Climate Central

Climate Central is a nonprofit science and media organization created to provide clear and objective information about climate change and its potential solutions.
  1. By Sam Cowie, The Guardian

    Brazil has seen more forest fires in September than in any single month since records began, and authorities have warned that 2017 could surpass the worst year on record if action is not taken soon.

    Experts say that the blazes are almost exclusively due to human activity, and they attribute the uptick to the expansion of agriculture and a reduction of oversight and surveillance. Lower than average rainfall in this year’s dry season is also an exacerbating factor.

    A volunteer works to put out a forest fire in the northern area of Brasilia's National Park, in Brasilia, Brazil, August 30, 2017.
    Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

    The National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has detected 106,000 fires destroying natural vegetation so far this month — the highest number in a single month since records began in 1998, said Alberto Setzer, coordinator of INPE’s fire monitoring satellite program.

    “It is fundamental to understand that these are not natural fires. They are manmade,” Setzer said.

    Fires are commonly used during Brazil’s dry period to deforest land and clear it for raising cattle or other agricultural or extraction purposes.

    The total number of blazes since 1 January was 196,000, and Seltzer expressed concern that — with the dry season continuing in Brazil’s Amazon — 2017 could surpass the worst year on record, 2004, when there were 270,000 fires.

    According to INPE, deforestation has risen continuously since 2012, when a new forest code that gave amnesty to deforesters was introduced. The last available data for 2016 showed a 29 percent rise since the previous year.

    Burning is illegal and carries heavy fines, but fire is often used to clear land for pasture or crops and hunting or results from land conflicts.

    The problem was compounded, Setzer said, by a lack of oversight and manpower to contain the blazes.

    “When there is a reduction in checks and surveillance, we see an increase in the number of fires,” he said.

    View of the devastation caused by a forest fire in front of Brasilia's National Park, in Brasilia, Brazil, September 19, 2017.
    Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

    The government of president Michel Temer has been heavily criticised by environmentalists for making deep cuts to the country’s environmental budget, which have affected the ability of Brazil’s environmental police to perform inspections and raids.

    In September, after a month-long battle, firefighters gave up on a fire in Tocantins state park, believed to have been lit by local fishermen and carried by strong winds during an intense dry period. An area three times the size of São Paulo was destroyed, according to local media.

    “The Temer government’s policies signal for those in the countryside that the doors are open for more deforestation and more fires,” said Cristiane Mazzetti, a Greenpeace Brazil campaigner, listing a series of measures by the Temer government including reducing protected Amazon forest areas and giving amnesty to land grabbers.

    Critics say Temer is acting at the behest of powerful ranching and mining interests inside congress. Recently, the government was highly criticized for opening up a vast Amazon reserve for international mining, a decree that was later revoked.

    The states most affected by fires this year have been in the Amazon, increasingly targeted by ranchers and miners, with the Amazon biome accounting for 49 percent of the burnings.

    The Amazonian state of Pará was the worst affected, with a 229 percent increase in fires from last year. It is home to the two hardest hit municipalities, São Félix de Xingu and Altamira, home of Brazil’s controversial Belo Monte dam project.

    Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

  2. By Damian Carrington, The Guardian

    The sixth mass extinction of global wildlife already under way is seriously threatening the world’s food supplies, according to experts.

    Farmers evaluating traits of wheat varieties in Ethiopia.
    Credit: Biodiversity International

    “Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention,” said Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, a research group that published a new report.

    “If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet,” she said in an article for the Guardian. “This ‘agrobiodiversity’ is a precious resource that we are losing, and yet it can also help solve or mitigate many challenges the world is facing. It has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment and adapt to climate change.”

    Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species and this leaves supplies very vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monocultures, as happened in the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death. Reliance on only a few strains also means the world’s fast changing climate will cut yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.

