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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
01 Sep 2016:
Newly Discovered Fossils Break
Record, Dating Back 3.7 Billion Years Ago
Geologists have found fossils in Greenland dating back 3.7 billion years — the oldest evidence of life on earth discovered to date. The layers of stromatolites, which are made up of fossilized microbes,
3.7 billion-year-old fossils found in Greenland.
were found in the world’s oldest sedimentary rocks, the Isua supracrustal belt along the edge of the Greenland ice cap. They predate the previous fossil record holder by roughly 220 million years, according to Allen Nutman
, a geologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia and lead author of the new findings, published in the journal Nature
this week. The fossils “indicate that as long as 3.7 billion years ago, microbial life was already diverse,” said Nutman. “This diversity shows that life emerged within the first few hundred millions years of Earth’s existence, which is in keeping with biologists’ calculations showing the great antiquity of life’s genetic code.”
26 Aug 2016:
Ragweed Allergies Could Double
In Europe as Global Temperatures Rise
The number of people suffering from ragweed allergies in Europe could more than double by mid-century due to climate change, according to a new study published in the journal
Environmental Health Prospectives
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)
. Warming global temperatures, the research found, will help increase the distribution of ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia
) by making more areas of the continent suitable for its growth. Higher temperatures will also make growing seasons longer and increase pollen concentration in the air. Ragweed allergies, popularly known as hay fever, could impact 77 million people in Europe by 2041 to 2060, up from 33 million today, said the new study, led by scientists at the University of East Anglia. Allergies cost Europe $62 billion a year in lost productivity and are responsible for four million sick days worldwide, according to the news site Quartz
23 Aug 2016:
Study Shows Humans Learning
To Use Natural Resources More Efficiently
Humanity’s influence on the natural world is widespread, but a new study published in the journal Nature Communications
finds promising signs that we are slowly learning to live in a more sustainable way. The study found that between 1993 and 2009, the global population grew 23 percent and the global economy grew 153 percent. Meanwhile, the global human footprint grew only 9 percent over the same period. "Seeing that our impacts have expanded at a rate that is slower than the rate of economic and population growth is encouraging," said lead author Oscar Venter, an ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia. "It means we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources." The study authors warned, however, that even with the good news, human activity affects 75 percent of the planet’s surface and remains “perversely intense, widespread, and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.”
19 Aug 2016:
Scientists Find 1,075-Year-Old
Tree in Northern Greece, Europe’s Oldest
Scientists have discovered the oldest known living tree
in Europe, dating it at more than 1,075 years old. The Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii
) — a densely branched, slow-growing tree —
Europe's oldest tree, a Bosnian pine, in Greece.
was found in northern Greece, high in the Pindus Mountains. A team of Swedish, German, and U.S. scientists extracted a core of the tree’s one-meter thick trunk, and counted the rings that mark its annual growth—a dating technique known as dendrochronology. They found the tree started its life in 941. "I am impressed, in the context of Western civilization, all the human history that has surrounded this tree, all the empires – the Byzantine, the Ottoman – all the people living in this region,” said University of Stockholm dendrochronologist Paul Krusic, who led the research. “So many things could have led to its demise. Fortunately, this forest has been basically untouched for over a thousand years."
16 Aug 2016:
July Was the Hottest Month on
Record, Continuing Steak of High Temps
July was the world’s hottest month since modern temperature record keeping began in 1880, according to new NASA data released this week.
July 2016 temperatures compared to average.
July measured 1.27 degrees F above the 1951-1980 average, and 0.2 degrees F above July 2015, the previous record. This year has seen a streak of record-breaking monthly temperatures, fueled by a strong El Niño and climate change. Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, said on Twitter
that 2016 now has a 99 percent chance of being the hottest year on record. If that happens, it will be the third such year in a row, reported Climate Central
. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since the start of the 21st century.
15 Aug 2016:
Researchers Discover Ocean
Crust Dating Back 340 Million Years
Scientists have found what they believe is the world’s oldest piece of ocean floor — dating to more than 300 million years ago — in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Herodotus Basin in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Because shifting tectonic plates continuously drag seafloor rock into the earth’s mantle, most ocean crust is younger than 200 million years. The new discovery, found in the Herodotus Basin between Cyprus, Crete, and Egypt, indicates that area of seafloor is likely a remnant of the Tethys Ocean, which existed at the time of the Pangaea supercontinent, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience
. To determine the rock’s age, scientists dragged a magnetometer
behind a research vessel on four different trips, measuring the magnetic signals in the underlying seafloor, and comparing them to signals of the African continental plate and the earth’s shifting magnetic alignment over millions of years. They determined that the oceanic crust in the Herodotus Basin is between 315 and 365 million years old.
