A man burns old palm fruit in Cameroon. Photo: Go Forth Films

A man burns old palm fruit from a palm oil plantation in Cameroon. Photo: Go Forth Films

The big stories of 2017 clustered into five categories:

The stories came so thick and fast that Des couldn’t keep up. There were literally dozens of posts on the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. And there were more than 130 posts on Trump dismantling the EPA, eliminating environmental regulations on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, while scrubbing references to “climate change” from government web sites. A study by Sweden’s Agricultural University revealed these policies to be part of a global assault on environmental laws.

Beyond the Big Five topics, the continuing campaign of violence against indigenous people and environment defenders ground on, as industrial civilization inexorably encroached into the world’s last wildlands. Isidro Baldenegro López, organizer of peaceful protests against illegal logging in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, was assassinated. Wayne Lotter, elephant conservationist in Tanzania, was gunned down after receiving numerous death threats. Global Witness reported a record 200 killings of people defending their land, forests, and rivers against destructive industries.

Environmental and indigenous rights activist Isidro Baldenegro López was the leader of Mexico's indigenous Tarahumara people. He was assassinated on 15 January 2017. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Environmental and indigenous rights activist Isidro Baldenegro López was the leader of Mexico's indigenous Tarahumara people. He was assassinated on 15 January 2017. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

2017 gave us a clear view of what's in store for island nations, who pleaded for action on global warming at the Bonn climate summit and at the U.N. General Assembly. In 2016, we learned that islands will dry out as the world warms. Now, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the viability of human habitation in the Caribbean is in question; if thousand-year storms strike every few years, the islands will become effectively uninhabitable. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was the first discrete climate catastrophe in North America, driving more than 200,000 climate refugees into Florida and elsewhere on the mainland. The utterly insufficient response by the U.S. government suggests that the Caribbean is being written off.

On the upside, we did get an indication of the most significant policy initiatives to mitigate global warming. At the top of the list: educating girls and family planning, which together could reduce 120 gigatons of CO2-equivalent by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind power combined (99 GT).

Author Paul Hawken observed, “There are so many ancillary benefits and impacts of 1.1 billion fewer people.”



January 2017

Bluefin tuna sells for $632,000 at Tsukiji’s New Year auction

Kiyoshi Kimura, president of the Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain, poses with a 466-pound bluefin tuna in Tokyo on 5 January 2017. Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

5 January 2017 (NBC News) – A sushi chain boss paid $632,000 for a 466-pound bluefin tuna at auction on Thursday.

The 74.2 million yen winning bid for the prized but imperiled species was the second highest ever after a record 155.4 million yen bid in 2013 at the annual New Year auction at the famed Tsukiji market.

Kiyomura Corp. owner Kiyoshi Kimura posed, beaming, with the gleaming, man-sized fish, which was caught off the coast of northern Japan's Aomori prefecture.

His company, which runs the Sushi Zanmai chain, often wins the auction. This year's purchase works out to $1,356 per pound.

Tenfold jump in green technologies needed to meet global emissions targets – “We must scale them up and spread them globally at unprecedented speeds” 

3 January 2017 (Duke University) – The global spread of green technologies must quicken significantly to avoid future rebounds in greenhouse gas emissions, a new Duke University study shows.

"Based on our calculations, we won't meet the climate warming goals set by the Paris Agreement unless we speed up the spread of clean technology by a full order of magnitude, or about ten times faster than in the past," said Gabriele Manoli, a former postdoctoral associate at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the study.

"Radically new strategies to implement technological advances on a global scale and at unprecedented rates are needed if current emissions goals are to be achieved," Manoli said.

The study used delayed differential equations to calculate the pace at which global per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide have increased since the Second Industrial Revolution—a period of rapid industrialization at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. The researchers then compared this pace to the speed of new innovations in low-carbon-emitting technologies.

Using these historical trends coupled with projections of future global population growth, Manoli and his colleagues were able to estimate the likely pace of future emissions increases and also determine the speed at which climate-friendly technological innovation and implementation must occur to hold warming below the Paris Agreement's 2°C target.

The analysis shows that per-capita CO2 emissions have increased about 100 percent every 60 years -- typically in big jumps -- since the Second Industrial Revolution. This “punctuated growth” has occurred largely because of time lags in the spread of emission-curbing technological advances, which are compounded by the effects of rapid population growth. 

“Sometimes these lags are technical in nature, but -- as recent history amply demonstrates -- they also can be caused by political or economic barriers,” Manoli explained. “Whatever the cause, our quantification of the delays historically associated with such challenges shows that a tenfold acceleration in the spread of green technologies is now necessary to cause some delay in the Doomsday Clock.”

China air pollution crisis shows no sign of ending as nation fails to lower coal use – “The reality is China has big plans for coal”

Sunset during record air pollution in China, 7 January 2017. Air quality was improving in 2016, until coal production ramped up in September. Photo: Reuters

7 January 2017 (ABC News) – For weeks, northern China has been covered in a thick toxic smog. It is one of the worst episodes of air pollution the country has seen, affecting 460 million people.

Coal is the major cause, and will continue to be the country's biggest source of energy and air pollution. Although billions have been pledged for renewable energy, 200 new coal power plants will be built across the country.

For the last month, severe air pollution has choked Beijing and coal is estimated to cause about 40 per cent of the smog in the nation's capital.

Other cities in the north, such as Shijiazhuang, have recorded air quality of 1000 PM2.5. PM2.5 are fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter that can lodge in the lungs and get into the bloodstream. The World Health Organisation says anything over 25 PM2.5 as a health hazard.

People are frustrated because air quality was improving in 2016 until coal production ramped up in September to service a mini stimulus package for heavy industries.

Location map of the 91 tide gauges (stars) used in the global sea level reconstruction. The background map shows the sea level trends over 1950–2009 from DRAKKAR-based (an ocean model) reconstruction of sea level (uniform trend of 1.8 mm/yr included). Graphic: Becker (2011)

Short-lived greenhouse gases cause centuries of sea-level rise

9 January 2017 (MIT News) – Even if there comes a day when the world completely stops emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, coastal regions and island nations will continue to experience rising sea levels for centuries afterward, according to a new study by researchers at MIT and Simon Fraser University.

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that warming from short-lived compounds — greenhouse gases such as methane, chlorofluorocarbons, or hydrofluorocarbons, that linger in the atmosphere for just a year to a few decades — can cause sea levels to rise for hundreds of years after the pollutants have been cleared from the atmosphere.

“If you think of countries like Tuvalu, which are barely above sea level, the question that is looming is how much we can emit before they are doomed. Are they already slated to go under, even if we stopped emitting everything tomorrow?” says co-author Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science at MIT. “It’s all the more reason why it’s important to understand how long climate changes will last, and how much more sea-level rise is already locked in.”

February 2017

Ocean microbes making global warming worse

27 February 2017 (Irish Independent) – Microbes are generating a vast pool of marine methane that is contributing to global warming, scientists have confirmed.

Scientists from Queen Mary, University of London, traced the source of methane in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

Sediment collected from the ocean floor, where there is very little oxygen, revealed how bugs are creating the largest region of marine methane on Earth.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 30 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide.

Atmospheric levels of methane have increased in the last few decades, partly because of human activity. Scientists are keen to understand natural processes of methane production and consumption to assess the role played by humans.

Scientists aboard the Royal Research Ship James Cook spent six weeks mapping the methane pool between Panama and Hawaii. Their findings are published in the International Society for Microbial Ecology journal.

"It's the first time anyone has successfully retrieved sediment from this part of the ocean and directly measured methane production using specialised equipment on board the research ship," Dr Felicity Shelley said.

The ultra-deepwater amphipod Hirondellea gigas from the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. This species is known to inhabit depths of 6000 to nearly 11,000 meters. Extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in the organism’s fatty tissue were reported by researchers on 14 February 2017. These pollutants include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are commonly used as electrical insulators and flame retardants. Photo: Dr Alan Jamieson

Banned chemicals from the 1970s found in the deepest reaches of the ocean

14 February 2017 (University of Aberdeen) – A study, from the University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University has uncovered the first evidence that man-made pollutants have now reached the farthest corners of our earth.

