Category Archives: Science

Climate-fueled wildfires threaten mental health


As we discovered soon after we first started reporting in the Golden State, three stories are perennials on the West Coast, catastrophes certain to recur throughout a journalist’s career: Wildfires, earthquakes, and mudslides.

And of the three, it’s wildfires that are getting worse as the wildfire season has lengthened by nearly a month since the 1960s as climate change makes California hotter and drier.

Consider this telling graphic from the 4 December San Francisco Chronicle:

Wildfires spur chronic mental health woes

For various newspapers where I’ve worked, I’ve had many opportunities to interview people impacted by disasters, and the one thing most of them talk about after recounting their relief at surviving as a deep sense of loss, a loss inclusive of both material possessions and psychological security.

The loss of photo albums and mementos is literally a loss of the past, and a loss of the sense of security that comes with the loss of home and all its comforting associations can be devastating.

And now a new study reveals that, for many, the psychic loss from California wildfires continues long after the flames have been extinguished,

From the University of California — San Diego:

Poorer Mental Health Smolders After Deadly, Devastating Wildfire

In 2018, a faulty electric transmission line ignited the Camp Fire in Northern California, ultimately consuming 239 square miles and several communities, including the town of Paradise, which was 95 percent destroyed. At least 85 people died.

Structures have been rebuilt, but some things are worse. In a paper published February 2, 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, scientists at University of California San Diego, with colleagues elsewhere, describe chronic mental health problems among some residents who experienced the Camp Fire in varying degrees.

Direct exposure to large-scale fires significantly increased the risk for mental health disorders, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, the scientists wrote.

“We looked for symptoms of these particular disorders because emotionally traumatic events in one’s lifetime are known to trigger them,” said senior author Jyoti Mishra, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the Neural Engineering and Translation Labs at UC San Diego. Pre-existing childhood trauma or sleep disturbances were found to exacerbate mental health problems, but factors like personal resilience and mindfulness appeared to reduce them.

“We show climate change as a chronic mental health stressor. It is not like the pandemic, in that it is here for a period of time and can be mitigated with vaccines and other measures. Climate change is our future, and we need immediate action to slow down the changes being wreaked upon the planet, and on our own wellbeing.”

Mishra, with collaborators at California State University, Chico and University of South Carolina, conducted a variety of mental health assessments on residents who had been exposed to the Camp Fire six months after the wildfire and those much farther away. Roughly two-thirds of those tested were residents who lived in or around Chico, a Northern California city located approximately 10 to 15 miles of the center of the Camp Fire. The remaining third were San Diego residents living approximately 600 miles from the wildfire and presumably unimpacted.

The researchers found that the Northern California residents experienced measurable increases in PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders, which were worsened by proximity and exposure to the Camp Fire or by previous adverse experiences involving childhood trauma, such as abuse and neglect.

Chronic mental health problems fanned by the wild fire were ameliorated, however, by physical exercise, mindfulness and emotional support, all of which may contribute to personal resilience and the ability to bounce back after stressful life events.

The worrisome thing is that stressful life events like the Camp Fire are becoming more frequent, due to climate change, said study co-author Veerabhadaran Ramanathan, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

“Since the 1970s, fire extent in California has increased by 400 percent,” said Ramanathan. “While a faulty transmission line may have lit the Camp Fire in 2018, it is part of an overall disastrous multi-decadal trend fueled by human-caused climate warming. Through evaporative drying of the air, the soil and the trees, warming acts as a force multiplier. By 2030, the warming is likely to amplify by 50 percent. This surprising, if not shocking, study identifies mental illness as a grave risk for the coming decades.”

Not just in California, but the world, write the authors.

“Unchecked climate change projected for the latter half of this century may severely impact the mental wellbeing of the global population. We must find ways to foster individual resiliency,” wrote the study authors.

Co-authors include: Saria Silveira and Gillian Grennan,

Now add the impact of a lethal pandemic, and we suspect conditions are significantly worse than for the period covered by the study.

Study: Climate change role in COVID proposed


Did climate change play a role in spawning the coronavirus pandemic?

Quite possibly, according to a new study from Cambridge university which examines the role of global warming in driving populations of bats, known spreaders of coronaviruses, into densely populated South China.

A map from their study shows major shifts in bat populations sine the early years of the 20th Century [click on the image to enlarge]:

Estimated increase in the local number of bat species due to shifts in their geographical ranges driven by climate change between the 1901-1930 and 1990-2019 period. The zoomed-in area represents the likely spatial origin of the bat-borne ancestors of SARS-CoV-1 and 2.

From Cambridge University:

Climate change may have driven the emergence of SARS-CoV-2

A new study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment provides the first evidence of a mechanism by which climate change could have played a direct role in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study has revealed large-scale changes in the type of vegetation in the southern Chinese Yunnan province, and adjacent regions in Myanmar and Laos, over the last century. Climatic changes including increases in temperature, sunlight, and atmospheric carbon dioxide – which affect the growth of plants and trees – have changed natural habitats from tropical shrubland to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland. This created a suitable environment for many bat species that predominantly live in forests.

The number of coronaviruses in an area is closely linked to the number of different bat species present. The study found that an additional 40 bat species have moved into the southern Chinese Yunnan province in the past century, harbouring around 100 more types of bat-borne coronavirus. This ‘global hotspot’ is the region where genetic data suggests SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen. 

“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in the southern Chinese Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” said Dr Robert Beyer, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the study, who has recently taken up a European research fellowship at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany.

He added: “Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

To get their results, the researchers created a map of the world’s vegetation as it was a century ago, using records of temperature, precipitation, and cloud cover. Then they used information on the vegetation requirements of the world’s bat species to work out the global distribution of each species in the early 1900s. Comparing this to current distributions allowed them to see how bat ‘species richness’, the number of different species, has changed across the globe over the last century due to climate change.

“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others – taking their viruses with them. This not only altered the regions where viruses are present, but most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” said Beyer.

The world’s bat population carries around 3,000 different types of coronavirus, with each bat species harbouring an average of 2.7 coronaviruses – most without showing symptoms. An increase in the number of bat species in a particular region, driven by climate change, may increase the likelihood that a coronavirus harmful to humans is present, transmitted, or evolves there.

Most coronaviruses carried by bats cannot jump into humans. But several coronaviruses known to infect humans are very likely to have originated in bats, including three that can cause human fatalities: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) CoV, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) CoV-1 and CoV-2. 

The region identified by the study as a hotspot for a climate-driven increase in bat species richness is also home to pangolins, which are suggested to have acted as intermediate hosts to SARS-CoV-2. The virus is likely to have jumped from bats to these animals, which were then sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan – where the initial human outbreak occurred. 

The researchers echo calls from previous studies that urge policy-makers to acknowledge the role of climate change in outbreaks of viral diseases, and to address climate change as part of COVID-19 economic recovery programmes. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous social and economic damage. Governments must seize the opportunity to reduce health risks from infectious diseases by taking decisive action to mitigate climate change,” said Professor Andrea Manica in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study. 

“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions,” added Professor Camilo Mora at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, who initiated the project.

The researchers emphasised the need to limit the expansion of urban areas, farmland, and hunting grounds into natural habitat to reduce contact between humans and disease-carrying animals.

The study showed that over the last century, climate change has also driven increases in the number of bat species in regions around Central Africa, and scattered patches in Central and South America.

This research was supported by the European Research Council.

Brain-damaging metals found in baby foods


A new Congressional report has found alarming levels of heavy metal contamination in the nation’s most popular baby foods, a fact known to by suppressed by the Trump administration.

From Reuters:

U.S. congressional investigators found “dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals” in certain baby foods that could cause neurological damage, a House Oversight subcommittee said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel examined baby foods made by Nurture Inc, Hain Celestial Group Inc, Beech-Nut Nutrition and Gerber, it said, adding that it was “greatly concerned” that Walmart Inc, Campbell Soup Co and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The report said internal company standards “permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and documents revealed that the manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.”

Campbell said in a statement on its website that its products are safe and cited the lack of a current FDA standard for heavy metals in baby food. The company said it thought it had been “full partners” in the study with congressional researchers.

The Washington Post added more:

“Exposure to these toxic heavy metals affects babies’ brain development and nervous system, it affects their behavior, permanently decreases their IQ and, if you want to boil it down to dollars, their lifetime earnings potential,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked on lead in food for 25 years.

The committee launched the investigation after learning of high levels of arsenic in some baby foods in a study by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of nonprofit organizations aimed at measurably reducing babies’ exposure to toxic chemicals.

“What they did was take food off store shelves and test it. We said we should go straight to the companies and ask for their materials,” [subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi D-Illinois] Krishnamoorthi said. “For the companies that didn’t participate, it raises the concern that they might possess information that indicates the toxic metals in their foods might be even higher than their competitors.”

Some alarming words from the report

Here’s the conclusion of Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury, the report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform:

The Subcommittee’s investigation proves that commercial baby foods contain dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. These toxic heavy metals pose serious health risks to babies and toddlers. Manufacturers knowingly sell these products to unsuspecting parents, in spite of internal company standards and test results, and without any warning labeling whatsoever.

Last year, the Trump administration ignored new information contained in a secret industry presentation to federal regulators about toxic heavy metals in baby foods. On August 1, 2019, FDA received a secret slide presentation from Hain, the maker of Earth’s Best Organic baby food, which revealed that finished baby food products contain even higher levels of toxic heavy metals than estimates based on individual ingredient test results. One heavy metal in particular, inorganic arsenic, was repeatedly found to be present at 28-93% higher levels than estimated.

