The nitrogen problem: Why global warming is making it worse

Richard Conniff writes: It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in hard-hit areas, notably the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin (up 24 percent) and the Northeast (up 28 percent). That’s not counting likely increases in nitrogen inputs from more intensive agriculture, or from increased human population.

Instead, Stanford University researcher Eva Sinha and her co-authors simply took historical records of nitrogen runoff as a result of rainstorms over the past few decades, recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey. Then, assuming for the sake of argument that there will be no change in the amount of nitrogen being added to the environment, they calculated how much additional nitrogen would be leached out of farm fields and washed down rivers solely because of extreme weather events and increased total rainfall predicted in most climate change scenarios. The bottom line: “Anticipated changes in future precipitation patterns alone will lead to large and robust increases in watershed-scale nitrogen fluxes by the end of the century for the business-as-usual scenario.” [Continue reading…]

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Scientists discover 91 volcanoes below Antarctic ice sheet

The Observer reports: Scientists have uncovered the largest volcanic region on Earth – two kilometres below the surface of the vast ice sheet that covers west Antarctica.

The project, by Edinburgh University researchers, has revealed almost 100 volcanoes – with the highest as tall as the Eiger, which stands at almost 4,000 metres in Switzerland.

Geologists say this huge region is likely to dwarf that of east Africa’s volcanic ridge, currently rated the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.

And the activity of this range could have worrying consequences, they have warned. “If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilise west Antarctica’s ice sheets,” said glacier expert Robert Bingham, one of the paper’s authors. “Anything that causes the melting of ice – which an eruption certainly would – is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea. [Continue reading…]

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Under Trump, coal mining gets new life on U.S. lands

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is wading into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the West by encouraging more coal mining on lands owned by the federal government. It is part of an aggressive push to both invigorate the struggling American coal industry and more broadly exploit commercial opportunities on public lands.

The intervention has roiled conservationists and many Democrats, exposing deep divisions about how best to manage the 643 million acres of federally owned land — most of which is in the West — an area more than six times the size of California. Not since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion during the Reagan administration have companies and individuals with economic interests in the lands, mining companies among them, held such a strong upper hand.

Clouds of dust blew across the horizon one recent summer evening as a crane taller than the Statue of Liberty ripped apart walls of a canyon dug deep into the public lands here in the Powder River Basin, the nation’s most productive coal mining region. The mine pushes right up against a reservoir, exposing the kind of conflicts and concerns the new approach has sparked.

“If we don’t have good water, we can’t do anything,” said Art Hayes, a cattle rancher who worries that more mining would foul a supply that generations of ranchers have relied upon.

During the Obama administration, the Interior Department seized on the issue of climate change and temporarily banned new coal leases on public lands as it examined the consequences for the environment. The Obama administration also drew protests from major mining companies by ordering them to pay higher royalties to the government. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is not ready to clean up an arctic oil spill, warns Coast Guard

ClimateWire reports: The United States is not ready to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, the head of the Coast Guard said yesterday.

The warning comes as Congress prepares to open up more drilling in a region quickly being transformed by climate change.

Adm. Paul Zukunft said that the challenges of cleaning up the BP PLC Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico—where the conditions were much more favorable—show the extreme difficulty of Arctic oil spill recovery.

“We saw during Deepwater Horizon, whenever the seas are over 4 feet, our ability to mechanically remove oil was virtually impossible,” he said at a Washington symposium yesterday hosted by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “Four-foot seas up there [in the Arctic] would probably be a pretty darned good day, so certainly environmental conditions weigh heavily in addition to just the remoteness.” [Continue reading…]

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Plastics: The immense, eternal footprint humanity leaves on Earth

The New York Times reports: If human civilization were to be destroyed and its cities wiped off the map, there would be an easy way for future intelligent life-forms to know when the mid-20th century began: plastic.

From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004. And since plastic does not naturally degrade, the billions of tons sitting in landfills, floating in the oceans or piling up on city streets will provide a marker if later civilizations ever want to classify our era. Perhaps they will call this time on Earth the Plastocene Epoch.

