Earth Observation Satellites Help
Scientists Understand Global Change
Global warming is affecting more than just atmospheric temperatures — it is also changing water cycles
, soil conditions, and animal migrations. Earth observation satellites aid scientists in measuring and monitoring these changes so societies can better adapt. Although there are well over 1,000 active orbiting satellites, less than 15 percent are used to monitor Earth’s environment. Yale Environment 360
presents a gallery of satellites that scientists are using to better understand how the planet is changing.
View the gallery.
10 Jul 2014:
A Possible Advance in Fight
To Combat a Deadly Amphibian Fungus
Scientists have discovered that a certain kind of toad can acquire immunity to the deadly chytrid fungus
, which has caused widespread mortality among amphibians worldwide. Reporting in Nature
, the scientists say they have conferred immunity in oak toads to the chytrid fungus after repeatedly exposing them to the organism that causes the disease. The lead author of the study, Jason Rohr of the University of South Florida, said the discovery means it might be possible to confer immunity on entire communities of amphibians in the wild by lacing local water sources with dead versions of the fungus that could be absorbed by the amphibians. But Rohr said many questions remain, including how long immunity lasts, what concentration of released antigen would confer immunity, and whether such releases would harm other organisms. The chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis
, attacks the skin of amphibians
, thickening it and preventing the animals from absorbing water and vital salts.
08 Jul 2014:
Protection of Parrotfish
Could Slow Decline of Caribbean Reefs
The steady loss of coral reefs in the Caribbean could be partially reversed by taking a number of relatively simple steps, including stronger measures to protect the region’s parrotfish
, according to a new study. In a review of trends in Caribbean coral reefs
from 1970 to 2012, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network said that live coral only makes up about 17 percent of the region’s reef surfaces today. If present trends continue, the study said, coral reefs in the Caribbean will “virtually disappear within a few decades” because of foreign pathogens, algae invasions, pollution from tourism development, over-fishing, and warming waters. A key step in halting the decline is protecting parrotfish, which eat the algae that have been smothering coral reefs. The study said conservation measures, such as banning fish traps, have helped parrotfish populations rebound in some parts of the Caribbean, including Belize and the Bahamas.
30 Jun 2014:
Antarctica's Emperor Penguins
To Be in Serious Decline By 2100, Study Says
Antarctica's Emperor penguins are facing dramatic declines by the end of the century and should be given endangered species status because of the threats posed
Sea ice loss threatens Emperor penguins.
by climate change, according to
an international group of scientists. If sea ice declines at the rates projected by current climate models, at least two-thirds of the colonies will likely shrink by more than 50 percent by 2100, the researchers report in Nature Climate Change
. That conclusion follows a 50-year study in eastern Antarctica of Emperor penguins, an iconic Antarctic species with 45 known colonies. Emperor penguins' survival is highly dependent on sea ice concentrations because they breed on the ice, and too little sea ice reduces the habitat for krill, a critical food source for the penguins. Granting the species protected status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act will provide tools for improving fishing practices of U.S. vessels in the Southern Ocean and potentially for reducing CO2 emissions in the U.S. under the Clear Air Act, the researchers say.
26 Jun 2014:
Major U.S. Retailers to Limit
Pesticides That May Be Harmful to Bees
Home Depot and other U.S. retailers announced new policies to help limit the use of a group of pesticides suspected of contributing to widespread declines in bee
New warnings on plants aim to protect bees.
populations, Reuters reports
. Under the new rules, suppliers will be required to label any plants treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, or "neonics," that are sold in home and garden stores. Home Depot will require labeling by the fourth quarter of 2014, a company vice president said, and the retailer is testing to determine whether it's feasible to eliminate neonics altogether without compromising plant health. Another retailer, BJ's Wholesale Club, which has more than 200 East Coast locations, said it will ask suppliers to eliminate neonics by the end of the year, or label plants treated with them as requiring "caution around pollinators." An analysis of 800 peer-reviewed studies released this week by an international group of scientists found that neonics have been a key factor in bee declines
How Citizen Scientists Are Using
The Web to Track the Natural World
By making the recording and sharing of environmental data easier than ever, web-based technology has fostered the rapid growth of so-called citizen scientists — volunteers who collaborate with scientists to collect and interpret data. Numerous Internet-based projects
now make use of citizen scientists to monitor environmental health and to track sensitive plant and wildlife populations. From counting butterflies, frogs, and bats across the globe, to piloting personal drones capable of high-definition infrared imaging, citizen scientists are playing a crucial role in collecting data that will help researchers understand the environment. Here is a sampling of some of these projects.