Sampling amphipods from the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana and Kermadec trenches - which are over 10 kilometres deep and 7,000 km apart - the team found extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants - or POPs - in the organism’s fatty tissue. These include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which are commonly used as electrical insulators and flame retardants.

Publishing their findings today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the study team say the next step is to understand the consequences of this contamination and what the knock-on effects might be for the wider ecosystem.

Lead author Dr Jamieson from Newcastle University, and honorary lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, said: “We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth.

“In fact, the amphipods we sampled contained levels of contamination similar to that found in Suruga Bay, one of the most polluted industrial zones of the northwest Pacific.

“What we don’t yet know is what this means for the wider ecosystem and understanding that will be the next major challenge.”

Professor Stuart Piertney from the University of Aberdeen added: “To find these levels of contamination in different species of amphipod from different trenches and at different depths really highlights how much this pollution has spread and  managed to accumulate.”

Global hydropower boom will add to global warming – “Reservoirs are major emitters of methane, a particularly aggressive greenhouse gas”

14 February 2017 (Mongabay) – From the Amazon Basin to boreal forests, and from the Mekong to the Himalayan foothills, rivers worldwide are being targeted for major new dams in a global hydropower boom that also aims to supply drinking water to exploding human populations and to facilitate navigation on the planet’s rivers; 3,700 new dams — 847 of them larger than 100 MW — are slated for construction.

But one strong argument in favor of hydropower is now looking far weaker. Scientists have compiled the most comprehensive assessment yet of the global impact that dam reservoirs have on the world’s atmosphere and greenhouse emissions. And it isn’t good news.

Globally, the researchers estimate that reservoirs — long considered “zero emitters” by the United Nations climate program — contribute 1.3 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions on this scale are comparable to those from rice paddy cultivation or biomass burning, the study authors write.

But despite their magnitude, these reservoir emissions are not currently counted within United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) assessments. In fact, countries are currently eligible under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism to receive carbon credits for their newly built dams. The study raises the question as to whether hydropower should continue to be counted as green power.

The study, published in BioScience, looked at the carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) emitted from 267 reservoirs across six continents. In total, the reservoirs studied have a surface area of more than 77,287 square kilometers (29,841 square miles). That’s equivalent to about a quarter of the surface area of all reservoirs in the world, which together cover 305,723 square kilometers (118,040 square miles) — roughly the combined size of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“The new study confirms that reservoirs are major emitters of methane, a particularly aggressive greenhouse gas,” said Kate Horner, Executive Director of International Rivers, adding that hydropower dams “can no longer be considered a clean and green source of electricity.”

Scientists devise desperate plan to refreeze the Arctic before sea ice melts completely

11 February 2017 (The Observer) – Physicist Steven Desch has come up with a novel solution to the problems that now beset the Arctic. He and a team of colleagues from Arizona State University want to replenish the region’s shrinking sea ice – by building 10 million wind-powered pumps over the Arctic ice cap. In winter, these would be used to pump water to the surface of the ice where it would freeze, thickening the cap.

The pumps could add an extra metre of sea ice to the Arctic’s current layer, Desch argues. The current cap rarely exceeds 2-3 metres in thickness and is being eroded constantly as the planet succumbs to climate change.

“Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice. In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly,” Desch told the Observer.

Desch and his team have put forward the scheme in a paper that has just been published in Earth’s Future, the journal of the American Geophysical Union, and have worked out a price tag for the project: $500bn (£400bn).

The Anthropocene equation. Graphic: Gaffney and Steffen, 2017 / The Anthropocene Review

Industrialised societies driving climate change 170 times faster than the natural rate – New paper formalises mathematically the change rate of Earth’s life support system

10 February 2017 (Stockholm Resilience Centre) – A paper recently published in the journal The Anthropocene Review puts the current rate of change of Earth’s life support system in the context of the last 4-billion-year evolution of the biosphere. The paper, which is written by the centre’s Owen Gaffney and senior research fellow Will Steffen, concludes that natural forcings approximate to zero when compared with the current change as a result of industrialised society.

“The paper came about almost as a footnote to our earlier paper, the trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration,” explains Gaffney.

“We were constantly trying to find new ways to nail our final conclusion into a single sentence saying industrialised societies have the force of an asteroid strike. Or, now rival or overwhelm the great forces of nature. Or humans are a prime driver of change in the Earth system.”

More than 25,000 elephants were killed in a Gabon national park in one decade – “The central and northern parts of the park have been emptied”

24 February 2017 (Mongabay) – New research suggests that more than 25,000 forest elephants were killed for their ivory in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park, one of the largest and most important wildlife preserves in Central Africa, between 2004 and 2014.

That’s a decline of somewhere between 78 and 81 percent in the park’s forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) population over the span of just one decade, and it was largely driven by poachers who crossed the border into Gabon from its neighbor to the north, Cameroon, according to a new study led by researchers with Duke University and published in the journal Current Biology this week.

“With nearly half of Central Africa’s estimated 100,000 forest elephants thought to live in Gabon, the loss of 25,000 elephants from this key sanctuary is a considerable setback for the preservation of the species,” John Poulsen, assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

March 2017

Study finds that tropics became uninhabitable during PETM mass extinction

3 March 2017 (Purdue University) – New research findings show that as the world warmed millions of years ago, conditions in the tropics may have made it so hot some organisms couldn’t survive.

Longstanding theories dating to the 1980s suggest that as the rest of the earth warms, the tropical temperatures would be strictly limited, or regulated by an internal ‘thermostat.’ These theories are controversial, but the debate is of great importance because the tropics and subtropics comprise half of the earth’s surface area, greater than half of the earth’s biodiversity, as well as over half the earth’s human population. But new geological and climate-based research indicates the tropics may have reached a temperature 56 million years ago that was, indeed, too hot for living organisms to survive in parts of the tropics.

That conclusion is detailed in the article “Extreme Warmth and Heat-Stressed Plankton in the Tropics during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,” published by the online journal Science Advances and co-authored by Matthew Huber, professor in the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department at Purdue University and member of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center. Huber’s contribution focused on climate modeling and interpreting paleoclimate data within the context of modern theoretical understanding. Part of this work was performed while Huber was also at the University of New Hampshire.

Fukushima clean-up falters six years after tsunami – Scale and difficulty of decommissioning “almost beyond comprehension”

8 March 2017 (The Guardian) – Barely a fifth of the way into their mission, the engineers monitoring the Scorpion’s progress conceded defeat. With a remote-controlled snip of its cable, the latest robot sent into the bowels of one of Fukushima Daiichi’s damaged reactors was cut loose, its progress stalled by lumps of fuel that overheated when the nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown six years ago this week.

As the 60cm-long Toshiba robot, equipped with a pair of cameras and sensors to gauge radiation levels was left to its fate last month, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), attempted to play down the failure of yet another reconnaissance mission to determine the exact location and condition of the melted fuel.

Even though its mission had been aborted, the utility said, “valuable information was obtained which will help us determine the methods to eventually remove fuel debris”.

The Scorpion mishap, two hours into an exploration that was supposed to last 10 hours, underlined the scale and difficulty of decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi – an unprecedented undertaking one expert has described as “almost beyond comprehension”.

Soils could release much more carbon than expected as climate warms

9 March 2017 (Berkeley Lab) – Soils could release much more CO2 than expected into the atmosphere as the climate warms, according to new research by scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

Their findings are based on a field experiment that, for the first time, explored what happens to organic carbon trapped in soil when all soil layers are warmed, which in this case extend to a depth of 100 centimeters. The scientists discovered that warming both the surface and deeper soil layers at three experimental plots increased the plots’ annual release of CO2 by 34 to 37 percent over non-warmed soil. Much of the CO2 originated from deeper layers, indicating that deeper stores of carbon are more sensitive to warming than previously thought.

They report their work online March 9 in the journal Science.

