Author Archives: Fermin Koop

About Fermin Koop

Fermin Koop is a reporter from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He holds an MSc from Reading University (UK) on Environment and Development and is specialized in environment and climate change news.

EU wants to reduce Russian energy dependency. Here’s how they plan to do it

Few places are as exposed as the European Union (EU) to Russia’s oil and gas in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The EU gets about 40% of its gas from Russia at a cost of over $110 million a day. Moving with a surprising speed, the EU has now introduced a strategy to cut its reliance on this fuel source by two-thirds within a year — and this could mean a lot both economically and environmentally.

Image credit: PxHere.

The REPowerEU plan hopes to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels by 2030, placing initial efforts just on gas. The roadmap proposes to find alternative supplies of gas in the next few months, as well as increasing energy efficiency and doubling down on renewable energy sources in the medium to longer term.

“We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices, diversify our gas supply for next winter and accelerate the clean energy transition,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We’ll work swiftly to implement these ideas.”

The road ahead

The new proposal will make it a legal requirement for EU countries to make sure they have a minimum level of gas storage. The objective is to have gas stocks at 90% capacity by Autumn, up from about 30% now. Discussions are already taking place with existing gas suppliers such as Norway and Algeria to increase flows and compensate for the crackdown on Russian gas. Environmentally, this won’t make a substantial difference as just the source of the gas will end.

The Commission pictures ending reliance on all fossil fuels from Russia “well before” 2030. In the short term, gas would be imported from the US and Africa and some countries might have to increase the use of coal in the months ahead. While this will mean higher carbon emissions, the longer-term goal is a shift to renewable energy — which will make a difference environmentally.

Another area of focus for the EU in the coming months will be higher imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from suppliers including the US, Qatar, and Australia. Germany has already announced plans for two new LNG terminals to increase supplies, which has raised concerns among experts over a longer dependency on fossil fuels.

Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans asked to “dash into renewable energy at a lightning speed,” as they are cheaper, cleaner, and a potentially endless source of energy. The Russian invasion shows the urgency of accelerating Europe’s energy transition to cleaner energy sources, Timmerman said.

As well as finding new gas supplies, the Commission argued the reliance on Russia will be eased because of new renewable energy projects that will soon come online. Countries should consider using the revenues they raised from the Emissions Trading Scheme, the world’s largest carbon market, to pay for further green energy sources, the Commission said. Solar energy will be a particular point of focus, with a 4-stage plan aimed at delivering 1TW by 2030:

  1. Multiply rooftop PV development through mandatory solar on new buildings, bans on fossil-fuel boilers, and significant investment.  
  2. Facilitate utility-scale development by freezing grid connection fees, and mandating member states to identify suitable solar PV sites, aiming to fast-track developments. 
  3. Pave the way for smart solar and hybrid projects using dedicated funding.  
  4. Accelerate the deployment of EU solar PV manufacturing capacity with€ 1bn. 

 The proposal says renewable energy projects have to be fast-tracked, with a large potential in domestic rooftop solar power. Up to a quarter of the EU’s electricity consumption could be obtained from panels on buildings and farms, the Commission said – also calling for a large increase in the use of biogas, made from agricultural and food waste.

EU leaders will meet in Versailles, France, later this week to discuss the plan, which won’t be cheap and might lead to some dissenting voices. Meanwhile, campaigners are asking governments to ensure the poorest are protected. Europe is already facing an energy poverty crisis and no one should have to choose between heating and heating, the NGO Global Witness said in a statement.

UK government allows emergency use of bee-harming pesticide

Image credit: Pixabay.

Bees and other pollinators play a key role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and are also critical to our food security. However, they are in decline in many parts of the world, hit hard by the loss of habitats and loss and widespread use of toxic pesticides.

In recent years, many of these pesticides have been banned due to pressure from researchers and environmental groups. But they can also come back.

A nasty comeback

Thiamethoxam is a type of pesticide part of the group known as neonicotinoids, widely used around the world. However, in 2018, the most toxic ones, including thiamethoxam, were banned from outdoor use in the EU and the UK amid a growing list of evidence of the harm they cause to bees and other pollinators.

When poisoned by these chemicals, bees experience paralysis of their flight muscles and a failure in the homing behavior of foragers — which means less food for the colony. A single exposure is already enough to cause significant damage and Thiamethoxam is increasingly regarded as a problematic pesticide that is best banned. Neonicotinoids in general can also cause environmental contamination, leaching into soil and water and affecting the entire ecosystem.

However, these pesticides continue to be used even in banned places as countries can grant an “emergency derogation” when there’s the danger of a virus that can’t be contained by any other “reasonable” means. The UK is the most recent example, allowing the use of thiamethoxam for sugar beet against the advice of its own government experts.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In January 2021, the UK also planned a special derogation for the pesticide to save sugar beet plants from the beet yellow virus. However, there were lower levels of disease than expected and it was announced that the conditions for emergency use had not been met. This time, things look to be different.

Environmental and health organizations grouped under The Pesticide Collaboration have launched a legal challenge. The UK government decision, even temporary, isn’t consistent with halting wildlife decline, they argue. Farmers should be supported to reduce the reliance on harmful chemicals, finding alternative solutions, they added.

The sugar beet crisis

Over half the sugar consumed in the UK comes from sugar beet grown in England. A large amount of land is put aside every year to satisfy the country’s sugar demand, but climate change is now causing problems for the crop. This has resulted in pressure from farming lobby groups for the government to allow the use of harmful pesticides.

Unfortunately, this winter is much warmer than normal, and scientific modeling predicts a 68% level of virus incidence, which means the threshold for the use of the pesticide has been met, a government statement reads.

“The decision to approve an emergency authorization was not taken lightly and based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorizations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.

There are about 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet in the UK, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU). Farmers will be banned from growing flowering plans for 32 months after the sugar beet crop to minimize the risk to bees. NFU said in a statement that growers are relieved by the decision amid severe pest pressure across the country.

Campaigners argue only 5% of the pesticide actually reaches the crop, with the rest accumulating in the soil and causing a higher level of contamination than in pollen and nectar. This can then be a route of exposure for many organisms, including bee species that nest underground. It’s also absorbed by the roots of many plants visited by bees, such as wildflowers.  

“Allowing a bee-harming pesticide back into our fields is totally at odds with ministers’ so-called green ambitions, not to mention directly against the recommendation of their own scientists. This decision comes just two months after the government enshrined in law a target to halt species loss by 2030,” Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth said in a statement.

Situations like this are more likely to emerge as environmental regulations become tighter and climate change also puts additional pressure on agriculture. It remains to be seen what other countries will do in the UK’s position.

COVID-19 seems to affect the brain — even in mild cases

From early on in the pandemic, there’s been strong evidence of COVID-19 can take a toll on the brain and the nervous system – with symptoms like the loss of smell and taste as hallmarks of early infection. Now, a new study further demonstrated the mental toll of the virus, which was linked with significant, lasting brain abnormalities even in mild cases.

Image credit: Pixabay.

Researchers found that COVID-19 seems to reduce the brain’s gray matter, mainly in areas linked with memory processing and smell. These changes were observed in both people who required hospitalization and in those who had a less severe infections. The damage seen in the brain was beyond the structural changes that normally happen with age and could not be explained by other factors.

The study looked at changes in the brains of 785 people aged 51-81, who previously contributed brain scans to the UK Biobank, a large-scale database of brain imaging data from over 45,000 UK residents. Out of the participants, 401 had a COVID-19 infection sometime between March 2020 and April 2021 – with 4% hospitalized for infections.  

The remaining 384 participants didn’t have COVID-19 but matched the infected participants in age, sex, and COVID-19 risk factors, such as whether they had diabetes. They served as the control group as they had no record of confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Everyone in the study was subject to two brain scans to allow comparisons.

“Using the UK Biobank resource, we were in a unique position to look at changes that took place in the brain following mild—as opposed to more moderate or severe—SARS-CoV-2 infection,” Genaëlle Douaud, lead author on the study, said in a statement. “We saw a greater loss of gray matter volume in infected participants.”