The time is now for FDA to determine whether there is any safe exposure level for babies to inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, to require manufacturers to meet those levels, and to inform consumers through labels.

Teresa Murray, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog, issued the following statement:

“This is unconscionable on two levels: First, companies that manufacture baby food should adhere to the highest of high standards. Second, we expect the federal government to adopt stricter standards to protect babies and the rest of us from food-borne dangers, and do a better job of alerting the public when there is a possible problem.

“The Food and Drug Administration knows from its own research these toxic metals are harmful to everyone, but especially babies and children. It’s time for the FDA to step up and set meaningful standards for heavy metals in baby food, and also require manufacturers to disclose on food labels how much toxic, heavy metals are in their baby food. Of course, baby food producers should ban toxic ingredients even before they’re forced to do so.”

Rice presents the greatest threat

The New York Times noted that the highest levels of heavy metal were found in rice products and added some advice:

Parents can protect babies by not feeding them infant rice cereal or other products like snacks made with rice flour. Healthy-sounding snacks like Nurture Happy Baby’s apple and broccoli puffs, or its strawberry and beet puffs, contained high levels of arsenic, according to the report.

Though rice cereal is often one of a baby’s first foods, both white and brown rice contain levels of inorganic arsenic that are up to six times higher than some other cereals made from grains like barley, oatmeal, organic quinoa, wheat or buckwheat, according to the nonprofit group Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

The group issued a report in 2019 on heavy metals in baby foods. It also recommends that parents not use teething biscuits that can contain heavy metals and cause tooth decay.

Parents should not give babies juice to drink, the group says, and should provide a variety of fruits and vegetables, so as to minimize exposure to carrots and sweet potatoes, which may be high in lead and cadmium.

We can’t help but wonder if a lot of anti-regulatory Republicans will change what they’re feeding the babies?

We suspect that, despite their ceaseless demonization of regulations, a smidgen of ommon sense remains when it comes to those nearest and dearest to them.

The moon rules sleep length and start times


Sometimes we need reminders that, despite our advanced technology and all dazzling diversions, we remain embodiments of the universe that gave us life.

Some fascinating new research reveals the depth of the connection in the powerful way the Moon influences one of life’s most precious necessities, sleep, that in the immortal words of the Bard of Avon, “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

And the connection holds for all people, whether they live in bright urban centers or dark rural retreats.

From the University of Washington:

On nights before a full moon, people go to bed later and sleep less, study shows

For centuries, humans have blamed the moon for our moods, accidents and even natural disasters. But new research indicates that our planet’s celestial companion impacts something else entirely — our sleep.

In a paper published Jan. 27 in Science Advances, scientists at the University of Washington, the National University of Quilmes in Argentina and Yale University report that sleep cycles in people oscillate during the 29.5-day lunar cycle: In the days leading up to a full moon, people go to sleep later in the evening and sleep for shorter periods of time. The research team, led by UW professor of biology Horacio de la Iglesia, observed these variations in both the time of sleep onset and the duration of sleep in urban and rural settings — from Indigenous communities in northern Argentina to college students in Seattle, a city of more than 750,000. They saw the oscillations regardless of an individual’s access to electricity, though the variations are less pronounced in individuals living in urban environments.

The pattern’s ubiquity may indicate that our natural circadian rhythms are somehow synchronized with — or entrained to — the phases of the lunar cycle.

“We see a clear lunar modulation of sleep, with sleep decreasing and a later onset of sleep in the days preceding a full moon,” said de la Iglesia. “And although the effect is more robust in communities without access to electricity, the effect is present in communities with electricity, including undergraduates at the University of Washington.”

A graphic illustration of of sleep duration onset times and their correlation with the lunar cycle.

Using wrist monitors, the team tracked sleep patterns among 98 individuals living in three Toba-Qom Indigenous communities in the Argentine province of Formosa. The communities differed in their access to electricity during the study period: One rural community had no electricity access, a second rural community had only limited access to electricity — such as a single source of artificial light in dwellings — while a third community was located in an urban setting and had full access to electricity. For nearly three-quarters of the Toba-Qom participants, researchers collected sleep data for one to two whole lunar cycles.

Past studies by de la Iglesia’s team and other research groups have shown that access to electricity impacts sleep, which the researchers also saw in their study: Toba-Qom in the urban community went to bed later and slept less than rural participants with limited or no access to electricity.

But study participants in all three communities also showed the same sleep oscillations as the moon progressed through its 29.5-day cycle. Depending on the community, the total amount of sleep varied across the lunar cycle by an average of 46 to 58 minutes, and bedtimes seesawed by around 30 minutes. For all three communities, on average, people had the latest bedtimes and the shortest amount of sleep in the nights three to five days leading up to a full moon.

When they discovered this pattern among the Toba-Qom participants, the team analyzed sleep-monitor data from 464 Seattle-area college students that had been collected for a separate study. They found the same oscillations.

The team confirmed that the evenings leading up to the full moon — when participants slept the least and went to bed the latest — have more natural light available after dusk: The waxing moon is increasingly brighter as it progresses toward a full moon, and generally rises in the late afternoon or early evening, placing it high in the sky during the evening after sunset. The latter half of the full moon phase and waning moons also give off significant light, but in the middle of the night, since the moon rises so late in the evening at those points in the lunar cycle.

“We hypothesize that the patterns we observed are an innate adaptation that allowed our ancestors to take advantage of this natural source of evening light that occurred at a specific time during the lunar cycle,” said lead author Leandro Casiraghi, a UW postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology.

Whether the moon affects our sleep has been a controversial issue among scientists. Some studies hint at lunar effects only to be contradicted by others. De la Iglesia and Casiraghi believe this study showed a clear pattern in part because the team employed wrist monitors to collect sleep data, as opposed to user-reported sleep diaries or other methods. More importantly, they tracked individuals across lunar cycles, which helped filter out some of the “noise” in data caused by individual variations in sleep patterns and major differences in sleep patterns between people with and without access to electricity.

These lunar effects may also explain why access to electricity causes such pronounced changes to our sleep patterns, de la Iglesia added.

“In general, artificial light disrupts our innate circadian clocks in specific ways: It makes us go to sleep later in the evening; it makes us sleep less. But generally we don’t use artificial light to ‘advance’ the morning, at least not willingly. Those are the same patterns we observed here with the phases of the moon,” said de la Iglesia.

From the report, sleep duration and onset times in three different environments.

“At certain times of the month, the moon is a significant source of light in the evenings, and that would have been clearly evident to our ancestors thousands of years ago,” said Casiraghi.

The team also found a second, “semilunar” oscillation of sleep patterns in the Toba-Qom communities, which seemed to modulate the main lunar rhythm with a 15-day cycle around the new and full moon phases. This semilunar effect was smaller and only noticeable in the two rural Toba-Qom communities. Future studies would have to confirm this semilunar effect, which may suggest that these lunar rhythms are due to effects other than from light, such as the moon’s maximal gravitational “tug” on the Earth at the new and full moons, according to Casiraghi.

Regardless, the lunar effect the team discovered will impact sleep research moving forward, the researchers said.

“In general, there has been a lot of suspicion on the idea that the phases of the moon could affect a behavior such as sleep — even though in urban settings with high amounts of light pollution, you may not know what the moon phase is unless you go outside or look out the window,” said Casiraghi. “Future research should focus on how: Is it acting through our innate circadian clock? Or other signals that affect the timing of sleep? There is a lot to understand about this effect.”

Co-authors are Ignacio Spiousas at the National University of Quilmes; former UW researchers Gideon Dunster and Kaitlyn McGlothlen; and Eduardo Fernández-Duque and Claudia Valeggia at Yale University. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Leakey Foundation.

And while we’re on the subject of things lunar, how about a little moon music from the peerless Billie Holiday:

Blue Moon

Polar ice melt hits maximum predicted levels


Stunning news today from the University of Leeds, revealing that melting of the ice cap at the two poles has already hit the levels predicted by worst-case global warming scenarios.

From their report:

Average rate of ice thickness change in the (a) Southern Hemisphere and (b) Northern Hemisphere.

More from the University of Leeds:

Global ice loss increases at record rate

The rate at which ice is disappearing across the planet is speeding up, according to new research.

And the findings also reveal that the Earth lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994 and 2017 –  equivalent to a sheet of ice 100 metres thick covering the whole of the UK.

The research is the first of its kind to carry out a survey of global ice loss using satellite data.

Scientists led by the University found that the rate of ice loss from the Earth has increased markedly within the past three decades, from 0.8 trillion tonnes per year in the 1990s to 1.3 trillion tonnes per year by 2017.

Ice melt across the globe raises sea levels, increases the risk of flooding to coastal communities, and threatens to wipe out natural habitats which wildlife depend on.

The findings of the research team, which includes the University of Edinburgh, University College London and data science specialists Earthwave, are published in European Geosciences Union’s journal The Cryosphere.

Funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the research shows that overall, there has been a 65% increase in the rate of ice loss over the 23-year survey. This has been mainly driven by steep rises in losses from the polar ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.

Lead author Dr Thomas Slater, a Research Fellow at Leeds’ Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, said: “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea-level rise on this scale will have very serious impacts on coastal communities this century.”

