Soil from anywhere in the world has this in common

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and The University of Manchester are testing soils from all over the world to explore their microbial content. In the first study of its kind, the scientists are using DNA sequencing to find out exactly what makes a soil, soil.

The research team, comprised of 36 scientists from across the globe, analyzed ecological patterns on soil from 21 countries. Altogether, they examined 1,900 soils which contained over 8,000 bacterial groups.

The study revealed that some groups of bacteria are always present in soil, no matter where it is on the planet. Other groups, however, appear much less often. The researchers explained that there is a lot that can be learned from these less common groups of bacteria, such as what makes certain soils more fertile than others.

Study co-author Dr. Kelly Ramirez said,”When we see a cactus, we know we are in a desert, when we see a palm tree we know we are in the tropics, and when we see a grass we could be almost anywhere. This same idea, that species indicate a habitat, is true for soils, but instead of using plants we use soil bacteria. But if you were to pick up a handful of soil from your garden, from a forest, or even a meadow it would probably be hard to tell the difference.”

Nonetheless, the microbial communities that are contained within the world’s soils are more diverse and have more individuals than any other species in existence. This microbial content can tell us a lot about the origins of the soil. Study co-author Dr. Franciska de Vries explained that the study aimed to consolidate all of the data on these important bacteria from studies all over the world.

Dr. Chris Knight, an expert in microbial and computational modelling, used a technique that could accommodate thousands of bacterial species. This strategy allowed the team to evaluate all of these species and match them to various environmental factors and to each other.

“What resulted was a new and clearer picture of the roles of particular groups of bacteria in shaping communities of soil bacteria,” said Dr. Knight. “Some bacteria are common, but how many turn up in any particular soil has more to do with the details of how they were measured than any real differences among soils. Some are so rare that you only ever see them in a handful of soils of any sort, which doesn’t say much. But in between there are informative families of bacteria that indicate real differences among types of soil.”

The study is published in Nature Microbiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Data proves that global warming did not slow down for a decade

It has long been speculated that global warming slowed down from 1998 until 2012. This period is referred to as the global warming hiatus, and it has been a subject of much debate among climate researchers.

Now, according to a new study conducted by researchers from China and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the hiatus never happened, and instead, global warming steadily increased.

Missing Arctic temperature data brought about the global warming hiatus theory, but now researchers have filled in the gaps to show that it is in fact incorrect.

The study was led Xiangdong Zhang, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Fairbanks, Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center. Zhang and his colleagues analyzed temperatures in the Arctic and created a more accurate dataset of surface temperatures around the world.

Zhang’s research shows that there was not a hiatus, and instead, global warming continued through the late 1990s and 2000s.

The researchers gathered Arctic temperature data from buoys in the Arctic Ocean and incorporated that data into a worldwide dataset. The buoys were part of the International Arctic Buoy Program at the University of Washington.

This dataset allowed the researchers to estimate temperature averages better.

The results of the Arctic analysis show that temperatures have been rising steadily over the years instead of slowing down and picking back up again.

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

Zhang specifically focused on the Arctic because previous studies had largely excluded the region from a global dataset. Zhang’s research shows that the Arctic is an important factor in mapping the effects of global warming.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Portable DNA lab kits can help stop illegal wildlife trafficking

Illegal plant and animal trafficking poses a major problem for both the safety of animals and the surrounding environments. Not only do some traffickers move parts from threatened or endangered animals, but wildlife traffickers also risk introducing invasive species to non-native habitats.

To further complicate matters, customs officials cannot always immediately identify the animals or plants that are making their way out of the country.

“Many threatened animals and plants are trafficked out of developing countries, which do not have adequate resources to combat these crimes,” said Mr. Sujeevan Ratnasingham, Informatics Director at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.

Wildlife traffickers are also as evasive as possible so as not to get caught.

When it comes to organic material, often customs officials send samples to a laboratory to tell what animal or plant it is, but getting the results can take days.

Rapid identification of plants and animals at ports of entry could have a significant impact in reducing illegal wildlife trafficking and keeping invasive species out.

The International Barcode of Life project identified the need for quick and accurate identification at ports of entry and have developed the LAB-IN-A-BOX portable DNA barcoding Kit.