COVID-19 and the brain

The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains. MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to generate images of tissues in the body. The MRI scans showed clear shrinkage in the brains of the people who caught the disease. Participants of the study caught COVID-19 about 4.5 months before their second scan.

The infected group had larger tissue loss in specific regions of the cerebral cortex – the outer surface of the brain. Shrinkage was most pronounced in the orbitofrontal cortex (which plays an important role in sensation) and in the parahippocampal gyrus (which is important for encoding new memories).

At the same time, those infected with COVID-19 had a larger reduction in overall brain size than the control group without the virus, the study showed. The authors also found tissue damage in areas of the brain linked with the primary olfactory cortex – a structure that gets sensory information from scent-detecting neurons in the nose.

On average, those who had the virus showed 0.2% to 2% greater tissue loss and damage over the course of about three years, compared with the control group. Estimates suggest that adults lose between 0.2% to 0.3% of gray matter in regions related to memory each year, so the extra loss would be out of the ordinary.

“It’s the only study in the world to be able to demonstrate before vs after changes in the brain associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection,” Naomi Allen, chief scientists at the Biobank, said in a statement. “Collecting a second set of scans has generated a unique resource to enable scientists to understand how the virus affects internal organs.”

The study stops short of explaining how impactful these changes are on the brain, and how long-lasting they are. However, problems associated with COVID-19 appear to be more pervasive than initially thought, and the specter of long COVID will likely continue for a long time to come.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Can the Ukraine war finally convince Europe to fully embrace renewables?

For some time now, EU governments have been pushing for natural gas and nuclear energy as an essential part of the energy transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuels like coal and oil. But since Ukraine was invaded, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has triggered a sudden push towards energy independence, mainly via renewables. It’s increasingly looking like Putin’s invasion may succeed in pushing Europe towards renewable energy.

Image credit: Pixabay.

In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said renewable energy is “crucial” for the EU’s energy security and Finance Minister Christian Lindner called for renewables “freedom energies.” Meanwhile, in France, Barbara Pompili, Minister for Ecological Transition, said that ending the dependency on fossil fuels, especially Russian ones, is essential.

In response, the Stand with Ukraine coalition, which groups hundreds of organizations including environmental groups like Greenpeace, said a ban on Russian energy imports would step one in a path to end fossil fuel production. They called for “bold steps” towards global decarbonization and for a transition to “clean and safe” renewables.

The EU imported 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia in 2021, almost half (45%) of its gas imports and nearly 40% of the total amount used, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the war has largely disrupted this. Now, the European Commission is expected to present an updated energy strategy, which will likely give renewables a larger role.

The race to end this Russian dependence will likely require boosting imports from countries like the US and Qatar in the short term, and will likely lead to more domestic fossil fuel production. However, this doesn’t have to be the path ahead, climate experts argue, suggesting energy independence via clean energy such as solar and wind. The most likely option is a mixture between the two.

No more illusions

Europe has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, reaching net zero emissions by 2050. According to preliminary data, EU emissions dropped 10% from 2019 to 2020 – strongly related to the Covid-19 pandemic. By comparison, EU emissions declined 4% from 2018 to 2019. Despite being one of the more ambitious climate pledges around, it’s still nowhere near what is necessary if we want to avoid the worst of climate change effects.

If Europe wants to rid itself of Russian fossil fuels, it will need some sources oil and gas — but focusing on renewabls is the smart long-term bet, researchers emphasize.

The argument that Europe could limit its dependence on Russian gas by focusing on local fossil fuel sources and importing liquid natural gas from the US is neither realistic nor cost-effective, according to the think tank Carbon Tracker. It would require decades to build new gas decades and source local deposits, meaning price pressures won’t be solved right away.

By contrast, solar and wind energy sources can be significantly scaled up as part of existing decarbonization policies. This would be more cost-effective because of the large drop in renewable energy prices. The think tank Wuppertal Institute released a study this week showing how heating in the EU could run completely on renewables by 2013 thanks to electric heat pumps.

Meanwhile, the IEA came up with a road map to help deal Europe in its energy transition. The plan would reduce the bloc’s dependence on Russian natural gas by one-third in just one year while delivering on the bloc’s climate pledges. It’s a collection of actions designed to diversify the energy supply, focused on renewables.

“Nobody is under any illusions anymore. Russia’s use of its natural gas resources as an economic and political weapon show Europe needs to act quickly to be ready to face considerable uncertainty over Russian gas supplies next winter,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a written statement announcing the plan.

The recommendations include no renewing gas supply contracts with Russia, which are due to expire at the end of the year, increasing biogas and biomethane supply, storing more gas to have a buffer of security, accelerating the deployment of renewables, protecting vulnerable customers, and improving the energy grid reliability and flexibility.

New book illustrates patterns and shapes behind life on Earth

In her new book, Kimberly Ridley pairs beautiful vintage illustrations with essays that detail the role of different phenomena in nature, from small to big organisms. Ridley, a science essayist and science writer, decided to celebrate nature’s most brilliant designers and builders in “Wild Design: Nature Architects”.

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley.

The book has eight chapters with unusual information on everything from beavers to fungi to birds. It’s packed with illustrations — paintings and drawings created by natural historians from the 17th to the 20th centuries. These allow the eye to focus on important features of the natural world, creating a sense of connection to the inner workings of the natural world.

In an interview with ZME Science, Ridley said she wrote the book as a love letter to the natural world and an invitation to readers to see nature with a new set of eyes, rekindling their sense of wonder. There are countless marvels surrounding us, Ridley said, but when we fail to notice them, we become disconnected from the living world

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley

“We often conflate wonder with naivete, but I think cultivating a sense of wonder is an important survival skill,” Ridley told ZME Science. “I wrote Wild Design to speak to that sense of wonder, which I find on my daily walks. I want to gently take readers by the hand and show them nature’s gorgeous and brilliant designs all around us.”

From the intricate weave of an oriole’s nest and the winged elegance of maple seeds to the ingenious “cases” of caddisfly larvae, which they meticulously construct from pebbles and sand, there are gorgeous and brilliant designs all around us, Ridley explains. “The more I thought about design in nature, the more curious I became,” she added.

The idea of the book originated from Ridley’s own curiosity, as she started to come up with questions regarding nature’s architects. She discovered many design wonders that are right under our noses. She wrote most of the book in her own backyard in Maine. “I set up a table, chair, and my laptop and got to work,” she says.

The role of illustrations

Ridley said she discussed several illustration possibilities with her editor, but that from early on she wanted to use natural history illustrations. This is for several reasons. First, she wanted Wild Design to feel like a miniature cabinet of illustrations. Second, because the illustrations are wonders themselves, created by hand and sometimes in the field

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley

“I wanted the visual narrative of this book to present a glimpse of the visual expression in the heyday of natural history exploration and discovery. These amazing works were central to scientific discovery, and introduced the public to the wonders of the living world,” Ridley told ZME Science. “I want this book to invite readers to slow down and observe.”

Ridley said creating this book opened her eyes wider and deepened her sense of wonder for the wild world around us. The book has helped her appreciate more deeply the interconnectedness of all life. Now, on her hikes along the rocky coast where she lives, she has a new appreciation of geology and is always looking for bird nests and admiring fungi.

Her own new experiences with nature are what she hopes happens with everyone who reads the book, which invites them to explore nature’s beauty, strangeness, and mystery in their own back yards or parks. Nature is a living library, Ridley concludes, a repository of knowledge that has accumulated through billions of years through evolution.

“Nature’s wild designers offer how-to manuals and encyclopedias for helping to solve human design challenges without creating pollution or trashing the neighborhood. So, I hope this small book inspires awareness on every level,” she added.

