Overpopulation vs overconsumption: Which poses a bigger threat?
My fiancé and I disagree on this one thing. I argue that there are far too many people on Earth.
As of December 2017, the world human population is estimated to be 7.6 billion. 7.6 billion is a mind blowing, boggling number. I honestly can’t even comprehend 7.6 billion as a number. I have no comparison to make, except maybe to the stars in the sky, but really that’s just figurative nonsense. According to a study cited by Sky and Telescope Magazine, there are only 9,096 stars visible to the naked eye, in both hemispheres. If you do the math, there are about 835,532 times more people than all the stars visible to the naked eye. I’m not too proud to admit I’ve never seen 835,532 dollar bills in my life, much less owned that much money. Again, there is simply no comparison, the human mind never evolved to truly understand a number that large in concrete form. Imagine all those humans out there, eating food, food grown on wildlands cleared for crops. Imagine all the water drank, showered in, used to wash pots and pans by the world population of people. All the resources being taken from wild things to keep 7.6 billion people alive is somewhat incomprehensible.
Then again, there is my fiancé Erin’s side of the argument. Not every human uses the same amount of resources. Places like the United States, western European, and Japan tend to have lower reproduction rates. Other places like Madagascar have high reproduction rates. The total fertility rate is an estimate of the number of babies a woman will have over her lifetime. In 2016, the total fertility rate for American women was calculated at 1,818 per 1,000 women, the lowest since 1984. In Madagascar, the total fertility rate was calculated as 4.03 children per woman as of 2017. Malagasy woman are clearly having more babies than American women. That means more resource use, more destruction of the natural world; right? The answer is murky and complicated.
Initially it’s easy to point to the vast amounts of human-caused destruction in Madagascar, as most of the forests are gone and many animals teeter on the brink of extinction. The whole island of Madagascar appears to bleed from space as red earth is washed to sea from human caused erosion. Things don’t seem to be getting better in Madagascar either, deforestation is still ongoing; I watched fires burning almost nightly from a campsite I slept at for five months.
In the United States it seems like we’re doing okay. We’re recycling which is difficult to do in Madagascar), we’re developing solar energy and clean cars, we have huge protected national parks and preserves. The natural beauty of the Rockies or Alaska seems untouched, pristine, wild.
So why would Erin argue that the problem isn’t population but consumption? Is Madagascar’s problem due to a large and growing population or how much each person uses? I’ll be honest reader, in some ways Madagascar has problems as an example. It’s unfair perhaps to use a tiny island with limited resources and a population of people booming. Resources are hard to come by on Madagascar and there are an abundance of people competing for them. The United States is wealthy in resources, being rated by some as being second only to Russia on the amount of natural resources we possess. We also have a relatively low population density.
How many resources are available isn’t as important as how many are being used though. We live in a world of global imports and exports. I can be using resources from Brazil, China or Colorado just as easily. The average energy consumption in Madagascar is calculated to be 56 kWh per person each year. The average energy consumption per person in the US is 12,104 kWh, obviously significantly greater.
People in places like Madagascar live a simpler life than Americans, usually working hard for their own farmed food. The truth is that even with less people, we are consuming resources on a global scale. Places like Madagascar are a window into the future if populations grow or if we continue to consume as we are in America. The scary thing is that globally, overconsumption and overpopulation are on the rise and both are problems. The whole world needs to change to solve the issue, and if you care, start with yourself.
FEMA’s four year action plan completely excludes climate change
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released its four-year action plan on Thursday without a single mention of climate change or global warming. In fact, the strategic plan excludes any and all terminology that relates to climate science, such as extreme weather or sea-level rise.
The FEMA 2018-2022 Strategic Plan briefly alludes to the challenges of climate change, stating that as “natural and manmade hazards become increasingly complex and difficult to predict, the need for forward leaning action is greater than ever before.” The document also refers frequently to “pre-disaster mitigation.”
