03 Sep 2014:
Mobile Phone Networks Can
Help Monitor Global Rainfall, Study Says
New research shows
that mobile phone networks, which cover 90 percent of the world's population, can help track rainfall events — a task that has proven difficult for both advanced satellite systems
and ground-level observation networks. By compiling data on signal disruptions from mobile phone networks in Burkina Faso in West Africa, a team of researchers was able to calculate with 95 percent accuracy both the location and volume of rain that fell, even during short-lived storms, according to a report in Geophysical Research Letters
. Mobile phone companies maintain detailed records on signal disruptions, which can occur when water droplets block and deflect signals between antennae, to determine whether their networks are functioning properly. By tapping into those records, researchers could distill data on rainfall events at extremely fine spatial and temporal scales. As mobile phone networks expand across the globe, such data could be used to create highly accurate rainfall maps, researchers say, although gaining access to records could prove difficult.
02 Sep 2014:
Six Strategies Could End
Global Water Stress by 2050, Scientists Say
Global water stress could be alleviated by the year 2050 if countries work to implement six key strategies
ranging from building more reservoirs to controlling population growth, according to
research from Canada and the Netherlands. Water stress is defined as occurring when more than 40 percent of the water from a region's rivers is unavailable because it is already being used — a situation that currently affects roughly one-third of the global population. Writing in Nature Geoscience
, the scientists propose six steps they believe can help reduce water stress: planting crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently; using more efficient irrigation methods; improving the efficiency of water use in homes, industry, and municipalities; limiting the rate of population growth so global population stays below 8.5 billion by 2050; increasing reservoir water storage capacity; and intensifying water desalination operations
29 Aug 2014:
New Database Tracks Ecological
Health Impacts of Dams on World's Rivers
A newly launched online database
illustrates the impacts of nearly 6,000 dams on the world's 50 major
river basins, ranking their ecological health according to indicators of river fragmentation, water quality, and biodiversity. The "State of the World's Rivers" project was developed by the advocacy organization International Rivers
and created using Google Earth. Users can compare the health of individual river basins, see the locations of existing and planned dams, and explore 10 of the most significant river basins in more depth. The 6,000 dams represented in the database are a small percentage of the more than 50,000 large dams that impact the world's rivers, the organization notes.
26 Aug 2014:
Meat Production, Especially
Beef, Strains Land and Water, Study Says
Global meat production has expanded more than four-fold over the last 50 years — and 25-fold since
Beef cattle graze in Colombia
1800 — due to growing purchasing power, urbanization, and changing diets, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute
. Consumers in industrial countries still eat much larger quantities of meat (75.9 kilograms per person) than those in developing nations (33.7 kilograms), though that gap is beginning to close, the report says. Nearly 70 percent of the planet's agricultural land and freshwater is used for livestock, with additional land and water used to grow grains for livestock feed. Beef production alone uses about three-fifths of global farmland and yields less than 5 percent of the world's protein, according to the report. Sustainable agricultural practices
such as feeding livestock with grasses instead of grains and using natural fertilizers could reduce these impacts, the report notes, but alternative dietary choices hold the most immediate promise for reducing the environmental footprint of meat production.
22 Aug 2014:
Drought in Western U.S.
Has Caused Land to Rise, Researchers Say
The western U.S. has lost so much water during the ongoing severe drought that the land has sprung up by
GPS station in California's Inyo Mountains
as much as 15 millimeters (0.6 inches), according to a study in the journal Science
. Water at the surface of the earth typically weighs down the land, but the region has lost enough water that the tectonic plate underlying the western U.S. has undergone rapid uplift, much like an uncoiling spring, researchers explain. California's water deficit over the past 18 months has caused some of its mountain ranges to rise by more than half an inch, and the West overall has risen by 0.15 inches, according to the study. Using ground positioning data from GPS stations throughout the region, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, estimate the water loss to be 240 gigatons (63 trillion gallons) — equivalent to a nearly four-inch layer of water spread out over the entire western U.S.