04 Aug 2016:
UNESCO Moves To Expand
World Heritage Sites Into the Deep Ocean
UNESCO has launched a campaign
to include deep-sea ecosystems in its list of World Heritage Sites. Previously, only sites within national jurisdiction,
A Dumbo octopus in the deep sea.
either on land or close to shore, could be given heritage status and UNESCO protection. But ecosystems within the open ocean, which covers more than half the planet, deserve similar classification, UNESCO says. In a new report, World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
, the organization presents five biodiversity hotspots—many of which are at risk from climate change, pollution, over-fishing, and deep-sea mining—worthy of recognition: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome; the White Shark Café, a shark gathering point in the Pacific Ocean; the Sargasso Sea; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field, with its 200-foot carbonate towers, in the Atlantic Ocean; and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island, in the Indian Ocean.
27 Jul 2016:
Ukraine Looking to Turn
Chernobyl Into a Massive Solar Farm
Chernobyl could soon start producing energy again — this time as a massive solar farm. Thirty years after the meltdown of the nuclear power plant,
The ghost town Pripyat.
Ukraine is looking for investors for a 1-gigawatt solar farm in the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, where radiation levels remain too high for farming or forestry, reported Bloomberg
. The project would cost $1.1 billion and transform Chernobyl into one of world’s largest solar installations. Government officials say that two U.S. investment firms and four Canadian energy companies have expressed interest in the project. The European Bank for Reconstruction & Development is also considering financing the solar farm. “The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy,” Ukraine’s environment minister Ostap Semerak said
. “We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap, and we have many people trained to work at power plants.”
25 Jul 2016:
Global Economy Has Reduced
Its Energy Intensity By One-Third Since 1990
The global economy is becoming less energy intensive
, using fewer fossil fuels to power productivity and economic growth, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Rooftop solar panels
Global energy intensity — a measure of energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) — has decreased nearly one-third since 1990, the agency said. The U.S., for example, burned 5,900 British thermal units per dollar of GDP
in 2015, compared to 6,600 BTUs in 2010. China burned 7,200 BTUs per dollar in 2015 versus 8,300 BTUs in 2010. The Department of Energy says the decrease is the result of the growth in low-carbon energy sources, such as wind and solar, and improved energy efficiency. “This is excellent news,” Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann told Climate Central
. “The dramatic drop we are seeing in global energy intensity is a direct indication that energy efficiency measures are having a very direct impact on global carbon emissions.”
20 Jul 2016:
Global Temperatures Continue
To Shatter Heat and Arctic Ice Records
June marked the 14th consecutive month of record-breaking heat, with global temperatures measuring 1.62 degrees F above the 20th-century average, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week
Global 2016 temperatures.
The first half of 2016 was 1.89 degrees F above last century’s average, breaking the previous January-June record set in 2015 of 0.36 degrees F above average. “2016 has really blown  out of the water,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told reporters
. Five of the first six months of this year have also set records for the smallest Arctic sea ice extent since satellite records began in 1979. Scientists said the recent record-breaking heat could be partly attributed to last year’s strong El Nino, but not entirely. “While the El Niño event… this winter gave a boost to global temperatures from October onwards, it is the underlying trend which is producing these record numbers,” Schmidt said
12 Jul 2016:
Climate Change Has Shifted
The World’s Cloud Cover Over Past 30 Years
Warming global temperatures have altered the distribution of clouds across the Earth in recent decades, according to new research published in the journal Nature
Global cloud cover.
Mid-latitude storm clouds have shifted polewards, dry subtropical zones have expanded in size, and the tops of clouds have gotten higher as a result of a warmer troposphere and cooler stratosphere, according to the study, which relied on satellite images taken between 1983 and 2009. Researchers said these shifts in cloud cover could further exacerbate climate change. As cloud systems shift toward the poles, where there’s less solar radiation, more sunlight will reach the Earth’s surface near the equator, boosting temperatures. Also, taller, thicker clouds trap more heat. “We now have a thicker blanket, which is also a warming effect,” said Joel Norris
, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego who helped lead the study.
