A solitary journey across Antarctica

David Grann writes:

The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground.

The man, whose name was Henry Worsley, consulted a G.P.S. device to determine precisely where he was. According to his coördinates, he was on the Titan Dome, an ice formation near the South Pole that rises more than ten thousand feet above sea level. Sixty-two days earlier, on November 13, 2015, he’d set out from the coast of Antarctica, hoping to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, had failed to do a century earlier: to trek on foot from one side of the continent to the other. The journey, which would pass through the South Pole, was more than a thousand miles, and would traverse what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world. And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before. [Continue reading…]

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How do you celebrate Earth Day when Scott Pruitt is still at the EPA?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

Today is Earth Day, and, to mark the occasion, thousands of Americans will flock to parks, beaches, and hiking trails. Others will stay home, monitoring their Twitter feeds for the latest Scott Pruitt scandal.

Like clockwork, the most recent one broke on the eve of the celebrations. The Hill reported on Friday that the lobbyist whose wife had rented a room to Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, at a very favorable rate, had tried to set up a meeting earlier this year with the E.P.A. on behalf of the philanthropic arm of one of his clients, despite having insisted he had had no business before the agency in two years. The firm, Williams & Jensen, had not, it appears, filed the needed disclosure forms for such contact, although a spokesman for Williams & Jensen told The Hill that it was in the process of correcting this mistake. (The firm, the spokesman said in an e-mail, “is filing/has filed the requisite disclosure forms required by law accordingly.”)

As of last week, at least ten investigations into Pruitt’s lordly spending habits and droit-de-seigneur ethical standards were under way. (More may have been initiated since then; it’s hard to keep track.) As many commentators have noted, in an Administration founded on the motto “You’re fired,” it’s remarkable that Pruitt has lasted as long as he has. And it’s unclear whether he can tough it out much longer; on Wednesday, the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told lawmakers that he was looking into Pruitt’s widely lampooned “privacy booth.”

“I’m not any happier about it than you are,” Mulvaney assured members of the House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, referring to the unauthorized expenditure of forty-three thousand dollars on the phone booth.

In the upbeat spirit of Earth Day, it’s worth hoping that Pruitt will soon be gone. But in the planetary-crisis spirit of the event, it’s worth pointing out that, if he is in fact booted, it will probably be for the wrong reasons. Pruitt’s lavish spending—on an oversized security detail, on weapons and bulletproof vests for said detail, on trips to Morocco and Italy that included his security detail, on trips to his home state of Oklahoma, on art for his office, on the Maxwell Smart phone booth—represents a variation on a familiar theme. Government officials who have pledged to serve the electorate instead use their offices to benefit themselves or their friends, or to indulge their taste for first-class travel or fancy furniture. But in Washington, as the saying goes, it’s not what’s illegal that’s the scandal, it’s what’s legal. Pruitt’s gravest wrongs involve not tens of thousands of dollars but, potentially, tens of millions of lives. [Continue reading…]

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More than 95% of world’s population breathe dangerous air, major study finds

The Guardian reports:

More than 95% of the world’s population breathe unsafe air and the burden is falling hardest on the poorest communities, with the gap between the most polluted and least polluted countries rising rapidly, a comprehensive study of global air pollution has found.

Cities are home to an increasing majority of the world’s people, exposing billions to unsafe air, particularly in developing countries, but in rural areas the risk of indoor air pollution is often caused by burning solid fuels. One in three people worldwide faces the double whammy of unsafe air both indoors and out.

The report by the Health Effects Institute used new findings such as satellite data and better monitoring to estimate the numbers of people exposed to air polluted above the levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. This exposure has made air pollution the fourth highest cause of death globally, after high blood pressure, diet and smoking, and the greatest environmental health risk. [Continue reading…]

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The battle to ban plastic bags

File 20180411 554 neo4o6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A plastic bag floats in the ocean in this 2016 photo.
Creative Commons

By Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University and Tony Robert Walker, Dalhousie University

There are increasing concerns about the use of plastics in our day-to-day lives.

Single-use plastics of any kind, including grocery bags, cutlery, straws, polystyrene and coffee cups, are significant yet preventable sources of plastic land-based and marine pollution.

