Climate Change, Nature, Science

“Climate Engineering” Plan Could Have Unintended Consequences

A squirrel peeking out of a tree
“Climate engineering,” also known as geoengineering, in order to reduce climate change could have unintended consequences. Photo: Shutterstock

The world is facing a climate crisis, there’s no doubt about it. Some of the best and brightest minds in the world are working hard to come up with solutions. One such solution involves “climate engineering” in the form of spraying sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere to create a sulfuric acid cloud, as large volcanic eruptions do.

But as with most things, there are potential unintended consequences.

First, sulfuric acid is the main component of acid rain, which devastates forests, acidifies waterways to the detriment of aquatic life, and corrodes building materials and paints. In the United States, there were extensive efforts to clean up emissions from coal-fired power plants and steel refineries after it was discovered in the late 1970s that acid rain from these factories’ emissions was devastating forests in the Northeast.

Secondly, even if the world’s scientists decided that the risk of acid rain was less than the risk of absolute ecological disaster and decided to go ahead with their mission of spraying sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, new research from Rutgers University shows that suddenly stopping the spraying would have a devastating effect on animals and plants.

Basically, if the spraying were to stop, the atmosphere would warm rapidly.

“Rapid warming after stopping geoengineering would be a huge threat to the natural environment and biodiversity,” said study lead author Rutgers Distinguished Professor Alan Robock. “If geoengineering ever stopped abruptly, it would be devastating, so you would have to be sure that it could be stopped gradually, and it is easy to think of scenarios that would prevent that. Imagine large droughts or floods around the world that could be blamed on geoengineering, and demands that it stop. Can we ever risk that?”

But how would “climate engineering” with sulfur dioxide work? Basically, the cloud of sulfuric acid that forms after the airplanes spray sulfur dioxide would reflect solar radiation and cool the planet. The spraying would lead to an even distribution of sulfuric acid clouds in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, which could lower the global temperature by about 1 degree Celsius—about the level of global warming since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-1800s.

However, planes would have to fly continuously into the upper atmosphere to maintain the cloud, because it would only last about a year if spraying stopped. But plants and animals simply can’t evolve that quickly, much less move quickly enough to find suitable new habitats.

“In many cases, you’d have to go one direction to find the same temperature but a different direction to find the same precipitation,” Robock said. “Plants, of course, can’t move reasonably at all. Some animals can move and some can’t.”

Another possible complication of the spraying plan: one side effect of it would be an El Niño warming of the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, which would cause a devastating drought in the Amazon.

Ultimately, what it all comes down to is that sulfur dioxide spraying may not be a viable option to keep global climate change under control. Between the effects of acid rain and the need for animals and plants to find suitable new habitats rapidly if the spraying stops and the temperatures changes rapidly, spraying of sulfur dioxide sounds like it could well cause more problems than it cures.

Climate Change, Nature, Science

‘Global Thermometer’ Is Tracking Temperature Extremes

A tropical area during low-water season.
Droughts in the tropics are just one consequence of rising global land temperatures. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a paper published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, large areas of the earth are experiencing rising maximum temperatures.

This may sound like a no-brainer, given that we’re in an era of unprecedented global warming, but the conclusions drawn through this research are based on changes in land surface temperatures rather than changes in air and water temperatures.

The researchers analyzed records from NASA’s Aqua satellite between 2003 and 2014 and found spikes in maximum surface temperatures occurred in the tropical forests of Africa and South America and in much of Europe and Asia in 2010, and in Greenland in 2012. These measurements coincided with phenomena including severe droughts in the tropics and heat waves and wildfires across the northern hemisphere. The 2012 land surface temperature spike in Greenland was associated with massive melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

What exactly is land surface temperature? It’s a measurement of the heat radiated by land—including soil, rock, and pavement—and vegetation such as trees and grass. Weather stations generally measure air temperatures just above the surface, so the satellite readings of land surface temperature are critically important in the study of global climate change.

“Imagine the difference between the temperature of the sand and the air at the beach on a hot summer day,” said study lead author David Mildrexler, who received his Ph.D. from Oregon State University. “The air might be warm, but if you walk barefoot across the sand, it’s the searing hot surface temperature that’s burning your feet. That’s what the satellites are measuring.”

The researchers studied annual maximum land surface temperatures averaged across 8-day periods throughout the year. They used data from the Aqua satellite, which crosses the equator in the early afternoon as temperatures reach their daily peak.

“As anyone who pays attention to the weather knows, the Earth’s temperature has incredible variability,” Mildrexler said. However, he added, the planet’s profile of high temperatures tends to be fairly stable from year to year. The researchers’ discovery of a consistent year-to-year profile allowed them to develop a new global-change indicator that uses the entire planet’s maximum land surface temperatures.

“The maximum surface temperature profile is a fundamental characteristic of the Earth system, and these temperatures can tell us a lot about changes to the globe,” said Mildrexler. “It’s clear that the bulk shifts we’re seeing in these maximum temperatures are correlated with major changes to the biosphere. With global temperatures projected to continue rising, tracking shifts in maximum temperature patterns and the consequences to Earth’s ecosystems every year globally is potentially an important new means of monitoring biospheric change.”

