Science & Technology
Interview: A Scientist’s View
On How to Repair the Planet
For an environmental scientist who studies how humanity is pushing the earth close to potentially disastrous tipping points, Johan Rockström
of a new book, Big World, Small Planet
— is surprisingly optimistic. Although he reckons that our species has crossed four of nine “planetary boundaries,” including those on climate change and deforestation, he believes there is still time to pull back from the brink and create a sustainable future based on renewable energy and a “circular” economy that continually reuses resources. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Rockström describes how an alignment of science, technological advances, and a growing public hunger for action can get civilization back on track. “It’s not a journey where we are backing into the caves,” says Rockström. “It’s a journey of high technology ... and huge, multiple benefits.”
Read the interview.
21 Sep 2015:
Rising Seas and More Intense
Storms Likely to Cause Major Flooding Spike
Rising seas and increasingly frequent and intense storms along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts could interact to produce alarming
Sea temperature increases along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts
spikes in the extent and duration of floods, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change
. The study projects that coastal flooding could possibly shoot up several hundred-fold by 2100, from the Northeast to Texas. Even the study's most conservative calculations, based on greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions over the next 85 years, suggest a 4- to 75-fold increase in the the combined heights and durations of expected floods. Over the past century, the East Coast has experienced sea level rise far beyond the 8-inch global average — up to a foot in much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including New York City. Most projections call for a further 2- to 4-foot rise by 2100, and some estimates go as high as 6 feet. At the same time, other studies suggest that in the future the largest North Atlantic storms may become more intense because warmer waters contain more energy.
18 Sep 2015:
Genes of Greenlanders Preserve
Evidence of Ancient Arctic Adaptation
The DNA of modern-day Greenlanders shows how their Inuit forefathers adapted to the harsh Arctic environment they called home
80% of Greenlanders identify as Inuit.
for thousands of years, according to findings published in the journal Science
. The Arctic is an extreme environment, characterized by a cold climate and sparse vegetation. The typical diet of Greenlanders — and their ancient ancestors — is made up primarily of proteins and fats from fish and marine mammals, and carbohydrate and vegetable consumption is minimal. By collecting genetic information from 4,500 modern Greenlanders, researchers determined which genes have changed the most over the roughly 20,000 years since Greenlanders' most ancient Inuit ancestors separated from their nearest East Asian relatives, the Han Chinese. The genetic changes the researchers identified show that through natural selection the Greenlandic Inuit's genetic makeup evolved in a way that enabled them to efficiently metabolize the fatty acids from fish and to live with few carbohydrates and vegetables.
11 Sep 2015:
Flooding Fields in Winter May
Help California Water Woes, Study Suggests
Deliberately flooding California farmland in winter could replenish aquifers without harming crops or affecting drinking water, according to
This flooded alfalfa field is part of the study.
from a study by University of California, Davis, researchers. Winter months, when crops are dormant, typically see more precipitation than summer months, when crops are actively growing and farmers rely on groundwater reserves for irrigation. Several water districts have attempted to sequester excess surface water during storms and floods by diverting it into infiltration basins — confined areas of sandy soil — but those basins are scarce. Instead, researchers suggest that some some 3.6 million acres of farmland could serve a similar purpose — particularly fields of wine grapes, almonds, peaches, and plums — because those lands allow deep percolation with little risk to crops or groundwater quality.
01 Sep 2015:
European Project Recruits
Smartphone Users to Collect Pollution Data
A European project that begins today asks smartphone users to collect data on air pollution in major cities across the
Smartphone with the iSpex accessory
continent. In the iSpex-EU project
, volunteers will use a free accessory attached to their smartphones to capture the spectrum of sunlight reaching their phones. Using those readings, scientists can determine levels of fine particles and aerosols in the atmosphere. Once enough data has been collected, the researchers plan to create maps showing where ground-level air pollution poses the highest risks. A recent study from King’s College in London estimated that, in London alone, roughly 9,500 premature deaths each year are linked to high levels of air pollution. After smoking, air pollution is the second-largest public health challenge in the region, researchers say.
