Climate change will mean the end of national parks as we know them

Oliver Milman writes: After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history. [Continue reading…]

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Green beans: Why pulses are the eco-friendly option for feeding – and saving – the world

By Caroline Wood, University of Sheffield and Wayne Martindale, Sheffield Hallam University

We all know the score: current trends predict there will be 9.7 billion mouths to feed by 2050. Producing enough food without using more land, exacerbating climate change or putting more pressure on water, soil and energy reserves will be challenging.

In the past, food security researchers have focused on production with less attention paid to consumer demand and how food is ultimately used in meals. However as developing nations aspire towards the “Western diet”, demand for meat and animal products is rapidly climbing.

This is bad news for the planet. Meat is a luxury item and comes at a huge environmental cost. Shuttling crops through animals to make protein is highly inefficient: in US beef, just 5% of the original protein survives the journey from animal feed to meat on the plate. Even milk, which has the best conversion efficiency, has just 40% of the original protein.

Consequently, livestock farming requires huge amounts of water and land for grazing and feed production, taking up an estimated 70% of all agricultural land and 27% of the human water footprint. Much of this land is becoming steadily degraded through overgrazing and erosion, prompting farmers to expand into new areas; 70% of cleared forest in the Amazon, for instance, is now pastureland. Livestock production is also one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, including 65% of man-made nitrous oxide emissions (which have a global warming potential 296 times greater than CO₂).

Nevertheless, millions of people in developing countries still suffer from protein malnutrition. The burden, therefore, must fall on people in richer nations to reduce their meat consumption and embrace other sources of protein.

[Read more…]

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The countries leading the world in happiness and sustainability are not the economically wealthiest

Anna Bruce-Lockhart writes: Is life on this planet getting better? When it comes to the progress of nations, how do you measure what matters most? There’s wealth, there’s health, there’s basic human freedoms. These criteria, and others, make regular appearances in a variety of international rankings, from the Better Life Index to the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment and the World Happiness Report.

But a new study takes a different approach. The Happy Planet Index, which has just published its 2016 edition, measures health and happiness not in isolation but against a crucial new gold standard for success: sustainability.

The formula goes something like this: take the well-being and longevity of a population, measure how equally both are distributed, then set the result against each country’s ecological footprint.

In this calculation, the most successful countries are those where people live long and happy lives at little cost to the environment.

So which countries are they?

They’re not the wealthy Western countries you’d expect to see, or even the progressive Nordic ones that normally bag the lifestyle laurels. Instead, a list of the top 10 (the index ranks 140 countries overall) shows that when it comes to people’s ability to live good lives within sustainable limits, Latin American and Asia Pacific countries are ahead of the crowd. [Continue reading…]

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Visualizing the world’s shipping routes

world-shipping-routes

Click on the image above to view a data visualization of the world’s shipping routes created by Kiln studio and the UCL Energy Institute. Click the play button to follow a guided tour around the map. (Note: this data visualization web page uses a lot of memory — you might experience problems if you’re using an old computer and/or have a slow internet connection.)

What can I see?
You can see movements of the global merchant fleet over the course of 2012, overlaid on a bathymetric map. You can also see a few statistics such as a counter for emitted CO2 (in thousand tonnes) and maximum freight carried by represented vessels (varying units).

What can I do?
You can pan and zoom in the usual ways, and skip back and forward in time using the timeline at the bottom of the screen. The controls at the top right let you show and hide different map layers: port names, the background map, routes (a plot of all recorded vessel positions), and the animated ships view. There are also controls for filtering and colouring by vessel type.

What the are types of ships shown?
The merchant fleet is divided into five categories, each of which has a filter and a CO2 and freight counter for the hour shown on the clock. The ship types and units are as follows:

  • Container (e.g. manufactured goods): number of container slots equivalent to 20 feet (i.e. a 40-foot container takes two slots)
  • Dry bulk (e.g. coal, aggregates): combined weight of cargo, fuel, water, provisions, passengers and crew a vessel can carry, measured in thousand tonnes
  • Tanker (e.g. oil, chemicals): same as dry bulk
  • Gas bulk (e.g. liquified natural gas): capacity for gases, measured in cubic metres
  • Vehicles (e.g. cars): same as dry bulk

Why do ships sometimes appear to move across land?
In some cases this is because there are ships navigating via canals or rivers that aren’t visible on the map. Generally, though, this effect is an artefact of animating a ship between two recorded positions with missing data between, especially when the positions are separated by a narrow strip of land. We may develop the map to remove this effect in the future.