Russian forces seize control of Europe’s largest nuclear plant

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeast Ukraine was seized by Russian forces amid heavy fighting that caused a huge blaze in a building at the site. Authorities said the fire was extinguished and that the plant was working normally, with no further fighting in the area and Russia still holding control of the plant.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

An official at Energoatom, Ukraine’s state company that runs the country’s nuclear plants, told Reuters that the plant was working normally, with personnel on their working stations. However, he added Energoatom lost contact with the plant’s managers and control over the radiation situation after the Russian take-over.

Russia’s Defense Minister also said the nuclear plant was working normally, saying a “monstrous attack” by Ukrainian saboteurs caused the fire. Even with the possibility of a nuclear disaster seemingly averted, Russia’s control on a plant that provides over a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity was a big development after nine days of the invasion.

The attack on the plant came as Russia continued its attack on the city of Zaporizhzhia and gained ground in their objective to cut off Ukraine from the sea. Leader nuclear authorities were concerned about potential damage to the nuclear station, triggering calls between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US President Joe Biden.

“Europeans, please wake up. Tell your politicians – Russian troops are shooting at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video address. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Russia to immediately quit their attack, as the “reckless actions” of President Putin could threaten the safety of all of Europe.

The military administration of Zaporizhzhia said measurements taken on Friday morning showed radiation levels in the region “remain unchanged and don’t endanger the lives and health of the population.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the American Nuclear Society agreed, saying the fire didn’t affect essential equipment and the situation is stable.

The head of IAEA, Rafael Grossi, said the Russian attacks compromised the security of the plant and that the world was lucky no radiation was released. He said the situation was fragile and unstable and that he was in constant communication with Ukrainian authorities, leaving the door open to travel soon to Ukraine to follow the latest developments.

A massive nuclear plant

Built between 1984 and 1995, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is the largest one in Europe and the ninth-largest in the world. It has six reactors with a total output of 5,700MW, which is enough to power roughly four million homes. In normal times, Zaporizhzhia produces half the energy generated by Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

The plant is on the banks of the Kakhovka Reservoir on the Dnieper River, about 550 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. The first report of a fire came from an employee at the plant, who posted on Telegram that there was “a real threat of nuclear danger.” Ukraine’s Foreign minister confirmed this, saying the fire had broken out in the plant.

A short time later, the Ukrainian emergency services said radiation levels were “within normal limits” and that the fire happened in a building outside the power plant. Early reports of the incident affected financial markets in Asia, with oil prices surging further. Ukrainian authorities finally said, “nuclear safety is now guaranteed.”

Thousands are believed to have been killed or wounded and over one million refugees have fled Ukraine since February 24th, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the attack. Russian forces moving have sieged Ukrainian cities and attacked them with artillery and airstrikes. The invasion is still unfolding and the situation in Ukraine is critical.

Individual actions can reduce up to 25% of global carbon emissions. Here’s how

Governments and companies have a key role to play in preventing the worst effects of climate change — but we can also pitch in. Individuals can make a big difference, claims a new study, by implementing a simple six-step plan. If everyone would follow this plan, it would account for a quarter of the emissions reduction needed to keep global warming down to 1.5ºC

Image credit: The campaigners.

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of the world’s leading climate scientists, said in a new report that the climate crisis is causing “dangerous and widespread” adverse impacts in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people. The situation is much worse than predicted in previous reports, and while we still have a chance to avoid the worst results, the window is closing quickly.

“This pioneering analysis ends once and for all the debate about whether citizens can have a role in protecting our earth. We don’t have time to wait for one group to act, we need all action from all actors now,” Tom Bailey, co-founder of the campaign, said in a statement. “The JUMP is a grassroot movement that comes together to make practical changes.”

The good news is there is still plenty we can do.

Climate change and individual action

The research was carried out by academics at Leeds University and analyzed by the C40 network of world cities and the global engineering company Arup. It was published alongside the launch of a new climate movement to persuade and support well-off people to make “The Jump” and sign to the six pledges to reduce their emissions.

The study looked at the impact of consumption on greenhouse gas emissions. It showed that in order to avoid ecological breakdown, a 2/3 reduction in the greenhouse gas impact of consumption in rich countries is required within 10 years. This shift can be achieved through changes across key sectors such as buildings, energy, food, transport, appliances, trade, and textiles.

Citizens have primary influence over 25-27% of the changes needed by 2030 by making key lifestyle changes. In other words, we can’t control most of the changes that need to be done — but we can control some of them.Not everyone is equally responsible. Higher-income groups must take faster and bigger action.

“This analysis shows the collective impact that individuals, and individual choices and action, can contribute to combating climate change,” Rachel Huxley, director of knowledge at C40 cities, said in a statement. “This is really important in showing that citizen action really does add up, and alongside government and private sector action, individuals can make a major contribution.”

The six actions

So, here are the six lifestyle changes everyone should take to address climate change:

  • Eat green: Combing reducing household food waste to zero and a shift to a mostly plant based diet, would deliver 12% of the total savings needed by North American and European countries.
  • Dress retro: By reducing the number new items of clothing to a target of three, maximum eight, delivering 6% of the total savings needed.
  • Holiday local: As close as is possible, reduce personal flights to one short-haul flight every three years, and one long-haul every eight years.
  • Travel fresh: For those who can, reducing vehicle ownership and if possible moving away from personal vehicle ownership, would deliver 2% of the total savings needed by 2030.
  • End clutter: By optimising the lifetime of both electronics and appliances, keeping them for at least seven years, would deliver the 3% of the total savings needed
  • Change the system: To influence the remaining 73% of emissions citizens could take action that encourages and supports industry and government to make the urgently needed, high impact changes to change the system. For instance, swapping to a green energy supplier, changing to a green pension, retrofitting our homes, or taking political action.

The moon has a new crater — this time, created by a rogue rocket

A piece of space junk just impacted right into the far side of the moon, creating a shiny new crater as wide as 20 meters (65 feet). The debris, a discarded part of a rocket the size of a school bus, had been floating in space for over seven years – finally ending its long-term trajectory by heading right into the lunar surface at 5,800 miles per hour.

But the controversy around the object is far from over.

Image credit: Pixabay.

We still don’t know a lot of details about the impact. The crash took place on the far side of the moon, meaning it was out of the reach of ground-based telescopes. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter wasn’t likely in a position to observe the crash, but the agency has already said it will seek out the resulting crater — but the process will take weeks or even months.

“NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will use its cameras to attempt to identify the impact site and determine any potential changes to the lunar environment resulting from this object’s impact,” an agency spokesman told The Wall Street Journal. “The search for the impact crater will be challenging and might take weeks to months.”

It’s the first known unintentional lunar collision involving a piece of space hardware, not considering the probes that crashed while attempting to land on the moon. The crater is estimated to be located near the naturally-formed Hertzsprung Crater, which is 570 kilometers (354 miles) wide. This will be confirmed by NASA with further work.

The origin of the rocket

Astronomers have long debated the exact identity of the rocket. It’s an upper state booster discarded from a high-altitude satellite launch – either a SpaceX rocket launched in 2015 or a Chinese rocket launched in 2014. However, both have denied ownership. It’s roughly 12 meters long (40 feet) and weighs about 4,500 kilograms.

The first one to predict the impact on the moon was astronomer Bill Gray, who is in charge of the Project Pluto program that monitors faraway space objects. Gray initially calculated that the impactor was the upper stage of a SpaceX rocket launched in 2015, but then corrected his prediction and suggested it was likely the Chinese rocket.

So it’s a complicated story, one that will probably continue to be debated, at least until we get a more detailed view of the crash site. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured the lunar surface in much detail, including things left behind by astronauts. Experts will have to go through before-and-after photos of the specific spot where the rocket impacted to better identify the crater.

The shape of the crater and the dust that came out of it should show how the rocket was oriented at the time of impact, Paul Hayne, an astrophysics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder wrote in The Conversation. A vertical orientation would produce a circular feature, while an asymmetric debris pattern might indicate a belly flop.