31 Aug 2015:
Researchers Develop Artificial
Leaf That Efficiently Mimics Photosynthesis
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed an artificial leaf that can produce hydrogen fuel through
Artificial leaf device
a process similar to photosynthesis, according to findings
published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science
. The system is the first complete, efficient, and safe solar-driven device for splitting water to create hydrogen fuels, say the researchers, who have been seeking a cost-effective method for producing energy using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. The new system consists of two electrodes that produce oxygen and hydrogen gases, along with a specialized membrane that keeps the gases separate to prevent the possibility of an explosion. The artificial leaf converts 10 percent of the energy in sunlight into hydrogen fuel and can operate for more than 40 hours continuously, the study says.
27 Aug 2015:
NASA Study Quantifies Plants'
Role in Mitigating Urban Heat Island Effect
The presence or scarcity of vegetation is an essential factor in determining how much urban areas heat up, according to a NASA study
Using data from multiple satellites, the researchers found that areas covered in part by impervious surfaces such as asphalt, concrete, and steel had an average summer temperature 3.4 degrees F higher than nearby rural areas. The highest U.S. urban temperatures compared to surrounding areas were along the Interstate-95 corridor from Boston to Washington and around Atlanta and the I-85 corridor in the Southeast. In desert cities such as Phoenix, the urban area was actually cooler because irrigated lawns and trees provide cooling that dry, rocky areas do not, the researchers explain. The urban heat island effect occurs primarily during the day, when impervious surfaces in cities absorb more sunlight than surrounding vegetated areas.
20 Aug 2015:
Global Warming Has Worsened
California Drought By Roughly 25 Percent
Rising temperatures driven by climate change have measurably worsened the California drought by increasing evaporation rates and
A Central Valley orchard stricken by the drought.
exacerbating the state's lack of rainfall by up to 27 percent, according to a study
from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. While natural weather variations are largely thought to have caused the state's precipitation deficit, rising temperatures appear to be intensifying the situation by driving moisture from plants and soil into the air. The new study is the first to estimate how much worse increasing evaporation rates are making the drought: potentially as much as 27 percent, and most likely 15 to 20 percent worse. Scientists expect higher rainfall levels to resume as soon as this winter, but evaporation will more than overpower any increase in precipitation. This means that by around the 2060s, a drought that is essentially permanent will set in, interrupted only by sporadic rainy years.
13 Aug 2015:
Dangerously Hot and Humid
Days Soon Will Become Regular Occurrences
Climate change will make "danger days" — periods when temperature and humidity push the heat index to 105 degrees F or
higher — much more common over the next 15 years, according to a Climate Central
analysis. Looking at 144 U.S. cities, the team determined that only 12 cities have averaged more than one dangerously hot and humid day per year since 1950. By 2030, though, 85 cities — home to nearly one-third of the U.S. population — will likely experience at least 20 danger days each year. That's a dramatic and fast-approaching change from current conditions, the analysts note. Houston, for example, saw only three danger days between 2000 and 2010, but it should expect 102 danger days each year by 2050. The most dramatic increases will be seen in the South, the analysis found. Charleston, West Virginia, is expected to become the most dangerously hot and humid city in the country, experiencing 168 danger days per year by mid-century.
Interview: A Scientist Who Probes
The Rich Inner Lives of Animals
Ecologist Carl Safina has made his name studying and writing about the world’s oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. Now, Safina
has turned his attention to the fascinating and controversial topic of the inner lives of animals, exploring, as he puts it, “the incredible shimmering world of nuance that many of these creatures experience in their lives with one another.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360
about his recently published book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
, Safina explains why it’s vital to our own humanity to more deeply empathize with wild creatures and sharply criticizes some research on animal behavior, saying it has led to a flawed understanding of the natural world. “I bristle at the idea that an animal can 'pass a test' administered by human beings,” says Safina. “It’s irrelevant whether the animal corresponds to your concept of something.”
Read the interview.