    There are tens of thousands of wild or rarely cultivated species that could provide a richly varied range of nutritious foods, resistant to disease and tolerant of the changing environment. But the destruction of wild areas, pollution and overhunting has started a mass extinction of species on Earth. The focus to date has been on wild animals — half of which have been lost in the last 40 years — but the new report reveals that the same pressures are endangering humanity’s food supply, with at least 1,000 cultivated species already endangered.

    Tutwiler said saving the world’s agrobiodiversity is also vital in tackling the number one cause of human death and disability in the world — poor diet, which includes both too much and too little food. “We are not winning the battle against obesity and undernutrition,” she said. “Poor diets are in large part because we have very unified diets based on a narrow set of commodities and we are not consuming enough diversity.”

    The new report sets out how both governments and companies can protect, enhance and use the huge variety of little-known food crops. It highlights examples including the gac, a fiery red fruit from Vietnam, and the orange-fleshed Asupina banana. Both have extremely high levels of beta-carotene that the body converts to vitamin A and could help the many millions of people suffering deficiency of that vitamin.

    Training cows to walk in groups to extract wheat in Koka villge, Ethiopia.
    Credit: CIFOR

    Quinoa has become popular in some rich nations but only a few of the thousands of varieties native to South America are cultivated. The report shows how support has enabled farmers in Peru to grow a tough, nutritious variety that will protect them from future diseases or extreme weather.

    Mainstream crops can also benefit from diversity and earlier in 2017 in Ethiopia researchers found two varieties of durum wheat that produce excellent yields even in dry areas. Fish diversity is also very valuable, with a local Bangladeshi species now shown to be extremely nutritious.

    “Food biodiversity is full of superfoods but perhaps even more important is the fact these foods are also readily available and adapted to local farming conditions,” said Tutwiler.

    Bioversity International is working with both companies and governments to ramp up investment in agrobiodiversity. The supermarket Sainsbury’s is one, and its head of agriculture, Beth Hart, said: “The world is changing — global warming, extreme weather and volatile prices are making it harder for farmers and growers to produce the foods our customers love. Which is why we are committed to working with our suppliers, farmers and growers around the world to optimise the health benefits, address the impact and biodiversity of these products and secure a sustainable supply.”

    Pierfrancesco Sacco, Italy’s permanent representative to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said: “The latest OECD report rates Italy third lowest in the world for levels of obesity after Japan and Korea. Is it a coincidence that all three countries have long traditions of healthy diets based on local food biodiversity, short food supply chains and celebration of local varieties and dishes?”

    He said finding and cultivating a wider range of food is the key: “Unlike conserving pandas or rhinos, the more you use agrobiodiversity and the more you eat it, the better you conserve it.”

    Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

  3. By Damian Carrington, The Guardian

    The Arctic ice cap melted to hundreds of thousands of square miles below average this summer.

    Sunset in the Arctic Ocean over melting sea ice.
    Credit: NASA/flickr

    Climate change is pushing temperatures up most rapidly in the polar regions and left the extent of Arctic sea ice at 1.79 million square miles at the end of the summer melt season.

    This is the time when it reaches its lowest area for the year, before starting to grow again as winter approaches. The 2017 minimum was 610,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average and the eighth lowest year in the 38-year satellite record.

    Scientists from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) said the rate of ice loss this summer had been slowed by cool mid-summer weather over the central Arctic Ocean. The record minimum came in 2012, when the ice area fell to 483,000 square miles below the 2017 extent.

    Arctic sea ice extent in 2017.
    Credit: NSIDC

    Ted Scambos at NSIDC said the Arctic sea ice had set a record for the smallest winter extent earlier in 2017 and was on track to be close to the 2012 record minimum until July. But a cloudy and cooler than normal August slowed the melting.

    “Weather patterns in August saved the day,” Scambos said. The fast shrinking Arctic ice cap is increasingly thought to have major impacts on extreme weather patterns much further south, due to its influence on the jet stream. Floods, heatwaves and severe winters in Europe, Asia and North America have all been linked to the Arctic meltdown. “It’s bound to have an impact on global climate,” Scambos said.

