We need transparency to make the Paris Agreement work.

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The Paris Agreement is an international plan to reduce carbon emissions in order to help keep the average global temperature at a reasonable level. That temperature is going to rise, but the hope is to keep it from rising too much over the rest of the century, buying us time to figure out better, more environmental practices for agriculture and production. It is predicated on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), wherein countries pledged to reduce their carbon output by a certain amount based on their current output, with the total being enough to, hopefully, restrain temperature increase.

Reducing output is one thing, but measuring it is another. European scientists are warning that if we don’t take special care to develop workable transparency processes, we might not actual reach our goals. They argue that each country involved in the Paris Agreement needs to develop clear, transparent systems by which to measure and report their carbon output, so that other nations can hold them accountable for keeping up their end of the bargain.

There is a strong political element to this as well, which goes beyond the technical. There are important obstacles including concerns about the cost of reporting, control, and the perceived usefulness of the information produced by the reporting.

“An important part of the implementation of the Paris Agreement will hinge on whether political actors can muster the leadership in order to successfully navigate monitoring challenges at the international level,” says study lead author Jonas Schoenefeld. “The EU’s experience shows that incorporating policies into NDCs should be seen as one step in a long journey to better knowledge of climate policies.”

But they also warn that it’s important we don’t allow such measurements to simply be an opportunity to point the blame at countries that didn’t hold up their part of the bargain. This is why we need to put in the work to build this system fairly and across the board, making sure that everyone is one the same page as far as recording and reporting carbon outputs and climate data in general.

This process will take years, but it will be worth the effort. By creating a uniform system, one that ideally does not put undue stress on less developed countries, we can ensure that we have the most current data and able to adapt to it in the future in order to fill in gaps and make sure we meet our goals.


A dragonfly on a milkweed leaf. Photo: Shutterstock

Some of the most significant impacts on the global ecosystem have come from human uses of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture. These chemicals make their way into soil and water, where they cause a number of problems, from killing off unintended plants and insects to increasing the resistance of unintended targets to these very same chemicals.

What’s more, developing such chemicals is basically an ever-escalating war against pests, which breed fast enough to develop immunity to them, resulting in more and newer chemicals constantly being introduced.

In order to reduce all of this, some researchers are now suggesting that allowing weeds, in controlled numbers, to grow amidst crops might be the best option.

“The benefits of weeds have been neglected,” says Kristine M. Averill, a weed research associate at Cornell. “They’re often seen as undesirable, unwanted. We’re now beginning to quantify their benefits.”

Milkweed, for example, can be allowed to grow among corn crops because it attracts aphids, which in turn attract beneficial wasps that lay their eggs inside European corn borer eggs, which kills them. The European corn borer is one of the species that corn farmers are most worried about.

The weeds can also help in a variety of other ways such as resisting erosion and giving homes to Monarch butterflies, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting under the Endangered Species Act because their numbers have dropped dangerously low.

As we grow ever more conscious of how human activity affects the Earth, we need to begin searching in earnest for more options like this, which allow us to preserve crop yields and other production while being better for the environment.

Nothing in nature serves only one purpose, and by studying how organisms like weeds and pest insects function in the wild, we can develop a better grasp on how they might be used in agriculture. Between this and genetic engineering, we may be able to develop agricultural systems that don’t have such an adverse effect on the world around them.


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According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2016 is likely going to be the hottest year on record, meaning that 16 of the 17 hottest years recorded have happened in the 21st Century.

This is based on comparisons to the years between 1961 and 1990, which are used as a baseline because of their relative stability. The year 2016 has had some things working against it—primarily El Niño, which happened in late 2015 and early 2016. This phenomenon has resulted in a hotter and drier period than expected.

On average, this years temperatures are 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, and about 0.88°C above the 1961-1990 averages. Temperatures in Arctic Russia were 6°C to 7°C higher than normal, and sub-arctic Russia, Canada, and Alaska were at least 3°C warmer than normal. This is a significant increase, and it has resulted in a lot of problems.

