21 Oct 2016:
Scientists Report Finding DNA
Mutations That Caused Snakes to Lose Legs
A mutation in the DNA of some reptiles about 150 million years ago switched off the gene responsible for forming limbs — leading to the
A green tree python.
creation of modern day snakes, according to two studies published week. The findings were discovered by two independent teams of researchers, which reported their results separately in the journals Current Biology
. Some snakes, including pythons and boas, still have tiny leg bones inside their bodies, remnants of this evolutionary history; but most species lost their legs starting about100 million years ago. The scientists traced the mutation back to a docking site for proteins, known as an enhancer, situated in front of the Sonic hedgehog
gene, which controls limb development. They found that the enhancer is simply switched off, not broken. When the missing DNA was fixed and the modified enhancer was put in mice, they grew legs like normal
The Moth Snowstorm: Finding
True Value in Nature’s Riches
It is the blizzard of moths that Michael McCarthy remembers most vividly. As a boy, his family would take summer nighttime drives to the English coast,
and the car headlights and windshield would soon be so splattered with moths they would have to stop to clean them off. “That phenomenon has gone,” says McCarthy. “It’s disappeared because there has been a horrendous crash in moth numbers in the U.K.” His recent book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy
, offers a defense of the natural world rooted in the joy and spiritual nourishment it provides. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, McCarthy, a British journalist, talks about the loss of wildlife; how the decline in species abundance, as opposed to extinctions, is overlooked; and why he thinks putting a monetary value on so-called ecosystem services is too limiting. “You can say mangrove swamps are worth so many billion dollars,” he says. “But what about birdsong? How much is birdsong worth?”
Read the interview.
19 Oct 2016:
Can We Turn CO2 into a Useable
Fuel? Scientists Say They Have Found a Way
Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee report that they have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol
, a usable fuel. The team used a spiky nanotechnology-based catalyst made out of carbon, copper, and nitrogen. When they applied voltage to the catalyst, CO2 dissolved in water turned into ethanol, with a yield of 63 percent. “We discovered somewhat by accident that this material works,” said Adam Rondinone, the Oak Ridge scientist that led the research. Because the materials are relatively cheap and the reaction can happen at room temperature, the researchers say the technique could be scaled up to store renewable energy as ethanol, for example, or to convert CO2 emissions into fuel. Finding new ways to use CO2 “in order to displace a fossil feedstock,” the scientists wrote in the study
, “is an appropriate intermediate step towards a carbon-free future.”
18 Oct 2016:
September Breaks Monthly Temp
Record, Continuing World’s Warming Trend
September was the warmest September since modern record keeping began around 1880, measuring 0.91 degrees Celsius higher than the 1951-1980
Temperature anomalies in September 2016.
average, according to new data
by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. According to NASA, “11 of the past 12 consecutive months dating back to October 2015 have set new monthly high-temperature records.” Or as the website Climate Central
put it, “September [is] an exclamation point on a string of hot months.” The new temperature data nearly guarantees that 2016 will be named the hottest year on record, measuring about 1.25 degrees Celsius above the late 19th century average, according to climate scientist Gavin Schmidt
, the director of GISS. NASA’s temperature data is collected by 6,300 meteorological stations scattered across the globe, a buoy-based data system in the oceans, and research centers on Antarctica.
17 Oct 2016:
UN Warns Climate Change Could
Put 122 Million More People into Poverty
Between 35 million and 122 million more people could be living in poverty by 2030 as climate change impacts food production
A farmer in India during a recent heat wave.
and small-scale farmers’ incomes across the globe, according to a new report
by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The report, which examines food security and crop production and prices under various climate scenarios, says that without “widespread adoption of sustainable land, water, fisheries, and forestry practices, global poverty cannot be eradicated.” There are an estimated half-billion small-scale farms
across the globe, managed by 2.5 billion people. These farms provide over 80 percent of the food consumed in the developing world, including southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. "There is no doubt climate change affects food security," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. "We cannot assure any more that we will have the harvest we have planted."
14 Oct 2016:
Is There Too Much Emphasis
Being Placed on Carbon Capture Technology?