View the gallery.
17 Jun 2014:
Livestock Maps Highlight
Regions Prone to Disease and Pollution
A new mapping tool
shows the global distribution of cattle, pigs, and other livestock in high-resolution, 1-square-kilometer detail. Created by the International
Livestock Research Institute, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and British and Belgian researchers, the maps are the most detailed renditions ever produced of the planet's billions of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks. They reveal several notable trends
, such as the high density of pigs in China, India's relatively high sheep and goat populations, and the affinity of the southeastern U.S. for chickens. Researchers say they will be powerful tools for tracking and predicting livestock-borne disease outbreaks, such as avian flu strains that have been linked to dense poultry markets. The maps could also predict where major livestock operations are most likely to harm the environment, researchers say. As livestock production increases, demands on land, water, and energy intensify, and so does pollution from livestock waste
11 Jun 2014:
Group Will Pay Farmers
To Create Temporary Migratory Bird Habitat
started by The Nature Conservancy aims to enlist California farmers in creating temporary habitats for migrating birds — a partnership that could become
more important as the state's long-term drought continues and the birds' wetland habitats dwindle. Using crowdsourced data, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) tracks the paths of migratory birds on their annual journey from Canada to South America to determine where and when the birds will need suitable wetland habitat for stop-overs in California's Central Valley. Then, in a sort of reverse auction, TNC asks farmers how much they would charge to temporarily flood their land to accommodate the birds, and pays farmers with the lowest bids to do so for a few weeks or months. The Nature Conservancy says the year-old program has been a success, enabling the organization to rent habitat for roughly 0.5 to 1.5 percent of what permanent protection costs. The program's budget is $1 million to $3 million annually. Forty farmers flooded roughly 10,000 acres last year, and sightings of key migratory bird species were 30 times above average, according to TNC.
23 May 2014:
Oil Drilling Permits
Issued for Key Area of Yasuni Park
The Ecuadorean government has issued permits to begin oil drilling
in a key area of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve and National Park
, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Environment Minister Lorena
Tapia said the government had signed permits to begin preparations for drilling in the so-called ITT section of the park, which contains two uncontacted indigenous tribes; drilling itself could begin as early as 2016, the government said. Ecuador’s President, Rafeal Correa, had offered to ban drilling in large sections of the park if the international community raised $3.6 billion to compensate the country for leaving the oil in the ground. But after only $13 million was raised, Correa gave the green light to drilling, saying “the world has failed us.” Oil drilling has already taken place in some areas of the 6,500-square-mile park. As this Yale Environment 360 video
shows, Yasuni is home to a remarkable array of species, including roughly 400 species of fish, 600 species of birds, and thousands of species of vascular plants and trees.
22 May 2014:
Donors Commit $220 Million
To Protect and Expand Huge Amazon Reserve
A coalition of private donors and government funders has pledged $220 million
over the next 25 years to better protect the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA), the world’s largest protected area network. WWF, the World Bank, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank, and more than a dozen other donors are contributing funds to the initiative, which also will add another 8.9 million hectares of Amazon rainforest to the ARPA program
, driving the total to more than 60 million hectares. That’s 232,000 square miles, an area larger than France. Most of the funds will be used to better police and enforce environmental laws on ARPA territory, which includes 90 parks and comprises 15 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. "The explosion in demand for natural resources has made our parks and world heritage sites vulnerable," said WWF president Carter Roberts. The initiative is also upgrading long-neglected parks and creating sustainable-use reserves for local communities and indigenous people.