08 Jul 2016:
Hundreds of Deaths in 2003
Heat Wave Linked to Climate Change
A new study suggests that human-caused climate change could be responsible for a significant portion of the 70,000 deaths that occurred during the record-breaking 2003 European heat wave. The research, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters
, combined climate modeling with health data for hundreds of fatalities that summer. Climate change, the study found, increased the likelihood of heat-related losses by nearly 70 percent in Paris and 20 percent in London. Out of 735 heat-related deaths in Paris, 506 were attributable to global warming, as were 64 out of 315 deaths in London. "Until recently, whenever we talked about climate change we talked about the globally averaged increase in temperature of 1 degree and people just don't really know or frankly care about that," lead study author and Oxford University scientist Daniel Mitchell told InsideClimate News
. "But now… people can really start to understand that these are impacts we're seeing now, not in the future."
05 Jul 2016:
Paris Bans All Pre-1997
Cars During Weekdays to Fight Pollution
Starting this month, Paris is banning all cars built before 1997 from driving within city limits Monday through Friday in an effort to lower air pollution levels.
Commuter traffic in Paris.
Paris has been struggling with smog for years and its pollution levels have briefly topped those in Beijing. Similar to Mexico City and New Delhi
, Paris banned even- and odd-numbered license plates on alternating days to fight smog earlier this year. It has also championed cleaner transit options, such as bike- and electric car-sharing programs. Not everyone is enthused, however: The French consumer group 40 Million Drivers said the ban could impact up to 500,000 vehicle owners in and around Paris, particularly low-income families. "When you have an old car in France, it's because you don't have the money to buy a new one," Pierre Chasseray, the executive director of 40 Million Drivers, told NPR
. "Public transport is a solution, but it's not the solution for everybody."
24 Jun 2016:
Cities on Six Continents
Join Forces to Combat Climate Change
Mayors from more than 7,100 cities on six continents announced this week
that they are creating a new alliance to fight climate change at the local level.
New York City
The new group — a merger of the European Union-based Covenant of Mayors and the United Nations-backed Compact of Mayors — represents a combined 600 million people in 119 countries. The initiative aims to set city-based CO2 emissions cuts, build sustainable communities, and foster the sharing of resiliency policies and technologies. “Cities are key to solving the climate change challenge,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission, wrote in The Guardian
. “They account for most of the world’s carbon emissions, and mayors often have control over the largest sources. Cities can also act quickly to confront climate change, without the political and bureaucratic hurdles that often hold back national governments.”
23 Jun 2016:
Scientists Discover Contagious
Cancer in More Species of Shellfish
Last year, scientists discovered a type of contagious cancer in soft-shell clams in which free-floating cells transmitted the disease from one animal to another.
Now, a team of Columbia University researchers is reporting that contagious cancers in the ocean may be more common than previously thought
and can not only jump from animal to animal, but across species. According to the new study published in Nature, the leukemia-like cancer, known as disseminated neoplasia, has been found in three more species of bivalves: mussels, cockles, and golden carpet shell clams. The cancer cells were genetically distinct from their hosts, indicating they originated elsewhere. Transmissible cancer had previously been found in Tasmanian devils
and dogs, but there’s no indication that humans are at risk. “I would only worry deeply if I was a mollusk,” Stephen P. Goff, a molecular biologist at Columbia University and co-author of the study, told The New York Times
16 Jun 2016:
Some Coral Reef “Bright Spots”
Remain, Despite Devastating Bleaching
After decades of being overfished and mismanaged, and the worst bleaching event on record this year, scientists reported in the journal Nature this week
that there remain some “bright spots” among the world’s coral reefs
Coral reef on the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific.
– systems that are doing better than anyone expected. The study examined 18 different factors at 2,514 reefs in 46 nations, including water depth, tourism, fishing, and population density. Those systems that were still thriving — defined by the scientists as having more fish than expected — tended to be managed by, and accessible only to, local fishermen and indigenous groups. This included reefs in places like the Solomon Islands, parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Kiribati. “There’s been a narrative about local involvement, but it’s often very token,” Joshua Cinner, a research fellow at James Cook University in Australia and lead author of the study, told The Atlantic
. He said there should be more opportunity for “communities to creatively confront their own challenges.”
15 Jun 2016:
Clean Energy Could Cost Up To
59 Percent Less by 2025, Report Finds
The cost of solar energy could drop by as much as 59 percent by 2025, from 13 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt hour, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency
Rooftop solar panels in Hannover, Germany.
Offshore wind could become 35 percent cheaper, and onshore wind 26 percent cheaper, by 2025. The cost of building renewable energy facilities is also likely to fall, by as much as 57 percent by the middle of next decade, the report found. “Historically, cost has been cited as one of the primary barriers to switching from fossil-based energy sources to renewable energy sources, but the narrative has now changed,” Adnan Z. Amin, director-general of IRENA, said in a statement
. “To continue driving the energy transition, we must now shift policy focus to support areas that will result in even greater cost declines and thus maximize the tremendous economic opportunity at hand.”