Dr Slater said the study was the first of its kind to examine all the ice that is disappearing on Earth, using satellite observations .

He added: “Over the past three decades there’s been a huge international effort to understand what’s happening to individual components in Earth’s ice system, revolutionised by satellites which allow us to routinely monitor the vast and inhospitable regions where ice can be found.

“Our study is the first to combine these efforts and look at all the ice that is being lost from the entire planet.”

The survey covers 215,000 mountain glaciers spread around the planet, the polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, the ice shelves floating around Antarctica, and sea ice drifting in the Arctic and Southern Oceans.

Rising atmospheric temperatures have been the main driver of the decline in Arctic sea ice and mountain glaciers across the globe, while rising ocean temperatures have increased the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet. For the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctic ice shelves, ice losses have been triggered by a combination of rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures.

During the survey period, every category lost ice, but the biggest losses were from Arctic Sea ice (7.6 trillion tonnes) and Antarctic ice shelves (6.5 trillion tonnes), both of which float on the polar oceans.

Dr Isobel Lawrence, a Research Fellow at Leeds’ Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, said: “Sea ice loss doesn’t contribute directly to sea level rise but it does have an indirect influence. One of the key roles of Arctic sea ice is to reflect solar radiation back into space which helps keep the Arctic cool.

“As the sea ice shrinks, more solar energy is being absorbed by the oceans and atmosphere, causing the Arctic to warm faster than anywhere else on the planet.

“Not only is this speeding up sea ice melt, it’s also exacerbating the melting of glaciers and ice sheets which causes sea levels to rise.”

Half of all losses were from ice on land – including 6.1 trillion tonnes from mountain glaciers, 3.8 trillion tonnes from the Greenland ice sheet, and 2.5 trillion tonnes from the Antarctic ice sheet. These losses have raised global sea levels by 35 millimetres.

It is estimated that for every centimetre of sea level rise, approximately a million people are in danger of being displaced from low-lying homelands.

Despite storing only 1% of the Earth’s total ice volume, glaciers have contributed to almost a quarter of the global ice losses over the study period, with all glacier regions around the world losing ice.

Report co-author and PhD researcher Inès Otosaka, also from Leeds’ Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, said: “As well as contributing to global mean sea level rise, mountain glaciers are also critical as a freshwater resource for local communities.

“The retreat of glaciers around the world is therefore of crucial importance at both local and global scales.”

Just over half (58%) of the ice loss was from the northern hemisphere, and the remainder (42%) was from the southern hemisphere.

Further information

Earth’s ice imbalance is published in the European Geosciences Union’s journal The Cryosphere on 25 January 2021 [open access].

Quote of the day: Trump, anti-science President


Centers for Disease Control director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussing the his time under Donald Trump as the nation’s point man on the COVID pandemic, “a situation where science was distorted and/or rejected,” in conversation with Rachel Maddow.

From the Independent:

“I didn’t want to be at odds with the president because I have a lot of respect for the office of the presidency, but there was conflict at different levels with different people and different organizations and a lot of pressure being put on to do things that just are not compatible with the science. . .

“It’s a real aberrancy. This is my seventh administration, Rachel, and I’ve been advising administrations and presidents on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, people with different ideologies, and even with differences in ideology, there never was this real affront on science. So it really was an aberrancy that I haven’t seen in almost 40 years that I’ve been doing this. So it’s just one of those things that is chilling when you see it happen.

“I’ve been wanting to come on your show for months and months. “You’ve been asking me to come on your show for months and months, and it’s just gotten blocked. Let’s call it what it is: It just got blocked because they didn’t like the way you handle things, and they didn’t want me on.”

Heavens above!: Stars born in a nebula


From NASA, a stellar extravaganza:

Bright, Blue Stars

Inside star cluster NGC 602, a star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud, bright, blue, newly formed stars are blowing a cavity in this nebula,sculpting the inner edge of its outer portions, slowly eroding it away and eating into the material beyond. The diffuse outer reaches of the nebula prevent the energetic outflows from streaming away from the cluster. Elephant trunk–like dust pillars point toward the hot blue stars and are telltale signs of their eroding effect. Star formation started at the center of the cluster and propagated outward, with the youngest stars still forming today along the dust ridges.

Chart of the day: Heat of the oceans soars


The heat content in the upper 2,000 meters of the ocean from 1958 through 2020. The graph shows the departure from a baseline (the average temperature between 1981-2010), with red bars showing more heat than the baseline and blue bars showing less.

More from the National Center for Atmospheric Research [emphasis added]:

The temperatures in the upper 2,000 meters of the ocean hit a record high in 2020, according to a new analysis by a research team that included scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The five hottest years for the upper ocean on record have all occurred since 2015.

The results of the new analysis, published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Science, further illustrate how Earth is warming — just over 90 percent of the additional heat due to human-caused climate change is absorbed by the ocean. Ocean heat is a valuable indicator of climate change because it does not fluctuate as much as temperatures at the Earth’s surface, which can vary in response to weather and natural climate variations such as El Niño. Thus it more clearly reveals the gradual accumulation of heat due to human activities.

The increase in ocean temperatures can cause a number of societal impacts. Warmer ocean surface waters can, for example, supercharge hurricanes and other storms that travel over the sea. Warmer water also expands to take up more room, driving sea level rise and causing coastal flooding.

The uneven vertical heating of the ocean — the surface warms more quickly than the deeper ocean layers — also causes the ocean to become more stratified. This stratification inhibits ocean mixing and the distribution of dissolved oxygen and nutrients, which impacts marine ecosystems and fisheries. 

“The warming of the ocean has real consequences,” said NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth, a co-author of the study. “Ocean heat has exacerbated many of the most significant climate-related events in recent history, and contributed to the record number of billion-dollar disasters in the United States in 2020.”

The new research was led by Lijing Cheng, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The NCAR contributors are Trenberth and John Fasullo.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR’s sponsor, as well as by the National Key R&D Program of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Ocean heat is challenging to analyze because direct measurements of the ocean’s temperature and other attributes can be few and far between. Scientists depend on models to help fill in the gaps between these measurements. However, a network of ocean floats deployed in the last couple of decades that move throughout the top 2,000 meters of the open ocean has provided researchers with valuable data for better understanding past measurements and calibrating their models.

For this analysis, the scientists used two different ocean heat datasets, one from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and one from the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While the two datasets yielded slightly different values for the globally integrated ocean heat in 2020, they both found that 2020 was the warmest year on record. The results also agree with results from independent research teams using slightly different methods and from independent data, such as satellite measurements of global sea level.

“Despite the challenges of measuring the entire ocean’s temperature, we can now say definitively that the ocean is warming and has been for decades,” Fasullo said. “In fact, each decade back to the 1970s has been discernibly warmer than the decade before, revealing an accumulation of heat that can only be explained by human activities.”

Linguists: How Trump speeches fueled insurrection


“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”Children’s saying

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me. Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.” — Stephen Fry

No President has ever deployed violent language against his own people in the way Donald Trump has.

Samira Sarano, Kone Foundation Senior Researcher at the Migration Institute of Finland, examined Trump’s rhetoric in the 2016 election in The Meta-violence of Trumpism, research published in the European Journal of American Studies, an open-access academic journal.

Here’s a telling passage [emphasis added]:

Rather than denouncing violence, Trump frequently praised the “passion” and “energy” of his supporters, and he even promised to pay the legal fees of supporters caught in violent altercations. At a March 4, 2016 rally, he commented on a protestor’s removal: “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court. Don’t worry about it.” At times, Trump explicitly condoned the use of violence against protestors. On February 1, 2016, he stated: “If you see someone getting ready to throw tomatoes knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK. Just knock the hell… I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” Though Trump himself wished he could “punch [a protestor] in the face,” he recognized that such tactics were unpopular: “Part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long [to remove protestors] is that nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” Trump praised violent action against protestors: “I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There’s a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

Donald Trump: Aggressive Rhetoric and Political Violence, a more recent study, published in October in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, was authored by two Columbia University scholars, political scientist and journalist Brigitte L. Nacosis and Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government and International and Public Affairs Robert Y. Shapiro, and Yaeli Bloch-Elkonis Senior Lecturer/Assistant Professor of Communications and Political Science at Bar Ilan University.

Here’s one key excerpt [emphasis added]:

Examining whether correlations existed between counties that were venues of Donald Trump’s 275 campaign rallies in 2016 and subsequent hate crimes, three political scientists found that “counties that had hosted a 2016 Trump campaign rally saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes over comparable counties that did not host such a rally.” While cautioning that this “analysis cannot be certain it was Trump’s campaign rally rhetoric that caused people to commit more crime in the host county,” the researchers also found it “hard to discount a ‘Trump effect’ since data of the Anti-Defamation League showed “a considerable number of these reported hate crimes referenced Trump.” Moreover, investigative reporting identified 41 cases of domestic terrorism/hate crimes or threats thereof, in which the perpetrators invoked Trump favorably in manifestos, social media posts, police interrogations, or court documents. Almost all of this violence was committed by White males against minorities or politicians singled out frequently by Trump for rhetorical attacks, and journalists. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker recorded a total of 202 attacks on U.S. journalists from 2017, Trump’s first year in office, through mid-2020.

Trumpspeak and the assault on the Capitol

And now another study parses Trump’s speeches in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of 6 January insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.

