Stories tagged climate change


Grickle grackle: grickle grackle grickle grackle grickle grackle grickle grackle grickle grackle.
Grickle grackle: grickle grackle grickle grackle grickle grackle grickle grackle grickle grackle.Courtesy Kevin Cole
The age of the crustaceans is upon us, and, like the elves before us, it is time for we chordates to fade into legend. Though some of us may linger in this fallen world, much that was good will have been lost. The air will be full of, like, clicking, and eyestalks will be all the rage, and everything will smell like ammonia.

And, oh yes, there will be tentacles. And before you get all sassy about crustaceans not having tentacles, shut your word-holes and open your listen-orifices—I ent just talking about crustaceans. In this damp, horrifying future, the crustaceans will be accompanied by their nightmare 6th cousins: the mollusks.

It’s the presence of mollusca that is most frightening to me. I can not imagine a crustacean that couldn’t be handled with a claw hammer, but mollusks…they’re something else entirely. Huge, clever brains, instant biological camouflage, boneless bodies, marine gigantism, beaks…

As ocean temperatures rise with global climate change, many marine populations are predicted to shift dramatically from fish to crabs, lobsters, and squid.

Fish populations have also been observed switching from cold water to warm water species, away from bottom feeders, and trending towards smaller species.

The whole thing, it’s thought, is primarily the result of a change in where in the ocean plankton is being consumed; small, warm-water species of fish are eating the plankton (itty bitty sea life) higher up in the water column, so less plankton settles down for bottom feeding fish. As the bottom feeders die off, invertebrates like mollusks and crustaceans move in.

Warming oceans are probably the main cause here, but researchers say that over fishing could be a contributor as well. As larger fish become less common due to fishing, there are fewer predators for small fish, which eat off the plankton high in the water table…

Prepare for the worst. Remember: claw hammers for crustacea, marshmallow skewers for mollusca, and an acceptance of inevitable death by pinchers for the rest of us.


The face of the enemy: Know it well.  They wait, biding their time, building up the strength of their numbers, and of their horrible, secret weapon of doom!
The face of the enemy: Know it well. They wait, biding their time, building up the strength of their numbers, and of their horrible, secret weapon of doom!Courtesy foxypar4

That’s sheep farts to you and me, and apparently it’s a major problem. There are over one billion sheep in the world. They spend their day, standing in the meadow, gamboling playfully, watching Sam, the big shaggy cartoon sheep dog, foil the ingenious but inevitably futile efforts of Ralph, the wolf who looks suspiciously like a coyote.

And eating. Grass is what sheep eat. Unfortunately, they can’t digest it. Instead, they have little tiny microbes in their stomachs (four stomachs per sheep) that break down the plant fiber for them.

Unfortunately, microbes are rude little creatures, emitting methane gas with every mouthful and nary an “excuse me” to be heard. The methane builds up inside the ovine until it escapes in the form of sheep farts. (And, seriously, if you ever have a chance to write an essay that can justifiably include the phrase “sheep farts,” then you should seize the opportunity and use the term just as often as you possibly can.)

Anyway, the methane (a.k.a. sheep farts) gets into the atmosphere where, some would have it, it will trap heat and warm the globe and eventually destroy civilization as we know it. This may or may not be a bad thing, but I personally would hate to see my home destroyed just because of sheep farts.

Fortunately some researchers in New Zealand have come to our rescue. These plucky kiwis are tackling the sheep fart menace head-on, trying to develop a vaccination that will improve the microbes’ table manners. An anxious world holds its breath – partly in anticipation of the coming breakthrough in sheep fart technology, but mostly in response to the sheep farts themselves.


Another dismal post about the dismal science.

Today, we look at The Copenhagen Consensus. A group of economists are presented with a thought experiment: let’s say you had $75 billion to spend on solving one of the world’s problems – how would you allocate your funds?

Economists, being the dismal people that they are, take no account of what is “moral” or “right” or what “ought” to be done. They just try to figure out where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Their answer? Micronutirents for kids. Providing vitamin A and zinc to 80 percent of the 140 million children who lack them would provide almost $17 in health benefits for every dollar invested.

Other items in the top ten:

  1. Micronutirents for kids
  2. Expanding free trade
  3. Fortifying foods with iron and salt
  4. Expanding immunization coverage of children
  5. Biofortification
  6. Deworming
  7. Lowering the price of schooling
  8. Increasing girls' schooling
  9. Community-based nutrition promotion
  10. Support for women's reproductive roles

The majority of the most-efficient solutions deal with health, thus proving the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The least-efficient proposal was a plan to mitigate global warming. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling noted that that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits.

