Climate Change Is Very Real. But So Much of It Is Uncertain

One of the more terrifying elements of climate change is the uncertainty of it all. You start with the big picture of a warming planet, but as you zoom in you find ever more climatic and geological and biological systems interacting with one another—a complexity unfathomable for the human mind. We’re talking about a crisis that is affecting every organism and every square inch of this planet.

That makes calculating the carbon budget—the amount of greenhouse gases humanity can emit globally while adhering to certain goals—an unenviable task. (The goal of the Paris Agreement was 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; we’re already at 1 degree.) Different teams of researchers have reached wildly diverging conclusions, from “We can emit 1,000 gigatonnes more CO2 before we reach 1.5 degrees” to “Sorry, but we’ve already spent our carbon budget for 1.5.” There is simply too much uncertainty in the models.

But today  [...]  read more

Gulf Fisheries Are Under Siege—Now Comes Tropical Storm Barry

This story originally appeared on HuffPost and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

As fishermen deep in the Louisiana bayou, Kindra Arnesen and her family have faced their share of life-altering challenges in recent years.

First came Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 monster storm that devastated her small fishing community in Plaquemines Parish before roaring up the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying $125 billion in property. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 40 miles offshore, spewing nearly 200 million gallons of crude. The fisheries have not fully recovered more than nine years later, nor has her family.

But this year may be worse. A historic slow-moving flood of polluted Mississippi River water loaded with chemicals, pesticides, and human waste from 31 states and two Canadian provinces is draining straight into the marshes and bayous of the Gulf [...]  read more

Tropical Storm Barry Pits New Orleans Against Water—Again

If all does not go well this weekend, Tropical Storm Barry will spin into the city of New Orleans, bringing with it (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) life-threatening storm surge, 40 mile-per-hour winds, and perhaps as much as 25 inches of rain. Barry is a lumbering brute; forecasters expect it to linger.

Early coverage of the oncoming storm has focused, understandably, on the seemingly tenuous state of the levees alongside the Mississippi River. Swollen by floods in the Midwest this spring, the river is nearly 17 feet above sea level, and NOAA expects it to briefly go higher still when the river meets Barry’s storm surge. But the real worry in New Orleans right now, and all along the Gulf coast, is rainfall. More than two centuries of trying [...]  read more

Trees Emit a Surprisingly Large Amount of Methane

This story originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

There are many mysteries in the Amazon. Until recently, one of the most troubling was the vast methane emissions emerging from the rainforest that were observed by satellites but that nobody could find on the ground. Around 20 million tons was simply unaccounted for.

Then Sunitha Pangala, a British postdoc researcher, spent two months traveling the Amazon’s waterways strapping gas-measuring equipment to thousands of trees. She found that trees, especially in the extensive flooded forests, were stimulating methane production in the waterlogged soils and mainlining it into the atmosphere.

Her 2014 expedition plugged a gaping hole in the planet’s methane budget. And she had discovered a hitherto ignored major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It now seems that most of the world’s estimated 3 trillion trees emit methane at least some of the time.

Nobody [...]  read more

A Global Pollution Observatory Hunts for Hidden Killers

Diseases caused by pollution killed more than 9 million people in 2015, 16 percent of all deaths worldwide. That’s three times more deaths than from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, and 15 times more than from wars and other violence. If those figures surprise you, it might be because your first thought is that pollution means dirty air. Or you may think of contaminated water. In reality, pollution is both those things and much more, and only now is the first global effort to assess all forms of it finally calculating those sobering numbers.

Between productivity losses and health care, pollution costs some $5 trillion a year, more than 6 percent of global economic output. That’s just from tallying what’s known. The vast majority of the more than 140,000 chemicals and pesticides that have entered the environment since 1950 remain largely untested, but could pose a threat. [...]  read more

This Summer’s Weird Weather Is the Death of Predictability

The town of Gallargues-le-Montueux, on the ride from Montpellier to Marseille along France’s Mediterranean coast, got the worst of the heat: over 114 degrees F, even hotter than during an infamous 2003 French heat wave. The whole country—the whole continent—sweltered through eye-popping, Aperol spritz-defying, asphalt-crumbling temperatures this past week, capping a month that European satellite data showed was the hottest June in Europe since people started keeping track. France cooked; Spain hunkered down under wildfires that burned thousands of acres.

