Megadroughts lasting 35 years may become part of our reality if climate change continues at its present rate.

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Megadroughts, dry periods which can last up to 35 years, don’t happen often, but there is ample evidence that they’ve occurred in the American Southwest between 1300 and 100 BCE. We also know that major droughts, whether megadroughts or not, have destroyed several ancient civilizations.

Drought is something to take very seriously because recent a recent study led by Cornell University suggests that the chances of such a megadrought striking in the American Southwest will increase significantly over the course of this century.

As the average temperature around the Earth goes up, soil will have a harder time holding on to moisture, and the way water is balanced between soil, plants, and the surface will change. In places like the Southwest, which are already dry, this could be disastrous.

If global temperatures go up by 2 degrees Celsius over the next century, it will increase the chances of a Southwest megadrought over the next century by 20 to 50 percent. If they hit 4 degrees Celsius, that chance increase to 70 to 99 percent.

While “over the next century” may not seem too soon, bear in mind that the year 2100 is part of that century, as are the 34 years after it, and you could well have family members who live through it.

There is still hope, though. If scientists can develop a system to drastically cut greenhouse gases, something that a lot of researchers around the country are already trying to do, we can prevent the temperature from rising that much and keep the chances of a megadrought closer to what they are, which, while it isn’t 0 percent, it is a lot less likely.

“I wouldn’t ever bet against our ability to, under pressure, come up with solutions and ideas for surmounting these challenges, said study co-author Jason Smerdon of Columbia University, “but the sooner we take this seriously and start planning for it, the more options we will have and the fewer serious risks we’ll face.”

A pride of lions rests under a tree

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Trophy hunting is, unfortunately, a pastime shared by a number of people, and one which is unlikely to fall by the wayside any time soon. It has long been a thorn in the side of conservationists, as not all trophy hunters care about laws, like the dentist who shot Cecil the Lion last year, an individual animal who was legally protected.

But according to conservationists, there may be a good side to trophy hunting of species like lions: it can actually benefit conservation. In the case of lions, they need very large territories, which are hard to maintain, but they are also increasingly only found in protected areas. This means that lions are on their way to being a species that only exists because of careful conservation, and maintaining populations is an important part of that conservation.

A study by researchers from the University of Kent has found that hunting companies that are granted hunting rights within preserves for long periods of time—for example, 10 years or more—take much more care in how they manage that land. They are more careful about how often they allow hunts and what kind of limits they allow, all of which fall under national guidelines in places like Zimbabwe. Companies that had rights for shorter periods of time were less concerned with conservation.

The research team says that by carefully using incentives and hunting rights contracts, preserves could actually use trophy-hunting culture to the advantage of lions. It is cheaper to manage the territory needed, and the animal populations are kept in check, so that lions don’t over-hunt other species in the preserves, or drive each other out of the preserves in search of food sources.

Of course, this kind of management would require some rewriting of contracts, but that seems a small price to pay.

What do you think? Is it possible for trophy hunters to actually help conservation efforts, as the researchers argue? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Gannets diving. Photo: Shutterstoci

Gannets diving. Photo: Shutterstock

Gannets are seabirds that nest in the United Kingdom and are on that nation’s Amber List for conservation. They fly high into the air and then dive into the water to catch fish, and the pattern of that dive can tells us how deep their going, which in turn tells us something about the ecosystem of the areas in which they fish.

When the birds dive in a V shape, they are getting their prey from very close to the surface, and when they make a U-shaped dive, they are going deeper and staying underwater for longer. When they fish along oceanic fronts, where two bodies of water meet, they overwhelmingly (94 percent of the time) use V-shaped dives.

Oceanic fronts have strong gradients in both salinity and temperature, and are important parts of the ocean ecosystem as a whole. They are home to a greater concentration of plankton than normal and therefore can maintain larger fish populations near the surface. This is especially good for seabirds like the gannet, which has a limit to how deep it can dive in search of food.

These aspects of oceanic fronts can make them important focal points for conservation efforts, though to date there are few such fronts that are considered protected areas. A better understanding of how these areas work and affect neighboring ecosystems can give us further knowledge on how best to conserve those ecosystems, which requires that we protect and study oceanic fronts in the first place.

Many seabirds have wide ranges, which means that they are members of a variety of ecosystems, so preserving their food sources in one ecosystem can have a beneficial effect on others. We can identify oceanic fronts using satellites, and we know that they play important ecological roles, so the next step is finding ways to protect them from human activity.

Young children and pets are particularly at risk for exposure to toxic chemicals in dust.

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The dust in your house could be exposing you and your family to many toxic chemicals.

A team of researchers at George Washington University examined data from household dust samples from around the U.S. and put together a report detailing the top 10 toxic materials found in that dust.

How do toxins get into dust? Many products ranging from vinyl flooring to furniture to cleaners and building materials have these chemicals in them. Young children and pets have a disproportionate risk of exposure because they are closest to the floor and clean themselves or put their hands in their mouths.

TCEP, a flame retardant added to couches, baby products, electronic, and other products, had the highest estimated intake.

