18 Jun 2015:
Pope Calls for Global Action on
Climate Change and Environmental Problems
Pope Francis released today
his highly anticipated encyclical, which is largely focused on halting climate change and
environmental degradation and emphasizes the importance of protecting impoverished communities from the worst effects. This is the first such letter from a leader of the Catholic Church to address environmental issues, analysts say. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political,” Pope Francis wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Industrialized countries are responsible for most of the damage, he said, and are obligated to help developing nations cope with the looming crisis. Within the document, he delves deeply
into both climate science and economic development policies, and chides climate change skeptics for their "denial."
17 Jun 2015:
Harnessing Evaporation Could
Yield More Power than Wind, Study Shows
Using the energy produced by evaporating water, researchers at Columbia University have shown
that they can
A miniature car driven by evaporation.
power a small toy car and a flashing light — the first step, they say, in harnessing an immense energy source that could rival power production from wind and waves. The devices they built use bacterial spores that can absorb humidity and, in doing so, expand and contract with enough force to push and pull pistons and drive a rotary engine. The spores pack more energy, pound for pound, than other materials used in engineering for moving objects, said researcher Ozgur Sahin, who co-authored the study published in Nature Communication
. When evaporation energy is scaled up, he says, it could one day produce electricity from giant floating power generators that sit on bays or reservoirs or rotating machines like wind turbines that sit above water.
Interview: Is Cloning Mammoths
Science Fiction or Conservation?
Biologist Beth Shapiro has published a new book, How to Clone a Mammoth
, that looks at the many
questions — both technical and ethical — surrounding any attempt to revive extinct species. In a Yale Environment 360
interview, Shapiro, associate director of the Paleogenomics Institute at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explains why she believes new gene-editing technology could benefit critical ecosystems and living species that are now endangered. “We are in the midst of an extinction crisis,” she says. “Why would we not use whatever technologies are available to us, assuming we can go about doing it in a reasonable and ethical way?”
Read the interview.
16 Jun 2015:
Human Data Can Improve
Ecosystem Service Models, Study Says
Protected forests in Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Thailand have prevented the release of more than 1 billion tons
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an ecosystem service worth at least $5 billion, Georgia State University economists found
. Their conclusion about the monetary benefit of those forest protections is based on a new method they derived for valuing services such as carbon capture, conservation, and improvements in air and water quality. Instead of relying on modeling alone, the new method uses interviews and on-the-ground data to see how conservation programs affect human behavior and impact ecosystems. By combining the two types of information — environmental models and social science data — public officials can gain more realistic insights into how a particular policy might affect the environment and the people who interact with it, the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
15 Jun 2015:
Biodiversity Limits Parasites
In Humans, Wildlife, and Plants, Study Says
High biodiversity generally limits outbreaks of disease among humans and wildlife, University of South Florida researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
. The new research is the first to quantitatively support the controversial "dilution effect hypothesis," which warns that human-driven biodiversity losses can exacerbate parasite outbreaks. Much of the debate surrounding this idea concerns whether it applies generally or only to a few select parasites. After reviewing more than 200 published scientific assessments, the USF team found "overwhelming" evidence that the dilution effect applies broadly to many parasitic species in humans and wildlife. They also found that plant biodiversity reduces the abundance of herbivore pests. The results have implications for public health efforts, the researchers say, and make a case for better management of forests, croplands, and other ecosystems.
12 Jun 2015:
National Renewable Energy
Targets Quadrupled Since 2005, Study Says
The number of nations with renewable energy targets on the books has quadrupled in the past decade, rising from 43 countries
Nations with renewable energy targets in 2015.
in 2005 to 164 countries today, according to a report
from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Developing and emerging economies account for an overwhelming majority of those renewable energy targets — 131 — and two additional countries, Canada and the United Arab Emirates, have set targets at provincial or regional levels. Most national targets are aimed at the electricity sector — 150 countries have renewable electricity targets — but transportation targets have more than doubled, from 27 to 59 nations, and heating and cooling commitments have increased from two countries in 2005 to 47 today, the report says.
