Tag Archives: greenhouse

Gas stoves leak methane even when not in use

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is leaking from your stove even when it is not in use. In fact, most of the methane they leak happens while the stoves are not being used. Although individually, each stove doesn’t leak much of the gas, the effect adds up tremendously over the whole USA.

Image via Pixabay.

Leaky troubles

“Simply owning a natural gas stove, and having natural gas pipes and fittings in your home, leads to more emissions over 24 hours than the amount emitted while the burners are on,” says Stanford Professor of Earth Sciences Rob Jackson, co-author of the study.

The team measured the methane released from the cooking stoves in 53 homes in the state of California. They recorded the quantity of methane that leaked whenever the knobs of the stove were turned, in the moments before the gas lit on fire. They also recorded how much methane escaped unburned during cooking. However, the main advantage of this study over comparative ones is that it also measured how much methane was released when the stoves were not in use.

According to the results, a surprising 80% of the methane leaks recorded during the study were observed while the stoves were not in use. These came from loose couplings and fittings between the stove and gas distribution pipes. Eric Lebel, the study’s lead author, says that their results come to address the lack of data on “incomplete combustion from appliances,” offering up a valuable piece of the climate change puzzle.

The stoves and cooktops studied in this study belonged to 18 different brands, and varied in age from between 3 to 30 years old. Stoves using pilot lights leaked more than those equipped with an electronic sparker.

According to the measurements, the team estimates that around 1.3% of the gas used in a stove leaks into the atmosphere — which, individually, is a small quantity. Added up over the more than 40 million gas stoves in the U.S., however, this amounts to a significant quantity of greenhouse gas. Overall, the climate-warming effect of this quantity of methane would be equivalent to the emissions of 500,000 gasoline-powered cars.

Such leaks become important when considering the global push against greenhouse gas emissions. The E.P.A. estimates that buildings account for more than 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the USA.

The authors advocate that switching to electric stoves would help slash these emissions. It would also help in the broader sense that making a switch here would make people more comfortable to switching other, larger sources of domestic emissions such as the furnace, water heater, and clothes dryer.

That being said, they are aware that such a switch isn’t viable for many people, such as renters as those who can’t afford to purchase an electric stove. In these cases, there is a simple step everyone can take to limit methane emissions in their home:

“Pull the stove out from the wall and tighten the connectors to the stove and to the nearby pipes,” Jackson says.

In order to remove these emissions completely, however, the team underlines that the only real option is to switch to an electric stove entirely.

The paper “Methane and NOx Emissions from Natural Gas Stoves, Cooktops, and Ovens in Residential Homes” has been published in the journal Energy and Climate.

Clean energy, high yields: greenhouse plants grow just fine with semi-transparent solar cells

Greenhouse farming could soon become much more climate-friendly thanks to the use of solar cells to obtain electricity to regulate temperature. A new study found that greenhouses equipped with renewable energy can generate clean electricity without affecting the growth or health of the plants inside, opening the way for a new type of greenhouse.

Image credit: Flickr / Lotus Johnson

A greenhouse provides an enclosed environment that allows for crop production. Greenhouses are not only more reliable than outdoor crops, but they can also offer more growth cycles per year. The protective environment – through a transparent envelope – drastically increases yield while lowering water consumption and pesticide use as compared to conventional farming.

The insolation leads to significant space heating that can be beneficial in cold weather but can result in overheating in warm weather. While the sunlight can support space heating in cold weather, the glazing of the greenhouse has poor thermal insulation, resulting in the greenhouse often requiring heating beyond what the sun can provide.

Hence, the need for energy in a greenhouse.

To lower the energy footprint of greenhouses, both farmers and researchers have been increasingly looking at ways to integrate solar cells into the greenhouse structure. The problem is that solar panels and plants are vying for the same resource: solar light. Many thought that with the light being captured by the solar cells to generate power, there simply wouldn’t be enough left for crop production. But there’s a way around it.

Semitransparent organic solar cells (ST-OSCs) have been of particular interest as they have absorption characteristics that can be tuned to complement the spectral light needs of the plant. While studies have shown the cells can be a beneficial source of power, nobody had asked the plants yet how they can be affected.

Researchers from North Carolina State University decided to address this, looking at the use of ST-OSCs in a model greenhouse in the US and their effects on crops. This solar technology is more flexible than others and the wavelengths of light they harvest can be adjusted, making them perfect – in theory, at least – for embedding into greenhouse roofs.

For the study, they grew groups of red leaf lettuce (Lactuca sativa) in greenhouses for 30 days. All were exposed to the same growing conditions and the only difference was light. A control group received regular white light and three experimental groups grew under light passed through filters, so to mimic wavelengths that would be blocked by the solar cells.

The researchers then monitored several indicators of the health of the plants, including their weight, number and size of leaves, level of antioxidants, and how much CO2 they absorbed. To their surprise, the lettuces grew just fine no matter the type of light they received, with no major difference seen in any measurement. This is very good news for the solar panels.

The study also showed that the organic solar cells contribute to reducing overheating in the greenhouse. For a greenhouse in Sacramento, California, the number of hours that the greenhouse overheats can be reduced from 280 to 82 hours. While this does not have a large impact on energy demand, it is expected to improve crop production, the researchers argued.

“We were a little surprised – there was no real reduction in plant growth or health,” plant biologist Heike Sederoff from North Carolina State University and co-author of the research told Futirity. “It means the idea of integrating transparent solar cells into greenhouses can be done.”