Two scholars from the University of Memphis, Roger J. Kreuz, Associate Dean and Professor of Psychology, University of Memphis, and Leah Cathryn Windsor, Research Assistant Professor, parse presidential speech in a report for The Conversation, the open access, plain language academic journal:

How Trump’s language shifted in the weeks leading up to the Capitol riot – 2 linguists explain

On Jan. 6, the world witnessed how language can incite violence.

One after another, a series of speakers at the “Save America” rally at the Ellipse in Washington redoubled the messages of anger and outrage.

This rhetoric culminated with a directive by the president to go to the Capitol building to embolden Republicans in Congress to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

“Fight like hell,” President Donald Trump implored his supporters. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Shortly thereafter, some of Trump’s supporters breached the Capitol.

Throughout his presidency, Trump’s unorthodox use of language has fascinated linguists and social scientists. But it wasn’t just his words that day that led to the violence.

Starting with a speech he made on Dec. 2 – in which he made his case for election fraud – we analyzed six public addresses Trump made before and after the riot at the Capitol building. The others were the campaign rally ahead of the runoff elections in Georgia, the speech he made at the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6, the videotaped message that aired later that same day, his denouncement of the violence on Jan. 7 and his speech en route to Texas on Jan. 12.

Together, they reveal how the president’s language escalated in intensity in the weeks and days leading up to the riots.

Finding patterns in language

Textual analysis – converting words into numbers that can be analyzed as data – can identify patterns in the types of words people use, including their syntax, semantics and vocabulary choice. Linguistic analysis can reveal latent trends in the speaker’s psychological, emotional and physical states beneath the surface of what’s being heard or read.

This sort of analysis has led to a number of discoveries.

For example, researchers have used it to identify the authors of The Federalist Papers, the Unabomber manifesto and a novel written by J.K. Rowling under a pseudonym.

Textual analysis continues to offer fresh political insights, such as its use to advance the theory that social media posts attributed to QAnon are actually written by two different people.

The ‘official’ sounding Trump

Contrary to popular thinking, Trump does not universally use inflammatory rhetoric. While he is well known for his unique speaking style and his once-frequent social media posts, in official settings his language has been quite similar to that of other presidents.

Researchers have noted how people routinely alter their speaking and writing depending on whether a setting is formal or informal. In formal venues, like the State of the Union speeches, textual analysis has found Trump to use language in ways that echo his predecessors.

In addition, a recent study analyzed 10,000 words from Trump’s and President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign speeches. It concluded – perhaps surprisingly – that Trump and Biden’s language was similar.

Both men used ample emotional language – the kind that aims to persuade people to vote – at roughly the same rates. They also used comparable rates of positive language, as well as language related to trust, anticipation and surprise. One possible reason for this could be the audience, and the persuasive and evocative nature of campaign speeches themselves, rather than individual differences between speakers.

The road to incitement

Of course, Trump has, at times, used overtly dire and violent language.

After studying Trump’s speeches before the storming of the Capitol building, we found some underlying patterns. If it seemed there was a growing sense of momentum and action in his speeches, it’s because there was.

More, including graphics, after the jump. . .

Continue reading

UN Climate report: We’re falling short


The United Nations Environment Program took a lot st how well the world’s nations are planning and acting to meet the ongoing and worsening global crisis.

Their verdict: We’re doing much too little.

One interesting feature of their report is an analysis of programs that work with nature, illustrated in this graphic from the document, linking climate crises and nature-based mitigations:

Here’s a briefing on the report from the United Nations Environment Program:

Step up climate change adaptation or face serious human and economic damage – UN report

As temperatures rise and climate change impacts intensify, nations must urgently step up action to adapt to the new climate reality or face serious costs, damages and losses, a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report finds.

Adaptation – reducing countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts – is a key pillar of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The agreement requires its signatories to implement adaptation measures through national plans, climate information systems, early warning, protective measures and investments in a green future.

The UNEP Adaptation Gap Report 2020 finds that while nations have advanced in planning, huge gaps remain in finance for developing countries and bringing adaptation projects to the stage where they bring real protection against climate impacts such as droughts, floods and sea-level rise.

Public and private finance for adaptation must be stepped up urgently, along with faster implementation. Nature-based solutions – locally appropriate actions that address societal challenges, such as climate change, and provide human well-being and biodiversity benefits by protecting, sustainably managing and restoring natural or modified ecosystems – must also become a priority.

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest – even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C.”

“As the UN Secretary-General has said, we need a global commitment to put half of all global climate finance towards adaptation in the next year,” she added. “This will allow a huge step up in adaptation – in everything from early warning systems to resilient water resources to nature-based solutions.”

Adaptation planning is growing, but funding and follow-up lagging

The most encouraging finding of the report is that 72 per cent of countries have adopted at least one national-level adaptation planning instrument. Most developing countries are preparing National Adaptation Plans. However, the finance needed to implement these plans is not growing fast enough.

The pace of adaptation financing is indeed rising, but it continues to be outpaced by rapidly increasing adaptation costs. Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at USD 70 billion. This figure is expected to reach USD 140-300 billion in 2030 and USD 280-500 billion in 2050.

There are some encouraging developments. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) has allocated 40 per cent of its total portfolio to adaptation and is increasingly crowding-in private sector investment. Another important development is increasing momentum to ensure a sustainable financial system. However, increased public and private adaptation finance is needed. New tools such as sustainability investment criteria, climate-related disclosure principles and mainstreaming of climate risks into investment decisions can stimulate investments in climate resilience.

Implementation of adaptation actions is also growing. Since 2006, close to 400 adaptation projects financed by multilateral funds serving the Paris Agreement have taken place in developing countries. While earlier projects rarely exceeded USD 10 million, 21 new projects since 2017 reached a value of over USD 25 million. However, of over 1,700 adaptation initiatives surveyed, only 3 per cent had already reported real reductions to climate risks posed to the communities where the projects were being implemented.

Nature-based solutions for adaptation can make a huge contribution

The report places a special focus on nature-based solutions as low-cost options that reduce climate risks, restore and protect biodiversity and bring benefits for communities and economies.

An analysis of four major climate and development funds – the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund and the International Climate Initiative – suggested that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades. Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under the four funds stood at USD 94 billion. However, only USD 12 billion was spent on nature-based solutions – a tiny fraction of total adaptation and conservation finance.

Stepping up action

According to the report, cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the impacts and costs associated with climate change. Achieving the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement could limit losses in annual growth to up to 1.6 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the 3°C trajectory.

All nations must pursue the efforts outlined in UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2020, which called for a green pandemic recovery and updated Nationally Determined Contributions that include new net-zero commitments. However, the world must also plan for, finance and implement climate change adaptation to support those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, investing in adaptation is a sound economic decision.

Most of world’s land to lose water as climate heats


Water is the most precious thing on earth, the life-sustaining fluid that most of us take for granted.

But as the earth warms and climates shifts, modst of planet will be suffering frrom reduced water supplies, one of the most worrying impacts of climate change.

Yadu Pokhrel, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University and Farshid Felfelani, an MSU Postdoctoral Research Associate, examine the data and its implications for a report in The Conversation, an academic journal written in conversational English:

Two-thirds of Earth’s land is on pace to lose water as the climate warms – that’s a problem for people, crops and forests

The world watched with a sense of dread in 2018 as Cape Town, South Africa, counted down the days until the city would run out of water. The region’s surface reservoirs were going dry amid its worst drought on record, and the public countdown was a plea for help.

By drastically cutting their water use, Cape Town residents and farmers were able to push back “Day Zero” until the rain came, but the close call showed just how precarious water security can be. California also faced severe water restrictions during its recent multiyear drought. And Mexico City is now facing water restrictions after a year with little rain.

There are growing concerns that many regions of the world will face water crises like these in the coming decades as rising temperatures exacerbate drought conditions.

Understanding the risks ahead requires looking at the entire landscape of terrestrial water storage – not just the rivers, but also the water stored in soils, groundwater, snowpack, forest canopies, wetlands, lakes and reservoirs.

We study changes in the terrestrial water cycle as engineers and hydrologists. In a new study published Jan. 11, we and a team of colleagues from universities and institutes around the world showed for the first time how climate change will likely affect water availability on land from all water storage sources over the course of this century.

We found that the sum of this terrestrial water storage is on pace to decline across two-thirds of the land on the planet. The worst impacts will be in areas of the Southern Hemisphere where water scarcity is already threatening food security and leading to human migration and conflict. Globally, one in 12 people could face extreme drought related to water storage every year by the end of this century, compared to an average of about one in 33 at the end of the 20th century.

These findings have implications for water availability, not only for human needs, but also for trees, plants and the sustainability of agriculture.

Where the risks are highest

The water that keeps land healthy, crops growing and human needs met comes from a variety of sources. Mountain snow and rainfall feed streams that affect community water supplies. Soil water content directly affects plant growth. Groundwater resources are crucial for both drinking water supplies and crop productivity in irrigated regions.

While studies often focus just on river flow as an indicator of water availability and drought, our study instead provides a holistic picture of the changes in total water available on land. That allows us to capture nuances, such as the ability of forests to draw water from deep groundwater sources during years when the upper soil levels are drier.

The declines we found in land water storage are especially alarming in the Amazon River basin, Australia, southern Africa, the Mediterranean region and parts of the United States. In these regions, precipitation is expected to decline sharply with climate change, and rising temperatures will increase evaporation. At the same time, some other regions will become wetter, a process already seen today.

