Central & South America
05 May 2016:
With Climate Change, It Is
Survival of the Oldest, Not the Fittest
When it comes to climate change, the world’s oldest species are more likely to survive than newly evolved ones, says a new study
published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology
The logic is relatively simple: The reason they’re so old is that they’ve been tested by abrupt environmental shifts before and have come out on top. This group includes species like the cane toad and California sea lion. More specifically, the study found the planet’s oldest animals all share at least one of the following characteristics: They come in various colors, give birth to live young (as opposed to eggs), and live at low latitudes. The research could help “predict which [species] could be better able to deal with current climate change and to better predict the threat status of species on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” said
Sylvain Dubey, an ecologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and co-author of the new study.
02 May 2016:
After a Decade of Decline,
Brazil's Deforestation Again on the Rise
Brazil is losing two soccer field-sized parcels of rainforest every minute, equal to 1,930 square miles annually, according to new reporting from the Thompson Reuters Foundation
The trend represents a significant blow to Brazil’s decades-long fight against illegal logging activity, which achieved an 80 percent decline in deforestation from 2003 to 2013 due to aggressive government and civil monitoring of the forests. But these efforts have slackened in recent years, and loggers have changed their tactics to better hide their activities, said Tasso Azevedo, a conservationist and former director of the Brazilian Forest Service. "In some cases, we are walking backwards," he told Thompson Reuters. The uptick could pose a challenge to pledges Brazil made during international climate talks in Paris last December. The country promised to eliminate illegal deforestation and restore nearly 30 million acres of forest by 2030 to combat global warming.
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.
22 Apr 2016:
Brazilian Officials Put a
Hold on Mega-Dam Project in the Amazon
A proposed 8,000-megawatt hydroelectric dam in the Amazon was put on hold this week by Brazil’s environmental agency out of concerns over its impact on a local indigenous tribe.
The São Luiz do Tapajós project — which would be Brazil’s second-largest dam and a cornerstone of government efforts to expand hydroelectric power — would require developers to flood an area the size of New York City and home to thousands of Munduruku people. The environmental agency, Ibama, said they were suspending the project’s licensing because of “the infeasibility of the project from the prospective of indigenous issues.” Brent Millikan, the Amazon program director for International Rivers, told Reuters
, "The areas that would have been flooded include sites of important religious and cultural significance. The local communities have a huge amount of knowledge about the resources where they are — if they were forced off the land and into cities they would become unskilled workers."
21 Apr 2016:
A Town Made Almost Entirely Out
Of Plastic Bottles is Being Built in Panama
Construction has begun on the world’s first town made almost entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. Located on Isla Colón in Panama, the village will consist of 120 houses and a lodge on 83 acres of tropical jungle.
The first two-bedroom home was built late last year, and is made from 10,000 plastic bottles pulled from Panama trashcans, roadsides, and beaches. The walls of the homes consist of steel cages filled with bottles and then encased in a concrete mix. They are flexible enough to withstand an earthquake, and insulating enough to keep the home up to 17 degrees F cooler than the jungle outside. Because there are so many recycled bottles on the island already, homes can be built quickly and cheaply, said Robert Bezeau, founder of the Plastic Bottle Village. “We are changing the world, without changing the Earth, one home at a time,” he says on the project’s website
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
01 Feb 2016:
Lab-raised Caribbean Coral
Grown in the Wild for the First Time
Caribbean coral colonies bred in a lab, using in-vitro fertilization, have for the first time been raised to sexual maturity in their
natural marine habitat, according to findings published in the Bulletin of Marine Science
. Offspring of endangered elkhorn coral were reared from gametes collected in the field and successfully reattached to a reef a year later, where they have grown in size considerably
according to researchers from SECORE International
. Over the past four decades, an estimated 80 percent of all Caribbean corals have disappeared. The elkhorn coral’s decline is so severe that it was the first coral species to be listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2006. Due to its large size, branching shape, and preference for shallow waters, the coral is particularly effective at protecting shorelines from incoming storms, as well as providing a critical habitat for many reef organisms. Scientists hope this success will be an important step in helping restore endangered reefs
11 Jan 2016:
Scientists Warn of Biodiversity
Impacts of Major Hydropower Projects
Hydropower is considered by many to be a key ingredient to reducing carbon emissions and meeting global climate goals,
The Belo Monte dam under construction in the Amazon
but it comes at a great cost to biodiversity, particularly in tropical rainforests, according to a new report
published in the journal Science
. “Far too often in developing tropical countries, major hydropower projects have been approved and their construction begun before any serious assessments of environmental and socioeconomic impacts had been conducted,” says the report's lead author Kirk Winemiller, an aquatic ecologist at Texas A&M University. The dam-building rush, with more than 450 dams planned for the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong river basins alone, impedes tropical fish migration and vastly expands deforestation due to road construction, according to the authors. Other concerns include development of previously inaccessible terrain, as well as methane emissions from newly built reservoirs.
