ultimate target of this realm of physics. Until now, we have been fumbling around in the dark in our search for working superconductors. Suddenly, we are seeing glimmers of light. This has been a long time coming, even before the false dawn of 1987. It was in 1911 that Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered that mercury wire lost all electrical resistance at an extremely frosty 4.2 kelvin, or 4.2 degrees above absolute zero (-273.15°C), the lowest temperature possible. The next year, tin and lead were discovered to become superconductors, at 3.8K and 7.2K, respectively, followed by other metals, often as alloys such as niobium-tin.
1-13-21 Tropical rainforests may begin pumping out carbon dioxide by 2050
Rising temperatures over the next few decades could cause Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems – including rainforests – to go from being net carbon sinks that remove carbon from the atmosphere to carbon sources which release it. How well an ecosystem can act as a carbon sink is temperature dependent. That is because living things have an optimum range of temperatures at which they can function properly. Beyond this, things start to go wrong. Katharyn Duffy at Northern Arizona University and her colleagues constructed a temperature dependence curve for plants, a model predicting responses to temperature changes for all of the land-based vegetation on Earth. They built the model using data from FLUXNET, a global network of meteorological sensors monitoring carbon exchange of ecosystems. For plants, rising temperatures may lead to lower rates of photosynthesis. Given that plants also respire – which releases carbon dioxide – there is potential for ecosystems to gradually switch from being net stores of the greenhouse gas to net emitters. The team’s results indicate that the tipping point where these terrestrial systems turn into carbon sources could be reached in just 20 to 30 years. “All the plants on Earth are picking up about 30 per cent of all the carbon that we emit and so if that no longer happens, that can create kind of a runaway climate change rate,” says Duffy. “It’s this feedback loop where the plants are taking up less carbon, there’s more carbon in the atmosphere, there’s more warming, and so on, and so forth.” David Galbraith at the University of Leeds, UK, welcomed the research. “It’s a very useful contribution in helping us to make more refined projections for the future,” he says.
1-13-21 Here's why you should be hopeful about climate action in 2021
We have been in many last chance saloons with climate change, but there are now reasons to believe we might finally go out and take action, writes Graham Lawton. ONE temptation that is hard to resist when writing about the environment is the narrative of the last chance saloon – the cliché that the next summit or election is the final opportunity to avert climate or biodiversity crisis, and if it is lost, all is lost. I have written a few dispatches from the saloon and understand its appeal. The analogy is urgent and motivational, while the alternative is to point out that there is, in fact, another saloon over the horizon and that failure isn’t terminal. The problem is, if you overuse an analogy, it loses its power. Especially if it isn’t true. But as 2021 gets into its stride, I think we may have seen the last of the last chance saloon. I’m wary of making any firm predictions – 2020 exposed the folly of doing that – but there are increasing signs that humanity spent much of last year sat in that particular bar, drank its fill, stared at the bottom of the glass and finally decided it was time to quit. Despite the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, there is a whiff of green optimism in the air. Much of it is emanating from the silver linings of a dismal 2020, which this time last year I predicted would be pivotal for the planet. I was right, of course, though for the wrong reasons. Back then, we were just months away from important global negotiations on climate and biodiversity. The pandemic meant both had to be postponed. They are now tentatively rescheduled for later this year – and maybe for the better. If they had happened as planned, in the middle of a business-as-usual 2020, they probably would have produced a business-as-usual outcome: warm words but little action.
1-13-21 Earth’s oceans are storing record-breaking amounts of heat
Seas may have absorbed enough heat last year to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water. Pandemic-related shutdowns may have spared Earth’s atmosphere some greenhouse gas emissions last year, but the world continued to warm. Water temperature measurements from around the globe indicate that the total amount of heat stored in the upper oceans in 2020 was higher than any other year on record dating back to 1955, researchers report online January 13 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. Tracking ocean temperature is important because warmer water melts more ice off the edges of Greenland and Antarctica, which raises sea levels (SN: 4/30/20) and supercharges tropical storms (SN: 11/11/20). Researchers estimated the total heat energy stored in the upper 2,000 meters of Earth’s oceans using temperature data from moored sensors, drifting probes called Argo floats, underwater robots and other instruments (SN: 5/19/10). The team found that upper ocean waters contained 234 sextillion, or 1021, joules more heat energy in 2020 than the annual average from 1981 to 2010. Heat energy storage was up about 20 sextillion joules from 2019 — suggesting that in 2020, Earth’s oceans absorbed about enough heat to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water. This analysis may overestimate how much the oceans warmed last year, says study coauthor Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research who is currently based in Auckland, New Zealand. So the researchers also crunched ocean temperature data using a second, more conservative method for estimating total annual ocean heat and found that the jump from 2019 to 2020 could be as low as 1 sextillion joules. That’s still 65 million kettles brought to boil. The three other warmest years on record for the world’s oceans were 2017, 2018 and 2019. “What we’re seeing here is a variant on the movie Groundhog Day,” says study coauthor Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. “Groundhog Day has a happy ending. This won’t if we don’t act now to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.”
