Tag Archives: chang’e

Chang’e-5 samples reveal Moon rocks dating back less than 2 billion years – the youngest we’ve seen

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Lava was still flowing on the surface of the Moon 1.97 billion years ago – and now we have the rocks to prove it. This is the result of new work from an international collaboration of planetary scientists, of which we’re a part, published in the journal Science.

Together with researchers from China, Australia, Sweden and the US, we’ve been studying samples collected from the Moon by the Chinese National Space Agency during the Chang’e-5 mission.

Chang’e-5 was an uncrewed mission including a robotic lander, which landed on the near side of the Moon (the Earth-facing side) in December 2020. The mission returned 1.7 kilograms of lunar rocks to Earth — the first samples collected from the Moon since 1976 with the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission.

A goal of the Chang’e-5 mission was to find evidence of some of the youngest volcanic eruptions on the Moon. Although scientists have previously been able to predict volcanic rocks of this age on the Moon by studying the number of impact craters on the lunar surface, it is impossible to confirm this without having samples to examine.

Analysis of the samples took place using the sensitive high-resolution ion microprobe (Shrimp) instrument, at the Shrimp centre in Beijing, China. First, the material was sorted. Our colleagues in China manually picked out several tiny fragments of basalt (a volcanic rock), roughly 2 millimetres in size, for investigation. This was followed by laboratory analyses, building on techniques developed in the 1970s for the analysis of the first Apollo samples.

This SHRIMP II instrument was used for dating the basalt chips. Beijing SHRIMP Center, Institute of Geology, CAGS, Author provided

The process of determining the age of the rocks was complex, but in essence, we used a focused beam of charged particles to eject material from various mineral phases in the rocks and analysed the ejected material.

Our efforts were rewarded when we were able to determine an eruption age for these lavas of 1.97 billion years, a whole billion years younger than any previously dated basaltic lava from the Moon.

A new scientific mystery

Many volcanic eruptions occurred on the Moon’s surface over its geological history, forming large sheets of basaltic rock, referred to as the lunar mare. These can be seen as dark patches looking up at the Moon.

But most of the volcanic activity occurred between 3 and 4 billion years ago. Planetary scientists have confirmed this by dating basalts from the Apollo and Luna rock collections, as well as meteorites that originated from the Moon. Until now though, younger volcanic rocks predicted by crater counting studies had remained elusive.

Chang’e-5 landed on the moon in December last year, and brought samples back to Earth. CNSA Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, Author provided

In order for volcanic eruptions to occur, heat is required on the inside of a planet to generate the molten material involved in the process. For a planet the size of the Moon, it is thought that this heat would have been lost long before these eruptions 2 billion years ago.

This work has therefore opened up a new scientific mystery of how a small rocky planetary body like the Moon could have retained enough interior heat to continue producing volcanic eruptions 2.5 billion years after it first formed 4.5 billion years ago.

So what’s going on? While scientists have previously suggested that high concentrations of radioactive elements in the lunar interior could have melted rocky material inside the Moon, the compositions of these samples indicate this was not the driving force in this case.

It remains to be seen whether so-called tidal heating could have played a role, where heat was generated in the Moon’s interior by the stretching and squeezing (think of an elastic band warming up through friction as you stretch it) due to gravity between the Moon, Earth and Sun.

Alternatively, it may be that a unique aspect of the Moon’s mantle composition could have resulted in a lower melting temperature, therefore explaining how the molten material was formed. Work is now continuing on the samples to try to shed light on this question.

Analysing samples from the Apollo missions in the early 1970s revolutionised our understanding of how dynamic our Solar System is, and how planets form and evolve. Now, once more, this new study proves the incredible scientific value of returning samples from other planetary bodies to decode their secrets in laboratories on Earth.

Importantly, validating the crater counting approach with lunar samples also has key implications for dating the surfaces of other planets from which we haven’t yet collected samples (such as Mars, Venus and Mercury). It will enhance our understanding of the Solar System more broadly.The Conversation

Joshua Snape, Royal Society University Research Fellow, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester; Katherine Joy, Royal Society University Research Fellow / Reader, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester, and Romain Tartese, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China crashes Chang’e-5 spacecraft into moon after collecting first lunar samples in 45 years

China’s Chang’e 5 moon lander and ascent vehicle separate from the orbiter/return vehicle early on Monday. Credit: CCTV.

On December 1, the Chang’e-5 lander touched down on Oceanus Procellarum, a vast lunar mare on the western edge of the near side of the Moon. After the lander collected about two kilograms of lunar samples, it deployed a small version of China’s five-star red flag and then ejected the samples on an ascended vehicle to lunar orbit. After it completed its mission, Chinese engineers sent instructions that commanded the ascent vehicle to crash into the moon on Monday.

Following the successful docking of the ascent vehicle with the Chang’e-5 lunar orbit on December 5, reports from Chinese media suggested that the ascent vehicle still had a lot of fuel, which qualified it for an extended mission. However, the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) took the decision to decommission the vehicle by crashing it into the moon in order to avoid producing space junk in the moon’s orbit that could impact future missions.

The impact occurred just half an hour after mission control sent commands to the Chang’e-5 ascent vehicle, instructing it to crash at 0 degrees longitude and 30 degrees south — somewhere between the ancient craters Regiomontanus and Walther in the southern highlands region.

The docking of the ascension vehicle with the Chang’e-5 orbiter was performed with an accuracy of no less than five centimeters while mission control was 380,000 kilometers away. This experience will prove extremely useful for China’s highly ambitious missions in the future, which will involve similar rendezvous and docking maneuvers for a Mars sample return mission in 2030. China also has plans for a crew mission to the moon that will also involve an ascent vehicle, orbiter, and reentry capsule.

The Chang’e-5 orbiter carrying the precious samples collected from the moon’s surface is still in lunar orbit. Chinese mission control is still waiting for the right window of opportunity to open for trans-Earth injection.

According to Chinese state media, the operation is scheduled for the next few days, most likely on Saturday, resulting in the landing of the reentry capsule at Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia.

If successful, Chang’e-5 will become the first mission to bring lunar samples back to Earth since the landing of the Russian spacecraft, Luna 24, on August 18, 1976. During the Apollo missions, the United States retrieved 382 kilograms of lunar rocks and soil, whereas the former Soviet Union brought over 300 grams of lunar samples back to Earth during three missions.

We could see up to 1.3m of sea-level rise by 2100 if we don’t take action now

A new study says we should be expecting an average sea-level rise in excess of 1 meter by 2100 and 5 meters by 2300 if we don’t meet current targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Image via Pixabay.

The analysis used projections compiled by over 100 international experts to estimate changes in sea levels under low- and high-emission scenarios, the team explains, in order to help policymakers have a better understanding of “the state of the science” on this threat.

The waters are coming

“The complexity of sea-level projections, and the sheer amount of relevant scientific publications, make it difficult for policymakers to get an overview of the state of the science,” says Professor Benjamin Horton, Acting Chair of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) Asian School of the Environment, who led the survey.

“To obtain this overview, it is useful to survey leading experts on the expected sea-level rise, which provides a broader picture of future scenarios and informs policymakers so they can prepare necessary measures.”

The most optimistic scenario analyzed in this paper considered that global warming would only increase temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which would translate to a rise of 0.5 meters (roughly 2 feet) by 2100, and 0.5 to 2 meters by 2300. The high-emission scenario would involve 4.5 degrees Celsius of warming and would cause between 0.6 to 1.3 meters (2 to 4 feet) sea rise by 2100, and 1.7 to 5.6 meters by 2300.

These estimations exceed those of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who set the current targets under the Paris Agreement. Researchers from The University of Hong Kong, Maynooth University (Ireland), Durham University (UK), Rowan University (U.S.), Tufts University (U.S.), and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Germany) took part in this study. They were chosen as they are some of the most active publishers or scientific studies on the topic (they all had at least six published papers pertaining to sea-level rise since 2014).

The large difference in sea level rise seen in this paper “provides a great deal of hope for the future, as well as a strong motivation to act now to avoid the more severe impacts of rising sea levels,” according to Dr. Andra Garner, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Rowan University and co-author of the study.

Still, the findings also underscore just how important it is for policy to be set in place in order to limit emissions and sea-level rise. How bad the outcome is depends entirely on how we act, and the decisions we make right now.

However, despite the sheer wealth of expertise that went into the study, there are still uncertainties. The team points to the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets as the largest unknowns, as their behavior can have dramatic effects on how sea levels evolve in the future. Both of these ice sheets are key reference points for climate change and increases in sea levels, as they hold important quantities of water — and they’re both melting at much higher rates than they would naturally.

Yet, not all is lost. Climate systems have a great deal of inertia to them (as do all systems working on such scales) but taking proactive measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions would still have a significant effect.

So while the worst-case scenario definitely does seem bleak, it’s in no way out of our hands. We can choose to make things better, to limit the impact we have on the planet and the repercussions that will have on our society in the future.

The paper “Estimating global mean sea-level rise and its uncertainties by 2100 and 2300 from an expert survey,” has been published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science.

Shifting away from monocultures would benefit both wildlife and people

Agriculture can help insulate wildlife from the worst effects of climate change, but only if it ditches the current focus on monocultures.

Hill slopes in the Nilgiris Mountains, India, being prepared for planting mixed vegetables.
Image credits Rafeek Manchayil / Flickr.

Farmlands can act as havens for wildlife species in a world where climate change is eroding their habitats, a new study explains. However, for that to happen, a shift needs to be made towards mixed cultures. Such a change would also make the farms themselves more resilient against climate changes, which would also benefit us and help solidify the global food supply against environmental shocks.

Although the study focused on bird species in Costa Rica, the team explains that birds can serve as a “natural guideline” for the health of other animal families throughout the world, as well.

Strength in diversity

“Farms that are good for birds are also good for other species,” said Jeffrey Smith, a graduate student in the department of biology and a co-author on the paper. “We can use birds as natural guides to help us design better agricultural systems.”

The team looked at long-term farming practices in Costa Rica and how these impact local bird biodiversity levels. Overall, farms that plant diverse crops can provide habitat for a larger number of bird species than monoculture farms, they found, and are also more stable as habitats over time. Diverse farmlands were also more effective at insulating the species they housed against the ecological damage caused by climate change.

