Category Archives: Climate

Eunice Foote: the first person to measure the impact of carbon dioxide on climate

We often think of climate science as something that started only recently. The truth is that, like almost all fields of science, it started a long time ago. Advancing science is often a slow and tedious process, and climate science is not an exception. From the discovery of carbon dioxide until the most sophisticated climate models, it took a long time to get where we are.

Unfortunately, many scientists who played an important role in this climate journey are not given the credit they deserve. Take, for instance, Eunice Newton Foote.

Eunice Foote. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Foote was born in 1819 in Connecticut, USA. She spent her childhood in New York and later attended classes in the Troy Female Seminary, a higher education institution just for women.  She married Elish Foote in 1841, and the couple was active in the suffragist and abolitionist movements. They participated in the “Women’s Rights Convention” and signed the “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848.

Eunice was also an inventor and an “amateur” scientist, a brave endeavor in a time when women were scarcely allowed to participate in science. However, one of her discoveries turned out to be instrumental in the field of climate science.

Why do we need jackets in the mountains?

In 1856, Eunice conducted an experiment to explain why low altitude air is warmer than in mountains. Back then, scientists were not sure about it, so she decided to test it. She published her results in the American Journal of Science and Arts.

“Circumstances affecting the heat of the Sun’s rays”. American Journal of Science and Arts. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Foote placed two cylinders under the Sun and later in the shade, each with a thermometer. She made sure the experiment would start with both cylinders with the same temperature. After three minutes, she measured the temperature in both situations. 

She noticed that rarefied air didn’t heat up as much as dense air, which explains the difference between mountaintops and valleys. Later, she compared the influence of moisture with the same apparatus. To make sure the other cylinder was dry enough, she added calcium chloride. The result was a much warmer cylinder with moist air in contrast to the dry one. This was the first step to explain the processes in the atmosphere, water vapor is one of the greenhouse gasses which sustain life on Earth.

But that wasn’t all. Foote went further and studied the effect of carbon dioxide. The gas had a high effect on heating the air. At the time, Eunice didn’t notice it, but with her measurements, the warming effect of water vapor made the temperatures 6% higher, while the carbon dioxide cylinder was 9% higher. 

Surprisingly, Eunice’s concluding paragraphs came with a simple deduction on how the atmosphere would respond to an increase in CO2. She predicted that adding more gas would lead to an increase in the temperature — which is pretty much what we know to be true now. In addition, she talked about the effect of carbon dioxide in the geological past, as scientists were already uncovering evidence that Earth’s climate was different back then.

We now know that during different geologic periods of the Earth, the climate was significantly warmer or colder. In fact, between the Permian and Triassic periods, the CO2 concentration was nearly 5 times higher than today’s, causing a 6ºC (10.8ºF) temperature increase.

Recognition

Eunice Foote’s discovery made it to Scientific American in 1856, where it was presented by Joseph Henry in the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Henry also reported her findings in the New-York daily tribune but stated there were not significant. Her study was mentioned in two European reports, and her name was largely ignored for over 100 years — until it finally received credit for her observations in 2011

The credit for the discovery used to be given to John Tyndall, an Irish physicist. He published his findings in 1861 explaining how absorbed radiation (heat) was and which radiation it was – infrared. Tyndall was an “official” scientist, he had a doctorate, had recognition from previous work, everything necessary to be respected. 

But a few things draw the eye regarding Tyndall and Foote.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and global annual average temperatures (in C) over the years 1880 to 2009. Credits: NOAA/NCDC

Dr Tyndall was part of the editorial team of a magazine that reprinted Foote’s work. It is possible he didn’t actually read the paper, or just ignored it because it was an American scientist (a common practice among European scientists back then), and or because of her gender. But it’s possible that he drew some inspiration from it as well — without quoting it.

It should be said that Tyndall’s work was more advanced and precise. He had better resources and he was close to the newest discoveries in physics that could support his hypothesis. But the question of why Foote’s work took so long to be credited is hard to answer without going into misogyny.

Today, whenever a finding is published, even if made with a low-budget apparatus, the scientist responsible for the next advance on the topic needs to cite their colleague. A good example happened to another important discovery involving another female scientist. Edwin Hubble used Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s discovery of the relationship between the brightness and period of cepheid variables. Her idea was part of the method to measure the galaxies’ velocities and distances that later proved the universe is expanding. Hubble said she deserved to share the Nobel Prize with him, unfortunately, she was already dead after the prize announcement.

It’s unfortunate that researchers like Foote don’t receive the recognition they deserve, but it’s encouraging that the scientific community is starting to finally recognize some of these pioneers. There’s plenty of work still left to be done.

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.

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.

Amazon rainforest approaching tipping point of turning into savannah

A combination of climate change, deforestation, and fires has put immense strain on the Amazon basin — home to the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, housing at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity — since the early 2000s. A new study suggests that over three-quarters of the Amazon region is showing signs that rainforests may be nearing a tipping point, where they could turn into a savannah.

“There is a lot of discussion about the future of the Amazon rainforest and its tipping point. This comes from model studies that originally showed a fast loss of the Amazon rainforest. Since then there has been a lot of uncertainty about its future based on models not agreeing with each other, different future scenarios of climate change, etc. This leads us to look at the real world Amazon to actually see what is going on, and why wouldn’t you if the data is there? We use well-established indicators to measure the changing resilience of the forest, finding that 75% of the forest is losing resilience,” Chris Boulton, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter in the UK, told ZME Science


R(1) values at each location are measured over time and approximate how much memory the forest has (how similar the forest is compared to how it was previously). Higher values suggest more memory, meaning the forest is responding more slowly to weather events, having lower resilience to them. Over the years, the increasing AR(1) values at individual locations, as well as the average behaviour over the region (shown by the time series) shows that there has been a loss of resilience in the Amazon rainforest, particularly over the last 20 years. Credit: Boulton, et al.; Nature Climate Change

Resilience, Boulton added, refers to an ecosystem’s ability to recover from strenuous events such as droughts. Monitoring ecosystem resilience is paramount because it can help determine the magnitude and timing of ecological interventions, such as environmental watering, as well as provide trajectories we can expect in highly disturbed ecosystems subject to ongoing change. And few regions across the world are under as much stress as the Amazon basin is currently experiencing.

Aggressive modern human economic invasion in the area over the past decades has supplanted once tropical foliage with roads, dams, cattle farms, and huge soy plantations. Adding insult to injury are the hundreds of wildfires that lit large chunks of the iconic rainforest up in flames. In 2020 alone, fires razed more than 19 million acres of the world’s largest tropical forest.

With the forest habitat shredded, many endemic species are under threat of extinction, their previous role being filled by often invasive animals. For instance, we’re seeing giant anteaters being replaced by rats and Brazil nut trees making way for weeds.