If observations are done fast, the lunar orbiter’s infrared instrument could detect glowing-hot material inside the crater, Hayne explained. This could be used to estimate the amount of heat generated from the impact. If using the orbiter fast enough isn’t an option, NASA could also use high-resolution images to estimate the amount of melted material in the crater.

In addition to helping settle the debate on where the object came from, studying the impact site could be useful for another reason. Crater formation is a persistent phenomenon in the Solar System but the physics of the process is not well understood yet. That’s why observing the rocket impact and the resulting crater might be very valuable for scientists to produce better impact simulations – also improving our knowledge of the lunar surface properties.

Pandemic restrictions could be linked to 750,000 fewer dengue cases

Almost three-quarters of a million fewer cases of dengue were registered in 2020, which researchers suspect is linked to COVID-19restrictions on people’s movements and interactions, according to a new study. For the researchers, targeting places such as schools could greatly reduce dengue transmission hot spots and play a key role in stopping the spread of the disease.

Image credit: Flickr / Vaccines at Sanofi

Dengue is a big cause of acute morbidity in over 120 countries worldwide, with sustained increases year on year. Countries in Southeast Asia and the Americas regions are the worst affected, with over two million cases reported there in 2020 — but as the planet continues to heat up, more and more areas become vulnerable to dengue.

The virus isn’t transmitted human to human but by the Aedes aegypti species of mosquitoes which needs hot temperatures. Hot and humid tropical climates are ideal for transmission, and cases generally peak between June and September. Symptoms typically include a high fever, headache, vomiting, muscle and joint pains, and a characteristic skin rash. Overall, dengue infects some 400 million people a year, killing 40,000.

For dengue, the COVID-19 pandemic was a unique opportunity to better understand how different environments and human mobility contribute to transmission. That’s why an international group of researchers decided to carry out the first multi-continent study of the effects of public health and social measures on dengue incidence.

“Before this study, we didn’t know whether COVID-19 disruption could increase or decrease the global burden of dengue,” Oliver Brady, study co-author, said in a statement. “While we could assume reduction in the human movement would reduce the virus transmission, it would also disrupt the mosquito control measures already in place.”

Dengue and Covid-19

Brady and a group of researchers from Beijing Normal University and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) looked at monthly dengue cases between 2014 and 2020, using data from the World Health Organization (WHO). They covered 23 countries, 16 in Latin America and seven in Southeast Asia, as well as climate data such as temperature.

The researchers then looked at two measures of Covid-19 related disruption – public health and social measures (school and public transport closure and stay-at-home requirements) and human behavior through time spent at public and residential locations. They also incorporated the strength of the restrictions in lockdowns in different countries.

By combining this data, they showed that reduced time spent outdoors was linked with reduced dengue risk. Nine out of 11 countries in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Central America had a full suppression of their dengue season in 2020, while other countries had a much-reduced season. Countries that set their pandemic restriction measures at the peak of the dengue season had a sharper decline of dengue cases.

The decrease in cases could also be linked to a lower rate of people seeking treatment for dengue, reduced availability of laboratory testing, and a higher potential of misdiagnosis, the researchers said. However, some countries like Sri Lanka predicted this could be a problem early in the pandemic and took measures, encouraging people to get diagnosed and seek treatment. Overall, this suggests that COVID-19 lockdowns also led to drops in dengue.

“Dengue control efforts are focused on or around the households of people who get sick. We now know that, in some countries, we should also be focusing measures on the locations they recently visited to reduce dengue transmission. For all the harm it has caused, this pandemic has given us an opportunity to inform new interventions and targeting strategies to prevent dengue,” Brady said.

In the long term, more routine measurement of the prevalence for dengue as well as a better understanding of how treatment-seeking behavior changes at different phases of dengue and COVID-19 epidemics will be important, the researchers wrote. That will require continued monitoring of the dengue trends in 2021 and beyond, including the collection of human mobility data.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.

Asian markets are driving sharks to extinction — but European fishermen are selling them fins

Countries from the European Union (EU) play a major role as suppliers and traders in the global shark trade, which is driving many species towards extinction, according to a new report. EU member states were the source of 45% of shark-fin-related products imported to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan in 2020, with Spain being the top exporter for fin trade.

Sharks are currently declining very fast on a global scale. One way humans hunt them is by using a practice called shark finning – the process of slicing off a fin and discarding the rest of the body, usually by throwing it back into the ocean, which leads to a slow and painful demise.

Fins are specifically targeted as they are used to make a fin soup in Asia, which is considered to be a symbol of status. Fishermen sometimes even prefer to practice shark fining instead of selling whole sharks in the market as fins are much more valuable and they get their money’s worth with relatively little work.

Finning is having big implications on shark populations worldwide. About 100 million sharks are killed globally every year, with many species such as the scalloped hammerhead susceptible to extinction.

Population plunges don’t only affect sharks but also entire ecosystems, causing a ripple effect. For example, the decline of the smooth hammerhead causes their prey, rays, to increase. If there are more rays, they eat more scallops and clams, which provide valuable services for the entire ecosystem. Simply put, if you remove the top predators from the ecosystem, the entire ecosystem’s biodiversity is affected.

The role of EU countries

In a new report, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) analyzed almost two decades of customs data in three Asian trading hubs from 2003 to 2020. While the main market for fin-related products is in Asia, EU countries – especially Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Portugal – are big suppliers to this legal market.

“Small or large, coastal or high seas, shark species are disappearing, with the piecemeal management efforts to date failing to stop their decline,” report co-author and IFAW’s EU manager Barbara Slee said in a statement. “The EU, demonstrated by our report to be a key player in global shark markets, has an important responsibility.”

Over 188,000 tons of shark fin products were imported by Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from 2003 to 2020, with the EU responsible for almost a third. Spain was the top source of imports with over 51,000 tons shipped from 2003 to 2020, an annual average of 2,877 tons, according to the report. Portugal ranked second with 642 tons.

EU countries can’t carry out shark finning but the landing and sale of whole sharks are permitted, except for species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). That’s why IFAW is now calling for all sharks to be listed under CITES, which would give them further protection.

Shark populations have been shown to recover when effective management is put in place, hence the importance of the CITES listing. If the EU would take a leadership role to ensure the accuracy of trade records and the enactment of sustainability requirements of sharks in trade, then other players would follow through, Barbara Slee added.

“Global shark declines are driven by international demand for shark fins and meat,” report co-author Stan Shea said in a statement. Although many place the burden of change on the consumptive countries, primarily in Asia, equally responsible for declines in shark populations are all countries with internationally operating fishing fleets.”

The full report can be accessed here.

The world’s largest economies promised a pandemic green recovery. They did not deliver

When the pandemic hit and economies around the world went into lockdown, governments frequently promised to “build back better” or to carry out a “green new deal” once economies reopened. Turns out, it was mostly hot air.

Image credit: Flickr / Gerry Machen.

Jonas Nahm, a researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and his colleagues looked at national fiscal stimulus efforts for G20 economies between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2021. The researchers chose these countries as they account for more than 80% of global emissions and 85% of global economic activity — these are the climate elephants in the room.

The 20 largest economies injected stimuli of at least US$14 trillion during that period — close to China’s annual gross domestic product, for comparison. While most of the money went for shoring up healthcare systems, wages, and welfare, only 6% (or about $860 billion) went to areas that will cut emissions, such as installing renewable plants.

This green investment is less than those that followed previous recessions, the researchers argued. After the global financial crisis in 2007–09, for example, 16% of global stimulus spending was directed at emissions cuts (or about $520 billion). If a similar share had been committed today, the total would be about $2.2 trillion.

So all in all, investments in renewables and other green infrastructure were severely lagging behind what was promised.

The study showed some governments did more than others. The EU and South Korea led the pack, as each dedicated more than 30% of their COVID-19 fiscal stimulus to emissions-reducing measures. Brazil, Germany, and Italy also spent over 20%. India, China, and South Africa were at the other extreme, focusing on fossil fuel spending.