The results shed light on what is potentially a big source of uncertainty in climate projections. Soil organic carbon harbors three times as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. In addition, warming is expected to increase the rate at which microbes break down soil organic carbon, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

“We found the response is quite significant,” says Caitlin Hicks Pries, a postdoctoral researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division. She conducted the research with co-corresponding author Margaret Torn, and Christina Castahna and Rachel Porras, who are also Berkeley Lab scientists.

“If our findings are applied to soils around the globe that are similar to what we studied, meaning soils that are not frozen or saturated, our calculations suggest that by 2100 the warming of deeper soil layers could cause a release of carbon to the atmosphere at a rate that is significantly higher than today, perhaps even as high as 30 percent of today’s human-caused annual carbon emissions depending on the assumptions on which the estimate is based,” adds Hicks Pries.

Climate model used by Syukuro Manabe and Richard T. Wetherald in their 1967 paper, 'Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity', for estimating climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide. Graphic: Manabe and Wetherald, 1967 / Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences

The first climate model turns 50, and it predicted global warming almost perfectly

15 March 2017 (Forbes) – Modeling the Earth's climate is one of the most daunting, complicated tasks out there. If only we were more like the Moon, things would be easy. The Moon has no atmosphere, no oceans, no icecaps, no seasons, and no complicated flora and fauna to get in the way of simple radiative physics. No wonder it's so challenging to model!

In fact, if you google "climate models wrong", eight of the first ten results showcase failure. But headlines are never as reliable as going to the scientific source itself, and the ultimate source, in this case, is the first accurate climate model ever: by Syukuro Manabe and Richard T. Wetherald. 50 years after their groundbreaking 1967 paper, the science can be robustly evaluated, and they got almost everything exactly right.

Scientists foresee sharp rise in deadly heat stress as global temperatures climb – “Because the response is nonlinear, for each fraction of a degree the climate warms, the increase in heat stress is ever greater”

27 March 2017 (Loughborough University) – In December 2015, the international community pledged to limit global warming to below 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. However, new analysis suggests that even if this target is met, the dangers to society posed by heat stress are likely to escalate.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the scientists from Loughborough University, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and Maynooth University in Ireland, examined data from recent projections of climate change and population growth. They found that even if global warming is limited to as little as 1.5°C (relative to temperatures before the Industrial Revolution), in excess of 350 million more people living in megacities could be exposed to deadly heat episodes on an annual basis.

With this level of warming, South Asian cities will likely remain the most heat stressed over the coming century, but major world cities including Lagos, Nigeria and Shanghai, China may become newly heat stressed. For global warming of 2.7oC, which tallies with current commitments to greenhouse gas reduction, the largest city in the world at present – Tokyo, Japan is likely to be affected.

The researchers conclude that these large increases in global heat stress can be explained by two factors. First, the frequency of dangerously hot weather increases rapidly even for relatively modest rises in global average air temperature. Second, population is generally expected to grow fastest in low-latitude countries that experience relatively hot climates and temperatures already close to ‘dangerous’ thresholds.

April 2017

Disastrous year shows butterflies are “failing to cope with our changing climate and how we manage the environment”

11 April 2017 (The Independent) – Butterflies are “failing to cope” with climate change and the pollution of the British countryside, experts have warned after a disastrous year saw population declines in 40 out of 57 species.

The UK Butterfly Monitoring Survey found it had been the fourth-worst year overall with six species – the heath fritillary, grizzled skipper, wall, grayling, white-letter hairstreak and white admiral – all suffering their most dramatic declines in the 41 years since records began.

Sixteen species saw increases with one remaining about the same, the annual survey found.

But Professor Tom Brereton, head of monitoring at Butterfly Conservation, said the results showed that the insects were in trouble.

“Worryingly, not even the pleasant summer weather of 2016 was enough to help butterflies bounce back from a run of poor years,” he said.

“As butterflies are regarded as good indicators of environmental health this is hugely concerning for both wildlife and people.”

Decline in species abundance in hunted forest, reported in 'The impact of hunting on tropical mammal and bird populations', by Benítez-López, et al., 2017 / Science. Graphic: Radboud University

Hunting accounts for massive declines in tropical animal populations

13 April 2017 (Radboud University) – Hunting is a major threat to wildlife particularly in tropical regions, but a systematic large-scale estimate of hunting-induced declines of animal numbers was lacking so far. A study published in Science on April 14 fills this gap. An international team of ecologists and environmental scientists found that bird populations declined on average by 58 percent and mammal populations by 83 within 7 and 40 km of hunters’ access points, such as roads and settlements.

Additionally, the team found that commercial hunting had a higher impact than hunting for family food, and that hunting pressure was higher in areas with better accessibility to major towns where wild meat could be traded. The impact of hunting was found to be larger than the team expected. “Thanks to this study, we know that only 17 percent of the original mammal abundance and 42 percent of the birds remain in hunted areas.”

Study finds there are four ways to reduce economic inequality: state collapse, pandemic, revolution, and “mass mobilization warfare”

19 April 2017 (The Washington Post) – Rising economic inequality in the United States has been a major animating force on both the political left and the right. Whether it is Sen. Bernie Sanders promising to rebuild blue-collar communities or President Trump pledging to "make America great again," today's political platforms often revolve around a return to the perceived "normal" of a vibrant middle class and more equitable distribution of wealth that America experienced in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Yet with a broader look at history, it's clear that period of falling inequality was the exception, and that today's increasing inequality is more a return to the norm. And when inequality did fall throughout history, Stanford University professor Walter Scheidel argues in a new book, it tended to do so for very unpleasant reasons.

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Scheidel examines societies from ancient history to the present. He finds that most societies gradually grew more unequal over time, and where those inequalities were leveled out, they were almost always done so by violent forces — war, revolution or plague. The work contains some shocking lessons about the nature of inequality and what that might mean for our future.

Locations and plastic concentrations of the sites sampled. The summer extension of the polar ice cap in August 2013 is shown in white area, and the classical schematic drawing of the North Atlantic Subtropical Ocean Gyres and the Global Thermohaline Circulation poleward branch is indicated by green curves. The northern passage from Barents Sea to Kara Sea is zoomed in, with contour lines describing salinity measured at a depth of 5m. Graphic: Andres Cozar

The Arctic Ocean has become a garbage trap for 300 billion pieces of plastic

19 April 2017 (The Washington Post) – Drifts of floating plastic that humans have dumped into the world’s oceans are flowing into the pristine waters of the Arctic as a result of a powerful system of currents that deposits waste in the icy seas east of Greenland and north of Scandinavia.

In 2013, as part of a seven-month circumnavigation of the Arctic Ocean, scientists aboard the research vessel Tara documented a profusion of tiny pieces of plastic in the Greenland and Barents seas, where the final limb of the Gulf Stream system delivers Atlantic waters northward. The researchers dub this region the “dead end for floating plastics” after their long surf of the world’s oceans.

The researchers say this is just the beginning of the plastic migration to Arctic waters.

“It’s only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially, and the usage and the production has been increasing ever since,” said Carlos Duarte, one of the study’s co-authors and director of the Red Sea Research Center at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. “So, most of the plastic that we have disposed in the ocean is still now in transit to the Arctic.”

The results were published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. The study was led by Andrés Cózar of the University of Cádiz in Spain along with 11 other researchers from universities in eight nations: Denmark, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The researchers estimated that about 300 billion pieces of tiny plastic are suspended in these Arctic waters right now, although they said the amount could be higher. And they think there is even more plastic on the seafloor.

Sea level could rise more than three meters by 2100

25 April 2017 (University of Southampton) – Global sea levels could rise by more than three metres – over half a metre more than previously thought – this century alone, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Southampton scientist.

An international team including Sybren Drijfhout, Professor in Physical Oceanography and Climate Physics, looked at what might happen if carbon dioxide emissions continue unabated.

Using new projections of Antarctic mass loss and a revised statistical method, they concluded that a worst-case scenario of a 2.5 to three-metre sea level rise was possible by 2100.