10 Jun 2016:
Researchers Find a Way to Turn
CO2 Into Rock at Iceland Power Plant
Scientists have discovered a new way to successfully capture carbon dioxide and transform it into rock deep underground. The experiment, published in this week’s Science
Section of rock made from mixing CO2 and water.
was conducted at the Hellisheidi power plant in Iceland, the world’s largest geothermal facility. When the plant — which helps power Iceland’s capital, Revkjavik — pumps up volcanically heated water to turbines, gases like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide often come up as well. A team of U.S. and European researchers, led by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, captured the CO2, mixed it with the used volcanic water, and re-injected it into basalt rocks up to a half-mile underground. More than 95 percent of the mixture naturally solidified into carbonate minerals in less than two years. Previous estimates predicted that the process could take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
09 Jun 2016:
Fish Can Recognize Human
Faces, According to One New Study
Fish now join humans, monkeys, primates, and birds as one of the few animals able to distinguish faces, according to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports
James St. John/Wikimedia
The skill requires a sophisticated combination of perception and memory
— and generally, a neocortex. But scientists at the University of Oxford in England and the University of Queensland in Australia were able to train archerfish to recognize human faces, despite the fact that these tropical fish don’t have complex brain structures. Archerfish typically feed by spitting water at prey, like insects. So the scientists taught the fish to spray water at images of particular human faces in exchange for food. Archerfish identified the correct person 81 percent of the time.
06 Jun 2016:
Fish Choose Plastic Over
Zooplankton in Polluted Waters
Fish that grow up in waters full of plastic particles develop a taste for trash, choosing to eat plastic over zooplankton, their natural food source, according to a study published in the journal Science
The research, by ecologists at Uppsala University in Swedish, found larval perch from the Baltic Sea exposed to microplastic pollution (less than 5mm in size) had stunted growth, were less active, ignored the smell of predators, and experienced increased mortality rates. Plastic pollution has become a major problem in the world’s oceans, but scientists are just beginning to understand how these fragments can affect the health of marine species. “If early life-history stages of other species are similarly affected by microplastics, and this translates to increased mortality rates, the effects on aquatic ecosystems could be profound,” said ecologist Oona Lönnstedt
, lead author of the study.
01 Jun 2016:
Climate Change Could Be Making
Food Crops More Toxic, UN Report Says
As extreme weather increases in frequency and intensity, food crops are producing more chemical compounds that can be toxic to humans in large doses, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme
Crops such as wheat, maize, and soybeans generate these compounds as a natural response to environmental stressors, such as drought, floods or heat waves. But when consumed by humans for extended periods of time, they can cause illnesses like neurological diseases or cancer, according to the study. One example, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports
, is nitrate. Drought slows down plants’ conversion of nitrates into amino acids and proteins, leading to a build up of the compound. When consumed in large quantities, nitrates stop red blood cells from transporting oxygen in the human body. "We are just beginning to recognize the magnitude of toxin- related issues confronting farmers in developing countries of the tropics and sub-tropics," the UNEP report noted.
31 May 2016:
Bees’ Fuzzy Bodies Help Them
Detect Electrical Charges From Flowers
Back in 2013, scientists discovered that bees can detect the electrical charges that flowers emit, helping them locate nearby food sources.
Exactly how the bees were doing this, however, remained a mystery. Now, scientists have found that the hairs on bees’ fuzzy bodies move in response to the charges
, which send nerve signals to bees’ brains that flowers are nearby. The finding is an important one: Scientists have long thought
that only animals in marine or moist habitats could detect electric fields, since currents are carried through water. That bees can do this in dry air opens up the possibility that other insects might have the same ability. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Bristol in the U.K., was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
27 May 2016:
Poland Begins Logging
Ancient Forest Despite Fierce Protests
Despite intense protests from environmentalists and scientists, Poland began logging the Bialowieza Forest this week, the last remaining fragment of Europe’s ancient woodlands and a World Heritage site.
The forest, covering more than 350,000 acres, is home to the continent’s largest population of European bison and 20,000 other wildlife species. Polish officials said the logging is to remove spruce trees dead or dying from a bark beetle infestation, but green groups argue that half the trees marked for removal aren’t spruce. Environmentalists have been patrolling the forest to keep track of logging activity, and they filed a formal complaint last month with the European Commission to intervene “before the Polish government allows for the irreversible destruction of the Bialowieza forest,” Greenpeace Poland activist Katarzyna Jagiełło recently told The Guardian