11 Jan 2016:
Scientists Warn of Biodiversity
Impacts of Major Hydropower Projects
Hydropower is considered by many to be a key ingredient to reducing carbon emissions and meeting global climate goals,
The Belo Monte dam under construction in the Amazon
but it comes at a great cost to biodiversity, particularly in tropical rainforests, according to a new report
published in the journal Science
. “Far too often in developing tropical countries, major hydropower projects have been approved and their construction begun before any serious assessments of environmental and socioeconomic impacts had been conducted,” says the report's lead author Kirk Winemiller, an aquatic ecologist at Texas A&M University. The dam-building rush, with more than 450 dams planned for the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong river basins alone, impedes tropical fish migration and vastly expands deforestation due to road construction, according to the authors. Other concerns include development of previously inaccessible terrain, as well as methane emissions from newly built reservoirs.
05 Jan 2016:
NASA Images Show Swelling
Of Mississippi From Massive Flooding
A historic flood has sent the highest water levels ever recorded through the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, toppling records
Satellite image of flooding along the Mississippi River
set during the devastating floods of 1993. The massive surge follows heavy rains that dropped up to 12 inches of water across the region during a three-day period in late December. A NASA satellite
recently acquired this image of flooding along the Mississippi River from January 3rd, which shows floodwaters as blue and vegetation as green. The previous day, the waters caused the highest flood on record at Cape Girardeau, a Missouri town south of St. Louis. The flood water will continue to move southward, National Weather Service forecasters say, cresting in northwestern Tennessee today and in Memphis, Tennessee, by the end of the week. Some researchers
point to modern river management strategies enacted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, such as levees and dams that constrain the river, for exacerbating the effects of the heavy rainfall.
04 Jan 2016:
More Than Half of Power Plants Could be Hampered by Climate Change
More than 60 percent of the world's power plants could be hampered by changes in climate and water distribution by the middle
Canada's Toba Montrose hydroelectric project
of the century, according to a new analysis published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. Hydropower plants and thermoelectric power plants — nuclear, fossil-, and biomass-fueled plants that convert heat to electricity — rely on freshwater from rivers and streams to produce energy and effectively cool equipment. Together, these types of power plants produce 98 percent of the world's electricity, the researchers note. Changes in climate that lead to water shortages and increased water temperatures will affect electricity generation in some regions more than others, says lead researcher Michelle Van Vliet of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She notes that adaptation measures focused on making power plants more efficient and flexible — such as switching from freshwater cooling to air or seawater cooling — could mitigate the decline.
04 Jan 2016:
More than Half of Power Plants
Could be Hampered by Climate Change
More than 60 percent of the world's power plants could be hampered by changes in climate and water distribution by the middle
Canada's Toba Montrose hydroelectric project
of the century, according to a new analysis published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. Hydropower plants and thermoelectric power plants — nuclear, fossil-, and biomass-fueled plants that convert heat to electricity — rely on freshwater from rivers and streams to produce energy and effectively cool equipment. Together, these types of power plants produce 98 percent of the world's electricity, the researchers note. Changes in climate that lead to water shortages and increased water temperatures will affect electricity generation in some regions more than others — the U.S., southern South America, southern Africa, and parts of Europe are particularly vulnerable, says lead researcher Michelle Van Vliet of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She notes that adaptation measures focused on making power plants more efficient and flexible — such as switching from freshwater cooling to air or seawater cooling — could mitigate the decline.
18 Dec 2015:
Marshes Likely More Resilient
To Sea Level Rise Than Thought, Study Says
Marshes may be more resilient to climate change and associated rises in sea level than previously thought, according to recent research
An aerial view of Venice showing elevation by color
published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study shows that as levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide increase, more CO2 gets taken in by marsh plants. This spurs higher rates of photosynthesis and plant growth, causing marsh plants to trap more sediment above ground and generate more organic soil below ground, the researchers explain. The process can increase the rate of soil accretion nearly enough to allow marshes to keep up with rising sea levels. In fact, the researchers say, it may increase a marsh's threshold for water inundation by up to 60 percent. "Essentially, we found it's a self-rising mechanism marshes use to build themselves up," said Marco Marani, a researcher at Duke University who helped conduct the study.