Using remote satellite sensing data, Boulton and colleagues modeled changes in the resilience of the Amazon rainforest between 1991 and 2016, coming to some stark conclusions. The analysis revealed that 75% of the Amazon has been steadily losing resilience since the early 2000s, which in simple terms means that the rainforests are finding it increasingly difficult to recover after a big drought or fire.

“I think the biggest challenge with this work was the amount of robustness checking that needed to be done. To have such a striking result, all of our coauthors had to be confident that what we were seeing stood up to various tests,” Boulton said.

These concerning developments suggest to the study’s authors that the Amazon may be approaching a critical threshold. Once crossed, key regions of the Amazon may irremediably transition into a new state, from luxurious rainforests to savannas.

The loss of resilience is most prominent in areas that are closer to human activity, as well as in regions that receive less rainfall. That was to be expected. But what was particularly surprising was finding loss of resilience did not necessarily overlap with loss in forest cover. That’s worrisome because it suggests ecosystems that look to be doing well from up above may be actually more vulnerable to changing their mean state than previously thought.

“On the surface, the Amazon may appear comfortable (by looking at the state of the forest), but you need indicators like the ones we use to really see its health. There is a section in the new IPCC report regarding the ‘committed response’ of the Amazon; that in the future, the Amazon may appear stable but the climate it is experiencing may not be good enough for it to survive. Because the forest overall responds slowly to change, it may have passed a tipping point without being realized from the outside,” Boulton said.

The study did not attempt to offer a timeline for this possible transformation of the rainforests. When such a threshold could be reached if things continue business as usual is a big enigma at this stage. But these alarming findings suggest that, if ecosystem resilience is any indication, the Amazon basin is heading towards this critical point of no return. Furthermore, the level of uncertainty is compounded by the many dependencies that characterize such a complex ecosystem like the Amazon.

“Losing part of the forest will also affect rainfall in other areas, which could create losses of resilience in areas where we do not see it at the moment. As for when, I think this is tough to answer, I am surprised to see these signals now over such a large area, and if others are too then it could give people a wake-up call to do something about it,” Boulton said.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpK7eeYRhjQ&ab_channel=IntergovernmentalPanelonClimateChange%28IPCC%29

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.

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.

Hybrid battery feeds cyanobacteria with electricity to supercharge photosynthesis

Schematic of the microbial electro-photosynthetic system (MEPS). It uses a genetically engineered microbe that lacks Photosystem II and can therefore accommodate significantly high light intensities and continue photosynthetic activity without damage.

The world’s renewable energy capacity has increased tremendously in recent years and continues to do so at an encouraging rate. That’s good news for mankind’s mission to avert potentially catastrophic climate change, the biggest challenge of this century. The problem is that the rate of adoption of renewable energy is still not on the right track, partly because our insatiable demand for energy is also growing at a rapid pace. Playing this game of catch up requires us to put on our thinking hats and throw new clean technologies into the energy mix. And when faced with such challenges, it can be a good idea to turn to nature for inspiration.

With this in mind, researchers at Arizona State University have tapped into the natural processes that have allowed plants and many animals to draw their energy from the sun for more than a billion years. The team, led by graduate student Christine Lewis, devised a hybrid device — part battery, part living organism — that is capable of increasing energy flow from photosynthesis produced by bacteria. The researchers call this approach microbial electro photosynthesis or MEPS.

The proof-of-concept could eventually lead to new technologies fitting for a broad range of energy applications, such as transportation fuels, plastics, human and animal supplements, agrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

“This project involves unlocking the mysteries involved with energy transfer. Specifically, we work on bridging artificial energy with natural photosynthesis by tapping into the latter half of the photosynthetic electron transport chain,” Lewis said in a statement. “The research objectives are to have the ability to turn photosynthesis on at will, eventually to make it more efficient, and produce stable energy products.”

Tweaking nature

The evolution of photosynthesis on a large scale is one of the most significant events that shaped life on Earth. Not only did this process feed bacteria and plants that would then support entire ecosystems, but it also led to a massive increase in atmospheric oxygen levels, basically making our planet livable in the first place; oxygen that we and other complex life still breathe to this day.

Stripped to its bare bones, photosynthesis simply turns water, sunlight, and CO2 into energy that supports plant and bacterial growth. This natural process is possible thanks to two membrane-protein complexes called Photosystem I and Photosystem II, which work together to absorb and transfer electrons. The former’s main function is the production of a molecule called NADPH, while the latter is busy hydrolysis of water along with ATP synthesis (the energy currency of living cells made from glucose).

Scientists have tried to mimic these processes, developing so-called “artificial leaf” technologies that use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into high-value compounds such as ethylene, methanol, and ethanol. But there are some problems.

While photosynthesis is very efficient at splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen — Photosystem II proteins in plants do this a thousand times a second, for instance — the rate at which light is converted into useful chemical energy is not suitable for the high-paced energy needs that our civilization requires.

One of the reasons why this is the case has to do with Photosystem II, which is disabled or outright destroyed when a photosynthetic organism is exposed to too many electrons at one time, such as when a plant is exposed to high-intensity sunlight.

Lewis and colleagues got around this problem by genetically modifying cyanobacteria that carry out photosynthetic cycling of electrons without a Photosystem II component. The bacteria is connected to the cathode of a battery, from which electrons are shuttled into the electron transport chain of the bacteria, with the help of some chemical mediators along the way.

As a result, the bacteria carry out photosynthesis, using the Photosystem I pathway, using an external power supply rather than energy from the sun. But the hybrid energy system also works with high-intensity light that would have been otherwise damaging.

The researchers envision a setup in which solar panels provide external power to photosynthetic reactors. Photovoltaic cells can harvest a much broader energy spectrum of light than bacteria or plants can, which are typically limited to red visible light. With the extra electrons, the modified bacteria can then perform their photosynthetic wonders on a much broader spectrum of light. In the future, this kind of hybrid photosynthesis could join established renewable sources, like solar and wind, to supplement our growing energy needs and replace dirty fossil fuels.

“By the year 2050, with global expansion moving at the pace that it is, our energy needs will surpass our supply. However, we can act now to learn how to provide efficient and cleaner energy,” Lewis says. “It is my goal to contribute to the next “breakthrough” that will help to make this big, blue marble a better place.”  

The findings were reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Emissions drop during pandemic contributed to record rainfall in China

In China, the COVID-19 social and economic shutdown coincided with record rainfall in eastern provinces in 2020 — and it’s no coincidence. This record rainfall quickly turned into flooding, leaving behind hundreds of deaths and millions evacuated. In a new study, researchers found that the extreme rainfall could have been caused by the drop in emissions registered in the country.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

After rising swiftly for decades, global greenhouse gas emissions (GEI) dropped 6.4% in 2020, as the pandemic limited economic and social activities worldwide. The US contributed to most of the decline, while China saw a minor decrease (1.4%) because its economy recovered quickly after the outbreaks in early 2020, according to a 2021 study.