Tropical areas and the rainforests that thrive there are “expected to suffer even more intensely” due to climate change than other areas, explains Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project and the Center for Conservation Biology, and a senior author on the paper. Climate change will lead to longer dry seasons along with more and longer intervals of extreme heat, which will lead to more forest dieback — the process in which woody plants start dying from the leaves (and other peripheral parts) down due to harsh environmental conditions, pathogens, or parasites.

Climate change is already having an impact on wildlife, and, given the tectonically-slow rate of international action on the issue, there’s little reason to believe this effect will end soon. The paper explains that farming practices “really matter” when trying to boost climate resilience and protect biodiversity. Given the speed with which ecosystems can completely break down, and considering the importance of ones such as the Amazon Rainforest in the global carbon cycle, that’s definitely something we should be working towards.

As tropical areas are one of the most biodiverse in the world, the team focused their study on Costa Rica, using birds as a proxy for biodiversity at large.

Tropical Troubles

The Great Green Macaw is an endangered bird species that benefits from diverse farmlands.
Image credits Susanne Nilsson / Flickr.

As rainforests are cut down to make room for plantations of bananas or sugarcane, the amount of habitat available for wildlife shrinks — we’ve been clearing a lot of forest in the last few years, so that available habitat has shrunk quite dramatically, the team explains. At the same time, climate change is making dry seasons longer and hotter, placing even more strain on the animals living here and the plants which support them.

“It’s the one-two punch of land-use intensification and climate change,” said Nick Hendershot, a graduate student in the department of biology and lead author on the study.

“Wildlife populations are already severely stressed, with overall decreased health and population sizes in some farming landscapes. Then, these further extreme conditions like prolonged drought can come along and really just decimate a species.”

The study drew on 20 years’ worth of field data to map which species of birds live in natural tropical forests and in different types of farmland. Costa Rica has various agricultural systems in place throughout the country, which gave the team a chance to compare and contrast monoculture systems, diversified multi-crop farms, and natural forests. Monoculture farms analyzed in the study included pineapple, rice, or sugar cane, while ‘diversified’ farms either mixed several types of crops or were bordered by ribbons of natural forest.

All in all, diversified farms harbored more species of common birds, but also provided shelter for some of the most threatened ones — species such as the Great Green Macaw and the Yellow-naped Parrot, listed as Endangered and Vulnerable, respectively, on the IUCN Red List.

In farms that practiced intensive monocropping, however, the team found that biodiversity levels declined over time.

“Which species are in a given place makes a huge difference — it’s not just about numbers alone, we care about who’s there,” said Daily.

“Each bird serves a unique role as part of the machinery of nature. And the habitats they live in support us all.”

There is a lot of room to expand on diversified farming, both in Costa Rica and around the world, the team reports. It wouldn’t benefit just wildlife — mixed farming practices have been shown to boost crop yields, and they increase food security by making the crops more resilient against environmental shocks.

“There are so many cash crops that thrive in diversified farms. Bananas and coffee are two great examples from Costa Rica — they’re planted together, and the taller banana plant shades the temperature-sensitive coffee bean,” Daily added. “The two crops together provide more habitat opportunity than just one alone, and they also provide a diversified income stream for the farmer.”

I’d call that a win-win!

The paper “Intensive farming drives long-term shifts in avian community composition” has been published in the journal Nature.

We’ve significantly underestimated how much methane humanity emits

New research at the University of Rochester (UoR) says we’ve been severely underestimating the levels of methane humanity is emitting into the atmosphere via fossil fuels.

The distribution of methane at the surface (2009 data).
Image credits NASA / Goddard.

The findings are particularly worrying as although methane naturally breaks down quickly in the atmosphere (relative to CO2), it’s also a very powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential (GWP) 104 times greater than CO2 over a 20-year time frame. Reducing methane emissions is critical in our effort to curb climate change, the team adds.

Too much of a bad thing

“Placing stricter methane emission regulations on the fossil fuel industry will have the potential to reduce future global warming to a larger extent than previously thought,” says lead author Benjamin Hmiel, a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Vasilii Petrenko, who is a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the UoR.

Methane is currently considered to be the second-largest contributor to global warming produced and released by human activity. Unlike CO2 (which ranks first), methane breaks down quickly — nine years on average, while CO2 can last for up to a century. This makes methane a more attractive target for short-term climate stabilization efforts, as any reductions in methane levels would translate into temperature stabilization much more quickly.

Hmiel explains that atmospheric methane comes from two sources: fossil methane and biological methane. Researchers distinguish between the two by looking at the nature of the carbon isotopes this molecule contains — carbon-14 for fossil methane (which was locked in fossil fuel deposits) and ‘regular’ carbon-13 for biological methane. Biological methane is released by all manner of biological activity; fossil methane is released either through geologically-exposed deposits (rare) or as a result of the extraction and exploitation of fossil fuels (which is much more common). Himel focused on this latter type.

“As a scientific community we’ve been struggling to understand exactly how much methane we as humans are emitting into the atmosphere,” says Petrenko, a coauthor of the study.

“We know that the fossil fuel component is one of our biggest component emissions, but it has been challenging to pin that down because in today’s atmosphere, the natural and anthropogenic components of the fossil emissions look the same, isotopically.”

The team collected ice cores from Greenland in order to establish a baseline atmospheric methane level before the onset of anthropogenic (man-made) factors. They melted the cores to extract the gas locked away in the ancient air bubbles they formed and studied its chemical composition.

Before the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, they found that virtually all the methane in the atmosphere was of biological origin. Things started to change after about 1870, when the fossil component began rising rapidly; they explain that this coincides with a sharp increase in fossil fuels at the time.

But the real finding was that levels of naturally released fossil methane are about 10 times lower than previously reported. Hmiel and his colleagues estimate that man-made fossil methane levels today are 25-40% (38-58 billion kgs) higher than previously estimated.

This may actually be good news. If we’re responsible for more of the methane in the atmosphere today, efforts to reduce our emissions would have an even better impact on the climate. If we reduce our emissions, that is.

“I don’t want to get too hopeless on this because my data does have a positive implication: most of the methane emissions are anthropogenic, so we have more control,” Hmiel concludes. “If we can reduce our emissions, it’s going to have more of an impact.”

The paper “Preindustrial 14CH4 indicates greater anthropogenic fossil CH4 emissions” has been published in the journal Nature.

Oceans could be unviable for coral reefs by 2100 due to warmer, more acidic waters

Warmer and more acidic oceans could destroy nearly all of today’s coral reefs by the end of the century.

Image credits Marcelo Kato.

New research presented Monday at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2020 paints a dire picture for the Earth’s reefs. According to the team, between 70% and 90% of coral reefs will disappear in the next 20 years due to a combination of climate change and pollution. By 2100, they add, very few habitats suitable for corals will remain on Earth — if any.

Reefless

“Trying to clean up the beaches is great and trying to combat pollution is fantastic. We need to continue those efforts,” said Renee Setter, a biogeographer at the University of Hawaii Manoa who presented the findings.

“But at the end of the day, fighting climate change is really what we need to be advocating for in order to protect corals and avoid compounded stressors.”

The issues identified by the team will likely pose major challenges for ongoing reef conservation programs. For example, the researchers cite efforts to grow corals in laboratories and later transplant them back into wild reefs in an attempt to boost their health and resilience. While there is value to such an approach, Setter cautions that few to no habitats will remain suitable for reefs by 2100, rendering the lab-grown corals powerless.

What we need to do, she argues, is to focus on the issues of rising sea surface temperatures and acidity, as these are the two most pressing environmental factors plaguing reefs today. While pollution also poses a very real threat to marine life in general, the team adds, corals in particular are most at risk from environmental changes associated with human CO2 emissions.

Corals are very sensitive to increased temperatures. They can bear them for a short while but will expel their symbiotic algae if exposure continues for longer periods of time in a process known as ‘bleaching’ (these algae live inside the mineralized structures of the coral, giving them their color, and helping feed the polyps). Bleached corals aren’t necessarily dead, but they’re far less resilient to further shocks and stressors. Bleaching events have greatly increased in frequency in the last few years due to climate change.

A bleached coral reef.
Image via Wikimedia.

Setter and co-author Camilo Mora, also at the University of Hawaii Manoa, mapped the areas of the world that would be suitable for coral reefs over the coming decades. They based this on modeling of future environmental conditions that accounted for factors such as sea surface temperature, wave energy, water acidity levels, pollution, and overfishing in areas currently inhabited by corals. They also factored in human population densities and land cover use as proxies for how much pollution and waste would be present at different sites.

They found that most areas that harbor coral reefs today wouldn’t be able to sustain them by 2045; the situation would only worsen by 2100. Small portions of Baja California and the Red Sea would still be viable, but they’re not ideal locations for coral reefs because of their proximity to rivers, the team explains.

“By 2100, it’s looking quite grim,” said Setter. “Honestly, most sites are out [by this time].”

One of the more encouraging findings is that projected increases in human populations (and an associated increase in pollution) pose a limited threat to reef habitats in the future. On the flip side, the team explains that this is because human activity has already caused significant damage to coral reefs — meaning that there are only so many locations left to impact. Still, the authors underline that CO2 emissions and their associated effect on the climate and water acidity need to be addressed if the corals are to stand a chance in the future.

The poster “Impacts of climate change on site selection for coral restoration” has been presented on Monday, February 17 at the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2020 in San Diego (poster number PC14A-1691).

Is there a hoax related to climate change?

I’m partial to bombastic statements that can easily be taken out of context on social media for shares so yes, there’s a hoax related to climate change, and it’s a big one. The hoax is that climate change is real and dangerous for humanity, but some people want to make it seem like a joke.

A 2013 photo of the Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park by Mike Lewelling of the National Park Service (NPS).
Image credits NPS Climate Change Response / Flickr.

We’re being played for fools by people of wealth and station who couldn’t care less about anyone and anything else as long as they get to keep said wealth and station, come hell or high water (ironically, both are incoming). So many people have been twisted to go against their best interest, that of society, and of life on Earth in general while believing they’re the last ones to see reason.