16 May 2014:
U.S. Honeybee Death Rate
Too High for Long-term Survival, Study Says
Honeybees in the United States are dying at a rate too high to ensure their long-term survival, according to a new report
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA). Over the past winter — a season when honeybee hives are most vulnerable — the U.S. lost 23.2 percent of its hive honeybee population. That is lower than the previous winter's 30.5 percent death rate, but the cumulative impact on honeybee populations over the past eight years poses a major threat to their long-term survival, as well as the country's agricultural productivity, the USDA said. Roughly a quarter of U.S. crops depend on honeybees for pollination. "Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honey bee heath has become," said a USDA researcher, citing factors such as viruses, pathogens, and pesticides. One class of pesticides
in particular, neonicotinoids, has been implicated in honeybee deaths. The European Union banned three widely used neonicotinoids last year, but they are still used in the U.S.
Interview: Can Marine Life Adapt
To the World’s Acidifying Oceans?
As the world’s oceans grow more acidic from increased absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, marine scientists are confronting a key question: How well can
organisms like mollusks, crustaceans, and corals adapt to these more corrosive conditions? One of the leading authorities in this field is University of California, Santa Barbara marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann. Her work in recent years has shown, in fact, that some sea organisms that build shells do seem to have some ability to acclimate to more acidic waters. But in an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Hofmann cautions that this adaptive capacity has its limits. The continuing burning of fossil fuels, she says, could push ocean acidity past a tipping point, rendering some mollusks and other organisms unable to build shells.
Read the interview.
09 May 2014:
Biodiversity, But Not Community
Composition, Surprisingly Stable Over Time
A major turnover of species in habitats around the globe is underway, resulting in the creation of novel biological communities, but overall species diversity is much more
stable than scientists had believed, according to a new report
in the journal Science
. In a survey of 100 long-term biodiversity monitoring projects in a variety of habitats around the world, the authors found that the majority of those studies (59 percent) documented increasing species richness. Biodiversity declined in 41 percent of the studies, but, in all cases the overall change in biodiversity was modest, the researchers said. When looking at changes in the species constituting those communities, however, the researchers found a surprisingly high rate of change — an average of about 10 percent change per decade. "A main policy application of this work is that we're going to need to focus as much on the identity of species as on the number of species," one of the study's authors said. "The number of species in a place may not be our best scorecard for environmental change."
06 May 2014:
Darwin's Finches Fight Off
Parasitic Maggots with Treated Nest Fibers
Researchers apparently have discovered a unique way to help Darwin's finches on the Galápagos Islands fight off the parasitic maggots
threatening their survival, according to a new report
in the journal Current Biology
. While working in the Galápagos, scientists
A Darwin's finch collects treated cotton for its nest
from the University of Utah noticed that the finches often collected cotton and other fibers to weave into their nests. The researchers decided to provide the birds with cotton treated with permethrin — a mild pesticide, commonly used to treat head lice in children, that is safe for birds — hoping the finches would incorporate the fibers in their nests. Finches near the test sites did just that, and their "self-fumigated" nests contained about half as many parasitic maggots — which infest and can kill newly-hatched chicks — compared to nests with untreated cotton. Darwin's finches and other bird species in the Galápagos have suffered steep population declines since the flies showed up in large numbers in the 1990s.
Carries on in Key Arctic Ecosystem
At a time of rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and America, U.S. scientist Joel Berger continues his work with his Russian counterparts
Third in a series of blog posts from the Russian Arctic
on Siberia's Wrangel Island. In the third of three blog posts for Yale Environment 360
, Berger — a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana — writes about efforts to better understand how rapid climate change might affect muskoxen and other wildlife in the Russian and North American Arctic. As Berger explains, a key focus of Russian-American scientific cooperation is Beringia, the region of northwestern Alaska and extreme northeastern Russia where two countries — and continents — are divided by the Bering Sea.
