08 Sep 2015:
NASA Facilities at Risk
From Projected Sea Level Increases
Many of NASA’s key sites for launching spacecraft and carrying out research will be threatened by even moderate increases in sea level
Sea level rise near Johnson Space Center
the U.S. space agency reports. NASA says that half to two-thirds of its laboratories, launch pads, airfields, testing facilities, data centers and other infrastructure are situated at less than 16 feet (5 meters) above sea level. The agency released a handful of maps showing how even a one-foot rise in sea level would impact the operations of major sites such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Johnson Space Center in Texas, and the Langley Research Center in Virginia. Conservative projections say global sea level could increase by 5 inches by 2050, and numerous experts on climate change and sea level rise say that the world’s oceans could rise by 3 to 6 feet this century if emissions are not brought under control.
04 Sep 2015:
Maya Permanently Altered Land
To Respond to Climate Change, Study Says
Mayan activity more than 2,000 years ago contributed to the decline of Central America's tropical lowlands and continues to influence the land and environment today, say researchers at the University of Texas at Austin
. Evidence shows that during the "Mayacene" — a period from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago when humans began greatly affecting the environment — the Maya's advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered tropical forest ecosystems. Clay and soil sequences indicate erosion and land-use changes, and sediments near wetlands reveal chemical signatures of agriculture, says the study, which was published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews
. The researchers say features such as constructed wetlands, vast field systems, and terraces show that the Maya managed land and water to adapt to climate change and rising sea levels. "Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans' impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer," said lead researcher Tim Beach.
03 Sep 2015:
Tropical Tree Cover Loss
Accelerated in 2014, Satellite Analysis Finds
More than 45 million acres of trees were cut down last year — an area twice the size of Portugal — according to an analysis
by the University of Maryland and Google. Tropical nations lost more than half of that total — nearly 25 million acres of tree cover, an area roughly the size of South Korea. Brazil and Indonesia, the two countries most often associated with deforestation, had been making gains toward stemming the problem, but 2014 saw an uptick in tree cover loss in both countries. The situation is especially concerning in Cambodia, where deforestation is accelerating faster than anywhere else in the world due to the development of rubber plantations. Last year Cambodia lost three times more tree cover than in 2001, the analysis found.
In Booming Aquaculture Industry,
A Move to Plant-Based Food for Fish
As the aquaculture industry continues to rapidly expand, with production more than doubling in the past 15 years, fishing pressure
A worker feeds trout.
has grown on the anchovies, sardines, and other species used to make feeds for farmed fish. Now, however, researchers are rapidly developing nutritious plant-based food that can put the aquaculture sector on a more sustainable path. Using protein-rich legumes such as soybeans and combining them with various oil-rich supplements, scientists say they are steadily moving toward all-vegetarian diets for aquaculture fish. “I was told by many [people] that fish require fishmeal because that’s what they eat in the natural world,” says one leading researcher. “But that’s just wrong.”
02 Sep 2015:
Alaskan Wind Power Capacity
Increased 20 Fold since 2007, Report Says
Alaska’s wind power capacity increased 20 fold between 2007 and 2014, from 3 megawatts to 60 megawatts, according to an
Pillar Mountain wind farm on Alaska's Kodiak Island
by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The state, which is known for its vast oil reserves, increased wind power capacity with a blend of utility-scale and distributed, or small-scale, projects. The marked increase is especially notable because Alaska's immense area and sparse population make expanding the grid and adapting it to renewables costly, and the rugged terrain poses unique challenges for installing utility-scale wind farms. In the most remote areas, the cost of building transmission lines is prohibitively high, and in those regions, small-scale and household wind projects bring renewable energy to consumers who once relied on diesel generators. But despite wind power's strong growth, Alaska drew only 3 percent of its energy from wind in 2014.
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.
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.
26 Aug 2015:
U.S. Shale Gas Production
Expected to Fall for First Time, Report Says
Natural gas production from all seven major shale formations in the U.S. is projected to drop next month for the first time since
Monthly change in shale gas production
the shale gas boom began in earnest roughly a decade ago, according to an analysis
from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Major shale regions produced gas at a record-high rate of 45.6 billion cubic feet per day in May, but that rate is expected to drop to 44.9 billion cubic feet per day in September, the report says. It attributes the decline to existing, legacy wells becoming significantly less productive and a substantial drop in the number of drilling rigs in each of the seven major shale regions since September 2014. New wells are being established, the EIA notes, but they are not producing enough natural gas to offset expected declines from legacy wells.