Just because people debate over something doesn’t mean that it’s up for debate. Public talks on climate change right now don’t aim to find the truth, and they’re not a process in which we decide how to move forward. We already know what’s happening, that we’re causing it, how bad it is, and how much worse it can get. The current discussion around climate change is a meltdown designed specifically to pit us against each other so that we waste our time and energy and nothing gets done. It’s Alexander’s ‘divide and rule’ applied towards the worst possible goal.

Because, and I can’t stress this enough, there is a climate change hoax happening. And its aim is for nothing to change — except, ironically, the climate.

Real talk

A sign seen at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Image credits Edward Kimmel via Wikimedia.

We’ve already had a look at climate change, why it’s happening, and how it’s happening; go give them a read if you want some refreshers. Today, I want to take a more personal approach and look at how the issue is presented to society, rather than hard data.

Andrei wrote about how climate change deniers pull the wool over our eyes here. He focused on the Australian wildfires and the local government’s attempts to shift blame, but they’re applicable to the discussion at large. They’re pretty effective at steering the public away from any sort of productive outcome no matter where or when they’re applied. Andrei calls them ‘strategies’, but I feel they’re more akin to tactics — they’re how deniers fight the battle, not the war.

One thing I do admire about the larger narrative climate deniers weave is how subtle, pervasive, and cunning it is. If you’ve ever read some of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, you’ll find three kernels of wisdom that the climate denial movement has taken to heart: conflict is based on deception; long campaigns break combatants down; and that “breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting” is the easiest way to win.

So find a comfy seat, because here’s how I understand the broad climate change denial strategy in regards to those three of Sun Tzu’s teachings:

1. Disqualification of data (“but you’re not sure”)

Another sign at the 2017 march.
Image credits Douglas Fron via Wikimedia.

How often have you heard the phrase “the data just isn’t in yet?”

But the data is definitely in and has been in for quite some time. The consensus has been reached — climate change is happening and we’re making it happen. People whose whole careers rely on them being competent and knowing what they’re talking about (so, not-politicians) have checked, double-checked, and re-checked the data — it’s solid.

Why are we being lied to our faces, then? Well, if you convince people that the issue is blown out of proportion you a) make them ignore it and b) disqualify it if it ever pops up in the future, as you’ve already set the precedent of it being an alarmist overreaction.

What keeps it going is the way scientists talk. Since there is so much scrutiny on what they say publicly, researchers need to cover their backs. Saying “97% or more of published papers support climate change” doesn’t sound as certain as “climate change isn’t real because I’m holding a snowball“, even if one statement is true and the other one is several shades of stupid. But when people are looking for answers and guidance, rock-solid confidence sells, and “likely”‘s don’t.

I’m a press guy; I know that the way you say something matters just as much as what you’re saying. My training is in geophysics, so I also know that any researcher worth their salt is factual to a fault and won’t say anything for which they don’t have undeniable proof. They don’t have absolute confidence because their whole job relies on them never having absolute confidence in ideas but in the reliability of testing ideas.

2. Contesting the urgency of climate change (“we have more pressing issues”)

Seen at the Youth for Climate march in Brussels, 2019.
Image

If step one fails, you can always kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than with some good ol’ fashioned weaponized guilt?

We’re all fans of nature on paper; beaches, koalas, that fun Instagram-pic spot in Indonesia, it’s all great stuff. So, morally speaking, “we should safeguard nature” is a very difficult position to contest. Anyone even implying that we shouldn’t is committing PR suicide at warp speed.

As long as someone says “I’m not against environmental safeguarding,” they don’t automatically sound like the bad guy. And then they serve you the hook: “But we have these other problems we need to solve first.” It’s a way of turning the tables on the opposition, and it’s a very effective strategy that blindsides most people. Essentially, you put the onus the other side to either agree with you — in which case you win by default — or attack a strong moral position themselves. The trick is to throw in a topic that most people care about and then force an either/or scenario.

Let’s say the issue is economic competitiveness, and the two of us are engaged in a live debate. If I hold that certain environmental protections need to be lifted so that the US can remain economically competitive, and you disagree, I can immediately counter with, “Ah, so you don’t want Americans to live rich, satisfying lives.” It’s not what you’re saying, but it doesn’t matter. You’re in a very bad position, and all eyes have shifted to you (with indignation) asking for an explanation. I’ve thrown you completely off your track, maybe even made you stutter. The discussion completely moves on from the topic, you’re the guy who hates America, and wham, bam, I get voted into office.

Case study: Mr. Trump. The current POTUS pulled the US out of international climate action and is ‘reviving’ coal; his actions clearly show him being opposed to the idea of climate change. At the same time, he says that “climate change is very important” to him personally, having “done many environmental impact statements in [his] life”, and believes “very strongly in very, very crystal clear clean water and clean air”.

Personally, I remain unconvinced — I think water is a hoax made up by China to steal American jobs. But as long as Trump says he cares about the environment he can get away with anything because he offers people something they actually want more intensely: the illusion of safety. Safety from immigrants, from China, from all the perceived sources of their personal and economic woes.

“[Mr. Trump is] not going to win running on the environment,” Joseph Pinion, a Republican strategist, told the BBC. “In America, climate is not an issue, so the reason it is not an issue for President Trump is because he cares about winning.”

3. Appealing to inability (“we’re just a poor boy!”)

Image via Pixabay.

Steven Turner wrote one delicious poem that I find very fitting for this strategy.

“A poor boy entered the shop
His eyes were ready to pop
Surrounded by riches
With holes in his britches
Only to be handed a mop.”

Steven Turner — A Poor Boy.

The gist of this strategy is to blow the issue so out of proportion that it seems unsolvable. That, despite how rich our shop is, we only have tattered britches and a mop to work with — it’s out of our hands!

But saying that climate change is both false and too big to tackle is a bit rich even for Fox News. One workaround is to frame climate change as a product of natural but immutable phenomena. Blaming natural processes, ice ages, increased solar output — any sort of explanation that shifts the responsibility away from human activity is useful in this regard. But it’s easily debunked as well.

A more desperate approach (because it clashes with the overall narrative) is to admit that climate change is happening and that human activity causes it, but that we don’t have the time or ability to stop it now. It’s a bit more insidious since you agree to the idea in general (so you’re ‘on the right team’) but not to the solution. Denying that climate change is happening and that we’re driving it can be proven false. However, the only way to prove it will be fixed is to fix it. In essence, this step revolves around the idea that you don’t know for sure that you can stop it, so why bother? Why waste your time with the mop? Just enjoy the store, maybe buy some pants.

There is some truth to this — we don’t actually know that we’ll stop climate change. But that’s not because we don’t know how: we do. In theory, all we need to do is reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. We know how to do that, too. We have the tools. We have the know-how. We have the money. The only variable here is our willingness to implement the changes required, not our ability to do so.

The idea is to paint it as a monolithic issue that’s beyond our ability and needs to be fixed in a single move — which is not true; it can be improved by degrees, pun intended. If you make it seem impossible and enough people give up on the idea, it becomes impossible. And even if it doesn’t work, people will argue among themselves over it which, again, kicks the can down the road and divides the opposition.

4. Shifting accountability (the “holier than thou” approach)

Image via Piqsels.

This is a juicy one. Just like that insufferable ex or colleague who won’t do anything in the group project but find excuses understood, there’s never a shortage of other people to blame. And boy oh boy do deniers have a field day with this one:

Is America polluting? Well so is China, so why would we do anything about it and let them pollute more? Did X company lie about their environmental impact? So what, their competition does too. Why would businesses have to safeguard the environment when you don’t either? You don’t recycle all your trash and you drive a car, don’t you? If you didn’t want the climate to change, you’d recycle and walk everywhere. But you don’t. You only care about yourself.

Monster.

This approach is related both to nr.2, in that it uses guilt to dodge responsibility, and the next contender on the list in that it turns the issue of climate change into an ‘us vs. them’ scenario.

We do all contribute to climate change through our lifestyle. Everyone in a developing or developed country uses a lot of energy and goods, which have a direct environmental cost in the form of emissions. So, yes, we all can pitch in to help.

But that kid buying avocado for his toast sure as schist doesn’t have the environmental footprint of an Abrams battle tank. And that lady deciding between a cheap car or a more expensive hybrid doesn’t have as much power to address the issue as someone who shapes policy on car manufacture standards or power plant emission levels.

Let’s be real here. We vote people into office to handle stuff like this so that we don’t need to. We pay companies to provide us the products and services we need so that we don’t have to produce them ourselves. We delegate part of our authority and autonomy to these bodies in a social contract, a good-faith agreement that they will serve our interests in return for the political or financial power we invest them with. We do it because for us as individuals, these issues are too big to tackle.

Those interests include protecting the environment because that’s where we live. Having such institutions then break that trust, place their part of the responsibility on us, and blame us or China or whomever for not being better just isn’t acceptable, and it’s insulting — especially since they fund efforts to maintain the status quo. Politics exists to serve the citizens; markets exist to serve the citizens; never the other way around.

That being said, please recycle — with love, the ZME Science team.

5. Artificially increasing apparent costs (zero-summing it)

Seen at the People’s Climate March in Washington DC, 2017.
Image via Wikimedia.

A zero-sum game is a situation in which one actor’s gain directly translates to another’s loss. Poker is a zero-sum game, where each token won by a player has been lost by another.

Deniers like to paint climate change as a zero-sum game because people innately don’t like to lose anything. Usually, the way they go about this is to frame it as a competition between the environment and the economy, in which protecting one has to destroy the other. This technique forces the perception that environmental action must translate to economic loss, which people intuitively understand as a threat to their resources and lifestyle and react against.

Simply pressing the ‘off’ button of the economy and going back to living in the middle ages would definitely reduce our environmental output, but that’s a bit like burning the house down to kill a spider. Advances in technology are already pushing productivity and generating extra wealth while reducing our overall carbon footprint. Wind farms, solar panels, cleaner transport, and more advanced manufacturing actually make it a non-zero-sum game in which both the climate and our pockets can benefit at the same time. In fact, the development of clean energy and production methods actually drives our overall quality of life by lowering costs and disseminating profits in the wider economy and society.

