Lightning could have an important ecological function, a duo of new paper reports. According to the findings, such discharges play an important role in clearing gases like methane from the atmosphere.
As we all know, thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening. However, they also seem to be quite fresh. The immense heat and energy released by lightning bolts break apart nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air, which mix into hydroxyl radicals and hydroperoxyl radical — OH and HO2, respectively. In turn, these highly reactive chemical compounds go on to alter the atmosphere’s chemistry, in particular jump-starting the processes that degrade greenhouse gas compounds such as methane.
“Through history, people were only interested in lightning bolts because of what they could do on the ground,” says William H. Brune, distinguished professor of meteorology at Penn State and co-author on both of the new papers. “Now there is increasing interest in the weaker electrical discharges in thunderstorms that lead to lightning bolts.”
Data for this research was collected by an instrument plane flown above Colorado and Oklahoma in 2012. The plane followed thunderstorms and lightning discharges in order to understand their effect on the atmosphere.
Initially, the team assumed that the spikes in OH and HO2 signals (atmospheric levels) their devices were picking up must be errors, so they removed them from the dataset to study at a later time. The issue was that the instrument recorded high levels of hydroxyl and hydroperoxyl in stretches of the cloud where there was no visible lightning. A few years ago, Brune actually took the time to analyze it.
Working with a graduate student and research associate, he showed that the spikes could be produced both by sparks and “subvisible discharges” in the lab. After this, they performed a fresh analysis of the thunderstorm and lightning data from 2012.
“With the help of a great undergraduate intern,” said Brune, “we were able to link the huge signals seen by our instrument flying through the thunderstorm clouds to the lightning measurements made from the ground.”
Planes avoid flying through the center of thunderstorms because it’s simply dangerous for them, Brune explains, but they can be used to sample the top portion of the clouds which spread in the direction of the wind — this area of a storm is known as ‘the anvil’. Visible lightning is formed in the part of the anvil near the thunderstorm core.
Most bolts never strike the ground, he adds. This lightning is particularly important for affecting ozone and some greenhouse gas in the upper atmosphere. While we did know that lightning can split water to form hydroxyl and hydroperoxyl, this is the first time it has actually been observed in a live thunderstorm.
The researchers found hydroxyl and hydroperoxyl in areas with subvisible lightning, but very little evidence of ozone and no signs of nitric oxide (which requires visible lightning to form) in these areas. If this type of lightning occurs routinely, its outputs of hydroxyl and hydroperoxyl should be included in atmospheric models (they are not, currently).
Both of these compounds interact with some gases like methane, breaking them down through chemical reactions, and preventing them from realizing their full greenhouse potential.
“Lightning-generated OH (hydroxyl) in all storms happening globally can be responsible for a highly uncertain but substantial 2% to 16% of global atmospheric OH oxidation,” the team explains.
“These results are highly uncertain, partly because we do not know how these measurements apply to the rest of the globe,” said Brune. “We only flew over Colorado and Oklahoma. Most thunderstorms are in the tropics. The whole structure of high plains storms is different than those in the tropics. Clearly, we need more aircraft measurements to reduce this uncertainty.”
The first paper “Extreme oxidant amounts produced by lightning in storm clouds” has been published in the journal Science.
The second paper, “Electrical Discharges Produce Prodigious Amounts of Hydroxyl and Hydroperoxyl Radicals” has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.
Climate change is poised to make tropical ecosystems wetter — which will make them release more carbon dioxide, according to a new paper.
The study focused on an analysis of ancient tropical soils from the submarine delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Throughout history, the data reveals, these soils have emitted higher levels of CO2 gas during warmer and wetter periods. The team writes that the same mechanism can amplify the effect of climate change as tropical soils today will release more CO2 into the atmosphere on top of (and due to) human emissions.
A study in the May 6th issue of Nature indicates the increase in rainfall forecast by global climate models is likely to hasten the release of carbon dioxide from tropical soils, further intensifying the climate crisis by adding to human emissions of this greenhouse gas into Earth’s atmosphere.
Worse with water
“We found that shifts toward a warmer and wetter climate in the drainage basin of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers over the last 18,000 years enhanced rates of soil respiration and decreased stocks of soil carbon,” says Dr. Christopher Hein of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, lead author of the paper.
“This has direct implications for Earth’s future, as climate change is likely to increase rainfall in tropical regions, further accelerating respiration of soil carbon, and adding even more CO2 to the atmosphere than that directly added by humans.”
Soil respiration represents the CO2 gas released by microbes into the atmosphere as they munch on and decompose organic material at or just below the ground surface such as leaves, roots, and dead organic matter. It’s not very different, actually, from the way humans and other animals generate CO2 from cellular processes that they then breathe out.
Plant roots also contribute to soil respiration during the night when plants can’t photosynthesize, and so burn off some of the carbohydrates (sugars) they produced during the day for energy.
The team analyzed three cores collected from the ocean floor at the mouth of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in Bangladesh — which form the world’s largest delta and abyssal fan with sediments eroded from the Himalayas. These cores allowed the team to track environmental changes in the region over the last 18,000 years. Their data showed that there is a strong link between soil age and runoff rates.
Younger soils, which formed during wetter epochs, showed more rapid respiration rates, while older ones — which formed in cooler, drier times — showed less respiration and held higher quantities of carbon for longer periods of time. The wetter times correlate with periods of the Indian summer monsoon, the primary source of precipitation across India, the Himalayas, and south-central Asia, was stronger. The team confirmed this link by analyzing other paleoclimatic evidence in geologic formations and fossil phytoplankton.
“Small changes in the amount of carbon stored in soils can play an outsized role in modulating atmospheric CO2 concentrations and, therefore, global climate, as soils are a primary global reservoir of this element,” Hein explains.
The team notes that soils hold an estimated 3,500 billion tons of carbon or around four times as much as the quantity of this element in the atmosphere.
The feedback process seen by the team here — where atmospheric CO2 drives global warming which increases the release of CO2 — is only one piece of a larger image. Similar findings on permafrost soils of the Arctic circle have been made in the past. There, widespread thawing is allowing for more extensive microbial activity and is responsible for an estimated 0.6 billion tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere each year.
The paper “Millennial-scale hydroclimate control of tropical soil carbon storage,” has been published in the journal Nature.
Demand is growing across the globe for lithium extraction, mainly driven by the increasing use of lithium in electronic battery technologies and electric vehicles. But where does lithium come from and how is it produced? Here’s an explainer with everything you should know, including the environmental impacts.
Basically, lithium is a highly reactive alkali metal with excellent heat and electrical conductivity. Such characteristics make it especially useful to manufacture lubricants, pharmaceuticals, glass and, most importantly, lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and consumer electronics.
But lithium can’t just be found in nature, as it’s highly reactive. Instead, it’s present as a constituent of salts or other compounds. Most of the lithium available in the market can be found as lithium carbonate, a more stable compound that can then transformed into chemicals or salts.
Lithium salts can be found in underground deposits of clay, mineral ore and brine, as well as in geothermal water and seawater. Most of the world’s lithium comes from mines, from where it’s extracted. Briny lakes, also known as salars, have the highest concentration of lithium, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 parts per million.
The salars with the highest lithium concentrations are located in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, in an area called “the lithium triangle.” Lithium obtained from salars is then recovered in the form of lithium carbonate, the main raw material that is used by companies in lithium-ion batteries.
Brine mining in salars is normally a very long process that can take from eight months to three years. Mining starts by drilling a hole and pumping brine to the surface. Then they leave it to evaporate for months, first creating a mix of manganese, potassium, borax, and salts which is filtered and placed into another evaporation pool.
It will take between 12 and 18 months for that mix to be filtered enough in order to be able to extract the lithium carbonate, also known as white gold. While it’s cheap and effective, the process needs a lot of water, estimated at 500.000 gallons per ton of lithium extracted.
This creates a lot of pressure in local communities living in nearby areas. For example, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining has caused the region to lose 65% of the region’s water. This has meant impacts of local farmers, who rely on agriculture and cattle for their livelihoods and now need to get the water from somewhere else.
