Tag Archives: portugal

Portugal says farewell to coal as it closes last remaining plant

Back in 2017, Portugal pledged to give up on coal, the most polluting energy source of all fossil fuels, by 2030. With nine years to go, the government just shut down the last remaining coal plant (Pego) which had been the country’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Now, it’s time to expand renewable energy, campaigners argue. 

Image credit: Flickr / Rich.

Portugal is now the fourth country in the European Union to stop using coal for power generation — the three others being Belgium, Austria, and Sweden. This year, the EU adopted ambitious climate targets to tackle climate change, hoping to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 — and leaving coal is essential to deliver on that pledge. 

The last coal plant to close in Portugal, Pego, is located 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon. Now, the country doesn’t have any coal mines left, and it also doesn’t have any oil or gas resources (so they’re all imported). Seeking to replace them, the government has been investing heavily in renewables in recent decades, which now account for about 70% of its energy matrix, but there’s still a way to go.

While environmentalists welcomed the news, Portugal is now considering the continued use of Pego with other types of energy, including biomass (burning wood pellets), and many see this as counterproductive. Francisco Ferreira, head of the Portuguese environmental association ZERO, said in a statement Portugal shouldn’t repurpose Pego and instead expand renewables even further. 

“Portugal is the perfect example of how once a country commits to quitting coal, the pace of the phase out inevitably accelerates. The benefits of transitioning to renewables are so great, once started, it only makes sense to get out of coal as fast as possible,” said Kathrin Gutmann, Europe Beyond Coal campaign director, in a statement. 

Considering that the Portuguese government is now being sued by the European Commission (EC) for poor air quality, moving away from coal is a step in the right direction. Portugal has very high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NOX) in the atmosphere and the EC is questioning the government for “continually and persistently” exceeding the NOX limit in several cities.

Phasing out coal 

A group of 28 countries recently joined forces at the COP26 climate summit a global alliance to phase out coal, which has already been agreed by a total of 48 governments. The Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) includes members such as Poland, one of the main consumers of coal in Europe, as well as Singapore, Chile, Estonia, South Korea, and Canada.  

China hasn’t signed the pledge yet, which is very significant as China is the world’s largest coal consumer. Coal accounted for 56% of energy consumption in China last year and the government is currently building new coal plants. Still, there have been some positive signs, as China agreed to stop funding new coal plants in foreign countries. 

Coal currently accounts for over one-third of global electricity generation, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Still, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Since 2015, a total of 1,175GW of planned coal-fired power projects were canceled after pressure from civil society, market trends, and government policies. However, if we want to truly give up on fossil fuel energy, there’s much more we still need to do.

Orcas are orchestrating attacks on sailboats near Spain and Portugal, leaving scientists scratching their heads

The strange behavior of orcas on the waters around the Iberian Peninsula has raised concern among scientists. Several incidents have been reported, with orcas attacking vessels and causing serious damage in an unprecedented fashion.

Credit Flickr Michael Bamford

Over the last two months, sailors have reported worrying encounters with orcas, with two boats losing part of their rudders, a crew member suffering bruising from the impact and several boats sustaining severe damage. Spanish maritime authorities are asking vessels to keep a distance with the orcas to avoid any danger.

The latest episode occurred last week. The 36-foot sailboat Beautiful Dreamer, from the Halcyon Yachts company, was hit at least 15 times by several orcas until it lost its way and had to be towed to port. With three crew members of Finnish and British nationality, the boat had just left the port of Ferrol.

Earlier, on August 30, a distress call was recorded from a French-flagged ship claiming to be “under attack” by orcas. Also that day, the crew of the Mirfak sports sailboat, of the Spanish Navy, was surprised by the cetaceans, for reasons that are unknown, when they were sailing to participate in the Princes of Asturias regatta.

It is not uncommon to see orcas in the waters of the Iberian Peninsula between late August and early September, swimming behind shoals of tuna. What is strange is that they come so close to the boats, and more so with the violence of the episodes recorded in recent months, leaving researchers with open questions. While it’s still speculative, the orcas seem to be organizing the attacks on fishing vessels.

Orcas, the largest species in the dolphin family, are highly intelligent social mammals. They can be curious and follow a boat closely, but never with the force registered lately. While the answer isn’t clear yet, researchers believe the attacks could be related to the stress suffered by orcas by human activity in recent years.

Ken Balcomb, from the Whale Research Center, based in Washington, told RT this aggressiveness towards humans could be related to fishing and driven by the actions of fishermen, who also injure these animals with the fishing line when they try to feed on tuna. “I saw them [orcas] look at boats carrying fish. I think they know that humans are somehow related to food shortages,” said Balcomb.