6. Ad-hominem attacks (reviewing the messenger, not the message)

Seen at the Sydney climate change march in 2019.
Image credits UNICEF.

If you can’t debate them, by all means, start badmouthing them.

You probably know who Greta Thurenberg is. But did you know that if you googled her name on ‘images’ you’ll get memes? Lots and lots of memes? Some are quite amusing. Some are meant to discredit her message by discrediting her personally. If you’re bored, trying to sort between the two categories is mildly entertaining and good practice for spotting ad-hominem attacks in other debates.

“Ad hominem” is the shorthand for “agrumentum ad hominem”, a Latin phrase that translates to “debating the person”. The idea is that if you can make someone look like they have a hidden agenda, make them a laughing stock, or make them seem incompetent or hypocritical (any sort of character flaw works, really) you can use that to discredit them personally — and from there, you can discredit their message. It’s a famous fallacy in philosophy, and it’s actually pretty effective. If the public isn’t aware of how it works or lacks critical skills, an ad hominem can be quite devastating. Even if you do know what’s happening, it can still influence your perception of the one it’s being aimed at.

Just keep in mind that the ad hominem is the last bastion of the defeated. Someone who can defend their position in any meaningful way won’t need to use it — in fact, they will avoid using it since discrediting the opposition would diminish their own victory later on. Cries of ‘leftist’, ‘fearmonger’, ‘hippie’ — they’re all ad-hominems.

When you hear them being thrown around, keep your cool (especially if they’re thrown at you), and rest assured — one side is already losing the debate badly, but they’re too immature or have too vested an interest to admit it.

7. Forcing the appearance of grassroots support (denying the denial movement)

Seen at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Most climate change deniers, I think, are just misguided, misinformed, or willfully manipulated, not malevolent.

But for those who actually know what’s up, denying any wrongdoing is immensely important. One of the artifices the denial movement likes to use to discredit climate change is to claim the ethical high ground. The easiest way to do that is to pay some researchers to falsify some findings, use those to create a false narrative, then accuse other researchers of falsifying their findings.

It’s a pretty neat little bow. If you’re not caught, everything goes swimmingly, and you keep harping on and on about the lack of a consensus. If you are eventually found out (hey, Exxon), it actually reinforces your message that science isn’t reliable in the public mind. Falsified research shows that it’s possible for research to be falsified, which effectively gives you an in to criticize any researcher and their work even if you’re literally the one who paid for false science in the first place.

Whatever happens, the climate denial agenda is pushed forward. You have ‘science’ on your side at first, so you can guide the conversation, and later on, when you’re discovered, science and scientists lose authority — so nobody can use it against you. It’s evil, but it’s quite brilliant.

You have to keep in mind that science is done by people, who are just as flawed as you and me. They’re trained to be good at what they do, which is studying the world around us, but they’re still people. Money means the same thing to them as it does to us, as well as fame, recognition, and all other sorts of temptations.

The nice thing about science is that it eventually finds inconsistencies in faulty research and corrects them. People in science are fallible, but the methods they use are designed specifically to remove our shortcomings from the picture.

8. Claiming conspiracy (the wolf crying wolf)

Seen at the 2017 DC Climate March.
Image credits Mark Dixon / Flickr.

If all else fails, you can always yell out ‘conspiracy‘.

It’s a bit of a nuclear option, as most people steer well clear when the craziness starts being lobbed around. But conspiracy ideas have a certain allure, and they can gain a lot of traction. Their greatest asset is that once released into the wild, it’s almost impossible to ‘un-conspirafy’ something. Since there’s a reported conspiracy afoot, anyone and anything claiming the contrary can just be chalked off as being part of the conspiracy.

The absolute funniest thing about it all is that the definition of conspiracy is that of “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful”, and certain actors in the fossil fuel industry (hey, Exxon) tick all the boxes in that definition. Will I call them out on it? Nah. I’m more partial to flowery terms such as “ethical barrenness”, “profit-fueled cowardice”, and “the willful endangerment of human-, plant-, and animal life on a planet-wide scale”.

Of course, I could just be part of the conspiracy. Spooky stuff.

Where does that leave us?

Seen at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington DC.
Image via Wikimedia.

Personally, I feel that if you need to recruit social media bots to support your view, you’re 100% on the wrong side of the argument (and too morally bankrupt to care). If you need to lie to prove your claims, in my eyes, whatever you have to say is worth less than the air you’re saying it on. So, for me, Andrei’s article pretty much dismantles any hope deniers have of ever being taken seriously.

But our societies are so damn divided right now that trust is hard to come by and to extend. People don’t know who to believe anymore, and they’re wary of experts, scientists, and (especially) media telling them what to think. In my view, as I’ve already shown you, that’s by design. Polarization, radicalization, and conflict over the issue ensure that it is never addressed; which is exactly what climate deniers want.

Against that backdrop, I can’t ask you to believe in what I’m saying — but I can ask that you take these ideas and judge for yourself. I’d like for this to be a discussion between us, not an argument.

No matter which side of the fence you’re on, I want you to be your own personal little scientist. Take my ideas with you out to whichever corner of the Earth you call home and try to prove them wrong. Take all the time you need. If you’re still unconvinced then, by all means, come back and call me a fearmongering hippie leftist in the comments; we have a Facebook group and several dedicated social media pages, too, so you can insult me on any of them for a more direct (and satisfying) experience. But I think you’ll agree with me.

The Cesar of history showed us the effectiveness of ‘divide and rule’. But another, fictional Cesar (Planet of the Apes) taught us that ‘ape together strong’. We’re the apes. We decide. I’d rather be strong than be ruled, but we can’t un-divide unless we do so together. And for that, I need each and every one of you.

New areas will need conservation due to climate change

Climate change will force species to migrate in search of ideal living conditions, and a new paper estimates where they’ll go in order to inform conservation efforts.

Image via Pixabay.

Each species has a set of conditions it likes to live in — a certain amount of light, a temperature that’s just right, certain habitats to act as shelters, and a preferred menu. With shifting climates, however, the traditional ranges species inhabit, which correspond to the areas that satisfy their requirements, will also shift. Under these conditions, species will likely migrate to find greener pastures.

But where to?

“We are going to need to protect different places if we want to protect biodiversity in the future,” said lead author Joshua Lawler, a UW professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“We need to think about where species will go as the climate changes, and then plan for that. The business-as-usual planning process isn’t going to work.”

Efforts to protect plant and animal species hinge on knowing which areas these species inhabit. For example, habitat conservation efforts around the snowy plover focus on specific locations along the Washington coast, because that’s where the animals live.

A new paper authored by researchers from the University of Washington and The Evergreen State College aims to understand how species migration as a result of climate change will impact future conservation efforts. For the study, the team analyzed whether accounting for climate change can improve our current biodiversity conservation practices, and how expensive it would be to implement. They report that most species are expected to migrate due to climate change, and that we’ll need to shift the areas we focus on to keep adequately protecting them.

The team looked at 1,460 different species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians across the continental US. For each, they considered which current and potential future protected habitats are suitable for their needs. All in all, if impacts from climate change aren’t specifically considered, the team found that 14% of the species won’t have a viable habitat in the future. Current protection efforts focus exclusively on the areas where the species are living today, the team explains, not where they need to be in a warmer future.

“Our findings show that species are going to shift around, and we are going to have to put some of our conservation efforts in different places — and that will come at a cost,” Lawler said.

“Climate change effects that were originally projected to be decades in the future are starting to become apparent in the present day. This is not an abstract concept anymore,” said co-author John Withey, a professor at Evergreen. “We need to take action as soon as possible, thinking about where species may need to go under climate change, and providing corridors through which they can move.”

The team considered three approaches to including climate change migration predictions into our current conservation efforts. The first involved selecting certain species and then extending protection beyond the areas they inhabit now to include their estimated future range. The team used the Townsend’s chipmunk, western rattlesnake, and yellow-billed magpie as models for this step — they found it would cost about 60% more than solely protecting their current habitats. More general approaches, such as installing “climate corridors” or protecting landscapes with rare or disappearing climatic conditions wouldn’t lead to many increased costs — likely because many of these landscapes are already protected.

“It was encouraging to see that there were some climate-based solutions that didn’t increase the cost substantially,” said co-author Julia Michalak, a UW research scientist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

The team hopes that their findings will help policy-makers identify which areas are a high priority for conservation in general — they caution that the paper isn’t intended to help pinpoint specific new parks to protect. Still, having a general idea of what will work in the future should help us save money now and cut down on hassle down the road. And it will help keep as many plants and critters alive as possible.

The paper “Planning for climate change through additions to a national protected area network: implications for cost and configuration” has been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Sea level rise could displace 13 million Americans by 2100

New research from the University of Southern California (USC) looks at how rising sea levels will affect population dynamics in the US. By their estimates, 13 million people will be displaced by 2100, placing extreme strain on several cities throughout the country.

Image credits NASA.

Global warming is driving sea-levels up through two main mechanisms: increased water inflow from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and the thermal expansion of warming water. Human populations tend to mostly gravitate around coasts and waterways and, as such, it’s estimated that sea-level rise will destroy hundreds of thousands of homes in just a few decades. Current estimates place sea level increase by the end of the century at a 6-foot mark, which would redraw the coastlines of Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and New Orleans.

Which begs the question — where will the displaced go to?

Water damage

“Sea level rise will affect every county in the US, including inland areas,” says Bistra Dilkina, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science from the USC’s Center for AI for Society.

“We hope this research will empower urban planners and local decision-makers to prepare to accept populations displaced by sea-level rise. Our findings indicate that everybody should care about sea-level rise, whether they live on the coast or not. This is a global impact issue”.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey (2017), displaced residents from the coast of Texas flocked inland. The team explains that this event showcases what could happen, on a much wider scale, within a few decades. Some 13 million people could be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels by 2100 in the US alone, they found, which would place an enormous strain on the population centers they migrate to. The strain of this environmental disaster will thus ripple throughout the country, not just on the affected coastlines, as people move inland. Among the effects, the team lists more competition for jobs, increased housing prices, and huge pressure on infrastructure and social systems.