Professor Drijfhout said: “It might be an unlikely scenario, but we can’t exclude the possibility of global sea levels rising by more than three metres by the year 2100.

“Unabated global warming will lead to sea-level rise of many metres – possibly more than ten metres – within a few centuries, seriously threatening many cities all over the world that are built in low-lying river deltas. This will also seriously affect the coastline of the UK.”

Global warming making oceans more toxic by increasing algae blooms

26 April 2017 (SBU) – Climate change is predicted to cause a series of maladies for world oceans including heating up, acidification, and the loss of oxygen.  A newly published study published online in the April 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled, “Ocean warming since 1982 has expanded the niche of toxic algal blooms in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans”, demonstrates that one ocean consequence of climate change that has already occurred is the spread and intensification of toxic algae.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Christopher Gobler, marine science professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, used high resolution ocean temperature data along with the growth response of two of the most toxic algae in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans called Alexandrium and Dinophysis. Their study demonstrates that since 1982, broad stretches of these ocean basins have warmed and become significantly more hospitable to these algae and that new ‘blooms’ of these algae have become common in these same regions. Alexandrium and Dinophysis are serious health concerns as they make neurotoxins and gastrointestinal toxins that can cause paralytic and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning in humans.

“Toxic or harmful algal blooms are not a new phenomenon, although many people may know them by other names such as red tides,” said Gobler. “These events can sicken or kill people who consume toxin-contaminated shellfish and can damage marine ecosystems by killing fish and other marine life.”

The problem is worsening.

“The distribution, frequency and intensity of these events have increased across the globe and this study links this expansion to ocean warming in some regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans,” Gobler said.

“A fundamental question has been whether we can directly link expansion of harmful algal blooms to a warming ocean; this paper provides critical, quantitative evidence for just that trend, confirming an expected, but difficult to test, direct link between toxic blooms to climate,” said Dr. Raphael Kudela, Professor of Ocean Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz, a national toxic algae expert who was not part of the study.

May 2017

A sea star with wasting disease lies on Kachemak Bay’s shore in spring 2016. Wasting disease caused this star’s arm to disconnect from its body. Photo: Brenda Konar

Wasting disease devastates Alaska sea star populations

5 May 2017 (UAF) – In one year, sea stars have almost disappeared from Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

This is likely the aftermath of a sea star wasting disease episode. The disease causes lesions, and may result in the loss of arms, making a sea star look as if it is melting or decomposing. Similar episodes have been spreading across the southern coast of Alaska and as far south as Baja California.

“In spring 2016 we counted 180 sea stars during our intertidal surveys, which was high in the books,” said Brenda Konar, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “Just one year later, we counted only five sea stars.”

Konar and CFOS professor Katrin Iken are part of Gulf Watch Alaska, a monitoring program established by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to better understand how intertidal and other marine ecosystems were affected by the 1989 oil spill. The intertidal zone is the area between high and low tide. Konar and Iken monitor Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula near Homer. […]

“The spread of the disease to Alaskan waters and its impact on sea star diversity may be related to the unprecedented warm waters that we experienced in the Gulf of Alaska in the past two years,” Iken said. [cf. Scientists link massive starfish die-off to warming ocean]

Jojo was forced into the Philippines’ sex trade after she was displaced by Typhoon Haiyan. In this photo, Jojo tends to her children in her home in Angeles City, Philippines. Photo: Hannah Reyes Morales

Global warming has created a new generation of sex-trafficking victims

2 May 2017 (Quartz) – When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, it was, at the time, the strongest storm in history ever to make landfall. A “super typhoon” with wind speeds that reached 196 miles per hour, Haiyan displaced more than 4 million people and nearly wiped out the coastal city of Tacloban. Residents like Kristine still recall the smell of death that floated on the sea breeze and permeated streets.

“Too many people died,” Kristine says, somberly. But the storm, known locally as Yolanda, was just the beginning of the painful journey she was about to take.

After the skies cleared, a second humanitarian disaster unfolded in the Tacloban Astrodome, a sports arena where thousands took shelter. An underground economy took root as women and girls were sold for food and scarce aid supplies, or trafficked into forced labor and sex work by recruiters offering jobs and scholarships. Kristine says she was sold to men every night; some of the men were foreign-aid workers, she believes. The men raped her, and took graphic pictures and videos. Kristine was 13.

As severe storms and rising sea levels wear down coastal regions, women and girls are at ever-greater risk. Climate change is a new push factor for human trafficking; its effects destroy livelihoods and place women and children in post-catastrophe situations that traffickers exploit.

The Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, which scientists have linked to an increased frequency and severity of extreme-weather events like Haiyan. The country consistently ranks within the top five nations most prone to extreme weather and natural disasters. It’s getting worse; temperatures have been recorded at the highest levels in history in recent years, and five of the 10 deadliest storms to ever hit the country have taken place since 2006. The Eastern Visayas, of which Tacloban is the largest city, is often ground zero for the typhoons that make landfall in the Philippines.

Marine heat waves are “destroying the habitat that is the foundation for the entire ecological community”

21 May 2017 (The Sydney Morning Herald) – Taking a dip at Sydney's beaches remains an attractive option even this far into the autumn, and the projections of climate change mean you soon won't have to be an ice-berger to swim year round.

"Sydney will have tropical waters by between 2040-60," Adriana Verges, a marine ecologist at the University of NSW, said. "Summers [will be] above 25, winter 19 degrees."

Those celebrating the future demise of the wetsuit, though, might want to take a look beyond the shallows.

A paper published in Geophysical Research Letters this month highlighted the extent of warmth wasn't being captured by the readily available surface temperature measurements.

"Satellites are not getting the full picture," Moninya Roughan, an associate professor at UNSW's Coastal and Regional Oceanography Lab and co-author of the paper said. "They are missing the peak and intensity, and sometimes the duration [of marine heat waves]." […]

"Weeks [of heatwaves] are a long time when you're a marine organism, a small creature, at the bottom of the food chain," Professor Roughan said. […]

An impact of the so-called tropicalisation of temperate waters was that herbivorous species, such as rabbitfish, silver drummers and sea urchins, were moving into rich ecosystems such as kelp forests.

"They are essentially destroying the habitat that is the foundation for the entire ecological community," Dr Verges said.

Bursts of heat can also take their toll. The extreme event off Western Australia in the 2010-11 summer – the worst recorded in 160 years of records – killed about 150 kilometres of the kelp's range, which had not recovered, Dr Verges said.

Burnt and degraded forest within Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: World Bank / Flore de Preneuf

Ongoing forest destruction has put Asia-Pacific at risk of missing global development targets – “Forests continue to be degraded and lost at a rate of 3.3 million hectares per year”

15 May 2017 (United Nations) – The destruction of forests in many Asian countries continues apace, threatening the realization of global sustainable development goals by the 2030 deadline, according to the United Nations agricultural agency.

“While forests are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they continue to be degraded and lost at a rate of 3.3 million hectares [8.2 million acres] per year,” warned Patrick Durst, the Senior Forestry Officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Covering one-third of the earth’s surface, forests provide an invaluable variety of social, economic, and environmental benefits. Forests and trees sustain and protect all life in invaluable ways.

They provide the clean air for breathing and the safe water to drink. Home to more than 80 per cent of land animals and plants, forests safeguard the planet’s biodiversity and act as a natural defence against climate change.

“In this region, forests continue to be converted to agriculture, destroyed, and replaced by man-made infrastructure, housing, mining, and other land uses. Forest fires also continue to pose a threat to the region,” said Mr. Durst.

Tiny shells indicate big changes to global carbon cycle – Ocean acidification “affects atmospheric and ocean carbon dioxide concentrations on time scales of thousands of years”

25 May 2017 (UC Davis) – Experiments with tiny, shelled organisms in the ocean suggest big changes to the global carbon cycle are underway, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.

For the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists raised foraminifera — single-celled organisms about the size of a grain of sand — at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory under future, high CO2 conditions.

These tiny organisms, commonly called “forams,” are ubiquitous in marine environments and play a key role in food webs and the ocean carbon cycle.

