Science & Technology
25 Nov 2015:
Airlines Could Halve Emissions
By 2050 by Making Cost-Saving Changes
Airlines could cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next 35 years by making changes that would actually
Cost-effective changes could cut airline emissions.
save them money, according to
research published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. Researchers developed a list of 14 strategies, all based on current technologies, that airlines could pursue to cut emissions, which account for roughly 2 to 3 percent of the total carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year. For example, one recommendation is to keep planes at the gate until takeoff rather than making them idle on the runway, or to use fewer engines — perhaps even electric engines — when taxiing. Emissions could also be cut significantly by reducing aircraft weight, the researchers say, such as by lowering the amount of extra fuel carried or replacing seats and brakes with ones made from lighter materials. Updating flight paths to more direct routes, adjusting altitude and speed to avoid drag-inducing turbulence, and retiring older planes would also cut costs and emissions.
20 Nov 2015:
Global Forest Cover Estimates
Vary Widely Based on Definition, Study Says
Measurements of global forest cover can vary widely — by as much as 6 percent of the planet's land area, a swath equal in size
to China, according to research
from the University of Maryland. The reason behind the discrepancy actually lies in how different researchers and organizations define forest cover, the researchers note. Geographers have long called for the definition to be standardized, but until now, no one had quantified the scope of the variance. The largest ambiguities in forest calculations are driven by uncertainties near savannas, shrublands, mountain ridge forests, and other areas with intermediate tree cover. “It’s not technology’s fault” that forest maps are inconsistent, said lead author Joseph Sexton. But until the definitions are standardized, he said, it will be difficult to properly assess land cover or conservation measures related to climate change and biodiversity.
19 Nov 2015:
Genetically Engineered Salmon
Approved for Sale in U.S. Supermarkets
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved
genetically engineered salmon for human consumption, marking the first
AquAdvantage salmon (top) compared to conventional salmon
time an animal with genetic alterations has been cleared for sale in supermarkets across the nation. A long and bitter battle
has surrounded the issue, and this approval comes five years after government reviewers deemed AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon, as the fish is known, safe for consumers and the environment. Opponents have argued that the genetic integrity of wild salmon could be threatened if the GM fish were to escape from contained farms into rivers and oceans. The company says, however, that the fish will be raised on land, thus making escape into the wild impossible, and that the GM salmon can be farmed more efficiently because they have a faster growth rate than conventionally farmed salmon.
17 Nov 2015:
New Study Finds Limited and
Uneven Water Reserves Near Earth's Surface
Roughly 5.5 million cubic miles of groundwater are stored in the earth’s crust, according to
new research published in
the journal Nature Geoscience
, but the resource is distributed unevenly across the globe, as shown in this map. Combining data with models on the permeability and porosity of rocks and soils, and on water table gradients, researchers illustrated the depth of groundwater around the world. If earth's groundwater were to cover the planet's surface evenly, the scientists predicted that the pool would be approximately 600 feet deep. However, only six percent of this groundwater is usable for most purposes. This water, which is closer to the surface, is also more sensitive to climate change and human contamination. The research highlights how unevenly this resource is distributed across the globe, scientists say, as well as the need to manage water reserves in a sustainable way.
13 Nov 2015:
Sharks Will Likely Be Less
Effective Hunters With Climate Change
Sharks will likely become much smaller and less aggressive hunters under the rising CO2 levels and warming oceans associated
Port Jackson sharks are bottom-dwellers.
with climate change, according to a study published in Scientific Reports
by University of Adelaide researchers. In large-tank laboratory experiments with Port Jackson sharks — a bottom-feeding variety that primarily relies on smell to find food — the researchers found that the combination of warmer water and high CO2 increased the sharks' energy requirements and reduced their metabolic efficiency. Elevated CO2 levels also dulled the sharks' sense of smell to the point that they were unable to locate prey — a finding confirmed in previous CO2/olfaction studies. Together, these effects led to dramatic reductions in the sharks' growth rates. "With a reduced ability to hunt, sharks will no longer be able to exert the same top-down control over the marine food webs, which is essential for maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems," said lead researcher Ivan Nagelkerken.