The emissions drop was linked with persistent extreme precipitation in the early and middle summer of 2020 in eastern China, a densely populated and urbanized region. The accumulated rainfall was so big that it broke its 60-year-record since 1961. Rain in the Yangtze River Delta, for example, exceeded the 41-year average by 79%.

Studies have looked at what could have caused this significant change in rainfall, with some suggesting it had something to do with the extreme weather conditions in the Indian Ocean. But a group of researchers wasn’t entirely convinced with this, suggesting that the abrupt drop in emissions was a key factor of the steep rain.

“Aerosols can affect clouds, precipitation, hydrological cycle and atmospheric circulation through microphysical as well as dynamical processes,” the researchers wrote. “In the last four decades, summer precipitation over eastern-central China has decreased significantly, which has been reported to be closely related to the increase in aerosols.”

Rain and greenhouse gas emissions

For the study, the researchers used the Energy Exascale Earth System Model, an ongoing, state-of-the-science Earth system modeling, simulation, and prediction project. It simulates most of the anthropogenic aerosol species, including sulfate, black carbon, and primary organic matter along with sea salt aerosols and natural dust.

Aerosols, usually linked with the burning of fossil fuels, can reduce the frequency of large-scale storms, leading to fewer rains. This new study suggests that the absence of these particles and lower greenhouse gas emissions caused the opposite effect, a big increase in rain. But the events that link the pandemic with the flood are more complex, the researchers said.

Lead author Yang Yang from Nanjing University told BBC that the aerosol reduction caused heating over land, while the decline in emissions caused cooling over the ocean. This intensified the temperature difference between land and sea while increasing sea level pressure and intensifying the winds bringing moist air to eastern China, which saw the intense rain.

Looking ahead, the researchers said the sudden change of the climate system driven by the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 would be very different from the changes triggered by the continuous but gradual emissions reduction to tackle global warming. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry. If the world can’t reduce emissions faster, this could trigger more extreme weather events.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Climate change is making spring come earlier and earlier in the Northern Hemisphere

The declining number of rainy days in the Northern Hemisphere is making spring arrive earlier and earlier for plants in this half of the globe, new research reports.

Image credits Vinzenz Lorenz.

We have known that warmer average temperatures, a product of climate change, have been causing plants to sprout leaves earlier every year. A new study comes to add details to this picture, reporting that changes in precipitation patterns are also impacting this process.

According to the findings, the decrease in the number of rainy days every year has the second-greatest effect on plants, having quickened the emergence of leaves over the last few decades.

Springing early

“Scientists have looked mainly at how temperature affects when leaves first appear and, if they considered precipitation at all, it was just the total amount,” said Desheng Liu, co-author of the study and professor of geography at The Ohio State University. “But it isn’t the total amount of precipitation that matters the most — it is how often it rains.”

For the study, the team calculated that the decline in the frequency of rainfall in the Northern Hemisphere will cause spring (as defined by plants producing fresh leaves) to arrive sooner. The findings are based on datasets from the United States, Europe, and China, taken in points north of 30 degrees latitude (the northern third of the world). This data included the date each year when observers first note the presence of leaves on wild plants. The team also used satellite images from 1982 to 2018, which recorded when vegetation started to green.

Onset of leafing was then compared to data reporting on the frequency of rainy days each month at the investigated sites.

Overall, the team explains, the (steady) decline in rainy days over the years was associated with earlier onset of leafing in most areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The only exception were grasslands in predominantly semi-arid regions, where a decrease in precipitation (fewer rainy days) slightly delayed spring.

The results were used to create a model that estimates how much sooner spring would arrive in different areas of the Northern Hemisphere through to 2100. Current estimates place this figure at 10 days earlier than the calendaristic onset of spring by 2100. The team calculates that it will arrive one to two days earlier, on average, every decade through to 2100.

As to the link between rainfall and leafing, the team offers two main reasons. The first is that fewer rainy days means fewer overcast days in late winter and early summer. Due to this, plants receive more sunlight during this time, which stimulates the emergence and growth of leaves.

Secondly, more sunlight also means higher average air and soil temperatures during the day. At night, without clouds to reflect heat back down, temperatures will drop more rapidly.

“This contrasting effect earlier in the year makes the plants think it is spring and start leaf onset earlier and earlier,” said study co-author Jian Wang, a doctoral student in geography at Ohio State.

“We need to plan for a future where spring arrives earlier than we expected. Our model gives us information to prepare”.

The paper “Decreasing rainfall frequency contributes to earlier leaf onset in northern ecosystems” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Energy giants claim to focus on clean energy. This study says they’re lying

The climate discourse and pledges by the energy giants BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell are high and mighty — but their actions don’t back it up. Researchers reviewed 12-years’ worth of data and found none of the companies is on the way to a clean energy transition, with a long way to go to reduce their emissions and a big gap between what the companies are saying and what they’re actually doing.

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic.

Fossil fuel companies have played a big role in driving the climate crisis. Twenty companies are responsible for 35% of all energy-related emissions worldwide since 1965. The leading emitter is Chevron, followed by Exxon, BP, and Shell, accounting for over 10% of global carbon emissions since 1965, according to a previous study. You could make a very solid argument that big oil companies have a responsibility to reduce their climate impact.

As the world moves away from fossil fuels to reduce emissions, oil companies are under even more pressure, as they have to deal with the possibility of a decreased demand for hydrocarbons and reduced profits. Developments such as the electrification of road transport and climate policies targeting fossil fuel extraction and use suggest a transition to clean energy sources.

But the dance that fossil fuel giants do is one step forward and one step back. Some have begun investing in renewables and low-carbon technology and many have announced various targets to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. However, the historical behavior of these companies suggests that the authenticity of these claims has to be examined, researchers argue.

Mei Li of Tohoku University, Japan, and colleagues focused on two leading fossil fuel companies from the US (Chevron and ExxonMobil) and two from Europe (BP and Shell). They reviewed their business strategies and investments, financial data, and keywords related to the transition in annual reports spanning the years 2009 to 2020 to see how their actions compare to their public announcements.

A news article in 2019 showed suspicion to the clean energy and transition claims of the oil majors. We decided to follow this up with a comprehensive and objective study that compared transition progress of the four largest investor owned oil majors, and compare their words to their actions and investments,” the researchers told ZME Science.

A slow energy transition

The study showed that companies’ annual reports used an increasing number of keywords related to the climate crisis, such as “low-carbon” and “transition”, especially for BP and Shell. There was also a big contrast with their US counterparts in the business strategy, with BP and Shell largely acknowledging the climate science, while Exxon and Chevron went to great lengths to deny it as much as possible.

