Environment

‘Atmospheric Rivers’ Wreak Havoc Around The Globe

An “atmospheric river” is a colorful term for a sinuous plume of moisture that travels up from the tropics — a single plume can carry more water than the Mississippi River at its mouth. But new research shows that atmospheric rivers are also among the most damaging weather systems around.

The atmospheric rivers that soaked California this winter did some good — they ended an epic drought in the state.

Waliser studied two decades of storms around the globe at mid-latitudes — that is, outside the tropics. When he focused on the very windiest — the top 2 percent — he found that “atmospheric rivers are typically associated with 30 and even up to 50 percent of those very extreme cases.” Atmospheric rivers were also responsible for almost that percentage of the very wettest storms, too.

Atmospheric rivers are famously wet. But atmospheric scientist Duane Waliser has done some new research that shows they’re also remarkably windy. Waliser found that winds during an atmospheric river are typically twice the speed of the average storm.

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Global Warming

Coders Race to Save NASA’s Climate Data

A group of coders is racing to save the government’s climate science data.

On Saturday (Feb. 11), 200 programmers crammed themselves into the Doe Library at the University of California, Berkeley, furiously downloading NASA’s Earth science data in a hackathon, Wired reported. The group’s goal: rescue data that may be deleted or hidden under President Donald Trump’s administration.

The process involves developing web-crawler scripts to trawl the internet, finding federal data and patching it together into coherent data sets. The hackers are also keeping track of data as it disappears; for instance, the Global Data Center’s reports and one of NASA’s atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) data sets has already been removed from the web.

Climate Change Blocks Expansion of Austrian Airport

An Austrian court has blocked construction of a new runway at Vienna’s airport mainly on the grounds that the project would increase climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions in violation of Austrian and European environmental laws.

The decision was seen as affirming Austrians’ constitutional rights to a clean environment, including protection from climate change impacts. It may be the first time a court anywhere in the world has blocked a major public infrastructure project based heavily on climate-related laws or considerations, according to several legal experts.

Environment

India Beats China As Worst Air-Polluted Country On Earth

India now has the world’s worst air pollution. They have beaten China. Specifically, it is New Delhi, India’s capital that has the worst air pollution on Earth.

Industrialization, coal-fired power plants, and low regulation have made the air pollution in India so much worse. Technology Review has reported that there have been 1.1 million deaths recorded last year due to air pollution in India. The country has been tied with China as having deadly air pollution. India’s rapid industrialization, too much use of coal for energy, growing population, and an ageing populace that is affected by air pollution are the factors why there are so many deaths.

Pollution Has Worked Its Way Down To The World’s Deepest Waters

The Mariana Trench in the northern Pacific is the deepest part of the world’s oceans. You might think a place that remote would be untouched by human activity.

But the Mariana Trench is polluted.

At its deepest — about 7 miles down — the water in the trench is near freezing. The pressure would crush a human like a bug. Scientists have only recently explored it.

Among them is biologist Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in England. His team dropped what they call a mechanical “lander” down into the trench. It had cameras and water samplers and some baited traps. They didn’t really know what they’d find.

When the lander surfaced, the traps contained amphipods — shrimplike crustaceans. That wasn’t terribly surprising, as amphipods are known to live at great depths. But bringing them back from the Mariana Trench was a rarity, and Jamieson thought there might be something to learn from them. He took the creatures to an environmental scientist.

The amphipods were contaminated with PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — toxic chemicals used for decades in industry, as well as other industrial pollutants known as persistent organic pollutants.

Every sample we had,” Jamieson says, “had contaminants in it at very high or extraordinarily high levels. How high? He compared the contamination level in his Mariana amphipods to crabs living in waters fed by one of China’s most polluted rivers, as well as amphipods from other parts of the world. “And what we were finding in the deepest place in the world were (levels) hugely higher, 50 times in some cases,” he says.

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Wildlife

Climate Threat to Wildlife May Have Been Massively Underreported

More than 700 of the world’s threatened and endangered animal species may be directly affected by climate change, according to a new study — vastly more than the number of animal species scientists initially thought would face risks from global warming.

Scientists had previously determined that only 7 percent of mammals and 4 percent of birds on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Red List” of threatened species are affected by climate change. However, a new study finds that the threat from climate change may have been massively underreported.