10 Nov 2015:
New Online Tool Maps Lands
Managed and Protected by Indigenous People
Indigenous people have historically demarcated their ancestral lands in a variety of ways, from rudimentary agreements and maps to,
A new online tool maps native lands.
more recently, drone surveys. But until now, there has been no systematic way of recording the actual boundaries and legal status of each swath of land managed by native peoples, who, as research shows, often do a better job of protecting their lands than local or national governments. LandMark
, a new tool launched today by a broad partnership including the World Resources Institute (WRI), is the first online, interactive platform for mapping lands managed by native communities. It was created to fill a critical gap in indigenous and community rights and make clear that these lands are not vacant, idle, or available to outsiders for exploitative development such as mining, palm oil plantations, or timber concessions. But Abdon Nababan, secretary general of the Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples' Alliance, cautioned that “these maps do us no good unless they become public knowledge and indigenous rights are recognized by all who have ambitions to grab our lands.”
09 Nov 2015:
Globe Is Set to Cross 1 Degree C
Temperature Increase Threshold in 2015
The United Kingdom’s Met Office says that 2015 will be the year when average world temperatures rise more than 1 degree C
Globaly, 2015 is expected to be warmer than 2014.
above pre-industrial levels. That is halfway to the 2 degrees C temperature increase threshold that scientists say could dangerously destabilize the planet’s climate system. The Met office reported that from January to September this year, global temperatures hit 1.02 degrees C above pre-industrial averages and that temperatures for the full year are virtually certain to be above the 1 C level. Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) reported that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in 2014 averaged 397.7 parts per million
and that average 2015 concentrations could surpass the 400 ppm mark. “We are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud said.
30 Oct 2015:
Thousand-Year Storm Event
Leads to Striking Flooding in Death Valley
A system of storms this month caused significant flooding in most of Death Valley National Park in southeastern California. These images,
obtained via a U.S. Geological Survey-NASA satellite
, contrast the region's moisture content in October 2015 and October 2014, which was a year with typical precipitation. The images have been enhanced with false color to highlight water at or near the surface of the earth; green and blue indicate locations with high moisture content. Especially striking is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at an elevation of 279 feet below sea level, which is usually a dry lakebed. In the 2015 image, Badwater Basin is full of water. Flash floods from the so-called "1,000-year" flood event destroyed roads and utilities, and damaged several historical structures, according to the USGS.
27 Oct 2015:
Thawing Permafrost Soils
Rapidly Release CO2 Into Atmosphere
A new study in Alaska shows that as permafrost soils thaw, they rapidly release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
, further exacerbating
Researchers collected samples of permafrost from underground tunnels.
global warming. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and two universities dug a tunnel in permafrost near Fairbanks and subjected the frozen soils to rising temperatures. The study showed that permafrost is highly biodegradable, with the carbon in the thawing soils rapidly being consumed by single-celled organisms. Those organisms then release carbon into the atmosphere. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, documented some of the fastest permafrost decomposition rates ever recorded. In effect, the researchers said, thawing means that permafrost — currently isolated from the carbon cycle
— has the potential to become a major source of carbon emissions.
Interview: ‘Third Way’ Technologies
Could Help Turn the Tide on Climate
Massive seaweed farms that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and counteract ocean acidification. The widespread adoption of carbon
fiber technology that extracts CO2 from the air and turns it into cars and other industrial products. Concrete manufacturing that is carbon-negative rather than the energy-guzzling Portland cement used today. These and other ideas represent what Australian scientist Tim Flannery calls “third way technologies” — safe methods to reduce carbon dioxide levels that could be adopted in concert with large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Flannery explains that unlike risky geo-engineering schemes, these approaches “strengthen Earth’s own self-regulatory system by drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere in ways the planet naturally does already.”
Read the interview.