The world is placing too much credence on being able to combat climate change by pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a process known as “air capture
,” according to an article in the journal Science
this week. “Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble,” wrote the article’s authors
, Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester in the U.K, and Glen Peters, a scientist at CICERO, a climate research organization in Norway. “There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise,” and assuming otherwise is “a moral hazard par excellence,” they wrote. Carbon capture technologies are a key component of the Paris climate agreement, with many of the modeling scenarios assuming the technology will be operating on a large scale later this century, reported Climate Central
13 Oct 2016:
Scientists Creating “Super Grass”
To Cut Methane Emissions from Cows
Danish scientists are developing a grass that will cut down how often cows burp and pass gas — reducing the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,
Dairy cows in Europe.
they release into the atmosphere. Collaborating with international seed company DLF, the scientists are working to create a “super grass” that is easier for cows to digest, thereby reducing the amount of gas that builds up in their stomachs, several media outlets reported
. Global emissions of methane — which is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period — have been on the rise since the 1980s. Livestock, specifically cows, are thought to release an estimated 90 million tons of methane into the atmosphere annually. The new, nearly $2 million research collaboration between the University of Aarhus in Denmark and DLF hopes to develop the new grass by 2024, at the latest.
12 Oct 2016:
First Bees in the U.S. Get
Protection Under Endangered Species Act
Seven species of yellow-faced bees found on the islands of Hawaii have been officially listed as “endangered"
A yellow-faced bee.
by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) — making them the first bees in the nation to be given protection under the Endangered Species Act. The seven species, which include Hylaeus anthracinus, H. assimulans, H. facilis, H. hilaris, H. kuakea, H. longiceps
, and H. mana
, pollinate some of Hawaii’s most threatened plants and live in a variety of Hawaiian ecosystems, from the coast, to dry forests, to subalpine shrublands, reported Mongabay
. Scientists and conservation groups had been petitioning FWS to protect the bees for more than five years
, citing habitat degradation, predation, and rapidly declining population numbers. The federal agency released the new rule late last month. The rule also gave protection to three additional animal species and 39 plant species, all from Hawaii.
11 Oct 2016:
European Union Could Require
New Homes to Have Electric Car Chargers
Starting in 2019, all new or refurbished homes and apartment buildings in Europe will be required to have electric vehicle recharging stations
Electric car charging stations in Berlin.
built on the premises, according to a draft directive from the European Union. The new rule, to be published by the end of the year, is meant to help nations curb transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, cut air pollution, and reach climate targets. Norway and the Netherlands, for example, both plan to phase out diesel engine vehicles by 2025, according to The Guardian
. “This kind of market stimulus is not just positive, it is mandatory if we want to see a massive rollout of electric vehicles in the near future,” said Guillaume Berthier, head of electric car sales for automaker Renault. “The question of how you recharge your car when you live in an apartment within a city is a very important one.”
10 Oct 2016:
Trump Proclaims at Debate
That ‘Coal Will Last for 1,000 Years’ in U.S.
At the second 2016 U.S. presidential debate, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump clashed over energy policy and climate change
, with Trump
saying the energy industry is “under siege” from Obama administration regulations and vowing that “clean coal” will continue to power the U.S. for a thousand years. While both pledged to help beleaguered coal miners, Trump doubled down on his support for fossil fuel production while Clinton said the U.S. must gradually decouple its economy from coal, oil, and natural gas. “I support moving towards more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can because I think we can be the 21st-century clean-energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses,” she said.
07 Oct 2016:
Scotland to Generate Some of
World’s First Kite-Driven Power in 2017
The United Kingdom will begin harnessing energy from kites flying 450 meters above ground as early as next year. Developed by UK-based Kite Power Solutions
A kite-powered wind energy generator.
the system is composed of two 40-meter wide kites that rise and fall in tandem, spooling a tether line to turn a turbine. A test site was previously built in Essex
, and a 500-kilowatt system will be built near Stranraer, Scotland on the West Freugh air force station. Because the kites are lighter than wind turbines, they can more easily be built offshore and reach higher altitude winds, which are faster and more consistent. The technology, which companies hope could revolutionize global renewable energy strategies, is also being tested
in Switzerland and Italy, among other countries.
06 Oct 2016:
Methane Emissions From Fossil
Fuels Much Higher Than Previously Thought
Methane emissions from global fossil fuel production are up to 60 percent higher than previously estimated, according to a new study in the journal Nature
by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several universities. Combined, methane emissions from oil and gas production and natural geological leakage are up to 110 percent greater than previously estimated. The upward revision shows that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for 25 percent of total global methane emissions, or up to 165 million tons of the 623 million tons emitted from all sources. The study comes at a time when companies are working to reduce methane leaks
from extraction facilities and pipelines, with some success. The scientists found leak rates have declined from 8 percent to 2 percent over the past 30 years. Increased natural gas production, however, has negated these improvements.