    The 2017 sea ice level fits with an overall steady decline over the decades, but one that varies from year to year, Scambos said. “It’s not going to be a staircase heading down to zero every year,” he said. “[But] the Arctic will continue to evolve towards less ice. There’s no dodging that.”

    Rod Downie, head of polar program at WWF, said: “From space, the loss of Arctic sea ice is the clearest and most visible sign of climate change, and human beings are responsible for most of it. We are engineering our planet and its climate.”

    “That’s not good for the people of the Arctic who depend upon sea ice for their traditional way of life and for people across the world who depend on a stable climate,” he said. The Arctic could be virtually free of ice in summer within people’s lifetimes, he warned, and called for more action on climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

    Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

  4. By Bhavya Khullar, Ensia

    The list of environmental problems that the world faces may be huge, but some strategies for solving them are remarkably small. First explored for applications in microscopy and computing, nanomaterials — materials made up of units that are each thousands of times smaller than the thickness of a human hair — are emerging as useful for tackling threats to our planet’s well-being.

    Scientists across the globe are developing nanomaterials that can efficiently use carbon dioxide from the air, capture toxic pollutants from water and degrade solid waste into useful products.

    Pollution-absorbing nanosponge.
    Credit: Rice University News

    “Nanomaterials could help us mitigate pollution. They are efficient catalysts and mostly recyclable. Now, they have to become economical for commercialization and better to replace present-day technologies completely,” says Arun Chattopadhyay, a member of the chemistry faculty at the Center for Nanotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati.

    Harvesting CO2

    To help slow the climate-changing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, researchers have developed nano-carbon dioxide harvesters that can suck atmospheric carbon dioxide and deploy it for industrial purposes.

    “Nanomaterials can convert carbon dioxide into useful products like alcohol. The materials could be simple chemical catalysts or photochemical in nature that work in the presence of sunlight,” says Chattopadhyay, who has been working with nanomaterials to tackle environmental pollutants for more than a decade.

    Ion beam “slice and view” showing the interior porous structure of the entangled nanotube network.
    Credit: Science Reports

    Many research groups are working to address a problem that, if solved, could be a holy grail in combating climate change: how to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into useful products. Chattopadhyay isn’t alone. Many research groups are working to address a problem that, if solved, could be a holy grail in combating climate change: how to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into useful products. Nanoparticles offer a promising approach to this because they have a large surface-area-to-volume ratio for interacting with carbon dioxide and properties that allow them to facilitate the conversion of carbon dioxide into other things. The challenge is to make them economically viable. Researchers have tried everything from metallic to carbon-based nanoparticles to reduce the cost, but so far they haven’t become efficient enough for industrial-scale application.

    One of the most recent points of progress in this area is work by scientists at the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum and the Lille University of Science and Technology in France. The researchers developed a nano-carbon dioxide harvester that uses water and sunlight to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into methanol, which can be employed as an engine fuel, a solvent, an antifreeze agent and a diluent of ethanol. Made by wrapping a layer of modified graphene oxide around spheres of copper zinc oxide and magnetite, the material looks like a miniature golf ball, captures carbon dioxide more efficiently than conventional catalysts and can be readily reused, according to Suman Jain, senior scientist of the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun in India, who developed the nano-carbon dioxide harvester.

    Jain says that the nano-carbon dioxide harvester has a large molecular surface area and captures more carbon dioxidethan a conventional catalyst with similar surface area would, which makes the conversion more efficient. But due to their small size, the nanoparticles have a tendency to clump up, making them inactive with prolonged use. Jain adds that synthesizing useful nanoparticle-based materials is also challenging because it’s hard to make the particles a consistent size. Chattopadhyay says the efficiency of such materials can be improved further, providing hope for useful application in the future.

    Cleansing Water

    Most toxic dyes used in textile and leather industries can be captured with nanoparticles. “Water pollutants such as dyes from human-created waste like those from tanneries could get to natural sources of water like deep tube wells or groundwater if wastewater from these industries is left untreated,” says Chattopadhyay. “This problem is rather difficult to solve.”