After exposing them to a range of acidity levels, UC Davis scientists found that under high CO2, or more acidic, conditions, the foraminifera had trouble building their shells and making spines, an important feature of their shells.

They also showed signs of physiological stress, reducing their metabolism and slowing their respiration to undetectable levels.

This is the first study of its kind to show the combined impact of shell building, spine repair, and physiological stress in foraminifera under high CO2 conditions. The study suggests that stressed and impaired foraminifera could indicate a larger scale disruption of carbon cycling in the ocean.

“It’s not out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” said lead author Catherine Davis, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis during the study and currently a postdoctoral associate at the University of South Carolina. “That acidified water from the deep will rise again. If we do something that acidifies the deep ocean, that affects atmospheric and ocean carbon dioxide concentrations on time scales of thousands of years.”

Around the world, environmental laws are under attack in all sorts of ways

30 May 2017 (The Conversation) – As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts.

US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.

One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.

A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.

The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.

June 2017

Princeton scientist: Avoiding two degrees of warming “is now totally unrealistic”

3 June 2017 (The Atlantic) – Michael Oppenheimer has been thinking about climate change about as long as most Americans have been alive. For almost four decades, he has worked on answering the phenomenon’s two most pressing questions: How dangerous will climate change get? And what can humanity do about it? So after President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Thursday, Oppenheimer was one of the experts I most wanted to hear from.

I spoke to him on Friday about his outlook for climate treaties looking forward, Trump’s ability to roll back older climate policies, and whether the U.S. withdrawal from Paris could make global warming significantly worse. Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Robinson Meyer: You’ve been involved in climate diplomacy for a long, long time. How are you feeling today?

Michael Oppenheimer: I’m upset and troubled—as I rarely am, because I’ve been involved in this issue for 35 years. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, but this is the most discouraging. It is more discouraging than when George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.

The reality is the clock has been ticking all this time, all those 35 years the clock has been ticking. And because the clock has been ticking, Earth is already a degree warmer than it would otherwise have been.

Diagram showing disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) attributable to drugs of abuse. Graphic: United Nations World Drug Report 2017

Global narcotics market “thriving” – Range of available drugs diversifying at alarming pace: UN

22 June 2017 (United Nations) – Of the quarter of a billion people who used drugs in 2015, about 29.5 million – or 0.6 per cent of the global adult population – were engaged in “problematic use” and suffered from drug use disorders, including dependence, according to report out today from the United Nations drugs and crime agency.

Opioids were the most harmful drug type and accounted for 70 per cent of the negative health impact associated with drug use disorders worldwide, said the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“There is much work to be done to confront the many harms inflicted by drugs to health, development, peace and security, in all regions of the world,” said UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov in a statement on the launch of the 2017 World Drug Report.

Marking 20 years of its publication, the report provides a global overview of the supply and demand for opiates, cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances (NPS), as well as their impacts on health.

This year's report states that opium production is up and the cocaine market is “thriving.” In 2016, global opium production increased by one third compared with the previous year and this was primarily due to higher opium poppy yields in Afghanistan.

Coal on the rise in China, U.S., India after major 2016 drop – “Coal consumption will continue to increase, mainly driven by Asian countries”

26 June 2017 (AP) – The world's biggest coal users - China, the United States, and India - have boosted coal mining in 2017, in an abrupt departure from last year's record global decline for the heavily polluting fuel and a setback to efforts to rein in climate change emissions.

Mining data reviewed by The Associated Press show that production through May is up by at least 121 million tons, or 6 percent, for the three countries compared to the same period last year. The change is most dramatic in the U.S., where coal mining rose 19 percent in the first five months of the year, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.

Coal's fortunes had appeared to hit a new low less than two weeks ago, when British energy company BP reported that tonnage mined worldwide fell 6.5 percent in 2016, the largest drop on record. China and the U.S. accounted for almost all the decline, while India showed a slight increase.

The reasons for this year's turnaround include policy shifts in China, changes in U.S. energy markets and India's continued push to provide electricity to more of its poor, industry experts said. President Donald Trump's role as coal's booster-in-chief in the U.S. has played at most a minor role, they said.

July 2017

Cumulative oil persistence within 40 km of the shoreline (grey shading), and total PAC concentrations in the upper 50 m of the water column (colored circles) during a May, b June and c July 2010, after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill. The LDWF Zones 1 and 2 are northeast and southwest of the Mississippi River delta, respectively. Graphic: Short, et al., 2017 / Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology

Oil spills perturb entire ocean food webs – Gulf of Mexico ecosystem may never recover

10 July 2017 (Springer Nature) – Oil spills not only have a direct impact on species and habitats, but may also set off a cascade of perturbations that affect the entire food web. These are the findings of new research published in an article in the special issue on Ocean Spills and Accidents in Springer’s journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology (AECT).

Oil spills are well known to cause significant harm to some species and to local environments, but the sudden and unexpected occurrence of each accident, the unique way each ecosystem is affected, and an often poorly-prepared assessment capacity have constrained the understanding of the full consequences of such events.

In this study, researcher Jeffrey Short and his co-authors have discovered a major new ecological damage pathway following oil spills. The researchers found that the mass mortalities of seabirds and marine mammals associated with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico reduced predation on forage fish populations considerably.

The loss of top predators has resulted in large increases in the abundance of fish, such as menhaden, in the Gulf of Mexico in the years after the accident. These findings provide significant new insights into the nature of oil spills, and underscore the need to study not just those species obviously affected, but also the entire food web, during oil spill assessments.

“Our discovery suggests that the structure of food webs change after an oil spill, which may be much more damaging to fish and other aquatic fauna than the direct impacts of the spilled oil itself,” explained Short.

Loss of Arctic sea ice impacting Atlantic Ocean water circulation system – “A potential loss of 30 to 50 percent of AMOC’s strength due to Arctic sea ice loss”

31 July 2017 (Yale News) – Arctic sea ice is not merely a passive responder to the climate changes occurring around the world, according to new research.

Scientists at Yale University and the University of Southampton say the ongoing Arctic ice loss can play an active role in altering one of the planet’s largest water circulation systems: the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).

AMOC has a lower limb of dense, cold water that flows south from the north Atlantic, and an upper limb of warm, salty water that flows north from the south Atlantic as part of the Gulf Stream. AMOC plays a major role in regional and global climate, affecting the Atlantic rim countries — particularly those in Europe — and far beyond. It was featured in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.

“Conventional thinking has been that if ocean circulation weakens, reducing the transport of heat from low to high latitudes, then it should lead to sea ice growth. But we have found another, overlooked, mechanism by which sea ice actively affects AMOC on multi-decadal time scales,” said professor Alexey Fedorov, climate scientist at the Yale Department of Geology and Geophysics and co-author of a study detailing the findings in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Bodies of Swiss couple missing for 75 years found on glacier – “As the glacier receded, it gave up their bodies”

18 July 2017 (CBS News) – The daughter of a couple who disappeared in the Swiss Alps more than 70 years ago has said the discovery of two bodies emerging from a melting glacier has brought her a "deep sense of calm" after so long without an answer.

Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, now 79, told the Le Matin newspaper of Lausanne, Switzerland, that she and her siblings "spent our whole lives looking for them, without stopping. We thought that we could give them the funeral they deserved one day."

Udry-Dumoulin is the youngest of seven children born to Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin. The couple went to milk their cows on a meadow above their home in Switzerland's Valais canton on 15 August 1942, according to the Reuters news agency, and never came home.

The regional police force told local media the bodies were discovered last week, near a ski lift on the Tsanfleuron glacier, by a worker for an adventure resort company.  

"The bodies were lying near each other. It was a man and a woman wearing clothing dating from the period of World War Two," Glacier 3000 director Bernhard Tschannen told local media, according to Reuters. "They were perfectly preserved in the glacier and their belongings were intact."