Public Art or Renewable Energy?
New Designs Aim to Produce Both
When the topic of energy infrastructure comes up, works of art don’t usually come to mind. But hundreds of such hybrid creations — part renewable power generators,
A vegetable farm off the Santa Monica Pier.
part large-scale art installations — now exist, at least on paper, as the result of a sustainable design competition known as the Land Art Generator Initiative
. Multi-disciplinary teams across the world have taken up the challenge to come up with buildable designs that produce renewable energy and “add value to public space, inspire, and educate.” In a photo essay, Yale Environment 360
highlights eight submissions to this year’s biennial competition, including the three winners announced this week. All designed for the waters off the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, the systems range from a ring-shaped farm floating offshore to sail-like structures that harvest drinking water from fog.
04 Oct 2016:
Scientists Find Clothing Sheds
Thousands of Plastic Fibers When Washed
A single load of laundry can shed more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into water systems, according to a recent study
in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin
. Many of these tiny plastic particles make it through sewage treatment plants and enter aquatic ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, and oceans. The study looked at the breakdown of polyester, acrylic, and polyester-cotton fabrics washed in 86-104 degree Fahrenheit water with various detergents. It found that a 13-pound load of polyester-cotton laundry shed an estimated 137,951 plastic fibers, a load of polyester clothing 496,030 fibers, and acrylic fabric 728,789 fibers. Microplastic particles in waterways are often mistaken for food and eaten by marine life, with various health impacts. The research was conducted by scientists at Plymouth University in England.
30 Sep 2016:
Governments Vote to Ban the
Sale of World’s Most Trafficked Mammal
The international body that governs wildlife trade voted this week to ban the sale of pangolins
, an aardvark-like animal that is
A ground pangolin in South Africa.
currently the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. Pangolins are found across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and are sought after for their meat and scales
, the latter of which are believed by some in East Asia to have medicinal purposes. Pangolins are shy, cat-sized mammals that eat ants and termites, and when threatened they curl into a ball rather than defending themselves. Nearly one million pangolins have been trafficked in the past decade, according to National Geographic
. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed all eight species of pangolin as endangered or threatened with extinction.
29 Sep 2016:
Climate Change Could Double
Wildfire Extent in Canada by 2100
Warming temperatures and a changing climate are expected to at least double the acreage consumed by wildfires every year in Canada by the end of the century,
A wildfire in Alberta, Canada in May 2016.
according to a new report
by the scientific agency, Natural Resources Canada. The number of large forest fires in the country is also expected to increase 1.5-fold over the same period due to milder, drier conditions, the report said. In 2015, 7,068 wildfires burned about 3.9 million hectares of Canadian forest. The annual report, The State of Canada’s Forests
, noted that even if the world manages to limit global warming to an average 2 degrees Celsius, Canada could still experience a temperature rise of 4 degrees C by 2100. The report said such warmer conditions will change the species composition, size, and age distribution of Canada’s forests
, a natural resource that generated more than $22 billion in gross domestic product for the country in 2015.
27 Sep 2016:
Could California’s Gridlock
Generate Electricity for the Grid?
California is testing whether its heavy traffic can produce not just emissions and air pollution, but electricity.
Traffic on Interstate 80 near Berkeley, Calif.
The state’s Energy Commission says it will spend $2 million to examine the potential of using piezoelectric crystals embedded under asphalt as a way to send the energy created by moving cars to the grid. The crystals generate energy when compressed by the weight of moving cars, but tests of the technology at larger scales have failed or been canceled in Tokyo, Italy, and Israel, according to the Associated Press
. California, therefore, “needs to figure out whether it can produce high returns without costing too much,” the AP writes. If successful, the technology could help the state reach its goal to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. California is expected to hit a 25 percent renewables target by the end of this year.
26 Sep 2016:
Elephants in Africa Suffer Large
Declines as Poaching Worsens in the Region
Elephant populations in Africa fell about 20 percent between 2006 and 2015 — the worst decline in a quarter-century, according to a
new report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature
An African elephant.