A new study in Science Advances published Wednesday offered the first analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured: how much has been made, what kind and what happens to the material once it has outlived its use.

Roland Geyer, the lead author of the study, said, “My mantra is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and without good numbers, you don’t know if we have a real problem.” [Continue reading…]

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I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration

Joel Clement writes: I am not a member of the deep state. I am not big government.

I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.

Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.

I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up. A few days after my reassignment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before Congress that the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers. Some of my colleagues are being relocated across the country, at taxpayer expense, to serve in equally ill-fitting jobs.

I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government. [Continue reading…]

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Mountains are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world

Bob Berwyn writes: Mountain temperatures are increasing more quickly than the global average, at a rate closer to that of the Arctic, and climate researchers are trying to figure out why. They suspect that the accelerated mountain warming is due to an effect documented in the Arctic—loss of albedo. The peaks are losing their shiny white blanket of snow and ice that reflects the sun’s radiation back to space. Instead, darker-colored ground absorbs heat, amplifying the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gas pollution.

But there’s not quite enough data yet to prove the conventional wisdom of rapid mountain warming, says University of Portsmouth geographer Nick Pepin, who led a 2015 study that tried to assess climate change impacts to mountains on a global scale. Are they really warming as fast as we think?

“I think the overall feeling on this is, probably they are, but we don’t know for sure,” he says. Temperature readings taken between 1,000 and 3,000 meters confirm the trend, but data is sparse from higher elevations. There are very few ground-based weather stations above 3,000 meters and none above 5,000 meters, Pepin says, advocating for an expansion of mountain climate
Satellite data can be used to measure land-surface temperature, and it shows that higher elevations are warming more than areas lower down, but the satellites aren’t as accurate as ground-based readings. Direct observations are needed to validate the satellite data, Pepin says.

Without better information, people risk substantially underestimating the severity of many already-looming problems, including a proliferation of damaging landslides, water shortages in densely populated lowlands—especially in Asia—and the extinction of some mountain plants and animals.

Pepin’s recent study zoomed in on the Tibetan Plateau, which holds so much snow and ice that it’s sometimes called the Third Pole. Temperatures in the region have climbed steadily. Above 4,000 meters in elevation, the rate of warming has increased by an astounding 75 percent in just the past 20 years, compared to areas below 2,000 meters.

“If we’re right, the social and economic consequences could be serious, and we could see much more dramatic changes much sooner than previously thought,” Pepin says.

The Tibetan Plateau is the source of 10 of Asia’s biggest rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, and Mekong basins. These rivers provide water to more than 1.35 billion people, 20 percent of the world’s population. The melting glaciers foreshadow a major water supply crisis, and there’s also a more immediate danger; destabilized ice masses threaten mountain communities with avalanches, landslides, and floods. [Continue reading…]

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One of the biggest icebergs in recorded history just broke loose from Antarctica

The Washington Post reports: Scientists announced Wednesday that a much anticipated break at the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica has occurred, unleashing a massive iceberg that is more than 2,200 square miles in area and weighs a trillion tons.

In other words, the iceberg — among the largest in recorded history to splinter off the Antarctic continent — is close to the size of Delaware and consists of almost four times as much ice as the fast melting ice sheet of Greenland loses in a year. It is expected to be given the name “A68” soon, scientists said.

“Its volume is twice that of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes,” wrote researchers with Project MIDAS, a research group at Swansea and Aberystwyth Universities in Wales that has been monitoring the situation closely by satellite. [Continue reading…]

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New study finds as many as ‘50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone’

Ed Yong writes: Imagine if every animal and plant on the planet collapsed into a single population each, says ecologist Gerardo Ceballos. If lions disappeared except from one small corner of Kenya, the prey they keep in check would run amok everywhere else. If sparrows were no more except in one Dutch forest, the seeds that sparrows disperse would stay in place everywhere else. If honeybees became isolated to one American meadow, the flowers that they pollinate would fail to reproduce everywhere else. None of those species would be extinct per se, “but we’d still be in very bad shape,” says Ceballos.

