From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons
Twice a year, Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb travels to Christmas Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to collect samples from coral reefs to better understand past and future climate change.
But when Cobb arrived on the island earlier this month, she was stunned. The corals she had spent the past 18 years studying were largely dead or dying. The scene has become a familiar one across the Pacific and Indian oceans this year as a record-breaking El Niño drove up water temperatures and caused fragile coral reef systems to bleach from stress or die. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Cobb talked about the recent bleaching event, the race to make reefs more resilient, and how coral records could improve short-term climate projections. “What you think reefs might be experiencing in 20 years,” she says, “they're experiencing now.” Read the interview.
26 Apr 2016:
Historical Citizen-Scientists’ Ice
Records Confirm Global Temperature Rise
Centuries-old records from Japanese priests and European shipping merchants are helping scientists confirm that the earth has warmed substantially — and freshwater ice formation significantly decreased — since the Industrial Revolution.
These early record keepers tracked annual freeze dates and the breakup of ice each spring on lakes and rivers for hundreds of years, beginning in the 1440s in Japan and 1690s in Finland. The data represents the oldest known inland ice records. An international team of scientists published a study this week in Nature Scientific Reports
examining how ice behavior changed over the records’ years. They found that from 1443 to 1683, for example, the annual freeze date of Lake Suwa in Japan moved back 0.19 days per decade. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, however, that trend grew 24 times faster, pushing back the date of ice formation on the lake by 4.6 days per decade.
22 Apr 2016:
Brazilian Officials Put a
Hold on Mega-Dam Project in the Amazon
A proposed 8,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam in the Amazon was put on hold this week by Brazil’s environmental agency out of concerns over its impact on a local indigenous tribe.
The São Luiz do Tapajós project — which would be Brazil’s second-largest dam and a cornerstone of government efforts to expand hydroelectric power — would require developers to flood an area the size of New York City and home to thousands of Munduruku people. The environmental agency, Ibama, said they were suspending the project’s licensing because of “the infeasibility of the project from the prospective of indigenous issues.” Brent Millikan, the Amazon program director for International Rivers, told Reuters
, "The areas that would have been flooded include sites of important religious and cultural significance. The local communities have a huge amount of knowledge about the resources where they are — if they were forced off the land and into cities they would become unskilled workers."
20 Apr 2016:
Entries Invited for Third
Annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest
The third annual Yale Environment 360
Video Contest is now accepting entries. The contest honors the year's best environmental videos. Submissions must focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and be a maximum of 15 minutes in length. Videos that are funded by an organization or company and are primarily about that organization or company are not eligible. 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 contest judges will be Yale Environment 360
editor Roger Cohn, New Yorker
writer and e360
contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon. Deadline for entries is June 10, 2016. Read More.
18 Apr 2016:
The Complicated Case of
Global Warming’s Impact on Agriculture
Scientists have long debated whether climate change could help or hurt the world’s agricultural systems. Theoretically, additional CO2 in the atmosphere should help fuel crop growth.
A farmer plows his fields in southern India.
But global warming’s other impacts, such as shifting rain patterns, higher temperatures, and extreme weather, could reduce crop yields. A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change
by researchers in a half-dozen countries finds the answer depends on where you live. The scientists found yields of rain-fed wheat could increase by 10 percent, while irrigated wheat, the bulk of India and China’s production, could decline by 4 percent. Maize will decrease almost everywhere, down 8.5 percent. Rice and soybean could flourish in some areas and falter in others. “Most of the discussion around climate impacts focuses only on changes in temperature and precipitation,” said
Delphine Deryng, an environmental scientist at Columbia University who led the study. “To adapt adequately, we need to understand all the factors involved.”
14 Apr 2016:
Drought, Climate Change
Cause Rapid Plant Evolution in California
As climate change alters ecosystems and weather patterns, species across the globe are undergoing change as well. Some are dwindling in numbers and others are going extinct, but many are adapting.
The Brassica rapa plant.
A team of U.S. researchers, led by biologist Steven Franks of Fordham University, found the drought that impacted California between 1997 and 2004 changed the Brassica rapa plant
, a type of field mustard, down to the genetic level. After seven years of water scarcity, the plants had shifted their flowering times forward by weeks to take advantage of early season rain. “This research shows us that contrary to the previous belief… evolutionary changes can happen extremely rapidly,” Franks wrote in the Huffington Post
. “However, this does not mean that we don’t need to worry about climate change because species will just evolve. A recent analysis concluded that 1 in 6 species could face extinction if climate change continues unabated.”
