Category Archives: climate change

A Nuclear Leaking Grave

The Bravo test, the testiong of a nuclear bomb on March 1, 1954, in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands resulted in an explosion that was 2½ times larger than expected. Radioactive ash dropped more than 7,000 square miles from the bomb site, caking the nearby inhabited islands.  “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” the Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”

The 1954 explosion was part of nuclear tests conducted as the American military lurched into the nuclear age. From 1946 o 1958, 67 U.S. nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall islands….From 1977 to 1980, loose waste and top soil debris scraped off from six different islands in the Enewetak Atoll was transported to Runit island and was mixed with concrete and buried in nuclear blast crater. 4,000 US servicemen were involved in the cleanup that took three years to complete. The waste-filled crater was finally entombed in concrete.  The Runit Dome, also called locally “The Tomb”, is a 46 cm (18 in) thick dome of concrete at sea level, encapsulating an estimated 73,000 m3 (95,000 cu yd) of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239. …The structure, however, was never meant to last. Today, due to disrepair and rising sea tides, it is dangerously vulnerable. A strong storm could breach the dome, releasing the deadly legacy of America’s nuclear might….

Cracks have reportedly started to appear in the dome. Part of the threat is that the crater was never properly lined, meaning that rising seawater could breach the structural integrity. “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the ABC. “It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome. 

According to Guterres, UN Secretary General, who refers to Runit Dome as nuclear coffin: The Pacific was victimized in the past as we all know, The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas.”

Excerpts from Kyle Swenson , The U.S. put nuclear waste under a dome on a Pacific island. Now it’s cracking open, Washington Post, May 20, 2019 and Wikipedia

How to Strengthen the Immune System of Plants: biodiversity

n the past 150 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 410 ppm. For farmers this is mixed news. Any change in familiar weather patterns caused by the atmospheric warming this rise is bringing is bound to be disruptive. But more carbon dioxide means more fuel for photosynthesis and therefore enhanced growth—sometimes by as much as 40%. And for those in temperate zones, rising temperatures may bring milder weather and a longer growing season. (In the tropics the effects are not so likely to be benign.) What is not clear, though, and not much investigated, is how rising CO2 levels will affect the relation between crops and the diseases that affect them…

Plant biology is altered substantially by a range of environmental factors. This makes it difficult to predict what effect a changing climate will have on particular bits of agriculture. Carbon dioxide is a case in point. It enhances growth of many plants but,  it also shifts the defences to favour some types of disease over others.

To make matters even more complicated, evidence is mounting that changes in temperature and water availability also shift plant immune responses. André Velásquez and Sheng Yang He, at Michigan State University, wrote an extensive review on the warfare between plants and diseases in Current Biology in 2018. They noted that though some valuable crops, such as potatoes and rice, experience less disease as moisture levels increase, this is not the case for most plants. High humidity, in general, favours the spread of botanical diseases. The same can be said for temperature—with some diseases, like papaya ringspot virus, thriving in rising temperatures while others, for example potato cyst, are weakened.

The problems are daunting, then, but there is a way to try to solve them… Genes which grant resistance to diseases that might become severe in the future need to be tracked down. Modern crops have been streamlined by artificial selection to be excellent at growing today. This means that they have the genes they need to flourish when faced with the challenges expected from current conditions, but nothing more. Such crops are thus vulnerable to changes in their environment.  One way to find genes that may alter this state of affairs is to look to crops’ wild relatives. Uncossetted by farmers, these plants must survive disease by themselves—and have been fitted out by evolution with genes to do so. Borrowing their dna makes sense. But that means collecting and cataloguing them. This is being done, but not fast enough. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, a charity which works in the area, reckons that about 30% of the wild relatives of modern crops are unrepresented in gene banks, and almost all of the rest are underrepresented….

[This is becuase] most countries are, rightly, protective of their genetic patrimony. If money is to be made by incorporating genes from their plants into crops, they want to have a share of it. It is therefore incumbent on rich countries to abide by rules that enable poor ones to participate in seed collecting without losing out financially. Poor, plant-rich countries are in any case those whose farmers are most likely to be hurt by global warming. It would be ironic if that were made worse because genes from those countries’ plants were unavailable to future-proof the world’s crops.

Excerpts from Blocking the Road to Rusty Death: Climate Change and Crop Disease, Economist,  Apr. 20, 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Assisted Evolution: Engineering Coral Reefs

Imagine ecologists cultivating whole new breeds of trees to restock a devastated wilderness…. Coral conservation has traditionally focused on minimizing damage from insults such as water pollution, invasive starfish, and destructive fishing or tourism. In the Caribbean, some conservationists have worked to “replant” damaged coral. But Gates and Van Oppen [two scientists]  have something more intrusive in mind. They want to try to alter the genetics of coral or the microbes that live on it. They dubb the effort “assisted evolution.”