11 Jun 2015:
Deep Sea Coral Canyons off
Atlantic Coast to Gain Fishing Protections
A stretch of ocean that includes more than two dozen undersea coral canyons will become the largest protected area ever
A Paragorgia coral from one of the canyons.
established in U.S. Atlantic waters, after a vote
yesterday by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The 38,000-square-mile zone encompasses waters at the edge of the continental shelf, from Virginia to Massachusetts, and includes 27 deep sea canyons, some of which are nearly 100 miles long and are as deep as the Grand Canyon. Their steep walls are excellent habitat for a rich array of coral species that thrive in cold Atlantic waters. The new protections will shield rare, vulnerable, and ecologically important coral communities from bottom fishing and trawling — a highly destructive practice that involves dragging nets along the ocean floor, often destroying thousand-year-old coral communities in the process.
10 Jun 2015:
Jet Fuel from Sugarcane
Cuts Aviation Carbon Emissions, Study Says
Converting sugarcane to jet fuel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from air travel by up to 80 percent and the process could be scaled up to produce commercially viable amounts
of fuel, say researchers from the University of California, Berkeley. The new technique they developed, which is described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, relies on complex chemical reactions involving sugars and waste biomass from sugarcane. That crop, unlike the sugar beet, can be grown on marginal lands so it does not displace food production — a major concern that has tempered enthusiasm for biofuels in general. Jet fuel, which is responsible for roughly 2 percent of all carbon emissions, has been difficult to synthesize from biomass because of its stringent quality requirements. Biofuels were approved for commercial aviation as recently as 2011, and researchers have been seeking a viable production method for nearly a decade.
09 Jun 2015:
Record Level of Residential Solar
Installed in U.S. in First Quarter of 2015
U.S. homeowners installed more solar power systems in the first three months of this year than in any other previous quarter,
Rooftop solar panels
according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association
(SEIA), a trade group for the U.S. solar sector. The first quarter of any given year typically sees the fewest solar installations because of winter weather, the group notes, but the period from January through March of this year saw a solid increase over last quarter — 11 percent — and a 76 percent increase over the same period last year. The average cost for a residential solar system is now $3.48 per watt, or 10 percent lower than this time last year, the SEIA report says. It also notes that, cumulatively through the first quarter of 2015, nearly one-fourth of all residential solar installations have now come on-line without any state incentives.
08 Jun 2015:
Reforming Mobile Phone Industry
Helps Profits and Environment, Study Says
Mobile phone manufacturers and the environment would both benefit from producing less-complex phones that
Millions of unused phones are discarded each year.
use "the cloud" — a network of remote servers connected to the Internet — to carry out power-intensive tasks, researchers say
. The current business model encourages consumers to upgrade devices frequently with little incentive to recycle them, researchers write in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
. There are roughly 85 million unused phones in the U.K. alone, the researchers note, and replacing the gold they contain — not to mention copper, silver, and other rare metals
— would cost nearly $170 million and release an equivalent of 84,000 tons of CO2. Moving to a "cloud-based" system where heavy computing is done on remote servers would allow manufacturers to produce less-complex phones that are designed to last longer and require fewer valuable metals, the analysis found.
05 Jun 2015:
Huge Pension Fund in Norway
Will Divest Many of Its Coal Holdings
The Norwegian Parliament has voted to sell off many of the coal-related investments
in the government’s massive $890 billion pension fund, a significant boost to the growing fossil fuel divestment movement. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is the largest such government fund in the world, and parliament voted Friday to order the fund to shift its investments out of billions of dollars of stock in companies that rely at least 30 percent on coal. A spokesman for the firm that manages the government’s pension said an important reason for divesting in heavily coal-reliant companies is “long-established, climate-change risk-management expectations.” The Norwegian Parliament’s decision comes on the heels of other fossil-fuel divestment steps taken by major groups and organizations, including the Church of England
, the large French insurer Axa
, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
04 Jun 2015:
Seven Tiny Frog Species
Are Discovered in Brazilian Forest
Seven new species of a highly miniaturized, brightly colored frog genus known as Brachycephalus
One of the species of miniaturized frogs.
discovered in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, researchers report
today. The frog species are restricted to cloud forests in no more than a few adjacent mountaintops, making them highly vulnerable to extinction, the researchers say. The cloud forests they inhabit are particularly sensitive to climatic conditions, and small shifts can cause major changes in the distribution of the forests. The frogs' adaptation to these specific environments prevents them from migrating across valleys as the cloud forest shifts. The long-term preservation of these species might involve not only the protection of their habitats but also more direct management efforts, such as rearing in captivity, the researchers say. Brachycephalus
frogs are among the planet's smallest terrestrial vertebrates, with adult sizes often not exceeding 1 cm in length.