10 Aug 2015:
Major Algal Blooms Visible Off
Both Coasts of U.S., Satellite Images Show
Major algal blooms have appeared off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. this month, as shown in these NASA
. Algae and other forms of phytoplankton are microscopic, plant-like organisms that form the basis of the oceans' food webs. When conditions are right, phytoplankton can reproduce rapidly and bloom to scales that are visible from space. Some blooms are benign — such as the one off the East Coast — and serve as rich feeding grounds for fish and whales. Other blooms, however, can be harmful because they deplete ocean waters of oxygen and sometimes release toxic compounds that poison birds and fish. The West Coast algal bloom contains toxin-producing phytoplankton, and it may be linked to deaths of whales, sea birds, and forage fish, scientists say
06 Aug 2015:
Mimicking Butterfly Wings Can
Improve Efficiency of Solar Energy Systems
Solar-concentrating photovoltaic systems can produce nearly 50 percent more power by mimicking the V-shaped wing
Cabbage white butterfly
formation certain butterflies exhibit before take-off, say researchers at the University of Exeter. The cabbage white butterfly warms its muscles before flight by placing its wings in the shape of a "V" to maximize the concentration of solar energy onto its thorax. This behavior, known as reflectance basking, increases the butterfly's thorax temperature by roughly 13 degrees F compared to flat wings, the researchers found. When reflective panels are arranged around a concentrating photovoltaic system in the same way, this wing-like configuration increases the power-to-weight ratio of the solar energy system by 17-fold, making it vastly more efficient, the researchers explain in the journal Scientific Reports
. The team showed that replicating the single layer of highly reflective scale cells found in the butterfly wings could also improve power-to-weight ratios of solar concentrators.
04 Aug 2015:
Study Finds Glaciers Melting
At Unprecidented Rates Around the Globe
Glaciers around the globe are melting at unprecedented rates, according to
an analysis of data spanning 120 years by researchers at
Rhone Glacier in Switzerland
the University of Zurich. The team compared glacier data collected between 2001 and 2010 with measurements, aerial and satellite photos, written accounts, and historical depictions from the previous century. On average, glaciers are currently losing between 0.5 and 1 meter of ice thickness each year, the researchers found — two to three times more than glaciers were losing on average in the 20th century. Although the team analyzed exact measurements from a few hundred glaciers, they say that field- and satellite-based observations of tens of thousands of glaciers around the world confirm their findings on a much larger scale. Intense ice loss over the past two decades has made glaciers unstable in many regions, the researchers say, and these glaciers will suffer further ice loss, even if the climate stabilizes.
31 Jul 2015:
Severe Droughts Affect Forests
And CO2 Storage for Years, Study Shows
Severe drought can affect a forest's growth for up to four years, a period during which it is less effective at removing carbon
A stressed forest in the southwestern United States
from the atmosphere, a new study
reports in the journal Science
. Standard climate models have assumed that forests and other vegetation bounce back quickly from extreme drought, but that assumption is far off the mark, the researchers say. Looking at data from more than 1,300 forest sites dating back to 1948, they found that living trees took an average of two to four years to recover and resume normal growth rates after droughts ended. Frequent droughts in places like the western U.S. could significantly impact the ability of forests to sequester carbon, the study found. Researchers aren't sure how drought causes these long-lasting changes, but they say there are likely three causes: Loss of carbohydrate and foliage reserves may impair growth; pests and diseases may accumulate in drought-stressed trees; and lasting damage to vascular tissues impairs water transport.
With Camera Drones, New Tool
For Viewing and Saving Nature
In a career spanning four decades, award-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon has tackled topics as diverse as the Irish in America and a polluting chemical plant in China
. But it was his current project — a short film about the Delaware River — that opened his eyes to what he sees as a revolutionary new tool for viewing the natural world: the camera drone. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Lennon — who produced a video of drone images from the Delaware
— describes how drones are a major innovation that allows filmmakers to capture images from vantage points never before possible. “There’s an opportunity for visual excitement, but combined — and this is the key — with intimacy,” Lennon says. “And I think that can become a tool for artists as well as for environmentalists.”