(IUCN). The continent’s elephant population dropped by 111,000 individuals over the last decade. The IUCN said a recent surge in poaching for ivory, which it called “the worst that Africa has experienced since the 1970s and 1980s,” is largely to blame for the decline. East Africa, for example, has lost almost 50 percent of its historical elephant population, according to the report. In West Africa, 12 populations of elephants have been completely lost since 2006. “It is shocking, but not surprising that poaching has taken such a dramatic toll on this iconic species,” IUCN director general Inger Andersen said in a statement. The IUCN also named habitat loss as a major contributor to the decline.
23 Sep 2016:
World’s Coffee Supply
Threatened by Climate Change, Report Says
A new report says that climate change could significantly reduce the amount of suitable land on which to grow coffee
and lead to an increase in outbreaks of diseases that threaten the crop. The report
— released by the Australian non-profit, the Climate Institute — warns that under current emissions scenarios, coffee-growing regions could see a 50 percent drop in the acreage fit to raise coffee plants, which need a precise combination of temperature and precipitation to thrive. Rising temperatures are also likely to lead to an increase in diseases like coffee rust and pests like the coffee berry borer, the report said. Major coffee-producing countries in the “bean belt” — including Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Vietnam — have already become less hospitable because of shifts in weather patterns, the report said. “It’s a severe threat,” said an executive at U.S.-based Peet’s Coffee.
What’s Killing the Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?
The few remaining species of native forest birds left on the Hawaiian island of Kauai have suffered population declines so severe — 98 percent in one case — that some are near extinction.
The cause of the collapse, according to a recent study in the journal Science Advances
, is not alien plants or predators, but rather warming temperatures that have enabled non-native mosquitoes carrying deadly avian malaria to invade the birds’ high-elevation strongholds. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Eben Paxton
, an avian ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the study’s lead author, says his group’s research showed that the mosquitoes moved into the Alakai Plateau over the last decade, infecting the birds and pushing their populations to a tipping point. He cites a number of approaches for eradicating the mosquitoes, including releasing irradiated infertile males and using genetically modified mosquitoes. “The way that we view Kauai,” he says, “is that it's an early warning system for the rest of the islands.”
Read the interview.
21 Sep 2016:
Paris Climate Agreement Moves
One Step Closer to Entering Into Force
Thirty-one countries officially joined the Paris climate accords this week at United Nations’ meetings in New York City.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
The announcements bring the total number of countries joining the Paris Agreement to 60, representing 48 percent of global emissions. Once nations that generate 55 percent of global emissions officially join, the agreement will enter into force within 30 days. The new countries include
Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide; Argentina; Mexico; and the United Arab Emirates. China and the United States officially joined the agreement earlier this month. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon predicted the agreement, created in December last year, would enter into force by the end of this year. “What once seemed impossible now seems inevitable,” Ban said
20 Sep 2016:
China Leads in Wind Installation,
But Continues to Prioritize Coal in the Grid
China built two wind turbines every hour in 2015, double that of the U.S., according to the International Energy Agency
. The country is installing enough wind to meet all of its new energy demand, more than 30,000 megawatts last year. Despite this promising development, however, the IEA told BBC News
that China is giving coal-fired power plants priority access to the grid over wind, hampering the country’s pledge to get an increasing share of its electricity from renewable energy sources. “The rather rosy statement on wind energy hides the issue that 2015 and the first half of 2016 also saw record new installations of coal,” an IEA spokesman said. “China has now a clear over-supply. In the province of Gansu, 39% of wind energy had to be curtailed (turned off).”
19 Sep 2016:
Arctic Sea Ice Extent in 2016 Ties
As Second Lowest in the Satellite Record
Arctic sea ice extent shrank to 1.6 million square miles earlier this month — tying 2016 with 2007 as the second lowest sea ice minimum since satellite records began.
Sea ice extent in September 2016.
The lowest year remains 2012. The new measurements follow a decades-long trend of declining sea ice extent in the Arctic as global temperatures rise. According to NASA
, “September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.” The ten lowest sea ice extents have all happened in the last ten years
. Since 2016 is considered likely to be the warmest year on record, scientists had anticipated an even worse year for sea ice. But “unusually cool, cloudy conditions” in the region for much of the summer helped reduce ice melt, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said
16 Sep 2016:
New Survey Highlights Recent
Widespread Bird Loss in North America
North America has 1.5 billion fewer birds flying its skies than it did 40 years ago, according to a new survey
by dozens of U.S. and Canadian scientists
A young snowy owl.
working at government agencies, universities, and non-profits. More than one-third of common land bird species have declined by more than 15 percent since 1970, and 46 species have lost more than half of their populations, the report found. Snowy owl numbers, for example, dropped 64 percent between 1970 and 2014. The report does not include waterfowl species, such as ducks. The scientists said land use changes, habitat loss, and climate change were main factors behind the long-term population declines. It also found collisions with power lines, buildings, and vehicles caused 900 million bird deaths each year, and domestic and feral cats kill another 2.6 billion. The report, Landbird Conservation Plan 2016, was published by the research collaborative Partners in Flight.