17 Dec 2015:
Severe Toxic Algal Blooms
Likely To Double in Lake Erie with Warming
The number of severe harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie will likely double over the next century, according to
Sampling lake water during a toxic algal bloom
Ohio State University. As soon as 2050, toxic algal blooms like the one that cut off Toledo's drinking water supply in 2014 will no longer be the exception, but rather the norm, the researchers say. Although several states and Canadian provinces have agreed to significantly cut nutrient runoff into the Great Lakes, the study suggests that nutrient reductions alone might not be enough to stop the toxic blooms. That's because factors associated with climate change — less winter snow, heavier spring rains, and hotter summers — supercharge the blooms, the researchers explain. "Those are perfect growing conditions for algae," said Noel Aloysius, a member of the research team. "We can reduce phosphorus by 40 percent, but the algae won't suffer as much as you might hope."
18 Nov 2015:
Icelandic Ice Cap Gains Mass for
First Time in Two Decades, Researchers Say
An Icelandic ice cap known as Hofsjökull, shown in this NASA satellite image, has gained mass for the first time since 1993,
Iceland's Hofsjökull ice cap
measurements taken last month. All ice caps in Iceland had been retreating rapidly and losing volume since 1995, due to decreasing precipitation and rising temperatures. Hofsjökull’s resurgence this year is the result of abundant winter precipitation and cooler than normal summer temperatures, explained Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson, a glaciologist at the Icelandic Meteorologial Office. Last winter, snowfall in the region of the ice cap was 25 to 60 percent thicker than the 1995-2014 average. Cool northerly winds slowed Hofsjökull’s summer melt rate, contributing to the positive measurements obtained last month.
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.
12 Nov 2015:
Two Billion People at Risk of
Losing Water Supplies Due to Snowpack Loss
Roughly 2 billion people are at risk of declining water supplies in the northern hemisphere due to decreasing snowpack, according to
Snowpack in the Lesser Caucasus mountains.
researchers at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
. Researchers identified 97 basins with at least a two-thirds chance of declining water supplies. Nearly 1.45 billion people rely on snowpack in just 32 of those basins for a substantial proportion of their water. Among them are the basins of northern and central California, where much of U.S. produce is grown; the basins of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, which serve much of the American West and northern Mexico; the Atlas basin of Morocco; the Ebro-Duero basin, which feeds water to Portugal and much of Spain and southern France; and the volatile Shatt al Arab basin, which channels meltwater from the Zagros Mountains to Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey, northern Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
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.
29 Oct 2015:
Southeast Asian Nations Plan
Major Hydropower Projects Along Mekong
Although China's hydroelectric
development — particularly the world's largest power plant at Three Gorges Dam — has garnered significant attention,
Hydropower projects planned by smaller Southeast Asian nations
other Southeast Asian nations have relatively large hydropower expansion plans of their own, the U.S. Energy Information Administration
says. Those smaller nations plan to construct 61 gigawatts of new capacity through 2020, primarily along the Mekong River and its tributaries. If all planned projects are completed, these countries will more than double their 2012 hydroelectric capacity. As of 2010, 71 Mekong hydroelectric dams were proposed for completion by 2030. Vietnam has the most ambitious hydroelectric development plan, with 205 hydroelectric projects — 6.2 gigawatts — slated for development by 2017 and nearly 4 gigawatts of additional capacity by 2030. Environmental groups have major concerns
about the environmental impacts of damming the Mekong River system and other rivers in Southeast Asia.
22 Oct 2015:
The Hard-Working Beaver
Is A Fighter Against Nitrogen Pollution
As beaver populations rebound across North America, the ponds they create are proving to be an important factor in removing rapidly
growing levels of nitrogen
A beaver dam in Alaska.
from waterways and estuaries, according to a new study. By creating ponds that slow down the movement of water, the beavers enable nitrogen — which comes from agricultural runoff, septic systems, and other human sources — to seep into soil, where much of it is broken down by bacteria. Reporting in the Journal of Environmental Quality
, researchers at the University of Rhode Island said that beaver ponds can remove up to 45 percent of nitrogen in the water. One scientist said that when they began to consider the widespread presence of beaver ponds, “we realized that the ponds can make a notable difference in the amount of nitrate that flows from our streams to our estuaries.”
09 Oct 2015:
‘Land Grabbing’ Is Accelerating
As Pressure on Agriculture Resources Grows
An area about the size of Japan — roughly 140,000 square miles — has been purchased or
A land-grabbing operation in Uganda
leased by foreign entities for agricultural use during the last 15 years, according to a report
by the Worldwatch Institute. An additional 58,000 square miles are under negotiation, the report found. “Land grabbing,” a term for the purchase or lease of agricultural land by foreign interests, has emerged as a threat to food security in several nations. Globally, over half of this land is in Africa, especially in water-rich countries like the Congo. The largest area acquired in a single country is in Papua New Guinea, with nearly 15,500 square miles (over 8 percent of the nation’s total land cover) sold or leased to foreign entities. Foreign purchase of land in developing countries has surged since 2005 in response to rising food prices and growing biofuel demand in the U.S. and the European Union, as well as droughts in the U.S., Argentina, and Australia. “Essentially no additional suitable [agricultural] land remains in a belt around much of the middle of the planet,” writes Gary Gardner, a contributing author to the report.