    An international group of researchers led by professor Elzbieta Megiel of the University of Warsaw in Poland reports that nanomaterials have been widely studied for removing heavy metals and dyes from wastewater. According to the research team, adsorption processes using materials containing magnetic nanoparticles are highly effective and can be easily performed because such nanoparticles have a large number of sites on their surface that can capture pollutants and don’t readily degrade in water.

    Chattopadhyay adds that appropriately designed magnetic nanomaterials can be used to separate pollutants such as arsenic, lead, chromium and mercury from water. However, the nanotech-based approach has to be more efficient than conventional water purification technology to make it worthwhile.

    In addition to removing dyes and metals, nanomaterials can also be used to clean up oil spills. Researchers led by Pulickel Ajayan at Rice University in Houston, Texas, have developed a reusable nanosponge that can remove oil from contaminated seawater.

    The technology shows promise, but it’s not yet ready for prime time.

    “While the nanosponge is a good material to deal with oil spills, these results are confined to the laboratory,” says Ashok Ganguli, director of the Institute of Nano Science and Technology in Mohali, Punjab, India. “Large-scale synthesis is required if we have to remove oil from seawater which is spread over several miles.” Although scientists have yet to successfully synthesize nanomaterials for cleaning oil spills at a scale large enough for practical application,  “this may become possible with more research and industry partnerships,” Chattopadhyay says.

    Accelerating Digestion

    Another area being explored for application of nanomaterials is in managing organic waste, which can pollute land and water if not handled properly. “Farms and food industry generate humongous amounts of biodegradable waste, and we must find ways to manage it efficiently,” says Debjyoti Sahu, a professor of engineering at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Karnataka in India.

    One of the oldest methods to treat biodegradable waste is to dump it into tanks called digesters. These are full of anaerobic microbes that consume the material, converting it into biogas fuel and solids that can be used as fertilizers. But anaerobic digestion is slow.

    Recent research showed that adding metal oxide nanoparticles to a food waste digester doubled the amount of biogas fuel produced compared to the digester without it.“Nanoparticles can accelerate the anaerobic digestion of the sludge, thus making it more efficient in terms of duration and enhanced production of the biogas,” says Kamalakannan Kailasam, scientist with the Institute of Nano Science and Technology, in Mohali, India.

    Recent research showed that adding metal oxide nanoparticles to a food waste digester doubled the amount of biogas fuel produced compared to the digester without it.

    “Iron oxide nanoparticles are nontoxic, and they should be added to sludge waste to enhance the rate of its degradation,” says Sahu.

    Safety First

    While nanoparticles have potential to solve environmental problems, the small size that makes them useful for environmental cleanup also raises special concerns about health and persistence in the environment.

    “The long-term effects of using nanomaterials have not been evaluated yet,” says Chattopadhyay.

    The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and others are funding research to evaluate the potential effects of engineered nanoparticles on health and the environment. Researchers are also creating models to predict nanomaterials’ transport and fate in the environment as well as their potential effects on humans. If concerns that have been raised can be adequately dealt with, nanomaterials could play a big role in helping us cope with environmental challenges in the years ahead.

    Editor’s note: Bhavya Khullar produced this feature as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. Her mentor for the project was Jessica Marshall

    Reprinter with permission from Ensia.

  5. By Richard Luscombe, The Guardian

    If Florida gleaned anything from Hurricane Andrew, the intensely powerful storm that tore a deadly trail of destruction across Miami-Dade County almost exactly 25 years to the day that Hurricane Harvey barreled into the Texas coastline, it was that living in areas exposed to the wrath of Mother Nature can come at a substantial cost.

    At the time the most expensive natural disaster ever to hit the U.S., Andrew caused an estimated $15 billion in insured losses in the state and changed the way insurance companies assessed their exposure to risk for weather-related events.