Looking at the reasons behind this trend, Jonas Nahm told ZME Science governments were preoccupied with the pandemic and not as focused on making structural changes to the sources of growth in the economy. Lobbying by interest groups in the fossil fuel industry could be another reason. However, he argues further research is needed to fully answer why this happened.

The road ahead

There’s still time to improve, the researchers argued, highlighting a set of lessons governments can learn from their recovery efforts. First, they should apply environmental conditions to stimulus bills. It is cheap and effective. Attaching climate targets to corporate bailouts can shift sectors onto more sustainable trajectories.

Governments should also focus on recovery measures that have direct emissions impacts. This means accelerating public spending on renewables to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase the energy efficiency of housing, as South Korea did. Or even investing in vehicle electrification, as Germany did by buying EVs for the government.

At the same time, the researchers believe governments should position their economies strategically to compete in a post-carbon world. This means focusing investments in low-carbon industries, building institutions to make economies more resilient to future shocks, and also helping fossil-based industries to do a transition.

“We hope that showing these aggregate numbers will highlight where we fall short and provide motivation to do things differently going forward. There are also many concrete policy lessons that can be learned from the things governments did do to reduce emissions, even if they didn’t amount to a sufficient response overall,” Nahm told ZME Science.

The study was published as a commentary piece in Nature.

Special malware hit Ukraine just before the Russian invasion. Microsoft identified and mitigated it in 3 hours

As tanks hit Ukraine, so did malware. Microsoft disclosed that it detected a round of offensive and destructive cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. The malware package, which the company named FoxBlade, was launched only hours before Russia launched its first missile attacks last week. The malware could also affect computers outside of Ukraine.

Image credit: Pixabay.

The malware package had never been seen before, Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) said, noting that it added new signatures to its anti-malware service to detect FoxBlade in just three hours of the discovery. Specifics of the malware aren’t known, but Microsoft said it can use your PC for distributed denial-of-service attacks.

Microsoft President and Vice-Chair Brad Smith said in a blog post that the company’s “principal and global responsibility” is to help governments and countries to defend themselves from cyberattacks. This role was highlighted last week in Ukraine, he added, as the government, as well as organizations and individuals, were under attack.

“In recent days, we have provided threat intelligence and defensive suggestions to Ukrainian officials regarding attacks on a range of targets, including Ukrainian military institutions and manufacturers and several other Ukrainian government agencies.,” Smith said. “These recent and ongoing cyberattacks have been precisely targeted.”

Smith said Microsoft is “especially concerned” about cyberattacks on Ukrainian civilian digital targets, such as emergency response services, enterprises, the agriculture sector, and the financial sector. The tech giant also detected cyber efforts to steal a wide range of sensitive data sets, including insurance, health, and transportation-related information.

The company is also sharing information with US officials in Washington and NATO officials in Europe, building on their work to address cyber activity against Ukrainian targets. Smith said they will continue to “constantly update” all of Microsoft’s services, including their Defender service, to protect against any potential spread of malware.

Beyond malware, Microsoft is also working to tackle “state-sponsored disinformation” by removing content from Russian state media such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from and other Microsoft services like the Widgets menu. The company has removed RT’s apps from the Windows Store, and RT content is being deprioritized in Bing searches.

“The past few days have seen kinetic warfare accompanied with a well-orchestrated battle ongoing in the information ecosystem where the ammunition is disinformation, undermining truth and sowing seeds of discord and distrust. This requires decisive efforts across the tech sector as well as with governments, academia, and civil society,” Smith wrote.

Building on previous work

The malware attack didn’t catch Microsoft off guard, as the tech giant has been working hard over the past few years on increasing the security features of Windows PCs. In 2019, for example, it launched the “secured-core PC” initiative, focused on guarding against firmware-level attacks – relatively uncommon but very nasty when they happen.

But the list goes on. The system requirements of Window’s 11 mandate support for several supported-but-optional security features from Windows 10. Microsoft said it implemented these requirements because of the NotPetya data-wiping malware, which targeted hundreds of companies and hospitals worldwide in 2017 – including Ukraine’s power grid.

“As we look to the future, it’s apparent that digital technology will play a vital role in war and peace alike. Like so many others, we call for the restoration of peace, respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the protection of its people. We not only look toward but will work for a future where digital technology is used to protect countries and peoples,” Smith wrote.

For people around the world, the best thing to do is update your Windows (if you use it) to make sure you benefit from the added protection. With cyber warfare being more common than ever, your devices have never been as vulnerable. Stay safe.

These nanobots powered by magnets can successfully remove water pollutants

Surface water, including lakes, canals, rivers, and streams, is a key resource for agriculture, industries, and domestic households. It’s quite literally essential to human activity. However, it’s also very susceptible to pollution, and cleaning it up is rarely easy. But we may have a new ally in this fight: nanobots.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

According to the UN, 90% of sewage in developing countries is dumped untreated into water bodies. Industries are also to blame, as they dispose of between 300 and 400 megatons of polluted water in water bodies every year. Nitrate, used extensively by agriculture, is the most common pollutant currently found in groundwater aquifers.

Once these pollutants enter into surface water, it’s very difficult and costly to remove them through conventional methods, and hence, they tend to remain in the water for a long time. Heavy metals have been detected in fish from rivers, which hold risks to human health. Water pollution can also progress to massive disease outbreaks.

The use of nanotechnology in water treatment has recently gained wide attention and is being actively investigated. In water treatment, nanotechnology has three main applications: remediating and purifying polluted water, detecting pollution, and preventing it. This has led to a big demand lately for nanorobots with high sensitivity

However, there’s a technical challenge. Most nanorobots use catalytic motors, which cause problems during their use. These catalytic motors are easily oxidized, which can restrict the lifespan and efficiency of nanorobots. This is where the new study comes in.

A new type of nanorobot

Martin Pumera, a researcher at the University of Chemistry and Technology in the Czech Republic, and his group of colleagues developed a new type of nanorobots, using a temperature-sensitive polymer material and iron oxide. The polymer acts like small hands that pick up and dispose of the pollutants, while the oxide makes the nanorobots magnetic.

The robots created by Pumera and his team are 200 nanometers wide (300 times thinner than human hair) and are powered by magnetic fields, allowing the researchers to control their movement. Unlike other nanorobots out there, they don’t need any fuel to function and can be used more than one time. This makes them sustainable and cost-effective.

In the study, the researchers showed that the uptake and release of pollutants in the surface water are regulated by temperature. At a low temperature of 5ºC, the robots scattered in the water. But when the temperature was raised to 25ºC they aggregated and trapped any pollutants between them. They can then be removed with the use of a magnet.

The nanorobots could eliminate about 65% of the arsenic in 100 minutes, based on the 10 tests done by the researchers for the study. Pundera told ZME Science that the technology is scalable, which is why with his team he is currently in conversations with wastewater treatment companies, hoping to move the system from bench to proof-of-concept solutions.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

How one lab greatly reduced its environmental footprint

In general, scientists are very aware of the environmental footprint of their research. It’s a noble cause, but many labs use consume vast amounts of plastics, generate waste, and emit greenhouse gases. Many such labs are trying to find ways to go green. In a new study, researchers in Ireland showed how this could be done — while also saving money.

Image credit: Pixabay.

Jane Kilcoyne and her colleagues at the Marine Institute in Ireland run a monitoring program for the detection of biotoxins in shellfish. Aware of labs being “resource-hungry workplaces” contributing to climate change, Kilcoyne told ZME Science they wanted to limit the impacts of their work on the environment while raising awareness overall.

The world’s scientific laboratory sector is massive. There are about 20,500 labs around the world that carry out medical, biological, or agricultural research. Most of them are big consumers of plastics. While the average person in the US consumes 106 kilograms of plastics per year, the average scientist uses 1,000 kilograms per year.

Labs also use large amounts of solvents for sample extraction and analysis, which could be treated and recycled to reduce costs and emissions. Paper consumption for printing is also high. This can translate into deforestation and pollution. Labs consume a lot of energy as well – between five to ten times more energy per square meter than office buildings.