24 Apr 2014:
Browning of Congo Rainforest
Is Depicted in NASA Satellite Data
Persistent drought has taken a major toll on Africa's Congo rainforest, with large-scale browning intensifying and affecting a growing portion of the forest over the past decade, an analysis of NASA satellite data shows
browning trend significantly dwarfed smaller areas of "greening" — a satellite-derived indicator of forest health — during April, May, and June each year from 2000 to 2012, according to research published in Nature
. The browning of Congo's rainforest is significant, researchers said, because most climate models forecast that tropical forests may face increasing stress and rainfall shortages in a warmer and drier 21st century. A continued drying trend might alter the composition and structure of the Congo rainforest, affecting its biodiversity and carbon storage, according to the study. "Recent climate anomalies as a result of climate change and warming of the Atlantic Ocean have created severe droughts in the tropics, causing major impacts on forests," a NASA researcher said.
18 Apr 2014:
Scale and Extent of Dam Boom
In China Is Detailed in Mapping Project
China is planning to build at least 84 major dams in its southwest region, as shown in a map from the Wilson Center, eventually boosting its hydropower capacity by more than 160 gigawatts. By next year China's capacity
will surpass Europe's, and by 2020 it's projected to be larger than that of the U.S. and Europe combined. An interactive map
shows the scale and number of major dams proposed, under construction, existing, and canceled. The dam rush is part of an ongoing effort by China to increase non-fossil energy sources to 11.4 percent of the country's total energy consumption — a goal that has gained urgency due to severe air pollution in many northern Chinese cities. However, the hydropower push is not without its own major environmental consequences
, the Wilson Center notes. The cascades of planned dams will submerge important corridors connecting tropical rainforests to the Tibetan Plateau that allow wildlife to migrate as temperatures rise.
Studying a Polar Menagerie
On an Island in Arctic Russia
Ninety miles from the Russian mainland and 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, Wrangel Island is home to an eclectic assortment of fauna and flora — muskoxen,
Second in a series of blog posts from the Russian Arctic
polar bears, wolves, reindeer, wolverines, walruses, Asia’s only population of snow geese, and 417 plant species. Joel Berger, a field biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana, spent several weeks on Wrangel Island this spring. In the second of three blog posts for e360
, he describes the arduous conditions under which Russian and U.S. scientists collect data on the island’s odd assortment of creatures.
11 Apr 2014:
Parasitic Flatworm Could Be
Major Threat to Coral Reefs, Scientists Say
A coral-eating flatworm with a unique camouflaging strategy could be a major threat to the world's coral reefs, according to
researchers in the U.K. The parasite, called Amakusaplana acroporae
, infects a type of staghorn coral known as acropora, a major component
Amakusaplana acroporae, a parasitic coral flatworm
of reefs, and can destroy its coral host very quickly. The parasite has been detected at the Great Barrier Reef, and because it has no known natural predators, researchers are concerned it could spread quickly and decimate reefs worldwide. A novel camouflaging strategy makes the flatworm difficult to detect and monitor, the researchers say. When eating the coral tissue, the worm also ingests the coral's symbiotic algae. Instead of digesting the algae completely, the worm keeps a fraction of them alive and distributes them, along with the fluorescent pigments that give coral its characteristic hue, throughout its gut so that it perfectly mimics the appearance of the coral. The parasite has been identified in numerous aquarium-based corals, and biologists worry that it could spread rapidly if aquarium-raised coral, fish, or seaweed are introduced to natural reef environments.
On Far-Flung Wrangel Island,
A Scientist Sizes up Muskoxen
As a field biologist for the University of Montana and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Joel Berger has been to his share of end-of-the-earth places. But few have
Muskoxen on Wrangel Island
rivaled Wrangel Island, the rugged, frozen outpost located 300 miles above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s extreme Far East. In the first of three reports for Yale e360
, Berger describes the arduous trip to Wrangel and the scientific work that has taken him there — research with Russian colleagues on the island’s 900 muskoxen, a shaggy beast that is a relic from the Pleistocene era. In subsequent reports, Berger will describe the motley assortment of wildlife that has colonized Wrangel and the contrasting impacts of climate change on eastern Siberia and Arctic Alaska.