In a comprehensive analysis of 130 previous studies on the subject, researchers found that nearly half of the world’s threatened and endangered mammals and nearly a quarter of birds are already seriously impacted — more than 700 species total.

Most climate change studies focus on impacts in the future, but the researchers said the effects of global warming are being felt “here and now.” And research on present threats were focused on specific species and were spread across numerous journals, according to study co-author James Watson, director of the Science and Research Initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Primates, in particular, are threatened because they have specialized diets and their tropical homes are vulnerable to extreme weather events caused by climate change. In some cases, species can adapt to the changes, but others are facing dire consequences.

For instance, mountain gorillas live on top of mountains — they’ve got nowhere else to go if the climate changes,” Watson said. “They’re stuck on top of these mountains, so they might not survive climate change because they can’t move anywhere else.”

Though birds can fly from mountaintop homes, the researchers found that species that live at higher altitudes and experience little seasonal temperature changes are negatively affected by climate change. Animals that dwell in aquatic environments also face even higher risks because these ecosystems are among the most vulnerable to global warming, according to the scientists.

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Environment

Melting Glaciers Will Reveal Cold-War-Era Nuclear Waste

Melting glaciers have revealed a number of surprises over the past few years, from Viking artifacts in Norway to World War I burials in the Italian Alps. And one day, if global warming continues its current course, Greenland’s retreating ice sheet could expose a more troubling relic of the past: a Cold War military base and whatever biological, chemical and radioactive waste is left inside, scientists say.

NASA’s Earth Observatory posted maps today (Jan. 31) that show the changes expected to take place near the site of Camp Century, a once-secret U.S. military base built in 1959 primarily to test the possibility of launching nuclear missiles from the Arctic to the Soviet Union.

The site was abandoned in 1967 and is now buried about 100 feet (30 meters) beneath a crust of snow and ice. But the maps, analyzed as part of a study published in August 2016 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, show that because of ice loss, Camp Century could become an environmental hazard by the end of this century.

These maps show the surface mass balance of ice, or the net change between the accumulation and ablation of ice and snow on a glacier’s surface. Ablation happens when ice thins due to evaporation, melting and wind. The dark red indicates areas where the ice surface is likely to drop by 10 feet (3 meters) or more per year.

Greenland camp century ice balance

Environment

Doomsday Clock ticks closer to apocalypse and 1 person is to blame

Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight on Thursday amid increasing worries over nuclear weapons and climate change.

Each year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit that sets the clock, decides whether the events of the previous year pushed humanity closer or further from destruction. The symbolic clock is now two-and-a-half minutes from midnight, the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, when the hydrogen bomb was first tested. Scientists blamed a cocktail of threats ranging from dangerous political rhetoric to the potential of nuclear threat as the catalyst for moving the clock closer towards doomsday.

“This year’s Clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual…as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used by a President-elect of the United States in cavalier and often reckless ways to address the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change,” Rachel Bronson, the executive director and publisher of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in a statement.

While many threats played into the decision to move the clock 30 seconds forward from where it was in 2016, one person in particular prompted the scientists to act.

“Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter,” David Titley and Lawrence M. Krauss of the Bulletin wrote in an New York Times op-ed.

The Bulletin pointed to President Donald Trump’s careless rhetoric on nuclear weapons and other issues as well as his troubling stance on climate change.

Environment

Warsaw Grapples With Gray Smog

An eerie gray mist with a pervasive odour of fumes wreathed Warsaw and dozens of other Polish cities, bringing a global problem more associated with Beijing and New Delhi into the heart of Europe. It took less than half a day, on Jan. 8, for the smog levels to break all records set in the 10 years since Poland, following a directive from the European Union, put in place an air pollution monitoring system.

Warsaw city officials reacted by making all public transportation free last Monday, in an attempt to keep cars off the roads, and warned residents to stay indoors unless necessary. Pollution levels eventually dropped off toward the end of the week.

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Global Warming

Global Warming Pause? — It Doesn’t Exist

Forget about the so-called climate change hiatus — a period beginning in 1998 when the increase in the planet’s temperature reportedly slowed — it doesn’t exist, according to a new study that found the planet’s ocean temperatures are warming faster than previously thought.

