Are Indian monsoons getting stronger?

Indian monsoons have strengthened in the central and northern parts of the country over the past 15 years, according to a new study.

The new trend reverses a decades-long pattern of dry weather, scientists at MIT discovered. However, it also means a lot more water than the regions are equipped to handle: the heavier than normal monsoon activity has brought powerful flooding with it.

The MIT researchers set out to discover what caused the change in monsoon patterns. The changes appear to correspond with warming trends in both the Indian ocean and in atmospheric surface temperatures in the Indian subcontinent.

Since 2002 – the same year Indian monsoons began to pick up – the subcontinent has seen a strong warming trend of anywhere from 0.1 to 1 degree Celsius each year, the MIT researchers noted. During the same time, rising ocean temperatures in the Indian ocean slowed unexpectedly.

“Climatologically, India went through a sudden, drastic warming, while the Indian Ocean, which used to be warm, all of a sudden slowed its warming,” Dr. Chien Wang of MIT said. “This may have been from a combination of natural variability and [human-caused] influences, and we’re still trying to get to the bottom of the physical processes that caused this reversal.”

Whatever the cause behind the reversal, the warmer air temperatures catching up to the ocean has created the “perfect storm” of variables to create strong and powerful Indian monsoons.

The study, which looked at weather data from India that has been recorded since the late 1800s, has put to rest worries that India is caught in an irreversible dry spell.

The worry – based on a 50-year dry spell that began to reverse only 15 years ago – was that deforestation and use of aerosols in India had caused a dry period that could not be mitigated.

But the MIT researchers were surprised, when they studied the rainfall data, to find that the dry period in northern and central India was rebounding.

“The Indian monsoon is considered a textbook, clearly defined phenomenon, and we think we know a lot about it, but we don’t,” Wang says. “Here, we identify a phenomenon that was mostly overlooked.”

Research is still needed to narrow down whether the drying and revival of the northern and central monsoons are a natural cycle or whether the changes were caused by human activity, the scientists said.

The study will be published in the journal Nature Climate Change. MIT’s research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the National Research Foundation of Singapore, and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Daniel J. Rao / Shutterstock.com

The complicated nature of wildfires

Earth.com presents a crash course in the causes, risks, damage, and importance of wildfires.

To Americans living predominantly in the West, summer has the dubious distinction of being wildfire season. When the climate is at its hottest and driest, millions of acres of forests become a literal tinderbox. And thanks to climate change, we’re seeing a greater number of days in which conditions are prime for wildfire destruction.

Causes

While lightning strikes start some fires, humans are the primary cause of about 80 percent of U.S. wildfires. The “trigger” can be smoldering campfires, carelessly tossed cigarette butts, sparks thrown from dragging mufflers, fireworks or even deliberate acts of arson.

However the flame is struck, fuel is abundant in the form of dry trees, grasses or other vegetation. A single flame can turn quickly to a conflagration that can consume millions of acres of land, building structures and even entire communities.

The damage done

Wildfires are also a threat to human and animal survival. One reason they’re so potentially deadly is that they can spread quickly. Depending on the available fuel source and wind speed, a fire can move at the rate of up to 14 miles an hour. As Americans encroach more and more on previously undeveloped land in the West, the Southeast and elsewhere, human populations become more at risk when wildfires occur.

Sixteen people died when the Wallow Fire in 2011 burned for about six weeks and incinerated 538,000 acres of land in the Bear Wallow Wilderness area in Arizona and New Mexico.

Last year, wildfires in Tennessee killed seven, forced the evacuation of 14,000 people in and near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and threatened the Dollywood theme park.

Historically, the most lethal fire on record occurred in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1918. It killed some 1,000 people.

A rightful place in the ecosystem

As dangerous as they can be to firefighters and area residents and visitors, wildfires aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re a natural part of the ecosystem.

They clean out overly thick vegetation, kill harmful insects and microorganisms and add nutrients to the soil. Also, in destroying thick canopies, the fires allow sunlight to penetrate and encourage new growth.

The before and after photos of forest fire environments can offer dramatic proof of the natural cleansing effect of fire. Understandably, that’s of little consolation to homeowners caught in the grip of a raging and out-of-control wildfire.

Original Feature by David Searls, Earth.com Staff Writer

Focus on climate change consensus may undermine education efforts

Want to influence public views on climate change? Focus education efforts on solutions to climate problems and not scientific consensus, scholars say.