Chevron and ExxonMobil continuously exhibited defensive attitudes to renewables investment and the need to shift from fossil fuels, explicitly stating ambitions to grow rather than reduce hydrocarbon production. Leaving aside these differences, none of the four companies formulated strategies to translate pledges into concrete actions.

This especially concerns intentions to curb the production of fossil fuels as well as reduce exploration and new developments. None of the companies are transitioning its core business model away from fossil fuels, the researchers argued, identifying no trend toward lower fossil fuel production and higher investment in renewables.

“Claims about efforts to transition to clean energy are not supported by actions and investments,” the researchers told ZME. “Until there is a larger and sustained increase of concrete actions to transform business strategies and invest in carbon-free or renewable energy, accusations of greenwashing appear to be well substantiated.”

The researchers suggested a set of improvements the companies could make to match their words with action, such as: communicating an awareness that mitigating climate change requires cutting down fossil fuel production, publishing a roadmap of how fossil fuel investment will be downscaled, and releasing data on clean energy spending in a consistent way.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lichens are having a hard time catching up to climate change

Lichens are some of the most inconspicuously amazing organisms out there. They’re essentially composite, symbiotic organisms made from a fungus and algae or cyanobacterium living among the filaments of fungi. Lichens can grow almost everywhere, from the Arctic tundra to the bark of a tree in your backyard. However, this apparent resilience is being challenged by the climate crisis, with a study showing they have a very tough time adapting to rising temperatures.

Image credit: The researchers

Matthew Nelsen from the Field Museum in Chicago and his colleagues investigated how the climate preferences of lichen change over time and how this relates to the climate crisis. As it turns out, they shift temperature preferences by less than 1ºC every million years. This is lower than the global warming of up to 3ºC predicted.

“Our initial motivation was to better understand how this important group of algae had diversified to collectively occupy an extremely wide range of climates across the globe,” Nelsen told ZME Science. “It was an exciting opportunity for us to use the past to make predictions about how these algae may be affected by modern climate change.”

Exploring lichens

Nelsen and colleagues focused on a single genus of algae, Trebouxia, which is found in about 7000 species of lichen. When algae take residence inside a lichen, they live with the fungus as one — each providing something that benefits the whole. The algae provide food through photosynthesis, while the fungus provides the physical structure.

The team gathered plenty of data on where Trebouxia occurs across the world, observing the climate conditions of each location. They also worked with a database of Trebouxia genes to create a family tree for the algae. All this information was then used to estimate how fast Trebouxia has adapted to a changing climate in the past.

They found that the change in the climate preferences of the algae happens very slowly over the course of millions of years. This means that Trebouxia is likely to be impacted by the fast climate change that the planet is currently going through. If they can’t adapt fast enough, they might have to modify at least part of their current range.

The researchers believe that lichens that rely on Trebouxia will likely disappear from many of the places they are found today. Some might migrate to other places with more tolerable climate conditions, but environmental degradation caused by humans also means that there are limits to the area where the lichens could spread into.

Fewer lichens would have deep consequences on ecosystems, as they are the dominant vegetation on 7% of the Earth’s surface, Nelsen said. They are important for ecosystem hydrology as well as for carbon and nitrogen cycling. But there’s no need to despair. We can still reduce our emissions and do further research on lichens, he said.

“One question that has repeatedly come up is whether the fungal partners exhibit a similarly low historic rate of change.  This would be especially interesting to pursue,” Nelsen said. “It would also be wonderful to have experimental data demonstrating the thermal limits and optima of these algae to gain a better understanding of them.”

The study was published in the journal Frontiers.

Finally, some good news: We can still meet the goals of the Paris Agreement

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the effects of the climate crisis, especially when governments are companies aren’t doing nearly enough to tackle the problem. But there’s no need to despair yet. According to a new study, it’s still possible to avoid the most apocalyptic scenarios if the world continues to lower its emissions. However, there is no time to waste.

Image credit: Flickr / IMF.

Back in 2015, virtually every country adopted the Paris Agreement on climate change, the first-ever universal climate deal. Countries all agreed to play their individual part to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels — and aiming for 1.5º as a bonus.

It’s not an easy task. For this to happen, it would mean will have to peak soon, and the global economy would need to be changed quickly. Unexplored fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground, renewable energy will have to become the norm, our dietary habits will have to change, it’s a big task. But it’s possible.

Because countries have different geographies and economies, they have different roles to play in this challenge. Per the Paris Agreement, countries and companies have submitted individual action plans to tackle their greenhouse gas emissions — countries with big fossil fuel industries have to scale said industries down, while countries with rich forests, for instance, have to protect those forests. The goal is to have every country work on whatever would be most efficient for their own context.

The problem is that the agreement gives flexibility on how the plans are done, each one submitting what they feel is fair. This has led to slow progress of climate action. Emissions are still on the rise on a global level.

Cautiously good news

In a new study, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder dismissed the possibility of the global average temperature reaching 4ºC to 5ºC by the end of the century, as previously suggested by previous studies. Instead, updated climate scenarios project between 2ºC and 3ºC of warming by 2100, they argued.

“This is cautiously optimistic good news with respect to where the world is today, compared to where we thought we might be,” lead author Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a press statement. “The two-degree target from Paris remains within reach.”

The main tool for climate researchers to explore and plan for possible futures are scenarios – forecasts on how the future might evolved based on a set of factors such as climate policies and greenhouse gas emissions levels. The most used scenarios were developed by the IPCC, a leading group of climate researchers from around the world.

For the study, the researchers looked at over 1,300 climate scenarios and compared them to the projected 2005-2050 emissions from the fossil fuel sector, as well as with projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA) to 2050. Between 100 and 500 scenarios matched with the compared data, suggesting global warming of 2ºC to 3ºC.

The researchers argued that worst-case case climate scenarios are much less plausible as they were developed more than a decade ago. Plus, a lot has happened since then that wasn’t expected. Renewable energy is now much cheaper than before, for example, leading to more countries expanding their use and reducing their emissions.

These changes are captured in the projections by the IEA, which provides updates every year, but not by the outdated climate scenarios, which continued to be used heavily by scientists. The commonly used worst-case scenario, known as RCP8.5, projects an increase of 4ºC to 5ºC by 2100, which researchers are now dismissing.

“There’s a need for these scenarios to be updated more frequently. Researchers may be using a 2005 scenario, but we need a 2022 perspective,” said Pielke Jr. “You’re going to have better policies if you have a more accurate understanding of the problem, whatever the political implications are for one side or the other.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Compound droughts risk destabilizing the global food supply if we keep burning fossil fuels

Climate change could severely impact our food and water security in the future by increasing the probability of droughts co-occurring in food-producing areas around the world, a new study says.

Image via Pixabay.