Interview: Why Brazil’s Pledges On
Carbon Emissions Are Not Enough
In recent years, Brazil has been widely praised for reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 75 percent from 2005 to 2014.
Maria Fernanda Gebara
But analysts are now taking a closer look at Brazil’s pledges to cut deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, with some saying there is less there than meets the eye. One of the more outspoken critics of the country’s CO2-reduction policies is Brazilian political scientist Maria Fernanda Gebara. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Gebara, a research associate in the Department for International Development at the London School of Economics, says Brazil’s policies will do little more than stabilize emissions for the next 15 years, will fail to clamp down on illegal logging, and will continue the nation’s dismal record of developing solar and wind power.
Read the interview.
26 Oct 2015:
Major Clue Emerges in Mystery
Of Right Whale Deaths, Researchers Say
Endangered right whales
, especially young calves of the southern population, have been having a hard time
in recent years, and
Southern right whale and calf near Peninsula Valdes
scientists haven't been able to determine why. For example, the average number of right whale deaths per year at Peninsula Valdes, a breeding ground off central Argentina's Atlantic coast, jumped more than 10-fold from 2005 to 2014 — from fewer than six per year to 65 per year, researchers say. Roughly 90 percent of the deaths were calves fewer than three months old. Now researchers have closed in on a suspect: blooms of a type of algae known as Pseudonitschia
, which produce harmful neurotoxins, the researchers write in the journal Marine Mammal Science
. Scientists from the United States and Argentina found that the number of whale deaths at the peninsula closely tracked the concentrations of the toxic algae, offering strong circumstantial evidence that the algal blooms are likely behind the whale deaths.
In Brazil, A City’s Waste Pickers
Find Hope in a Pioneering Program
The millions of impoverished people who sift through trash and landfills for recyclable materials have been called the world’s “invisible environmentalists.” Yet many work in deplorable conditions and face exploitation from unscrupulous middlemen. In
A waste picker works at a warehouse in Curitiba.
Curitiba, Brazil, city officials and social activists have launched a rapidly growing program in which the waste pickers work out of city-sponsored warehouses and use their collective power to bargain for fair prices for their recycled goods. The Curitiba initiative is one of a growing number worldwide that seek to provide better working conditions and higher wages for waste pickers, while also aiding recycling and creating cleaner cities. Read more.
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.
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.
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.
01 May 2015:
One in Six Species Facing
Extinction in Current Climate Trajectory
Future increases in global temperatures will threaten up to one in six species if current climate policies are not modified,
Nursery frogs are among the species most at risk.
according to new research
published in the journal Science
. Global extinction rates are currently at 2.8 percent, the study notes. If global average temperature rises by only 2 degrees C — a benchmark that many scientists think is no longer attainable — the extinction rate will rise to 5.2 percent, the study found. If the planet warms by 3 degrees C, the extinction risk rises to 8.5 percent. And if the current, business-as-usual trajectory continues, climate change will threaten one in six species, or 16 percent, the study says. The risk of species loss is most acute for areas that have unique climate ranges — particularly South America, Australia, and New Zealand — yet those regions are the least studied, the author notes.
30 Apr 2015:
Volcanic Eruption in Chile Could
Have an Effect on Climate, NASA Data Show
Calbuco volcano, which erupted in southern Chile last week for the first time since 1972, has been injecting climate-changing
Sulfur dioxide from Calbuco volcano
gases directly into an upper layer of the atmosphere, NASA satellite data
show. The particularly explosive eruption shot sulfur dioxide, an acrid-smelling gas that can cause respiratory problems at ground level, up into the stratosphere, where it reacts with water vapor to create sulfate aerosols that reflect sunlight and can sometimes have a slight cooling effect. So far, Calbuco has released an estimated 0.3 to 0.4 million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) as high as 13 miles, where it will last much longer and travel much farther than if released closer to the earth's surface. The SO2 will gradually convert to sulfate aerosol particles, but it is not clear yet whether there will be a cooling effect associated with Calbuco's eruption, researchers say.
Interview: What Lies Behind the
Surge of Deforestation in Amazon
Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on
deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Fearnside explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation and warns that the Amazon will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn’t change course.
Read the interview.