Category Archives: Nature

Polar ice hits the lowest levels ever recorded


A very sobering report from NASA’s Earth Observatory:

In March 2017, Arctic sea ice reached a record-low maximum extent, according to scientists at NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). In the same month, sea ice on the opposite side of the planet, around Antarctica, hit its lowest extent ever recorded at the end of the austral summer—a surprising turn of events after years of moderate sea ice expansion.

On February 13, 2017, the combined Arctic and Antarctic sea ice numbers were at their lowest point since satellites began to continuously measure sea ice in 1979. Total polar sea ice covered 16.21 million square kilometers (6.26 million square miles), which is 2 million square kilometers (790,000 square miles) less than the average global minimum extent for 1981–2010. That’s the equivalent to losing a chunk of sea ice larger than Mexico.

The line graphs above plot the monthly deviations and overall trends in polar sea ice from 1979 to 2017 as measured by satellites. The top line shows the Arctic; the middle shows Antarctica; and the third shows the global, combined total. The graphs depict how much the sea ice concentration moved above or below the long-term average. (They do not plot total sea ice concentration.)

Arctic and global sea ice totals have moved consistently downward over 38 years. Antarctic trends are more muddled, but they do not offset the great losses in the Arctic. The maps below give a closer look at the record lows that occurred at each pole this year.

The ice floating on top of the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas shrinks from mid-March until mid-September. As the Arctic temperatures drop in the autumn and winter, the ice cover grows again until it reaches its yearly maximum extent, typically in March. This winter, a combination of warmer-than-average temperatures, unfavorable winds, and a series of storms stunted sea ice growth in the Arctic.

The first map shows the concentration of Arctic sea ice on March 7, 2017, when it reached its maximum extent for the year. Opaque white areas indicate the greatest concentration, and dark blue areas are open water. All icy areas pictured here have an ice concentration of at least 15 percent (the minimum at which space-based measurements give a reliable measurement), and cover a total area that scientists refer to as the “ice extent.”

The maximum extent on March 7 was a record low, measuring 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles). That’s 97,00 square kilometers (37,000 square miles) below the previous record low that occurred in 2015.

“We started from a low September minimum extent,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “There was a lot of open ocean water, and we saw periods of very slow ice growth in late October and into November because the water had a lot of accumulated heat that had to be dissipated before ice could grow. The ice formation got a late start and everything lagged behind—it was hard for the sea ice cover to catch up.”

This year’s record-low maximum will not necessarily lead to a new record-low minimum extent in summertime, since weather has a great impact on the melt season’s outcome, Meier said. “But it’s guaranteed to be below normal.”

Sea ice around Antarctica behaves in a similar manner, but with the calendar flipped—it usually reaches its maximum in September and its minimum in February. This year, Antarctic sea ice reached a record-low minimum on March 3. The second map shows the concentration of sea ice on that day.

The extent on March 3 measured 2.11 million square kilometers (815,000 square miles). That’s 184,000 square kilometers (71,000 square miles) below the previous record low in the satellite record, which occurred in 1997. This year’s low happened just two years after several monthly record-high extents in Antarctica and decades of moderate sea ice growth.

“There’s a lot of year-to-year variability in both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, but overall, until last year, the trends in the Antarctic for every single month were toward more sea ice,” said Claire Parkinson, a senior sea ice researcher at NASA Goddard. “Last year was stunningly different, with prominent sea ice decreases in the Antarctic. To think that now the Antarctic sea ice extent is actually reaching a record minimum, that’s definitely of interest.”

Meier said it is too early to tell if this year marks a shift in the behavior of Antarctic sea ice.

“It is tempting to say that the record low we are seeing this year is global warming finally catching up with Antarctica,” Meier said. “However, this might just be an extreme case of pushing the envelope of year-to-year variability. We’ll need to have several more years of data to be able to say there has been a significant change in the trend.”

Advertisements

Map of the day: Western Hemisphere happiness


From Views of the World, the always informative blog of British geographer Benjamin Henning, a look at how the nations of the Western Hemisphere fare on the Happy Planet Index [click on the image to enlarge]:

From the blog post, where you can find the full map, which is based on a remapping of the world to show the nations resized to match their relative populations:

March, 20th is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, recognising ‘the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world’. Bhutan is credited as the first country to have implemented the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an official measure for the state of a nation, introduced in 1972. After the global financial crash in 2008, ideas about giving the ‘spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of [people] and natural environment’ more prominence over mere economic development are reflected more and more in international efforts towards a sustainable future.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation, takes a rather radical approach on this issue. It aims to measure well-being and happiness by taking a universal and long-term approach to understanding, how efficiently people in a country are using their environmental resources to live long and happy lives.