Education campaigns that make a point of correcting misconceptions about scientific consensus may actually be undermining policy efforts, according to a new expert commentary published in the journal Environmental Communication.

Instead, environmental education efforts and policy should focus on finding solutions to individual climate problems, they said. Focusing the scientific consensus not only shifts attention away from the effects of climate change, it may undermine the development of useful policy.

This is especially true of campaigns that focus on the “97 percent” statistic, the experts said.

“There is a danger of overreach in that numbers like the 97 percent consensus are implicitly extended to all areas of climate science, and used to close down debate over complex topics like extreme weather events,” said Dr. Reiner Grundmann of the University of Nottingham, one of the commentary’s co-authors.

By focusing on the scientific consensus, the experts said, environmental advocates are assuming it is needed to give legitimacy to strategies to mitigate damage caused by climate change.

“This (climate change) approach also makes the implausible assumption that publics will follow the correct policy path once given the relevant scientific information, and that acceptance of scientific consensus is needed to support specific solutions,” he said.

But in the late 1970s and 1980s, a campaign to shift Americans away from using aerosol cans that released ozone-depleting chemicals was successful, even though there was no scientific consensus at the time as to whether the hole in the ozone layer was man-made or not. Neither was there consensus over the ozone layer’s purpose. By the time the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, the campaign was years old, Grundmann and his co-authors note.

Rather than getting the public to accept that a scientific consensus exists, education efforts are better served by focusing on addressing specific issues like extreme weather, they said.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

A preview of what a warmer climate will be like in the 2080s

With climate change on the horizon, scientists have begun piecing together what life on planet Earth might look and feel like by the end of this century. According to a new study, over 75% of plant and animal species in England will be significantly affected by climate change by the year 2100.

The research comes from the University of York and predicts that more than half of 3,000 species of plants and animals in England could significantly expand their populations into different areas of the country to avoid the ill effects of climate change.

“In England we’re likely to see more winners than losers if we manage land in the right places to facilitate expanding populations,” said Colin Beale of the University of York. “This research will also help us identify where we have the best chance to help species that are at most risk.”

The team, which includes researchers at the University of Reading, the British Trust for Ornithology, and Natural England, also found that 27 percent of species may not find suitable climate in the areas they currently occupy.

Northern and upland species were found to be the most vulnerable, which includes birds like the dotterel and red grouse, flowering plants such as crowberry, and damp-loving mosses, the study said.

However, wasps, bees, ants and many southerly distributed species such as Dartford warbler and emperor dragonfly, are likely to thrive in warmer conditions and could expand to new areas of the country.

“This research provides valuable information for nature conservationists, who need to plan for changing species’ distributions and an uncertain future,” said James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology, and lead author of the study.

The researchers compiled a study of 400 species and the factors known to make them more vulnerable to climate change.

With these factors included, the proportion of wildlife at risk from climate change increased to 35 percent, while 42 percent may be able to expand their populations.

The study emphasizes the need to protect and expand networks of habitats so that species can successfully colonize new areas.

“Climate change is a big challenge to conservationists; we need to ready to protect species where they have the best chance in the future, which will not always be the same places as in the past,” said Dr. Mike Morecroft, Principal Specialist in Climate Change at Natural England. “Good science is more important than ever to ensure good decision making.”

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University of York

Enhanced microalgae could be the secret weapon in saving corals

A genetically engineered species of microalgae could help protect coral reefs from bleaching by increasing their tolerance to ocean warming, according to a new study.

The microalgae are called Symbiodinium, which use photosynthesis to produce molecules that feed the corals.

Coral bleaching is caused by changes in ocean temperatures which hurt Symbiodinium, causing corals to starve to death.

Rachel Levin from the University of New South Wales in Australia and an international research team used sequencing data from Symbiodinium to design genetic engineering strategies for enhancing coral stress tolerance. They have now identified the specific Symbiodinium genes that could be targeted to fight coral bleaching.

“Very little is known about Symbiodinium, thus very little information is available to improve coral reef conservation efforts,” Levin said. “Symbiodinium is very biologically unusual, which has made it incompatible with well-established genetic engineering methods. We therefore aimed to overcome this roadblock by conducting novel genetic analyses of Symbiodinium to enable much needed research progress.”

Genetically enhanced Symbiodinium has “great potential to reduce coral bleaching globally,”  the researchers said. But Levin warns that this would be no instant cure.

“If lab experiments successfully show that genetically engineered Symbiodinium can prevent coral bleaching, these enhanced Symbiodinium would not be immediately released onto coral reefs,” she said. “ Extensive, rigorous studies evaluating any potentially negative impacts would be absolutely necessary before any field-based trials on this technology begin.”