The risks of lithium mining
Lack of water in the region is not just the single potential problem with lithium mining. Toxic chemicals can leak from the evaporation pools to the water supply, such as hydrochloric acid, which is used in the processing of lithium – as well as waste products that can filter out of the brine.
In the United States, Canada, and Australia, lithium is usually extracted from the rock by using more traditional methods. Nevertheless, this still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. In Nevada, the research found impacts on fish 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation, for example.
A report by Friends of the Earth argued that extracting lithium can affect the soil and causes air contamination. In the area Salar del Hombre Muerto in Argentina, residents complain that lithium polluted streams that are used by humans and livestock, while in Chile there were clashes between mining firms and locals.
Improved technologies for lithium extraction
Researchers argue that there’s a need to develop new extraction technologies that can allow manufacturing batteries in a more environmentally friendly way. That’s why across the world many are looking for new alternatives, such as battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.
Nevertheless, new batteries that are less energy-dense or more expensive could end up having a negative effect on the environment. “A less durable, yet more sustainable device could entail a larger carbon footprint once you factor in transportation and the extra packaging required,” said Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.
Being able to recycle lithium-ion plays a key role as well. In Australia, research showed that only 2% of the country’s 3,300 tons of lithium-ion waste was recycled. That can cause problems, as unwanted electronics with batteries can end up in landfills and metals and ionic fluids can leak into underground water reservoirs.
The Birmingham Energy Institute is using robotics technology initially develop for nuclear power plants to look for ways to remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There were a number of fires at recycling plants where lithium-ion batteries have been stored improperly.
A key problem is that manufacturers are usually secretive regarding what actually goes into the batteries, which makes it difficult to recycle them properly. Now, recovered cells are mostly shredded, leading to a mixture of metals that can be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques.
The global enchantment over mobile devices and all kinds of technological gadgets have led to a growing demand for lithium-ion batteries. That’s especially applicable for electric vehicles, as the world seeks to stop using fossil fuels in the near future to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
By 2025, lithium demand is expected to increase to approximately 1.3 million metric tons of LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent). That’s five times today’s levels. A long list of automakers is responsible for that. For example, Volkswagen hopes to launch more than 70 electric car models in the next 10 years.
The growth in demand for lithium can also be linked to an announcement made by China in 2015, prioritizing electric vehicles as part of its five-year plan. Over the period from 2016 to 2018, lithium prices have more than doubled and are expected to keep growing as the demand expands.
The open question is the consequences that such demand will have on the environment and the communities near the salt mines where the lithium is extracted. The more gadgets and electric vehicles the more lithium that will be needed in the future, raising the need to develop more environmentally friendly extraction techniques.
They’re blamed for causing an increase in global warming, but they also play a key role in the energy balance of the planet. They cause the greenhouse effect and among the most known ones are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. They are the greenhouse gases.
Simply put, greenhouse gases are gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. They let solar energy pass through, but then they capture the heat inside the atmosphere.
Greenhouse gases are found in low concentrations in the atmosphere (and have been around for millions of years), but the proportion has ramped up since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Man-made activity (primarily coming from industrial activity, but also from agriculture and transportation) has caused a sharp increase in greenhouse gases, which in turn are trapping more heat and causing temperatures to rise. This is why greenhouse gases are linked with man-made global warming.
But let’s take it one step at a time.
What’s the greenhouse effect?
The greenhouse effect was identified by scientists in 1896. It’s the natural warming of the planet that happens as gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun, which would otherwise leave for space.
Up to 30% of the solar energy that arrives into the planet is reflected back to space, while the other 70% enters the surface through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the atmosphere, the land, and the oceans and heat the planets.
The heat is transformed into invisible infrared light. Some of it goes to space, while most of it is absorbed by greenhouse gases and cause more warming. The concentration of gases in the atmosphere was about 200 parts per million for a large part of the last 800.000 years.
While the exact model is very complex, and the numbers are sometimes hard to pinpoint accurately, the greenhouse effect is well-known for more than a century. It is supported by irrefutable scientific evidence and in principle, it is quite easy to grasp. Most kids learn it in school.
What are the main greenhouse gases?
There are a group of gases that are responsible for the greenhouse effect, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous dioxide, water vapor, and fluorinated gases. They have different chemical properties and can gradually increase or decrease from the atmosphere through different processes. The one process that is most pressing at the moment (and has been for the past century) is human activity.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for 76% of the global human-caused emissions. After being released into the atmosphere, about 40% stays for 100 years, while 20% remains after 1,000 years and 10% up to 10,000 years later.
Meanwhile, methane (CH4) stays for less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide but it’s much stronger in terms of the greenhouse gas effect. Its global warming impact is 25 times larger than the one of the carbon dioxides in a period of 100 years. It accounts for 16% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Nitrous oxide (N2O) is also a powerful gas, with a global warming potential of 300 times more than carbon dioxide on a 100-year time scale. It stays on the atmosphere for more than a century and it represents 6% of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Fluorinated gases are a group of gases caused by human activities from different industrial and manufacturing processes. They are grouped into nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
They only account for 2% of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans but they trap much more heat. Their global warming potential is considerably high, and they have a long atmospheric lifetime. HFCs replaced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) but are now tried to be phased out because of their global warming potential.
Finally, water vapor is considered the most abundant greenhouse gas. It’s not linked to human activities directly, but can also result from other greenhouse gases issued by man. In a constant feedback loop, more water absorbs more heat, leading to larger global warming.
Burning coal, oil and natural gas to create electricity represent one-quarter of the global man-made emissions. It’s the most important single source. Such activities were responsible for 27.5% of the emissions in the US in 2017. The main greenhouse gas released because it is carbon dioxide, with smaller amounts of methane and nitrous oxide also being released in the process.
Another quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture and land-use activities like deforestation. Raising livestock and harvesting crops meant 8.4% of the emissions in the US in 2017. Most of the gases released were methane, produced mainly as cows belch and pass gas, and nitrous oxide, caused by fertilizers.
All trees, the plants, and the soil have the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. In the case of plants and trees, this is done through photosynthesis. Land-use changes such as deforestation, reforestation or afforestation can increase the level of carbon in the atmosphere or decrease it by removing or absorbing CO2.
One-fifth of the global man-made emissions are generated by the industrial sector, caused by activities such as manufacturing of goods and raw materials such as cement and steel, food processing and construction. In the US, 22.4% of the man-made emissions in 2017 came from the industrial sector. Most of it was CO2, followed by methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases.
Transportation also plays a key role, as burning fossil fuels to power transportation systems represent 14% of the global man-made emissions. In the US, the transportation sector is the main contributor of all greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is the main gas released in the sector, followed by methane and nitrous oxide. Cars and trucks explain 80% of the emissions of the transportation sector in the US.
Finally, managing buildings around the world lead to 6.4% of global emissions. Homes and businesses account for 11% of the emissions in the US, made up of carbon dioxide and methane cause of burning fossil fuels for heating and cooking. There are also other sources from waste management and leaking refrigerants.
Those are the main sources of man-made greenhouse gas emissions currently ongoing in the world.
What are the consequences of the release of more gases?
Greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities are higher than ever. Concentrations are growing every year and the planet is heating up. The planet’s average temperature has increased over one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times, with two-thirds of the warming that has occurred in just the last few decades.
All five of the years between 2014 and 2018 have been the hottest on record globally, according to the World Meteorological Organization. While countries have submitted plans to reduce their climate footprint, they are far from ambitious and would lead to the temperature keep rising.
But then again, that’s the big deal — why is global heating so bad?
Man-made global warming alters the Earth’s climate system in numerous ways. It causes more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves and hurricanes, it exacerbates precipitation extremes, making for example dry regions drier and it alters ecosystems and natural habitats, changing the geographical ranges and seasonal activities. Research has shown that hurricanes are bigger and stronger due to climate change, drought is also much more common, and wildfires are also heavily accentuated by climate change. These are all events taking place now, costing a lot of money and putting people’s health (and even lives) at risk.