The team is the first to use machine learning to project future migration patterns resulting from sea-level change. According to their findings, land-locked cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Las Vegas will see the highest number of refugees. Suburban areas in the Midwest are also likely to see a disproportionately large number of refugees relative to their current local populations.

For the study, the team took existing sea-level projections and combined them with population data and their projections until the end of the century. Migration pattern data recorded after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita was used to train machine learning models to predict where people would relocate in the simulated world.

“We talk about rising sea levels, but the effects go much further than those directly affected on the coasts,” said Caleb Robinson, a visiting doctoral researcher from Georgia Tech and the study’s first author.

“We wanted to look not only at who would be displaced, but also where they would go.”

Inland areas immediately adjacent to the coast bore the brunt of the migration, the team found, as did urban areas in the southeastern US. However, their model showed that more migrants would flock to Houston or Dallas than previous studies on the topic — these identified Austin as the top destination for climate refugees from the southeastern coast.

The study suggests that climate-change-induced migrations won’t necessarily follow previous patterns of movement. The authors hope that their findings will help policymakers and city planners reinforce infrastructure to ensure that the influx of refugees will have a positive impact on local economies and communities.

“When migration occurs naturally, it is a great engine for economic activity and growth,” said co-author Juan Moreno Cruz, an economist and professor at the University of Waterloo. “But when migration is forced upon people, productivity falls and human and social capital are lost as communities are broken apart.”

“Understanding these migration decisions helps economies and policy makers prepare for what is to come and do as much as possible to make the influx of migration a positive experience that generates positive outcomes.”

The paper “Modeling migration patterns in the USA under sea level rise” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

An introduction to man-made climate change

By now we’re all pretty familiar with the fundamentals of climate change — why it’s happening and how. Still, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around on the subject. Most of it dismisses climate change from the get-go, while some sources call into question the validity of our data or our role in driving the process.

Image credits Paul Brennan.

Some of these allegations are based on a kernel of truth but are then twisted so far from their roots that they lose all practical meaning (for example, that climate can change due to natural causes).

Today, I’d like to take a stab at explaining the mechanisms that shape climate, their interplay, and how we fit in the whole picture.

Natural Climate Change

Our planet’s climate patterns do show a degree of natural variability. Climate is the product of many different factors. Non-biological ones include volcanic activity, the distribution and strength of ocean currents, changes in the planet’s orbit, or fluctuations in solar output.

Volcanoes primarily work to cool the climate overall through eruptions. During such an event, clouds of smoke and ash blanket large areas of land, reducing incoming energy from the sun; these usually deposit on the surface within three months. A more long-lasting agent of cooling in the case of volcanoes is sulfur dioxide. It reacts with water vapor in the atmosphere, creating sulfate aerosols that reflect sunlight back into space for a year or longer. While eruptions do release CO2, which acts as a greenhouse gas, their cooling effect far outweighs it — for example, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 caused a 0.5 °C drop in average global temperatures for several years.

An explosive eruption.
Image via Wikimedia.

Ocean currents move heat around the planet, helping to homogenize temperatures and having a profound effect on climate patterns. They move warm water from the equator towards the poles.

Shifts in the Earth’s orbit can have immense effects on climate, potentially starting and ending ice ages. While definitely powerful, they’re also slow, and their effect on climate is only noticeable over thousands of years. Changes in the tilt of the planet (relative to the perpendicular plane of its orbit, currently at 23.5°) affect the strength of different seasons. More tilt makes for warmer winters and colder summers, while less tilt makes all seasons milder and more similar.

Since the Sun is ultimately the source of most energy on Earth, any variations in its output will have dramatic effects on the climate of our planet. Although you couldn’t tell from day to day, our star’s output does vary over time. For example, a decrease in solar activity is believed to have led to the Little Ice Age between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Although powerful, these changes happen slowly. It takes thousands of years for the Earth’s orbit or its currents to naturally shift, and the Sun is similarly slow-paced. Volcanic eruptions are blisteringly fast by comparison, but their effects are much less dramatic and shorter-lived.

Where life comes into the picture

Image via Pixabay.

Life can only sustain itself by changing the environment. Even the humblest microbe in the pool needs to break down and alter the chemical compounds it has access to in order to generate energy and survive. Pollution, then, is part and parcel of being alive.

This pollution can have a huge impact on the planet and everything living on it. Around 2.4 billion years ago, cyanobacteria (bacteria that can photosynthesize) began polluting the Earth with oxygen in an event known as the Great Oxygenation. It set the stage for oxygen-breathing, complex life to form, but for the other microorganisms living at the time, it caused wide-spread extinction. Whole ecological niches were opened up by this highly-reactive gas, allowing cyanobacteria to eventually evolve into multicellular life.

The red and green lines are our upper and lower estimates of atmospheric O2 throughout the Earth’s history (in billions of years, Ga). 0.2 corresponds to 20% by volume.
Image credits Heinrich D. Holland, (2006), Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B.

Another snapshot of history that showcases how biology and climate interact is the Carboniferous, a geologic period that spanned between 360 and 300 million years ago. What set apart this time period from any other is that woody trees were becoming wide-spread, sea levels were decreasing so fresh, marshy lands were exposed, and there weren’t any microorganisms around who knew how to decompose the lignin in wood yet. Atmospheric oxygen levels rose while CO2 concentrations plummeted. Average temperatures at the start of the period were high, around 20 °C (68 °F), but by the Middle Carboniferous they dropped to around 12 °C (54 °F) — a change of 8 °C in around 30 million years.

All things considered, biological activity can influence climate much more quickly than non-biotic factors. However, its effects tend to be directly proportional to the size and diversity of the biosphere and are less dramatic upfront but compound over time. Finally, biological factors tend to maintain a set of conditions that support life in its current form (the Gaia principle). Plants and animals, for example, use one another’s pollution (O2 and CO2) as fuel, keeping their concentrations and effect on climate in check.

Man-made climate change

Image credits Ralf Vetterle.

What humanity has that no other species can even come close to is sheer scope and speed.

We are the dominant lifeform on Earth, and our reach is so long that we’re becoming one of the main forces shaping the evolution of the entire planet. No other species or group of species transforms and consumes more of the environment than we do. Very, very few natural forces match us for scope, and virtually none can rival us for speed of action. While we’ve always had an effect on climate, it became problematic after the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century with few exceptions (which is why it’s used as a reference point in discussions on climate change).

What we’re seeing today is that average temperatures have increased by 0.9 °C (1.62 °F) since the beginning of the 19th century. That rate of change is 3,750,000 times faster than the one in the Carboniferous. Unlike what occurred during the Carboniferous, however, average temperatures are now going up. The past five years are the warmest on record, and they’re the worst offenders in a long range of successive ‘hottest years’ since the 1970s.

This trend has been predicted ever since the 1860s, when Irish physicist John Tyndall published On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation, Absorption, and Conduction, a paper that set the foundation of climate science today. Tyndall was the first to show that gases in the atmosphere absorb and retain heat to different degrees — with carbon dioxide being a main offender. By 1896, Svante Arrhenius built on his work to show that increased levels of atmospheric water vapor and CO2 will drive up average ground-level temperatures (On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground). The link between CO2, other greenhouse gases, and climate change is that these compounds prevent heat on the surface of the Earth from reflecting back to space.

Today, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are the highest they’ve ever been during the last 3 million years, breaking the 415 ppm (parts per million) mark last May. Just like average temperatures, they’ve been steadily climbing.

Two factors are contributing to this rise: higher emissions from our day-to-day activities and massive environmental degradation. We’re putting in a record amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — around 37 billion tons of the stuff per year — while reducing the ability of natural systems to remove it.

Roughly 10% of all annual human greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are caused by deforestation. That land is then given over to be used for crops (agriculture generates between 10% and 11% of all human GHG annually), industry (24% of human GHG annually), infrastructure (transport generated 23% of global GHG in 2010), or residential areas (which also generate GHG through the energy they consume).

Where does this leave us?

Whichever way you cut it, the gist of the matter is that we’re working against and destabilizing natural systems around us. We’re taking too much, too fast, and too indiscriminately for the environment to cope.

I like to think of nature as an economy. Every species has its place in the wider system and gets paid (consumes resources) for the work it performs (its ecosystem role). In this analogy, sadly, humanity is a huge monopoly. We insert ourselves into previously-free markets (ecosystems) and extract as much as possible from them while providing as little benefit as we can get away with. Sure, there are fluctuations in this market that have nothing to do with us, but their influence pales in comparison to ours.

Because of the scope and speed with which we transform the world around us, natural systems don’t have the time to clean up the mess. Climate change is the product of this imbalance, but it’s not the only one: rising rates of extinction, aquifer drainage, soil degradation, or adaptations in animal wake cycles, camouflage patterns, and geographical distribution are all signs that we’re not managing nature but exploiting it.

Thankfully for us and our fancy opposable thumbs, the fix is actually quite simple in theory — use fewer resources, or do more to support natural systems. Or both. Techniques like carbon capture help reduce the strain we put on the environment by lowering overall CO2 levels (which are currently being processed by plants). Alternatively, initiatives like The Trillion Trees campaign are an example of how we can support ecosystem health and function to achieve the same goal. We could produce less plastic to reduce our resource consumption, or we could improve and widen recycling efforts to reduce waste and lessen our impact on natural systems.

Personally, my gut feeling is that supporting natural functions rather than reducing our resource use should lead the way. Ideally we’d do both but, with close to 7.8 billion people alive at the moment — all of us working for a happier, more bountiful life, and having kids — there’s only so much we can give up. In my view, we should strive to use as little as possible to the greatest effect, while working to mitigate our impact on the environment to the best of our abilities because that’s a middle ground most of us are willing to accept.

Of course, for that to happen, we need to commit to it. The scientific community has reached a consensus on climate change — it’s happening, and it’s our fault — but the political and civil discourse has yet to do the same. In the meanwhile, how would you go about combating climate change? Let us know in the comments.

Australia records its hottest day ever — while burning from a thousand bushfires

This week, Australia has experienced its hottest day on record. Authorities expect the current heatwave to worsen, however, and further feed the bushfire season — which is already unprecedented as well.