15 Sep 2016:
Obama Announces First
Marine Protected Area off U.S. East Coast
President Obama is creating a 4,913-square-mile marine monument off the New England coast, adding to a long list of marine protected areas established in recent years by the Obama and Bush administrations. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, contains massive undersea canyons and towering seamounts and is the first fully protected federal marine reserve off the eastern seaboard. The area is home to deep-sea corals, sharks, deep-diving marine mammals, whales, and sea turtles, and is a rich fishing ground. The fishing industry objected to the creation of the marine monument, arguing that existing fisheries management laws were sufficient to protect the area. Under the new designation, commercial fishing will be phased out over seven years. Obama has also recently created massive marine reserves off Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast, and today a quarter of U.S. waters are under strong federal protection.
14 Sep 2016:
Islamic Leaders Issue Fatwa on
Indonesia’s Slash-and-Burn Agriculture
Indonesia has been plagued by intense smog and smoke in recent years from a growing number of wildfires set to clear land for the production of pulp, paper,
Indonesian fires as seen from space in 2015.
and palm oil. In 2015, the fires — large enough to be visible from space — caused tens of billions of dollars in damage
, grounding hundreds of flights, closing schools, and creating respiratory problems for an estimated 500,000 Indonesians. This week, Indonesia’s highest Islamic council issued a fatwa, a legal religious ruling or decree, discouraging companies and individuals from using slash-and-burn agriculture. The council said any burning that “causes environmental damage… is illegitimate," Reuters reported
. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim community — 205 million people — making up 87.2 percent of its population.
12 Sep 2016:
Dolphins Speak in Ways Similar
To Human Conversation, Finds New Study
Dolphins communicate in a way very similar to how humans talk, saying up to five complex “words” in a sentence and pausing to listen to each other before speaking, according to a new study
. Researchers at the T. I. Vyazemsky Karadag Scientific Station in Russia observed the conversation
in two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, known as Yasha and Yana. “The dolphins took turns producing pulse packs [words and phrases] and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other's pulses before producing its own,” the scientists wrote in the study. “This language exhibits all the design features present in human spoken language, [indicating] a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins.”
09 Sep 2016:
Popular Insecticide Reduces
Queen Bees’ Ability To Lay Eggs, Study Finds
A new study has found neonicotinoids, the world’s most commonly used insecticide, cause queen honeybees to lay as much as two-thirds fewer eggs,
A queen bee surrounded by members of her colony.
jeopardizing the health and stability of entire bee colonies. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports
. "The queens are… the only reproductive individual laying eggs in the colony," said lead author Judy Wu-Smart
. "If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn't (immediately) noticeable, but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony." The scientists also found colonies exposed to imidacloprid, a type of neonicotinoids, collected and stored less pollen than insecticide-free colonies, and removed just 74 percent of mite-infested or diseased pupae that can infect the entire hive, compared to 95 percent removal by unexposed bees.
08 Sep 2016:
The World Has Lost 10 Percent
Of Its Wilderness Over Last Two Decades
The world has lost one-tenth of its wilderness — an area twice the size of Alaska — over the last 20 years, scientists reported this week in the journal Current Biology
Wilderness loss since the early 1990s.
The hardest hit areas have been the Amazon and Central Africa, which have been plagued by rampant and unregulated logging and other industrial activities in recent decades. The scientists found there are 11.6 million square miles of wilderness remaining on earth, largely located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and Australia. "The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening," said lead author of the study James Watson
, a biologist at the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society. "You cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left."
Clinton vs. Trump: A Sharp Divide
Over Energy and the Environment
Environmental and energy issues have received relatively little attention from the two major-party candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. But when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spoken out on these issues, the differences — like just about everything else about this campaign — have been stark. In a chart, Yale Environment 360
compares what Clinton and Trump have said on topics ranging from climate change to coal. See the graphic.