Research led by scientists at the Washington State University (WSU) warns that the future may hold less bountiful tables, and fewer meals, for us all. According to the findings, the probability of droughts co-occurring will increase by 40% by the mid 21st century, and by 60% by the end of the century, relative to the late 20th century (before the year 2000). All in all, this amounts to an almost-ninefold increase in the exposure of agricultural lands and human populations to severe, co-occurring droughts relative to today.

While modern technology and distribution systems insulate us from the effects of drought to a much larger extent than any time previously in history, co-occurring (or ‘compound’) droughts, if they affect key food-producing areas, can severely impact the global food and water availability. If such an event were to come to pass, millions of people would encounter some difficulty in accessing food in the same quantities and varieties as before.

Table troubles

“There could be around 120 million people across the globe simultaneously exposed to severe compound droughts each year by the end of the century,” said lead author Jitendra Singh, a former postdoctoral researcher at the WSU School of the Environment now at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. “Many of the regions our analysis shows will be most affected are already vulnerable and so the potential for droughts to become disasters is high.”

This increased risk of compound droughts is mainly the result of climate change, which itself is the product of greenhouse gas emissions associated with decades of reliance on fossil fuels. The other element factoring in is a projected 22% increase in the frequency of El Niño and La Niña events — the two opposite phases of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) — caused by warmer average temperatures.

Roughly 75% of compound droughts in the future will occur during these irregular but recurring periods of variation in the world’s oceans, the team explains. The shifting phases of the ENSO have historically played a part in some of the greatest periods of environmental upheaval globally, as they influence precipitation patterns across a huge stretch of the planet. Compound droughts occurring across Asia, Brazil, and Africa during 1876-1878 were generated by these shifts. They led to massive crop failures and famines which killed in excess of 50 million people.

“While technology and other circumstances today are a lot different than they were in the late 19th century, crop failures in multiple breadbasket regions still have the potential to affect global food availability,” said study coauthor Deepti Singh, an assistant professor in the WSU School of the Environment. “This could in turn increase volatility in global food prices, affecting food access and exacerbating food insecurity, particularly in regions that are already vulnerable to environmental shocks such as droughts.”

The team focused their analysis on the ten areas of the world that receive most of their rainfall between June and September, have monthly summer precipitation showing great variability, and fall under the influence of ENSO variations — factors that leave them exposed to co-occurring droughts. Several of these are important agricultural areas on a global level, they add, and they also include countries that are already experiencing food and water insecurity.

Of the investigated areas, North and South America were among the most likely to experience compound droughts in the future. Certain regions of Asia are also at risk, however, large stretches of agricultural land here are projected to become wetter instead of drier, heavily mitigating the risk of crop failure and subsequent famine.

Still, that leaves us in quite a dire situation. The United States today is a major exporter of grains, including maize, for multiple countries around the world. In the event of a severe drought, reduced production here would impact food security around the world, with increases in the price of grains and a significant decrease in food security — grains are staple foods and lack of such foods heavily impacts the most vulnerable groups throughout communities.

“The potential for a food security crisis increases even if these droughts aren’t affecting major food producing regions but rather many regions that are already vulnerable to food insecurity,” said coauthor Weston Anderson, an assistant research scientist at the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland.

“Simultaneous droughts in food insecure regions could in turn amplify stresses on international agencies responsible for disaster relief by requiring the provision of humanitarian aid to a greater number of people simultaneously.”

Still, for what it’s worth, these estimates are assuming that the world maintains a high rate of fossil fuel usage. If carbon emissions continue to fall, the risk and intensity of co-occurring droughts would be greatly mitigated, the team explains. Knowing that nearly 75% of compound droughts occur alongside ENSO events also gives us the chance to predict where such droughts may occur and prepare for them in advance.

“This means that co-occurring droughts during ENSO events will likely affect the same geographical regions they do today albeit with greater severity,” said Deepti Singh. “Being able to predict where these droughts will occur and their potential impacts can help society develop plans and efforts to minimize economic losses and reduce human suffering from such climate-driven disasters.”

The paper “Enhanced risk of concurrent regional droughts with increased ENSO variability and warming” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

World’s glaciers hold less ice than previously thought

Scientists have measured the thickness and movement of over 250,000 mountain glaciers using a set of new techniques. The study revised previous estimates of glacial ice volume, finding that there’s 20% less ice available in the world’s glaciers.

Darker colors overlayed on Peru’s Cordillera Blanca range, signify faster glacial speed. Image credit: The researchers.

Almost two billion people rely on glaciers and snowpack as their main source of drinking water, according to previous estimates. But as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift because of climate change, these glaciers are thinning and retreating. When snowpacks shrink, so does the amount of water stored in these water towers.

This raises concerns for communities that rely on seasonal melt from glaciers to feed local rivers, from which they obtain water for drinking, power generation, and agriculture. If glaciers have less ice, as the study showed, water will run out in many parts of the world sooner than expected, bringing a set of problems for communities.

“These communities need to know how long their glaciers will continue to provide water and what to expect as the glaciers disappear so they can prepare.” Mathieu Morlighem, one of the authors of the study, wrote in a blog post. “In most places, we found significantly lower total ice volumes than previous estimates indicated.”

Researching glaciers

Using satellite imagery, the researchers created the world’s first atlas to measure the thickness and movement of glaciers. Glacier ice acts like thick syrup when it’s thick enough, Morlighem explained. This allows to measure how to face the ice is moving using satellite images and map its speed, ranging from a few feet to about one mile per year.

The researchers used over one million hours of computing time to analyze almost 812,000 pairs of high-resolution satellite photos. They covered 98% of the areas of the planet that were covered in glaciers from 2017 and 2018. That includes glaciers that haven’t been mapped before in areas of South America, Europe, and New Zealand. 

The study found more ice in some regions and less in others, with the overall result being that there’s less ice worldwide than previously thought. In the tropical Andes mountains of South America, ranging from Venezuela to Chile, there’s 23% less ice than previously estimated, which means those living downstream will have less time to adjust to climate change.

On the contrary, the Himalayan mountains in Asia were found to have one-third more ice than previous estimates. This gives communities that rely on those glaciers more time to cope with climate change but doesn’t change the fact that glaciers are melting because of temperature rise. Almost everywhere else the ice is thinner, the study showed.

“Policymakers should look at these new estimates to revise their plans. We do not provide new predictions of the future in this study, but we do provide a better description of what the glaciers and their water supplies look like today,” Morlihem wrote. “We have made a lot of progress in reducing the overall uncertainty.

The study was published in the journal Nature. 

Sea sponges survive in the Arctic by feasting on extinct creatures

The bottom of the Arctic Ocean is not the easiest of places to live in. Nutrients and vegetation are very scarce, it’s cold, it’s dark, the elements are pretty much against you. That’s why researchers were very surprised to find a dense population of sponges alive and kicking in the volcanic seamounts of the ocean. As it turns out, they were feeding off fossilized remains of extinct animals and fauna.