Interview: At Sierra Club, New Face
At Helm of Oldest U.S. Green Group
The Sierra Club made history last month when it elected Aaron Mair as its president, the first African-American to lead
the largest and oldest U.S. environmental organization. Mair rose through the group’s volunteer ranks after leading a 10-year battle to close a solid-waste incinerator that was polluting his predominately black neighborhood in Albany, New York. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Mair discusses why it’s time to end a “Victorian-era model of environmentalism” that is “only worthy of the white and the privileged” and talks about why he believes increasing minority participation in green groups is more critical than ever. “If we want to save the planet, if we want to deal with climate change,” says Mair, “we have to engage all of America.”
Read the interview.
02 Jun 2015:
Pollution From Carbon Monoxide
Has Fallen Steadily Since 2000, Data Show
As these NASA satellite maps show
, carbon monoxide levels have decreased appreciably in much of the world since 2000, thanks to
Global carbon monoxide levels as of 2014
improved pollution controls on vehicles and factories and fewer forest fires. Carbon monoxide, which is produced whenever carbon-based fuels are burned, contributes to the formation of ozone, a pollutant that can have adverse health effects. A NASA satellite carrying a sensor called MOPITT — Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere — measures carbon monoxide levels. Higher concentrations of CO are depicted on the map in orange and red and lower concentrations in yellow. NASA said that the decrease in CO levels from 2000 to 2014 was particularly noticeable in the northern hemisphere thanks to technological and regulatory innovations that have led to lower pollution levels from vehicles and industry. Carbon monoxide levels also have decreased in the southern hemisphere since 2000, due largely to a reduction in deforestation fires.
01 Jun 2015:
Six Major Fossil Fuel Companies
Call for Governments to Set Carbon Price
Six leading oil and gas companies have called on
governments to enact a carbon-pricing system, saying this would be the most effective way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The chief executives of Total, Statoil, Royal Dutch Shell, BG Group, BP, and Eni, in a joint letter to the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that governments should use regulatory measures to discourage carbon-intensive energy options and to level the playing field for all energy sources, both renewables and fossil fuels. The executives said the companies are willing to do their part, but that governments need to provide a clear, stable, and long-term policy framework. Total chief Patrick Pouyanne said in a news conference that a carbon price of roughly $40 per ton is needed to spur the replacement of coal-fired power stations, which produce twice as much CO2 as those that use natural gas. And a price of $80 to $100 per ton, he said, would justify investing in carbon capture and storage systems.
29 May 2015:
Ozone Benefits of Montreal
Protocol Already Widespread, Study Says
The planet's protective ozone layer is in far better shape today thanks to the United Nations' Montreal Protocol, which came
Ozone hole without the Montreal Protocol
into force in 1987 and restricted the use of ozone-depleting substances such as CFCs, according to a new study in Nature Communications
. The researchers used 3D atmospheric chemistry modeling to look at what might have happened to the ozone layer had the treaty not been implemented. The findings suggest that the Antarctic ozone hole would have grown by an additional 40 percent by 2013 and, had ozone-depleting substances continued to increase, the ozone layer would have become significantly thinner over other parts of the globe. A very large ozone hole over the Arctic would have occurred during the exceptionally cold Arctic winter of 2010-2011 — colder temperatures cause more loss — and smaller Arctic ozone holes would have become a regular occurrence.
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.
27 May 2015:
Power Plant Emissions to Drop
To 1980s Levels Under U.S. Clean Power Plan
The Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to regulate power plant emissions will cut carbon pollution to its lowest
Big Bend coal power plant in Florida
level since the 1980s, reducing CO2 emissions from power plants by 1.6 billion tons per year, according to an analysis
by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The Clean Power Plan, which was proposed last June, sets goals for reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants by 2030. Under the plan, power sector CO2 emissions are projected to fall 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 34 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the EIA analysis found. That would bring CO2 emissions from the power sector down to levels not seen since the early 1980s, the report notes.