The first goal that is outlined in the plan is “building a culture of preparedness,” in which the agency notes that we must learn from past disasters. There is a growing collection of scientific evidence that shows extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, more intense, and lasting longer because of climate change.
In 2017, “there were 16 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Even if climate change was not the direct cause of the devastating 2017 hurricane season, for example, scientists have explained how global warming increased the intensity of the storms. Warmer ocean temperatures provide the energy that hurricanes need to continue moving and gaining strength.
FEMA’s new plan states: “Disaster costs are expected to continue to increase due to rising natural hazard risk, decaying critical infrastructure, and economic pressures that limit investments in risk resilience.” Yet, there is no reference to what may be driving an increased risk in natural hazards.
The last FEMA plan, which was issued when Barack Obama was president, directly addressed the issue of climate change when discussing risk assessment.
The document stated: “FEMA will also ensure that future risks, including those influenced by climate change, are effectively integrated into the Agency’s risk assessment resources and processes.”
This is not the first agency under President Trump, who is vocal about his doubt for climate science, to remove climate change terminology from official documents. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services all removed such language from their websites.
Washington takes action to save endangered whales
Orca whale numbers in the Puget Sound have plummeted, and there are currently just 76 whales that can be spotted off the coast of Washington.
Even though orcas in general are not endangered, Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA).
It’s not uncommon to find local pods or populations of orcas, such as the ones that hunt in Puget Sound, threatened or nearing extinction.
There can be many reasons for this kind of localized endangerment. For Southern Resident killer whales, a lack of salmon, polluted waters, noise, and less space are all to blame for the whales’ low numbers.
There also haven’t been any new calves reported in the area for a few years due to infertility issues from the stress caused by salmon shortages.
Governor Jay Inslee urged state agencies to take immediate action to protect and recover the few orcas left in the area.
Inslee issued an executive order that aims to provide provide clean water, space, and an ample food supply for the whales. A new task force was assembled to come up with strategies to meet this goal.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. “It’s going to take some pain. We’re going to have to make some sacrifices.”
A key part of conserving the Southern Resident orcas is increasing salmon populations. Climate change has drastically impacted salmon populations, and many salmon species have faced reduced numbers. This puts an added strain on the predators like killer whales who typically feed on salmon.
In order to protect the orcas of Puget Sound, lawmakers are asking hatcheries to increase the production of salmon by five million.
“I applaud anything that helps (the orcas) through the short term, but the long-term is what we really have to look at – and that’s the restoration of wild salmon stocks throughout Washington state,” said Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research.
Hydropower brings environmental benefits and biodiversity costs
Researchers based in Norway have created a new way to describe how much land is needed to generate electricity from hydropower. This way, policymakers and business owners will have easy access to the information they need to weigh the benefits of hydropower production against the environmental costs.
Study co-author Martin Dorber is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“Some hydropower reservoirs may look natural at first,” said Dorber. “However, they are human influenced and if land has been flooded for their creation, this may impact terrestrial ecosystems.”
These kinds of renewable energy solutions have now become critically needed for climate mitigation, yet hydropower projects can place a major strain on the lands that they occupy.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that governments and industry need to factor the long-term consequences of hydropower into current and future projects in order to accurately identify the environmental trade-offs that will result from its expansion.
The research team discovered that they had the perfect resource for gauging the environmental effects of hydropower production – an analysis tool called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
This tool provides researchers with a way to examine all of the environmental impacts of a product or process during its entire life cycle, essentially calculating the total environmental cost of something.
The researchers realized that there is not enough information available to allow LCA to assess certain impacts from hydropower, such as its influence on water quality and biodiversity, so they focused their study solely on the issue of land use and land use change.
“Land use and land use change is a key issue, as it is one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss, because it leads to loss and degradation of habitat for many species,” said Dorber.
The research team set out to conduct a life cycle inventory by determining how much land is used to produce one kilowatt hour of electricity. The study was focused on creating a life cycle inventory specifically for Norway, where more than 95 percent of all domestic power production comes from hydropower.