Sea level rise is also a major consequence of climate change. Two phenomena are at play here: the first and most significant one is melting ice at the poles, which ends up in the global oceans and causes sea level rise. The second is thermal expansion caused by rising temperatures, and this can also contribute to sea level rise. These phenomena are not set to happen at some point in the distant future — they are taking place right now. Entire families on low-lying islands have been forced to relocate as their homes are slowly swallowed by rising seas.
All ecosystems are also affected by climate change. The bleaching of corals, the forcing of creatures out of their historical habitats and the warming of ocean temperatures are all taking place right now, with dangerous and long-lasting consequences.
A warmer world not only affects the natural world but also mankind. Insects that spread diseases such as Zika do better in higher temperatures, arriving in regions that weren’t previously affected. Doctors and researchers all around the world agree that climate change brings in new (and potentially devastating) health risks.
Food supply could also be reduced due to floods and droughts, as crop yields could see a reduction. These are just a handful of consequences, and just things that are happening now. If the concentration of greenhouse gases continues to grow, the consequences will certainly be dramatic.
All in all, this climate change can usher in some huge changes, and it comes with a price we can probably not afford to pay.
So, what’s the solution?
The planet has experienced warming and cooling periods many time in its geologic history. Driven by natural forces, these changes generally took place over millions of years, or at the very worst, thousands of years. Life had time to adapt, and even so, dramatic changes tended to bring dramatic loss of life and biodiversity. Life can presumably bounce back from even dramatic climate events, but whether or not humans can also survive is a different (and much more difficult question).
But unlike previous events, today’s warming is happening at a speed that can’t be linked just to natural causes. There is a mountain of evidence showing that human activities are to blame — but they can also bring a solution.
Scientists have documented the main sources of greenhouse gases, and they’ve also proposed ways to reduce our climate footprint — but the challenge is big. It would require aggressive and fast action, aiming at a carbon-neutral world as soon as 2050. For that to happen, fossil fuel production and consumption have to be stopped as well as deforestation. In addition to developing more renewable energy sources, we also have to keep as much oil and coal in the ground and not burn. We need to develop sustainable food systems, clean transportation, and greener construction materials. We need systemic changes at all levels of society, especially at the policy level.
The 2015 Paris Agreement is a good first step. The pact recommends action to ensure that we reduce emissions and keep warming within two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial (with an extra goal of 1.5 Celsius degrees). Doing so would significantly reduce the consequences of global warming. But we’re not even on course for that to happen. More effort and ambition is needed from all countries if we want to keep greenhouse gases under control. Otherwise, we have to be prepared to pay the price.
If we continue on the same path, humanity is on track to face an “untold suffering” because of a climate emergency caused mainly by human activities, according to a new study signed by more than 11.00 scientists from around the world.
In the study, published in the journal BioScience, scientists no longer mince words when it comes to talking about the climate crisis, preferring instead to “tell it like it is.” They declare, “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” which threatens every part of our ecosystem.
“We have joined together to declare a climate emergency because the climate change is more severe and accelerating faster than was expected by scientists,” Bill Ripple, professor of ecology at Oregon State University and co-author of the paper, told CNET. “Many of us feel like the time is running out for us to act.”
It’s not the first time thousands of academics united to urge people to take action on climate change. More than 16,000 scientists from 184 countries published a letter in 2017, warning that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.”
In this new report, the scientists, who come from over 150 countries, said the climate crisis is “closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” Echoing the words of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, the scientists have criticized policymakers for failing to take proper action.
“Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament,” they said.
They listed six key issues that need to be addressed if humanity wants to prevent the most catastrophic scenarios.
These include replacing fossil fuels, cutting the emissions of climate pollutants such as methane and soot, eating less meat, restoring and protecting ecosystems, building a carbon-free economy and stabilizing population growth by investing into family-planning services and girls education.
Scientists are particularly concerned about population growth, noting that human fertility rates have “substantially slowed” over the last 20 years. The study calls for strengthening human rights, especially for women and girls, in order to combat the issue.
The paper was published just one day after the Trump administration announced a formal process to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement — an accord in which nearly 200 countries set their own national targets for reducing or controlling pollution of heat-trapping gases.
Great climatic changes triggered the Earth’s biggest extinction, which wiped off 70% of terrestrial life and 96% marine life 252 million years ago, a new study suggests. A similar process seems to be taking place today, researchers warn.
The barbary ape is one of the many creatures currently threatened by extinction as a result of human action.
We’re 252 million years in the past, in a period called the Permian. Almost all of the Earth’s landmass is clumped together into a supercontinent called Pangaea. Although it’s still in its earlier phases, life on Earth has developed to be remarkably diverse. But evolution was about to suffer a massive setback — a dramatic extinction that came to be known as “The Great Dying.”
“It was a huge event. In the last half a billion years of life on the planet, it was the worst extinction,” said Curtis Deutsch, an oceanography expert who co-authored the research with University of Washington colleague Justin Penn and Stanford University scientists Jonathan Payne and Erik Sperling.
Despite the magnitude of this event, researchers have found relatively few clues about it — until some 20 years ago.
The problem is that 252 million years is a long time (even in geological terms), and finding reliable evidence that survived the onset of this much time is not easy. However, modern dating techniques (particularly the U–Pb dating of zircon crystals) allowed geologists to pinpoint this extinction to a few thousands of years — which given the scale of things, is quite impressive.
Similarly, radiometric studies have revealed that the extinction coincided with (and was likely caused by) massive volcanic eruptions. However, not all was clear. Specifically, it was unclear how the volcanic eruption and the extinction event were related.
Now, a new study suggests that the determining mechanism was an all too familiar one: climate change.
Image credits: University of Washington.
Essentially, the eruptions caused intense and abrupt global warming, which in turn depleted the oxygen from the oceans, causing the ocean’s creatures to effectively suffocate. Using a complex model powered by a supercomputer, the authors found that the combination of these two factors alone (warming water and low oxygen) can “account for more than half the magnitude of the ‘Great Dying’”.
If those two factors seem somewhat familiar, it’s because they’re also taking place today.
… and now
The story seems remarkably similar to what we’re experiencing today, as researchers themselves underline in the study.
“Voluminous emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, rapid global warming, and a decline in biodiversity—the storyline is modern, but the setting is ancient,” Penn State geosciences professor Lee Kump, who was not part of the research team, wrote in a Science piece responding to the new findings.
Indeed, it’s stunning how similar the two situations are. In both cases, an event caused temperatures to rise in a relatively short amount of time — but whereas 252 million years ago that was a volcanic eruption, in this case, it’s the greenhouse gas emissions outputted by mankind.
“The ultimate, driving change that led to the mass extinction is the same driving change that humans are doing today, which is injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Justin Penn, a University of Washington doctoral student in oceanography and the study’s lead author, told the Seattle Times.
“The study tells us what’s at the end of the road if we let climate [change] keep going,” warned Curtis Deutsch, Penn’s co-author and PhD adviser, as the latest projections show emissions hitting record-breaking levels this year. “The further we go, the more species we’re likely to lose… That’s frightening. The loss of species is irreversible.”
Scientists are also tracking oxygen depletion in the oceans, and have reported some worrying trends, which already start to resemble what was happening in the late Permian.
[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”Greenhouse gases” footer=””]The extinction event likely occurred over a timeframe of tens or hundreds of years, during which Earth’s temperatures increased by around 10°C (18°F). Oceans lost around 80% of their oxygen, and many parts of the seafloor became completely oxygen-free. This warming was almost certainly caused by a huge spike in greenhouse gas emissions, caused by volcanic activity.
Simply put, we may be witnessing the start of another catastrophic period for Earth’s biodiversity, and contrary to popular belief, life doesn’t necessarily “bounce back” — it may be permanently affected. Previous studies have indicated that it took life at least 4-6 million years to recover after the Great Dying, while other authors put that figure towards 30 million years.
Another striking similarity between the Great Dying and modern times is the devastation of insect populations. The ancient extinction is the only known mass extinction of insects — and insect populations have declined dramatically in the past few decades — the blink of an eye, in geological time.
If this all seems a bit alarming, well, it should. Finding so many similarities between the world’s greatest extinction event and today’s times is not something to be happy about. If our greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, life on Earth (including humans) may be irreparably damaged.