For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate
Climate scientist James Hansen has been a prominent figure in the global climate conversation for more than 40 years. His 1988 congressional testimony on climate change helped introduce the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions to the American public,
and he has led study after study examining how our world will change as a result of global warming. Eight years ago, Hansen made the rare decision to begin engaging in climate activism—a move that has earned him both praise and criticism from the media and scientific community. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
last week, Hansen opened up about his unconventional career path and what he believes the world could look like a century from now. “I don't think that I have been alarmist — maybe alarming, but I don't think I'm an alarmist,” he said. “We have a society in which most people have become unable to understand or appreciate science, and partly that's a communication problem, which we need to try to alleviate.”
Read the interview.
11 Apr 2016:
More Than 50 Percent of
Great Barrier Reef Affected By Bleaching
Record high ocean temperatures in the western Pacific have caused more than half of the Great Barrier Reef to undergo a mass coral bleaching event this year, according to a team of Australian scientists
conducting aerial surveys.
ARC Coral Reef Studies
An aerial shot of the Great Barrier Reef in early April.
Corals thrive in a narrow temperature range, and when waters warm above normal—as they have this year from climate change and a strong El Nino—the organisms expel their symbiotic algae, leaving them without a source of food and susceptible to disease. Scientists’ next step is studying the corals up close to determine how deep the bleaching is, said
Terry Hughes, a marine biologist at James Cook University and head of the Australian coral bleaching task force. “If the corals are severely bleached, then a lot will die,” Hughes said. “If they are lightly bleached, which is the case with a lot of reefs south of Townsville, then they’ll regain their color over the next couple of months and there won’t be much mortality.”
05 Apr 2016:
El Nino Prevents Phytoplankton
Growth, Endangering Marine Food Web
El Nino—the cyclical warming of the Pacific Ocean—has wreaked havoc on the world’s weather
for the past two years, from a record-breaking number of cyclones in the North Pacific to flooding in South America.
Satellite images of phytoplankton growth.
But scientists at NASA recently discovered
that the climate phenomenon also has a big impact on phytoplankton, the tiny oceanic organisms that serve as the base of the marine food chain. Normally, ocean currents drive cold, deep water to the surface near the equator, bringing with it a flood of nutrients that feed phytoplankton. El Nino’s mass of warm water stops this upwelling. The result is a marked drop in phytoplankton levels. “This decline echoes through many species,” said Stephanie Uz, an ocean scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led the study. “Small fish that feed on phytoplankton starve. This affects everything from penguin and iguana populations in the Galapagos to governments managing fisheries.”
29 Mar 2016:
As U.S. Oil Production Increases,
More Americans At Risk of Man-Made Quakes
As U.S.-based production of oil and gas has boomed over the last decade, millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater has been pumped and stored deep underground.
The risk of experiencing an earthquake in 2016.
It turns out, however, that this disposal method—popular for fracking waste—is causing a spike in the number of earthquakes across the country, according to a new set of maps from the U.S. Geological Survey
. Seven million Americans are now at risk from man-made quakes, particularly in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. "My first thought was actually, ‘Holy crap, Oklahoma is redder than California,’" USGS geologist Susan Hough told The Washington Post
about seeing the maps for the first time. Unlike California, however, most of these states don’t have earthquake-ready structures, experts said, so communities are having to update building codes and purchase new insurance.
28 Mar 2016:
Majority of Meteorologists Now
Agree Climate Change is Happening, Manmade
Meteorologists have long lagged behind scientists and even the general public in acceptance of modern anthropogenic climate change.
Doppler radar image of Hurricane Alex in 2004.
Four years ago, only 19 percent of TV weather forecasters said they believed human actions were the primary driver of global warming. Today, however, 67 percent of TV and non-TV meteorologists agree that climate change is manmade, according to a new survey by George Mason University
. An additional 14 percent said human activity and natural factors are equally responsible. Overall, 96 percent said climate change is happening, no matter the reason. The shift comes after a string of shattered monthly temperature records and wild weather, and growing international attention to the issue following the UN Paris climate conference in December. Ed Maibach, lead author of the survey and director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said the upswing didn't surprise him
. “That is how science works. As the scientific evidence becomes more irrefutable, which is the case with harmful, human-caused climate change, more scientists of all types will become convinced,” he said.
23 Mar 2016:
Microbes Are Likely Speeding
Up the Melting of the Glaciers
As if soaring global temperatures weren’t bad enough, scientists reported this week that microbes are also speeding up the melting of Arctic ice.
National Parks Service
A pool of meltwater on the Root Glacier in Alaska.