The findings support similar results from a 2015 study published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the journal Science. However, doubters of climate change attacked that study, prompting the researchers of the new study to examine the data anew.

“Our results mean that essentially NOAA got it right, that they were not cooking the books,” study lead author Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group.

The climate change hiatus was more of a suspected “slowdown, not a disappearance of global warming,” as the world’s oceans were still warming, but at a lesser rate than previously predicted, according to Climate Central. However, many scientists acknowledged the slowdown, which allegedly took place from 1998 to 2012. Climate change doubters also took note, and used the slowdown as evidence that climate change was a hoax, the researchers of the new study said.

But in 2015, NOAA published an analysis showing that the slowdown wasn’t real, and was the result of measurement errors. The modern buoys that measure ocean temperatures tend to report slightly cooler temperatures than older ship-based systems, even when measuring the same part of the ocean, the NOAA researchers found.

That’s because in the 1950s, ships began to measure water piped through the engine room, which is usually a warm place. In contrast, today’s buoys report slightly cooler temperatures because they measure the water directly from the ocean, Hausfather said.

“The observations have gone from 80 percent ship-based in 1990 to 80 percent buoy-based in 2015,” the researchers wrote in the study. As this switch happened, it appeared that there was a warming slowdown in the ocean — largely because researchers didn’t account for the ships’ warm bias when combining the buoy and ship data sets.

When the NOAA researchers corrected for the bias, they found that the oceans had warmed 0.22 degrees Fahrenheit (0.12 degrees Celsius) per decade since 2000, a rate almost twice as fast as earlier estimates of 0.12 F (0.07 C) per decade. Moreover, the newfound rate matched estimates for the previous 30 years, from 1970 to 1999, the researchers said.

This image obtained Nov. 16, 2015 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Niño.

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Environment

Oldest Water

Scientists from the University of Toronto say they have found the planet’s oldest water, which is about 2 billion years old, deep in a Canadian mine.

Researchers had earlier found water that was about 500 million years less ancient and not quite as deep in the same Ontario mine.

“It won’t kill you if you drink it, but it would taste absolutely disgusting,” said lead researcher Barbara Sherwood Lollar.

Environment

California’s Long Drought Has Killed 100 Million Trees

The lingering drought in California has killed more than 100 million trees, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s latest aerial survey.

The recent death count found that 62 million trees have died just this year in California, bringing the six-year total to more than 102 million. More than five years of drought are to blame for the tree deaths, scientists said, adding that tree “fatalities” increased by 100 percent in 2016.

The agency said that millions of additional trees are expected to die in the coming months and years. California’s drought has affected 7.7 million acres of forests, putting the region’s whole ecology at risk.

With more dead trees in forests, wildfires have a “fuel buildup” that could lead to large, unpredictable fires. California has experienced longer, hotter fire seasons in recent years, and USFS scientists said that they expect tree mortality to continue at elevated levels in 2017.

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Environment

Utah’s Great Salt Lake Is Shrinking

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Years of drought and over-irrigation have caused Utah’s Great Salt Lake to shrink at an alarming rate, recent satellite photos show.

After the Great Lakes, Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the largest body of water (by area) in the United States. Back in the middle of the 19th century, when pioneers first arrived in the area, the lake spread across roughly 1,600 square miles (4,100 square kilometers). Now, the lake covers an area of only about 1,050 square miles (2,700 square km), new satellite photos from NASA reveal. In October, the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest level in recorded history, at 4,191 feet (1,277 meters) deep.

These dramatic declines in water levels come from years of human activity — namely, diverting river water, which would normally fill the lake, for agriculture and industry, according to NASA. The agency estimates that about 40 percent of the river’s water is diverted from the lake. These activities, along with the ongoing drought in the West, have drained the historic lake.

The Technosphere

Scientists have measured the Earth’s technosphere, an expanding accumulation of everything humankind needs to live, including buildings, electronics and landfill.

University of Leicester geologists estimate the current weight of the technosphere is 30 trillion tons, or about 10 pounds per square foot of Earth’s surface.

The technosphere concept is an offshoot of the Anthropocene — a proposed epoch in which the Earth is shaped by human activities.