August 2017

A view of S11D mine surrounded by Carajás National Forest, in Canaã dos Carajás, Brazil, February 2017. Photo: Milton Leal / Diálogo Chino / ChinaFile / Chinadialogue

China is driving a boom in Brazil mining, but at what cost? “This voracious mining is not just very predatory for the ecosystem, it is economically predatory to the nation. In the long run, it is disastrous.”

31 July 2017 (Diálogo Chino) – In the middle of northern Brazil’s Amazon jungle, digging equipment rasps at the bottom of a giant iron ore mine.

Here in the municipality of Canaã dos Carajás in the Serra dos Carajás in Brazil’s Pará state, some 1,600 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, Chinese engineers keep watch over a fleet of stackers, reclaimers, and other large scale equipment in the adjacent ore processing plant that will eventually produce 90 million tonnes of the metal annually.

A train with 330 cars waits to be loaded up before travelling approximately 600 miles to a cargo ship that will sail for 40 days from the port of Ponta da Madeira in São Luís in the neighbouring state of Maranhão, delivering 400,000 tonnes of iron ore to Chinese ports such as Dalian, Caofeidian, Rizhao, and Qingdao.

Once there, factories will transform it into cranes, drilling equipment, and smartphones, many of which will then travel back to Brazil to be used in its construction, energy, and retail sectors.

Economic ties with China have provided Brazil with a surge in jobs, profit for mega-mining companies such as the world’s largest iron ore producer, Vale, its shareholders, and service providers, and a positive trade balance with its main trading partner. […]

However, operations such as the S11D mine in Canaã dos Carajás which serve the Chinese market continue to massively outweigh other new projects in value-added or manufacturing sectors.

Large scale iron ore mining has drawbacks for the environment and rural communities, too: enormous holes in Amazonian soil that will never fully close, silted and contaminated rivers, destroyed caves and natural ponds, the impending disappearance of Monogereion carajensis, Parapiqueria cavalcantei, Ipomoea cavalcantei, and other endemic fauna from the area, and agrarian conflict.

Furthermore, in a bid to increase economic output, the Brazilian government is rolling back laws protecting biodiversity and indigenous peoples from big extractive and infrastructure projects.

September 2017

People walk through flooded street during heavy rain showers in Mumbai on Eastern express highway near Kingcircle station, 30 August 2017. Photo: BCCL / India Times

South Asia floods: Estimated 40 million across India, Bangladesh, Nepal affected

8 September 2017 (ABC News) – An estimated 40 million people in South Asia are struggling to rebuild their lives after massive floods devastated the region nearly a month ago.

Entire villages across Bangladesh, India, and Nepal remained submerged under water since the floods began in mid-August.

Authorities have described it as the region's worst flood in 40 years, with a metre of rain falling in some areas in the space of days.

The worst-hit areas include Assam, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh states in northern India, the Terai region in southern Nepal, and Kurigram and Chimari districts in northern Bangladesh.

In India alone, UNICEF estimated 31 million people were affected by the floods, losing their homes, livelihoods, cattle or property.

In Bangladesh, more than 8 million people were affected, including about 3 million children.

And in Nepal, the number affected was about 1.7 million people.

At least 1.5 million homes are believed to have been destroyed or damaged, along with thousands of schools, hospitals, roads and bridges.

Then and now: Key West, Florida. Image Credit: Courtesy of the authors; McClenachan et al. (2017). doi:10.1126/sciadv.1603155. Graphic: McClenachan, et al., 2017 / Science Advances

Historical nautical maps show coral loss more extensive than previously believed – “The magnitude of change is much greater than anyone thought”

20 September 2017 (Mongabay) – A team of researchers based in Australia and the United States have used historical nautical maps to determine that coral reef loss in the Florida Keys is much more extensive than previously understood.

The British empire began mapping its overseas territories in the 18th century, and coral reefs in particular were quite thoroughly documented given the danger they posed to wooden-hulled ships. In the process, these imperial cartographers unwittingly provided a source of high-resolution spatial data on coastal areas that, as it turns out, can still be useful today in establishing historical baselines for the extent of coral reefs and assessing changes to those reef systems over the ensuing centuries.

“The degree of biologically relevant information recorded varied by cartographer, but the best of these British maps describes the depth, shape, and color of shallow-water corals and distinguishes them from other hard structures such as rocks,” the authors of a study published in the journal Science Advances earlier this month wrote.

The researchers used nautical charts dating from the 1770s to help quantify changes in the coral reefs of the Florida Keys over the past 240 years.

“The maps were essential to expansion of the British Empire, and luckily for us, they also included a lot of useful ecological information,” according to Benjamin Neal, a postdoctoral researcher at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine and a co-author of the study.

Mathematics predicts a sixth mass extinction

20 September 2017 (MIT News) – In the past 540 million years, the Earth has endured five mass extinction events, each involving processes that upended the normal cycling of carbon through the atmosphere and oceans. These globally fatal perturbations in carbon each unfolded over thousands to millions of years, and are coincident with the widespread extermination of marine species around the world.

The question for many scientists is whether the carbon cycle is now experiencing a significant jolt that could tip the planet toward a sixth mass extinction. In the modern era, carbon dioxide emissions have risen steadily since the 19th century, but deciphering whether this recent spike in carbon could lead to mass extinction has been challenging. That’s mainly because it’s difficult to relate ancient carbon anomalies, occurring over thousands to millions of years, to today’s disruptions, which have taken place over just a little more than a century.

Now Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of MIT’s Lorenz Center, has analyzed significant changes in the carbon cycle over the last 540 million years, including the five mass extinction events. He has identified “thresholds of catastrophe” in the carbon cycle that, if exceeded, would lead to an unstable environment, and ultimately, mass extinction.

In a paper published today in Science Advances, he proposes that mass extinction occurs if one of two thresholds are crossed: For changes in the carbon cycle that occur over long timescales, extinctions will follow if those changes occur at rates faster than global ecosystems can adapt. For carbon perturbations that take place over shorter timescales, the pace of carbon-cycle changes will not matter; instead, the size or magnitude of the change will determine the likelihood of an extinction event.


Hiking/Climbing Mount Ritter on the Inyo National Forest, Ansel Adams Wilderness, 28 August 2017. Approaching the middle of the Southeast Glacier and the chutes to the summit snowfield are visible to the right. 'Blood' colored snow is from algae. Temps in 60-70s. No wind. Photo: Paul Wade / USDA / Flickr

Why the last snow on Earth may be red – ”Snow-dwelling microbes increase glacier melt directly in a bio-geophysical feedback by lowering albedo”

21 September 2017 (The New Yorker) – Every spring, in alpine regions around the world, one of Earth’s tiniest migrations takes place. The migrants are single-celled green algae; they are kin to seaweed, but instead of living in the sea they live in snow. (Snow weed, maybe?) They spend the winter deep in the snowpack, atop last summer’s snow, as dormant cysts. In the spring, they wake and swim up through the trickle of snowmelt to the surface, dividing and photosynthesizing as they go. Then, at the top, they turn red. This creates what scientists call pink snow or watermelon snow—drifts and glaciers that look like Slush Puppies and eventually reduce to rivulets of crimson.

The color comes from astaxanthin, a molecular cousin of the chemical that makes carrots orange. The algae produce it seemingly as a sunscreen; it absorbs UV light, warming the organisms, and, critically, melting the surrounding snow. “The melting helps them a lot,” Roman Dial, a biologist at Alaska Pacific University, told me recently. “The surface of a snowfield can be a very dry place; the liquid water drains away. And life just can’t use frozen water. It’s like if you were out camping and your water bottle was frozen, you’d be thirsty until it melted.”

Watermelon snow is a perfectly natural phenomenon, but in an age of disappearing glaciers it is also problematic. Last year, scientists discovered that the algae had reduced the amount of sunlight reflected by some glaciers in Scandinavia—and increased the amount of sunlight absorbed—by thirteen per cent. The result, as Dial and his colleagues demonstrated in this month’s issue of Nature Geoscience, is faster melting. As in other parts of the warming planet—particularly the Arctic, where scientists fear that thawing permafrost may be triggering a climatic feedback loop—the effect is likely self-perpetuating. Ice sheets are already being darkened by dust, soot, and ash, which hasten melting and add nutrients on which algae can flourish. As the organisms proliferate, they melt even more snow, which allows them to proliferate again. “It spreads more rapidly than people realize, once it gets established,” Dial said.