14 Aug 2014:
Some Chemicals in Fracking
Fluids Raise Red Flags, Researchers Say
Of the more than 200 compounds used in hydraulic fracturing fluids, eight are toxic to mammals and the
A Marcellus Shale fracking operation
health risks of roughly one-third are unknown, according to
researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a drilling technique that releases natural gas and oil by injecting fluids with chemical additives deep into rock formations. The research team tracked down substances commonly used as fracking additives and found they include gelling agents to thicken the fluids, biocides to inhibit microbial growth, and compounds to prevent pipe corrosion. The industry claims the additives are non-toxic and food-grade, and while that is true in some cases, the researchers note, most fracking compounds require treatment before they can be safely released into the environment. Moreover, a number of chemicals that could pose health risks, such as corrosion inhibitors and biocides, are used in reasonably high concentrations in fracking fluids, the researchers note.
06 Aug 2014:
Western U.S. In Its Quietest
Fire Season In A Decade, Officials Report
The western U.S. is in the midst of its quietest wildfire season
in a decade, according to data from the National
Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). With 1.7 million acres burned through August 4, the 2014 fire season has destroyed well below the average of 4.4 million acres for the previous nine years through the same date. Fire season still has a few months left, however, and the year's good fortune may not last: Above normal fire potential is expected to continue
over most of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, according to the NIFC. Average temperatures have been 2 to 4 degrees above normal for most of the West; portions of the western Great Basin, northern California, and Pacific Northwest were 6 to 8 degrees warmer than normal; and exceptional drought conditions continue in California, western Nevada, and the Texas Panhandle, the center says.
04 Aug 2014:
California Takes Steps to
Curb Lawn Watering During Severe Drought
In the midst of a severe, long-term drought, California is taking unprecedented steps to discourage watering of
A drought-resistant yard
residential lawns, with some areas offering residents substantial cash incentives for installing water-saving landscaping, AFP reports
. The "Cash in Your Lawn" program in Los Angeles offers residents up to $6,000 ($3 per square foot) for replacing their lawns with drought-tolerant plants, rocks, and pebbles. Throughout the state, Governor Jerry Brown recently prohibited lawn watering more than two times per week and banned fines for brown lawns, which homeowner associations sometimes impose with the intent of improving a neighborhood's appearance. The drought, currently in its third year, threatens the water supply of California's 38 million residents. Agricultural regions
have already seen severe water reductions, placing extra pressure on the state's groundwater reserves.
25 Jul 2014:
Southwestern U.S. Aquifers
Are Extremely Low, NASA Data Show
Groundwater reserves in the U.S. Southwest are severely low and prospects for their long-term viability are bleak as persistent drought continues to parch the
land and prevent recharging, according to an assessment from NASA
. As shown in this map, many underground aquifers in the Southwest are extremely dry compared to average conditions over the past 60 years. Deep red areas on the map, such as in southern California and Nevada, depict aquifers that are so dry there's less than a 2 percent chance they could have experienced such levels of drought-related depletion since 1948. Although the Pacific Northwest is experiencing drought-related wildfires, its aquifers appear to be well-stocked, according to the map. The discrepancy is likely due to the long lag between dry conditions at the surface and depletion of groundwater reserves, researchers say.
15 Jul 2014:
California Agriculture Relying
Too Heavily on Groundwater in Drought
California's agriculture industry is relying too heavily on groundwater to irrigate drought-stricken farmlands — a trend that will not be sustainable long-term, according
Central Valley orchard
to a study
by the University of California, Davis. The drought, which is the third most severe on record, is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third, the study found. Groundwater pumping will likely replace most river water losses, and some areas have more than doubled their pumping rate over the previous year. If the drought continues for two more years, the report says, groundwater reserves will continue to be depleted to replace surface water losses and pumping ability will slowly decrease, which could affect crop production. So far in the current drought, 428,000 acres of cropland — roughly 5 percent — has been made fallow across the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Southern California.