Image credit: The researchers.

Researchers from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute were around 200 miles from the North Pole on board their research vessel when a submarine camera they were towing caught sight of fuzzy sponges on top of the extinct volcanoes. They just couldn’t believe it. Some of the sponges even stretched over three feet (one meter) across — very big for sponge standards. 

Sponges don’t have a digestive tract, so they rely on passive filter feeding to collect nutrients from water passing through them. Ocean currents in the Arctic Ocean are slow, with not many particles swirling in the water. This made the sighting even more unusual, especially considering tests showed the average sponge was 300 years old. How were they surviving there, for centuries, in what was basically an ocean wasteland?

Studying the sponges

The researchers collected samples of the organisms and the sediment around them and sent the samples to the lab for examination. The analysis showed the seafloor wasn’t as desolate as thought. In fact, the sediment samples were full of fossils. 

The fossils were the empty shells of large deep-sea worms. While they don’t live there anymore, the researchers weren’t surprised to find the shells. Many years ago, gases leaked from the vents of the submerged volcanoes, creating a perfect habitat for the worms. That dynamic ecosystem from a long time ago is still influencing the area. 

The samples collected suggest the sponges are packed with microbial bacteria, with which they form a symbiotic relationship. The bacteria break down the ancient leftovers that then the sponges use to obtain nutrients from. The researchers spotted different sizes of sponges, with the average measuring 30 centimeters or 12 inches.

“This allows them to feed on the remnants of former, now extinct inhabitants of the seamounts, such as the tubes of worms composed of protein and chitin and other trapped detritus,” said first study author Teresa Morganti, a sponge expert from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, in a statement.

The researchers believe that there could be more sponge grounds similar to this one along the volcanic ridge of the Arctic Ocean. This would be good news for many other creatures that live there because sponges are natural ecosystem engineers. As they grow, they create places for other animals to live in, depositing a sticky surface for bacteria to settle on. 

A better understanding these ecosystems is essential to protect and manage the diversity of the Arctic Sea, which is currently under serious pressure, the researchers stress. With the sea ice retreating at record rates, the researchers want that the web of life in the Arctic Sea is under pressure. Both the sea ice and its thickness have shown a big decline, affecting the oceanic environment. 

Last year, another group of researchers found sponges below the Antarctic ice shelves while drilling in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf neat the southeastern Weddell Sea. It was an accidental discovery that left the researchers perplexed, calling for further studies (like this one) to better understand what’s actually going on below the Arctic Sea. 

The study was published in the journal Nature

Climate change is making Europeans vote for Green parties — in some places more than others

Experience of extreme climate events in Europe (especially warmer temperatures) makes people more concerned about the environment. This is making people more likely to take political action — most notably, voting for Green parties, a new study suggests. For the researchers, this could help better understand the drivers of public support for climate action in the region and elsewhere.

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic.

In the past years, Europe has seen its warmest years on record, leading to an increase in climate-related risks. In the summer of 2021, for example, the number of wildfires doubled that of the annual average in the past decade, with several western European countries like Germany experiencing their most devastating floods in decades. 

The EU has committed to cut at least 55% of its greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2030. This requires big changes in production and consumption involving all sectors, and in order to achieve this transition, public support is crucial. While in 2002 just 5% of Europeans said the environment should be a priority, this proportion tripled in 2019, especially in Nordic countries. 

This was reflected in the last European Parliamentary elections in 2019 when there was a big rise in vote share of the Green parties. Between 2004 and 2019, the percentage of seats held by Green parties in the Parliament increased by 74% from 5.7% to 9.9%. In several European countries, environmental parties have become a significant force. Observing this trend, a group of European researchers wanted to further explore it, identifying its main drivers.

Roman Hoffmann, Jonas Peisker, Raya Muttarak, and colleagues investigated the effect of more frequent and intense experiences with climate extremes on environmental concerns. Basically, they analyzed to what extent changes in concerns translate into actual political support for Green parties. They used EU surveys and Parliament election data to test their theory. 

“With the issue of climate change becoming more concrete and salient, people’s willingness to engage in and to support climate action increases, including at the political level in the form of voting for pro-environmental parties. These changes can contribute to shifts in the political landscape at a larger scale,” the researchers wrote. 

The researchers found that exposure to temperature variations, heat waves and drought events can increase environmental concerns as well as the vote share of Green parties. For example, if every month in a year had an additional unusually warm day, green concerns and voting would increase by 0.8%, respectively, according to their findings.

However, there were major regional variations. Extreme weather had a stronger effect on environmental concerns and voting in regions with a temperate and colder climate compared to Mediterranean regions with a warm, arid climate. This could be because the Mediterranean climate is already hot and dry, hence temperature increase may have a reduced effect. 

The researchers also found that the effects of experiencing climate extremes on environmental concerns and voting are less pronounced in regions with lower income levels. In other words, when the economy is bad, people will not prioritize environmental issues over other problems, Hoffmann and Muttarak told ZME Science. 

“Obviously, exposure to climate change impacts is not the ideal way to promote public concern and action. Climate communication and education can help fill the experience gap. Studies have shown that carefully designed messages can reduce the psychological distance and promote mitigation behaviours,” the researchers wrote. “Beyond personal experiences, peer groups and (social) media play an important role”

Asked about trends in other parts of the world, not covered by the study, the researchers said that the US case might be different because of their long history of political divide. The political system is also an important difference, with the US being essentially a two-party country, while in Europe, there is generally a political pluralism with more parties involved.

Other parts of the world might have a similar trend to the EU in climate change concerns, but may not have any Green parties to focus their votes on.

The study was published in the journal Nature. 

World’s largest companies are greatly exaggerating their climate progress

It’s not only up to governments to tackle the climate crisis, companies also have their fair share of responsibility, especially the big ones — especially as many of them are directly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is many of these companies are failing to live up to their climate pledges. Researchers found that they will cut their greenhouse gas emissions by only 40% instead of the 100% cuts claimed.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The New Climate Institute, an independent European organization focused on climate change action, published a report that looks into the efforts of 25 high-profile organizations, from Amazon to Ikea, that have pledged to cut their emissions to net-zero. They found that, on average, the plans have little substance and coherence. 

Researchers were especially concerned for the short-term, as they found companies would only reduce their emissions by about 23% on average by 2030. While significant, this is not nearly enough — climate scientists have highlighted the need to cut emissions by at least 50% in the next decade so to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and big companies are not on the right path. 

“As pressure on companies to act on climate change rises, their ambitious-sounding headline claims all too often lack real substance, which can mislead both consumers and the regulators that are core to guiding their strategic direction. Even companies that are doing relatively well exaggerate their ambitions,” Thomas Day, lead author, said in a statement.