With a nationwide average temperature of 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 degrees Fahrenheit), this Tuesday set a new record for the land down under. The previous record of 40.3 degrees Celsius was recorded in January 2013.

The heat is on

This year, Australia’s summer bushfire season has experienced a very early and intense start. Hundreds of fires have been roaring across the nation for months now, including a “mega-blaze” north of Sydney, the country’s largest city. Smoke from this blaze has led to increased levels of air pollution in Sydney, prompting authorities to declare the event a public health emergency.

All in all, over three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land has been burned across Australia so far. Six people have lost their lives to the blaze, and about 700 homes have been destroyed.

Global warming is likely fanning the flames higher and earlier than usual. Australia has also experienced a prolonged drought, leaving a lot of dry plant matter in the bush, and leaving several towns out of water. The fires have sparked climate protests targeting the conservative government, which has resisted calls to address the root causes of global warming — in favor of the country’s lucrative coal export industry.

The heatwave started in the country’s western reaches, where firefighters were engaging thousands of bushfires earlier this week. It has since crept across central Australia and is spreading to the heavily populated eastern states. Weather forecasts for parts of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital estimate temperatures in the mid-40s Celsius (around 110 Fahrenheit) for the end of the week. On Saturday parts of Sydney are expected to reach over 46 degrees celsius (115 Fahrenheit).

Most bushfires so far have been recorded in Australia’s eastern states. Turbulent winds of up to 100 kilometres (60 miles) an hour are expected in the area later this week, which may further stoke the fires. Embers from the fires can travel up to 30 kilometers (around 18.5 miles) by strong winds, authorities explained, which further increases the risks during this time.

“Over the next few days we are going to see firefighters, the emergency services and all those communities close to fires […] challenged with a new threat,” New South Wales fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, police officers evacuated residents from dozens of homes in the Peregian area (northeastern Queensland) as out-of-control bushfires threatened the properties.

“Fire crews and waterbombing aircraft are working to contain the fire but firefighters may not be able to protect every property,” Queensland Fire and Emergency services said. “You should not expect a firefighter at your door. Queensland Police Service are door knocking in the area. Power, water, and mobile phone service may be lost.”

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison is on holiday at an undisclosed, overseas location, climate protesters plan to march in Sydney this week to demand change and highlight his absence as vast stretches of Australia burn. Recently, Mr. Morrison has acknowledged climate change as one of “many other factors” driving the bushfires.

Here’s how corrupt climate change deniers want to change your mind

We can accept climate change or not. It’s happening either way. Image credits: NES.

Back in the 1970s, both the oil and the coal industry were well aware of the effects burning fossil fuels has on the atmosphere. But, despite knowing that their activities are causing global warming, they didn’t tell the world — instead, they launched a campaign to sow doubts about the veracity of climate change, a campaign that is still prevalent today and is largely responsible for the present extent of the climate denial movement.

Fossil fuel companies are not alone in this. Political lobbyists, media moguls, and profit-motivated individuals have spent the past 30 years making people doubt that climate change exists, that it is bad, and that we are causing it.

But the jig is up, or at least it’s starting to be. Two recent polls suggested that over 75% of Americans think humans are causing climate change. We see that all around us in social movements: school climate strikesExtinction Rebellion protests, national governments declaring a climate emergency, and so on. More and more media coverage of climate change and an increasing number of extreme weather events have all contributed to this shift, and there is a growing consensus that we need to act on climate change.

But this doesn’t mean that the lobby has stopped — it has merely changed. Instead of flat out denying climate change, it is taking a more subtle approach, with things like mocking protests or activists such as Greta Thunberg and spreading doubts about the potential of renewable energy.

Spreading climate change denial is still massive business. Companies invest tens of millions directly into this and pump additional resources indirectly, by funding flawed studies and misinformation campaigns.

So, here’s how these companies are trying to change your mind and have you believe their story, according to Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, UCL.

  • Science denial

This is the first and oldest approach: try to convince people that the science is just not settled. These are the very familiar arguments: there’s too much uncertainty, the scientists aren’t sure yet, it’s a natural cycle, the models are unreliable, and so on.

All these arguments are false and there is a clear consensus among scientists about the causes of climate change. The models are consistent, and while there is bound to be some uncertainty, that’s only at the detail level — we know climate change is happening, we know it’s because of us, and we know how the heating will happen in general terms. There is no debate about that.

The models were right in the past, and future projections don’t look good in any scenario.

The positive thing is that this sort of argument is increasingly ineffective. Simply put, science just makes too strong a case to be dismissed. More and more people are starting to realize that, but science denial is still as dangerous as ever.

  • Economic denial

Economic denial is a bit more subtle than straight-up science denial. Its core argument is that it’s just too expensive to fix global warming, so why bother? More and more deniers are saying that we have a lot to gain economically by not addressing climate change, which is flawed on multiple levels.

Economic studies suggest that we could fix climate change now by spending 1% of the world’s GDP. If you add the benefits to human health into the mix (tackling global warming would save lives and improve the health of millions). Considering that every year, global GDP grows by around 3.5%, a 1% cost sounds like nothing — it’s much less than what we gain in a year. The subsidies awarded to the fossil fuel industry alone are much larger than that: 6% of the world GDP.

Furthermore, global warming is already causing massive economic loss through rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

So in the grand scheme of things, addressing global warming doesn’t really cost that much, despite what some groups would have you believe.

  • Humanitarian denial

Something deniers also like to do is pretend that global warming isn’t really bad for us. They’ll say things like “oh, warming is actually good, who doesn’t like a long summer”, or “warmer winters can are good”. Climate change deniers are keen to point out that cold kills more people than heat.

Yet again, this is misleading and manipulative in more ways than one. For starters, it’s not factually correct — at least not in the US. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

US weather fatalities for 2018 alongside the ten- and 30-year average. National Weather Service.

Cold kills more people because of poor housing — most people suffering from extreme cold are either homeless or living in improper conditions. It’s not that climate kills those people, it’s more that society failed them. In addition, climate change is causing more extreme events, and that can include cold events, as we’ve recently seen happen in the US.

In terms of global impact, 40% of the world’s population also lives in the Tropics — where any additional heating can have devastating impacts and no one really wants a hotter summer. The world’s poorest areas will also be disproportionately affected by rising temperatures and many areas will struggle to cope with it. From a humanitarian perspective, this is a brewing disaster.

A heating climate is also facilitating the spread of dangerous pathogens by expanding the habitats of vectors such as mosquitoes. All in all, climate change will make things worse from a health and humanitarian perspective.

  • Political denial

Political denial takes a few different shapes. Climate deniers love to pass blame and take an adversarial angle, saying things like “why should we take action when other countries aren’t” — but the reality of it is that with almost no exception, rich countries are rich because they’ve burned a lot of fossil fuels. Countries such as China and India are some of the world’s largest emitters nowadays, but historically, the US accounts for 25% of all the planet’s emissions. Countries in the European Union account for another 22%. China and India together barely make up 15% together. In addition, per capita emissions look much worse for the US, as well as other countries with abundant fossil fuel resources (such as Saudi Arabia or Russia).

Deniers thrive when they can push nationalism and us-versus-them situations. They dislike global coordination and action, and they want to make everything seem like a zero-sum game: if someone else wins, then we lose, and in order for us to win, someone must lose. But climate management can be a win-win situation. We can reduce emissions while also having economic benefits and more jobs. Improving the environment and reforestation provides protection from extreme weather events and can in turn improve food and water security, and we can help other countries while also helping ourselves.

  • Crisis denial

The last thing deniers do is to make it seem like the situation is not urgent. How many times have we heard that climate change is a problem for the future, for the next generations to tackle? Scientists blow things out of proportions, we should wait a bit and then act. We are living in the best of times, so let’s just see what happens and then work things out.

Well, it’s happening now, and we will have the world to lose if we don’t act soon.

If there’s one thing we know about scientists, it is that they take their time and they are almost always on the conservative side of estimates. Scientific evidence is overwhelming and we mustn’t allow mal-intentioned people with money and power to win their disinformation campaign.

In the end, even if you’re still unconvinced after all this, we can only refer to a famous comic: what if we just make a better world for no reason?

European satellites track climate shifts using ocean salinity

New research from the European Space Agency (ESA) Climate Change Initiative is offering new insight into sea-surface salinity across the world. The data will help researchers better estimate the effects of climatic shifts on the world’s oceans.

Global sea-surface salinity maps from ESA’s Climate Change Initiative.
Image credits European Space Agency.

Ocean water is salty — but these salt levels aren’t the same everywhere. This saltiness is a key variable in the Earth’s climate systems, as it’s the product of multiple different factors (additions of freshwater from rivers, rain, glaciers or ice sheets, or on the removal of water by evaporation). Understanding how salinity changes over time and distance can help us better understand (and predict) man-made climate change. Now, thanks to the ESA’s efforts, we can monitor it from space.

Salt-o-meter

“The project aims to make a significant improvement to the quality and length of the datasets available for monitoring sea-surface salinity across the globe,” says Susanne Mecklenburg, head of ESA’s Climate Office.

“We are keen to see this new dataset used and tested in a variety of applications, particularly to improve our understanding of the fundamental role that oceans have in climate.”

The ongoing project from the ESA’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) has produced the most complete dataset of sea-surface salinity around the world to date. The CCI aims to generate accurate and long-term datasets pertaining to 21 Essential Climate Variables set out under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Sea-surface salinity maps can be used to monitor natural water cycles, evaporation rates, and ocean circulation. These processes are central elements of the climate system of today as they help transport heat, nutrients and carbon around the planet. Unusual salinity levels can also indicate that extreme climate events, such as El Niño, are about to start.

Such measurements have been taken before — they indicate that ever since the 1950s, salty areas around the world are becoming saltier, while freshwater areas are becoming fresher. However, there has always been a measure of debate over these findings, as they relied on scientific ships trawling the oceans to read salinity, which provides relatively poor accuracy (as they’re quite slow to move around). Using satellites to capture a global snapshot would give us a much better idea of what’s happening.

The team behind the project, Jacqueline Boutin of LOCEAN (Laboratory of Oceanography and Climatology) and Nicolas Reul of IFREMER (French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea) pooled together data from three satellite missions to create a dataset spanning nine years, with maps generated on a weekly and monthly basis.