In a study published earlier this year, the same researchers found that the use of ST-OSCs could reduce the carbon footprint of greenhouses by powering the structures in warm and moderate climates. Semi-transparent cells on greenhouse roofs act as insulators as they reflect infrared light, helping keep the greenhouse warmer in winter and cooler in summer, they argued.

The study was published in the journal Cell.

Lockdowns shut whole economies down, but greenhouse gas levels are still rising

Lockdowns imposed against the spread of the coronavirus fostered a noticeable decline in humanity’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while they were in effect. Despite this, GHG levels in the atmosphere hit “record highs” in 2019 and continued to increase all throughout 2020, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Image credits Marcin Jozwiak.

The results show that we’re still well on our way towards a much hotter climate in the future. Although the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has helped in this regard, it wasn’t able to bring atmospheric GHG levels down. Furthermore, this illustrates why stabilizing the climate requires a focus on long-term, sustained reductions of such gas in order to be successful.

Less, but not little

“The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “We need a sustained flattening of the curve.”

GHGs prevent heat from the surface of the Earth from radiating back out into space. In effect, this makes them act as a blanket that’s warming up the planet. This process is actually pretty beneficial for us, as it helps keep temperatures in a comfortable range and prevents massive fluctuations (like what takes place on Mars, for example). But too much greenhouse effect can make for scorching heat, higher sea levels (through the melting of the ice caps), and it can promote freak weather events.

According to preliminary estimates in the WMO’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, CO2 emissions may have dropped by 17% globally at the height of lockdowns and shutdowns. Averaged out over the whole year, however, this would mean a drop of between 4.2% and 7.5%, it added.

The bad news is that this decrease was “no bigger than the normal year to year fluctuations,” the WMO states, which means that this drop won’t have any meaningful effect on GHG concentrations in the atmosphere and thus on global warming. Atmospheric CO2 levels in the air will continue to rise, although at a slightly reduced pace — around 0.23 parts per million (ppm) slower than previously estimated. This is well below the 1.0 ppm threshold, which is the natural variability between different years. WMO’s Bulletin listed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at 410 parts per million in 2019, from 407.8 ppm in 2018. The rising trend has continued into 2020, it adds.

“On the short-term, the impact of the COVID-19 confinements cannot be distinguished from natural variability,” the report explains.

Emissions are the main source of GHGs coming into the air. Atmospheric levels, or concentrations, are the part of these emissions left over after a series of interactions between the air and wider environment including plant activity, the lithosphere, cryosphere, and the oceans. In essence, they’re an excess of gas that can’t be scrubbed out.

Taalas underscores that we first crossed the 400 ppm global threshold in 2015, and “just four years later, we crossed 410 ppm. Such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records.”

“Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean for even longer,” Taalas adds. “The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago,” when global temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher than now. “But there weren’t 7.7 billion inhabitants”.

CO2 is the main GHG emitted by humanity, and has the greatest overall effect on the climate (around 60%) due to its quantity. The second-most prevalent such gas is methane, which accounts for around 16% of total warming. Nitrous oxide is the third major greenhouse gas. The WMO adds that the Earth has registered a 45% increase in radiative forcing (the warming effect of GHGs) since 1990.

It could take decades after slashing emissions for the climate to cool down

Global warming is perhaps the ultimate hurdle humanity will have to overcome in our lifetime. Researchers from Norway are helping us get a better idea of what that process would entail.

Image via Pixabay.

According to their work, it could take decades after we reduce greenhouse emissions for the planet to start cooling down. While the idea that it takes time to alter climate patterns — known as ‘climate inertia’ — isn’t new, the study does offer a more in-depth estimation of how such a process would unfold.

Cooling takes time

The study was published by three researchers at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway.

They worked with several climate models to determine how global climate would respond to different levels of reductions in greenhouse emissions, or to changes in the overall make-up of those emissions.

Slashes in carbon dioxide emissions were the only changes that had a noticeable effect on global warming, but even then, it would take a long time to see progress.

However, when emissions of other gases being emitted were reduced as well, this cooling trend would accelerate. If these other pollutants are not reduced, the planet will cool down very slowly.

According to the team’s best-case scenario (near-zero-emissions starting this year), we’ll see the planet starting to cool down somewhere in 2033. Under the RUCP2.6 scenario (an emission reduction scenario considered to be achievable by many researchers and politicians), the team saw no positive changes until 2047. Finally, if emissions are reduced by around 5% each year, we’ll start seeing an improvement by 2044.

The team’s effort isn’t a clear-cut image of the future, and they acknowledge this fact, but it is a very useful glimpse into where we’re headed, roughly, and what to expect.

One of the most important takeaways of this research is that time is extremely important in fixing our climate issues. The later we start, the later we’ll see results, or the more emissions we’ll have to slash (which translates to more severe economic effects). We have to balance those effects with the damage our emissions are causing to the planet’s ecosystems — economies don’t tend to fare well during periods of massive environmental upheaval.

But not all is lost. The quarantine showed that we can make a real, positive change in our emissions with surprising ease. Air quality improved dramatically over many of the world’s busiest cities during the lockdown. We can recreate that drop in emissions in the future — and it will be a very good place to start.

The paper “Delayed emergence of a global temperature response after emission mitigation” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Our emissions will blight 1.2 billion people with heatwaves and humidity by 2100

Heat stress from a combination of high temperatures and humidity will affect an estimated 1.2 billion people by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t slashed, a new study reports.

Image via Pixabay.

That’s over four times more people than today, the authors explain, and over 12 times as many as would be affected without industrial-era global warming. The study is the first to incorporate humidity into its analysis, which makes heatwaves harder to bear as high humidity prevents the evaporation (and cooling effect) of sweat. Heat stress is dangerous to human health as well as agriculture, the environment, and economies at large, the team adds.