15 Oct 2015:
Gates Calls Divestment
A `False Solution’ to Global Warming
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has called the fossil fuel divestment campaign a “false solution”
to climate change and says the best way to decarbonize the global economy is by developing revolutionary renewable energy technologies. “We need an energy miracle,” Gates told The Atlantic magazine.
“That may make it seem too daunting to people, but miracles in science are happening all the time.” Gates said he is pledging $2 billion of his foundation’s endowment to research and develop alternative energy technologies. He criticized the divestment movement
for “using up (campaigners’) idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon.” The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charitable organization, has $1.4 billion invested in fossil fuel companies, and activists have been calling on Gates to sell those holdings.
14 Oct 2015:
Toyota Vows to Eliminate
Nearly All of Its Gasoline Cars by 2050
The global automobile giant, Toyota, has announced plans to steadily phase out production of gasoline-powered cars
and to slash emissions from its fleet by 90 percent by 2050. Speaking in Tokyo, Toyota executives vowed to work with government officials and other companies to replace internal combustion cars with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hybrids. “You may think 35 years is a long time, but for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary,” said a senior Toyota executive. The company said that by 2020 annual sales of its hybrid vehicles will reach 1.5 million and sales of fuel cell vehicles will hit 30,000 — 10 times the projected figure for 2017. Meanwhile, Volkswagen, shaken by scandal over falsifying emissions data on its diesel cars, announced it will increasingly shift production
to hybrid and electric vehicles.
06 Oct 2015:
Styrofoam May Be Biodegradable
After All, Thanks to Mealworms, Study Says
Mealworms can survive on a diet of polystyrene plastics — commonly used to make Styrofoam — according to research published in
Mealworms devouring Styrofoam
the journal Environmental Science and Technology
. The findings point toward a possible solution for dealing with one of the most-polluting forms of plastic. In the study, 100 mealworms consumed between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam per day. These worms were as healthy as those fed a normal diet, the researchers report, and excreted biodegraded Styrofoam fragments that were usable as agricultural soil. While studies have found that other organisms, including waxworms and Indian mealmoth larvae, are able to digest plastics such as polyethylene, this is the first organism able to digest Styrofoam, which is generally considered non-biodegradable. The discovery could aid in better understanding of the conditions and enzymes that contribute to plastic degradation.
02 Oct 2015:
Brown Carbon Plays Larger Role
In Climate Than Assumed, Study Says
Climate models are underestimating the effects of so-called brown carbon from sources such as forest fires because the models
do not account for regional factors — such as areas where wood-burning stoves are common — when estimating brown carbon's climate-warming impacts. Black carbon, primarily from urban combustion sources like vehicles and factories, absorbs the most sunlight, the researchers explain, and it's well-accounted for in climate models. However, most models don't properly account for brown carbon, the researchers say. Brown carbon "can be a significant absorber of sunlight, making it as bad for climate warming as black carbon," said co-author Manvendra Dubey of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The study, published this week in Nature Communications
, stresses the differing effects of black and brown carbon on the climate: Solid wood combustion, a source of brown carbon soot, is pervasive during United Kingdom winters, but very uncommon in other study locations, such as Los Angeles, which generally sees more black carbon soot from vehicles.
25 Sep 2015:
‘Pop-up’ Wetlands Will
Help Millions of Migrating Birds This Fall
Birds migrating south from the Arctic this fall will have access to 7,000 new acres of temporary wetland habitat for their California
stopovers, according to
researchers with NASA, The Nature Conservancy, and other academic and conservation organizations. The BirdReturns program creates “pop-up habitats” — temporarily flooded rice fields — for some of the millions of sandpipers, plovers, and other shorebirds that migrate each year from their summer Arctic breeding grounds to winter homes in California, which is in the midst of a severe drought, Mexico, and Central and South America. By combining on-the-ground observations and NASA satellite data, researchers can identify areas where birds flocked during previous migrations. Matching the location and timing of the pop-up wetland habitats with the route and timing of migrating shorebirds is critical, researchers say.