“As our understanding of the drivers and consequences of end-Permian climate change and mass extinction improves,” Kump wrote, “the lessons for the future become clear.”
Within the Paris Agreement, countries pledged to reduce emissions and limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial levels, but globally, action has been lackluster, and several studies have found that an increase of over 4 degrees Celsius is much more likely.
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such massive processes, but it’s important to remember that collectively, our decisions are one of the most powerful geological forces in our planet’s history. Your decisions do matter — make it count.
The study “Climate change and marine mass extinction” has been published in Science.
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have hit a record high — again.
Image credits Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network / Flickr.
United Nations (UN) officials reported last week that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have hit a record high. The report, published in preparation for the COP24 climate summit to be held in Poland next month, also warns that the time to act is running short.
Too much bad gas
“Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth,” the head of the World Meteorological Organization Petteri Taalas said in a statement.
“The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”
The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin — the flagship annual report of the UN’s weather agency, WMO (World Meteorological Organization) — has been tracking the content of various gases in the atmosphere since 1750. This year’s report (covering data for 2017), puts CO2 content in the atmosphere at 405.5 ppm (parts per million). This is the single highest value we’ve ever seen during our time on the planet — it’s up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015. Both years were record-setters in the CO2-content department themselves.
However, it’s not the first time our planet has experienced such levels of carbon dioxide. The WMO has reliable CO2 concentration estimates for the last 800,000 years, drawn from analysis of air bubbles locked in the ice sheets of Greenland or Antarctica. It also has rough estimates of the gas’ concentration in our atmosphere spanning the last five million years, mostly drawn from chemical analysis of fossils.
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer,” Taalas said.
The agency also points to rising concentrations of methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone-depleting gases (such as CFC-11) in addition to CO2. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) all broke new records in 2017, with CO2 at 405.5 ppm, CH4 at 1859 ppm, and N2O at 329.9 ppb. These values represent, respectively, 146%, 257%, and 122% of pre-industrial (before 1750) levels.
We need to scrub
All in all, this isn’t good news. While the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is indeed a direct consequence of emissions, that’s only part of the picture. Emissions are how much of such compounds we release into the wild; the levels reported on by the WMO are what stays there after plants, oceans, and all sorts of other players are done absorbing their share. ‘Their share’ amounts to roughly 25% of all emissions for oceans and the biosphere, plus a little extra that goes into the lithosphere (i.e. rocks) and cryosphere (i.e. ice).
These atmospheric concentrations reported on by the WMO are, then, the year-after-year build-up of emissions that our planet can’t process. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body tasked with reviewing climate science and organizing the international effort against climate change, net emissions must be brought to zero in order to limit warming to below 1.5°Celsius.
This basically means either not emitting anything in the first place (which is highly unlikely to happen right now), or scrubbing as much greenhouse gas out of the air as we put out — whether this is done through natural or technological means isn’t really important. If we can’t rise up to the challenge, notes WMO’s deputy chief, Elena Manaenkova, all that CO2 will end up in the atmosphere and oceans — and plague us for hundreds of years. To put it in context, the cost of climate-related disasters topped $2.25 trillion worldwide from 1998 to 2017. The U.S. had “the worst” losses with $944.8 billion, followed by China with $492.2 billion, and Japan with $376.3 billion, Niall McCarthy writes for Forbes. The UN reports that 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. A warmer climate means more and more powerful disasters (such as droughts, storms, or disease).
“There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” she said. “Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” she said.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned in an open letter addressed to all member states at COP24 that the world faces dire consequences if we don’t change our ways. “Entire nations, ecosystems, peoples, and ways of life could simply cease to exist,” she said. She cited evidence that nations are not on track to meet the commitments made in Paris in support for her claims.
In response to a recent tweet from US president Donald Trump — “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” — deputy WMO chief Elena Manaenkova chose to simply tell reporters that the science on global warming is “unequivocal.”
Magnesite, a type of magnesium carbonate, could be used to store CO2 from our atmosphere, which could be immensely helpful in our fight against climate change.
Naturally occurring magnesite. Image credits: Rob Lavinsky / Wikipedia.
The problem with climate change isn’t whether it’s happening or not — we’re way past that point, and there’s a mountain of scientific evidence backing that up. Instead, the discussion should be around how bad things are. We’ve managed to turn the massive wheels of global climate, and it will be immensely difficult to stop them from turning. Even if we would magically stop all our greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the climate would still continue to warm up for a period, which is why researchers aren’t only focused on reducing our emissions, but also on finding ways to absorb some of the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted — particularly, carbon dioxide (CO2).
In a new study, researchers describe a very promising mineral, magnesite, which can store vast quantities of CO2. They also describe a way to speed up its formation — essentially, producing it.
“Our work shows two things,” says project leader, Professor Ian Power from Trent University, Ontario, Canada. “Firstly, we have explained how and how fast magnesite forms naturally. This is a process which takes hundreds to thousands of years in nature at Earth’s surface. The second thing we have done is to demonstrate a pathway which speeds this process up dramatically.”
Natural magnesite crystal (4 microns wide). Image credits: Ian Power.
Power and his colleagues showed that by using small polystyrene balls as a catalyst, the formation of the mineral can be accelerated to 72 days. Furthermore, the plastic spheres can be reused indefinitely, making the entire process cheaper and easier to implement.
“Using microspheres means that we were able to speed up magnesite formation by orders of magnitude. This process takes place at room temperature, meaning that magnesite production is extremely energy efficient,” added Power.
[panel style=”panel-primary” title=”Magnesite” footer=””]This mineral is basically a magnesium carbonate, occurring as an alteration product of magnesium-rich ultramafic rocks, or as veins associated with the same type of rocks.
Magnesite has been found in modern sediments, caves and soils. It typically forms at temperatures around 40 °C (104 °F) and has been used as, among others, a binder in flooring material.[/panel]
Magnesite sediments in a beach in British Columbia, Canada. Image credits: Ian Power.
It’s really exciting that the crystallization process has been achieved at room temperature, and that it has been so greatly accelerated. Even better, the technology shows promise when it comes to absorbing CO2 — with more CO2 in the air than at any point in the last 800,000 years — we could sure use the extra help. But for now, at least, the process needs to be massively scaled before it can start make a dent in global emissions.
“For now, we recognise that this is an experimental process, and will need to be scaled up before we can be sure that magnesite can be used in carbon sequestration (taking CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently storing it as magnesite). This depends on several variables, including the price of carbon and the refinement of the sequestration technology, but we now know that the science makes it doable”.
Power urges more research in this field. Aside from the economic aspects, there are still some scientific parts which can be worked upon.
Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have set a new and worrying record: for the first time in recorded history, levels averaged higher than 410 parts per million (ppm) throughout the whole month.
Apollo Beach power plant. Image via Wikimedia.
Last year, CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit the highest concentration they’ve reached in millions of years — 410 ppm. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and it was a testament to humanity’s advancements: for better or worse, we had become a geological force.
This April, we’ve reached an even more ignoble record: we’ve seen average atmospheric CO2 levels rise above the 410 ppm mark and stay there throughout the whole month for the first time in history.
A worrying development
“We keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide keeps building up in the air. It’s essentially as simple as that,” says Scripps Institution of Oceanography geochemist Ralph Keeling.
When it comes to atmospheric CO2 levels, Keeling is the guy to talk to. You could say he was born and bred for it — the chart we use to keep track of these levels, the Keeling Curve, is based on the work of the late Charles David Keeling, Ralph’s father. It was this curve that first hinted to the possibility of anthropogenic contribution to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
The readings on which the Keeling Curve is based first began at the Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958. At the time, measurements indicated a CO2 concentration of roughly 315 ppm. Just 60 years later, we’ve passed the 410 ppm threshold. This April, the average concentration was 410.31 ppm, according to data published by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
This is the first time in the observatory’s history that a monthly average exceeded 410 ppm, the institution adds.
It’s not, strictly speaking, the first time atmospheric CO2 levels have reached 400 ppm. We know of at least one previous case where it happened — we call it the Pliocene warm period, and it lasted from around 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. What was going on during that time? So glad you asked.