08 Apr 2014:
'Living Fences' Dramatically
Cut Livestock and Lion Killings in Tanzania
A novel, low-tech idea is helping Tanzania's lion population rebound: So-called "living fences" — which enclose livestock and are constructed of actively growing trees and chain-link fencing — have cut lion
A Masai villager installs a living fence.
attacks and retaliatory killings by more than 85 percent in the areas they've been installed, the Guardian reports
. Traditionally, the Masai have built livestock enclosures out of thorny acacia trees, but those fences are relatively fragile. Chain-link fencing alone is more durable, but leopards and small lions can scale the fences, and hyenas can tunnel in below. By interweaving actively growing African myrrh trees with the chain link fencing, the Masai have created a barrier that lions can't climb over, and their root systems prevent predators from digging under the fence. Because livestock predation has been cut, communities that had been killing six or seven lions annually now kill, on average, less than one, leading to a rebound in lion populations.
E360 Announces Contest
Yale Environment 360
For Best Environmental Videos
is holding a contest to honor the best environmental videos. Entries must be videos that focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and are a maximum of 15 minutes in length. 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 deadline for entries is June 6, 2014. Read further contest information.
03 Apr 2014:
Deforestation of Sandy Soils
Increases the Release of CO2, Study Finds
The texture of the soil that microbes live in determines how much carbon they release after deforestation, with sandy soils sending the most carbon into the atmosphere, according to research
led by Yale scientists.
Soils most affected by forest loss in red; least in yellow.
Subterranean microbes regulate carbon emissions from soil, and drastic changes to the microbial community, such as those that follow deforestation, can allow more CO2 to escape into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. The texture of soil, rather than such factors as temperature or nutrient concentrations, was the most important factor governing the release of CO2, the researchers found. Muddy, clay-like soils provide the most stable environment for microbial communities, likely because they're better at retaining nutrients than loose, sandy soils. The team used the findings to map areas in the U.S. where soil microbial communities would be most and least affected by deforestation, which could help inform land management practices.
18 Mar 2014:
Wildflower Season in Rockies
Is 35 Days Longer as Climate Warms
A warming climate has extended the wildflower season in the Rocky Mountains by 35 days since the 1970s,
according to a 39-year study of more than two million blooms. The bloom season, which used to run from late May to early September, now lasts from late April to late
Crested Butte, Colorado
September, the researchers say. Previous, less extensive studies seemed to indicate most wildflowers simply shift their bloom cycles to earlier in the year, but new findings
published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
show that the changes are more complex, with the flowers reaching peak bloom sooner and flowering later in the year. The shift in the timing of blooms could have a major impact on pollinating insects and migratory birds. For example, hummingbirds that summer in the Rocky Mountains time their nesting so that their eggs hatch at peak bloom, when there is plenty of flower nectar for hungry chicks. As the bloom season lengthens, the plants are not producing more flowers. The same number of blooms is spread out over more days, so at peak bloom there may be fewer flowers and less food for hummingbirds, the researchers say.
05 Mar 2014:
Routes of Young Sea Turtles
Shed Light on Mystery of Turtles' Lost Years
By placing satellite tags on newborn sea turtles along the coast of Florida and tracking them in the western Atlantic Ocean, researchers have gained new insights
into the early migrations of threatened and endangered
turtles during their so-called "lost years" between hatching and returning to coastal waters as large juveniles. Rather than swimming in the currents of the North Atlantic gyre, as scientists had assumed, the young turtles actually leave the gyre and travel to the Sargasso Sea, which lies in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. While there, sensors on the turtles' shells registered more heat than the scientists expected, leading them to believe
that the young turtles swim near the surface of the Sargasso, basking in sunlight and feeding on a type of seaweed that grows in deep ocean waters. "From the time they leave our shores, we don't hear anything about them until they surface near the Canary Islands, which is like their primary school years," said an author of the study.