26 May 2015:
Officials Uncover “Mass Graves”
Of Illegal Timber in Malaysia Forest Reserve
Malaysian authorities have uncovered timber “mass graves”
where illegal loggers attempted to conceal valuable timber
A "mass grave" containing illegally logged timber.
following a government crackdown on unlawful logging that started in February. The sites, located in the Belum-Temengor forest reserve, were revealed after the recent excavation of patches of land roughly the size of football fields, beneath which an estimated two stories of felled trees were stacked. “We believe that about 400 tons of logs worth more than RM1 million ($250,000 USD) were buried at the three locations and the culprits are waiting for the right time to dig them out and sell them,” says Anuar Mohd Noh, assistant commissioner for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), which conducted a joint operation with the country’s forestry department to track down illicit logging activities.
22 May 2015:
Many Trees in Southeast U.S.
Closely Related to Tree Species in Asia
DNA studies show that more than half the trees and shrubs in southern Appalachia can trace their ancestry to eastern Asia.
A flowering dogwood tree
Based on molecular studies of more than 250 species of trees and shrubs from Georgia to Virginia, researchers at Duke University found close ties between East Asian species, such as dogwoods, and species in the southeastern U.S. Forests throughout the northern hemisphere were joined together by the supercontinent Laurasia as recently as 180 million years ago. Then, as the great northern land mass broke into continents, eras of glaciation wiped out various tree species. Forest remnants hung on in China, Japan, small parts of Europe, and Appalachia, which explains the similarity in tree species. The research was published in the American Journal of Botany.
Interview: A Grassroots Effort to
Save Africa’s Most Endangered Ape
The Cross River gorilla population, with fewer than 300 individuals, has been pushed to the brink of extinction in equatorial
Africa. At the center of the fight to save this beleaguered ape population is Nigerian scientist Inaoyom Imong, who comes from the region and knows its forests — and its people — intimately. In a Yale e360
interview, Imong describes the various pressures that have reduced populations of this gorilla subspecies and explains how a few thousand people living in rural Nigeria and Cameroon hold the key to saving this magnificent ape.
Read the interview.
20 May 2015:
Many Wind Turbines Installed
In Critical Bird Habitat, Group Says
More than 30,000 wind turbines in the U.S. have been installed in areas critical to the survival of federally protected birds and
an additional 50,000 turbines are planned for similar areas, according to
the advocacy group American Bird Conservancy (ABC). Those figures include 24,000 turbines in the migration corridor of the rare whooping crane and nearly 3,000 turbines in breeding strongholds for greater sage grouse
, a species that has already declined by up to 80 percent in recent decades due to habitat loss, ABC says. The group is asking the federal government to regulate the wind industry with regard to its impacts on birds. Areas of "critical importance," where federally protected birds face the highest levels of risk, comprise just 9 percent of the land area of the U.S. and should be avoided in wind development, ABC says.
19 May 2015:
Maps Depict China's Coasts
Under Scenario of Dramatic Sea Level Rise
Roughly 43 percent of China's population lives near the coast — a region that is expected to experience dramatically
Shandong province after dramatic sea level rise
rising sea levels if global warming continues along its current trajectory. What will China's coast look like far in the future if polar ice sheets and glaciers undergo extensive melting? Cartographer Jeffrey Linn has used projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to depict the impact of a 200-foot rise in global sea level
. In this map, he shows the potential inundation of a portion of Shandong province near the town of Qingdao, home to 3.5 million people and the brewery that makes the widely distributed beer Tsingtao. Earlier, Linn drew up similar maps showing the inundation western North America's coastline
under scenarios of extreme sea level rise.
18 May 2015:
Low Snowpack Raising Drought
Concerns in Oregon and Washington
While drought conditions in California and the southwestern U.S. have been dominating news headlines, Oregon and
Washington could also soon be facing dangerously dry conditions due to low snowpack
levels, as these photos show. Although the region has seen several months with average or just-below average precipitation, unusually warm temperatures on land and offshore led to most of that moisture arriving in the form of rain rather than snow. Like many parts of the western U.S. and Canada, the Pacific Northwest depends on mountain snowpack to melt and fill streams and rivers through warmer, drier summer months. According to state officials, snowpack in Washington was just 16 percent of normal as of May 15, and yearly runoff is predicted to be at its lowest in 64 years. Average snowpack in Oregon stood at just 11 percent of normal, its lowest level since 1992.