Coral’s most remarkable characteristic—being an animal that is part plant—is also its Achilles’ heel in a hotter world. Normally, coral polyps—the individual coral organisms, which resemble a sea anemone the size of a pinhead—live in harmony with their algal partners, which help feed the polyps and give corals their bright colors. But during heat waves, the relationship sours. Overheated polyps perceive the algae as an irritant and eject them like unwanted squatters. The coral is left bleached, bone-white and starving. If the heat persists, the coral won’t take in new algae and can die.  The bond between coral and algae is complicated, however, and still not fully understood. Just 25 years ago, for example, researchers believed that coral housed just one variety of symbiotic algae. Now, they have identified hundreds. And they are just beginning to examine the role played by the coral’s microbiome, the menagerie of bacteria that inhabit a coral polyp.

Coral bleaching right.

But the complexity also offers multiple paths for scientists trying to forge a less fragile bond between coral and algae. Today, four major lines of research exist: One involves cross-breeding corals to create heat-tolerant varieties, either by mixing strains within a species or by crossing two species that would not normally interbreed. The second enlists genetic engineering techniques to tweak coral or algae. A third tries to rapidly evolve hardier strains of coral and algae by rearing them for generations in overheated lab conditions. A fourth approach, the newest, seeks to manipulate the coral’s microbiome…

In 2018, Cleves [scientist] became the first to report successfully using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on coral. CRISPR is often touted as a method for making genetically modified species. But Cleves says he isn’t interested in creating new kinds of coral. Rather, he sees CRISPR as a tool for deciphering the inner workings of coral DNA by knocking out, or disabling, genes one by one. He hopes to identify genes that might serve as “master switches” controlling how coral copes with heat and stress—knowledge that could help researchers quickly identify corals in the wild or in the laboratory that are already adapted to heat.

Either way, such efforts to re-engineer coral reefs make people such as David Wachenfeld, chief scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority here, uneasy. The authority is supposed to protect the reef and regulate activities there. In the past, that meant a hands-off approach. Now, he concedes that “it is almost inconceivable that we’re not going to need these tools.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about any of this. This is crisis management.”

He ticks off a list of potential difficulties. Scientists focused on breeding heat-loving coral have to avoid weakening other key traits, such as coping with cold. Introducing a new coral on the scale needed to make a dent on a network of 2900 reefs spanning an area half the size of Texas is a daunting challenge. Even in its damaged state, the Great Barrier Reef still contains hundreds of millions of corals—enough to swamp the genetic impact of new coral species…

Could some kind of “super coral,” as some researchers have dubbed them, also run amok in delicate coral ecosystems.

Excerpts from  The Reef Builders, Science, Mar. 22, 2019

The Unquenchable Thirst for Oil

Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.

To date politicians, particularly in America, have been reluctant to legislate for bold restrictions on carbon. That is in part thanks to ExxonMobil’s attempts to obstruct efforts to mitigate climate change. …ExxonMobil’s policies on climate change remain marred by inconsistencies. In October the company said it was giving $1m, spread over two years, to a group advocating a carbon tax. ExxonMobil maintains that a carbon tax is a transparent and fair way to limit emissions. But the sum is less than a tenth of its federal lobbying spending in 2018. Moreover, the carbon tax it favours would include protection for oil companies from climate lawsuits.

The firm is also working to reduce leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its wells, pipelines and refineries. However the American Petroleum Institute  (API) has been a main force urging Mr Trump’s administration to ease regulations on methane emissions. The API’s other efforts include lobbying against incentives for electric cars.  ExxonMobil is not alone in trying to sway the climate debate in its direction either. Shell, Total and BP are all members of the API. Marathon Petroleum, a refiner, reportedly campaigned to ease Barack Obama’s fuel-economy standards. BP spent $13m to help block a proposal for a carbon tax in Washington state in November. The Western States Petroleum Association, whose membership includes ExxonMobil and Shell, also lobbied to defeat that tax.

While oil companies plan to grow, trends in cleaner energy are moving in the wrong direction. Investments in renewables fell as a share of the total in 2017 for the first time in three years, as spending on oil and gas climbed. In 2018 carbon emissions in America grew by 3.4% as economic activity picked up, even as coal fell out of favour. Mr Woods maintains that any change to the energy supply will be gradual. “I don’t think people can readily understand just how large the energy system is, and the size of that energy system will take time to evolve,” he argues… Out at sea, ExxonMobil is working to increase production. By next year an underwater web of pipes will connect wells on the seabed to a vast vessel. From there the oil will be transferred to smaller tankers, then to the vast infrastructure that can refine and transport it until it reaches consumers in the form of fertiliser, plastic bottles, polyester or, most likely, petrol. From beneath the ocean floor to your car’s tank, for about the price of a gallon of milk.

