The California Academy of Sciences has installed a living roof.

A living roof. Photo: Shutterstock

The California Academy of Sciences is dedicated to combining research and education like no other museum. This is true even with the roof. The Academy has a living roof—a 2.5-acre field sitting 35 feet above the ground. It is covered with a variety of indigenous Californian species and almost 2 million individual plants. The Bernard Osher Foundation made a $20 million donation specifically for this project, which began in 2005 and was finished by September 2008.

Several architecture groups worked together to create this never-been-done-before roof. The roof includes several hills, or steeply sloped domes. One of them has an incline of 60 degrees. The roof was structured using 50,000 modular porous trays made from tree sap and coconut husks. These held the plants in place while the roots grew together and interlocked, similar to sewing the pieces on a patchwork quilt.

In addition to being the densest concentration of wildflowers in San Francisco, this roof provides a habitat for birds, bees and other important animals. The plants also provide immense benefits to the building below. The plants absorb 98 percent of all storm water, meaning runoff with pollutants is not further entering the ecosystem

The plants keep the interior 10 degrees cooler than the average San Francisco roof. In addition the solar panels that are laid out with the plants provide up to 10 percent of the electricity needed for the Academy.

Among the more technical features of the roof is its automated skylight system. In addition to collecting basic weather data, the system monitors the inside of the Academy and the inside of the jungle exhibit. Using this data, it opens and shuts the skylights to regulate temperatures as necessary.

While most people don’t come to the Academy for the roof, it is certainly an impressive feat and is a great example for more projects to come.


The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, recently got the right to draw water from Lake Michigan (pictured).

Lake Michigan

The Great Lakes contain vast amounts of fresh water, but keeping that water safe is important because tapping too much could have devastating ecological effects on the lakes themselves and people living near them. For that reason, states within the Great Lakes watershed, where water from the lakes naturally reaches, are quite protective of the region and generally don’t allow communities outside the watershed access to the lakes.

That just changed, though. The city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, won the right to draw water from the lake rather than their own groundwater sources.

Waukesha’s groundwater is contaminated with naturally occurring radium, so the city has spent 10 years trying to get access to Lake Michigan.

The states in the watershed signed a compact in 2008 to protect the waters, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec adopted similar legislation but were not involved in the vote to approve Waukesha’s use of the water.

Ontario residents and experts have expressed concern that this will urge other communities near the watershed to make a grab for the Great Lakes. While the length of time and the expenditure to win that access has been extreme and may be a deterrent to other communities, those opposed to the access have a fair point. Waukesha has been criticized for not seriously considering other actions to tend to their water supply, like treating the water that they do have, before pushing for Great Lakes water.

As other communities begin to chip away at the compact, it will likely get easier to gain access to the Great Lakes, but that could be devastating ecologically. Water is an important resource, and when communities have access to water but don’t take the steps to protect that access, that resource can quite literally dry up.

A greenhouse full of plants. Scientists have found a way to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global climate change. The good news is that plants use it for energy, converting it into oxygen, which animals need to breathe. The bad news is that using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.

However, plants can also teach us how to deal with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A team at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

You may be alarmed by the production of carbon monoxide, as it is a known poison that can lead to suffocation and death. However, it’s much more reactive than carbon dioxide, which means it can be more easily converted into usable fuel sources.

“Making fuel from carbon monoxide means traveling ‘downhill’ energetically, while trying to create it directly from carbon dioxide means needing to go ‘uphill,’” said Argonne physicist Peter Zapol, one of the authors of the study.

The system by which the scientists did this took inspiration from plants, using many of the same ingredients, like light and water, that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into sugars. They even created an artificial leaf through which they processed the carbon dioxide. The process is very efficient, which is important because the more efficient a process, the cheaper it is and the more likely it is to catch on.

Carbon dioxide pollution is an important issue that scientists have been trying to address for decades now. While many plans going forward call for a reduction in carbon dioxide production, and that will certainly help, it won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by what is already in the atmosphere.

Other plans involve sequestering carbon dioxide by storing it underground, but that can be difficult and expensive, and it doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide.

Turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and subsequently into methanol could be a huge boon, as it would reduce greenhouse gases and provide renewable fuel sources.

Ice floes near Iceland. We are missing historical climate data from the Arctic.

Many of the gaps in our historical climate record are from the Arctic. Photo: Shutterstock

If you follow climate science or environmental news, you are no doubt aware of the fact that there are a lot of seemingly conflicting reports about how much the global average temperature has risen and is rising.

Scientists, even the vast majority who support the existence of climate change, can disagree on just how much temperatures have changed, or how much they’re going to change. And the difference is largely due to how they get their data.

Estimates of temperature change based on computer models are often more severe than those based on historical data, looking at temperatures from various points around the world throughout the last century and a half. The reason for that difference is that historical records are incomplete.

Any historian would tell you that no historical record is complete, but in many cases, we don’t know what’s missing there. But in the case of climate data, we now for sure that many of the gaps are from the Arctic.