Too hot for comfort

“When we look at the risks of a warmer planet, we need to pay particular attention to combined extremes of heat and humidity, which are especially dangerous to human health,” said senior author Robert E. Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“Every bit of global warming makes hot, humid days more frequent and intense. In New York City, for example, the hottest, most humid day in a typical year already occurs about 11 times more frequently than it would have in the 19th century,” said lead author Dawei Li, a former Rutgers postdoctoral associate now at the University of Massachusetts.

Heat stress accumulates when the body cannot properly cool itself down during hot conditions. Higher than normal internal temperatures can cause heat rashes, cramps, exhaustion, or even damage the brain and other vital organs, being potentially fatal.

In order to prevent this from happening, our bodies sweat. But, if the ambient humidity is high enough (as happens in a rainforest, for example), sweat stops evaporating, so it stops cooling you down.

The study looked at how combined extreme heat and humidity would evolve in the future on a warming Earth through a series of 40 climate simulations. The authors focused on a measure of heat stress that accounts for temperature, humidity and other environmental factors, including wind speed, the angle of incoming light, and the overall level of solar and infrared radiation.

They report that under a 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) heating scenario, exposure to extreme heat and humidity in excess of safety guidelines will affect areas that are currently housing around 500 million people. Under a 2 degree Celsius warming scenario, around 800 million people would be exposed to such conditions. Finally, a 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warming scenario – the one we’re headed to currently — would put a whopping 1.2 billion people at risk from heat stress.

A resident of New York City would experience the worst heat and humidity seen in a typical year today for 4 days, 8 days, or 24 days a year under these different warming scenarios, the team explains.

The paper “Escalating global exposure to compound heat-humidity extremes with warming” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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.


Research is getting to the root of climate change with bigger, deeper plant roots

New research is trying to give plants stronger, deeper roots to make them scrub more CO2 out of the atmosphere.


Image via Pixabay.

Researchers at the Salk Institute are investigating the molecular mechanisms that govern root growth pattern in plants. Their research aims to patch a big hole in our knowledge — while we understand how plant roots develop, we still have no idea which biochemical mechanisms guide the process and how. The team, however, reports to finding a gene that determines whether roots grow deep or shallow in the soil and plans to use it to mitigate climate warming.

Deep roots are not reached by the scorch

“We are incredibly excited about this first discovery on the road to realizing the goals of the Harnessing Plants Initiative,” says Associate Professor Wolfgang Busch, senior author on the paper and a member of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and its Integrative Biology Laboratory.

“Reducing atmospheric CO2 levels is one of the great challenges of our time, and it is personally very meaningful to me to be working toward a solution.”

The study came about as part of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, which aims to grow plants with deeper and more robust roots. These roots, they hope, will store increased amounts of carbon underground for longer periods of time while helping to meaningfully reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

The researchers used thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) as a model plant, working to identify the genes (and gene variants) that regulate auxin. Auxin is a key plant hormone that has been linked to nearly every aspect of plant growth, but its exact effect on the growth patterns of root systems remained unclear. That’s exactly what the team wanted to find out.

“In order to better view the root growth, I developed and optimized a novel method for studying plant root systems in soil,” says first author Takehiko Ogura, a postdoctoral fellow in the Busch lab. “The roots of A. thaliana are incredibly small so they are not easily visible, but by slicing the plant in half we could better observe and measure the root distributions in the soil.”

One gene called EXOCYST70A3, the team reports, seems to be directly responsible for the development of root system architecture. EXOCYST70A3, they explain, controls the plant’s auxin pathways but doesn’t interfere with other pathways because it acts on a protein PIN4, which mediates the transport of auxin. When the team chemically altered the EXOCYST70A3 gene, the plant’s root system shifted orientation and grew deeper into the soil.

“Biological systems are incredibly complex, so it can be difficult to connect plants’ molecular mechanisms to an environmental response,” says Ogura. “By linking how this gene influences root behavior, we have revealed an important step in how plants adapt to changing environments through the auxin pathway.”

“We hope to use this knowledge of the auxin pathway as a way to uncover more components that are related to these genes and their effect on root system architecture,” adds Busch. “This will help us create better, more adaptable crop plants, such as soybean and corn, that farmers can grow to produce more food for a growing world population.”

In addition to helping plants scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere, the team hopes that these findings can help other researchers understand how plants adapt to differences between seasons, such as various levels of rainfall. This could also point to new ways to tailor plants to better suit today’s warming, changing climate.

The paper “Root System Depth in Arabidopsis Is Shaped by EXOCYST70A3 via the Dynamic Modulation of Auxin Transport” has been published in the journal Cell.

Desert tank.

The military is the largest emitter in the US Gov’t — in fact, it’s the world 55th largest polluter

The American military is actually one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world — more than many nations.

Desert tank.

Image via Pixabay.

A new analysis by Dr. Neta Crawford, a professor of Political Science and Department Chair at Boston University, shows that the Pentagon was responsible for around 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. This figure places the U.S. military higher on the list of the world’s largest emitters than industrialized countries such as Sweden or Portugal.

The Costs of War

“In a newly released study published by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, I calculated U.S. military greenhouse gas emissions in tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from 1975 through 2017,” Dr. Crawford explains in a piece for LiveScience.

“Since 2001, the DOD has consistently consumed between 77 and 80 percent of all US
government energy consumption,” her paper explains.

In “any one year”, she explains, the Pentagon’s emissions were greater than “many smaller countries’ [emissions],” the study explains. In fact, if the Pentagon were a country, it would be the world’s 55th largest greenhouse gas emitter, overtaking even industrialized countries.