Meanwhile, Antarctic sea ice is melting faster than anyone predicted. The region around the Mississippi River in the midwestern United States is still dealing with floods [...]  read more

Magnetic Materials Help Explain How Arctic Ice Melts

Kenneth Golden, a mathematician at the University of Utah, was perusing images of Arctic sea ice when he noticed a pattern that seemed familiar. When seen from above, the melting sea ice looked like a field of white mottled with dark splotches where the ice had turned to liquid. To Golden it seemed awfully similar to the arrangement of atoms in a magnetic material. There’s no obvious reason for magnets to have a relationship with aerial photos of ice, but the thought stuck with him. More than a decade later, this intuition has finally solidified into a model that could be used to better predict the effects of climate change on sea ice.

Melt ponds are exactly what they sound like: pools of water that form on top of sea ice when the ice’s top layer melts in the spring and summer. The ponds are important because they change the reflectivity of ice. Ice has a high albedo, meaning it reflects most of the sunlight that hits it. Water, however, has a low albedo and absorbs a large portion [...]  read more

New Analysis Techniques Unearth a Trove of Unusual Minerals

The landscape of Kamchatka Peninsula steams with sulfurous vapor, its 29 active volcanoes forming a hazy backdrop for the region’s herds of reindeer and rivers of salmon. One of the most geologically active places in the world, Kamchatka juts out from the eastern coast of Russia to resemble a larger version of Florida. A process almost like alchemy occurs here: Like a set of roiling cauldrons, Kamchatka’s volcanoes mix unusual combinations of atomic elements to forge minerals that are unlike anything anywhere else in the world.

And in the last few years, researchers have discovered several new minerals on Kamchatka. “They pop up by accident,” says Joël Brugger, a geologist at Monash University in Australia, who helped discover a new mineral on the peninsula called nataliyamalikite in 2017. “You just have to keep your eyes open.” Researchers don’t set out to make these discoveries, usually. Instead, they stumble upon new minerals during their studies of broader geologic [...]  read more

Fitted With Sensors, Antarctic Seals Track Water Temperatures

On a rocky island just off the coast of West Antarctica, ecologist Lars Boehme is standing face-to-face with a 1,500-pound elephant seal, eyeing the animal’s bulbous nose and jowls to see if he’s finished shedding his fur.

When the seal opens his mouth wide to bellow, Boehme waves his hand in front of his face like he’s just smelled something foul. “You can hear the amount of air going in and out,” Boehme said of the animal, which is the length of a small car and has a distinctively sour musk. “It’s like an air conditioner.”

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This story was published with PRI’s The World, the award-winning public radio show and podcast on global issues, news and insights from BBC, WGBH, PRI, and PRX.

Boehme is on a two-month scientific expedition to Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-sized glacier that sits at the center of West Antarctica. It’s [...]  read more

Let’s Build a Global Skyscraper Network to Save the Planet

When New York City passed an aggressive set of greenhouse-gas-limiting laws in April, the buzz was, rightly, about the ambition of America’s biggest city putting a lid on its climate-changing ways. New York state has picked up the banner, too, putting into law this week a downslope to zero carbon emissions by 2050—the only other state to have a goal like that on the books is (you can guess) California. The Oregon legislature is dancing with the idea, too, assuming the governor can coax back to the capitol all the Republican legislators who are literally hiding so they don’t have to vote.

Arguably the most interesting part of the New York City package isn’t the cap. It’s the trade—or, rather, the potential for it. Right now North America has two carbon markets, exchanges where members who emit less than a certain amount of greenhouse gases essentially earn tokens they can sell to gassier emitters. That’s cap-and-trade, a long-touted, little-implemented market approach to [...]  read more