Next on the intake list were four phthalates. These chemicals are thought to interfere with hormones in the body and are linked to an array of health issues including respiratory problems and decreased IQ.

Highly fluorinated chemicals are found in cell phones, pizza boxes, and many non-stick products. Exposure to these substances has been linked to health problems of the immune, digestive, developmental, and endocrine systems.

“The number and levels of toxic and untested chemicals that are likely in every one of our living rooms was shocking to me,” says Veena Singla, Ph.D., staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of the study. “Harmful chemicals used in everyday products and building materials result in widespread contamination of our homes.”

The problem is that these studies, while alarming, may actually underestimate the exposure faced by young children and pets.

So what’s a person to do if they want to reduce their family’s exposure to these toxic chemicals?

The study’s authors recommend using a strong vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter in order to keep household dust levels low. They also recommend washing hands frequently and searching out personal care and household products that don’t contain these chemicals.

What do you do to minimize your and your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

A first of its kind study in Italy has shown the direct effects of air pollution, and subsequent attempts to reduce it, on the amount of light that reaches soil. Based on daily radiation records of soil from 50 locations around Italy, the authors of the study have shown that after the early 1980s, more solar radiation reached soil on clear days than it had in the previous 30 years of measurement.

The reason for the change is the reduction of aerosols and other pollutants that took place as environmental laws changed. When they enter the atmosphere, air pollutants stagnate there and block the solar radiation coming through the atmosphere.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, there was a significant reduction—or dimming—that was most noticeable on clear days. The increase of air pollution during the 1960s and 1970s is the most obvious culprit here, as smog and other pollutants refracted light and result in less of it reached the ground. That decreased light impacted plant growth and ambient temperatures.

However, following efforts to clean up and reduce air pollution, which were initiated in the early 1980s, there has been a general increase, or brightening, on clear days. Thus, plants received more light than they had in the previous decades.

This study is the first to focus on Italy, but the findings are in line with trends reported from around the world. It gives us yet more proof of the measurable impact green initiatives have had. Looking at this study, for example, shows data-originated proof that the reduction in air pollution has an objective, measurable impact on the lived experience of plants, animals, and microbes on the Earth.

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere from numerous sources, and when there’s too much of it, it causes global warming. That is a gross oversimplification, but the issue of global climate change is far too complex to fit into one sentence. Part of the reason it’s so complex is because there are a lot of parts of the process that we don’t understand very well yet. The role of soil in the process is one of those.

It may not seem, at first glance, that soil has a big part to play in climate change, but it actually holds onto a lot of carbon, which might otherwise get into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

While scientists have known for some time that soil acts as a carbon pool, they still don’t fully understand how much carbon soil can hold. Recent research implies that previous models of how much carbon can be stored in soil were inaccurate. Thus, they didn’t know how much carbon soil was holding, and how much it was releasing into the atmosphere (called carbon dioxide efflux).

While previous models were pretty accurate on barren or mesotrophic (moderately fertile) soils, they may have underestimated how much carbon could be held by more fertile soils. This means that many forests, which tend to have more fertile soil, could be helping to hold back even more carbon dioxide than we thought. That’s a good thing, until those forests get cut down.

Forestry, the science of maintaining forests, has traditionally been more concerned with not running out of resources, but increasingly has come to be concerned with the environmental effects of poorly managed forests. Cutting down swaths of forests that are holding onto significant amounts of carbon dioxide, could lead to much of that carbon entering the atmosphere.

Better understanding of soil as a carbon dioxide storage point will give scientists and foresters a better understanding of how to manage forests so that we don’t make climate change even worse through clear-cutting or other such practices.

Malagasy cat-eyed snake

The Malagasy cat-eyed snake (Madagascarophis meridionalis) is a relative of the ghost snake. Photo: Shutterstock

It might seem that, by 2016, it would be pretty rare to discover new species of animals. But a team of researchers from Louisiana State University have done just that.

They were looking for specimens of a different species when they found a snake they’d never seen before: Madagascarophis lolo, the ghost snake.

This snake’s very pale coloration and the fact that only one has ever been discovered earned it the name “ghost snake.” Lolo means ghost in the local Malagasy language.

The ghost snake belongs to a group of “cat-eyed snakes,” which have slit pupils like cats and are most active at night. They’re among the most common kinds of snake in Madagascar, but the closet relative of the ghost snake is found about 100 kilometers away, and it has only been known for a few years.

“If this commonly known, wide group of snakes harbors this hidden diversity, what else is out there that we don’t know about?” says Sara Ruane, a post-doctoral researcher at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and lead author of the paper.

The team did genetic testing to determine whether the ghost snake is a separate species form other Madagascarophis species or simply a variant of one that is already known.

“All of the analysis we did supported that this is a distinct species despite the fact that we only have this one individual,” Ruane says.

The trek to get to the recently opened part of the popular Ankarana National Park was made more difficult by the heavy rains the team had to deal with. The rainy season is when snakes and their prey are often most active in Madagascar, so it’s the best time for researchers to look for them. The ghost snake’s activity during the rainy season might have helped it remain a secret, especially in an otherwise well-known region.

All in all, Madagascarophis lolo has certainly earned the name ghost snake.