He uses this thought experiment to show that fixating on the concept of extinction can lead scientists to overestimate the state of the planet’s health. Extinction obviously matters. If a species is completely wiped out, that’s an important and irreversible loss. But that flip from present to absent, extant to extinct, is just the endpoint of a long period of loss. Before a species disappears entirely, it first disappears locally. And each of those local extinctions—or extirpations—also matters.

“If jaguars become extinct in Mexico, it doesn’t matter if there are still jaguars in Brazil for the role that jaguars play in Mexican ecosystems,” says Ceballos. “Or we might able to keep California condors alive forever, but if there are just 10 or 12 individuals, they won’t be able to survive without human intervention. We’re missing the point when we focus just on species extinction.”

He and his colleagues, Paul Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo, have now tried to quantify those local losses. First, they analyzed data for some 27,600 species of land-based vertebrates, and found that a third of these are in decline. That doesn’t mean they are endangered: A third of these declining species are listed as “low concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning that they aren’t in immediate peril. But that, according to Ceballos’s team, provides a false sense of security. Barn swallows, for example, still number in the millions, but those numbers are going down, and the birds are disappearing from many parts of their range. “Even these common species are declining,” says Ceballos. “Eventually, they’ll become endangered, and eventually they’ll be extinct.”

The team also analyzed detailed historical data for 177 species of mammals. In the last century, every one of these species has lost at least 30 percent of its historical range, and almost half have lost more than 80 percent. Consider the lion. If you divide the world’s land into a grid of 22,000 sectors, each containing 10,000 square kilometers, around 2,000 of those would have been home to lions at the start of the 20th century. Now, just 600 of them are. These royal beasts, which once roamed all over Africa and all the way from southern Europe to northern India, are now confined to pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, and a single Indian forest. Their numbers have fallen by 43 percent in the last two decades.

Several other species that were once thought to be safe are also now endangered. Since the 1980s, the giraffe population has fallen by up to 40 percent, from at least 152,000 animals to just 98,000 in 2015. In the last decade, savanna elephant numbers have fallen by 30 percent, and 80 percent of forest elephants were slaughtered in a national park that was one of their last strongholds. Cheetahs are down to their last 7,000 individuals, and orangutans to their last 5,000.

All told, “as much as 50 percent of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations,” Ceballos and his colleagues write. “While the biosphere is undergoing mass species extinction, it is also being ravaged by a much more serious and rapid wave of population declines and extinctions.” [Continue reading…]

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The bipartisan fight for quieter oceans

Ed Yong writes: Last night, to celebrate the fourth of July, the air over the U.S. filled with fireworks. The noise they created was extremely loud and, mercifully, brief. But imagine having to listen to even louder explosions once every ten seconds, for days or weeks on end. Starting this fall, that may be the new reality for whales, fish, and other marine life off the eastern seaboard, if the Trump administration’s plans go ahead.

Following the president’s executive order to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is set to permit five companies to begin seismic airgun blasting—an old but controversial technique for detecting reserves of oil and gas. Ships will tow an array of 24 to 36 cannons behind them along with streamers of underwater microphones. The cannons create explosions by releasing pressurized gas, while the microphones detect the echoes of these detonations to pinpoint petroleum deposits beneath the ocean floor.

Each airgun produces up to 180 decibels of noise, making them around 1,000 times louder than nearby fireworks. And each will go off five or six times a minute, for months at a time, from the back of slow-moving ships that crisscross 90,000 kilometres of Atlantic waters from New Jersey to Florida. There is clear evidence that noise of this magnitude kills or perturbs marine life at every scale—from titanic whales to tiny plankton. It “poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life… the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs,” said a group of 75 marine scientists in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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China breaks ground on first ‘Forest City’ that fights air pollution

inhabitat reports: A pollution-fighting green city unlike any before is springing to life in China. Designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti, the first “Forest City” is now under construction Liuzhou, Guangxi Province. The futuristic city will use renewable energy for self sufficiency and be blanketed in almost 1 million plants and 40,000 trees—a sea of greenery capable of absorbing nearly 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of pollutants annually.