Economist Richard Nordhaus, in his book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, draws a similar conclusion. Projects to massively reduce greenhouse gases end up costing more than they deliver—in some cases, many trillions of dollars more. OTOH, investing in alternative energy (wind, solar, etc.) and bio-engineering can produce great results for the amount spent on them.

The economists at Copenhagen felt funding research and development of low-carbon energy technologies was worthwhile, and ranked it 14th out of the 30 proposals they considered.

Other items at the bottom of the priorities list are proposals to reduce air pollution by cutting emissions from diesel vehicles; a tobacco tax; improved stoves to reduce indoor air pollution; and extending microfinance. These are not necessarily bad ideas. It’s just that other proposals provide more bang for the 75 billion bucks.


The law of unintended consequences, part 4,937: Fuel cells don't pollute. But the process of making the fuel that goes in to them does.
The law of unintended consequences, part 4,937: Fuel cells don't pollute. But the process of making the fuel that goes in to them does.Courtesy geognerd

Fuel cells are sometimes promoted as a clean energy alternative. They work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water, with some left over energy that can then be turned into electricity. The only waste products from a fuel cell are water and heat.

Two small problems:

  • Water vapor, it turns out, is a major greenhouse gas.
  • Getting hydrogen to go into the fuel cell requires either zapping water with electricity, or treating natural gas with steam. Both of these processes require power, which currently comes from—burning coal.

So, while the fuel cell doesn’t pollute, the process of making the fuel for it does. (Though that could change if a hydrogen plant could be designed to run on wind, solar or other clean energy.)


The law of unintended consequences: Making ethanol to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is playing havoc with food prices.
The law of unintended consequences: Making ethanol to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is playing havoc with food prices.Courtesy swankslot

Well, probably neither. But ethanol – a type of fuel made from plants – has been causing a lot of controversy lately. We’ve talked about this here before.

Many people like ethanol. As the price of gasoline rises, ethanol becomes an economical alternative. We can grow it at home, and not have to buy it from foreign countries who may or may not be our friends. And using it as fuel does not add any extra carbon into the atmosphere.

The problem is, most ethanol today is made from food crops, like corn. The more food we turn into ethanol, the less there is to eat. This puts pressure on food prices, as do droughts and growing populations. Food riots have broken out in several countries, and some people are beginning to rethink the push toward ethanol.

(A rather more bleak assessment of the same phenomenon.)

However, not everybody sees this as gloom-and-doom. Here's a spirited defense of biofuels.

Dennis Avery, Director of the Center for Global Food Issues, argues that the push for ethanol is hurting the movement toward sustainable farming.

However, blogger Austin Bay argues that, while rising demand for ethanol is a factor in food prices, it is far from the only one, or even the most important.

A scientific convention right here in Minneapolis agrees, noting that the problem isn’t biofuel per se, but the use of food crops to make biofuel. If we used non-food crops, we would relieve some pressure on food prices. Furthermore, non-food crops like native prairie grass actually make better ethanol than corn does!

Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, notes the effect of ethanol on food prices, and makes some suggestions for reversing the trend.

Scientists in Tennessee are working on just that, using switchgrass to make ethanol. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Massachusetts are making progress towards turning switchgrass straight into “green gasoline” – a substance chemically identical to gasoline (unlike ethanol, which has some important differences.)

(We’ve discussed switchgrass on Science Buzz before.)

Researchers in Texas are working to make ethanol from sweet sorghum. This would reduce the need to use corn, but sorghum is used in syrup and other sweeteners, so it really wouldn’t solve the food-into-fuel problem.

At 9,500 years old, it took root just after the last Ice Age. It can tell us a lot about the climate at the time, and how the Earth has changed over thousands of years. (The previous oldest-known trees are North American bristle pines – at 5,000 years old, mere saplings to the Swedish spruce.)


Palau reef: where the party gets started
Palau reef: where the party gets startedCourtesy zolas box
Over the next few days, the Palau reef in the West Pacific will experience a frenzy of activities as the reefs' coral denizens partake in their annual mating ritual. Although there won't be any of the usual Spring Break antics such as wet t-shirt or bikini contests, excessive drinking, or stupid male shenanigans, one thing there will be is lots and lots of rampant reproduction.

Just after sunset tonight, or perhaps tomorrow or maybe even the next night, billions upon billions of the coral colonies' eggs and sperm will be unleashed in cute little orange and pink packages that will rise to the surface where they'll lose their inhibitions, burst open, dance and intermingle under the moonlight, and develop into billions of coral larvae. If conditions are right the sheer number of the event's participants can sometimes form huge slicks on the surface that can be seen from space. In the end most of the spawn or larvae gets eaten before it develops fully, but since there's so many of them in the first place, it doesn't really matter.