Climate pledges

The report scored companies on a set of criteria, including their targets, how much carbon offsetting they plan to use (paying for projects that reduce emissions to compensate for greenhouse gases emitted elsewhere), progress on their own emissions reduction, and the level of transparency in setting their targets and reporting on them.

To their surprise, none of the 25 companies reviewed achieved a high standard according to the criteria. Amazon, Ikea and Google showed a “low integrity,” while 11 had a “very low integrity,” including Nestlé, Accenture, Carrefour, Unilever and JBS. The best one ranked, with “reasonable integrity,” was the container shipping line and vessel operator Maersk. 

Carrefour, for example, committed to be carbon neutral by 2040 but the claim only covers less than 2% of its emissions and to less than 20% of their stores worldwide. Google has shown leadership in some aspects, but their statement of being carbon neutral since 2007 is a misrepresentation and actually excludes over half of its emissions, the researchers explained.

The companies analyzed account for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which means that while they have a big share of responsibility they also have a big potential to lead in the efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Today they are failing to do so, the researchers said, asking government to step in and regulate corporate claims on climate action.

Replying to the criticism from the report, Nestlé said in a statement that the report “lacks understanding” of the companies’ climate approach and has “significant inaccuracies.” Meanwhile, Amazon reaffirmed its target to be net-zero carbon by 2040 and said to be on track to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025. However, companies failed to specifically address the concerns raised by the researchers.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Satellite images detect massive gas leaks around the world

Researchers have used satellite data to map massive leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane, discovering that about a tenth of the emissions come from a group of ultra-emitter sites located in the US, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change and that governments have agreed to significantly reduce by 2030 at the recent climate summit. Tackling these ultra-emitters could be a good start.

Image credit: Flickr / Ken Lund.

Methane leaks had been detected previously by satellites on an individual level, but not much was known about their extent globally. Now, a group of researchers have run through an algorithm a set of images captured by an instrument on a satellite, automatically detecting the largest methane leaks from oil and gas facilities globally. 

The European Space Agency launched three years ago the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI), which can measure methane every day in any 12-square-mile block. Using the instrument, the researchers counted over 1,800 large methane leaks globally during 2019 and 2020, usually releasing several tons of methane every hour. 

“To our knowledge, this is the first worldwide study to estimate the amount of methane released into the atmosphere by maintenance operations and accidental releases,” Thomas Lauvaux, lead researcher, said in a statement. “Ultra-emitters explain in part the under-estimation in oil and gas reported emissions by countries.”

Lavaux and the team of researchers focused on the six top oil and gas producing countries, where methane leaks are frequent. The found that in total, these underreported releases contribute to about 10% of all methane emissions from these country’s fossil fuel operations. It’s a very large amount for a limited number of methane leak events. 

Methane emitters across the world. Image credits: Thomas Lavaux.

Turkmenistan was the leading ultra-emitter, releasing over a million tons of methane in 2019 and 2020. Russia came second, just under a million tons, followed by the US, Iran, Algeria and Kazakhstan. The researchers believe that the US count is lower because the Permian basin, a big oil and gas region, was excluding because of monitoring difficulties.

Based on their findings, the researchers went and asked gas companies about this, trying to get to the source of the leaks. While some were accidents, others were deliberate, as gas companies vent gas from pipelines before doing repairs. This could be avoided, the team explained, as there’s equipment that allows gas to be removed and captured before repairs. 

Tackling methane emissions

For decades, the main focus to tackle climate change has been emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by human activities. CO2 is the main driver of global warming, so this is reasonable. But there are other greenhouse gases out there that we should be concerned about, including methane, which is 80 times more potent than CO2 but far more short-lived. 

The study highlighted the high-methane areas. Image credits: Thomas Lavaux.

Methane is the main component of natural gas and is also part of many ecosystems. It can be released into the atmosphere in many ways, such as rotting vegetation and cows’ digestion — fossil fuel is also one of the main sources of methane emissions. While it’s not a new problem, what has changed in recent years is the amount of methane being released – described recently by climate experts as insanely high. 

Lavaux and the team of researchers argued that the ultra-emitting countries are releasing so much methane that it could be sold, making it a cost-effective solution. For the worst six countries, tackling the leaks would cost up to $300 less per ton than it would cost to reduce methane from fossil fuels in those countries. Russia would save six billion, for example.

In terms of environmental savings, the researchers estimate that putting an end to the methane leaks would prevent between 0.005 degrees Celsius and 0.002 degrees Celsius of warming. It may not sound like a lot, but it actually is. That is the equivalent of removing all the emissions from Australia since 2005 or the emissions from 20 million cars.

The study was published in the journal Science. 

Climate change is making UK plants flower a month earlier

Spring came early in parts of the UK this year, and while many are rejoicing, this isn’t necessarily good news. With the warm weather coming in, flowers are blooming earlier on shrubs and trees, a trend that researchers say has been happening since the 1980s. This is affecting the insects, birds, and every creature that relies on these flowers.

Image credit: Flickr / Martin LaBar.

During winter, many plants protect themselves from the frost by putting themselves in a winter sleep mode. However, if spring starts earlier, the plant takes that as a cue to wake up, and resumes growth and flowering. If a frost happens during this time, the plants could be severely affected or even die. Fruit trees are especially at risk of a late frost.

In normal years (before human-driven climate change), spring would come in later and the risk of a true spring frost would be very low. But with global warming driving not only the average temperatures up, but also causing more extreme weather and fluctuations to happen, the risk has become much greater. This problem doesn’t affect only the plants themselves, but all the other creatures that rely on them as well.

Nectar, seeds, pollen, and fruits of plants are very important food resources for wildlife. So if flowers appear too early and are affected by frost, then birds or insects could run out of food. This is all part of the changes brought by climate change to seasons, causing spring to arrive early and autumn to come late in many parts of the world 

Professor Ulf Buntgen of the University of Cambridge and a group of researchers went through hundreds of thousands of observations of the first flowering dates of plants recorded in a database, Nature’s Calendar, that goes back to the 18th Century. This covered the entire United Kingdom. Then, they compared this with climate records.

“We do not know whether adaptive evolution will allow populations to reach new [optimum flowering timing] rapidly enough to keep pace with climate change,” the team wrote. “The timing of plant flowering can affect their pollination, especially when insect pollinators are themselves seasonal, and determine the timing of seed ripening and dispersal.”

Flowers and climate change

On average, flowers in the UK are blooming about a month earlier than they were in 1986, according to the study. In 2019, the first flowering date was as early as April. This is a general average, and not every plant blooms at the same time. Herbs and trees come first and then shrubs follow, but the entire timeline is now being pushed as temperature rises on a global scale.

Global average temperatures have so far risen 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Within the Paris Agreement framework, countries have pledged to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, ideally aiming at 1.5 — but that seems little more than a pipe dream now. Crossing that threshold would trigger more severe consequences than the ones already visible.