Interview: A Scientist’s View
On How to Repair the Planet
For an environmental scientist who studies how humanity is pushing the earth close to potentially disastrous tipping points, Johan Rockström
of a new book, Big World, Small Planet
— is surprisingly optimistic. Although he reckons that our species has crossed four of nine “planetary boundaries,” including those on climate change and deforestation, he believes there is still time to pull back from the brink and create a sustainable future based on renewable energy and a “circular” economy that continually reuses resources. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Rockström describes how an alignment of science, technological advances, and a growing public hunger for action can get civilization back on track. “It’s not a journey where we are backing into the caves,” says Rockström. “It’s a journey of high technology ... and huge, multiple benefits.”
Read the interview.
21 Sep 2015:
Rising Seas and More Intense
Storms Likely to Cause Major Flooding Spike
Rising seas and increasingly frequent and intense storms along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts could interact to produce alarming
Sea temperature increases along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts
spikes in the extent and duration of floods, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change
. The study projects that coastal flooding could possibly shoot up several hundred-fold by 2100, from the Northeast to Texas. Even the study's most conservative calculations, based on greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions over the next 85 years, suggest a 4- to 75-fold increase in the the combined heights and durations of expected floods. Over the past century, the East Coast has experienced sea level rise far beyond the 8-inch global average — up to a foot in much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including New York City. Most projections call for a further 2- to 4-foot rise by 2100, and some estimates go as high as 6 feet. At the same time, other studies suggest that in the future the largest North Atlantic storms may become more intense because warmer waters contain more energy.
18 Sep 2015:
Genes of Greenlanders Preserve
Evidence of Ancient Arctic Adaptation
The DNA of modern-day Greenlanders shows how their Inuit forefathers adapted to the harsh Arctic environment they called home
80% of Greenlanders identify as Inuit.
for thousands of years, according to findings published in the journal Science
. The Arctic is an extreme environment, characterized by a cold climate and sparse vegetation. The typical diet of Greenlanders — and their ancient ancestors — is made up primarily of proteins and fats from fish and marine mammals, and carbohydrate and vegetable consumption is minimal. By collecting genetic information from 4,500 modern Greenlanders, researchers determined which genes have changed the most over the roughly 20,000 years since Greenlanders' most ancient Inuit ancestors separated from their nearest East Asian relatives, the Han Chinese. The genetic changes the researchers identified show that through natural selection the Greenlandic Inuit's genetic makeup evolved in a way that enabled them to efficiently metabolize the fatty acids from fish and to live with few carbohydrates and vegetables.
11 Sep 2015:
Flooding Fields in Winter May
Help California Water Woes, Study Suggests
Deliberately flooding California farmland in winter could replenish aquifers without harming crops or affecting drinking water, according to
This flooded alfalfa field is part of the study.
from a study by University of California, Davis, researchers. Winter months, when crops are dormant, typically see more precipitation than summer months, when crops are actively growing and farmers rely on groundwater reserves for irrigation. Several water districts have attempted to sequester excess surface water during storms and floods by diverting it into infiltration basins — confined areas of sandy soil — but those basins are scarce. Instead, researchers suggest that some some 3.6 million acres of farmland could serve a similar purpose — particularly fields of wine grapes, almonds, peaches, and plums — because those lands allow deep percolation with little risk to crops or groundwater quality.
01 Sep 2015:
European Project Recruits
Smartphone Users to Collect Pollution Data
A European project that begins today asks smartphone users to collect data on air pollution in major cities across the
Smartphone with the iSpex accessory
continent. In the iSpex-EU project
, volunteers will use a free accessory attached to their smartphones to capture the spectrum of sunlight reaching their phones. Using those readings, scientists can determine levels of fine particles and aerosols in the atmosphere. Once enough data has been collected, the researchers plan to create maps showing where ground-level air pollution poses the highest risks. A recent study from King’s College in London estimated that, in London alone, roughly 9,500 premature deaths each year are linked to high levels of air pollution. After smoking, air pollution is the second-largest public health challenge in the region, researchers say.