Excerpts from  Crude Awakening, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019; Bigger Oil, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019

An Umbrella for the Sun: Geo-Engineering

The idea of cooling the climate with stratospheric sunshades that would shield the planet from the sun’s warming rays moved up the international agenda in March 2019, with mixed results. On the one hand, new research suggested that it is theoretically possible to fine-tune such a shield without some of its potentially damaging consequences. Publication of this work coincided with a proposal at the biennial UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, for an expert review of such geoengineering methods. This was the highest-level discussion of the topic so far. On the other hand, the more than 170 nations involved could not arrive at a consensus. In a fitting illustration of the heat surrounding geoengineering, the proposal was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

Under the Paris Agreement, governments have pledged to keep average global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit maximum warming to 1.5°C. Many see these targets as wishful thinking: the planet is already roughly 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and national pledges to cut them fall short of what is needed to hit the 2°C target, let alone 1.5°C.

Faced with this, some think there is a need to turn down the global thermostat using geoengineering. This encompasses a range of possibilities, including technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and others that block incoming solar energy….  The unea resolution was tabled by Switzerland, and by the start of the week it had received support from most governments. It called for an expert review of the science of geoengineering,…Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.  But there are challenges. Stratospheric particles eventually fall back to Earth in rain, so the effect is short-lived. A sunshade would need to be continually resupplied, which is one reason for an international governance framework. If a sunshade were allowed to dissipate while atmospheric CO2 concentrations remained high, global temperatures would rapidly shoot up, with devastating consequences in some regions of the world.  Another problem is the effect of solar geoengineering on the water cycle. Over the past decade, several studies have suggested that sunshades could disproportionately affect rainfall, bringing drought to some regions. But that argument may be oversimplified, according to the new study published in Nature Climate Change .

Position of Sunshade Relative to Earth, Moon and Sun from
http://mycgenie.seao2.info/pubs/Irvine_and_Ridgwell_2009.pdf

Switzerland’s proposal to study geo-engineering was blocked at the UNEA…Several delegates told the Economist that America and Saudi Arabia opposed the Swiss proposal to review geoengineering, preferring the issue to be assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to include something about the technologies in its next big report, expected in 2021. ..But the Swiss proposal was for a more comprehensive appraisal and one that would be delivered more quickly, by August 2020…. Indeed, there are concerns that some geoengineering methods could be unilaterally deployed by one or more nations, to the possible detriment of others.  The Americans, some said, did not appear to want to make room for conversations, let alone make decisions, about a framework for geoengineering that could restrict their future options.

Excerpts from  Sunny with Overcast Features: Geoengineering, Economist, Mar. 16, 2019

Islands are not Disappearing. They Just Suffer

Every so often comes news of islands just up and disappearing. Eight in Micronesia. Five in the Solomon Islands. One off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Yet there’s also been a crop of studies and researchers, led by coastal geomorphologist Paul Kench from Simon Fraser University, saying that island nations such as Tuvalu (long a poster child for the existential threat of sea level rise) not only aren’t disappearing—they’re actually growing. So how do we make sense of this? Are the low-lying islands we know today doomed? Or are we seeing some other process at work? The answer is that a million complicated things are happening all at once, and it provides a window into how hard it is to talk about what’s currently happening to the planet….

Tuvalu not sinking. Growing.

One big culprit that comes up when we talk about disappearing islands is sea level rise, of course. The Sea level was, for a few thousand years up to around the late 19th century, pretty constant, on average. Since the late 1800s, it’s been steadily rising. On average.We keep saying “on average” because sea level changes are not the same in all places. In fact, in a lot of places, the sea level is dropping.… The single largest cause of global sea level rise, right now, isn’t melting glaciers, but the phenomenon called thermal expansion.  Thermal expansion is the tendency of matter, including sea water, to change its volume in response to a change in temperature… Global temperatures have risen by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, with most of that in the last half-century. And that means the water already in the ocean is getting bigger…

Yes, all of this is going to have a major impact on any low-lying land the world over. But the researchers I talked to for this story don’t necessarily think that islands are disappearing right now at a higher rate than they were in past centuries. Of the independent island nations most at risk of disappearing, Tuvalu is near the top of the list. But a 2018 Paul Kench study of all 101 islands—all small and low-lying—that make up Tuvalu reported that there’s no consistency in what is happening there at all. About three quarters of the islands actually grew in size, to one quarter that shrank, over the past 40 years. Overall, during this time period, Tuvalu grew almost three percent. This is not to say that Tuvalu isn’t in a period of intense crisis right now, because the country certainly is. But disappearing—which is a very specific thing—might not be the cause of that crisis, at least not today…. [It is imporant] to  realize that the impacts of the direction that global climate is headed in are simply not going to be the same everywhere.

Paul Kench’s work—which ran counter to the narrative that the days of the low-lying, habitable islands that we know are gone—angered some, who see it as unhelpful to the very real plight of Tuvalu and other South Pacific island nations. But Kench notes that the mere disappearance of some islands shouldn’t be the whole story. Those harsher and more frequent storms send waves of salt water inland—sometimes over entire islands, sometimes into fields, or into fragile island freshwater sources. Homes and infrastructure are at risk, as are the unusual plant, insect, and bird species found on small islands and nowhere else. Scientists are already exploring simply moving endemic species to more stable islands.

Excerpts from DAN NOSOWITZ, How Alarming Is It That Islands Are Just Disappearing? Atlas Obscura, Mar. 2019