Earth in the mid-Pliocene doesn’t seem very different from that of today at first glance — in general, it was 2 to 3°C warmer than nowadays. Carbon dioxide levels were, again, about the same as today. The seas, however, not so much — the global sea level was about 20 to 25m higher than it is today. The Northern hemisphere couldn’t maintain almost any permanent ice sheets up until very near the end of the Pliocene, around 3 million years ago, and all that liquid water swelled the oceans.
Other things the Pliocene lacked in spades were coastal cities, globalized economies, or masses of people to suffer from the environmental damage.
What’s particularly worrying for researchers today isn’t the CO2 concentrations themselves — it’s how fast we’re increasing them. The Pliocene level “was sustained over long periods of time, whereas today the global CO2 concentration is increasing rapidly,” according to scientists in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume 1, a federal report published last year.
Before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels fluctuated very slowly, over thousands of years. According to researchers at the Scripps Institute, however, these levels never once exceeded 300 ppm once in the past 800,000 years. Around 1880, CO2 levels peaked at about 280 ppm. That makes today’s levels a staggering 46% higher than those just over a century ago.
“It’s as if we discovered that something we eat every day is causing our body to run a fever and develop all kinds of harmful symptoms — and instead of cutting back, we right keep on eating it, more and more,” tweeted climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe about the findings.
It seems hard to believe, but something as simple as feeding seaweed to cows could make a big difference in fighting climate change, essentially reducing yearly CO2 emissions by a whopping 3 Gt. For comparison, the entire European Union produces 3.4 Gt yearly.
According to Mr Kinley, the agriculture industry stands to be one of the first industries to make a dramatic reduction to greenhouse gas emissions if this research gets to market. Image credits: Rob Kinley.
Seaweed and cows
It may seem hard to believe, but livestock emissions represent 14.5 percent of all, global, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a whopping 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equivalent every year and even more than what the US emits yearly (5.334 Gt CO2/year). But for all the talk we have about curbing emissions, there’s not much talk about livestock.
Professor of aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Rocky De Nys, may have a good idea on how to reduce those emissions. He found that adding a small quantity of dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce the amount of methane a cow produces by up to 99 per cent.
“We started with 20 species [of seaweed] and we very quickly narrowed that down to one really stand out species of red seaweed,” Professor De Nys said.
Cows output a lot of methane into the atmosphere, and methane, while short-lived, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Contrary to popular belief, most of the methane comes out through burping and not on the other end of the cow. This happens because the plants they munch up ferment in their stomach, creature pressure and then… are released from the cow. This is where the seaweed comes in, inhibiting methane formation.
You don’t need a lot of it, just a bit sprinkled on top of their diet.
“When the seaweed is harvested it is dried, and it can be added as a sprinkle essentially to the diet, just as you would add a mixture of herbs and spices to the chicken,” he said.
This species could help us curve our greenhouse gas emissions. Image credits: Jean-Pascal Quod
The species is called Asparagopsis taxiformis, a type of red algae. The researchers have only created artificial “cow stomachs,” in which they simulated the real thing, but these results are very promising. Furthermore, they do have some practical results on other species.
“We have results already with whole sheep; we know that if asparagopsis is fed to sheep at 2 per cent of their diet, they produce between 50 and 70 percent less methane over a 72-day period continuously, so there is already a well-established precedent.”
Making a difference
So could this actually make a difference? Research scientist with Agriculture and CSIRO, Rob Kinley, who was heavily involved in the research project believes the answer is ‘yes’.
“All sectors are trying to be responsible and reduce their contribution to climate change, which in many instances relates to reducing their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “Agriculture stands to be one of the first to make dramatic reductions if we can get this to market.”
But there is another issue: that of quantity. As De Nys says, you don’t need a whole lot of seaweed, just some sprinkled on top. But when you consider the sheer size of the livestock industry, that’s still a huge amount. It’s so large that harvesting simply isn’t an option, so we need to develop another industry of seaweed growing.
“Wild harvesting isn’t going to do it because it’s far too expensive and the recourses aren’t enough, so we need to get partners on board who can produce the seaweed in a cultivation process. Whether that be in South-East Asia where they are already farming millions of tonnes of seaweed, or beginning a new industry somewhere through the southern or western side of Australia.”
This would, in turn, generate some emissions in itself, eliminating some of the benefits. But Kinley says this investment is definitely worth it – and it’s only a matter of ‘when’ – not a matter of ‘if’.
“Money will decide how quickly we can move … the sooner we have more money to move forward with the research, the sooner we will be able to get it out,” he said. “Three years isn’t outside the realm if we can get enough support to move with it.”
Personally, I’d like to a see a broad lifecycle analysis (including the seaweed production, transport and distribution) before we start implementing, but if the results stand up then there’s a lot of promise. I do believe that agriculture, especially on its animal side, should be addressed much more strongly.
Still, it should be kept in mind that this only reduces some of the emissions from the livestock. Meat is one of the most non-eco-friendy food sources available – especially livestock and pig farming. Reducing global meat consumption is still essential for a sustainable future – even if we do start feeding cows seaweed.
The world enters uncharted territory in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, as concentrations reach record levels, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced.
Even optimistic scenarios don’t look too good for the planet’s climate. Image via Wiki Commons.
“According to the latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, since 1990 there has been a 36 percent increase in radiative forcing — the warming effect on our climate — because of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said at a daily news briefing here.
It almost sounds like a broken plate – we’re emitting more and more greenhouse gases, the world is heating up, we have to do something. You hear about it so often it almost sounds normal… except it’s not. We don’t see carbon dioxide or methane, but they’re here, and they have a big impact.
“We will soon be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 parts per million as a permanent reality,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a press release. “We can’t see CO2. It is an invisible threat, but a very real one. It means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels and increased acidity of the oceans,” said the head of the UN weather agency. “This is happening now and we are moving into unchartered territory at a frightening speed.”
The world has officially reached “uncharted territory”, with more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the Earth has seen for a million years.
“Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are now reaching levels not seen on Earth for more than 800,000, maybe even one million years”, WMO chief Michel Jarraud told reporters. “This means we are now really in uncharted territory for the human race”, he warned.
The announcement was made in the WMO’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released ahead of the UN climate conference this December in Paris; they especially highlighted the interaction and amplification effect between rising levels of CO2 and water vapor, which is itself a major greenhouse gas, albeit short-lived.
We will have to account for all these emissions, as well as future ones. Even if we somehow miraculously stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the world is still well on course to heat up significantly, and if we continue to input more and more, the Earth will simply get hotter and hotter.
“Past, present and future emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable,” Jarraud said.
This is not some far away prediction, we’re already seeing these effects: drought, extreme weather, rising temperatures, all these are heavily impacted by climate change.
“Every year we report a new record in greenhouse gas concentrations,” Jarraud said. “Every year we say that time is running out. We have to act now to slash greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have a chance to keep the increase in temperatures to manageable levels.”
The effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are great and long reaching – a new study has found that pink salmon in the Pacific Ocean are threatened by increasing ocean acidification.
When we emit carbon dioxide, it doesn’t all go to the atmosphere; an estimated 30–40% of the carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, but also rivers and lakes, where it increases the acidity of the water. This phenomenon is called acidification and it has a range of possibly harmful consequences, such as depressing metabolic rates and immune responses in some organisms, and causing coral bleaching. It also causes decreasing oxygen levels as it kills off algae. Now, University of British Columbia researchers added another problem related to freshwater acidification: it’s wiping off pink salmon.
Pink salmon is the smallest and most common salmon species in the Pacific. In 2010, the total harvest was some 260 million fish, corresponding to 400,000 tonnes. The researchers examined the fish for 10 weeks, from when they were inside the eggs, in fresh water, until they migrated in the open ocean. They split the fish into two groups, one which was raised in water like the one we have today, and one which lived in water containing levels which could be present in freshwater sources a century from today. They found that the salmon raised in acidic water (today’s water) were not able to smell their surroundings as well as those in the control group, which means they had a much harder time avoiding predators and finding their way in the water.
This is likely happening across all salmon species, biologists note.
“Damage done by acidification in fresh water in pink salmon could occur in all other salmonids”, Colin Brauner, a co-author at the University of British Columbia, told Reuters. The findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The problem is that we don’t really understand freshwater acidification that well, and we haven’t even studied it properly – most efforts were focused on oceans.