01 Oct 2015:
International Space Station
Gives Glimpse of China's Aquaculture Sector
A slew of grid-patterned fish farms line the coast of Liaoning Province in northeast China, as shown in this photograph
Aquaculture in China's Liaoning Province
an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. The aquaculture operations have been built out from the highly agricultural coast to a distance of roughly 4 miles. Liaoning Province ranks sixth in China in terms of aquaculture production, and this group of fish farms, which face the Yellow Sea, is the largest set constructed along the province's coastline. The fish farm basins are built on shallow seabeds, mudflats, and bays. Outer barriers protect the basins from winter storms and large waves generated by passing ships. Most aquaculture products are purchased live in China, with less than 5 percent being killed and processed for selling in local or foreign markets, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says. Shellfish, a traditional marine food source, still dominates China's marine production, according to the FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, accounting for 77 percent of the market.
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.
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.
In Northern Canada Peaks, Scientists
Are Tracking Impact of Vanishing Ice
Earlier this month, a team of Canadian scientists braved a cold-weather thunderstorm, snow, rain, and high winds to spend a week working on the last extensive icefield in the interior of the Northwest Territories. Accompanying them was Yale Environment 360
contributor Ed Struzik, who reports on the trip and the importance of the research team’s investigations. The group worked on the Brintnell/Bologna icefield, which has shrunk by more than a third over the last three decades and continues to melt at a rapid clip. The scientists hope to determine how the melting of these glaciers and the loss of snowpack in the surrounding mountains might affect the region’s ecology and rivers, including the huge Mackenzie River, Canada’s largest.
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.
03 Aug 2015:
California Has Missed Equivalent
Of Full Year of Rain in Ongoing Drought
Over the past three years of severe drought, California has accumulated a rain "debt" equal to a year's worth of precipitation, NASA
Drought conditions in the U.S. West
in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Atmospheres
. The state is roughly 20 inches behind in total precipitation, the scientists calculate, which is the average amount expected to fall in the state in a single year. The deficit has been driven primarily by a lack of extreme precipitation events known as atmospheric rivers — water vapor-rich air currents that move inland from the Pacific Ocean — which, in an average year, provide 20 to 50 percent of California's precipitation. The researchers found that California also had a 27.5-inch precipitation deficit between 1986 and 1994. However, the state's population, industries, agriculture, and water demand have grown significantly since that time.
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.
Gallery: The Wild Lands at Stake
If Alaska’s Pebble Mine Proceeds
The proposed Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska is a project of almost unfathomable scale. If the copper- and gold-mining project proceeds, the mine would cover 28 square miles and require the construction of the world’s largest earthen dam — 700 feet high and several miles long — to hold back a 10-square-mile containment pond filled with up to 2.5 billion tons of sulfide-laden mine waste. All this would be built not only in an active seismic region, but also in one of the most unspoiled and breathtaking places on the planet — the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s most productive salmon fishery. In a photo essay, landscape photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum documents the lands and waters at risk from the project, whose fate is currently wending its way through the courts.
Read more | View gallery
29 Jul 2015:
Global Population Projected to
Reach 11 Billion by 2100, U.N. Estimates
The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100,
according to a United Nations report
released today. The revised U.N. estimates counter previous projections, which had said that global population would peak at roughly 9 billion by 2050, then gradually decline. Most growth will occur in developing regions, the new report says, especially Africa, which is expected to account for more than half of the world’s population growth between 2015 and 2050. India is expected to become the most populous country, surpassing China around 2022. Nigeria could surpass the United States by 2050, which would make it the third-largest country in the world, the United Nations projects.
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
22 Jul 2015:
Algae Could Be Environmentally
Friendly Livestock Feed, Research Finds
Algae could replace corn as feed for cattle and other livestock, according to findings
published in the Journal of Animal Science
. Algae — hardy
Algae-based cattle feed
microorganisms that can grow in a variety of environments and laboratory settings — require less fertilizer, water, land, and herbicides than corn, and thus could prove to be an environmentally friendly alternative for livestock feed, researchers say. The materials used in the new study were remnants of algae grown and processed for other applications, such as cosmetics, cooking oil, and biofuels, and would otherwise have been burned as waste. The researchers found that even these pre-processed leftovers were able to provide the same amount of protein as corn, along with slightly more fat. Cattle in the study readily ate the algae at a variety of concentrations and maintained their body weight as well as corn-fed cattle. Researchers say the algal meal could be priced to compete with corn and could be on the market by 2016.