The map shows the projected change in terrestrial water storage by the end of the 21st century, compared to the 1975-2005 average, under a mid-range scenario for global warming. A continuum of yellow to orange to dark red reflects increasing severity of loss of stored water; teal to blue to dark blue reflects increasing gains in stored water. Yadu Pokhrel, et al, Nature Climate Change, 2021, CC BY-ND

Our findings for the Amazon basin add to the longstanding debate over the fate of the rainforest in a warmer world. Many studies using climate model projections have warned of widespread forest die-off in the future as less rainfall and warmer temperatures lead to higher heat and moisture stress combined with forest fires.

In an earlier study, we found that the deep-rooted rainforests may be more resilient to short-term drought than they appear because they can tap water stored in soils deeper in the ground that aren’t considered in typical climate model projections. However, our new findings, using multiple models, indicate that the declines in total water storage, including deep groundwater stores, may lead to more water shortages during dry seasons when trees need stored water the most and exacerbate future droughts. All weaken the resilience of the rainforests.

A new way of looking at drought

Our study also provides a new perspective on future droughts.

There are different kinds of droughts. Meteorological droughts are caused by lack of precipitation. Agricultural droughts are caused by lack of water in soils. Hydrological droughts involve lack of water in rivers and groundwater. We provided a new perspective on droughts by looking at the total water storage.

We found that moderate to severe droughts involving water storage would increase until the middle of the 21st century and then remain stable under future scenarios in which countries cut their emissions, but extreme to exceptional water storage droughts could continue to increase until the end of the century.

That would further threaten water availability in regions where water storage is projected to decline.

Changes driven by global warming

These declines in water storage and increases in future droughts are primarily driven by climate change, not land-water management activities such as irrigation and groundwater pumping. This became clear when we examined simulations of what the future would look like if climate conditions were unchanged from preindustrial times. Without the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, terrestrial water storage would remain generally stable in most regions.

If future increases in groundwater use for irrigation and other needs are also considered, the projected reduction in water storage and increase in drought could be even more severe.

UFO rider sneaks into gov’t spending bill


No, not an alien a la X Files, but a rider in the sense of an add-on to legislation created for other purposes.

And there’s more UFO news, too.

From CNN:

When President Donald Trump signed the $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief and government funding bill into law in December, so began the 180-day countdown for US intelligence agencies to tell Congress what they know about UFOs.

No, really. The director of National Intelligence and the secretary of defense have a little less than six months now to provide the congressional intelligence and armed services committees with an unclassified report about “unidentified aerial phenomena.

“It’s a stipulation that was tucked into the “committee comment” section of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, which was contained in the massive spending bill.

The legislation mandates that the report contain an unclassified analysis of all the UFO information collected by the Naval Intelligence, the FBI, and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, though a classified annex may also be submitted.

The legislation orders creation of an inter-agency review process to ensure timely reporting of information, headed by a designated official.

Congress also ordered a report on any the national security threats posed by the phenomena.

CIA UFO reports also go online

In a second development today, a website offering all manner of declassified secrets has made all thus-far released UFO reports from the Central Intelligence Agency

All of the CIA’s publicly available documents on unidentified flying objects is now available to be downloaded.

The website The Black Vault, ran by  John Greenewald Jr., has published a downloadable archive of every instance of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), the government classification for UFOs. All the files are available online at The Black Vault’s website.

Greenewald scanned thousands of pages by hand following approximately 10,000 Freedom Of Information Acts (FOIA) levied at multiple agencies, including the CIA, which have resulted in the 2.2 million pages uploaded to The Black Vault.

The documents had been released before, but in a very difficult format for the average reader. Black Vault offers the records in accessible PDF versions for easy downloading and perusal.

Study: Unhealthy wildfire smoke soars in the West


And its precisely the sort that does the most damage to your health.

From the Associated Press:

Wildfire smoke accounted for up to half of all health-damaging small particle air pollution in the western U.S. in recent years as warming temperatures fueled more destructive blazes, according to a study released Monday.

Even as pollution emissions declined from other sources including vehicle exhaust and power plants, the amount from fires increased sharply, said researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego.

The findings underscore the growing public health threat posed by climate change as it contributes to catastrophic wildfires such as those that charred huge areas of California and the Pacific Northwest in 2020. Nationwide, wildfires were the source of up to 25% of small particle pollution in some years, the researchers said.

“From a climate perspective, wildfires should be the first things on our minds for many of us in the U.S.,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford and lead author of the study.

The AP notes that particulates form the smoke have been linked to breathing problems and other ailments, as well as an increased rate of premature deaths, according to health experts.

More than a million tons of particulate pollution were recorded five of the last ten years.

From the report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:

Over the past four decades, burned area from wildfires has roughly quadrupled in the United States. This rapid growth has been driven by a number of factors, including the accumulation of fuels due to a legacy of fire suppression over the last century and a more recent increase in fuel aridity, shown for the western United States), a trend which is expected to continue as the climate warms. These increases have happened parallel to a substantial rise in the number of houses in the wildland–urban interface (WUI). Using data on the universe of home locations across the United States and updated national land cover maps, we update earlier studies and estimate that there are now ∼49 million residential homes in the WUI, a number that has been increasing by roughly 350,000 houses per year over the last two decades. As firefighting effort focuses substantially on the protection of private homes, these factors have contributed to a steady rise in spending on wildfire suppression by the US government, which in recent years has totaled ∼$3 billion/y in federal expenditure. Total prescribed burn acreage has increased in the southeastern United States but has remained largely flat elsewhere, suggesting to many that there is underinvestment in this risk-mitigation strategy, given the massive overall growth in wildfire risk.

A graphic from the report sums up the rapid spread of wildfire pollution:

The quantity, source, and incidence of wildfire smoke. (A and B) Average predicted micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 attributable to wildfire smoke in 2006 to 2008 and 2016 to 2018, as calculated from a statistical model fitting satellite-derived smoke plume data. (C) Share of smoke originating outside the United States, June to September 2007 to 2014, with a substantial amount of smoke in the Northeast and Midwest originating from Canadian fires and about 60% of smoke in the Northeast originating outside the country; nationally, ∼11% of smoke is estimated to originate outside the country. (D) The share of smoke originating in the western United States, June to September 2007 to 2014. Smoke originating in the western United States accounts for 54% of the smoke experienced in the rest of the United States. (E and F) Racial exposure gradients are opposite for particulate matter from smoke compared to total particulate matter: Across the coterminous United States, counties with a higher population proportion of non-Hispanic whites have lower average particulate matter exposure but higher average ambient exposure to particulate matter from smoke (P <0.01 for both relationships).

Scientists worry as U.S. rivers change color


Pollution, in the form of soil runoff and farming fertilizers, is changing the colors of American rivers, and the implications may be profound.

From Yale Environment360:

One in three large American rivers has changed color over the last 36 years, shifting from shades of blue to green and yellow, raising concerns about the health of U.S. waterways, according to an analysis of nearly 235,000 satellite images published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The research examined satellite images covering 67,000 miles of large rivers (measuring more than 197-feet-wide) taken from 1984 to 2018 by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. It found that 56 percent of rivers appeared yellow instead of blue, and 38 percent appeared green. In one-third of the rivers examined, the color shift from blue to green or yellow was a long-term change, not tied to seasonal variation. Just 8 percent of the satellite images showed rivers as blue.

“Most of the rivers are changing gradually and not noticeable to the human eye,” lead author John Gardner, a postdoctoral researcher in the global hydrology lab at University of North Carolina, told Live Science. “But areas that are the fastest changing are more likely to be man-made.”

A yellow hue is likely due to a higher sediment load in the water, which can be caused by human activity, such as dredging or construction, or natural causes, such as heavy rainfall. Rivers appear green when there are large amounts of algae, often the result of fertilizer runoff from farms.

More from the Associated Press:

“If things are becoming more green, that’s a problem,” said study lead author John Gardner, a University of Pittsburgh geology and environmental sciences professor. Although some green tint to rivers can be normal, Gardener said, it often means large algae blooms that cause oxygen loss and can produce toxins.

The chief causes of color changes are farm fertilizer run-off, dams, efforts to fight soil erosion and man-made climate change, which increases water temperature and rain-related run-off, the study authors said.

“We change our rivers a lot. A lot of that has to do with human activity,” said study co-author Tamlin Pavelsky, a professor of global hydrology at the University of North Carolina.

Excess fertilizer runoff has been the cause of major outbreaks of toxic algae creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by runoff from U.S. farmlands feeding into the Mississippi River.

Map of the day: 2020 billion-dollar climate disasters


From the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, a map of the billion-dollar plus climate disasters to strike the U.S. in 2020:

More from the report:

There were 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters across the United States, shattering the previous annual record of 16 events, which occurred in 2017 and 2011. The billion-dollar events of 2020 included a record 7 disasters linked to tropical cyclones, 13 to severe storms, 1 to drought, and 1 to wildfires. The 22 events cost the nation a combined $95 billion in damages. 

Adding the 2020 events to the record that began in 1980, the U.S. has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. (All cost estimates are adjusted based on the Consumer Price Index as of December 2020). The cumulative cost for these 285 events exceeds $1.875 trillion.

More generally, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking number of named tropical cyclones (30), eclipsing the record of 28 set in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. Of these 30 storms, a record 12 made landfall in the United States. And 7 of the 12 became billion-dollar disasters—also a new record.