1-12-21 Climate change: US emissions in 2020 in biggest fall since WWII
US greenhouse gas emissions tumbled below their 1990 level for the first-time last year as a result of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. A preliminary assessment from research group Rhodium says that overall emissions were down over 10%, the largest fall since World War II. Transport suffered the biggest decline, with emissions down almost 15% over 2019. Energy emissions also fell sharply, due to a decline in the use of coal. The widespread impact of Covid-19 on the US saw over 20 million people infected with the virus, and to date more than 350,000 have died as a result. With stay-at-home orders in place, economic activity ground to a halt in March and April and this had significant implications for greenhouse gas emissions. In transport, the restrictions on international travel and non-essential journeys saw demand for fuel fall sharply. At the peak of restrictions demand for jet fuel was down 68% on 2019, with petrol down 40%. They have both bounced back as travel bans were eased later in the year but jet fuel demand was still 35% down in December compared to the previous year. When it comes to electricity though the picture is more complicated. Overall the demand for electricity was down just 2% but emissions fell by over 10%. "This was driven almost exclusively from the continued rapid decline of coal-fired power generation," the report says. After decades of dominance, coal in 2020 was the third largest source of power, behind natural gas and nuclear. Renewables now supply 18% of power, the report says, just behind coal with 20% of the market. Based on the preliminary set of data for the year, the authors estimate that overall US emissions fell below 1990 levels for the first time in three decades. The overall fall of 10.3% essentially dwarves the impact of the great economic recession of 2009 on the US, when emissions were down 6.3%.
1-12-21 Microplastics found across the Arctic may be fibres from laundry
Polyester fibres make up nearly three-quarters of all microplastic pollution found in the Arctic. These widespread synthetic fibres are most likely coming from textiles manufacturing and household laundry. We already knew that microplastics are present in the Arctic, but new research shines light on the source of these microplastics. Peter Ross at the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues examined seawater samples from 71 locations across the Arctic taken from 3 to 8 metres below the surface. Microplastics were present in all samples except one, with a count of approximately 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre of seawater. They found that synthetic fibres made up 92 per cent of the microplastic pollution in these samples, and 73 per cent of this is polyester. Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic which are less than 5 millimetres in size. They are either deliberately manufactured to be small, such as microbeads in personal care products, or they have formed from the weathering of larger plastics, such as polyester microfibres. The polyester microfibres can often be as small as one-hundredth of a millimetre. “There is strong suspicion that laundry, clothing and textiles are playing a significant role in contaminating the world’s oceans with microfibres,” says Ross. They found that there are more microplastics in the eastern Arctic versus the western Arctic. “In the eastern Arctic, we found three times more microplastics, which supports the notion that we have more microplastics coming in from the Atlantic side, rather than the Pacific side,” says team member, Anna Posacka, also at Ocean Wise. “There is strong suspicion that laundry, clothing and textiles are playing a significant role in contaminating the world’s oceans with microfibres,” says Ross. “It has the potential to catastrophically impact at different levels of the food chain.”