Other scientists will need to contribute to the research to advance the information currently available, she added.

“We have developed the first, tailored genetic engineering framework to be applied to Symbiodinium,” Levin said. “ Now this framework must be comprehensively tested and optimized. This is a tall order that will be greatly benefitted by collaborative efforts.”

Coral reefs, the most diverse marine habitat, contribute over $30 billion to the world economy each year.

The researched was published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Frontiers in Microbiology

Formerly calm coastal areas could soon see major storms

A study published in the latest issue of the journal Scientific Reports reveals that sea level rise is not the only danger to waterfront areas as a result of climate change. As storm patterns shift and change directions, property and structures along the coastline that were once considered to be relatively safe from the impact of storms are now at risk of being severely damaged.

Engineers at University of New South Wales in Sydney analyzed data from a “superstorm” that hit the eastern coast of Australia in June 2016. The storm, one of the strongest in decades, flooded towns and took out buildings.

Recording tools were deployed a week before the storm and used into the weeks that followed the storm. These devices including drones, floating sensor buoys, fixed cameras, and aircraft fitted with LiDAR laser ranging sensors. This provided experts with the most detailed pre-storm and post-storm record that had ever been assembled.

The team determined that 11.5 million cubic meters of sand was eroded from beaches across a 200-kilometer stretch of Australia’s eastern coast in only three days. This amount of sand could fill up a 100,000-person-capacity stadium to the brim with sand more than seven times. This is comparable to the amount of sand diminished on eastern coast of the United States by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The superstorm surveyed in Australia was only average in its force, but hit from a very unusual direction.

“And that’s what’s really worrying,” said co-author Ian Turner. “The damage we saw from a moderately intense storm last year is a harbinger of what’s to come. Climate change is not only raising the oceans and threatening foreshores, but making our coastlines much more vulnerable as the direction of incoming storms change.”

Previous research calculated the cost of infrastructure damage caused by sea level rise could reach $226 billion in Australia alone. Buildings at risk include 258 police and emergency response stations, 75 hospitals and health centers, 41 waste disposal facilities, and five power stations. Data collected from long-term monitoring in areas like Narrabeen Beach in Sydney will help engineers build models to predict storm damage in advance.

“With this data, we can now construct accurate coastal erosion models, to predict damage days before a storm hits,” said senior lecturer Karen Splinter. “It will also be pivotal in understanding the future effect of climate change on coastal variability around the world.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University of New South Wales

Photo: Christopher Drummond/UNSW

Earth.com film review: Chasing Coral

Scientists, divers, and underwater photographers teamed up to document the disappearance of coral reefs in the Netflix film Chasing Coral. The shocking images captured by the team give viewers an unparalleled look at the rapid decline of corals across the globe.

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, developed the project in an effort to expose the magnitude of the coral crisis. He assembled a team to capture footage of a massive coral bleaching event, enlisting the help of Director Jeff Orlowski after viewing his 2012 documentary Chasing Ice.

In Chasing Coral, coral bleaching is described as a “phenomenon directly attributed to climate change” that has only been seen in recent years. Beginning in the 1980’s, large portions of coral began to turn white. The scientists explain this was not due to disease but to rising ocean temperatures. During the bleaching process, the corals attempt to get rid of algae that are not functioning properly and basically starve themselves by eliminating their main food source.

Dr. Ruth Gates is a coral reef biologist that expresses “the utmost respect for corals.” She describes the fascinating composition of the animals and compares their complexity to that of human beings, saying that corals choose to be “really sophisticated in a quiet way.” Dr. Gates explains that coral bleaching is a stress response much like fever is a stress response in humans.

Corals have many other species that depend on them in a type of “neighborhood” setting. According to the film, corals are essentially the nursery for 25 percent of life in the ocean.

For the project, the team managed to quickly develop cameras that could survive the stressors of being underwater and transmit images wirelessly to the researchers. Two months after the cameras were deployed, however, the experts discovered they were out of focus.

The team then travelled to the Great Barrier Reef, where they resorted to manually capturing underwater time-lapses. They ultimately selected two of the hottest locations where coral bleaching was certain to be taking place. At a site called Lizard Island, most of the reef turned to barren rock face in a matter of two months.