“By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability, LAB-IN-A-BOX makes it possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere,” said Paul Herbert, Founder of the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Project. “It is certain to improve our capacity to care for the species that not only enliven our planet, but provide essential ecosystem services.”

The LAB-IN-A-BOX has two goals, to provide customs officials with a means of rapid detection of plants and animals, and to help implement swifter enforcement and prosecution for those who traffick in illegal wildlife.

The LAB-IN-A-BOX uses a database of DNA barcodes that officials can compare samples to and identify what the sample is. It can even identify samples within just a few hours.

The project will first be introduced at ports of entry in Africa, and the creators are hopeful about the kit’s impact on reducing wildlife trafficking and improving species conservation.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: David Dennis, at WikiMedia Commons

Study: Biodiversity on Earth connected to oxygen levels

More than 400 million years ago, Earth saw an unprecedented explosion of new life. In a new study, geologists have added to the growing mountain of evidence connecting this burst of biodiversity to rising oxygen levels on the planet.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Cole Edwards of Appalachian State University found that oxygen levels spiked at around the same time that life began diversifying during the Ordovician Period, between 445 and 485 million years ago.

“This oxygenation is supported by two approaches that are mostly independent from each other, using different sets of geochemical records and predicting the same amount of oxygenation occurred at roughly the same time as diversification,” Edwards said in a press release about the study.

The researchers made use of geochemical proxies, high-resolution data and chemical signatures preserved in rocks to identify when oxygen levels rapidly increased during the Middle and Late Ordovician Period. Their discovery of a nearly 80 percent oxygen increase during that period coincides with what’s become known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event.

The explosion of life led to enormous changes in existing species and a spike in new marine life.

Previous studies have estimated that Earth’s oxygen levels spiked to nearly modern levels during the Cambrian Period from 485 to 541 million years ago. However, measuring prehistoric oxygen levels is difficult because there’s no way to directly measure ancient seabeds or atmospheric makeup. The new study shows oxygen levels may not have peaked until the Ordovician Period.

“This study suggests that atmospheric oxygen levels did not reach and maintain modern levels for millions of years after the Cambrian explosion, which is traditionally viewed as the time when the ocean-atmosphere was oxygenated,” Edwards said. “In this research, we show that the oxygenation of the atmosphere and shallow ocean took millions of years, and only when shallow seas became progressively oxygenated were the major pulses of diversification able to take place.”

However, it still remains unclear what effect higher oxygen levels may have had on animal life, the researchers said.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Image credit: luisrsphoto,

Carbon emissions from plant respiration largely underestimated

Plant respiration contributes more to carbon emissions than previously thought, according to a new study from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The scientists also found that global warming may weaken the ability of Earth’s surface to absorb emissions.

The researchers based their study on the comprehensive global trait database, which contains over 10,000 measurements of carbon dioxide plant respiration. The experts linked this data to computer models of global land carbon cycling.

“The study uses plant respiration data from over 100 remote sites around the world, from hot deserts in Australia, to the deciduous and boreal forests of North America and Europe, the arctic tundra in Alaska, and the tropical forests of South America, Asia, Africa and northern Australia,” said study co-author Owen Atkin.

The analysis revealed that plant respiration has been an underestimated source of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon release by plant respiration worldwide was found to be as much as 30 percent higher than previously calculated.

The study also demonstrated that as global temperatures rise, respiration will increase significantly and vegetation will become less effective in absorbing carbon dioxide emissions triggered by fossil fuels.

“Plants both capture carbon dioxide and then release it by respiration,” explained lead author Chris Huntingford. “Changes to either of these processes in response to climate change have profound implications for how much ecosystems soak up carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.”

Dr. Mary Heskel from the Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory said, “We are now one-step closer to more accurately modelling carbon-exchange in ecosystems across the world. Indeed, the study provides the most informed picture to date of current and future carbon release from plants in terrestrial systems.”

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Toxic algae is a growing threat in the United States

Algae is growing out of control across the United States, making people sick and even killing animals. Over the last ten years, toxic algae outbreaks have become a major environmental problem in every state, and the trend is likely to gain momentum as water temperatures rise.