That’s why is critical for labs to adopt good environmental practices. Many are acknowledging the need to operate in more sustainable ways and have already implemented changes to working practices to reduce their waste and energy consumption, such as University College London, set to be carbon neutral in 2030.

Tackling carbon footprint

With a team of seven staff members, the Marine Institute’s national monitoring program for the detection of biotoxins in shellfish implemented a set of sustainable practices in their laboratory, hoping to reduce the overall environmental footprint. As it turns out, it was a success, making the lab a much greener place than before.

They were able to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics by 69% thanks to a transition to more sustainable consumables. Recycling polystyrene (used in the construction industry as insulation) and composting of shellfish waste also led to over 95% of non-chemical waste generated by our laboratory being diverted from landfills.

The researchers could reduce their hazardous chemical waste by about 23% by extending expiry dates and only preparing what’s strictly needed for experiments. They also addressed their fume hood (which uses 3.5 times the energy of an average home) and reduced cold storage equipment energy consumption by 30% through improved management.

The actions implemented led to annual cost savings of about $17.000. But this isn’t the end of the road as further sustainability efforts are still required, they argued. The team will continue working to meet the ultimate goal of achieving a green lab certification known as My Green Lab – an NGO that seeks sustainability in science.

“The strategies adopted could be implemented in any laboratory. In fact, going green in any workplace setting is a win-win. Introducing more sustainable work practices into our monitoring program led to reduced environmental and financial costs, enhanced efficiencies, and boosted staff engagement,” Kilcoyne told ZME.

The study was published in the journal PLOS.

A new climate change report just came out. Here’s what it says

Despite some efforts to reduce its risks, the climate crisis is already causing “dangerous and widespread” adverse impacts in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people, according to a new landmark report on the climate crisis.

The situation is much worse than predicted in previous reports and if we want to avoid catastrophic damage, we need much more convincing action.

Image credit: IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of the world’s leading climate scientists, published a new report that updates the global knowledge of man-made global warming. Specifically, it goes deep into the growing impacts of the climate crisis and future risks if global emissions don’t drop further.

The report comes after an earlier publication by the IPCC last year when scientists concluded that major “unprecedented” changes were being seen – many of which were likely “irreversible.” Now, this second part focuses on how the changes to the climate are affecting people’s lives – including floods, heatwaves, and melting glaciers.

“This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, said in a statement. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”

All in all, the report reads like a gloomy prophecy.

We’re already in trouble

With just 1.1ºC of global warming that we’re seeing now, climate change is already causing widespread disruption in every region of the planet, the IPCC said. Extreme heat, record floods, and crushing droughts threaten food security and livelihoods for millions of people. Since 2008, over 20 million people were forced to leave their homes due to floods and storms.

Half of the global population currently faces water insecurity at least one month per year, a phenomenon driven by the climate crisis. Wildfires are affecting much larger areas than ever before in many parts of the world, while higher temperatures are enabling the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and Lyme disease.

“The science is now conclusive – and governments have endorsed this – we are in the era of unavoidable climate disasters causing loss and damage. Every fraction of a degree of warming will cause compounding and cascading climate impacts,” Harjeet Singh, Senior Adviser at Climate Action Network International, said in a statement.

People living in cities face higher risks of heat stress, lack of water, food shortages, and other impacts caused by climate change, according to the report. The fastest increase in vulnerability happened in informal settlements. This is especially problematic in sub-Saharan Africa, where about 60% of the urban population lives in these vulnerable areas.  

Rural communities also face growing climate risks, especially indigenous people and those whose livelihoods depend on sectors exposed to the climate crisis. As climate change impacts worsen, many won’t have much choice but to move to urban centers. The IPCC projects that droughts across the Amazon basin will lead to rural migrations to cities.

Even if greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced today, greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and current emission trends will have many big impacts unavoidable through 2040. In the next decade alone, climate change will drive between 32 million and 132 million more people into extreme poverty, according to the report.

“These reports are important as they can drive public policies of countries. But science is not being heard or respected. Governments only care about whether they are gaining power or money,” Gregorio Mirabal, head of COICA, an indigenous community umbrella organization, told ZME Science. “We are seeing the impacts of the climate crisis every day.”

Challenges on nature

The extent and magnitude of climate change impacts on nature are larger than previously expected, the IPCC said. Changes are happening faster and are more disruptive and widespread than what scientists expected. This adds to the other stressors faced by ecosystems, such as deforestation, pollution, and overfishing.

Climate change is currently destroying species and entire ecosystems. Animals such as the golden toad (Incilius periglenes) are going extinct due to the warming world, while others such as corals and seabirds are experiencing mass die-offs. Many species are also moving to higher latitudes and elevations to adapt to the higher temperatures.

Global warming of 2ºC by 2100 would mean an extinction risk for up to 18% of all species on land. If the world warms up to 4ºC, every second plant or animal species will be threatened. This is especially concerning for species living in high mountains or in polar regions, where the impacts of the climate crisis are unfolding much faster. But make no mistake: no place on Earth is spared.

Farmers, fishers, and other people who directly rely on nature’s services are experiencing severe effects. Even in a world with low greenhouse gas emissions (where global warming would reach 1.6ºC), 8% of today’s farmland will be climatically unsuitable by 2100. Under these conditions, fishermen in Africa could lose up to 41% of their yield.

“Drought and searing heat, ecosystem destruction, stronger storms and massive floods, species extinction – this is not a list of scenes in an apocalyptic film. Instead, it is the content of an authoritative scientific report detailing the climate impacts that are already wreaking havoc on our planet and its people,” Stephen Cornelius, WWF Global Lead for IPCC, said in a statement.

Future generations

Image credit: Flickr / Joe Brusky.

Today’s young people and future generations will witness stronger negative effects of climate change, the report goes on. Children aged ten or younger in 2020 will experience a nearly four-fold increase in extreme events under 1.5°C of global warming by 2100 and a five-fold increase under 3°C warming.

The percentage of the population exposed to deadly heat stress is projected to increase from today’s 30% to 48-76% by the end of the century, depending on future warming levels and location. Outdoor workers in some parts of Africa, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa will be subject to a growing number of workdays with climatically stressful conditions.

Climate change will also further impact water quality and availability for hygiene, food production, and ecosystems due to floods and droughts. The IPCC estimates that between 800 million to three billion people will experience chronic water scarcity due to droughts at 2°C warming – which would grow to four billion over a 4ºC global warming.

Children growing up in South America will face an increasing number of days with water scarcity and restricted water access, especially those living in cities and in rural areas depending on water from glaciers. As the Andean glaciers and snowcaps continue to melt, the amount of available water decreases as the glaciers shrink or disappear entirely.

The warmer it gets, the more difficult it will become to grow or produce, transport, distribute, buy, and store food – a trend that is projected to hit poor populations the hardest. Depending on future policies and climate and adaptation actions taken, the number of people suffering from hunger in 2050 will range from 8 million to up to 80 million people.

Multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously more often in the future. They may reinforce each other and result in increased impacts and risks to nature and people that are more difficult to manage. For example, reductions in crop yields due to heat and drought, made worse by reduced productivity because of heat stress, will increase food prices and reduce incomes.

“This report presents a harrowing catalog of the immense suffering that climate change means for billions of people, now and for the decades to come. It’s the most hard-hitting compilation of climate science the world has ever seen. You can’t read it without feeling sick to your stomach,” Teresa Anderson, Climate Justice Lead at ActionAid International, said in a statement.

The importance of adaptation

National and local governments, as well as corporations and civil society, acknowledge the growing need for adaptation, the IPPC said, with already 170 countries and cities that have included adaptation as part of their policies and planning. Nevertheless, efforts are still largely incremental, reactive, and small scale, with most focusing on current impacts or near-term risks

There’s a big gap between the necessary adaptation levels and what’s actually being done. The IPCC estimates that $127 billion and $295 billion will be needed per year by developing countries by 2030 and by 2050 respectively. At the moment, adaptation accounts for just 4% to 8% of climate finance, which means there’s still a long way to go to improve.