The problem lies in cryoconite, the soil-like composite of dust, industrial soot and photosynthetic bacteria that darkens the surface of ice and causes it to melt, scientists from Aberystwyth University in Wales said. As it melts, ice leaves behind small water-filled holes full of bacteria. The sun-loving microbes then shape the pockmarks’ depth and size to get more light exposure, in turn melting the ice even more—a process previously unaccounted for in global climate change models. "It's only recently that we've begun to understand that these cryoconite holes are dynamic, changing in size and shape,” said
biologist Arwyn Edwards, who led the study. "In the long term, this contributes to the loss of glacier habitats, and the unique microbial biodiversity living on them."
21 Mar 2016:
Newly Discovered Butterfly
Could Be Climate Bellwether in the Arctic
Scientists have discovered the first new butterfly species in Alaska in nearly 28 years, according to new research
published in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera
The dorsal side of new species Oeneis tanana.
Named the Tanana Arctic, or Oeneis tanana
, the species is thought to be a hybrid and the only butterfly endemic to the state. Because butterflies are so sensitive to environmental change, the Tanana Arctic could serve as an early warning signal to the impacts of climate change in the region, the scientists said. “This butterfly has apparently lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that if it ever moves out, we’ll be able to say ‘Wow, there are some changes happening,’” said
Andrew Warren, the senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History who discovered the species. “This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing.”
17 Mar 2016:
The World’s Economy Grew,
But Greenhouse Gas Emissions Didn't
Despite a 3.1 percent growth in global GDP in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions remained flat for the second year in a row, according to the International Energy Agency.
A man installs new solar panels in Oregon.
The decoupling of emissions from economic growth is “welcome news,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in the press statement. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.” The world’s nations released 32.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases last year, equal to—or perhaps even a slight downtick from—2014, the agency said. The stabilization is likely due to the booming renewable energy industry and global cutbacks on the use of coal, particularly in the U.S. and China, the two largest emitters of carbon dioxide. Chinese emissions, for example, declined 1.5 percent last year.
Interview: How to Talk About
Young Conservatives for Energy Reform
Clean Energy With Conservatives
promotes a green energy agenda for Republicans. But the phrase “climate change” isn’t one you’ll find on the organization’s website.
Angel Garcia, the group’s national outreach coordinator, admits that pushing renewables in conservative circles is an uphill battle. “We have an ideology that seems like it’s ‘Drill, baby drill,’ with nothing else. So we have to fight against stereotypes that if you’re for clean energy, then you are not really a Republican.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Garcia says the Republican Party has a vested interest in embracing clean energy since the issue resonates with young conservatives. “As demographics shift, this is becoming a more important issue. So it’s better to get in front of the issue now and embrace it.”
Read the interview.
15 Mar 2016:
Obama Administration Pulls
Proposal to Drill in the Atlantic Ocean
The Obama administration withdrew its proposal to open up offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday.
Offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The decision blocks drilling in the region until 2022 and comes after an outpouring of opposition
to the plan from environmental groups and mid-Atlantic coastal communities and businesses concerned about a possible spill like Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago. “Public pressure forced the administration to reverse course on Atlantic drilling," May Boeve, executive director of the environmental group 350.org, said in a statement. “We will continue to make the case that any new drilling is a stain on the president’s climate legacy and incompatible with the goals he committed to at the climate talks in Paris.”
14 Mar 2016:
Sea Level Rise Could Put
13.1 Million Americans At Risk of Flooding
Climate change and sea level rise could put 13.1 million Americans at risk of flooding by 2100, according to a new study
in the journal Nature Climate Change
Flooding in Davie, Florida
Nearly half of the at-risk population resides in Florida, and 70 percent in the southeastern United States. Unlike previous assessments that looked only at sea level rise, the study examines both climate and population projections for all 319 coastal U.S. counties over the next century. Three feet of sea level rise puts 4.2 million Americans at risk. Six feet—the high end of estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—puts 13.1 million at risk. “The impact projections are up to three times larger than current estimates, which significantly underestimate the effect of sea level rise in the United States,” said
Mathew Hauer, lead author of the study and a demographer at the University of Georgia.
09 Mar 2016:
U.S., Canada to Announce Series
Of New Climate and Environment Initiatives
President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to announce a series of environment and climate initiatives during Trudeau’s first visit to the White House later this week.
The measures include a 45-percent cut in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry and a partnership to protect the rapidly melting Arctic from climate change. Trudeau’s focus on global warming since winning office four months ago marks a significant shift in Canada’s environmental policy. Its previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, cut funding for climate research
and backtracked on international climate pledges. “The commitment of both leaders to addressing this global challenge is clear,” Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, said
. “I suspect under their leadership, North America will make significant progress this year and next.”