The largest single sources of military greenhouse gas emissions identified in the study are buildings and fuel. The DoD maintains over 560,000 buildings, which account for about 30% of its emissions. “The Pentagon building itself emitted 24,620.55 metric tons of [CO2 equivalent] in the fiscal year 2013,” the study says. The lion’s share of total energy use, around 70%, comes from operations. This includes moving troops and material about, as well as their use in the field, and is kept running by massive quantities of jet and diesel fuel, Crawford said.

Where to?

This January, the Pentagon listed climate change as “a national security issue” in a report it presented to Congress. The military has launched several initiatives to prepare for its impacts but seems just as thirsty for fuel as ever before. It is understandable; tanks, trucks, planes, bombers without fuel — and a lot of fuel — they’re just fancy paperweights.

But, at the same time, the use of fossil fuels is changing the climate. Global climate models estimate a 3ºC to 5ºC (5.4ºF to 9ºF) rise in mean temperatures this century alone under a business as usual scenario. In a paper published in Nature that we covered earlier today, we’ve seen how 4ºC would increase the effect of climate on conflict more than five-fold. More conflict would probably mean more fuel guzzled by the army’s engines.

The paper also looks at how the U.S. military “spends about $81 billion annually defending the global oil supply” to ensure both domestic and military life can continue without a hitch.

“The military uses a great deal of fossil fuel protecting access to Persian Gulf Oil,” the paper explains. “Because the current trend is that the US is becoming less dependent on oil, it may be that the mission of protecting Persian Gulf oil is no longer vital and the US military can reduce its presence in the Persian Gulf.”

“Which raises the question of whether, in protecting against a potential oil price increase, the US does more harm than it risks by not defending access to Persian Gulf oil. In sum, the Persian Gulf mission may not be as necessary as the Pentagon assumes.”

However, not all is dead and dreary. Crawford says the Pentagon had reduced its fuel consumption significantly since 2009, mainly by making its vehicles more efficient and shifting towards cleaner sources of energy at bases. Further reductions could be achieved by cutting missions to the Persian Gulf, the paper advises, seeing as it is no longer a top priority to protect oil supply from this area as renewable energy is gaining in the overall grid make-up.

“Many missions could actually be rethought, and it would make the world safer,” Crawford concludes.

The paper “Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War” can be accessed here.

Peltigera aphthosa.

Arctic plants are getting taller due to climate change — which could fuel more climate change

Throughout the southern reaches of the Arctic, plants are getting taller due to climate change.

Peltigera aphthosa.

The common freckle pelt lichen (Peltigera aphthosa) is often found on mossy ground, rocks, or under trees in Arctic ecosystems.
Image credits James Walton / NPS.

While not graced with the lush vegetation of the Earth’s other areas, the Arctic is far from desolate. Hundreds of species of low-lying shrubs, grasses, and other plants make a home in the frigid expanse, and they play a key role in the carbon cycle. However, anthropic climate change is causing new plants to move into the Arctic’s southern stretches which, according to a new paper, can lead to quite a bit of hassle in the future.

Growing (too) strong

An international team of 130 researchers, led by Dr Isla Myers-Smith of the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Anne Bjorkman from the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) in Frankfurt, has been investigating the Arctic flora as part of a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)-funded project.

The team looked at more than 60,000 data points from hundreds of sites across the Arctic and alpine tundra and report that higher mean temperatures are impacting the delicate balance of these ecosystems. This is the first time that a biome-scale study looking at the role plants play in this rapidly-warming part of the planet has been carried out, says Bjorkman.

“Rapid climate warming in the Arctic and alpine regions is driving changes in the structure and composition of plant communities, with important consequences for how this vast and sensitive ecosystem functions,” Dr Bjorkman adds.

“Arctic regions have long been a focus for climate change research, as the permafrost lying under the northern latitudes contains 30 to 50 percent of the world’s soil carbon”.

Among other things, plants insulate the soil they grow in from incoming sunlight. While this is rather fortunate for us during a hot summer’s day, in the Arctic, it’s a matter of ecosystem stability. Taller plants also help to trap more snow beneath their leaves. This thicker blanket of snow, in turn, further insulates the soil from temperature changes in the atmosphere, preventing it from freezing.

In other words, taller plants in the Arctic keep soil thawed for more days each year, leading to “an increase in the release of greenhouse gases” as biological matter trapped in the soil has a wider window of time annually to decompose.

“If taller plants continue to increase at the current rate, the plant community height could increase by 20 to 60 percent by the end of the century,” Dr Bjorkman explains.

The team gathered their data from sites in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Alpine sites in the European Alps and Colorado Rockies were also included in the study. For each dataset, the team looked at the relationship between temperature and soil moisture. They also tracked plant height and leaf area, along with specific leaf area, leaf nitrogen content, leaf dry matter content, as well as ‘woodiness and evergreenness’.

Out of all these characteristics, only height increased meaningfully over time. Temperature and moisture levels (which is strongly affected by temperature) had the strongest influence on observed plant characteristics.

“We need to understand more about soil moisture in the Arctic. Precipitation is likely to increase in the region, but that’s just one factor that affects soil moisture levels,” Dr Myers-Smith said. “While most climate change models and research have focused on increasing temperatures, our research has shown that soil moisture can play a much greater role in changing plant traits than we previously thought.”

The results suggest that (through the mechanism explained previously), this increase in overall plant height could have significant implications for both the Arctic and the world at large. At the same time, they should help us better tailor our climate models, to take into account increased greenhouse gas emissions from the area.