“Most of the work on acidification has been in the ocean, yet 40 percent of all fish are freshwater. We need to think about how carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater species. We found that freshwater acidification affects pink salmon and may impact their ability to survive and ultimately return to their freshwater spawning grounds,” Colin Brauner from the University of British Columbia said.
Journal Reference: Michelle Ou et al – Responses of pink salmon to CO2-induced aquatic acidification. Nature Climate Change (2015) doi:10.1038/nclimate269
A “massive methane hotspot” sounds pretty bad… and bad it is – much worse than scientists figured initially. In 2014, NASA reported that the methane hotspot is responsible for producing the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas methane seen over the United States – more than triple the standard ground-based estimate. But the methane, a potent greenhouse gas, might have even more drastic consequences on the climate of our planet.
The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan
Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but thankfully, there is much less of it in our planet’s atmosphere. Methane is generated naturally by bacteria that break down organic matter and is commonly found in the guts of animals, from ants to humans. However, two thirds of the methane in the atmosphere was actually generated by humans, most notably through the burning of fossil fuels or through accidental release during drilling. The good thing is that methane only sticks around in the atmosphere for 11-12 years – so if we act quickly, we might actually see the results quite soon.
But the extent of the gas was grossly underestimated, as NASA learned just a year ago. But as scientists launch more efforts to understand the plume located above the Four Corners area, a darker warning looms over: is this an isolated case, or are there other methane hotspots, still undiscovered?
Nobody knows yet why Four Corners is giving off so much methane (an amount equivalent to almost 15 million tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of adding 3.1 million cars to the road every year), but the main culprit seems to be coal – the Four Corners area is a well known and well developed coal mining area, though there’s no direct indication to show that coal exploitation is actually responsible.
Hydraulic fracking has also been linked to methane leaking, but all oil wells actually leak methane into the atmosphere to some extent, and this raises a lot of questions about the future of our planet’s climate – oil and gas may actually be contributing even more to climate change than previously thought. Now, NASA and the University of Michigan researchers have teamed up to figure out the Four Corners plume and understand if there are others like it. Hopefully, they’ll be successful. A lot seems to depend on it
Saul Luciano Lliuya is a farmer from Peru whose home in the floodpath of the Palcacocha lake which has been swelling with glacial melt-water for the past few decades. Because Lliuya feels “acutely threatened” by the lake, the farmer is now prepared to take one of Germany’s biggest producers of brown coal energy to court and demand compensation. This would make it the first such legal claim in Europe where a company is summoned to pay for its historical role in driving greenhouse gas emissions.
Lake Palcacocha, Peru is gorgeous for sure, but it’s also a major threat to residents lying in its floodpath. Photo: YouTube
One of the consequences of recent glacier recession is the formation and rapid growth of lakes formed at the snout of glaciers. One risk is that moraines damming these glacial lakes could fail releasing a huge volume of water and creating a glacial lake outburst flood. This happened December 13, 1941, at Lake Palcacocha, Peru, flooding the city of Huaraz and killed several thousand people. Most recently, Lake Palcacocha has yet again reached critical levels and a state of emergency has been declared.
“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” the farmer told the Guardian.
“For a long time, my father and I have thought that those who cause climate change should help solve the problems it causes. Peru is a poor and vulnerable country. The big polluters who have contributed to climate change should now contribute to the solutions of our problems,” Lliuya said.
The Palcacocha lagoon has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times in less than 40 years due to glacial melt. Last year, a team of researchers at University of Texas at Austin modeled the complete Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) process chain from the top of the glacier above Laguna Palcacocha to the city of Huaraz, and found the city and the lingering communities are exposed to a significant flood hazard.
Lliuya chose to sue NWE, a major energy producer and trader from Germany and one of the 90 companies who account for 60% of all man-made greenhouse emissions, ever.
“We have a solid case with respect to RWE’s contribution to greenhouse gases and how that leads to the risk in which Mr Lliuya’s home finds itself,” Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental lawyer representing Lliuya.
“My client approached me with one question: ‘Do you think it is correct that polluters never own up to their responsibility?’ As a lawyer and as a human being, I have to say, it is not fair. Can we do something about it?” she said.
According to the report I mentioned earlier, RWE has contributed with 0.47% of all man-made emissions since 1751. To protect Lliuya’s home and that of his neighbors, the Palcacocha lake needs to be drained, new dams have to be built and old ones repaired. Lliuya is asking RWE to pay 0.47% of the project’s total cost or €20,000.
“The company has to pay its fair share of financing measures to protect those in danger,” said Christoph Bals, of German NGO, Germanwatch, which is supporting the claim. “Companies that create risks for others through their business activity have to shoulder their responsibility,” he said.
Meanwhile, a RWE spokesman said the company has yet to receive any legal claim from Peru. RWE is a big company and obviously €20,000 is peanuts for them, but it would definitely create a precedent, so the company will definitely fight back. In the past couple of years, RWE has renewed its brown coal plants, expelling nine million tons less of carbon dioxide each year. It’s one of the few major fossil fuel companies in the world that’s been actually making progress towards lowering their emissions.
I’m playing the devil’s advocate for a second. I know RWE is still ‘dirty’, but why not go after Exxon (3.2% global emissions), Chevron (3.5%) or BP (2.5%), instead? While it’s true RWE has polluted the atmosphere massively, why not go after a company that’s more close to home – to Peru? My guess is he wouldn’t have stood a chance in a courthouse in the United States, and things won’t be easy for him in Germany either, but at least his case will be heard out there. When you’re going after one company for compensation – which he is perfectly entitled to – a lot of issues can come up. The farmer and the thousands of other present or future environmental refugees deserve to be compensated, but at the same time compensation should come from all stakeholders.
What’s certain is that we’ll be hearing of more such cases in the future, and a lone but brave farmer from Peru might create a precedent that will finally come in the aid of those in dire need. Hopefully, what we should see is a global environmental compensation fund that will finance relocation, climate change adaption measures and moral compensation. All the big companies and developed nations should pitch in based on their contribution to greenhouse gases. Now, we’re not seeing something like this happening – yet.
Mollusks such as oysters, clams and scallops are highly vulnerable to the increasing acidification of the world’s oceans. A new study concluded that the acidification is so intense that the mollusks aren’t able to properly produce a hard shell, putting them in peril.
Image via Seattle Mag.
Water, Acid, and carbon emissions
Mollusks are the largest phyllum of invertebrate marine animas; 1 in 4 marine animals is a mollusk. Mollusks like oysters generate a calcium carbonate shell which surrounds and protects their bodies. Under normal conditions, they don’t dissolve – well, technically speaking they do, but slow enough so that oysters can continuously generate enough calcium carbonate. But here’s when you add carbon dioxide (CO2) to the water (H2O) and calcium carbonate(CaCO3), they simply aren’t able to form their hard shell. Here’s what happens from a chemical point of view:
The calcum starts to dissolve, and therefore the oysters’ shells start to dissolve. So When we’re spewing out greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, we’re making our oceans more acidic, and this is destorying marine wildlife. In other words, ocean acidification makes it harder and harder for shellfish to form hard structures, making them vulnerable, especially in their larval stages.
Today, the world’s oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide at an unprecedented rate and the resulting acidification is reaching alarming levels – that’s the conclusion of a study published today in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change. The study analyzed the situation in shellfisheries across the US.
Image via Pangea Shellfisheries.
According to the study, previous models, which stated that acidification caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not affect the local oyster crop until 2100 are wrong – they haven’t taken into consideration river runoffs and algae blooms – and those are significant factors. It’s also not only carbon we have to worry about – other greenhouse gases can have significant negative effects too.
“Messages from global models to date are that the Gulf will experience changes later on, but with these other local factors enhancing it, things can be moving at a much shorter timeline than that,” said Sarah Cooley, the Ocean Conservancy acidification program’s science outreach manager and a co-author of the study.
This is the first nationwide vulnerability assessment, and aside for the environmental damage, the economic damage is also huge – millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs are lost every year due to ocean acidification.