14 Jul 2014:
Human Activity Has Caused
Long-term Australian Drought, Model Shows
A new high-resolution climate model shows that southwestern Australia's long-term decline in fall and winter rainfall, which began around 1970 and has increased over the last four decades, is caused by
increases in man-made greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depletion, according to
research published in Nature Geoscience
. Simulating both natural and man-made climate effects, scientists showed that the decline in rainfall is primarily driven by human activity. Rises in greenhouse gas emissions and thinning of the ozone hole have led to changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation, including a poleward movement of the westerly winds and increasing atmospheric surface pressure over parts of southern Australia. This has led to decreased rainfall, the study said. The drying is most severe over southwest Australia, where the model forecasts a 40 percent decline in average rainfall by the late 21st century, with significant implications for regional water resources.
12 Jun 2014:
U.S. Breweries Cut Water
Use Amid Widespread Drought Conditions
Major breweries in the U.S. are cutting back on the amount of water they use to brew beer as drought threatens their water supplies, the Associated Press
reports. MillerCoors, headquartered in Chicago, has reduced its water use by 9.2 percent since 2012, a company sustainability report said. Earlier this month St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the largest U.S. brewer, reported that it has cut water use by 32 percent in the last five years. Employing strategies such as fueling boilers with wastewater, recycling water used to clean bottles and cans, and installing sensors to fine-tune irrigation in hop and barley fields, MillerCoors has cut water use to 3.48 barrels of water for each barrel of beer, the company says. The company is also giving $700,000 to landowners in the watershed of its Fort Worth brewery who make efforts to curb erosion and runoff by, for example, planting native grasses or rotating cattle grazing lands. Craft breweries typically use twice as much water as major breweries per barrel of beer, the AP notes, because they are smaller in scale and don't have access to the same technology.
11 Jun 2014:
Group Will Pay Farmers
To Create Temporary Migratory Bird Habitat
started by The Nature Conservancy aims to enlist California farmers in creating temporary habitats for migrating birds — a partnership that could become
more important as the state's long-term drought continues and the birds' wetland habitats dwindle. Using crowdsourced data, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) tracks the paths of migratory birds on their annual journey from Canada to South America to determine where and when the birds will need suitable wetland habitat for stop-overs in California's Central Valley. Then, in a sort of reverse auction, TNC asks farmers how much they would charge to temporarily flood their land to accommodate the birds, and pays farmers with the lowest bids to do so for a few weeks or months. The Nature Conservancy says the year-old program has been a success, enabling the organization to rent habitat for roughly 0.5 to 1.5 percent of what permanent protection costs. The program's budget is $1 million to $3 million annually. Forty farmers flooded roughly 10,000 acres last year, and sightings of key migratory bird species were 30 times above average, according to TNC.
21 May 2014:
Trash-scooping Water Wheel
Cleans up Garbage From Baltimore Harbor
A new contraption
in a Baltimore river is helping to clear trash and debris — up to 50,000 pounds of it each day — from the city's Inner Harbor. The 50-foot-long
"water wheel" gathers garbage floating in the Jones Falls River, which runs through the city to the Baltimore Inner Harbor, and deposits it in a large dumpster so the trash can be hauled away. Two large booms funnel debris toward a conveyor belt powered by the wheel, which itself is powered primarily by the flowing river. When the flow isn't strong enough to turn the wheel, water pumps, run by solar panels lining a canopy over the wheel, turn on and push water up to spin the wheel. The water wheel was designed to handle the heavy debris and larger pieces of trash that the river often carries, said its designer, Baltimore-based Clearwater Mills. It began operating earlier this month and cost $750,000, with $500,000 of that contributed by the Maryland Port Administration, Co.Exist reports.
13 May 2014:
Half of U.S. is Experiencing
Some Degree of Drought, Analysis Finds
Half of the United States is in the midst of a drought, a recent analysis
from the U.S. National Drought Monitor found, with nearly 15 percent of the nation in extreme to
exceptional drought. Dry conditions are pushing north rapidly, along with warmer temperatures, and soil moisture and groundwater levels are low far in advance of the agricultural peak demand season, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Much of the Southwest and Great Plains regions have been in a persistent drought for several years, and as this map prepared by federal agencies shows, an exceptional drought is currently plaguing parts of those regions. The entire state of California is experiencing some level of drought, much of it extreme to exceptional. Snowpack is at half its typical level in many parts of the West and much of the snow has completely melted before it normally would, researchers say. The map is based on measurements of climate, soil, and water conditions from more than 350 federal, state, and local observers around the country.