28 Feb 2014:
Seafaring Drones Could Reveal
Mysterious Lives of Sharks, Researchers Say
New automated watercraft
are helping scientists understand the secret lives of great white sharks, which gather in large numbers each winter in an area nicknamed the "White Shark Cafe." Although this stretch of ocean between Baja California and Hawaii
contains relatively few food sources, the sharks congregate and display strange behaviors, perhaps related to mating or feeding, one researcher explained to the San Francisco Chronicle
. Scientists haven't had a way to efficiently track and observe sharks in this environment, but new seafaring drone technologies might change that. For example, drones could follow migrations by homing in on acoustic tags on the sharks themselves. Marine biologists at Stanford
were recently able to track two great whites on their journeys from California to Hawaii and the White Shark Cafe, as the map shows, but current technology only allows scientists to recreate the sharks' journeys after monitoring tags pop off and are recovered. The new drones may prove useful not only for tracking sharks and other pelagic fish in real time, but also for collecting important ocean data such as temperature, acidity, and salinity, researchers said.
18 Feb 2014:
Website Allows Whistleblowers
To Report Wildlife and Forest Crimes
A new whistleblower site
offers people a secure and anonymous way to report incidents of poaching, wildlife trafficking, and illegal logging around the world. The site is called WildLeaks, a nod to the well-known WikiLeaks site, and it's backed by the California-based Elephant Action League. Users can upload documents, video, or images detailing the crimes, and submissions will be encrypted so data and identities remain secure. The aim
is to provide a safe way for citizens to report these illegal activities so that local and federal governments can take action. Prosecuting wildlife crimes and illegal logging is often a low priority in countries where some of the worst offenses occur; moreover, local government corruption often deters people from reporting such crimes, organizers say. "We [will] work to transform this information into a verified and actionable item, a point for launching an investigation or sharing it with the media or, when possible, with selected and trusted law enforcement officers, always aiming at exposing wildlife crimes and bringing the responsible individuals to justice," said the WildLeaks project leader.
17 Feb 2014:
New Maps Pinpointing Wind
Turbines Will Help Track Effects on Wildlife
More than 47,000 wind turbines dot the U.S. landscape, predominantly clustered in the Midwest and Great Plains, as a new interactive tool
developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows. The maps — the first
publicly-available, nationwide data set for wind energy generation — show the locations of every turbine in the U.S., from large wind farms to single turbines, and are accurate to within 10 meters. The maps are part of the USGS's effort to assess how wind turbines impact wildlife, and they show detailed technical information such as the make, model, height, area of the turbine blades, and capacity of each turbine. Turbine-level data will improve scientists’ ability to study wildlife collisions, the wakes causes by wind turbines, the interaction between wind turbines and ground-based radar, and how wind energy facilities overlap with migratory flyways, the USGS says.
Five Questions for Elizabeth Kolbert
On Facing Up to the Sixth Extinction
Elizabeth Kolbert's new book, The Sixth Extinction
, focuses on one of the most troubling realities of our age:
We are living in a period when, for only the sixth time in earth’s history, the diversity of species is contracting suddenly and rapidly — but now, we humans are the cause. For her reporting, Kolbert, an e360 contributor
and New Yorker
staff writer, traveled from the Peruvian Andes to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, probing the fate of a dozen species. Yale Environment 360
asked Kolbert five questions about the book and what she discovered in researching it.
10 Feb 2014:
New Plant Found in Andes
Supports up to 50 Species, Researchers Say
Researchers working in the Ecuadorian Andes have discovered a new species of black pepper plant
that is a nexus of biodiversity. The plant, named Piper kelleyi
, supports roughly 40 to 50 insect species, the scientists estimate, many of which are entirely dependent on the
Specialist herbivore Eios feeds on P. kelleyi
plant for survival. P. kelleyi
produces chemical compounds that are known to deter most herbivores, but a single type of caterpillar has adapted to overcome the toxicity of the plant's defenses. That caterpillar, in turn, is preyed upon by species of wasps and flies dependent on that specific caterpillar species — and ultimately the plant — for survival. Altogether, an assemblage of up to 50 species of herbivorous and predatory insects are dependent on P. kelleyi
, the researchers report in the journal PhytoKeys