The paper “Plant functional trait change across a warming tundra biome” has been published in the journal Nature.

Refinery tanks.

The U.S. oil and gas industry is leaking a lot of methane — again

The U.S. oil and gas industry emits roughly 13 million metric tons of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) per year. The figure is 60% higher than that estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Refinery tanks.

Image via Pixabay.

Most of these emissions didn’t come from the industry’s main activity; rather, it oozed out from leaks, malfunctioning equipment, and other “abnormal” operating conditions. Still, irrespective of their source, these emissions do take a toll on the environment. In 2015, the paper notes, these emissions had roughly the same environmental impact as the carbon dioxide emissions resulted from all of the U.S’ coal-fired plants.

Leakie leaks

“This study provides the best estimate to date on the climate impact of oil and gas activity in the United States,” said co-author Jeff Peischl, a CIRES scientist working in NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colorado.

“It’s the culmination of 10 years of studies by scientists across the country, many of which were spearheaded by CIRES and NOAA.”

The paper drew on measurements performed at over 400 well pads in six oil and gas production basins and multiple midstream facilities. The measurements were focused around valves, tanks, and other equipment. In addition, the team also drew on aerial surveys covering large areas of the U.S. oil and gas infrastructure.

Methane was the main focus since it’s the principal component in what we commonly refer to as ‘natural gas’. It’s also a very powerful greenhouse gas, having over 80 times the warming impact of CO2 for the first 20 years after release (it breaks down in the atmosphere after that). The study estimates that methane emissions in the U.S. total about 2.3% of total production — which would negate any potential benefit of the U.S. switching from coal to natural gas in the energy sector over the next 20 years.

The total cost of these methane leakages is around $2 billion, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, “America’s most economically literate green campaigners.” That quantity, they add, would be enough to heat 10 million homes in the U.S.

On one hand, the findings raise concerns around our efforts to mitigate climate change — if the U.S. leaks so much methane under our collective noses, how much does the global oil and gas industry leak? On the other hand, it’s an easily fixable problem. Repairing the leaks and addressing other factors that contribute to the methane emissions would be a quick and cheap way to keep a lot of methane out of the atmosphere. However, this is not the first time the U.S. leaks methane — similar findings were reported on in 2016.

The paper “Assessment of methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain” has been published in the journal Science.


What is the Greenhouse effect, and why it’s (currently) bad for us

A lot of ink has been spilled on climate change and the effect of greenhouse gases emissions lately. And for good reason. But how do some gases make the planet warmer? What is the link between CO2 and the climate? Let’s find out.


Image credits orvalrochefort / Flickr.

How it all starts

With precious few exceptions, all the energy on Earth derives from the sun. Sunlight carries this energy (mostly in the form of heat, visible light, and radiation that we cannot perceive) from the fusing nuclei in the star’s core to our planet’s surface.

Part of this energy keeps our planet alive. Winds blow to appease pressure differences in the atmosphere, which are caused by differences in temperature. Plants gobble up sunlight to fuse carbon to hydrogen in photosynthesis. Even the coal and oil we burn are akin to chemical batteries storing the sun’s energy.

Part of that input of energy, however, doesn’t stay here. It gets reflected — by clouds, oceans, plants, ice caps — back into space. While every other celestial body out there does this, each will differ in how much of the incoming energy it reflects. This ratio of incoming energy to reflected energy is known as a planet’s ‘albedo‘, from the Latin word for ‘white’. Albedo is measured on a scale from 0 (no reflection) to 1 (complete reflection), and the Earth currently sits at about 0.30 on the albedo scale (measured in the 1970s), meaning it reflects some 30% of all incoming sunlight.

To summarise, conditions on a planet’s surface depend on a tug of war between the energy output of its host star and the planet’s capacity to reflect or capture it.

What is the greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect is caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere preventing heat from radiating out into space. When trapped heat radiates out of the surface, these gases absorb and contain energy inside the atmosphere.

Greenhouse effect.

Image via Pixabay.

While albedo reflects incoming sunlight and the energy it carries away from the surface of the Earth, its atmosphere works as a temperature battery. Clouds reflect about 23% of incoming solar energy, but they — alongside the rest of the atmosphere — also absorb roughly the same amount, 23%. What remains of the incoming solar energy is either reflected (7% of total) or absorbed (47%) by the surface.

Certain compounds in the atmosphere (most notably water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane) are very good at absorbing heat (infrared radiation) and later emit it back out. Greenhouse gases capture most of that 23% of the incoming energy absorbed in the atmosphere.

All in all, we’re actually very lucky to have a plump atmosphere that contains some greenhouse gases — they help ‘spread’ energy around evenly. A planet like Mars, with its thin atmosphere, is plagued by temperatures of both extremes: scorching in the sunlight, freezing in the shadow. The same goes for Mercury — despite being the closest planet to the sun, nighttime temperatures here drop as low as -290° F(-180° C).

However, this is also where our climate troubles start. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb energy as long as their environment is at a higher energy state (they absorb infrared light when their environment is warmer than them). The atmosphere and surface, then, absorb most energy during the day and release most of it at night. These gases radiate energy in all directions, meaning some of that is released towards the Earth’s surface to be reabsorbed.

When they release it, some of the energy goes back into the ground. The higher the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more energy gets trapped this way. Rinse and repeat enough times, and you get to where we are today — we’ve pumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it’s making a noticeable change in average temperatures.

Why is it a problem for us today?

Strictly speaking, climate change itself isn’t the problem — its consequences are.