Why are there fewer ships visible in the first part of the year?
Unfortunately the data we are using for the map is incomplete for the first few months of the year: roughly January to April.

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Greenland melt could expose hazardous Cold War waste

Climate Central reports: When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.

But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner – possibly even by the end of this century – posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.

These remnants of the Cold War are also an example of an unanticipated political issue that could arise because of the effects of climate change, particularly as countries seek to establish a presence in the Arctic as warming makes it increasingly accessible.

“We think it’s a nice case study for this kind of political tension stemming from climate change,” study author William Colgan, a glaciologist at York University in Toronto, said. [Continue reading…]

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Greenland lost a staggering 1 trillion tons of ice in just four years

The Washington Post reports: It’s no news that Greenland is in serious trouble — but now, new research has helped quantify just how bad its problems are. A satellite study, published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that the Greenland ice sheet lost a whopping 1 trillion tons of ice between the years 2011 and 2014 alone. And a big portion of it came from just five glaciers, about which scientists now have more cause to worry than ever.

It’s the latest story in a long series of increasingly worrisome studies on ice loss in Greenland. Research already suggests that the ice sheet has lost at least 9 trillion tons of ice in the past century and that the rate of loss has increased over time. Climate scientists are keeping a close eye on the region because of its potentially huge contributions to future sea-level rise (around 20 feet if the whole thing were to melt) — not to mention the damage it’s already done. Ice loss from Greenland may have contributed as much as a full inch of sea-level rise in the last 100 years and up to 10 percent of all the sea-level rise that’s been documented since the 1990s.

The new study takes a detailed look at ice loss in Greenland between 2011 and 2014 using measurements from the CryoSat-2, an environmental research satellite launched by the European Space Agency in 2010. It relied on a type of measurement known as altimetry — basically, measuring how the surface of Greenland’s altitude changed over time in response to ice gains or losses. [Continue reading…]

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The global environmental impact of air conditioning is big and will get even bigger

By Lucas Davis, University of California, Berkeley

With a heat wave pushing the heat index well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) through much of the U.S., most of us are happy to stay indoors and crank the air conditioning. And if you think it’s hot here, try 124°F in India. Globally, 2016 is poised to be another record-breaking year for average temperatures. This means more air conditioning. Much more.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Paul Gertler and I examine the enormous global potential for air conditioning. As incomes rise around the world and global temperatures go up, people are buying air conditioners at alarming rates. In China, for example, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled over the last five years. Each year now more than 60 million air conditioners are sold in China, more than eight times as many as are sold annually in the United States.

A ‘heat dome’ arrives in the U.S.
NOAA Forecast Daily Maximum Heat Index

This is mostly great news. People are getting richer, and air conditioning brings great relief on hot and humid days. However, air conditioning also uses vast amounts of electricity. A typical room air conditioner, for example, uses 10-20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan.

Meeting this increased demand for electricity will require billions of dollars of infrastructure investments and result in billions of tons of increased carbon dioxide emissions. A new study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab also points out that more ACs means more refrigerants that are potent greenhouse gases.

[Read more…]

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These Brexiters will grind our environment into the dust

George Monbiot writes: The more urgent the environmental crisis becomes, the less we hear about it. It exposes the economic policies of all major parties – whether neoliberal or Keynesian – as incompatible with the times in which we live. To remark on what we are doing to the living planet is to fall into cognitive dissonance. It is easier to ignore it.

This is the spirit in which our new prime minister has engaged with our greatest predicament. Climate change clashes with the economic model, so let’s scrub it from the departmental register. Wildlife is collapsing and, at current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left. So let’s appoint an extreme neoliberal fiercely opposed to constraints on industry as secretary of state for the environment. When the model is wrong, adjust the real world to make it fit.

I do not see the European Union as a lost Avalon. It brought us much that is good, such as directives that enable us to hold our governments to account for their environmental failures. But the good things it has done for the living world are counteracted – perhaps much more than counteracted – by a few astonishing idiocies. They arise from remote, unresponsive authority that is accessible to corporate lobby groups but not to mere mortals. In some respects the Brexit campaigners were right – though generally for the wrong reasons. [Continue reading…]

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Stephen Hawking says pollution and ‘stupidity’ still biggest threats to humanity

The Independent reports: Professor Stephen Hawking says he believes pollution and human “stupidity” remain the biggest threats to mankind, while also expressing his concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in warfare.