The orcas of Gibraltar are in danger of extinction and it is estimated that there are only about 50 specimens left in the area. Their main source of food is tuna, the quantity of which is increasingly reduced by human fishing practices. In addition, the Strait of Gibraltar is considered by researchers as one of the worst places for the inhabitants of the ocean, since it is an important marine route, highly polluted, and with a lot of boat traffic.

But orcas have lived in such conditions for years and rarely attack people. Balcomb believes that the pandemic could have influenced the recent incidents, although this too is speculative. The absence, for two months, of fishing, whale watching, sailboats and sea ferries reduced the noise level to produce calm and tranquility in these animals. But the restart of all these activities, and with it the noise, could have caused the anger and aggressiveness.

A tectonic plate off the coast of Portugal might be peeling off

Geologists believe we may be witnessing the birth of a new subduction zone.

Image via Wikipedia.

Researchers have long puzzled over a plain, featureless area off the coast of Portugal. The seemingly-boring area stood out in 1969 when it triggered a massive earthquake that generated a tsunami. This was highly unusual — earthquakes don’t just happen in random areas. Most often, they take place in tectonically active areas, at the edges of tectonic plates. The correlation is so good that if you’d look at a global map of large earthquakes (see below), it looks like a map of tectonic plates.

So why then did a 7.9 earthquake shake the coast of Portugal? João Duarte, a marine geologist from the Instituto Dom Luiz at the University of Lisbon, believes he has the answer. According to a recent study published by Duarte, the tectonic plate off Portugal’s coast might be peeling away from its top.

Actively tectonic

The Earth might seem static from our point of view, but from a geological perspective, it’s very active. Our planet’s crust is split into rigid plates which are always in motion to each other, at a rate of a few centimeters per year — which, in millions of years, can dramatically change the surface of the Earth.

Earthquakes happen most commonly on the edge of tectonic plates. Image via Wikipedia

Naturally, when the plates are moving, they will sometimes be pushing against each other. If one plate is heavier than the other, it will slide beneath it — a process called subduction. We’re quite familiar with subduction as we’ve observed it and its effects in several parts of the world, but we’ve never actually seen it start. Until now.

Suspicions of a potential subduction-related peeling event started after the 1969 earthquake, but it wasn’t until 2012 that researchers got a good view of the area, using seismic wave analysis (which works somewhat similar to an ultrasound). In 2018, Chiara Civiero, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Lisbon’s Instituto Dom Luiz, and her colleagues published a high-resolution peek into Earth in this region, and confirmed the discovery of the unusual blob.

Now, Duarte found new evidence to support this theory in a seemingly innocuous geological layer, one which allows water to percolate (infiltrate) through. This water transforms the minerals inside the plate, transforming them into softer minerals, producing just enough weakness to allow the bottom of the plate to peel away.

“Now we are 100-percent sure it’s there,” Duarte told Nationl Geographic. Other researchers found that above this deep body, which stretches 155 miles below the surface, tiny quakes seemed to tremble.

Of course, work is still needed to confirm the find, but Duarte is confident.

“It’s a big statement,” Duarte says of the conclusions, acknowledging that he and his team still have work to do. “Maybe this is not the solution to all the problems. But I think we have something new here.”

The study was presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting.

Portugal and Spain brace for record-breaking temperatures

Amid a scorching-hot summer spanning almost all of the northern hemisphere, Portugal and Spain are preparing for temperatures that could break not only the national record — but a record for the entire continent.

Forecast via Euronews.

Spain’s current record high is 47.3°C (117.14°F) and Portugal can boast a slightly-higher highest temperature, at 47.4°C. But all that may soon change, as current weather models forecast significantly higher temperatures. It’s not out of the question for Portugal to reach a groundbreaking 50°C, surpassing not only the national record but also the European record, which is currently at 48°C (recorded in Athens, Greece, in July 1977).

The probable maximum is set for Saturday, in the southern parts of Portugal and south-western parts of Spain. Met Office forecaster Sophie Yeomans says that the heatwave is directly connected to “a plume of very dry, hot air from Africa.” Although it’s unlikely for temperatures to go over 50°C, records may very well be broken, Yeomans says.

“There’s an outside chance of hitting 50C,” said Yeomans. “If somewhere gets the right conditions, it could do [it] but that’s a very low likelihood.”

Other forecasters have echoed this prognosis.

“Friday and Saturday are likely to be the hottest days with a very real chance of breaking records,” the forecaster of Meteogroup said.

The Spanish meteorology agency, AEMET, has issued an official warning of extreme temperatures, and authorities are already making emergency preparations for the dramatic heatwave. Some 11,000 firefighters and 56 aircraft have already been deployed and are on standby to tackle forest fires — that are likely to emerge in the searing heat.

Iberia, the peninsula hosting the two countries, is not the only area suffering from extreme heat. Scandinavia, an area known for its frigid temperatures, is reporting record highs, Greece is ravaged by wildfires, and most parts of France and Germany have been scorching for months. Aside from some mountainous areas and northern latitudes, few areas have been spared.