“Ocean acidification has already cost the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly $110 million and jeopardized about 3,200 jobs,” said Julie Ekstrom, who was lead author on the study while with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She is now at the University of California at Davis.
Scientists reviewed data from multiple fields, and managed to identify which are the most vulnerable areas in the US:
The Pacific Northwest. Oregon and Washington coasts seem to be affected by a multitude of factors which favorize acidification, including including cold waters, upwelling currents that bring corrosive waters closer to the surface, corrosive rivers, and nutrient pollution from land runoff.
New England. The product ports of Maine and southern New Hampshire are the main drivers here; they feature poorly buffered rivers running into cold New England waters which are especially rich in carbon dioxide.
Mid-Atlantic. Nitrogen pollution (mostly from agriculture) is the main issue there.
Gulf of Mexico. The conditions in this area are not particularly difficult, but some communities in the area rely greatly on shellfish, and are highly vulnerable. Should this source of income disappear or be reduced, they would be left with very little alternatives.
The study shows just how vulnerable marine wildlife really is – and as we continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases, the oceans will become more and more acidic, and the problem may spiral out of control. This is a problem we have to deal with, and deal with fast.
“There’s not a lot of room for error,” said Mike Rice, professor of fisheries and aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island, who was not associated with the report.
However, no matter how much we improve our resilience and how many adaptation strategies we implement, the bottom line is the same – as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, the problem is only going to get worse. From an economic point of view, the situation is even more acute – 95 percent of the U.S. shellfish revenue comes from only 10 species, and we don’t know how those species will react to the new conditions.
“We need a fuller understanding of those species to understand the economic impact,” Ekstrom concluded.
You can read the full scientific article, for free, from the link below.
Journal Reference: Julia A. Ekstrom et al. Vulnerability and adaptation of US shellfisheries to ocean acidification.
Lawrence Livermore scientists have devised tiny capsules made up of a highly permeable polymer shell and a sodium carbonate solution that actively reacts with and absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2). Sodium carbonate is typically known as the main ingredient in washing soda, a common household item. The capsules are a lot cheaper and more environmentally friendly than other chemical carbon capture methods, according to the researchers.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology captures carbon emissions and stores them. In theory, this means carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere can be locked up somewhere else – without the climate-altering effects. Image: Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage
While renewable energy is catching up, there are still a great deal of coal or natural gas fired power plants operating throughout the world, with many more opening their gates. Instead of going against the wave, scientists are trying to make the best of it and develop carbon capture methods that diminish the levels of greenhouse gases or toxic chemicals that are released in the flue gases.
Microcapsules containing sodium carbonate solution are suspended on a mesh during carbon dioxide absorption testing. The mesh allows many capsules to be tested at one time while keeping them separated, exposing more of their surface area. Photo by John Vericella/LLNL
In the past decade or so, the industry has become heavily reliant on monoethanol amine (MEA) to capture carbon dioxide before it exits smokestacks. MEA, however, is extremely caustic forcing plants to employ high quality and expensive stainless steel throughout their pipelines where MEA crystals come into contact. Carbonates, on the other hand, are benign and require no additional fitting. This is mainly why the Lawrence Livermore scientists decided to work with sodium carbonate or washing soda, but what really made their work ingenious was the decision to encapsulate the carbon capturing solution.
Microcapsules have become increasingly popular in medicine, agriculture or even cosmetics, but this is the first time they’ve been used for carbon capture. Being spherical, the capsules offer a much greater active surface area, absorbing more CO2 than other solvents. Putting the carbonate solution inside of the capsules also allows it to be used for CO2 capture without making direct contact with the surface of equipment in the power plant, as well as being able to move it between absorption and release towers easily, even when it absorbs so much CO2 that it solidifies, according to Roger Aines, one of the Lawrence Livermore team members.
Unlike more caustic solvents used in capturing CO2, the microcapsules only react with the gas of interest (in this case CO2).
“Encapsulation allows you to combine the advantages of solid capture media and liquid capture media in the same platform,” says Jennifer Lewis of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and key author of a paper appearing in the Feb. 5 edition of the journal, Nature Communications.
Washing soda is mined locally, instead of being manufacturing in plants using energy intensive, complex chemical process such as the case with MEA. More importantly, it’s easily recyclable and can be used time and time again.
“It can be reused forever, while amines break down in a period of months to years,” Aines says.
“We think the microcapsule technology provides a new way to make carbon capture efficient with fewer environmental issues,” he says. “Capturing the world’s carbon emissions is a huge task. We need technology that can be applied to many kinds of carbon dioxide sources with the public’s full confidence in its safety and sustainability.”
Princeton University researchers have uncovered a previously unknown and potentially substantial source of methane emissions: abandoned oil and gas wells. After analyzing wells from Pennsylvania, they found that a worrying amount of them leaked significant quantities of the greenhouse gas.
Alana Miller (left), a Princeton senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering, and Mary Kang, then a doctoral researcher in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton, conduct research that found abandoned oil and gas wells emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. (Photo courtesy of Robert Jackson, Stanford University)
A previous Stanford study estimated about 3 million abandoned wells in the United States alone, so if these wells are indeed leaking big quantities of methane, then there’s serious reason to worry about this. For this study Princeton researchers chose very diverse wells,from fields in Pennsylvania but these measurements need to also be taken in other states with a long history of oil and gas development such as California and Texas.
“The research indicates that this is a source of methane that should not be ignored,” said Michael Celia, the Theodore Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton. “We need to determine how significant it is on a wider basis.”
Pound for pound, methane (CH4) is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it is emitted in much lower quantities; still, it’s considered to be the second most important contributor to the greenhouse effect. Methane is produced naturally through decomposition but also by humans, most notably through the oil and gas industry. While oil and gas companies have worked to reduce emissions for their newer wells, very little attention has been paid to older wells and in most parts of the world (US included), they have been virtually ignored. Many wells that date back to the 19th century and early 20th century are abandoned and not recorded anywhere officially.
Mary Kang, a former doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton was studying carbon sequestration through burial. She found that quite often, the carbon manages to escape underground storage, and this led her to wonder if something similar is happening with old wells. But she first ran into a big problem.
“I was looking for data, but it didn’t exist,” said Kang, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford.
In a new paper, Mary worked with colleagues to get new data and fill in the gaps. Initially, she focused on 19 wells in Pennsylvania. While all the wells had some level of methane emission, about 15 percent emitted much more than the others – over a thousand times more. Denise Mauzerall, a Princeton professor and a member of the research team said it was critical to understand what makes these wells different from the others.
A well pipe emerges from the ground in the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. Researchers covered pipes from 19 wells with instruments to measuring gases emitted by the well. (Photo courtesy of Mary Kang, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering)
This makes a lot of sense, because unfortunately, putting a plug on every single abandoned well is not realilstic. But putting a plug on these high emitters is much more doable.
“The fact that most of the methane is coming out of a small number of wells should make it easier to address if we can identify the high-emitting wells,” said Mauzerall, who has a joint appointment as a professor of civil and environmental engineering and as a professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School.
Judging by their sample size, they extrapolated the results to see how much of the total human-emitted greenhouse gases come from abandoned wells. The result was shocking: 10%. Of course, the sample size is very small and the results are still preliminary, but the figure is shocking – it’s as big as current oil and gas production; and unlike active oil and gas wells, which will emit for 10-15-20 years, abandoned wells will emit for centuries to come.
“This may be a significant source,” Mauzerall said. “There is no single silver bullet but if it turns out that we can cap or capture the methane coming off these really big emitters, that would make a substantial difference.”
A cloud of methane gas about the size of Delaware was detected over the Four Corners area of the American southwest years ago. But people didn’t take it seriously, because (believe it or not) – it was so big that they thought it was an instrument error.
The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan
“We didn’t focus on it because we weren’t sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error,” said Christian Frankenberg, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, in an article on NASA’s news website.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, like CO2 – except it’s much more powerful than that. Pound for pound, its impact is 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. Globally, 60% of all methane emissions stem from human activity, and in the US, the figure is even larger – so we’re dealing with the effects of human activity here – most notably, natural gas. Natural gas is 95-98 percent methane.