For all our technology and know-how, society today is completely dependent on nature for its survival. We rely on natural processes to clean our water, fatten the fish we capture, pollinate our crops, generate the oxygen we need. We really enjoy the sea level staying where it is, and we’ve constructed various social and cultural mechanisms to adapt to the climatic and ecological particularities of the places we live in. Climate change — spurred on by the greenhouse gases we generate — threatens to destroy these natural systems we so dearly rely on.

When they change, we and our society will have to change as well, in order to survive. But the fact of the matter is that we have evolved, biologically and culturally, economically, and socially, to fit the mold our environments provided. Adapting to a post-climate-change world will entail social and economic upheaval the likes of which humanity has never faced before.

Another issue with the greenhouse effect, and by extension climate change, is that it has a lot of inertia. It takes time to fix. Even directly scrubbing CO2 out of the atmosphere will take time: there are roughly 3.200 gigatons of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere right now (410 ppm), and we’d need to scrub out some 1.440 gigatons (45%) off that to get to pre-industrial levels.

This inertia is only compounded with respect to the effects of climate change. The world’s ecosystems will need time to recover even after greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere have been reduced — and there’s no guarantee they’ll go back to being what they were. Every species lost clears an evolutionary niche that evolution will fill with something else. There’s no guarantee that ‘something else’ will be to our liking or be useful for us.

Finally, there is this spot of trouble:

The Greenhouse effect is self-enforcing

This is actually one of the greatest dangers facing humanity at the moment for a very simple reason: we’ve helped get it started, but greenhouse-type effects are perfectly capable of driving themselves on.

Annual Temperature Local.

Temperature map of regions where record highs (red) and lows (blue) were set in 2015, relative to the year before.
Image and caption credits Berkeley Earth / Wikimedia

Water vapor, for example, is a greenhouse gas, so it helps trap heat. Ice sheets are vast expanses of white, so they increase our planet’s albedo. A warmer climate will increase atmospheric concentrations of the first while reducing areas of the latter. The increase in greenhouse gases coupled with a reduction in albedo will warm the climate even more.

We are already seeing this positive feedback cycle at work. Warmer average temperatures, for example, are causing organic matter buried in permafrost to decompose, which releases carbon dioxide. The polar ice sheets are reeling and fragmenting under warmer conditions, reducing their ability to reflect energy back to space. These are just a few examples of how the greenhouse effect can get out of hand.

Cape Town in South Africa narrowly avoided running completely out of water after three years of relentless drought. The drought in California which ended last year was also spurred on by climate change. And there are things we just don’t know about.

“Large, abrupt climate changes have repeatedly affected much or all of the Earth, locally reaching as much as 10°C change in 10 years. Available evidence suggests that abrupt climate changes are not only possible but likely in the future, potentially with large impacts on ecosystems and societies,” reads the a consensus study report published by the National Research Council in 2002.

“We do not yet understand abrupt climate changes well enough to predict them.”

Taken to the extreme, like the state of Venus today shows, the cycle can repeat until our planet becomes a hot rock drenched in boiling acid. Not a pleasant prospect.

But, as the authors of the study themselves notes, “there is no need to be fatalistic; human and natural systems have survived many abrupt changes in the past, and will continue to do so. Nonetheless, future dislocations can be minimized by taking steps to face the potential for abrupt climate change.”

Even though overall CO2 emissions have been relatively flat from 2014 to 2016, atmospheric concentrations saw a record increase in 2015 and 2016 (bars) due to El Niño conditions. Scientists expected CO2 emissions to grow in 2017 (red dots), but they expected the growth in atmospheric concentrations (red bar) to be lower in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016, in the absence of an El Niño event. Credit: Nature Climate Change.

After three flat-line years, global carbon emissions are back on the rise

From 2014 to 2016 man-made CO2 emission growth entered a hiatus, although the economy was, and still is, on an upward trend. Some had hoped this three-year flatline signified a turning point in history, when humanity peaked fossil fuel use. Alas, it was not to be. Reporting from Bonn, Germany, where world leaders gathered at the same COP conference where the now-famous Paris Agreement was signed, scientists working at the Global Carbon Project claim that CO2 emissions are projected to rise to a record high in 2017.

Even though overall CO2 emissions have been relatively flat from 2014 to 2016, atmospheric concentrations saw a record increase in 2015 and 2016 (bars) due to El Niño conditions. Scientists expected CO2 emissions to grow in 2017 (red dots), but they expected the growth in atmospheric concentrations (red bar) to be lower in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016, in the absence of an El Niño event. Credit: Nature Climate Change.

Even though overall CO2 emissions have been relatively flat from 2014 to 2016, atmospheric concentrations saw a record increase in 2015 and 2016 (blue bars) due to El Niño conditions. Scientists expected CO2 emissions to grow in 2017 (red dots), but they expected the growth in atmospheric concentrations (red bar) to be lower in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016, in the absence of an El Niño event. Credit: Nature Climate Change.

The landmark Paris Agreement from 2015, now literally signed by every nation in the world except the USA under Trump’s Administration, aims to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius past the average recorded at the start of the industrial revolution. However, the individual pledges that each nation has submitted are no way near ambitious enough.

Scientists working with the Global Carbon Project estimate that world emissions will rise by 2 percent to a record 37 billion metric tons in 2017. What’s more, deforestation and other changes in land use are expected to add another 4 billion metric tons of CO2, rounding off the total number of CO2 emissions for 2017 to 41 billion metric tons.

What’s mainly driving this upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions is China, which pledged under the Paris Agreement to peak emissions by around 2030 and to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources. China accounts for roughly a quarter of all man-made industrial emissions, so any upward or downward swing in the nation is sure to have a global influence. There were reasons to be optimistic as the government announced plans to cancel a hundred coal plants and is investing heavily in cleaner sources like solar, wind, and nuclear. The country also plans to sell millions of electric vehicles in the years ahead.

 CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industry since 1960 for China, the United States, the European Union, India, and the rest of the world (ROW). Credit: Environmental Research Letters.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industry since 1960 for China, the United States, the European Union, India, and the rest of the world (ROW). Credit: Environmental Research Letters.

Even though China’s economy has been growing, coal use began to taper off in the last three years. This year, however, emissions in China are expected to rise by 3.5 percent, driven by heavy infrastructure works aimed to boost the economy and unfavorable rain patterns that reduced hydropower output.

There is some good news, though. According to the same report released by the Global Carbon Project, 21 countries have managed to reduce their carbon emissions over the past decade, while simultaneously growing their economies. Among them are the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden.

It seems like the low-hanging fruit has been picked dry, though. In many developed countries, the rate of emission reductions has fallen considerably compared to the start of the decade. Industrial emissions in the United States are projected to fall by only 0.4 percent in 2017, compared to the 1.2 percent year-to-year average for the last decade. Oil use increased and a rise in natural gas prices slightly increased coal use. A similar situation is experienced by the European Union, whose emissions are expected to fall by just 0.2 percent this year, compared to the 2.2 percent average annual decline of the previous decade.

Surprisingly, India will only see 2 percent emissions growth for 2017, marking a huge improvement over the 6 percent year-to-year average rise in emissions it usually sees. It’s not clear how long this will last, as the country scrambles to offer electricity to its 300 million citizens still living in the dark.

The important announcement arrives while climate experts and world leaders gathered in Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd edition of the Conference of the Parties (COP). This is a tense conference, following President Trump’s announcement that he will see to it that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement — which as of last year has entered into force. The rest of the world seems determined, however, to continue on its mission to decarbonize society in hope for a better, cleaner, safer future. The Paris Agreement is larger and far more important than the whims of any person.

Right now, many of the Paris pledges remain fairly opaque. It’s clear from today’s news that the world is not yet on track to reach its climate goals. More ambitious action is required so that, hopefully, we might see emissions peak in 2018, instead of rising again.

C02 flavor pic.

There hasn’t been this much CO2 in the air in 3 million years. We have to stop, UN warns

Atmospheric CO2 levels reached a record high in 2016– the highest the Earth has seen over in the last 3 million years. More worryingly, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO, part of the UN) reports that last year’s increase was 50% higher than the average over the last 10 years, and points to the appearance of a wildcard that could shatter the temperature goals set in Paris.

Researchers say that several factors, most notably human activity and the 2016 El Niño, powered the surge.

C02 flavor pic.

Image via Zappys Technology Solutions / Flickr.

Looking for a seriously spooky costume idea this Halloween? The WMO‘s latest Gas Bulletin might be just what you need. The document is produced each year by the WMO using data recorded by research stations in 51 countries. These measure concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide after the planet’s sinks (such as the biosphere or oceans) scrubbed all they could of these gasses from the atmosphere — so the WMO’s report doesn’t show the sum of gases pumped into the atmosphere, only what’s beyond the Earth’s ability to clean up.


It doesn’t look pretty. Overall, the document reports, in 2016, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 hit 403.3 parts per million (ppm), up from 400ppm in 2015.

“It is the largest increase we have ever seen in the 30 years we have had this network,” Dr Oksana Tarasova, chief of WMO’s global atmosphere watch programme, told BBC news.

“The largest increase was in the previous El Niño, in 1997-1998, and it was 2.7ppm; and now it is 3.3ppm. It is also 50% higher than the average of the last 10 years.”

El Niño phenomena can impact carbon levels in the atmosphere by causing droughts over wide areas, stifling plant growth and thus limiting their ability to absorb CO2.

There is a piece of good news in the report: human emissions have slowed down in the last couple of years. However, Dr. Tarasova warns that it’s not simply new emissions but rather the total levels in the atmosphere that matter; CO2 can remain airborne and active as a greenhouse gas for centuries. Over the last 70 years, the report notes, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have started increasing 100 times faster than at the end of the last ice age due to population growth, intensive agriculture, deforestation, and industrialization. Overall, CO2 concentrations have more than doubled since that baseline.

CO2 comparison.

Image credits: WMO.

We’re already seeing the effects of this build-up. Since 1990, scientists have recorded a 40% increase in total radiative forcing — the difference between how much energy the Earth receives and how much it vents out. The higher the total radiative forcing gets, the more energy stays on Earth in the form of heat. Greenhouse gasses drive radiative forcing up by preventing energy in the atmosphere from radiating to outer space.

It’s a huge rise in concentration in what, geologically speaking, is an extremely short span of time — “like an injection of a huge amount of heat,” according to Dr. Tarasova.

“The changes will not take 10,000 years, like they used to take before; they will happen fast. We don’t have the knowledge of the system in this state; that is a bit worrisome!”

The last time our planet harbored similar CO2 concentrations was in the mid-Pliocene, a geological epoch spanning from three to five million years ago. The climate was 2 to 3 °C (3.6 to 5.4 °F) warmer back then, and sea levels were 10 to 20 m (32.8 to 65.6 ft) higher than today, pushed up by meltwater from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.


One more worrying trend seen by the WMO is a currently-unexplained increase of atmospheric methane, also larger than the average over the past decade. Growth was strongest in the tropics and subtropics, and carbon isotope analysis has revealed the growth is not released by burning fossil fuels; it’s not clear where it is coming from. The worst-case scenario, researchers fear, is that we’re looking at the start of a feedback mechanism.