Not to be left out, many central states were impacted by a historically powerful derecho on August 10, which caused impacts comparable to an inland hurricane. 2020 also brought a record-breaking U.S. wildfire season, which burned more than 10.2 million acres. California more than doubled its previous annual record for area burned (last set in 2018) with over 4.1 million acres. In total, it is clear that 2020 (red line below) stands head and shoulders above all other years in regard to the number of billion-dollar disasters.

In broader context, the total cost of U.S. billion-dollar disasters over the last 5 years (2016-2020) exceeds $600 billion, with a 5-year annual cost average of $121.3 billion, both of which are new records. The U.S. billion-dollar disaster damage costs over the last 10-years (2011-2020) were also historically large:  at least $890 billion from 135 separate billion-dollar events. Moreover, the losses over the most recent 15 years (2006-2020) are $1.036 trillion in damages from 173 separate billion-dollar disaster events.

Among the other items in their report, is this dramatic graph, revealing the ever-growing inflation-adjusted costs incurred from climate disasters over recent years, compared to historic averages:

Month-by-month accumulation of billion-dollar disasters for each year on record. The colored lines represent the top 5 years for most billion-dollar disasters prior to 2020. All other years are colored black. Before the end of August, 2020 (red line) had broken the previous annual record for billion-dollar disasters—16—set in 2011 (royal blue) and tied in 2017 (purple).  NOAA image by NCEI.

Europe hit hottest-ever year, planet record tied


Copernicus Climate Change Service, an intergovernmental service in the European union keep close track on leading indicators of the earth’s changing climate, and this year report offers a stark warning about the the years ahead.

The planet marked a near record overall, with Europe its hottest year ever.

From the Copernicus Climate Change Service:

Air temperature at a height of two metres for 2020, shown relative to its 1981–2010 average. Source: ERA5. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) today reveals that globally 2020 was tied with the previous warmest year 2016, making it the sixth in a series of exceptionally warm years starting in 2015, and 2011-2020 the warmest decade recorded. Meanwhile, Europe saw its warmest year on record, 0.4°C warmer than 2019 which was previously the warmest year. Together with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), C3S also reports that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have continued to rise at a rate of approximately 2.3 ppm/year in 2020 reaching a maximum of 413 ppm during May 2020. Both C3S and CAMS are implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on behalf of the European Commission with funding by the European Union.

Decadal averages of global air temperature at a height of two metres estimated change since the pre-industrial period according to different datasets: ERA5 (ECMWF Copernicus Climate Change Service, C3S); GISTEMPv4 (NASA); HadCRUT5 (Met Office Hadley Centre); NOAAGlobalTempv5 (NOAA), JRA-55 (JMA); and Berkeley Earth. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF

C3S’s dataset for surface air temperatures shows that:

  • Globally, 2020 was on a par with the 2016 record
  • 2020 was 0.6°C warmer than the standard 1981-2010 reference period and around 1.25°C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial period
  • This makes the last six years the warmest six on record
  • Europe saw its warmest year on record at 1.6°C above the 1981-2010 reference period, and 0.4°C above 2019, the previous warmest year
  • The largest annual temperature deviation from the 1981-2010 average was concentrated over the Arctic and northern Siberia, reaching to over 6°C above average

Furthermore, satellite measurements of global atmospheric CO2 concentrations show that:

  • CO2 global column-averaged maximum reached 413 ppm
  • CO2 continued to rise in 2020, increasing by 2.3 ± 0.4 ppm,slightly less than the growth rate of the previous year

Parts of the Arctic and northern Siberia saw some of the largest annual temperature deviations from average in 2020, with a large region seeing deviations of as much as 3°C and in some locations even over 6°C for the year as a whole. On a monthly basis, the largest positive temperature anomalies for the region repeatedly reached more than 8°C. Western Siberia experienced an exceptionally warm winter and spring, a pattern also seen over summer and autumn in the Siberian Arctic and over much of the Arctic Ocean.

Furthermore, the wildfire season was unusually active in this region, with fires first detected in May, continuing throughout summer and well into autumn. As a result, poleward of the Arctic Circle, fires released a record amount of 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020, over a third more than the 2019 record. During the second half of the year, Arctic sea ice was significantly lower than average for the time of the year with July and October seeing the lowest sea ice extent on record for the respective month.

In general, the Northern Hemisphere experienced above average temperatures for the year, apart from a region over the central North Atlantic. In contrast, parts of the Southern Hemisphere saw below average temperatures, most notably over the eastern equatorial Pacific, associated with the cooler La Niña conditions developing during the second half of the year. It is notable that 2020 matches the 2016 record despite a cooling La Niña, whereas 2016 was a record year that began with a strong warming El Niño event.

Annual averages of global air temperature at a height of two metres estimated change since the pre-industrial period (left-hand axis) and relative to 1981-2010 (right-hand axis) according to different datasets: Red bars: ERA5 (ECMWF Copernicus Climate Change Service, C3S); Dots: GISTEMPv4 (NASA); HadCRUT5 (Met Office Hadley Centre); NOAAGlobalTempv5 (NOAA), JRA-55 (JMA); and Berkeley Earth. Credit: Copernicus Climate Change Service/ECMWF.

Europe 2020: warmest year on record

2020 was Europe’s warmest year recorded, and seasonally winter 2019/20 and autumn 2020 were also the warmest recorded. Winter 2020, meaning December 2019 to February 2020, exceeded the previous warmest of 2016 by almost 1.4°C, while autumn (September to November 2020) passed the old record set in 2006 by 0.4°C. In addition, western Europe experienced a significant heatwave in late July and early August. The next four warmest years for Europe also happened during the last decade.

A full and detailed analysis of Europe’s climate will be released in April when Copernicus presents its annual European State of the Climate 2020.

Carlo Buontempo, Director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), comments: “2020 stands out for its exceptional warmth in the Arctic and a record number of tropical storms in the North Atlantic. It is no surprise that the last decade was the warmest on record, and is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future.”

CO2 concentrations continue to rise in 2020

Monthly global CO2 concentrations from satellites (top panel) and derived annual mean growth rates (bottom panel) for 2003-2020. Top: column-averaged CO2 (XCO2) based on the C3S/Obs4MIPs (v4.2) consolidated (2003-2019) and CAMS preliminary near-real time data (2020) records. The listed numerical values in red indicate annual XCO2 averages. Bottom: Annual mean XCO2 growth rates derived from data shown in the top panel. The listed numerical values correspond to the growth rate in ppm/year including an uncertainty estimate in brackets. Source: University of Bremen for Copernicus Climate Change Service and Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/ECMWF

Analysis of satellite data reveals that carbon dioxide concentrations have continued to rise in 2020 reaching an unprecedented global column-averaged maximum of approximately 413.1 ppm. The estimated annual mean XCO2 growth rate for 2020 was 2.3 ± 0.4 ppm/year. This is less than the growth rate in 2019, which was 2.5 ± 0.2 ppm/year and also less than the 2.9 ppm/year increase in 2015 and 2016. However, 2015 and 2016 experienced a strong El Niño climate event, which resulted in a larger atmospheric growth rate due to a weaker than normal uptake of atmospheric CO2 by land vegetation and large CO2 wildfire emissions, particularly in Indonesia in those years. The wildfires in the Arctic and Australia in 2020, although of unprecedented magnitude in their regions, represent only a small fraction of global fire emissions.

Vincent-Henri Peuch, Director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), comments: “While carbon dioxide concentrations have risen slightly less in 2020 than in 2019, this is no cause for complacency. Until the net global emissions reduce to zero, CO2 will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and drive further climate change.”

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been estimated by the Global Carbon Project that there was a reduction of around 7% of fossil CO2 emissions.

“To what extent this was a factor in the lower total increase is debatable though, as the variations in global growth rate are dominated by natural processes. We must continue efforts to decrease CO2 net emissions to reduce the risk of climate-related change”, Vincent-Henri Peuch adds.

“The extraordinary climate events of 2020 and the data from the Copernicus Climate Change Service show us that we have no time to lose. We must come together as a global community, to ensure a just transition to a net zero future. It will be difficult, but the cost of inaction is too great, which is why the commitments made under our European Green Deal are so very necessary”, highlights Matthias Petschke, Director for Space, European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence industry and Space.

Biodiversity collapses in the Eastern Mediterranean


For anyone doubting the reality of global warming, consider this: The populations of native lifeforms of the once Temperate Eastern Mediterranean Sea have collapsed, replaced by species previously native only to tropical waters.

The implications are profound.

From the University of Vienna:

Native biodiversity collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean

An international team led by Paolo G. Albano from the Department of Palaeontology at the University of Vienna quantified a dramatic biodiversity collapse of up to 95 per cent of native species in the Eastern Mediterranean. The study is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The coastline of Israel is one of the warmest areas in the Mediterranean Sea. Here, most marine species have been at the limits of their tolerance to high temperatures for a long time – and now they are already beyond those limits. Global warming has led to an increase in sea temperatures beyond those temperatures that Mediterranean species can sustain. Consequently, many of them are going locally extinct.

Paolo Albano’s team quantified this local extinction for marine molluscs, an invertebrate group encompassing snails, clams and mussels. They thoroughly surveyed the Israeli coastline and reconstructed the historical species diversity using the accumulations of empty shells on the sea bottom.