21 Jul 2015:
California Almonds Have
Smaller Climate Impact Than Many Foods
California almonds could become carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative if growers were to make full use of practices such
Almonds growing in an orchard
as shell, hull, and biomass recycling, according to new research in the Journal of Industrial Ecology
. Eighty percent of the world's almonds come from the drought-stricken state, and production operations there have drawn much ire since studies showed
that almonds are a particularly water-intensive crop. However, the new research shows that the energy and greenhouse gas footprints of almonds can be lessened by, for example, using shells, hulls, and orchard biomass to generate electricity or feed dairy cows. "Our research shows 1 kilogram of California almonds typically results in less than 1 kilogram of CO2 emissions," said author Alissa Kendall, which is "a lower carbon footprint than many other nutrient- and energy-dense foods."
Interview: The High Environmental
Cost of Illicit Marijuana Cultivation
As some U.S. states move to legalize marijuana, one issue has been largely ignored in the policy debates: the serious
environmental effects of the marijuana industry. A new paper co-authored by ecologist Mary Power details many of those impacts by focusing on marijuana cultivation in California, where most of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. is grown. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Power describes how California growers siphon off scarce water resources, poison wildlife, and erode fragile soils. What’s needed, she contends, is legalization of marijuana at the federal level, which would likely drive down marijuana prices. “As long as there is a market that will pay enough to compensate for the brutally hard work they do to grow this stuff in forested mountains,” she says, “then it will keep growing.”
Read the interview.
08 Jul 2015:
Mountaintop Removal Coal
Mining Has Slowed Significantly, Data Show
Coal production from mountaintop removal mines
in the U.S. has declined 62 percent since 2008 — a much steeper drop than the downward
trend in overall coal production, the U.S. Energy Information Administration
reports. Mountaintop removal (MTR) mines have recently been subjected to additional stringent regulations. For example, MTR operations planning to discard excess rock and soil in streams must now secure extra permits from the Environmental Protection Agency. Tennessee is considering banning some types of MTR mining altogether, and a federal stream protection rule expected to be proposed this summer could place additional limits on the practice. Lower demand for U.S. coal in general can be attributed to competitive natural gas prices, renewable energy growth, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations, the EIA says.
02 Jul 2015:
Water Usage for Fracking
Has Increased Dramatically, Study Shows
Oil and natural gas fracking requires 28 times more water now than it did 15 years ago, according to a study
by the U.S.
Water use in fracking operations in the U.S.
Geological Survey. The increased water demand is attributed to the development of new, water-intensive technologies that target fossil fuels in complicated geological formations, the researchers say. The amount of water used varies greatly
with location, the study found. A fracking operation in southern Illinois, for example, can use as little as 2,600 gallons of water each time an oil or gas well is fracked. That figure jumps to more than 9 million gallons in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and south and eastern Texas. Fracking is often concentrated in arid regions and could exacerbate existing water shortages, especially as water requirements for fracking continue to increase. Most of the water used for fracking is disposed deep underground, removing it from the water cycle.
29 Jun 2015:
Rain Harvesting Could Provide
Major Economic Benefit in India, Study Finds
Collecting precipitation in rain barrels could result in significant savings for many people in India, according to
an analysis of
precipitation data collected by a NASA satellite. Estimates showed that harvested rain could provide at least 20 percent of average indoor water demand, or entirely irrigate a household vegetable garden. The savings associated with a vegetable garden could be between 2,500 and 4,500 rupees per year (39 to 71 U.S. dollars) — an amount equivalent to half a year’s rent in an average 1-bedroom apartment in an Indian city. In a country where the distribution of potable water is a challenge, rainwater is an untapped resource that could provide significant benefits, the researchers write in the Urban Water Journal
Designed for the Future:
Practical Ideas for Sustainability
From packing materials made of mushrooms to buildings engineered to cool and power themselves, sustainable design can play a key role in helping people adapt to a changing planet. That’s a central message of the new book Designed for the Future
, in which more than 80 experts in sustainable design — architects, journalists, urban planners, and others — are asked to point to a specific project that gives them hope that a sustainable future is possible. Their selections vary widely, from communities that leave no carbon footprint to cutting-edge technological research programs. An e360
gallery highlights a few of the projects they say have inspired them.
View the gallery.