This cartogram maps the results of the 2016 Happy Planet Index from the perspective of people. The gridded population cartogram shows the world resized according to the number of people living in each area, combined with the national HPI score:

The indicators that are used for calculating the HPI score cover life-satisfaction, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and the ecological footprint. As argued in the report, ‘GDP growth on its own does not mean a better life for everyone, particularly in countries that are already wealthy. It does not reflect inequalities in material conditions between people in a country.’ This explains why consumption patterns are seen as more important for well-being than production. It also acknowledges that inequalities in well-being and life expectancy are important factors in the overall happiness of the population in a country.

When taking these notions into account, the rich industrialised countries score much worse in achieving sustainable well-being for all. Of the 140 countries included in the HPI, Luxembourg is the most extreme example for a wealthy nation scoring very badly – it does well on life expectancy and well-being, and also has low inequality, but sustains this lifestyle with the largest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. It would require more than nine planets to sustain this way of life if every person on Earth lived the same way, showing that the standard of living comes at a high cost to the environment.

Among the positive stories is Costa Rica, which is also highlighted on the map. The country has persistently scored highest in all HPI releases (the 2016 edition is the third, after 2009 and 2012). More of a surprise might be the high score for Mexico (second), which is credited to massive efforts at improving health and environmental sustainability. Despite challenges with tackling inequality, well-being is perceived higher than in the wealthier northern neighbour, the United States. Quite a few Central and South American nations, as well as some Asian and Pacific countries do better than many wealthy nations. However, the African continent shows that at the bottom end extreme poverty can be a limiting factor in achieving sustainable well-being.

Global warming linked to massive coral reef dieoffs


Donald Trump and his crew of wreckers may believe climate change is a hoax, but nearly all of country’s scientists disagree huuugely.

So, too, does the American public, which is growing increasingly worried about what lies ahead, as new polling from Gallup reveals:

Yet mroof of the power of global warming to devastate vast ecosystems comes from new research from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies:

Coral researchers are remobilising to conduct aerial and underwater surveys along the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere in Australia as coral bleaching reappears for the second year in a row. The decision coincides with the release today of a study [$32 to read] in the prestigious journal Nature warning the Reef’s resilience is rapidly waning.

Scientists and Reef managers from ten research institutions across Australia, representing the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce, have returned to the Reef only one year after scorching temperatures caused the worst coral bleaching event on record in 2016. Teams will spend the next few weeks in the air and underwater measuring the extent of the damage from this summer compared to last.

“We’re hoping that the next 2-3 weeks will cool off quickly, and this year’s bleaching won’t be anything like last year. The severity of the 2016 bleaching was off the chart,” explains lead author and Taskforce convener, Prof. Terry Hughes (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies). “It was the third major bleaching to affect the Great Barrier Reef, following earlier heatwaves in 1998 and 2002. Now we’re gearing up to study a potential number four.”

Dead staghorn coral killed by bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Greg Torda, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

“We have now assessed whether past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 made reefs any more tolerant in 2016. Sadly, we found no evidence that past bleaching makes the corals any tougher.”

While protecting reefs from fishing, and improving water quality is likely to help bleached reefs recover in the longer term, the study also revealed that it made no difference to the amount of bleaching during the extreme heatwave of 2016.

Continue reading

Soil carbon found to pose even greater climate risk


New research reveals yet another alarming dimension of the climate change process, adding another powerful accelerant to the forces, many of them human in origin, driving the dramatic climate change now underway.

And this is yet another sign of the complexity of climate change, evidence that rising temperatures can trigger releases of still more forces that make the earth hotter as thresholds are crossed.

The irony is that the research comes from the U.S. Department of Energy,  a federal agency in a government headed by a climate change skeptic/denier [it depends on his whim of the moment]] who his appointed many other climate change deniers to high posts in his administration.