Commissioned by Liuzhou Municipality Urban Planning for the north of Liuzhou along the Liujiang river, the 175-hectare Liuzhou Forest City will be the first of its kind that, if successful, may raise the bar for urban design worldwide. This first Chinese Forest City will host 30,000 people in a community where all buildings are entirely covered in nearly a million plants of over 100 species, as well as 40,000 trees, that produce approximately 900 tons of oxygen. The use of greenery-covered facades builds on Stefano Boeri’s previous works, including the Vertical Forest residential building in Milan. [Continue reading…]

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Great Barrier Reef valued at A$56bn as report warns it’s ‘too big to fail’

The Guardian reports: A new report has valued the Great Barrier Reef at A$56bn and warns of vast economic consequences for Australia unless more is done to protect it.

The Deloitte Access Economics report says the world heritage-listed reef underpins 64,000 direct and indirect jobs, and contributes $6.4bn to the national economy each year.

But without ramped-up protection efforts, it warns much of that could be at risk as the reef suffers from repeated mass coral bleaching events, poor water quality and climate change.

“The reef is critical to supporting economic activity and jobs in Australia,” says the report, prepared for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. “The livelihoods and businesses it supports across Australia far exceeds the numbers supported by many industries we would consider too big to fail.”

Of the 64,000 jobs linked to the reef, 39,000 are direct jobs – making the reef a bigger “employer” than the likes of Telstra, the Qantas Group, National Australia Bank and the oil and gas extraction industry. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. lags behind much of developed world in social progress

Bloomberg reports: America leads the world when it comes to access to higher education. But when it comes to health, environmental protection, and fighting discrimination, it trails many other developed countries, according to the Social Progress Imperative, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

The results of the group’s annual survey, which ranks nations based on 50 metrics, call to mind other reviews of national well-being, such as the World Happiness Report released in March, which was led by Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, or September’s Lancet study on sustainable development. In that one, Iceland, Singapore, Sweden, and the U.S. took spots 1, 2, 3, and 28—respectively.

The Social Progress Index released this week is compiled from social and environmental data that come as close as possible to revealing how people live. “We want to measure a country’s health and wellness achieved, not how much effort is expended, nor how much the country spends on healthcare,” the report states. Scandinavia walked away with the top four of 128 slots. Denmark scored the highest. America came in at 18. [Continue reading…]

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Trump expected to pull U.S. from Paris climate accord

The New York Times reports: The exit of the United States, the world’s largest economy and second-largest greenhouse gas polluter would not dissolve the 195-nation pact, which was legally ratified last year, but it could set off a cascade of events that would have profound effects on the planet. Other countries that reluctantly joined the agreement could now withdraw or soften their commitments to cutting planet-warming pollution.

“The actions of the United States are bound to have a ripple effect in other emerging economies that are just getting serious about climate change, such as India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that produces scientific reports designed to inform global policy makers.

Once the fallout settles, he added, “it is now far more likely that we will breach the danger limit of 3.6 degrees.” That is the average atmospheric temperature increase above which a future of extreme conditions is considered irrevocable.

The aim of the Paris agreement was to lower planet-warming emissions enough to avoid that threshold.

“We will see more extreme heat, damaging storms, coastal flooding and risks to food security,” Professor Oppenheimer said. “And that’s not the kind of world we want to live in.”

Foreign policy experts said the move could damage the United States’ credibility and weaken Mr. Trump’s efforts to negotiate issues far beyond climate change, like negotiating trade deals and combating terrorism.

“From a foreign policy perspective, it’s a colossal mistake — an abdication of American leadership ” said R. Nicholas Burns, a retired career diplomat and the under secretary of state during the presidency of George W. Bush.