October 2017

Children with respiratory diseases receive treatment at a hospital in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. Photo: China Daily / Reuters

Global pollution kills 9 million people per year and threatens survival of human societies – “We fear that we are pushing the envelope on the amount of pollution the Earth can carry”

20 October 2017 (The Guardian) – Pollution kills at least nine million people and costs trillions of dollars every year, according to the most comprehensive global analysis to date, which warns the crisis “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”.

Toxic air, water, soils and workplaces are responsible for the diseases that kill one in every six people around the world, the landmark report found, and the true total could be millions higher because the impact of many pollutants are poorly understood. The deaths attributed to pollution are triple those from Aids, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

The vast majority of the pollution deaths occur in poorer nations and in some, such as India, Chad, and Madagascar, pollution causes a quarter of all deaths. The international researchers said this burden is a hugely expensive drag on developing economies.

Rich nations still have work to do to tackle pollution: the US and Japan are in the top 10 for deaths from “modern” forms of pollution, i.e., fossil fuel-related air pollution and chemical pollution. But the scientists said that the big improvements that have been made in developed nations in recent decades show that beating pollution is a winnable battle if there is the political will.

Human exposure to glyphosate, a chemical found in weed killers, increased over 23 years

24 October 2017 (UC San Diego) – Analyzing samples from a prospective study, University of California San Diego School of Medicine researchers found that human exposure to glyphosate, a chemical widely found in weed killers, has increased approximately 500 percent since the introduction of genetically modified crops.

“The data compares excretion levels of glyphosate and its metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid in the human body over a 23-year time span, starting in 1993, just before the introduction of genetically modified crops into the United States,” said Paul J. Mills, PhD, UC San Diego School of Medicine professor of Family Medicine and Public Health and director of the Center of Excellence for Research and Training in Integrative Health.

Glyphosate is a key ingredient in the herbicide brand Roundup. Use of this herbicide has increased approximately 15-fold since 1994, when genetically modified “Roundup Ready” glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced. Historically, it is used on genetically modified soy and corn, but it is also sprayed on a substantial portion of wheat and oats grown in the U.S., said Mills.

“Our exposure to these chemicals has increased significantly over the years but most people are unaware that they are consuming them through their diet.”

A comparison of (A) Pleistocene megaboulders #1 (Bull) and #2 (Cow) at North Eleuthera, the Bahamas, emplaced by large waves at the end of the last interglacial. (B) Smaller Holocene and historically wave-transported boulders along Whale Point (0.25 to 1.0 km); several boulders show significant movement over the past decades during which time no tsunami of any significance are known to have occurred. Photo: Hearty and Tormey, 2017 / Marine Geology

Geologic evidence of rapid sea level change and superstorms portend ominous prospects for a warming earth – “Our global society is producing a climate system that is racing forward out of humanity’s control”

12 October 2017 (Elsevier) – While strong seasonal hurricanes have devastated many of the Caribbean and Bahamian islands this year, geologic studies on several of these islands illustrate that more extreme conditions existed in the past. A new analysis published in Marine Geology shows that the limestone islands of the Bahamas and Bermuda experienced climate changes that were even more extreme than historical events. In the interest of our future world, scientists must seek to understand the complexities of linked natural events and field observations that are revealed in the geologic record of past warmer climates.

In Bermuda and the Bahamas, the geology of the last interglacial (LIG; approximately 120,000 years ago) is exquisitely preserved in nearly pure carbonate sedimentary rocks. A record of superstorms and changing sea levels is exposed in subtidal, beach, storm, and dune deposits on multiple islands. Extensive studies by the authors over the past decades on these islands have documented stratigraphic, sedimentologic, and geomorphic evidence of major oceanic and climatic disruptions at the close of the last interglacial.

Dr. Paul J. Hearty, a retired Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Dr. Blair. R. Tormey, a Coastal Research Scientist at Western Carolina University conducted an invited review of published findings. It demonstrates that during a global climate transition in the late last interglacial, also known as marine isotope substage 5e (MIS 5e), abrupt multi-meter sea-level changes occurred. Concurrently, coastlines of the Bahamas and Bermuda were impacted by massive storms generated in the North Atlantic Ocean, resulting in a unique trilogy of wave-transported deposits: megaboulders, chevron-shaped, storm-beach ridges, and runup deposits on high dune ridges.

While perhaps more mundane than the megaboulders (found only locally on Eleuthera), the sedimentological structures found within chevron ridge and runup deposits across islands throughout the Bahamas and Bermuda point to frequent and repeated inundation by powerful storm waves, in some locations leaving storm deposits tens of meters above sea level.

During the last interglacial, sea levels were about 3-9 meters higher than they are now. The geologic evidence indicates that the higher sea-levels were accompanied by intense "superstorms," which deposited giant wave-transported boulders at the top of cliffed coastlines, formed chevron-shaped, storm beach ridges in lowland areas, and left wave runup deposits on older dunes more than 30 meters above sea level. These events occurred at a time of only slightly warmer global climate and CO2 (about 275 ppm) was much lower than today.

November 2017

The Paradise Papers: Leaked records reveal offshore’s role in forest destruction

8 November 2017 (ICIJ) – On the island of Padang, in the heart of Indonesia’s industrial logging country, a group of teenagers pointed to the charred remains of sago palm trees – the remnants of the fires that have scorched the archipelago nation’s lush forests for two decades.

“There’s a sense of anger,” said Alvin, 15, who grew up in the village of Bagan Melibur. “The effects of forest burning and deforestation are enormous” for both humans and animals, he said.

In 2015, the fires were so intense across the island chain that a bitter haze blanketed much of Indonesia and drifted as far as Thailand. Airline flights were grounded. Children wore protective masks to school. Studies linked smog levels to at least 19 deaths and respiratory problems in as many as half a million people. Indonesia’s meteorology agency called the unbreathable murk “a crime against humanity.”

The fires that produced the smog were a result of a prolonged dry season and slash-and-burn practices used to clear Indonesia’s lush peatland forests to make way for palm oil and pulpwood plantations. In the fires’ wake, environmental groups lashed out at the industrial players involved in clearing Indonesia’s forests, including Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd., also known as April, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper producers.

A leak of offshore records now reveals that April, like some other natural resources companies, owed its ability to thrive and log huge sections of Indonesia’s tropical forests, in part, to a global network of elite bankers, lawyers and accountants that helped it navigate corporate and tax challenges.

The documents come from the offshore law firm Appleby and corporate services provider Estera, two businesses that operated together under the Appleby name until Estera became independent in 2016.  They show how the Bermuda-based law firm Appleby and brand-name banks such as Credit Suisse and the Netherlands’ ABN Amro have continued to help April structure its operations despite questions about the company’s environmental record.

Internal records from Appleby underline concerns of scholars, advocacy groups and government officials that the offshore financial system contributes to the expansion of companies involved in leveling forests and other practices that contribute to global climate change. Compounding the problem is the fact that Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest expanse of tropical forests, has the highest rate of deforestation.

The leaked documents, now known as the Paradise Papers, were obtained by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and 94 other media partners.

An ICIJ analysis of the documents found that April is one of a dozen Asia-based forest products companies that have used the services of Appleby, which calls itself “one of the world’s largest providers of offshore legal services.” April has shuffled billions of dollars through a web of offshore companies stretching from the Cook Islands in the South Pacific to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, ICIJ’s review found.

General view of partment blocks during heavy smog in Delhi, India, 10 November 2017. Photo: Cathal McNaughton / REUTERS

India to spray capital from on high amid deepening smog emergency – Chief Minister calls capital a “gas chamber”

10 November 2017 (Reuters) – India plans to spray water over its capital, New Delhi, to combat toxic smog that has triggered a pollution emergency, officials said on Friday, with conditions expected to worsen over the weekend.