25 Aug 2015:
Endangered Chimp Population
Much Larger Than Estimated, Study Shows
A population of endangered eastern chimpanzees in Uganda is actually significantly larger than scientists had thought, new research
from the University of Southern California shows. Using DNA from fecal samples, the scientists estimated the size of the chimp population living in two reserves in western Uganda to be 250 to 320 chimps, divided among at least nine communities, whereas previous estimates had pegged the total at roughly 70. Because the forest they live in is not protected, however, the chimpanzees have been heavily impacted by forest fragmentation, and the fruit trees they rely on are rapidly being cut down, the researchers say. The eastern chimp population that lives in this region is important because it represents the growing status quo for this species, the researchers note — they no longer inhabit unbroken swaths of forest, but instead carve out an existence in shrinking forest patches.
24 Aug 2015:
Research Links Amazon
Fires and North American Hurricanes
After studying decades of data on hurricanes, sea surface temperatures, and Amazon fire frequency, researchers have concluded
North Atlantic surface temperatures
that years in which warm North Atlantic waters create powerful hurricanes are followed by periods of drought and fire in the Amazon
rainforest. University of California, Irvine scientists say their research has shown that frequent and powerful North Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes tend to pull a large belt of tropical rainfall to the north, drawing moisture away from the Amazon. The resulting dry spells lead to an increase in severity and duration of fires, which tend to be set in the Amazon by humans clearing land for agriculture. The research is expected to enable meteorologists to better understand seasonal outlooks for drought and fire risk in the Amazon, which could help reduce the extensive rainforest fires that emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
21 Aug 2015:
Retiring Nuclear Power Plants
Undermines Clean Power Plan, Report Says
If U.S. nuclear power plants are retired early or phased out completely, greenhouse gas emissions could revert back
Salem Nuclear Power Plant in southern New Jersey
to 2005 levels and undermine nearly all progress the power sector has made over the last decade in lowering carbon emissions, according to an analysis
by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Third Way. The group found that retired nuclear plants would predominantly be replaced with natural gas power plants, not renewable energy sources, because renewables would not be able to keep pace with lost nuclear capacity. In fact, retiring any of the nation's 99 nuclear power plants would make it extremely difficult to meet the EPA Clean Power Plan's emissions reductions targets of a 32 percent cut below 2005 levels, the group found. Nuclear power currently provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity and 63 percent of its emissions-free power.
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.
Solar Decathlon: The Search for
The Best Carbon-Neutral House
What’s the latest in well-designed, energy-efficient solar homes? The U.S. Department of Energy has invited 15 teams from colleges across the country to design and build affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive solar-powered houses for the 2015 Solar Decathlon. In addition to functioning as comfortable homes, the houses in the competition must produce at least as much energy as they consume. Here, e360
takes a look at some of this year's entries, which will be on display in Irvine, California, this October. These houses have been engineered to not only embrace energy efficiency and sustainable design, but also to meet the diverse needs of their future inhabitants, from food production to storm protection and disaster relief.
View the houses.
19 Aug 2015:
Muslim Scholars Issue Call
To End Fossil Fuel Use and Protect Climate
Prominent Muslim scholars have urged world leaders to end the use of fossil fuels and have asked the planet's 1.6 billion Muslims to consider it their religious duty to slow global warming. The declaration was presented
this week during the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul. It says that governments of wealthy nations, including oil-producing countries, should be "phasing out their greenhouse gas emissions as early as possible and no later than the middle of the century." The declaration includes harsh criticism of developed nations, which the scholars blame for delaying a comprehensive, global agreement on climate change. “Their reluctance to share in the burden they have imposed on the rest of the human community by their own profligacy is noted with great concern,” the document says. Earlier this year, Pope Francis also issued a major statement calling on world leaders and the 1.2 billion Catholics to take better care of the planet.
18 Aug 2015:
How West Antarctica Could Melt
If Greenhouse Emissions Continue to Rise
An international team of scientists has developed the first comprehensive, high-resolution model depicting
how rapidly the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could melt
if greenhouse gas emissions are not brought under control. The study projects that under a high-emissions scenario, the WAIS could lose 80,000 cubic kilometers (19,000 cubic miles) of ice by 2100, increasing sea levels by 8 inches. By 2200, the WAIS could lose 48,000 cubic miles of ice, raising sea levels by a total of 23 inches, the study says. The video shows projected ice loss in the major glaciers feeding into the massive Amundsen Sea Embayment over the next three centuries. The red and orange colors depict the speed of glacial retreat in meters per year. The WAIS is only a fraction of the size of the East Antarctic ice cap, but if the entire WAIS were to melt, global sea levels would rise by roughly 16 feet.