1-12-21 Ocean pollutants 'have negative effect on male fertility'
Long-lived banned industrial chemicals may be threatening the fertility of male porpoises living off the UK. Polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) were phased out decades ago, but can build up in whales, dolphins and porpoises. Scientists say harbour porpoises exposed to PCBs had shrunken testicles, suggesting an effect on sperm count and fertility. They say that while these are preliminary findings, more must be done to clean up the oceans. PCBs have been linked with a number of threats to whales and dolphins, but research has focused on mothers and their young. A study led by scientists at the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) found high levels of PCBs were linked to smaller testicles in otherwise healthy animals. They think this could have an impact on sperm count, with obvious implications for reproductive success. "In porpoises, reduced testes weights have been associated with lower sperm counts so we think that if PCBs are reducing testes weights they may also be reducing sperm counts but we hope to do further research to confirm this," said lead researcher Rosie Williams of ZSL. Populations of harbour porpoises around the UK are believed to be stable, though the animals face threats from pollution, accidental fishing and infection. The situation is much more dire for killer whales, which are down to a handful of individuals. PCBs were used widely in industry during the last century in everything from plastics and paints to electrical equipment. A series of bans were put in place around the world from the 1970s onwards after concerns were raised about toxicity. The chemicals take a long time to break down and can linger in the environment, particularly in landfill sites where they can escape into waterways and on into the sea. PCBs can build up in the marine food chain, affecting dolphins and porpoises. One killer whale found dead off Scotland in 2016 contained among the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, ever recorded. Although levels of the chemicals are declining, they take a very long time to disappear entirely.
1-11-21 Ocean acidification may make some species glow brighter
As pH drops, certain bioluminescent species might get extra glow, while others dim the lights. A more acidic ocean could give some species a glow-up. As the pH of the ocean decreases as a result of climate change, some bioluminescent organisms might get brighter, while others see their lights dim, scientists report January 2 at the virtual annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Bioluminescence is de rigueur in parts of the ocean (SN: 5/19/20). The ability to light the dark has evolved more than 90 times in different species. As a result, the chemical structures that create bioluminescence vary wildly — from single chains of atoms to massive ringed complexes. With such variability, changes in pH could have unpredictable effects on creatures’ ability to glow (SN: 7/6/10). If fossil fuel emissions continue as they are, average ocean pH is expected to drop from 8.1 to 7.7 by 2100. To find out how bioluminescence might be affected by that decrease, sensory biologist Tom Iwanicki and colleagues at the University of Hawaii at Manoa gathered 49 studies on bioluminescence across nine different phyla. The team then analyzed data from those studies to see how the brightness of the creatures’ bioluminescent compounds varied at pH levels from 8.1 to 7.7. As pH drops, the bioluminescent chemicals in some species, such as the sea pansy (Renilla reniformis), increase light production twofold, the data showed. Other compounds, such as those in the sea firefly (Vargula hilgendorfii), have modest increases of only about 20 percent. And some species, like the firefly squid (Watasenia scintillans), actually appear to have a 70 percent decrease in light production. For the sea firefly — which uses glowing trails to attract mates — a small increase could give it a sexy advantage. But for the firefly squid — which also uses luminescence for communication — low pH and less light might not be a good thing.
1-11-21 Climate change: Africa's green energy transition 'unlikely' this decade
Fossil fuels are set to remain the dominant source of electricity across Africa over the next decade, according to a new study. Researchers found that around 2,500 power plants are planned, enough to double electricity production by 2030. But the authors say that less than 10% of the new power generated will come from wind or solar. The authors say that Africa now risks being locked into high carbon energy for decades. They argue that a rapid, decarbonisation shock is needed to cancel many of the plants currently planned. Until now, there has been a widely shared view that African countries would "leapfrog" directly to renewable energy sources, and away from old world coal, oil and gas. This has already happened with communications, where countries have invested in cellular technology and over 90% of people across the continent have access to a mobile service. But the new research indicates that this same sort of leap isn't likely to happen with green electricity over the next decade. By 2030, the study suggests that coal, oil and gas will continue to dominate the generation of electricity across 54 African countries, with just 9.6% coming from renewable sources, excluding hydro power."We based our analysis on understanding the chances of the power plants that are currently being planned, being commissioned by the end of this decade," lead author Galina Alova from the University of Oxford told BBC News. "In the next few years, we see that renewable energy power plants have, for example, lower success chances than gas and oil." "We find that the success chances have been improving especially for solar, but for others like wind particularly, they're still quite modest." The researchers used machine learning to analyse the factors behind the success or failure of previous power plants. They then applied this knowledge to the 2,500 projects in the pipeline. One key element they concluded, is the size of the project. Bigger plants fail more often.