31 Aug 2015:
Researchers Develop Artificial
Leaf That Efficiently Mimics Photosynthesis
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed an artificial leaf that can produce hydrogen fuel through
Artificial leaf device
a process similar to photosynthesis, according to findings
published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science
. The system is the first complete, efficient, and safe solar-driven device for splitting water to create hydrogen fuels, say the researchers, who have been seeking a cost-effective method for producing energy using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. The new system consists of two electrodes that produce oxygen and hydrogen gases, along with a specialized membrane that keeps the gases separate to prevent the possibility of an explosion. The artificial leaf converts 10 percent of the energy in sunlight into hydrogen fuel and can operate for more than 40 hours continuously, the study says.
27 Aug 2015:
NASA Study Quantifies Plants'
Role in Mitigating Urban Heat Island Effect
The presence or scarcity of vegetation is an essential factor in determining how much urban areas heat up, according to a NASA study
Using data from multiple satellites, the researchers found that areas covered in part by impervious surfaces such as asphalt, concrete, and steel had an average summer temperature 3.4 degrees F higher than nearby rural areas. The highest U.S. urban temperatures compared to surrounding areas were along the Interstate-95 corridor from Boston to Washington and around Atlanta and the I-85 corridor in the Southeast. In desert cities such as Phoenix, the urban area was actually cooler because irrigated lawns and trees provide cooling that dry, rocky areas do not, the researchers explain. The urban heat island effect occurs primarily during the day, when impervious surfaces in cities absorb more sunlight than surrounding vegetated areas.
20 Aug 2015:
Global Warming Has Worsened
California Drought By Roughly 25 Percent
Rising temperatures driven by climate change have measurably worsened the California drought by increasing evaporation rates and
A Central Valley orchard stricken by the drought.
exacerbating the state's lack of rainfall by up to 27 percent, according to a study
from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. While natural weather variations are largely thought to have caused the state's precipitation deficit, rising temperatures appear to be intensifying the situation by driving moisture from plants and soil into the air. The new study is the first to estimate how much worse increasing evaporation rates are making the drought: potentially as much as 27 percent, and most likely 15 to 20 percent worse. Scientists expect higher rainfall levels to resume as soon as this winter, but evaporation will more than overpower any increase in precipitation. This means that by around the 2060s, a drought that is essentially permanent will set in, interrupted only by sporadic rainy years.
13 Aug 2015:
Dangerously Hot and Humid
Days Soon Will Become Regular Occurrences
Climate change will make "danger days" — periods when temperature and humidity push the heat index to 105 degrees F or
higher — much more common over the next 15 years, according to a Climate Central
analysis. Looking at 144 U.S. cities, the team determined that only 12 cities have averaged more than one dangerously hot and humid day per year since 1950. By 2030, though, 85 cities — home to nearly one-third of the U.S. population — will likely experience at least 20 danger days each year. That's a dramatic and fast-approaching change from current conditions, the analysts note. Houston, for example, saw only three danger days between 2000 and 2010, but it should expect 102 danger days each year by 2050. The most dramatic increases will be seen in the South, the analysis found. Charleston, West Virginia, is expected to become the most dangerously hot and humid city in the country, experiencing 168 danger days per year by mid-century.
Interview: A Scientist Who Probes
The Rich Inner Lives of Animals
Ecologist Carl Safina has made his name studying and writing about the world’s oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. Now, Safina
has turned his attention to the fascinating and controversial topic of the inner lives of animals, exploring, as he puts it, “the incredible shimmering world of nuance that many of these creatures experience in their lives with one another.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360
about his recently published book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
, Safina explains why it’s vital to our own humanity to more deeply empathize with wild creatures and sharply criticizes some research on animal behavior, saying it has led to a flawed understanding of the natural world. “I bristle at the idea that an animal can 'pass a test' administered by human beings,” says Safina. “It’s irrelevant whether the animal corresponds to your concept of something.”
Read the interview.