Gasses bulletin.

Image credits WMO.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, but it’s also less chemically stable, so it breaks down faster. A climate-driven, methane-based feedback mechanism, however, has the potential to drive up temperatures astoundingly fast. Such an event starts with methane from decaying biomass being generated much faster and in larger quantities than usual since we’re making it warmer. That methane will, in turn, raise average temperatures, which starts the loop again and generates even more methane before it can fully break down in the atmosphere.

It’s a particularly troubling find since the Paris Agreement didn’t foresee such an increase in methane levels — in effect, it’s a wildcard that could throw a major wrench in our plans. Overall, the WMO says, their new report doesn’t bode well at all for the targets governments around the world set in Paris.

“The numbers don’t lie. We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

“We have many of the solutions already to address this challenge. What we need now is global political will and a new sense of urgency.”

WMO released the report a week in advance of the UN climate talks, to be held in Bonn. The authors urge policymakers to step up countermeasures to reduce the risk of global warming exceeding the Paris climate target of between 1.5C and 2C. The talks will carry on despite the US’ intended withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

The WMO predicted 2017 will again break records for concentrations of CO2 and methane, but with lower growth rates because since is no El Niño effect.

NASA is designing small away-from-home-ecosystems to make space exploration sustainable

Researchers at NASA and the University of Arizona, Tucson will be working together to bring long-term sustainability to our space pioneers — one greenhouse at a time.

NASA's Greenhouse.

The prototype greenhouse housed at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
Image credits University of Arizona

Astronauts have already shown the world their green thumbs by growing plants and veggies aboard the ISS. But when going farther away from our blue cradle, crews will have to rely on on-site resources for food and oxygen. To make sure they’re well stocked with both on future journeys, NASA researchers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the University of Arizona (UA) are working out how to grow enough plants to feed and air a whole crew on a long-term journey.

“We’re working with a team of scientists, engineers and small businesses at the University of Arizona to develop a closed-loop system,” said Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead scientist in Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research, about the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project. “The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.”

The prototype is an inflatable greenhouse specifically tuned to keep the plants happy and continuously growing and will provide food, scrub the breathing air while recycling both water and waste. They’re cylindrical, measuring 18 feet in length and more than 8 feet in diameter. They were designed and built by Sadler Machine Company, one of the project partners.

These greenhouses will maintain a waste-none, closed-looped process called a bioregenerative life support system. The CO2 astronauts exhale will be fed through the greenhouse so the plants can photosynthesize and generate oxygen. Water will either be shuttled along from Earth or sourced from “the lunar or Martian landing site,” NASA notes. The liquid will be enriched in gases and nutrient salts and will be pumped across the crop’s roots then recycled — basically, hydroponics in space.


The crops were selected to provide not only food, but air revitalization, water recycling and waste recycling.
Image credits University of Arizona.

Researchers at the UA are currently testing different species of plants to determine what would survive best, and what buds, seeds, or other material are required to make the greenhouses self-sufficient on a mission. Figuring out what to take and how to best use local resources afterward will be key, since deep space missions will be hard and pricey to constantly supply from home. So, NASA researchers are working on systems which can harness such resources — with an emphasis on water.

“We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support,” said Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. “The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”

The greenhouses will likely need to be buried under soil or rock to protect the plants inside from cosmic radiation, which means specialized lighting will be required to keep them alive. Currently, the team has succeeded in using either electrical LED light or hybrid methods “using both natural and artificial lighting” — which involves the use of light concentrators on the surface to track the movement of the sun and feed its light underground through fiber optic channels.

What’s left to do now is to find out how many greenhouses will be needed per crew. Giacomelli says the next step on the agenda is to test with additional units and computer models to ensure a steady supply of oxygen can be produced from the lunar greenhouses.


Delaying measures against anthropic climate change will mean higher costs

If the current pledges under the UN flag to cut carbon emissions are not improved, then it is estimated that the cost of meeting the world’s targets regarding global warming will rise by half, according to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Basically, these things have to be done, sooner or later, until it is too late; if we delay doing them now, and pass them onto future generations, not only will they look back with contempt, but it will also be much harder for them then than it is for us now.

“We must act now to reverse emission trends,” summarized a 90-page report issued on Thursday ahead of the next round of UN climate talks, opening in Durban, South Africa on Monday.

“The further we delay action, the costlier it will be to stay within 2.0 C,” it said, referring to an objective laid down in the 2009 Copenhagen Summit and endorsed at UN talks in Cancun, Mexico last year.

For the record, let it be said that it is the UN and OECD that states this, and not ‘paranoid delusional so-called scientists’ – as some emails I received claimed.

“Delayed or only moderate action up to 2020 – such as implementing the Copenhagen/Cancun pledges only, or waiting for better technologies to come onstream – would increase the pace and scale of efforts needed after 2020. It would lead to 50 per cent higher costs in 2050 compared to timely action and potentially entail higher environmental risk”.

The study compares the costs of benefits of three different courses of action for cutting emissions, that yield a 50-50 chance of preventing carbon dioxide concentrations above 450 parts per million (ppm). That 450 ppm barrier is crucial for capping the industrial global temperature raise by 2 degrees. Even under the most ambitious projects and optimistic estimates, going over the 450 ppm target “has now become inevitable in the middle of the century“, before falling again, the report says. If things continue to move in the same direction they are today, then the greenhouse gas concentration would rise to almost 700 ppm, twice the amount recorded now. The report also suggest a line of action.

“In the context of tight government budgets, finding least-cost solutions and engaging the private sector will be critical to finance the transition,” the report concludes.