Anyway, a few days later, any surviving coral larvae will float exhausted to the sea bottom in hopes of attaching themselves to some good solid structure where they develop into baby coral polyps, thus adding more coral to the reef, and living happily ever after. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

The 300 island archipelago making up the republic of Palau is located 155 miles above the equator about 550 miles east of the Philippines. The reefs in the vicinity are in good condition ecologically, but the annual spawning has attracted scientists from Great Britain, Australia, and the Philippines, who are in Palau to gather "seeding" material for other less fortunate coral reefs.

The research team won't be using spawning material from the open reefs but instead will harvest it from pieces of coral they've collected and keep in a controlled laboratory environment at the Palau International Coral Reef Center. The larvae from the experiment are then transplanted into a suitable environment conducive to reef-building.

With many of the world's coral reef environments suffering from the effects of pollution, over-fishing, and other factors, the researchers hope seeding damaged reefs with the harvested spawn from healthier ones will help restore the fragile ecosystems.

BBC website


Hurricanes and global warming: The debate over their connection continues.
Hurricanes and global warming: The debate over their connection continues.Courtesy NASA

In 2005, Dr. Kerry Emmanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper claiming there was a link between rising global temperatures and increases in hurricane strength.

This year, Dr. Emmanuel has published another paper in which he reconsiders the evidence. He found that the models used to predict hurricane activity were not matching up with what was happening in the real world. The link between hurricanes and global warming may not be as strong as originally suspected, or may not exist at all.

This is precisely how science is supposed to work – examining evidence, coming up with theories to explain the evidence, testing those theories, and adjusting the theories if necessary.

In another three years, Emmanual may write another paper showing that he was right the first time. Or that the whole hurricane-warming link is a dead end. Or perhaps some other conclusion. But the important thing is to keep looking, and to report honestly what you find.

As economist John Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” A good approach to any debate.


The Briksdal Glacier: Not at its most impressive. Just look away.
The Briksdal Glacier: Not at its most impressive. Just look away.Courtesy xdmag
Across the globe, glaciers are suffering the humiliation of being seen in a state of exacerbated shrinkage.

Having gone so long without serious scrutiny as to their size, the bedroom door has been thrown open on the glaciers of the world, leaving them flailing to cover up what little is left of theirs to cover up.

“What did you expect?” Points out one glacier. “We’re cold. that’s what happens.”

Climatologists would disagree, however, on the cause of the shrinkage, if not the shrinkage itself, viewing the phenomenon as a key indicator of a warming climate. Average glacial shrinkage, it is reported, has risen from about 30 centimeters a year between 1980 and 1999, to 1.5 meters in 2006.

The glaciers, as they retreat like “frightened turtles” into their mountain refuges, are causing alarm not only as indicators of global climate change, but for their own diminishing potential to supply fresh water for “drinking, agriculture, industry, and power generation.”

Glaciers are believed to have started shrinking globally around 1850, although the rate of shrinkage looks to have increased dramatically in the early 80’s, and Dr. Wilfried Haeberli, director of the World Glacier Monitoring service, says that “the latest figures are part of what appears to be an accelerating trend with no apparent end in sight.”


The Netherlands has a long history of flooding – over half the country is below sea level – and during the North Sea flood of 1953, nearly 2,000 Dutch lost their lives in a flood after sea water breached several dikes and water poured into unsuspecting villages during the night of February 1, 1953. Even before this particular natural disaster, the Dutch had been dealing with the problems of living in a low-lying area, and in the 1950’s embarked on a massive civil-engineering project called Delta Works.

Delta Works is a network of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers that are set up to protect the Netherlands from future flooding. The work is incredibly vast, and was completed in 1997 when the Maeslantkering (the largest moving structure on Earth) was completed.

But now, the Netherlands faces another problem – global warming – and the associated risk of increased winter rain in Europe, according to the climate-change models. That will bring high water to the Meuse and Rhine rivers that flow into Holland. The strategy is now different. Instead of the historic approach of raising the heights of the dikes to contain the rivers, the Netherlands is going to lower some dikes to allow flooding in certain areas of the country to relieve pressure in others. So instead of keeping the water out, they are allowing the water, to a certain extent, go where it wants. The plan, called “Room for the River”, was featured in a recent NPR story. The story includes a cool feature that shows the impact of climate change on low-lying regions around the world.