10 Aug 2015:
Major Algal Blooms Visible Off
Both Coasts of U.S., Satellite Images Show
Major algal blooms have appeared off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. this month, as shown in these NASA
. Algae and other forms of phytoplankton are microscopic, plant-like organisms that form the basis of the oceans' food webs. When conditions are right, phytoplankton can reproduce rapidly and bloom to scales that are visible from space. Some blooms are benign — such as the one off the East Coast — and serve as rich feeding grounds for fish and whales. Other blooms, however, can be harmful because they deplete ocean waters of oxygen and sometimes release toxic compounds that poison birds and fish. The West Coast algal bloom contains toxin-producing phytoplankton, and it may be linked to deaths of whales, sea birds, and forage fish, scientists say
06 Aug 2015:
Mimicking Butterfly Wings Can
Improve Efficiency of Solar Energy Systems
Solar-concentrating photovoltaic systems can produce nearly 50 percent more power by mimicking the V-shaped wing
Cabbage white butterfly
formation certain butterflies exhibit before take-off, say researchers at the University of Exeter. The cabbage white butterfly warms its muscles before flight by placing its wings in the shape of a "V" to maximize the concentration of solar energy onto its thorax. This behavior, known as reflectance basking, increases the butterfly's thorax temperature by roughly 13 degrees F compared to flat wings, the researchers found. When reflective panels are arranged around a concentrating photovoltaic system in the same way, this wing-like configuration increases the power-to-weight ratio of the solar energy system by 17-fold, making it vastly more efficient, the researchers explain in the journal Scientific Reports
. The team showed that replicating the single layer of highly reflective scale cells found in the butterfly wings could also improve power-to-weight ratios of solar concentrators.
04 Aug 2015:
Study Finds Glaciers Melting
At Unprecidented Rates Around the Globe
Glaciers around the globe are melting at unprecedented rates, according to
an analysis of data spanning 120 years by researchers at
Rhone Glacier in Switzerland
the University of Zurich. The team compared glacier data collected between 2001 and 2010 with measurements, aerial and satellite photos, written accounts, and historical depictions from the previous century. On average, glaciers are currently losing between 0.5 and 1 meter of ice thickness each year, the researchers found — two to three times more than glaciers were losing on average in the 20th century. Although the team analyzed exact measurements from a few hundred glaciers, they say that field- and satellite-based observations of tens of thousands of glaciers around the world confirm their findings on a much larger scale. Intense ice loss over the past two decades has made glaciers unstable in many regions, the researchers say, and these glaciers will suffer further ice loss, even if the climate stabilizes.
31 Jul 2015:
Severe Droughts Affect Forests
And CO2 Storage for Years, Study Shows
Severe drought can affect a forest's growth for up to four years, a period during which it is less effective at removing carbon
A stressed forest in the southwestern United States
from the atmosphere, a new study
reports in the journal Science
. Standard climate models have assumed that forests and other vegetation bounce back quickly from extreme drought, but that assumption is far off the mark, the researchers say. Looking at data from more than 1,300 forest sites dating back to 1948, they found that living trees took an average of two to four years to recover and resume normal growth rates after droughts ended. Frequent droughts in places like the western U.S. could significantly impact the ability of forests to sequester carbon, the study found. Researchers aren't sure how drought causes these long-lasting changes, but they say there are likely three causes: Loss of carbohydrate and foliage reserves may impair growth; pests and diseases may accumulate in drought-stressed trees; and lasting damage to vascular tissues impairs water transport.
With Camera Drones, New Tool
For Viewing and Saving Nature
In a career spanning four decades, award-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon has tackled topics as diverse as the Irish in America and a polluting chemical plant in China
. But it was his current project — a short film about the Delaware River — that opened his eyes to what he sees as a revolutionary new tool for viewing the natural world: the camera drone. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Lennon — who produced a video of drone images from the Delaware
— describes how drones are a major innovation that allows filmmakers to capture images from vantage points never before possible. “There’s an opportunity for visual excitement, but combined — and this is the key — with intimacy,” Lennon says. “And I think that can become a tool for artists as well as for environmentalists.”
Watch video | Read interview