Watch video | Read interview
17 Jul 2015:
2014 Set Multiple Global
Climate Records, NOAA Analysis Concludes
Several climate measures indicate that 2014 was the warmest year on record, according to a new report
compiled by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Based on data collected from 413 scientists and 58 countries, the analysis found that sea surface temperatures, upper ocean heat content, and global sea level all achieved record levels in 2014. Four independent global data sets also indicated that 2014 global surface temperatures were the warmest on record. Earlier this year, NASA and NOAA released a similar study
stating that 2014 was the warmest year on record based on 135 years of weather reports, and President Obama cited that finding in his 2015 State of the Union address. The new analysis confirms and extends these findings to multiple indicators of global climate change.
15 Jul 2015:
'Buckyballs' May Be Able to
Capture Carbon Dioxide, Research Finds
Researchers have made progress toward using buckyballs — tiny, spherical chemical structures composed of 60 carbon molecules — to
Buckyball crystal structure
pull carbon from the atmosphere, a team from Rice University reports
in the journal Energy and Fuels
. They had previously found that buckyballs, also known as fullerene or carbon-60 molecules, have the ability to capture CO2 from high-temperature sources such as industrial flue gases and natural gas wells when combined with a polymer known as polyethyleneimine (PEI). In the new study, the researchers found that they could modify the PEI-enhanced buckyballs to capture carbon in lower-temperature environments. The advance may open the door to fine-tuning the enhanced buckyballs for a variety of carbon capture projects, the researchers say.
10 Jul 2015:
Deeper Ocean Waters Have
Absorbed Much of Excess Atmospheric Heat
The waters of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean warmed significantly from 2003 to 2012, but most of the heat is being
Warming trends at depth in the Western Pacific
stored at depth rather than near the surface, NASA researchers explained
this week in the journal Science
. The findings shed light on mechanisms behind
the so-called global warming "hiatus," in which air temperatures appeared to rise more slowly from 2003 to 2012. Warming in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean during that period started to appear at roughly 32 feet below the surface, the researchers say, and most of the heat was retained at depths of 300 to 1,000 feet. Their findings are based on two decades of ocean temperature records. “Overall, the ocean is still absorbing extra heat,” said Josh Willis, an oceanographer who coauthored the study. “But the top couple of layers of the ocean exchange heat easily and can keep it away from the surface for ten years or so. ... In the long run, the planet is still warming.”
09 Jul 2015:
Bird Fatalities at Wind Facilities
Can Be Prevented With New Model, Study Says
The U.S. Geological Survey has developed a new model that it says can help predict and prevent bird fatalities at wind facilities before
they are even built. The model
takes into account three parameters, all of which can be measured before construction: the total footprint of the turbines, avian traffic near the facility, and collision probability. The model used golden eagles as a case study because their soaring and hunting behaviors make them susceptible to turbine collisions. Golden eagles also are long-lived and reproduce relatively late in life, which means wind farm fatalities could have particularly severe population impacts. For two years, the model successfully estimated eagle collisions at a newly constructed wind facility in Wyoming, the researchers say. The model's simplicity "allows wind facility developers to consider ways to reduce bird fatalities without having to collect a complicated set of data," said Leslie New, a researcher at Washington State University, who led the project.
Interview: How to Get People
To Care About Climate Change
Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and economist, has been doing a lot of thinking about a question that has
Per Espen Stoknes
bedeviled climate scientists for years: Why have humans failed to deal with the looming threat posed by climate change? That question is the focus of his recent book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming
, in which he analyzes what he calls the psychological barriers that have made it difficult to deal realistically with the climate crisis. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Stoknes talks about these barriers and about how the discussion of climate change needs to be reframed. “We need a new kind of stories,” he says, “stories that tell us that nature is resilient and can rebound and get back to a healthier state, if we give it a chance to do so.”
Read the interview.
07 Jul 2015:
Self-Driving Taxis Could Spur
Major Cuts in Carbon Emissions, Study Says
By 2030, self-driving electric taxis could cut greenhouse gas emissions from car travel in the U.S. by up to 94 percent, if they were
Prototype of a small, self-driving electric taxi
to replace conventional personal vehicles, according to
an analysis published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. Autonomous taxis are projected to cut carbon emissions primarily through a process known as "right-sizing," or deploying a car that is specifically tailored to match occupancy needs of each particular trip. Right-sizing is cost-effective for both the fleet owner and for passengers, the researchers say, and companies and research groups are currently exploring how to efficiently manufacture small one- and two-seat vehicles. Optimal routing, smoother acceleration and braking, and a cleaner electric grid in 2030 would also contribute to lower carbon emissions. Autonomous taxis are projected to reduce emissions by 63 to 82 percent compared to hybrid cars likely to be on the road in 2030, and by 94 percent over a 2014 gasoline-powered model, the study found.