1-11-21 Pair of robot foresters could plant thousands of trees a day
The Tin Woodman first appeared in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 120 years ago. Now real robot foresters are making their debut, planting trees rather than cutting them down. The robotic foresters are the work of robot makers Milrem in partnership with the University of Tartu, both based in Estonia. Two versions are under development based on the company’s range of driverless ground vehicles. One type is a planter, the other a brush cutter, and both are autonomous. Both are the size of a small car and weigh about a tonne. The planter carries more than 300 seedlings at a time and will plant a hectare of new forest in 5 to 6 hours, totalling between 1000 to 3500 seedlings depending on the species. It also records the exact location of each tree. Armed with this data, the brush cutter, equipped with a cutting tool and precision sensors, removes vegetation around the seedlings. Gert Hankewitz at Milrem Robotics says the robot foresters’ tracks exert less pressure on the ground than human feet and won’t damage the soil. Precise navigation is challenging, though, and requires a combination of laser-based LIDAR sensors, cameras and GPS. LIDAR provides a 3D geometric representation of the environment, but gives relatively little data. High-resolution camera images fill in the gaps. “All the data is fused in real-time, complementing each other, and making autonomous driving in a forest a possibility,” says Hankewitz. The cameras are also used for image recognition, and provide a visual display for the operator if they need to drive the robot manually. The plan is for the robots to be largely autonomous, which presents challenges in surroundings which are unstructured and chaotic, unlike the open roads faced by self-driving cars and other robots. Developers are tackling this with machine learning, using simulations for conditions which may not occur frequently in real life. This means the robotic foresters should be able to tell whether they can cross a given slope, ditch or stream, for example, without getting stuck.
1-11-21 Reawakened Yellowstone geyser isn’t a sign of imminent explosion
Despite extensive data, the 2018 reactivation of Steamboat Geyser is still a mystery. A recent reawakening of the tallest geyser in the world is not a harbinger of an imminent volcanic eruption, a new study reports. And it isn’t likely to portend a dangerous hydrothermal explosion either, which can occur when superheated water turns to steam and bursts violently out of the confining rock, researchers report in the Jan. 12 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The reason for the sudden restart of Steamboat Geyser, found at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, remains a mystery, the scientists say. But the study, which examines a wealth of seismic, environmental and other data from the Yellowstone region, is helping scientists better understand what makes Steamboat, and other geysers, tick. After over three years of dormancy, Steamboat abruptly shot a towering stream of hot water into the sky on March 15, 2018. That event kicked off a new active phase for the geyser, one of Yellowstone’s most famous features — and made some park watchers wonder if the sudden eruption warned of greater dangers yet to come. When it comes to potential threats at Yellowstone, the supervolcano itself gets most of the attention (SN: 1/2/18). But its deep reservoir of magma also heats groundwater that circulates underground or pools on the surface — and those boiling waters pose a far more immediate threat to park visitors. “Probably the biggest hazard in Yellowstone is people going off trail and falling in the boiling water. But there’s always a risk of hydrothermal explosions,” says Michael Manga, a geologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Such explosions are little understood and therefore difficult to anticipate. But they can be deadly: In December 2019, for example, a sudden hydrothermal explosion at Whakaari, or White Island, in New Zealand killed 22 people.
1-9-21 Climate change: Weakened 'ice arches' speed loss of Arctic floes
Look down on the Arctic from space and you can see some beautiful arch-like structures sculpted out of sea-ice. They form in a narrow channel called Nares Strait, which divides the Canadian archipelago from Greenland. As floes funnel southward down this restricted conduit, they ram up against the coastline to form a dam, and then everything comes to a standstill. "They look just like the arches in a gothic cathedral," observes Kent Moore from the University of Toronto. "And it's the same physics, even though it's ice. The stress is being distributed all along the arch and that's what makes it very stable," he told BBC News. But the UoT Mississauga professor is concerned that these "incredible" ice forms are actually being weakened in the warming Arctic climate. They're thinning and losing their strength, and this bodes ill, he believes, for the long-term retention of all sea-ice in the region. Directly to the north of Nares Strait is the Lincoln Sea. It's where you'll find some of the oldest, thickest floes in the Arctic Ocean. It's this ice that will be the "last to go" when, as the computer models predict, the Arctic becomes ice-free during summer months sometime this century. There are essentially two ways this old ice can be lost. It can be melted in place in the rising temperatures or it can be exported. And it's this second mode that's in play in Nares Strait. The 40km-wide channel's arches act as a kind of throttle on the amount of sea-ice that can be pushed out of the Arctic by currents and winds. When stuck solidly in place, typically from January onwards - the arches shut off all transport (sea-ice can still be exported from the Arctic via the Fram Strait, which is the passage between eastern Greenland and Svalbard). But what Prof Moore's and colleagues' satellite research has shown is that these structures are becoming less reliable barriers.