In Canada, bans on plastics have so far been left up to municipalities, and some are taking action. Both Montreal and Victoria recently decided to ban plastic bags in stores, with business owners subject to huge fines if caught providing these to customers.

Other municipalities and provinces, such as Halifax and Nova Scotia, are contemplating similar bans in the wake of China’s recent ban on the import of certain recyclable products.

Although regulations are cropping up in some places, increasing public awareness appears to be gaining widespread momentum globally and across Canada.

[Read more…]

Ocean heat waves are becoming more common and lasting longer

The Washington Post reports:

Heat waves over the world’s oceans are becoming longer and more frequent, damaging coral reefs and creating chaos for aquatic species. A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found a 54 percent increase in the number of days in which heat waves have cooked the oceans since 1925.

The rise in these marine heat waves has occurred while ever more heat is stored in the ocean because of accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The ocean heat content in 2017 was the highest in recorded history, noted Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth said in an email that ocean heat waves will necessarily increase given the building stockpile of heat, which has been measured from the surface down to more than a mile deep (2,000 meters).

Tuesday’s Nature study concurred that “we can expect further increases in marine heatwave days under continued global warming.”

The detection of a rise in heat waves over the ocean is unsurprising because they’ve already been documented over land thanks to global warming. Many studies have examined the potential consequences of increasing land heat waves including an uptick in heat-related illnesses and deaths, in the absence of adaptation. Extreme heat can also worsen air quality, stress infrastructure and decrease the productivity of outdoor workers, among other effects.

But far less attention has been paid to heat waves over the ocean, which can have consequences of their own for both the marine environment and people. [Continue reading…]

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The oceans’ circulation hasn’t been this sluggish in 1,000 years. That’s bad news

The Washington Post reports:

The Atlantic Ocean circulation that carries warmth into the Northern Hemisphere’s high latitudes is slowing down because of climate change, a team of scientists asserted Wednesday, suggesting one of the most feared consequences is already coming to pass.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation has declined in strength by 15 percent since the mid-20th century to a “new record low,” the scientists conclude in a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature. That’s a decrease of 3 million cubic meters of water per second, the equivalent of nearly 15 Amazon rivers.

The AMOC brings warm water from the equator up toward the Atlantic’s northern reaches and cold water back down through the deep ocean. The current is partly why Western Europe enjoys temperate weather, and meteorologists are linking changes in North Atlantic Ocean temperatures to recent summer heat waves.

The circulation is also critical for fisheries off the U.S. Atlantic coast, a key part of New England’s economy that have seen changes in recent years, with the cod fishery collapsing as lobster populations have boomed off the Maine coast.

Some of the AMOC’s disruption may be driven by the melting ice sheet of Greenland, another consequence of climate change that is altering the region’s water composition and interrupts the natural processes.

This is “something that climate models have predicted for a long time, but we weren’t sure it was really happening. I think it is happening,” said one of the study’s authors, Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “And I think it’s bad news.” [Continue reading…]

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Environmental Defense Fund is launching satellite to measure methane from oil and gas operations

The Washington Post reports:

When the Environmental Defense Fund told commercial space guru Tom Ingersoll that it wanted to launch a satellite to measure methane from oil and gas operations, he says his reaction was “Whoa! You guys want to do what?”

Yet that’s what the EDF is doing. It is well on its way toward raising about $40 million. It has tapped into the work of Harvard University researchers to fine tune sensors. And it has reached out to Ingersoll and others in the commercial space business to create a device that will be able to measure methane emissions on a 125-mile wide swath with pixel resolution of less than five-eighths of a mile.

EDF will also get support from TED Talks, which hopes to spur fundraising for a variety of causes through its “Audacious Project.”

The satellite will enable EDF to more accurately measure methane emissions, which account for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. The results could be sobering. In February, EDF estimated methane emissions from Pennsylvania’s shale oil and gas sites may be more than five times higher than what oil and gas companies reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The EDF analysis estimates Pennsylvania’s oil and gas operators emit more than 520,000 tons of methane a year, primarily from leaky, outdated and malfunctioning equipment.