The good news is that existing adaptation policies can reduce climate risks – if funded properly and implemented faster. The report analyzes several the feasibility, effectiveness, and potential of several adaptation measures. These include social programs that improve equity, ecosystem-based adaptation, and new technologies and infrastructure.

Climatic risks to people can also be lowered by strengthening nature, meaning that we invest in protecting nature and rebuilding ecosystems to benefit both people and biodiversity. Flood risk along rivers, for instance, can be reduced by restoring wetlands and other natural habitats in flood plains, by restoring natural courses of rivers, and by using trees to create shade.

“Different interests, values, and world views can be reconciled. By bringing together scientific and technological know-how as well as Indigenous and local knowledge, solutions will be more effective. Failure to achieve climate-resilient and sustainable development will result in a suboptimal future for people and nature, IPCC co-chair Debra Roberts said in a statement.

The bottom line

The next few years will be crucial in terms of reaching a sustainable future for all. Changing course will need an immediate, ambitious, and organized response to cut emissions, build resilience, and conserve ecosystems. Governments, civil society, and the private sector have to step up. As the IPCC report makes clear, we have a window of opportunity, but that window is quickly closing down.

Make science, not war. Russian scientists and journalists speak up in open letter

“Yesterday I was detained during an anti-war rally,” one researcher who signed the letter told ZME Science.

Amid anti-war rallies in Moscow and other cities in Russia, many have decided to speak up against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – including scientists, science journalists, and public figures. Several open letters are already circulating with hundreds of signatures from prominent researchers, while a group of media outlets also declared their opposition to the war.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Over 600 Russian scientists and scientific journalists signed an open letter against Russian military action in Ukraine, which they described as “unfair and frankly meaningless.” It’s a fatal step that is causing human losses and undermining the foundations of international security, with Russia solely to blame, they argued.

“There is no rational justification for this war. Attempts to use the situation in Donbass (a region in Ukraine) as a pretext for launching a military operation do not inspire any confidence. It is clear that Ukraine does not pose a threat to the security of our country. The war against her is unfair and frankly senseless,” the letter reads.

The scientists and journalists said Ukraine is a close country to them, with relatives, friends, and colleagues living there. Starting a war because of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions means betraying the memory of Russians and Ukrainians who fought together against Nazism. All problems between countries can be solved in peace, they wrote.

Russia is “dooming itself to international isolation” and to the position of a pariah country,” they argued. For the scientists, this means that they won’t be able to do their jobs normally anymore. Doing science research is impossible without full cooperation from colleagues from other countries. Russia’s isolation will lead to cultural and technological degradation, they wrote.

Anna Dybo, a Russian linguist and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences who signed the letter, told ZME Science that it’s “an extremely bad and dangerous idea to bomb Kyiv, Mariupol, or Voronezh (all cities in Ukraine currently attacked by Russian military) in order to stop the shelling of Donetsk.” Dybo, who was detained during an anti-war rally yesterday, said “shooting tends to diverge in circles for a long distance and for many years.”

Further calls for peace

Elena Chernenko, a business reporter at the Kommersant (a daily newspaper), collected at least 100 signatures from fellow journalists in an anti-war petition, distributed through the Telegram messaging service. The signatories include journalists from state-run Russian media outlets TASS and Russia TV, as well as from private ones such as Snow, The Bell, and Novaya Gazeta.

“We, Russian media correspondents and experts who write about Russia’s foreign policy, condemn the military operation launched by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. War has never been and never will be a method of resolving conflicts and there is no justification for it,” the letter reads, which is still open for further signatures.

Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2021, posted a video on YouTube questioning the war and announcing the newspaper’s next edition will run in both Russian and Ukrainian. “Only the anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet,” Muratov said on the video.

Simultaneously, a group of 30 independent Russian media outlets published a declaration opposing the “massacre” started by the Russian leadership. They promised to “be honest” in their reporting and wished “resilience and strength” to Ukraine people “resisting aggressions” and to those in Russia resisting “military madness.”

“Pain, anger and shame are three words that reflect our attitude to what is happening,” they wrote. “This will bring grief to the families of thousands of people in Ukraine and Russia. The world has never been so close to a global catastrophe. We hope the funeral won’t come to your house. But there can be no certainty.”

Artists have also expressed their rejection of the war. Yelena Kovalskaya, director of the Meyerhold Theater Center, resigned from the state theater, writing in a Facebook post that “it’s impossible to work for a murderer.” Meanwhile, renowned author Sergei Lebedev said the “soviet crimes went unpunished in Russia, and so they recur.”

Tourists are accelerating snowmelt in Antarctica

From tourism to research activities, humans are leaving a mark in Antarctica – and not a very good one. A new study found that black carbon pollution from human activities in Antarctica is likely increasing snowmelt by about 83 tons per visitor. The remote continent is already one of the places in the world most affected by man-made global warming, experiencing almost 3ºC (5.4 Fahrenheit) of warming in the past 50 years, much higher than the global average of 0.9ºC (1.6 Fahrenheit).

Image credit: Flickr / GRID.

Every summer, tourists and scientists flock to Antarctica by boat and plane. What used to be a very remote continent is now becoming much more accessible. There are more than 70 research stations housing thousands of researchers. During the 2019-2020 season, the number of tourists reached 74,000, with most of them traveling by ship.

As you can imagine, this is leaving a physical mark with lasting consequences. While trash and human waste are flown or shipped off the continent for disposal, some forms of waste are not too easily removed. Every activity in Antarctica uses fuel. As we burn it, human activities release microscopic particles of what’s known as black carbon.

Black carbon is mostly produced during combustion in engines, wildfires, coal burning, and residential wood burning. While it stays in the atmosphere for a limited period of time, it can be transported regionally or intercontinentally. As a result, it has been found in snow samples in the Arctic, North America, the Andes, and Antarctica.

In a new study, researchers sampled the snow yearly between 2016 and 2020 at 28 sites in Antarctica – going from the Ellsworth Mountains to the continent’s northern tip. They focused on the Antarctic peninsula, as that’s where half of the research facilities are currently located and also where over 95% of the tourist trips are made.

“The black carbon footprint of local activities in Antarctica has likely increased as human presence in the continent has surged. Vessels, airplanes, diesel power plants, generators, helicopters, and trucks are all local black carbon-rich sources that affect snow several kilometers downwind,” the researchers wrote in the journal Nature.

Black carbon and snowmelt

In their study, the researcher analyzed the quantity and type of light-absorbing particles in snow samples. These were passed through filters and analyzed for their optical properties so to identify the type of particulates. There are many types of impurities that absorb light in Antarctic snow but in very minuscule quantities.

All samples obtained near human housing had black carbon levels above the usual Antarctic levels – a sign of human emissions. High levels of black carbon influence how the snow absorbs light, known as albedo. Snow with a lower albedo melts faster. The black carbon content in the snow samples could then be used to estimate if snowmelt increased due to human activity.

Human-produced black carbon could be causing surface snow to melt by up to 23 millimeters every summer. When looking at tourism specifically, the study found that every visitor between 2016 and 2020 was melting 83 tons of snow due to emissions from cruise ships. Scientific activities are also contributing their fair share due to the use of equipment and vehicles.

Mechanisms to mitigate black carbon impacts are needed, the researchers argued. They called for global agencies to limit tourism while pushing for a faster transition to clean fuel and hybrid or electric ships. Simultaneously, the size and footprint of research facilities should be addressed by adopting renewable energy power plants and energy efficiency standards.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Exposure to air pollution could be a cause of ADHD in children

While genetics play a big role, many other factors have been speculated to cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – from eating too much sugar to watching TV. Now, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution and limited access to green areas can also increase the risk of developing the condition.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental condition in children, which sometimes continues in adulthood. It’s a complex condition, difficult to diagnose, and with no cure. If left unchecked, ADHD can impact children’s performance at school and their relationships with parents and peers . It’s more common in boys than girls and it affects 1 in 20 children.