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the Earth, but that’s hard to tell from historical data because there are long periods where those temperatures weren’t being measured. Different sources of data such as air temperatures versus water temperatures can yield different results. Water warms more slowly, so water temperatures do not reflect changing global temperatures as quickly.

This doesn’t mean that historical data isn’t useful. It still remains an important part of studying human effects on the world, but it is an incomplete part. Computer modeling can be used to try and fill in some of those gaps, and efforts to do that have found estimates of future temperature change that are more in line with purely computer-modeled systems.

Science is as much about what you don’t know as it is about what you do, and knowing now what we didn’t know can help us in the future.

A European Badger peeks out of its cave. Badgers have been found to fear humans more than larger animal predators.

A European Badger peeks out of its den. Photo: Shutterstock

Human activity has had immeasurable effect on the planet. While we’re all aware that climate change is our fault, we’re also having other effects on the world around us. It turns out that humans also have negative psychological impacts on our animal neighbors.

New research from the United Kingdom has shown that animals fear human “superpredators” more than any other predators.

Large predators like wolves or tigers are relatively few in healthy ecosystems, but they instill a great deal of fear—not just in their usual prey, but in smaller predators with whom they share those ecosystems. That fear helps to keep smaller predators from overhunting, because they abandon their own hunt to get away from something that might eat them.

There has been some well-founded concern that the removal of natural predators from ecosystems has removed this fear and negatively impacted those ecosystems, but the argument that humans have replaced that fear has acted as a counter. This new research finds that animals like badgers fear humans far more than creatures that might naturally prey on them.

Playing sounds from hidden speakers while badgers were feeding outside of Oxford, the researchers found that while the sounds of bears or dogs sometimes got the badgers to forego eating in order to hide, any sounds related to humans caused most badgers to go into hiding. Those few that stayed out spent much less time feeding than normal.

What this tells us is that the psychological impact of living near humans might be greater than the loss of fear from the removal of larger predators. Foxes, badgers, and other small predators that seem acclimated to humans might actually be facing significant and unnatural levels of stress while they try to survive in urban and rural environments. The full impact this might have on ecosystems remains to be seen.

Colorado River in Arizona

Efforts to “rewet” the Colorado River have led to a slight increase in carbon emissions–but it might be worth it in the long run.
Image: Shutterstock

The Colorado River isn’t what it used to be. Because it is so important to so many communities, it has been tinkered with for years. The Hoover Dam and others like it along the Colorado River have resulted in river water rarely reaching the ocean. The Colorado River now has a dry delta, and where once there were healthy wetlands, they’ve been reduced to about 5% of their original size. Invasive plant species have replaced many native species, which has reduced biodiversity and negatively impacts the ecosystem.

That’s why the federal government released 130 million cubic meters of water (about 52,000 Olympic swimming pools) into the river basin in order to kick start the river again. That’s still only about 1% of the total water that used to flow down the Colorado. The goal is to get wetlands and river ecosystems back in action and to provide more water for agriculture and other uses. This kind of flooding is a useful tactic that has been used elsewhere.

But researchers attached to the project learned something new about this process: wetting dry riverbeds in this way releases a great deal of carbon and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise have been stored in the ground. Some of it thousands of years old. These gases are released into the water and, presumably, into the atmosphere as well. Water is an excellent system for trapping such gases, but it can only hold so much. Too much carbon in water makes it acidic, which is bad for wildlife.

Overall, though, the researchers are confident that the benefits of rewetting the riverbed outweigh this potential downside. One such benefit is the fact that rewetting the riverbed can lead to a flourishing of indigenous plants, which are better at trapping carbon than invasive species. That new growth in and of itself may offset the additional release of greenhouse gases.

Forest and mountains

In order to preserve forests, many states will require significant financial assistance.
Image: Shutterstock

Forests are valuable as carbon sinks, in that they take up a lot of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. As such, protecting forests is an important part of the world’s current strategies for keeping global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius before the end of the century.

But preserving forests, especially in developing countries, can be difficult and expensive. That’s why funding from large donors, such as Japan or Germany, is almost a requirement. Luckily, the five largest donors to climate change mitigation–Japan, Germany, Norway, France, and the United States–tend to allocate large amounts of their donations for the preservation of forest carbon sinks.

It’s not a perfect process, though. There are a number of factors that are considered by these donors when determining who gets money, and in many cases, those donations go to states with close trade relations or which are perceived as having “good governance.” Those aren’t exactly terrible reasons to choose recipients, but those states aren’t always the most in need of such funds. States with poorer governance, for example, have a harder time allocating funds towards climate change mitigation projects and may need more money and more help in order to reach their goals. There are a great many states out there that may not seem like “ideal” candidates, but that have a lot to offer to the collaborative process of climate change mitigation.

As more and more money is sunk into these projects in the coming years, it will be important to start thinking of these donations less as economic or trade investments and more as environmental investments. We need to have an eye for the global situation when preserving forests, and that means investing money in states that might not be “safe bets.” Saving the world will require some risks, after all.