This wasted gas causes the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants and results in nearly $68 million worth of wasted energy resources, the environmental group said. [Continue reading…]

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Former coal lobbyist becomes second in command at the EPA

BuzzFeed reports:

The Senate just confirmed Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, to be the second in command at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Thursday vote was largely along party lines — 53-45. Sens. Joe Donnelly from Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, and Joe Manchin from West Virginia were the only Democrats to vote in favor of the confirmation.

Wheeler is one of only a handful of President Donald Trump’s picks for the EPA confirmed so far, and he comes in as the agency’s leader Scott Pruitt faces multiple ethics allegations, from frequent first-class travel to leasing a condo tied to an energy lobbyist.

Wheeler was tapped for the job while running the energy and environment practice at the Washington, DC-based consulting law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels. In this position, he’s lobbied for Murray Energy Corporation, the largest US coal mining company, and other energy companies on issues tied to the EPA as recently as last summer, according to lobbying disclosure forms. He deregistered as a lobbyist in August 2017, according to the EPA. [Continue reading…]

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‘Dead zone’ in Gulf of Mexico will take decades to recover from farm pollution

The Guardian reports:

The enormous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico will take decades to recover even if the flow of farming chemicals that is causing the damage is completely halted, new research has warned.

Intensive agriculture near the Mississippi has led to fertilizers leeching into the river, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, via soils and waterways. This has resulted in a huge oxygen-deprived dead zone in the Gulf that is now at its largest ever extent, covering an area greater than the state of New Jersey.

A new study has found that even if runoff of nitrogen, a fertilizer chemical, was fully stemmed, the Gulf would take about 30 years to recover. Even this scenario is “not only considered unrealistic, but also inherently unsustainable”, researchers stated in the work, published in Science.

“We have been building up nitrogen for the past 50 years and it will take time to go through the system,” said Nandita Basu, associate professor of environmental sciences at Canada’s University of Waterloo and the study co-author.

“Money is being spent on the landscape in an ad hoc way. We need to focus better. If we make the right changes it will have an impact, it’s just that it’ll take a few decades. It’s like when you go on a diet – you can’t expect results right away.”

The ailing Gulf of Mexico is emblematic of a global suffocation of the oceans caused by modern agriculture, sewage and climate change, which is causing waters to warm and hold less oxygen. At least 500 sites experiencing hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, have been reported near coasts worldwide, up from just 50 in 1950. The true number may, in fact, be much higher, experts believe. [Continue reading…]

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Land degradation by human activities pushing Earth into sixth mass extinction and undermining well-being of 3.2 billion people

 

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): Worsening land degradation caused by human activities is undermining the well-being of two fifths of humanity, driving species extinctions and intensifying climate change. It is also a major contributor to mass human migration and increased conflict, according to the world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration.

The dangers of land degradation, which cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual gross product in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, are detailed for policymakers, together with a catalogue of corrective options, in the three-year assessment report by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries, launched today.

Produced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the report was approved at the 6th session of the IPBES Plenary in Medellín, Colombia. IPBES has 129 State Members.

Providing the best-available evidence for policymakers to make better-informed decisions, the report draws on more than 3,000 scientific, Government, indigenous and local knowledge sources. Extensively peer-reviewed, it was improved by more than 7,300 comments, received from over 200 external reviewers.

Serious Danger to Human Well-being

Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world, the report says.

“With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction,” said Prof. Robert Scholes (South Africa), co-chair of the assessment with Dr. Luca Montanarella (Italy). “Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth and to ensure human well-being.”

“Wetlands have been particularly hard hit,” said Dr. Montanarella. “We have seen losses of 87% in wetland areas since the start of the modern era – with 54% lost since 1900.”

According to the authors, land degradation manifests in many ways: land abandonment, declining populations of wild species, loss of soil and soil health, rangelands and fresh water, as well as deforestation.

Underlying drivers of land degradation, says the report, are the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization – typically leading to greater levels of land degradation.

By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands. Less than 25% of the Earth’s land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activity – and by 2050, the IPBES experts estimate this will have fallen to less than 10%.

Crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface, with recent clearance of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet.

The report says increasing demand for food and biofuels will likely lead to continued increase in nutrient and chemical inputs and a shift towards industrialized livestock production systems, with pesticide and fertilizer use expected to double by 2050.

Avoidance of further agricultural expansion into native habitats can be achieved through yield increases on the existing farmlands, shifts towards less land degrading diets, such as those with more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, and reductions in food loss and waste.

Strong Links to Climate Change

“Through this report, the global community of experts has delivered a frank and urgent warning, with clear options to address dire environmental damage,” said Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES.

“Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment. We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.”

The IPBES report finds that land degradation is a major contributor to climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another major driver of the changing climate has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2.

Given the importance of soil’s carbon absorption and storage functions, the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold targeted in the Paris Agreement on climate change, increase food and water security, and contribute to the avoidance of conflict and migration.

Projections to 2050

“In just over three decades from now, an estimated 4 billion people will live in drylands,” said Prof. Scholes. “By then it is likely that land degradation, together with the closely related problems of climate change, will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate. Decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability – particularly in dryland areas, where years with extremely low rainfall have been associated with an increase of up to 45% in violent conflict.”

Dr. Montanarella added: “By 2050, the combination of land degradation and climate change is predicted to reduce global crop yields by an average of 10%, and by up to 50% in some regions. In the future, most degradation will occur in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – the areas with the most land still remaining that is suitable for agriculture.”

The report also underlines the challenges that land degradation poses, and the importance of restoration, for key international development objectives, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. “The greatest value of the assessment is the evidence that it provides to decision makers in Government, business, academia and even at the level of local communities,” said Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES. “With better information, backed by the consensus of the world’s leading experts, we can all make better choices for more effective action.”

Options for Land Restoration

The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation.

In croplands, for instance, some of these include reducing soil loss and improving soil health, the use of salt tolerant crops, conservation agriculture and integrated crop, livestock and forestry systems.

In rangelands with traditional grazing, maintenance of appropriate fire regimes, and the reinstatement or development of local livestock management practices and institutions have proven effective.

Successful responses in wetlands have included control over pollution sources, managing the wetlands as part of the landscape, and reflooding wetlands damaged by draining.

In urban areas, urban spatial planning, replanting with native species, the development of ‘green infrastructure’ such as parks and riverways, remediation of contaminated and sealed soils (e.g. under asphalt), wastewater treatment and river channel restoration are identified as key options for action.

Opportunities to accelerate action identified in the report include:

  • Improving monitoring, verification systems and baseline data;
  • Coordinating policy between different ministries to simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption practices of land-based commodities;
  • Eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management; and
  • Integrating the agricultural, forestry, energy, water, infrastructure and service agendas.

Making the point that existing multilateral environmental agreements provide a good platform for action to avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation and promote restoration, the authors observe, however, that greater commitment and more effective cooperation is needed at the national and local levels to achieve the goals of zero net land degradation, no loss of biodiversity and improved human well-being.

Knowledge Gaps

Among the areas identified by the report as opportunities for further research are:

  • The consequences of land degradation on freshwater and coastal ecosystems, physical and mental health and spiritual well-being, and infectious disease prevalence and transmission;
  • The potential for land degradation to exacerbate climate change, and land restoration to help both mitigation and adaptation;
  • The linkages between land degradation and restoration and social, economic and political processes in far-off places; and
  • Interactions among land degradation, poverty, climate change, and the risk of conflict and of involuntary migration.

Environmental and Economic Sense

The report found that higher employment and other benefits of land restoration often exceed by far the costs involved. On average, the benefits of restoration are 10 times higher than the costs (estimated across nine different biomes), and, for regions like Asia and Africa, the cost of inaction in the face of land degradation is at least three times higher than the cost of action.

“Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity,” said Dr. Montanarella, “It’s also economically prudent and increasingly urgent.”

Echoing this message, Sir Robert Watson, said: “Of the many valuable messages in the report, this ranks among the most important: implementing the right actions to combat land degradation can transform the lives of millions of people across the planet, but this will become more difficult and more costly the longer we take to act.”