The researchers used satellite imagery to estimate the original size of the lakes that were used to create over a thousand hydropower reservoirs in Norway.
Ultimately, they were only able to calculate land occupation by 184 reservoirs. Collectively, these reservoirs provided 20 percent of the total average annual hydropower electricity produced in Norway between 1981 and 2010.
“By dividing the inundated land area with the annual electricity production of each hydropower reservoir, we calculated site-specific net land occupation values for the Life Cycle Inventory,” said Dorber.
“While it’s beyond the scope of this work, our approach is a crucial step towards quantifying impacts of hydropower electricity production on biodiversity for Life Cycle Analysis.”
The study is published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Image Credit: Ånund Killingtveit/NTNU
Sea level rise could displace 5 million people by 2150
The goal of the Paris Agreement was to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an ideal target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. By exceeding these limitations, the world is risking extreme changes in weather, widespread food and water shortages, and potentially catastrophic sea level rise.
A team of experts set out to estimate the impact that global temperature increases could have on coastal communities. The researchers investigated how the frequency of extreme sea-level events such as storm surges will vary with a rise in temperatures by 1.5, 2.0, and 2.5 degrees Celsius.
The study revealed that it would only take a difference of one half of a degree in temperature rise to have a shocking impact. The small variation in temperature rise from 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius could cause the permanent submersion of regions that are currently inhabited by 5 million people over the next 12 – 13 decades.
DJ Rasmussen is a graduate student in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton University and the first author of the study.
“People think the Paris Agreement is going to save us from harm from climate change, but we show that even under the best-case climate policy being considered today, many places will still have to deal with rising seas and more frequent coastal floods,” said Rasmussen.
According to the study, higher temperatures will make extreme sea level events much more common. Even under the 1.5 C scenario, the frequency of major high tides and storm surges will increase. The researchers found, for example, that New York City will experience an event comparable to Hurricane Sandy at least every 5 years by the end of this century.
The research indicates that a 1.5 C temperature increase will drive the global mean sea level up by 1.6 feet, an increase of 2.0 C will raise oceans by about 1.8 feet, and a 2.5 C increase will raise the sea level by an estimated 1.9 feet.
Regardless of the global mean temperature, sea levels are expected to rise for centuries due to the influence that lingering atmospheric carbon dioxide will continue to have on ice sheets.
Rising mean sea levels are already intensifying the frequency and severity of extreme events. It is predicted that coastal flooding will be among the costliest impacts of climate change by the end of the century.
The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Climate impacts yellow fever transmission rates in Africa
The yellow fever virus is mosquito-transmitted and endemic to Africa and Latin America. The disease doesn’t always show symptoms, which can make diagnosing and preventing outbreaks difficult. When severe symptoms do appear, it is estimated to cause between 20,000 and 180,000 deaths per year in Africa alone.
The majority of the global burden of the disease is carried by Africa, which means that the countries in Africa most affected by yellow fever have the highest risk factors and mortality rates.
Measuring yellow fever burden depends on climate, most notably rainfall and temperature which are crucial to mosquito life cycles and population numbers. Previously, models of yellow fever risk areas were based on annual climate averages.
In a new study, researchers from Imperial College London and the World Health Organization examined the burden of yellow fever and past quantifiers that measured impact, severity, and risk of yellow fever outbreaks.
The results were published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
Rather than rely on past measurements of annual climate averages, the researchers were able to develop a new model that more accurately pinpointed risk areas and burden based on seasonal climate dynamics.
The model included variations in rainfall, temperature, and vegetation on a month to month basis throughout the year in Africa.
Temperature and rainfall can dictate mosquito infestations, and examining monthly climate variations can show which areas are at the highest risk of yellow fever at any given time.
The researchers found that even in areas known for being high risk of yellow fever transmission, the risk varies throughout the year depending on seasonal climate conditions.