In 2016, a state of emergency was declared in Florida and beaches were closed when algae blooms spread from Lake Okeechobee to surrounding streams. In Utah, over 100 people got sick after swimming in the lake, while 32 cows died from toxic algae on a ranch in Oregon.

According to scientists, monster blooms of algae are created by excessive agricultural fertilizer runoff into warm, calm waters. Chemicals and manure are washed into streams, lakes, and oceans.

Dead zones, areas starved of oxygen due to algae decay, are 30 times more prevalent since 1960. Every summer a dead zone appears in the Gulf of Mexico, and this year’s was the largest ever measured.

“It’s a big, pervasive threat that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to solve,” said  University of Michigan environmental scientist Don Scavia. “If we increase the amount of toxic algae in our drinking water supply, it’s going to put people’s health at risk. Even if it’s not toxic, people don’t want to go near it. They don’t want to fish in it or swim in it. That means loss of jobs and tax revenue.”

Federal agencies have conducted billions of dollars worth of studies, but the findings of an analysis from the Associated Press (AP) suggest that the research has not helped matters much.

The AP found that the levels of algae-feeding nutrients are rising in many lakes and streams. The report also said that only a small minority of farms participate in federal programs that promote practices to reduce fertilizer runoff, and farmers are often turned away from funding because there is not enough money.

The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service reports spending $29 million on such voluntary programs since 2009, and says that 500,000 operations have participated.

The Environmental Protection Agency says indirect runoff is now the biggest source of water pollution in the United States, yet the Clean Water Act of 1972 prevents the government from regulating runoff as it does not release waste directly into waterways.

The government only asks farmers to volunteer to participate in safer practices regarding fertilizer runoff, such as planting cover crops and developing more efficient irrigation systems.

According to University of Florida wetland ecologist Mark Clark, farmers are free to use excessive fertilizer to produce higher yields with no consequences in place for allowing runoff.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Groundwater depletion increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

Groundwater depletion may release as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as is generated by aluminum, glass, and zinc production in the United States.

According to a new study, groundwater depletion should rank on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the top twenty sources of carbon emissions.

The research was conducted by researchers from Michigan State University in East Lansing and shows that increased use of groundwater reserves and aquifers could be releasing almost 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Even though those numbers don’t come close to other emissions sources, like fossil fuels, it is still a cause for concern.

Carbon dioxide levels in the soil are one hundred times greater than carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Both soil and rain contain carbon dioxide, and when rainwater absorbs through the soil, it only adds more carbon to the mix.

This is why groundwater is such a rich source of carbon dioxide, and because humans are drawing from groundwater wells and aquifers faster than they are being replenished, more carbon is being released into the atmosphere.

For the study, the researchers analyzed groundwater depletion and carbon chemistry data that was collected by the U.S Geological Survey. The data was used to determine how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from groundwater annually.

In the United States, around 9.7 square miles of groundwater is depleted every year, which results in 2.4 million metric tons of bicarbonate released into the atmosphere. The researchers then divided that number in half to estimate how much is converted into atmospheric carbon dioxide.

In the US alone, groundwater depletion releases 1,7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Projecting how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere every year globally is difficult because there is not as much consistent data to make those estimates. However, the researchers say that around 9.7 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere worldwide.

The study provides yet another source of carbon dioxide to factor into future climate change research.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Crustaceans ingesting plastic at the deepest depths of the ocean

Scientists have found that microplastics are infiltrating the Pacific Ocean at its farthest depths. An unprecedented study has revealed that crustaceans living nearly seven miles deep in the ocean are ingesting plastic fibers.

The study was led by Dr. Alan Jamieson from Newcastle University.

“These observations are the deepest possible record of microplastic occurrence and ingestion, indicating it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by anthropogenic debris,” said Dr. Jamieson.

Using deep-sea landers, the researchers collected samples from 90 crustaceans in trenches that span the entire Pacific Ocean. These included the New Hebrides, Mariana, Japan, and Kermadec trenches. The deepest region is the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which is 6.7 miles down.

“The deep sea is not only the ultimate sink for any material that descends from the surface, but it is also inhabited by organisms well adapted to a low-food environment and these will often eat just about anything,” said Dr. Jamieson. “This study has shown that manmade microfibers are culminating and accumulating in an ecosystem inhabited by species we poorly understand.”