08 Mar 2016:
JP Morgan Will No Longer Invest
In New Coal Mines, Citing Climate Change
JP Morgan will no longer finance new coal mines or support new coal-fired power plants in “high income” countries, the banking giant said
in a policy statement on its website.
Coal mine in Jharia, India
Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo have made similar pledges in recent months, all part of a larger divestment movement aimed at transitioning the world’s economies off fossil fuels. The anti-coal campaign has dealt a blow to an already struggling industry. The price of coal has dropped from $140 per ton in 2009 to $42 in 2016 as cheap, abundant natural gas and renewables have flooded the U.S. energy market. At the same time, support for climate action has grown, with the signing of an international climate agreement in Paris last December. “We believe the financial services sector has an important role to play as governments implement policies to combat climate change,” JPMorgan said
in the document.
07 Mar 2016:
Climate Change Will Threaten Key Crops Across Sub-Saharan Africa
Climate change’s rising temperatures and more frequent and intense droughts could leave parts of sub-Saharan Africa unable to grow staple crops such as maize, bananas, and beans by the end of the century,
A woman holds maize, a staple crop, in Ghana.
according to new research
published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. Up to 60 percent of bean-producing areas and 30 percent of maize and banana farms could become unviable by 2100, and farmers should start growing more climate change-resistant crops, improve irrigation systems, or switch to raising livestock, the scientists said. “Agriculture and farming are critical not only for the livelihoods of farmers but also more broadly for the diets of the region’s population,” said
Julián Ramírez-Villegas, a scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and lead author of the study. “Unless timely adaptation actions are taken, we’re looking at a bleak picture in terms of food security and poverty throughout many areas of sub-Saharan Africa.”
03 Mar 2016:
Oregon To Eliminate Coal
From Its State Energy Mix by 2030
Oregon has become the first U.S. state to eliminate the use of coal by legislative action. Lawmakers at the statehouse
Oregon's only remaining coal plant, in Boardman
voted Wednesday to eliminate coal from the state’s energy supply by 2030, and to provide half of all customers’ power with renewable sources by 2040. The legislation was hammered out between the state’s two largest utilities and environmental groups. Clean energy groups praised the legislation as one of the strongest pieces of pro-climate legislation in the U.S. in years. “In terms of the coal phase-out, this really is precedent setting,” said Jeff Deyette
, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. There is only one coal plant currency operating in Oregon, and it is the state's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Rethinking Urban Landscapes To Adapt to Rising Sea Levels
Sea levels are rising faster than they have in at least 28 centuries, according to recent research, and by 2100, they are expected to rise by one to four feet — possibly even higher.
Landscape architect Kristina Hill argues that cities throughout the world need to start planning now for impacts that will happen 50 or 100 years in the future. “It takes decades for us to get our act together and build things,” says Hill, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Future generations won’t have the luxury of decades.” Hill advocates blending natural ecosystems and human-made infrastructure to help cities adjust to rising tides. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, she talks about her vision for modifying coastal communities, the limits to adaptation, and the promise of “cyborg landscapes.”
Read the interview.
01 Mar 2016:
Despite El Nino, California Has Dry February As Drought Continues
El Nino failed to deliver much needed rain to California in February, dashing hopes that the climatic phenomenon could help end the state’s crippling four-year, multi-billion-dollar drought.
Ninety-four percent of California is in drought.
Downtown Los Angeles received only .79 inches of rain last month, when it typically gets 3.8 inches. The Bay Area got similarly low totals. "From past six strong El Ninos, we have generally seen above normal rainfall,” said
Robbie Munroe, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “But since October 1 we've only seen five inches of rain so far (across Southern California). We were certainly expecting a lot more." Meteorologists say a series of forecasted storms in early March could help, but with El Nino reportedly weakening and about 94 percent of California still in some form of drought, things aren’t looking good for the region.
29 Feb 2016:
China's CO2 Emissions Fell in 2015 Due to Decline in Coal, Boost in Renewables
China's greenhouse gas emissions fell for the second year in a row in 2015, down 1 to 2 percent, according to a Greenpeace analysis
of new data released by China's National Bureau Statistics.
The Tangshanpeng Wind Farm in northern China.
China reduced its coal consumption 3.7 percent
in 2015, and installed 32.5 gigawatts (GW) of wind and 18.3 GW of solar power. The country's recent economic slowdown also helped reduce emissions. China is currently the world's largest emitter of CO2, responsible for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. At a UN climate conference in Paris in December, China pledged to peak its emissions by 2030 and boost renewables. "These statistics show that China is on track to far surpass its Paris climate targets," said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior campaigner on coal for Greenpeace. "However, the trend is not moving as fast as it could."
