03 May 2016:
A Sea Urchin's Mouth Could
Make it Easier to Study Distant Planets
Sea urchins have long inspired awe among scientists for their ability to chew through almost anything, from entire kelp forests to rocks. Their mouths — comprised of a ring of intricate muscles and five curved, pointed teeth —
UC San Diego
operate like a giant claw in an arcade game. Now scientists have designed a new space-exploration device based on the urchins’ teeth
that will make it easier to collect sediment samples on other planets, like Mars. “Our goal was a bio-inspired device that's more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples, and won't disturb the surrounding area like a shovel" — the tool space vehicles like the Mars rovers currently use, said
Michael Frank, an engineer at the University of California, San Diego. The technology, based on 3D scans of pink sea urchins, has five claws with beveled edges that gather and trap material in a smooth, quick motion.
28 Apr 2016:
Half of All Farmed Fish Have
Deformed Ear Bones That Cause Hearing Loss
Farmed fish have become an increasingly larger share of the world’s seafood market in recent decades—now accounting for 50 percent of global seafood consumption.
At the same time, however, debate about the ethics, safety and health of farmed fish versus their wild counterparts has also intensified. A new study
published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports
finds that half of all farmed Atlantic salmon have deformed ear bones that lead to hearing loss. These salmon are 10 times more likely to have the deformity than wild fish. The findings “raise questions about the welfare of farmed animals," said
Tim Dempster, a biologist at the University of Melbourne involved in the study. It may also explain why efforts to boost wild populations by releasing farmed juveniles have proven unsuccessful. Hearing loss would prevent farmed fish from detecting predators, or restrict their ability to navigate to breeding sites, the scientists said.
27 Apr 2016:
Wooden Skypscrapers Grow in
Popularity in Effort to Reduce Emissions
Architects are increasingly abandoning traditional steel-and-cement skyscrapers in favor of wood-and-glue designs — a move that experts say could help drastically reduce CO2 emissions from the world’s building sector.
Acton Ostry Architects
Creating steel, iron, and non-metallic minerals — including concrete — is an energy-intensive process that accounts for more than 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the 1990s, developers created a product known as cross-laminated timber — planks of wood glued together by a polyurethane adhesive — with the strength and durability of traditional building materials, and far fewer CO2 emissions. With concern for climate change mounting, wood-based skyscrapers have been popping up around the globe in recent years
. The University of British Columbia, for example, approved an 18-story, wooden housing complex in 2015. “This revolution has happened rather quietly and happened rather slow,” Kris Spickler, a heavy timber specialist at Structurlam, told Popular Science
. “But I think we’re in a year right now where we’re going to see it explode.”
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.
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.”
12 Apr 2016:
Scientists Reimagine The
Tree of Life With New Microbe Knowledge
Following years of intense exploration and research into the microbial world, scientists have reimagined the tree of life
—the iconic visual representation of the living world first proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859.
The new tree of life.
The project was led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who over the last decade have been gathering DNA from across the globe—from everywhere from meadow soils and river mud to deep sea vents—to reconstruct genomes and describe thousands of new microbial species. Curious how their findings fit into the tree of life, the scientists used a supercomputer
to visualize how more than 3,000 new and known species related to one another. They discovered that eukaryotes, the group that includes humans, exist on a thin twig compared to the microbial branch of the tree. “The tree of life as we know it has dramatically expanded due to new genomic sampling of previously enigmatic or unknown microbial lineages,” the authors wrote
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.
07 Apr 2016:
How Ancient Algae Could
Help Cure Brain and Breast Cancer
One of the oldest life forms on earth may hold the key to battling hard-to-treat cancers, according to new research
by scientists at Oregon State University. The compound, coibamide A, is found in blue-green algae, organisms that have existed for at least two billion years. It was found during a diving trip in Panama’s Coiba National Park eight years ago and run through the National Cancer Institute’s database of potential anti-cancer compounds. Coibamide A was tested on mice and found to be more effective at killing brain and triple negative breast cancer cells—two of the most aggressive and hard-to-treat types of the disease—than anything ever tested before. "The chemical diversity found in nature has always been a significant source of inspiration for drug design and development, but… marine environments remain relatively unexplored," said Jane Ishmael, a cellular biologist at Oregon State University and lead author of the new study.