“The success of our foreign policy — in trade, military, any other kind of negotiation — depends on our credibility. I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility than this,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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Leaked documents reveal counterterrorism tactics used at Standing Rock to ‘defeat pipeline insurgencies’

The Intercept reports: A shadowy international mercenary and security firm known as TigerSwan targeted the movement opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline with military-style counterterrorism measures, collaborating closely with police in at least five states, according to internal documents obtained by The Intercept. The documents provide the first detailed picture of how TigerSwan, which originated as a U.S. military and State Department contractor helping to execute the global war on terror, worked at the behest of its client Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, to respond to the indigenous-led movement that sought to stop the project.

Internal TigerSwan communications describe the movement as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” and compare the anti-pipeline water protectors to jihadist fighters. One report, dated February 27, 2017, states that since the movement “generally followed the jihadist insurgency model while active, we can expect the individuals who fought for and supported it to follow a post-insurgency model after its collapse.” Drawing comparisons with post-Soviet Afghanistan, the report warns, “While we can expect to see the continued spread of the anti-DAPL diaspora … aggressive intelligence preparation of the battlefield and active coordination between intelligence and security elements are now a proven method of defeating pipeline insurgencies.”

More than 100 internal documents leaked to The Intercept by a TigerSwan contractor, as well as a set of over 1,000 documents obtained via public records requests, reveal that TigerSwan spearheaded a multifaceted private security operation characterized by sweeping and invasive surveillance of protesters. [Continue reading…]

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Human noise is making it harder for birds and animals to hear each other

Science News reports: Even in the wilderness, humans are making a ruckus.

In 63 percent of America’s protected places — including parks, monuments and designated wilderness areas — sounds made by human activity are doubling the volume of background noise. And in 21 percent of protected places, this racket can make things 10 times noisier.

Enough clatter from cars, planes and suburban sprawl is seeping into wild places to diminish animals’ ability to hear mating calls and approaching predators, a team of researchers based in Colorado reports in the May 5 Science. Human noise doesn’t always have to be loud to override natural sounds, though. Some places are so quiet to begin with that even the smallest amount of human noise can dominate, the researchers found.

“The world is changing, and protected areas are getting louder — the last strongholds of diversity,” says Jesse Barber, an ecologist at Boise State University in Idaho. Studies like this one that show the impact of human-related noise across the entire country instead of in a single park are important, he says, because “this is the scale at which conservation occurs.” [Continue reading…]

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Trees have their own songs

Ed Yong writes: Just as birders can identify birds by their melodious calls, David George Haskell can distinguish trees by their sounds. The task is especially easy when it rains, as it so often does in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Depending on the shapes and sizes of their leaves, the different plants react to falling drops by producing “a splatter of metallic sparks” or “a low, clean, woody thump” or “a speed-typist’s clatter.” Every species has its own song. Train your ears (and abandon the distracting echoes of a plastic rain jacket) and you can carry out a botanical census through sound alone.

“I’ve taught ornithology to students for many years,” says Haskell, a natural history writer and professor of biology at Sewanee. “And I challenge my students: Okay, now that you’ve learned the songs of 100 birds, your task is to learn the sounds of 20 trees. Can you tell an oak from a maple by ear? I have them go out, pour their attention into their ears, and harvest sounds. It’s an almost meditative experience. And from that, you realize that trees sound different, and they have amazing sounds coming from them. Our unaided ears can hear how a maple tree changes its voice as a soft leaves of early spring change into the dying one of autumn.”

This acoustic world is open to everyone, but most of us never enter it. It just seems so counter-intuitive—not to mention a little hokey—to listen to trees. But Haskell does listen, and he describes his experiences with sensuous prose in his enchanting new book The Songs of Trees. A kind of naturalist-poet, Haskell makes a habit of returning to the same places and paying “repeated sensory attention” to them. “I like to sit down and listen, and turn off the apps that come pre-installed in my body,” he says. Humans may be a visual species, but “sounds reveals things that are hidden from our eyes because the vibratory energy of the world comes around barriers and through the ground. Through sound, we come to know the place.” [Continue reading…]

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