29 Jun 2015:
Rain Harvesting Could Provide
Major Economic Benefit in India, Study Finds
Collecting precipitation in rain barrels could result in significant savings for many people in India, according to
an analysis of
precipitation data collected by a NASA satellite. Estimates showed that harvested rain could provide at least 20 percent of average indoor water demand, or entirely irrigate a household vegetable garden. The savings associated with a vegetable garden could be between 2,500 and 4,500 rupees per year (39 to 71 U.S. dollars) — an amount equivalent to half a year’s rent in an average 1-bedroom apartment in an Indian city. In a country where the distribution of potable water is a challenge, rainwater is an untapped resource that could provide significant benefits, the researchers write in the Urban Water Journal
Photo Gallery: Scenes From
The Golden Age of Animal Tracking
Scientists are following the lives of animals in more detail than ever before, thanks to a new generation of tracking and tagging devices. From beluga whales that collect data on the Arctic Ocean to ducks that help track the spread of avian flu, data gathered by and about animals is being used to identify conservation hotspots, reduce human-animal conflicts, and monitor the health of the planet. In an e360
gallery, we look at some intriguing projects that have used state-of-the-art animal tracking and monitoring technology.
View the gallery.
24 Jun 2015:
Global Fine Particle Pollution
On the Rise Despite Regional Improvements
Air pollution from fine particulate matter has decreased significantly in North America and western Europe over the
Fine particulate air pollution levels, 2010-2012
past two decades, but increases in East and South Asia have more than made up for those improvements, as these maps based on NASA satellite data
show. The U.S. and Europe have many PM 2.5 ground-based monitoring stations, but large swaths of Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America are unmonitored. To fill these gaps, researchers have been developing techniques that use satellite data to better estimate PM 2.5 levels around the globe. They've found that, as a whole, the worsening PM 2.5 pollution in Asia outweighed improvements in North America and Europe, and global PM 2.5 concentrations have increased by 2.1 percent per year since 1998.
22 Jun 2015:
Researchers Look to Design of
Owl Wings to Make Quieter Wind Turbines
A new type of coating for wind turbines inspired by the shape of owl wings may dramatically cut noise associated with onshore
Australian masked owl in flight
wind farms, according to
research from the University of Cambridge. The scientists found that an owl's flight feathers have a microscopic down-like covering and numerous other intricate design details that smooth the passage of air over the wing, scattering sound as the owl flies. To replicate the structure, the researchers looked at designing a covering that would scatter the sound generated by a turbine blade in the same way. Early tests of their prototype material, a 3D-printed plastic coating, demonstrated that it could significantly quiet wind turbines without any appreciable impact on aerodynamics. Since wind turbines are heavily braked in order to minimize noise, the new technology could mean that turbines could spin at much higher speeds, producing more energy while making less noise.
19 Jun 2015:
Jet Contrails Can Affect
Air Temperature in Some Areas, Study Shows
Jet contrails can mimic the weather impact of clouds and significantly affect daytime and nighttime air temperature
Persistent jet contrails
swings — by up to 6 degrees Fahrenheit in some locales — researchers from Penn State have shown
. Data from the three days following September 11, 2001, when air travel was highly restricted, had shown that jet contrails — thin clouds composed of ice crystals condensed from an aircraft's exhaust — likely had an effect on air temperatures. To study the issue over a longer time period, the researchers looked at daily temperature data from locations in the South and Midwest that often see persistent jet contrails. They found that contrails, like clouds, depress the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures, typically lowering daytime highs and raising nighttime lows. In the South, this amounted to a 6 degree F reduction in daily temperature range, and in the Midwest, roughly a 5 degree F reduction.
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.