In other words, this new research supports the conclusions of a whopping 97 percent of scientists, who believe that global climate change is real, and it’s happening fast, and we need to do something to mitigate that before we reach a point of no return.

Climate Change, Nature

Global Warming is Drenching the Northeast

Climate change has brought warmer, wetter weather to the Northeast, and that could have a catastrophic effect on farmers in the region.
Potatoes, one of the key cash crops in the Northeastern state of Maine, could be severely affected by warmer and wetter weather. Photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash

Last week I wrote about how drought conditions in California, caused by climate change, are causing an increase in the number of wildfires there. But on the other side of the country, things are getting warmer and wetter, and that’s hurting farmers in lots of ways.

You might thing that longer growing seasons and a warming climate would benefit the Northeast, which historically has long, cold winters. However, the increasing amount of rain those warmer temperatures are causing has brought flooded fields and an increase in diseases.

For the past two decades, the Northeast has been getting warmer for longer periods of time, and, according to researchers at Cornell University, has experienced a 71 percent increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. That’s more than any other region in the U.S.

Heavy rainfall increases the likelihood that plants will develop diseases like potato late blight (potatoes are the number-one cash crop in Maine, so this is a big deal for farmers in that state) and fungal problems that stress carrots and other root vegetables.

“Heavy rains not only cause disease problems, but can prevent farmers from having access to the fields to plant in spring or harvest in fall,” said David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell and senior author of the paper.

These extreme rainfall events are expected to continue through the current century, the researchers say.

Farmers’ profit hinges on reaching markets early, when their crops have the most value. Delayed planting due to wet spring soils can have severe negative effects on farmers’ finances. Although they could try planting fields when they’re wet, their heavy farm equipment will compact soil and decrease its ability to hold water, according to the researchers. This, of course, will result in diminishing crop yields.

However, the news isn’t all bad.

“Climate change can easily intensify agricultural susceptibility, but also presents fresh, surprising opportunities,” Wolfe said.

What those opportunities are, remains to be seen. But it’s increasingly clear that farmers all across the country—and all around the world—are going to have to adapt to the changing climate in their areas.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Nature

Has Climate Change Influenced California’s Latest Trouble With Wildfires?

Are wildfires increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change?
Are wildfires increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change? Photo: Shutterstock

It’s been a brutal season of wildfires this fall up and down California, with devastating blazes hitting wine country in the northern part of the state in October and the Los Angeles area now facing a fierce set of fast-growing blazes. Scientists have speculated that human-influenced climate change has contributed to this trend in no small part, and it may continue to do so in the years ahead.

According to InsideClimate News, a wide variety of people’s actions have played a role in complicating the West Coast’s wildfire problem. Rampant development has created more kindling for the fires to spread, and higher temperatures have pulled the moisture out of soil and vegetation. This has left a great deal of dry timber and underbrush that makes it easy for fires to burn.

“There’s a clear climate signal in these fires because of the drought conditions connected to climate change,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

Hot and dry weather has become far more common in California over the years. The average temperature in the summer rose by 2 degrees Fahrenheit between 1950 and 2000, making it so even a wet, cool winter isn’t sufficient to offset the hotter summer climate. In fact, there’s reason to believe winter rains have made the summer and autumn fires worse, as there’s more flammable grass and brush growing than ever.

“As long as there’s fuel to burn, your chances of having large fires increases when you increase temperatures,” Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams told InsideClimate News. “It’s that simple.”

There’s reason to believe that unless both the California state government and the corporate world take active steps to reduce their carbon footprint, extreme events like droughts and fires will only continue. Research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University estimates that while there were only about five extremely dry events per decade in the 1930s, the state is on pace for 10 such events every 10 years during the 2070s.

Climate Change, Conservation, Nature, Science

Great Barrier Reef May Be More Resilient Than Once Thought

New research indicates that the Great Barrier Reef may be more resilient than once thought--but that doesn't mean there's no reason for concern.
A sea turtle swims above the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Shutterstock

New research gives us reason for hope that the Great Barrier Reef is not set up for doom, despite the extensive damage and bleaching of the reef itself.

Scientists at the University of Queensland, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO, and the University of Sheffield have recently published a paper with the results of an extensive study in which they found that there are still 100 reefs on the Great Barrier Reef that could help to promote the regional recovery of its ecosystem.

The Great Barrier Reef consists of more than 3,800 individual reefs. These reefs have suffered unprecedented coral bleaching events over the past couple of years. Additionally, the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish has also been plaguing the reef system.

The new study shows that there are 100 reefs that fulfill three criteria to promote coral recovery. First, they should lie in cool areas and rarely experience damage from bleaching, thus being able to supply larvae to as many reefs as possible. In addition, reefs should be located in areas of current that can supply coral larvae to as many reefs as possible; and they should not spread the larvae of the crown-of-thorns starfish.