02 May 2014:
Fracking May Induce Quakes at
Greater Distance than Previously Thought
Hydraulic fracturing and underground wastewater disposal may trigger earthquakes at tens of kilometers from the wells in which water is injected — a greater range than previously thought, according to new research from seismologists
. In one case, an earthquake
Fracking injection well in Louisiana
swarm in Oklahoma has been linked to a cluster of fracking injection wells up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, Cornell University researchers report. So-called "induced seismicity" — when human activity causes tremors in the earth's crust — is gaining attention as reports of earthquakes within the central and eastern U.S. have increased dramatically over the past few years. The rise coincides with increased hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, and the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells in many locations, including Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an average rate of 100 earthquakes per year above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000.
22 Apr 2014:
Run-of-River Hydropower Set
For Big Gains, Turbine Maker Predicts
A type of hydroelectric technology known as "run-of-river" hydropower is set to grow 10-fold over the next decade
, potentially becoming a $1.4 billion industry,
Hugh Keenleyside Dam
according to Dutch turbine maker Tocardo International BV. Run-of-river hydropower stations redirect part of a waterway through a diversion to spin turbines and generate electricity. Run-of-river is considered a more benign type of hydropower than large dam projects because it is a smaller-scale technology that doesn't create large upstream reservoirs that flood ecosystems and disrupt a river's natural flow. Some conservation groups are concerned
that problems with migratory fish passage and other environmental issues could outweigh the power-generating potential of run-of-river hydro projects. The company implemented its first project to harness tidal streams at Den Oever, Holland, and it has been operating for five years.
18 Apr 2014:
Scale and Extent of Dam Boom
In China Is Detailed in Mapping Project
China is planning to build at least 84 major dams in its southwest region, as shown in a map from the Wilson Center, eventually boosting its hydropower capacity by more than 160 gigawatts. By next year China's capacity
will surpass Europe's, and by 2020 it's projected to be larger than that of the U.S. and Europe combined. An interactive map
shows the scale and number of major dams proposed, under construction, existing, and canceled. The dam rush is part of an ongoing effort by China to increase non-fossil energy sources to 11.4 percent of the country's total energy consumption — a goal that has gained urgency due to severe air pollution in many northern Chinese cities. However, the hydropower push is not without its own major environmental consequences
, the Wilson Center notes. The cascades of planned dams will submerge important corridors connecting tropical rainforests to the Tibetan Plateau that allow wildlife to migrate as temperatures rise.
A Personal Note on Peter Matthiessen,
Who Wrote Eloquently of the Natural World
For an editor, the prospect of working with Peter Matthiessen was intimidating. He was one of our finest writers, and he wrote with such poetic precision and lyrical grace that at first it felt presumptuous to propose
any changes to his writing at all. That feeling was heightened by his strong physical presence — an odd mix of Manhattan patrician, rugged outdoorsman, and Zen priest (all of which he was). And yet when I worked as his editor on several magazine articles in the 1990s, it was an immensely satisfying experience. He listened Zen-like, carefully considering all my editing suggestions (with him, they were suggestions
only), and to my delight, accepted almost all of them. Matthiessen died on April 5 at the age of 86, near the Long Island waters he so loved to fish. Read more of e360 editor Roger Cohn’s appreciation of Matthiessen.
E360 Announces Contest
Yale Environment 360
For Best Environmental Videos
is holding a contest to honor the best environmental videos. Entries must be videos that focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and are a maximum of 15 minutes in length. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, and two runners-up will each receive $500. The winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360
. The deadline for entries is June 6, 2014. Read further contest information.