Biodiversity loss in the last few decades

The shallow habitats at scuba diving depths are affected most. Here, the researchers were not able to find living individuals of up to 95 per cent of the species whose shells were found in the sediments. The study suggests that most of this loss has occurred recently, presumably in just the last few decades.

Additionally, most of the species still found alive cannot grow enough to reproduce, “a clear sign that the biodiversity collapse will further continue,” says Albano. In contrast, the tropical species that enter from the Suez Canal thrive. The warm waters in the Eastern Mediterranean are very suitable habitats for them. Indeed, they occur in large populations and their individuals are fully fit to reproduce.

“For anyone accustomed to snorkel or dive in the Mediterranean,” explains the researcher, “the underwater scenario in Israel is unrecognisable: The most common species are missing, while in contrast tropical species are everywhere”.

The future perspectives for the Mediterranean are not good. The sea will continue to warm even if we would stop carbon dioxide emissions today. This is due to the inertia of the system, the long braking distance, so to speak. 

It is thus likely that the biodiversity collapse will continue to spread. It may already be occurring in other eastern Mediterranean areas not surveyed yet, and it will expand to the West and intensify. Only intertidal organisms, which are to some extent pre-adapted to temperature extremes, and habitats in deeper water, where the temperature is markedly lower, will continue to persist – at least for some time.

“But the future is dim unless we immediately act to reduce our carbon emissions and to protect marine habitats from other pressures which contribute to biodiversity loss,” says Paolo Albano, “The changes that already occurred in the warmest areas of the Mediterranean may not be reversible, but we would be able to save large parts of the rest of the basin.”

Methodologically, the study was also interesting due to its interdisciplinary character: “These results came from the cooperation of scientists with very different backgrounds,” says Martin Zuschin, Head of the Department of Palaeontology and co-author of the study – “In particular, the cooperation between ecologists and palaeontologists is providing unique new views on how humankind is impacting biodiversity”.

Trump’s anti-environmental rampage continues


Like an angry teenager smashing up his room in a fit of pique at his parents, Donald Trump is doing everything he can in his [hopefully] final days to trash the environment.

Here’s the latest.

A major blow to medical science and clean air

From the Associated Press:

The Environmental Protection Agency released one of its last major rollbacks under the Trump administration on Tuesday, limiting what evidence it will consider about risks of pollutants in a way that opponents say could cripple future public health regulation.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the new rule, which restricts what findings from public health studies the agency can consider in crafting health protections, was made in the name of transparency about government decision-making. “We’re going to take all this information and shine light on it,” Wheeler said Tuesday, in unveiling the terms of the new rule in a virtual appearance hosted by a conservative think tank.

“I don’t think we get enough credit as an administration about wanting to open up … to sunlight and scrutiny,” Wheeler said of the Trump administration, which has already rolled back dozens of public health and environmental protections.

Opponents say the latest rule would threaten patient confidentiality and privacy of individuals in public health studies, and call the requirement an overall ruse to handicap future regulation.

The kind of research findings that appear targeted in the new rule “present the most direct and persuasive evidence of pollution’s adverse health effects,” said Richard Revesz, an expert in pollution law at the New York University School of Law.

The stench becomes pervasive when you look at the origin’s of Trump’s policy change.

From the New York Times:

Nearly a quarter century ago, a team of tobacco industry consultants outlined a plan to create “explicit procedural hurdles” for the Environmental Protection Agency to clear before it could use science to address the health impacts of smoking.

President Trump’s E.P.A. has now embedded parts of that strategy into federal environmental policy. On Tuesday Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the E.P.A., formally released a new regulation that favors certain kinds of scientific research over others in the drafting of public health rules.

<snip>

“Right now we’re in the grips of a serious public health crisis due to a deadly respiratory virus, and there’s evidence showing that air pollution exposure increases the risk of worse outcomes,” said Dr. Mary Rice, a pulmonary and critical care physician who is chairwoman of the environmental health policy committee at the American Thoracic Society.

“We would want E.P.A. going forward to make decisions about air quality using all available evidence, not just putting arbitrary limits on what it will consider,” she said.

It’s not a good sign when your science rules come from a powerful industry that spent millions on election and propaganda designed to conceal the fact that they’d probably killed as many people as Hitler.

But it gets even worse, the Times notes:

The E.P.A. says the regulation only deals with future rules. Public health experts, however, warned that studies that have been used for decades to show, for example, that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.

Most significantly, they warned, a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University project that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, currently the foundation of the nation’s air-quality laws, could become inadmissible as the agency considers whether to strengthen protections. In that study, scientists signed confidentiality agreements to track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 people in six cities. Its findings have long been attacked by the fossil fuel industry and some Republican lawmakers.

Corporate bird slaughter legalized

From The Hill:

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has finalized a rule rolling back protections for migratory birds, according to a document that will be published in the Federal Register this week. 

The new rule changes the implementation of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) so that companies are no longer penalized for accidentally or incidentally harming or killing these birds. 

The MBTA has protected more than 1,000 different species of birds for more than 100 years by punishing companies whose projects cause them harm. 

The Trump administration has argued, however, that companies should only be punished for intentionally killing the animals, though it has admitted that relaxing these rules may cause companies not to carry out best practices that limit incidental bird deaths. 

By way of analogy, the the case of murder of a human being, the law differentiates between intentional homicide and negligent homicide, the latter being a death cause of by negligent actions not intended to lead to the death at issue.

But both are crimes; only the punishment differs.

And a fresh assault on Alaska’s wilderness

Finally, there’s a new front in his assault on the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, via the Guardian:

On Monday, the Trump administration also dramatically expanded the area where the government can lease public land for oil drilling to the west of ANWR.

The plan would allow drilling in 82% of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area bigger than the state of West Virginia, according to environmental groups, though the Biden administration could reverse that decision more easily than it could hold off drilling in ANWR.

<snip>

Native groups in Alaska have fought ANWR drilling proposals with lawsuits. For the Gwich’in, indigenous Alaskans who have migrated alongside the caribou and relied upon them as a food source, the fight is personal. They formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee in 1988 to oppose drilling in the coastal plain, which they call the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

“We come from some of the strongest people that ever walked this earth. They survived some of the coldest, harshest winters so that we can be here,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the committee, said during an AM radio segment last week. “I feel like this is my responsibility as a Gwich’in, to protect the caribou.”

Polar bear advocates say the habitat is also critical to a population in dire straits from development and rising temperatures that are melting sea ice. The Arctic is heating at a much faster pace than the rest of the world. Polar bear numbers in Alaska and western Canada declined 40% from 2001 to 2010, said Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International.

Well sign off with a quote:

“I want the cleanest water on Earth, I want the cleanest air on Earth and that’s what we’re doing — and I’m an environmentalist.” — Donald J. Trump

Vibrations key to brain communications?


“I’m pickin’ up good vibrations,” sang the Beach Boys, and they may have been more right than they knew.

Except for the fact that those vibrations are happening their own heads, and in different parts of the brain at the same time, and new research reveals that those vibrations may be the way different brain regions communicate with each other.

By our lights this is one of the most fascinating discoveries we’re read about in a long time, and the implications may be profound.

From the University of Helsinki:

A new means of neur­onal communication dis­covered in the hu­man brain

In a new study published in Nature Communications [open access], research groups of Professor J. Matias Palva and Research Director Satu Palva at the Neuroscience Centre of the University of Helsinki and Aalto University, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the University of Genoa, have identified a novel coupling mechanism linking neuronal networks by using human intracerebral recordings.

Neuronal oscillations are an essential part of the functioning of the human brain. They regulate the communication between neural networks and the processing of information carried out by the brain by pacing neuronal groups and synchronising brain regions.  

High-frequency oscillations with frequencies over 100 Hertz are known to indicate the activity of small neuronal populations. However, up to now, they have been considered to be exclusively a local phenomenon.

The findings of the European research project demonstrate that also high-frequency oscillations over 100 Hertz synchronize across several brain regions. This important finding reveals that strictly-timed communication between brain regions can be achieved by high-frequency oscillations.

The researchers observed that high-frequency oscillations were synchronised between neuronal groups with a similar architecture of brain structures across subjects, but occurring in individual frequency bands. Carrying out a visual task resulted in the synchronisation of high-frequency oscillations in the specific brain regions responsible for the task execution.

These observations suggest that high-frequency oscillations convey within the brain ‘information packages’ from one small neuronal group to another.

The discovery of high-frequency oscillations synchronised between brain regions is the first evidence of the transmission and reception of such information packages in a context broader than individual locations in the brain. The finding also helps to understand how the healthy brain processes information and how this processing is altered in brain diseases.

We’ll conclude with the appropriate song:

Trump drops another environmental bombshell


They’re called gillnets, defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries department as “a wall of netting that hangs in the water column, typically made of monofilament or multifilament nylon.”

A gillnet in action, via NOAA Fisheries.

I first became aware of gillnets and their destructive impacts on threatened and endanger sea mammals back in the 1970s, when my paper, the late, great Santa Monica Evening Outlook teamed up with the Sacramento Bee to report extensively on corruption in the California fishing industry and the state’s lax enforcement policies.

Conservationists warned us that gillnet fishermen were catching dolphnis, sea turtles and even small whales, which died, trapped under water and unable to reach the surface to breathe.