If temperatures continue to rise, as is likely the case, the authors expect a further shift in the first flowering dates, likely starting in March or even earlier. Such a transition would lead to some plants (including crops) flowering too early and suffering damage. So far, herbs have been the ones to change the fastest due to their short generation time, they wrote. 

Like in the UK, other parts of the world have seen early flowering seasons. Japan recorded last year its earlier cherry blossom season in 1,200 years. And in 2019 a heatwave in the United States led to sunflowers blooming earlier than usual. While good to watch, this made it harder for farmers to plant other crops in those areas. 

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

If the atmosphere is chaotic, how can we trust climate models?

Before they can understand how our planet’s climate is changing, scientists first need to understand the basic principles of this complicated system — the gears that keep the Earth’s climate turning. You can make simple models with simple interactions, and this is what happened in the first part of the 20th century. But starting from the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started increasingly incorporating more complex components into their models, using the ever-increasing computing power.

But the more researchers looked at climate (and the atmosphere, in particular), the more they understood that not everything is neat and ordered. Many things are predictable — if you know the state of the system today, you can calculate what it will be like tomorrow with perfect precision. But some components are seemingly chaotic.

Chaos theory studies these well-determined systems and attempts to describe their inner workings and patterns. Chaos theory states that behind the apparent randomness of such systems, there are interconnected mechanisms and self-organization that can be studied. So-called chaotic systems are very sensitive to their initial conditions. In mathematics (and especially in dynamic systems), the initial conditions are the “seed” values that describe a system. Even very small variations in the conditions today can have major consequences in the future.

It’s a lot to get your head around, but if you want to truly study the planet’s climate, this is what you have to get into.

The Butterfly Effect

Edward Lorenz and Ellen Fetter are two of the pioneers of chaos theory. These “heroes of chaos” used a big noisy computer called LGP-30 to develop what we know as chaos theory today.

Lorenz used the computer to run a weather simulation. After a while, he wanted to run the results again, but he just wanted half of the results, so he started the calculations using the results from the previous run as an initial condition. The computer was running everything with six digits, but the results printed were rounded to 3 digits. When the calculations were complete, the result was completely different from the previous one.  

That incident resulted in huge changes for the fields of meteorology, social sciences and even pandemic strategies. A famous phrase often used to describe this type of situation is “the butterfly effect”. You may be familiar with the idea behind it: “The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a Tornado in Texas”. This summarizes the whole idea behind the small change in the initial conditions, and how small shifts in seemingly chaotic systems can lead to big changes. 

Simulation of Lorenz attractor of a chaotic system. Wikimedia Commons.

To get the idea, Lorenz went on to construct a diagram that depicts this chaos. It is called the Lorenz Attractor, and basically, it displays the trajectory of a particle described by a simple set of equations. The particle starts from a point and spirals around a critical point — a chaotic system is not cyclical so it never returns to the original point. After a while, it exceeds some distance and starts spiraling around another critical point, forming the shape of a butterfly. 

Why is it chaotic?

If the atmosphere is chaotic, how can we make predictions about it? First, let’s clarify two things. Predicting the weather is totally different from predicting the climate. Climate is a long period of atmospheric events, on the scale of decades, centuries, or even more. The weather is what we experience within hours, days, or weeks. 

Weather forecasting is based on forecast models which focus on predicting conditions for a few days. To make a forecast for tomorrow, the models need today’s observations as the initial condition. The observations aren’t perfect due to small deviations from reality but have improved substantially due to increases in computation power and satellites.

However, fluctuations contribute to making things harder to predict because of chaos. There is a limit to when the predictions are accurate — typically, no more than a few days. Anything longer than that makes the predictions not trustworthy. 

Thankfully, our knowledge about the atmosphere and technological advances made predictions better compared to 30 years ago. Unfortunately, there are still uncertainties due to the chaotic atmospheric behavior. This is illustrated in the image below, the model’s efficiency is compared between the day’s ranges. The 3-day forecast is always more accurate, compared to predictions from 5 to 10 days. 

The evolution of weather predictability. Credits: Shapiro et al. (AMS).

This image also shows an interesting societal issue. The Northern Hemisphere has always been better at predicting the weather than the South.

This happens because this region contains a larger number of richer countries that developed advanced science and technology earlier than the Global South, and have more monitoring stations in operation. Consequently, they used to have many more resources for observing the weather than poorer countries. Without these observations, you don’t have initial conditions to use for comparison and modeling. This started to change around the late ’90s and early 2000s when space agencies launched weather satellites that observe a larger area of the planet.

Predicting the climate

Predicting the climate is a different challenge, and in some ways, is surprisingly easier than predicting the weather. A longer period of time means more statistical predictability added to the problem. Take a game of chance, for instance. If you throw dice once and try to guess what you’ll get, the odds are stacked against you. But throw a dice a million times, and you have a pretty good idea what you’ll get. Similarly, when it comes to climate, a bunch of events are connected on average to long-term conditions and taken together, may be easier to predict.

In terms of models, there are many different aspects of weather and climate models. Weather models can predict where and when an atmospheric event happens. Climate models don’t focus on where exactly something will happen, but they care how many events happen on average in a specific period.

When it comes to climate, the Lorenz Attractor is the average of the underlying system conditions — the wings of the butterfly as a whole. Scientists use an ensemble of smaller models to ‘fill the butterfly’ with possibilities that on average represent a possible outcome, and figure out how the system as a whole is likely to evolve. That’s why climate models predictions and projections like those from the IPCC are extremely reliable, even when dealing with a complex, seemingly chaotic system.

Comparing models

Today, climate scientists have the computer power to average a bunch of models trying to predict the same climate pattern, further finessing the results. They can also carry out simulations with the same model, changing the initial conditions slightly and averaging the results. This provides a good indicator of what could happen for each outcome. Even further than that, there is a comparative workforce between the scientific community to show that independent models from independent science groups are agreeing about the effects of the climate crisis.

Organized in 1995, the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) is a way of analysing different models. This workforce makes sure scientists are comparing the same scenario but with different details in the calculations. With many results pointing to a similar outcome, the simulations are even more reliable.

Changes in global surface temperature over the past 170 years (black line) relative to 1850–1900 and annually-averaged, compared to CMIP6 climate model simulations of the temperature response to both human and natural drivers (red), and to only natural drivers (solar and volcanic activity, green). Solid coloured lines show the multi-model average, and coloured shades show the range (“very likely”) of simulations. Source: IPCC AR6 WGI>

Ultimately, predicting the climate is not like we are going to predict if it will be rainy on January 27 2122. Climate predictions focus on the average conditions that a particular season of an oscillatory event will be like. Despite the chaotic nature of the atmosphere, thanks to climate’s time length and statistical predictability, long-term climate predictions can be reliably made.