The study revealed that every crustacean sampled from the Mariana Trench had ingested plastic fragments including polyethylene, polyvinyls, and nylon. At least 50 percent of sea creatures had swallowed microplastics in the other trenches as well.

Dr. Jamieson explained, “This type of work requires a great deal of contamination control but there were instances where the fibers could actually be seen in the stomach contents as they were being removed.”

“We felt we had to do this study given the unique access we have to some of the most remote places on earth, and we are using these samples to make a poignant statement about mankind’s legacy,” said Dr. Jamieson.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Climate change will hurt Chinese manufacturing

For years, the Chinese manufacturing sector received criticism and blame for its impact on the environment, polluting rivers and releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, China has made a concerted effort to clean up its act. 2017 will mark its fourth consecutive year of zero growth or a decline in emissions.

What is less known are the effects that climate change will have on the manufacturing industry, not only for the workers in factory environments, but also on factory machinery and technology.

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara has found that that climate change will lower output for the manufacturing sector in China.

The researchers note that previous studies often revolved around productivity as it related to employees in the manufacturing sector. A rise in global temperatures will make for hostile working conditions in many manufacturing plants.

“Previous work has largely focused on how climate change may affect economic activity by lowering the productivity of workers,” said Kyle Meng, co-author. “It is well documented that when it’s hot, people work less productively.”

For this study, the researchers focused on the effects that climate change and warming temperatures will have on machinery as well as workers, showing that warm temperatures will also put a strain on the factory machinery and technology, which reduces efficiency.

For the study, the researchers analyzed production data from a half-million Chinese manufacturing plants from 1998 to 2007.

The research team then estimated how temperatures might impact productivity and output.

The results of the study show that climate change could reduce manufacturing output in China by 12 percent annually, which is equal to about 40 billion dollars.

Twelve percent might not seem like much, but considering that China’s manufacturing sector produces 32 percent of the national GDP and supplies twelve percent of the world’s imports, those numbers will have a significant impact on the global economy.

According to the results, even in high-tech industries where temperatures are controlled in manufacturing plants, climate change would still have an impact.

For the study, the researchers classify high-tech industries as those that make medical supplies or computer equipment.

“We typically think of these sectors as being capital intensive with indoor production facilities that tend to operate with air conditioning,” said Olivier Deschenes, a co-author of the study. “We find that these industries are just as sensitive to extreme temperature as low-tech industries.”

The study shows the importance of factoring in all aspects of the manufacturing sector, including machinery, when looking at ways to mitigate the effects of climate change.

By Kay Vanette, Staff Writer

The top 10 books about the environment

While research shows us that our environment is undoubtedly being damaged by human activities, scientists remind us that our planet can still be restored. Books on the environment give readers a better perspective on what issues we are up against and what can be done to resolve these issues. The following are the top ten best books on the environment.


The Water Will Come

This book explores how millions of people will be displaced as climate change – which brings with it rising sea levels and extreme weather events – moves water inland. Author Jeff Goodell blames fossil fuels, and warns that we must quit burning them.


Silent Spring

Author Rachel Carson describes the harmful effects of pesticides and gathers expert opinions to support her cause. Carson says that the best way to move forward is to use biological controls rather than chemical methods whenever possible.


Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

Mushroom expert Paul Stamets explains how growing more mushrooms may be the best thing that we could do to save the environment. His book gives an unprecedented look at how we could use natural resources to rescue our planet.


Lab Girl

Geochemist and paleo geobiologist Hope Jahren documents her personal and professional life in this critically acclaimed autobiography. The story delves into the secret life of plants and into the everyday life of a scientist.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert describes previous mass extinction events and compares them to the state of Earth today, arguing that we are in the midst of the sixth known mass extinction which has been caused by human activities.


The World Without Us

Alan Weisman explores what the fate of our planet may be if humans no longer influenced it. He draws from the expertise of scientists and other experts to illustrate a world where humans no longer exist.


The Lorax

Published as a children’s book in 1971, The Lorax portrays the devastating impacts of industry on the environment. It was Dr. Seus’ favorite of his stories because he was able to address economic and environmental issues in a way that was entertaining.