That’s why we were alarmed at one of Donald Trump’s latest moves, as reported by the Associated Press:

President Donald Trump vetoed a bill Friday that would have gradually ended the use of large-mesh drift gillnets deployed exclusively in federal waters off the coast of California, saying such legislation would increase reliance on imported seafood and worsen a multibillion-dollar seafood trade deficit.

Trump also said in his veto message to the Senate that the legislation sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., “will not achieve its purported conservation benefits.”

Feinstein issued a statement late Friday saying Trump’s veto “has ensured that more whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine species will be needlessly killed, even as we have a proven alternative available.”

Trump vetoed the fishing bill as the Republican-controlled Senate followed the Democratic-led House and voted to overturn his earlier veto of the annual defense policy bill, enacting it into law despite Trump’s objections.

The fishing bill’s sponsors said large-mesh drift gillnets, which measure between 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) long and can extend 200 feet (60.9 meters) below the surface of the ocean, are left in the waters overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. But they said at least 60 other marine species — including whales, dolphins and sea lions — can also become entangled in the nets, where they are injured or die.

Trumps wilful ignorance belied by his own government

Had Trump wanted to learn about gillnets, he could have simply gone to his own government’s NOAA Fisheries gillnet page and learned this:

Depending on the gillnet mesh size, animals can become entangled around their necks, mouths, and flippers. Entanglement can prevent proper feeding, constrict growth, or cause infection after many months. Marine mammals entangled in set gillnets can drown while those entangled in drift gillnets can drag gear for miles as they migrate and forage, leading to extreme fatigue. Species most commonly caught in gillnets include:

Large whales: Humpback whales, Fin whales, Right whales

Harbor porpoise

Dolphins: Bottlenose dolphins, Common dolphin, Right whale dolphins,

Steller sea lions

The report also cites the danger to sea turtles:

Gillnetting has been a major source of mortality for all sea turtle species.

Turtles encountering a gillnet can quickly become entangled around their head or flippers as they try to escape. Entangled turtles will drown if held under the water but have a higher chance of survival if they can reach the surface to breathe. The nylon can tighten around the turtle’s soft body parts and cause deep cuts potentially leading to infections, limited movement, or complete loss of the limb. Limited use of appendages can impair a turtle’s natural feeding, breathing, and swimming behavior.

And as the Wildlife Conservation Network notes:

Gillnets do an unbelievable amount of damage. Used to capture large amounts of fish, they kill not only targeted species, but any creature that swims into them. Critically endangered hammerhead sharks are particularly vulnerable to being caught as their unique T-shaped heads become easily entangled. Imagine if on land a single hunting trap was set in a forest and caught not just one animal, but hundreds—every rabbit, deer, squirrel, and song bird across acres. Similarly, gillnets empty the seas. Fishers use them because the payout seems big in the short-term, but in the long-term, they eviscerate fish stocks, devastate fishing livelihoods and marine ecosystems, and reduce populations of threatened marine wildlife like hammerheads.

And it’s not just mammals and amphibians at risk, as the American Bird Conservancy reported in 2016:

A new study published in the journal Biological Conservation provides the first global review of seabird mortality associated with the gillnet fishing industry and finds that, at a minimum, 400,000 seabirds are killed accidentally in gillnets each year, with numerous species suffering potentially significant impacts.

The study documents 81 species that have been caught and killed in gillnets and another 67 species that are potential victims. The list of susceptible species includes five Critically Endangered, 14 Endangered, 29 Vulnerable, and 15 Near Threatened species, as classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The highest bycatch has been reported in the Pacific Northwest (about 194,000 individuals), Iceland (around 100,000), and the Baltic Sea (around 76,000). However, the report said that it is almost certain that that the actual number of birds killed in gillnets worldwide is much higher because of numerous data gaps.

According to the report, “…gillnets have been the cause of some of the highest recorded mortalities of seabirds worldwide. The status of seabird populations is deteriorating faster compared to other bird groups, and bycatch in fisheries is identified as one of the principle causes of declines.

Gillnets, in other words, are like using nukes to hunt deer.

An activist group fights back

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been battling gillnets for decades.

Founded in 1977, the organization describes itself thusly:

Sea Shepherd is an international, non-profit marine conservation organization that engages in direct action campaigns to defend wildlife, and conserve and protect the world’s oceans from illegal exploitation and environmental destruction.

Sea Shepherd has been working hard to save the vaquita, a beautiful little dolphin brought to brink of destruction by gillnets in the Gulf of Mexico, By all estimates, few than 20 remain, possible even less than 10.

The nets are deployed to catch another critically endangered creature, a fish called the totoaba, valued in Asia as a cure for erectile dysfunction. The dead vaquitas trapped in their nets are merely what the American military likes to call collateral damage, like the hundreds of thousands on innocent Iraqis killed in the endless post-9/11 war in the Mideast.

In response to international pressure from Sea Shepherd and other activist organizations, Mexico banned gillnets in the vaquita habitat in the northern waters of the Gulf of Mexico on 29 June 2017, but that hasn’t stop the gillnetters.

As Sea Shepherd reported on 3 November:

This week marks the completion of a collaborative effort aimed at removing abandoned fishing gear from the habitat of the critically endangered vaquita.

The program, which is funded by the Government of Mexico, has been operating since 2016. Every year, a group of small-scale fishers from the community of San Felipe in the Upper Gulf of California undertakes seasonal ghost net removal operations in the Vaquita Refuge. Sea Shepherd provides support with the recovery of the nets located by the fishers, ensuring that they never find their way back into the marine ecosystem.

“Ghost nets” refer to abandoned fishing gear, nets that have been discarded or lost at sea. These inactive nets pose a deadly threat to all marine wildlife and can continue to kill marine animals indefinitely for as long as they remain in the ocean. Whales, turtles, dolphins, and vaquitas are all vulnerable to entanglement in these ​deserted nets.

A group of 35 local fishers, working from 17 small boats, systematically search the Vaquita Refuge in a grid pattern to locate discarded fishing gear. Following GPS coordinates, the boats drag modified hooks under the water to detect submerged nets. As the vessels move over the nets, the hooks become entangled in the fishing gear. Once a net is detected, the fishers mark the area, and Sea Shepherd’s Sharpie moves in to retrieve the gear.

This season, the operation successfully retrieved 20 nets from the Vaquita Refuge between Sept. 12 and Oct. 31, 2020.

“There are many more nets in the water than vaquitas,” said Andrea Bonilla, Sea Shepherd’s Ghost Net Project Coordinator. 

Here’s a video report filed after the campaign’s conclusion:

Tensions Escalate in Vaquita Refuge

Program notes:

Tensions are escalating in the habitat of the world’s most endangered marine mammal as Sea Shepherd fights to save the vaquita from imminent extinction.

There are less than 20 vaquitas left alive. Entanglement in illegal gillnets is the primary threat to the survival of this critically endangered animal.

The work is hazardous, as this shooting incident recorded last * February reveals:

Shots fired at Sea Shepherd inside Vaquita Refuge

Program notes:

On February 8th, 2020, a group of four fishing skiffs chased and opened fire on Sea Shepherd vessel the M/V Sharpie.

Four years earlier, in February 2016, Sea Shepherd found a surprise, a massive Humpback whale trapped in a gillnet inside vaquita waters, proof of the danger the nets pose to large marine mammals:

Sea Shepherd Crew Save Humpback Whale Entangled in Illegal Gillnet

Program notes:

Sea Shepherd crew rescued a whale entangled in an illegal totoaba gillnet in the Gulf of California. Sea Shepherd currently has two vessels in Mexico’s Gulf of California on OPERATION MILAGRO. Our goal is to save the vaquita porpoises, the most endangered marine mammal. The vaquita are caught as a result of fishing the totoaba, a fish poached for its swim bladder. Both the vaquita and the totoaba are endangered species and protected by law. Both species live only in the Gulf of California.

Another video from further afield comes from Italy, where a whole pod of sperm wahales was entanled in a drifting net.

From the Italian Mediterranean cetacean advocacy group Oceanomare Delphis:

Sperm Whale Rescue

Program notes:

On 9 Aug 2004 a herd of female and young sperm whales, entangled in an illegal drifting for swordfish, is rescued by divers of the Italian Coast Guard. After two days of work, all whales are released alive. Video by the Coast Guard of Naples. Editing by Oceanomare Delphis Onlus.

To conclude, we turn to one of our previous vaquita posts, this one from 21 June 2016.

Marine biologist Barbara Taylor of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla is passionate about saving the world’s endangered cetaceans, and her focus in recent years has been on the Vaquita, a recently discovered porpoise in the Sea of Cortez now facing imminent extinction.

Taylor’s passion for saving the rare mammal extends beyond the laboratory and field research to the other passion of her life, art [she has her own gallery where you can purchase her graphics and jewellery featuring the Vaquita]. Here’s one example:

And here’s a video featuring Barbara Taylor from University of California Television:

Net Loss: New Abundance Estimate Reveals That Mexico’s Vaquita Faces Imminent Extinction

Program notes:

Barbara Taylor of the National Marine Fisheries Service Southwest Fisheries Science Center, who participated in the last effort to save the recently extinct Chinese River Dolphin, or Baiji, gives a detailed chronicle of her involvement in documenting the decline of earth’s most endangered marine mammal, the Vaquita, found only in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Their primary threat is death in gillnets, which until very recently supplied shrimp to the U.S. market. The catastrophic 80% decline since 2011 results from illegal sales of endangered totoaba swim bladders to China. Recorded on 06/13/2016.