“This finding, in conjunction with forecasted data, could highlight areas of increased transmission and provide insights into the occurrence of large outbreaks, such as those seen in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil,” said the researchers.
Considering seasonal variation could help prevent future outbreaks of yellow fever and give a better understanding of which areas are most at risk during different times of the year.
The hidden impacts of natural disasters on ecosystems
Major flooding from natural disasters takes a huge toll on an environment that can take years to fully recover from. Water damage can destroy buildings, homes, and infrastructure but flooding also disrupts vital ecosystems.
Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Cameron University happened upon a unique opportunity to study the impacts of a 100-year flood on invertebrate species such as spiders, ants, and millipedes.
The researchers were set to examine invertebrates before and after a controlled burning event in 2015, but in June of that year record rainfall and subsequent flooding devastated parts of Oklahoma.
Because the researchers had already sampled insect species in the area, it was easy enough to study the after-effects of the flood on the insect community, which gave the researchers insight into how natural disasters can disrupt ecosystems and species.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Entomology and shows the hidden impacts of natural disasters.
Invertebrate species populations were calculated before and after the flood. The researchers set traps and took samples of different invertebrate species to get an accurate count of population totals in the area.
The researchers found drastic decreases in abundance, biomass, and species presence in the months after the flood. There was very little species diversity compared to the data recorded before the flood.
“I will never forget picking up the traps, and it just seemed like every trap had one cricket and one spider,” said Karl A. Roeder, the lead researcher of the study. “The area had transitioned from a diverse insect community to a large expanse of crickets and spiders. We were pretty surprised at how similar everything was.”
Many species were not even recorded or present after the flood occurred. For example, only three of the 14 ant species sampled pre-flood were found afterward.
This decline in biodiversity and populations puts an added strain on prey who would typically thrive on abundant species of invertebrates.
The study illustrates the importance of understanding the full impact that natural disasters have on the ecosystem and species as well as urban areas.
Exactly how long it will take species and communities to recover after a major event and if certain species are more able to adapt to huge changes are important questions that need to be thoroughly considered, according to the researchers.
“As these weather events can perturb natural communities in very dramatic ways, it will be important to understand which organisms are likely to persist or at least able to recolonize areas quickly,” said Karl. “If such species are unable to perform functions of the displaced individuals–such as soil cycling, decomposition, or pollination–ecosystems may have trouble returning to their previous states.
Image Credit: Jeff Thrasher
Much more snow is falling in North America than anyone realized
Scientists at Ohio State University have conducted an unprecedented investigation into how much snow falls in North America each year. They found that the annual snowfall accumulation across the continent is around 50 percent higher than previously thought.
The researchers have estimated the snowfall total to be around 1,200 cubic miles. This amount of snow would measure over 7.5 inches deep if it was distributed evenly across the continent. If confined to a single state, it would amount to just under 150 feet of snow.
Prior to this study, scientists believed that North America held only about 750 cubic miles of snow each year.
Study lead author Melissa Wrzesien explained that these findings are a critical step toward understanding the actual extent of fresh water sources on the continent.
“Our big result was that there’s a lot more snow in the mountains than we previously thought,” said Wrzesien. “That suggests that mountain snow plays a much larger role in the continental water budget than we knew.”
Michael Durand is an associate professor of Earth Sciences at Ohio State. He explained that it is currently impossible to directly measure how much water is on the planet.
“It’s extremely important to know-not just so we can make estimates of available fresh water, but also because we don’t fully understand Earth’s water cycle,” said Durand.
The experts found that most of the snow accumulates on top of the Canadian Rockies and 10 other mountain ranges, which account for only about a quarter of the continent’s total surface area.
The team determined that these mountain ranges hold 60 percent of the snow in North America, which is twice the amount that has been reported up until now. The study also revealed that the Canadian Rockies hold as much snow as the other 10 mountain ranges in the study combined.
“Each of these ranges is a huge part of the climate system, but I don’t think we realized how important the Canadian Rockies really are,” said Durand. “We hope that by drawing attention to the importance of the mountains, this work will help spur development in understanding how mountains fit into the large-scale picture.”