Under Obama, the department’s policy was clear, voiced by-then Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz on the department website:

I’m not here to debate what’s not debatable.  I mean, the evidence is overwhelming.  The science is clear, certainly clear for the level that one needs for policymaking, in terms of the real and urgent threat of climate change.

Here’s his replacement during his confirmation hearings:

With Big Oil running the show, we suspect things will get much worse.

Meanwhile, let’s get grounded.

Steep rises in CO2 release follows soil warming in tests

From Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

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 [$30 for 24-hour access].

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.

But, until now, the majority of field-based soil warming experiments only focused on the top five to 20 centimeters of soil—which leaves a lot of carbon unaccounted for. Experts estimate soils below 20 centimeters in depth contain more than 50 percent of the planet’s stock of soil organic carbon. The big questions have been: to what extent do the deeper soil layers respond to warming? And what does this mean for the release of CO2 into the atmosphere?

“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.

The need to better understand the response of all soil depths to warming is underscored by projections that, over the next century, deeper soils will warm at roughly the same rate as surface soils and the air. In addition, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change simulations of global average soil temperature, using a “business-as-usual” scenario in which carbon emissions rise in the decades ahead, predict that soil will warm 4° Celsius by 2100.

Continue reading

Headline of the day: What else did you expect?


From the New York Times:

E.P.A. Head Fills Posts With Climate Change Deniers

  • Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built a career out of suing the agency he now leads, has moved to stock the top offices of the agency with like-minded conservatives — many of them skeptics of climate change and all of them intent on rolling back environmental regulations that they see as overly intrusive and harmful to business.
  • Mr. Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of his friend and fellow Oklahoma Republican, Senator James Inhofe, long known as Congress’s most prominent skeptic of climate science. A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Mr. Jackson’s deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate.
  • To friends and critics, Mr. Pruitt seems intent on building an E.P.A. leadership that is fundamentally at odds with the career officials, scientists and employees who carry out the agency’s missions. That might be a recipe for strife and gridlock at the federal agency tasked to keep safe the nation’s clean air and water while safeguarding the planet’s future.

The tragedy of Trump/Big Oil’s war on the EPA


We spent a good many years covering environmental issues, including the role played by corporations and the nation’s largest university system in building on polluted land.

We were first stirred to concern for our impact on the environment in 1962 when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that inspired the rise of the modern environmental movement in the last half of the 20th Century.

The movement became so significant that a Reoubkican President [and a loathed one at that] created the Environmental Protection Agency,

And while Donald Trump may share a leak paranoia with Agent Orange, he’s anything but Richard Nixon when it comes to the environment.

An agency dismembered

While Trump and many of his appointees called for outright elimination of the EPA, realism set in.

That and the beginning of the death by a thousand cuts, starting with a story from Newsweek written as the initial proposed budget cuts were revealed:

The proposal, sent to the EPA [last week], would cut into grants that support American Indian tribes and energy efficiency initiatives, according to the source, who read the document to Reuters.

State grants for lead cleanup, for example, would be cut 30 percent to $9.8 million. Grants to help native tribes combat pollution would be cut 30 percent to $45.8 million. An EPA climate protection program on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases like methane that contribute to global warming would be cut 70 percent to $29 million.

The proposal would cut funding for the brownfields industrial site cleanup program by 42 percent to $14.7 million. It would also reduce funding for enforcing pollution laws by 11 percent to $153 million.

The budget did not cut state revolving funds for programs, that Congress tapped last year to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, for its lead pollution crisis.

All staff at a research program, called Global Change Research, as well as 37 other programs would be cut under the plan.

As Bloomberg notes:

More than 40 percent of EPA’s budget – about $3.5 billion – is dedicated to state and tribal grants used to pay for staff and support an array of programs, including initiatives that protect drinking water. State clean air and water programs also benefit.

That means the disproportionate burden will fall on states, most of which have Republican-controlled legislatures and chief executives.

So it’s unlikely most states will replace the lost funds, and layoffs will ensue.

Also impacted will be city government, losing both federal funds and monies from the states.

Given that the burdens of pollution fall disproportionately on the poor, life expectancies may decline.

Hey, but he’s makin’ Ahmurka great agin, ain’t he?

Ain’t he?

The latest development: Still more cuts

Needless to say, climate research is involved.