    South Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team Delta  points to a someone who may need help on August 31, 2017 in Port Arthur, Texas after flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
    Credit: The National Guard/flickr

    Many of the lessons that Florida has learned since 1992 have parallels in the unfolding disaster in Texas, experts say, and what was already a trend toward factoring in environmental threats and climate change to land and property values looks certain to become the standard nationwide as Houston begins to mop up from the misery of Harvey.

    “The question is whether people are going to be basing their real estate decisions on climate change futures,” said Hugh Gladwin, professor of anthropology at Florida International University, who says his research suggests higher-standing areas of Miami are becoming increasingly gentrified as a result of sea level rise.

    “In any coastal area there’s extra value in property, [but] climate change, insofar as it increases risks for those properties from any specific set of hazards — like flooding and storm surge — will decrease value.”

    Miami Beach in particular has become a poster child for the effects of climate change, with some studies making grim predictions of a 5 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century and others suggesting that up to $23 billion of existing property statewide could be underwater by 2050.

    To counter those effects and preserve property values, Miami Beach has embarked on an ambitious and costly defensive program that includes raising roads and installing powerful new pumps to shift the ever more regular floodwaters.

    Even so, there are indications that investors are already looking to higher ground elsewhere in the city, such as the traditionally poor, black neighbourhoods of Little Haiti and Liberty City. “The older urban core was settled on the coastal ridge and anything below that was flooded. The coastal ridge we’re talking about is clearly gentrifying,” Gladwin said.

    Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey. 
    Credit: The National Guard/flickr

    Or, as the journal Scientific American put it in its own investigation in May: “Real estate investment may no longer be just about the next hot neighbourhood, it may also now be about the next dry neighbourhood.”

    Other analysts cite recent storms including Harvey, as well as Sandy, which wrecked areas of New Jersey and New York in 2012, as evidence.

    “You have folks in south Florida buying houses in North Carolina and Tennessee, because they like the scenery but also because it’s high ground. If south Florida drops off into the ocean, they’ll have a place to go,” said Andrew Frey, vice-chairman of the south-east Florida/Caribbean Urban Land Institute and a Miami real estate developer.

    “The more frequent these volatile superstorms become, the more people will look to build in safer places. If seas are rising three millimeters a year that’s one thing, but if we’re getting superstorms every couple of years with greater frequency and intensity, things can change a lot faster.”

    Such concerns have fueled demand for data-driven analysis and climate aggregation services that offer real estate advice to clients ranging from large corporations, state and local governments to farmers and individual house buyers.

    One such number-crunching company, the San Francisco-based Climate Corporation, which collates and analyses National Weather Service data mostly for clients in agriculture, has previously warned that it would take only “a few climatic events in a row” for a collapse in property values “that will make the housing crisis [of 2008] look small."

    Its assessment is backed by Albert Slap, president and co-founder of Coastal Risk Consulting, a Florida firm that provides flood risk analysis reports. Slap said Harvey was only the latest natural disaster to expose flaws in the national flood insurance programme allowing property owners in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s so-called Zone X — areas at risk of a once-in-500-years flood event — not to carry coverage or fully disclose their flood risk when they sell.

    “With storm surge and heavy rainfall increasing and climate and sea level rise, the system is just not working,” he said. “Millions more people need flood insurance than have it and the crazy thing about Houston was only 15 percent of those who were flooded had flood insurance. The risk communication is not enough.

    “You have thousands of properties in Norfolk, Annapolis, Atlantic City, Savannah, Charleston and Miami Beach where part of the property goes underwater with seawater for days at a time. When you have fish swimming in your driveway, it’s not an amenity, like a swimming pool. It means you’re driving through saltwater to get your kids to school, get to the supermarket, whatever you’re going to do.

    “Will there be a massive decline in the property values of the flooded areas in Houston? Common sense would say yes. And if that’s combined with new legislation that’s going to require full disclosure, then wow.”

    Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.