The team measured brightness temperature as a proxy for sea-surface salinity using microwave sensors onboard the SMOS, Aquarius, and Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite missions.

“Monitoring salinity from space helps to resolve spatial and temporal scales that are poorly sampled by in situ platforms that make direct observations, and fills gaps in the observing system,” says Dr. Boutin.

“By combining and comparing measurements between the different sensors, [we improved] the precision of maps of sea-surface salinity by roughly 30%.”

Ocean–atmosphere exchanges around the world are driven by winds and exchanges between surface and subsurface ocean water, the team explains. These later ones are powered by changes in water density, a product of both temperature and salinity (salty water is denser than freshwater). In the deep ocean, density variations are the main driver for the movement of water. Studying changes in salinity, the team explains, can thus help better model ocean-atmosphere exchanges, and the behavior of deeper ocean layers — both of which will allow us to better estimate climate shifts in the future.

The team is currently working with climate scientists to compare the new dataset with in situ observations and with the output from salinity models.

The dataset is freely available for download from the CCI Open Data Portal.

Sea level rise by 2300 is unavoidable, despite the Paris agreement

We’re set on the path of rising sea levels, even if the pledges made for the Paris climate agreement are met and global temperatures stabilize, a new paper reports.

Image via Pixabay.

The Paris agreement on climate change mitigation was adopted in December 2015 and aims to limit the rise of global average temperatures to a maximum of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. The ideal scenario under the agreement would be to limit this figure to 1.5°C, and the countries that signed into the agreement are expected to make efforts towards this goal.

While a successful Paris agreement would do wonders for our efforts against climate heating and environmental degradation, we’re already set for rising sea levels around the world by 2300, a new study reports.

We’re already there

“Even if we were to meet these initial goals of the Paris agreement, the sea level commitment from global warming will be significant,” said Peter Clark, an Oregon State University climate scientist and a co-author of the study.

“When we pump more carbon into the atmosphere, the increase in temperature is almost immediate. But sea level rise takes a lot longer to respond to that warming. If you take an ice cube out of the freezer and put it on the sidewalk, it takes some time to melt. The bigger the ice cube, the longer it takes to melt.”

The authors say this is the first effort to quantify how sea levels will rise from carbon emissions (both past and future) released since the agreement was signed. In the first 15 years following the agreement, they report, will cause a rise of roughly 20 centimeters (7.9 in) by 2300. The estimate does not take into account the effect of irreversible melting in parts of the Antarctic ice sheet, the team adds, which is already underway.

A one-meter rise is expected by 2300, caused by emissions dating back to the year 1750. Around 20% of that rise can be traced back to emissions released since after the Paris agreement was signed. Around half of it (so 10% of the total projected rise) is attributable to the world’s top five polluters, the team found: the United States, China, India, Russia, and the European Union

Sea level rise is a huge threat to coastal ecosystems and human communities, with the potential to affect and/or displace hundreds of millions around the world (coastal areas are the most heavily-inhabited regions on Earth). Sea level rise is mostly driven by melt from glaciers and ice sheets draining into the ocean. But these are massive structures strewn all over the world, and they each respond to climate heating in their own time, ranging from decades to millennia.

“Much of the carbon dioxide we’ve emitted into the atmosphere will stay up there for thousands of years,” said Clark, who is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“So our carbon emissions this century are not only committing our planet to a warmer climate, but also to higher sea levels that will also persist for thousands of years.”

The paper “Attributing long-term sea-level rise to Paris Agreement emission pledges” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biodiversity is a linchpin of productive, resilient crops

Greater biodiversity supports greater agricultural output, a new study reports.

Image via Pixabay.

The study looks at data from roughly 1,500 agricultural fields across the world. From American corn crops to oilseed rape fields in southern Sweden, from coffee plantations in India to the mango groves of South Africa and cereal crops in the Alps, one factor always has a positive effect on the productivity and resilience of crops: biodiversity.

The more the merrier

“Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production,” explains Matteo Dainese, Ph.D., a biologist at Eurac Research and first author of the study.

“For example, a farmer can depend less on pesticides to get rid of harmful insects if natural biological controls are increased through higher agricultural biodiversity.”

The study focused on two ecosystem services (the natural processes that keep ecosystems running without the need for oversight or costs on our part): pollination services provided by wild insects, and biological pest control. In short, they looked at the natural processes that fertilize crops and those that keep ravenous insects at bay through predation.

Heterogeneous landscapes (those with greater biodiversity), the team reports, can support greater populations and varieties of wild pollinators and beneficial insects. This directly leads to greater biological control of pests and crop yields.

Monocultures, on the other hand, lead to simpler landscapes and adverse effects for crops: there are fewer pollinators, both in overall numbers and in the number of species. Monocultures, the team adds, are the cause of roughly one-third of the negative effects pollinators experience from landscape simplification. If human control of harmful insects is also present, the strain on pollinators is even higher (the team notes that the loss of ‘natural enemy richness’ can represent up to 50% of the total effect of landscape simplification on pollinators).

If you boil everything down, the findings basically say that greater farmland biodiversity leads to more productivity and greater crop resilience in the face of environmental stressors such as climate change. Given that we’re contending with a two-pronged issue — on the one hand, we’re disrupting natural patterns, which impairs agricultural productivity, while on the other we’re trying to produce more food to feed an ever-growing population — the team believes that fostering farmland productivity should be a key goal of the agricultural sector.

“Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important,” underlines animal ecologist Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter from the Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology at the University of Würzburg, the initiator of the study within the EU project ‘Liberation’.

“Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations.”

The researchers recommend that we work to protect environments for which health depends on diverse biological communities, and try to diversify crops and landscapes as much as possible to foster biodiversity in areas that lack it.

The paper has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Here’s what’s really shameful about the kids’ climate strike

Image credits: Fermin Koop / ZME Science.

Last week, millions of people all around the world gathered to protest against the lack of action on climate change. The core of the movement was fueled by an unusual protest of children, sparked by 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.

We described in great detail why such a march is justified, and why children have every reason to feel that they’ve been wronged by adults — doomed to deal with the consequences of climate change for their entire lives. This is not to say that just because the kids are out in the street, we should listen to them; that’s hardly the point. You can make an honest argument that children may not grasp the full extent of the situation and are too naive for such a problem.

But here’s the issue: the requests put out during the climate march are actually more in line with the science than what politicians are using.

This is what’s truly embarrassing about this event. The world’s youth seems to have more scientific and moral clarity than the world’s leading politicians.

September 20th hosted some of the largest climate protests in the world, and the driving force behind them were children and students. School Strike 4 Climate Demonstrations Zagreb. Image via Wiki Commons.

Let’s look at things one by one. The main request behind the climate strike is urgent action against climate change. This is perfectly in line with all scientific projections, which find that without urgent action, we will cause catastrophic and irreversible damage — damage from which the entire planet (ourselves included) will suffer. The Paris Agreement, the best global plan we have at the moment, has been criticized by many scientists as not ambitious enough. Nevertheless, it’s still a workable framework, which can make a difference, if the world’s countries would play their part.

But they aren’t.

Few if any countries are actually on par with their pledges for the Paris Agreement — again, an agreement which is not the end-all of all our climate woes. To make matters even worse, some countries show little interest in actually following these pledges. Most notably, the current US administration has announced its intention to exit the Paris Agreement.

So the urgent action that scientists are asking for is not happening. We’re not doing nearly enough, and we’re not acting fast enough — we need to do much more.

What else is the climate strike asking for? More education about climate in schools.

Yet again, this matter is perfectly in line with existing science. Numerous studies and surveys have found that most people have an incorrect view of climate change. The meer existence of climate change is being denied, and the scale at which this movement is prevalent is proof enough that we need more climate education in schools. What reasonable person would argue against that?

Of course, there’s one issue which the world’s youth probably fails to understand: that change at this level is extremely challenging.

That’s why they are asking us, the adults, to act. Because they can’t do it — only we can. The science is there, and leaders refuse to take important action. The ramifications are extremely complex, but the essence of the problem is simple.

It’s encouraging to see the world’s youth taking action, but it’s shameful that we got to this point. It’s even more shameful that the protest might fall on deaf ears.

Tetrax_tetrax

Grassland birds will struggle to have babies because of climate change

Global warming is going to make everything hotter — except birds’ dating lives, new research shows.

Tetrax_tetrax
Image via Pixabay.

A new study published by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Porto (CIBIO-InBIO) reports that global warming could reduce the mating activity and success of grassland birds.

Hot singles in your area

“This work has shown how global warming may affect important behavioral mechanisms using the mating system of a lekking grassland bird species as an example,” says Mishal Gudka, who led the research while at UEA’s School of Biological Sciences.

The study examined the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), a species of grassland bird that’s classified as a vulnerable species in Europe. The aim of the study was to see how rising mean temperatures could affect the future behavior of this (as well as other related) species.

Male little bustards, like male humans, spend most of their time in April and May trying to attract females. They do so in gatherings known as leks. They will bunch up together in a lek and stand upright, letting out a bellowing call to get noticed by prospective mates. Such calls are also employed to scare off competing males from their territory.

The team, with members from the UK, Kenya, Portugal, Spain, and Brazil report that high temperatures reduced this call display behavior among males. Their hypothesis is that if conditions get too hot, the birds have to make a choice between attempting to mate or finding shelter to protect themselves from the heat and save energy.

The team used remote GPS/GSM accelerometer tracking devices that were fitted to 17 wild male little bustards living at five sites in Spain and Portugal. The birds were filmed while the accelerometers recorded their position to record their behavior. Using this data, the team was able to determine the acceleration signature or pattern for snort-calling behavior, which they then tracked for the present study.

Little bustard display behavior is significantly related to temperature and to the particular stage of the mating season reached, the team reports. The average temperature of each day has been inversely linked to how much display behavior the males put out: the higher the temperature, the lower display rates become. The study focused on a region of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) where average daily daytime (5:00—21:00 hours) temperatures varied between 10ºC and 31ºC. Snort-call display probability decreased substantially as temperature increased from 4 to 20ºC, stabilized from 20 to 30ºC, and decreased thereafter.