01 Apr 2014:
Delaware River Watershed
Is Focus Of Large-Scale Restoration Project
A Philadelphia foundation is providing $35 million to launch a host of programs aimed at better protecting the Delaware River
, which flows through the heart of
Delaware River at Trenton, New Jersey
the populous U.S. eastern seaboard and provides drinking water for 15 million people. The William Penn Foundation, working with nonprofit groups such as The Open Space Institute, says its Delaware River Initiative will protect more than 30,000 acres of land, launch 40 restoration projects, create incentives for businesses and landowners to protect the watershed, and set up a comprehensive program of water quality monitoring that will enable the foundation and its partners to measure the success of their programs and the overall health of the river. A cornerstone of the foundation’s initiative will be its restoration and protection work in eight so-called “sub-watersheds” that feed into the Delaware River.
26 Mar 2014:
New Satellite Tracks Global
Precipitation in Unprecedented Detail
Launched into space late last month, a new Earth-observing satellite from NASA and the Japan space agency has captured its first images
, which show an
extra-tropical cyclone off the coast of Japan at unprecedented resolution. The satellite, called the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, combines two powerful instruments that allow scientists to monitor precipitation around the globe in great detail, as the cyclone image demonstrates. One instrument, the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar, captured a three-dimensional cross-section of the storm, with the heaviest precipitation shown in red and yellow. The second tool, a GPM Microwave Imager, observed different types of precipitation across a broad swath of the storm. Together, the instruments will help scientists more accurately predict rainfall and calculate how much precipitation falls to the Earth's surface.
10 Mar 2014:
Arsenic Remediation Project
Will Begin Decontaminating Water in India
New technology that removes arsenic from drinking water is set to be deployed on a large scale in India, according to
researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an India-based water technology company. The device removes arsenic by passing electricity through steel plates submerged in a water reservoir. The electric current causes the plates to rust more quickly than they would under normal conditions, and the rust chemically binds to arsenic in the water and sinks to the bottom of the reservoir. The precipitated sludge can be removed from the tank, rendering the water safe to drink. Notoriously high levels of arsenic, a tasteless and odorless contaminant, naturally occur in groundwater sources in India, Bangladesh, and even California's Central Valley. Long-term exposure can cause cancer and severe damage to organs. A commercial plant is set to begin operations in West Bengal, India, this year and researchers estimate the drinking water can be sold for as little as eight cents per gallon.
Photo Essay: In New Orleans, an
Architect Makes Water His Ally
Dutch Dialogues II
No city in the United States faces as grave a threat from flooding, hurricanes, and rising seas as New Orleans, part of which lies below sea level. But New Orleans architect David Waggonner
and his associates, learning lessons from the Dutch
, have proposed a revolutionary vision for New Orleans that seeks to make an asset of the water that surrounds the city, remaking unsightly canals into an important and scenic part of the landscape and mimicking nature to store rainfall. Waggoner’s firm has been chosen to help develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan
, a first step in what could be a multi-billion dollar project to redesign the ways in which the region co-exists with water. “To sustain the city in this difficult site in an era of rising seas and more extreme weather, we must convert our necessities into niceties, into desirable places that connect with people and culture,” Waggonner says. View the Photo Gallery
23 Jan 2014:
NASA Images Show Severity
Of California's Record-Setting Drought
A pair of NASA images, taken a year apart, show the profound impacts
of California's current drought, which Gov. Jerry Brown said yesterday poses a major threat to California's environment
and economy. A satellite image taken last Saturday shows virtually no snow cover
in the Coast Range and Cascade Mountains, and only a modest amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Officials say the snowpack is only 10 to 30 percent of normal levels. In addition, California's vital agricultural areas in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which lie west of the Sierra Nevada, are a parched brown. By contrast, a satellite image taken in January 2013 shows significant snowpack in the mountains and a swath of green in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. Half of California's yearly precipitation falls between December and February, so January's record dry conditions threaten water supplies for the entire year.