Professor Durand said that what scientists really need is a satellite dedicated to measuring snow depth in both complex terrain and in the plains. The team is collaborating with other experts to propose such a satellite.
The study is published the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Scientists design protein mat that can soak up pollution
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found a way to enable certain proteins to function and stay active outside of the cell. The groundbreaking study may be the first step toward harnessing the power of proteins in synthetic systems to capture chemical pollution.
Scientists have tried for many years to stabilize proteins outside of their native environments, but there has been little success in merging proteins and synthetic components without compromising protein activity.
The study was led by the lab of co-author Ting Xu, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry at Berkeley.
“We think we’ve cracked the code for interfacing natural and synthetic systems,” said Xu.
Proteins do not hold up very well once they are removed from their natural domain. Proteins must maintain a specific folded structure to function properly, and this structure is often supported with the help of other proteins.
In Xu’s lab, the researchers set out to develop a synthetic polymer that could provide a protein with everything it needs to keep its structure.
“Proteins have a very well-defined statistical pattern, so if you can mimic that pattern, then you can marry the synthetic and natural systems, which allows us to make these materials,” said Xu.
The team created random heteropolymers, which they refer to as RHPs. These heteropolymers are made up of four types of monomer subunits, each with chemical properties designed to interact with chemical patches on the surface of proteins.
The RHPs mimicked unstructured proteins, which are commonly found in cells. The experts found that RHPs increased protein folding in water, which means they supported the structure of the protein, and preserved protein activity in organic solvents.
An extensive series of simulations confirmed that RHP could favorably interact with protein surfaces, promoting protein folding and stability in a non-native environment.
The researchers then tested whether they can use an RHP to create protein-based materials for capturing toxic chemicals. The researchers mixed RHP with a protein called organophosphorus hydrolase (OPH), which degrades the toxic organophosphates found in insecticides and in chemical warfare agents.
The RHP/OPH material was used to make fiber mats. Once the mats were submerged in a common insecticide, they degraded an amount of insecticide that weighed about one-tenth of the mat in just a few minutes. The fiber mats could potentially be scaled up to capture a larger amount of toxic chemicals.
“Our study indicated that the approach should be applicable to other enzymes,” said Xu. “This may make it possible to have a portable chemistry lab in different materials.”
The study will be published in the journal Science on March 16.
Modern humans evolved as East Africa’s environment transformed
Just before the beginning of the Middle Stone Age around 300,000 years ago, major technological and ecological changes followed an abrupt environmental shift in East Africa.
The results of three new studies suggest that, around the time that modern humans were evolving, environmental factors drove changes in human behavior toward more widespread dispersal, more trading, and better tool technology.
A team led by Rick Potts analyzed well-preserved sediments in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya. The experts found that the region began transforming around 800,000 years ago. The sediment samples provided evidence that the Olorgesailie Basin was mostly floodplains up until this time, when it started fluctuating between moist and arid conditions.
Carbon isotopes of the soil indicated that the region transitioned into a vast grassland. At this time, large mammals such as certain horse and elephant species were driven to extinction and smaller-bodied mammals emerged in their place. The researchers explained that this is another sign of climate variability.
When the climate became unpredictable, so did the food availability, and hunter-gatherers were forced to become more mobile and innovative. Archaeological evidence from the basin revealed that East African residents began using new tool-making techniques.
Almost all of the rock used to manufacture tools was once from a small area in the Olorgesailie Basin. After the dramatic climate change, tools were steadily replaced with obsidian from far away regions, suggesting that the people of this time had started traveling and trading for survival. The study authors said that this represents a significant revision in African hominin behavior around the time Homeo sapiens began to evolve.
In a separate study, a team led by Alison Brooks took a closer look at the human-made artifacts recovered from the Olorgesailie Basin. The research was focused on five sites that dated back between 500,000 and 298,000 years ago.