Illegal crop burning in farm states surrounding New Delhi, vehicle exhaust in a city with limited public transport and swirling construction dust have caused the crisis, as they do every year.

“Sprinkling water is the only way to bring down the dangerous pollution levels,” said Shruti Bhardwaj, an environmental official charged with monitoring air quality.

The government was finalizing the plans to spray the water from a height of 100 meters, which would be unprecedented, she said, without saying how much of the city of 22 million people would be covered.

The thick blanket of gray air and pollutants has enveloped Delhi for the past four days. A U.S. embassy measure of tiny particulate matter, called PM 2.5, showed a reading of 523 at 9 a.m. on Friday - the outer limit of “good” air is 50.

The three-degree world: the cities that will be drowned by global warming

3 November 2017 (The Guardian) – When UN climate negotiators meet for summit talks this month, there will be a new figure on the table: 3C.

Until now, global efforts such as the Paris climate agreement have tried to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels. However, with latest projections pointing to an increase of 3.2C by 2100, these goals seem to be slipping out of reach.

“[We] still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future,” said Erik Solheim, the UN environment chief, ahead of the upcoming Bonn conference.

One of the biggest resulting threats to cities around the world is sea-level rise, caused by the expansion of water at higher temperatures and melting ice sheets on the north and south poles.

Scientists at the non-profit organisation Climate Central estimate that 275 million people worldwide live in areas that will eventually be flooded at 3C of global warming.

Geographic patterns in changes in artificial lighting. Changes are shown as an annual rate for both lit area (A) and radiance of stably lit areas (B). Annual rates are calculated based on changes over the four year period, that is, Embedded Image, where A2016 is the lit area observed in 2016. See fig. S28 for total radiance change instead of stable light radiance change. Graphic: Kyba, et al., 2017 / Science Advances

The switch to outdoor LED lighting has increased light pollution and power consumption – “The migration to LED isn’t having the anticipated benefit in terms of global reductions in energy usage”

22 November 2017 (Gizmodo) – To reduce energy consumption, many jurisdictions around the world are transitioning to outdoor LED lighting. But as new research shows, this solid-state solution hasn’t yielded the expected energy savings, and potentially worse, it’s resulted in more light pollution than ever before.

Using satellite-based sensors, an international team of scientists sought to understand if our planet’s surface is getting brighter or darker at night, and to determine if LEDs are saving energy at the global scale. With the introduction of solid-state lighting—such as LEDs, OLEDs, and PLEDs—it was thought (and hoped) that the transition to it from conventional lighting—like electrical filaments, gas, and plasma—would result in big energy savings. According to the latest research, however, the use of LEDs has resulted in a “rebound” effect whereby many jurisdictions have opted to use even more light owing to the associated energy savings.

Indeed, as the new results show, the amount of outdoor lighting around the world has increased during the past several years. “As a result, the world has experienced widespread ‘loss of the night,’ with half of Europe and a quarter of North America experiencing substantially modified light-dark cycles,” write the researchers in the new study, which was published today in Science Advances.

“I expected that wealthy countries would appear to be getting darker (even if that wasn’t truly the case). Instead, we observed wealthy countries staying constant, or in many cases increasing,” said Christopher Kyba, lead author of the study and a researcher at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, in an interview with Gizmodo. “That means that even though some cities are saving energy by switching to LEDs, other places are getting brighter by installing new or brighter lamps (that need new energy). So the data aren’t consistent with the hypothesis that on the global scale, LEDs are saving energy for outdoor lighting applications.”

December 2017

A state map shows areas of southern Louisiana at the greatest risk of flooding. Graphic: Bloomberg News

Louisiana, sinking fast, prepares to empty out its coastal plain

22 December 2017 (Bloomberg News) – Louisiana is finalizing a plan to move thousands of people from areas threatened by the rising Gulf of Mexico, effectively declaring uninhabitable a coastal area larger than Delaware.

A draft of the plan, the most aggressive response to climate-linked flooding in the U.S., calls for prohibitions on building new homes in high-risk areas, buyouts of homeowners who live there now and hikes in taxes on those who won’t leave. Commercial development would still be allowed, but developers would need to put up bonds to pay for those buildings’ eventual demolition.

“Not everybody is going to live where they are now and continue their way of life,” said Mathew Sanders, the state official in charge of the program, which has the backing of Governor John Bel Edwards. “And that is an emotional, and terrible, reality to face.”

Hotter temperatures will accelerate migration of asylum-seekers to Europe, says study

21 December 2017 (Columbia University) – New research predicts that migrants applying for asylum in the European Union will nearly triple over the average of the last 15 years by 2100 if carbon emissions continue on their current path. The study suggests that cutting emissions could partially stem the tide, but even under an optimistic scenario, Europe could see asylum applications rise by at least a quarter. The study appears today in the journal Science.

“Europe is already conflicted about how many refugees to admit,” said the study’s senior author, Wolfram Schlenker, an economist at SIPA and a professor at the university’s Earth Institute. “Though poorer countries in hotter regions are most vulnerable to climate change, our findings highlight the extent to which countries are interlinked, and Europe will see increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing their home countries.”

The map at top shows an analysis of sea ice concentration on 30 November 2017 in the area of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. The graph at bottom shows the combined sea ice concentration from 1978 to 2017, based on Sea Ice Index data. Graphic: Rick Thoman / NOAA National Weather Service Alaska Region

Record low sea-ice extent in the Chukchi Sea

6 December 2017 (NSIDC) – November 2017 will be remembered not for total Arctic ice extent, which was the third lowest recorded over the period of satellite observations, but for the record low extent in the Chukchi Sea. This is a key area for Arctic Ocean access, and is an indicator of oceanographic influences on sea ice extent.

Arctic sea ice extent for November 2017 averaged 9.46 million square kilometers (3.65 million square miles), the third lowest in the 1979 to 2017 satellite record. This was 1.24 million square kilometers (479,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average and 830,000 square kilometers (321,000 square miles) above the record low November extent recorded in 2016. Extent at the end of the month was below average over the Atlantic side of the Arctic, primarily in the Barents and Kara Seas, slightly above average in western Hudson Bay, but far below average in the Chukchi Sea. This continues a pattern of below-average extent in this region that has persisted for the last year.

Based on an analysis by Rick Thoman of the NOAA National Weather Service, as of 19 November 2017, ice extent in the combined Beaufort and Chukchi Seas sector was the lowest ever observed in the sea ice record (Figure 4). This was largely driven by the lack of sea ice within the Chukchi Sea. By the end of November, the Beaufort Sea was completely ice-covered. The NOAA analysis makes use of the NSIDC Sea Ice Index data set. As discussed in our June 7 post, the current state of the ice cover in this region likely has its origin as far back as last year, when warm conditions favored the persistence of open water in the Chukchi Sea into December of 2016.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone tapes his mouth in a protest over his jailed colleagues on 12 December 2017 in Myanmar. Photo: Nyein Chan Naing / EPA

A record number of journalists worldwide are behind bars for doing their jobs

15 December 2017 (Los Angeles Times) – This last year has been a dangerous one for journalists around the globe — a record 262 men and women are imprisoned because of the nature of the work they do, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s part of a disturbing trend of attacking and undermining institutions that exist to hold public officials accountable and to bring light into some of the darkest corners of the world.

Turkey and Egypt — two U.S. allies — and China account for about half of the detained journalists, but the problem extends widely. Here’s what happened just this week: Two Reuters staffers who had been working on stories about the Myanmar government’s violent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Rakhine State were arrested under that country’s Official Secrets Act; a journalist writing about corruption was jailed in Tajikistan; and a French documentary filmmaker was detained in Kashmir by Indian authorities.

Most appalling is that the list of 262 includes some journalists who were nabbed a decade ago or longer by governments that have refused to divulge their whereabouts or even whether they are alive; some are likely dead. In fact, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 37 journalists were killed this year; 13 of them were murdered and the rest were killed covering combat or working in other risky conditions.

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