23 Dec 2013:
Russian Oil Giant Becomes
First in World to Pump Oil From Arctic
The Russian national oil company Gazprom has begun drilling for oil at a highly contested site in the Arctic
. The oil field, an offshore site in the Russian Arctic known as Prirazlomnoye, drew international attention in September when a contingent of Greenpeace members boarded the platform in protest and were jailed in Russia for two months before being granted amnesty last week. The project, which is several years behind schedule, is the first in Russian history aimed at "developing the resources of the Arctic shelf," Gazprom said. Environmental groups say that no company has the technology or resources to deal with a massive oil spill in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean. The oil giant Shell had planned exploratory drilling in the Arctic off the coast of Alaska, but temporarily shelved those plans last year after a series of mishaps. Gazprom says it has taken all necessary precautions to deal with a spill, Mongabay reports.
07 Nov 2013:
Grand Canyon 'Zombie'
Uranium Mine on Hold for Financial Reasons
The reopening of a major uranium mine near the Grand Canyon has been put on hold until December 2014 or whenever a federal court rules on the proposed revival of the mine, the Guardian reports
. The owner of Canyon
Grand Canyon's South Rim
Mine, Energy Fuels Resources, cited falling uranium prices, which have reached a near five-year low, and litigation costs as reasons for the decision. In April the Canyon Mine and other so-called "zombie mines"
were given federal approval to reopen based on their rights at the time they closed, despite an Obama administration ban on new hard-rock mines in areas larger than 1 million acres. Grand Canyon National Park officials say reopening the Canyon Mine, located six miles from the popular South Rim entrance, and other uranium mines could affect scarce water sources in the area. Environmental groups and the Havasupai Indian tribe sued the U.S. government in 2012, contending the environmental review of the mine's impacts was outdated.
Photo Essay: Focusing a Lens on
China's Environmental Challenges
Photographer Sean Gallagher has lived and worked in China for seven years, visiting nearly all of its provinces as he documents the country’s daunting ecological problems and its widely varied landscapes. In a Yale Environment 360 photo essay
, the Beijing-based photojournalist chronicles China’s widespread water and air pollution, the battle against the desertification that has spread across the country's northern regions, and the threats to the nation's biodiversity.
View the photo gallery.
08 Oct 2013:
Eighty Percent of Ecosystems
Vulnerable to Climate Change, Study Finds
Climate change could significantly transform up to 86 percent of the planet's land ecosystems under worst-case global warming scenarios, according to researchers at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
. That estimate is based on a 4 to 5 degree C temperature increase by the year 2100 — a scenario that is plausible given many nations' reluctance to enact greenhouse gas emissions limits, the researchers say. Even if global temperatures are kept to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels, 20 percent of natural land ecosystems are at risk of moderate or major changes, especially high-altitude and high-latitude regions. Such changes could include boreal forests being transformed into temperate savannas, trees growing in thawed Arctic tundra, or even a dieback of some of the world's tropical forests. "Essentially, we would be leaving the world as we know it," says Sebastian Ostberg, who led the research. "The findings clearly demonstrate that there is a large difference in the risk of global ecosystem change under a scenario of no climate change mitigation compared to one of ambitious mitigation," he added.
02 Oct 2013:
Excess Radioactivity and Metals
Found in Pennsylvania Fracking Wastewater
Researchers found high levels of radioactivity, metals, and salts in sediments and water downstream from a Pennsylvania facility that treats fracking wastewater. Radioactivity levels downstream of the treatment plant were about 200 times higher than in surrounding areas, and concentrations of some salts and metals were also higher than background levels, the scientists reported in Environmental Science and Technology
. The Duke University team traced the radioactivity's source to the Marcellus Shale formation, which is naturally high in salts and radioactivity. Although the treatment plant removes more than 90 percent of the radioactive metals radium and barium, the effluent still exceeds federal limits for radioactive waste disposal, the researchers said. Plants, fish, and other organisms near the facility are potentially at risk for radium bioaccumulation. Downstream, carcinogenic byproducts can form when water with excess levels of the salt bromide mixes with disinfection chemicals at municipal drinking water plants, the study said. A mile downstream from the treatment facility, bromide levels were 40 times higher than background levels, the researchers reported.