In addition to Hurricane Matthew, which was the worst humanitarian crisis in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake, extreme weather conditions have been causing economic and life loss throughout the world.

While El Niño is to blame for part of this, its effects faded some time ago. The rest of our problems are due to long-term environmental effects such as greenhouse gas concentration, low levels of Arctic sea ice, and significant and early melting in Greenland. Sea levels are rising, which is making tropical storms worse.

“WMO is working to improve monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions to help countries reduce them,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Better climate predictions over timescales of weeks to decades will help key sectors like agriculture, water management, health and energy plan for and adapt to the future.”

Events such as devastating droughts and floods, which used to happen “once in a generation,” are now happening much more frequently.

Taalas says that in addition, the organization is working to create more impact-based weather forecasts and early warning systems to help strengthen disaster early warning and climate service capabilities, especially in developing countries.

Unless we take some serious steps toward reducing the effects of human activity on the global climate and environment, these things are going to continue, if not increase in frequency and damage. It stands to reason, too, that next year will break some records as well.

Thanks to a satellite, we have climate data going back to 1977.

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Satellites are important in helping scientists understand how the global climate has changed over the last four decades. Thanks to serendipity and a bit of investigation, we now have almost unbroken satellite climate information dating back to late 1977.

We had most of it, but were missing a two-year portion of data which was recently recovered, allowing us to look at information dating back to a period when human action wasn’t doing as much damage as it is now.

That data was extracted from the old nine-track tapes that recorded computerized satellite information in the late 1970s. That data then had to be decoded into a format readable by modern computers. Thanks to the work of a systems engineer and Dr. David Santek, who originally captured the data, that decoding was completed this summer.

The year 1977 might not seem like that long ago, but the world has changed dramatically since then. Not only have we realized that our actions were harming the planet in serious ways, but we’ve been able to see those effects increase and worsen.

Recovering the data, recorded by the Meteostat-1, which orbited along the equator, allows us to see just how much has changed since then. What’s more, we can apply newer, much more informed methodologies to this data, so that we can learn a lot more now than we could have done then.

This is especially impressive as the satellite was originally launched to help forecast weather. The team that launched it likely didn’t think it would help contribute to efforts to hold off and reverse climate change.

Long-term climate data like this is important to understanding just how much the planet is changing, and the more of it we have, the better. We have routine recordings of temperatures, barometric pressure, and other weather measurements dating back to the late 19th century. We can get a lot of information from studying layers of soil and mud, or the rings of trees, which can help give us a broader view. But all of these things have to be taken together, and they don’t provide the kind of detailed information that the Meteostat-1 data can give us.

Research shows that animals survive longer in zoos than they do in the wild.

A woman feeds giraffes at a zoo. Photo: Shutterstock

According to recent research comparing the life expectancy of mammals in zoos with those in the wild, it looks like for most species, they live longer in captivity.

This may not seem surprising, since zoo animals don’t have to be concerned about predators, competition, or food scarcity. This means animals in zoos and sanctuaries can likely live as long, or longer, than they would in the wild. But it does illustrate some interesting things about captivity and successful animal husbandry.

There are arguments that keeping animals in zoos is unethical. While this study does not address that specifically, it does make it apparent that the wild is not a paradise for animals living in it. While zoos are attractions that need to bring in audiences to keep their gates open and their animals cared for, they do provide many opportunities to study those animals and, in some cases, to help rehabilitate them.

The other interesting thing about the study is that all of the animals whose lifespan was studied were, by necessity, already dead. This means that the animals in question were living in zoos that hadn’t yet adopted newer zoo management practices.

The last decade or so has seen changes in how longer-lived animals are cared for, and zoo management has generally become more ethical and humane over time. The movement toward not keeping elephants, for example, because they need far more room than a zoo can provide, means that elephants who may have appeared in this study didn’t benefit from those changes. It also means that animals living in zoos today are largely living better lives than those who appeared in the study.