Underwater camera technician Zack Rago says his infatuation with corals dates back to childhood. While he realized the heat wave they were documenting was going to be “nothing short of catastrophic for the coral,” he was still not prepared for the devastation he witnessed firsthand in his emotionally grueling dives on the Great Barrier Reef.

The footage is an alarming testament to the strain placed on marine ecosystems by rising ocean temperatures. The researchers point out that the majority of the impact of global climate change is occurring within Earth’s oceans. 93 percent of the heat trapped from greenhouse gases is absorbed by the ocean, and this film provides irrefutable evidence of the destruction that results.

50 percent of the world’s corals died in the last 30 years. In 2016, 29 percent of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef were lost in a single year. According to Dr. Gates, global warming at the current rate will result in the “eradication of an entire ecosystem in our lifetime.”

Despite the fact that over half a billion people rely on coral reefs for their main source of food and income, the experts explain that it is difficult to make people realize the gravity of this issue. Vevers says that one of the biggest problems is that the ocean “is completely out of sight, out of mind.” He reminds us, “Without a healthy ocean, we do not have a healthy planet.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Chasing Coral

Climate change threatens the future of the aardvark

Climate change is set to reshape our coastlines, weather events, economies, and basic daily life. But it could also bring along the the end of some of our most lovable animals species. Remember Arthur the Aardvark?

The aardvark, a nocturnal, burrowing mammal in Africa, could be threatened with extinction by climate change, according to a new study.

The study was performed by researchers at the University of Witwatersrand and published in the journal Biology Letters.

“Our results do not bode well for the future of aardvarks facing climate change,” the authors wrote. ”Their survival may be threatened by climate change via direct and indirect effects of increasing heat and aridity.”

The researchers implanted devices to measure temperature and activity of six adult aardvarks in the Kalahari desert. Five of the six were found dead during a severe summer drought in 2013.

The aardvarks “did not exhibit sufficient physiological plasticity to survive a summer drought in a semi-arid desert,” the study found.

The drought also appeared to reduce aardvark prey, such as ants and termites, the study said.

A drop in the aardvark population could also affect other species who live in their burrows to escape.

“The burrows excavated by aardvarks provide thermal refugia for at least 27 vertebrate species,” the study said. “With climate change, these refugia will become increasingly important for those species to buffer climatic extremes.”

This, in turn, could cause an “ecological cascade,” as seen with digging mammals in Australia, the researchers added.

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Biology Letters

2017 remains second hottest year on record

Midway through the year, 2017 continues to be the second-hottest year on record, even without an El Niño that helped boost temperatures to record levels last year, the nonprofit group Climate Central said.

According to the group, it is likely that 2017 will remain in second place through the rest of the year.

“Personally, I wasn’t expecting it to be as warm as it has been,” Ahira Sanchez-Lugo, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist, told Climate Central. “After the decline of the strong El Niño I was expecting the values to drop a bit and rank among the top five warmest years. This year has been extremely remarkable.”

On Tuesday, NOAA released its global temperature data for June, ranking it as the third hottest months ever.

This will come as no surprise to residents of the U.S. southwest, where June temperatures got so hot that it prevented airplanes from taking off at the Phoenix airport.

Central Asia and western and central Europe also experienced scorching temperatures. According to a Climate Central study, the heat wave in western Europe that triggered deadly wildfires in Portugal was made up to 10 times more likely due to Earth’s rising temperature.

Regardless of its final rank, 2017 will “almost certainly” be hot enough to knock 1998 — the only remaining 20th century year among the top 10 warmest — down another spot, to No. 9 in NOAA’s rankings, Climate Central said.

The 1998 heat, fueled in part by a major El Niño, was considered spectacular at the time.

But with steadily rising Earth temperature El Niño “isn’t necessary to reach those heights anymore” according to the group.

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Climate Central

 

Scientists embark on expedition to submerged continent Zealandia

Zealandia is a large mass of Earth’s crust that split from Australia around 85 million years ago. The continent is now almost completely submerged. Scientists are planning to drill into the seafloor of Zealandia later this month to collect rock and sediment that will contain records from over millions of years.

30 researchers will participate in the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 371. The two-month drilling excursion, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is an effort to expose secrets about Earth’s history buried in the ocean floor.

The scientists will join more than 20 crew members at six Tasman Sea sites and drill from 300 to 800 meters. At this depth, the team will collect cores, which are complete samples of sediment. The researchers will analyze the fossils contained in the cores for evidence of the history of Zealandia.