The ancient artifacts shed light on early technology and trade. Tools from the older site were bulkier weapons such as hand axes, and were made from localized volcanic rock. The younger site contained much smaller and more refined weapons, and around 42 percent of the more recent tools were crafted from obsidian, which was not found locally.
Using argon and uranium dating techniques, a third team led by Alan Deino set out to determine the timeline of sites within the basin. The research confirmed that older sites contained larger tools and that, beginning around 320,000 years ago, sites no longer had these types of tools. The study authors pointed out that these artifacts represent the oldest of their kind from the Middle Stone Age that have ever been identified in East Africa.
The research is published in the journal Science.
Summer in the eastern Mediterranean could last 6 months by 2100
With winter storms hammering the United States east coast and midwest, adding a few extra months to summer might seem like a dream come true. But for the Eastern Mediterranean, longer, drier summers could soon be a reality due to climate change.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University conducted a study published in the International Journal of Climatology that investigated climate change and its effect on seasonal weather patterns around Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey.
The effects of climate change are evident all around the world, and the Eastern Mediterranean is facing climate extremes that could soon alter the duration of the summer and winter seasons by the end of this century.
“Our research shows that the climate changes we are all noticing today are likely to intensify in the coming decades,” said Assaf Hochman, the leader of the research. “It is very important to understand this to try to prevent the deterioration as much as possible, or at least prepare for the change.”
The researchers used an algorithm developed by Pinhas Alpert who oversaw the study.
The algorithm was applied to global climate models taken from the World Climate Center which allowed the researchers to measure the full impact of human activities on climate in the eastern Mediterranean.
The results show that increased carbon emissions will cause the summer season in the region, which is already hot and dry, to extend from four to six months by 2100. Winter, the rainy season for the eastern Mediterranean, will last only two months.
“One of the main causes of these changes is the growing concentration of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activity,” said Hochman. “We have sought to examine what is expected in the 21st century as a direct result of the greenhouse effect on the climate.”
The study is concerning as the results point to significant water shortages and a strain on resources for that region in the coming years unless more is done to limit emissions and mitigate climate change.
The researchers are currently working on establishing a multidisciplinary regional center for climate adaptation that will help reduce the impacts of climate change in the area.
Climate geoengineering: Is cooling the planet worth the risk?
New research is underway examining the potential costs and benefits of climate geoengineering to combat global warming.
Geoengineering is certainly a controversial issue, as it requires the purposeful manipulation of climate to mitigate the effects of climate change, which some argue could have devastating side effects.
But according to one Popular Science piece, it’s a way to “press pause” on the worsening impacts of global warming.
One of the more probable methods of climate hacking involves using aerosols sprayed into the stratosphere to create a sort of cloud cover that reflects harmful UV rays back to the sun and, in, turn, cools the planet.
This method could potentially be a quick and efficient way to get climate change under control, but it could also cause catastrophic effects if the system were to fail or immediately and permanently shut down, causing many to question whether it’s a suitable option to even consider.
If the system were to shut down, experts have said it would cause extreme warming at wild rates, known as “termination shock.”
Two researchers from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany and the John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University examined this worst case scenario to prove that the chances of termination shock are unlikely and simple measures could prevent it.
The results were published in the journal Earth’s Future.
“Most studies so far have focused on the extremes, like in a large-scale deployment that’s ended instantly and permanently,” said Peter Irvine, one of the co-authors of the study in a video explaining the research.
The two researchers examined all the different necessary factors that would cause termination shock.
The team investigated several hypotheticals, including how long the system could be shut down before termination shock and how large the cooling effect would have to be to cause substantial extreme warming in the event of failure.
The results showed that termination shock is unlikely and easily avoided with a few simple, safe holds in place. According to Irvine, it would be easy to implement given the cost of creating the aerosol system and the consequences that would happen if it failed.
“Overall, our analysis suggests that the risk of a termination shock is much less likely than it superficially appears,” concludes Irvine.