“Finding these 100 reefs is a little like revealing the cardiovascular system of the Great Barrier Reef,” said study author Professor Peter Mumby. “Although the 100 reefs only make up 3 percent of the entire GBR, they have the potential to supply larvae to almost half of the entire ecosystem in a single year.”

“The presence of these well-connected reefs on the Great Barrier Reef means that the whole system of coral reefs possesses a level of resilience that may help it bounce back from disturbances, as the recovery of the damaged locations is supported by the influx of coral larvae from the non-exposed reefs,” said study lead author Dr. Karlo Hock.

Dr. Hock added that this does not mean the Great Barrier Reef corals are safe or in great condition. There is still plenty of reason for concern when it comes to the health of the GBR. “The fact that the study only identified around 100 of these reefs across the entire 2,300-km length of the massive Great Barrier Reef emphasizes the need for both effective local protection of critical locations and reduction of carbon emissions in order to support this majestic ecosystem.”

However, the research also indicates that focusing efforts on these healthy and well-connected reefs, and continual monitoring of those reefs’ health, may be a step toward restoration of the reef. The ecosystem is still vulnerable to the effects of climate change and predation. So, there’s reason for hope, but that optimism must remain guarded until the forces that caused the death of vast swathes of the reef system can be controlled.

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Global Warming Hiatus? Not So Much

The "global warming hiatus" really wasn't. Read more in this post.
Arctic glaciers. Photo: Shutterstock

New data from the University of Alaska Fairbanks shows that missing Arctic temperature data, not the climate, created the seeming “pause” of global warming from 1998 to 2012.

In fact, the improved datasets the researchers gathered shows that the Arctic warmed six times faster than the global average during the so-called global warming hiatus.

Atmospheric scientist Xiangdong Zhang collaborated with colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Chinese agencies studying Arctic warming to analyze temperature data collected from buoys in the Arctic Ocean.

“We recalculated the average global temperatures from 1998 to 2012 and found that the rate of global warming had continued to rise at 0.112 degrees C per decade instead of slowing down to 0.05 degrees C per decade as previously thought,” Zhang said.

How did the data lead scientists down the wrong path before?

Most current estimates use global data that represents a long timespan and provides good coverage of a global geographic area. But the Arctic, being so remote, lacks a comprehensive network of instruments to collect accurate temperature data.

To improve the dataset, Zhang’s team relied on temperature data collected from the International Arctic Buoy Program at the University of Washington. For global data, the team used newly corrected sea surface temperatures provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By doing so, the team was able to re-estimate the average global temperatures during that time with more accurate and representative data.

The global warming hiatus is a hotly debated topic among climate scientists. Some say that an unusually warm El Niño in 1997-1998, followed by an extended period afterward that didn’t have an El Niño may have disrupted global warming.

It was a nice dream, but unfortunately, the new data sets and resulting estimates prove conclusively that global warming did not pause at all. Not only that, but until recently, scientists didn’t consider the Arctic big enough to greatly influence global temperatures.

“The Arctic is remote only in terms of physical distance,” Zhang said. “In terms of science, it’s close to every one of us. It’s a necessary part of the equation and the answer affects us all.”

Nature, oceans

New Study Says Sea Animals Eat Plastic Because of Its Taste

A new study says that sea animals may like plastic because it tastes good.
These coral polyps are feeding–and most likely ingesting lots of microplastics in the process. Photo: Shutterstock

Scientists have long known that plastic in the oceans can mimic prey, causing huge problems for sea life. But what they didn’t know is that even corals eat plastic.

Corals don’t have eyes, and they don’t move from their location, so why would they eat plastic? Apparently because it tastes good, according to a recent study from Duke University.

This taste factor may also be true for other sea life. After all, anecdotal evidence suggests that our cats and dogs eat plastic because they like the taste and/or the texture, so why wouldn’t sea life have the same reaction?

Microplastics, tiny pieces of weathered plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter, have been accumulating in the world’s oceans for 40 years or more, and now they’re ubiquitous in the marine environment. They don’t just pose threats to corals, they also pose a threat to foraging sea animals including birds, turtles, mammals, and invertebrates.

Because plastic is largely indigestible, it can lead to intestinal blockages, create a false sense of fullness, or reduce energy reserves in animals that eat it.

“About eight percent of the plastic that coral polyps in our study ingested was still stuck in their guts after 24 hours,” said study co-lead author Austin S. Allen, a Ph.D. student at Duke.

Plastics can also leach hundreds of chemical compounds into the bodies of the creatures that eat it and into the environment as well. The biological effects of most plastic compounds are unknown, but we do know that some have already been shown to cause harm. For example, phthalates are confirmed environmental estrogens and androgens—that is, hormones that affect sex determination.

“Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics, but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria,” Allen said.

“When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals,” said Alexander C. Seymour, a GIS analyst at Duke, who co-led the study with Allen.

The researchers hope their findings will encourage more scientists to study the role taste plays in determining why marine animals ingest microplastics.

“Ultimately, the hope is that if we can manufacture plastic so it unintentionally tastes good to these animals, we might also be able to manufacture it so it intentionally tastes bad,” Seymour said. “That could significantly help reduce the threat these microplastics pose.”