“If you go way back, about 100 million years ago, Antarctica, Australia and Zealandia were all one continent,” said expedition co-chief scientist Gerald Dickens. “Around 85 million years ago, Zealandia split off on its own, and for a time, the seafloor between it and Australia was spreading on either side of an ocean ridge that separated the two.”

Earth’s crust and upper mantle is broken up into tectonic plates which are constantly in motion. In a process known as subduction, the collision of Earth’s plates results in one of the plates sliding underneath another, which can form volcanoes and cause earthquakes.

The researchers will evaluate one such major shift which moved in the direction of the massive Pacific Plate north east of Zealandia 50 million years ago. The researchers refer to this particular shift as “the most profound subduction initiation event and global plate-motion change” in the past 80 million years.

“Some 50 million years ago, a massive shift in plate movement happened in the Pacific Ocean,” said Jamie Allan, a program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “It resulted in the diving of the Pacific Plate under New Zealand, the uplift of New Zealand above the waterline, and the development of a new arc of volcanoes. This IODP expedition will look at the timing and causes of these changes as well as at related changes in ocean circulation patterns and ultimately Earth’s climate.”

Dickens says the research may also help in developing more accurate climate models to answer questions about the way Earth’s climate has evolved in the last 60 million years.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: National Science Foundation

Image Credit: IODP

Cash may be key in preventing deforestation

In a new, first of its kind study, researchers have found that paying people to conserve their trees could be a cost-effective strategy in reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

The study was led by Northwestern University, and evaluated the effectiveness of “Payments for Ecosystems” (PES) – a program that gives people financial incentives for environmentally friendly behaviors. This particular analysis was done on people who owned a forest spread over more than 120 villages in western Uganda. Half of the villages received cash rewards if they curbed deforestation, while the other half received no monetary incentives.

We found that the program had very large impacts on forest cover,” says Seema Jayachandran, an associate professor of economics at Northwestern. “In the villages without the program, 9 percent of the tree cover that was in place at the start of the study was gone by the end of it, two years later. In the villages with the PES program, there was 4 to 5 percent tree loss. In other words, there was still deforestation, but much less of it.”

The researchers believe that this payment system changed the landowners’ behavior, prompting them to conserve trees instead of cutting them down. They also found no evidence that the participants had simply moved their tree cutting operation to another forest.

So this program may have decreased deforestation, but how economically viable is it? Well, according to the research team, the cost effectiveness of this PES program compared to other approaches meant to reduce carbon emissions – such as subsidies for hybrid or electric vehicles – was staggering.

We found that the benefit of the delayed CO2 emissions was over twice as large as the program costs,” explains Jayachandran. “For many other environmental policies, the value of the averted CO2 is in fact smaller than the program costs.”

These findings point to the potential advantages of turning up the focus on developing countries in the fight to reduce global carbon emissions. Paying individuals in countries such as Uganda to conserve forests is significantly less expensive than many of the carbon-reducing efforts taking place in developed countries. Although advancements such as hybrid and electrics cars may be more flashy and exciting, sometimes the best solution is the simplest one.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Northwestern University

Billions of tons of plastic have been made, most of it thrown out

In an effort to lay the groundwork for better management of sustainable materials, a team of researchers calculated the total amount of plastics ever produced. According to the study, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since the early 1950s, and almost 80 percent of it has accumulated in landfills or elsewhere in the natural environment.

Scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association teamed up to develop the first global assessment of how much plastic has been produced, how it was used, and where it ended up.

According to the research, 6.3 of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics had already become waste by 2015. 9 percent of the plastic waste was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent was piled up in landfills or in the natural environment. At the current rate, approximately 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. This amount of waste would be around 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,” said co-author Jenna Jambeck.

The study revealed that production of plastics increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to over 400 million metric tons in 2015. This is more than most other man-made materials with the exception of construction materials like steel and cement. The largest demand for plastic is packaging, and most of what is used for packaging is thrown away after a single use.

“Roughly half of all the steel we make goes into construction, so it will have decades of use – plastic is the opposite,” said lead author Roland Geyer. “Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use.”

This research team worked together previously on a study that investigated the amount of plastic waste in the Earth’s oceans. The analysis revealed that 8 million metric tons of plastic made its way into the oceans in 2010.

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” Jambeck said. “But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

The results of the study, published today in the journal Science Advances, show that plastic production continues to speed up. Almost half of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015 were generated in the last 13 years. The researchers recommend better control of plastic use and closer examination of its recyclable value.

Credit: Janet A Beckley

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University of Georgia

Image: Janet A Beckley