26 Feb 2016:
California Natural Gas Leak Officially Largest Leak in U.S. History
The four-month natural gas leak that sickened hundreds of Los Angeles residents and forced the evacuations of 1,800 homes this winter has officially been deemed the largest methane leak in U.S. history, according to a study
in the journal Science
A natural gas facility in California's Aliso Canyon.
The California leak spewed a total 97,100 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, up to 60 tons per hour—the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 572,000 cars. Methane is a greenhouse gas dramatically more potent than carbon dioxide over a short time span. The researchers collected the data during 13 different flights through the leaking gas plume. The measurements were so high the scientists said they double-checked their recording devices. "It became obvious that there wasn't anything wrong with the instruments," said
Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientists at the University of California-Davis who led the study. "This was just a huge event."
24 Feb 2016:
Extended Bleaching Events
Are Killing Corals As Oceans Warm
Rising ocean temperatures are intensifying the die-off of corals around the planet, according to U.S. government scientists. “We are currently experiencing
Bleached coral at the Great Barrier Reef
the longest global coral-bleaching event ever observed,” said Mark Eakin
, head of Coral Reef Watch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bleaching occurs when corals respond to environmental hazards, such as high ocean temperatures, by expelling the symbiotic algae they need to provide them with sustenance. Eakin predicted that the latest extended bleaching event, which started in 2014, will likely last well into next year, at which time about 60 percent of corals worldwide may be affected. Eakin compares the continuous pressure that reefs have been under in recent years to a boxing bout. “What used to be a one-round fight is turning into a two- and three-round fight,” he says.
22 Feb 2016:
Reaching Emission Targets Could
Save 295,000 U.S. Lives by 2030, Study Says
The greenhouse emission cuts that America agreed to at the Paris climate conference may come with a significant public health benefit —the prevention of 295,000 premature deaths— according to a Duke University study
. At the December summit, 196 nations, including the U.S., agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve that goal, the U.S. will need to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030, which would lead to a significant reduction in deadly air pollution, according to the study. “People should realize that emissions are having a big impact already… more than 100,000 deaths a year,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke and lead author of the study
. “Air pollution is a very big health challenge, it’s having a major public health impact in the U.S.” According to the World Health Organization
, about seven million people died in 2012 as a result of air pollution.
18 Feb 2016:
Scientists Map Which Ecosystems
are the Most Vulnerable to Climate Change
Forests, tundras, and alpine areas are some of the world’s most at-risk ecosystems to climate change, according to a new map
published in the journal Nature.
Map of at-risk ecosystems
The study, led by scientists at the University of Bergen in Norway, used satellite data collected from 2000 to 2013 to examine how sensitive plants were to changes in air temperature, water availability, and cloud cover, down to a two-square-mile scale. The scientists used the results to create the Vegetation Sensitivity Index—a visual guide to plants’ climate responses. The Arctic tundra, parts of Europe and Canada’s boreal forest, tropical rainforests in South America, and eastern Australia all registered as some of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the world to climatic changes.
11 Feb 2016:
The U.S. Southwest Is Moving
Toward a Drier Climate, New Study Shows
The southwestern United States is becoming increasingly dry and is likely to stay that way
for the foreseeable future as the weather patterns that typically bring precipitation to the region are becoming increasingly rare, according to a new study. Analyzing 35 years of data, researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research identified low-pressure systems in the North Pacific as being responsible for bringing moisture to the Southwest. But between 1979 and 2014, those low-pressure systems increasingly gave way to high-pressure systems, which have generally kept precipitation away from the Southwest and have caused drought there and in California. The outlook for the future is not good, said the researchers, writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The shift toward higher pressure in the North Pacific is consistent with climate models, which predict that a belt of higher average pressure that now sits closer to the equator will move north.
10 Feb 2016:
Supreme Court Suspends
Obama's Coal Plant Emissions Cuts
The U.S. Supreme Court voted Tuesday to put on hold new federal regulations to curb carbon dioxide emissions, mainly from coal-fired
A coal-fired power plant
power plants, until a legal challenge by more than two dozen states and interest groups is complete. It is the first time the Supreme Court has granted a request to halt a regulation before its review by a federal appeals court. The 5-4 vote along ideological lines is a blow to the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, its strategy to combat climate change. Those challenging the regulations claim the new rules, which are to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, would have a devastating economic impact. The White House says it expects the regulations to survive legal challenges. The plan, designed to lower carbon emissions from U.S. power plants to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, is the main tool for the U.S. to meet CO2 reduction targets pledged at the December climate talks in Paris.