1-8-21 Corals bleached from heat become less resilient to ocean acidification
Corals get a double-whammy negative from heat – those that are bleached as a result of heat stress also become less resilient to ocean acidification. Robert Eagle at the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues have analysed the effect of elevated temperatures on the growth of two species of stony coral when the corals are also exposed to ocean acidification. The acidification of oceans occurs as result of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being absorbed by seawater. The results are a decrease in the pH of the water, a decrease in its concentration of carbonate ions and a drop in the saturation states of calcium carbonate minerals. Both carbonate ions and calcium carbonate minerals are essential for forming coral skeletons, and a drop in the saturation states of calcium carbonate minerals makes it more likely for the skeletons to start to dissolve. The pH of surface ocean waters has decreased by 0.1 units since the beginning of the industrial revolution. To test the resilience of corals to acidification, the researchers exposed samples of cauliflower coral, Pocillopora damicornis, and hood coral, Stylophora pistillata, to different partial pressures of carbon dioxide at both 28° C, a near-optimal temperature, and 31°C, an elevated temperature. Eagle and his team used two methods to measure the corals’ pH. Firstly, they used robotically controlled microelectrodes that were inserted directly into coral tissues to measure the pH in fluid pockets from which the coral skeleton grows. They also indirectly measured the pH using a boron-isotoping method. The team found that both species of coral coped with ocean acidification conditions at 28°C. To compensate, the corals elevated their internal pH and also altered their internal chemistry to promote calcification, the process by which corals form their skeletons.
1-8-21 Antarctic base opens briefly as berg watch continues
A small party of engineers has opened up the UK's Halley research station in the Antarctic. The base had been "mothballed" - in part because of Covid, but also because the nearby ice could soon calve one or more giant icebergs into the ocean. The British Antarctic Survey is trying to avoid having staff in the base when this happens for safety reasons. But some maintenance still has to be performed and a suite of autonomous scientific instruments needs servicing. The party of seven, soon to be joined by three more individuals, will only stay until mid-February before shutting Halley down again. Halley VI station sits on a floating platform of ice known as the Brunt Ice Shelf. This platform is an amalgam of glacier ice that has pushed out from the land into the sea. The shelf has developed a number of cracks over the years. The widening of two of these, dubbed Chasm 1 and Halloween, prompted BAS in 2017 to move Halley to a more secure location. The whole station was dragged on skis over 20km upstream. Whether an iceberg calving is imminent is anyone's guess but satellite observations in recent weeks have recorded the development of yet another (so far unnamed) crack and the acceleration in the movement of some ice areas. Adrian Luckman from Swansea University is routinely assembling ice velocity maps using the EU's Sentinel-1 radar satellite. He has detected a new speed-up in the ice at the shelf edge. This area is marked in light pink in the map attached to this page. A calving here is a real possibility on current trends, Prof Luckman believes. "We have been anticipating a major calving from Brunt Ice Shelf for some years. The most obvious piece to break away has been stubbornly hanging on for months," he told BBC News. "Stresses have recently evolved in such a way that a different, similarly sized section is now also likely to eventually break away. This second section is where the last major calving from Brunt Ice Shelf occurred back in 1971. These anticipated calving events, even if they happen in tandem, are entirely natural behaviour for ice shelves."