Scientific American puts it i context:

The administration is seeking a nearly 20 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget, including to its satellite division, The Washington Post reported. That includes significant cuts to the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which has produced research that disproved the notion of a global warming pause. NOAA’s satellites provide invaluable data on climate change that are used by researchers throughout the world. The NOAA cuts target the Office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research, which conducts the bulk of the agency’s climate research.

That’s on top of proposed reductions to climate research at U.S. EPA, including a 40 percent cut to the Office of Research and Development, which runs much of EPA’s major research. The cuts specify work on climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. The Trump administration also has proposed 20 percent staffing reduction at EPA.

More than a dozen federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department and the Department of Energy, conduct climate research. Further cuts are expected, particularly at NASA, which develops and launches the satellites that provide invaluable information on climate change used throughout the world. President Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and some congressional Republicans pushing for climate science cuts have falsely claimed that federal scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to defraud the American public into thinking that human activity is causing the planet to warm.

About a third of the American economy relies on weather, climate and natural hazard data, said Chris McEntee, president of the American Geophysical Union, the nation’s largest scientific organization. She said much of the federal scientific research and data comes from multiple agencies working together, so cutting one will have a ripple effect.

“It’s not just one agency, it’s a holistic view here, and cutting one piece also has an impact on the whole enterprise of what we get out of science from the federal government that enables us to have the kinds of tools and information we need to protect the infrastructure, to protect lives, to protect public safety, and to give us knowledge and information to make a more effective economy and country,” she said.

After the jump, more cuts, the threats to a massive database and efforts to preserve them, and a case of class war. . . Continue reading

Why are we fat? Republicans, Democrats disagree


If the recent elections have taught us anything, it’s that Democrats and Republicans are so deeply divided that one might reasonably argue that the system has broken down, with folks of great wealth fueling the divisions for their own ends.

So how deeply divided are the two parties?

Well, they can’t even agree on what makes folks fat.

It’s that old nature/nurture divide that lurks beneath so much of political divisiveness, with the Republicans arguing that Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination, rules at the bathroom scales, while Democrats argue that it’s something fueled by the environment.

From the University of Kansas:

People’s political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on obesity-related public policies, according to a new study by two University of Kansas researchers.

Actually, Republicans — no matter how much they weigh —  believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.

But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. Those who identify themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.

“Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people,” Joslyn said. “The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal weight people were not so motivated.”

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department of Political Science, published their findings [$36 to read] recently in the journal American Politics Research.

The research could have important implications for policymakers, especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.

Former New York City Mayor — and billionaire — Michael Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those that have passed them in recent years. Obesity rates have risen recently in the United States, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 71 percent of adults were overweight and more than 17 percent of youths were obese.

Still, most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a “nanny state,” blaming government intervention when they perceive personal choice is causing the problem.

For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could influence people’s opposition to certain practices.

“To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity, stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be expected,” Joslyn said.

Also, it’s likely the issue remains politicized because most Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not supportive of government regulations.

Finally, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like publication of calorie counts.

“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”

Program notes

The genome dynamically interacts with the environment as chemical switches that regulate gene expression receive cues from stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors. Epigenetics is the study of these reactions and the factors that influence them.

So what’s it all about?

From Scientific American:

In a study published in late 2011 in Nature, Stanford University geneticist Anne Brunet and colleagues described a series of experiments that caused nematodes raised under the same environmental conditions to experience dramatically different lifespans. Some individuals were exceptionally long-lived, and their descendants, through three generations, also enjoyed long lives. Clearly, the longevity advantage was inherited. And yet, the worms, both short- and long-lived, were genetically identical.

This type of finding—an inherited difference that cannot be explained by variations in genes themselves—has become increasingly common, in part because scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too. At first glance, these scribes seem quite ordinary—methyl, acetyl, and phosphoryl groups, clinging to proteins associated with DNA, or sometimes even to DNA itself, looking like freeloaders at best. Their form is far from the elegant tendrils of DNA that make up genes, and they are fleeting, in a sense, erasable, very unlike genes, which have been passed down through generations for millions of years. But they do lurk, and silently, they exert their power, modifying DNA and controlling genes, influencing the chaos of nucleic and amino acids. And it is for this reason that many scientists consider the discovery of these entities in the late 20th century as a turning point in our understanding of heredity, as possibly one of the greatest revolutions in modern biology—the rise of epigenetics.

Continue reading