17 Aug 2015:
Cost of Distributed Solar Power
Fell for Fifth Straight Year, Report Says
Prices for both residential and non-residential solar energy systems fell in 2014, marking the fifth consecutive year of declining
costs for solar photovoltaic systems, according to
an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Residential rooftop solar panels in the U.S. cost 40 cents per watt less than the same systems in 2013, and prices for non-residential systems fell by 70 cents per watt. In the first half of this year, costs in a number of large markets fell by an additional 20 to 50 cents per watt, the report says. Photovoltaic equipment costs have remained relatively stable since 2012, so the lower prices are primarily due to reductions in "soft" costs such as marketing, labor, permits, and inspections, analysts say.
14 Aug 2015:
Climate Impact of Wasted Meat
Much Larger Than Other Foods, Study Finds
Researchers analyzing food waste
at university cafeterias found that, although discarded meats accounted for less waste
than fruits and vegetables, they made up the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste. After monitoring four all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities at the University of Missouri, the researchers found
that grain products were thrown away most often, followed by fruits, vegetables, beef, and poultry. Diners wasted roughly twice as much bread and cereal by weight than they did meat and eggs; but because protein production is very carbon-intensive, the carbon footprint of wasted meat and eggs was about three times larger than that of all other wasted foods combined. Overall, 16 percent of the cafeterias' food was wasted, leading to roughly 67 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Of those emissions, discarded beef alone accounted for slightly more than half, the analysis found.
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.
12 Aug 2015:
Warmer Winters Are Leading to
More Wild Boars in Europe, Research Finds
As Europe experiences more mild winters — very likely an effect of climate change, researchers say — the continent's wild boar
A young wild boar
populations are growing exponentially, according to research
from the University of Veterinary Medicine - Vienna. The scientists identified the trend by comparing up to 150 years of data on annual boar population growth to temperature and precipitation records from 12 European countries. One factor behind the population surges is body-temperature regulation, the scientists say. In mild winters, wild boars need to use less energy to stay warm, leaving more energy for reproduction and piglet rearing. Another factor is bumper crops of the boars' food sources, primarily acorns and beechnuts, which have become increasingly common over the last few decades. Wild boars are more likely to survive harsh winters if they have been preceded by a good year for their food sources, the researchers note.
11 Aug 2015:
Cost of Producing Wind Power
Reached a New Low in the U.S. Last Year
The cost of generating wind power in the U.S. fell to its lowest level ever last year, according to a report
from the Department of Energy. Utility companies purchased wind power for 2.35 cents per kilowatt-hour on average last year, making the price of wind energy competitive with conventional power sources in many parts of the country. Wind power now meets on average 4.9 percent of the nation's electricity demand, the DOE analysis found, and nine states used wind to produce more than 12 percent of their electricity. Iowa and South Dakota produced more than a quarter of their electricity from wind, Kansas generated roughly 22 percent from wind, and Texas remained the leading state for wind installations
in 2014. With a total installed capacity of 66 gigawatts, the U.S. now ranks second only to China in wind power capacity.
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
07 Aug 2015:
New Zealand Will Shutter Last
Remaining Coal Power Plants, Officials Say
New Zealand will close its last remaining coal plants and rely even more heavily on renewable sources for its electricity needs,
Buller Coalfield, South Island, New Zealand
the country's energy minister announced
Thursday. New Zealand already has the fourth-largest share of renewable electricity generation in the world, with roughly 80 percent of its energy needs met by renewables. The final two coal-fired power plants will shut down by December 2018, according to the utility company running the plants, which cited changing market conditions that have made coal power unnecessary in New Zealand. The nation has been using coal to fill gaps in dry years, when hydropower could not meet the grid's demand. But recent investments in wind and, particularly, geothermal energy have made that stopgap measure unnecessary, the energy minister said. The country has pledged ahead of the Paris climate summit to cut emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
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.
05 Aug 2015:
Emissions From U.S. Power
Plants Reached 27-Year Low, Report Says
Electric power plants in the U.S. emitted less carbon dioxide in April than they have in any month since April 1988 — a 27-year low — according to an analysis by the Energy Information Administration
. The report said the electric power sector has made major strides in improving efficiency and lowering its carbon footprint, producing significantly more electricity while lowering CO2 emissions. Renewable energy production has more than doubled since 1988, the use of natural gas to produce electricity has more than tripled, and coal consumption has decreased by 17 percent, the EIA report says. Natural gas plants are now about 25 to 30 percent more efficient than coal plants in terms of power generation, and they emit 71 to 79 percent less carbon dioxide than coal plants.
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.
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.