06 Apr 2016:
Half of World Heritage Sites Are
Threatened By Industrial Development
Since 1972, the United Nations has worked to protect 229 locations in 96 countries known for their “exceptional natural beauty” and “cultural significance.” These spots, known as World Heritage Sites,
The Great Barrier Reef
range from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, China’s panda sanctuaries, and the Grand Canyon in the United States. A new survey by the World Wildlife Fund, however, has found half of these sites are under threat
from oil and gas development, mining, illegal logging, overfishing, or other industrial activities. Eleven million people live in or near these sites, the report says, and depend on them for their housing, food, water, jobs, or ecosystem services like flood protection and CO2 sequestration. “We are not going to develop a just and prosperous future, nor defeat poverty and improve health, in a weakened or destroyed natural environment,” the authors wrote.
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.”
01 Apr 2016:
Scientists Study the Skies
To Create a Map of the World’s Biomes
Curious where certain species live? Don’t look down. Rather, study the skies, according to new research published in the journal PLoS Biology
. Scientists from the University of Buffalo and Yale University
used images from NASA satellites to build a database of cloud cover for every square kilometer of the planet from 2000 to 2014. They then used the information to map the world’s biomes. They found that cloud patterns are a much more accurate way of predicting species distribution than using extrapolated on-the-ground observations, the method most conservationists use today. “Sunlight drives almost every aspect of ecology,” Adam Wilson, an ecologist at the University of Buffalo who led the study, told New Scientist
. “So when you put something in between the sun and plants, that is going to have implications on the amount of energy they are receiving, soil moisture, leaf wetness, and humidity—almost everything that is important.”
31 Mar 2016:
A New, Multi-Colored Way To
Study Cell Regeneration in Zebrafish
Zebrafish have amazing healing capabilities—they can grow back missing limbs and patch an injured heart or spine—but scientists have long been in the dark as to how exactly this process works.
Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University
An engineered zebrafish with multi-colored skin.
Now, a team of scientists at Duke University engineered neurons to create a zebrafish with skin that fluoresces in thousands of colors
in order to visually illustrate how cells regenerate after injury. They found there are three steps to the process: skin cells from neighboring body parts migrate in to cover the new tissue, surviving cells grow in size, and new cells are created. “It is like you have given each cell an individual barcode,” said
Chen-Hui Chen, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke and lead author on the study. “You can precisely see how individual cells collectively behave during regeneration.”
Interview: How Ocean Noise
Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life
Bowing to public pressure, the Obama administration recently reversed an earlier decision to allow oil drilling off the U.S. East Coast. But the five-year moratorium on drilling does not prohibit exploratory seismic air gun surveys
used to locate oil and gas reserves under the seabed, and those surveys are expected to be authorized this spring. Cornell University marine bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark says the testing, which can go on for weeks at a time, will only add to the rising din in the oceans. “Imagine that every 10 seconds there is an explosion that is rattling grandma’s china out of the cupboard,” he says, “and it is falling on the floor.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Clark explains how noise, most of it from ship traffic, severely disrupts marine life, especially among whales. But the good news, he says, is that technologies are being developed to drastically reduce the noise from ships and geological surveying.
Read the interview.
30 Mar 2016:
Air Pollution Linked To
Thousands of U.S. Premature Births
Air pollution may be causing thousands of premature births in the U.S. every year, particularly in urban areas like the Ohio River Valley, Southern California, New York City, and Chicago, according to a new study
in the journal Environment Health Perspectives
. Scientists at New York University compared levels of fine particulate matter, a type of pollution less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, to numbers of premature births, meaning a baby born more than three weeks early. They found that over three percent of all preterm births in the U.S. in 2010 can be attributed to air pollution, and that it cost the country more than $4 billion in medical expenses and lost economic productivity. The exact mechanism behind this relationship is not known, but researchers theorize that air pollution inflames the placenta
during pregnancy, spurring early labor. Preterm birth is associated with a slew of medical issues, from cognitive impairment to breathing and feeding problems.
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.
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.
In Flint Crisis, A New Model
For Environmental Journalism
Last summer, investigative journalist Curt Guyette found himself knocking on doors of families in Flint, Michigan, carrying not only a pen and notebook, but water-testing kits. Residents had realized there was something wrong with their drinking water but Michigan officials insisted it was safe.
Guyette, the first investigative reporter in the nation hired by an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, broke the story on possible widespread lead contamination in July. He then helped organize door-to-door testing for lead and filed Freedom of Information Act requests in search of the truth. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Guyette explains how he chased the story, his unique position as a Ford Foundation-funded journalist employed by ACLU Michigan, and whether this approach to journalism could be a model for rescuing in-depth, local reporting on complex environmental and public health issues.
Read the interview.
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.
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.
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."