The disorder is generally diagnosed during the first years of school but it can manifest differently from child to child. Its cause, however, has been a subject of debate among researchers. In 2018, a study identified regions of the DNA associated with ADHD, for instance. But scientists have also been studying other factors, with no clear answers on many of them so far.

It seems like a lot of things could be responsible for ADHD, and the latest to blame is air pollution. According to previous research, it may cause ADHD through induced systemic oxidative stress, with disturbs brain development, leading to cognitive deficits. Noise exposure can also increase stress, with is associated with psychological disorders such as hyperactivity. However, results from previous research have so far been inconsistent or limited.

In a new study, researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) looked at the links between environmental exposures (greenness, air pollution and noise) in early life and later ADHD incidence – using environmental exposure metrics in combination with a population-based birth cohort linked with administrative data.

“We observed that children living in greener neighborhoods with low air pollution had a substantially decreased risk of ADHD. This is an environmental inequality where, in turn, those children living in areas with higher pollution and less greenness face a disproportionally greater risk”, lead author Matilda van den Bosch said in a statement.

ADHD and air pollution

For the study, the researchers used birth data from the metropolitan area of Vancouver, Canada from 2000 to 2001 and also retrieved data on ADHD cases from hospital records. They estimated the percentage of green spaces in the participants’ neighborhoods as well as the levels of air and noise pollution, using exposure models.

The study identified a total of 1,217 ADHD cases, which represents 4.2% of the sampled population. The participants living in areas with a larger percentage of vegetation had a lower risk of ADHD. More specifically, the study showed that a 12% increase in vegetation was linked with a 10% drop in the risk of having ADHD.

The opposite associated was observed with air pollution. The participants who had higher exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) had a higher risk of ADHD. Specifically, every 2.1 microgram increase in the levels of PM2.5 meant an 11% increase in the risk of ADHD. No link was found between noise pollution, NO2, and ADHD.

“Our findings also show that the associations between PM2.5 and ADHD were attenuated by residential green space and vice versa as if the beneficial effects of vegetation and the harmful effects of PM2.5 neutralized each other,” Weiran Yuchi, a researcher at the University of British Columbia and first author of the study, said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Environment International.

Global warming could fuel extreme wildfires, making them 30% more common by 2050

If you feel like you are seeing more news of wildfires around the world, you’re not wrong. From the Amazon basin to Australia, the issue is getting more severe, affecting people’s livelihoods and biodiversity. Now, a new report by the UN is warning this could just be the start, anticipating extreme wildfire events will increase by 14% by 2030 and 30% by 2050.

Image credit: Flickr / Kevin Spencer.

Scientists from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) said it’s time for everyone to “learn to live with fire” and adapt to the growing frequency and severity of wildfires, which will challenge lives and economies around the world. Even if we reduce greenhouse emissions much faster, the near-term consequences are still locked in.

The report finds an elevated risk for regions previously unaffected by wildfires, such as the Arctic. This is in line with previous studies that have warned we are entering into the worst wildfire period in recorded history. Last year, a study found that the world’s eight most severe wildfires on record happened in the last decade.

“Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” Andrew Sullivan, an Australian researcher and the editor of the report, said in a press conference. “Where wildfires have historically occurred, they may increase; however, where wildfires have not historically occurred, they may become more common.”

Growing wildfires

Fires have always had a vital ecological purpose on Earth, important for many ecosystems as they restore the soil’s nutrients, help germinate plants, and remove decaying matter. Without some wildfires, overgrown foliage such as grasses can dominate the landscape and lead to worse fires, especially during heat waves and severe droughts.

That’s why burning parts on land deliberately has prevented more destructive fires. Indigenous communities have been doing this for thousands of years. But as humans have warmed the planet, neglected forest management and developed more land, wildfires have become more destructive and deadly, according to the new UN report.

Wildfires are made worse by climate change through low humidity, strong winds and increased drought. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, which target carbon-rich ecosystems such as rainforests and peatlands. This transforms the landscapes into tinderboxes, making it more difficult to stop the rising temperatures.

While it’s a global phenomenon, the world’s poorest nations are especially affected by wildfires, the UN said. People’s health is directly affected by inhaling smoke, with increased health effects on the most vulnerable. The economic costs of rebuilding wildfire-affected areas can sometimes go beyond the means of low-income countries.

Wildfires also target wildlife and its natural habitat, pushing some species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian bushfires from 2019 and 2020. A report by WWF found that almost three billion animals, including mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs, were killed or displaced by the fires, much higher than an earlier estimate.

Compiled by 50 researchers, the report calls for governments to re-think the way they address wildfires, allocating more funding for prevention rather than using most of the resources for direct responses. Now less than 1% of the funding is assigned to prevention. Data and science-based monitoring should be used much more extensively.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, Inger Andersen, UNEP head, said in a statement. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires.”

Magpies: 1, Scientists: 0. Birds help each other to remove tracking devices

Many birds that live together cooperate with each other to ensure and enhance the survival and safety of the group. Magpies are no exception, as some scientists who were testing new types of tracking devices for birds would learn. The crafty birds helped each other to remove the devices, much to the surprise of the researchers. But what they lost in GPS trackers and hours of fieldwork, the researchers gained ten-fold in their understanding of these remarkable social species.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The magpie is a relatively large bird (about 300 grams) native to Australia, omnipresent across the continent. It lives in small social groups, occupying and strongly defending a single territory. Although it’s an abundant species, not much is known about its movement, social interaction within and between family groups, and spatial and temporal range.

A group of researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast wanted to further learn about the movement and social dynamics of these very intelligent birds while testing a new tracking device. But things didn’t go as planned. “The birds outsmarted us,” Dominique Potvin, an animal ecologist and study co-author, wrote in a blog post.

“The magpies began showing evidence of cooperative ‘rescue’ behaviour to help each other remove the tracker,” Potvin wrote. “While we’re familiar with magpies being intelligent and social creatures, this was the first instance we knew of that showed this type of seemingly altruistic behaviour: helping another member of the group.”

A very clever group of birds

Most trackers are usually too big to be used on small and medium-sized birds. There are some smaller trackers but they are limited in the amount of data they can store or their battery life. That’s why Potvin and the group of researchers were excited with their new, state-of-the-art tracker, which weighs less than one gram and is capable of re-charge wirelessly.

For their study, the researchers trained a group of magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) to visit an outdoor feeding station. Five of these birds were fitted with the device. A harness held the tracker tight and to remove it, you would need a “good pair of scissors or a magnet,” according to Potvin. But things didn’t go as planned. Apparently, a friend’s crafty beak will do.

Only 10 minutes after fitting the fifth and last tracker, an adult female without a tracker started to help a younger bird to remove the harness – eventually succeeding. This pattern was repeated in the following hours, with almost all trackers of the experiment removed. By the third day, the dominant male had its tracker dismantled.

“We don’t know if it was the same individual helping each other or if they shared duties, but we had never read about any other bird cooperating in this way to remove tracking devices,” Potvin wrote in the blog post. “The birds needed to problem solve, possibly testing at pulling and snipping at different sections of the harness with their bill.”

The researchers said they didn’t expect the magpies to see the tracker as some sort of parasite that had to be removed. But that’s what happened. There’s only one similar example of this type of behavior ever recorded. The Seychelles warblers (Acrocephalus sechellensis) were seen helping release others in the group from sticky seed clusters.

While the experiment failed, the researchers highlighted the importance of tracking magpies. They are very vulnerable to heatwaves, which are becoming more common and intense amid the climate crisis. A recent study found that the survival rate of magpie chicks amid heatwaves is as low as 10%, with higher temperatures also affecting their cognitive performance.

The (failed) study can be accessed here.