1-8-21 Climate change: 2020 was the joint hottest year on record
Last year was the joint hottest globally and by far the warmest year recorded in Europe, making the years from 2015 onwards the warmest six on record. Global average temperatures tied with 2016 at 0.6°C above the long-term average – despite the absence of an El Niño event, a climate phenomenon that has a warming effect. There was an El Niño in 2016. Europe, by contrast, demolished records by a wide margin, at 1.6°C above the long-term average. This compared with 2019’s 1.2°C above the average – itself record-breaking at the time. Norway and Sweden both had their hottest years on record. Although the figures today from European Earth observation programme Copernicus place 2020 as joint hottest globally, aggregated data from other major temperature data sets including those of US agencies NASA and NOAA, and the UK Met Office – expected next Thursday – may yet relegate it to the second or third warmest. Copernicus’s 2020 figures show a clear north-south split, with below-average temperatures in the southern hemisphere and above-average ones in the northern hemisphere. Siberia and other parts of the Arctic were exceptionally warm, at 3-6°C above average in some regions. “The year 2020 was extreme for the Arctic, even compared to the past 20 years,” said the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in a statement on Tuesday. That led Arctic sea ice to shrink to its second-lowest extent on record in September 2020. Figures published this week by Mark Parrington at Copernicus also show that, while media attention focused on exceptional blazes in the US and Australia, globally wildfires were at one of their lowest levels in two decades due to below-average fires in Africa. Separately, the UK Met Office today said it expects carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere this year to pass the milestone of being 50 per cent higher than before the industrial revolution, reaching 417 parts per million between April and June, when seasonal CO2 levels peak.
1-8-21 Climate change: 2020 in a dead heat for world's warmest year
New data from EU satellites shows that 2020 is in a statistical dead heat with 2016 as the world's warmest year. The Copernicus Climate Change Service says that last year was around 1.25C above the long-term average. The scientists say that unprecedented levels of heat in the Arctic and Siberia were key factors in driving up the overall temperature. The past 12 months also saw a new record for Europe, around 0.4C warmer than 2019. Last December, the World Meteorological Organization predicted that 2020 would be one of the three warmest years on record. This new, more complete report from Copernicus says that last year is right at the top of the list. The Copernicus data comes from a constellation of Sentinel satellites that monitor the Earth from orbit, as well as measurements taken at ground level. Temperature data from the system shows that 2020 was 1.25C warmer than the average from 1850-1900, a time often described as the "pre-industrial" period. One key factor driving up the temperatures was the heating experienced in the Arctic and Siberia. In some locations there, temperatures for the year as a whole were 6C above the long-term average. This exceptional warming led to a very active wildfire season. Fires in the Arctic Circle released a record amount of CO2, according to the study, up over a third from 2019. The Copernicus service concludes that while 2020 was very marginally cooler than 2016, the two years are statistically on a par as the differences between the figures for the two years are smaller than the typical differences found in other temperature databases for the same period. More data on 2020's temperature will be released in the next week or so from other agencies, including Nasa and the UK Met Office. The scientists say that the closeness between the years is all the more remarkable considering the impacts of the El Niño/La Niña weather cycle.
1-8-21 Groundwater that supports world food chain may become too salty to use
Groundwater basins that provide water for much of the world’s food production are in danger of becoming too salty for plants and animals. This risk will remain even if care is taken not to deplete them further. A groundwater basin is a large geological structure in which vast quantities of freshwater are stored in volumes of buried, permeable rocks called aquifers. Often the basin is in an “open” state, which means water is constantly flushed through it. But if the water level falls too low, the basin can become “closed”, which means water cannot leave the aquifers via rivers or underground flows. Once a basin is closed, salt leaching into the groundwater will never be flushed out of the aquifer again, so it accumulates. Irrigation may cause both the closure of a basin and worsen the resulting problems. As groundwater is pumped up for agriculture, part of it will evaporate and leave behind salt deposits. These are eventually washed into the aquifer again, making it more saline from the top down. Hydrologists Graham Fogg and Rich Pauloo at the University of California, Davis call this process ABCSAL, which stands for Anthropogenic Basin Closure and groundwater Salinisation. They have just conducted a detailed study of the important Tulare Lake basin in the southern Central Valley of California, where just over 12,000 irrigated square kilometres of land produce more than $23 billion in crops annually. They conclude that the first stage of salinisation is already happening there. Shallow groundwater may deteriorate over decades, says Fogg. The quality of deeper reserves may only become a problem after two or three centuries. Yet he notes that this could come sooner than the current estimates of the expected exhaustion of a basin.