The team reports that, based on these findings and temperature projections in the area, the average display activity of the birds will drop by 10% by 2100.

“Many people are familiar with the impacts of global warming on wildlife through droughts, storms or wildfires as well as earlier migration with warming springs,” says co-author Paul Dolman, Professor of Conservation Ecology at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences. “But climate change affects species in many other subtle ways that may cause unexpected changes.”

“Little bustards living in the Iberian Peninsula are already exposed to some of the highest temperatures within their species range. They are one of many bird and mammal species that have an extravagant, energetically demanding display ritual, meaning they are all susceptible to the same issue.”

The paper “Elevated temperature affects male display activity of a lekking grassland bird” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Toy globe.

Melting Antarctic ice can ‘significantly’ delay climate heating in Southern Hemisphere

Melting Antarctic icebergs can insulate the Southern Hemisphere from man-made climate change — for a while.

Toy globe.

Image credits Luisella Planeta Leoni .

We’ve seen earlier today how climate heating impacts the stability of the Antarctic ice sheets — now let’s take a look at how it, in turn, impacts climate. New research from the University of Hawaii, Penn State University, the University of Massachusetts, and the IBS Center for Climate Physics (South Korea), states that the “iceberg effect” created by these melting ice sheets can “significantly” slow down human-induced warming in the Southern Hemisphere.

Not good, not terrible

“Our results demonstrate that the effect of Antarctic melting and icebergs needs to be included in computer model simulations of future climate change,” says Dr. Fabian Schloesser, lead author of the study.

“Climate models currently used in the 6th climate change assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) do not account for this process.”

Icebergs breaking off the Antarctic ice sheets can help delay the worst of climate change in the Southern Hemisphere, the team explains.

Recent observations regarding the rapid thinning of the Pine Island and Thwaites glacier regions in Antarctica (due to warmer oceans and climate-fueled shifts in wind patterns) raise concerns regarding an accelerated ice loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet. This also carries the scary prospect of rapid and significant sea-level rise.

Ice loss occurs either in the form of melt-induced (liquid) freshwater discharge into the ocean, or through (solid) iceberg calving. So part of the retreating ice sheet melts away, while the rest breaks off as icebergs. Putting two and two together, this means that we can expect to see more and more frequent iceberg discharge in the Antarctic.

Greenland Sea Iceberg.

Iceberg photographed in the Greenland Sea.
Image credits Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikimedia.

Icebergs are huge things. They can persist for years at a time, floating along their merry way through the Southern Ocean until they reach warmer waters and melt. Now, since icebergs are just hefty chunks of ice, this also helps cool down ocean water as they go. Furthermore, freshwater discharge from icebergs impacts currents by lowering ocean salinity.

What the team set out to understand was whether this “iceberg effect” can delay or alter future climate change in the Southern Hemisphere. They ran a series of climate heating computer simulations, which include the combined freshwater and cooling effects of icebergs on the ocean, to quantify the effect of the icebergs on future climate in the area.

The researchers tweaked their model so that the size and number of icebergs it ‘releases’ mimics the gradual retreat of the Antarctic ice sheet over a period of several centuries. Then they simply switched the “iceberg effect” on and off to see what would happen. The results showed that the combined effect of those icebergs can significantly slow down man-made climate heating in the Southern Hemisphere, impacting global winds and rainfall patterns.

While all that ice can drain away a lot of heat it also comes with a caveat: sea level rise

“To melt the icebergs released over the 21st century in one of our extreme Antarctic ice-sheet retreat scenarios would require 400 times the current annual world energy consumption,” explains Dr. Tobias Friedrich, coauthor of the study.

“Global sea level would rise by about 80 cm, impacting many coastal regions and communities worldwide.”

The team explains that the iceberg effect largely compensates for the processes that were previously thought to accelerate Antarctic melting.

“Our research highlights the role of icebergs in global climate change and sea level rise,” says Prof. Axel Timmermann, corresponding author of the study and Director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics.

“Depending on how quickly the West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates, the iceberg effect can delay future warming in cities such as Buenos Aires and Cape Town by 10-50 years.”

The research team plans to further analyze the interplay between ice, climate, and global sea level with a new computer model that they developed.

The paper “Antarctic iceberg impacts on future Southern Hemisphere climate” has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Airplane.

Warmer climate will make for more air turbulence, bumpier flights

Climate heating will, unexpectedly, make your flights much bumpier in the future.

Airplane.

Image via Pixabay.

Researchers at the University of Reading report that the jet stream is becoming more turbulent in the upper atmosphere over the North Atlantic. Since satellites began observing it in 1979, they explain, jet stream shearing has increased by 15%.

Jet, streamed, sheared

“Over the last four decades, temperatures have risen most rapidly over the Arctic, whilst in the stratosphere — around 12 km above the surface — they have cooled,” says lead author Simon Lee, Ph.D. student in Meteorology at the University of Reading.

“This has created a tug-of-war effect, where surface temperature changes act to slow the jet down, while temperature changes higher up act to speed it up.”

Wind shear is the variation in wind velocity at right angles to the wind’s direction. It sounds pretty complex but, in essence, wind shearing is when bodies of air move perpendicular to the direction the wind is blowing, and generate a turning force.

Vertical wind shearing, the increase in wind speed at higher altitudes, is particularly dangerous as it creates clear-air (invisible) turbulence, potentially with enough force to throw passengers out of their seats.

Tens of thousands of planes encounter severe turbulence every year, causing hundreds of injuries — both from passengers and flight attendants. Overall, the estimated cost of clear-air turbulence for the global aviation sector is estimated to be around a billion dollars annually, through a combination of flight delays, injuries to cabin crew and passengers, and structural damage to aircraft.

The new study is the first one to show that, while man-made climate heating is closing the temperature difference gap between Earth’s poles and the equator at ground level, the opposite is happening at around 34,000 feet, a typical airplane cruising altitude. 

The jet stream, like all wind, is powered by these differences in temperature. Growing differences in high-altitude temperatures are strengthening the stream, driving an increase in turbulence-generating wind shear at cruising altitudes that has gone unnoticed up until now, the team reports. They also add that their findings support previous research at Reading indicating that human-induced climate change will make severe turbulence up to three times more common by 2050-80.

“Our study shows these opposing effects currently balance out, meaning the speed of the jet stream has not changed. However, we looked for the first time at the wind shear, where significant change has previously gone unnoticed,” Lee explains.

“This strengthens previous projections for increased clear-air turbulence, as we can see an increase in one of the driving forces has happened already.

He explains that the upper-level element of that “tug-of-war” mentioned earlier will eventually win out, and that the jet stream will accelerate. “This has serious implications for airlines, as passengers and crew would face a bigger risk of injury,” Lee adds. It’s also likely that this change in the jet stream will increase flight times from Europe towards the US and speed up flights in the other direction.

The study’s lead researcher, Professor Paul Williams from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, first linked increased turbulence to climate change. Prof. Williams is currently collaborating with the aircraft industry to design the next generation of planes — one that is better fit for a warmer and bumpier airspace.

The paper “Increased shear in the North Atlantic upper-level jet stream over the past four decades” has been published in the journal Nature.

Air pollution.

Reducing air pollution levels won’t cause a spike in climate heating

Cleaning up pollution won’t make climate change worse, according to new research.

Air pollution.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study from the University of Reading comes to put to rest the concerns that reducing air pollution could amplify climate heating. This concern stems from the fact that pollution particles help clouds form water droplets (which makes the clouds thicker) so they reflect more incoming sunlight and drive temperatures down. While this mechanism is definitely valid, the team reports, pollution also causes several types of clouds to grow thinner, allowing more sunlight to pass through.

All in all, the authors conclude, pollution is unlikely to offset more than half the warming caused by greenhouse gases.

Clean temperatures

“Until now, it was assumed that thicker clouds form when water droplets condense around the particles in polluted air, delaying rainfall, and allowing clouds to reflect more sunlight back into space,” says Velle Toll, lead author of the study. “To test this, we studied satellite data from clouds near sources of pollution.”

The extent to which air pollution helps cool the Earth down wasn’t reliably known up to now. If this cooling is strong, then removing it would amplify climate heating; however, if its cooling effect is negligible, then clearing pollutants out of the air would be a net win for humanity at large.

The present study comes to address this lack in our understanding. The authors showed that air pollution affects different clouds in different ways, causing some to grow thicker while thinning others out. The findings suggest that current plans to curb global warming by moving to cleaner sources of energy may still work without leading to an unexpected extra source of heating.

“There was little change in average water content across all the polluted clouds we found, showing that pollution makes little difference overall to many types of clouds. Some clouds got thicker, but other areas thinned out,” Toll explains.

“This reduces a big area of uncertainty for future forecasts of the climate. Our study provides more evidence that cutting emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution is a win-win situation for the health of people’s lungs and for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.”

For the study, the team looked at near-infrared satellite images of clouds formed across the world over areas with significant air pollution levels. Clouds that are affected by said pollution look ‘brighter’ in these images, which allowed the team to pinpoint them exactly.

Hundreds of such clouds, produced by tiny pollution particles from sources such as volcanoes, cities, ships, factories, and wildfires were included in the analysis. The researchers then compared the changes caused by pollution in these clouds to ones simulated by climate models, to see how reliable our predictions of future climates are.

All in all, they report, air pollution could offset just half of the warming caused by greenhouse gases at best. In other words, we’d get at least two times as much cooling if we scrubbed the atmosphere of both pollution and greenhouse gases — not to mention massive benefits to our health, as virtually every person on Earth is exposed to ‘unsafe’ levels of air pollution.

“Our study provides assurances that polluted air has a limited ability to prevent the atmosphere from heating up, in addition to being bad for people’s health,” says Dr. Nicolas Bellouin, study co-author and a Working Group I lead author in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report.

“There is now one less excuse for us not to cut emissions of both air pollution and greenhouse gases, or we will continue to see temperature rises that put people and the natural world in danger. In any case, a small temperature rise resulting from cutting pollution is a price very much worth paying to prevent greater, long-term harm caused by greenhouse gases.”

The paper “Weak average liquid-cloud-water response to anthropogenic aerosols” has been published in the journal Nature.