“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried,” said Eric Kort of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the study’s author. “There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole.”
Coalbed methane is gas that lines pores and cracks within coal. In underground coal mines, it is an extremely dangerous hazard that causes fatal explosions almost every year as it seeps out of the rock. Following the energy crisis in the US in the 1970s, techniques were developed to extract the methane from the coal and use it as fuel. Today, just under 10 percent of all the natural gas in the US comes from coalbed methane.
The hot spot, near the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, covers only about 2,500 square miles (6,500 square kilometers), or half the size of Connecticut. It’s still not clear what the long term effects of this hotspot will be, but it’s clear that it will be associated with increased climate change and global warming. This find highlights the importance of greenhouse gas monitoring from outer space – the fact that this was thought for years to be an instrument defect is quite worrying.
“Satellite data cannot be as accurate as ground-based estimates, but from space, there are no hiding places,” said Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, who first noticed the Four Corners signal years ago in SCIAMACHY data. “[initiallt] we didn’t focus on it because we weren’t sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error,” Frankenberg said.
A sonar image of a new methane plume discovered off the US east coast.
A worrying report states that over 500 bubbling methane vents were found on the seafloor off the US east coast. The unexpected finding suggests that there are large volumes of the gas contained in a type of sludgy ice called methane hydrate and as global waters continue to heat up, the methane will be released in large quantities.
Methane hydrate (also called methane clathrate) is a compound in which a large amount of methane is trapped within a crystal structure of water, forming a solid similar to ice. It was initially thought to exist only in the outer regions of the Solar System, where temperatures are low and water ice is common, but since then, researchers have shown that significant deposits of methane clathrate have been found under sediments on the ocean floors of the Earth.
For over a decade, there have been fears that even a slight increase in ocean temperature can trigger the sudden release of methane from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and permafrost which. Because methane is itself a very powerful greenhouse gas, this would in turn trigger more temperature increases, and subsequently, more methane gas releases – starting an irreversible process. This is called the Clathrate gun hypothesis.
Methane hydrates recovered in the Gulf of Mexico by the US Geological Survey.
Now, scientists believe that the 500 methane vents they found are just the tip of the iceberg – over 30,000 could lie at the bottom of oceans worldwide; they found 570 just in the area between North Carolina and Massachusetts. The depth of the seeps varies between 50 and 1,700 meters. The findings came as quite a surprise – an unpleasant one.
“It is the first time we have seen this level of seepage outside the Arctic that is not associated with features like oil or gas reservoirs or active tectonic margins,” said Prof Adam Skarke from Mississippi State University, who led the study.
Scientists haven’t yet tested the gas to see exactly what other chemicals it contains. Typically, these vents contain, aside for methane, hydrogen sulfide and other hydrocarbon-rich fluid seepage occurs. So far, the bubbles aren’t reaching the surface, but the methane is dissolving in water.
“The methane is dissolving into the ocean at depths of hundreds of metres and being oxidised to CO2,” said Prof Skarke.
Even though this hasn’t been studied in detail, this could pose huge threats in terms of global warming. There are estimates (peer-reviewed study) that undersea sediments are in fact the world’s biggest carbon reservoir, containing 10 times more carbon than the atmosphere. The next step is to study their chemistry in detail.
“These are significant geochemically, as they and our research teams found perhaps one of the largest seeps yet discovered with very active methane bubbling and large amounts of frozen hydrates,” said Prof Steve Ross, from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “These seeps are also significant biologically, as we have found unique chemosynthetic communities, huge range extensions and increased biodiversity.”
Indeed, biologically speaking, cold vents are spectacular. They develop unique topography over time, where reactions between methane and seawater create carbonate rock formations and reefs. There are several endemic species, which can only survive in such places. Tube worms are among the dominant species in many vents.
Microfauna–Macrofauna Interaction in the Seafloor: Lessons from the Tubeworm. Boetius A PLoS Biology Vol. 3/3/2005, e102 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030102
Journal Reference: A. Skarke,C. Ruppel,M. Kodis,D. Brothers& E. Lobecker. Widespread methane leakage from the sea floor on the northern US Atlantic margin. Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2232
Natural gas leakage in the LA basin area from oil drilling and piping loses could be more significant than thought. Image: latimes.com
Since the turn of the industrial revolution, round the 1750’s, the share of methane gas in the atmosphere has nearly doubled. Methane molecules are roughly 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, and thus they’re one of the most dangerous types of emissions. Burning methane, however, is a whole lot better (actually less worse) than burning coal, since the punch per molecule is better, energy-wise. Burning natural gas isn’t the only source of carbon emissions however – a troublesome aspect that we need to consider is leakage of natural gas itself.
Paul Wennberg of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) suggests that there may be a whole more methane leaking into the atmosphere than it is currently believed. His analysis suggests that, at least in the LA basin where his research was concentrated, significant amounts of natural gas is being leaked into the atmosphere following oil drilling and piping loses.
A heavy molecule that keeps heat for itself
Fully one-third of the increase in the atmosphere’s ability to retain radiation since 1750 is estimated to be due to the presence and effects of methane. In fact, the presence of methane has a triple negative effect on the atmosphere, in the state it is today of course (the atmosphere can be too cold or too hot, there are times when you would want more methane – we are far from experiencing this demand today).
“First, like other greenhouse gases, methane works directly to trap Earth’s radiation in the atmosphere. Second, when methane oxidizes in Earth’s atmosphere, it is broken into components that are also greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and ozone. Third, the breakdown of methane in the atmosphere produces water vapor, which also functions as a greenhouse gas. Increased humidity, especially in the otherwise arid stratosphere where approximately 10 percent of methane is oxidized, further increases greenhouse-gas induced climate change,” states the CalTech press release.
Wennberg and colleagues began their analysis of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the LA basin in 2008. Measurements were taken from the troposphere, the lowest portion of Earth’s atmosphere, via an airplane flying less than a mile above the ground over the area. The chemical signatures of the samples suggest that there are was more methane gas than previously estimated, raw methane gas.
Is natural gas a climate change mitigating solution?
It’s rather difficult to assess the sources of methane gas, or rather the predominant sources of methane. It can come anywhere from landfills to wetlands to petroleum processing, and knowing where the gas found in the atmosphere originates can have long lasting effects in mitigation efforts.
Methane used for fossil fuel purposes is accompanied by ethane – the second most common component of natural gas – while bio occurring methane is not (from livestock, wastewater etc). The samples the Caltech researchers gathered have methane to ethane ratios that are strikingly similar to those found in the natural gas supplied by he Southern California Gas Company.
The company reports piping loses of 0.1 percent, however the analysis suggests that he source of methane from either the natural-gas infrastructure or petroleum production is closer to 2 percent of the total gas delivered to the basin. That’s twenty times more than the reports read. One possible way to reconcile these vastly different estimates is that significant losses of natural gas may occur after consumer metering in the homes, offices, and industrial plants that purchase natural gas. This loss of fuel is small enough to have no immediate negative impact on household users, but cumulatively it could be a major player in the concentration of methane in the atmosphere.
Locations of methane measurements in the greater Los Angeles basin overlaid on a Google Earth satellite image. Yellow and red colors represent an excess of methane. Image: Caltech
It’s difficult to tell things for certain without putting things into context, and Wennberg and team want to build a really thorough context with their Megacities Carbon Project. The scientists intend on performing the same type of measurements across most of the big cities of the world like Hong Kong, Berlin, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Seoul, São Paulo, or Tokyo. These metropolises are roughly responsible for 75% of the world’s carbon emissions, despite they only occupy 3% of the world’s landmass.
A great deal of attention has been directed towards the possibility of massively switching to natural gas, instead of using coal for power and heat generation. Like I said earlier, methane has a much more potent energy heating value, while its carbon emissions are lower at the same time. Looking at the effects of end user combustion is far from enough. There’s a whole process and life cycle that needs to be considered, and if in this process there happens to be methane leakage far greater than previously believed, this definitely needs to be taken into consideration.
“You have to dig it up, put it in the pipe, and burn it without losing more than a few percent,” Wennberg says. “Otherwise, it’s not nearly as helpful as you would think.”