1-7-21 Electric cars' best ever year is a tipping point for green transport
Fossil fuel-powered cars aren’t yet consigned to the scrapheap, but they are fast travelling down a one-way road towards it. The pandemic triggered dire new car sales in the UK, which fell by 29 per cent back to levels seen in 1992, figures published yesterday show. Yet sales of new, fully electric cars bucked the trend, rocketing by almost 186 per cent to more than 108,000. That may seem like a drop in the traffic jam when you consider more than 900,000 petrol ones were sold over the same period, but just look at the rate of change. In the UK, more electric cars were sold last year than in the previous decade. Motorists, like progressive leaders and car makers, have woken up to the fact that petrol and diesel cars are on the way out, destined to follow incandescent lightbulbs into history. It isn’t just the UK: the boom is happening across Europe. In Norway, long a pioneer of carrots and sticks to wean people off petrol and diesel, electric models overtook fossil fuels ones for the first time in 2020. These tipping points matter. Transport has eclipsed energy to become the biggest carbon emitter in the UK, along with many other countries. We need this electric boom if we are to stand any chance of avoiding climate change’s most devastating effects. Toxic traffic also harms and kills us in the short term: witness the inquest last month that found air pollution played a role in a 9 year-old girl’s death. Why now? Some of it is down to specific policies in individual countries. The UK’s numbers were turbocharged by the government allowing firms to pay no company car tax from April 2020 to April 2021, compared with the 20 to 37 per cent charged on petrol and diesel cars. Most of the plug-in cars sold last year were company cars. It is also about growing choice. More new electrified models are due in the UK this year than new petrol or diesel ones, though that does include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which run a short distance on battery before a combustion engine kicks in. Strikingly, the UK’s best-selling car last December wasn’t a Volkswagen Golf or a Ford Fiesta, but the electric Tesla Model 3, which starts at £40,490.
1-6-21 Inside the fight to save the Great Barrier Reef from climate change
Our reporter, Donna Lu, joined the researchers who are attempting to regrow damaged parts of the Great Barrier Reef by collecting and incubating coral larvae. “I RECOMMEND getting inside the net. It’s very good for you,” jokes marine ecologist Peter Harrison. “It’s good for your skin, it’s good for your clothes.” The net in question is a giant, slimy thing, with a fine mesh at its base that contains a precious cargo: coral larvae that have been incubating in the ocean for five days. Some white sun shirts have already fallen casualty to the net, getting coated in a greenish algal stain on contact. It is early December and we are on Wistari Reef, which forms part of the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia. I’m with 17 others on three research boats, on a field trip to reseed reefs with coral larvae in the hope that they will eventually grow into new coral. Harrison, who is leading the expedition, is the founding director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University in New South Wales. He was one of a group of researchers who first discovered the mass spawning of corals on the Great Barrier Reef in the early 1980s, and has spent the intervening four decades researching coral reproduction and restoration. Coral spawning occurs once a year. On the outer reefs off the east coast of Australia, the action begins a few nights after a spring full moon in late November or early December. Various coral species release sperm and eggs en masse, in trillions of small balls that rise to the surface and open, resulting in fertilised larvae known as planulae. These larvae form slicks of vivid pink or orange on the ocean surface, and drift for days or weeks until eventually attaching themselves to hard surfaces underwater to form new colonies. As they mature and become ready to settle, they fade to a greyish hue.
1-6-21 Over 100 cities have made public transport free – others should follow
Dozens of cities around the world already provide free public transport for their residents. Many other places should get on board, says Richard Webb. ROUND where I live, heady pronouncements of a green transport revolution spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic have vanished in puffs of exhaust. In the London suburbs, the promised step change in provision for cyclists and pedestrians has amounted to authorities blocking off a few roads, to the vocal opposition of some. Many people seem to be voting with their feet – on the gas pedal. According to data analysed by the Environmental Defense Fund Europe, traffic congestion in outer London rebounded to above 2019 levels soon after the first lockdown as people shied away from buses and trains for fear of infection. Those shifts look to be global – and permanent, too. A survey run for the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project revealed that, in Great Britain, 23 per cent of people expect to be using their cars more after the pandemic. In Australia and the US, already more car-dependent than the UK, the figures are over 40 per cent, despite high levels of concern about climate change expressed in the same survey. Meanwhile, the pandemic has driven a coach and horses through the finances of public transport operators. These fundamental changes to the transport landscape demand a far-reaching rethink, in particular of our attitude to public transport. It has never been a money-maker. Post-covid-19, it will be even less so. The question is whether it ever should be. Within the European Union, transport contributes some 27 per cent of overall carbon dioxide emissions, almost half of that from private car use. It is the only sector that has seen CO2 emissions rise over the past three decades, by over one-quarter.
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?