The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes

Dan Egan focuses on the unique ecosystems of the Great Lakes and the threat of invasive species and other challenges. Egan suggests that the lakes should be given time to recover by cutting off commercial shipping routes.


A Sand County Almanac

Considered a milestone in the American conservation movement, this book is still a powerful force almost 70 years after it was published. American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold writes a collection of essays to communicate his idea of a”land ethic,” or the responsibility that people have to the land they inhabit.


Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

Janine M. Benyus shows us how scientists are mimicking nature’s best ideas and adapting them to solve some major challenges for the benefit of humans. Scientists are developing strategies based on naturally occurring phenomenon so that we can learn how to better heal ourselves and our planet.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

New map shows heat from deep Earth melting Antarctica

Researchers have created the most precise geothermal heat map of the Antarctic to date that may explain the source of ice shelf melting.

Trying to map the “geothermal heat flux,” or geothermal heat rising, to the Antarctic ice sheet has been difficult in the past because of the hostile conditions in the area and the thickness of the ice itself. The ice sheet measures a little over two miles in some places.

But now, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey have created an accurate and detailed graphic of the geothermal heat flux in the area using magnetic measurements.  

This heat map correlates with another recent study that found evidence of an ancient heat source deep below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The researchers used magnetic measurements to create a map that is 30 to 50 percent more accurate than any previous heat maps of the area.

Image Credit: British Antarctic Survey

Geothermal heat is important to factor in when examining ice sheets and melting, especially when predicting how climate change will impact those areas in the Antarctic and Arctic where melting will cause sea level rise.  

“How the ice sheet will respond to these recent changes is influenced by the pattern of geothermal heat, and that’s why this new map is so important,” said David Vaughan, a British Antarctic Survey glaciologist in a written statement.

Recently, scientists discovered new evidence that a mantle plume underneath the West Antarctic ice sheet is causing melting beneath the ice.

The possibility of a mantle plume beneath the Antarctic is not new, but now researchers have a better understanding of the inner workings of the plume and its activity below the ice sheet.

Both the plume study and the new geothermal map will help researchers make better predictions about melting and the effects of climate change on the ice sheet.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Salty pond in Antarctica could hold clues about water on Mars

Don Juan Pond in Antarctica is one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, but its water source has long been a mystery to scientists.

It is called a pond, but it actually measures about 300 by 900 feet and ranges only about four inches deep.

Don Juan Pond consists of a salty brine that is rich in calcium chloride. This salty mixture keeps the pond from freezing, even with temperatures at -50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scientists have been unsure about where the source of this salty liquid originates, but new research has revealed the pond is actually fed from underneath.

What’s even more exciting is that water in the pond could be similar to water on Mars.

A new study from the University of Washington has found that Don Juan Pond’s water source likely comes from a deep groundwater system. The finding contradicts an earlier hypothesis that theorized the water came from moisture from local valley slopes.

“Don Juan Pond is probably one of the most interesting ponds on Earth,” said Jonathan Toner, the lead author of the study. “After 60 years of extensive study, we still don’t really know exactly where it’s coming from, what drives the fact that it’s visible on the surface, and how it’s changing.”

For the study, Toner developed a model to compute how salty water, like that in Don Juan Pond, changes during evaporation and freezing. Toner put different salt and water ratios into the model to create different inputs and equations.

Toner then created two different situations for his model. In one, the water was fed from beneath, and in another, the pond was fed from runoff or near-surface seeps.

Toner discovered that deep groundwater was the only source that produced a similar chemical makeup to the liquid in Don Juan Pond.

“You couldn’t get Don Juan Pond from these shallow groundwaters,” Toner said. “It’s definitely coming from the deep groundwater.”

Toner also discusses how important the Don Juan Pond is in relation to future Mars explorations. The location and contents of the Don Juan Pond are very similar to what conditions are like on Mars now.

“If there is water on Mars, it’s probably going to look a lot like this pond,” Toner said. “Understanding how it formed has large implications for where would you expect to find similar environments on Mars.”

Toner is part of a team sponsored by NASA that will explore the pond and the nearby slopes within a larger context of furthering Mars research.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Pierre Roudier/Flickr