15 May 2015:
Indonesia Extends Major Logging
Moratorium, Which Critics Decry as Weak
Indonesia has extended a major logging moratorium
aimed at preserving the archipelago's vast swathes
Deforestation for a palm oil plantation in Indonesia.
of tropical rainforest, but environmentalists say the logging ban does not go nearly far enough. The country, home to some of the world's most biodiverse rain forests and endangered species such as tigers and elephants, first enacted the moratorium in 2011, banning new logging permits for primary and virgin forests and peatlands. The moratorium was first extended until 2015, and now has been extended again, to 2017. Environmental groups have criticized the moratorium, however, saying that it still allows deforestation for ventures deemed in the national interest, such as infrastructure projects and agricultural plantations. Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and third-largest carbon emitter in the world. Huge swathes of its forests have been chopped down by palm oil, mining, and timber companies.
14 May 2015:
Biologically Inspired Coating
Will Improve Solar Panels, Researchers Say
Key characteristics of moths’ eyes, which are anti-reflective, and lotus leaves, which are water-repellant, inspired a new type of glass coating that could significantly improve the efficiency of solar panels, say researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
. The extremely durable coating can be customized to be fog-resistant, anti-reflective, and superhydrophobic — meaning it repels water drops so efficiently that they barely make contact with the solar panel surface, literally bouncing off and carrying away dirt and dust that hamper performance. The key component is a nanostructured layer of glass film that, under a microscope, has a porous texture resembling coral, which helps the solar cells absorb more light, the researchers say. Reflecting less sunlight means a 3 to 6 percent increase in light-to-electricity conversion efficiency and power output, studies show. The coating can be fabricated using standard industry techniques, the researchers say, making it easy and inexpensive to scale up and incorporate in current products.
A Remarkable Recovery for
The Oysters of Chesapeake Bay
In the past century, more than 90 percent of the world’s oyster beds have been lost to pollution, overharvesting, disease, and
Wild oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay
coastal development. The renowned oysters of the Chesapeake Bay experienced a similar decline, with production nearly disappearing a decade ago. Now, however, Chesapeake Bay oysters are undergoing a remarkable recovery thanks to a brilliant oyster geneticist, improved state and federal management, the expansion of private hatchery operations, the cleanup of the bay, and some help in the form of average rain years and excellent reproductive oyster classes.
13 May 2015:
Car Travel Is Six Times
More Expensive Than Bicycling, Study Finds
Traveling by car costs society and individuals six times more than traveling by bicycle, according to a study
Bicycles parked in downtown Copenhagen
transportation trends in Copenhagen, one of the planet's most heavily bicycled cities. The analysis considered how much cars cost society and how they compare to bicycles in terms of air pollution, climate change, noise, road wear, public health, and congestion in Copenhagen. If the costs to society and the costs to private individuals are added together, the study found, the economic impact of a car is 0.50 euros per kilometer, whereas the cost of a bicycle is 0.08 euros per kilometer. Looking only at costs and benefits to society, one kilometer by car costs 0.15 euros, whereas society earns
0.16 euros on every kilometer cycled because of improvements in the public's health.
12 May 2015:
Unique Stretch Marks Show
Greenland Ice Accelerating Toward Sea
The Greenland ice sheet is accelerating as it flows toward the ocean, and the unique markings visible in this photograph
Crevassing in Greenland ice
are one piece of evidence
demonstrating its rapid movement. Captured as part of NASA's Operation IceBridge
, which is wrapping up its seventh season of Arctic observations, this image details heavy crevassing near the coast of Melville Bay in northwestern Greenland. These fissures are essentially stretch marks on the ice, NASA researchers say. Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass at an unprecedented rate of 500 cubic kilometers per year — enough ice to cover the Chicago metropolitan area with a layer of ice 600 meters thick — according to
one recent report.
11 May 2015:
Research Charts Increase
In Algal Blooms in the Chesapeake Bay
Algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay became increasingly frequent from 1991 to 2008, according to new research
An algal bloom in the Chesapeake Bay in 2007
the University of Maryland. Driven by runoff containing excess nitrogen and other nutrients, algal blooms can severely deplete oxygen levels and release significant amounts of toxins in the water, killing fish and altering food webs. Harmful algal blooms have long been plaguing the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, but water quality data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources show that the events roughly doubled in the 1991-2008 period. Major blooms of one type of microscopic algae, Kalrodinium veneficum
, increased from fewer than five per year in 2003 to more than 30 per year in 2008. That type of bloom produces a toxin implicated in fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay and with oyster spawning and development problems.