“Many of these (manmade items), if entombed in strata, can be preserved into the distant geological future as ‘technofossils’ that will help characterize and date the Anthropocene,” said

Environment

One of the Oldest Oak Trees in the US Dies

Basking Ridge, N.J. is a quintessential small town. Like all good small towns, it has a defining feature. Or at least it did. This summer, heat stress and heavy rain conspired to fell a 600-year old oak tree at both the town’s literal and cultural centre — the tree sits at the point where West Oak Street turns into East Oak Street, hanging over the Presbyterian Church’s graveyard.

What precipitated the oak’s rapid decline was a two-week stretch when the average temperature was higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit in late July. The heat stress made the tree’s pores essentially go on lockdown during the hot, dry period to keep its water availability up. Unfortunately the stretch of hot weather was followed by two separate days where heavy rain fell in mid-August.

Rob Gillies, an arborist in Basking Ridge who has tended to the tree, told the New York Times that “the roots were soaking because it couldn’t process the water,” ultimately dealing the fatal blow.

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Environment

Study finds Brazil isn’t counting all deforestation in official estimates

Brazil drew widespread praise for drastically lowering Amazon deforestation over the past decade and half. But as forest destruction in the country is on the rise once again, new research finds that Brazil’s official estimates are missing large swaths of deforestation.

News broke last November that deforestation had jumped 16 percent in the Brazilian Amazon for the year ending on July 31, 2015, with an estimated 5,831 square kilometres (about 2,250 square miles) of rainforest, an area half the size of Los Angeles, destroyed that year.

The Brazilian government revised that figure earlier this month, however, stating that some 6,207 square kilometres (about 2,397 square miles) of Amazon rainforest were actually destroyed in the year that ended on July 31, 2015. Though this represents a six percent increase over the previous estimate and the highest annual loss in the Brazilian Amazon since 2011, it is still well below historical levels of deforestation.

Now a new study published in the journal Conservation Letters finds that, between 2008 and 2012, close to 9,000 square kilometres (about 3,475 square miles) of the Brazilian Amazon were cleared without being detected by the government’s official monitoring system.

Brazil’s Monitoring Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by Satellite Project (known as PRODES) has played a key role in Brazil’s recent efforts to rein in deforestation. According to PRODES, 25,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest were lost to deforestation in 2003. That dropped to an average of just 5,300 square miles between 2009 to 2013.

But when researchers with Brown University compared data from PRODES with two independent satellite measures of forest loss — from the Global Forest Change project and the Fire Information for Resource Management Systems — they found that about 9,000 square kilometres of rainforest destruction, an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico, were not included in the PRODES monitoring.

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Environment

Pacific Garbage Patch Survey

A new survey of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch finds that the enormous floating mass of trash is far denser and larger than previously believed.

In a series of low-altitude, low-speed aerial flights over the plastic accumulation zone between Hawaii and California, the Dutch-based Ocean Cleanup foundation found chunks of garbage, mostly plastics. Many of the debris items measured more than half a yard in diameter.

The field also contains far smaller bits that were detected by experimental plastic- scanning equipment.

The foundation plans to soon begin testing a V-shaped rubber boom designed to “herd” the floating debris into a recovery cone.

Environment

Warm Ocean ‘Blob’ Triggers Worst-Ever Toxic Algae Blooms

Blooms of algae along the West Coast of the U.S. in 2015 were bigger and more toxic than ever before, contaminating food webs and closing fisheries from southern California to as far north as British Columbia, in Canada. Now, a new study links them to elevated ocean temperatures, with algae growth spurred by a mysterious patch of warmer-than-average ocean that scientists first noted years earlier and had dubbed “the warm blob.”

The warm blob, which first appeared in 2013 and hung around into 2014, helped one species of toxic algae — Pseudo-nitzschia australis — increase in unprecedented numbers and expand farther north than was previously possible, with devastating effects on a wide range of marine life. [Yuck! Photos of ‘Rock Snot’ Algae Infestations]

Toxic algae events that are serious enough to merit fishery closures occur off the coasts of Washington and Oregon every three to five years, but the 2015 bloom was the largest by far, according to Ryan McCabe, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean in Seattle.

Ocean warm blob