The world’s leading theoretical physicist argued “we have certainly not become less greedy or less stupid” in our treatment of the environment over the past decade, during an interview on Larry King Now, which is hosted on Ora TV.

Professor Hawking said: “Six years ago, I was warning about pollution and overcrowding, they have gotten worse since then. The population has grown by half a billion since our last interview, with no end in sight.

“At this rate, it will be eleven billion by 2100. Air pollution has increased by 8 percent over the past five years. More than 80 percent of inhabitants of urban areas are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

“The increase in air pollution and the emission of increasing levels of carbon dioxide. Will we be too late to avoid dangerous levels of global warming?”

The cosmologist was speaking at the Starmus science conference in Tenerife, themed this year as a tribute to his life’s work.

Professor Hawking went on to outline his concerns about the future of artificial intelligence technologies, and specifically their primary use in weaponry. [Continue reading…]

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Biodiversity is below safe levels across more than half of world’s land, say scientists

wheat

The Guardian reports: The variety of animals and plants has fallen to dangerous levels across more than half of the world’s landmass due to humanity destroying habitats to use as farmland, scientists have estimated.

The unchecked loss of biodiversity is akin to playing ecological roulette and will set back efforts to bring people out of poverty in the long term, they warned.

Analysing 1.8m records from 39,123 sites across Earth, the international study found that a measure of the intactness of biodiversity at sites has fallen below a safety limit across 58.1% of the world’s land.

Under a proposal put forward by experts last year, a site losing more than 10% of its biodiversity is considered to have passed a precautionary threshold, beyond which the ecosystem’s ability to function could be compromised.

“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Prof Andy Purvis, of the Natural History Museum, and one of the authors. “Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.” [Continue reading…]

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Half of all food produce in the U.S. is thrown away, new research suggests

The Guardian reports: Food waste is often described as a “farm-to-fork” problem. Produce is lost in fields, warehouses, packaging, distribution, supermarkets, restaurants and fridges.

By one government tally, about 60m tonnes of produce worth about $160bn (£119bn), is wasted by retailers and consumers every year – one third of all foodstuffs.

But that is just a “downstream” measure. In more than two dozen interviews, farmers, packers, wholesalers, truckers, food academics and campaigners described the waste that occurs “upstream”: scarred vegetables regularly abandoned in the field to save the expense and labour involved in harvest. Or left to rot in a warehouse because of minor blemishes that do not necessarily affect freshness or quality.

When added to the retail waste, it takes the amount of food lost close to half of all produce grown, experts say. [Continue reading…]

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Art that makes visible the invisible

Sheherzad Preisler writes: The environmental artist Ned Kahn, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee, gravitates toward phenomena that lie on the edges of what science can grasp — “things,” he tells me over the phone, “that are inherently complex and difficult to predict, yet at the same time beautiful.” The weather, for example, has, because of its chaotic yet orderly nature, “fascinated me for my whole career,” he says. For almost the last 30 years in particular, he’s been creating dynamic installations that he thinks of as “observatories”: Since they frequently incorporate wind, water, fog, sand, and light, he states on his website, “they frame and enhance our perception of natural phenomena.”

Take his most recent project, the “Shimmer Wall”. Composed of over 30,000 tiles, it will be a 1,100-foot long façade of a new building, home to the “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit, set to open this year at the New York Aquarium (over $80,000, toward a $100,000 goal, has been donated for its construction). It will house over 100 species of animals, including but not limited to a variety of crustaceans, sharks, fish, rays, and turtles. “They were struggling with the façade and someone on the design committee knew about my work and approached me,” says Kahn. “That led to the idea that we’re doing a skin for the aquarium inspired by fish skin, shark skin, scales. I’ve been doing a number of faceted, fragmented, kinetic artworks influenced by scales — that move with the wind and, when you step back, you get an idea of how the wind affects it.”

Kahn tells me that, before Hurricane Sandy hit, on October 29th 2012, there was a six-foot square experimental piece of the Wall outside the aquarium, to test if it could stand extreme weather. It held up perfectly, he says. In his conversation with Nautilus, Kahn also spoke with enthusiasm about how nature both inspires and interacts with his work, as well as what people make of it. [Continue reading…]

 

(Note: The sound in this video has no connection with the shimmering wall — it is the sound of waves on a shore on the Canary Islands.)

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