Hopefully, this study will help us to better understand life expectancy of mammals in the wild as well, so that we might be able to find new directions for research into managing those populations. The last 40 years have been devastating for wild vertebrates, so finding ways to help them survive should be high on our list of priorities.

Convergent evolution shown between reptiles and dinosaurs

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Convergent evolution is the idea, quite widespread in biology, that organisms can evolve similar features without being related.

Bird and bat wings are a good example: they evolved separately, and along very different branches of the vertebrate evolutionary tree, but look quite similar and serve the same purpose. There are lots of examples throughout nature, and likely throughout the fossil record as well. We’ve got some new proof of the latter, and it’s pretty interesting.

In the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration was created to give people jobs working on infrastructure—building roads and parks all over the country. While at it, the WPA found a huge number of fossils, which were gathered up, protected, and sent to various universities and museums. A lot of them just sat in storage, and we find “new” species in those samples pretty regularly.

One such species, Triopticus primus, is a reptile with a very thick upper skull, not unlike the pachycephalosaur dinosaurs that would come along over 100 million years later. In fact, a number of species from the same era as Triopticus share some structural similarities with dinosaurs, despite living well before them.

“What we thought were unique body shapes in many dinosaurs actually evolved millions of years before in the Triassic Period, about 225 million years ago,” says paleontologist Michelle Stocker, one of the researchers.

In that era, a variety of reptile species had traits that dinosaurs would come to develop, in very different ecosystems and evolutionary contexts. What makes this convergent evolution is that the dinosaurs did not evolve from these reptiles. These species all died out, their traits with them, well before dinosaurs came along.

Convergent evolution is basically nature’s way of saying “there are only so many kinds of situations, and while evolution could develop unique ways to deal with them, it’s probably easier to just use what works when you can.”

“Triopticus exemplifies the phenomenon of body-shape convergence,” Stocker says, “because its skull shape was repeated by very distantly related dome-headed dinosaurs more than 100 million years later.”

The arctic works overtime at removing nitrogen.

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Nitrogen is necessary for all life on Earth, but like many things, its possible to have too much of it.

For most of the Earth’s history, there was a careful nitrogen balance maintained between land, sea, and atmosphere. This was done through a process called denitrification. However, human activity has caused high levels of nitrogen in the earth’s oceans.

When fertilizer and sewage make their way into the ocean, it produces areas where there is simply too much nitrogen. This produces fish kills, toxic algae blooms, shellfish poisoning, and loss of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and other coastal habitats.

One of the denitrification processes is handled by microbes found on seabeds of continental shelves. Interestingly the Arctic, which only accounts for 1 percent of these shelves, is actually responsible for 5 percent of global ocean nitrogen removal.

“The role of this region is critically important to understand as humans put more nitrogen into the ocean,” says Amber Hardison of the University of Texas at Austin, one of the authors of the paper. “The Arctic is also undergoing dramatic changes linked to climate change, including a rapid decline in sea ice. As sea ice shrinks, it disrupts the natural functioning of the ecosystem, including potentially limiting the vital nitrogen removal process.”

Animals living on and in the seafloor also play a role in denitrifiation. These creatures, including worms and clams, make tubes and burrows in the seabed, which makes a space for the microbes to do their job.

This new information might help us to better understand how ocean nitrogen removal works, as well as how our on actions impact it. By studying the microbes in the Arctic seabed, scientists can get a better understanding of how this denitrification process works. Then, by comparing them to other, similar microbes, they can get an idea of why Arctic microbes are so much better at denitrification. This could help them come to a conclusion about how to assist that process, which could help us offset the extra nitrogen that we’ve been leaking into the ocean.

This also means that protecting the Arctic is even more important. Oil and gas companies have been eyeing Arctic waters as a possible place to find untapped quantities of fossil fuels. They can only do because global climate change, brought about by the use of fossil fuels, has made those waters more accessible, but numerous scientists have argued that tapping such reserves could be bad for the Arctic and the world at large.