Most of Europe is under a heatwave. It’s hard to say that it’s global warming — but it sure walks and quacks like global warming.

Although it’s very difficult to assign a global trend to individual events, there is already substantial evidence that climate change is connected to these record temperatures. Recent studies have shown that man-made climate change is making heatwaves much more likely and, as was the case in previous years, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that current temperatures and global warming are not connected.

Although record-breaking temperatures are not the norm yet, it’s becoming increasingly plausible that this will be the case in the very near future. The evidence is indicating that climate change is increasingly affecting our lives, whether we care to admit it or not.

The Aroeira skull discovered in Portugal that shares Neanderthal features. Credit: Javier Trueba.

Mysterious 400,000-year-old skull found in Portugal might have belonged to a Neanderthal ancestor

The Aroeira skull discovered in Portugal that shares Neanderthal features. Credit: Javier Trueba.

The Aroeira skull discovered in Portugal that shares Neanderthal features. Credit: Javier Trueba.

About half a million years ago, our ancestors from the genus Homo began to expand their reach out of Africa and into Europe and Asia through the Middle East. Some of these hominids would ultimately evolve into Neanderthals, which lived from 200,000 up to 40,000 years ago, but it was never clear who was their direct ancestor. A fantastic anthropological find might help settle this long-standing debate. Buried deep in rock-solid sediments, researchers uncovered a 400,000-year-old skull which bears strikingly similar features to a Neanderthal skull. The dating suggests, however, without the shadow of a doubt that this couldn’t be a Neanderthal.

Another mysterious hominid?

The partial skull was found in the Gruta da Aroeira cave, in Portugal in 2014 on the very last day of a field study led by Rolf Quam, an associate professor of biological anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. The site has been excavated ever since 1998 proving to be a great hub for middle Pleistocene fossils and artifacts. Along the years, researchers found in the Aroeira cave human teeth, animal remains and even stone-made hand axes. These stone-crafted tools were likely developed in the Middle East half a million years ago and these excavations prove that the technology spread to as far as Portugal within 100,000 years.

Hand axes crafted from stone discovered at the Aroeira site in Portugal. Credit: Rolf Quam.

Hand axes crafted from stone discovered at the Aroeira site in Portugal. Credit: Rolf Quam.

The prize find, however, is this peculiar skull which belonged to an unidentified species of Homo. 

“This is an interesting new fossil discovery from the Iberian Peninsula, a crucial region for understanding the origin and evolution of the Neanderthals,” Quam, an associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, State University of New York, said in a statement. “The Aroeira cranium is the oldest human fossil ever found in Portugal and shares some features with other fossils from this same time period in Spain, France and Italy.

The skull was found buried in the back of the cave in petrified sediment and recovering it proved to be a challenge. Imagine having to retrieve a delicate artifact that’s surrounded by concrete. Power tools and saws were used to cut a huge block which was later transferred to a research facility in Madrid, Spain. It took two and a half years to extract the skull in viable conditions, the researchers stated in their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although only half of the skull was recovered, the other half was mirrored using CT scans of the cranium. This way, the researchers learned the skull, nicknamed the Aroeira cranium, has a cranial capacity of 1,100 cubic centimeters whereas you or I have an average capacity of 1,300 cubic centimeters. The skull also features the famous Neanderthal-shaped brow and a smaller bony projection behind the ear.  Two fragmentary teeth exhibit a mixture of traits, including some that are similar to those attributed to Neanderthals, and others to Homo erectus.

“Unlike most other Middle Pleistocene finds, which are of uncertain chronology, the Aroeira 3 cranium is firmly dated to around 400 ka and was in direct association with abundant faunal remains and stone tools. In addition, the presence of burnt bones suggests a controlled use of fire. The Aroeira cranium represents a substantial contribution to the debate on the origin of the Neandertals and the pattern of human evolution in the Middle Pleistocene of Europe,” the researchers concluded.

Whoever the skull used to belong to, this person must have looked more like a Neanderthal than a Homo Sapiens but was neither. Anthropologists are still debating the nature of this skull but some believe this is just another piece of evidence that Homo species exhibited great variation and regional combinations of traits across the Old World.

Another hypothesis, which is purely speculative at this point, is that the skull belongs to a new species of Homo. That’s not a very preposterous thing to suggest considering the mysterious Denisovans, likely a new species of human discovered in 2008, or the yet unexplained for Dmanisi hominins, the earliest human fossils found on the border of Asia and Europe. Then, there’s the case of two partial skulls both around 120,000 years old recovered from China which look like they belonged to an Asian Neanderthal — the species is also unidentified in this case.

Today, we humans are the only species alive from our genus but we do know for sure that we shared this planet at the same time with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Perhaps, there were far more.